“Some of the tunnels in other regions have been closed. Some even filled in. We’re lucky that the ones in our region have not.”
“The magic shoring up these walls is ancient, Gramps. Are you sure it’s safe for us to be down here?”
“You’re the one who wanted me to bring you,” my grandfather said. “Anyway, I thought young eyes would be sharper.” My grandfather banged his fist against a seam of enchantment. It glowed a bright turquoise in response. New magic. The afterglow softened to a whisper of pink that signified the ancient magic that I had just doubted.
My young eyes traveled up to the low arched ceiling of the tunnel, the transparent ceiling past which I saw nothing but darkness, and the occasional shadow flitting by, belonging to the strange and hardy creatures that somehow lived at the bottom of the deepest ocean.
My grandfather punched another seam to emphasize his point. “This tunnel is like your curiosity. It won’t collapse on its own.”
“If the tunnels aren’t dangerous, why would anyone close them on purpose?”
“I didn’t say they weren’t dangerous.”
I nodded. Of course. Knowledge was dangerous. And knowledge was what we would find at the end of this tunnel. But much of that knowledge—maybe all of it—had been copied over to archives and libraries at the surface.
My grandfather cleared his throat. “Did I ever tell you the story about the war god?”
“War god?” The hairs on my arm prickled.
The two words didn’t make sense together.
“In ancient times,” he said, “when people couldn’t make sense of why their so-called leaders would chose to wage war, they convinced themselves that such bloodlust wasn’t natural to humankind, that it must have been some infection of the spirit. The story arose of a god different from all the others. While the other gods built the world, sacrificing themselves to do so, there arose a god who did not want to sacrifice himself. This was understandable. Many feared death and what would come after. Many feared that nothing would come after death. So this god was told to live as long as he wanted and to relish his life so that when it was time for his sacrifice, he would be ready.”
My grandfather had a habit of picking the most inopportune times to tell the best stories. This was one I’d never heard before. I tried to swallow my anxieties about the soundness of the tunnel walls and quiet the excitement simmering underneath those anxieties. Already I had questions, but I stayed silent, silent as a serpent.
And I listened to my grandfather’s story.
One by one the other gods died, till only two were left. The god who feared death. And the god who feared ignorance. The god who feared ignorance had lived as long as she could so that she could fill her mind with knowledge that she had gathered and memories she had experienced. At last, though still reluctant, she was ready. She tried to convince her fellow god to sacrifice himself with her so that neither would be alone in death. But the god who feared death said that he was not ready. He confessed that he did not think he ever would be, for he loved life and wished to keep living.
The god of knowledge was worried about this confession. She tried to explain why they—like all living beings—must die. She tried to explain why they were fortunate to have the choice of when and how they would die, and to make their sacrifices purposeful. Most mortals did not know when the moment of their death would come. But like the gods, they too knew that they must descend so that those who came after could rise.
But the god who feared death would not hear her arguments. He knew all of them, he said. And he rejected them. He asked what harm there could be if only one of the gods remained alive. He noted that instead of sacrificing himself to build the final pieces of the mortal world, he could remain alive and guide that mortal world, for it was still young, and younger still were the creatures living within it. His arguments were impassioned. And the god of knowledge allowed them, though she did not agree. She waited until he calmed before she made again her own plea. The gods were not like mortal creatures. Death would not come seeking the gods. Nature had made it so. The gods were to seek death, just as they had sought birth.
The last two gods argued for a long time. Generations of humankind came and went. The gods remained hidden. But one day, as they observed humankind with affection and wonder, the god who feared death expressed a desire to show himself to them. The god of knowledge admitted that they were blessed to have seen the rise of humankind, for they would not have done so if they had sacrificed themselves by then. But she did not concede that they should continue living. She knew that humankind would never rise as far as they could with the spirits of two living gods weighing down their own spirits.
