Sometime between the watershed hour and the first cock’s crow Desta woke. His head felt dull and bruised as if someone had poked it inside with a sharp object. His throat was chilled and raw as if he had been feeding on cold air all night long. He listened. Absent were the stomping of hoofs, his father’s nasal rattles, and his mother’s soft, deep breathing. He opened his eyes and the pitch-black face of the night gazed at him. The boy cringed. Where was he?
Once Desta reclaimed some of his senses, he remembered. He was in the town of Yeedib. He had come the day before to attend modern school and to begin to search for the second Coin of Magic and Fortune, the identical twin to the one his family owned. He was in the home of his uncle, Mekuria, and Mekuria’s wife, Tru, who were little more than complete strangers to Desta. The uncle he had met only twice before, the new wife never.
They lived in a circular grass-roof house, much smaller than his parents’. The grounds were covered with tall eucalyptus trees that cut out much of the sunlight, the sky, and the fresh highland air. Bound by a man’s height wooden fence, the property was accessed only through a shrouded, tunnel-like path that dead-ended at the half-moon bare earth courtyard in front of the home. Desta had winced when he first saw the ominous-looking walkway.
The house had a large circular living room with a rickety table and two chairs in the middle, a small bedroom on one side of this space, and a larder on the other. There were two built-in high earthen bank seats, one near the door, the second by the bedroom. His hosts had assigned Desta the seat by the bedroom as his sleeping quarters. The fireplace and kitchen were adjacent to the larder’s doorway.
Desta turned over and lay on his back. He still stared at the night but he was not seeing it anymore. His mind had gone out of the room, to his mountain-bound country home, to the mysterious chain of events that had brought him to this dark, cold room. Like a pioneer traveling an unchartered course through strange lands, looking back to find his bearings, Desta looked back at the events, circumstances, and fate that brought him here so he would know where he was going.
When he was a toddler, one evening his mother had stood outside, leaning against the fence with him in her arms, watching a gargantuan moon rise over the eastern mountains. Desta wanted to be taken up there so he could touch the silver orb with his hands. As he grew up, this dream had transmuted into touching the sky and clouds.
Then later, while Desta was tending the animals, his grandfather’s spirit, the Cloud Man, revealed himself and over the course of their few meetings told him of many incredible things, one of which was the ancient Coin of Magic and Fortune the family owned. It went back to the Bible’s King Solomon, nearly 3000 years, and was one of two identical coins the wise ruler of Israel had fashioned for his two daughters, to be passed down through their descendants.
The Cloud Man had further revealed that the famous king had encoded on both sides of the coins important legends in each of the twenty-one visible channels. It had been predicted long ago, the grandfather’s spirit explained, that a boy would be born to one of the family lines who was destined to unite the two coins, and for very important reasons. The boy was none other than Desta, his own grandson. The Cloud Man invisibly tattooed the coin image on Desta’s chest above his heart, so that its powers would be readily accessible to him.
Then, as if to set the ancient divination in motion, Desta’s dream of climbing one of the mountains that circled his valley in the hopes of touching the sky was finally fulfilled with the assistance of his half-sister, Saba. The boy didn’t reach the sky but discovered a land so much bigger and more enchanting than his valley. This was followed by a trip to town on market day where Desta saw modern-school students marching through the crowd, one boy displaying a green, yellow, and red cloth at the end of a stick. This sight rekindled Desta’s dream of learning how to read and write.
After pleading with his father and recruiting others to do the same on his behalf, here he was, finally, to pursue his modern school education. He got registered the day before and even had a taste of the classroom experience afterward. Desta held his breath for some time, thinking about all that had happened to him on his journey here. He let his breath out slowly with a hiss.
Subsequently, he wondered what had caused the soreness in his head. He recalled the mental and emotional upheaval he had undergone at bedtime the night before.
In this cold, dark room, resting on the unpadded skin mat and rutted pillow, under this plaid blanket and wrapped in his small gabi—a thick cotton blanket, Desta had examined the life he had lived at home. Many painful memories—the beatings, neglect, mistreatment—had surfaced from deep within, giving rise to tears. To purge these memories Desta had cried and cried until his eyes stung and his brain was raw and dull. The emotional exertion was great. It had provided relief and allowed him to fall deeply asleep.
How Desta wished the night had instead been a celebration of his victory! He had won his father’s heart to put him in a modern school and broken free of his isolated mountain home. How he would have loved to go with a big horn to the outskirts of town, stand on the edge of the plateau, and blow that horn three times at the top of his lungs, the way those at home announced a death, and declare to the world that Desta Abraham Beshaw was now a free boy! Free to learn his alphabet without fear or reproach from anyone! And then to come to his new home and celebrate his triumph all night long to his heart’s content.
