Vault of the Fortunate Heir

Digital painting. Perched on a branch that extends horizontally at the bottom is an earthworm in front of a gecko in front of a crow. The worm has raised the upper half of the body, rearing like a snake. The leaf-tailed gecko, seen from left side, has coloring and pattern that matches the tree branch. The crow’s head is turned to the right. Behind them is a wall of stone. Bright mist lays beneath the branch.

The canary sang to the high stone wall, as if it were the maiden-bird he’d been courting.  She perched nearby, of course, hoping that his golden voice would loosen the locks to a vault full of golden treasure.

One of the most prosperous beasts in the world had died, an heir to a vast and uncounted fortune.  News spread that he had a vault that could be opened by a single magical utterance.  The utterance was known, but the magic was in how it was uttered.  No one knew how it must be done.  So all were welcomed to try.

So it was that the beasts of the world made their way to the vault of the fortunate heir.

***

They formed a line, these many beasts.  The ones who heard the news first were the first in line.  And first of all among these were those who were already given bequests—family and friends of the deceased.  They all failed to open the vault, and when they did, some shrugged their shoulders and rested upon the portion of the fortune they were granted.  But some plotted and schemed for some way to cheat at the game, to break into the vault.  For what they were given was not enough, not enough by far if there were riches still behind the thick stone walls of the great vault that was set within a tall mountain, whose peak surpassed the very clouds.

The other beasts began to speak about the deceased and his vault.  They spoke of the qualities and merits of the beast who had amassed such a grand treasure.  And they wondered what wonders must lie within the vault.

THE FORTUNATE HEIR AND HIS TREASURE

What manner of beast was the deceased?  The birds claimed it was a great bird, a majestic raptor, surely, or an enchanting songbird.  The cats claimed it must have been a cat, keen of eye and sharp of claw.  The beast had been seen flying, it was true, but the cats said it was because he had tamed a raptor to be his mount, not because he was himself a raptor.  The lizards claimed the deceased beast was one of their mighty forebears, a dragon.

And this caused quite a ripple of reactions down the line, for dragons were rare, and little was known of them.  But it was commonly known that dragons collected great treasure.

As for his treasure, it must have been very precious indeed.  A pair of squirrels were mocked when they claimed it must be a great stash of nuts.  If it was a dragon, then the treasure was surely of gold and jewels.  While such a treasure would do little good for most of the beasts in the line, many an eye gleamed and many a heart thrummed at the prospect of mountains of gold within the mountain of stone, and little rubies, emeralds, and sapphires spilled across the floor, as numerous as pebbles on a path.

THE WAY INTO THE VAULT

From the beginning, there were those who sought honest ways into the vault.  The magical utterance.  Surely, there was some way to discover or to reason out the proper cadence, tone, timbre, or pronunciation that would transform a simple utterance into a key.

A key that would open the vault to the greatest treasure in the world.

From the beginning, trickery was suspected.

For why would the heir and master of such a vast fortune leave that fortune behind?  Why would he not make preparations to carry it forth with him into the life that came after?  Why would he lay a challenge for other beasts, when he would not be there to witness the spectacle of the contest he had devised? 

In life, he kept company only with his fellows.  Would he not have only cared what they would think of him?  Was the challenge meant for their amusement?   Did he mean to impress them, his fellows, the other fortuned and fortunate beasts?

If that were so, then perhaps he could not be expected to play fair.

For this reason, many beasts argued that they too need not play fair.

Perhaps, some said, the vault was empty.

Driven by such talk, some beasts tried to cheat their way into the vault.  Even as rat, and elk, and butterfly uttered the magical utterance, failed, and left the line.  Even as carp and catfish carved a stream beside the line of beasts, so that the fish could have their turns.

Some of the beasts tried with brute strength, ramming the stone walls with thick horns or thick muscle.  Some tried with cleverness, spying for cracks or openings with sharp eyes or deliberate fingers.  Some tried tricks of chance, whispering the magical utterance at different spots in the wall.

