He felt grimy. He was standing up to his knees in a soup of mud and brown sludge. The buffalo ahead of him was struggling to pull the dredge for the umpteenth section, and it slipped again and again. Lim Yok felt a welling sympathy for the poor animal, which responded so patiently to his shouts, in such difficult conditions.
At dawn that morning, Lim Yok had driven the beast from the field to the tackle hut where the leather harness was kept. As he had slipped the loop around the cow’s neck the thin worn leather had snapped … again. He had repaired it with twine that his father kept for the purpose hanging on an adjacent nail and cinched the belly-cord to use as purchase for the shafts of the new dredge.
He had been told to deepen the irrigation ditches on the southern side of the rice paddies where their neighbor Lu Ming ran his ducks. Normally, that would have meant draining the ditches, and with some friends, digging out each ditch by hand and hauling the muck away for other fields.
That hadn’t appealed to Lim Yok so he had devised the idea of using the family mud-cow to pull a dredge. This he had constructed from the prow of an old scow that had lain for years on the edge of the main irrigation channel. It was shaped like a long wooden bucket, and he had shaved the bottom edge so that it would scoop the mud. By a combination of shafts and ropes he had been able to fasten it to the buffalo’s harness. The buffalo pulled it for a while and when it became an anchor he lifted it by other ropes and tipped its half-liquid contents onto the bank.
The buffalo moved on again along the ditch … it strained its head upwards as it lurched forward with eyes searching the sky as if for relief. All day it struggled forward, heaving its shoulders upwards above the muddy waters against the deadweight of the dredge. Every ten yards Lim Yok raised the dredge, spilled its contents and dropped it back into the water.
The idea was a success. He cleared the whole north ditch that otherwise might have taken a week of hard labor for three of them. However, it was back breaking work and Lim Yok wasn’t at all sure that the efficiency was worth it. He would still be expected to work tomorrow, equally hard, and after all the ditches had been deepened, there would still be other work. The week would still be filled with work whether he did the ditching now or whether it took longer.
Still, he had persuaded his father to let him visit Mr. Marshall at the College that evening to get permission to attend some classes. Also, he had found a newspaper that looked as though it had interesting news. His father didn’t like him reading too long. He said that he had seen others get too many grand ideas and they had suffered for them.
Lim Yok was a slight young man, with the typical high cheekbones of the Tang race. He had black hair, which had an unusual slight curliness. In skin color, he would be taken as Mediterranean. He was short and wiry with powerful upper shoulders that came from his years of heavy carrying and lifting, around his father’s smallholding.
He was proud of his fitness and he took to running when he went to the fields. He had stretched his muscles when they felt tired and, occasionally, he would lift a farm implement just for the joy and ability of doing so. He had not realized that in doing so he was going through a regular fitness program as sophisticated as some professional athlete’s.
Yet, he was not an athlete, he had never felt the need to compete against any of his friends even when they challenged him. His first delight was in reading … almost anything. He knew that there were many ideas in books and papers that could be useful to him. In fact, the idea of the dredge had first come to him after reading an article about deep-sea trawling.
As he dreamed of the evening, the buffalo ahead had slipped and wallowed deeper in the ditch, thrashing to keep its balance against the weight of the filled dredge. Lim Yok stopped the animal and reached for the rope attached to the dredge. He climbed the bank, grasping hold of a small bush to stop slipping back into the waters. Then taking the wet rope he heaved the dredge off the bottom. As it broke surface, water ran off the smooth mud and trickled down the sides. With another enormous heave he pulled it free of the waters onto the bank.
After a gasping pause he tipped the dredge on its side and the contents slid into a pile on the bank. It would dry there and by tomorrow he would be able to mark his progress by a line of piles. He dropped the dredge back into the water, slipped down the bank to splash into the brown water. As he stood there he could feel the mud ooze up again between his toes.
He shouted at the buffalo, “Waah!”
The animal had been gulping for air as it rested. For a moment it rebelled against the thought of continuing but then like a train restarting from the station, it groaned and shuddered and slowly moved forward once more.
Both the buffalo and Lim Yok were glad when the dusk deepened and stopped their work for the day.
Lim Yok knew then that, despite his father’s reluctance, he would finish school and go to college. He wanted to do something technical, something that needed inventions. He was proud of his dredge but he knew that he had a destiny for greater things than following a buffalo along a muddy ditch. One day he would be in charge.