“Be patient” murmured the old man, his Buddha smile as calm as a still lake; but the young men stirred restlessly, their hands fiddling with the safety catches of their rifles, checking and rechecking the loaded magazines. Peasant boys most of them, they tugged at the collars of their coarse camouflaged uniforms, uncomfortable with the unaccustomed chafing at their throats. The corporal, kept an anxious eye on their prisoner who seemed to behave more as a guest than a captive. The old man sat with great aplomb on a log and gazed tranquilly across the wide brown river. At its centre, the current was fast, hurrying its cargo towards the mud banks of the distant delta, before depositing its offering of fallen trees, dead animals—and an increasing number of human corpses from both sides of the conflict, their differences forgotten.
The men were getting restless, waiting for the boat to carry them to the safety of ‘their’ side of the river. Their prisoner, however, seemed totally unconcerned, seemingly indifferent to the muttered remarks and covert glances that combined hostility with awe.
The bonze was a large man, nearly twice the size and three times the age of his escort, yet his face was still unlined and his body supple under his ample robes. He was no ordinary monk, a holy man with a reputation for wondrous miracles bordering on magic. He was said to have the power to vanish and reappear twenty miles away and the escort never took their eyes off him. Many patrols had crossed the river— none had ever returned. Their disappearance had been blamed on the magical protection offered by the wise man. Volunteers all, they were willing to lay down their lives for this mission. “Capture the Wizard, or die trying!” was the order, but it had proved remarkably easy.
The old man had showed no surprise when they stormed into his forest hut. He had smiled a welcome and picked up a small sack packed in anticipation of a journey. “Where did you leave the boat?” he asked conversationally, and, paying no attention to the brandished guns, took the path to the river.
A lookout shouted, calling their attention to a boat travelling in a wide arc from upstream to combat the fierce current. It looked perilously small for the number waiting to cross. The boatman struggled to propel his craft by means of a large oar at the back of the boat. From half way across the way was easier as the strength of the river swept the boat towards the bank on which they stood.
The corporal gestured with his AK47, indicating that the monk should board first. The oarsman crouched down low so that his head should not be higher than that of the captive as he climbed into the boat and sat in the prow. The corporal sneered at such superstition, but found his childhood conditioning exerting a strong influence to follow suit. He was still trying to accept the fact that he had actually captured the Holy Man of the Forest of Shadows; that this large and cheerful man was the object of so many dark stories of magic and terror—he looked so ordinary. He thought again, a sudden quick anxiety, surely no ordinary man would be so unafraid, so unconcerned at being kidnapped and threatened with guns. Look at him, excited as a boy on his first fishing trip. The soldier assumed his most ferocious expression as he clambered aboard, threatening the monk with his rifle. The monk beamed back at him encouragingly and indicated a seat at his side.

When the rest of the squad had boarded, the boat was perilously low in the water. There was only a handbreadth between the rim and the muddy water swirling past. The oarsman pushed off and started plying the large sweep that acted as oar and rudder. Skilfully, but with great care, he began to propel the craft upstream in the slack water near the bank before attempting to cross the fast centre currents.
The soldiers sat unmoving, rigid with the fear of drowning, as the heavily laden boat inched its way upstream before attempting a full crossing. The monk, however, appeared quite unconcerned and trailed his hand in the water. Playfully he flicked a few drops over his escort. They flinched but did not dare make any larger movement.
“Be careful, Old Man,” growled the corporal, “Do not try my patience.”
“How else will you know that you are patient?” smiled the monk. And he playfully rocked the boat, causing a small amount of water to slop over the gunwale.
“Be careful!” cried the corporal. “You’ll drown us all!”
“You are afraid of water?” queried the Ancient, “Yet you bear in your hands both metal and fire. Do they not make you feel strong?”
The boat by this time had been caught by the strong flow of the river, the boat man using the broad oar as a rudder as the craft rushed forward. The soldiers put down their weapons to hang on tightly to the side of the boat which seemed now even lower in the water.
“The great Lao Tzu,” remarked the monk conversationally, “said that ‘In the world there is nothing more submissive and weak than water. Yet for attacking that which is hard and strong nothing can surpass it. ’ Do you consider yourself hard and strong?” and he gave the boat an experimental wobble.
“I could kill you now,” snarled the corporal, raising his gun.
“And my falling body will capsize the boat. Perhaps you should consult your friends. Perhaps they are all good swimmers.” And he smiled encouragingly at the frightened young soldiers.”
The corporal glared angrily as he heard a mutinous murmur from his squad. Even the superstitious boatman wavered in his concentration and the boat lurched dangerously as it momentarily turned side on to the current.
“Watch what you are doing, you fool.” The corporal shouted at the steersman, who was with difficulty regaining control of the boat.
“We are overloaded.” railed the boatman. “We must lighten the load. Throw all those heavy guns overboard or you’ll never see the other side.”
But they could see the other side, the tall trees, the splash of red tropical flowers; never had dry land seemed so attractive. One by one, despite the impotent fury of their leader, the soldiers lightened the boat, first the rifles, then grenades, machetes, knives, and bandoliers of ammunition. Recklessly they divested themselves of their camouflage jackets. Freeing themselves of the uniform freed them of their military discipline and they seemed unconcerned at the threats of their corporal.
He sat in baffled fury next to the monk who, smiling benignly, flicked at the tightly clasped rifle with a contemptuous fingertip.
“Metal and wood belong to Earth, but now you are in the world of Water. It is around you, it is beneath you, and, if you do not respect it, it will soon be above you and inside you. Pay it due honour, give it your vain toys and perhaps it will spare you.” And the wide eyes gazed into his, and he saw that they were the blue-green of deep water. Almost involuntarily, he dropped his precious rifle over the side and followed it with his other equipment.
The monk smiled. He pointed to his own bank of the river and called to the steersman.
“You are all invited to take tea in my hut.”

© Copyright H.St V.Boechey 1996