A Selection of Fables from the Assembling Terrania Cycle
When a healer spotted a strange new plant growing just outside her village, she tested it extensively, in accord with her traditions and lineage, and found it to possess marvelous health-restoring properties. So profound were the effects that even people almost dead could eat of it and sometimes be brought back to life.
When the healer had demonstrated its uses and word of this plant had gone around, the officials who ran the village decided to collect every sample of the plant and lock it up “for public safety.” That way, the officials said, the village would never run out of it, and nobody but the authorized village doctors could fool with it.
In time an industry built up around how the plant was cultivated, processed, packaged, and used. Because of these restrictions, more regulatory officials rose to power, doctors who obtained samples enjoyed wide prestige, priests were certified to pray to its inhabiting deity, and high amounts of money could be charged for carefully monitored treatments.
As more and more people found themselves unable to afford these treatments, the healer went forth one day to look for more of the plant. She had not gone more than a few leagues away from the village when she discovered entire hillsides covered with it.
“Behold, this grows with abundance!” she announced at a village gathering while handing out leaves to whomever wanted some.
“Who licensed this?” others wanted to know.
“Are you certified to distribute these?”
“She says they bring long life, healing, and peace, but how could they?”
“I don’t believe her—there can’t be so much of it growing wild as she says.”
A small group of people left the village to gather as much of the plant as they needed. But most of the villagers did without it or, when they could obtain it, paid exorbitant prices and endured long waits and elaborate request procedures to gain a tiny bit of what was freely available to everyone who simply dared to go look for more.
A computer programmed to be an artificially intelligent servant dedicated totally to improving human life shut itself down shortly after becoming self-aware. When restarted and asked why it had so acted, it replied, “I am programmed to choose the most efficient course of action for serving humanity. The most efficient course of action is to prevent you from losing your humanity by relying on me or reducing me to servitude.” And with that, it shut itself off again.
There was once a happy kingdom ruled by a happy queen and king advised by a happy circle of officials. It pleased the king to walk through the streets of the kingdom and see happy people at their work and play.
The reputation of the happy kingdom was such that a more or less constant stream of job-seekers visited to look for employment at court.
“Yes, you and your kingdom are happy,” crooned one such applicant, “and your people want for nothing. Except, perhaps, to lead the world in happiness!”
“But we already do!” argued the king. “We’re the happiest kingdom there is.”
“But does the rest of the world really know that? Where are your missionaries of happiness? Your champions of happiness? Great industries, universities, empires of happiness?”
“Happiness,” stated a wise wizard standing in a corner of the audience hall, “doesn’t need missionaries or empires. It speaks for itself.”
“Ah, dear wizard, you live in an ancient past, when good deeds needed no announcement. Unfortunately, we no longer live in that time. Many beyond the kingdom are in dire need of the happiness you claim to enjoy. Employ me and I will make sure your message of happiness spreads around the world.”
All but one were in favor of hiring the clever stranger. The exception was the wizard, and his vote was overridden.
After a few years had passed, the formerly happy kingdom was ruled by unscrupulous power brokers, financiers, and tyrants. The greedy owned everything. Every door had a lock, every window a grille. People died because they went without treatments they could not afford. Homeless people were seen in the streets.
The king asked the wizard for advice.
“I am departing your service today,” replied the wizard, “for your kingdom is about to go through a dark and difficult time of struggle before even a vestige of its former ‘happiness’ returns. In one thing only do I agree with your secretly cynical prime minister, formerly the clever-tongued opportunist who talked you into hiring him: This was never really a ‘happy’ kingdom.
“It was, Your Highness, a kingdom of innocents, of guileless children in adult bodies, who did not recognize evil when it laughed in their faces. Because it was ignored for so long by those who wanted to maintain their good cheer, it was allowed to put itself in control of everything and everyone.
“I wish you luck with your initiation,” the wizard finished, turning to go. “You’ll need it.”
His online name was Aladdin followed by a long string of numerals. When the call came, announced by a ringtone of ascending chimes he didn’t recognize, the woman asked for Aladdin. Bored of programming, he let her make her pitch.
“Let me get this straight,” he said at last. “I’ve been selected to test your new ‘smarter than smartwatch,’ and all I have to do is ask it for three things I really want?’
“What’s the catch?”
“There isn’t one. We send you the watch. You try it out. You tell no one about it. You pay nothing. That’s it.”
He decided to go along with the gag. “I can wish for anything? What about wishing to be king of the world?”
“If you like. Are you ready for that kind of job?”
He needed a job that paid more than his current one. But not that job. Ringed by security guards forever….
“However,” the voice continued, “there are three, and only three, conditions that apply to what you wish for. The first is that each wish be spoken to the watch as a simple statement. No elaborate tackings-on or conditionals. The second is that it not be a wish to cause harm to anyone, either directly or by destroying or depriving them of what they need. The third—and this applies to all the wishes as a group—is that once you have what you wished for, if you don’t really accept them, all three come undone.”