Desta shook his head. What good was celebrating his success alone, without his beloved sister, Hibist; his equally beloved half-sister, Saba; his devoted but now dead dog, Kooli; or the vervets, his monkey friends who had vanished when their trees around Desta’s home were cut down? Here he had no one with whom to share his happiness and sorrows. He pressed his lips together and stared blankly, fighting to control the emotions that surged through him anew. He shook his head to chase the feelings away, and let out a long, deep sigh.
There would be a lot of things to get used to in this new place, and one of them was that tunnel-like path and the shrouded compound of his hosts. He would have to learn to live with the hum and noise of the crowd. Step by step, this ten-year-old boy would learn everything he needed to know about this new life.
The first thing Desta felt he must do was to find the strength within to endure, no matter his situation. He must keep firmly in mind his missions of becoming educated and finding the ancient coin. He couldn’t afford to be emotional about this place or any of the people who were close to him at home. He couldn’t allow himself to collapse under the weight of any hardship or dire circumstance he might face. For his own good and the purpose of his missions, he must sever his emotional ties to his birthplace and to everyone at home—to anyone or anything in his life that could interfere with his efforts.
A rooster’s crowing interrupted Desta’s thoughts and took him home for a few seconds. The animal sounded just like the one his parents had. He chided himself: he shouldn’t be thinking of home at this moment of separation.
He placed his fingers on his forehead and cheek, and directed his thoughts to his present concerns: to adapt to this new world he must study peoples’ eyes, faces, and mouths, and relate to them accordingly. Desta realized that these ideas, if put to work properly, could make his life easier. After all, the only people he knew well were his family and the animals he used to tend. He had not had any experience of living with complete strangers, other than his sisters-in-law, who later became like family to him.
The rooster crowed again, and again Desta was pulled away from his thoughts. Strangely, at that moment he felt closer to the rooster than to the people he had come to live with. “Why do all roosters sound alike?” he asked aloud, surprised by this sudden feeling of kinship to an animal he had not even seen. He didn’t know the answer.
His thoughts of home suddenly filled him with fear. For the opportunity to read and write, he had sacrificed his career as a shepherd and future farmer. Now he was on an educational journey that none of his relatives or, for that matter, any of the valley’s folk had made. He had no idea how long this journey would take or what he might find at the end of it. Then there was the gold shekel, the sister coin to the one his family owned, that Desta had been chosen to look for.
He tried to visualize the size of his new world. How do I possibly go about finding that coin? As if by a swift gust of wind, Desta was shaken by his fears. His heart raced. His temples throbbed. He gasped for breath as if he were being chased. He wanted to scream but his vocal cords failed him. He listened hard, hoping that what he might hear could save him from collapsing beneath his fears.
All he heard was the wind and his pounding heart.
Desta slipped his arm under the blanket and pressed it to his chest, trying to steady the pounding organ beneath his ribs. Unconsciously, Desta firmly pressed his thumb against the spot where his grandfather’s spirit had invisibly tattooed the image of that ancient magical coin. Instantly his heart tamed and his nerves eased. The air now felt warm and soothing.
Whew! He was relieved and surprised. What was all that about? The unexpected emotional turbulence and his sudden recovery from it bewildered him.
“This is to remind you that you’re not as alone as you think,” said a voice from behind. Desta turned his head to look for the speaker. There was no one. “That hidden image of the coin you just touched is your protector and companion for life. Trust it!
“What is more,” the voice continued, “the Coin of Magic and Fortune was tattooed on your chest to give you access to the vast resources deep within your brain. These resources are unavailable to most humans because ordinarily it takes long and dedicated training, like that undertaken by magicians, to tap into and use them. Common folk are incapable of tapping into the magical powers they have within.
“As you were told before you came to live in this town, the first step to achieving any success is to clear out the clutter of your past. With the assistance of the magical channel of the coin, you will achieve an ordered mind and therefore accomplish deeds that far exceed those of professional magicians. Think of the coin image on your chest as a tool that connects your conscious self to your inner magical powers.
“It will take disciplined concentration and meditation to perfect the connection. Unlike most who try to do so, you will achieve the outcome you seek in a short time. Here is what you do: press on the coin image and concentrate on the result you desire, involving as many of your senses as you can. You will realize the outcome you seek immediately, or within a few days.
“Remember that, in many respects, you’re no different from other people; you just have been given an extra privilege for reasons I have mentioned. Be humble. Respect the honor you’ve been given. Don’t let anyone know about the coin or what you’re capable of doing. Lastly, be watchful of false friends with wicked motives.”
“Pardon?” Desta asked. “False friends?”
“Yes, there are those who roam the earth under the guise of doing good for people, but their intention is anything but good. And there are those who will seek your friendship solely for their own gain.”
“”How I am to know who is who?”
Pay attention,” the voice said.
“Who are you that gives me all this advice?”
“It matters not who I am. Good luck and good-bye.”
Desta heard the voice no more.
Desta kept his hand over his chest and a moment later he fell asleep.
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