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Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

The Center of the Earth

North Africa and the Middle East, Eritrea
Folk Tale


There once lived a farmer. In the planting season, he would plow his fields and sprinkle the earth with seeds of wheat. When the days grew longer and the sun burned brighter, he would water the crops and tend them, picking off stray bugs and protecting his fields from wild pigs and runaway goats. At harvest time, he would thresh the wheat and separate the grains, then grind them into flour.

The farmer's wife worked alongside her husband. Every morning she would wake before sunrise and pick the choicest fruits from the garden. Then, with a tin bucket in hand, she'd enter the stable and greet the couple's finest treasure, a golden cow. Tugging at the cow's udders, she'd whisper, "Please," and the cow would fill her bucket with the sweetest, creamiest milk in the land.

One year, very little rain fell. The stalks of wheat that once stood proud and strong now crumbled at the slightest breeze, and the fruit of the lemon trees turned from green to brown, never having enjoyed even a moment of yellow ripeness. The treasured cow, too, became tired and thin. Each morning the farmer's wife continued to kneel before her, whispering "Please." And though the cow would have liked to help the farmer's wife, all she could manage was a few drops, barely enough to fill a teaspoon.

One night, the farmer could not sleep. The supply of wheat was dwindling, and soon the farmer and his wife would be without food for the coming year. The next morning, just as his wife was returning from the stable, he approached. "Any milk?" he asked. When she shook her head, the farmer grabbed his cloak and staff.

"I am going to the village," the farmer told her. "I must sell the cow. She is too dry to give milk, and is of no use to us. We have only a few kilos of wheat left for the coming year. It is all I can do."

The farmer led the cow across the dry fields, dusty plains, and forest-covered mountain to the village. The cow moved very slowly, and the farmer, fearing that the cow would not make it to the village, pleaded in her ear, "Please."

When the farmer and the cow finally entered the village, the farmer asked a young boy if he knew of anyone who would be interested in buying a cow.

"That merchant over there," answered the boy, pointing to a store where a man was sitting outside.

Approaching the store, the farmer greeted the merchant and said, "I hear that you are looking for a cow. I would like to sell you my cow for 50 kilos of grain."

At this, the merchant laughed as if the farmer had just told him the funniest joke.

"You are a fool," said the merchant, catching his breath. "That cow can barely stand, let alone give milk."

"She is weak now," the farmer replied, "but that is because she needs care that I cannot afford." The farmer was not in the mood for the merchant's humor.

"I will give you one kilo of grain," said the merchant.

"I am not a fool," replied the farmer. "She is worth more than that."

"Farmer, you are not familiar with the ways of the world," the merchant said slowly. "This is the usual price."

The merchant and the farmer began to bicker, their voices growing louder and angrier with each exchange.

Finally the merchant screamed, "You know nothing!"

"I know many things!" the farmer yelled back.

"What things do you know, fool?" asked the merchant.

In an outburst, the farmer heard himself saying, "I know where the center of the Earth is and I know how many stars there are in the sky."

"Now you are making a fool of me," said the merchant, who was about to raise his fist to the farmer, when two men from the village interceded and stopped the fight. One man grabbed the farmer by the elbow, and one man grabbed the merchant by the collar. Together they led the merchant and the farmer to the judge's house.

By this time, evening was fast approaching. The judge was just about to take a nap before dinner when the merchant and the farmer appeared at his doorstep. After listening to the complaints of the merchant and the farmer, the judge said, "It is too late to settle this case today. Leave the cow in my stable tonight, and we will settle the argument in the morning."

Reluctantly, the farmer left the cow in the judge's stable, and, with a heavy heart, traveled back across the forest-covered mountain, dusty plains, and dry fields. When he finally arrived home, his wife had a steaming stew of lentils waiting for him. But as the farmer sat down, he pushed the stew away. Dropping his head into his hands, he said, "I am a fool." He told her what had happened that day.

"I claimed I knew where the center of the Earth is and how many stars there are in the sky. What should I do?"

For a few moments the farmer's wife was silent. Then she spoke: "I know what you must do...."

The next morning, when the farmer arrived back at the village, the judge, the merchant, and the golden cow were waiting for him.

"Are you ready to prove you are not a fool?" said the merchant.

"I am," said the farmer.

The farmer then picked up his staff, ran 10 steps, and jabbed the staff down into the ground.

"This is the center of the Earth. If you do not believe me, measure it for yourself," said the farmer. The merchant and the judge were silent.

He then picked up a handful of dust. "The grains of dust in my hand are equal to the number of stars in the sky. If you do not believe me, merchant, count them for yourself."

The merchant knew then that he had no case, and the judge ruled firmly: "This farmer is no fool. Merchant, pay the farmer the rightful cost of 50 kilos of grain for this cow."

But the farmer decided he no longer wanted to sell the cow, who seemed to have grown stronger and fatter overnight. 

About the Author

Herman Nibbelink

"The Center of the Earth" is told by Herman Nibbelink (Peace Corps Volunteer, Eritrea, 1962–1964). Herman taught seventh- and eighth-grade English at Adi Quala Middle School. He credits his student Araia Asefaw with the riddle upon which "The Center of the Earth" is based. "Riddling duels were very popular among my students and neighbors," says Herman. "Someone would challenge an opponent with the question, 'Whose question first, yours or mine?' and the games would begin."

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