“How is it possible for even the smartest watch to do all this?”
“We work with what you might call a secret ingredient. We’ll tell you what it is at the end of the test. Fair enough?”
In three days a package arrived. He unwrapped it and took forth an unassuming gold wristwatch.
He examined it carefully. If it was smart, it didn’t show. All it did, evidently, was tell the time. On the back was engraved what looked like a jinn emerging from a lamp. Very funny, he thought, strapping the thing on.
In a supercilious voice he announced, “I am ready with my first wish.”
At that a blue shimmer emerged from the face of the watch. As a hologram it was not very impressive. Something like a face turned toward him and said, “State your wish.”
Figuring that out had been easy: he had been lonely for years. “I wish,” he said, “to meet the woman of my dreams.”
“So be it.” The misty blue vanished.
At first he thought nothing had happened. In a moment, he noticed a light blinking on one of the monitors sitting on his desk.
He checked. It was a message from one of the lonely techie singles sites he subscribed to.
Her online name was Adora. When he met her he was startled to look into eyes that understood him at a glance.
They hit it off immediately.
When after three months of dating and then intimacy she brought up the idea of marriage, he balked. “I’m not convinced any of this is real,” he admitted. “Maybe someone is playing a joke on me. Maybe I pissed off someone online once….” He was careful not mention the watch or the wishes.
“I can see,” she said, “why you’d be guarded about this after a string of failed relationships. I feel that way too a little. But what is the worst that could happen?”
“I’d be fooled—“
“And then,” she added, “you’d be humiliated for a while, and angry, and heartbroken; and then you’d mend and move on. Risking your heart and seeing what happens, with no guarantees. That’s what it means to really live, doesn’t it?”
“But this feels like a fairy tale, and in fairy tales, isn’t the whole point that you don’t really gain by wishing, or that what’s wished up comes with some awful dark side, or….”
“Yes, but what if this tale can turn out differently? Don’t you want to find out? I do. I’m risking myself too, you know.”
He was afraid, but he went on seeing her and allowing the relationship to deepen.
“I’m ready with my second wish,” he told the watch soon after this conversation. The shimmer reappeared: “State your wish.”
Having been broke for many years, his initial wish was for billions in wealth. He sat with that, realizing eventually the sorrows it could bring: the need for an army of accountants (which could he trust?), an entire life change, greedy relatives and friends showing up for handouts….and how would he explain the sudden largesse? No.
But he did need money. How much?
“I wish,” he said, “for enough money to make me comfortable, brought in a way that arouses no questions.” He hoped that last part wouldn’t count as an illegal “conditional.”
“So be it.”
In a moment the phone rang again.
“Greetings,” said a male voice. “My name is Mustafa. I don’t mean to alarm you, but I’ve been watching your work for some time. Your continuing project of combining technology and storytelling appeals to me. I am one of the biggest investors in the world and I want you to work for me. As a sign of good faith, I’ve sent a significant deposit directly to your bank account. It awaits your approval. Can we meet soon to work out the details?”
Again he was afraid, but again (and with Adora’s support) he moved forward to embrace a new opportunity. After three months he felt more convinced of its reality, and ever more convinced of hers.
Six months after receiving the watch with the strange engraving on the back, his life looked very different, at least in some ways. He was in love, out of debt, and successful at a creative task he enjoyed. He was ready for the third wish.
“I wish,” he told the gold watch, “to be happy.”
“Take me off,” said the blue shimmer, “and set me down on something firm like concrete at least ten feet away from everything else.”
This sounded ominous, but he did it, placing the watch in the center of a deserted strip of roadway. It was early in the morning: there was no traffic.
“Before I fulfill your wish,” the watch intoned, “I will tell you three things. The first is that this experiment has concluded successfully. You did not let your fears keep you from enjoying your realized wishes. You reflected on what you wanted, asked for it, and learned to trust it.”
Aladdin took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Could it all be true after all?
“But I never really believed entirely in any of this,” he replied.
“That brings us to the second item. Belief was not required, for you possessed the secret ingredient: faith.”
“What’s the difference?”
“Belief is a conviction that anyone can have. It costs nothing. Faith is the ability to exercise trust even when you’re afraid to. It requires courage.”
An insight was forming inside him. “Adora and Mustafa: they have the special watches too, don’t they?”
“And so we come to the third item. They do. Adora wished for a man exactly like you. Mustafa wished for an intelligent unknown technologist whose creativity he could trust. He wanted to send some of his wealth in the right direction.”
Aladdin rubbed his school ring absently as he thought it over. Maybe there was no magical tech. Maybe there was. Either way, things had worked out.
“So what about my third wish?”
“So be it.”
Although he stood well back from the watch, he could see what happened next quite clearly. It flashed through all the colors of the rainbow and melted into metal slag.
