Youth writing contest – Runner up

Upon Deaf Ears

Photo of Emily HarknessEmily Harkness
Age 15
Perth, Australia

When I was small I would sit and watch my father water the fields of rice under the sweltering heat of the mid-day sun. Mother would often catch me staring and chide me for wasting time when I should have been gathering water from the well or cleaning the house, and I would quickly resume my work. On one particular morning, I awoke to find that the bucket of water I usually used to clean the floor was missing, and only a wet rag was left in its place. Not knowing what else to do, I used the rag to scrub the floor, even though it was black with dirt by the time I had reached the other end of the house. By the end of my day of scrubbing, the floors were still dirty, now streaked from the dirty rag. I did not understand why I had been made to scrub the floor if only to move the mess around.

“Mother,” I asked, “Where has the water gone?”

Mother did not answer me and continued with her own chores.

“Mother,” I tried the question again, “What has happened to the bucket of water that I usually use to scrub the floors? This dirty rag has not made the floors any cleaner for all the effort I have put in.”

Again there was no reply. Sometimes speaking to my mother felt as though my words were falling upon deaf ears.

Eventually Mother bitterly replied: “The drought has stolen the water from the bucket, so be grateful for that damp rag that allowed you to scrub the floor. You are forgetting your place in this household and bothering me with your silly questions far too often!”

“Yes, mother,” I replied, bowing my head in a sign of respect, “I did not mean to burden you.” And so it was that from that day on that I learnt to scrub the floors, without a bucket of water, in silence.

When the dry season came, the heat was even worse, and I would carry a cup of water out to my father as he worked among the crops. My mother had given me strict instructions to fill the cup only halfway, and then carry it very carefully from the well to my father without spilling a drop. The task was so tedious that one day I decided to run to my father and turn the chore into a race. Halfway, though, I tripped and cut my knee, and the water spilled out of the cup and onto the dirt. Mother saw the whole thing and came over looking very upset.

“Mother, do not be upset. I will quickly go and fill the cup again!” I rose to my feet and retrieved the cup, ready to head towards the well. I had not taken more than a few steps, however, before Mother’s voice stopped me in my tracks.

“No child, there is not enough water for that. Your father will just have to go another few hours without a drink now.”

I looked over to where my father was watering the crops. I did not understand how there could be enough water for all of these crops, but not enough for the cleaning, or even my hard working father.

“Mother,” I asked boldly, “Why is it that a small grain of rice needs so much water to grow?”
By this time I was used to Mother’s silence, but I did not let that stop me from asking.
“Mother,” I asked, louder this time, “Why is it that the rice gets so much water and we are left with so little?”

After a while Mother answered, “Because the more water the rice gets, the better the quality, and the better quality the rice, the more we can sell it for.”

“But would it not be better to use less water on the crops we have, and use that excess water on planting more crops and for around the house?”

But my question once again fell on deaf ears, and only the wind was left to answer me.

The years went on and the water supply seemed to become lower and lower. For every ten buckets of water I collected, seven were used to water the crops and only three were left for the cooking, cleaning, and bathing. My father fell ill from spending too much time in the sun and died a few years later. My mother too, grew ill from drinking dirty water, a habit which she had started a while back when the drought first started. With no brothers, and no uncle that lived near by, the duty of looking after the rice crops and harvest fell to me. I had never really been able to adapt to the idea that the crops deserved more water than the people, so I began to implement the idea that I had had years ago while still a child. I began to use only four buckets of water on the crops out of the ten I gained, and used another two buckets to begin to plant more crops, leaving four buckets to use around the house. Even with the reduced amount of water, the crops grew as nice and as plentiful as ever. It was then that I learnt that despite what my parents had taught me, water and other nutrients are often limited factors and that any more water than necessary spent on watering the crops is wasted water. I was pleased with my discovery and from the extra crops and saved water, I was able to clean the house and pay for the medicine to cure my mother of her illness.

“You have done well, child,” Mother told me as I handed her the medicine and a glass of clean drinking water, “but do not become too fascinated by what you could achieve, for it may well ruin what you have achieved.”

