The king dipped a hand into the water. A small ripple shot outwards like shivers on the flanks of the deer waiting timidly across the canal. There was grass on the bank, and birdsong. The king felt his sorrow more pointedly in this beautiful setting.
“A poor land,” he said to himself. His horse stopped flicking its tail and looked up. “A poor land still,” said the king again, this time with a hint of rage.
The first king of the clan had nursed the country from wasteland to a pasture. The next one built the canal and brought more land under farming. The third and the fourth and the fifth and the sixth added branches to the canal, and year by year the country became less poor. But it was poor still.
The king wanted to do more than all the kings before him. He wanted to see his people rich and happy. He wanted to take water to every part of the country, but he knew the river wouldn’t give him any more. How was he to fill every drain, ditch and gully of his dreams?
The king stabbed the ground with the point of his spear and snapped back into the present. The spear had sunk into the ground and when the king pulled it out, the shaft was streaked with wet mud. “Thief!” snarled the king gripping the stirrup on his side. The cold metal was moist with dew. “Rogues!” he shouted spinning around. The thirsty deer scampered away.
The king’s eyes rested on the sinking sun and glowered. “You too! Hide now, but I will teach you a lesson.”
Mad with rage, the king galloped straight to his palace, summoned his ministers, ordered the town criers to assemble the people, and then strode out in full regalia to declare war.
He stood like a beacon above them, his face lit by the worshipful light of flickering torches. And he thundered: “My people, we have been conned. The earth we call ‘Mother’ guzzles water from our canal. Her belly is full of it, I have seen with my own eyes. The air sips it all day, and spits it on flowers and grass and cold metal in jest. And the Sun, holy father, turns it to vapour with his heat.”
The poor folk started murmuring to themselves, then they beat their sticks on the ground, and soon they were crying for blood.
“My people,” spoke the king again, “I have made up my mind. In a few hours, the canal will go dry. By midnight, the gates will be shut at the river. There will be hard times, but then we will pass into a new, happy era.”
The people hailed their king.
“Tomorrow morning, start lining the canal with bricks. We will not allow any more seepage. And we will also build a domed roof over the canal to thwart the sun and the wind in their mischief.”
It was back-breaking work but the people kept at it. The canal remained dry. The country’s store of corn ran out and the new rain-fed crop grew scanty. People starved. The grass on the banks withered away. Some deer died, others migrated upstream. The earth became dry and cracked. But the sun did not stop shining, and the wind did not stop blowing. It brought dust now instead of dew.
The king came to the dry canal and surveyed his work. There was no water to dip his hand into. No deer across it. His horse fidgeted in the heat, there was no grass for it to nibble on. But when the king dug his spear into the ground, it still came out wet and muddy. He had failed to wring the water out of the earth.
The king walked along the sandy bank slowly till he met a thirsty hermit.
“A sip of water, please,” the hermit begged, and the king handed him his flask immediately. “Much has changed,” said the hermit, “since I visited this country a year ago. Then, the people were poor, now they are desperate.”
The king told him the story, without letting on he was the monarch.
“The king did right,” said the hermit, “but he did it all wrong. He did it all wrong because he acted on impulse.”
The king seated the hermit on his horse and walked along, listening to him:
“It is the earth’s nature to soak water, and the wind and the sun evaporate it too. The king was right in considering them thieves of his water, but he forgot that those three never get thirsty. Water is merely their toy, a game. Cutting off the canal’s water could not have hurt them. But it did hurt the people, animals and plants of this country.”
“What could the king have done then,” the king asked.
“What he did. He lined the canal with bricks and covered it, which is to say he built a pipeline. He should have built a new pipeline first without stopping the water in the canal. That way, he would have avoided all this suffering.”
The king nodded, grateful that the hermit had not used harsher words. “What can the king do now,” he asked.
“Hurry up,” said the hermit, “finish work on the canal pronto.”
Then sliding off the horse, the hermit kept one hand on the king’s shoulder and said: “Next time, O king, don’t rush into battle.”
And with long strides the hermit vanished into the night.