May 1, 2012
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by Thomas Ang
Except during the festivals, our streets on the slope of the big hill behind me, and across the bridge to my left, enjoy quiet evenings; this is not the big city. The crisp, clear sound of a piano reaches us from an open window — it must be nearby, but seems a world away. Between melodies the only thing to be heard is the twittering of the birds.
The old man sitting on the bench with me is thinking about what I’ve just told him, about what happened this morning.
The sun is setting off to my right, turning the sky — which was so blue today — to wondrous gradients of peach and pink. Swiftly, from the ice that still melts further upstream, the river flows westward where it reflects the last light of the sun. Soon the lamps will be lit along the streets behind us, along the water before us, and on the opposite shore. Soon we’ll have a clear view of the stars.
I too am thinking about what I told my elderly friend.
It had been one of those perfect mornings, the kind that jump you out of bed full of excitement and energy and inspiration. The cool air had smelled as it only can after the snow has gone, but before the flowers have come. There had been no clouds to hide the white peaks to the north. The grass was mostly green, but the patches that weren’t looked more golden than brown. It had been the perfect morning to tell her.
I had been so sure. Now I’m not sure about anything. I am lost and empty. How could today, a day that had started so brightly, have turned so horrible? This morning I had been so excited and nervous when climbing down the steps to the bench I sit on now. I haven’t left since, trapped in this confusing nightmare.
It makes no sense. It seems the harder I try, the further I push her away.
He breaks the silence. “Gateball in Valdorra.”
I’m not sure what he means or how this could be related to my plight, but gateball talk might make for a welcome distraction. I’ve heard of Valdorra — a smallish town on the other side of the mountains behind us — but I don’t know a thing about their gateball. I don’t think their team has ever qualified to play in the regional championships in my lifetime.
I take a guess. “Their team breaks the hearts of anyone who cares?”
“It’s an expression.”
There are other things on my mind — well, one other thing — and he’s being cryptic. I don’t understand and I’m losing patience. Usually I try to puzzle it out, but not today.
“Gateball in Valdorra is an old expression.”
I pause, expecting him to explain. When he doesn’t, I sigh for more than one reason and ask, “Meaning what?”
“Valdorra is a town, not unlike ours, in a valley in the range up there.” He gestures over his shoulder to the mountains whose shadows we live in.
“I know, the Town of the Valley.” There are nicknames for all the towns. We are the Town of Steps or Steps on the Water because of all the staircases carved into our hillside, running between our buildings and connecting our streets.
“Back when I was your age…”
Back in the days of the Empire, everyone across the land was obsessed with gateball, and not just because of the things that happened inside the arenas. Due to the associated travel subsidies, those who had goods to deliver, or those looking to get away on vacation, often tagged along with teams and supporters journeying to away matches. Qualification for regional competition or better could adjust a trade route to pass through an otherwise unimportant town, or turn it into a tourist destination; being sent down to district play or lower could almost remove a place from the map. Valdorra was not so different in its caring for the game, but its team was mediocre and the town, having always been isolated in the mountains, was used to getting by on its own.
Decades before the first signs that the Empire would crumble, there lived in Valdorra a boy by the name of Anton Lucendo. He wasn’t very good at running: too often his feet would tangle, and he would end up on the ground. So, the other kids always made him play gatekeeper. It was the position that was different from the rest, that no child wanted to play, that was reserved for those who weren’t good enough to do anything other than stand in the gate.
In time, however, Anton found that being used to falling down was an advantage. He became the first of the gatekeepers his age to learn to dive for the ball, and slowly he became more than just an extra boy standing in the gate. He came to learn that he could be a part of the game, that if the other side couldn’t score then his team could never lose.
Anton continued to grow and learn until, at eighteen, he found himself on the bench for the team that represented Valdorra. They’d had a good season the year before: not good enough for direct entry to the Imperial Cup — that was so far out of grasp they dared not even dream of it — but they’d qualified for regional entry. So, by chance, in his first season with the senior team, Anton Lucendo found himself part of a rare run in the most prestigious competition in the land.
Of course, as the stars would have it, the starting keeper was injured just as they made it past the regional stage to the more difficult phase of the competition. Already having achieved more than they had in decades, everyone in the town and team seemed satisfied with bowing out of the tournament. Everyone except Anton, that was.
