A Pilfered Ignorance

(December 12th, 1887)

And now, dear Sir:

You have expressed to me on more than one occasion that you despise the literary device called “allegory”; that you cannot imagine how a well-reasoned thesis could ever be assisted by the introduction of fiction into the realm of the purely rational.

I don’t intend to argue that point, Sir, but I’ve chosen to answer your question with an allegory.

The choice of this device is purely coincidental, I am entirely sure, Sir. As always, I am careful to hold myself to a standard of behavior which is continually beyond any possibility of reproach. I am certain that no impartial observer, if any existed, would disagree. And you, yourself, are in whatever hole in the Earth has swallowed you; you are in no position, if I might say so, to evidence displeasure in any format which has meaning to me. Should you write me a rebuke, I will simply assume that it is you, yourself, making excellent use of the many fine attributes of irony, whose understanding has been infused, by you, into my psyche with what I think we can agree is great success. (On a related note, I would be appreciative if you could arrange for another copy of the satires of Juvenal to fall into my hands; the reading library here is, shall we say, a little sparse in that regard.)

Though I suppose none of that will matter, should this missive reach the hands of authorities ecclesiastical. Should such a thing happen, please know, O learned fathers of the Church, that I am but a foolish girl, play-acting at the art of being an essayist, and I tell but the merest fairytales, of no more spiritual import than any story of enchanted Princesses and speaking beasts of the field. I know not what I do. What female mind could actually conceive something as complex as a discourse on moral philosophy? There is no meaning here; I pray you, do not waste the time of your august personages in reading further. Consider the words beneath to have no meaning at all. Really. Just stop reading now and send me back to the Reformatory. There’s no need for hot irons; I assure you, I have pre-emptively learnt my lesson; and if you damage me, however shall I work the printing press, thus allowing me to be of some small benefit to the society which nourishes my iniquitous self?

(Oh, thank you, Sir, for ensuring that I consider the consequences of each and every action. You’ve assured me that none but you will see what I write; but now I’m thinking about just what would happen if the Church found some of these little notes. In completing even this, the first of your assignments, I note that I am embarking on a course of likey spiritual damnation and distinct physical danger. Have I mentioned how I appreciate your lessons in inductive reasoning? I haven’t? No, nor shall I. Sir.)

And thus, to tonight’s parable.

Once upon a time, the Gods decided to gift Mankind with Free Will.

(As their existence far predated that of Mr. Hume, they didn’t give it that name. They called it, rather, “Choice”, which seems a poor substitute; but linguistics is not our study tonight, especially as you haven’t taught me any, Monsieur la Bête.)

Why would the Gods want us to have “choice”? One theory is that they love us, and want us to be happy. It is my understanding that this theory is particularly popular among idiots, who do not pay much attention to the world around them.

I have my own ideas, but I’ll keep them to myself; there’s no need to compound blasphemy with blasphemy, eh?

All right.

So first to attempt to bring this gift to Man was the God of the Sun. While he did not fashion Humans himself, he was perhaps the first deity to know their worship, and he brought them light for their working days, and life for their agriculture.

He appeared in the center of the gathering-place of the tribe of humans, in the marketplace.

(Much could be said, Sir, about the state of humans before Free Will, and many questions asked. Oh, you didn’t make me cynical; I was there, Sir, long ago. But you taught me that there were certain words for certain kinds of unfaith in Mankind. Besides, this is an allegory, not a tale of natural philosophy. So I’ll attribute to them some of the instincts of the humans we know today; it is my own certainty that you can extrapolate what humans would be like if they had thought, and conversation, but if their belief in individual, unique choice were even less than it is now.  I spent three nights considering that very point, and was rescued from profound depression only by the thought of the sorts of consequences I might incur if I was not, as instructed, finished with this assignment in a week. So I’ll leave that metaphysics to you, dear Sir, and continue.)

The God stood proud, high atop a column of flame. All who looked upon him marveled; all would tell their children of this day.  And he spoke to them, and said, “From this day forward, all of you are free! You may choose to worship, or not.  You may choose to act as you please. Your movements are not predestined, and your fates are your own!”

The humans stood stock-still, motionless, as if afraid even to breathe. The Sun-God spoke again, a touch impatiently, “Go ahead, go and do what you think is best, based on how you see the world around you!”