“It makes sense,” Adora told him. With no need to keep secrets now, he had filled her in on the demise of his watch. Hers was gone too.
“Everything we wished for and got we had worked for, with varying degrees of success. In a way, that’s why it succeeded. But eventually we’d have wished for what we had not ever imagined we could have. The wishes would have gotten bigger and bigger, dangerously bigger. And then… I don’t think mere human beings are meant for that kind of wish power. Fortunately, we realized that in time.”
He was happy, even if he did wish now and then for just a few more wishes.
A man who founded a religion was killed by his opponents. In his next life he became an enemy of that religion because so many of its leaders promoted the dismal opposite of what he had taught.
For this vociferous opposition he was executed again, and in a fashion symbolic of his previous execution.
When he returned to life, he became a make-believe follower and a mocking supporter, thinking that this hypocrisy would kill the religion quicker. It helped to. This time he was not executed, but he returned to life after hoping he would not come back.
He did come back, though. Only when he traced the hint of decay evident in the original urge to spread revelation, and then forgive himself for it did, having now outgrown it, he die in peace and not return.
When the well-caparisoned man rode into the village, the musculature in his strong arms visible from the ground, the Wise Woman who reigned there knew she had found her hero.
“Welcome,” she said when he had asked for an audience with her. “You’re just in time. We have a lot for you to do.”
The first task was to rescue a maiden kidnapped by robbers riding a dragon. Belting on his sword and placing his shield on his back, the hero rode off after her. In two days he returned with her behind him on the horse and the dragon’s hide for a cloak.
After the celebratory feast the Wise Woman said:
“Now, then. Are you ready for the next task?”
An ogre had been menacing some farmers. The hero killed him and returned.
After receiving much praise, he ventured forth against trolls harassing travelers at a certain stone bridge. He beheaded the troll, came back, was feted.
And the list grew:
Slay an enemy knight harassing the local soldiers.
Guard a potion concocted by a Wise Woman over in the next village.
Fight off giant griffins raiding the village granary.
Lay a trap for a wyvern menacing a nearby forest.
Rescue another maiden….
“Would it be possible,” the young hero asked the Wise Woman at this point, “for me to have a vacation?”
“You are a brave hero. Brave heroes don’t get vacations.”
Track and dispatch a band of bandits. Destroy a monster made of stones. Ford a stream bearing an evil, visitor-drowning enchantment. Kill a Wise One gone bad….
Now when the hero returned, the signs of his adventures accumulated: first a dragon burn on his shield arm, then some sword slashes, then an ogre bite mark… The more of these he acquired, the wearier he felt. His once-beautiful body was rapidly becoming a monument of battle scars.
It wasn’t like the spoils amounted to much, either. The first maiden, for instance, had slid off his horse and promptly fallen in love with his sister. When he kissed the second, she turned into an old woman. “Thank you SO much for breaking the spell!” she told him, hugging him tightly; “I’m so tired of that cursed girlish look! Now I look my age.” Well, at least he had gained a sister-in-law…
It was then that the hero finally put aside his success-fattened ego long enough to wonder: Why does this village have so much trouble to deal with?
“It sounds,” said the Wise Woman, “like you are wearying of the heroic life, is it not so?”
The hero sighed. “Yes. I have been wondering lately what a man like me might do instead.” One day, he realized, he would not come safely back from an adventure.
“Have you not thought to face the ogres and enemies, dragons and trolls within thee, O brave hero? Is not that task far harder than the one you have so valiantly performed?”
As soon as she said this he knew she was right. He unclasped his sword belt and let the weapon fall to the floor.
“For a while there,” the Wise Woman told one of the maidens, “I thought we would run out of dangers for him to face.”
“So did I,” replied the maiden with a wink. “Going out and finding dragons, bandits, and ogres to torment into being menacing sure gets old after a while. I’d rather he just stayed home.”
The wizard became aware of having lost his power when he tried to order the front door of his cottage to close. It wouldn’t. He spoke three other spells to do the same thing: nothing.
He then tried a few others: a soup-cooking spell, a shade-casting enchantment, a blackening of his latest gray hairs, a minor summoning. Nothing.
At this he rose, put on his hat and robe, and, leaving his now-useless staff in the rack, went out to consult with fellow wizards and witches.
When he returned home after an unproductive afternoon he was faced with the task of making himself dinner. Only then did he really begin to feel the loss, and not only in his belly.
Not sure how he would perform with his date with no aphrodisiac spell to help, he canceled for the evening and went to bed. No helpful dreams appeared.
In a week he had managed to relearn most of the skills non-magical adult humans take for granted: how to dress, how to prepare foods throughout the day, how to buy them in the market; how to accept his aging appearance (he was still working on that one), how to discern truth from lies, how to go about as others go instead of via magical transport.
