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.
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.