Following is the seventh story in a series that tells the tale of the first hero to go on a journey to discover his calling.
Little One had no idea who the woman yelling at him was. She seemed to know him pretty well, though.
“It’s their fault!” she screamed. “Your family is the reason this happened! If they hadn’t rejected you and tried to make you more like them, you wouldn’t have been so unhappy there. Remember how your mean-hearted brothers used to make fun of you? And your parents were almost as bad. It’s their fault you left on this ridiculous journey, their fault you’re going to die in a strange land!”
Her face was round and red and only a few inches from his own, but try as he might, he couldn’t remember ever having seen it before.
As the words poured out of her mouth, he felt them enter his windpipe, burning the sides of his throat as they went down. Flames of anger were soon licking the insides of his lungs. He turned his face away from her, tried to focus on the rocks around him. He didn’t want to deal with this, the implications of her words. Not now. Not when he was about to lose everything.
The day had started off so differently.
The sun had risen in a clear, blue sky, warming his face as he awoke slowly from a deep and relaxing sleep.
He and Ginger had a delicious breakfast of fruit and nuts and the rest of a fish they had caught the evening before. They had both been in a good mood, laughing and teasing one another as they broke camp and put on their packs to begin the day’s walk.
They were climbing higher on the mountain now, the trees and animals they saw were getting larger in size, and Little One sensed that they weren’t far from where he’d been when he saw the rainbow-colored lightning that marked the entrance to their father’s palace.
And then they had stumbled upon something even more promising.
They were making their way through alpine forests, slowly traversing the slope of a giant mountain, when the trees gave way to huge rocks and wildflowers as a meadow opened up before them.
Ginger recognized it first and gasped, but he didn’t see anything out of the ordinary at first, and she wouldn’t tell him what she saw.
She stayed silent but walked faster, scrambling over boulders with an excitement so infectious that Little One found his heart beating faster even though he had no idea what they were pursuing.
And then after a few minutes Ginger slowed and he looked up from the rocks long enough to see it: the biggest tree he’d ever witnessed in his life.
It hadn’t seemed so big from a distance, and there was nothing close enough to it to give it proper scale. Now that they were within a stone’s throw of it, however, Little One could see that 30 people could hold hands around the base of the tree and still not fully encircle it. Its limbs were larger than the trunks of most trees. And most strangely of all, its roots appeared to continue above ground, hundreds of them emerging from the earth like serpents and wrapping themselves around each other to form the trunk, eventually stretching themselves out to form the canopy and limbs.
“What is it?” Little One asked, knowing this was not just any tree.
Ginger didn’t stop staring at the giant in front of them. “It’s the Tree of Life,” she whispered, awe in her voice.
Little One remembered hearing stories about the Tree of Life when he was a child, but he couldn’t remember anything about them.
Ginger was still looking at the tree, but he could feel her register his confusion. “In the village where I grew up, they say that it’s the home of everything living,” she explained. “Its roots extend in every direction. They say they go all the way to the four corners of the world, ending only where the world itself ends, silently supporting every living thing that’s born and dies above them.”
Little One’s breath caught in his throat. He realized how beautiful this tree was, how profoundly peaceful he felt just looking upon it.
“Little One,” Ginger whispered breathlessly a few minutes later. “There’s something else. They say that the Tree grants all those who find it and spend a night by its base eternal freedom and a single wish.” She turned to look at him. “It could take us to the Serpent God.”
Butterflies lifted off in Little One’s stomach. As excited as he was to meet his father, the Serpent God, there was something even more alluring about the thought of spending the afternoon and evening gazing at the serene beauty of the tree. He nodded his head eagerly.
They made camp by the base of the tree then, careful not to disturb any of its enormous roots. All had gone well until the sun began to set and the first star had appeared in the sky.
They had both been watching the tree as its colors shifted in the changing light. And then Little One heard Ginger make a noise. He glanced over and saw that she was looking at him, though her eyes seemed far off and distant, as if she were staring through him more than at him.
“It doesn’t matter if we find him,” she said softly. Her eyes were bright. “I’ve already failed. He’s gone forever, and nothing will bring him back.” Tears began to fill the corners of her eyes and spill down her cheeks.
Little One spoke to her, asked her what she meant, tried to reassure her, but it was as if she couldn’t hear him. She was silent, looking at him as if listening, but when she responded, her answers made no sense to him.
And then the wind shifted, began to blow more insistently, and Ginger’s expression changed. Her features contorted together and her face became red. “You shouldn’t have done it!” she yelled. “It’s all your fault!”
She got up and ran away from him into the falling darkness.
Little One’s stomach knotted. He didn’t know what was going on and was worried about Ginger, but he didn’t want to leave the tree. Darkness was falling, and he understood they had to spend the entire night by its base in order to get their wish. Still, he got up and was moving after her when he heard a voice behind him.