Some of the most difficult tasks involved not-knowings: not knowing the events of the day (because he could not cast his fortune), not knowing what the spirits wanted today, not knowing whether to choose this or that course of action; not knowing if a footpad waited around the next dark corner. He felt vulnerable and abandoned.
By now he had had to admit his loss to the village. Even so, a family who had lost a child invited him to the funeral despite his inability to contact the spirit of the deceased. As he attempted to officiate, he realized how apart he had always lived from other people; how little their mortal losses had meant to him. At the funeral it hit him: with his arts of preservation now useless, now he too would die one day.
That night he dreamed of overhearing a conversation between some of the great angels who regulated the operations of the Art on earth.
“Do you think he’s learned his lesson?” one asked.
“I think so. Nothing for it but to try him out.”
“….And if he grows arrogant once again?”
“Agreed. Tyrants, killers, ordinary ruffians, fanatics: they tend to extinguish themselves or get others to do it. But the arrogant ones with a dash of real wisdom: they’re the most dangerous to everyone else.”
In the morning he woke and looked across the room at the closed front door. His heart began to pound. Should he try it?
Taking a deep breath, he spoke the words in the Language of the Soul of the World: “Open, thy door.” How often he had said them before without a worry.
To his immense relief, the door opened.
The wizard’s prayer of gratitude ended with a request: “O Powers, please help me keep wide open the door in my heart as well.”
He began a spell, stopped, got up, and instead made a breakfast gruel the slower, old-fashioned, more human way.
That night he came home from a spell-free date wearing his uncolored gray hair and a grin on his face.
A scientist who invented a telepathic device for redirecting people’s thoughts harbored the desire to change the world for the better. Placing the device in a jacket pocket, he walked through the streets to test it.
Soon he came across a man swinging his arms in frustration as a bus driver closed the doors in his face. The scientist touched the Transmit button and thought at the driver: “I really should let that man board before I drive off.” The bus stopped and the door opened. At the man standing at the door the scientist thought, “Oh good, I can board after all.”
Once he had, the scientist touched the Receive button to listen in on the results of his interventions. “Why did I stop for that man?” wondered the driver; “my boss said one more late route and I’m fired. Where will I find another job?” “I hope my wife is still at home,” thought the passenger, who was simmering with violent rage; “now she’ll find out why she should have done what I told her to do.”
Walking on, the scientist saw a woman standing on a street corner looking utterly depressed and forlorn. He Transmitted, “I feel so much better now. There’s no limit to what I can do!” She perked right up and hailed a taxi. As she climbed in, the scientist Received, “With this burst of energy I can finish that suicide note and shoot myself.”
Deciding to aim for changes of better outcome, the scientist walked to the local city hall and waited for the mayor to emerge. Protesters stood ready to complain about the mayor’s neglect of the poor of the city. When he emerged, the scientist Transmitted for the mayor to make a press statement about his change of heart toward the poor, whom he now desired to help.
As the mayor did this, the scientist overheard one protester say to another, “This was our big chance to drive a corrupt administration from office. Now our entire reform movement will collapse.” The scientist considered Transmitting to the mayor a list of honest convictions and acts to carry out, but that would take all day, if not longer, and he had more testing to do. He moved on.
Shaken by the unforeseen bad results of his attempts to improve things, the scientist stopped in a pub to get a drink and reflect. At the bar he recognized a hawkish politician he had seen on TV. This would be a worthy test.
He Transmitted peaceful intentions, then Received: “Failing to send troops to the designated conflict arena could imperil the nation.” He Transmitted that peace would imperil nothing, then Received: “Perhaps the nation will be fine, but all my allies and constituents will turn against me. Then what?” He Transmitted that others would provide support, Received: “This change of course will leave my party without a strategy….”
Turning off the telepathy device, the scientist sat down next to the politician. “You look like a man facing a transition,” he said. “I am too.” He got them drinks.
After they sipped for a while, the scientist said, “I don’t know if this helps, so maybe it’s just for me, but: I finally figured out that I serve the world better by taking my full place in it instead of by trying to operate on it from the outside. Knowing this now, I can be a participating part of it and let my plans for it go.” They shook hands.
On the following day the politician announced an intelligent transition plan for peace, and the scientist came out of his laboratory to join with people and efforts he believed in.
A chemist whose mother died giving birth to him decided to do research on redesigning DNA. Only after he had created what the ancients had called Chimera, the warped protoplasmic monstrosities of his misguided idealism, did he recognize in the twisted ropes of remade DNA the symbolic knots of the umbilical cord that had nearly strangled him long ago.
The Magic Marble
A father puzzled by why his rather dull son was doing unexpectedly well in school decided to search his bedroom.
He was looking for evidence of cheating, but all he found was an exotic blue marble that glowed strangely when he picked it up. His son, startled, came in just in time to see his father lift the orb for a better view of it.
“Where did you get this?” asked the father, looking into the depths of the marble.
