We think of them as separate. We learn of their natures when we are but small children. Fire burns. Water flows. Earth turns. Air blows.
But as we grow older, we learn that the natures of the great elements are not so separate.
Sometimes water can rush and roil with such force that it can burn and scald like fire. Sometimes fire rolls and flows like water. Sometimes air can be dense and thick, and a gust can strike with such force that it can knock you down like a wall of stone. And sometimes, earth can be so fine and light that it can rise up like the air.
There is nothing in the world that is pure. And that need not be an ill. Even the high-on stars are impure. Their hearts churn with earth and fire. But there was a time when the elements were pure. When they were separate, knowing nothing but their own natures. Wind whispered. Flames crackled. Streams trickled. Earth abided.
How did the elements learn each other’s trick? How did they become a bit like each other? And why? What is the purpose of it? What is the wisdom in it?
Long ago, in the days before your grandfather’s grandfather learned to read the stars. In the days before your grandmother’s grandmother learned to ride the seas. In a time when your ancestor’s ancestors first put quill to parchment, there were beings who ruled over the elements, beings so vast and mighty that they could scarcely fathom the meager lives of gods, much less those of mortal beings.
They were called the Elementals. There was the Salamander who ruled over fire. There was the Gnome who ruled over earth. There was the Undine who ruled over water. There was the Sylph who ruled over air. They were known by those names, but more commonly, they were known as Fire, Earth, Water, and Air.
The Salamander lived in the sun. The Sylph lived in the winds. The Undine lived in the deep waters. And the Gnome lived in the heart of the earth.
Once in an age, they left their abodes and gathered in the black abyss from which all things came and in which all things would end. They would look upon the world and make sure that the lesser elements, their offspring and their offspring’s offspring, were doing as their natures bid them do. In every flame, there were salamanders. The flicker of a candle came from one small salamander. In the funeral pyre of a king, there would be thousands. Within every drop of water, every puddle, pond, or ocean, there were undines. In every stone, island, and continent, there were gnomes. And in every breeze, tempest, and tornado, there were sylphs.
The lesser elementals gave life and spirit to the elements they inhabited. They directed the elements to do as they must to sustain the world. The undines directed the waters to flow where needed to nourish plants and animals. The salamanders directed fire to where light and warmth was needed, and to burn away dead things to make way for the living. The sylphs directed the winds and breezes to bring air to all living creatures. The gnomes made tunnels and caves for the animals of the earth. They enriched the earth so it would feed the creatures that lived within and sprouted from the ground. Without the guidance of the lesser elementals, the world would become static. It would lose all vibrancy and fall into that abyss from whence it came, never to be again. The lesser elementals themselves were guided and governed by their sires, their sources, the great Elementals.
The great Elementals were not like their lesser selves in the world. Not like the fiery salamanders who scurried underfoot was the great Salamander. Not like the lithe creatures who rolled and rippled through fountains was the great Undine. Not like the little gnomes who lived in deep caves and mined for precious stones was the great Gnome. And not like the playful spirits of the wind was the great Sylph. The great Elementals were the source of the elements in the world. They had created the elements, which other beings, like gods and creators, used to build all else that was in the world.
The time for the great Elementals to meet and inspect their world had come. They looked one day upon the lives of the mortals, expecting to learn nothing from beings so brief. They were pleased to see that the creatures had taken on some of the Elementals’ natures. There were birds who flew in the air as the sylphs did. There were fish and whales who swam in the seas with the undines. There seemed to be no beasts who lived within fire. But there were a great many that lived upon the earth, and one in particular that relied upon and used fire, though they did not live in it. The Elementals found they were curious about these two-legged creatures who were called people.
The Elementals examined the lives of the people, how their purposes varied, and their work shifted, and how their lives—brief though they might be—were full of new feelings and experiences. The people would do their work and then rest, which was strange to the Elementals, for they never rested in being what they were. The Elementals grew excited at the thought of doing, of being, something new. They wearied of what they already were.
“I am tired of burning,” said Fire.
“I am tired of flowing,” said Water.
“I am tired of turning,” said Earth.
“I am tired of blowing,” said Air.
They wondered if perhaps they too could try on different purposes, different natures. After much pondering, they struck upon an idea. They would switch their attire.
The Undine was always changing and always moving. When she tried on the dense garb of the Gnome, she found she could be still at last. Her restless and vigorous spirit became peaceful and steady.
The Sylph was always floating, always high. When he came down into the deep after donning the dress of the Undine, he was heavy at last. He had form. He could feel himself, and he could feel the world.
The Gnome was anchored always to the earth. Then he tried on the flaming cloak of the Salamander. Suddenly, he could leap and dash with incredible speed. He could feel warmth.
The Salamander, who could strain upwards, but never quite reach the sky, donned the garb of the Sylph and broke free of the link to the earth.
So it went, on and on, as each Elemental tried on the garb of the others and marveled at all that was new to them. They learned each other’s movements and thrilled in each other’s colors.
So pleased were the Elementals by the mere switching of their garb, that they next decided to try switching abodes.
The Gnome went to live among the winds.
The Sylph descended into the deep waters.
The Undine rose up into the sun.
The Salamander descended into the heart of the earth.
The lesser elementals learned their natures from and were governed by the Elementals. But they were not governed in the way that mortal beings govern, through commands and decrees. They were governed by the examples set by their sovereign Elementals.
