Category Archives: Hero’s Journey

Little One and the Two Failures (Or, the Secret to Being Powerful and Powerless at the Same Time)

Following is the sixteenth story in a series that tells the tale of the first hero to go on a journey to discover his calling.

To read the first story in the series, click here.

To read the previous installment, click here.

The second time Little One found himself in front of the gate to the City of the Children of the Serpent God, his mood was only slightly less ebullient than the first.

After all, he had just saved his father, one of the most powerful gods that existed, pretty much single-handedly. He had subsequently learned how the world began, discovered who he really was, and found his life’s purpose. Perhaps even more exciting, he had tried pancakes for the first time.

As he watched the black and brown metal snakes of the gate writhe above him, he recalled his father’s parting words.

“Do not thank me too much,” the Serpent God had warned when he expressed his gratitude yet again. “I have real reason to be grateful; you brought me back to myself. But all I have done for you is given you knowledge.”

Little One had wrinkled his nose in disbelief. “But isn’t knowledge power?” he asked. He couldn’t remember who had said it first, but he was certain he’d heard the elders in his village repeat the phrase often enough.

His father shook his giant, serpentine head. “Do not misunderstand me: knowledge is valuable and quite necessary. It is a very good first step. But it is not, by itself, enough.”

Little One just looked at his father.

“Knowing something does not change anything,” the god continued in his low rumble. “You must wrestle with the subject of your knowledge, experience it, act on it, defeat it and be defeated by it over and over again for anything to shift.”

Little One nodded, though in truth he didn’t understand. “I see,” he lied. “But surely this knowledge can help others if I share it with them?”

The Serpent God shook his head again, then nodded, then shook until his enormous head looked like it might roll off of his neck and onto the white tiled floor. “Yes and no,” he said as he cringed and massaged what appeared to be a crick in his neck. “The knowledge is helpful, but you can’t just tell others about it. It won’t mean anything to them until they experience it for themselves. You only understood because you’d already felt the truth of it.”

“I see,” Little One lied again. “And how do I help them experience it for themselves?”

His father laughed. “You already know that,” he said so confidently that Little One was afraid to suggest otherwise. “Now, are you ready to go?”

Little One nodded and picked up his backpack, which weighed more than it had when he’d put it down. “Whenever you’re ready,” he said, smiling. He was excited to be teleported for the second time in his life, this time willingly.

When he looked up, he saw that the god was looking at him strangely. “I forgot to say one last thing,” his father rumbled, frowning now. “It is a danger I have seen often when humans first learn who they really are.” He seemed unsure for the first time. “Just don’t forget that though you are all powerful, you alone are powerless,” he said slowly. When Little One opened his mouth, he shook his head and spoke more quickly. “No, I’m afraid I cannot say more than that. As I said, I find it never helps to explain paradoxes. This piece of advice you’ll have to figure out for yourself.”

This one, Little One thought, and all the others as well.

Still, by the time they were standing outside the iridescent walls of his father’s palace, he was smiling again. The Serpent God had seemed genuinely sad to see him go. He’d made him promise to come back and visit, and told him to bring his family with him. He’d even bent down to give Little One a hug, or the closest thing he could, being about a thousand times his size.

Then, after a few moments in which the earth beneath him had shifted uncomfortably and the forest around him blurred into swirls of color, Little One had found himself standing by himself in front of the familiar gate to the City of the Children of the Serpent God. He was eager to find out if what he was looking for was here, and, he admitted silently to himself, to share what he had learned.

This time he knew what to do. Walking through the gate as the metal snakes churned and hissed above him, he didn’t so much as glance at them before approaching a tree and pressing his hand against its trunk. As he did, the earth shifted with a groan and the top of a stairway appeared through the roots. Little One stepped onto it carefully and made his way down.

When he reached the bottom, a large, well-lit chamber opened up before him. The walls glowed with scenes of trees, mountains, and rivers laid over the stone. The images shimmered and moved as if real, so much so that Little One could almost feel the breeze that was stirring them against his own skin. The top of the chamber was blue and infinite, like the sky, but today there were no clouds gathered anywhere.

Little One looked around. After seeing a few new faces he didn’t recognize, he spotted one he did. He walked over.

“Well-met, brother!” yelled Sebastian as he approached, looking up from what he was working on at the table. “Long time no see!” He spoke loudly even though by that point Little One was close enough to reach out and touch him on the shoulder.

“Hi, Sebastian,” said Little One. He was too excited to waste time with niceties. “Has Ginger been here recently?”

Sebastian’s smile turned to a concerned expression. “Yeah, brother, she was here not long ago. She came back to pick up her invention. We asked her what was going on, where you were, what she needed it for…but she said she didn’t have time to explain. She told us she would tell us everything later, said she had something very important to do first. She didn’t even stay for dinner.”

Little One was vaguely aware that he should have been frustrated, but all he could feel was pleasure at having been right. When the Serpent God had offered to teleport him home, he’d politely declined, saying he wanted to find Ginger first. His father’s powers were still recovering from his imprisonment, so unfortunately the god couldn’t tell him where she was. More fortunately, a theory of his own had already begun to crystallize in Little One’s mind.

He’d first thought about it when his father told him he’d had a conversation with someone before Little One returned back to the palace to save him. Little One knew it hadn’t been with him. Then he recalled that during his first visit to the palace, there was a trail through the dust on the floor that he’d originally thought had been made by his father’s captor. Only there was no captor; his father had been in the palace the entire time.

Together these two clues led Little One to deduce that Ginger had managed to make it into the palace before he had. He knew she wouldn’t leave without doing something to help the Serpent God, however, and he was admittedly stumped for a moment until he remembered her invention. He still didn’t know what it did, but she had finished it just before they left the City of the Children of the Serpent God. He concluded that she must have gone back there to pick up her invention so she could return with it to the palace and help their father.

Warm satisfaction bubbled up in his belly as he realized that he’d been right. He felt so good that before he knew it, he’d blurted out a question he hadn’t meant to ask.

“Have you ever met the Serpent God in person?” he asked in a voice like a bell; it was so loud, in fact, that a few nearby siblings looked up from what they were doing.

Sebastian’s eyebrows shot up. “Met the Serpent God? No, man, nobody has. He disappeared a long time ago. Nobody knows where he is or how to find him.”

“I found him,” Little One said quickly.

“That’s impossible,” Sebastian said, dismissing him with a wave of his hand. “A group of older siblings tried before I got here. They were some of the strongest, smartest, most gifted children I’ve ever met. They even knew where to find the palace, but when they got there, they couldn’t get inside. Nobody was home. They tried everything to be able to enter, but nothing worked. Eventually they had to turn around and come back here. If they couldn’t do it, brother, there’s no way you”—he winced—“anybody could.”

“I did get inside,” Little One persisted. He saw out of the corner of his eye that two other siblings, a brother named Corbett that he knew from his previous tenure in the city and a woman he’d never seen before, were walking over to join them. “With Ginger. Well, at least we found it together. We got separated going in. But the Serpent God was there. He was just…unable to greet us.” He didn’t want to share the whole story right now, not with such a large audience. “But after a while we talked, and he explained everything to me.”

“Everything?” the woman who had joined them asked.

“Well, lots of things. Like, did y’all know that we’re made of light?” The woman shook her head slightly while the other two looked at him doubtfully. “Yea, we’re made of the same light that everything else is made of. Only, in these forms we feel separate, and we forget that we’re not. We forget that we’re all made of the same courage, strength, love, joy, wisdom, and all that stuff. That’s why the gods were made, to help us remember. And that’s what our job is as their children, too. We’re here to help others remember who they really are and where they come from.”

Little One smiled as he looked up at his siblings. He didn’t say it nearly as well as their father had, but he was pretty proud of how clear it was nonetheless. As he scanned their faces, however, his smile faded. All he saw were furrowed brows and stubborn frowns. “Maybe I should start at the beginning,” he went on uncertainly.

Sebastian shook his head as if waking himself up. “No, man,” he said forcefully. “You must have met an impostor. There’s no way that was really our father.”

Little One opened his mouth, but before he could respond, his sister was speaking.

“Why would our father only tell you this?” she asked, her eyes narrowed. “Why wouldn’t he come here to tell us all, if that’s really what he’s here to do?”

This time Little One didn’t even have time to open his mouth before Corbett spoke up. “That doesn’t make any sense,” he said, his voice deep. “We’re here to vanquish evil, not help people remember. What’s the use of remembering? It doesn’t make any sense,” he repeated.

“Yea,” said Sebastian. “We’re here to use our superpowers to accomplish things that other humans can’t. That’s why we have them and they don’t. It’s simple.”

“Perhaps,” Little One said when there was finally a moment of silence. “But that reminds me of something else the Serpent God told me. All humans have superpowers of some kind because by now they’re all descended from one god or another.”

Sebastian whistled and rolled his eyes while the others shook their heads. “Now I know you’re confused,” Sebastian said. “Have you ever seen a normal human fly, become invisible, or invent the things that we do?” He shook his head disbelievingly.

“Confused?” Corbett said. “More like delusional. I remember you from when you were here before. You didn’t have a superpower, right? I think you got so jealous that you went off and came up with this big story to impress us and convince us that you’re better than we are.”

Anger flared up in Little One for the first time. He had been trying to stay calm, as he imagined anyone sharing this kind of knowledge should be, but the heat inside him was impossible to ignore. “I did no such thing,” he growled. “I’m telling you exactly what the Serpent God told me. And for the record, I do have a superpower.” As soon as the words left his mouth, he wanted to pull them back in.

“And what would that be?” Corbett asked, a sneer on his face.

The word sensitivity died on Little One’s lips as he imagined their responses. Perception sounded little better. “I—I don’t know yet,” he said softly, staring at the table. Harsh laughter met his ears.

“You still haven’t answered my question,” the woman said. Little One looked up and realized that she wasn’t laughing, just frowning slightly. “Why wouldn’t our father come here to tell us all of this himself?”

Little One opened his mouth, half expecting somebody to interrupt him again, but nobody did. Suddenly it was as if all words had fled his mind. After a moment, he closed his mouth again. “I don’t know,” he finally admitted.

Sebastian moved his chair back away from the table and stood up. “I’ve heard enough,” he said, looking at Corbett and the woman. “I’m going for a walk.”

Corbett didn’t give Little One another glance before spinning on his heel and stomping off as well, but the woman looked at him for a few moments with a flat expression on her face before finally sighing and turning to leave. Little One watched them go, trying desperately to think of something to say but failing to come up with a single word.

Giving a sigh of his own, he walked back up the stairs and out of the City of the Children of the Serpent God with slumped shoulders and heavy feet, nearly as discouraged as he had been excited when he’d arrived just a short time before. He began to walk dejectedly back in the direction of the Palace of the Serpent God, determined at least to succeed in finding Ginger.

By the time he came across the road, he was so caught up in trying to figure out where he’d gone wrong that he nearly missed seeing it. He walked over it lost in thought and only paused when he felt sunlight warming his back. Looking up, he was surprised to see that there were no trees overhead, which caused him to look around, which made him realize he was crossing a road.

He’d never come across a path this large before. Estimating that if he stood with arms wide it could fit three of him across its width, he wondered why it was so big and where it led.

He had just decided against walking along it for a bit to try and find out when he heard footsteps behind him. Turning around, he saw a young girl waving her arms high above her head at him.

“Hello!” she yelled, a big grin on her freckled face.

“Hello,” he said, returning her smile.

“Have you come to try and rescue us?” asked the girl, lowering her arms and coming to a stop in front of him. She sounded breathless, as if she’d been running.

“Um, no, I’m afraid I’m just passing by. But who needs rescuing, and from what?”

“My village,” she answered, her green eyes sad. “It’s just down the road. You haven’t heard? They sent me out to meet you because we thought you were here to help.”

“Who sent you out to meet me?”

“The other children, silly.” She laughed, as if it were obvious. “We’ve put out a call for help because a demon has taken over our village. Many heroes have come, but none have been able to defeat it. Oh, please do help us. You look so strong and smart. I think you might be able to do it.”

“What demon?” Little One asked, flushing despite the ice beginning to form in his belly. “And why the children? Where are your parents?”

The girl glanced back down the road behind herself impatiently. “Our parents are the ones who need rescuing. The demon has taken them hostage. He tortures and abuses them day and night. Oh, say you’ll come; then you can see for yourself.”

Little One thought for only a moment before nodding his head. “Yes,” he said. “Of course I’ll come. I’ll do whatever I can to help.”

The girl clapped her hands excitedly and beamed at him. “I knew you would!” she said happily. “Come, it isn’t far at all.”

It was true. They reached the village after walking only a short while. Soon the forest gave way to fields and then houses with small gardens began to appear next to the road. Little One saw other children, goats, and plenty of chickens, but no grown ups anywhere.

“Where are the adults?” he asked the girl.

“I told you, the demon took them hostage. They’re at the demon’s headquarters.”

Little One scowled and started to ask a question, but the girl skipped on ahead of him.

They walked like that a while longer—the girl skipping as if headed to play, Little One trudging along behind her, his feet growing heavier and his belly more tangled with every step—as they made their way through the center of the village and out to the other side. The girl didn’t slow as trees appeared beside them again and the road climbed a large hill.

When they approached the top and Little One was about to ask where they were headed, he suddenly looked up and swallowed his words. There in front of them was the largest building he had ever seen. It appeared to be made entirely of smooth, gray stone. Little One couldn’t see any windows and could make out only one large door at its base. Nearly twice as tall as the surrounding trees, it had what looked like a huge chimney jutting out of its roof that was belching dark gray smoke into the air above it.

“Come on,” the girl said, and Little One realized she hadn’t stopped skipping. He hurried to catch up to her.

When they approached the door, she finally stopped. “This is the demon’s headquarters,” she said. Little One was about to ask the girl if the demon had any defenses he needed to overcome before entering its headquarters when without warning she flung the door wide open and a terrible stench met his nose. As he covered the bottom half of his face with his arm, he steeled himself as best he could for whatever torment and abuse he might be about to see.

But as his eyes adjusted to the relative darkness within, he saw only men and women walking quickly about, speaking hurriedly with each other in small groups, and sitting in chairs staring intently at small pieces of paper.

“Is everything all right?” he asked a tall man in his middle years who was passing close by.

The man looked at him in surprise. “Of course. But if I don’t get this report done by the end of the day, it won’t be, so if you’ll excuse me…” he said, walking on.

Little One watched the adults go about their business for a few more minutes before turning to the girl. “I don’t understand,” he said. “You said they were being tortured. They look just fine to me.”

“You would say that!” the girl shouted, crossing her arms over her chest. “That’s what all the other heroes said too before they turned around and left. What a bunch of cowards! I know it doesn’t look that bad, but can’t you see what’s really going on? They work here, day and night, never coming home, never eating, never sleeping, never seeing their children. If we come here, they just ignore us or yell at us for getting in the way. They stopped working the fields months ago, and now there’s almost no food left. And they don’t even play anymore!” She was wailing now. “And the worst part is, the demon has some kind of spell on them, because when we tell them to stop, they tell us we’re being silly and say it’s for the best.”

Little One shivered. Looking more closely at a woman passing by, he realized that there was something strange about her eyes, almost as if they were glazed over and not really seeing what was in front of her.

“Okay,” he said. “That does sound strange. So where is this demon? What do I need to do to find it?”

Little One wasn’t sure what he’d expected, but it wasn’t for the girl to immediately point to a normal-looking, rather stocky man who appeared to be starting to lose his hair standing on a balcony on the second floor.

Little One cleared his throat. “Got it,” he told the girl. “I’ll be right back.”

“Be careful,” she said, her eyes wide. “He’s the most dangerous demon I’ve ever seen.”

Little One nodded and walked towards the demon. As he did, he felt his stomach begin to twist around itself once again. The closer he got, the colder he felt as well. By the time he was within shouting distance of the demon, he was nauseated, shivering, and wanted nothing more than to crawl behind a rock and hide.

I am made of light, he reminded himself, planting his feet firmly on the ground beneath the balcony.

“What exactly do you think you’re doing?” Little One called out loudly, cringing as he heard his own words and realized they sounded more like a statement of confusion than the challenge he’d imagined in his mind. I am made of light, he reminded himself again as some of the hustle and bustle around him quieted down.

The demon turned slowly from whatever he had been looking at to study Little One on the floor beneath him. “Why, isn’t it obvious?” he answered after a long silence. “I’ve persuaded these people to do my bidding so I can take over the world.” Little One realized with some discomfort that his eyes were red and shone in the dimly lit interior like flames.

“So you admit it!” Little One yelled. He wasn’t sure what the demon meant by taking over the world, but he could tell it wasn’t good by his tone.

“Of course,” roared the demon. “And why on earth wouldn’t I? There isn’t anything anybody can do about it, much less you.” He spat out the last word like it tasted bad.

Little One felt the heat of anger rising within him. He searched for a feeling of strength and golden light instead. Finally he felt it, a small but steady sense of solidity beneath the anger. “Oh, yes there is!” he shouted. “You don’t know who I am. I have powers you can’t even imagine, and I’m going to use them to help these people fight off whatever spell you’ve put on them so they can return to their village and be with their families!”

The demon threw his head back and cackled towards the ceiling. “Go for it! Be my guest! These people are free to leave whenever they want. Nobody’s forcing them to stay.”

Little One didn’t believe it. He looked around at the men and women who had for the most part stopped what they were doing to watch what was happening, though a few still had their heads bent over scraps of paper or were huddled together speaking quietly in the corners.

“People of the village!” Little One yelled, turning around so he could see everyone in the building. “There is no need to stay here helping the demon! He is using you for his own ends and does not have your well-being at heart. Do his bidding no more! Put down your work, come with me, and I will take you back to your children and your fields so you can once again attend to what matters.”