At last, the Sun-God said, “Speak.  One of you, speak.”

Tentatively, a man in the back raised up his hand. The Sun-God nodded to him.  “O Lord of the Skies, Giver of Day,” he said, “What would you have us do with this gift?”

The Sun-God smiled. “Anything you want. I simply hope you’ll make the right choices.”

The humans exchanged glances. Finally, the original speaker raised his voice. “Thank you, O Shining One,” he said. “Would you kindly let us know which choices are the right ones?”

It takes great patience to keep the Sun on a straight path through the sky, day in and day out, and not let it deviate course except, obviously, to avoid the Star-Wolf.  The Sun-God stood in the market for a long time, explaining that the entire idea was that the mortals make their own choices and not his. He was frustrated by their limited intellect (and, perhaps, his own; but what would I know of the limitations of shiny men?)

In addition, it is passing difficult for even our own churchmen to explain that we must simultaneously be obedient, and yet take responsibility for our each and every sin. I would not like to be in the position of an Immortal, faced, through a combination of certain metaphysical realities and a heaping dose of pride, with maintaining the idea that he was superior to those around him, but that, nevertheless, their choices mattered.

One might get certain ideas, Sir. One might, Sir, question one’s own inferiority. And how many superiors, in the depths of their breasts, truly desire to hear that? The shinier the boot, the more the wearer wants to to be sure who does the wearing, and who does the polishing.

Or so I have heard, Sir.

Eventually, with a long head-shake of annoyance, he took off for the firmament.

In the mead-hall of the Gods, the Goddess of Love looked patronizingly at the muscular figure whose chariot draws the Solar orb across the horizon of our little planet.  “This calls for education. And…persuasion.”  Her friends cheered; the closer companions of his Heliotropic Majesty grimaced, and in a shimmer of the petals of some exotic pink bloom, the Goddess flew from the place of the Gods, to the place where Mortals dwell, eventually alighting in the selfsame marketplace, astride a stallion of notably exceptional…stallionhood. A sort of symbol, you see, Sir. The powerful are awfully fond of such things.

If you’re a mere human, surely it is life-changing to have one God appear before you. The second God is equally awesome, though perhaps just a tad less stunning. Humans adapt to precedent with remarkable ease. Or, as I used to say while sawing industriously at my bars with some laughably inadequate bit of stolen cutlery, “One can get used to near anything, unless you make it hurt.” Complacency, Sir; it sets in.

I can’t speak much to the vagaries of fashion, but what the Goddess wore was red and flowing and timeless. She spread her hands, and the rapidly re-gathered crowd grew silent. They waited an uncomfortably long time; it might occur to one that the Goddess enjoyed being looked at, and might have been a bit distracted away from what one might call priorities, begging your leave, Sir.

Eventually someone…was it the same one who’d spoken to the Sun-God?—asked of her, “What would you have of us, O Lady? What would you have us do?”

Smiling radiantly, the Goddess replied, “I would have you do whatever you, yourselves, desire, O mortals.”

What happened next would not, I believe have surprised anyone who’s spent at least a year at Ms. Schrab’s, or any other house of reformative justice in this great country, Sir, at least in my experience. The fact that it surprised the Goddess of Love suggests to me certain things about Love itself which are rather logical conclusions, if one makes inferences from such novels. (I hasten to report, Sir, that such things are the only literary materials available within this household. Please, Sir, I beg of you: send books.)

The Goddess watched the proceedings vantage point of height sufficient to make sure she was not entangled in the proceedings, and, eventually, she vacated the scene, with a certain urgency.

Her actions were not without longterm benefit for humankind, however. Even now, we remember the calendrical moment, if not precisely the year of this event, and the first day of May is well-known as a day when close interaction with certain of one’s peers, particularly in the fields, is said to be correlated with bountiful effects upon the upcoming harvest.

In the halls of the Gods, there was argument. Perhaps “free will” was not of utility; would it, perhaps, be possible to replace previously thinking beings entirely with amusing automata made of, for example, advanced building materials of the time, such as poorly-made bricks, or, perhaps, other, slightly-more-poorly-made bricks?