He wondered how Ginger had moved to that side so quickly. But when he turned, he realized that it wasn’t her at all. It was a red-faced woman with dark brown hair whom he’d never seen before in his life.
Before he knew what was happening, she had put her face right next to his and was yelling at him about his family and how everything was their fault. As her words hit his face, he felt the anger rising in himself. He tried to stop it, tried to think of something else, tried to push down the force that was threatening to erupt within him.
Then suddenly it was too strong to stop and the heat exploded in his chest. Only it wasn’t his family that was feeding the flames; it was this woman. She was the one who was making him feel this way; she was keeping him from finding Ginger and threatening his ability to win his wish.
He took a step back from her, gave her an icy look, and said, “You’re the one who’s mean-hearted. I don’t know who you are, but you’d better leave here right now.”
The woman smiled. “If you want me to go, you’ll have to do something to make me.”
In that moment her smile was so smug, so self-satisfied, as if she were pleased by the distress she was causing him, that he couldn’t help himself. He reached forward with both hands and pushed her to the ground.
He heard her laughing on the way down, and then she disappeared.
Or didn’t disappear, exactly, but rather changed. Because from where her form had fallen on the earth rose up a new one, a man this time, who looked a lot like his father but who had hair the color of the sun.
“Little One,” he said. “You shouldn’t have done that. How could you strike a helpless woman? I know your father taught you better than that.”
Little One felt the truth of the words like a sinking ship in his gut.
“I guess it’s not a surprise, really, though,” the man continued. “Since you’ve always only really cared about yourself. You never wanted to work on your family’s farm, always wanted to do your own thing. And you didn’t care that your family loved you and wanted you to stay when you left for this journey, did you?”
Little One almost argued, felt a spark of something unfair in the man’s words. But the sinking feeling was so strong within him, weighing him down. He must be right, this man, or he wouldn’t feel this way.
“That’s right,” the man said, stroking his beard. “I know you can feel the guilt for the pain you’ve caused. So much unnecessary pain for those who loved and supported you,” he said, shaking his head. “You are a terrible son and brother.”
The sinking feeling became not just heavy but hollow. It felt as if there was nothing within him but a giant void, a black hole sucking the light out of his being. There was no ground under his feet, no warmth in his soul, no solidness within him on which to rest. He was floating in an abyss of blackness, hollow, empty, cold.
He began to fear being lost in the void forever. “It’s not my fault,” he said. “I tried to do things their way, but I couldn’t. They were cruel to me. They forced me to leave.”
The man laughed. “Even now you throw stones at them with your words. Too bad they can’t be here now to hear them, to see you as you really are.”
The ache in Little One’s belly grew so strong he didn’t think he could take it anymore. It felt like it was going to annihilate him and everything good in the world. “Oh my god,” he said. “You’re right. I can’t believe I’m so selfish, so hateful.” He doubled over. When he looked back up, the man was gone.
Another woman, smaller than the other and with curly hair, stood in his place.
“I can’t believe you haven’t gone after Ginger yet,” she said. “She could be ill, dying, or dead by now! What would you do without her? You can’t find your father’s palace by yourself. You’re wasting precious time! You should go after her now!”
Little One felt a snake of fear begin to crawl in his belly.
“I know what’s going to happen if you stay here,” the woman continued, her voice growing shriller. “Ginger will get lost, she’ll get eaten by an animal. You’ll realize that this isn’t the Tree of Life after all, that you wasted your time beneath it. You’ll spend the rest of your days tortured by guilt, wandering these mountains by yourself until you too meet your death. You’ll never meet the Serpent God, you’ll never find what you’re looking for, and you’ll never see your family again!”
Little One’s heart began racing. He felt panic rise within him. His blood ran cold in his veins.
“You need to go find her!” the woman shrieked. “Or all is lost!”
He felt like he was going to explode if he didn’t do something, run somewhere, take some sort of action. It was unbearable. He turned from her, saw his feet begin to carry him away from the tree, heard her laughter loud and shrill behind him.
And then he stepped on something soft and squishy. He heard a hissing noise.
“Are you trying to kill me again?” he heard. He looked around, but he didn’t see either of the women or the man.
“Hs-ss-ss-ss-ss,” he heard. “Down here, child.”
Little One looked down. His heart lifted in his chest when he saw a brown snake staring up at him.
“It’s good to see you, Snake,” he said. “But I don’t have time to talk. I have to go find Ginger.”
“Do you, now?” the snake asked. “I thought you were trying to stay the night by the tree.”
“I was,” Little One admitted. “But something weird is going on here. I don’t have time to explain. But I can’t just sit here anymore.”
“You can’t?” echoed the snake. His slowness was starting to irritate Little One.
“No, I can’t. Like I said, I can’t explain it right now. I have to go.” He turned towards the direction Ginger had gone in.
“You don’t have to run from them, you know,” he heard from behind him. “It just strengthens them.”
Little One turned. “I wasn’t,” he said, feeling like a child as he said it.