The men and women looked at him as if confused, shaking their heads and muttering, then turned to go on about their business. With flushed cheeks, he realized that a few had already done so even before he finished speaking.

Little One heard a sharp rasping noise behind him. When he turned around, he saw that the demon was laughing again. “You waste your time, son of the Serpent God.” Little One realized his mouth was open and closed it quickly. “Yes, I know exactly who you are,” the demon continued. “Which is why I’m so confident I have nothing to worry about.” With that, he turned around and walked through a doorway at the back of the balcony, disappearing from view.

Little One looked at all the people around him, but none were watching him anymore. He tried to think of something else he could say or do, but nothing came to him. Sighing heavily, he walked back to where the girl was standing in the doorway.

“I’m sorry,” he told her sadly. “I have failed yet again.”

She looked up at him, her forehead creased. “Again? Have you faced the demon before?”

“No,” Little One admitted as they stepped back out of the building and closed the door behind them, “but I’ve still managed to fail more than once today.”

As they walked back, Little One tried hard to think of a plan, but if the people weren’t willing to leave, he didn’t see how he could make them. He didn’t know enough about magic or spells to be able to do anything there, and he had a feeling the demon wouldn’t allow him to try anyway.

Having no plan and no hope for helping the children of the village, he began to doubt the confidence he had felt while talking to his father, which felt like eons ago, not earlier that morning. It was no wonder his siblings didn’t believe him or his message—he was the wrong person to be carrying it. The idea that he was made of light made him want to laugh and cry at the same time; at the moment it felt more likely that he was made of dung than anything else.

When they reached the village, the children all ran to form a circle around them, chattering excitedly and asking what had happened.

“He failed,” the girl said, her voice miserably low. The other children’s faces fell, and a few began to cry.

“You have a plan for how to go back and beat him, right?” a little boy asked, pulling his thumb out of his mouth to do so.

“Mm-hmmm,” Little One said noncommittally. The faces that stared at him looked drawn and haggard, and he remembered what the girl had said about running out of food. “I do at least have something to give y’all,” he added quickly, thinking of the few rations he still had from his previous journey. As he pulled his backpack from his shoulder, he noticed again how heavy it was, and when he opened it up, he finally realized why.

Inside his backpack, piled on top of his things, were stacks of thick pancakes his father must have slipped in when he wasn’t looking.

Little One smiled. “Have y’all ever tried pancakes?” he asked, pulling them out and handing them over.

As the children eagerly ate their breakfast with a few shouts of pleasure here and there, Little One thought of his father. He now had something else to be grateful for. It’s a good thing I have you helping me, he thought. Without you, I’d be lost.

As if in answer, his father’s words rang out in his mind: “Just remember that though you are all powerful, you alone are powerless.”

This time he heard the words differently than he had before. It wasn’t that he was the only one who was powerless, it was that without others…

Suddenly he knew what to do. He jumped up, grabbed his backpack, and handed out a few more pancakes. “Children!” he yelled. He had to say it again a few times before everyone was listening. “I know what to do! I’m going now, but I’ll be back soon. I am going to vanquish that demon, but not in the way that I thought.”

The kids gave him strange looks but continued to eat their pancakes. Little One smiled to himself and found his way back to the road.

He walked until he was standing in the same spot where he’d first seen the little girl. Turning around to be sure, then nodding to himself when he was, he stepped off the road and into the woods. Hope lightened his steps as he considered the possibility that by returning to the City of the Children of the Serpent God and asking for help from his siblings, he’d soon be able to reverse two big failures in one fell swoop.

Photo credit: Randen Pederson // CC

Little One and the Serpent God (Or, Why Being Flawed Is a Good Thing)

Following is the fifteenth story in a series that tells the tale of the first hero to go on a journey to discover his calling.

To read the first story in the series, click here.

To read the previous installment, click here.

“Wait, what?” Little One asked.

He could feel his face flushing as he forced himself to put the strange, black fruit down on his plate. He was horrified to realize that he had actually missed what the Serpent God said because he was so focused on the fruit’s unique—and quite delicious—flavor.

“I said, did you have to do anything to make the rainbow lightning machine show you the memory?” The god’s voice boomed throughout the cavernous, sunlit room they were in, but it remained calm.

“Oh,” Little One said, wiping his hands guiltily on his pants. “No. It just kind of came to life on its own once I got near it.” He thought for a moment. “Actually, I think it was already rumbling a bit by the time I got into the palace.” He picked up his cup and took a sip of the sweet, creamy brown liquid inside. “What is this again?” he asked his father.

“Xocoatl,” the god said. “Also sometimes referred to as food of the gods.”

“I can see why,” Little One said, nearly burning his tongue as he took another gulp.

“And you said you saw me arguing with someone?” the god persisted.

“Yes,” Little One nodded. “I couldn’t see who, but you seemed to be angry at first, then…” His voice drifted off awkwardly as he took a more calculated sip of his drink.

“Then what?” the Serpent God prompted gently. He made a motion with a pitcher for Little One to let him refill his mug.

“Then you seemed kind of frightened and sad.” He swallowed awkwardly but still managed to hold out his mug while his father poured. “You told him that you couldn’t do it anymore, sacrificing yourself in order to keep him happy. You said, ‘You are not who I thought you were. You win. You are free to do what you will.’”

The god’s eyes narrowed as the pitcher dropped back to the table with a loud thump. Little One wondered if he’d said too much. “I only vaguely remember saying that,” his father said. “It’s like my memory has holes in it, and everything else is…blurred.”

Little One moved something that looked like potatoes but tasted much better around on his plate. “That’s why I thought you were kidnapped at first, though I had no idea by whom.”

“So when did we talk?” the Serpent God asked, straightening suddenly and nearly bumping his head on a ceiling so high that Little One could barely see it.

“When I got back,” Little One answered, “after figuring out what had really happened.”

The giant serpent head shook. “No, I mean before you left. It’s blurry, but I remember two visits. One when you helped me to awaken, but one before that too.”

Now Little One shook his head. “I’m not sure,” he said. “I spoke with the memory at first, not realizing it wasn’t you”—he felt his cheeks flush again and quickly took another sip from his mug to hide it—“but the first time we actually conversed was last night, after I returned.”

His father was silent for a moment, his eyes searching his son’s as if probing for the truth. “Yes,” he finally said, “I believe you’re right. And yet I do remember speaking with somebody else, before last night, and getting very angry. It was several days before I could sleep again, and when I did, I slept for two days straight. Perhaps that is when you came to the palace, when I was still inert.”

Little One nodded. “Perhaps,” he agreed. He suddenly thought of the trail he had followed through the halls of the palace, the one he thought had been made by his father’s kidnapper. An idea began to form in his mind, giving him hope.

“So how did you figure out what really happened?” the Serpent God asked.

Little One abandoned whatever thought had been forming in order to answer his father; this was the third time he had asked this same question, after all.

“It was while fighting the Guardian of the Guru,” he said, noticing that his father’s gaze was fixed on something on his face. He hurriedly scrubbed his mouth and chin with his hand and flushed when he realized that the drink had left a foamy mustache on his upper lip. Taking a deep breath, he went on. “I probably should have figured it out right away based on the fact that the Guardian not only looked exactly like me, but fought like me as well.” He went on to tell the god the whole story of their fight.

“But I didn’t really understand,” Little One explained once he’d finished, “until the Guru told me something more. ‘There is no difference between you and me,’ he said. “Just as there is no difference between you and him.’ That’s when I realized: I was very nearly defeated by something that was a part of me. It didn’t want me to hear the Guru’s answer. Though I think the Guru is really part of me as well.” Little One paused, looking at the table in front of him and realizing that it looked as if a tornado had passed through, leaving crumbs everywhere. The cakes—pancakes, his father had called them—had been so delicious he hadn’t been very careful about how he was eating them. He winced. “I realize this sounds crazy, but that’s how I understood that you were also fighting a part of yourself. Because the Guardian wanted me to give up, and that’s what you did in the projection I saw. Somehow it just felt…the same.”

To his surprise, the Serpent God didn’t look at him as if he were losing his mind. Instead, he simply nodded his huge head. “So that’s when you came back to my palace?” he asked.

“Yes,” Little One said. “I figured that if you had been defeated by—if you had surrendered to a part of yourself, it meant you must still be in your palace. I had no idea how I was going to save you, but I hoped it would be clear enough when the time came.” He shrugged uncomfortably. “And I suppose, when the time came, it was.”

His father looked him in the eyes for a long time without saying anything. “I’m impressed,” he finally said, picking up a tray of the black fruits and adding three more to Little One’s plate.

Little One picked up one of the fruits and bit into it. Sweet juice exploded in his mouth and ran down his chin. He wiped it off on the back of his forearm. “Father,” he said. “What is this part of us that wants to defeat us?”

The Serpent God looked thoughtful for a moment. “I believe you know more than you think you do,” he said. “This Guardian of the Guru. Was he familiar at all to you?”

Little One considered the question, then nodded slowly. “Yes, actually. I wasn’t sure, but as I was fighting him, I got the sense that I had…engaged with him before. I think I felt him when the genie was offering me his gifts. He’s the one who wanted me to take them. It was the fear, I think, that convinced me to do it. And I think I have felt his presence other times, mostly when I’ve been afraid.”

The god nodded again. “And what about what you said to me earlier? ‘You have helped me to find my true self,’ you said. What do you know about this true self?”

“It is what told me to stop fighting the Guardian,” Little One answered without hesitating. “And to come back to the palace to find you. It is the courage I found in the Chamber of Doom, the love I feel for my sister, and the strength and freedom I discovered when the Guardian defeated me. It is the antithesis of the fear.”

“That’s exactly right,” the Serpent God said, and Little One felt a wave of warmth crash in his chest. “Except for that last part,” continued his father, as the wave quickly subsided.

“What do you mean?” Little One asked. “It’s not the antithesis of fear?”

“Perhaps it would be most helpful for me to start by telling you the story of how the world began.”

“Sure,” Little One said, smiling. He wasn’t sure if he was more excited to hear the truth about the world or to have time to eat the last two pieces of fruit on his plate.

“Well,” the Serpent God began, “in the beginning, all was one. There were no separate forms or individuals. All was one and all was light. If the light could have been refracted into its various colors, you would have seen courage, strength, love, joy, wisdom, freedom, and clarity. But in the beginning, they all made up a single whole without border or boundary.”

The god paused. “Perhaps it could have gone on that way forever,” he continued after a moment. “And perhaps it should have. But the light did not know itself, and it never could so long as nothing else existed to be able to perceive it. Without self knowledge, without movement, the light was not complete, so it created space and time. It then poured itself into diverse forms that would exist separately in the realm it had created.

At first it seemed that all was now in order. But the forms the light created knew what they were and where they had come from. They had no desire to stay disconnected from their source, and so they let their separate forms wither, decline, and die so that they could return to whence they came.

The light was back where it started, and so it began again. This time it gave the forms it made something special; something that would make them want to live and thrive in the world it had built for them. This part of them would not only want to survive, but help them know how. It would identify threats, seek advantages, and concern itself with their material well-being so their forms would not wither and die before they’d had a chance to know themselves.” The Serpent God had been looking off in the distance; now he turned to look his son directly in the eyes. “This gift, Little One, is the Guardian that you fought.”

“Gift?” Little One asked, remembering how the Guardian had nearly slit his throat.

“Yes, a double-edged gift, as all gifts are,” said the god, his eyes distant again, perhaps remembering his own imprisonment. “You see, it turns out that the same thing that gives us the desire and the means to survive also serves to make us forget. For as the inhabitants of space and time began to proliferate, they became so focused on threats and advantages that they failed to see what else was there; they saw only what their eyes perceived and grew blind to what lay underneath. In short, they forgot who they were and where they had come from.”

The Serpent God grunted and shifted around in his chair. “This situation was no better than the first, for without this memory, self knowledge was again impossible. That’s why the light created us.” He turned to meet Little One’s eyes again. “The gods, I mean. We were charged with helping mortal forms to know themselves, their true selves, before they died.”

Little One thought about what his father had said, and his first experience with the god. “So that’s why you built your palace the way you did, so that whoever sought you would have to discover their own light in order to enter?” he asked.

The Serpent God’s eyes suddenly became sad. “In part,” he said, shaking his head. “But I’m afraid that isn’t the full story.”

Little One looked up at him, a question he didn’t dare ask in his eyes. The god sighed heavily. “Yes, I will tell you the tale, painful though it is.” He looked away again, staring at something Little One couldn’t see. “You see, we gods fall somewhere between form and formlessness. Being immortal, we don’t need the Guardian in the same way you mortal forms do. But we require it in other ways. We are not pure light, after all, but we must remember where we come from, in order to remind you. It is a painful thing, to be separate, to know what it’s like to be whole, and to know you will not return to the source at the end of your lifetime as you mortal beings do. It takes a strong and stubborn Guardian to keep us willing to engage in the world with its separation and forgetfulness for all eternity.”

He looked at Little One again before continuing. “But all of this is perhaps an excuse. Because the truth is, it was me who allowed my Guardian to get too strong, who believed in its demands for power, prestige, and utter perfection. It has always demanded these things—it is part of its nature—but I always knew them to be shallow, unable to satiate or address the true nature of who and what I was.

And yet at some point I forgot. That is the worst thing a god can do—we are charged with helping others remember, after all. But somehow I forgot who I was, and why I was here, and I began to give the Guardian what it was demanding.”

The giant god sighed again. “Even now I am being vague, trying to avoid the truth of it. I know when it began. It was after one of my daughters, a particularly young one, I recall, knocked upon my door. This was before I built this palace, when I still lived with the other gods.

When I came to the door, she was already furious. ‘How could you?’ she asked, and went on to tell me how her entire family had been killed in fighting between her village and the next. ‘I prayed to you every night,’ she said, ‘asking you for help. I thought you were my father! And yet you did nothing, and now my family is dead.’

I remembered her prayers; they had nearly made me weep, in truth. But we gods have very specific purposes; there is much we cannot do. I tried to explain this to her. I tried to help her see her own light, that she might know she did not need me to weather this storm. But she did not feel it, no matter what I did, and she left my house more angry than she was when she arrived. And so I failed her twice: once in being unable to save her family, and once in letting her leave while still misunderstanding exactly who she was.”

The giant serpent head sank. “I could not forgive myself for my failure. Unable to face any more of my children—no, unable to face the prospect of failing any more of my children—I built this palace and hid it from the world. I created the rainbow lightning machine almost as an afterthought. I told everyone that it was because I was too harried and could not handle the number of petitioners I was receiving. I said the rainbow lightning was to make sure that only the worthy were able to reach me. I think I even believed it at the time. But I know now that I was hiding, unable to admit how terrified I was. The rainbow lightning was not a test; it was a way to ask for help without acknowledging what I was doing.”

“Father,” Little One said. “I am so sorry.”

“I am too,” said the Serpent God, his eyes glistening. “The great irony is that in my fear of failing, I failed more people than I will ever know. For a while my children kept coming to find me, and now and then one of them would make it through. But no matter what I did, it never felt like enough; the Guardian always demanded more. More results. More admiration. More devotion. I grew tired of arguing with it, and equally tired of trying to appease its insatiable appetite. Finally I stopped answering my door, and my children stopped coming. That was the last straw. Exhausted, without visitors, without purpose, I finally gave up. I let the Guardian take control and lost myself completely.” The god exhaled loudly. “Until you came,” he added, offering a sad smile.

Little One was surprised to find that he was angry. “The Guardian would not let you forget your failure. It made you believe you were not enough. It sowed so much fear that you hid yourself in your palace and gave up your purpose, and yet you say that it is not the antithesis of light? How can that be?”

The Serpent God’s smile grew both bigger and sadder. “You would think the Guardian is the enemy, based on my story. I’m almost tempted to believe it myself, because it would mean I could separate myself from my mistakes.” He turned to look at Little One. “But the truth is more complicated than that. The Guardian is not all of who we are. But it is part of us, and an important part at that.”

“Yes,” Little One said sourly. “I understand that it helps us survive. But it also destroys that which is best in us!”

The Serpent God shook his head slowly. “No, you misunderstand, my son. The Guardian is a gift, remember? It is inseparable from the light.”

Little One realized that his mouth was open. He closed it quickly and waited for his father to continue.

“In the beginning, when I first came to form and found out what I was to do, I used to fight the Guardian. I believed, much as you do, that it was a necessary evil. I thought that if I could somehow diminish it, or even—such was my arrogance—eradicate it, the humans I helped would remember their light and never forget it again.” He laughed, a bitter sound. “What I found was the same thing you did. When you fight the Guardian, you cannot win. It is as infinitely strong as you are, and it cannot be defeated.

But I found something even stranger when I did manage to weaken somebody’s Guardian. Because instead of remembering who they were and embracing it, they grew even more forgetful. Able to live a comfortable life free of the Guardian’s demands and criticisms, they had no further need of me or anything else that might wake them up to who they were. They lived their lives comfortably, perhaps even happily, but they did now know themselves. Not truly.”

The god paused, his head cocked. “Over the years I found many ways to help people remember who they were. Strangely, one of the fastest and most effective is to let their Guardians run their lives completely for a time. This tends to create such destruction and devastation that at some point they realize something is wrong. They begin to wonder if there isn’t something more to them or the world than what they’ve seen so far, and they become curious about what that might be. In that state, it doesn’t take much to wake them up or help them remember.”

Little One thought about this. He remembered how many times he had broken through to a new discovery after what felt like his darkest moments. “I suppose I can see that,” he finally said. “But I have to say I’m still confused. From what I understand, the Guardian creates fear—in my case, a whole lot of it—and when I’m afraid, I don’t feel that I am made of light. Far from it. So how can the Guardian help us remember, if it creates conditions under which memory is impossible?”

