One day a youth left his village to seek bounty in adventure. Like his forebears he had seen the mysterious light that shone briefly to the West every day just before sunrise. Stories had come down that the light was the snowy tip of a faraway mountain so tall in the sky that it caught the sun’s rays before dawn brought light to the lowlands. No one could tell the youth how they knew that the mountain rose out of vast planes of rich grasslands and woods nourished by waters tumbling from the heights. Perhaps the storytellers had looked at their own parched village and dreamt in green.
Lured by the stories, explorers from the village would often brave a desert crossing to the mountain, never to be heard from again. The desert was so hot and barren, not even vultures could venture far into it. A few who had been rescued after losing their way into it spoke of devilish mirages. Deceitful patches of hot sand pretending to be pools of water.
Several days journey on foot from his village brought the youth to the edge of the desert where the crossing began. There, an old woman made her living selling supplies to desert crossers. When she saw the youth approach, she rose to greet him.
“Dates, nuts, goat cheese, water skins,” she peddled, inviting the youth into her shack.
“Give me all the water I can carry,” said the youth, looking around. The old woman’s inventory was paltry.
“I have one quite large water skin that I will trade for your small empty one and some coin,” she said.
“Agreed,” he said, opening his coin purse.“ And I will take all food, you have.”
The woman packed the supplies for him, and helped load him, setting the youth on his way. She watched his figure grow smaller and smaller into the sunset before returning to her shack to say a prayer for the dead.
Part way through her prayers, she heard a shuffling at the door. The youth had returned.
“Old woman,” said the youth. “I just realized you have foolishly sold me all your food and water. It is days from the nearest village. You must take back some of these supplies or you will starve.”
The old woman smiled and said the villagers were due to bring her more supplies that very day. The youth felt silly. He apologized and turned to leave.
“Before you go,” she said. “There is something else you should have bought from me. Something no one else thought to buy either.”
“What would that be?” he said.
“Flint and iron rock,” she said rummaging to fetch the stones. “When you reach your destination you must climb to the top of the mountain, wait for dark, then light a fire as big as you can make it. Can you tell me why?”
The youth pondered a moment then said in a flash of insight, “So others will see the crossing can be done.”
“How true,” the old woman mumbled delightfully. “Now give me your water skin.”
She took the skin from the befuddled youth and dropped a third stone into it. “This is your hope stone. No charge.”
“What did you do that for?” the youth protested. But the woman pushed the skin back at him and led him out of the shack.
A week into the journey, the exhausted and thirsty youth knew it was no longer possible just to travel at nights. He had wrung the last drop from his water skin and scraped his tongue on the vanishing dampness of the skin fur. The sun pounded on him, buckling his knees into the sandy anvil. Dredging himself back to his feet, he madly chased mirages for water, over and over again finding only hot sand.
Finally, he sat down facing a shimmering he vowed he would not chase. As he curled up to die, he felt the stone the old woman had dropped in his water skin. He tore the skin open, hoping it was not a stone, but a plum. Wanting the stone to be a plum was no more desperate than chasing hot sand for water. But it was just a stone.
Angry with himself and cursing the cruel glossiness that teased him with his thirst, he summoned his last strength in anger and hurled the stone at the shimmering.
When the stone came down, there was a splash.
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