“You were literally running away when you stepped on me,” the snake replied.
“I wasn’t running away,” Little One insisted. “I was going to go find Ginger.”
“Because of what she said,” said the snake. “And the others too. You don’t have to run from them,” he repeated.
“I didn’t!” yelled Little One. He was started to get angry.
“Ignoring it, blaming others, blaming yourself, jumping into action—it’s all running away in the end.”
Little One just stared at him. “Running away from what?” he asked.
“The ghosts,” said the snake. “What you carry in your heart.”
Little One tried not to let his irritation show. “So what would you have me do?”
“Running, you grow tired. Ignoring, they grow louder. Arguing with them, they get stronger. You cannot escape them. To free yourself, you welcome them.”
“What does that mean?” Little One was tired of trying to understand riddles.
“Sit with them. Befriend them. Ask them about their days. Or don’t. Just let them pass through you. But first you have to open the gatessssssss.”
This wasn’t helping Little One understand anything any better, but he knew the snake was trying to help. “Anything else?” he asked.
“When in doubt, be still.”
Little One heard a slithering sound. He realized the snake was moving away from him. “Wait, I don’t understand!” he said more loudly than he’d intended.
“You will,” said the snake. And then he heard hs-ss-ss-ss-ss again, and then nothing.
He walked back over to the tree. Standing next to it was the woman with the curly hair.
“What are you doing?” she asked. “You’re losing your chance to save Ginger, to get back your wish and find the Serpent God!”
He felt the stirrings of fear in his belly once again. But instead of running he went to the base of the tree and sat down.
He looked at the woman in front of him, who was getting more and more agitated. She began pacing back and forth, wringing her hands, and making dire predictions. The more upset she became, the more the panic rose within him. He tried to push it down, but it only grew stronger.
He remembered the snake’s words and had an idea.
“I welcome you,” he muttered to her. She looked at him, overwrought.
“What?” she said.
“I welcome you.” The woman looked at him a moment longer and then faster than he could follow with his eyes, she dove straight into his abdomen. He felt her enter like an icy gust of wind that exploded into his veins and ran all the way down his arms and legs and out to his fingers and toes. He felt like he was falling through an endless, freezing night.
For a few, long moments as the coldness took hold of his heart, he thought he was going to die. But then, just as he had the thought, the icy blast subsided. He felt the warmth return to his fingers and toes, felt the ground, reassuring, beneath him again.
When he looked up, the woman was gone.
One by one he invited the ghosts to enter him. He felt the suffocating weight of shame flooding over him, making it difficult to breathe. He experienced the all-consuming fire of anger that burned and roared and crackled until there was nothing left. He felt disappointment, jealousy, guilt, rage, and despair, and each time he thought he was surely going to die.
But he didn’t. He invited each of them in. When they entered him, they exploded with a fury that he thought he couldn’t stand. And then they left.
By the time the stars began to fade and light touched the farthest corners of the eastern sky, he could barely move his limbs and his eyes were heavy with exhaustion. Wearily he welcomed the next ghost. This time, however, nothing came.
He sat there for a long moment, remembering the snake’s words about staying still. And then, after an impossibly long time he became aware of something new within him. It felt like calm waters after a storm, beautiful and undisturbed. It expanded within him, empty and yet filling every corner of his body with warmth, limitless and still and impossibly light.
He felt exquisitely alive, connected to something powerful and enormous that he couldn’t explain. All his previous thoughts and worries seemed impossibly trivial, unimportant. He had the sense that the largest storm in the world wasn’t powerful enough to disturb this enormous stillness and peace.
Just then he heard a noise and saw Ginger walking up from the other side of the tree. Her head was low.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I’ve ruined everything. I don’t even know what happened, I just suddenly felt so…so…”
“I know,” Little One said. “I did too. And it’s okay. You didn’t ruin anything.”
But Ginger wouldn’t look up. “No, we were supposed to pass the night by the tree together so we could both wish to go to our father’s palace. Now I’ve ruined it. I’ve ruined it,” she said again, and he saw that her eyes were filled with tears.
“You haven’t ruined anything,” Little One found himself repeating, but he realized it wasn’t doing any good.
He walked over to her, put his arms around her as she buried her face in his chest.
“You don’t understand,” she said. “This isn’t the first time I’ve failed. This isn’t the first time I’ve let down someone important to me. He’s gone, Little One, for good. Because of me.”
Standing there, holding her, feeling her body move up and down as she sobbed, Little One suddenly realized that the wish to go to the Serpent God’s palace wasn’t the right one to make. He made a different one instead.
Ginger kept sobbing for a little while longer, her body shaking between his arms. Then finally, finally the shaking stopped and she settled into a silent stillness.
Little One looked at her. When she glanced up to meet his gaze, he recognized something familiar in her eyes.
Freedom. Forgiveness. Peace. An expansive ocean of stillness.
He smiled. His wish had worked.