“Ah, yes, well, there’s the paradox,” said the Serpent God. “The Guardian will try to keep you from waking up. But it also makes it inevitable that it will happen, given enough time.”

Little One’s brow furrowed. He was about to ask another question when he realized his father was offering him more pancakes. Still puzzled, he nodded his head quickly.

“I generally find it best not to try to explain paradoxes,” the god said. “It tends to set the mind spinning, which is not conducive to remembrance.” He set three more pancakes on Little One’s plate. “But perhaps this can help clarify. You seem to think that you are afraid more often than you should be; perhaps even more than everyone else.”

Little One nodded, his mouth too full to speak.

“Well, first of all, I can tell you that almost every human I’ve spoken to believed the same thing. It’s a funny habit you all have, assuming that you know someone else’s internal experience from the limited things you can see, and then comparing yourselves to whatever it is you think you saw.”

He shook his head. “At any rate, the thing you miss is this: your pain points towards your true self every time. It is a sign that you have strayed away from it. The pain—whether it’s fear, anger, shame, or any other type of misery—can lead you to the exact place where you forgot who you were. It brings you back to that place where you can remember over and over again. And the truly magical thing, which even I do not understand fully, and which I have seen save untold numbers of humans, is that should you ignore its wisdom, the pain does not give up. It gets greater. It grows in intensity until it is strong enough to overwhelm you and your Guardian, so that you may listen.” He trembled slightly. “It is miraculous.”

Little One had a hard time believing that his fear was miraculous. “But it was only when I overcame my fear that I ever made progress,” he argued. “It was courage, not fear, that helped me.”

The Serpent God smiled. “And how did you overcome your fear? By going around it? Avoiding it? Destroying it? No, my son, you overcame it only by walking through it. In the Chamber of Doom, beneath the Tree of Life, even in the city of my children, you felt your fear completely, and that is what allowed you to move beyond it. It is the only way to overcome anything, because your greatest weaknesses are tied to your greatest strengths. Only by embracing them can you discover your true gifts.”

“What do you mean?” Little One asked, wiping some crumbs from his chin with the back of his hand.

“Your fear is part of your sensitivity,” the Serpent God said, handing Little One a napkin. “You feel things deeply. This is what helps you see beyond the external forms of this world. And seeing beyond the forms of this world is what will allow you to accomplish what you are here to do.”

He said it so matter-of-factly that it took Little One a moment to realize what he had just said. When he did, he nearly spit out the Xocoatl he had just poured in his mouth. “Wait, what am I here to do?” he asked, his eyes suddenly fixed on his father.

“You still do not see it?” the Serpent God asked. Little One shook his head slowly, wondering what he missed. “Long ago we gods realized that we were too few to help all those who needed us. So we began to have children, that they might help us with our task.” The diamonds in the center of the giant god’s eyes grew large. “You are my son,” he said. “You are here to help others remember who they truly are, as we gods do.”

Little One’s mind went blank. He had no words, no ideas, no response, but he was intensely aware of the iridescent walls, the sunlight playing off of them, the soft napkin in his hands, and the light in his father’s eyes. He felt warmth rising in him, as well as a settling sensation, as if all the bones and muscles in his body had just found their perfect place.

“You feel it, do you not?” his father continued. “The fit of it. Just as you felt the call to leave your village and seek me, even before you knew what it was you sought.”

There were still no words in Little One’s mind. He just stared at his father with his eyes wide and his mouth open. He barely registered the food in front of him.

“And you felt which way to go, even if you were not sure of it. It did not really matter, for all paths lead back to the one you’re meant to be on, but you knew which path to take.”

Little One nodded mutely.

“All of our children have this capacity to hear the call, and to follow it, despite uncertainty about where they are going. It is in following the call, mysterious as it is, that they discover who they really are, and what they’re here to do.”

It felt to Little One as if the entire world were vibrating, matching the rhythm of his own heart. “I am here to help people remember that they are made of light?” he finally managed to ask in a breathless voice.

“Yes, my son,” said the Serpent God. “That is your mission.”

Little One felt as if he were suddenly nearly as large as the Serpent God before him.

“But there is one more thing you should know,” his father said. Little One noticed that there was now a glint in the god’s eyes, and his lips twitched slightly. “Most of my children get big heads when they first hear their mission. They are proud to be the son of a god.” He laughed. “As well you should be. But you should also know that while you are special, you are not that special. For by now every human is the descendant of some god. And you all have the mission to help each other remember. You do it in vastly different ways, and you focus on different aspects of the light, but you—we—are all tempted to forget our purpose and use our gifts for the Guardian’s goals, and we need each other to remind us of who we really are.”

The room was still vibrating, but now it was spinning as well. The Serpent God laughed. “You look like your head is about to explode. It’s never happened before, but I’d hate for you to be the first. I have given you much to process. I will leave you to your meal, and afterward you will sleep. I will return after we have both had time to rest.”

Little One nodded. As his father stood up and turned to leave, a lone thought appeared in his mind. “Father!” he called, and the giant serpent form turned towards him.

“Yes, my son?” rumbled the god.

“Thank you,” Little One said. “I am deeply grateful.”

The Serpent God winked. “For the knowledge, or the breakfast? I am still not sure which you enjoyed most.” He laughed to himself, then turned and walked through a towering doorway in the iridescent wall.

Little One turned back to the table. He thought he was too overcome to want to eat anything more, but as he stared at his plate and tried to form a coherent thought, he found himself picking up pieces of pancake, dipping them in syrup, and placing them in his mouth.

His first recognizable thought was a prayer that pancakes be a part of his calling.

Click here to read the next story in the series.

Photo credit: Randen Pederson // CC


Little One and the Key to Power (Or, What Even the Gods Need More of)

Following is the fourteenth story in a series that tells the tale of the first hero to go on a journey to discover his calling.

To read the first story in the series, click here.

To read the previous installment, click here.

Little One soon realized that there were two problems with his plan to return to the Palace of the Serpent God in light of his new understanding so that he could rescue his father.

The first was finding the palace.

The second was finding his father.

He had already walked dozens of miles through the grasslands before he figured out how to solve the first problem. His feet were sore, his muscles ached, and he had eaten his way through his entire supply of food and water now that he had rejected the genie’s gift of a backpack that continually restocked itself. He almost wished he had kept that one boon, but the genie’s other presents had all led to equally unforeseen and undesirable outcomes, and he didn’t want to take the risk of something else derailing his quest.

The problem was, he wasn’t sure where he was in relation to the palace. He had traveled here directly from the palace, true enough, but he’d reached the grasslands by falling through an enormous abyss, and as if that weren’t enough to disorient him, he’d also gotten lost multiple times since arriving.

He was staring at the stars when the answer came to him. He’d been trying to sleep and having a hard time of it because of an empty belly. Wondering how far away the stars were, he began to think that it must be very far indeed if they were truly little suns, as they looked. He considered the fact that he might very well be losing his mind but allowed himself to speculate anyway that one of the stars might be his father’s palace; at the very least, that would explain the long fall on the way here.

But that didn’t make any sense. He and Ginger had found the Serpent God’s palace when they were in the mountains. He’d walked all the way around the mountains before finding it, and there were no adjacent grasslands, nor any abysses. He was pretty sure he would have noticed a giant chasm of nothingness you could fall through for days if there had been one nearby.

That’s when it hit him: his father’s palace wasn’t in any one, fixed location. Rather, it was everywhere and nowhere at once, accessible only to those who knew how to find it.

To find the god, you must enter the palace. To enter the palace, you must find the god.

The god he’d had to find was within himself—his own strength, courage, and wisdom. Reconnecting with that had been what allowed him to enter the palace.

That meant he knew what he needed to do to return. Rolling up his blanket and packing his things into his backpack, he recalled how he’d felt when he defeated the guardian of the guru. He could feel his power, the golden warmth of his gifts as it spread from his core all the way out to his hands and feet. As he did, the night around him began to darken, eventually going completely black. Not even the stars were visible anymore, and it was almost as if he were floating weightlessly through another abyss.

This time, though, he didn’t have to wait long. Within a few minutes the darkness began to resolve itself into shapes—a dark box just in front of him, with cylinders extending out to all sides. A little ways off he could make out curved walls with periodic columns like spines forming a perfect circle around him. A grimy dome above him let a dim patch of moonlight shine through where some of the grease had been haphazardly rubbed off.

He remembered the last time he’d been in this room, and what he’d seen through the circle he cleared on the dome.

His father had appeared as a giant god far bigger than the tallest tree. He had a human body covered in scales and a snake’s head and thrashing tail. Congratulations, he’d said. You achieved everything you set out to do.

Little One had thought he was talking to him.

But for the sake of what? the God had boomed. What did you really gain?

Little One hadn’t known how to answer, but it didn’t matter; his father had continued regardless.

You have no idea. Oh yes, sure, you have plenty of answers for everyone else, but absolutely none for yourself. And now in your quest for recognition, in your insatiable hunger for success, you have lost the one thing that you actually cared for.

Only later did Little One realize that his father’s words weren’t directed at him. The Serpent God wasn’t actually there; he was witnessing a memory somehow recorded and replayed by the box with the cylinders surrounding it.

Well, I can’t do it anymore, his father had said. I can’t keep sacrificing myself in order to give you what you want.

It was the sadness and the fear in his father’s voice that had made Little One conclude that he had been kidnapped by someone he used to know and trust—that and his final words.

You are not who I thought you were, the Serpent God had said just before disappearing. I give up. You win. You are free to do what you will.

Little One shook his head as he remembered. His initial conclusion had made sense at the time, but he still had a hard time believing how wrong it had been and how long he had taken to see that.

Standing in the circular room once again, he took a deep breath. He had solved his first problem of finding the palace. Now it was time to address the second.

Finding his father, however, turned out not to be a problem at all.

Before he had finished exhaling, Little One heard something snarl above him. Looking up through the dome, he saw the same figure he had seen before with huge feet, brown- and green-scaled legs, an enormous tail, and a snake’s head so far above him that it nearly disappeared into the sky.

Little One looked at the black box in front of him and the multicolored cylinders around it. All were dark and motionless. His mouth went dry and the golden warmth disappeared. This wasn’t a memory, or a recording. His father was really towering over him.

“So you’ve come to find the great Serpent God,” the giant figure said, its huge tail swishing back and forth. “Well, here I am.”

Little One swallowed, reminding himself of his reason for being here. “Hello, Father,” he said, the words no more than squeaks by the time they left his mouth.

“I can’t hear you!” roared the Serpent God. “Speak up, boy!” Little One saw something huge and dark descend like a falling boulder. Before he could react, the dome above him exploded into thousands of pieces and the god was straightening back up.

Little One wondered if the god had meant to smash him along with the dome. He didn’t wait to find out. “I said, Hello, Father.”

Father, yes,” the Serpent God rumbled, his voice like a distant earthquake. “So the errant son returns. I suppose now that you’ve passed your tests, you’re here to claim your reward.”

Little One felt panic rise within him. He had to wait for it to pass before he could feel that a small current of warmth was still coursing through him.

“No, Father,” he said more firmly. “I’m not here for any reward.”

The red eyes seemed to bore into his face as they searched him. “I see,” boomed the god. “Then you must be here to beg my assistance.”

Little One swallowed again. “No, Father,” he said. “I’m not here to ask for aid either.”

The enormous tail swung back and forth in the sky. “Wisdom, then? Many of my children used to come for wisdom. Gods, too. What type of answers do you beseech?”

“I do not come seeking answers,” Little One said.

“Then why on earth are you here? To worship me? To get in my good graces for a future favor? To tell all your friends that you spoke with the great Serpent God?”

“No,” Little One said. He felt his feet on the ground, the quiet strength running up through them. “Father, I have come to save you.”

The enormous tail swung towards him and smashed into the palace wall to his right, leaving a dark hole in its wake. As he flinched despite himself, Little One couldn’t help but wonder if the blow was meant for him. He shook his head, reminding himself that if the god had meant to hit him, he would already be dead. The thought gave him hope.

“Save me?” the god laughed. “You must be confused. Why would the most powerful god in the world need saving?”

Little One had to make an effort to keep his voice calm. “Because you’ve lost the one thing you actually cared about,” he said quietly, just loud enough to be heard.

“And what’s that?” the god asked, his face contorted into a sneer.

“Yourself,” Little One said softly.

The red eyes glared at him. He could almost feel them burning holes in his skin, despite the distance. “I have lost nothing,” the Serpent God rumbled, his voice like crashing thunder. “Nothing that matters. I am the most powerful god in the world. I can have anything I want. Anything! Even the other gods worship me. I had to build the hidden palace that you’re standing in just to get away from them. But what would you understand of such things? You are nothing but a human, and a failed one at that.” The tail lashed back and forth.

Little One looked up at the God, a question in his eyes.

“Oh, yes,” the deep voice rolled on. “I know what you have been up to. I am a god, remember? I see all. I saw you lose to the guardian of the guru, saw you fail to get the answer you sought, saw you squander the genie’s gifts. You are nothing but a feeble, pathetic loser.”

Little One fought the urge to defend himself, to clarify what had actually happened. “That may be true, Father, but I also learned something that I believe can help you. It has already helped me.”

“I do not need your help!” roared the god. “Are you stupid as well as weak? I have told you. I am the most powerful god there is. I have everything I have ever wanted. I am successful beyond your wildest dreams! What could I possibly need from you?”

“Perhaps you’re right,” Little One continued calmly. “Perhaps there is nothing you need from me. But tell me this: Is this really all you’ve ever wanted? It looks awfully lonely to me.”

Something flickered quickly across the Serpent God’s face, but in the next instant it was gone. “You have no idea what you are talking about, boy,” he hissed. “There is no one who is more respected, feared, or admired than me.”

“Yes,” Little one said, nodding his head. “I see that. You have done very well, far better than I ever could. My only question is, how does it feel to be so successful?”

The red eyes were glowing again, but the god didn’t say anything.

“Do you feel satisfied?” Little One asked. “Peaceful? Fulfilled? Do you feel good about all that you’ve done? Can you feel the strength of your gifts?”

Suddenly the tail came crashing down on the other side of Little One, smashing another section of wall. “I am tired of your idiotic questions!” the Serpent God roared. “I have no time for this! I will destroy you like the ant that you are!” The tail flew back up towards the sky, this time directly over Little One’s head.

“Because I can, Father,” Little One said quickly, resisting the urge to duck. “I can feel so much beauty, light, and love within you, even if you can’t.”

For a long time there was silence. Finally the god said in a low growl, “And why should I care about these things? Why should I listen to you about any of this?”

“I have been lost too, Father,” Little One said. “I know how painful it is. I want you to find again what I know is within you. So that you and the world will know your light once again.”

The tail descended slowly back to the ground, where it lay motionless. The giant body slumped, and there was a soft noise like wind passing over mountaintops.

“Why will you not worship me?” the god finally asked, his voice a hoarse whisper.

Little One looked up at him, his heart both heavy and full. “Because you have helped me to find my true self,” he said equally softly. “And so for you I am able to feel nothing but love.”

He heard a loud whimpering sound as the giant serpent head stared at him for a long moment before closing its eyes. Time passed, and Little One wondered if he had saved his father or destroyed him. Then suddenly the eyes flew open again, and he was surprised to notice that they were no longer red.

The large head descended from the sky until it had reached the height of the surrounding treetops. It was huge in front of him; he realized that the head alone was at least three times as wide as he was tall.

“Thank you, Son,” the Serpent God said softly, his black eyes glittering in the night. “You have no idea what you have done for me tonight.”

“It is surely no more than you have done for me,” Little One answered, hardly daring to believe that he was finally speaking with his true father.

The Serpent God straightened back up to his full height. “How did you know?” he asked from above, his voice booming now. “How did you figure out what happened, and how to save me?”

Little One was about to answer when he heard something growl quietly very close to him. He jumped, startled, and looked around for the source of the noise. When he realized what it was, he flushed, hoping his father hadn’t seen. “It was you who showed me,” he finally managed to answer. “You and this box.” He nodded his head towards the black box with the cylinders in front of him.

“The rainbow lightning box?” the Serpent God asked, a furrow appearing on his serpentine face.

“Yes,” Little One said, smiling in self-satisfaction at having been right. “It played a…sort of memory of you that I could see when I first came here. I misunderstood what it meant at the time, but eventually I figured it out.”

The god’s face grew dark. “Strange,” he said. “I didn’t know it could do that.” He paused, and Little One could just make out his eyes narrowing against the sky, which was beginning to lighten with the coming dawn. When he spoke again, his words sounded more like demands than questions. “But you still haven’t told me: what did you misunderstand, and how did you come to learn the truth?”

Little One opened his mouth to answer when he heard the snarling noise again, this time much louder.

“What was that?” the god snapped, disbelief clear on his face. “Are you growling at me? Boy, I will make you regret the day you were born. I will—”

Suddenly the sky exploded into thunderous noise and the ground beneath Little One shook. He instinctively ducked down, covering the back of his head with his hands. When the sound finally faded, he peeked out from beneath his arms. The Serpent God had a huge smile on his face.

“You’re hungry,” his father said. “That was your stomach growling, was it not?”

Little One straightened up enough to look at his father directly, but he kept his hands over the back of his head. “Yes, sir,” he said.

“I apologize, son,” said the Serpent God. “I’m afraid I developed some bad habits over the last few years. Would you do me the favor of forgiving me, and accompanying me into my palace for some breakfast?”

Little One lowered his hands back to his sides and nodded slowly.

“And please, call me Father,” said the god.

