Following is the nineteenth story in a series that tells the tale of the first hero to go on a journey to discover his calling.
She circles unhurried amidst blue mountain peaks, the valley green and lush below. Allowing the wind to buoy her—she can feel it beneath her like a solid force, carrying her effortlessly upward—she loses track of the land and becomes lost in the infinite blue of the sky. Rising, falling, playing with the wind, the excitement of it running through her soul like air between her feathers, she passes countless hours in this way, nothing but sky above, nothing but strength below.
Until an ear-piercing scream breaks her reverie. She recognizes it as her own just before she feels the solidness of the air dissipate beneath her and the feeling of gravity—to which she was previously immune—reach up from the earth and grab hold of her body. Then she is falling, her wings flapping uselessly, the trees spiraling towards her more rapidly with every passing moment.
Just as her body is about to be shattered upon the limb of a giant pine, Ginger wakes up. Covered in sweat and breathing hard, she has a cold feeling in her belly. Somehow, without knowing why, she’s sure this isn’t just a dream. Something is wrong.
Pulling the blanket off of her, she rises from bed and exits her small room as quickly as she can. Instinctively, she turns down the hall away from her siblings’ rooms and towards the guest quarters.
When she gets to the room she’s looking for, she pauses with her hand on the door and takes a deep breath. He has to be safe, she tells herself firmly. There is nothing here that can hurt him.
She pushes open the door and sees the empty bed staring at her like a gaping mouth. There is so much she doesn’t know.
Breathing hard again, Ginger notes the sheets that lie twisted at the bottom of the bed. She increases the intensity of the glow that emanates from the walls—the light itself was not her invention, but the ability to adjust it is—and immediately sees a small pool of dark liquid on the stone floor. Hoping it’s not what she thinks it is, she kneels down, sees the dark red color of it, and realizes that it is.
She can feel her heart beating in her throat now. “Little One!” she calls desperately. Only silence answers. “Little One!” she screams.
Finally, a response: soft noises that sound like a rat chewing on a piece of wood. At first she thinks it’s coming from the corner of the room near the bed, but then she realizes it’s her siblings’ footsteps coming down the hall. The thick, stone walls cause sounds to echo down here, making them difficult to locate.
Thoughts surface while she waits. Thoughts like: Why today, of all days?
Sebastian is the first to arrive in the room. “What’s wrong?” he asks, his voice deep and his hair askew.
Ginger just points to the blood. “Little Bro!” he yells. “What happened? Where is he?”
“I have no idea,” Ginger answers as a few more siblings enter the doorway. “I just walked in and found him gone.”
“The demon came after him for revenge!” Corbett suggests, his eyes wide. “I knew he would!”
“I don’t think—” Ginger begins to say.
“Didn’t he mention something about a sorceress last night?” a sister named Margaret asks. “Maybe she came to claim him after he went to sleep.”
“The sorceress isn’t—”
“It was a dragon!” yells a brother in the back. Ginger can’t see which one. “I saw one circling yesterday and wondered why it was keeping an eye on us.”
Ginger shakes her head and opens her mouth, but her siblings are already racing away from the door and down the halls to pursue their various theories. She frowns slightly, but then shrugs. At least they’re trying to find their brother, and there is much she doesn’t know.
She looks around her one more time then walks out of the room to investigate her own theory. As she does, her thoughts move even faster than her feet.
Her new invention isn’t fully operational yet, she thinks, but if anyone came through the gate into the City of the Children of the Serpent God, it should let her know, and it might even have recorded an impression. She can’t imagine whom—or what—could have made it past the gate, but she did have the dream, her brother is missing, and the blood on the floor was real. Her legs begin to move more quickly.
She wonders briefly if she should have given Little One the other part of her new invention as soon as it was ready instead of waiting to surprise him. Perhaps that could have helped him with whatever happened last night. She thinks then of the other gift she has for him, the one she’s been carrying since leaving the Serpent God’s house. She regrets not having given it to him earlier.
There is so much she doesn’t know.
When she gets to the gate, her invention shows that nobody has crossed the threshold since she set it two days before. There are no impressions either, nor footprints when she checks.
By the time she returns to the living quarters, her siblings are coming back from their searches looking dejected or worried or both. Some are beginning to panic. Ginger can feel her own fear climbing from her belly into her chest and beginning to invade her lungs, making it hard to breathe. As her thoughts grow so rapid that they begin to interrupt one another, it occurs to her that fear is clouding her thinking. Recalling the Tree of Life, she makes space for the apprehension in her chest, gives it room to breathe, then takes a few deep breaths herself.
Just as the panic begins to subside and she feels her stomach settling back into place, she remembers a small, scratching noise from earlier and realizes with a start that she does, in fact, know where Little One is. And she knows why this happened today, of all days. She feels her lungs fill themselves full of air, then release it all at once, as if entirely of their own accord.
