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The Woodcutter of Gura
An African (Ethiopian) Tale


A man from the village of Gura went out one day with his ax to get firewood for his house. The trees nearby had been cut away, so he walked across the plain and down to the Adi Gulgul riverbed, which he followed for several miles until he came to a large dead olive tree at the edge of the running water. His eyes lighted up with pleasure, for it was a tree that would make many fires in his house.
So he climbed up into its branches and sat upon the largest and most comfortable of them. Then he began to chop upon the very limb on which he was sitting. While he worked, a priest from a nearby village came along. He looked up into the tree and saw the woodcutter from Gura there.

"Neighbor," the priest asked, "what are you trying to do up there?"

"Chopping wood for my fire" the man said. "What else could it be?"

"That's a poor way to chop wood," the priest said with great concern.

"It's the only way to chop wood," the woodcutter said. "You take your ax and you chop."

"Why don't you chop the tree down first," the priest suggested. "If you sit there on the same branch you are cutting off you are going to fall down and be killed."

"That's very silly," the man said. "When you want wood you chop."

The priest shook his head and went away. The man chopped and chopped, thinking about the stupidity of the priest. And suddenly, without warning, the branch broke off and the man fell to the ground. He lay on the ground with the branch lying across his chest, and as he lay there he thought about what the priest had said.

"He said that the branch would break and I would fall and be killed. The branch really did break, the way he said it would. He knew what he was talking about! Yes, he really did! So that must mean that I am dead too! Yes, yes, I must really be dead!"

So, thinking he was dead, the woodcutter didn't try to get up at all, but just lay there without moving.

After a while some of his friends came along, and finding him stretched out on his back under the broken branch, they set up a great clamor. They shook him and talked to him and rubbed his head, but he didn't move or speak, because he had decided he was dead. They picked him up and set him on his feet, but he fell down again, because whoever heard of a dead man standing up?

So his friends also decided that he was dead, and they picked him up to carry him back to Gura.

"Don't forget the ax," the woodcutter said as they started off, so someone went back and picked it up. All the way along the trail they talked about the misfortune of their friend.

When they came to a fork in the trail they stopped, not knowing which way to go. Some of them said they should go along the river trail, while others thought they should go over the hill. They argued hotly about it, still holding their friend on their shoulders like a corpse. Finally, he sat up impatiently and pointed to the hill trail. "That's the best way, it's the way I came," he said.

Then he lay down and closed his eyes. His friends stopped arguing and carried him over the hill trail, still lamenting the accident that had occurred. They passed over the hill and there, sure enough, was the village.

"He spoke the truth," his friends said. "It really was the shortest route. He always was an honest man."

As they passed before the church the priests came out to see what had happened, and they put him on the ground to look at him.

"We found him lying dead under an olive tree," one of them explained. "A branch fell on him and killed him."

"That's not the way it happened," the woodcutter said, opening his eyes for a minute. "I was sitting on the branch and it broke." Then he closed his eyes.

The priests shook their heads sadly, and the man's friends picked him up again and carried him to his house. But when they arrived there was no one home. So they put him on the ground and began to argue about what they should do. Everything was very confused. And while they argued a dog wandered in, and he came over to the woodcutter and licked his face.

"Take him away!" the woodcutter shouted. "Is there no respect for the dead?"

So they drove the dog out of the house and began to argue again. At last, since nothing seemed to be happening, he sat up and said angrily:

"Send for my wife! She's probably gossiping down by the spring!"

Then he lay down again and closed his eyes, while his friends sent for his wife. In a little while she came running to the house, crying in grief, with the other women of the village behind her. Many villagers crowded into the house until it was full, and then the men told once more how they had found him.

"A branch from an olive tree fell on him and killed him," they said.

"Oh!" the man groaned. "I told you before, I was sitting on the branch and it broke! How many times do I have to tell you?"

"Ah, yes, he was sitting on the branch and it broke," they all repeated together. "He fell from the olive tree and was killed!"

"But if he talks, how can he be dead?" his wife asked.

"Alas, as you see, he is dead," the others replied.

"Perhaps he isn't dead at all," his wife suggested.

The woodcutter sat up and said with irritation: "The priest from Mai Nebri passed while I was in the tree. He said I would surely fall and be killed. I fell. The priest was right. He has spoken only the truth. Therefore, I must be dead."

"Perhaps he was mistaken. He didn't see you after you fell, only before."

"Argue, argue, argue!" the man said, getting up from the ground in disgust. "Will there be no end to it?" And he picked up his ax and went out of the house.

"Where are you going?" his wife called after him.

"To get some wood for the fire," he said, disappearing down the hill.

"What a fine man," the villagers said. "Even at a time like this he thinks only of his wife's comfort!"

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