“Yes, Father,” Little One said, feeling strangely reassured that even a god could have such a lapse, and what’s more, that he could laugh about it.

As he watched the walls around him grow to fit the giant form before him—given the dynamic location of the palace, Little One supposed he shouldn’t be surprised that its size was relative as well—there was only one thing detracting from the lightness that he felt. Standing up straight and rolling his shoulders behind him, he decided to assume that she was on her way and would arrive at any moment.

As his father looked down at him with an amused smile still on his face, Little One saw something sparkle in his eyes. It wasn’t the sun, he realized, which was shining somewhere behind the god’s ankle. It was peace, rather, and freedom, and a wide ocean of joy.

Click here to read the next story in the series.

Photo credit: Randen Pederson // CC

Little One and the Guardian of the Guru (Or, What to Do When You Realize You Aren’t Going to Succeed)

Following is the thirteenth story in a series that tells the tale of the first hero to go on a journey to discover his calling.

To read the first story in the series, click here.

To read the previous installment, click here.

Even as his attention was split between dodging blows, seeking openings for counterattack, and searching the land around him for anything that might offer protection, Little One became aware of a strong, insistent thought taking shape in the back of his mind.

He tried to push the thought away, focusing instead on the fight at hand, but it persisted, a tickling, relentless noise in the back of his mind. When he evaded a particularly strong attack and his opponent found himself temporarily off-balance, Little One had a chance to catch his breath. In that moment, the thought rushed to the surface with more precision and force than even his foe’s most powerful strikes. A split second later, it landed squarely in the center of his consciousness with the undeniable weight of truth:

This opponent was undefeatable.

As his foe regained his balance and started his next attack, Little One tried to convince himself it was just a desperate thought born of fear and stress, inaccurate and unworthy of his attention. But even as he raised his sword to defend himself again, he knew that it was more than that. He had sensed it in his bones and somehow known it before the words had even taken shape.

It wasn’t criticism; it was fact: No matter how skillful he was, no matter how strong and persistent and clever, there was no way he could vanquish this adversary.

He hadn’t felt this way when he started.

In fact, the very act of finding this foe had been a type of triumph. After getting his three wishes from the genie and learning about the existence of the wise man from Abdul, he had immediately set out to look for him so that he could ask him where his father was.

Abdul had warned him that to ask the wise man a question, he was going to have to defeat his bodyguard. He had also told Little One that there was no way to find the wise man. “But if you believe in him, and if the need is great, he will find you,” he had said.

After wandering the grasslands for days on end, Little One had realized his need may not be as great as he had thought.

He had tried walking determinedly in each of the four directions. He had tried staying in one place, waiting to be discovered. He had tried following streams, the wind, and the stars, but none of it had worked.

Fortunately, food and water weren’t a problem with his new, genie-designed backpack that gave him access to a continuous supply of both.

Trying to control his thoughts and feelings was a different story. Each morning he woke up optimistic and determined; each night he went to bed filled with hopelessness and despair.

He had time to think about all the reasons he was failing, then to refute them, only to come up with new ones later on.

He spent many hours thinking about his father, how he was kidnapped, and what in the world could possibly be strong enough to overpower the Serpent God.

Most of the time he worried about what the bodyguard of the wise man would be like, and whether he could defeat him. Abdul had warned him that the strength and fighting prowess the genie had given him may not be enough to vanquish the bodyguard. Little One tried to come up with fighting plans and strategies, but it was hard to do when he wasn’t even sure what type of creature he would be facing. He worried that he wouldn’t be strong enough to beat the bodyguard, then resolved that he would have to be, then gave over to doubt once again in endless ongoing cycles.

After weeks of this, Little One finally began to give up hope of ever finding the wise man. He figured he didn’t believe enough, or his need wasn’t sufficient. He had no other clues about where to go to look for his father, but he began to make plans to backtrack the way he had come in an effort to rediscover the trail.

Then one night after dinner when he was pleading, praying, and yelling at the stars in frustration, a habit he had fallen into of late, he suddenly realized that for the first time, something had answered him.

It was a deep voice. At first Little One didn’t realize it was a voice at all because it sounded like distant thunder. But the thunder kept repeating itself, and eventually Little One could make out the words:

“What is it that you seek, Little One?”

Little One looked around, but he didn’t see anything except shadows of grass and stars expanding in endless patterns above. “I seek the wise man,” he said loudly, trying to project his voice in all directions at once.

There was only silence for a moment. “I prefer to be called guru,” the voice finally rumbled.

Little One sat up quickly. “Guru, I’ve been looking for you. I have an important question to ask.”

“To ask a question of me,” boomed the voice, “you must first face my guardian.”

Little One felt a lump in his throat and swallowed uncomfortably. “Yes, Guru, I understand,” he said. “I am willing to do whatever you ask.”

“Good,” the voice said. “That is as it should be. He will come with the dawn. Be prepared.”

Little One looked around again but still saw nothing. “Yes,” he said. “I will be. But who is he? How will I recognize him?”

Thunder rumbled like a laugh in the distance. “You will know him,” was all the voice said. “Though not as well as you think.”

Little One asked what he meant, but received only silence in answer. The voice didn’t come again, and he spent the night trying to sleep but thinking instead of what the dawn would bring.

As the black sky began to turn gray in the east, Little One sat up, dressed himself, and tried to eat something. He watched the Eastern horizon carefully, scanning it for strange shapes, shadows, or any sign of life.

He was so focused on his vigil that he nearly jumped out of his skin when something tapped him on the back of his shoulder. He whirled around and found himself face to face with…


He was so surprised that for a moment he couldn’t move. In front of him was an exact replica of himself. He had only seen himself this clearly a few times in his life when staring in water that was perfectly still, but even so he was certain. The face, the body, everything were exact copies. He even had the scar on his forearm from a childhood fall. At the last moment, Little One realized something else.

His opponent was not the Little One who left his village so many moons ago, or even the one who discovered that the Serpent God had been kidnapped. No. His opponent was the Little One who had already visited the genie—bigger, stronger, and—he could only assume—gifted with greater fighting prowess.

As if hearing his thoughts, his foe reached behind his back to grab something. A weapon, Little One guessed. He spun to the side to get out of its path and found himself staring directly at his foe, who had effortlessly turned along with him. His mirror image was holding out his hand, offering a sword hilt first.

Little One didn’t move. ”What are you?” he asked.

His replica just shook his head then nodded towards the hand holding the sword. Reluctantly, Little One reached out and took it. As soon as his fingers closed over the hilt, he saw something metallic reflecting the first light of the sun fly towards him faster than a diving hawk.

Without having to think about it, Little One ducked, turning the movement into a spin from which he let loose an upward stroke of his own. His replica blocked it and immediately countered with another attack. Little One noticed that the Guardian’s face was expressionless as he moved, as if he were doing nothing more than tilling fields or watching the clouds.

They exchanged blows in rapid succession, each evenly matching the efforts of the other.

After multiple rounds of this, Little One began to realize something. The two of them weren’t just evenly matched; they were perfectly equated. Each time he evaded and countered, the Guardian did the same. If he took a deep breath and summoned his strength for a particularly aggressive attack, his foe almost immediately followed. Even when he thought he’d figured out a weakness to exploit—he somehow knew that his replica was weaker on his left side, for instance, and always followed a jab with some sort of slice—his opponent seemed to instantly find some flaw in his own defense and would shortly begin to take advantage of it.

Before long, an insistent thought began tickling the back of Little One’s mind. The realization that he couldn’t defeat this enemy, no matter how well he fought or how hard he tried, hit him with the force of a blow.

He staggered as his sword deflected a deafening strike that fell on him like a boulder.

Even as he came back with his own series of slashes and jabs and cuts, he wondered if all his triumphs so far had really been for naught, leading him to nothing more than crushing and certain defeat. He resolved with grim determination to keep fighting and find a way.

The Guardian regained the upper hand and began pounding on him from all directions at once. As he parried the blade away, Little One became aware that he was growing weary. His movements were getting slower, and his arms were trembling in between blows. When he thrust one leg forward to make his next strike, it nearly gave out. As he defended against the immediate counterattack, he realized that in this alone his opponent was not his equal; his replica appeared to show no signs of lethargy or fatigue.

It occurred to Little One that the genie’s gifts had been a double-edged sword. The stronger he felt, the more powerful his opponent became. The better he fought, the more skillfully his replica opposed him. He remembered how the genie had acted as if he had some sort of secret knowledge he wasn’t sharing, as if he had known this would happen. Heat rose in Little One as he realized that the genie had tricked him.

Furious, Little One gave a sudden backhand slash with his sword, forcing his replica to take half a step back. Breaking his previous rhythm, he pressed his advantage and hacked angrily at his foe, his sword in constant motion.

The Guardian used the space he had won with his half step to deftly avoid all the blows. Then, just as Little One’s arm was starting to tire, his replica gave a savage upward cut that left his side momentarily exposed. Howling with rage, Little One put all his weight behind what he meant to be one final, punishing thrust.

When the Guardian turned away at the last possible moment, evading his sword with an abundance of ease and grace, Little One’s momentum carried him forward faster than his feet could keep up. He belatedly realized that it had been a trap; by then, however, there was nothing he could do.

His opponent swept his feet out from under him with his foot, and Little One fell heavily to his knees. A split second later he felt cold metal pressed against his throat.

A wave of despair washed over Little One. He was debilitated, alone, and powerless. There was nothing more he could do. He was now at the mercy of the Guardian, a creature infamous for having none.

As he knelt and the sword remained motionless on his throat, shame followed hot on the heels of despair. The genie may have tricked him, but he was the one who made the wishes. He had willingly walked right into that trap, just as he had eagerly jumped into this one. He deserved whatever happened next.

A single thought arose, as undeniable as it was hard to believe.

It is over. I have failed.

As if reading his mind, the Guardian spoke for the first time. It was strange to hear his voice coming from outside his own head. “Do you give up?” his replica asked.

Little One considered that if he admitted that much, perhaps the guardian would spare his life. He hung his head, trying to form the bitter words in his mouth.

But in this too he failed. Instead of saying anything, he heard a hissing sound, followed by a familiar voice.

“Sssssso what does failure look like?  What does it sound or smell like?  Tell me so I know how to recognize this failure in the future.” He wasn’t sure if the voice came from inside or out of his head. He decided it didn’t matter.

It looks like this, Little One thought sadly. It looks like me on my knees with a sword at my throat. Like my father remaining captive forever. Like me letting Ginger down. Like never seeing my family again. I didn’t make it up this time, Snake. I’m afraid this time my failure is real.

“Fear is a lack of vision. What you are most afraid of doesn’t exist.”

A lack of vision? Little One asked silently. What am I not seeing?

He considered what he could be missing. Failure was what he most feared, and now it was upon him. Other than that, facing the Guardian of the Guru had scared him most. But the Guardian did exist, and he was even stronger and more dangerous than Little One had feared.

A thought started to form at the edge of his mind, but when he tried to pursue it, a rough, urgent voice interrupted him.

“Do you give up?” the Guardian asked again. Little One turned around to look and saw that his face was no longer expressionless; his eyes were narrowed, and his mouth was set in a snarl.

Little One tried again to say the words, but he choked before he could get them out.

He heard another hissing sound, this one even louder.

“If you fail, Little One, then perhaps you will find that what you were looking for was within you all along.”

The thought tried to surface; he could feel it consolidating, trying to make itself clear. It was there, calling to him, just beyond the edge of his reach.

“This is the last time I will ask,” the Guardian growled. “Do you give up?” The metal pressed more firmly against his skin.

Suddenly the thought crystallized in Little One’s mind. What he was looking for was already within him. Before receiving his wishes from the genie, he had successfully navigated every challenge he faced. He hadn’t needed size, or power, or fighting prowess; what he already had had been enough.

He’d had enough strength to face every obstacle he’d encountered head-on and enough wisdom to know what to do even in the most difficult situations. Though he was constantly terrified, he somehow found enough courage to keep doing what he had to, and enough compassion to forgive himself for doing it less than gracefully. It occurred to him that he’d always had everything he needed, even if he hadn’t known it at the time.

With a start, Little One understood that his greatest fear hadn’t really been failure or even letting his family down. It was that when put to the test, he would find that what he had—that who he was—simply wasn’t enough.

He almost laughed out loud as he realized that the snake was right; what he feared most didn’t exist. He had always been more than enough. But believing the fear and acting as if it were true had nearly caused him to fail.

Despite being on his knees with a sword at his throat, he felt a sense of lightness and power. He could feel the strength of his gifts filling all the hollow spaces within him. He realized that it didn’t matter so much what happened now. What he thought was at stake wasn’t, and never had been. He still wanted to save his father and find Ginger and return to his family, but he didn’t have to. They were all as bright and indestructible as he was at their core. True failure was impossible. He laughed again, understanding that he was free.

As he turned to look back at his replica, he understood what he had to do.

“No,” he said in a low voice. “I do not give up.” He turned his head back and saw the Guardian’s eyes grow wide in surprise, then narrow once again. The sword left his throat as his replica pulled it back and prepared for another assault.

Little One spoke quickly. “But I also will not fight.” Praying he was right about what would happen next, he flung his sword as far as he could to his right.

At first the Guardian’s face grew red and the snarl returned to his lips. Little One flinched, wondering if he had been wrong. But as his replica raised his hand as if to strike, it was as if it hit an invisible wall. Hand and sword bounced back down by his side. He tried to lift it again and hit the same unseen barrier. Then he watched with wide eyes as his arm hurled the sword to the side, where it landed next to Little One’s, even as the muscles and tendons of his arm strained beneath the skin as if attempting to resist the motion.

The Guardian looked at Little One in disbelief. As he did, Little One turned around to face him and saw that something strange was happening. His replica was shrinking. Little One looked down and saw that the same thing was happening to him. They were getting shorter, their large muscles melting away. A few moments later, he found himself facing a mirror image of himself as he had looked when he first left his village.

Little One gave a sigh of relief. His replica, eyes bulging, looked down at his body. Even as he did so, it began to fade as if becoming a ghost or a shadow or the shadow of a ghost. Within a few moments, he had disappeared entirely.

Little One fell on his back, breathing deeply and looking up at the sky, which was an uninterrupted deep blue around a glowing orange sun. Despite the lack of clouds, Little One heard thunder in the distance.

“Well done,” the thunder said. “How did you know to do that?”

Little One sat up and looked around. Even in daylight, he couldn’t see anything other than grass, sun, and sky.

“We were perfectly matched,” he said, addressing it all. “The harder I tried, the stronger he got. I figured—hoped, more like it—that if I didn’t fight, then he wouldn’t either.” He paused. “And he was my mirror image. I guessed that if I tried to go back to the old me, the one without the genie’s gifts, then perhaps he would as well.” Little One shrugged slightly. “I’m not really a fighter at heart,” he admitted.

The thunder rumbled once again like laughter on the horizon. “Very good,” the Guru said.

“So can I ask you my question now?” Little One asked, scrambling to his feet.

“Yes,” said the Guru. “But only if I can ask you a question first.”

Little One’s eyebrows furrowed in confusion. “Sure,” he finally said. “I suppose that’s only fair.” He wondered what the Guru could possibly want to know from him.

“Where is your father the Serpent God?” boomed the deep voice, sounding as if it were coming from all directions at once.

Little One’s mouth dropped open. “But that was my question for you!” he said, sounding more like a child than he’d intended. “I don’t know! That’s the point! The whole reason I fought your guardian was so you would tell me.”

There was silence for a moment. Finally, in a quieter rumble, the Guru said, “There is no difference between you and me. Just as there is no difference between you and him.” A slight breeze rippled the grass where the Guardian had been.

Understanding, like the first edges of the sun breaking over the horizon at dawn, began to light Little One’s mind.

“So I ask you again,” said the guru, and the land seemed to vibrate with the bass of his voice. “Where is your father the Serpent God?”

Little One looked at the sun, the deep blue sky, and the grass where his replica had been. He felt the vibration of the Guru’s words in his belly. He could still feel the strength and fullness of his gifts pulsing through his body with a golden warmth.

Suddenly the sun broke free from the horizon in his mind and lit every corner of his being. He knew exactly where his father was. And he knew too how wrong he had been, how big his misunderstanding. He hurriedly began to gather his things in preparation for a long journey back the way he had come.

A few minutes later, he was ready to go. “Thank you, Guru” he yelled at the sky, the grass, the rumble of his own heartbeat.

“Thank you,” rolled the deep voice, and Little One could feel now how it began in his own mind before extending out over the infinite grass.

Click here to read the next story in the series.

Photo credit: Randen Pederson // CC

Little One and the Disingenuous Genie

Following is the twelfth story in a series that tells the tale of the first hero to go on a journey to discover his calling.

To read the first story in the series, click here.

To read the previous installment, click here.

Little One was so caught up in his thoughts that he almost didn’t see the strange metal object lying on its side in the middle of the stream.

He had been walking for three days. The landscape hadn’t changed in that time; the water in the stream sometimes flowed smoothly over pebbles and sometimes bounced noisily around large rocks, but otherwise the same immutable green grass, rolling hills, and blue sky stretched on endlessly.

The monotony of the scenery and the gentle bubbling of the stream had lulled him into a kind of waking dream filled with thoughts and images that seemed to come and go of their own accord.

As the minutes stretched into hours and the hours into days, the thoughts moved from an irritated challenging of the fly’s definition of “not far from here” to a curious imagining of the mysterious creature it had told him about, the one who could give Little One everything he was looking for.

Eventually the thoughts moved beyond the creature and on to his father. Little One imagined himself finding the Serpent God and rescuing him from whomever—or whatever—had captured him. He pictured how grateful the God would be, how he would proclaim Little One his favorite son and offer him gifts in gratitude.