Ginger explains to her siblings that she knows where Little One is, that she’s sure he’s alright, but she won’t tell them where he is or how she knows. They want to go with her, but she tells them that it’s not a good idea. They trust her by now, so they stay in place while she heads down the corridor, though the disappointment is clear on their faces.
That’s okay, she thinks. Better that than the alternative.
She makes her way back down the hall towards Little One’s room. When she reaches the door, she knocks on it gingerly even though it’s already open.
“Little One?” she calls softly. There’s no answer. “Little One, I’m by myself. There’s nobody else here.” Silence. “Little One, I know you’re under there.”
Finally a cough comes from beneath the bed. Then the scratching noise again. Ginger stands in the doorway for a few more moments before realizing that he just moved over to make space for her.
She walks over to the bed, goes down on her hands and knees, then has to get even lower to wiggle her way under the bed next to her brother.
They lie there in silence for a moment, both of them on their bellies, looking into the shadows. Finally Ginger asks in a quiet voice: “Little One, what happened?”
His voice is equally soft when he answers. “I’m sorry, Ginger. I didn’t mean to worry you. Or the rest of them. It’s stupid, really.”
She shifts to take his hand in her own. “I’m sure it’s not stupid. What happened?”
“I had a dream. I was an eagle, flying high in the mountains.” Ginger’s skin prickles. “It was…incredible, really, but then suddenly I began to fall.” She feels his hand stiffen. “I woke up just before hitting a huge pine tree. I was already on the floor. I fell out of bed, Ginger. I literally fell on my face. Didn’t you see the blood? How much more obvious could it be?”
She frowns. “What do you mean?”
“The dream was a sign, a foretelling. Just when I think I’m doing great and nothing can go wrong, I’m going to fall. Failure is inevitable.”
“That’s ridiculous,” she says, giving his hand a squeeze.
“It’s not! I’m supposed to return to my family and village today, to complete my journey and help them remember who they really are. But I still don’t know how to do that. Even after all this time, I have no idea. I thought I could use your Lens of Truth, but then I lost it. Or got it destroyed. Now I have nothing, no plan, and no way to fulfill my purpose.”
Despite her best efforts to hide it, Ginger smiles. “Little One, you don’t need the Lens of Truth to help people discover their true selves.”
“No? How do I do it then?”
“With you? What are you talking about?”
“I worked on the Lens of Truth for five years. It was the most complex invention I’ve ever created.” She sees his mouth open, can imagine the apology deep in his eyes. “No,” she continues before he can give it voice. “Please don’t apologize. Just listen. My effort to make the Lens of Truth was so all-consuming that I lost track of where it ended and where I began. I began to think that its success was inextricably tied to my own. That its worth was my own. When the Sorceress broke it, for a brief moment I felt like I had lost everything that mattered in life.”
She pauses, then chuckles. “But then I realized how foolish I was being. I’m an inventor, Little One. I’m bigger than any one of my inventions. Some will be great and some will be terrible, but it’s my ability to create new things, not the success of any one in particular, that makes me who I am.”
Her brother is quiet for a moment. She can feel his breath on her arm. “So what,” he finally whispers, “I’m supposed to go back to my village and break things so that people wake up to who they really are?”
This time she doesn’t try to hide her smile. “Maybe,” she laughs.
His eyebrows furrow. “Be serious,” he says. “I’ve learned so much about what I’m here to do, but I still have no idea how to actually do it.”
Words are important here, she knows, so she waits for them to form fully in her mind. “You can’t not do it,” she finally says slowly, then senses the presence of more. “How did you show the ogre who he was? Or our father?” She holds her breath.
“That’s the thing,” Little One answers. He sounds very much like a scared five-year-old. “I don’t know. I didn’t even try.”
She breathes a sigh of relief. The words were good ones after all. “Exactly,” she says. “You didn’t have to try because you do it so naturally. You can’t not do it, Little One. You’ll help people remember who they are no matter what you’re doing 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 can feel him breathe more deeply. Then he stops. “But what if I’m not good enough? What if I do it but I still fail?”
This time she doesn’t have to wait for the words; they are already there. “It has always been enough, brother. Look at the people you’ve already helped—the ogre, the Serpent God, the village, Abdul, the genie, me… You are the son of a god. You have a gift, as we all do. Do not ask how big it is. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you give it as freely as possible.”
Little One’s hand touches his broken nose and then the bottom of the bed above him. “I don’t feel like the son of a god right now.”
Ginger smiles, thinks she can feel him silently and perhaps reluctantly do the same. More words come to her. “To be human is to be like a stream, Little One. When you look at it, you see water, rocks, mud, old leaves, and clouds of dirt that get stirred up. We are all of that in our earthly forms. But look at a stream again and you can see the reflection of majestic trees, bright green leaves, and the infinite blue of the heavens. We are that as well. We have both sides, neither one of which can we deny.”
Her brother is quiet for a long time. Ginger stares at the shadows, feels the heat of his body beside her, and wonders where the words keep coming from.