One day, the god of knowledge could abide no longer. She saw that humankind was already faltering, because she was hoarding the knowledge that they were seeking and somehow unable to find. It was as if they were trying to grow crops on rocky soil, knowing that those crops would not grow, but having no richer soil to work with. She declared that it was time for the last two gods to die and leave the world to all those who would come after. But the god who feared death still resisted. He argued that the god of knowledge too feared death, and that was the real reason she lingered. She announced that she would make preparations and that he must do any last things he wanted to do.
The god who feared death pretended to agree so that he might flee. But there was no place he might hide that the god of knowledge would not find him. When he came across a human man, he approached in desperation, not believing what the god of knowledge told him, that mortal beings were so fragile that a single touch from a god could easily kill them. The god who feared death discovered the truth for himself when he killed the mortal man by mistake. The god who feared death was repulsed and terrified to be so close to death. And yet, he was not taken by death. A thought occurred to him. That he might lure and capture death, and hold death hostage. That way he need not ever fear dying. And he need not fear mistakenly killing mortals.
Believing that his fellow god would approve of this plan, he shared it with her, only to have her explain that even if it worked, it would come at the cost of harming others.
The god who feared death fell into a rage. Still gripped by the taste of killing—though he had done it by accident—he struck out at his fellow god, crying that if she wanted death, he would grant it to her. He dealt her a fatal blow, and immediately realizing what he’d done, he fled.
The god of knowledge faced a fearful death, sudden and violent, where it should have been peaceful and gentle. Though she suffered pain, she staved off death long enough to make her sacrifice. Her being wracked with pain, she released her knowledge back into the world in spasms, scattering it throughout the mortal realm. Her body would return to the earth, but with her blood, and one part of her knowledge, she created something she had not expected to create before she died, a child.
She dragged herself to the waters. Her fellow god had already killed her. And she understood what that meant far better than he did. Into the waters she birthed her child, a serpent whose glittering scales were etched with the history of the world thus far, as observed by the god of knowledge, as related to her by others. The serpent shivered to life. He turned to see his mother and the shadowy figure standing above her, death, who stood with head bowed. Death stepped away, so that the newborn serpent, still sparkling with the opposite force of life, could approach his mother. He lapped up the tears she shed. So he lapped up her fear and sorrow, and her unexpected joy upon seeing him, and the peace she felt upon the threshold of the afterlife. She said no words, but only placed her hand on his head in blessing. And as death approached her, the serpent did not linger. He turned and dove as deep into the waters as he could.
The god who feared death began to fear other things as well. He feared that another might do to him what he had done to the god of knowledge. He feared that others might learn of what he had done and denounce him. He feared that he was now alone and would forever be alone. With all the gods gone, the only others who might be his companions were humankind. He showed himself to them, and showed them his power to ensure that they would not dare betray him. He tried to teach them and to guide them. And some of them heeded his lessons. And some of them began to covet his power and his seeming immortality.
Humankind was clever and they found a way to touch the god and capture him. The god who feared death, even though he knew death would not seek him, was surprised to find that death came for him. The mortal humans who wanted to steal his power, power that he had been meant to sacrifice and give willingly, found a way to subdue and then kill him. But then, they did worse. They resurrected him as a creature of their own making, and they gave him the name of their most terrible invention, war.
War devastated the mortal world. He soon found that he did not have to join his armies. As they fought, they fed his corrupted spirit. Every conquest won him more and more power, and yet he hungered still. What he could not feed upon, he destroyed.
The god of war still feared death, and swore he would never again meet death. He would keep death away, appease death, and achieve his own vengeance by delivering hordes of sacrifices, beginning with those who had dared to kill him and steal his powers. He stole most of those powers back with great ease. Even his fears began to ease.
It was not known by the war god at the time, but there was a witness to his crime.
There was a witness to the birth of the serpent. A young woman, who went and reported what she had seen to her elders. She was not believed. She was young. And to speak so of the gods, whose sole purpose had been to build the world and die, was abhorrent. Though she was dismayed, driven out of her native region for her blasphemy, she was not dissuaded from believing what she knew she had perceived with her own senses.
