Following is the twentieth and final story in a series that tells the tale of the first hero to go on a journey to discover his calling.
They say that Little One—demon conqueror, sorceress tamer, genie liberator, vanquisher of the Great Dissatisfaction, and savior of mankind—was a perfect being with supreme insight and wisdom.
Infinitely intelligent, he was the first to have the idea to go on a quest to find his calling. Son of the Serpent God, he neither possessed flaws nor committed errors in judgment. Precocious in his enlightenment, he saw truths that remained invisible to others until he himself brought them to light. The vast majority of the people who study these things agree, therefore, that if he blundered, there must have been a reason, and if he made missteps, they must have been made on purpose.
Because nobody can deny that up until the very end, Little One made many mistakes.
The question that nobody can answer is: Why?
Why did he return to his village just after a large harvest, when people were most resistant to his message and the key to fulfilling his calling was not yet available to be applied?
It’s well known that at the time of his return, Little One’s village was caught in the throes of what is now known as The Great Dissatisfaction. Responding to a sharp decline in personal fulfillment, villagers had expanded the amount of land under cultivation multiple times in an effort to increase the material resources available to them. Only partially successful, their efforts did lead to improvements in the quantity and quality of the food, clothing, and shelter they enjoyed, but the gains began to require greater and greater inputs, and even these improvements failed to satisfy many for long. Even before Little One left on his journey, the cycle was clearly established whereby villagers worked long hours to grow more crops in an effort to feel more fulfilled, but the results of their efforts, no matter how great, only seemed to add to their dissatisfaction.
Some villagers had noticed this pattern, but they believed the answer lay in new farming methods or more efficient means of production. In fact, the autumn in which Little One returned to the village had seen the greatest harvest ever recorded as a result of these reforms. Villagers’ moods were temporarily assuaged by such wealth, leading some to prematurely declare the Great Dissatisfaction over. Why Little One would choose to return at such an inauspicious time for his purpose is indeed one of the great unresolved mysteries of his day.
Other questions remain as well:
Why, for example, did Little One try to win over the village leaders first, when it is well known that similar efforts had failed to enlighten his demi-god siblings, and besides which, as anyone could have reasoned out, the leaders were the least likely to want to hear what he was saying?
Why did he wait over a year to begin farming again, swearing to any who questioned him that his calling must lie elsewhere?
And when he did once again return to the land, why did he waste an entire season cultivating the same crops as everyone else, in the same manner as everyone else, when his greatest contributions would be to help others find a different way to work?
Unsatisfying as it is, the answer remains that we may never know.
* * *
Little One sat across the table from the girl, a plate piled high with pancakes sitting in front of each of them.
“But how do I even know that I’ll find what I’m looking for?” she asked between mouthfuls. He noted with satisfaction that despite her obvious anxiety, her appetite for the pancakes remained undiminished.
“You may not,” he answered between mouthfuls of his own. “You might find something even better.”
“How can you be so sure?” Her brows furrowed, and she noisily put down her fork, but then she immediately picked it right back up and began working on her next bite.
“You feel the dissatisfaction, right? And all your efforts to increase your harvest have failed to relieve it?” She nodded glumly, her mouth too stuffed with pancakes to answer. “That’s because they can’t,” he went on calmly. “Your hunger is of a different nature. The dissatisfaction is a sign that something is calling you.”
“And that is…?”
“You’ll only know if you answer the call. You find it in the searching.”
She frowned briefly before reaching out for more syrup. “But what if I don’t? What if I get lost and can’t find anything?” she asked after a moment, her mouth full again and syrup now dripping down her chin.
Little One smiled, remembering a white-haired woman with a shawl the color of shadows. “You can only be lost if you don’t know the way home.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” There was a familiar edge of frustration in her voice.
“It means that if I can do it, so can you.”
She shook her head, crumbs flying everywhere. “But you’re the son of a God!”
Little One chuckled. “And you’re the daughter of one! We just don’t know which one yet. Answering the call will help you find out.”
“But you know way more than I do.”
Now Little One shook his head. “I didn’t when I first started. When I left the village, I knew less than you do now.”
She stopped cutting her pancakes long enough to look up at him, her brown eyes narrow. “But you’re smarter than me!” she insisted.
Little One burst out laughing. It took him a few moments to compose himself. “Do you remember when I first returned to the village?” he asked when he could finally speak again.
“Yeah. We all ignored you except for your sister, who ran up and gave you a hug.”