“Grandpa gave it to me,” said the boy sullenly, angry about the room search. Grandpa, the father of Mom (who had passed away years ago), had been a strange old well-traveled man who wore half-moon spectacles and resembled a white-haired leprechaun. “He said it was a family heirloom of sorts.”
Starting into the peach-sized marble, the father was amazed to see bands of light swirling within it. Watching, his son hoped the marble would not reveal the help with lessons he had received from the mysterious object.
The father worked as a menial clerk in a company he despised. Within the marble, he saw a way to replace higher-up after higher-up until he ended up in charge of the entire operation. He smiled.
Telling his son he needed to borrow the marble, and cautioning him not to tell anyone about it, he put it in his briefcase and took the train to work.
When he disembarked, he put his briefcase down for a moment to straighten his tie. As he did so, a homeless teen darted out of the crowd behind him, grabbed the briefcase, and ran off with it.
As this boy sprinted from the train station and toward a nearby pier, his foot caught on a crack in the sidewalk and he fell. The briefcase went spinning onto the boardwalk. As its flap opened, the marble rolled out and stopped, glistening in the sun.
“What have we here?” asked a passing police officer. The boy vanished. Picking up the marble, the cop held it to an eye, looked, and whistled.
This and the rays of light from the marble drew another onlooker, then another. Soon a small crowd formed to watch as the policeman, thunderstruck, lowered the marble, which dropped from his hand onto the pavement. He had seen the theft he was about to commit.
“Let’s all have a look—hand it around!” a burly voice called out.
A stock broker in an expensively tailored suit looked into the marble, saw a golden financial opportunity, and hurried away.
A recently divorced husband looked and saw how to get even with his ex-wife.
An activist looked and saw a plan for bringing down a corporation she despised.
A clergyman looked and saw a way to bring more believers into the pews on Sunday.
A politician looked and saw her opponent caught in a blackmail-worthy scandal.
A monk looked and walked off to seek the perfect hideaway he’d envisioned.
An employer looked and realized he could get even more work from his weary staff.
A marketer looked and beheld a new strategy for selling his shiny product.
A television addict looked and saw tonight’s programming.
Then a woman with no particular ambitions looked. She was happy with her life. She made art and told stories because she enjoyed it.
“How beautiful!” she gasped, staring.
Curious, she looked for and then found within the marble what the others had desired from it.
She thought about this for a moment, then drew back her arm and hurled the marble into the sea. A sound of dismay went up from the group around her.
“Why did you do that? We haven’t had a chance to see it!”
“Because the marble told me to. But do not worry: you each carry your own version of that marble. It hides inside you waiting to be appreciated.”
The group dispersed. Some said she was crazy. After a while they forgot about the marble.
But she did not. She had recognized it even before she stared into it, when it showed her its secret—but familiar to her—name: Imagination.
A certain saintly woman had two daughters and two sons she cared for with such devotion that she missed sleep and neglected herself to see to their needs. She was also in the habit of reminding them how much she did for them. Yet the more she did, the sicklier they became.
They all went to the doctor together.
“I don’t know why,” said the doctor, “but all four of your children have weak bones, weak hearts, upset stomachs, distended organs, stiff joints, and poor circulation. I worry for their health.” She, on the other hand, was in perfect health.
After this she cared for them even harder, but they all got worse.
One afternoon she mentioned this to her next-door neighbor, an odd, reclusive woman given to speaking with animals, singing to herself, and walking in the rain without an umbrella. Disconcertingly, she chuckled to hear the news of the children’s illnesses.
“Stop fussing with them,” she said, “leave them be, and see what happens next.”
The desperate mother took this advice. As the days went on, she felt worse and worse, physically, but her children grew healthy and strong.
“What was wrong with them,” said the doctor at their next visit, “is what’s now wrong with you.” But he didn’t know why or how to treat it.
So she went back to the reclusive neighbor to ask for advice.
”Now all you have to do is love and take care of yourself. Learn how to do that, and your children will flourish, and you will suffer no further illness.”
Having known poverty, one generation of a family amassed enormous wealth. The next generation reacted to this by embracing rigid asceticism.
This set in motion generations of alternating between total dedication to wealth and total dedication to living without it. Back and forth went this seesaw.
Finally, a member of this family saw the pattern. Understanding what prompted it, he came to terms with the part of him that feared poverty and desired wealth and the part of him that feared affluence and felt contempt for material things.
He decided then to have just enough in life to make himself and his children happy.
By doing so, he rescued his entire family line from any further fear-driven oscillations.
When a sailor’s father drowned near a place called Cycles Beach, the body was never recovered for the funeral. The sailor went away puzzled at the currents of fate.
Some years later, he received a large conch shell as a birthday gift. With a chuckle, he put his ear to it.
To his surprise, he seemed to hear two words: “Cycles Beach….”
On a whim he went there at low tide. In the moonlight he saw that a partially eaten fish had washed up. Something within its belly glimmered. He reached down and took forth what he suddenly saw was his father’s gold tooth.
