Three spheres comprised the world. The waters, the earth, and the skies. Upon first glance, it would seem that every creature lived in its own sphere. The creatures of the waters lived in the waters. The creatures of the earth lived upon or beneath the earth. But the world was not so sharply divided. And one of the spheres was not truly inhabited by any creatures.
The creatures of the skies did not live in the skies. They soared and fluttered, sometimes for long stretches of time, but a time would come when they need descend and perch.
Some creatures lived where these spheres meet. Some creatures lived part of their lives in one sphere and part in another.
Once, in a long-forgotten age, every creature could live in every sphere.
This was so because of an energy, a force that spun around and through the world.
The elephants called it “ethereum.”
The owls called it “magic.”
As every creature could live in every sphere, they also shared a common tongue. They had their separate tongues (some even had many), but there existed a language that all could speak and understand. Ethereum made it so, flowing through the utterances and through the minds of each creature.
But each creature also perceived and learned and abided in the world through their physical bodies, mastering different skills according to their talents and efforts. So it was that the spiders learned to make and weave silk. So it was that the canaries learned to sing.
All was well, until some of the creatures began to feel a strange and unpleasant sensation, one that no creature had ever felt before. A hollowing sensation that weakened them.
All creatures know the sensation now.
These creatures found that they could restore the energy that was sapped within them by consuming the living but inanimate beings found only on the land and in the seas, the plants. And so, these creatures came to live in those spheres.
Never before had any creature needed to consume another living being to sustain themselves. The ethereum had sustained them.
It was the smaller creatures at first, the mice, the hares, who succumbed to this seeming curse of hunger. Curiously, the smallest of creatures, the insects, were spared. But soon, larger creatures followed, the gazelles and the zebras. Their forms seemed to grow too heavy for their wings to lift. So they could not return to the skies. In time, they sacrificed their wings, using the matter and magic within to shift their forms into ones best suited for living upon the land.
This new state of nature troubled some of the wisest of the creatures.
And so, the elephants observed and studied the plant-eating creatures.
And the owls pondered on what may have caused this new sensation of hunger.
They observed that ethereum was withdrawing from the bodies of the creatures, leaving them to feel this hunger. But they did not know how or why such a thing was happening.
And they did not know that an even more troubling change was to come.
For some of the creatures, their hunger could not be sated by eating plants.
One day, in a fit of desperate rage, one of these creatures, a lion, fell upon a gazelle. Before any creature could stop the lion from doing so, the lion began to consume the gazelle. The lion’s hunger was at last sated.
These fed-upon creatures came to be known as “prey.” Hunted by those who had once lived in harmony with them, the prey had no recourse but to break with that harmony, to flee, to gather and move in herds, to change the colors of their furs, all the better to hide.
But those who hunted them, called “predators,” had no choice but to keep hunting and keep consuming those whom they had once deemed their equals, once deemed friends. For if they did not hunt, kill, and consume, they would perish.
The seas and the lands became rife with predator and prey.
Only the skies remained untainted by the curse of hunger.
Greatly disturbed were the wisest of the creatures, the elephants and the owls. For they had not yet discovered the source of the curse.
As they pondered and they studied, more creatures were struck with hunger, and left with no choice but to descend from the skies.
Only in the skies did all remain well…until the first fish fell.
All the creatures who did not yet feel hunger feared that it was only a matter of time, unless the owls and the elephants discovered the source of the curse and devised some way to stop it.
So fixed were their fears upon the curse of hunger that did not anticipate another curse would soon strike.
The marlins, the tuna, the cod, and the catfish all began to gasp one day as if the air of the skies was too rare for them to breathe. The fish descended to land, but continued to gasp. So they all plunged into the waters, hoping to find relief. And they did. The fish could breathe under the water, but if they tried again to rise into the air, they again began to gasp.
In time, this new curse struck more of the creatures who had learned best the skills of diving and swimming and abiding in the waters. Some of the creatures choose to descend even if they were not struck by the curse, in hopes of avoiding suffering. These were the whales and the porpoises and their kin. Their willing descent had a strange effect on them, for they needed to abide in the water, but they also need to breathe air.
