‘The Cockroach Who Held A Mountain On His Back’

[From Daniel Quinn’s book, Tales of Adam]

***

[…] As the hunters turned back toward their camp, it was snowing even more heavily, and Abel’s teeth began to chatter. “Why are you making so much noise?” Adam asked, and his son said he was cold. “Then let’s stop and warm up,” Adam said and sat down in the snow.

“Aren’t you going to build a fire?” Abel asked. But his father said, “Building a fire is one way to be warm. This is another. Sit down quietly and stop thinking of the cold as an enemy bent on your destruction.”

Abel did as he was told, but his teeth continued to chatter and he pulled his clothes close around him. Watching him, his father remarked, “It’s your clothes that are making you cold.” Adam help up the hare they’d caught and said, “It wasn’t its fur that kept this hare warm. It and the cold were simply one thing.”

Adam then took off all his clothes and set them aside. “That’s better,” he said. “I’m feeling warmer already.” But Abel wouldn’t take off his clothes and soon he was shaking like a bird in the jaws of a fox.

“Perhaps listening to a story will warm you up,” Adam said. “Let’s see if I can think of one.” After a while he began.

There once was a young cockroach who lived under a tree on a mountainside (Adam began). He was a very brave and stalwart young cockroach but also very headstrong. As he grew up he learned what it is to be a cockroach, but being headstrong he rejected it. “We cockroaches make way,” his father had told him. “We make way for everything, and that’s why we survive. At the approach of the slightest danger, we make ourselves as thin as a leaf and slip into the narrowest crack around.”

But the young cockroach found this approach to life cowardly and contemptible. “It’s true that we can make ourselves as thin as leaves,” he said, “but didn’t the gods give us a good, tough shell to protect us? I refuse to make way for anything. The place my body occupies is mine. I will not abandon it by making myself as thin as a leaf and scuttling into a crack. I will defend it with my good, tough shell.”

One day a leaf from the tree fell on top of him, but he stood his ground, saying to the leaf, “You shall not have this place. I will not abandon it by making myself as thin as you and scuttling into a crack. I will not make way for you.” And the cockroach withstood the leaf and before long it blew away.

Soon a nut from the tree fell on top of him, but the cockroach stood his ground, saying to the nut, “I know that if I made myself as thin as a leaf, you would come to rest in the place my body now occupies, but this is my place and you shall not have it. I will not make way for you.” And he withstood the nut and soon it rolled away.

But before long a heavy stone came tumbling down the mountainside and landed right on top of the cockroach. All the same, the cockroach stood his ground, saying to the rock, “I know that of all the places on earth you have picked the one encompassed by my body as you resting place for the centuries to come, but you shall not have it. I will not yield it to you by making myself as thin as a leaf. I will not make way for you.” And, his legs trembling with exertion and his back aching, the cockroach withstood the stone and soon it toppled off his shell and rolled away.

But the stone had only been the beginning of an avalanche, for it was time for this mountain to collapse. Soon the whole thing fell over right onto the cockroach. Yet even under this enormous weight, the cockroach held his ground, saying, “You think that just because you’re a mountain you can make me give way, but I won’t. You may overwhelm the rest of the world—all the seas and valleys and plains of it—but I will deny to you this tiny space my body encompasses. I will not abandon it by making myself as thin as a leaf.”

And for a brief moment, his legs wobbling and all his muscles shaking with exertion, this foolhardy cockroach held the entire weight of the mountain on his back. Then, of course, he collapsed and was instantly squashed as thin as a leaf.

Abel, still shivering uncontrollably, stared at his father dumbly, and at last Adam went on.

“You’re shaking just the way the cockroach was shaking under the weight of the mountain. Your muscles are protesting the hopeless task you’ve given them, the task of denying to the cold the tiny space you body encompasses. It can’t be done, and your muscles know it. If you don’t make way, you will be crushed. In either case, the cold will have the space you’re trying to defend. It has already entered into everything in these hills—into the ground, into the trees, into the birds and animals and insects, even into me. You alone are suffering because you alone are trying to push back this mighty force with the strength of your puny muscles.

“The mountain wasn’t his enemy, but the cockroach made it into one and so was crushed. The cold isn’t your enemy either but it will crush you as though it were an enemy if you don’t make way.”

“I don’t know how,” Abel chattered.

“Relax your muscles,” his father replied. “Stop struggling to keep the cold out. Let it flow through your body. Give it the space it will have in any case. Then you’ll see that it isn’t malevolent or hostile—or indeed anything that is thinking of you at all.”

Abel did as his father directed and, to his surprise, found that he was once again comfortable. “The cold isn’t as cold as I thought it was,” he remarked.

Adam shrugged. “The mountain was only heavy because the cockroach tried to hold it on his back.”

Adam and his son soon resumed their journey, and, as they were nearing camp, Adam said, “There’s almost always a way to move alongside the power of the elements. Never oppose them directly as though they were enemies to be overcome. If you do, you’ll be crushed like an egg under a boulder.” (pp.30-39)

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