Little One went on to think about how he would tell the story to Ginger when he found her again. He imagined walking with her in triumph back to the City of the Children of the Serpent God and telling all his other fancy brothers and sisters who could fly and become invisible and invent miraculous things that he was the sibling—small and frightened and without obvious talents as he was—who had delivered their father from danger. He felt warm, tall, and strong as he considered the possibility.

Then a cold thought struck from nowhere. He didn’t know where Ginger was. Maybe she wasn’t wandering or lost, as he had imagined, but closer to finding their father than he was. Maybe, he thought with a start, she had already found him. He had run into so many delays that it was entirely possible that she had not only found him but also had time to rescue him, receive his accolades, and by now be halfway back to the City to tell their siblings of her success.

Little One suddenly felt chilled, small, and empty. It was then that he belatedly realized that something in the landscape had changed.

He found himself rubbing his eyes, a sharp pain and brightness lingering behind his eyelids. Letting the images of his theoretical defeat fade, he looked around. The stream gurgled happily in front of him, tall, green grass surrounded him on all sides, and the sun bore down on him from the sky directly above as usual. When he turned to look behind him, however, he saw something shining in the middle of the stream.

He couldn’t believe he had missed it even momentarily. It reflected the light like a signal fire, demanding the attention of any living creature within eyeshot.

As he walked up to it, squinting to protect his eyes, he began to make out its form. It was unlike anything he’d ever seen before. It looked like an elongated cup with a handle on one side and a long snout on the other with a hole on the end. When he leaned down to pick it up, he saw that it had a wide base that would allow it to rest evenly on the ground. It was made entirely of thin metal that continued to shine brightly in the sun as he held it up to his face.

“Well, what are you waiting for?” asked a high-pitched voice from behind him. He wheeled around. There was nobody there.

Remembering the fly, he began to search the air and ground around him for insects, worms, or other talking animals. He found none.

“You won’t be able to see me until you do what you’re supposed to do with the lamp.”

“The lamp?” Little One asked, unsure of which direction to address as he spoke.

“Yes, that thing you’re holding. Have you never heard the stories, boy?”

Little One’s face grew warm. “No, I guess not,” he said. “What exactly am I supposed to do with this…lamp?”

There was a frustrated exhalation of air. Little One could feel it like a sudden warm breeze on his cheek. “Everyone’s heard the stories. What cave did you grow up in?”

Little One felt heat rising within him. “No cave, sir, but I’d be happy to cooperate if you would just tell me what it is I’m supposed to do.”

“Nobody in the last thousand years has needed to ask me what do with the lamp,” the voice squeaked unhappily. “My master wouldn’t be happy if he knew. But fine. It’s been such a long time since anyone’s sought him out that I don’t think he would object to me saying, not even to someone as clueless as you.” Little One scowled. “Everyone knows you’re supposed to rub the lamp three times. But my master likes his belly rubbed in a slightly different way.” Shrill laughter that reminded Little One of a baby donkey braying for its mother rang out across the grass.

Growing impatient, Little One prompted him. “And how do I do that?”

The braying stopped. “You need to appreciate the lamp.”

Little One spun the lamp in his hands. “Appreciate it?” He looked at it closely. “Well, it is very shiny.”

He heard a groan. “If you want my master to appear, you’re going to have to do better than that.”

“Okay, it’s very shiny and…pretty. It has a nice shape, and the way it reflects the sun is quite beautiful.”

“That’s better,” said the voice, sounding slightly less squeaky now. “And what else?”

“Well, it has a nice feel to it. It’s so smooth and cool from the water. It feels good in my hands.”

“That wasn’t too terrible. And what else?”

Little One thought. It seemed odd to have to put so much thought into complimenting a piece of metal. “Well, I suppose it’s very well-made. I didn’t work with metal in my village, but I never saw any of those who did make something so consistently thin and even and shapely. It’s pretty impressive I guess.”

There was a short silence. “You guess?”

Little One sighed. “It’s impressive. Very impressive.”

A singe clap of thunder boomed through the cloudless sky. As Little One looked up to see where it came from, the lamp began to tremble in his hands. Soon it was shaking so much that it fell through his fingers and onto the ground in front of him. Its shaking grew so violent that it began jumping back and forth across the grass. A loud clanking noise reverberated from within.

He had just started to wonder whether he should run in the opposite direction when something long and thin shot out of the lamp, disappearing into the grass beside him. Just then, a giant, blue hand erupted out of the snout of the lamp. A thick, blue arm followed it. Just as a shoulder began to emerge, there was a loud clunk and what sounded to Little One like a muffled curse.

After a long moment in which Little One debated once again whether to help or to run, a huge head squeezed its way through the opening, followed in quick succession by another shoulder and arm, a giant trunk, and two thick legs covered in blue smoke. The body was huge and at least six times the size of Little One, but it floated above the lamp as if made of air and settled on its side a little above eye level, a large elbow and hand propping up its enormous head.

“This infernal lamp gets smaller every time I come out of it,” the monster complained to nobody in particular. His loud voice was not exactly shrill, but it somehow lacked bass. He looked around, his eyes finally landing on Little One. “So you like my lamp, eh?” he said, his swollen lips curving into a smile.

“It’s very nice,” Little One said.

The smile disappeared. “Nice?” accused the blue man, his eyes bulging and his chin jiggling. “Nice?” His giant head swirled around, searching the grasslands on either side of them. “Abdul. Abdul, you fool! Where are you?”

The grass to Little One’s left shuddered slightly. After a moment a thin, blue man appeared from between the blades. His face was drawn and his ribs showed; it looked like he hadn’t eaten for weeks. Though his skin was the same bright blue as the other creature, he otherwise shared nothing in common with him. “Yes, master?” he asked in a tremulous voice.

“Abdul, you useless man. We’ve talked about this! Only those who are worthy are to be allowed to summon me.”

Abdul’s body shrank back as his eyes studied the ground in front of him. “Yes, master. I’m sorry, master. You are right. I am a fool. It’s just that it has been so long since anybody came to seek you, and this man—this boy—he said your lamp was beautiful.”

“He did?”

“Yes, and he said it was impressive too.”


“Yes, ‘very impressive’ were his exact words.”

“Well, then,” said the giant, blue man. “I suppose you may not have been entirely useless in this instance.” He turned his large head back to Little One. “So I suppose you are going to ask me now for your three wishes?”

Little One looked at him in surprise. “Three wishes?” he asked.

The giant eyes rolled. “Don’t play dumb with me, boy. Everyone knows when you rub a genie’s lamp, you get three wishes. That’s why everyone comes looking for me. That’s why you’re here, no doubt.” The genie’s chest puffed out and his head rose a few inches higher.

Little One wondered if this was really the same creature the fly had told him about. This genie seemed so much less magnificent than he had been expecting. At the same time, he was offering him three wishes, and the fly had said the creature would be able to give him what he sought. Little One made up his mind.

“Yes, genie, sir,” he said, trying to sound as respectful as possible. “I am here for my three wishes. I would be most grateful if you would help me to find my father.”

“That’s not a wish,” grumbled the genie impatiently. “Ask me for something you can touch, be, or do—something you can hold onto. Something that means something, boy!”

Little One was confused. “Like what, sir?”

The genie looked back at Abdul with disgust. “Where do you find these people, man?” Abdul kept staring at the ground in front of him as he began to mumble a response. The genie interrupted him. “It’s a rhetorical question, Abdul. I don’t really want an answer.” He turned back to Little One. “I’m a powerful genie, boy. Possibly the most powerful in the world. People come from all over to seek me out. Why? Because I am almighty, not to mention generous. I alone can give them anything they want, in the blink of an eye. Anything! They understand that, and they don’t waste their time with wishes as inconsequential and idiotic as that one.”

Little One swallowed. It felt like he had a rock in his throat. “What types of things do they ask for then?”

The genie roared in laughter. “Important things! Gold, silver, everlasting riches! The ability to accomplish such feats as will guarantee them fame for generations to come! Knowledge of their enemies, or the power to vanquish them! You’re thinking too small, boy. Stop wasting my time.”

Little One thought about it. “I don’t mean to waste your time, sir,” he said slowly. “But I don’t see how any of those things could help me right now.”

The genie’s eyes became hard. He pushed himself up from his side and stood to his full height. He looked at least twice as big as he had a moment before. He leaned over until his nose was almost touching Little One’s. Little One could feel the air around him vibrate with power, and his heart began to beat rapidly.

“Not able to help you, boy?” The genie’s voice was as quiet as a viper getting ready to strike. “I ought to kill you and put you out of your misery right now. But I’m a good guy. An understanding guy. I get that sometimes you humans need a little help to appreciate what’s staring you right in the face.” He straightened back up, but that didn’t slow down Little One’s pulse.

“You dream of rescuing your father, no?” the genie asked casually. Without bothering to look for Little One’s response, he continued. “Most unlikely son saves the Serpent God. What a wonderful story. Your siblings will be so jealous. Ginger especially.” Little One’s mouth dropped open. The genie just grinned. “Oh, yes, I know all about you. But then again, I know what to wish for.” He paused. “So you think you have what you need to be successful, eh? With that body and those skills? You think you have the strength you need to find your father and the prowess to defeat whatever is holding him?” The genie laughed, but his eyes remained hard. “I’ll say this: I wouldn’t bet a copper penny on you. Sure, you’ve gotten this far, but you have no idea what evil lies ahead. I assure you, the foes you’ll have to defeat will make those you’ve already faced seem like puppies in comparison.”

Little One felt small and cold again. The genie continued. “Of course, you don’t have a hope to rescue anybody without proper weapons and equipment. And where will you get this equipment? You clearly can’t make it yourself. But with enough gold and silver, you could buy it in the next village. And what about food? You think you’re going to just find what you need forever? That’s not the way the world works, boy. You’ve been lucky so far, but sustenance is scarce. Your survival hangs by a thread. One wish from me and you won’t have to worry about starving or dying of thirst like so many have before you.”

Little One’s mouth was dry. He swallowed hard. “Well, I guess it would be helpful to have plenty of food and water, though I would need to be able to carry it. Maybe in a backpack! Could you give me a backpack that creates an endless supply of food?”

The genie glared at him. “Can I? You dare to doubt my ability? Stand by and watch, foolish human.”

The genie waved a hand and suddenly a backpack appeared next to Little One.

“Well, test it out,” the genie said. “I know you humans need to see it to believe it.”

Little One picked up the backpack and looked inside. There were all kinds of fruits, nuts, bread, and eggs inside. He pulled out one piece of fruit to examine it and saw that another appeared immediately in its place. He smiled. “Wow, that’s amazing.”

The genie’s shoulders settled on his back. “I am, aren’t I?” he said, smiling. “So what’s you’re second wish then?”

Little One thought for a moment. “I suppose if I am to find my father, it would be good to be stronger.”

“Strength?” said the genie. He clapped his hands and it sounded like something had exploded. “Done!” he yelled, a smile showing sharp teeth in the back of his mouth.

Little One looked down. He was taller, and his arms and legs looked almost unrecognizable to him. They were covered with large, well-defined muscles. Flexing, he could feel the inherent power within them. He grinned.

“Now you’re starting to understand,” said the genie. “So what is your third and final wish?”

This time Little One didn’t have to think at all. “Fighting skills,” he said. “I want to be able to defeat any enemy that comes my way.”

The genie’s smile grew bigger. “Coming right up,” he said, and Little One felt a warm breeze blow over him. He felt like something had changed, but he wasn’t sure what it was.

“I can see your doubt,” said the genie, shaking his giant head. “There’s so little trust these days. Abdul! Abdul, come here and show him what he can do.”

Abdul sighed and stepped forward. He held his hands in fists in front of him. Suddenly one of them came rushing towards Little One’s face. Before he knew what he was doing, Little One’s hand flashed out and blocked the punch. In the same moment, his other hand formed a fist and smashed into Abdul’s face.

“I’m so sorry!” Little One said, pulling his hand quickly back to his side. “I really didn’t meant to—”

“Oh, relax,” said the genie. “Abdul is used to it. You’re hardly the first person who’s wanted to test out their newfound power. You’re alright, aren’t you Abdul?” Abdul nodded. “See, he’s fine. It’s part of his job. But how about you? How does it feel?” The corners of his lips peeled back in what looked like part snarl, part smile.

Little One had to admit he felt good. He was excited. With a guaranteed food supply, and strength and physical prowess guaranteed to help him vanquish any adversary, he was sure that he would never fail at anything again. He started to tell the genie this when an image flashed in his mind.

It was Ginger. She was smiling, sharing his excitement. He suddenly felt sad that she wasn’t here with him.

His smile faded. Beneath the sadness he became aware of something else. He wasn’t sure what it was at first. Then he realized—it was nothing. Beneath the excitement in his chest was a vast emptiness that felt almost big enough for him to fall into if he focused on it too long.

The genie suddenly began dusting off his hands as if in a great rush. “Well, no matter. I can see how satisfied you are. Three wishes, fulfilled once again. My work here is done.”

Little One tried to move his attention from the nothingness back to the excitement and the sense of power in his limbs. But something kept nagging at him, bringing him back to the void.

“The greatest compliment you can give is a referral. I’m here 24/7, always waiting to make dreams come true. Come, Abdul, it’s time to go.”

“Wait,” Little One said. He wasn’t sure what he needed to say, but he felt like something important was missing. The abyss swelled, threatening to engulf him and extinguish the flame of happiness.

“No time to wait, boy. I’ve got many more wishes to fulfill. A whole world of them. I gave you everything you wanted; you can’t ask for more than that.” He grunted as he tried to shove his toe into the snout of the lamp and it fell onto its side. “Abdul, hold that cursed lamp still for me!” Abdul bent over to place both hands around the base of the lamp.

Little One realized what was bothering him. The genie was wrong. He still wanted something more than what he had, something far more important. “No, wait!” he said desperately. “I appreciate your gifts, I really do, but I still have no idea where my father is, or where to even go next to try to find him.”

The genie paused in his efforts, looking down at him. His eyes were ice. “I will not stand here and be insulted by your ingratitude. If you are too stupid to know what really matters, that’s your problem, not mine.” He grunted as he finally got his toe into the hole at the end of the lamp. His leg followed quickly. He was inside up to his waist when he growled quickly, “No give-backs. No exchanges. And absolutely no returns.” With that, the rest of his giant, blue form was swallowed by the lamp.

Little One stood looking at Abdul, who shrugged his shoulders. “Nobody really knows what to ask for,” he said, almost apologetically. “Or they don’t until it’s too late.”

Little One searched his face. “Do you know where the Serpent God is? Or how I might know where to find him?”

The thin, blue man shrugged again. “Strength, survival, hunger…those are our specialties. Knowledge and wisdom aren’t really our thing.”

Something inside Little One fell.

Abdul looked at him with something close to compassion. “I know how you feel,” he said. “Ever since I’ve been tied to him, I feel like no matter how much I eat, I’m always hungry.” He looked around himself, as if half expecting the genie to be hiding in the grass surrounding them. He lowered his voice. “I’ll tell you something, though. There is someone nearby whose gift is wisdom. He knows everything, and can answer any question you have.”

Little One stood up taller. “Where can I find him?” he asked.

“Finding him isn’t the problem. It’s accessing him.” Abdul looked around again and leaned in closer. “To ask him a question, you first have to defeat his bodyguard. I’ve met many who have tried, but none who succeeded. He’s a vicious, heartless, inexhaustible fighter. Without mercy, they say. Without weakness. I’m afraid even your new strength and prowess may not be a match for him.”

Little One’s blood grew cold. “Where can I find this man and his bodyguard?” he made himself ask.

“That’s the thing,” said Abdul, who was nearly whispering now. “You can’t find him. But if you believe in him, and if the need is great, he will find you.” He stood up straight. “I have to go now,” he said.

The blue man stared at the lamp with a look of such combined dread and revulsion that Little One felt compelled to say something. “Is there anything I can do to help you?” he asked.

Abdul’s eyes widened. “Nobody’s ever asked me that before,” he said. He sighed heavily. “Not that it matters. I am irrevocably tied to the genie. As he grows strong, so I grow weak. As long as he is fed, we are both prisoners. It is only when somebody sees our true nature that we will be set free.”

Little One started to ask for clarification, but Abdul just shook his head firmly, looked over each shoulder, and dove head first into the lamp. It rattled for a moment, jumping around in the grass, and then finally shot into the sky and disappeared.

Little One looked around. He had so many questions, but there was nobody to ask. Sighing, he picked up his new backpack and started off downstream on legs taller and stronger than they had been that morning.

As he walked, he no longer thought about future victories or defeats. Instead, he wondered about true nature, tried to believe, and fervently hoped that his need was great.

Click here to read the next story in the series.

Photo credit: Randen Pederson // CC

Little One and the Field of Power

Following is the eleventh story in a series that tells the tale of the first hero to go on a journey to discover his calling.

To read the first story in the series, click here.

To read the previous installment, click here.

Even thinking back on it afterwards, Little One had no idea how he survived the fall.

He plunged through the abyss for what felt like days. Of course he had no way of knowing how long it actually was. All he knew was that despite his fervent hope that something—anything—would begin to take shape beneath him, he kept falling through the endless void.

It was so dark that he couldn’t see anything, not even the rest of his body as it fell. With nothing but unknown blackness surrounding him, his mind began to seek solid ground at least internally by imagining what lay below him.

At first he pictured beautiful landscapes filled with rushing water, lush forests, and mountaintop vistas that extended as far as the eye could see. But as the fall continued with no ground in sight, the images began to turn darker. He couldn’t stop himself from imagining scorched sands, burned tree trunks, and threatening figures moving under an endless night.