All of these water-dwellers still retained the power of flight, the power to rise into the air. And yet, none ever could again, lest they perish from suffocation.
The elephants and the owls observed that the ethereum was withdrawing from the bodies of the water-dwellers as well, leaving them unable to tolerate the air.
Still, they could not discern why or how such a thing was happening.
The wisest of the creatures convened a council to discuss the two curses that had befallen their world. They met where all spheres overlapped.
All creatures were invited. But some, like the cats, sent no envoys. Others were present, but were inattentive to the proceedings.
“A catastrophe is upon us, and all you can do is frolick!” the whale ambassador said to the monkey emissary.
“What else is there left for us to do?”
The owl envoy hooted. “We must investigate. We may be able to find the cause. And if we can find the cause, we might devise a solution.”
“And if we can’t?” said the wolf chief. “We will have wasted time struggling when we could be—“
The turtle envoy tried to bring the council to order, so that those who had news to report could speak. But though there were some who had observed and pondered the cause and the origin of the curses and how they affected the creatures who succumbed to them, still nothing was known.
“Your wisdom has not served,” the monkey emissary said to the elephants and the owls.
The elephant elder nodded her massive head. “That is because we have not served our wisdom.”
The elephants and the owls had realized that they must be present in all spheres and share their observations if they were to learn what was truly happening. They were joined by the turtles, who offered their own wisdom. And together they made a plan.
The turtles would descend to the waters. The elephants would descend to the land. And the owls would remain in the skies.
“And while you continue to observe and ponder,” said the spider ambassador, “what shall the rest of us do, but suffer the curses? Perhaps the monkeys are right. If this is to be the end of our world, we should be using this council to plan a festive end.”
“Magic,” said the serpent sovereign, holding out her scaly hands. “We are avoiding the mention of it. But both curses have something in common. They drain its sufferers of magic. Every creature who has been forced to descend has also been forced to sacrifice their wings, in one form or another. They can never return to the skies. What further sacrifices would you wise ones have us make?”
“None if you don’t wish it,” the owl envoy said, his head pivoting around the room as he cast a fierce gaze upon all the creatures present. “Go and frolic, if you will it, while those of us who seek to live and thrive seek the solution to the problem we all share.”
With that the council was convened. But some of the creatures lingered.
“Perhaps we should aid the wise ones in their work,” the wolf chief said.
The spider ambassador rose on eight wings. “What can we do that the wise ones cannot do?”
The serpent sovereign tapped a long finger on her thin chin. “We can remain ready. We can comfort those who suffer under the curses.”
“We do not suffer,” said the whale ambassador. “And we are none the lesser for having sacrificed our wings, for we no longer had use of them.”
The serpent bowed her head. “Of course, forgive me, Ambassador. I meant no disrespect. But I must admit, the thought of being drained of my ethereum terrifies me.”
Water burst from the whale ambassador’s blowhole. “With that, I agree.”
“More curses may be coming,” the gorilla envoy said. “Far worse than those that have already struck.”
The others turned and cast dubious gazes at the gorilla, who sat some ways apart.
“Do you not wish to go frolic?” the spider ambassador asked.
The gorilla frowned. “Why do you ask me that?”
The wolf chief smirked. “A monkey’s cousin might have a monkey’s mind.”
“Does a cat’s cousin have a cat’s mind?” the gorilla retorted.
The spider looked at the wolf. “I didn’t know the cats were your cousins.”
“I have more than one cousin, my honorable friends,” the gorilla said. “I might convince the other apes, and even the humans, to be ready to help the wise ones when the time comes.”
“Let us hope that time does not come,” said the serpent sovereign. “Let us hope our wise ones find that there are no more curses to come.”
Only days later, the wise ones convened another council, for they had discovered at last the source of the curses.
“Our sacrifice has not been for naught,” the elephant elder said, her gaze shifting momentarily to her side, where once her majestic wings had rested. She had surrendered them so that she could use their magic to transform her body. “There is much which my senses did not perceive until I fully became a creature of the land.”
“The same is true for me,” the turtle envoy said, “until I fully became a creature of the waters.”
