From the Modern Fable short story series: Telling True Stories


“The world was birthed in violence,” the old man said to the boy. “Among the elder gods there were two brothers. The younger of the two delighted in creating all kinds of things, and the other was a skilled craftsman without imagination. He could build according to any design, but he could do little more than what he was told; his dreams were empty. His younger brother, however, was full of imagination, but less skillful with his hands; they could not give form and substance to what he saw in his mind’s eye.

“One day, the younger brother created the world, but he could not get it to work. It was dull and senseless, and nothing like what he had imagined. He called his brother and asked him to build another world according to his design. The older brother, desirous of greater acclaim among the other gods, saw his opportunity to overturn their disappointment: he would build the world and claim that he had dreamt of it himself. If his brother should protest, he had only to show them the dull lump of lifeless clay the younger one had tried to create.

“He set to work and made the world according to his brother’s design. He created the fiery heart of the world and surrounded it with earth; he poured water over the hot clay to cool it, working it with his fingers until it took the intended shape. The waters coursed and pooled into the grooves he had made with his fingers, and he took some of the water and spread it over the ridges and plains. When it seemed that he had finished, he brought the world before the other gods and displayed it proudly. ‘Look what I have done!’ he exclaimed. ‘I dreamt it and gave it form and life with my hands!’

“But the other gods did not react as he expected,” the old man continued after a pause. “They looked at his work and admired it as they did all the work of his hands, but they did not look upon the world with wonder. They nodded and told him that it was an interesting little bauble, handing it back to him with no further concern for his effort. He returned dejectedly to his workshop and thought, ‘I have done something wrong. Anything my younger brother does is greeted with admiration and esteem; yet I have done better, and have little to show for it. I will bring my younger brother in here and let him see what I have done. When he tells me that the world I have made is how he envisioned it, I will know that the other gods have slighted me without cause.’

“When the younger brother saw what the other had done, he smiled and said, ‘Yes, very good, that is exactly how I imagined it. Now, give it back to me so that I might finish my work, for there is yet something that I must add to it.’

“Now this, the older brother did not expect. Startled, he said, ‘It is not finished? Why did you not tell me this? Why do you ask me to give it back to you now? If it is unfinished, tell me what needs to be done and I will do it. If I give it back, you will only ruin it—don’t you know that nothing you try to create with your hands turns out as you intend?’

“‘Nonetheless,’ the younger brother replied angrily, ‘this is not something you can do—it requires imagination.’ He seized the world his brother had fashioned at his request and went away with it. The older brother resolved to follow him and see what he would do; he reasoned that his brother wanted to keep it secret, and this did not sit well with him. His already felt betrayed in that his brother had not told him there was more to do; but his anger stemmed from the reaction of the other gods, who he had fully expected would receive his effort with praise rather than disinterest.”

“But grandfather,” the little boy protested suddenly, “you’re talking as if these were ordinary people! Didn’t you say that they could never die, and that they were more powerful than ordinary people? They sound like everyone else!”

The old man laughed. “‘Ordinary people’ had to have come from somewhere,” he answered with a wry smile. “Where do you think we learned how to behave the way we do? From the gods!”

The boy shook his head. “I don’t believe you,” he answered stoutly. “You promised me that you would tell me a story about real gods.”

“Well, I am,” the old man said stiffly. “Now do you want to hear what happens next or not?” The boy pouted and rolled his eyes. He said nothing, but the old man understood that the boy wanted him to continue. He smiled and went on, “Very good. Now the younger brother took the world to his place of work, and there brought out something that he had made; he had labored over this for many days. It was a palette, daubed with all manner of colors and designs, each one of them intricate and unique. They were unlike anything the older brother had made; they were frail, delicate things that sparkled as if composed of fine dust.

“The older brother watched as the other gathered some of this dust between his fingers and scattered it over the world. When the dust fell across the grooves and pools of the world, a slight movement stirred; the older brother strained to see, craning his neck and peering curiously into the workshop. The pools of water tossed and churned, small things flitted back and forth beneath the surface; a flutter of shapes darted across the airy skin covering the sphere. The younger brother took another sprinkle of powder from a second design on the palette and scattered this also; on the surface of the world, between the ridges, another sign of movement erupted into a rush of shapes across the plains and level surfaces. Again and again the younger brother scattered the powders he had made over the world, and each time, another portion of the sphere was endowed with movement and life. But the older brother could not see any of this clearly from his hidden vantage point, so he decided to make himself known and enter the space.

