“Master,” Ping shouted, as he wiped his face with his sleeve. “The rain has been pouring down for two days, and the snow in the mountains has melted. Do you think the bridge over the Peng-Li River will last?”
Master Bao, riding his ox, Xi, turned to face his student Ping who was trudging alongside on the muddy road. “The fate of the bridge lies in the future, Ping. And the future is promised to no person and no bridge. The truth will be revealed when we get to the river later today.”
Soon, the raging flood of the Peng-Li River came in sight through the curtain of rain, and there was the wooden bridge, still intact.
“The water is rising fast, Ping. We will cross before the bridge is washed away.”
Ping fixed his eyes on the opposite bank, for he became dizzy if he looked at the raging torrent of brown water swirling just under the wooden planks. He gave a sigh of relief when they were safely on the road on the other side. They had gone only a short distance when, with a crash, the bridge was struck with a large tree caught in the flooded river, and was washed away downstream.
“ Ahead is an inn where we can sleep in comfort, Ping. Perhaps this rain will stop by tomorrow, and we can be on our way. The village of Half Moon is still another two days of travel.”
The black clouds in the darkened sky roiled and boiled as the rain continued to drench the land and the men, turning rice paddies into lakes, roads into quagmires, and drainage ditches into cascades of brown water. With heads bent into the storm, the two travelers approached a small building on the side of the road. Although the wooden sign bounced in the wind, Ping could read the characters proclaiming this to be the Inn of Happy Travelers. After getting the ox into the stable and wiped dry, Master Bao and Ping were nearly blown into the lounge of the inn. A fire blazed in the fireplace, and the smell of cooking spices welcomed the two men.
“Welcome, Master,” the round-shaped innkeeper said. “We have just two rooms still available. One on the top floor and one behind the kitchen. We have many guests washed up into our small wayside, but we always have room for more pilgrims. Step up to the fire to dry while I bring plates of food.”
After drying near the fire, Master Bao and Ping pulled a bench up to a table while the landlord and his daughter brought them bowls of steaming spiced rice. But before they could begin eating, the door to the inn burst open and a man dressed as a craftsman stumbled into the room.
“The Red Dragons have broken through the Emperor’s troops and are headed this way. They are killing anyone they come across, men, women, and children. Even cows and geese,” he trumpeted.
“Surely the flooded river will stop them,” one of the guests shouted, as many voices in the crowded restaurant cried out in alarm.
“No, no,” the man gasped. “They are coming from the other direction, the village of Half Moon.”
“We are trapped,” someone screamed. “The bridge is washed out, and the fields are flooded. We will all be murdered by the Red Dragons.”
Ping watched the turmoil in the room, then looked at Master Bao who was peacefully eating his rice. “Master,” Ping exclaimed, “how will we escape the Red Dragons? We can’t go back the way we came, and we can’t escape across the fields. They will slaughter us, along with all of these good people.”
Master Bao put down his chopsticks. “This is a good lesson for you, Ping. The bridge is out and the river is too high and swift to cross. Therefore, we can’t go back. Just like in life, Ping, we can’t go back to the past to escape the present.
“Ahead on the road awaits death. Just like in life, Ping, the future we must all face is death, sooner or later.
“But, right now, in the present, we are dry, we are warm, and we are enjoying some of the tastiest rice I have ever eaten. Both the past and the future are ghosts, Student Ping, for neither exists at this moment, so worrying about either is pointless.
“As for the Red Dragons, trust in the Will of Heaven to keep us safe.”
Seeing the calm face and attitude of the Sage, the rest of the patrons went back to their eating and drinking. The conversations were quiet and peaceful.
The next morning, dawn broke with a cloudless sky, bright sunlight, and cool temperatures.
The door to the inn burst open, and a man dressed as a craftsman stumbled into the room.
“His Excellency the Emperor’s troops have rounded up all the Red Dragon gang and arrested them. The road to Half Moon Village is safe.”
Later, Master Bao and Ping took their leave of the landlord of the Inn of Happy Travelers, and set out for Half Moon Village. The sun had dried the mud and Ping smiled as he thought of the lessons he was learning about the way of the Dao.
“The past and the future are ghosts, for they don’t exist in the present,” Ping remembered. “And trust in the Will of Heaven.”
Right now, he thought, I’m warm, dry, and safe. And that is enough.