By Jen Knox
This Story Won First Prize in Our Contest
We were born into curiosity and raised with a light touch. We ran around trees and chased ice cream trucks down the street or stared at the world through cameras and recorded what we saw in bound journals.
The crumbling concrete alongside our homes led to narrow alleyways that promised adulthood. We congregated on the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, and marched past the plump blackberry vines and fields of dandelions. Stopping to taste the fruit or flick the heads of flowers into the alley, we enjoyed the last bit of childhood beneath a blue sky. Dirty fingers and playful shoves.
Once beyond the fields, the awkwardness and delights of youth would be over, and the mysteries that awaited would be revealed. We couldn’t wait to solve the riddle that stumped so many before us.
No one sat on back porches to monitor our pace or offer words of wisdom. The elders were too tired. The homes we left were perpetual rehab projects, brick and tall. There was nothing alluring to make us turn around. There were no home-cooked meals or promises of stories at night. The basements held ghosts and dust. The mistakes of those who came before us.
Just before we reached adulthood, the vines became thicker. Blackberries covered the path, either smashed or whole. Small animals watched and waited till there was stillness as, one by one, we reached the end of the alley, where the riddle was presented to us at last. There must be rules to freedom and ambiguity around structure.
A simple sign directed us to move forward to trade, to go uphill to give, or to run downhill to take. We scattered, some going on instinct, while others turned back after a headlong dash.
Beyond the signs were homes like those we grew up in, only made with solar panels. Wind turbines overlooked our town, and the air was clean. We found the homes we liked the best and began to fill our roles: providing, taking and exchanging what we found at hand. We ate berries and harvested dandelions for tea and medicine. Some ate rabbit and racoon, while others chewed on bark and plucked tiny insects to bake into brownies.
The first decade of adulthood, the majority decided to provide. We grew strong and steady like the rivers where we caught fish and swam every solstice. Our celebrations were boisterous, and our rest was deep. But some of us grew bored and began to take unapologetically. The trend continued until there was more need for exchange.
We changed roles again after a few years, or a few realizations. Takers found guilt and opulence alike; providers smiled sleepily while worrying over time and lack of resources. Those responsible for exchanging goods were always counting, and this drove most to madness.
The second decade, takers demanded more homes and stockpiled fish. Those who traded were told what to say, and we began to look at each other with wariness. The few providers starved; some died and were buried in basements, where our children would play with their ghosts.
The path toward death was a circle. We walked it until we grew too tired, and then we watched as our children moved away. They skipped toward a lake where they would create a new life.
They took a path worn into the fields that were full of soy and marigolds, and they ended up who knows where, with all-new signs. We watched as our parents had, talking to our ghosts, asking them what comes next, and they told us to wait and watch.
The children approached their riddle. One sign told them to look inward, another outward, and yet a third to look directly up.
We watched as their heads moved. Some closed their eyes, while others examined the earth, and those who remained, pointed upwards toward the stars. We watched them for decades.
Though some never moved, others refused to sit still, and those looking up imposed stories they couldn’t prove; we swelled with pride. Their riddle was tougher than ours, and we applauded their hardscrabble journey.
As our children walked in circles, their children shook their heads and made their way toward another life; new ghosts remained. And we began to band together to move beyond brick and basement, stone and soy, to create new riddles for all the children, as they rushed and argued, created and destroyed, and ultimately found out how little they knew.