Together, the elephant, the turtle, and the owl had discovered that a crack had formed in the foundation of their world, a crack through which ethereum—through which magic—was seeping away. From what they could gather, the crack was not purposely wrought. But how it occurred, they could only suspect. The turtle saw signs of their world having been struck by something.
“Indeed, it might have happened before,” the turtle said. “And this previous occurrence may have led to the end of an entire group of creatures who preceded those of us who now abide in the world.”
The elephant nodded. “We too have found evidence of such on the land…the bones of these ancient creatures are still buried deep in the earth.” She glanced at the whale, who was the largest of the creatures in the world. “My friend, these ancient creatures were much, much bigger than you.”
“I flew up as high as I could,” the owl said. “And I was able to map the course of an object from the heavens, small, but immensely dense. It struck somewhere in the seas.”
“We have found this crack” the turtle said. “We now hope to find some way to seal it.”
“Could we recover the ethereum that has already been lost?” the zebra ambassador asked. The zebras had been absent from the first council, deeming it futile, but they had been convinced by the wolves to attend the second.
“That we do not know,” said the owl.
“What if we cannot seal this crack?” asked the wolf chief. “What then?”
“Perhaps we should try to find some way to contain the ethereum that remains in our world, to keep it safe,” said the zebra. “Can we lock whatever remains within ourselves?”
“That’s not how magic works,” said the owl. “It’s like air. You can’t keep it contained within yourself. At some point, you have to release the breath you hold and take another.”
“And what if you are unable to take another breath?” the tuna ambassador asked.
“There is no reason we should only have a single plan,” the serpent sovereign suggested. “Let us make as many as we can. Many of us are ready to aid you in your efforts, wise ones.”
And so, all the creatures who chose to work went to work.
They first tried to seal the crack by covering it with massive rocks. But that plan failed. Ethereum was not like water, or even air. The tightest seal of rock against rock would not block its flowing, for it flowed right through the rock.
Even if they had been able to seal the crack with rock, the seal would not have held for long, for the crack was growing. As it did, ethereum seeped away more quickly.
More and more creatures realized how dire their condition had become, and they joined the effort to labor against their imminent end.
The wise ones sought a way to repair the crack. The serpents cast spells. The crabs wrapped the edges in enchanted seaweed. But all efforts were futile. They sought some way to divert the flow of ethereum, but that too failed, for the very reason that trying to seal the crack failed. Ethereum passed through everything.
So though they feared it could not be done, the wise ones shifted their efforts to doing as the zebra ambassador had suggested, containing the remaining ethereum in the world.
One day, a contingent of squids rose from the waters. They had not yet been cursed, and so still retained their powers of flight. They swooped over the place where the leaders of the owls, the elephants, and the turtles were meeting to share news of their world.
“Wise ones, we believe we have found the answer,” the squid sovereign said.
“To seal the crack? Better yet, to heal it?”
“Neither, wise ones, that crack is a part of our natural order now,” the squid said. “But we have found a way to retain our ethereum, even to learn how to generate more. It is in accordance with the new natural order that it should be so.”
The turtle envoy bobbed his head. “How?”
The squid sovereign waved his tentacles in the air.
The elephant elder stepped forward. She peered at the squid and raised her trunk toward him. “Speak, sovereign. Speak your knowledge. We are listening.”
All the other squids began to wave their tentacles.
“Why does he not speak?” the turtle asked.
The owl flew high up into the air and then descended back to the earth. “It is as I feared. The porpoises keeping watch over the crack are signaling that it has grown again. Ethereum is draining too quickly.”
“Then this is another curse,” the elephant said, gazing at the squids. “A curse of silence?”
Even as they watched, the squids grew frantic. But then they grew still. They turned their heads toward the waters, and as they plunged back into the sea, their wings vanished.
The wise ones soon discovered that a third curse had indeed struck the creatures of the world. But it was not a curse of silence.
The wolf and the serpent reported that they were no longer able to speak with the ants or the bees.
The whales and the starfish and the other creatures of the sea had tried, in vain, to speak with the squids. They could see that the squids too tried, for they surrendered their bodies, and all but eight of their limbs in a vain effort to convert their forms into ethereum, and speak in the common tongue, if only for a few moments. But the ethereum drained away too quickly from them. And none could understand them.