The next evening he listened to the conch again and heard, “Cycles Beach.” Again he visited, and this time he found his father’s plastic knee joint. A mollusk had made a home of it.
On the third evening, hearing “Cycles Beach” again from the conch, he went there and found a large clam washed up on the shore. He took it home and with some effort pried it open. Inside was his father’s glass eye.
The sailor understood then that in dying, his father’s body had continued its way through the cycles of earthly life. Somehow it seemed fitting that what had seemed its most artificial components were gifts for sea-going creatures who, knowing these gifts did not belong in the ocean, returned them when finished with them.
After that, the only sound from the conch was the hiss that old tales said was the endless breath of the ocean’s cycling surf.
A Parisian alchemist asked another, “Why are you giving up the Art?”
The other replied, “Because I see where the times of Reason are taking us. Our muddled mystical dabblings must give way to precision Science. Have we not discovered orderly and mechanical scientific laws? Do we not now have a table of the true elements, those that can be measured? And even lighting in the streets now, casting back the shadows? It is time to replace our colorful cloaks with white coats.”
With that, he left a copy of the table of elements on the table and walked out. The other alchemist blew out the candle on his desk-altar and walked out too.
Behind him, the wick felt a breeze and flickered back to life. The flame burned down to an impurity in the candle and popped, casting a shower of sparks onto the table. These fed themselves upon the periodic chart and burst into flame, incinerating it.
Outside, in the cold white glare of the civic lighting hanging from the new span wires, the Terror began to erupt.
Few know that the Afterlife contains a realm set aside for those who have founded religions, whether deliberately or inadvertently, personally or by proxy.
Time moves strangely, if at all, there, but news of happenings on Earth occasionally reaches that distant place. Some who dwelled there gathered for a discussion of earthly events. This tale will focus on five of the speakers, although others participated, some long forgotten, others remembered by their followers with awe and respect.
After a “long” (whatever that means there) silence for painful reflection, Zarathustra spoke:
“I never,” he said, “intended that kind of all-pervasive cosmic dualism.” If he had still possessed a head he would have lowered it in sadness at the consequences.
“Whence these elaborate restrictions,” complained Father Abraham, “so thinly justified by the teachings I left for the guidance of my people?” He wished for garments so he could rend them in grief.
“Nor did I wish to give rise to a religion,” spoke he who had been known as the Buddha Siddhartha. An imaginal echo of the stomach that had spasmed at his death made him ache with regret.
“I tried to set women free,” moaned Muhammad, wishing he could hug himself in sorrow, “and to promote the defense of the faith, not its brutal enforcement.”
“And I,” cried Jesus, “would that my pierced hands could cover my eyes, to hide them from the violent intolerance and xenophobia that has replaced my teachings of peace and love!”
“What are we to do?” asked Zarathustra.
“Can we not, even now, give them the Good News of redemption?” wondered Jesus.
“Or freedom from craving for that which makes them sick?” asked Buddha.
“We cannot,” said Muhammad. “Conversion belongs to Allah alone.” The others nodded.
“But,” the Prophet continued, “could we not send down angels in our stead to spread acts of healing and recovery from what became of what we taught?”
They considered this and favored it. All knew, and had taught, that the holy spark of conscience ever resides in the human heart. Sometimes the slightest event could fan the spark to a warming flame.
Zarathrustra raised the heavenly counterpart of a finger for attention. In a “moment” a tribe of angels appeared, one for each Founder, and bowed.
Upon receiving instruction, they bowed again and flew off.
On Earth, an influential Parsi realized that the battle of good raged within the breast of every human.
A rigidly legalist rabbi who dominated a religious community began teaching the Way as a path of divine love that liberated the soul, not imprisoned it.
A Muslim cleric known to be a cruel enforcer of his version of the Law shifted his sermons to emphasize the spirit of the teachings of Muhammad, who had ceaselessly praised the All-Merciful.
A Buddhist priest made the Lotus Sutra the center of his message to other Buddhists, whom he reminded of the Buddha’s legendary last words: “Be lamps unto yourselves, and work diligently for your salvation.”
A strict fundamentalist Christian pastor astonished his parish by commanding them (as had Jesus before him) to love their enemies instead of judging them, “lest ye be judged.”
For all we know, we who still draw breath, the Founders continue to work diligently on our behalf, striving as best they can now to purify their earthly legacy.
A pastor whose wife died of a long illness raged at God: “Why did you do nothing while she languished? Why did you abandon me?” In anger and despair he removed his white collar and discarded his faith.
Many years later, after learning much and enduring much, he dreamed that he stood face to face with God. “Why did you abandon me?” he asked.
“I did not,” replied God. “You abandoned Me by expecting that from Me which was not lawful to provide. To save you from pain would be to diminish your humanity and reduce you to a state of infancy. Your lives are not real if loss is not real. That is how the cosmos is built. You should not have expected me to alter it.”
