All the amoeba ever wanted was to be more than what she was. To be more than one. To be many. Many as one. To be multicellular.
When her yearning grew unbearable, the young amoeba was listless for a while, letting the waters in which she lived push and pull her. But then, in the midst of her malaise, she began to think, and she devised a plan. She would try, in her own way, to attain multicellularity. She began to move again and soon encountered another amoeba. She explained her plan to this other, who did not understand, so she kept moving until she found yet another of her kind, and explained her plan again. She did this again and again until she found first one, then another, and another, who yearned as she did and joined her. Her plan was to make a collective of amoebae. Those who agreed to her plan would stay together, grow stronger, be safer, and gain more knowledge and wisdom. They would share with each other and help each other. Together their lives would be far richer than the life of each alone.
One day, the growing collective, led by the young amoeba, encountered one who responded to their plan with a warning. He told them that they must each remain as one until they earned their way to multicellularity. Not all amoebae were harmless to their fellow creatures. Some were as harmful as the simple and oft-maligned bacteria and viruses. Long ago, the amoebae had wrought even greater harm, and their current state was their penance.
This amoeba, the rest soon realized, was an elder. He was a keeper of knowledge and he told them a tale of their ancestors. He told them that they, who were each just one, were descended from beings who were many.
They lived in the waters. They were shape-shifters. Their proportions were vast and yet most water-dwellers did not fear them, for they did not prey upon smaller creatures. Some had mouths but they did not feed through their mouths. They fed through their skin. They would stretch their feet out and absorb nourishment from the waters in which they dwelled. When it was time for them to make progeny, they did not couple and give birth as other creatures did. They would merely split themselves. Sometimes a limb would split off, and sometimes they would split right down the middle. The original being would regrow the parts that were missing. The new being would do the same. What was one became two, each identical until they began to live their own lives and become changed by their own experiences.
These water-dwelling beings, known as the Amebae, were curious about the world. One day, they emerged into the air and onto the land. They were delighted by the wonders they saw. The different land-walking animals, the sky-flying animals. They tried on the shapes of many different creatures. Some they could copy and some they could not. When they first caught sight of a human being, they mimicked the human’s shape and found it fit them quite well. They discovered as well that human beings had a consciousness as the Amebae did. So the humans became their favorite land-walkers. The Amebae soon longed to do more than watch the humans. They sought to meet them and know them.
The Amebae had emerged from a lake near a village of humans. They decided to visit the village. The Amebae were larger than the villagers, some reaching double the height of the highest man, for they were clumsy yet at shifting into the shapes of humans. As they entered the village, they were met with fright and fascination, for their looks were enchanting and their size was alarming. Recognizing that they had upset the people they wished to befriend, the Amebae hid their shape-shifting natures, for they knew most creatures did not have such a talent, and they did not want to further alarm the already cautious villagers.
Over time, the two peoples, the human villagers and the Amebae from the lake did indeed become friends. Humanity found the Amebae to be an enthralling people. The Amebae found humans to be equally charming, but they also found a further surprising quality about the humans that they dared not admit. They discovered it upon first clasping hands in the fashion of human greeting, and tasting without meaning to taste.
The Amebae had discovered their greatest delicacy. In part, it was because humans were made mostly of water, but in greater part, it was because they were made from something else, something sweet and intoxicating. The villagers did not realize that each time the affectionate Amebae clasped hands and embraced flesh to flesh, they were sucking the humans dry of the one thing they had in far greater abundance than the other natural creatures in the world, spirit.
In time, the people of the village realized what was happening, and some of the Amebae were wracked with guilt and remorse for what their people were doing. Most of the Amebae, however, were drunk on human spirits. They could not stop themselves. They would drink until all the villagers were dead. When that time came, and when the intoxication faded, the Amebae would at last realize what they had done. They would be a ruined people for all their reckless and despicable ways of satiating their hunger. One small group of Amebae banded together with a small group of human villagers. In an effort to save both peoples, they devised a plan.
The band of humans and friendly Amebae took a perilous journey to the First Land Under Earth and Water. Deeper even than the deepest sea was this realm, the first of many deep realms, filled with beings even more terrible and wondrous than could be found in surface lands and waters. In this First Land, there was a plant, a mushroom known as the Shrivel that could shrink any living creature when consumed.
The plan was for all the human beings of the village to consume the mushroom and become so small that even if the Amebae could see them, they would not be able to feed upon them. Being small, the villagers would become prey to other creatures, creatures that once were mostly harmless to them, like insects. But that was not so different from living in the midst of dangerous animals like bears. The villagers would learn how to survive and flourish. For nothing was as dangerous to them as the spirit-devouring beings that had come out of the waters. But one of the friendly Amebae who had allied with the humans overheard the villagers talking one night. He heard some of the humans asking why they should be the ones to shrink and disappear when it was the Amebae who were doing wrong.
