“Tell us a story first!” the boy said.
The grandmother had started tucking in the children for bedtime. But she now glanced over at the eldest, who was sitting in her bed with her knees drawn up. The grandmother had already indulged them by letting them stay awake later than they should have. And yet…
How could she pass up the chance to tell a story? Especially to such a cherished audience. Still, she had to make them earn it.
“Ask me a question,” she told the eldest. “If there is a story to the answer, I will tell you that story.”
She continued her tucking in and noticed that the girl’s siblings watched their elder sister with expectant eyes.
The girl thought for a while and then she asked, “Why is the ocean salty?”
The question was not such a surprise, for they had spent the day by the ocean. And while the younger children played, the eldest had cast many thoughtful looks toward the foamy gray and vast waters beyond the shore.
“Because there’s salt in it,” the boy said, frowning as if she had just ruined their chance for a good story.
“But how did the salt get there?”
The grandmother smiled at them. And she wondered. Is it a tale to tell children? Perhaps their mother and father would object. She looked at each child in turn and judged them to be ready.
She started the story as she started all the stories she told her grandchildren.
In those days…
In those days, there were four realms. The realm of airs or spirits, inhabited by the Holy. The realm of fires, inhabited by immortal creatures created by the Holy. The realm of waters, where lived all mortal creatures made by the Holy. And the realm of earths, which was barren and uninhabited, in those days.
The four realms were separate for a long while. All beings had all they could desire to do and to have. The fires burned bright and warm. And the immortal creatures delighted in light and beauty. The waters were fresh and clear and pure. The mortals lived in peace and harmony. The Holy contemplated what would become of the earths. And all was well, for a long while.
But then the creatures who lived in the realm of fire came to be ruled by a jealous and petty demon king. He had learned many magics and one powerful spell allowed him to look into the realm of waters. He saw that the mortal creatures who dwelt there were not wholly mortal. For within their mortal bodies, they contained an immortal spirit. And when the mortal creatures died, the Holy would allow the spirit of each creature to rise up and reside in the realm of airs.
At first, he complained to the Holy and asked why the creatures of fire were not admitted to the realm of airs as were mortals when their mortal lives came to an end. The Holy told him that he had no need to join the realm of airs, for his realm was one of beauty and immortality. The demon king bowed upon receiving this answer, but in truth, he was unsatisfied. He coveted the realm of airs, and in his heart, he sought to rule it. But he was no fool. He knew he could not overpower the Holy.
And so he appealed to the Holy. He did good works in his realm. He devoted his fires to the contemplation of the Holy. An age passed and the demon king stayed true in his devotion. The Holy, impressed by his devotion, granted him a boon. And the demon king asked for another realm to rule, believing the Holy would give him the realm of waters, and hoping that he could use the secrets of the mortals to enter the realm of airs. But the Holy gave to the demon king the realm of earths.
In those days, the earths were barren and rocky, gray and brown. And there were no beings inhabiting it. No beings to rule. And no link to the realm of airs. Enraged by what he judged an insult, the demon king asked the Holy for the realm of waters.
The Holy refused.
And so the demon king begged a favor. He asked the Holy if he could at least taste of the realm that he could never have or reside in. He asked if he could drink a cup of water.
Moved by the humility of his appeal, the Holy granted the demon king’s request. So he could drink safely without his fire being quenched, the Holy first gave him a mortal form. The demon king humbly accepted the gifts. He took a sip of water and found it to be sweet and enticing. He saved what remained in the cup, for it was not humility that had moved him to make his request. Corruption festered within the demon king.
The demon king proclaimed to his subjects that he would raise an army of fire. But most of the creatures in the realm of fires refused to join him. And the demon king gave his first truly wicked command. He attacked and subjugated the dissenters of his realm. He did so by weakening them with the same waters that the Holy had given him. He used his magic to fashion bindings from the water in the cup, bindings so fine, they could not be seen, but only felt by those who were chained with them.
Those who did join him, either out of fear or the same greed and envy that drove their king, were named true demons by the king and told the secret purpose of the army. The realm of waters could not be crossed into or inhabited by the fire beings as they were. They each needed, as their king had, a mortal body. And the demon king gave his second truly wicked command. He instructed his minions to lure the mortals to the borders of their realms, to mesmerize them with the beauty and brightness of fire, and to possess their mortal bodies.