The Gods began arguing amongst each other; well, honestly, sir, more like a very angry droning. There was a church ‘cross from Ms. Schraab’s, and one had the opportunity to hear matters liturgical on…a right regular basis. It’s a bit of a personal belief that, were I the recipient of continuous and repetitive chanting, it might become a habitual matter of speech. It is for this reason that I have endeavored to improve my vocabulary under your tutelage; that, and your firm policy of ducking my head in the water barrel any time I said, “I don’t know” more than two times in succession.

At any rate, it was during this clamor that Thief, without word or ceremony, left the Divine halls.

Now, Thief had another name at the time. She might have been the Goddess of some now-forgotten thing, perhaps. But that’s not important. What matters is that, at her own pace, she made her way down to that selfsame marketplace.

She had no brightling shine, nor an enchanting garment. It’s not sure how she marked her own divinity. It is sometimes said that we, her descendants, wear Shadows as if they were cloaks. But Thief, now.  She wore Shadows like a crown.

Her divine nature was obvious to the onlookers, as it would have been to anyone.  The questioner, having in one day communicated with two gods, was not entirely impressed. He asked, and it might almost have been a challenge,

“And what did you have to tell us?”

Thief smiled, that particular look which has made so many erroneously perceive us as wearing masks—when all we really wear is eyes which do not disclose the private matters of our heads.

“Nothing,” she said.

And thus, for the first time today, a mortal speak pure truth to the Gods.

“You lie!” he shouted.  She said nothing, only gave that smile again. With a snarl, he lept towards her, and the rest of the crowd followed.  She leapt from her perch and fled…or at least, there was a Chase, and she was in front of it.  Could she have lost them sooner? I think so. I suspect it with but a minor application of divine will, she might have dazzled them all into blindness, or disappeared, down to the last of Mr Dalton’s atoms, a single instant.

Instead, she let them corner her, finally, in (for she is a traditionalist) a particularly dark alley.

They demanded, again, that she tell them why she came, what her message was, and she simply shrugged.

And so they tore her to pieces.

This one took her brain, thinking he could capture her thoughts.

That one took her hands, thinking he could deduce her gestures.

Those took her blood, figuring it contained something special. He took her eyes and she got the parts—suffice to say that every bit of her went to a member of the crowd.

And Humankind spent a while in goulish contemplation of all the bits of Thief, thinking that if the could just recreate her, they would have the knowledge of the Gods, with no more evasions. As each little group tried to figure out what each piece might have done, they made a thousand guesses, they experimented, they fought and they argued and they went an uncountable multitude of divergent ways, until, at the end, Thief’s body had been worn away to nothing by the abrasion of so many hands, and Mankind couldn’t remember a time when we didn’t have a legion of buzzing thoughts in our brains. And now, while many stay in their allotted slots and grooves throughout their lives, the world also turns up misfits, willing or otherwise, those who rebel, those who bite, those who question when ordered into silence.

What happened to Thief? Oh, she can steal things that aren’t even there. Unlike Osiris, who needed his wife to piece him together, Thief found every bit of herself, and assembled it in the manner that most pleased her. If she was changed by the experience, she’s the only one who knows.

This is the not-secret thing that Thief understood, and which, as far as I know, she never taught the Gods:

For free will could be no gift. No one can give you that which you ultimately need make completely your own.

I believe, sir, this is a lesson for me. Bear in mind that I should do my very best to be stubborn and not learn it. They say that makes the learning process all the sweeter for the teacher. Is that true?

That, Sir, is my allegory on Free Will.

I could have made it an essay, but, well, Sir:

I didn’t.


Jeff Mach

(Technically, this story originally had a rather longer beginning. I cut it for the sake of time; 2600 words is fairly long, by the standards of my short stories.

(This tale has a will of its own. It clearly wants to be a book.

(I’m thinking it over.)

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Jeff Mach Written by:

Jeff Mach is an author, playwright, event creator, and certified Villain. You can always pick up his bestselling first novel, "There and NEVER, EVER BACK AGAIN"—or, indeed, his increasingly large selection of other peculiar books. If you'd like to talk more to Jeff, or if you're simply a Monstrous Creature yourself, stop by @darklordjournal on Twitter, or The Dark Lord Journal on Facebook.

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