This one Amebae gathered the other friendly Amebae and told them what the humans had said. They all agreed to make a change in their plan. When the band of humans and friendly Amebae returned to the surface, the friendly Amebae stole the mushrooms, while the humans rested from the long journey. The friendly Amebae spread word among their people of a great feast that would be held at the shores of the lake outside the village, the lake from whence they had all emerged. It was not difficult to convince the ever-drunk Amebae. The friendly Amebae made sure that all of their people were present. Promising that a feast of human spirits would soon be served, the friendly Amebae passed about refreshing drinks laced with the mushroom. When the Amebae begin shrinking, they dropped their drinks in terror. Some even threw their drinks away, suspecting that they had been tricked. As they stopped drinking, they stopped shrinking, but their betrayers did not stop. The friendly Amebae had dried and crushed the mushrooms into a fine powder, and this they blew amongst their people until the Amebae inhaled the powder, started shrinking again, and kept on shrinking.
Meanwhile, the humans discovered that the mushrooms had been stolen. They thought they had been betrayed by the friendly Amebae. They found out from a spy that all the Amebae were gathered by the lake and they went to find out what the Amebae were planning. When they saw all the shrinking Amebae, they were stunned. They saw the friendly Amebae, and they realized that they were not the ones who were betrayed. When all the Amebae save for their friends had shrunk as small as insects, the humans came out. The Amebae kept shrinking and shrinking until they were so tiny, the human eye could not see them, but the friendly Amebae knew they were there for they could shift the shape of their eyes so their sight was keen enough to see their people. The shrinking and the shriveling continued until all the many pieces of each Ameba were lost, and only one piece remained of each Ameba, one shapeless and delicate piece. Then the friendly Amebae banished their people back into the waters of the lake.
The friendly Amebae then turned the remaining mushroom extract over to the human villagers save the portion they would need to shrink themselves. But the villagers had enjoyed the company of the Amebae, until that people had turned against them. They entreated their friends to stay and learn about life on the land, and if ever they should feel tempted to turn gluttonous, then they could take the mushroom and follow their people back into the waters.
The friendly Amebae agreed to stay. For many years, they all lived in peace.
Then one day some of the villagers began to grow ill for no reason they could discover. The Amebae, who could shift the shape of their eyes, and see beyond the sight of man or woman, saw what was causing the illness. Their own people, small Amebae, were invading the bodies of humans, sickening them, sometimes to death.
A few of the friendly Amebae decided to return to the lake to convince their people to leave humanity be and make safe the waters. The rest of the friendly Amebae remained to tend to their friends.
Those who remained in the village gazed into the lake sometimes, but they could not tell if the message their brethren carried had gotten through. They did not know if the waters were safe for the villagers. Finally, they decided there may be a way to find out. The friendly Amebae had to restore their allies from one piece to many. It would require revealing their shape-shifting nature to their human friends. But this they had to do, for they had caused much pain and harm to the villagers. They had lied and concealed much.
The friendly Amebae told the villagers of their shape-shifting natures. Then they tried their plan. One of the Amebae pulled off her arm and lay it on the surface of the waters. She watched as the small Amebae swarmed around the arm. She recognized the one who was her friend. She brushed off the rest. As all watched on, the arm grew a shoulder, head, torso, second arm, and legs. The being was watery and transparent, but slowly became solid, taking on the shape, not of the one who sacrificed the arm, but of a friendly Amebae who had returned to the waters.
Though the human villagers had been told about the true nature of the Amebae, they were still stunned, frightened, and amazed by what they beheld.
After the two friendly Amebae embraced, the one who had returned from the lake told them that most of the Amebae were regretful of what they had done and wished only to live on in peace. Some were angry at the Amebae. A few were angry at the humans.
Those who were angry with the friendly Amebae had tried to attack them, but could not. Their attacks had no effect, for the bodies of the friendly Amebae merely absorbed the attackers and made each one part of the many. But those who attacked the humans found success, and even if it meant their own death, they attacked. The returned Ameba also reported that something else was happening among the Amebae. They were beginning to lose their consciousness—some already had. It was not because they were small, but because they had become only one piece each. Each was too simple on its own. Their memories, knowledge, and wisdom were fading. They were beginning to forget goodness and wickedness. Their spirits were waning. Even the returned Ameba said he had been having trouble remembering who he was. When he sensed his friend’s arm, sensed something familiar and powerful in the waters, he only moved toward it out of instinct. It was only when he emerged from the waters that he regained his consciousness.
