In a long ago time when men ate only what they grew or hunted and women made clothes from fabrics woven by hand or from animal skins, there lived a boy named Agnon. Agnon lived with his parents and neighbors in a lush and peaceful green valley.
Each day as the sun rose in the sky, Agnon tilled the soil. Each night he ate his bread and broth, then slept with stars quietly shining beyond his window. As Agnon grew, he looked longingly toward the mountains and wondered what was on the other side. There must be more to life than this, he thought. I must go and seek my fortune.
When he told his parents of his decision, his mother kissed him on the cheek and wept. His father nodded sadly, and his friend, Loni, sadly shook his hand.
“Does no one wish me luck and good fortune?” Agnon asked in bewilderment.
“Of course,” his father replied. “We wish those things for you, and we also hope that you return home safely.”
“I will,” Agnon replied with a smile. “And I’m sure I will be the wiser and the richer for having gone.” So saying, the boy wrapped a bearskin in a tight bundle, stuffed his pouch with fruits and vegetables, then waved and set off to seek his fortune. When he reached Loni’s house, he paused at the gate for a moment. Then he continued on his journey.
For many days he climbed the mountain until he came to a great snowfield. He glanced back longingly but could no longer see the lush green valley, so he wrapped his bearskin about his shoulders and trudged on. Finally he came to the end of the snow. Then as he descended the mountain, he saw trees and green fields.
Ah, thought Agnon, this is more like it!
He walked until he came to a wide, well-traveled trail. “Hello!” he called to a woman who carried a bundle upon her head.
But she only glanced at him, pulled her shawl about herself, and hurried on.
“Good day,” he called to a child playing by the trail. “I seek my fortune.”
“There’s none here,” the child replied, then ran indoors.
On and on Agnon walked until nightfall. He was weary and stopped when he came to a fire. As he approached it to warm himself, an old man sprang from some bushes with a knife gleaming in his hand.
“Aha!” he snarled. “You’ll not get my treasure!”
“It was your company I wanted,” Agnon replied, backing away from the fire.
“Build your own fire!” the old man scolded.
Agnon shrugged his shoulders and spread his bearskin on the ground in a nearby grove of trees. In his pocket he carried a flint. With a few quick strokes, he made a fire with some sticks he had gathered. Then, using a snare, he caught a rabbit. As he ate his meal, he saw the shriveled old man cautiously approach his campfire.
“You have food?” the man asked in surprise.
“Indeed,” Agnon replied. “Come, fill your stomach.”
The old man glanced back at his own fire, then hurried to fetch a heavy sack. Dragging it back with him, he came close to Agnon’s fire. Agnon reached to help him with his burden, but the old man growled, “Keep away!”
Agnon sat and watched as the man huddled beside the sack and ate. When the meal was done, he sat back against a tree and slept.
The following morning Agnon awoke with a start. Across the clearing he saw the old man with a finger held to his pursed lips. “Hear that rustling?” the old man asked in a whisper.
Agnon listened to the wind in the trees and nodded his head. “Yes, it is the leaves,” he replied.
“No! It’s bandits sneaking up to steal my treasure!” The man patted his lumpy sack and squinted his eyes. “I am an old man, boy! Too old to carry this treasure anymore, much less defend it.”
“Then leave it,” Agnon replied simply.
“I cannot leave it,” the old man growled. “It means too much to me.”
“More than your life?” Agnon asked.
The man pointed a shaky finger. “I will give it to you who gave me food and could have taken it in the night, but you did not. Yes,” the old man nodded, “you are worthy.”
Agnon could not believe his ears! The old man parting with his treasure! “But what of you?” Agnon asked.
“The bandits will not bother me,” he sighed wearily. “They only seek my treasure. But you are young. Take the sack and be off!”
Agnon lifted the sack to his back, staggering under its weight.
“Go!” the old man shouted. “Run for your life!”
Agnon hurried along the trail, but before he had gone far, he ached with the burden. Can a treasure be worth so much pain? he wondered. Glancing ahead, he saw the snow-topped mountains. If I can get the treasure home, he daydreamed, how proud of me everyone will be.
Slowly, step by painful step, he climbed. Twice he slipped and fell, yet onward he struggled with the fortune upon his back. Ahead he saw another snowfield and shuddered as he remembered his bearskin left in the grove of trees far below.
That night he huddled near his fire and drew close to the sack, but it provided no warmth. Shivering in the cold, he looked about him and saw a ring of wolves with gaping jaws and teeth like daggers. The largest wolf leaped at Agnon, snapping at his legs. Quickly Agnon dodged behind the sack. Ghostly sounds echoed over the mountains as the wolf’s teeth sank into the bundle. He yelped with pain and trotted back into the trees. Other wolves crept closer as Agnon looked at the hole in the treasure sack.
“Why!” Agnon gasped. “The treasure is nothing but colored stones. Pretty to be sure, but not worth all this bother!” Agnon laughed and grabbed a handful of stones and threw them at the wolves. One by one, the wolves yelped and retreated into the forest. Finally the sack was empty and Agnon threw it over his shoulders. “Now it is good for something,” he said with a grim smile. “It will give me a little warmth.”
As Agnon crossed the mountain in the early light of morning, he wondered how long the old man had bent beneath his worthless burden and why. When he reached the valley, he saw his parents and ran to meet them.
“Mother! Father!” he called, his arms open wide.
That day they had a feast, and Loni came to see his friend back from his journey. They all listened as Agnon spoke. “People over the mountains live in fear,” he said. “But truly I have found my fortune.”
“You have?” Loni asked curiously.
“Yes,” Agnon replied thoughtfully. “I found that my fortune was here all the time. It is in the earth and sun that give us food; it is in the house that gives us shelter; and most of all, my treasure is in the faces around me.”
“What is it, Agnon?” Loni whispered.
“It is love, Loni. And no matter what others treasure, if they have no value for each of us, they are worthless. I have come back a wiser person, for none of my treasures are a burden to me, and no one would bother to steal things that are free to all.”