So shielded by a mortal form, the demons could safely inhabit the realm of the waters. The demons discovered that some mortal bodies could only be possessed by one demon. Others could be possessed by many. The mortal creatures, shocked by the possessions, had the will to resist, but not the strength.
The mortal beings could not fight what they could not see. Hidden inside their kith and kin, the demons could come close enough to capture the mortals. The demon king himself used the mortal body that the Holy had given to him and he entered the realm of waters.
Then the demon king had a thought that had never been thought before. He gave his command to his army to strike the delicate bodies of the mortals, strike them so hard as to end their lives and send their spirits to the realm of the Holy.
And with that thought and with that command, the demon king became evil.
His army, hesitant at first, carried out his command. They killed. They murdered. And they did not stop with the unpossessed mortals. They began to fight amongst themselves, killing and murdering each other as well. And the demon king reveled in the savagery and turmoil. He moved through the realm of the waters, tainting it, corrupting it with evil.
In defense of their realm and their bodies, the mortal beings struck back at the possessed. Some of the possessed even regained control of their bodies. But the mortals were no match for the invaders. They could not drive the demons out. The realm of waters was overrun.
The spirits of murdered mortals rose up into the realm of airs, spirits that were troubled and tormented. The Holy gave comfort to those spirits. The Holy looked down upon the realm of waters and beheld the horrors. And the Holy wondered why the mortals did not pray for deliverance.
The mortals had learned how the demon king tricked the Holy into granting the requests that led to his assault on their realm. They lost faith. They felt only anger and disappointment in the Holy. For they did not believe the Holy was strong enough or clever enough to help them. And they resolved to defeat their enemy on their own.
They had a leader, a great silver-blue whale, and she had devised a desperate plan to drive the demons out of her realm. She sent out loyal followers to all the ends of their realm, searching for a way into the fire realm or the earth realm. The realm of fires was never found. But one of her followers found a way into the realm of earths.
The silver-blue whale and her kind had a cry so resounding and fierce that it could drive the demons away and even drove some demons out of the mortals they possessed. The mortals of the realm through trickery and sheer force and the cries of a legion of whales drove many of the demons to the earth realm. It was a harsh plan, for it sacrificed the mortal bodies of those demons, which perished when the demons failed to find a way back into the realm of waters and suffocated on the barren earths.
The demon king discovered what the mortals had done. He found the link between the realms and led the demons who had been left on the earths back to the realm of waters.
And the mortal beings despaired even as they tried to rally.
The Holy appeared to the silver whale as a tiny black fish and told her that there was a substance that could poison the waters and drive out the demons once and for all. This substance existed in the realm of the earths. The realm that had been rejected by the demons now held the bane of demons. The simplest of crystals, salt, became the weapon that the Holy gave the mortals to wield against the demons.
But none of the water beings could go to the realm of earths, so the Holy created a being that could. A being that could traverse the realms of earth and water. A being that was animated by fire and air. A being that shared the qualities of all four realms. This quarter-being, called a farthing by the Holy, was told where to find salt and instructed how to collect it and where to deliver it to. The Holy moved the realm of the earths next to the realm of the waters. And The Holy poured a bit of the realm of airs into the realm of earths, so the farthing could breathe and live.
As it emerged from the waters onto the shores of the earths, the farthing was waylaid by the demon king, who tried to tempt and engage this strange new being. For the demon king envied again, envied this being who was born from all the elements and held the potential for power over all the realms. The farthing had been warned about the demon king and it moved away from the shore and continued on its mission. And the demon king, whose body was made for the waters and not the earths, could not follow. He lay in wait, hoping to cast off his mortal body and possess the body of the farthing.
The farthing walked through valleys and climbed mountains and found at last a giant block of salt. The farthing used a rock to break off some chunks of salt and brought them to the shores where the water realm and the earth realm met.
But as the farthing prepared to cast the salt into the waters, the demon king threw off his mortal form and possessed the farthing. The two beings battled for control of the farthing’s mortal body. The demon king raged as his grasp on the mortal body of the farthing slipped and slipped again. The farthing’s spirit, born of all realms, born to protect, tested by the adversity of the earthen realm, was frighteningly strong.
The salt meanwhile had fallen to the earth. But the silver-blue whale too had been waiting for the farthing. She could not help the farthing in its battle with the demon. But she dared to cross the realms to complete the farthing’s mission. The great silver-blue whale rose out of the waters and touched the realms of air and earth. She stretched out her tongue and grasped a single grain of salt. As she slid back into the waters, the grain of salt touched the realm of waters and transformed it.