It was decided that some of the Amebae would always remain with the land-walkers so they could retain their true selves, remember and learn for their own people, and maintain their watch over and their friendship with human beings.
Over an age, the Amebae of the waters became amoebae, spiritless creatures with little sense. Those who sickened humans no longer did so out of vengeance or anger, but just because it had become part of their nature. So far and wide did the little creatures spread that the land-dwelling Amebae could not keep up with speaking to all of them. Humanity learned their own ways of battling all manner of illnesses, including the ones caused by the parasitic descendants of the Amebae.
Many legends sprung up of dangerous and unearthly creatures who drained human beings of life, and some may have arisen from this one village’s experience with the Amebae. Humans too were a flawed people who sought to gain wisdom and goodness. But they had not wronged the Amebae. Most humans did not know that the Amebae still dwelled among them. They knew only the amoebae.
A small portion of the vast legion of amoebae arose who had some sense, some yearning, some awareness that went beyond their natures. Among these were chosen the land-dwellers. Among these were chosen those who would be granted the gift of multicellularity.
As the young amoeba listened to her elder, she perked up at the mention of multicellularity. The elder went on to explain how the process worked. A few were chosen all over the world. Ameobae who were deemed worthy to assume the forms their ancestors once had and took for granted. These chosen were to live among the land-walkers and gather knowledge and wisdom to bring back to their kind. At the end of their lives, when they were old and about to die, they would take a special pill they were given, a pill made from powdered mushroom, the same mushroom that once transformed their ancestors. When they took the pill, they had to be near water, for they would shrink and shrivel until their many pieces fell away and only one was left. They would return to the waters. They would once again take on their modern unicellular form and seek out the rest of their kind to share knowledge, experience, and wisdom.
The elder who told the story was not himself one of the chosen. He was merely passing on the story. But the young amoeba who yearned to be more than one was curious about the arrangement that was made in the tale. She asked the elder what he knew of it. The elder answered.
In order to be worthy, the seeking amoeba was put to a set of challenges, which were judged by amoebae who once lived among the land-walkers. The elder called them the “assembly of returners.” There were many such assemblies in the world. Such amoebae who returned from being land-dwellers often lived in shallow waters closest to land. The young amoeba became determined to find an assembly of returners.
It was a long journey, and many of the other amoeba she had gathered to her fell away from it, for they found their yearning was not so strong after all. At last, the young amoeba and the few of her fellows who still followed her reached shallow waters. By searching and asking, they found the assembly of returners who dwelled there.
She asked if she and her fellows could be granted the gift of multicellularity and live as land-walkers. The elder had warned them that they would be challenged by the assembly and so they were. The young amoeba was led away from her fellows. In her haste to meet the assembly, she had not taken any rest after her long journey. Now, tired though she was, she was set before the first of her challenges.
For the first challenge, the assembly set the amoeba inside of a labyrinth and observed as she made her way through it. There were opportunities to feed or to break through barriers. She was told she must do neither. After much wandering, she got stuck and started to grow hungry. She wondered if she should break the rules she was given, but then as she rested against a wall, she felt it pulse. She wondered if she was inside of a living being, a fish perhaps. She did not want to be trapped inside of a fish. She didn’t want to harm the fish either. She thought perhaps that was why she was given the rules she was given, so she would do no harm. She rested for a while, then she made her careful way through the maze, observing and marking each passage and corridor. She made it out of the labyrinth and found that she had indeed been inside of a fish, inside its very heart. She wanted to know why a fish would agree to be so invaded, not knowing if she would have hurt him or not. But she was given no time to ask questions. She was put to her second challenge right away.
The second challenge was strange. She was placed before a curved white form in the water, which she was told was an egg. Many creatures in the world did not procreate by splitting themselves off. They instead hatched from eggs. The amoeba had seen the hatching of eggs before. But this one was different. It was not like the eggs of water-dwellers. She was given permission to study it. She stretched out her pseudopods and touched the egg, felt its hardness. The egg was only partly submerged in the shallow waters. It began to crack and split. It reminded the amoeba of the way that amoebas split, but then something strange emerged from inside the egg. The amoeba had no eyes, but was granted a special sight by the assembly. She observed a creature most unlike herself. It was made of sharp edges and angles, and shades and hues beyond her ability to grasp. It moved with a suddenness and speed like that of a fish, but with far less grace. She had always longed to be as graceful and quick as a fish. She reacted to the birth of the unknown creature with both fear and curiosity, and another sense she had never felt before. It felt related to her yearning to be more, and yet it was different. It felt as if part of her yearning had been fulfilled. She would later learn that what she felt was called “wonder.”
