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.
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.”
“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.