Once upon a time a man road a horse into the forest. The canopy of treetops was thin at first and the path was bright, but slowly it darkened even as the sun was just rising.
The man stopped when he saw a small but clean pond of water, alighted from his horse and approached it. The water was so clear it sparkled. He got down to his knees, scooped with his hand and drank, savoring the purest liquid, invigorating because it was living water, never been contained in any vessel made by man. But then he filled his canteen and pulled his horse towards the pond. The animal drank while the man splashed water to his face and neck.
Both man and beast now refreshed and contented, they continued deeper into the forest, carefully treading in the dim light. The sun was now at its zenith, and even the forest could not totally block its light. The forest was beautiful, with trees all around, their tops racing towards the sky. There were no shrubs or small trees because in order to thrive, plants need sunlight. Hence, although the sky was totally blanketed, the path was wide since the big trees stood several feet from each other.
They rode a little faster this time, taking advantage of the noontime sun because when it began to set it would be too dark to travel. They stopped for a quick lunch of dried meat, grapes, three types of cheese, rye bread, and home-made wine for the man, and fresh green grasses for the horse. They continued on their journey, observing the surroundings change into deeper, mellower colors with the dimming of the light.
Alas, they had to stop while it was still bright enough to search for firewood. After gathering several armfuls of dry twigs and branches, the man carefully but expertly arranged them to make a fire. He took out his matches and lit up a few thin twigs as primer, carefully nursing the small flame, adding just the right amount of wood, because too little would waste the heat while too much would smother the flame. Slowly the flame grew into a steady fire, and with the way he arranged the firewood, the fire would last for a few hours untended, and he had enough extra wood to last the whole night.
He was not yet hungry for dinner because his muscles were still tensed from the journey, and that was fine because he needed some time to hunt for fresh meat. He saw a rabbit several yards to his left, and in a swift but smooth arc he took his bow, fixed an arrow on the string and pulled while aiming at the rabbit, and with a tiny flick of a few fingers the arrow left the bow in a quick flight straight to the rabbit’s heart. It died almost instantly. He walked over to retrieve his kill, brought out his knife and proceeded to clean and prepare it for cooking.
Placing the rabbit meat in an iron pan, he rubbed it with salt and pepper which he always carried inside a pouch along with herbs, spices, and various seasonings. Next he took a pinch of a brown-red course powder and sprinkled it on the meat. Then he covered the pan and put it in the fire, the flames enveloping it and sealing it shut, keeping all the flavors locked in.
Inside the pan the rabbit meat began to roast, the seasonings working their way into the flesh and its juices, blending the flavors into a splendid feast. The man took out his bottle of home-made wine and took a swig, rolling the wine inside his mouth for a few seconds to savor it before swallowing. Then he held two small twigs like chopsticks to uncover the pan and poured some wine into the dish. Instantly it sizzled, filling the cold night air with a heavenly smell, and he covered it again.
After few more a minutes his meal was ready. Using a pair of firewood, he carefully took the pan from the fire and laid it on a flat rock. Vapor rose as he lifted the lid, intoxicating him with the anticipation of gastronomic delight. Using his knife he took a piece of meat and brought it to his mouth. The moment it touched his tongue he knew that he was having good meat, and as he chewed, the different flavors began to emerge, allowing him to savor them one by one. He slowly swallowed the meat and washed it down with wine, and all the flavors blended and exploded in his mouth. He repeated the whole process several times until the pan was clean and the wine bottle was half-empty. He lit a hand-rolled cigar as he continued to drink the rest of the wine, leaning back against a rock and watching the flames, and he started to recall a story he heard when he was a kid.
Long ago, the great Frith made the world. He made all the stars, and the world lived among the stars. Frith made all the animals and birds, and at first made them all the same. Now among the animals was El-Ahrairah, the prince of rabbits. He had many friends, and they all ate grass together.
But after a time, the rabbits wandered everywhere, multiplying and eating as they went. Then Frith said to El-Ahrairah, “Prince Rabbit, if you cannot control your people, I shall find ways to control them.” But El-Ahrairah would not listen and said to Frith, “My people are the strongest in the world.” This angered Frith, and he determined to get the better of El-Ahrairah. He gave a present to every animal and bird, making each one different from the rest. When the fox came, and others, like the dog, and cat, hawk, and weasel, to each of them, Frith gave a fierce desire to hunt and slave the children of El-Ahrairah.
Then El-ahrairah knew that Frith was too clever for him and he was frightened. He had never before seen the black rabbit of death. He thought that the fox and the weasel were coming with Frith and he turned to the face of the hill and began to dig. He dug a hole, but he had dug only a little of it when Frith came over the hill alone. And he saw El-ahrairah’s bottom sticking out of the hole and the sand flying out in showers as the digging went on. He called out, “My friend, have you seen El-ahrairah, for I wish to give him a gift?” “No”, answered El-ahrairah, without coming out, “I have not seen him.” So Frith said, “Come out of that hole and I will bless you instead.” “No, I cannot,” said El-ahrairah, “I am busy. The fox and the weasel are coming. If you want to bless me you can bless my bottom.”
“Very well, be it so.” Frith blessed El-ahrairah’s tail and it grew shining white and flashed like a star, and his back legs grew long and powerful, and he tore across the hill faster than any creature in the world.
Then Frith said, “All the world will be your enemy, Prince With A Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first, they must catch you: digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks, and your people will never be destroyed.”
And as the man finished his wine and cigar, he added more wood to the fire and unrolled a mat beside it and lay himself down. He kept thinking about the story, wondering about his people and if they will be destroyed by their own arrogance. And with that thought he drifted into fitful sleep, until the spirit of the wine finally took off the hard edges of physical and mental exertion and brought him into sweet dreamless slumber.
To be continued…