But it was my turn not to hear, and her words fell upon deaf ears.

I began to make a steady income from my work and chose to invest some of this money into pesticides and fertilizers to reduce bugs and increase the quality of the soil. For a while it seemed to work perfectly and the fields of crops were thriving. But after years of working with these chemicals day after day, things began to go wrong. The air and groundwater had become contaminated by my use of the toxic chemicals and the environment surrounding the fields began to degrade. While helping the crops to grow, the chemicals had presented a threat to the health of both my mother and me. Before long, we once again both grew ill. The medical treatment and the time which I had to rest and instead pay someone else to care for the crops in my place had cost a lot and left both Mother and me with worse health, even after we had recovered. I was dearly sorry for my mistake and vowed that never again would anyone’s words fall deaf to my ears. I immediately stopped the use of chemicals on the crops and began instead to grow them organically, with the use of natural fertilizers such as compost. The crops grew tall and strong again, without endangering the environment or our health. For a while things went smoothly and it felt as though all my problems were solved. But things are always calmest before a storm, and I should have known better that to think all my problems solved.

Fast food is quickly becoming a rapidly expanding industry. With food available at the drop of a penny, people have decided that spending time at the market buying produce and then going home to slave over a hot stove to prepare it for an hour each night is just impractical in the modern world. My buyers have reduced in numbers and to avoid throwing all the excess produce away, I have been forced to instead start storing the crops to be sold later. Unfortunately this means that preservatives are added and nutrients are subtracted. Thinking about it like that, it almost seems like a child’s mathematics problem: adding the negative and subtracting the positive, it seemes clear that it could only equal a negative answer. But nobody focuses on that. They never do. So began the war between the fast food companies and the small farmers like myself. A fierce struggle for survival where small organic farmers like myself are forced to compete with other farmers who sell more produce cheaper because their chemicallyenhanced produce is cheaper to produce than my crops. But I’ve tried that way of farming before, and I will not resort to making the same mistake twice. Instead I have begun running healthy eating campaigns, but it’s no use. For the life of me, I cannot convince people to understand that these fast, low-cost foods do not contain the nutrients that they need to keep living healthy lives. Ironic, isn’t it, that throughout my entire life, nothing has ever changed? Here I am, a fully grown adult, running my own small farming business, yet I still feel exactly as I did years ago, sitting on the floor with that dirty rag speaking to Mother, wondering how it was that she could hear me perfectly, but never listen.

To add more expenses to our already heavily depleted income, Mother’s health is becoming ever more fragile and she requires constant help that I am in no position to be able to offer. Instead I hired a young girl to come and care for my mother. She was a little timid at first, but soon grew to fit in nicely with our little family. Every morning she comes at dawn and stays until dark, then returns home to her family. Sometimes I sit and chat to her about various things. Last night I spoke to her about the fast food war, about how it seems too big to overcome but how there has to be a way. I asked her what she thought the solution was, and watched her surprise at being asked what she thought.

“What does it matter what I think? I’m just a child and no one would ever take what I say seriously anyway, so what’s the point?” She replied. She went back inside to check on Mother, leaving me to my thoughts. Her answer had surprised me. Did she, too, feel like her words fell upon deaf ears? Or had she just given up on voicing her thoughts to adults? Did she seriously believe that her opinion didn’t matter, didn’t have the potential to shape the world? It is children like her that will grow up to be the great minds of the future, but first they need to be given the chance to be not just heard, but listened to. She left shortly after our conversation, but as she was walking out the door, I called out to her.

“You won’t always be a child, you know. And one day all the adults that aren’t listening to you will be gone, and you’ll be the one left to clean up the mess they leave behind. And when that day comes, you’ll be the adult and you’ll have to find the solution. Don’t worry, you won’t be alone— there will be plenty of other young minds with new ideas to help. Just promise me that you won’t let any of their words fall deaf upon your ears. Because they could help shape the world.”
She left the house that night with a puzzled expression and a weary smile.

I’m not sure if she understood what I was talking about, but she will.

And I believe that, one day, she will help shape the world.

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