The boat we had commandeered was too slow. “It’s built more like a tugboat than a racing skiff,” I said. “We won’t get away at this rate.”
“What’d we expect?” you asked. “It’s not meant for speed.” You stood at the wheel next to the captain as we made our way upriver.
“I know. But it’s better than being chased through that.” I pointed at the thick jungle crowding in along the banks.
“Anyway,” you said, kicking aside a bottle that rolled by your foot, “wasn’t this boat your idea?”
I shrugged and went back to stowing our gear.
Okay, we didn’t “commandeer” the boat. “Hired” would be more accurate. As to our means of barter, I’ll only say the captain was quite fond of rum, which we did commandeer — by the caseload — from an unguarded shack in a rebel hideout, which also provided us with crates of weapons and explosives. We had no need for those, but we decided they were safer with us than in the hands of the thuggish guerrillas who had overrun the area and were terrorizing the villagers.
Give peace a chance, we thought — by diplomacy if possible, or theft if necessary. We weren’t diplomats.
And we weren’t exactly thieves either. We added up the cost of the above-described goods — at black market rates — and considerately left a wad of folded banknotes on an empty box in the shack. Now, it wasn’t our fault the local currency was losing half its value by the day, due to a ravaging inflation. The government was simply inept at basic economics. We figured the rebels would understand.
They didn’t, and we soon heard the buzz of a nimble speedboat skimming over the water and quickly approaching. Why couldn’t we have commandeered that? I wondered.
“We might need those explosives after all,” you said, which surprised me. Still, I had to agree.
We were outnumbered and completely defenseless in our lumbering boat. Except, of course, for the impressive arsenal we had seized, which was enough to arm an army. But we weren’t an army — merely two capable, though slightly distraught, adventurers. Plus one happy, and somewhat unaware, river-boat captain. At least he could still pilot the boat.
This would be interesting, I thought, and rather out of character for us.
We had been following the tale about a rare tree that was rumored to shine like a cathedral window. I suppose that meant the leaves looked like stained glass. We’d have to see for ourselves.
That’s how we happened to be in the middle of a jungle war between some unruly guerrillas and a hapless regime that couldn’t maintain passable roads. We saw a lot of men — and too many boys — in rumpled camouflage uniforms, carrying rifles or machetes, and always frowning. No one seemed pleased about anything here, even when the weather was pleasant.
“Why couldn’t the tree grow somewhere less troubled?” you had asked, frustrated at these political squabbles that often get in the way of our expeditions.
“I know. It’s like, who thought of putting all those holy sites in the Middle East?”
“No, it’s not like that at all!” You pressed your lips together. “But I get your point.”
Our boat had reached a long, straight part of the river and we caught sight of our pursuers rounding the bend behind us. We’d soon be an easy target, once they got in range.
You were prying open the crates, taking a quick inventory, and pulling out anything that seemed promising. I gathered up the items you set aside — “What are these?” “Russian anti-tank grenades.” “Oh.” — and set them down at the back of the boat, carefully.
We started discussing strategy, but the speedboat was closing in fast, so I said, “Let’s just try one of these to see how they work.” “Okay.” And before I knew it, you had grabbed a grenade, pulled its pin, and heaved it into a high arc that landed it a few meters ahead of the rebels. With split-second timing the grenade exploded just as it touched the water. Where had you learned to do that?
No matter. It worked.
The speedboat swerved, spun around in retreat, and hurried back downriver. The rebels had decided we were too formidable a foe — heavily armed, annoyed at being chased, and in no mood for negotiations. Damn right. Not bad for a couple of nature lovers, though I was secretly disappointed about not getting to toss a grenade myself.
We celebrated with a few sips of rum. The captain kindly finished the bottle for us, and left it rolling around on the deck with the others.
“Should we have been worried about harming any fish?” I asked.
You looked back at the river. “I’m pretty sure they scattered to safety when the boats went by.”
I was glad about that.
The next morning, the captain pulled into an overgrown cove and let us off. We had to hack our way through some vegetation, but the disorderly jungle soon gave way to a well-behaved forest that allowed for an easier trek. Still, we had to evade a leopard that caught our scent. And we were forced to make a wide detour around an encampment of poachers.
“Wish I’d brought one of those AK-47s we confiscated,” I said.
“You don’t know how to use one.”
“But I could look dangerous.”
“The leopard wouldn’t care.”
When we arrived at our destination, the afternoon sun illuminated the tree, whose leaves shone like windows in a Gothic cathedral. Rippling patterns of yellows and greens revealed the chlorophyll-charged life coursing through the veins.
Even as the forest fell into shadow, the tree continued to glow with a golden iridescence that energized the air and bathed the ground in ethereal light. We felt the numinous presence of nature in the surreal motifs sparkling and shimmering in sublime harmonies of color permeating our senses.
At least, that’s what I scribbled in my journal, intoxicated by the mesmerizing display. It would take a better storyteller to relate the experience without all the flowery verbiage.
Emerald-green seedpods the size of walnuts lay in piles beneath the tree. Evolution, it seems, had not provided a way to help them spread far, unless some creature we weren’t aware of did the job. But too many seeds were left to decay where they fell, unable to achieve their purpose. No wonder the forest — and the world — wasn’t full of these stained-glass trees.
I gently touched a low branch. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see one of these every day, in the morning light?”
“They might do well among the aspens,” you said, “if they can stand the winters. It’s worth a try.”
I didn’t argue. You had already picked up a handful of seeds and were tucking them in your pockets.