There are people in this world worth saving.
Zoe repeated the mantra to herself as she gingerly pulled the sheet away from the skin of her back. Her back was aching, itching, burning, roiling, and writhing.
There are people in this world worth saving, she thought to herself again. There are people in this world worth saving.
“Sophia,” she whispered.
There were people in the world worth saving. Sophia said so once. Sophia once said a great many things to her. Zoe hadn’t always listened. She hadn’t always heeded the stories and lessons of her favorite aunt. Even though they spoke at least a few times a week, and Sophia had already assured her that the pain was normal, Zoe longed for the comfort of her aunt’s voice.
She pulled on a robe, wincing and cursing at the sharp irritation that even the soft silken robe caused on her raw skin. It wasn’t actually raw, but it felt that way. Still, even though she was alone in her apartment with all the doors closed and blinds drawn, she couldn’t just walk around naked.
She took careful breaths and careful steps toward her desk, where she saw the notebook lying there. The one she had taken out in the middle of the night. So, that wasn’t a dream at least.
She flipped the notebook open, and read the first few lines that her eyes fell upon, surprised at how neat her handwriting was. And how distinctive with each sentence.
We have been waiting for you to be ready.
And what is it that makes me ready now?
You’re not. Not quite ready yet. But we have no choice. The time for transference is nearing, but you must not release us to another mere vessel. And you must no longer be a mere vessel yourself.
Zoe released a breath, a less painful breath. Just reading the words made a difference. It wasn’t in her head. The pain on her skin had lessened while she was reading.
She set the book down and went to the mirror in her bathroom. She gulped as she turned her back to the mirror, turned her head slowly around as far as she could, and warily pulled down both shoulders of her robe.
There it was. Lion’s head. Sword. Spear. Chain. Zoe quickly shrugged her robe back on, grunting through the scraping wave of agony that rolled over her back. She closed her eyes.
Living amphoras never saw their marks. No one did.
“So why am I seeing mine now?” she whispered to herself.
In ancient times, amphoras were containers, jars of a particular shape, made of clay or metal. Common amphoras often contained common items. But mystical amphoras, decorated with the appropriate symbols, were often used to contain what the ancients called “pragmata agnosto” or “things unknowable,” things that the mortal mind was not capable of comprehending, but that people could only know in dreams, or in their hearts or souls. It was also believed that such containers could capture great horrors and preserve great wonders.
But there were some unknowable things that even a mystic amphora could not contain. For such things, the ancients devised the practice of using living amphoras, people who were decorated with symbols to contain what an un-living container could not. This was how secret knowledge was passed on, the highest knowledge of any and every craft of creation, from art to healing to magic. This was how household guardian spirits were passed on from generation to generation. The living amphoras could do more than just contain. They could know and channel what they contained, be it the wisdom of ancestors or the powers of mystical beings.
These living amphoras were revered. What they held within their very living selves could not be lost, for such knowledge and power was not just for the benefit of their families or their tribes, but for all humanity. There arose a skilled class of priests and priestesses who cared for the living amphoras. Careful ceremonies were created to transfer the “pragmata agnosto” from one living amphora to the next, even in the case of unexpected death. Typically, a living amphora would serve for the duration of his or her life. In time, it was decided that the transfer would happen in mid-life or even earlier, to ensure there was less danger of losing the precious legacies that the amphoras carried.
The living amphoras soon served for so short a time that they did not and could not know what they carried. They did not have the time to develop the strength needed to both carry and to channel what they carried, be it knowledge or power. Once the living amphoras had been stewards, but in time they became only vessels.
Zoe was one such vessel.
She had been carrying her “pragmata agnosto,” what some called a burden and others, like her aunt, called a legacy, for just over fifteen years. In all that time, she had never gotten sick. Not once. Not even a sniffle. But for almost a week now, she had been sick and feverish, so feverish that she’d taken to sleeping naked in silk sheets, and had even asked Sophia if it would be safe for her to sleep in a bathtub full of icy water. Her aunt forbade it. If Zoe slept in ice water every night, she would freeze. The burning was not a physical sensation.
