Old Vials

The Vials of Life and Death: A Fable

Once, a man inherited magical vials from his father, vials that his father inherited from his father, and his father from his father. When the world was young, the man’s father told him, water was drawn from the well of knowledge and the well of life. These two waters were mixed and stored in the vials and provided the power to cure many evils in the world. 

Yet the world broke when it was young, and a few vials filled with death and ignorance were scattered among the vials of life and knowledge. The vials of death and ignorance could not be separated from the rest, nor identified, except through years of careful study. Further, death and ignorance would not remain in a single vial, making the thorough study of the vials essential. One could not simply discover all the vials of death and ignorance and remove them from the collection. What was once a vial of life might become a vial of death. 

Consequently, an extended study of the vials was necessary. Indeed, the vial of death could not be easily discovered even after usage, for the power appeared to be the same as the power of life — at first. And so, the man was entrusted with the vials that gave him the ability to bring healing, death, knowledge, and ignorance. 

The man received his inheritance from his father and was warned to use them, if at all, only after wary reflection on each vial’s nature. Yet soon after his father’s death, the man’s land suffered violence from outside and came under attack. War broke out. The man was young and cared much for the suffering of his people. He felt the passion of their passion and the fears of their fears, for they were rural folk and unaccustomed to violence. 

Nevertheless, he remembered his father’s instructions. Though he decided to use a vial to heal the land’s suffering, the man studied the vials for months before deciding which would give life. He drank that vial and called on the power of life to strengthen his people’s hearts and organize their spirits. The man also gained knowledge of weapons that would cast the enemy away and give peace to the land. The people banded together and drove their enemies into the wilderness.

Peace reigned. However, the land suffered again. Starvation swept across the lands after a long drought. Many forests and fields were destroyed during the war and the construction of defensive weapons. The wilderness stretched itself into the places that people lived. Streams and rivers dried up. The man now studied the vials, looking for one that might bring life — though perhaps with less caution and more eagerness to heal his people’s suffering. Indeed, the man had a new love, and he feared for her life. 

After a month of study, the man perceived the vial of life and knowledge. He drank from that vial. He saw — with clear knowledge — that he could dig into the earth and sink deep wells that would give them the water they needed. He rallied the people, taught them the ways to find new waters. Pure liquid burst forth in springs and rivers, and prosperity came over the land. The crops rang green, honey-gold sang from the hives, and all the land was happy and full. The man’s wife became pregnant and gave birth to a son.

Yet prosperity brought a desire to possess and rule, and now the people had weapons to dominate others. A new generation of leaders arose. They oppressed their fellow citizens and stole from them. In fear for himself, his wife and son, and his people, the man once again studied the vials. One night, the leaders pounded on his doors, demanding his wealth and magic.

So the man drank another vial. He was confident it was the vial of life, not death, for he had not been wrong before. The vial gave him knowledge of people and the power to persuade. The man cried out, and a crowd sprung up to protect him. The leaders fled back to their strongholds. The man gathered the citizens together, and with their collective will and weapons, the treasonous leaders were driven into the wilderness. Peace once again rested on the land. Once a rural people who came to town rarely, the people began to gather together. Their small village grew into a city, wealthy and powerful, as more and more people flowed in and the people planned and discussed and debated on its streets. The city became known for its wisdom and strength.

Yet a sickness appeared soon after; death that occurred quickly and cruelly and spread with the speed of an autumn fire. Again, the man was afraid for his family and swallowed a vial after a day’s study; his need overcame his caution. He gained a greater power than before. The man created a powerful compulsion that swept over the diseased people. They left the town, entered the wilderness, and passed into the eternal shadow. Anyone that had touched the diseased and sought to cure them passed beyond as well. The city was healthy, but the streets were empty. Few people remained. The wealth left the city, and its defenses were abandoned. Marauders roamed the land. The man’s house was empty: his wife and son had also passed beyond the walls into the wilderness, for they had cared for the ill.

The man grew old. Broken and alone, the man drank a vial and asked for the power to understand rather than heal. And he wept bitterly when he saw that he had not studied the vials enough. The man had, each time, drunk from the vial of death and ignorance – for what brings life rather than death can only be known through patient contemplation and gentle Time. Much that appears fair can corrupt and destroy if not approached with wisdom and caution.

The man’s heart broke, and he fell to the ground. He had sipped, for the last time, from the vial of death. What remained of the city found the man’s body and gave him a hero’s funeral. Neither knowing the vials’ nature nor how to understand their powers, the people poured their contents into the ocean, where they mixed with all the world’s waters. 

So it happened that all humans drink of life and death and knowledge and ignorance. And even now we cannot distinguish between the two vials, for we do not have the patience to study and separate the waters. 

Photo by Brianna Fairhurst on Unsplash