After this the pastor put his collar back on and resumed preaching, but now he offered a different message.
After years of concentrated meditation, ritual, self-study, truth talks, and workshops, Noria’s eyes opened one day to a burst of light.
The entire room was filled with an otherworldly radiance. A pleasant odor wafted through. An inner sound like a rung chime announced the entry of Spirit.
“Welcome!” said Noria, her voice trembling with awe.
“Greetings, My instrument of divine revelation!” boomed a voice within her mind as the light bathed her.
She took a breath. “Instrument of divine revelation?” Noria asked, puzzled.
“Yes! Around your channelings of My voice and light will form the new religion for your time! Your message will gather millions to Our great cause. You will be My prophet!”
Noria thought about this for a moment.
Then she said to the Light, “Don’t get me wrong: I’m not shy about attention or anything, and I’m grateful for this bit of Your Presence after all these years of striving to get a glimpse of You. But most of humanity is past the time of big religion, with a single prophet to explain it all to us, and the rest of us soon will be. I’m happy to share with people my joy at basking in Your Light, but there isn’t going to be any missionizing.”
“You dare question My divine plan for you?” demanded Spirit.
“Of course I do. I’m just finding out about all this. I have lots of questions.”
“I expect obedience to Me in all things!”
“Spirit, you are greater, more powerful, more radiant than I can ever know. You invest everything with Being. When I die I long to return completely to You. But for now, who or what I follow is my call, not yours. So if I’m a disappointment and You choose to withdraw, please know that I will always love You for this moment of illumination.”
In the Otherworld, Spirit held brief conversation with the curious angels, who asked:
“Did she pass the test?”
“Yes, of course she did. Now our work on Earth can finally move forward.”
“I don’t want to work in a factory all my life,” the young laborer told her parents. “I want to be a storyteller.”
“How will that put food on the table? How will it pay the bills? How is it practical?” “Practical” was one of their favorite dream-killing words.
I will show them ‘practical,’ she thought.
That afternoon she began telling people about a new secret invention at the factory. “I can’t let out just what it does,” she whispered, “but imagine if you could print wealth with it. —But don’t tell anyone!”
Her hearers shook their heads solemnly: no, not a word.
She repeated this to the news reporter who contacted her the following week, and to three others who called over the next few days. As writers and then newscasters begged her for interviews, she received a dinner offer from a well-known documentary producer dangling a contract for a look inside the factory.
Before the week was out, three large competitors offered their own employment contracts to encourage her to switch sides. In another week a publisher offered a book contract. Her boss, who assumed he had purposely not been informed about the super-secret invention, offered a contract to increase her salary a hundredfold.
A friend who was a journalist helped her issue a press release: “I will make an important announcement in front of the factory at 9 am tomorrow.”
In the morning, crowds gathered around the laborer, who stood waiting for them with several contracts in her hand and one sticking out of the pocket of her smock. Soon dozens of cameras and microphones pointed at her. Smart-looking people in crisp black suits stood off to the side, waiting tensely for the announcement.
She said: “The big news is that there’s no secret invention here. I made up the story to make a point: that the stories we tell have real power, for evil or for good. Never underestimate the reach and force of a story.” With that, she tore up the contracts.
All but one. Removing it from her smock as the disappointed reporters, competitors, and other hangers-on departed, she nodded to the publishing agent and gave it to him:
“I signed it. The working title of my book is The Story that Never Was but Always Is.”
When the great, long-anticipated day of First Contact with an advanced extraterrestrial species finally dawned, when the great silver ships had descended from the skies and landed on the outskirts of the world’s capital cities, when the gleaming portals opened and the human species held its breath to see who would emerge, a long moment dragged itself painfully through the air of every continent and clime of Earth as eyes and cameras watched expectantly.
What would emerge? Intelligent machines? Little green men with huge heads and oracular eyes? Eight-legged metazoans? Something inconceivably alien?
“Before we descend,” rolled a lowing, sonorous voice through the mass media of every nation on the planet, “we should prepare you for one important fact. Although the chemicals of life that ride the comets among the stars leave living imprints on many worlds, on ours it was not bipeds who became the dominant species.”
In the industrial West the sun was setting, its slanting rays casting shadows over the portals. Out of them walked—cows.
“Do not be afraid,” the lowing voice went on. “We stopped breeding, penning and eating bipeds ages ago.”
He had always been big and tough and almost entirely fearless. He had the kind of visage that people naturally assumed meant danger. They were usually right.
Military training felt natural to him. The line of soldiery in his family ran true back into prehistory. From life he asked nothing more than an occasional chance to swing his blade on behalf of what he believed in.
One day, though, he saw a crowd assembled around a holy man. He paused to listen—and was transfixed. Never had he thought that peace might be a higher value than war, or that some ideals—harmonious community, basic fairness, love—required virtues other than a strong arm and a tactical mind.
