Buddha in the River with Sticks – Richard Hillesley

Sometimes when I was a kid I would hear him in the street in the village after the pubs had shut. The lights on the street cast slivers of light across my room through the lines and haloes of the window panes and I lay in bed, the quilt pulled round my shoulders, curled up for warmth, watching the lines of the planks that led towards the door, listening to the sounds of the world outside, the clack of shoes on the street or the bark of dogs in the crisp snow. I knew it was him because he had a tin leg and it crashed and banged and echoed between the walls of the narrow streets.

Sometimes I would pull myself up, rub the condensation from the window, and watch him, lifting his tin leg in a stiff and lazy arc until it crashed onto the pavement, his dim and steady gaze fixed on a light somewhere between the horizon and the end of the street. I would jump back into bed, and pull the cold sheets over my head, shivering.

He was a Tibetan. That much I knew, and that he came from the land of snow where holy men spent their lives drawing images of the Buddha in the river with sticks, images that dissolved as soon as they were drawn.
I knew that too and wanted to try it for myself. So I sat by the stream, and drew a face in the water with a stick, watching the water cover the marks I had made. Emily said,
– What you doin’?
She was my sister. She followed me everywhere.
– Gan awa’.
– Na. A’ll not.à
– It’s a face.
– It’s not.

I ignored her, and drew another face in the stream, a round face with two eyes, a capital L for its nose and a letter I on its side for a mouth, and she threw a stone into the water where the face should have been, and ran off.

I threw the stick after her but I didn’t really care, even if I did want to know why monks sat beside the river for years on end and drew images of the Buddha in the water that went away as soon as they were drawn. It didn’t make any sense to me, but the world of adults never did. So I asked my grandfather if it was true.

– Aye,
he said, but you couldn’t believe him.
– Na,
I said,
– They would know, wouldn’t they? A mean, what’s the point?
But he said it was true, so I asked my mother.
– Is it true?
and she just laughed.
– Na, a’m serious.

And she laughed again, so I was never sure. Granda could tell a story, and I never knew whether to believe him. He always left enough truth in the bones of the story to let us believe, and I was always left to wonder.

The Tibetan first came into our lives one winter when I was six or seven. I saw him in the snow with his lank hair and his hooded hat, flaps over the ears, high cheekbones and piercing eyes, his clanking leg cutting an arc across the pavement, and the mystery that surrounded him followed me everywhere. He lived in the big house in the centre of the village behind the high walls of moss and stone, huge in the doorway with his tin leg, the Colonel and the Colonel’s tiny wife. And he came from Tibet.

The Colonel was another mystery. He was hardly ever seen. Granda said the Tibetan had been the Colonel’s driver during some foreign war. The Colonel was wounded, and the Tibetan stayed with him, fighting off the enemy and pulling him to safety, saving his life.

– Is it true?,
I asked my mother once.
– Is what true?
– Is it true the Tibetan saved the Colonel’s life?
– No idea,
she said, and I could only wonder. Tibet to me was a remote and magic land where glaciers spat ice and snow, high above the earth and lost in clouds, where no-one lived but monks and yetis and warriors, and the monks spent their lives drawing images of the Buddha in the river with sticks.

I learnt some of these things from granda, some from a Children’s Encyclopedia, and some from a story I read about the Bash Street Kids in the Beano. The Bash Street Kids discovered there was a magic lake in Tibet where the monks took ugly people and threw them into the water, and when they came out the other side they were transformed and beautiful.

One of the Kids, Plug, was ‘the ugliest kid in the world’, so the rest of them took him on a magic trip to the lake so he too could become beautiful. But it didn’t work out like that. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and the monks who were the Guardians of the Lake all looked exactly like Plug, and Plug was beautiful to them, and being monks and generous and kind, they wanted to throw all the other kids into the lake so they could be beautiful too.

When I asked granda why the Tibetan had come to live here, he told me the Tibetan had lost his leg guarding the Dalai Lama on his exit from Tibet, and the Colonel had searched for him through the refugee camps of northern India and had brought him back to England for his own good and to be his manservant, which seemed a cruel fate for a monk and a warrior.

None of this meant much to me, nor that a monk could be a warrior too, but it coloured my dreams and my play, and I ran in the woods by the long fields at the top of the farm, over the drystone walls and between the hedges and into the long grass. And the cattle became yaks, and the farmhand a Yeti, chasing us through the gloom, his footsteps in the mud. I shot him with a stick.

And the slag became Everest and the village was laid out below, from the farm to the pit where the Chinese Hordes came running through the gates with their red flags and their guns, looking a lot like the pitmen on their way home.

And my mother would emerge from the back of granda’s house and call us home for tea, and spoil it all. And I would run home like a guerilla hiding behind the walls and trees, popping from one hiding place to another, shooting as I went until I scrambled into the kitchen, shutting the door behind me.

– Just made it,
I would say.
– Wash your hands,
my mother would say.
– They’re clean.
– Wash your hands.
– But mam.

The Tibetan was arrested and put into a police cell one night near the end of that year. He passed the window three times that night, going back and forth to the pub, and the last time I lifted the curtain to see him, clanking along the street. He wasn’t the same as usual. He was swinging a huge bladed sword above his head. I thought I’d imagined it and I looked again. But it was true. He had a sword and was swinging it over his head, which played with all the images I had of him as a warrior in the snow.

– Bloody hell,
I said, and ran into the next room to wake Emily.
– The Tibetan’s out there and he’s swinging a sword.
– Get back to sleep,
she said.
– Na. It’s true. Listen.
A siren was going off, and a police car was racing down the road. We could see the echo of its lights flashing off the ceiling.
– He’s gone to the pub, and he’s taken a sword with him,
I said, and she jumped up and we both ran to the window of her room.
We could see the coppas dragging him out of the pub. They had him in handcuffs, and one of them was carrying his sword.
– Wonder what he’s done?
I said.
– Chopped off someone’s head,
Emily said. And our mother shouted up from downstairs.
– I can hear you. Get back to bed.
He was up in court a few weeks later, but I only knew about it when granda read the local paper out loud at supper, and told us the news.
– They let the bugga off,
he said. Some of the lads in the pub had taken the piss out of him, and he didn’t like it, so he’d gone home for his sword to wave it in their faces and shut them up. It worked and they were terrified of him and the police were called, and the Colonel turned up in court to vouch for his character. He was given a suspended sentence and his sword was put in safe keeping. He hadn’t hurt a soul, but that made no difference.

He was a bad man because everybody said so, and they were all a little scared of him. He liked a drink and was lonely, and when he was lonely he drank some more.

– Why?
I said, and granda said he’d been yanked out of a world lit by yak butter and prayer flags and thrown into a cold Northumbrian winter,
– Not as cold as Tibet,
I said.
– Not if you’re from Tibet,
he said, and it was a long time before I recognised the truth. The story of the Tibetan’s relationship with the Colonel was less an exciting tale of hope and redemption than a tale of slavery. He was a monk and a warrior, but had been forced to abandon the rivers that ran through his life and the springs that were the source of his dreams. He liked a drink and was lonely, and when he was lonely he drank some more, and that was the story of his life in the days between his arrival in the village and the day two or three years later when he fell over in the street and died. One of the fishermen found him. He had a grimace on his face and his sword in his hand. Granda said it was the Colonel who killed him, bringing him to this place, and I asked my mam, and she said it was true.
He may as well have hung him from the highest tree, she said, and after a summer or two I forgot the monks who whiled their lives away drawing images of the Buddha in the stream with a stick, and found other games to play.

Image via Pixabay

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