She went searching for the serpent, believing that the god who made him had meant for him to help humankind. She started by the shore where she had seen him being born. She searched the shore, waded into the shallows. Finding nothing, she dove deeper. But she was not a skilled swimmer and the ocean currents scared her. She feared being dragged under and drowning. She feared for her own life. And she feared for those she loved. And she feared for strangers in regions far away. All humankind was in danger, she feared, in danger from the god who was so fearful of death that he beat and killed his own fellow god.
She tried again to tell her story, in the hopes that someone would believe her and be willing to help her. She found two who did. A brother and sister who were among the last humans who still spoke the language of the birds. A sparrow had told them of a terrifying thing she witnessed while she was chasing her cousins through the sky. The moment the god who feared death approached a human man and killed the man with a single touch.
There were tales passed down in birdsong of birds landing safely on godly hands.
Perhaps the gods had forgotten how to be gentle, as humans had forgotten how to speak to the birds.
The sister had a friend who still knew how to speak to the fish, and could swim like one too.
So one became four.
The one who spoke to fish learned of the serpent’s movements. The four followed the serpent’s path as far as they could. But soon they were compelled to stop. For the serpent had dived too deep for them to follow.
They tried and tried to think of some way, some magic that might allow them to reach the serpent and seek his help. For even as they traveled, word of war spread.
People sometimes hid from war within tunnels crafted for digging out treasures in the earth.
So the idea came to the four of digging a tunnel through the waters. Such a tunnel could not be dug by ordinary tools. Such a tunnel required magic.
The four learned the magic they needed and began building the tunnel. And they taught the craft to others and passed on their story of the serpent. Some helped to build the tunnel in hopes the ocean would provide a better hiding place from war than the earth. Others were lured by the promise of seabed treasure after the four found some gold and pearls. And a few believed in the story of the serpent, and were drawn by the hope of finding the serpent, for it seemed the serpent had been created to oppose the god who feared death.
The four grew old, and still their tunnel had not reached even half the distance they would need to reach. Others took up their work and their teachings. By the time the four were in the twilight of their lives, there were none who were untouched by war. One by one, the first four serpent-seekers passed into death.
Even before they died, stories sprouted about the serpent that were at best exaggerations of the report given by the only human to have laid eyes upon him. At worst, they were dangerous rumors of a being whose might and rage would equal that of the war god, equal and then defeat.
These rumors reached the war god.
As did the news of the underwater tunnel meant to reach this supposed serpent savior.
The story he heard was of people tunneling through the waters, as they would tunnel through earth. Little by little, shoring up as they went. And their reason for tunneling was to find the resting place of a creature of legend, shy and reclusive, but very powerful. So powerful that he could now bear the weight of all the worlds waters. So powerful that he was the only force remaining in the world who might oppose the war god.
Defeated in spirit, anguished, tormented, and fallen into grief and despair, the weakest remnants of humankind had nevertheless banded together in great enough numbers to learn, practice, and even invent magic that could shift these waters enough to build a tunnel. And they meant for this tunnel to reach the serpent, so they might entreat him, beg him to make manifest his immovable and overwhelming power to protect them from war, now and forevermore.
Year after year, decade after decade, generation after generation they tunneled and they tunneled. The war god sent his followers and his underlings to destroy the tunnel, to sabotage the tunnel, to kill the tunnel’s makers and wipe away all knowledge of the magic used to build it, so that none others could resume the work. So it was destroyed, never completely, but almost so. Sometimes the tunnel remained broken for long stretches of time. And yet, a time would come again when the work would resume.
And a time came at last, when that work was complete.
Four were appointed to approach. For it was four who first began the building of the tunnel.
