When the world was new, there was much chaos. Wars between gods. Wars between gods and those they were charged with guarding and guiding. The birth of terrible monsters on sea and land and sky. The birth of creatures who could cross between the realms of the living and the dead, who could haunt the dreams of all creatures who dreamed.
In the midst of it all, there were those who, perhaps in vain, still endeavored to live and love and build in the new world.
Nine gods there were who ruled in the heavens and presided over the mortal realm. They were Mage, Hunter, Blacksmith, Warden, Lover, Gardener, Scholar, Guardian, and Surgeon. For many lifetimes of mortal creatures, these nine gods, the Highest Nine, struggled to learn how to rule well. They were not the creators of the world and all the creatures who abided in it. They were descended from god-ancestors who were charged with caring for the mortal world and who failed.
The Nine each favored certain mortal creatures and gave their favored creatures gifts and teachings. But there was one race that all Nine favored. A fragile but clever race. The race that most resembled the gods in nature. Humanity. The Nine taught humanity. The Hunter taught them how to hunt. The Gardener taught them how to grow and cultivate plants for food and shelter. The Warden taught them of the wars that went before and how they must remember their brutal history lest they repeated the mistakes of their ancestors. It was an age of building and learning. Humanity had survived and now sought to thrive. Given enough time, they proved they could master all the knowledge and skills they were taught.
But there was some knowledge that the Nine kept only for themselves, not trusting the young race of humans to be yet ready for higher powers. Among these higher powers was the power of healing.
From the damaged records of their ancestors, the Scholar discovered one of the oldest stories of the world about a river in the afterlife realm, the world into which the immortal spirits of mortal creatures passed upon death. The river was not a river of water, though it flowed and rushed. And even the gods had difficulty finding and seeing it. The Warden ruled the afterlife realm, though he did not know all of its secrets. He had been tasked with learning what the substance in the river was. The Warden watched.
When dead mortals passed through the veil of death into the afterlife realm, their spirits appeared as they did on the days of their death. Old and worn, or frayed, or wasted from sickness. By instinct it seemed, most found their way to the river. They waded through the river and as its otherworldy “waters” rushed over them, the spirits changed, transformed, appearing strong and vigorous and often young. They were not alive again. It was not a resurrection. They were their best selves from their mortal lives. Thenceforth, they passed on to other parts of the afterlife realm, parts where even the gods could not follow. The Warden told his fellow gods of what he saw and the Scholar shared the ancient story.
The story was about one of the old gods, from the earliest days of the earliest wars. This god had loved a mortal and she had loved him. Their union was secret for gods and humans were enemies in those days. But they had a child. And this child, being half-god, was strong enough to survive when other children would not have. But she was not as strong as a god. Gods never fell ill. But she did.
The child’s father did not trust many and when it came to his daughter, he trusted none. His mortal wife was clever and strong, but she could not heal the child. Even in that time of chaos, there were rules for all beings. And this god broke one of them. He passed into the afterlife realm and found the River of Renewal. For the dead, its waters could restore memory and shape and provide energy for the spirit’s journey forward. For the living, its waters could heal any injury and any disease.
Because the gods could pass into the afterlife realm, they went often to the river to heal themselves, if they had allies or their own strength to carry them. It was far to travel to the river, even for a god. The gods guarded their gifts jealously. Never had the river’s waters been used on the creatures of the mortal realm. The river’s waters could only be carried out of the afterlife realm in a celestial vessel. And all such vessels were used by the gods to hoard their own stores of precious materials from many realms.
The god whose child was ill found a vessel. It was his own family’s vessel, full of rare old magic that he poured away into the ether. He was caught by his own father, who flew into a terrible rage, shattered the vessel, and cast his son out of the heavens. For he did not know his son’s purpose, and even if he had, he would have chosen to let his half-god grandchild die.
But the god whose child was ill did not yet despair. He traveled to the afterlife realm, found the River of Renewal, and placed the waters in the only vessel he knew could carry it out. He scooped the water up in his hand and placed it in his mouth.
He carried the waters in his own self until he reached the mortal realm and the village and the house in which his child lay, lingering at the threshold of the realm from which her father had just come. The god opened his mouth and let the waters of renewal fall into his child’s mouth. And she was healed at once.
In time, the gods learned of other ways to heal themselves in the field of battle, so they had no need of the river. By the time of the Nine, many of the old ways had been lost. The Warden wore a patch over one eye. The Lover had only one arm. The Nine had survived the wars, but they had not survived them whole.
When they found and walked through the River of Renewal, the Nine were healed, but not as they once were. Their wounds and scars were old by then. The Warden did not grow back an eye like the one he once had, but he gained a vision that let him see farther than any of the other gods. For he could see into the past and the future. The Lover did not grow back her arm as it once was, but gained the spirit of an arm that was stronger and gentler than that of any other gods. For it was now strong enough to lift hearts and spirits. Likewise the other gods gained gifts of renewal.
That was how the Surgeon gained such great powers of healing.