“When he appeared, his younger brother hastened to throw a cloth over the world. His older brother frowned and said, ‘Why are you taking such pains to hide your work from me? Are you so embarrassed of your effort that you wish no one to see your failure? Come now, let me see it.’

“‘Why do you ask me this?’ demanded the younger brother indignantly. ‘Are you so angry that I did not tell you what I intended to do, that you would charge in here and confront me? Do you wish so badly to see what I have done? Here, look!’ he tore the cloth away from the world, now filled with myriad forms of life in all its corners, and his older brother beheld the wonder and mystery of it.

“‘You will show what you have done to the other gods?’ whispered the older brother.

“‘Is that your concern?’ inquired his sibling. ‘You fear that my merit will eclipse yours?’ he smiled at his older brother, his anger softening. ‘The remedy is simple: we will go and present our creation to the other gods together. I will tell them that I could not have finished my work without you. The world that I had created was dull, and would not have received the final imprint of my vision; but the world that you fashioned for me was perfectly crafted according to my design. Why would you bear me ill-will now? Do you think I would have brought the world before the others and claimed it my work entire?’

“The older brother realized that he had made a grievous mistake: he had taken the unfinished world to the other gods and had claimed it as his own. If his brother presented the world to them now, they would know what he had tried to do. They would punish him. They would exile him and send him away into a place of suffering and anguish…”

The boy’s eyed widened. “Just for that?” he asked incredulously.

The old man nodded seriously. “Oh yes,” he answered, “just for that. So, you can imagine how fearful the older brother became. He tried to dissuade his sibling, saying, ‘No, you mustn’t take this thing before the other gods! Look, you’ve already ruined it,’ he said, pointing to the world, ‘just as you always do. Surely this is not what you intended; if you take it before the other gods they will ridicule your efforts. Come, listen to reason: abandon this project.’

“‘The younger brother looked on the world. It was beautiful to him, exactly as he had imagined it. He had so labored to create life on it, and now that he saw all the profusion of living things bustling in every corner of the world, he could not destroy them. So he said, ‘It is beautiful to me; I will not destroy it. Why would you have me do this thing? Are you so envious of this little thing I have done that you would bear me hatred on account of it?’

“When the older brother saw that he would not prevail over his sibling, a wicked notion came into his heart. He pushed his brother aside and seized the world, straining his arms to crush it; great rents and cracks appeared in the earth, and the waters overran their courses and flooded over the level surfaces. Fire bubbled up from the heart of it and swept in burning trails over the living things, scrambling to get away. The younger brother cried out and tried to stop him, but to no avail; his sibling was stronger by far than he.

“So he grabbed some of the powder he had made and threw it into his brother’s eyes. The older one shouted in pain and dropped the world; it tumbled over the ground. The younger brother took it up, concerned for the work he had done. When he saw the damage done to the world, he began to weep; many of the living things were destroyed, and the shape of it had been utterly distorted from his original vision. Truly, he thought, it had been ruined. His brother had won.

“But that was no longer enough for the older brother; his sibling’s instinctual reaction had done more harm than intended—he was blind! He flailed about, enraged beyond reason, and his hand chanced to brush over a familiar object: the dull, lifeless world his brother had earlier tried to create himself. The clay had hardened. He smashed his fist against it and it shattered into pieces; his hand closed over a sharp fragment. The edges bit into his fingers. The younger brother was still surveying the damage and weeping, oblivious to his approaching sibling; the sound of his mourning was guiding the other to him.

“It was too late when he came at last to his senses. His brother’s hand darted forward, the pointed shard of his failed world piercing his heart. His lifeblood poured over the damaged sphere, and his body collapsed on top of it. His brother struck and struck again until his anger was spent; and when at last he realized what he had done, he dropped the fragment and screamed. His wail was so loud that it alerted the other gods, and they rushed out of their chambers to see what had happened.

“The older brother sat beside his sibling, lamenting what he had done. He did not see that his brother’s blood had mixed with the earth, giving rise to new, unexpected life—his body shrouded the world they had wrought together, and so many times pierced that countless wounds shone with his luminous lifeblood. The gods were rightly angry, and some of them even clamored for the older brother’s life; ‘blood for blood,’ they said. But mercy prevailed that day, and it was decided that the older brother should be banished to the frozen wastes beyond their celestial home. First, however, he was to perform the funeral rites for his sibling as further expiation for his terrible crime.