They saw the serpent stirring in the waters beyond the border of their tunnel. He came near to them. He observed them. He observed the tunnel. As they watched, a portion of the tunnel expanded, growing wider and taller, bringing the serpent into the damp air. He towered far above their heads, but shrank himself so that he soon was only a few times the height of the tallest among them. He shook the water off his iridescent scales.
He said nothing. So the four approached with their offerings of fruit and fish, of gold and pearls, of magic and metal, none of which stirred the serpent.
Then, each of the four brought a gift of their own choosing. A glowing pink beam like the ones that held their tunnel in place, a bound volume that chronicled the building of the tunnel, a letter transcribed from the oral account of the young woman who had witnessed the serpent’s birth, and blank sheets on which could be written any requests the serpent might make of them.
The serpent lowered his head and flicked his tongue over these last gifts, his reptilian gaze gleaming with the blues of surface waters.
The one among them who was chosen to speak first, bowed low and spoke the words of entreaty.
When the serpent made no response, they all spoke in turn.
“Time and again, my ancestors have risen up against war, Lord Serpent,” the first said, “and their courage has granted gains for me and my peers. But…in the end, we are always crushed.”
“The victories—when we have them—are small, and when they are not small, they are fragile,” said the second of four.
“We are always in danger of losing ground we have gained,” said the third. “We tire in our vigilance. Some choose to return to ignorance. And I would have blamed them once. But I do not blame them now.”
“Help us,” the fourth of four said, who had fought in war, and believed that humankind would fall if war did not fall first. “Fight the war god for us. We don’t seek to torment him as he has done to so many. We only seek to send him to the end of his natural journey, to death. We beg of you.”
At last, the serpent reared up his head and he spoke in a soft, clear voice.
“That is not my purpose.”
“Whatever your purpose is,” said the fourth, “you can return to it after the war god is gone. We all can.”
“To succeed in the purpose you set for me,” the serpent said, “I would have to bite the war god.”
“Surely, that is a sacrifice you have the strength to make,” the first said. “We have all given of our minds, bodies, hearts, and spirits to the making of this tunnel, forfeiting other purposes. We have persevered through fear and torment. We would not have dared to disturb your days if our cause was not dire.”
The serpent lowered his head and explained. “If I taste blood, I will want more. With each drop I drink, I will grow weaker. I will no longer have the might to defeat the god who fears death. He will drive his blade between my eyes, straight into the flesh of my brain, severing the spark that animates my mind. I will fall to his feet, never to rise again.”
“How do you know?” the first asked.
“I can read the currents of what has come before, and follow them to see what will come to pass.”
The fourth made a fist. “Then strike hard and quickly, so quickly that you can kill him before he kills you.”
“That is possible, yes,” the serpent said. “But to destroy him, I would have to swallow him. And then I would become him.”
The third peered at the serpent. “You say you can read the currents of what has come before, and follow them to see what will come to pass. Can you teach us to do the same? If we can predict the future, we would have an advantage against the war god.”
“I can,” the serpent said, “but I need not.”
The serpent bent his head toward the last four gifts he was given. “You already know how.”
My grandfather stopped speaking, and I waited a while, expecting that he was stealing himself for a spectacular end to his tale.
When I realized that he had already finished the story he meant to tell, I ventured to ask what happened next.
“You know the rest,” he said, with a dismissive flick of his hand.
“I…don’t believe that I do, Gramps.”
“Well, what do you imagine happened? All those generations of people who painstakingly drew from the deepest wells of their brilliance for the magic to hold back oceans of water, who dug that tunnel inch by inch until they reached the bottom of the sea, did their descendants accept that the savior they sought simply refused to do what they desperately needed him to do?”
“I would think not.”
“Then you would think correctly.”
“They kept trying, didn’t they?”
“More gifts, bribes, negotiations, cajoling, even threats once they realized that the serpent would not be eating them.” My grandfather drew in a deep breath, letting it seep from his nose. “And then there were the war god’s minions. He sent them into the tunnel to discover some way to destroy the serpent.”
