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1st Prize Winner (Group II: 10-12 years) - A Golden Lesson

April, 2018
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A Golden Lesson  

I opened my eyes, as the sunlight streamed through the curtains and slowly got out of bed. Today was to be the most significant day of my life – I was to leave for Australia with my brother Li to seek my fortune in the dark and dangerous mines of Ballarat, the gold-mining town. It would be a journey of hardship, risk and reward, and a close brush with death.

Gently I untangled my braided black locks, and put on my dragon-crested robe. 

As I made my way to breakfast I heard mother’s painful cries that would come back to haunt me. I tried to shake away the thought that I would be leaving her in such a state of ill health. The doctors’ words echoed in my mind: “Not long to go…” I was reluctant to leave, but I was the eldest son and wanted to seek my fortune; huge chunks of gold I would find and lay them at her tomb. Some day . . .

Finally, after a simple meal of seaweed and water, it was time to leave home. I hugged my mother and promised her I would do the family proud. I knelt down, attempting to give her a hug. But she stopped me, gently using her weak, wrinkled hands to stretch open mine. Tracing the lines on my palm, she slipped something cold into my shaky hand. I peered down and there it was, a bright green piece of Jade sat in the palm of my hand. Mother sat up and I heard her dry, croaky voice when she whispered into my ear.

“Tang, I know I haven’t long to go, she said. “But before I die, I wanted to give you this piece of jade. Listen carefully, Tang, no matter where you are or what situation you’re in, this jade will bring you luck, as it did to my ancestors. And Tang, remember this, never let greed take control over you as it does to so many others. Where there is fortune there is always a price.”

Tucking the jade safely inside my inner pocket, I boarded the waiting carriage with brother Li and waved goodbye to my family. We soon arrived in Hong Kong harbour and set sail on the high tide, the boat winding its way through clusters of small junks. We did not really know if we would see the shores of China again. On the other hand, it felt thrilling to be embarking on such a major adventure, one that could change our lives and bring great fortune to our family.

 

After the three-week voyage, we docked in Melbourne, Australia, and quickly found a carriage heading to Ballarat, using the last of our money to pay the driver. That meant we had to achieve our goal, otherwise we would be returning home with nothing at all.

We arrived bright and early in Ballarat, and immediately, a short man with a big head came towards us, presumably he was the foreman. I reached my arm out ready to shake his hand, but he ignored it and said: “Welcome to Ballarat’s Red Hill Mine Camp, you Chinese rice eaters.” That didn’t sound welcoming at all, I thought.

There were men everywhere in tatty, ragged clothes all covered in sweat and muck and caked blood. My heart sank, realising that we would also be going down that dark mine, covered in dust and, if there was a rockfall, dying a slow, painful death.

“No daydreaming here, rice-eating laddie, it’s time for you to see your new home,” said the foreman in a tone of voice that suggested we would be in one of the worst places in the camp.

He pointed to the filthy, torn and tattered tent – which looked as if it would be toppled over by even light wind, and would certainly leak in the rain.

Li’s jaw dropped after realising this dump really would be our sleeping quarters. The foreman saw our disappointment and his calm face turned into a frown. “You’ll get used to it you spoiled poshies!,” he said. And with that, he left.

After dumping our stuff, we made our way through the dust and darkness to the mine’s dining hall, a large shed with burning candles and trestle tables. Dinner was a disgusting beef stew filled with black lumps. I didn’t want to take the risk of trying it without a bowl in my hands in case I threw it up. There was a dead cockroach sitting at the bottom of the sludge.

I gave a sigh of relief as I stepped out of the hall but then I saw three dark figures standing in the shadows. I moved closer to see who these people were, but suddenly one of them smacked me with a baseball bat, that knocked me to the ground. Still dazed, I tried to stand up but they weren’t finished yet, the tallest of them with big bare hands made a fist and wham! Blood oozed out of my lip I let out a whimper as I felt it sting then trickle down my neck.

