THE BAG WITHOUT ANY BOTTOM 1/3
Once there was a boy named Ket’her (ket-air). Ket’her lived alone with his mother, a widow, in a tiny village situated where the desert met the mountains. It was a harsh country, and Ket’her and his mother were quite poor, herding a few sheep up and down the mountains in season. In the winter, they would stay at home, and Ket’her’s mother would tell the old stories of their people.
What little money they had, Ket’her’s mother would keep in an old bag behind the icon of the Virgin, before which she kept always burning a lamp of sheep’s lard. Often Ket’her would wake in the night to pray to the Virgin, asking her to change their lot; he would take the bag from behind the icon and reach his hand inside. Sometimes he would find a few pitiful coppers; more often there was nothing. His hand would merely sink to the empty bottom of the bag.
“Someday,” young Ket’her vowed to himself in prayer, “I will find a bag without any bottom, one that will yield good things for me and my mother every day of our lives.”
But for the time being at least, that was not to be. That winter, Ket’her’s mother died; he buried her with much reverence and many tears. Ket’her then sold the sheep and the cabin. Although they did not fetch a great price, it was more money than he had ever seen before. He put the money in a bag along with his other few possessions, slung the bag over his shoulder, and set out for a new life on the other side of the mountains.
Sometimes, when he and his mother had led their sheep to especially high places, Ket’her had caught a glimpse of a distant city. There he now headed, through the trails and passes he knew so well. Soon he began to pass through little villages and larger towns. In each he had to buy food, and often gave alms to those he passed on the roads who were poorer even than himself. The bag he carried, which had once seemed so full, now was nearly empty. Indeed, by the time Ket’her entered the Great City, the bottom of the bag had been reached.
In the town square, Ket’her stopped by a public fountain to rest. His reception in the Great City had not been a warm one. His clothes and his turban marked him as an outsider from the country, in a city increasingly filled with outsiders from the east, west, north, and south — all seeking a better life. The natives of the Great City had begun to resent these newcomers, and there wasn’t enough work for all to do. Ket’her found many of the strangers, including some from his side of the mountain, idling their time away in the square, waiting for someone to hire them.
Ket’her sat down by the fountain and cooled his face. He was not disturbed, for he was used to spending time sitting and watching the sheep for days on end. Beside him sat a father with two little boys, all waiting to be hired. The boys were bored, and began bickering with each other and shoving. The father, who wore a look of hungry worry on his face, seemed about to lash out at the boys, when Ket’her leaned toward them and said, “Have you ever heard the story of how King Solomon tamed the Demon of a Thousand Names?” The boys stopped their fighting and listened; Ket’her was a fine story-teller, at once expressive and deep, so that one felt the heart of the story rising to the surface, enlightening as well as delighting the listener.
Soon the father was leaning-in to listen, and others had gathered round as well. For most of the afternoon, Ket’her told stories and sang a little, too. When the sun began to go down, the people dispersed, thanking him. One man, who had two turnips, gave one to Ket’her and smiled. That night, Ket’her feasted on roasted turnip and fresh water, and slept beneath the stars in a little park near the fountain.
The next day went on much like the day before. Ket’her came to the square hoping to be hired. He told stories most of the day, but this time passers-bye would stop and listen, and throw coins into the bag at his feet. It was not long before Ket’her had become something of an attraction in the city, and the bottom of his bag began to recede further and further beneath a mound of coins.
“This is wonderful,” thought Ket’her to himself. “All along I have been looking for something inexhaustible, something without and end – a bag without any bottom. Now I see that it is stories that make for such a bag. Stories have no end.”
But Ket’her was wrong. It took very little time for other strangers from other regions to also begin telling their stories in the square, hoping for a share of the benefits. People still listened to Ket’her, but he had had his season, and the bottom of his bag became more and more visible. Besides, soon it would be winter, when there would be no more storytelling in the public square.
One day, as fall was approaching, and the leaves began to cover the surface of the fountain’s pool, a wealthy merchant returned from his summer season of buying abroad. He was one of Ket’her’s own people who, many years before, had served as a guide to a merchant in the City. As the years had gone by, he had become more and more involved in the business, until finally he had taken it over upon the death of his master. Now he was one of the town’s most prominent citizens, although many still considered him a foreigner.
Ket’her was telling an old story to a small group of children. The caravan of the merchant, whose name was Zod, stopped to water the camels, and Zod’s young son slipped away from the servants to listen to the storyteller. When the time came to leave, the father was distressed at his son’s absence, but soon found him beside the fountain, listening. Zod was about to pull the boy away and scold him, when his ears caught the sound of the old story Ket’her was telling. He knew it well, for his own mother used to tell it to him when he was a boy. Tears began to fill the merchant’s eyes as he heard the story of his people, the names of the places where they lived, the sound and texture of a life that had been his home — a home he had never found among the people of the City.
Zod and his son listened to several stories, although the camels pawed the ground and spit impatiently. When Ket’her had finished, Zod gave him several coins of gold, and asked him to be a guest in his home that night. Ket’her was a bit startled by this sudden shift in his fortunes, but quickly agreed.
The evening was spent in feasting and merriment. Zod and Ket’her shared memories of their homeland into the wee hours of the morning. The next day at breakfast, Zod asked his guest if he could read and write the language of their people. Ket’her replied that his mother had taken great pains to teach him, even though he was just a shepherd, believing that great opportunities lay ahead for her son.
“Your mother was a wise woman,” said Zod. “The opportunity she foresaw for you is now coming true.” And then he asked Ket’her to stay in his house as a tutor for his son and for his young daughter, Fatyma.
“I do not want them to grow up ignorant of the ways of our people, to become merely one more of these soul-less city-dwellers,” Zod said. He promised to pay Ket’her well, and to feed him and lodge him under his own roof. Stunned at his good fortune, Ket’her agreed to stay.
That night, Ket’her slept in his new room in the estate of Zod the merchant. He had a clean, fresh robe to wear and a pillow beneath his head. A nightingale sang in a citron tree beside his open window.
“Now,” Ket’her thought to himself, “at last I have found the bag without any bottom. It is culture; it is nationality that matters. How deep and vast is the experience of a people — its history, its stories, its language and customs. Race is the one thing that sustains us, the well that never runs dry . . .”
So Ket’her became the teacher of the young ben Zod and of the lovely Fatyma, who was then coming into womanhood. He spent a full year in the house of the merchant, and learned much himself. There was ample time beyond his lessons to observe the workings of Zod in his business. Soon Zod began to include Ket’her in his decision-making and to seek his advice, especially in dealing with people. Money and goods were Zod’s specialties, whereas with people he felt awkward, and therefore could seem harsh and abrasive. Ket’her soon came to be an invaluable part of his business.
As for Ket’her’s teaching, it was only mildly successful. Zod’s son enjoyed the stories well enough, but resisted any attempt to change him from a boy of the City. Fatyma was attentive but quiet, gazing long at Ket’her with huge brown eyes.
Ket’her, for his part, was happy and growing wealthy in his business dealings for Zod, who paid him well. Now he had many sacks filled with coins, too many, it seemed, to ever reach their end.
“Here is the true bag without any bottom,” Ket’her came to believe. “Commerce. Culture is good, but there are only so many stories, and our people are so poor. With commerce, there is no end to the wealth one can make. Perhaps one day I will return to my home and buy back the old cabin and the ground in which my mother lies. I will retire there as a wealthy benefactor for my people . . .” Such were his dreams.
But fate had other plans for Ket’her.
To be continued