The marks, the tattoos, had been invisible for fifteen years. Zoe had never seen them, and wasn’t even sure she’d gotten them. Sophia had a sense of humor. When she first broached the subject of being a living amphora to a twenty-something Zoe who wasn’t sure what to do with her life beyond college, Zoe had thought it was a joke. She’d played along through the “challenge” that would prove her to be a worthy living amphora, but felt more like a day-long interview for working in a theme park. Her aunt had taken her to a warehouse where she had to do brainteaser puzzles, some not-too-difficult physical feats, and go through human interaction scenarios with actors.
Sophia had said the process wouldn’t hurt, and that if Zoe did it, she’d be set for life. She wouldn’t have to worry about money, even after she transferred her legacy. She could do what she wanted for a living (or not work at all, but Sophia forbade the no-work choice). She wouldn’t have to worry about bills, or affording a decent place to live, or the cost of further education. Not to mention the funner things in life. Zoe remembered how her aunt kept inserting jokes here and there, to ease her serious tone as she spoke of the amphora.
“They were used to contain many things in ancient times, most notably…spirits.”
“What kinds of spirits?” Zoe had asked, arms folded skeptically.
Sophia had smiled while her niece rolled her eyes and shook her head.
Still suspecting it was an elaborate joke her aunt was playing on her, or a very involved lesson—Sophia employed eccentric tactics to teach life lessons—Zoe accepted the job of holding. She agreed to be a living amphora. She signed a contract. So she knew she would be transferring what she held someday. Even after depositing the first few checks, she was suspicious. The “tattooing” had left no visible marks on her body, no stinging, no bleeding. Zoe was certain her aunt was bluffing. She was determined to call her aunt’s bluff and demand what possible life lesson the hoax held for her.
After an elaborate ceremony where Zoe got to wear an authentic-looking silver crown set with convincing replicas of precious gems, Sophia told her that she had become a living vessel for the “pragmata agnosto.” The things unknowable.
Zoe remembered joking, “That’s all Greek to me.”
Sophia smiled, but it was a serious and knowing smile.
For being a living amphora, Zoe had been well taken care of for fifteen years. She’d been wise with her compensation, and it would support her for the remainder of her days. The time to transfer what she held had now come. Sophia had warned her that she might be reluctant. That she might have experiences through her service that would make her want to keep what she carried. Zoe couldn’t imagine it. She couldn’t wait to release her burden.
In fact, for most of the past fifteen years, Zoe hadn’t thought much about the legacy she carried. She only remembered on her Acceptance Day, the anniversary of the day she accepted the particular “pragmata agnosto” that she carried.
Until a week prior, when she got the first illness she’d gotten in fifteen years, she had not felt burdened by the legacy at all. The greatest burden in her life had been a lack of purpose. With all her needs and wants being met by the salary she was collecting for carrying the “pragmata agnosto,” she had no need to work or make anything of herself.
But she had nevertheless. She had served as something far more than a vessel. She had made something of herself. Nothing world-shaking. Though perhaps the animals she healed and the people who cared for those animals might have said otherwise.
Dogs were the only animal she had had any experience with before she went into veterinary school. For the past week, she’d had to ask her aunt Sophia to take her own canine best friend away. He’d started acting up, barking one moment, cowering from Zoe the next. It was no wonder if he was sensing or even seeing what Zoe had seen the night before.
In the midst of her fever, she’d gotten up in the middle of the night and gone to the bathroom. She’d been drinking pitchers of water to cool herself down. The practice made her sleepless nights worse with the need for multiple bathroom visits. This time, as she passed the mirror, her eyes half-closed against the bathroom lights, she caught something reflected in the mirror behind her. In the exhaustion and confusion of her fever, the vision did not scare her so much as it perplexed her. She knew she was awake. She half thought she was hallucinating.
