Greg Oden may be playing in China, but a broken hand reveals a story that is very much the same as it always was:
In the red twilight of a slouching sun, the giant wrestled stone blocks from the ruined wall. With great effort he lurched them from their resting places and loaded them onto a wooden wagon. He had been instructed to do so or so he felt, as a penitence for having failed all expectation. He lifted the wagons wooden handles and wheelbarrowed towards the disappearing light.
The road away from the Mongol defense was long and hard. A cloud of dust gathered under the weight of the wheels. Off in the distance, the giant could see a faint light flickering in a hermit’s window. He hoped he was not too late, that the old man had not closed his eyes for the night.
He set the wagon to rest, and it creaked under the stony weight and ruined shape of Qin Shi Huang’s dream. He tapped his petrified knuckles on the wooden door, “Yao, sir, are you there? I have those blocks you requested.”
A long pause, like an inhale, followed the breaking of his voice, but then he heard movements from inside, perhaps the scooting back of a chair. Then the shuffling of ruminated feet over a hard, dirt floor, and, finally, the cracking of the door and a slow release of light.
“All fifty-four? You can’t play an official game without all fifty-four.”
“Yes,” sighed the younger giant, “I have all fifty-four, but it took me six trips.”
“Ha!” laughed the older giant. “When I was young, it never took me that many trips.”
“If you did this when you were young, sir Yao, then why the hell am I doing it now?”
“Every generation must carry its own weight. And besides, those stones have all been ground to dust.”
Oden shook his head; he doubted fifty-four stone blocks had been ground to dust in less than a lifetime. After all, his wagonload consisted of materials ranging from two to three thousand years old. The old man was either crazy or lying.
“Don’t believe me, do you?” chirped the old man.
“I don’t know. Maybe some of them.” Oden was already lifting the blocks from the wagon and carrying them inside the small thatched lodging. He carried them one at a time, cradling each between his legs and below his waist, as if posing in the Sam Cassell dance of the old monkey god Sun Wukong.
“Believe me, Greg, everything is of the dust and thus becomes dust once more.”
“Sure,” grunted the younger giant, “Where do you want these?”
“Stack them in front of the hearth. Place three this way, and then three on top like this.” Yao, the older giant, demonstrated the arrangement with pebbles much smaller than the rocks Oden was to stack.
The building of the tower lasted many hours. Oden sweat and grunted, while Yao mostly sat grinning, his fingertips forming a web of skin and bone before his shadowy face. “Yes, that’s it,” whispered the elder giant as Oden built a tower much too large for the small space offered by the rustic lodgings. But by some miracle, or sleight of hand, all the stones from the ancient wall fit inside the cozy confines.
“I don’t believe it,” said Oden when he was out of blocks, “they all fit.”
“Of course they do,” grinned Yao.
“But the wall was taller than I am, and I’m a pretty tall dude.”
“Of course you are,” grinned Yao some more.
“No good comes of asking how and why. Everything just is. What fits fits. What does not, well, we know what happens when the frames of this world fail, when they cannot change or shift their shapes.” In the flicker of the fire, Yao appeared to wink at Oden.
“Yes, we do. Anyway, I’ll go first. After all, I am the oldest.”
“I thought the youngest got to go first.”
“Well, no offense, Greg, but I also look younger than you do.”
The old man reached for a stone on the tower’s tenth row. He edged out one corner. Then the next. He slid out the block, leaving an empty shelf in the side of the tower. “The trick you see is to remove the joints without toppling the tower.”
They played Jenga long into the night, but from the vastness of outer space, all either satellite or star could make out was the Great Wall from where the two giants had stolen their ancient blocks. And yet neither satellite nor star could discern the Wall’s immense purpose.
Bryan Harvey tweets @LawnChairBoys.