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Once upon a time, a group of people from a mighty civilization found themselves united in spirit by a shared compassion over the plight of those who were less fortunate than themselves. Knowing well that most things only change when somebody changes them, they resolved to travel together to a faraway farming village – the first of many, they hoped – to educate the people there in modern agricultural methods that would certainly improve their lives. They made their plans, gathered their supplies and their courage, and set off. Along their travel they often discussed eagerly the grand welcome they would receive upon arriving, and the celebration of a grateful community after the first fruits of their mighty gift became ripe for the harvest.
When at last they reached the village after their long journey, they were astonished and dismayed to find that most of the villagers either viewed them with suspicion, or simply ignored them. The rest greeted them with haughty anger. “Who are you,” they demanded in various ways, “to come to our home and presume to tell us how we should raise our food? We have been farmers for all of our lives. Our blood is in this land, and this land is in our blood. We practice faithfully what our fathers and our grandfathers taught us, just as they learned it from their own fathers and grandfathers going back and back to the very beginning of the world. You are obviously fools who would presume to teach your own mothers how to give birth, and if we listened to you we would soon be planting leather so that we might harvest cows! You should go back home to your land of fools and stop bothering us, or stay here and learn from a civilized people the proper way to work the land so that your elders will know that you did not waste your time among us.”
Some of the travelers felt deeply insulted to hear their intentions turned against them. “We came here to do good,” they said among themselves, “but these ungrateful dirt-scratchers are no smarter than their cattle. They live one failed harvest away from watching their own children starve, and yet they spurn the gift we traveled so far to give! And they call us fools? Let us go where people are wise enough to know treasure when they see it, and leave these peasants to eat their arrogance and effrontery when nothing else is left for them to put between their teeth.” Those who felt that way soon departed to nurse their wounded pride, and whatever may have become of them after that is no concern of ours.
The travelers who chose to remain and try again gave sad farewell to their disheartened brethren, and then gathered together in council to think and speak upon the mystery of a good gift casually spurned. The discussion went long into the night, but finally they thought they understood. “Even the purest water slakes no thirst if none will trust that it is good,” they decided, “and people prefer to lift cups to their own lips.” Thus resolved, when morning came they made their plans.
At evening of the same day the newcomers politely approached the village elders with gifts, and requested permission to use as their own a plot of nearby farmland, long fallow and now grown to meadow. “Plant as much leather as you like and buy whatever you need to do it,” the elders responded, laughing, “but we expect you to host a feast for the entire village with the first of the cows you harvest! And if you fail, don’t expect us to fill your empty bellies when the season turns.”
The travelers moved their belongings to the land that was now theirs to work, and for several months they and the villagers left each other quite alone. That was just fine with the villagers; a good joke was welcome now and again, but there was always work to be done: crops and children to raise, cattle and children to feed, and pots and children to shape and harden to readiness for the tasks awaiting them.
The days came and went as always, until after several months the strangers returned to seek out the elders and to invite the whole village to gather at the next full moon for the promised feast. The appointed night came amidst much gossip and speculation, and the curious villagers flocked to the appointed gathering place to discover an astonishing bounty waiting for them. Here were the largest fruits they had ever seen, nearly free from blemish and sweet as a baby’s laughter. Here were roasted vegetables in seemingly endless quantity, their savory odors perfuming the air. Here was fresh bread, with a flavor at once unfamiliar and enticing. Here was oiled meat spiced with herbs. There was food enough to feed half again the number of people who dwelled in that place. Amidst surprised laughter and excited chatter, the feasting began.
Later, when there were none who could swallow another morsel and the strangers’ unusually flavorful beer had filled each cup several times over, an elder quietly approached one of the newcomers. “This is amazing,” he said. “I would accuse you of feeding us upon our own stolen food and drink, except that I know we cannot grow what you have grown or brew as you have brewed. How did you do it?”
“I shall not tell you,” the traveler replied. “We plan to become very rich from selling our produce and our beer. If you learn to do things the way we do them, people will buy from you and not from us because you are so well-known and respected, while we are strangers.”
“Please, I must know. We both shall benefit. I will pay you the year-wage of three laborers to learn what you do.”
“I cannot. I must not. If my people found out that it was I who gave away our secrets, they would beat me and cast me out.”
“I swear on the honor of my grandfathers’ grandfathers and my grandmothers’ grandmothers that I shall tell no one of how I learned. Year-wage of five laborers.”
“You ask me to risk my life, for five! How could I do such a thing for less than ten?
“Eight, and you protect me if my people find out.”
“Done, but only half up front and the other half when I see it work.”
“Done! I will visit your farm at midnight during each new moon until harvest. Remember, tell no one.”
* * *
Two weeks later, the travelers on their borrowed farm finished their labors for the day and gathered at sunset for the evening meal. Toasts and merry songs added uncommon spice to their dining on that very special occasion, and the merriment continued until long after the stars began their bright dance through the moonless sky. Outside the noisy hall in a line along the fence, seven mules waited patiently in the darkness to carry their burdens of seeds, tools and diagrams to seven secret meetings.
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