We can see sunlight cresting over the Buddha's knee, rays picking their way through kitchen windows, tea on to boil, kids moving softly to the table, hair standing up in pillow-rubbed clumps.
The kids run out ahead after breakfast, tagging each other, bare feet slapping stone, voices ringing back from whitewashed walls. We hang back, our hands full with buckets and brushes and rags, taking the time to talk, squinting up at the sun, while we are still shoulder-to-shoulder within the village; once we come to the grassy edge, we'll fan out, taking up our places along the Buddha's leg.
Our village shelters under his right knee; my family, as far back as memory goes, has had charge of the Buddha's left foot, tucked lotus-wise in the crook of the knee. We are finishing the gold leaf on his big toe a little before solstice this year. A full week to rest before starting again at the heel, where the shine is already dulled, the delicate lapis scrollwork begun last year losing its crisp edges.
The sun is straight overhead when I unpack our lunch. We mimic the Buddha's posture, sitting down cross-legged to eat, looking out across the plain to see his finger coming down to meet the earth; the Buddha forever at the moment of enlightenment, hovering a second before touching earth to let creation know of his epiphany.
This is my last season here. I'm marrying age now, and have to travel to another village to find a spouse. I'll seek out the people in the left knee, or maybe the hand; the villages higher up the mountain seem to have forgotten their work. Even from here we can see patches of neglect along his shoulders, our foot far outshining his face. What little we hear from them tells of a whole different world, of people who don't even know they live on the Buddha's shoulder. They keep the gold and lapis for themselves, stealing from each other, painting their houses and clothes instead.
Nobody remembers who first built the earthworks Buddha, the center of our world. They were our ancestors, working with clay rather than paint. The villages were closer in those days, they worked together, people passing easily from village to village as among family. My own grandfather came from upcountry in better days, wrinkles deepening between his eyes when he looks up at the worn face of our Buddha.
I know he wants me to go up there, bring the old, quiet ways back to them, but I'm only one person, who would listen to me?
So was the Buddha, says my grandfather, his brows casting shadows over his eyes, You don't know what you can do until you've tried.