Saturday, October 06, 2007

Bean Price

“I hear you have a potent magic,” Shabaka finally said to the far older man in front of the hillside cave.

Shabaka was dark; the ancient darker still. By firelight, half their bodies were in shadow but their faces gleamed as they drank beer and made polite conversation. There was silence for a time. Then: “If I had such magic,” answered the old man, “would I reveal it to every traveler who passes by?”

Long before he was King of Nubia, Shabaka walked the length and breadth of Kush, from Abu Simbel to Meroe. He met many people and listened carefully to many tales, always enjoying a good one himself. “I just wondered if there was a story in it.”

“Well. A good story is a different matter. I do have a powerful magic,” the old man began. “I have it from my own travels across the Sunrise Sea, in a land where the men and women take small berries from trees.”

“A magic plant then?” asked Shabaka. “Not the plant, but the berries of the tree – the beans,” replied the oldster, turning his face away from the fire. “They are much stronger than this beer we have been drinking.”

“You have shared your beer with me,” replied Shabaka. “Will you share your magic?”

The old man sighed heavily. “It will take some time to prepare. Tell an old man a story and you will get your magic.”

So while the oldster puttered about in the cave, Shabaka told about the women of the Lower Nile and their strange ways (one woman in particular). As the man filled a pot with water and put it on the fire, Shabaka described the unsettling animal-headed gods of other lands.

Finally, the old man threw out Shabaka’s beer and filled the cup with a hot, dark brew. “It will at first seem bitter, but then you’ll know its magic,” he said. Shabaka sniffed the cup and a wonderful smell filled his senses. Before he took his first sip, he poured a tiny quantity on the ground – “For our own gods,” he said.

Then he drank. The liquid was bitter alright, but not unpleasant. Being young, though, he drank off the entire cup. The old man refilled it and Shabaka drank more. “I can feel it! I can kill a lion tonight – maybe two!”

“The bean gives power indeed,” cautioned the old man. “But it comes with a price, youngster. Two prices, really. Two curses.”

“What are the curses?” asked Shabaka, who could feel the effects of the brew in his fingers and his toes. His senses were suddenly sharper. “Have you poisoned me, a guest at your fire?”

“No, no – no poison, but there are curses nonetheless,” answered the man. “It is late. We should sleep now and soon you’ll see what I mean.”

The two men lay on the ground near the fire and closed their eyes to sleep. Shabaka turned on his side. Turned back the other way. Moved a small pebble from under his back. Rolled over on his belly, then on to his back again. The moon rose and set and still Shabaka could find no rest, no sleep. He sat up suddenly, realizing that he’d been restless and wakeful through the entire night. In the gray of dawn, he could see the old man resting on an elbow, staring at him across the dead fire.

“I didn’t sleep.” I found no rest,” Shabaka mumbled.

“That’s the first curse,” said the old man. “The beans rob men of their sleep. Come, we will find something to eat and welcome the new day. You’ll feel better with something besides my magic in your belly.”

As Shabaka groaned to his feet and tried to shake off the effects of a sleepless night, he asked. “That’s quite a price to pay, old man, to have my sleep so disturbed. Can the second curse be worse than the first?”

“Oh yes,” replied the oldster with a tiny smile. “In all your travels, have you ever heard of a cardiologist?”

“Coffee Cup II” by Mary Beth Zeitz, from All rights reserved.

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