Little One smiled at the memory. “Exactly. And even after I went to speak with everyone and told them all my adventures, the village leaders still wanted nothing to do with me. But I insisted on trying to teach them everything I’d learned anyway. Do you remember how that went?”
A small smile bloomed on the girl’s lips. “Not very well,” she said before shoving more pancakes in her mouth.
“Perhaps slightly understated, but correct nonetheless. They wanted even less to do with me after that. And do you remember what I did that first year I was back?”
Her forehead creased as she thought carefully. “No,” she finally admitted.
Little One smiled. “That’s because I didn’t do anything. I walked around anxious about the fact that I didn’t know what to do and swearing that even though I didn’t know what it was, I was sure that my calling had nothing to do with farming.”
She looked up at him quickly. “But then you realized that it did.”
He nodded. “Yes, though I was painfully slow to get it even then. At first I started farming again simply out of curiosity. I’d remembered the seeds that my father the Serpent God had given me and wanted to see what immaculate peas looked like.” Little One laughed. “But that whole first growing year, I worked long days, only grew what I needed, and harvested the fields myself.”
“That was before the rest of us joined,” the girl said excitedly.
“Exactly. It wasn’t until the second year that I noticed you and your friends watching me every afternoon from behind the trees and invited you to help.”
“That’s when you started taking afternoons off.”
“Right again. With all your help, I didn’t have to work the fields late into the evenings anymore. I started using the afternoons to experiment with other ways to farm. That’s how I discovered that certain combinations of crops can actually enrich the soil and help the plants stay strong and healthy over a long period of time.”
The girl’s hands both shot up into the air. “And pancakes! You invented pancakes!”
Little One chuckled. “Learned to make them, really. My father was the one who invented them. But yes. I also rediscovered pancakes. I set them aside for so long because I believed that my mission was too important to have time to worry about food. But with you and your friends working my fields, I had to give something back to your parents for your time, and pancakes were so filling that I figured they would be the best thing I could offer.”
“And the most delicious,” the girl added, pulling one from his plate onto hers.
“Also true,” Little One agreed. “And that’s when I realized that when people eat pancakes, they relax, and when they relax, they see their truth more easily.”
“So you started inviting people over to eat pancakes.”
Little One nodded. “Exactly. And to talk to them about who they really are. Like we’re doing now.” He smiled. “You’d have to try hard to make more miscalculations or mistakes than I did before finally figuring out how best to use my gifts.”
The girl thought this over. “But isn’t it dangerous?” she asked after a moment.
Little One’s eyebrows rose. “Sometimes, I suppose,” he answered. “Occasionally someone gets quite upset if they aren’t ready to hear the truth about who they are.”
The girl giggled. “No, I mean the journey you’re asking me to go on. Isn’t it dangerous?”
Little One shrugged. “Not really,” he said.
“Then why am I afraid?”
“Because you’re human. Because the outcome is unknown. Because like most of us, you’re confused about what really keeps you safe.” He paused, the ghost of a smile passing over his face. “You know, a wise creature once told me that fear is a lack of vision. If you saw things clearly, you wouldn’t be afraid.”
“Why is that?”
“What does that even mean?”
“I didn’t understand either at first. Not until I was willing to face my fear directly did I realize that what I fear most isn’t starvation, or injury, or death. It’s losing what matters most. But when I finally understood exactly what that was, I realized that it can’t be lost.”
The girl put down her fork, crossed her arms, and wrinkled her nose at him. “Can’t I just stay here and help out on the farm?”
Little One put down his own fork and met her stare. “Of course,” he answered easily. “But you’ll have to work harder and harder not to hear the call. It’ll just get louder and more irritating until you’re exhausted from trying so hard to deny that it’s there. And all you’ll really manage to do is put off the inevitable anyway.”
She stuck out her tongue at him. “How will I even know where to go?”
The ghostly smile returned as Little One thought he saw a serpentine shape slide through the shadows in the corner of the room. “Lisssssten,” he echoed.
“What does that mean?” the girl asked.
Little One laughed. “Jussssst lisssssten.”
Her eyes grew narrow again. “This is serious, Little One! What if I fail?”
Even after all this time, he was still amazed when he saw that despite their differences, the conversations were all fundamentally the same. “If you fail, little one, then perhaps you will find that what you were looking for was within you all along.”
She was quiet for a long moment. “You really believe that I’m the daughter of a god? That I have a gift to give the world like you?”
Little One smiled. It was a clever trick of the gods, making it so difficult to see in yourself, so easy to recognize in somebody else. He couldn’t be sure of their reasons, but guessed it had to do with making sure nobody tried to do it all alone. “I’ve been wrong about many things,” he began. “Did I tell you about the time I fell out of bed and broke my nose because I believed a bad dream meant I was doomed to fail?”