During the early wars, many humans died from wounds, or from being driven out of their shelters into the cold of a snowy mountain or into the bare and waterless deserts. Many starved or fell to accidents. There were few who lived to old age.
But after the wars ended, humanity was overwhelmed by another enemy, one that attacked from within. Disease. Pestilence. Even those who had plenty to eat and drink, who had warmth during winters and shade during summers and shelter that could withstand storm and quake, even those were not safe from this new enemy. And there was little that could be done.
So the leaders of men and woman gathered together and they prayed and prayed to the Highest Nine. And the Nine answered.
The Surgeon, of course, answered most often, healing as many as she could. And there were few illnesses that were beyond her skill. The Mage and the Guardian too would answer. They were not as adept at healing, but they went where the Surgeon could not go.
As more people spread across the new world, it became more and more difficult for the Nine to answer all of the calls for help and mercy that they received. There were lesser gods in the heavens, who could be taught the art of healing. But when the Surgeon tried, she met with uneven success. Many of the lesser gods did more harm than good.
And in the age of building and learning, humanity sought to put their fates into their own hands. They sought the knowledge of healing. Human heroes and scholars prayed to the Surgeon, made promises of sacrifice and glory in the name of the Surgeon. Some prayed to the Scholar or the Mage.
But there was one who had done as the Scholar had once done. A man who studied the remnants of humanity’s histories about the early wars. His name was Milo. He too found reference to the River of Renewal. He called upon a soothsayer to speak to the dead and the dead spoke back and told him of the river. He learned of the celestial vessels. His plan was to entreat the Blacksmith to create a new vessel. And a celestial suit that would allow Milo to pass into the afterlife realm, find the river, fill the vessel, and return with the healing waters.
The Highest Nine discussed whether humanity was at last ready to receive the knowledge of healing. The Surgeon welcomed the relief to her duties, but warned that humanity may, as the lesser gods did, do more harm than good if they misused the knowledge of healing or were clumsy or careless with it. The Scholar argued that humanity had mastered the knowledge that the Nine had shared with them thus far. They shared all the prayers and plans they had heard. The Blacksmith spoke of young Milo’s plan and the other gods were intrigued.
Humanity could not simply be given such a powerful gift as healing. They had to earn it. For if power came too easily, it would be all the easier to dismiss and abuse that power. Of all the supplicants, only Milo had learned of the vessels and only Milo seemed to be making a plan to go and find the healing waters with some help from the gods, rather than asking the gods to simply give him the power and knowledge of healing. So the Nine chose Milo to be humanity’s champion and they set to him a challenge.
The Blacksmith would give Milo a vessel of the Smith’s own choosing but not a suit. A suit that allowed a living human being to cross between the realms of life and death would give that person too much power. And it would be far too easy for such a person to keep returning to the River of Renewal for more healing waters.
The gods did not think that Milo would succeed with only the vessel. They were fearful of the consequences of giving young humanity such a powerful privilege and with it the responsibility and burden. And yet they agreed that if Milo succeeded with only the vessel, his own wits, and a few friends, then he would have earned the privilege on behalf of his people.
The Nine met with the leaders of humanity and told them of their decision. They declared too that if Milo were to succeed, no longer would the Nine answer the prayers for healing. They would only share knowledge and humanity would be tasked with determining how best to use that knowledge.
The leaders agreed to the bargain.
The Warden gruffly warned Milo that his quest would not be easy, for the Warden was ever watchful over the afterlife realm, even when he was not in it. And no living mortal being was allowed to pass into the realm.
So Milo woke one morning to find that the gods had left him the promised vessel. He had expected a tall bottle with a secure cap, or at best a skin, made from the hide of a celestial beast, if any such still existed. But he had never asked the Blacksmith to make either of those things. And so the Blacksmith had forged an unexpected and most inconvenient vessel. A bucket.
Unfazed, Milo packed the celestial bucket and set forth with his allies. His love, who was an acolyte of the Mage. His best ally and friend, who was a quick wit and a sharp scholar. And his twin sister, who insisted on guarding him along his journey. There were many who were angry and embittered at Milo’s quest, for who was he to decide the fate of humanity? To lose for them the privilege of healing hands from the gods themselves?
But such enemies were thankfully few, for most saw that the gods could not be everywhere at once. They could not be relied upon to always come when someone called for help.
Milo and his allies fought brigands on the roads of the mortal realm. They faced terrible beasts of land and sky and managed to flee or vanquish. They came upon no seas, but if they had, they would have likely come across some serpent or many-armed monster. They traveled not seeking a road, but seeking knowledge. They had the vessel, but they needed a way to pass into and out of the afterlife realm at least one time. If the healing waters worked as they hoped, then they would leave their story behind to guide future generations on how to obtain more if they needed it.
They needed a way to thwart the Warden. They needed to find someone or something that could pass between realms. Once, there were creatures named Furies who could do it. But they were all gone and would likely not have helped Milo. There were many terrible creatures who passed between realms and who were large enough to contain Milo. But such creatures would be more inclined to chew on him and swallow him then hold him tenderly in their mouths. For most such creatures were savage.