Finally, in a small, very quiet voice, Little One asks, “What if they don’t welcome me back, Ginger? What if they don’t want what I have to offer?”
And so they’ve arrived at the heart of it, Ginger thinks. She’s somewhat surprised to find that she has words for this too. “When the sorceress said You can only be lost if you don’t know the way home, you said you understood. What exactly did you understand?”
Even in the relative darkness under the bed, she can see him blush. “It’s going to sound strange,” he says. “You’ll think I’m crazy.”
She doesn’t hesitate. “Try me.”
“Well, I realized that I’ve never felt more at home than when I’m feeling my own strength, the golden warmth of my gifts, and helping others to see theirs as well. I just feel so natural and relaxed, like I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be when that happens. And I guess one thing I have learned on this journey is how to find that, no matter where I am. So I guess I do actually know the way home, if you look at it that way.”
“Exactly,” Ginger says, nodding with satisfaction as vigorously as she can in the small space beneath the bed.
“Yes, exactly. The people in your village may not welcome you back at first. They may not want what you have to offer. It takes time for people to learn, to wake up, to be able to see what they most need. But as long as you can go home—to the true home you just described—anytime, that won’t matter so much. You’ll be able to wait until the others are ready to hear what you have to say.”
“You think?” he asks, and the uncertainty in his voice makes her want to wrap him in her arms.
There is so much she doesn’t know, but this she does. “Absolutely, Little One. Of this I am certain.”
Silence sits alongside them for several long moments. Finally, in another soft voice, though this one more sure of itself, Little One speaks. “I really don’t want to leave you,” her brother says.
Warm energy rises within her as she remembers that she has something for this as well, though this time it isn’t words. She looks her brother in the eyes. “Me neither,” she says fervently. “Which is why I’ve been working on a new invention.”
His eyebrows go up. “The one that guards the gate and takes the impression of anyone who passes?”
“It started that way,” she says, hitting her head on the bottom of the bed in her excitement. “I realized that taking impressions could also be used for another purpose. So I made this.” She rolls onto her side so she can take the small, mechanical bird out of her pocket. “It records an impression of your voice, then flies to whatever destination you program into it. Then somebody else can replay the impression and, of course, record their own and send it back.”
His eyes are so wide they look like they might break. “So you can talk to me through this bird, and I can talk back?”
She smiles. “Yes, Little One. It’ll take an hour or two to fly from the City to your village, but we can talk to each other this way as often as we like.”
His smile is now bigger than hers. “That’s amazing, Ginger! I have no idea how you come up with these things.”
“I wouldn’t have if it weren’t for you.” Her smile fades as she remembers something. “Perhaps now is a good time to give you the other gift I have for you. Hold on.”
She wriggles out from under the bed, then jogs quickly to her own room and back. When she enters the room again, Little One is sitting on top of the bed waiting for her, running his fingers over his broken nose.
“It becomes you,” she says. “You look distinguished, sophisticated. Like you know something of the world.” Another smile. “Here,” she says, before he can respond. She hands him the folded pieces of paper wrapped together with string.
“Is this another invention?” he asks, thankfully running his fingers over the package now instead of his nose.
“No,” she answers. “It’s a gift. From our father, the Serpent God. I got back to his palace after you’d already left, and he sent this along with me to give to you.” She doesn’t say more, doesn’t know any more, but hopes it will be clear to him.
Little One unties the string and unfolds a piece of paper. Numbers and words cover the inside of it. As he’s reading, he shifts positions and a few small, brown balls slip out the side of another piece of paper in his lap.
When he finally looks up, she raises a questioning eyebrow. “It’s a recipe,” he says, his brows slightly furrowed. “For pancakes.” Suddenly a grin breaks out on his face. “The most delicious food I’ve ever had in my life.”
Ginger laughs. “And those things?” She indicates the small, brown balls.
“Seeds,” Little One answers happily. “For pea plants. Apparently you’re supposed to roast the peas and grind them up, which I’d never have thought in a million years. And the rest is made from the same wheat that we already grow in the village and a few other simple foods. It’s weird. I could’ve sworn they were made from special ingredients that only a god has access to.”
She smiles to herself. It’s a shared condition of all humans, she thinks, this not knowing. And as scary as it can sometimes be, it is also a gift.
She leans over and gives her brother a hug. He returns it, fiercely. They hold each other for a few moments, then finally let go.
“I love you, Ginger,” Little One says shyly.
“I love you too,” she says, emotion choking her words.
She helps her brother pack, then say goodbye to his siblings while avoiding their questions about what happened (she’ll tell them later, in a way they’ll understand). They line up at the gate to see their brother off, all waves and smiles and promises to visit, and she thinks how far they’ve come. All of them, in so many different ways.
The last she sees of Little One, he’s walking into the shadows of the woods, infinite possibilities almost visible as they spread out before him like a fertile field, a cloudless sky, an ocean inconceivably vast.