The girl giggled. “No,” she said. “You really broke your nose?”
He nodded. “Embarrassingly, yes. I panicked and literally fell on my face, though the dream meant nothing, and I didn’t end up failing. Not irreversibly, anyway. The point is, I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been wrong about many things. But about this I am certain: the gifts of the gods run through you, as they do in all of us. And there are talents within you that if you don’t share, nobody else can. And the world, which needs your gifts, won’t have them. And if that’s not reason enough to go, then I don’t know what is.”
Her brown eyes stared at her empty plate. “I’ll go,” she said quietly before her eyes suddenly rose to meet his. “But if I need help…”
“I’ll be right beside you,” Little One answered, reaching across the table to put his hand on her arm.
Putting the last bite of pancake into his mouth with his other hand, he thanked the gods that there were fields to work, pancakes to eat, and people in the world for him to walk beside.
* * *
Mysteries linger. But regardless of the reasons for his obvious missteps, what remains uncontroversial is the enormous impact Little One had on the world.
During his lifetime, he helped dozens of his fellow villagers, and later hundreds of people in homes far distant, go on quests of their own to find their calling. Some of these people returned to then encourage others to go, creating a ripple effect that continues to this day.
As adventurers returned from their journeys, they began to find new ways of doing things. Some, like Little One, created new technologies and inventive forms of food, clothing, and shelter. Others gravitated towards novel forms of expression, and vibrant arts began to take root in the village. Still others found unique ways to support fellow villagers, so that whenever someone faced a challenge, there were others there to help them through it.
Before long, the villagers began to notice something strange: They hadn’t expanded the land under cultivation for quite some time—in fact, some of the newest farmland now lay fallow, and they were all working fewer hours in the fields—but their level of satisfaction was rising. They were happier with simpler clothes, functional houses, and only moderate levels of food (though demand for pancakes never seemed to lessen). Their lives felt rich and vibrant despite fewer material inputs. Something else was filling them up, though for a long time nobody could say exactly what that was.
Little One knew, of course.
By the time he grew old, people knew, loved, and respected him in villages all around the mountains in which he had his adventures. When it became known that his health was fading, a steady stream of pilgrims began arriving at his house to pay their respects and thank him for his guidance.
In addition to the villagers who had found their calling as a result of Little One’s efforts, they included his siblings from the City of the Children of the Serpent God, an ogre, and a strange, beautiful woman dressed in red. And Ginger, of course, who had helped Little One lead seekers on adventures many times over the years, contributed her own inventions to his ambitious projects, and visited him and his family frequently.
When somebody asked Little One how he had ended the Great Dissatisfaction, he smiled. “I did not end it,” he said. “You did. All of you. By learning how to be filled by your true nature.”
“But you were the first, and you showed us the way,” his wife added.
He shook his head. “I happened to be in a position to go on the first journey,” he agreed. “But many of you have improved on what I did since, or been first in your own efforts in your own way, and you have all taught me at least as much as I have taught you.”
Many others asked questions as well, the answers to which form the backbone of what we now know of Little One’s life and teachings. But they say it was his great-granddaughter who asked the final question, the one most discussed among Little One scholars.
It is recorded that she was crying. “Why are you leaving us?” she asked. “Aren’t you scared to go?”
To which Little One looked up at Ginger, smiled, and replied thus:
“Once, in a moment when I was consumed with self-doubt, a wise woman told me that it was impossible for me to fail in my purpose of helping people remember who they really are. ‘You can’t not do it,’ she said. ‘Because it’s a part of who you are. Like water rolling down a mountain. It can take many paths, but it’s always going to end up in the sea.’
“She was right. Fulfilling my purpose was nothing more than connecting with my own true nature, which in turn is like water returning to the ocean. And what is death but the ultimate return? No, my love, there is nothing to fear in this or anything else, for that which matters most can never be lost.”
While it’s true that most believe that Little One was a perfect being, there are some who still insist that he was just a man. This minority asserts that the greatest gift he gave us was not a perfect ideal to aspire to or an impeccable model to compare ourselves against, but rather an example to follow of someone who possessed both human flaws and godly perfection.
He didn’t know everything. He made mistakes. He failed, many times.
And therein lies his gift. Little One changed the world not despite his flaws, but because of them.
Given what the application of curiosity, love, and compassion to his shortcomings made possible, what miracles might the rest of us be capable of, with so many failings of our own just waiting to be transformed?