Before she knew it, she was swept away be the assembly, away from the egg and the creature, to face her final challenge. She was sure she had passed the first one, but did not know the purpose of the second. She hoped that being put to the third challenge meant she had passed the second. The assembly gathered around her. One of them asked why she believed she was worthy, among all the amoebae of the world. They asked why they should chose her.
The amoeba admitted that she was young. She had not yet split off any progeny. She had not explored many waters. She had only that yearning that made her seek the chance to be granted the gift that only they could grant. It was for them to judge worthiness. It was for her to tell them what she would do to fulfill her yearning if granted the gift.
The assembly stopped her then and told her that promises of future accomplishments would not do. She had to present proof of her worthiness as she was in that moment. The amoeba grew dejected. She knew then that she would not be chosen, for she had seen stronger, older, and wiser amoebae seeking the gift. But even through her disappointment, she decided she would go forth and become worthy. She would one day return to take the challenge and seek the gift again. She told the assembly that she understood she would not be granted the gift of multicellularity, but asked them if they would grant the gift of their attention for just a few moments longer. The council agreed.
The young amoeba told them that if she were to be granted the gift of multicellularity, she would seek only one thing during her time as a land-walker. She would seek to foster in herself a great spirit. Her hope was that when she returned to the waters, she would retain that spirit, pass it on to her progeny, and perhaps even to the rest of her people. She believed that the only way the amoebae might once again become what they once were, was to attain for themselves what they had once tried to steal from others. Perhaps, if granted a second chance, they would become a better people than their ancestors were.
She thanked the assembly of returners, humbled and determined. She asked to be dismissed, but the assembly bade her stay, chiding her for presuming that she knew what their judgment would be. Further humbled, the young amoeba lingered. She was still tired and she was still hungry. But she straightened her pseudopods and waited.
At last, the assembly gathered around her. One among them declared that the young amoeba had passed her challenges and was deemed worthy.
She would be granted the gift of multicellularity.
There was a shape in the shallow waters. She was told it was a hand and she should swim toward it. When she touched the surface of the hand, she was overwhelmed by sensations she could not control or comprehend. But she was not afraid. She felt as if she were riding in a rush of waters. She was merging with the hand, making it part of herself, and becoming part of it. It was as it had been in the elder’s story. The hand belonged to one of her kind, one who was multicellular and was sharing that multicellularity with her.
She felt her body emerging from the water into the air. By instinct, her watery nature took on a solid form to guard itself from the drying effects of the air. It took on the form of the being whose hand she had merged with, a human being. Outside of the waters, her growing body felt heavy. She leaned over and fell. She felt hands on her newly formed skin, grasping her and helping her up. She felt the twitching and flexing of muscles beneath her skin. She blinked her eyes, bombarded by colors she had never imagined and dimensions she had never before discerned, for she had two eyes that saw as one. Outside of the water, perceived through her ears and her nose, sounds were crisper and smells were sharper. Touch was keener. She was told, taught, and warned of all the changes she would undergo. She was also warned that nothing would truly prepare her.
Upon her emergence from water, the amoeba, who was now Amebae, coughed out some water and in doing so, uttered her first sounds, startling herself. She felt a pounding in her chest. Her heart. She felt bare and exposed. It was strange, for she thought she would feel safer and sturdier as a multicellular being. Another of her kind was waiting for her when she emerged from the waters, so she would not be alone and helpless in her first days. This was the one who had broken off her own hand to share with the young Amebae. This was the one who would be her caretaker.
The young Amebae would pick a name and decided upon a profession and a place to settle soon enough. She would be taught when and how to report to her people. It would be easy to forget who she was and live as the being whose shape she had taken, so she was required to shift her shape and become a different person or even animal after a certain interval.
But first, she had to pick a unique shape. When she emerged, she had copied the form of her caretaker. Within days, she learned to subtly change her form so that her shape and coloring were different. Because of the amorphous nature and shifting mind of her people, she was able to learn language quickly. She was enchanted by hearing the voice of her caretaker and companion, but shy about using her own voice. The first thing her caretaker asked her to say was the sound of the name she picked for herself.
One day, the young Amebae opened her mouth, excited as this was to be one of her first utterances. She had been studying lists and meanings of names for a few days. But she changed her mind, closed her mouth, and frowned. She had longed for a name. But there were so many names to choose from. She went back to her studies. For many days thereafter, her caretaker would ask, over breakfast, if she had chosen. The young Ameba would shake her head.
At last, after much pondering, she chose a name that would remind her of what she was and who she was, of her purpose, her quest, of her responsibility, of her pride in her people, and her desire to make amends for her people. A name simple and humble. She chose the name “Atma.”
It meant “spirit.”
Copyright © 2016. Nila L. Patel