I hung my head. My grandfather was right about my knowing this part of the story.
When I was small, he was the one who first told me of a great serpent who guarded the lost histories of our world in a great library that was sunk to the bottom of the sea to protect it from the destruction that so many great libraries of the world had suffered. The knowledge lost was not as dear as the lives lost. But it was still dear enough to be worth the efforts made to save it. That library was full of lost history, a history that revealed more victories for kindness and peace and sweeter rewards for those who practiced compassion than the fractured and contrived histories that conquerors had passed down.
The serpent swam around the world, collecting true stories to add to the library. But one day, he disappeared and was never seen again.
I raised my head and peered ahead at the tunnel. In the distance, I saw its end. We would reach it soon. “This tale you’ve just spun…is it just story, or is it history?”
The lights that glowed at tunnel’s end cast amber sparks in my grandfather’s brown eyes.
“Would it make a difference to you to know?” he asked.
Conquerors had always held great power. Destruction was easier than construction. Decimation quicker than incubation. Death was final. It had always been a wonder to me that the forces of creation and peace ever managed to survive.
I frowned. “If that war god is still around…”
“The war god is long gone. Once he was weakened, he was cut down, his powers—some of them at least—stolen again.”
“I can’t say mourn him,” I said. “And I can’t say that I am surprised our people still make war even without his influence.”
“That we do.”
“But I am sorry for the serpent. To have been born out of death and violence.”
My grandfather gave a thoughtful grunt. “From what he’s told me, the gods were not like us. They could not have children and continue to live themselves. So the serpent would never have known his parent either way.”
My legs carried me forward a few steps, as did my mind, before I caught what my grandfather had just said. And then I stopped. He turned around.
I peered at him. “From what he’s told you?”
“Sharpen those young eyes,” my grandfather said, reaching out to pat my shoulder. With his other hand, he gestured to the arched stone door that we were approaching at the end of the tunnel. “And behold.”
A relief was chiseled on the door’s surface, a symbolic depiction of a great sea serpent in profile, rearing up over coils that were twice as tall as the human figures standing before it, making offerings. The offerings were not of rich food or treasures. They were offerings of scrolls, tablets, bound books, and broken tools.
The unlocked door led into an antechamber that was considerably drier than the damp tunnel. More so, that feeling I’d had, that sense that all the seas and oceans of the world were bearing down on us, it gave way to a lightness in the air that was parallel to but not the same as being on dry land.
The antechamber was lit with soft yellow and green light that revealed more reliefs carved upon the walls. As I gazed around the chamber, I realized they were all part of one relief, and all carved into a many-colored stone that reminded me of a geode. A serpent, twining around the room. The stones were carved into huge glittering scales that were inscribed, like tablets, with script of many different languages, none of which I recognized completely, though some did seem familiar. Again, there were human figures standing below the serpent, making offerings of knowledge. The serpent’s gleaming red tongue flickered over a pile of scrolls. But the humans were not just making offerings. They were receiving knowledge too. In a few places, human figures carved from obsidian were perched over a particular scale. I examined one. The scroll in the human’s hand was inscribed with the same script as the scale she was looking at. She was a scribe, and she was copying the scale.
He’s a living archive.
My gut dropped. I understood now why my grandfather had used what I thought was just fanciful phrasing in the telling of his tale, “a serpent whose glittering scales were etched with the history of the world.” I understood now that mischievous twinkle my grandfather had had in his eye when we first entered the tunnel. The twinkle that vanished when he told the story of the war god who feared death, but had reignited when we first spotted the stone door at tunnel’s end. The conflicting flutters of restless fear and hesitant hope grew still. With a calm curiosity, I watched my grandfather reach for the door beyond the antechamber. I sharpened my young eyes and braced myself. My cheeks began to rise with a smile.
The serpent was the library. And the library still lived.
Copyright © 2022 Nila L. Patel