Some beasts, having tried their turn at the vault, decided that there was still fortune to be gained outside of the vault.  They sold their knowledge to their fellow beasts who were still in line.  Knowledge about which beasts had already uttered the magical utterance and failed, and what intonations and pronunciations they used.  Some of the knowledge was true and collected honestly.  Some was false.  Some invented altogether, like knowledge of tricks for moving up the line.

THE CROW WHO CAUTIONS

There was one, a crow, who would fly up and down the line, cawing her caution to the beasts who stood there. 

“Those who say there is nothing inside are right,” the crow would cry.  “The beast did not even build this vault himself.  He was the fortunate heir of fortunate fathers.”

Sometimes she was ignored.  Sometimes she was rebuffed. 

“No vault need be locked if it’s empty,” a fellow crow once replied.  “And now the fortune is now ours for the taking.”

“You waste precious moments in the line,” the cautioning crow said.  “Leave it.  Go and make your own fortunes.”

“If such a thing were possible, would we not all have fortunes?” another beast replied, a wolf that time, standing amidst her three cubs. “Perhaps we might choose to suffer lack for ourselves.  But who would not want to grant a fortune to her heirs?”

Many a beast around her chuffed and rumbled in agreement.

“But the vault is a distraction,” the crow said.  “The world was his vault.  We are already inside it.  And we are the treasure.  It was not some noble quality that granted the deceased such fortune.  It was our labors.  Do you not see that?”

Whether they did or did not see what the crow saw, or believe what the crow believed, most of the beasts remained in the line, awaiting their chance to sing or squawk or cry or burble.

Discouraged, but undeterred, the crow rose into the air.  She flew over a snake selling oil that he claimed would lubricate the throat, all the better to utter the magical utterance.  If not that, perhaps the oil could lubricate the limbs, so that a beast might slide into a hidden crack within the stone wall, and ease through an alternate passage into the vault. 

The crow frowned.  A snake should know better, she thought.   She glimpsed several other snakes slithering toward the one, and trusted that they would stop their fellow from his folly.

She made her way further down the line, and spotted a friend, a weasel, standing below.  She landed beside him.

“Have you seen the lions trying to sell ‘roaring lessons’ to the mice?” the weasel asked.  “I wonder if our folk shouldn’t do the same.  Why should we remain honest?”

“Then join those who are trying to break into the vault,” the crow replied.

The weasel twitched his nose. “Too much risk.”

He slinked away, returning to his place in the line, held for him by his fellows, while he’d gone to forage some food for them.

As she watched him go, the crow witnessed a commotion whose cause she could not discern until she drew close and peered even closer.

THE WORM WHO WARNS

Reared up on the ground, yet still underfoot, an earthworm stood.  A young worm at the beginning of life.

“Come with me,” the worm said, addressing the beasts who stood in that part of the line, far, far from the door to the vault.  “Abandon this futile game for what is most certainly an empty treasure, no matter what lies beyond the vault doors.”

“Of course you would object,” said a little mouse, looming over the worm.  “The lowest of the low must always be envious of the great and fortunate beasts.”

“That’s right,” said a monkey.  “Whether fortunes were earned or given, it was done so by merit.  It takes little effort to stand in this line.  Yet you would balk at even this small effort.  No wonder you are so low.” 

“That’s right,” said yet another, a giraffe, lying nearby, taking rest, with his head on the ground.  “If the worms have nothing, it is because they have done nothing worthy of fortune.”

The worm listened, then crawled upon a stone that was barely a worm’s height above the ground, and responded.

“Those at the beginning of the line can make their tries, and when they fail, they can leave and seek their fortunes.  Many sell their stories to those in line behind them, some in good faith, many in bad.  Even those in the middle might have a chance, and still regain enough time to live and to work.  And even if they have no fortune to give their heirs, they might give joy and peace.  But those of us here, at the end of the line, we will surely wait our whole lives, and never have the chance to even guess, much less to gain any treasure.”

