Expeditions: The Four Travelers

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Photo by Benjamin Reed

This story is a retelling of a traditional folktale from Ethiopia.


The forest outside our village was ruled by the king of the hyenas, and for years we all lived in fear of the trees, when at night we could hear the slobbering howls of his subjects and see the pale yellow eyes glaring through the shadows.

But one day my brothers and I decided to explore the forest. We were young, and we were confident, and at first nothing happened, which only bolstered our resolve. As we neared the center of the forest, however, we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by a glaring horde of hairy beasts, and at the forefront of the group, the largest of the group, the great stinking king.

I was surprised when he opened his mouth and spoke to us in Afar: “How dare you come into my forest?” he demanded. “I want to know what gave you the courage to venture into my kingdom.”

I was the oldest, the leader of the group, and so the king called to me and asked, “So, what are you relying on?”

I stepped forward, jile dagger in hand, and spoke from the heart. “I rely on God, the creator of this world. He has created me and he has plans in my life and the day of my death has already been written in his books. So I have nothing to fear because it’s all predestined.”

The king turned to our second brother and asked, “And what about you?”

My brother stepped forward and replied, “I’m relying on my clansmen who are all very bold and fierce and they won’t let one of their family die in vain. So if anyone kills me, then my clansmen will go and take their revenge. I have no fear.”

Then the king tilted his head in the direction of our third brother and asked, “And you? What’s your story?”

Our third brother bent and plucked some grass from the king’s forest floor and sang out, “I rely on Mother Earth. Mother Earth gave birth to me. I’ll die and I’ll be buried in her whenever my day comes. So I put all my faith in Mother Earth.”

Turning once more, the king stared at our youngest brother and asked, “How about you?”

He laughed in the king’s face. “Oh, I rely on you, the hyenas,” he said with a wink. “You see, I have some friends who are hyenas and I rely on the strength and goodness of the hyenas yourselves.”

The king called to all his soldiers, who by now were drooling with excitement. “Look,” he said, “this man relies on his Creator, and we can’t quarrel with God, so we should let him go. And the second relies on his clansmen and obviously we don’t want to have a feud with his clan, so he might as well go. And the third one relies on Mother Earth and who can live on this earth and quarrel with her? We’ll let him go. But the fourth one relies on us, the hyenas, and there’s no big deal if we quarrel among ourselves, so let’s eat him up.”

The horde pounced, cackling wildly. A bloody mist quickly filled the air as we looked on in shock, our feet rooted in place. By brother’s screams were soon muffled by the crunch of splintering bone. The dagger in my hand fell with a thud to the forest floor. Then a head popped out of the shuddering pack of jaws and I saw the king’s face, fur matted with my brother’s blood, turn to look at me with a smile. He nodded once, as though we somehow reached an understanding, and together my two brothers and myself turned and ran as fast as we could.

I could have sworn he winked at me first.

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