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.
“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.