“He stood vigil over his brother’s body, still wrapped as it was around the world. The other gods had since left, and the chamber was silent—until the older brother began to hear a slight noise. It sounded like voices and music. He went to the door and listened, but the halls of the gods’ home were silent. He listened intently, following the sound. It came from his brother’s body! Or more accurately, it came from the world his body enshrouded. Gently, mournfully, he lifted his sibling’s body and laid it beside the sphere; he leaned closer, intent on discerning the origin of the sound. He could not see, so he relied entirely on what he could hear.

“There was still life in the world! There was movement of all kinds, and much of it the older brother recognized: the crying of the birds in the airy veil of the world; droning of insects and the calls of wild animals; even the songs of the leviathan beasts that moved ponderously through the waters. But the shapes of the waters and ridges and plains were altered, and a new kind of living thing seemed to have propagated across the surface of the world. This new thing was nothing like the others; the older brother leaned closer, trying to listen—and he heard more clearly now, music and voices raised in chant and song. When he had taken aside his brother’s body, the bright light of his workshop’s lamp shone over the sphere, and a great change swept over the world: growing things spread across the level surfaces; life teemed in the waters; and the music and chanting became so loud that it rang into the workshop and sounded against the walls.

“The older brother cupped his hands over his ears and shouted for the noise to stop; but it only became louder and louder, until it seemed to him that this new life was crying out for the brother he had slain. In a panic he blindly ran to his own workshop and shut the door. Still he heard it, the shouting and chanting and music, as insistent now as the thunder of rain against a thatched roof. He could no longer bear it! He groped around his familiar space, finding at last the door to the furnace; he stoked the fire until it roared. He meant to burn the world and all the living things on it, if only that would silence the noise! He made his way into his brother’s workshop and gathered the sphere into his arms, rushing quickly down the corridors he knew so well.

“When he entered his workshop he set the world down and locked the door; he couldn’t have any of the other gods bursting in…”

“Didn’t they hear the noise?” the boy demanded. “He’s not going to burn the world, is he? If he is, then I don’t want to hear the rest of it. You can change it, can’t you? If that’s the ending, you can change it so that he doesn’t burn the world…”

“Of course he doesn’t burn it,” the old man answered with a huff. “We’re still here, aren’t we? And no, I can’t change the ending. That’s not how stories work. They’re supposed to be remembered the way they’re told.”

“Well that’s silly,” answered the boy with a superior air. “You’re the storyteller. If you want to change the ending, then you should be able to change it.”

The old man shook his head. “Then no stories would be true,” he pointed out.

The boy glared at him incredulously. “You’re telling me this is a true story?” he asked doubtfully.

“Why not?” the old man asked. “I’m telling you the story the way it was told to me, and it’s been told this way since the beginning. It has had the same ending all this time. Now do you want to hear the ending or not?”

“Fine,” the boy replied indignantly. “But if the older brother burns the world, I don’t want to hear it.”

The old man sighed. “Well,” he continued, “the fire was roaring in the furnace, and still the older brother could hear the music and chanting. The people were calling for the one whose blood had made them. Their cries sent shards of guilt and anguish into his murderer, and the older brother relented in his decision. He could not destroy the world; it had been his sibling’s first and final true creation. His blood had given new life to it.

“It seemed only fair that his blood should be given to it in sacrifice.

“He took the hammer and chisel he had used to shape the world and struck the point into his heart. His lifeblood spilled over the globe, and wherever it fell it caused strange life to spring forth: brambles and thorny vines among the green things; predators long in tooth and claw among the wild animals; birds that feasted on the carcasses of dead things; and those fish that prey alike on men and others of their own kind.

“‘What have I done?’ whispered the older brother…” The old man paused and shook his head. “When the other gods came, they also heard the music and the chanting. They wondered and marveled at the world, even at the beasts and predator and poisonous things that swarmed over it. ‘What should we do with it?’ they asked one another. ‘The brothers both paid their lives for it,’ said one. ‘We should preserve it.’

“So it was decided that the brothers’ work would be preserved for as long as it should last.”

“That’s it?” demanded the boy.

“That’s it,” answered the old man, “that’s how our world came to be.”

The boy shook his head. “I still don’t believe it,” he muttered stubbornly. “It doesn’t make any sense!”

The old man smiled and reached over the tousle the boy’s unkempt hair. “Not now, perhaps,” he said. “…but that isn’t the only story I have about how we came to be.”

The boy frowned. “But you said it was a true story! How can two different stories be true at the same time?”

The old man laughed. “There are many stories that are true at the same time,” he said with a smile.


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