So as the Elementals moved, the lesser elements followed. The world began to change.
As the Gnome rose, earth began to rise into the air—not large chunks of land or even small pebbles, but the tiniest specks of earth, invisible to mortal eyes. Thus was dust first formed.
Waters began to rise to the sun, following the Undine, not whole oceans or even puddles, but drops so fine that they could only be seen when they traveled as one, and so mist and fog were made.
The misty waters met the dust, and as they swirled, they formed the first clouds. When the clouds became dense and laden with water, the water would fall back down to the earth. And so rain was made.
Air began to descend into the waters, after the Sylph. So did bubbles come to be, and the many little sylphs descending to and rising from the waters created the sparkling waters of the world.
The Salamander sunk deep into the earth to reach the heart, where the Gnome made his home. She was followed by many little salamanders, who melted the earth as they squirmed farther down. The Salamander herself melted the very heart of the earth.
The elements were in tumult.
The rains poured down and the earth grew inflamed. This gave rise to the churning of oceans that had once flowed smoothly, and the heaving of earth that had once held steadfast. Storms of water and fire arose in the spinning and swooping air. But this was nothing compared to what was to come.
The Elementals knew that their world needed tending, so they ended their revels and looked upon the world. They marveled at what they saw. For the world that once needed tending and directing by the lesser elementals was now tending itself. Rains fell upon parched earth, fed the seeds that would grow into plants, and quenched the thirst of the animals. Rivers and streams began to rush toward oceans, in which great waves now swung back and forth, crashing into the earth and receding from it. The air above the swirling oceans itself began to swirl and flow over the lands. Within the clouds, the tiny specks of earth crashed together and sparked, and from the spark burst forth white hot fire.
Where once the elements were gentle, now they were sometimes fierce. Where once the elements only helped, now they sometimes harmed. But they did not need the direction of the lesser elementals. The elements did as their natures bade them do, all by themselves. They overwhelmed and influenced each other, where once they had barely touched.
The Elementals were pleased to see that the world was tending itself, for they had acquired a taste for their fellow’s natures. But switching garb and even abodes was superficial. To truly known each other’s natures, they had to trade those natures. They deemed it a wise idea, for if trading garb and abodes had given rise to a world where the elements could tend to themselves, perhaps trading natures would lead to an even more wondrous world.
So they traded their natures, and the ends were strange indeed.
A glass of water would burst into a flame like fire, only wet and clear. A fire much needed for warmth in the night would turn as solid as stone the color of a glowing bloody sun. Solid earth might quicken beneath the feet, swallowing and drowning. The air that was so vital to animals, might turn solid and suffocating. A lake might vanish, all the water turning insubstantial as air, and all swimming within it would plummet to the rocky bottom. A breeze might turn suddenly scalding with no warning. The mortal beings of the earth were burned, frozen, pierced, trapped, and altogether tormented by elements that changed their natures from moment to moment.
It was then that the people who lived upon the earth addressed not their gods or creators, but the Elementals themselves. They cried out for the Elementals to hear their pleas and to hear their warnings. The Sylph, Salamander, Gnome, and Undine halted their trades and listened to the voices of the beings that fascinated them most.
“If the elements are not as we expect them to be,” the people said, “this world will cease to be.”
So the Elementals once again looked upon the world.
The world had gone from peaceful—to wondrous but confusing—to dangerous and delicate—to chaotic. In the time that the Elementals had traded their garb, their abodes, and their natures, many generations of people had come and gone. Many had suffered and perished as the world turned from gentle to tumultuous. Many had prospered and flourished as the world turned from rigid to relaxed. There were epic verses written. Storms of sand and seas of fire. Melting earth and whirlwinds dire…
The mortals could adapt and had adapted to danger and confusion. But they could not survive chaos. They could not survive a world where the elements changed their very natures and did so at any time without warning.
The Elementals heeded the cries of the people. They vowed to resume their original natures and not to change those natures again. They still believed in the wisdom of sharing some qualities of their natures. But they recognized that the elements must retain, and even refine, much of their distinctiveness.
They looked upon the people who had given them the inspiration to try on different natures. They saw why the beings held such appeal to them. Unlike the other mortal creatures, who blended only the primal natures of the elements, people blended the refined natures of the elements. Their forms were made of earth in the bones and water in the blood. Their breath was made of air. There were sparks of fire in their minds. The elements were not just in their forms, but in their spirits. From Air, they took Inspiration. From Fire, they took Passion. From water, came Reason. From Earth, came Knowledge.
The Elementals returned to their abodes. They had resumed their true natures, yet they were changed forever. No longer did they wait for ages to meet. They came together often in contest, and in cooperation, as the elements they created do. No longer did they peer only upon their own element when they watched the world, for they still watched the world, though they no longer tended it as carefully and strictly as once they had. The elements had only begun to become refined within people. It was only by letting the world tend to itself, learn, and even stumble that the elements might reach their highest refinement.
That day has not yet come. None can say if it ever will. But perhaps if we listen, the elements themselves can tell us. Fire crackles. Water gurgles. Earth creaks. Air sighs. But every one of them roar when at their fullest force.
In that roar is a striving, the striving of all the beings of the world.
Copyright © 2016. Nila L. Patel