At one point his visualizations grew so terrifying that the blackness surrounding him felt almost comforting in comparison. At least he seemed to be alone here, with nothing around to attack. He could even feel the warm air supporting him from below so he didn’t fall too fast, and the emptiness surrounded him with such softness that it almost felt like an embrace.

Little One lost himself in these sensations and nearly forgot that there was supposed to be anything more in the world than this. It was a pleasant, almost entirely unfamiliar feeling.

Eventually—hours, days, or weeks later—Little One was never quite sure—the blackness began to lighten. He was startled when he made out something moving about just in front of him; he was even more surprised to realize that it was his own foot.

As the air about him lightened, he began to be able to discern something green far below. Suddenly fear returned sharp as a knife in his belly as Little One realized the very real danger of what he had been hoping for all this time. He didn’t have a good sense of how fast he was falling, but his speed appeared to be increasing; wind was starting to whip about his head, blowing his hair in his face and tugging his clothes away from him.

The green below him was beginning to look more and more like rolling hills covered in grass. Though it looked softer than rock, it was likely dense enough to easily smash a skull at any significant speed.

He tried to think of a way to break his fall on something softer, but there was nothing below him but undulating grasslands, and nothing with him that he could use to slow himself down.

As the ground hurtled towards him, he made an effort to focus on the air beneath him, feeling its embrace again as he had in the abyss. As soon as he did, the wind whipped less wildly and he felt himself slowing down. The more he focused on the sensation of being held up, the more slowly he went.

He descended the last bit of sky in this way, gradual for a moment like a feather as he felt the air beneath him, then quickly like a rock as his fear took over and the ground rushed up to meet him. Then he would relax into the air’s embrace and become a feather once again.

The last bit he approached like a rock until, just before he landed, he felt a gust of air rushing upward from beneath him; it picked him up as gently as a mother would her child, then deposited him with somewhat less tenderness face-first into the moist ground beneath the grass.

Little One wiggled his fingers and toes. No pain. He lifted one leg, then another, then his arms. Nothing hurt; he seemed to be all in one piece.

His mind struggled to make sense of what had just happened but ultimately failed. He shook his head, pushed himself up off the dirt, and looked around.

Grass surrounded him, waving slightly in the breeze. The gentle hills extended in all directions beneath a blue, sunny sky.

Little One took a deep breath. He decided that this was a beautiful place—the soft green grass as it rippled like giant waves in the wind, the stark blue of the sky, and the light that shimmered in the distance. This was good land, he thought, a kind place, and he felt grateful as he began to walk directly towards the sun in search of the kidnapped Serpent God.

Walking felt extraordinarily good. He enjoyed the sensation of movement in his legs, and he felt free, purposeful, fulfilled. He wasn’t sure at first which direction to go in, but he felt confident that if he just kept walking with open eyes and ears, he couldn’t help but find clues that would help him locate his father.

After some time he passed a stream. Its water was so clear and it made such a delightful noise as it spilled over pebbles and around boulders that he considered changing course and following it downstream. In the end, however, he decided to stick to the direction he had already chosen, having come this far. He drank his fill of the sweet, cool water and filled up his flask, but then continued on his way.

A few hours later, he began to regret his decision. The sun was beginning its descent towards the horizon, and he hadn’t seen any more streams. He’d assumed there would be many out here, given the lushness of the landscape, but he’d seen nothing—no water, no animals, not even a single, solitary bush—that would suggest there was anything out here other than infinite fields of grass.

It occurred to him that this place might not be as kind as he’d thought. It began to feel more desolate. He felt a tightening in his chest as he realized that though beautiful, this land wasn’t very hospitable, and that food and water were scarce.

He decided to return to the stream.

When he turned around, he noticed something strange. The grass—which moments before had a rich, bright sheen—no longer looked quite so robust. Little One wasn’t sure if it was the change in the sun’s angle or something else, but it now appeared yellowish, parched, and almost brittle.

He began to walk and continued for what felt like an interminably long time, but nothing in the landscape changed except the rustling of the dry grass. He was sure he had walked at least as far as he had come, but there was no water in sight. He considered whether he could have gotten turned around, but the sun was directly in front of him and the stream had been perpendicular to his path; he should have come across it regardless.

Little One’s legs suddenly felt tired, and he realized that his foot was starting to ache. He could feel frustration rising within him.

“This place isn’t just desolate—it’s dangerous,” he muttered to himself. “It’s actively trying to deceive me.”

Just then his foot caught the edge of a rock hidden by the grass and he fell, barely managing to get a hand in front of himself to avoid falling again face first into the dirt.

“Oh, you think that’s funny, do you?” he cried aloud. He slammed his fist into the earth. “I don’t think it’s funny at all.” He felt something heavy and malevolent in the air around him, the way electricity charges the air just before lightning strikes.

When he stood up again, the landscape around him had changed. There were jagged cliffs rising in the distance now, fissures were opening up in the earth around him, and the air was darkening even as the sun was still visible above the horizon. A cold wind brushed against his arm, raising goosebumps.

Little One shuddered. This place is turning against me, he thought to himself. I’ve angered it, and it wants me gone.

He began to walk more slowly now, careful where he put his feet. The air got quieter and more threatening with each step. The fissures around him grew bigger, gaping like mouths that wanted to swallow him whole.

This is bad, Little One thought. I need to get out of here, and fast.

Just then Little One heard crackling and felt a searing heat on the back of his legs. Even before he turned, he knew what he would find. The entire field of grass behind him had burst into bright flames of red and orange. He had no idea how it had started, let alone spread so quickly, but he didn’t have time to wonder; the fire was flying towards him with the speed and resolve of a dragon hunting prey.

Little One ran, cursing his luck at having landed in such an evil place.

That’s when another strange thing happened. Where a moment before there had been solid ground beneath his feet, now there was nothing. Little One saw it happen, saw the earth in front of his extended foot disappear in an instant and become a void, nothing more than shadow.

Before he had time to register this fact, he was falling into an abyss for the second time that day.

This one, fortunately, was shorter than the last. And that, perhaps as much as anything else, is what calmed him down. By the time he tumbled to a stop at the bottom of the pit, he was almost laughing at the absurdity of what was happening.

He felt surprisingly clear-headed and calm. “Another chasm,” he said to himself, laughing. “Okay, well, at least I’m getting pretty good at these.”

He heard a buzzing sound but couldn’t find its source. The fissure he found himself in wasn’t large at all—he could touch the walls all around him, but he was a good ways from the top. He figured it wouldn’t take too long to climb out, but when he tried, the earth crumbled; he couldn’t get purchase for a hand or foot, and he sensed that if he tried too hard, he might end up burying himself alive.

The buzzing seemed to be coming from behind him, but when he turned, there was nothing there. It continued, sometimes behind his left ear and sometimes behind his right, as he thought about the first chasm he had fallen into and the snake that had helped him find his way out after he had nearly given up. He hadn’t seen the snake since revisiting that chasm and seeing the whole episode replayed in front of him. He had realized then that the snake wasn’t separate from him; its wisdom was really his own. Recalling that, he suddenly felt stronger. If he could make it out of that pit of darkness, surely he could make it out of this one.

Still, he wished the snake would come and tell him exactly what to do. That would certainly make things easier.

It occurred to Little One that someone or something had helped him overcome nearly every challenge he’d successfully faced on this journey so far. He felt embarrassed by that for a moment until he realized that it meant that there was help available every time he’d gotten stuck. Which meant that there was help available somewhere around here now.

Little One looked around. He said a silent prayer—he wasn’t sure whether it was to the Serpent God, this strange land he now found himself in, or something else—but he asked whatever might be listening for help and guidance.

Nothing appeared. Little One repeated his prayer and waited. These things probably took time, he figured.

As he sat there waiting, the buzzing sound grew louder. A fly appeared from behind his head and hovered close to his eyes. Annoyed, Little One swatted it away with his hands. It immediately came back.

He swatted again, and again the fly returned. This happened twice more until the last time the fly didn’t come back. Little One breathed a sigh of relief.

“You were the one who asked for help,” a deep voice said from behind his head.

Little One whipped around but didn’t see anyone. He began to turn back around when he saw the fly hovering behind him at eye level.

“Don’t swat me again, please,” it said in a voice that was impossibly loud for its size. “I hate that. You have no idea how it messes with my navigational equipment. I’ll fly crooked for days now.”

Little One looked at the fly. “Um, I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t realize…”

“Didn’t realize that something with a mass hundreds of times my own would cause damage when slammed at high speeds against my delicate body? Yes, well, nobody could have seen that coming.”

Little One wasn’t sure what to say. He’d never talked to a sarcastic fly before. “I’m sorry,” he said again.

“Then I forgive you,” said the fly lightly. “Now, I believe you were looking for some help?”

Little One nodded. “How do I get out of here?”

“To get out,” the fly began sagaciously, “you need to first understand how you got in.”

Little One was tired of riddles. “Okay, how did I get in here then?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” asked the fly.

“Um, no,” said Little One, unable to keep the frustration from his voice. “If it were I wouldn’t have asked. The only thing that’s obvious to me is that this place is trying to kill me.”

Little One couldn’t be sure, but he thought the fly was shaking its head in disappointment. “A fundamental misunderstanding. Common, but erroneous. Tell me then,” he asked, “did it feel that way when you first got here?”

“Well, no,” Little One had to admit. “At first I thought it was great.”

“So what happened?”

“I realized that the grass just went on forever and that there was hardly any food or water.”

“And do you know those things for certain?”

Little One considered this. “Well, no, I guess not.”

The fly continued with its deep, commanding voice. “Exactly. So you told yourself a story about the nature of this place.” It paused, apparently waiting for something. “And…”

“And it turned out I was right?” Little One really was tired of riddles.

The fly’s two front legs crossed over its abdomen. “Exactly,” he said with satisfaction.

“Wait, what?” Little One asked.

He saw tiny flashes of white in the fly’s face and realized that it had rolled its eyes.  “You told yourself a story about how great this world was, and you were right. Then you told yourself a story about how horrible it was, and—guess what?—turns out you were right again,” the fly said impatiently. “That’s generally how the stories we tell ourselves work, is it not?”

Little One was confused. “What do you mean?”

“Stories are powerful,” explained the fly, uncrossing its legs. “You tell one, and that’s what’s true. Tell another, and that’s what’s true. The world conforms itself to your expectations. All worlds do, really. This one is just particularly responsive.”

Little One shook his head. “You mean I make things happen with the stories that I tell myself? I can change the physical world with my thoughts?”

The fly laughed. “I’m just a fly. I don’t pretend to understand everything that makes the world the way it is. What I’m saying is that your stories determine your reality. Regardless of what’s actually going on, they create how your world looks, sounds, and feels to you. They define your experience and, even more, what’s possible for you.”

Little One took this in. “So to get out of here, I just need to tell a better story.”

“Well done, Grasshopper!” said the fly, laughing at his own joke.

Little One thought he heard an edge of mockery in the fly’s laughter. It rubbed him the wrong way. He was already feeling stupid for having gotten himself stuck, once again, in a bad situation that was entirely of his own making.

“That’s just another story,” the fly said, as if reading his mind. “Are you sure it’s the one you really want to tell?”

Little One shook his head as if to break free of something. “I suppose not,” he said. “How about this one: I just learned another good lesson rather quickly. And there was really no way to learn it without making that mistake.”

The fly clapped its two front legs together enthusiastically. “And so the student becomes the master. I believe my work here is done.” It put one arm in front of its abdomen and flew down quickly and back up again in what Little One understood to be a mock bow before it started flying away.

Little One had an idea. “Hey, hold on a second,” he said. “Did you see the Serpent God pass this way? I have reason to believe he was abducted against his will, and I’m trying to find him.”

The fly looked at him, all laughter gone from its face. “No,” he said seriously. “I am, once again, just a humble fly. But if what you say is true, that is serious.” He paused for a moment, as if making a decision, before finally nodding his head and continuing. “There is, however, a creature not far from here who can give you what you’re looking for.”

Little One’s heart started to beat faster, and he felt excitement rise within him. “Really? Where can I find this creature?”

“When you get to the surface, you will see the stream you missed from behind the illusion of your story. Follow it downstream and you will find this beast.”

Something in the fly’s manner dampened Little One’s excitement. “You’re sure it can give me what I seek?”

“Of that I am sure,” said the fly. “But it may not be what you think it is.”

“It’s the only lead I’ve got,” said Little One. “That’s good enough. Thank you so much!”

“Best hold your gratitude,” said the fly. “When all is said and done, you may not thank me after all.” And with that it buzzed off.

Little One watched it until it disappeared above him.

He wasn’t sure what the fly meant, but he wouldn’t figure it out by staying in this pit. He took a deep breath, preparing himself. Then he began to tell his story.

This is a good land, he thought to himself. Kind and generous and abundant.

As if in answer, he heard a bird singing, the first animal he’d heard since arriving.

I have everything I need. Assistance is always available to me.

A ray of sunlight appeared on the wall in front of him. He put his hand into its light and enjoyed the warmth.

I can find my way out of here. There are probably lots of ways to climb out; all I need is one.

Just then he felt a drop of rain fall on his face. It was cold and unpleasant.

“You’ve got to be kidding me!” he said out loud. “I’m trying, here, okay?”

He took anther deep breath. “Okay, it’s just rain,” he said, trying again. “It can’t hurt. Plants need rain to grow. Animals need water too. It’s nourishing. Maybe it’s here to help me.”

And suddenly Little One understood. He laughed when he realized what was happening.

He put his backpack on and waited. The rain hit his face over and over, but the sensation felt enjoyable now, not unlike falling through the abyss.

In a short time water puddled in the bottom of the pit. Little One didn’t move. The rain continued, and the puddle turned into a pond. The rain got harder, and soon the pond turned into a lake.

Before long, Little One found himself treading water, buoyed up by the lake towards the opening of the pit.

When he reached the top, he pulled himself up onto solid land and rolled onto his back, where he could see the first stars of the evening that were beginning to emerge from behind the clouds as the sun went down.

That couldn’t have gone any better, he thought, and just then he was flooded with a sense of gratitude, contentment, and a strong desire to find his father.

Click here to read the next story in the series.

Photo credit: Randen Pederson // CC

Little One and the Big Misunderstanding (Or, the Trouble With Finding Answers)


Following is the tenth story in a series that tells the tale of the first hero to go on a journey to discover his calling.

To read the first story in the series, click here.

To read the previous installment, click here.

Little One’s smile faded quickly as he glanced around his father’s palace.

The walls looked like they may have at one time in the distant past shared the same iridescent sheen of the palace’s exterior, but they were now coated in what appeared to be a layer of slime covered by a film of dirt.

When Little One looked up at the low ceiling not far above his head, he saw that there were black circles running in a straight row above him. Or rather, most of them were black circles. Every ninth or tenth circle wasn’t black at all and allowed a solitary ray of light to stream through.

Little One guessed that the circles were intended to be lights, but grime was preventing most of them from functioning as such. The result was that the space was dark and grim, with the occasional light serving only to highlight the gloominess.

Beneath the filth, curved columns hugged the walls at regular intervals down the length of the room, which was so long and dismal that he couldn’t even see the far wall.

It occurred to Little One that this is exactly what it might look and feel like if he were to be swallowed by a giant snake.

He wondered if perhaps this was another attempt by his father to assess his worthiness. It hadn’t been easy to find his way into the Serpent God’s palace in the first place. Maybe this was another test to see how he would respond when faced with such unexpected disorder.

In fact, nothing about his father’s palace so far had been close to what he’d expected. He hadn’t even realized he’d had any expectations, but he couldn’t deny that he did when they were systematically shattered one by one.

It started when, rather than being welcomed and congratulated on their cleverness and perseverance when they finally discovered the location of the palace, he and his sister were simply met with impenetrable walls.

It continued when his father had been too deaf or callous to care to respond when they’d screamed and knocked and searched for days looking for a way in, growing hoarse and blistered in the process.

And now that he finally had figured out the riddle and made his way inside, he was greeted not by a spectacular home worthy of the most powerful god in existence, but by a ruined hovel that appeared silent and abandoned.

Well, not entirely silent, Little One realized as he took in his disappointing surroundings. He found that he could now make out a low thrumming coming from beyond the gloom. It came and went, rising and falling in intensity and at times subsiding entirely.

Little One found himself moving down the long, dim corridor towards the source of the sound. He wondered briefly about Ginger as he went, and whether she’d find her own way in. He didn’t think she’d mind that he didn’t wait. They’d come all this way, after all, for a reason, and he figured she’d catch up soon regardless. She might even be ahead of him now, knowing her. He could imagine her taking a look at these filthy walls and saying there’s no way they’d stop her—she’d traveled beside her brother for a long time now, so had clearly seen much worse.

And then his thoughts returned to his questions. They burned within him with a fierce intensity that only grew stronger as his frustration mounted. He wanted to know why he had been called to leave his home and embark on an adventure with no clear purpose or destination, and what exactly it was that he was supposed to do or accomplish on this very ill-defined quest.

He wanted to know whether the call came from his father or someone else, and either way, why his father hadn’t contacted him before, and how it could be, anyway, that he was the son of a god when he felt so humdrum and had two perfectly ordinary parents back home in his village.

For all his irritation, Little One was excited to finally find answers to his questions. Even if the Serpent God wasn’t what he expected, surely he would still be able to provide his son with some wisdom. Little One had worked so hard to find him, after all, and had passed all the requisite tests.

As he traveled farther down the corridor, his unease grew. The sound was getting louder, and he was starting to be able to feel its vibration in his belly. The sensation wasn’t reassuring, though; in fact, there was something intensely disturbing about it.