***

From not so high above, the crow observed all this, and pondered on the worm’s warning.  She wanted to speak with the worm, ask questions, but she stopped herself from flying down.  She worried that the worm would recoil from her, afraid that the crow had come to devour.  

Perhaps then, the crow thought, I should stay back, and listen further.

“You wish to speak for the worm,” a voice said, dry and crackling like a leaf, “for your caw is louder than the cry of a thousand worms.”

Startled, the crow glanced beside herself.  There sat a gecko, the very same color as the branch upon which he was perched.

THE GECKO WHO GUARDS

“Come down with me,” the gecko said.  “Let us speak with the young worm.” 

His aged limbs were still spry, and he scurried down the tree and reached the worm just as the crow landed.

“A valiant speech,” the gecko said, remaining on the ground at a distance.

But the worm seemed unafraid, climbing down from the stone.  “To which no one listens.”

The gecko curled his scaly lips into a smile.  “It is a strange and difficult burden to have the answers that everyone seeks, that everyone can hear, but that none will listen to.”

“I have no answers or solutions,” said the worm.  “What I speak, they already know.  But they fear it, I think.  More than they fear a lifetime wasted in this line for a chance so slim it is most definitely impossible.”

The crow stood further back, watching and listening, as the line moved forward beside the three.

“You would not be wrong to rejoin the line if you wish to do so,” the gecko said to the worm.  “Neither of you.”  He turned his head around to include the crow, then turned back to the worm.  “You are right, young one.  But for some, there is little else they can do.  For some, there is no treasure to be had for their labors or their thoughts.  For the wages are set by those who have narrow and particular conditions for what they deem is worthy and what is not.”

“Perhaps I will, when all is said and done,” said the worm, inching away from the line. 

“May I join you for a stroll?” asked the gecko.  “We can speak or stay silent, as we wish.”

“You may indeed!” said the worm, and added.  “Both of you.”

The crow bowed her head, and wobbled along behind them.

They were silent for a while.  Then the old lizard spoke.

The gecko observed that not all that was being sold to the beasts in the line was trickery and treachery.  There were those who left their place in line to sell food and shelter, music and beauty, and at prices that were fair, so that they themselves might live and live well enough not to fear or doubt beyond what they could bear in a single life.

Perhaps he was just trying to cheer the worm.  But the words he spoke were true.  The crow had observed it herself.

“And beasts are coming together that never gathered before,” said the gecko.  “There have been feasts and friendships formed.”

“Yes, but the recognition goes to the fortunate dead, the heir and master of the vault, though he has done nothing,” the crow lamented.  “The praise for what you speak of belongs to the beasts who have toiled for those feasts and forged those friendships, yet they do not see that the might and the worth is theirs.”

“Does it seem so to you?” the gecko asked. “Perhaps you give your fellow beasts too little credit.”

Just then, they came within earshot of some pigeons, roosting on a lower branch, cooing at intervals toward their kin, who was holding their place in the line. 

The pigeons praised the deceased beast for bringing about days of hope and celebration, after so many desolate seasons. 

The crow said nothing even after the trio passed some distance away from the pigeons.  But the gecko spoke again.

“Perhaps I give them too much.”

THREE LONELY BEASTS

“What a sight we must be, we three lonely beasts,” the gecko said. 

“Alone no more, in each other’s company at least,” the worm replied.

The crow curved her beak into a smile, as she struggled to walk as slowly as the pace of her fellow beasts required.  She aimed to stay behind them, and guard them as the sun descended, drawing down the veil of night.

She smelled a whiff of some hearty aroma, and realized she was hungry.  She wondered if the gecko was walking that way on purpose, or by unconscious instinct.