 

“That’s right mate, we don’t accept your kind ’ere, you is all them posh kinds,” he said with a snarl. “Here it’s life or death. You’ll realise that once you start work tomorrow, down in the depths of Red Hill Mine where no one like you survives”. He let out a smug grin, then said: “c’mon lads let’s find someone else”.

Insufferable idiots, I whispered under my breath, as I heard Li calling my name. I stared at my body covered in my own blood. “Tang! Oh dear! What happened?” Li helped me walk back to the tent and I felt safe in my brother’s strong arms. My eyelids slowly dropped down, I relaxed my muscles as Li began to dab my wound with Chinese medicine he’d packed just in case.

The next day, the sun came streaming through the tent. It was the last daylight we would see for a while, as we knew that the shifts down the mine were long, in virtual darkness. It was finally our turn to go down into the mine and seek our fortune. I went down first, gripping the bars of the ladder tight. I started stepping down farther and farther away from the upper world. It started to feel damp and cold as we reached the bottom. Thankfully there were lamps that gave a little light.

I walked along the tunnel and began working immediately. Bing! Bing! The pickaxe went every time it hit the rock, but by noon there was a loud cry from the other side of the mine “rock fall!”. Before we knew what was happening gi-normous boulders and rocks came tumbling down from all directions, sending miners around us to their death. I woke up banging my head against a sharp stone and that was when I saw that the beautiful piece of jade my mother had given me lay shattered on the ground. It seemed that all our luck had gone.

Dust was everywhere, but in that mess I managed to make out the shape of Li, who was coughing sharply. I was able to reassure him we could work as a team, brothers together. We had to dig, as long as it took, but we must get out of here alive. Li nodded. I felt along the ground for the pickaxe and shouted to Li that I had found it. The fight to survive began. We knew that we were trapped in a tight spot and there wasn’t much air left, so we had to use all the time we had wisely.

We figured there were around ten large rocks blocking our way to the main tunnel – and the ladders back to the top – and the only way to remove them was using the pickaxe and with our bare hands. We worked non-stop for hours until oxygen was fading. I struggled for breath and to make sure exhaustion didn’t take over. I thought all hope of survival was lost in this filthy hell beneath the Earth, until Li’s pickaxe made a very different sound from the one we’d been hearing for hours. We’d hit something and it was definitely hard.

  

Li gasped as energy surged through him, and with all his might banged the pickaxe hard against the spot where the sound had come from. At last the earth around it began to loosen, we used our bloody sore fingers to break away each bit of soil. I caught a glimpse of something shiny, hopefully from a metal ladder, since an escape route was the only thing that really mattered right now. But as we removed the last chunk of soil we saw something beyond our wildest dreams. We’d found gold! “Tang look, we found gold!”. We hugged each other, tears were shed, but of joy only. When Li and I reached out our arms to touch the gold, it felt so smooth.

I wet my lips and gave it a kiss. Even if we died down here we’d have a happy death, knowing we’d fulfilled our mother’s dreams. After celebrating our discovery of gold, it was time to get back to the real world, clutching our treasure. We travelled through an existing passageway and suddenly Li stopped and spoke excitedly.

“Do you feel that? It felt like wind, I swear I felt something blow against me and ruffle my hair. I think it’s up ahead, so I’m guessing it isn’t very far now.”

I nodded, continuing along the passageway where fresh air swam freely. After hours and hours of crawling, we finally reached the ladder. Cool wind came swooping down like an eagle. I grabbed the rusty metal bars of the ladder. It almost felt like a dream that we’d made it this far. Carefully hoisting myself up the ladder, I suddenly felt energy pulse through me, knowing that our lives would be very different once we got out of this hell.

I carried the gold up, making sure it didn’t skim the edges of the ladder. My head popped out of the hole. All that was in the night sky was a single star smiling down at me. After my time down in Red Hill Mine, the lesson I learnt from this dangerous adventure was: great discoveries mean great risks. As my mother had warned us before we set off: “where there is fortune, there is always a price…”

 

THE END

By Hayley Graham,

10 years, Yew Chung International School of Beijing

 

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