After what felt like a very long time, Little One finally saw the space before him open up into a large, round room. As he stepped over the threshold, the vibrations suddenly stopped and the noise disappeared.

He looked up and saw a perfect dome above him. Though some light was coming through, it was gray and streaked with grease. Directly beneath the center of the dome was some sort of machine with a black box in the middle and large cylinders extending outward from all sides. He saw a hint of red out of the corner of his eye and had a thought.

Climbing up one of the curving columns in the wall, he managed to reach the dome. Taking a corner of his shirt in his fist, he rubbed it across the grime. It came off easily and revealed a patch of flickering stars in a black sky.

Little One smiled. The dome, it seemed, was made of a substance that was even clearer than the waters of a young mountain stream. Clear, that was, when not covered by a thick layer of grease.

Little One walked around the cylinders next and noted 6 other colors. As he did, he felt a wave of satisfaction expand in his chest. His thought had been a good one, and he knew what this machine was for.

He recalled the first time he had entered the mountains that housed the Serpent God’s palace and the multi-colored lightning he had seen at night. This was the machine that produced that lightning. It clearly hadn’t been used for quite some time, but it would be capable of making colored light that could be seen for miles if the dome were clean and clear.

Little One felt more than a little pleased with himself. Though it didn’t win him anything, he felt like he had passed another test by having pieced this little mystery together. It felt like he had discovered another one of his father’s secrets.

And then something happened that drove the smile from his face and made him realize how much he really didn’t understand at all.

In that moment the machine jumped to life, whirring, moving, and noisily rearranging itself. The cylinders swung from the outside in until they were all pointing up in the same direction towards the center of the dome.

Then all at once the lights came on. At first all Little One could see were the individual columns of light shooting up towards the ceiling. Realizing that what they were forming was happening above the dome itself, he quickly climbed back up the column and used his shirt to clear off as much of the dome as he could reach. He was so shocked at what he saw when he looked through it that he froze there, unable to move up or down from his perch at the top of the column.

Through the clear spot he’d just created in the dome, he witnessed the biggest pair of human feet he’d ever seen in his life. They were attached to legs that were scaly, dark brown and green, and equally large.

The legs extended up from the dome so far that Little One could barely see what was sitting on top of them. He was able to make out a human waist and chest, and arms on either side. They seemed tiny in comparison to the feet.

What wasn’t tiny, he realized as he continued to look at the figure, was its tail. He had almost missed it at first as it rested behind the figure, but it was moving slowly now—slithering slowly, Little One corrected himself—like a snake winding its way between the legs. The top of the figure was almost too far away to see, but Little One made out what looked like a serpent’s head with two glowing, red circles that he took to be eyes.

Just then Little One felt the vibration begin again in his belly, followed quickly by the booming noise in his ears. The red eyes far above him swirled around and then settled, as best he could tell, in an angry glare at the tiny human form attached to a dirty column an incalculable distance below.

It was then that he realized that the booming noise that had been ebbing and flowing was a voice, and it was saying something, to him. He strained to make out its thunderous tones.

“Congratulations,” cracked the voice as the snake-like tail sidled back and forth. “You achieved everything you set out to do.”

Little One wasn’t sure what to make of this. He felt a warmth expand in his chest at the words, but there was something in the tone that belied the commendation. “Thank you, Father, I mean Sir, I mean Mighty One. I’m so grateful to be here.”

The Serpent God ignored him.

“You started with nothing. But you worked hard. Figured things out. Used your god-given gifts. You overcame the challenges, excelled at everything you attempted.” The tail stopped slithering and began thrashing. “And now you have what you’ve always dreamed of. So much so that others are jealous of your success.”

The booming voice fell into silence. It lasted so long that Little One felt he needed to respond.

“Yes, um, thank you again…I think…” he started to say.

The red eyes flashed suddenly and the tail whipped around.

“But for the sake of what?” the God boomed. “What did you really gain?”

The warmth turned icy. Little One shrank back. His throat was dry as he looked up at the giant feet and the swishing tail and swallowed.

“Um, I’m not sure, to be honest.” His voice sounded frail and anemic in comparison to the God’s sonorous voice.

“You have no idea. You. You,” he spat the words. “The one they all come to for help. The one they think has it all. Oh yes, sure, you have plenty of answers for everyone else, but absolutely none for yourself.”

Again the silence and the thrashing tail. Little One swallowed hard again. But before he could speak, the God continued, this time in a tone that Little One couldn’t place.

“And now in your quest for recognition,” he rumbled softly, “in your insatiable hunger for success, you have lost the one thing that you actually cared for.”

There was a pause in which Little One could feel his own heartbeat in his throat. “What do you—” he began, only to be interrupted by a low growling sound, followed by what could only be described as a snarl.

“You stupid, ignorant, earthbound fool!” the God roared. “I can’t believe I ever thought you were anything more than that.” The words crackled and hissed with venom.

Little One felt a lump rise in his throat. His body suddenly felt terribly heavy. He wanted to say something to defend himself, but no words came and his tongue felt like it was made of stone.

And then the tone changed inexplicably once again. “Well, I can’t do it anymore,” the voice said with a hollowness that reverberated off the walls of the palace. “I can’t keep sacrificing myself in order to give you what you want.”

As he watched, the image began to flicker. It went completely black for a moment and then returned. When the God spoke again, there was something familiar in his manner that Little One couldn’t quite place.

“You are not who I thought you were,” said the all-powerful Serpent God, shaking his massive head. “I give up. You win. You are free to do what you will.”

There was a clanking sound just then and the cylinders beneath Little One went black, one by one. Within just a few moments the God had disappeared completely.

Little One waited at the top of the column for what felt like an eternity to see if the voice would resume. It didn’t. Eventually he made his way down to the floor again and sat with his back against the wall.

Tears gathered at the corners of his eyes, which made feel even more humiliated. There was much he didn’t understand, but he did apprehend this: Apparently he had passed all his tests, only to fail the most important one of all. He had no idea what he’d done to disappoint his father so badly, but clearly he had done something unforgivably wrong. He felt nauseated.

He felt the edges of shame, sadness, and confusion threatening to spill over him. He tried to push them away. He focused instead on poring over every part of his journey, seeing possible missteps and failings at every turn.

As he did so, the ache in his 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.

Suddenly he realized that this was a familiar feeling. He had felt it before, back in the forest at the base of a giant tree. He recalled how the excruciating ghosts had passed through him one by one, filling him with jealousy, guilt, rage, despair and every other emotion he’d ever felt. He remembered how he’d thought he was going to die, but how he was actually left with an incredible sense of serenity and peace. And a clear sense of what needed to be done.

Little One made a fast decision. He turned to the shame, sadness, and confusion and welcomed them in. He felt them pass through him like ghosts, one by one. He felt the immutable heaviness, the twisting anxiety, the sense of neverending suffocation. Once again he worried that they would never pass, but one by one they did.

When they were finished, all was quiet and still. Little One felt his mind start to race once again, trying to find his failure. He asked it to be silent for a little bit longer, and surprisingly it obeyed.

He breathed in the stillness. And from the heart of the silence he heard a voice echoing once again: “You are not who I thought you were,” it said. “I give up. You win.”

Something in the words felt important, if confusing. There was something utterly familiar about them, but he couldn’t place what it was.

He closed his eyes, waited for the stillness to return. And then, in a sudden flash of understanding, he knew what it was he had recognized in his father’s speech. He should have seen it at once, he realized, but he’d been distracted by the loudness of the anger and his confusion about the meaning of the words.

It was, as it turned out, more familiar to him than almost anything else in the world. And, like everything else on this journey, it also wasn’t anything he’d expected.

The most powerful god in his world was terrified. And also a little bit sad.

Little One wondered for a while about why that was. He couldn’t come up with anything that made sense. Painfully aware of the paradox, Little One wished he could ask the Serpent God for guidance. His attempts to find answers seemed only to be generating more questions. The irony of it made him smile.

And that’s when, with that same bright flash of understanding, he suddenly understood exactly what was going on.

Little One jumped up from the floor and grabbed his pack. He began running down the corridor in the opposite direction from which he had come. Eventually he came to the end of the hall, which was also the end of the palace.

In front of him was nothing—not even a door. It was complete darkness. He didn’t see any stars in front of him. He didn’t see anything at all. It was a yawning, black abyss that quickly devoured even the faint bits of light that emerged from the corridor behind him.

Little One swallowed hard. His throat was dry. He wondered if he really needed to do what he believed he did.

Maybe he was wrong. Maybe the dirty and abandoned palace didn’t mean what he thought. Maybe the image he’d seen of his father was some sort of security apparatus, or even more likely, another test, and not what he was thinking all.

His gaze drifted down. There, written in the grime on the floor, was his answer. He saw a path through the dirt where something quite large had been dragged over the ground, exposing the iridescent white of the original floor beneath.

Little One’s stomach dropped. He realized he was right. His father hadn’t been talking to him. In fact, it wasn’t his father he had seen at all. It was a memory, some sort of recording of him from before. He had been talking with someone else in the palace. Speaking to his attacker.

Little One had no idea how or by whom, but the Serpent God had been kidnapped by someone he used to trust.

“You are free to do what you will,” his father had said, fear and sadness in his voice.

Little One looked back at the darkness. He really didn’t want to do what he was about to do. It was a good thing, he thought with a short-lived laugh, that he had so much practice entering chasms.

He took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and then filled his lungs once again. Working hard to keep his eyes open, he grabbed the straps of his bag and jumped, following his father into the abyss.

He was going to find the Serpent God and bring him back. Or die trying.

Click here to read the next story in the series.

Photo credit: Randen Pederson // CC

Little One and the Palace of the Serpent God (Or, How to Find the Light Within)


Following is the ninth story in a series that tells the tale of the first hero to go on a journey to discover his calling.

To read the first story in the series, click here.

To read the previous installment, click here.

As he stared up at it, Little One reflected that the Serpent God’s palace was as beautiful as it was frustrating.

Its outer walls rose up from the earth white and iridescent, smooth and pearly like the belly of some enormous snake. There were no bricks visible, nor scales either for that matter; the wall extended perfectly smoothly all the way up to the sky as far as the eye could see.

When the sun hit it, colors flashed momentarily, as if all the hues of the rainbow were somehow contained in those white walls. He and Ginger had stood transfixed for a long time when it finally came into view, both of them barely breathing.

And yet their appreciation of its beauty had faded quickly as they tried to find a way inside.

At first they tried looking for a door, but there was none. They traveled around the entire enclosure, touching the smooth material and seeking any sign of crack or crevice as they went, but they found nothing. That had taken the entire first day, despite an early start, and despite the fact that they had gotten back well past dark.

The second day they tried knocking forcefully and calling out their father’s name. Either he couldn’t hear them from his seat in the sky or he couldn’t be bothered to care that two of his children were screaming his name outside his pearly walls.

When they were hoarse and sore from blisters that covered the ends of their hands, they decided to be a bit more strategic.

It was as they were eating dinner that night that Ginger had her epiphany.

“Do you remember why the legend says our father built his palace in the first place?” she asked him.

Little One nodded, and she continued. “He was tired of the other gods always coming to ask him for favors, right? So of course he isn’t going to build any doors or gates that we can see. In fact, I think we could search the walls for years and we wouldn’t find a way in.”

“You think we need magic to enter?” Little One wondered.

“No, because of the other part of that legend. You saw the colored lightning when you were near here before, right? Only his children can see that. But why would he make the lightning if he didn’t want his children to find him?” She didn’t wait for Little One to answer. “He wouldn’t,” she said. “So there must be a way get in.”

She was quiet for a moment and the only noise was the wind blowing through the leaves and the crackle of the fire in front of them.

Finally she continued: “I think there’s an entrance, but I don’t think it’s anywhere near here. I think it’s far away, and he’s waiting for us to figure out where it is.”

Little One let her words settle in. “So how do we find it?”

“To be honest, I’m not sure,” Ginger sighed.

That’s when Little One had his epiphany. “But he is the God of Serpents, so maybe we should start thinking more like a snake would. Maybe we look all around the surrounding forest for holes in the ground and signs of giant serpents.”

Ginger hadn’t been excited by the idea—she didn’t think a god would go around leaving signs of himself if he didn’t want folks to find him—but she couldn’t think of a better plan, so she agreed to try it out.

Three days later they were no closer to entering the palace. By the time the sun was starting to set on the third day, Little One’s excitement had begun to turn to frustration.

In all the trouble he had run into while he was trying to find this palace, it had never occurred to him that he would have such a hard time getting in. He had always imagined that the gates would be opened at the first sign of his approach and that he would walk through in triumph to find his father eager to greet him with open arms.

His fantasy had come crashing back down to earth sometime between the fifth and sixth hour he’d spent yelling outside the walls.

Ginger still believed that their father wanted them to find him, but Little One couldn’t help but feel that even if that was the case, the Serpent God had an infuriating way of showing his welcome.

Just as he had this thought the sun came out from behind a cloud. Something on the ground caught the light and flashed in the corner of his eye. When he went to investigate, he saw a stone that was almost as white and iridescent as the palace walls themselves.

There was a funny mark on the top of the rock. As Little One brushed the earth away, he realized it was a word carved into the white surface.

He called Ginger over and picked up the stone, brushing away the crusted dirt with his hand. When Ginger arrived, they read the words together.

“To find the God, you must enter the Palace,” it said. “To enter the Palace, you must find the God.

Little One threw down the rock in disgust. “Pointless!” he said. “What kind of worthless God is our father anyway? Why give a clue if it’s going to be totally useless?”

“Wait, Little One,” Ginger said. She walked over to where the rock had fallen. “It says something on the other side as well.

She brushed off the dirt. “Go to the place you least want to visit,” she read. She looked up at him. “Where do you least want to visit?”

“I don’t know,” Little One admitted. He considered it for a moment. “Those dark woods we just walked through to get here were pretty terrible,” he offered. “We didn’t see any sunlight for weeks.”

“Is it really the place you’d least like to visit?”

“No, I suppose not. Hmmm….let’s see. There was a place near the river where I grew up where the water would puddle and it was filled with the biggest, hungriest mosquitos you’ve ever seen. I used to hate to go there as a kid. Maybe that’s what he was talking about?” he asked uncertainly.

Ginger shook her head. “I doubt it.” She thought for a moment and then Little One saw something darken across her face. “I think I know what it is for me,” she said. “The Tree of Life. That was probably the worst night of my life.”

Little One nodded. It had been pretty awful to be attacked by emotional ghosts all night long. It felt closer to what they were looking for than the forest or the river, but it still felt a little…light.

And then suddenly he remembered the Chamber of Doom.

He could feel the black darkness all around him, see the malicious shifting of the shadows, feel the desperate fear he had felt when he’d seen what he thought was a pool giving off poisonous gas and lined with more bones than he could count. He remembered how his heart had pounded and how the rock had cut into his hands and knees as he scrambled with blind terror in an attempt to get away from the pool.

And then he recalled that the cave hadn’t been dangerous at all. The pool wasn’t poisonous and there weren’t any bones; he had made it all up in his fear and cowardice. Remembering how scared he had been of a bit of darkness and a few shadows brought a rush of heat into his cheeks and a twisting tension to his belly.

As he continued to consider it, he began to feel so ashamed that he felt like crawling out of his skin and getting as far away from himself as possible.

And that’s when he realized that that was the place he least wanted to go.

He explained it to Ginger, and she nodded calmly. “Then that’s where you’ll go,” she said. “And I’ll head to the Tree of Life.”

*   *   *

The journey back took less time than Little One expected. He hadn’t thought he even remembered where the Chamber was, but somehow his feet seemed to know where to take him.

He was nervous about what he’d find there. His father seemed to want him to prove something before granting him entry to his palace, and from the clues he’d found so far, Little One figured it must be something big.

Remembering how poorly he’d handled the shadows of a cave, he wasn’t sure he was up to the challenge.

By the time he found the entrance to the Chamber, his stomach was filled with butterflies. He climbed down into the hole in the earth and began carefully making his way down the vertical shaft on a series of ridges and protruding rock. It took him a while—the ascent up had felt like it took forever—but eventually he felt a small ledge open up beneath him and a cool breeze blew across his face from the tunnel that led off of it.

There was no light coming from the hole above him at that point; he was enveloped in total blackness.

“Okay,” he said out loud to no one and everyone. “I’m here.”

Silence returned his greeting.

Using his hands, he felt his way into the tunnel and sat with his back against the wall. He remembered sitting this way the first time he was here, after he had explored to find what he thought was the poisonous lake on one end of the tunnel and an endless abyss on the other. His heart had been pounding, and he had been so scared that he hadn’t been thinking—or, apparently, seeing—straight. He cringed at the memory.

And then he remembered how amidst his distress he had felt something slide over his feet. He realized that it was here that the snake had first visited him outside of his dreams in order to show him that his fearful visions weren’t anything more than his imagination.

And suddenly he knew why he was here. He needed to find the snake again so he could tell him how to get into his father’s palace. His father was the Serpent God, after all, and the snake was nothing if not a serpent, so he must be some sort of emissary or messenger or perhaps even a form of the god himself.

But the snake was nowhere to be found.

Little One waited for a time in the tunnel, calling out to it, and then walked into various different chambers trying to find it. He found only darkness.

When he came back into the tunnel, he heard a soft hissing noise start and then stop. Thinking it was the snake, he followed the sound, only to discover a young man sitting on the ground in front of him with his knees pulled into his chest.

Little One was shocked that someone else had found this same cave in this same moment until he looked closer and realized what was really going on.

The person he saw in front of him was his former self, the one that fell into this cave accidentally so many moons ago, in all his cowardly glory.

