Long ago, when the land was young and strange, a tribe of people lived in rough huts in the foothills of this place. They lived in the hills because of the great water serpent.
The great water serpent was a fearsome beast many times larger than a man. It spoke as men did but had a cruel and cunning intellect. Worse than its intellect, though, were its eggs. The serpent had laid eight of the things. When the first one hatched, it produced waters that drowned everyone living below the flat plains. Each subsequent egg hatching sent the waters higher and higher until only the hill people were left. They knew the last egg would drown them as well, so they pleaded with the strongest man to do something about it.
The strongest man was only that, a man. He knew he could not best the great water serpent in combat, its hide was too tough for even the sharpest spears. But perhaps the snake’s cunning had rubbed off on this last tribe of men because he came up with a sly plan to steal the egg. After luring the beast from its lair and swapping the egg out with a mound of packed ash and animal dung, the man and his companions rolled the egg to the village. The serpent noticed the deception after returning to its lair, however, and set off across the hills fast as a whip crack. The serpent reached the village just as they closed their sacred gates, carved from the only wood to survive the past floods. It stood outside the gates and lashed its wicked black tongue but could do nothing.
“You must think yourselves very cunning,” the serpent said, “but how do you plan to keep the egg?”
The tribe’s strongest man knew the snake’s cunning and shook his head. “We will not tell you. Go to your lair, you great beast. This is the age of men now, and there is no room for monsters like you anymore.”
The serpent pressed a great golden eye to a gap in the fence. “You think you have tamed the whole world with this one action? Mark my words, I will be back for your people.”
The serpent slithered back underground. The people buried the egg in a sacred spot, and a small lake formed in the depression.
In the people’s minds, the story ended there. But it didn’t, not really.
Many generations later, that man’s descendant was the headman of the tribe. The land had changed drastically since those days. People came from far and wide to live in the hills and valley, people who had never seen a serpent as long and dark as a river. The hill people lived in homes that had not changed much over the many generations, while their new neighbors had air conditioning and lawns like little patches of green on a quilt. Though the headman lived in the largest house in the village, it was still a house as poor as his neighbors.
Change came in a long, black car that wound through the dusty hills like a trickle of water. A man from the city stepped out, suit black as fireplace soot. This city man wanted to build a dam at the mouth of the forbidden lake. He brought plans and photo mockups and written testimonials and spoke for hours to the people. But the village headman turned him away, saying the people had no need for a dam.
The man came back the next year. He brought gift baskets full of trinkets and a toy for the headman’s son. He spoke of social growth and small town die out. The headman turned him away.
The third time, the man brought an engineer with him and spoke of hydroelectricity and improvement. The headman saw some of his people swayed to the idea, but still banished the city man.
In his fourth visit, the city man asked, “why are you so dead set against building at that particular spot?”
The headman chose his words carefully. “That is a place mapped out by our people in long ago times. It is a place of misfortune. Calamity would befall our people if you dug there.”
The city man visited the site with the engineer and came back all smiles.
“Well no wonder you don’t want me to build there,” he crowed, “there’s a large underground gap right about here—” he tapped the map right at the spot the egg was buried “—where limestone eroded away over centuries. I’ve spoken to my engineer, and we have several workarounds.”
The headman declined and sent him on his way.
A drought built among the hills, each year hotter and drier than the last. Dust became such a menace the people walked with cloths over their nose and mouth. Crops withered despite their best efforts. And every time, the city man sounded a little more persuasive.
“You’ll forgive me for this,” he said, producing a water bottle frosted with moisture, “but it’s so darn hot out there.” And he drank it loudly, glug glug.
“Your people are in a time of need,” the city man said between frosty sips, “your irrigation techniques aren’t enough.” glug glug. “But this new dam would fix all that. You could have water whenever you want, and a whole slew of other things too.” glug glug. “With the money you get from the city for use of the hydroelectricity produced by the dam, you could send every one of your children to college.” glug glug. “This place is so dry. Don’t you think it deserves a drink?”
And the headman sat in his home where the only air conditioning was the occasional breeze, and he looked at his wife with a scarlet cloth tied around her mouth and nose, and he looked at his children who were small with famine. He watched the city man’s adam’s apple bob with every gulp, glug glug, and he felt thirst parch his body as if he and the village were one and the same, glug glug, and suddenly the waters were a welcome thought.
The headman agreed. Perhaps not right in that moment, but he agreed.
Plans were drawn up and materials hauled from far around until the dam stood tall and sturdy-looking in the sun. The sacred trees that had survived the floods so long ago were uprooted for construction. The people smiled as they irrigated their crops and walked around without face cloths. The headman sent his children away to a school with a good reputation with the money they received for electricity generated by the churning turbines within the dam. The people prospered as they one had.
Then one day, something shifted underground. Something cracked and broke. Half the dam stayed sturdy, the other sank fifty feet. Water spewed from the fissure until the bricks were sent flying out like comets.
The dam broke.
Water deluged the hills. It drowned the people living in the bright modern city below, the farmers that lived in the land just above that, but most of all it churned under the people of the hill tribe, who had been first in line for the water’s path of destruction.
And somewhere, a man in a serpent-black suit smiled.