The Fire on the Mountain
(an Ethiopian folktale)
Haptom Hasei was so rich that he owned everything that money could buy, and often he was very bored because he had tired of everything he knew, and there was nothing new for him to do.
One cold night, when the damp wind was blowing across the plateau, Haptom called to Arha to bring wood for the fire. When Arha was finished, Haptom began to talk.
“How much cold can a man stand?” he said, speaking at first to himself. “I wonder if it would be possible for a man to stand on the highest peak, Mount Sululta, where the coldest winds blow, through an entire night without blankets or clothing and yet not die?”
“I don’t know,” Arha said. “But wouldn’t it be a foolish thing?”
“Perhaps, if he had nothing to gain by it, it would be a foolish thing to spend the night that way,” Haptom said. “But I would be willing to bet that a man couldn’t do it.”
“I am sure a courageous man could stand naked on Mount Sululta throughout an entire night and not die of it,” Arha said. “But as for me, it isn’t my affair since I’ve nothing to bet.”
“Well, I’ll tell you what,” Haptom said. “Since you are so sure it can be done, I’ll make a bet with you anyway. If you can stand among the rocks on Mount Sululta for an entire night without food or water, or clothing or blankets or fire, and not die of it, then I will give you ten acres of good farmland for your own, with a house and cattle.”
Arha could hardly believe what he had heard.
“Do you really mean this?” he asked.
“I am a man of my word,” Haptom replied.
“Then tomorrow night I will do it,” Arha said, “and afterwards, for all the years to come, I shall farm my own soil.”
But he was very worried because the wind swept bitterly across that peak. So in the morning Arha went to a wise old man from the Guragé tribe and told him of the bet he had made. The old man listened quietly and thoughtfully, and when Arha had finished, he said:
“I will help you. Across the valley from Sululta is a high rock which can be seen in the daytime. Tomorrow night, as the sun goes down, I shall build a fire there so that it can be seen from where you stand on the peak. All night long you must watch the light of my fire. Do not close your eyes or let the darkness creep upon you.
As you watch my fire, think of its warmth and think of me, your friend, sitting there tending it for you. If you do this, you will survive, no matter how bitter the night wind.”
Arha thanked the old man warmly and went back to Haptom’s house with a light heart. He told Haptom he was ready, and in the afternoon Haptom sent him, under the watchful eyes of other servants, to the top of Mount Sululta. There, as night fell, Arha removed his clothes and stood in the damp, cold wind that swept across the plateau with the setting sun. Across the valley, several miles away, Arha saw the light of his friend’s fire, which shone like a star in the blackness.
The wind turned colder and seemed to pass through his flesh and chill his bones. The rock on which he stood felt like ice. Each hour the cold numbed him more, until he thought he would never be warm again, but he kept his eyes upon the twinkling light across the valley and remembered that his old friend sat there tending a fire for him. Sometimes wisps of fog blotted out the light, and then he strained to see until the fog passed. He sneezed and coughed and shivered, and began to feel ill. Yet all night through he stood there, and only when the dawn came, did he put on his clothes and go down the mountain back to Addis Ababa.
Haptom was very surprised to see Arha, and he questioned his servants thoroughly.
“Did he stay all night without food or drink or blankets or clothing?”
“Yes,” his servants said. “He did all of these things.”
“Well, you are a strong fellow,” Haptom said to Arha. “How did you manage to do it?”
“I simply watched the light of a fire on a distant hill,” Arha said.
“What! You watched a fire? Then you lose the bet, and you are still my servant, and you own no land!”
“But this fire was not close enough to warm me. It was far across the valley!”
“I won’t give you the land,” Haptom said. “You didn’t fulfill the conditions. It was only the fire that saved you.”
Arha was very sad. He went again to his old friend of the Guragé tribe and told him what had happened.
“Take the matter to the judge,” the old man advised him.
Arha went to the judge and complained, and the judge sent for Haptom. When Haptom told his story, and the servants said once more that Arha had watched a distant fire across the valley, the judge said:
“No, you have lost, for Haptom Hasei’s condition was that you must be without fire.”
Once more Arha went to his old friend with the sad news that he was doomed to the life of a servant, as though he had not gone through the ordeal on the mountaintop.
“Don’t give up hope,” the old man said. “More wisdom grows wild in the hills than in any city judge.”
He got up from where he sat and went to find a man named Hailu, in whose house he had been a servant when he was young. He explained to the good man about the bet between Haptom and Arha, and asked if something couldn’t be done.
“Don’t worry about it,” Hailu said after thinking for a while. “I will take care of it for you.”
Some days later Hailu sent invitations to many people in the city to come to a feast at his house. Haptom was among them, and so was the judge who had ruled that Arha had lost the bet.
When the day of the feast arrived, the guests came riding on mules with fine trappings, their servants strung out behind them on foot. Haptom came with twenty servants, one of whom held a silk umbrella over his head to shade him from the sun, and four drummers played music that signified the great Haptom was there.
The guests sat on soft rugs laid out for them and talked. From the kitchen came the odors of wonderful things to eat: roast goat, roast corn and durra, pancakes called injera, and many tantalizing sauces. The smell of the food only accentuated the hunger of the guests. Time passed. The food should have been served, but they did not see it, only smelled vapors that drifted from the kitchen. The evening came, and still no food was served. The guests began to whisper among themselves. It was very curious that the honorable Hailu had not had the food brought out. Still the smells came from the kitchen. At last one of the guests spoke out for all the others:
“Hailu, why do you do this to us? Why do you invite us to a feast and then serve us nothing?”
“Why, can’t you smell the food?” Hailu asked with surprise.
“Indeed, we can, but smelling is not eating; there is no nourishment in it!”
“And is there warmth in a fire so distant it can hardly be seen?” Hailu asked. “If Arha was warmed by the fire he watched while standing on Mount Sululta, then you have been fed by the smells coming from my kitchen.”
The people agreed with him; the judge now saw his mistake, and Haptom was shamed. He thanked Hailu for his advice and announced that Arha was then and there the owner of the land, the house, and the cattle.
Then Hailu ordered the food brought in, and the feast began.