“I would churn the earth with no complaint,” said the worm, taking a turn at speaking.  “It is good and honest work.  But to only churn the earth and nothing else, that is no life for any beast.  To churn the earth and make no poetry.  To churn the earth and make no gains.  To churn the earth and watch others lie upon it, and boast of how rich and warm the earth is upon which they have dominion, yet to never speak of how the earth came to be so rich.  I struggle to bear such insults in silence.  It is not in the character of worms to be bold, they say.  So perhaps I am an aberration.  But if I am, I know of many such aberrations.”

The crow, who did have time for making poetry, though hers was not very good at all, did not know how to respond.  Once, she would have pitied the worm.  But pity was an unfit response for such a brave and spirited beast.

As she pondered what to say, they again passed close to a band of beasts who were far from the line.  These beasts must have been well-off enough to have placeholders for the whole night.

“What is so wretched about the earthworm?” said a beast with a rumbling canine voice, a wolf.

The crow frowned and the old gecko began to veer away.

But the worm whispered, “Wait.” 

Hidden in shadow, the three waited and listened.

“Indeed,” croaked a frog.  “Without them the soil would be little but rock.  We would have no grass or tree, fruit or flower.  No food.  No beauty.”

“Tell me,” trilled a starling, “does a frog eat fruits?”

There was raucous laughter then, and in that laughter, the crow discerned not just the croak of the frog and the song of the starling, but the bark of a weasel, the purring of a cat, and the hissing of an alligator.

“I like fruits,” said the weasel. 

“What else did she say, this wise auntie of yours?” the frog asked.

The cat answered.  “Only words of praise for the fortunate heir.”

“For what?”

“For feasting and fellowship.”

The wolf growled.  “Why does she praise the dead?  Did we not make this peace ourselves?  We, the living?  We, the wretched and the common?”

There were grunts, hisses, croaks, and squeaks of agreement.

“That young worm is not the only one who speaks so,” said the wolf, “only the youngest, and the smallest.  Therefore the bravest in my esteem.  And not all speak with their voices.  There is a great elephant at the head of the line.  I’ve seen him.  He has been waving his tusks to and fro, chasing away the cheaters and the charlatans, even as he speaks gently to those in line to take their turns quickly, and make way always for those who are behind them.”

The crow, the gecko, and the worm drew closer then.  They heard beasts who had been silent thus far. They heard the rustle of a snake perched among the drying autumn leaves of a low branch.  And the softly slowly flapping wings of a moth sitting on the alligator’s head.

“Some were born to be brave,” the high voice of a squirrel said.  “Some were born to cook.”

The beasts were gathered around a fire, and a squirrel stood at the middle, stirring a bubbling pot.

The crow, the worm, and the gecko glanced among themselves.

“Go ahead you two,” the gecko whispered.  “It seems there are friends nearby.”

“You don’t want to join us?” the crow asked.

“Who needs an old gecko?”

The worm reared up on the ground.   

“I do,” said the earthworm, in a voice that sounded strong and loud to the crow’s ears.  The crow stretched her beak into a grin.

All three approached the band of disparate beasts, announcing themselves to the startled company.

The trio asked if they might simply give greeting and be on their way.  But they were welcomed, of course, and bidden to stay.  Far, far were they from the doors to the vault, the cold stone doors that lay in the shadow of the mountain, darkened still by the coming of night.  The fires and lights that were lit by the beasts at the head of the line did not reach the door. 

But from the fire that the crow, and the gecko, and the worm joined, there was much light and warmth.  And the aromas coming from the pot minded by that little squirrel were very good indeed.  Very nutty.  Very rich.

Somewhere in the distance, a nightingale sang. 

The crow glanced between the gecko, who chuckled at her, and the earthworm, who reared up.  She raised her wings and threw back her head.

She answered the nightingale’s song.

With all her breath, she uttered a long loud caw.

The sound was staggering and bracing.

The beasts around the fire went still for a moment.

Some shivered.  All drew closer to the fire.  And to each other.




Copyright © 2022  Nila L. Patel

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