He fought in the way that only those still young enough to believe that anything is possible — only those naive enough from not yet having felt the pains of disappointment — can fight. He dragged the team all the way to the finals. Along the way, not only did the people of Valdorra go crazy about the team, but neighbouring places, and even sympathetic small towns elsewhere, took to following team’s progress too. The town of Valdorra had never made it that far in its history, and its team was being led by an eighteen year old boy; it was truly a fairytale cup run.
A massive crowd, one in every four residents of Valdorra, embarked on the journey to watch their team play in the Imperial Stadium. Some conducted trade in the towns and villages on the way to the Emperor’s City, but most went only to wave banners and sing songs in the streets. They were to face the team fielded by the Emperor’s own Knights: champions for the previous four years. Those who travelled to cheer Valdorra to victory had no right to expect anything in the final, but then supporters have never been known to be rational.
Early in the match Anton went down in a nasty collision. It looked like he wouldn’t be able to continue, but in that first half he was defending the gate in front of his side’s supporters. The collective cry of those voices drowned out the pain.
Come on Anton, pick yourself up!
Come on Anton, pick yourself up!
He slowly dragged himself to his feet to meet the more familiar chant.
He was hobbling a bit, but stayed sharp at keeping the ball out. In fact, some would later say that it was only after the injury that he looked like he’d keep the Knights at bay all game. When they switched gates at halftime, despite the dominance and chances by the Knights, both teams were scoreless. And again, as the second half drew to a close, the game looked sure to go to extra deciders.
In the final minutes, as Anton ran to collect a routine ball, he tripped the way he did when he was a child. It would be heavily debated in the years to come — by those who were there that day, and those who weren’t — as to whether his injury had played a role in that fall. At the time, all Anton could do was lift his face from the ground and watch the ball roll into the empty gate.
The hundred thousand people crammed into the Imperial Stadium met the goal they’d been waiting for all game — all year — with a roar that was supposedly heard in seven of the thirteen districts in the Emperor’s City. It was surely over. The Knights had won for a record fifth time in a row, a feat that would never be repeated. But later on, only the historians would mention that when asked what happened in the Imperial Cup that year, and even then only in passing.
As Anton lay there with tears streaming down his face, a chant began to rise out of the noisy chaos. It was emanating from across the arena, where his travelling supporters were. As the neutrals, who were the vast majority, quieted down, the chant became clearer and Anton heard the words of his people even over the more crowded section of Knights supporters directly behind his second-half gate.
Come on Anton, pick yourself up!
We still love you, and that’s that!
And then the clapping began, spreading through the neutrals, and then even through the opposition supporters. A hundred thousand pairs of hands came together in that place to help Anton back to his feet …
Anton’s injury turned out to be quite serious, and he never played again. While that cup run inspired a gateball fever in Valdorra that has lasted through the aftermath of the Empire’s fall to the present day, their team went into sharp decline after that year, falling and remaining far below their prior mediocrity. The problem was that Anton had inspired an entire generation of the town’s children to grow up wanting to be gatekeepers. And you can’t field a team of only gatekeepers. Valdorra played in regional competition for the last time just a few years later, and were then effectively out of a place on any of the big maps, other than the ones in the history books.
And so the term gateball in Valdorra came to describe situations where inspiration leads to failure, where an increase in desire brings with it a greater distance from that which is desired. In Valdorra, and some other places too, the phrases come on Anton or pick yourself up, Anton are still commonly used to console someone who feels guilt for a thing gone wrong.
To this day, despite the town’s madness for the game, it is generally agreed upon in Valdorra that falling off the gateball map was a worthwhile price to pay for what happened that year. Those who disagree tend to have been born after the fact, and seem to miss the point that they wouldn’t even care about gateball if things hadn’t happened the way they had. Anton himself never speaks on whether he would like a chance to go back and rewrite it all — possibly avoiding the injury and the mistake — but most who know him say he probably wouldn’t.
After sitting in silence for some time, my old friend takes his leave. By now the lamps are glowing and there’s a moon out. Light reflecting from the other shore dances on the water. I should get home too, but I’m stuck on the bench. Thinking. About this morning, and about his story.
The sky is clear; the stars are beautiful.