But along their journey, Milo and his allies learned of one who might help them.
She was once a god, but during the early wars, she had been transformed by her enemies into a most unusual creature, a jellyfish. A jellyfish so vast that if Milo lay on its surface, he would have room to spread his limbs. It was larger around than he was tall. She could not speak in that form, so Milo’s love used her skill as a mage to cast a spell on the jellyfish and give her a voice and way to hear Milo. He explained to the jellyfish what his plan was, what he sought, and told her that if he could show her the way to the Rivers of Renewal, then she too could be healed and restored to her true form.
The Highest Nine watched with fascination for Milo had found a god they had not known of. And they discussed whether or not to stop him. But they had already agreed to his quest and for honor’s sake, they abided by their word. If the waters did indeed restore the god and if she was a danger, the Nine would subdue her.
The jellyfish agreed to Milo’s plan. She had floated through the oceans for age upon age and had forgotten about her godhood. Milo hid on the underside of the jellyfish. He would only be able to pass through the veil of death if he was completely covered by some celestial material, or some living creature that could pass through the veil.
The Warden would see them and would cast Milo out of the afterlife if he dared set foot on the shores or lingered in the river. So they had to move fast.
Milo directed the jellyfish, though he was burning with pain from the stings he suffered, and from the strain of holding his breath. They descended into the salty waters of the sea and when they rose up again, Milo took a gasping breath and began to shiver, not with cold, but from the strange stuff that rushed past and through him. He saw no shores, only dim gray light, and it was just enough for him to see that the welts on his arms from the jellyfish stings were healing. Milo pulled out the celestial bucket and turned it on its side so it would fill with the substance in which he stood. It was not water at all. Milo could breathe. But it wasn’t air or mist or fog. He could not feel it on his skin, but he felt it somehow passing through him, through his very spirit. He turned the bucket upright again and looked inside. He thought he saw a hint of the substance, a surface glint at the brim of the bucket. He turned and from the gray abyss emerged a luminous woman. Her skin was translucent blue-green. Her hair ebbed and flowed and crashed upon her head like waves. In her eyes he saw a weary gratitude. He had feared she would be enraged or at least embittered from her imprisonment. Perhaps she would in time. But now, she opened her mouth and as she did, she transformed into a great grey whale and swallowed Milo up into the darkness of her belly.
Milo held onto the bucket, but he was tossed about in the whale’s stomach or its mouth or wherever he was. When he stopped moving and light appeared, he felt his heart sink, for he had surely lost the healing waters in the bucket. He looked inside and while he saw nothing, he thought he felt the waters in the bucket. Around him, he saw teeth and a tongue and knew that he was in the whale’s mouth and saw he was close to shore. He swam to shore, being careful of the bucket. From land, he turned to see the whale dive into the waters and when she emerged again, she was far from shore and no longer a whale. She looked like a woman again and waved to him.
Milo waved back and he found his allies, who said he had been gone for days. They had taken to praying to the Nine for forgiveness of their folly and to the Guardian especially for Milo’s safe return. They too could see nothing in the bucket.
They returned to their land with the bucket. There were many awaiting healing and when Milo dipped a spoon into the bucket, it filled with what appeared to be just water. He gave this water to a sick child. And when she did not heal right away, he gave her another, and another. But nothing happened. They waited for days, feeding the child waters from the bucket, but nothing happened. They tried applying the water to wounds, but the wounds did not heal.
All the while, Milo could see what was wrong with the child and he could see why some wounds festered and others healed but healed poorly. He saw an army of small creatures swarming through the child’s blood. He saw the heat of fever in a man whose wound was oozing and whose arms were covered in dark veins. All along his journey his sight had grown strange. He told his allies about his visions. Through the forest, he saw the plants and saw purpose for those plants beyond shade or food.
Without knowing why, he went out into the forest one day and found herbs and leaves that he brought back and mashed and steeped and drained into some kind of potion. And that day, instead of feeding the sick child a spoonful of healing water, he fed her the potion he had made. That same day, the color returned to her cheeks. In three days, she was back on her feet. In seven days, she was at home and free of her illness to all eyes save Milo’s. He made her take the potion he had made, the remedy, for a few more days.
Milo then told the leaders of his land and those beyond what he believed the powers of the waters to be. The waters would not heal a wound or cure an illness. But they would help humanity to heal themselves.
Milo asked for any who would be willing to dunk their faces into the celestial bucket and let the waters suffuse their eyes. Those who did so gained the power of sight that allowed them to see disease and see how to use what they saw to concoct remedies and cures, most of which worked.
The Nine conceded that Milo had fulfilled his quest. As they had warned, they ceased to answer the prayers for healing directly, but the Surgeon now began to teach her new followers the art of healing. And as Milo and so many others had hoped, humanity began to thrive once again. The celestial bucket was set in a shrine in the temple of healing. That temple also became a place of learning. And so was born the profession of the healer. For even in ages of chaos, there would always be those who, perhaps in vain, endeavored to live and love and build.
Copyright © 2015 by Nila L. Patel