What does he know? He knows many things. He knows the sky and the wind. He knows the sounds the world makes when it welcomes him, and the sounds the world makes when it wants to eat him, or eat his goats. He knows his goats, maybe better than he knows anything else, even himself. On some days, he thinks he knows his wife. On other days, he thinks she is among the many things he doesn’t know, and he imagines it is the same for her when she thinks of him. He doesn’t know the God of monks in the monastery on the lake, or the future, or why the world wants to eat him sometimes, and his goats.
In the same way that we have no idea if he ever existed, Kaldi has no idea that we will ever exist and tell his story, in many different versions over several hundred years. Sometimes he’s a man. Sometimes he’s a boy. Sometimes, the story includes a monk coming upon him. Sometimes, it is he who goes to the monks. Sometimes the monks are of one belief, sometimes another. Sometimes he isn’t named Kaldi and he isn’t even in his own country when the story is told about him, a country which he doesn’t know will one day be called Ethiopia. There are a few good reasons to set his story near Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile, where wild coffee and ancient monasteries can still be found.
He would not be surprised to discover that his goats are part of his story but he would be very surprised to find that the berry from the bush would one day become so important that we would need a legend, true or not true or some comical combination of both, as a marker in time and space to which we could point and claim lineage of a sort. Beginnings are so important to us.
If he were told that his language would one day be considered a dead language and be used only in religious services performed by clerical decedents of the monks by the lake, he might shake his head and smile in disbelief, as would we if we were him. The word for “Billy Goat” in Ge’ez, which may have been Kaldi’s language, might be “bahak,” but we can’t be too sure. Depending on when we imagine Kaldi, Ge’ez may have already gone out of style in favor of Amharic, in which case he was a fiyeli herder.
There is nothing about even a theoretical Kaldi we can be too sure about other than the stubborn persistence of his story, a persistence to which one must concede if not bow on occasion. But this time, we’re going to bow, in no small part because we’ve already invited Kaldi to be here.
The Tale of Goats and Berries, as told by Kaldi
My goats always knew when I turned for home. In truth, I think they knew before I did. I would be thinking it was time to turn and head home and when I looked up they would have already started back without me. That is why I’ve never called a stupid person a goat. It’s a compliment.
On that day, long ago, we were on our way home late in the day and I was tired. I am not always tired, as my brother claims, but on this day, I was very tired, it is true. We had a new baby at home and sleep … well, sleep was sometimes missing from my nights. So, I was stopping often to rest and I must admit, take a few naps. If I fell asleep, my goats stayed close to me. They were smart goats, as I have said. But on this day, I heard them calling in my sleep. When I woke they were nowhere to be seen. I followed their voices and hurried because it sounded as if they might be in distress.
When I found them, I didn’t know what to think. Far from being in distress, they seemed exuberant. They were jumping and prancing and some even stood up on their hind legs. I was astonished. The young goats will sometimes play together in a similar manner, but on that day even the oldest Billy among them was kicking his legs in the air as if performing a show.
I laughed at first, but then I began to worry. Perhaps they were sick and in the throes of death. Then I noticed several of my goats eating berries from a bush. Though they were reluctant, I moved them away from the bushes because I was afraid the berries were making them sick. I watched them to see what happened. Eventually I tired of shooing them away from the berries and sat down to wait. After a time, during which I may have slept a little here and there, my goats were still alive and well and I began to consider the idea that the berries were the sort that would make them happy and energetic and not sick at all. I’d never heard of such a thing, but I’d seen proof enough.
Would the berries have the same effect on me? On any other day I might not have taken a risk but I was so dreading the last league home that I decided to take a chance. I picked a berry and polished it on my palm. I examined the bright red shine, surely the color that attracted my goats, and then put it in my mouth. My teeth came down hard on a pit inside the berry and I cursed. I spit out the pit and found the flesh of the fruit to be not too sweet but pleasant enough. The skin, though no test for my goats, was a little tough for me, but not more than I could manage.
I had the impression that my goats were looking at me with expectation, but when I looked around they went about their business. I chewed another berry, taking care of the pit, and then another. It was on the third berry that I began to notice the thought, the sensation actually, that home was not so very far away and we would make quick work of getting there. Upon this idea came another, that I was looking forward to the rest of our journey, anticipating the happiness of walking with my goats over the hills. And upon this thought came another, that one should not walk when one can skip. And so I did, in the direction of home, which I thought of at the time as the direction of my wife.
If you’d have the truth of it, there were times the skip broke into a run.
With a kerchief filled with berries I chewed along the way I had to stop now and then to allow my goats to catch up. We made it home before the sun sighed and frightened my wife with our energy.
Like me, my wife does not know the God of the monks on the lake, but she believes they are holy men. The day after I arrived home she said we had no idea if the berries were good or evil and I should seek the wisdom of the monks. I told her anything that brought me home to her sooner than I would have come otherwise could not be evil. “Nevertheless,” she said, though she didn’t hide her smile.
The monks on the lake are all men of my country, though their God is not from my country. They are men of prayer, so when I brought them the berries I had to wait for them to complete a prayer. It was a long prayer. When they finished one of the monks came outside to speak with me. I told him the story of my goats and how quickly the hills moved under our feet after I ate the berries. He nodded as if he already knew everything I had to say, and took the berries as if he’d been expecting them to arrive for a very long time. Later I learned that these monks always nodded as if they already knew everything you were going to say, and always accepted gifts as if they were expected. He told me the berries were a blessing.
For me, that was the end of the story, though I continued to chew on the berries and others did too, including my brother, who says I was born tired. Long after this, I met people travelling through the hill country who said they had been eating the berries to sustain them in travel for as long as anyone among them could remember. When I told my wife about this, she said there is nothing new under the sun, which I took as a fair bit of wisdom.
As for the monks, we heard stories that they used the berries to keep awake for prayers. One day, long after my son was married and had goats of his own, I heard the monks were boiling the berries to make a tea for drinking. I told my wife about this and she said, “Well, what will they think of next?”