Bird’s Narrative Joke

“This story was told to me by a man by the name of Bird who was a great influence on my childhood, and he had heard it from another man by the name of James who had, in turn, had a great influence on Bird’s childhood. Now James had a special talent for weaving stories into the greater meaning of life and connecting narratives into the world around him, but that talent has been lost over the generations and you’re now stuck with me. Regardless, this story takes place in the 70s, when a great deal of pit toilets were being dug by hand in the area (I swear this is normal and made a lot more sense in the context where this story originates from. There’s no municipal sewage system and it’s very difficult to get heavy machinery up into the mountains). There was a great deal of competition around who could dig the deepest pit toilet, who could excavate the most rocks out of the way while digging, and so on. These competitions had been going for a while now, and some top diggers were emerging. Some of these top pit-toilet-excavators were down in town one day, eating lunch at a Chinese place, and preparing for a new dig the next day. Everyone got their fortune cookies, and one of them reads “Through perseverance comes failure.” It gets scoffed at and thrown out, and not much else is thought of it. The excavation of a new pit toilet starts the next day, helmed by the guy that got the fortune cookie. but not long after they start digging, they run into a rock. Back in those days, the rocks would get classified by how close their size was to common household items, you’d have your teacups and bread boxes and flower planters and so on.

After a little inspection, the man figured that the rock he had run into was a washing machine. People rarely move washing machines, they’re absolutely enormous, and oftentimes it’s easier to just start a new hole. Surely, this was the failure that the fortune cookie had warned about. But he persevered, forming a rope harness and with a great deal of effort, he managed to haul the rock out of the hole. Happy with his work, he continued digging, going deeper, proud of getting the obstacle out of the way. A little while later though, and he runs into a fridge (not a real fridge, a rock the size of a fridge). Nobody moves fridges, they’re not only not worth the effort, they’re practically impossible to move. But the man decided he’d have a go at it. He’d already persevered through the washing machine, and failing at the fridge would only mean fulfilling the predictions of the fortune cookie. The fridge couldn’t be budged by ropes alone, but undeterred, the man builds a crane out of logs and pulleys, and with the help of some others, they manage to pull the fridge out of the ground. It was getting later now, and so the man went back to digging — after all, what can stop him now? He’s moved a fridge. Nobody has done that before, and now he’s there and he’s done it. There’s nothing bigger that can stop him, he’s just proved that with enough perseverance, anything can be moved, anything can be overcome. And so he digs and digs. Until his shovel hits a floor. Now, in an oral retelling of the story, there would be a nice long pause here, but I can’t really do that in writing, can I? So just sit there and pretend like I was quiet for a bit instead of speeding on through till the end of this story. There’s no way around the floor, no matter how far you dig to the side. He had persevered, and now he had failed. That pit toilet is still around to this day, so if you’re ever in the area, there’s one pit toilet that’s just slightly shallower than the rest.”

My informant first heard this piece at a summer camp they worked at during a campfire story. This story’s meaning, in their eyes, is to be careful around fortune cookies and to avoid digging pit toilets if possible.

This story seems to be a cautionary tale about fate, destiny, and also, perhaps about pit toilets. This narrative joke has a predetermined ending that the listener knows of, but waits in anticipation to see if the character will defy fate. Given the context, it is likely that the primary intent of the story is cautionary. Whether it is a cautionary tale about fate, fortune cookies, or pit toilets is up to the listener.