Purified. Poisoned. The waters changed.
The block of salt had been blessed by the Holy. A single grain was enough to spread through the vast waters. All mortals who were unpossessed transformed with the waters, their bodies changing to accept the change to the waters. But all mortals possessed by demons were driven to the shores of the earth realm. The salt waters were poison to the demons who possessed those mortals, for those demons were corrupted by evil. The demons, trapped in mortal bodies, could not escape to the fire realm. They would not have been welcome there if they had, for that realm had been taken back from demon rule.
The Holy took pity on the possessed mortal bodies and gave them breath so that they might live in the new realm of earth and air. Then the Holy gave powers to the mortals to aid them in driving out the demons that possessed them. To some the Holy gave the power of flight, and those mortals flew up into the air, leaving the demons anchored to the earth. Others received the power of venom, and the demons, weakened by venom could be cast out. Still others received the power of song. The Holy gave those gifts and more, so that the mortals could cast out the demons.
In their native forms, the demons burned and scorched the earth on which they were left. The Holy did not destroy them, but made a new realm to contain them. A harsh realm, sharp, and cold, and burning all at once. The demon realm it was called and it was set below all other realms.
All mortals cast their demons out in time. All save one.
The farthing struggled with the demon king for many days and nights. Seven times did the moon above wax and wane. At last, to assure the demon king would not triumph, the Holy cleaved the farthing in two. The Holy instructed the two halves of the farthing to separate, to live at and rule the separate ends of the newly inhabited earth. They abided by the Holy’s instruction at first. But the two halves longed for each other, remembering and feeling that they were once one.
The farthing was made to save and protect. And so it had become good though it was inhabited by evil. And though the Holy warned that the demon king could rise and prevail if the two farthings should unite, they united. And reunited, two as one, they were stronger than the original farthing had been. Strong enough to keep the demon and his evil contained.
So the Holy made them as the other mortals were, and the farthings were able to have offspring. The demon king was broken yet again when the offspring of the farthings inherited pieces of him. Each time new farthings were born, the demon king was broken into more pieces, and he weakened, but his presence drew his minions. The demons were devious, and they found ways out of their realm, for all realms were now and forever connected. So the farthings as a people were ever in danger of being possessed.
The Holy saw this and gave the farthings the power of saltwater. The Holy gave them tears. When the farthings wept out of pain or fear or rage, or even happiness, their salty tears drove out any demons that dwelt within.
The farthings were named the guardians of the earth realm as the whales were named the guardians of the saltwater realm. And as the realms began to merge, fresh waters emerged on the earth, to sustain the mortal creatures who now inhabited the earth and were never changed by the Holy to live upon saltwater.
Demons continued to assail the earth. They could bear the fresh unblessed waters of the world. But they were forever cast out of the saltwater realm.
The farthings pledged to find some way, someday, to forever cast the demons out of their realm as well. And to this day, their descendants still fight the demons and still seek the means to cast them for once and for all.
The grandmother stopped. She did not say, “the end,” for the story had no end. Not yet. The children were silent for a moment as they were after some stories.
“The creature that contained all the elements, the farthing, was that us, Gran?” the eldest asked.
The other two children’s eyes grew big in awe at their sister’s revelation.
“Indeed,” the grandmother said, and she chuckled.
“That means there’s a piece of a demon in all of us,” the boy said, marveling.
“Yes,” the grandmother said, serious now. “And we must be careful to contain it.”
“Why can’t we just cast it out? I don’t want a demon in me,” the middle child was close to tears.
“We are constantly casting them out and they are constantly returning,” grandmother said.
“So crying is a good thing?” the eldest asked.
“Most of the time it is a good thing, because it is necessary. Sometimes, when we cry, we only cast out the poisons that the demon has made in us. And there are other ways to cast out the demons, or stop them from entering us in the first place.”
“Like being good,” the boy said, raising a brow as he understood the lesson his grandmother had hidden in the story. And nodding as he accepted that lesson.
“Yes, and by loving.”
“I wish I could live in the saltwater realm,” the eldest said, her eyes dreamy and reverent, “with the lovely whales.”
“Perhaps one day we will cast out all the demons from our realm, and we will change enough so that we can visit the other realms,” the grandmother said. “The ones worth visiting anyway.”
She finished tucking them in and left them with a final thought. It was how she ended most of the stories she told her grandchildren.
“Until then, the story goes on.”
Copyright © 2014 by Nila L. Patel.