FIRE on the MOUNTAIN
A Folk Tale of Ethiopia
A story goes that in the ancient days of Ethiopia, the young boy Arha made his way out of the fertile country of Guraghe to find employment in the city of Addis Ababa.
Many, many miles he traveled from his home on foot. Past fields of Ensete, the ‘false banana’ plant whose roots sustained his people. On, he bravely journeyed – through the mountains, past the lakes and North, to where the River Awash curved toward his destination.
There, at the foot of the sacred Mt Entoto lay the city of Addis Ababa. And there the young boy Arha became a servant to the wealthy merchant, Haptom Hasei. Years passed quickly in his service and the boy soon grew to be a young man.
Haptom Hasei was so wealthy that he had acquired all that money could buy. But he had tired of the things he owned, and there was nothing new that held his interest.
Haptom Hasei was bored.
One night as a cold, damp wind blew across the plateau he called on Arha to bring in wood for a fire. As Arha built the fire, Haptom began to mumble.
“Mmm!” he said, more to himself than Arha “How much cold can a man stand, I wonder? Could a man survive without a coat or blanket standing where the winds blow coldest, on the highest peak of Mt Sululta? “
“I don’t know,” said Arha “But wouldn’t that be foolish?”
“Mmm, perhaps it would be a foolish thing to do if nothing could be gained by it” Haptom replied..“but I would wager that a man could not survive it.”
“I would think,” said Arha “ that a courageous man could do it and not die – even standing unclothed there through the night. But I have nothing to bet, so it is not for me to say”
“Well then, I tell you what, “ said Haptom “Since you are so convinced it can be done, I’ll make the wager with you, in any case! If you can stand on the rocks of Mt Sululta without a fire – without clothing or blankets, and no food and water and live to tell it, I will give you 10 acres of rich farmland — along with cattle and a house — to call your own!”
Arha was taken away by this. Could he believe what Haptom promised? “Do you truly mean what you say?” he asked
“I am a man of my word, Arha” Haptom replied.
And thus it was that Arha determined to take the dare, and on the next day would make his way up the mountain.
But though he did not show it, he was quite worried. The windswept cold and fierce across the peak of Mt Sululta. To ease his concerns, early the next morning he went to seek the advice of his wise friend, an elder from the Guraghe tribe. The old man listened quietly and attentively as Arha spoke. After some thought, he told Arha that he would help him.
“When you stand on Mt. Sululta, look across the valley and you will see a high, bare rock. When the sun goes down tonight, I will build a roaring fire there, big enough to be seen from a distance.
Be sure to watch the light of the flames all night long! Keep your eyes open, always, and do not let the darkness creep upon you!
Watch the fire and think of its warmth, as if you were right beside it. And think of me, your friend, tending the fire for you. No matter how cold the wind, if you do this you will survive the night”
At these words, Arha was filled with hope and courage. That afternoon he made his way up the mountain, with the watchful eyes of Haptoms other servants upon him.
When he reached the top, Arha removed his clothes and stood straight and tall to face the night. The sun sank down, and the cold, damp wind began to sweep over the plateau, and up the mountain.
His eyes searched the horizon until, in the distance, they found the light of his friend’s fire! The wind had grown stronger and the cold passed through his flesh as if reaching to his bones. As the hours passed, the rock he stood on felt like solid ice beneath his bare feet. His thought he would never be warm again – his body felt numb to the very core.
But Arha kept his eyes on the golden, twinkling, light of the fire across the valley, and thought of his devoted friend tending it for him, feeding its flames with eucalyptus wood.
Though his body shook uncontrollably now and he began to feel faint, in his heart a warm glow sustained him. Even through long moments when wisps of fog blocked the light of his friend’s fire from view.
All night Arha stood there, bravely. As the first rays of dawn reached up over the horizon, only then did he put on his clothes again and begin the trek down the mountain, back to the home of the merchant Haptom Hasei.
Haptom was shocked to see him. He questioned his servants, asking them if Arha had indeed stayed through the night, without food or blankets or clothing. The servants answered vehemently that yes, indeed, he had done so in strict accordance with the bet as it had been laid out.
“You are a remarkable, strong young man!” Haptom declared “how did you do it?!”
Arha replied “I watched the light of a fire on a distant hill, that is all”
Haptom fumed “ A fire?? You watched a fire?! Then you have not won the bet, and my servant you shall remain! No land or cattle or house will be yours!!”
No matter how Arha tried to explain that the fire had been far across the valley and not nearly close enough to warm him, Haptom would not relent. He insisted Arha had been saved by the fire, and therefore the conditions of the bet had not been met.
Deeply saddened, Arha went to his friend the elder, of the Guraghe Tribe. Upon hearing the story the old man advised him to speak with a judge. This Arha did, and the judge sent for Haptom.
When the wealthy merchant had told his story, the judge declared that if Haptoms’ condition was that there should be no fire for warmth, Arha had indeed, lost the bet.
Once more, Arha returned to his friend with the news that he was doomed to be a servant for the rest of his days. The old man put a hand on Arhas’ shoulder. “Don’t give up hope. Greater wisdom grows wild on the mountains than in the office of a city judge”
So saying, he stood up from where he sat and went to call on his friend Hailu, for whom he had been a servant in his younger years.
After hearing the story, Hailu thought a while before saying “ Do not worry, good friend. I will take care of this.”
Over the next days, Hailu sent out invitations to all the influential people in the city, asking them to come to a feast at his home. He made sure that Haptom and the judge who had ruled against Arha were included.
On the day of the feast, the guests rode in on mules with ornate trappings, their many servants following on foot, behind. Haptom himself had come with drummers to announce his presence, and at least twenty servants, one of whom held a silk umbrella over Haptoms head, to shade him from the sun.
The guests settled comfortably, reclining on thick, soft rugs. While they conversed, rich, delicious aromas of roasting goat, corn, injera pancakes, and sauces wafted from the kitchen. The guests grew ever more hungry as the tantalizing smells of cooking food filled the room.
Time went by, but still, the meal was not served. The guests could smell it, but not a single morsel of the feast appeared before their eyes. Meanwhile, the tantalizing smells continued to drift in from the kitchen.
One of the guests finally spoke out for all the others “Hailu! Why have you invited us to a feast only to serve us nothing? Why do you do this??”
“But, don’t you smell the food?” Hailu said, acting surprised
“Yes, we certainly can!” the guests replied “but smelling is not eating! There is no nourishment in it!”
“Ah! Then answer me this” Hailu said “ Can a fire give warmth, though it is so far away it can hardly be seen? If the young man Arha was warmed by a distant fire he watched, while standing all night on Mt. Sululta, then you can also be nourished, by the smells coming from my kitchen”
The people saw the wisdom in Hailu’s words, and the Judge’s mistake was made clear.
Haptom was shamed, but nonetheless, he stood and thanked Hailu for helping him see his error.
And then he announced to all that Arha was the rightful owner to the land, the cattle, and the house.
Hailu then ordered the food brought in. The feasting began and needless to say, went on well into the night.