She saw a lion’s head, its mane bristling with black fire. She turned around, but there was nothing behind her. The vision in the mirror flickered and vanished. She suddenly realized that the skin of her back felt calm and cool.
When she first started feeling as if her skin were burning, Zoe had checked her back several times a day, expecting to find raw, red, bubbling skin, surprised when she saw normal skin. She was just as curious now that her back had stopped burning for the first time in days. She turned her back to the mirror and pulled her robe down.
That was when she first laid eyes on the tattoo that she had borne for fifteen years.
A lion’s head, with a dark mane, flowing and flickering like flames. Crossed within its paws were a spear and a sword. Chains held the weapons, anchoring them to her sides. A different pattern of chains or loops was scattered on the middle of her back, at around belly level. Below that, a serpent twined around itself in what was not quite an infinity shape. The lion’s expression was stern but calm. The serpent’s eye was fierce.
Zoe shook her head. “You’ve got to be kidding.”
Before becoming a vet, she’d been strictly a dog person. She still was not that keen on cats, except the nice ones. And snakes…they were one animal she was still afraid of.
Why them? Why? she wondered, but with no great energy or conviction.
The ceremony of transfer was only two days away. But that seemed an eternity to someone who had not slept through the night in almost a week. Sights and experiences that would have piqued her curiosity, troubled her conscience, disturbed her sanity, or provoked horror or wonder when she was well, passed all but ignored through her exhausted attention. Yet despite such exhaustion, she could not sleep, for once again, her skin began to crackle, starting with a prickling that erupted into the sensation of a thousand needles piercing her flesh. She wondered if she were feeling the delayed sensation of the tattooing. She frowned, remembering how her aunt had told her it would not hurt.
Maybe to amuse herself and try to tire herself into sleep, she pulled out a notebook and began to write a description of her tattoo and the vision of the lion in the mirror. She wrote out questions as if she were asking him, speaking to him.
Why have you waited so long to show yourself to me? What’s your name? Who or what are you, if I may ask?
It seemed appropriate to be polite. She imagined his answers. Then she imagined the serpent. For some reason, she made it a nine-headed snake, though that was not how the serpent was depicted in her tattoo. The hydra-like serpent also spoke to her. At some point, she lay her head down on her desk and fell asleep. Because slowly, so slowly and gently that she hadn’t noticed, the broiling and roiling and burning of the skin of her back had calmed and cooled as she “conversed” with the legacy within her.
She was rudely woken by her flaming skin, her mind still filled with dreams of the stories her aunt had told her when she was young. All about their family’s proud history as amphoras. As a kid, Zoe had been scared by it, secretly hoping that she wouldn’t be chosen. She never told Sophia she was scared, but her aunt seemed to figure it out. She stopped telling Zoe the amphora stories. She had plenty of other stories to tell. Zoe was glad. But later, when she was in high school and into the supernatural, she wished it were all real. She wanted to ask, but she’d always chicken out, because she was a hundred percent sure Sophia would say they were just stories.
Zoe drew resolve from the thought of her aunt and got ready, taking the coldest shower she could. She drank iced milk for breakfast. She called her aunt and asked her to come over. Sophia would have done so anyway. It was the eve of the ceremony of transfer. While she waited for her aunt, Zoe read what she had written in the notebook the night before.
Sophia didn’t mention anything about pre-transfer hallucinations.
That’s because we are not hallucinations, the lion said.
You don’t look like my tattoos.
Your marks are symbolic, the middle head of the serpent said.
What does that mean? You’re not really a snake?
Am I a snake?
You are you, the lion said to the serpent.
Please, you haven’t answered my questions yet. Why can I see my tattoo and feel it? Why are you showing yourself to me now?
The ceremony of transfer nears. One way or another, we must be released.
‘One way or another?’ There’s transference and…what?