The owl lamented. “If we lose our ability to speak to each other, then all is lost! There is no one of us who can save all of us.”
“Language is the domain of the humans,” the elephant said. “Perhaps they can help us.”
“We cannot rely on them,” the turtle said. “They frolic with the monkeys and the cats.”
The elephant stomped her foot in frustration. “Then send for the gorilla. He may convince them to aid us…if it is not too late.”
“And we must send for the serpent,” the turtle said. “If the serpents have not yet completed their spell for containing ethereum, we must inform them that they have run out of time.”
“Then we may as well send for the wolf,” said the owl. “He might convince some of the cats to help us. We are in our last hours, friends, and last hours are desperate hours.”
All the creatures who were recruited answered the summons. Even the monkeys.
“Perhaps it is not too late for us to do noble deeds,” the monkey emissary said to the wise ones, “despite the mischief and wickedness in our natures.”
“All aid is welcome,” said the elephant.
And it was well that the monkeys had come, for without the ants and the bees, the monkeys’ nimble fingers were needed to build the construct that would contain ethereum. That very construct would also contain the common language and the history of all the creatures, and the catastrophe that struck them. The monkeys peeled sheets of bark from a tree whose bark never crumbled or decayed over time. With the help of the spiders, they wove the bark together in a sheet so vast, it could have wrapped around the greatest of the whales. They lay it out upon a beach where the three spheres met.
Many creatures, including the silent squids, provided the ink that the humans used to write upon the sheet, according to the dictates of the owls. As they wrote, the serpents cast a spell extracting the ethereum from all the creatures of the world, and they poured it into the sheet.
Every hour, more and more creatures lost their ability to speak the common tongue and wandered away from the beach. So the cats learned the serpents’ spell, and being quick and nimble, they dashed out into the world, and cast it upon all the creatures who could not find their way to the beach.
The spell, to the wonder and relief of all, appeared to be working.
But then, the humans began to lose their ability to speak the common tongue. They realized that they must surrender their wings, and use the ethereum contained within to retain the common tongue. It was futile, for surely the ethereum would be drained away, as it was when the squids attempted the same sacrifice.
But when all human wings were spent, the apes and the monkeys surrendered their own wings and using the serpent’s spell, they poured their ethereum into the human scribes.
Then the serpents too began to lose the common tongue.
“Much wisdom will be lost,” the owl said in fear. “But the scribes and the spell-casters are faltering. We must give them only our best while we still can.”
So they did, and the vast sheet now filled with wisdom and magic grew light as air. The apes and the elephants and the wolves did their best to hold it down. And even as they did, they lost the common tongue, and they forgot their purpose. The scribes stopped writing, for they too forgot their purpose.
The serpents and the worms and the eels gave up even their very limbs, resolving to burrow and slither upon the earth and through the waters, for a few final seconds, to pour ethereum into the sheet as it floated up and was caught in a breeze.
“We are too late,” the elephant said, trying and failing to catch the sheet.
But the owl did not hear the elephant’s speech. He only heard her trumpeting.
We are too late, the owl thought.
The owl spoke his thought, but the elephant did not hear the owl’s speech. She heard only his hooting.
All remaining ethereum that was not contained in the enchanted bark sheet drained away. And magic left the world.
All the creatures of the world were now fractured into their separate spheres. So too was their memory and knowledge and wisdom fractured. Only the elephants remembered that the enchanted sheet existed. Only the serpents knew the spell that could unlock the sheet’s ethereum. Only the humans could read the sheet. Only the squids knew how to restore ethereum to the world.
But all was not lost.
That enchanted bark sheet, grown lighter than air from the magic contained within, still floated high in the skies. And while there were no creatures left in the world who inhabited the sphere of the skies, there were still those who could reach that sphere.
There were still creatures in the world who were wise, curious, industrious.
And of course, mischievous.
These were the qualities that made the enchanted sheet.
Perhaps the same qualities—even in the absence of a common tongue and a common purpose—would one day recover what was lost.
Copyright © 2021 Nila L. Patel