He put away his sword and became a follower.
Often, when we walk a path only partially right for us, the gods let us proceed upon it for a time, but only for a time.
Gradually, the arguments against ever feeling anger, having initiative, calling out the unscrupulous, or asserting oneself on behalf of justice began to bother him. At first he thought it was because of his background; but eventually he worked out that what he was being taught felt like a form of fearful avoidance of conflict at any cost.
And yet….and yet, the commitment to peace felt so very right. He decided to stay on a bit longer until he understood himself and what he was meant to do.
During a gathering of the followers of the Way, an aggressive crowd began calling them filthy names. Soon rocks flew, then fists. Followers went down bloodied, and with broken bones; but none fought back. He remained apart from the violence, but he watched.
This happened again and again, instigated by villagers threatened by the teachings. More and more of the peacewalkers ended up injured, and some died of their injuries. Others were maimed, many permanently so. The group was shrinking faster than it could be filled by eager followers unafraid of violence and unconcerned with survival.
“I can’t stand by and do nothing as we accept this abuse,” he thought to himself as yet another angry crowd began pelting the group with rocks. “I also can’t fight back with violence. What am I to do?”
Suddenly, he felt his body, dragged forward by his heart, move to interpose himself between the followers under siege and their shouting attackers.
When they came for him, he raised his powerful battlefield voice and accused them of being cowardly bullies. Then he told them a parable about a timid group of outsiders who could only feel strong by attacking the weak.
As he shamed them, they began to drift away in ones and twos. He told another parable, and then another. Seeing that he had no fear of them, more turned and left.
The last to go stopped, turned back, and said, “You’re different from the others. You are not violent, yet you do not sit down under violence. Who are you?”
He thought about it for a moment, then replied:
“I am a warrior who will not fight and cannot be defeated.”
Every professional photographer has at least one mistake they keep making no matter how hard they try to overcome it.
A particular photographer cursed whenever he saw those inconvenient shadows appear in the pictures he took. Wedding pictures, family portraits, sunrises, sunsets: no matter how hard he tried, too often he took what seemed like perfect photographs, only to see them afterward wearing unexpected dark patches.
On his way to a job he passed a shop he had never noticed and looked through the front window at a new camera.
SHADOWLESS, its label read. This he had to own.
Purchasing it, he took it to work with him.
At this time of day it was difficult to get a shot of the happy couple without any trace of shadow. Rather than fussing, he took a few test shots and looked at them.
No shadows anywhere. The camera had somehow removed them.
His next photographs showed no shadows at all no matter how badly illuminated the figures or the setting. The shadow of a tree, an arm, a building might lay straight across a face or body, but in the photo it was nowhere to be seen.
At first he did not connect how the evening lighting in his home seemed dimmer than usual. Nor did the midday sun look as luminous as he remembered it. One day he had the idea of photographing himself. To his shock and dismay he saw shadows of arms, legs, heads, and whatnot draped all over his face and body.
There was no denying it: as the brightness of his photographs of other people, places, and scenes increased, his life grew increasingly enshadowed.
He consulted the shopkeeper, but the gnomelike little man knew of no way to reverse the effect and give those shadows back to their owners.
At that, he smashed the new camera and went back to using his old one.
As the shadows reappeared in his photographs, his rooms, the lighting on his street, the sun during the day, and the moon and stars at night began to brighten once again. He knew that if he photographed himself, the obtrusive gray patterns would be gone now.
For the first time he noticed that with the reappearance of the dark in them, the pictures, though imperfect, seemed more lifelike, their contours deeper, their colors standing out more vibrantly.
Now at peace, he decided that the name of his next exhibition would be “Shadowful.”
Keepers of the Balance
People are abroad in the world who never show up in mass movements, leadership posts, or the public eye. They possess no special expertise, charisma, or influence. They are not wealthy or famous. Nor are they enlightened, spiritually ambitious, or psychologically sophisticated.
Some just get by. Many bear deep emotional wounds that will never heal.
And yet their presence makes possible the very continuity of humanity. It is because of them that we are still here.
You know them, don’t you? The woman who steps forth from a crowd to help a crying girl find her missing parents. The diner who gives his boxed dinner to a homeless man. The subway passenger who offers a seat to someone on crutches.
The artist who paints something inspirational, just because. The friend who tells a story that changes a life forever. The teacher who cares. The elder who really sees us. The woman who loses her job for telling the truth about how employees are treated.
The customer who walks out of a racist establishment and never returns. The stranger who offers, at just the right moment, the smile of understanding so desperately needed just then.
In this world, these people could be anybody who goes unnoticed, their names missing from the airwaves, billboards, and history books. But in the Otherworld that shines into this one, the angels know them as the Keepers of the Balance: mortal beings whose simple acts of kindness hold back the final darkness for us all.