The first head of the serpent hissed. It was a jolly hiss, like the snake version of laughter. Amphoras were not always just vessels. They were once tasked with knowing what they contained. They once went through painstaking training to know and to wield, not just to contain.
I don’t know that they were ever meant to just contain, the lion added. We have been calling to you for some time. We should be challenging you with questions. Why are you only now listening?
How long is some time? It’s only been a week since I started feeling my back burn.
The lion made a sound like a low and thoughtful growl.
Anyone may serve as a mere vessel, the last head of the serpent said. But only those who are taught and trained can be amphoras.
But I was never taught or trained.
You were, just not by…official means. The serpent carried out the sound of the “s” and it blended with the rumble of the lion’s voice as he took up the discourse.
Think…think of all those who have taught you, and think of what they have taught you.
Sophia. Her aunt Sophia had always encouraged her to keep an open mind but also the proper way to be skeptical. Sophia had given her books on philosophy, religion, mysticism, and myth, and had asked her challenging questions. There were no tests, no paper-and-pencil problems. Just stories, questions, jokes, and games. And lessons hidden within the whole time. Small lessons, Zoe thought. But was there an overarching lesson?
Someday, perhaps, all of humanity will be able to bear our raw presence. We will have no need of amphoras, and you who have served as such will no longer be anchored to only a few unknowable things. For all things will be knowable to all people.
In the meantime, we need amphoras to wield the knowledge and power we hold. To protect, preserve, and exalt this world, and all the creatures in it. There are many wicked beings and many wicked people who work to do otherwise.
All people are capable of being wicked. Maybe you should grant your powers to more worthy creatures. Dogs, dogs are good.
The black lion spoke. His words were quiet but strong. There are people in this world worth saving.
Zoe took a deep breath, a calm breath. The more she read, the calmer her back felt, and not just her back. Her fever had subsided considerably. Her restless anxiety, while still present, was held at bay. It was not the lion and the serpent that were having that effect, as she had first thought. It was her own self. Her thoughts. Her feelings. As she read, she tried to figure out what to make of it. It was no hallucination. Or if it was, then her whole world was a hallucination. She felt the cool metal of a sword on the bare skin of her back. Not an actual sword, a metaphorical sword. She tasted the bitter bite of venom on her tongue, but not actual venom. Figurative venom. There were powers within her.
Power is unpredictable and delicate. Power comes and goes. Strength endures. And strength is needed to harness and guide power. Her aunt taught her that.
One way or another, the powers that she held were coming out. She wanted them out. She had thought the only way was to transfer them to another. It was funny how as her pain waned, her curiosity waxed. Her focus returned. Her memories stirred. As well did her irritation. Why would something so intriguing happen with her legacy on the eve of her having to pass it on?
When the knock came at the door, Zoe’s heartbeat quickened. She was engrossed in the dialogue between herself and her “pragmata agnosto.” For a moment, she feared she had lost track of time and it was the priestess come to do the transfer. But when Zoe opened the door, she was greeted by her aunt and a friend.
The young terrier squirmed in Sophia’s grasp, and when Zoe reached for him, he gladly jumped into her arms and started licking her face. Zoe laughed. Her eyes filled with tears. She hadn’t realized how much she had missed him.
Sophia stepped inside and closed the door. She peered at Zoe. “Are you awake?” she asked.
Zoe frowned. She knew her aunt meant something other than the obvious, but Sophia did not clarify.
“You’ve seen it, haven’t you?” her aunt said. “Or them?”
Zoe was certain those questions referred to her tattoo. She narrowed her eyes. “You told me it wouldn’t hurt.”
Sophia raised her brows and pointed at her. “When you received it. I never said anything about when you would release it.”
“Is that what it will take? To be rid of the pain?”
Sophia nodded. “You have to let the legacy go. Either you transfer it to someone else, or…”
Sophia smiled. It was knowing and serious smile. This time, Zoe shared that smile.
Copyright © 2017. Story by Nila L. Patel. Artwork: “Living Amphora” by Sanjay Patel.