This man, who seemed barely more than a boy, didn’t appear to be able to see him or hear him now. As he watched with a mix of fascination and embarrassment, the noise started up again and Little One realized that his former self was crying. He was hugging his knees with a desperate strength, as if trying to make himself as small as possible.

It reminded Little One of his sister, who used to hug herself in the same way when she was upset about something, like having a bad nightmare or seeing a dead deer.

The young man in front of him looked so small, so lost and alone, that Little One’s heart moved. He remembered the feeling of cold fear in his chest. He recalled how alone he had felt, surrounded by darkness and the unknown with nobody around to help him.

He wanted to comfort his former self, to let him know it was all going to be alright. Then he remembered that the snake should be coming along any moment to do just that.

Perfect, he thought, then I can talk to him afterwards.

But the snake didn’t come. Tears came and went and nothing appeared.

Finally his former self looked up, startled. “Am I imagining things?” he asked softly. “Snake, is that you?”

Little One looked all around, but he couldn’t see any snake. His former self kept talking and then pausing to listen as if something were answering him, but Little One heard nothing respond.

The edges of understanding began to appear like the first hint of light at dawn.

He could see his former self relaxing as the tears stopped and he hugged his knees less tightly. Eventually he stopped talking and took a deep, shuddering breath before grabbing his pack.

Little One knew what would happen next. He would make his way back through the tunnel to the endless abyss. Then, despite his smallness, despite his screaming fear, he would find the handholds and footholds along the precipitous wall and make his way back up to the light.

The thought made Little One realize something. When he was here before, the tunnel had been completely black. There was no light at all. And yet he had just seen himself in great detail, down to the tears on his cheeks.

He moved quickly to follow his former self towards the abyss. By then he had already started making his way up the wall.

Little One saw this small, fragile thing that looked tiny in comparison to the vastness of the wall he was climbing nevertheless make his way upward, little by little. He knew exactly how frightened this young man was, knowing that the smallest misstep could cause him to fall into an abyss of darkness. And yet he kept going, stubbornly refusing to look down, taking one small step after another.

He couldn’t help but be impressed by this little person’s courage and strength.

And as he watched himself climb, he realized that he was right about the source of the light he’d seen by in the tunnel. It was coming from the young man on the wall. Starting in his core, it radiated outward to the tips of his fingers and toes, pulsating with a golden light.

Suddenly Little One knew what he had to do.

He looked down at his chest in the darkness and reached out for it, seeking, searching. It was hard to find at first, until he remembered the sense of strength and power he’d felt in his body as he climbed the wall. A faint light began to pulse within his chest.

He kept searching. He reached through his darkest moments to the light beneath—to the love and compassion he’d felt for the ogre he was supposed to kill, the strength and trust he’d tapped into as the eagle in the quicksand, and the joy he felt with Ginger when he finally stopped comparing himself to her.

Then he stretched towards the inexplicable wisdom of the snake, which he now realized had always been within him.

The golden glow grew brighter. He encouraged it with kindness and love and warmth, and soon it was roaring and crackling like a bonfire.

The darkness of the abyss in front of him began to shift and move. Finally, with a great hissing noise, it gave way and a pearly white doorway appeared in the midst of the blackness.

To find the God, you must enter the Palace,” Little One said out loud to everyone and no one. “To enter the Palace, you must find the God.” A laugh escaped his lungs.

“True enough, Dad” he said, enjoying the warmth of the light within. “But it’s a little cliché, don’t you think? I mean, you could have just said to look within me. Just because you’re a God doesn’t mean you have to be so obscure.”

So it was that Little One was smiling as he stepped into the palace of the Serpent God for the very first time.

To read the next story in the series, click here.

Photo credit: Randen Pederson // CC

Little One and the Web of Lies (Or, What to Do When Your Inner Critic Attacks)


Following is the eighth story in a series that tells the tale of the first hero to go on a journey to discover his calling.

To read the first story in the series, click here.

To read the previous installment, click here.

In retrospect, Little One realized that he had made a terrible mistake.

The thought occurred to him as he and Ginger walked through a stretch of woods so dense that no sunlight filtered down to touch the path beneath their feet.

They had been walking through this same seemingly endless forest for the past two weeks. Little One was the one who had suggested they enter the woods in the first place.

He had sensed that they weren’t far from the Serpent God’s palace, and their only options had been to cross a giant river filled with raging rapids, try to ascend what looked like an incredibly steep and slippery cliff face, or try their luck in a forest that looked completely devoid of light even on a sunny and cloudless afternoon. Even Ginger had agreed that the forest was the best option until they heard the voice.

They had just stepped into the shadow of the first densely packed trees when they heard it, deep and booming above them. “Warning!” it said. “Go no further!”

They looked all around them but couldn’t see anybody or anything other than gnarled tree trunks, twisting limbs, and fallen leaves. They started to walk again.

“I said: beware!” came the booming voice again. It was so loud it made Little One’s heart pound. He stopped, looking at Ginger. She shrugged her shoulders.

They started walking again.

GO NO FURTHER!” The words echoed around them, reverberating off the trees. “You will not escape unscathed!”

Little One’s stomach leapt into his throat, but this time he had a sense of where the voice was coming from. He cocked his head, looked to his left, and thought he saw something swaying between the limbs of a tree just in front of him.

“No!” said the voice, its pitch a bit higher now. “Do not look for who says this! I am the earth, the trees, the sky itself! I am the power and the will of all the gods who have ever ruled! All you need to know is that what I say is absolutely, unquestionably true!”

That’s when Little One saw it: the tendrils of a web shifting in the breeze between two mighty branches, and in the middle of the weaving was a tiny black dot with wildly crooked legs.

“You’re a spider!” Little One called out, pointing so Ginger could see. “Why are you trying to scare us?”

“I am not trying to scare you!” said the spider, his voice breaking. “I am simply telling you the truth!”

Little One and Ginger walked towards the web. As they approached, they saw a small spider with an absurdly wide abdomen that was white with black spots and lined with large, sharp points that looked like giant thorns.

“Why don’t you want us to go further?” asked Ginger. She sounded like she almost felt sorry for the spider, and in fact Little One’s own heartbeat had slowed considerably since he spotted the awkward-looking creature.

“These woods are cursed!” the spider yelled, his voice booming once again. “Long ago a hunter wandered into this forest and came across an evil monster more terrible than any he’d ever seen before. It was stronger than a minotaur, faster than an arrow, and more relentless than a harpy. After a great battle it defeated the huntsman. Ever since, all the men and women who have dared to enter these woods have lost their minds. When they wander back to their villages years later, they cannot even recall their own names.”

Little One wasn’t sure what to believe.

“Do not doubt!” screamed the spider. “I speak the truth!”

In the end, Little One decided not to heed the spider’s warning. He had a strong sense that their father’s palace lay just on the other side of the woods, and losing his mind seemed both less likely and less risky than losing his life in the river or on the cliff faces they’d seen.

Ginger wasn’t convinced. She wanted to go back the way they’d come and try to find a better path downriver.

After an impassioned argument, Ginger gave in to Little One’s wishes.

“I trust you when you say the Serpent God’s palace is just past these woods,” she said. “You have a good sense of these things. Let’s go on.”

They’d continued down the path into the darkening woods to a loud series of progressively dire warnings from the spider, whose efforts didn’t wane until sometime after they were well out of earshot.

That had been two weeks ago. Since then it had become abundantly clear to Little One that he had made not just the wrong decision, but possibly a disastrous one. He could see how after wandering these dark woods for a little while longer he might really lose his mind.

He was thinking about this, considering what he might have done differently, when he first heard the voice in his head.

It was a deep growl, harsh, and blunt.

“You’re an idiot,” it said. “It’s bad enough that you deluded yourself into thinking that you actually know something about where the Serpent God lives, but to convince Ginger to override her good sense was stupid and selfish. Bad enough that you’re blind, but to be a bully too? Unforgivable.”

Little One’s shoulders sank as he followed Ginger on the trail.

“You realize that this is all your fault, right?” the voice continued. “Any normal person would have found the Serpent God’s palace by now. It’s really not that hard. Nobody else would have struggled so much or worked so hard to be as lost and confused as you currently are. It’s pathetic.”

Just then Ginger turned around to look at him. He thought he saw a flash of anger in her eyes.

“Can we take a break?” she asked. “I’m getting tired.”

“Tired of wandering pointlessly through a cursed forest?” said Little One. “Sure, no problem.”

“What’s wrong with you?” Ginger asked as she slipped off her pack and pulled out some jerky. He heard more anger in her voice.

“What’s wrong with me? Nothing, Ginger. But if you’re not happy about coming this way, you can say it to me directly. You don’t have to pout and try to make me feel guilty for getting us lost.”

“I’m not trying to make you feel guilty,” she answered. “If you do, that’s your problem.”

She stared him in the eyes.

“Oh, that’s just great. So that’s my fault too.” Little One felt the heat rising within him. “This is the last thing I want to deal with right now,” he said. He looked away. “I’m going to go look for water.”

He walked so long he couldn’t see Ginger anymore and then walked a few more minutes just to be sure. He heard what sounded like a stream in front of him and decided to go check it out.

The noise got louder and soon he saw that it wasn’t a stream but a spring making the gurgling sound. And then he saw something that made his heart beat faster: a point of light dancing on the pool’s surface. He followed the point up and saw a few solid rays of sunlight reaching down between the branches.

It was the first sunlight he’d seen in weeks, and he could almost imagine how warm and delicious it would feel on his skin. He walked faster towards the spring, then broke into a run.

And that’s exactly when his foot hit something and he tripped, tumbling to the ground. By the time he stopped moving, he realized he was hopelessly entwined in tendrils of something both sticky and surprisingly strong.

He heard the deep, harsh growl again. “Seriously? Do I even need to point out how idiotic that was?”

Only this time it sounded different. Little One realized abruptly that it wasn’t coming from inside his head anymore.

He managed to whirl his head around. There behind him was the biggest monster he’d ever seen in his life.

It looked…well, it looked almost exactly like the spider they had seen at the entrance to the woods. Only this one was huge, twice the height of an average man. It was so large that he could see its huge pincers this time, along with eight giant black eyes. Its legs were bent at grotesque angles, and the spikes on its back were each the size of a small bear.

“Oh, dear,” the spider growled. “You chose not to listen to me. And so we meet again.”

Little One swallowed. His mouth was achingly dry. “So…so you’re the evil monster you told us about? You’re the reason everyone who comes here goes insane?”

“Well, yes,” said the spider. “But evil? That’s just a matter of perspective. The way I see it, I’m just trying to keep people safe.”

“By tying them up in your giant web?” asked Little One.

“Well, I have lots of ways of doing it. But, yes,” spat the spider. “For the stupid ones I find that binding them is the only way to get them to listen. You were going to get yourself in trouble, my dear boy. This was the only way to protect you from yourself.”

“What are you talking about? Protect me from what?”

“Oh, I know where you’re headed, Little One” said the spider. “Yes, I know who you are. I know you believe you’re the son of the Serpent God, and that you hope to enter his palace. And I know that no matter what happens, you must not be allowed to attempt it!”

Little One just stared at him. His mouth was terribly dry. He licked his lips. “And why not?” he finally managed.

“Because you’re an idiot!” the spider growled. “Because you’re going to ruin everything! Don’t you see? You thought it was a good idea to come into these god-forsaken woods, and look what happened! You waste two weeks wandering around and getting nowhere, you pick a fight and hurt Ginger, the one person who truly understands you in this world, and then you get yourself caught in a giant spider’s web.”

Little One’s stomach felt hollow. He felt a familiar sinking feeling in his gut.

“You know, anybody who was halfway capable would have found the Serpent God’s palace by now. But not you! The harder you try, the more lost you get!”

Little One felt a burning sensation all over his face. He wanted to crawl into a hole in the ground and stay there.

“You overestimate your talents over and over again, and it’s getting dangerous!” the spider screamed. “You should realize by now that you’re not good enough to do this! You need to turn around and go home right now, before you destroy everything we hold dear!”

The word we surprised Little One. A vague realization began to stir at the edges of his mind.

“You left to come on this insane adventure because you thought something was calling you, that you were meant to do something more. Not three days later you got lost and couldn’t find your way. When you finally did manage to get untangled from that, you managed to get trapped underground, scared yourself nearly half to death, and very nearly became nothing more than a pile of bones in a forgotten cavern.”

The smoky thought in Little One’s mind consolidated as the spider continued.

“As if that wasn’t bad enough, you immediately ran into a malevolent sorceress, failed to defeat an ogre, and then had to start all over again. At which point you discovered the City of the Children of the Serpent God, got promptly humiliated by every brother and sister you have, and realized that you have absolutely no significant talents at all.

The thought became clear to Little One. It made him angry, but he let the spider go on.

“Let’s see…what’s left. You blindly fell into a pit due to being a coward and very nearly drowned. Then you wasted the wish you got beneath the Tree of Life because you’re an overly sensitive crybaby. And finally, you decide to enter a haunted forest to start the next foolish phase of an increasingly shortsighted and futile quest born primarily out of your greed and arrogance.”

“Wow!” Little One whistled and clapped his hands in mock admiration. “That’s quite a summary. I’m really impressed.”

The spider seemed taken aback. “Well, you know, I do my best.”

“So where does that leave us?” Little One asked. “After we decided to enter these woods? Let’s see, we were walking into a forest that you say is cursed. But I think it’s not cursed at all. I think you knew that we were close to the Serpent God’s palace and you didn’t want us to actually find it. So you made up a story about a battle between a huntsman and a monster to scare us away and to keep us from finding what we’re looking for.” He watched the expression in the spider’s four sets of eyes, focusing on the largest pair in the middle as he continued.

“And when I ignored your warning, you whispered in my ear to get me angry with myself so I would fight with Ginger and come out here by myself.”

The spider lowered its head in acknowledgement.  “Pretty much,” he said in a low growl. “You listen to me better when you’re by yourself.”

Little One wasn’t sure what the spider meant, but he was more concerned about a different question. “What I don’t understand is why,” he said. “Why don’t you want me to find the Serpent God’s palace?”

The spider looked up. Its eyes had softened. “You really don’t know?”

“No!” said Little One. “I mean, I see now that you’ve been with me this entire time, since I left my village.”

“Well, yes,” said the spider. “I go everywhere with you. It’s just what I do.”

“So you know that this is important to me.”

“Yes,” answered the spider. “I know exactly how important this is.”

“So why would you try to stop me from finding what I want most?”

The spider’s eyes were sad. “Because I want it too, Little One. More than you’ll ever know. But I have a job to do. Something more important even that that.”

The spider didn’t say anything else, so Little One prompted him. “And that is?”

“To keep you safe, Little One. I can’t stand it when you’re in pain. It hurts me more than it hurts you. So I protect you.”

In that moment the world seemed very still to Little One. He felt a slight breeze on his cheek. The earth was warm beneath him. He saw the spider’s eyes in front of him, large, dark, and nearly liquid in their sadness. He realized something.

“You’re afraid?” he said. “That’s why you tried to stop me?”

The eyes trembled. “Yes,” said the spider. “I’m terrified. Please don’t be mad. I only want what’s best for you.”

Little One didn’t know what to say. He weighed the words. He considered whether he believed them. Then he looked at the giant spider, its huge pincers, sharp spikes, and tender eyes, and he knew that he did. Something within him melted.

“I understand,” he said. “You’re doing your best to protect me, even if it is in kind of a backwards way. I mean, I get it. Things have been a little crazy, huh? It’s not easy, all this adventure into the unknown. But do you think I did all those things without realizing how dangerous they were?” He shook his head. “Believe me, I didn’t. I get scared too. But I’m looking out for us. I’m being careful. And I know that we’re capable of doing this. I know deep down that we are. Can’t you feel it too?”

The spider’s eyes trembled. Then he nodded his head. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, I can.”

“Great,” said Little One. “Can we keep going towards the palace then, if I promise to be careful and listen when you have a real concern?”

The spider nodded vigorously and opened its mouth to say something.

“A real concern, my friend,” said Little One. “Not an invented story.”

There was a noise then, of air escaping a small space. Little One wondered if it was the sound of a giant spider laughing or sighing. He couldn’t tell which.

“Great. Help me up then, and we’ll be on our way.”

The spider just stood there. “I can’t help you,” he said solemnly. “But you don’t need it anyway. Just stand up.”

“I can’t,” Little One insisted. “I’m covered in sticky spider spit.”

The spider just shook his head. “Just stand up,” he said again.

Little One could have sworn he’d attempted that before, but he gave it one more try. To his surprise, he was able to move. He put his feet beneath him and pushed up off the ground. He moved upward with such force that the trees seemed to swirl around him and he almost lost his balance.

He looked around to try to find the spider. He didn’t see anything. He was starting to worry that he’d made the whole thing up and was losing his mind after all when he felt something soft and tickly on his foot. He looked down.

There, crawling up over the top of the arch of his foot, was the spider. It was about the size of his thumbnail again.

He picked it up and smiled at it, then put it on his shoulder.

It was amazing how small it was in comparison to him when he was standing on his own two feet, especially since it had felt so much more powerful just a few moments before.

They made their way back to Ginger, and Little One told her what had happened. Then all three of them began to walk together through the dark woods towards the Serpent God’s palace.

Little One knew that the spider was a part of him and would never leave, but he didn’t mind so much; the little guy felt kind of like a guileless friend, and he knew that he could stand up again if he ever felt trapped in its web.

Click here to read the next story in the series.

Photo credit: Randen Pederson // CC

Little One and the Tree of Life (Or, the Trick to Dealing with Difficult Emotions)


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.

To read the first story in the series, click here.

To read the previous installment, click here.

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.

Click here to read the next story in the series.

Photo credit: Randen Pederson // CC