There once was a little light, a little light surrounded by a dark and suffocating empire.
The empire started, itself, with a little light, once, a long time ago. But the light had grown and grown and each time it grew people worried that outside forces would snuff it out, so they built little walls around it to keep the wind from blowing the light out. And as the light grew and jumped from place to place, it lit up in new little places that people quickly rushed to surround with walls. Soon, the walls were bigger than the lights, and the people whose job it was to build and mend the walls became anxious that the walls stay in place, because they were very grateful to have a job at all.
After many generations of this light-moving and wall-building, the walls, black solid things at right angles, were clearly much bigger and more imposing than the lights, and the lights trapped in different pockets began to be snuffed out by the walls that were protecting them. The people outside, who wished to be warmed by the lights, complained that they couldn’t see the brightness nor feel their warmth, and they protested that maybe all this wall-building was overeager and a bit misplaced. Couldn’t there be openings and windows through which to see the lights? In response to this, the people whose job it was to build the walls sought out individuals who maybe had little lights hidden in their hands or stuffed in their pockets, and built walls around them. This happened even if the person had agreed to join the wall-building project on the condition that their personal light would not be engulfed. But these promises were never kept, and the pleas of the people who now shivered in the cold, surrounded by walls meant to keep in a light now long snuffed out, went unheard.
After a long time this hodgepodge of black brick walls became disorienting and ugly, and it was impossible to navigate around or through it in a straightforward way. Sometimes wall-builders who had been in their jobs a particularly long time would learn specific routes and pass them on to their fellow wall-builders in the form of maps, maps that would serve you well for as long as that specific path remained the same and no new walls had been built on top of it in the meantime. Archaeologists began to study the labyrinthine huddle of walls, and figure out when particular ones had been built, which ones were served by which wall-builders and when the wall-builder posts in important places had changed hands.
After a period of time many people forgot the walls had been built to protect lights at all. People would come from far and wide to marvel at a particularly tall and imposing collection of walls, and be led by tour-guides among a handful of straightforward routes along the outskirts of the complex, marveling at how complicated and powerful and specific it all was.
As the years wore on many wall-builders began to struggle to keep their walls, now weak and crumbling, from falling down and the whole structure from collapsing. And furthermore, people both inside and outside the structure started to complain about how cold and dark everything was. Some people started to tell stories of little personal lights, personal lights that had been the start of this whole project to build walls in the first place. One prophet in particular claimed that if you had enough light you wouldn’t need walls to protect you from the cold outside because the light would be warmer than the outside was cold. Some people denied that such lights could exist at all. This was a common view among people who held the jobs of maintaining and protecting the walls. They claimed that the best way to stay warm was to stay well inside a set of walls, or at least, if you couldn’t do that, then along the side of the outside walls to be protected. Even if such lights existed, they said, they could be dangerous and they might get too hot and burn you, and you probably couldn’t control them anyway. What if they got too big? Nevermind that by now no one could remember ever having had enough light, never mind having too much of it.
Many people were convinced by this and returned inside to join the wall-building project. There were always job openings, you see.
A few people who had listened to the prophet didn’t believe that it was impossible to have enough light. They thought, well, a light is a thing like any other, there must be nothing so mysterious about them, so it must be possible to learn how to find them, to nurture them, and to protect them at least enough so that they grow bigger over time. Some of the people who believed this most fervently were the ones who had once possessed little pocket lights of their own, and who had been accosted and surrounded by energetic wall-builders in generations past and whose lights had since been snuffed out by the walls. They no longer had lights in their pockets, but they remembered the times when they did. And they would tell stories to the younger ones about these little pocket lights and tell them where and how to find them. In each tale, the teller would mention that if you went to a quiet, outside spot, with nothing to disturb you and nothing around you, that your little light would, more likely than not. spontaneously pop up on its own.
Some youngsters heard enough of the stories, then raced out to find theirs.
There were some tragic tales, in those days. A young boy had heard stories of the pocket-lights from his beloved grandpa, and then raced outside the walls to sit in under the big open sky and wait for his pocket-light. But just as he arrived so did a big storm, and in the rain and the cold he perished. A search party was sent out but his body was never found. Some of the wall-builders used this story as a cautionary tale about those foolish enough to seek out pocket-lights. Better to stay here in the shelter, they said.
But this never fully deterred those who believed strongly that the lights could be found. Later on, the ones who believed in them had the idea to band together to venture out to find their lights in a group. They would all spread apart outside waiting for their lights on their own, but they were close enough to each other that they could come to each others’ aid if there was a cry for help.
Soon, people began to discover that yes, it was true. You could find your own light, if you waited quietly and patiently in that open place. People would bring them back into the complex of black walls, ecstatic that they had found them, but very soon they found that this would lead to their lights being extinguished. The hollows between the walls often lacked oxygen, and the lights were thirsty for it. People tried to smuggle them in to empty rooms, which worked for a time, but then, for some reason nobody could ever figure out, it was always the case that if a fugitive came into an abandoned room hiding their personal light, that shortly after some arbitrarily new wall would be built right through the middle of or on top of it, and no wall-builder would ever give a reason why.
By now there were a lot of people who knew how to go and find their own lights, and had either done it or who wanted to. They were frustrated, you see. They wanted to have their own warmth, and not rely on the warmth that the wall-builders promised the walls would deliver but never seemed to. And they knew the lights were possible to find but it just didn’t seem to be possible to keep them alive inside the wall-complex.
But–a magic thing happened when the light-bearers got together to discuss their predicament. They found that just by being together, each of their lights got stronger. Each light warmed up the air around it just a little bit, and when many of these lights were in the same room each little light didn’t have to work so hard to create the same level of warmth. And so they began to grow. The people thought ‘if only we had a way that we could keep our lights together, and stop them from being snuffed out when we tried to protect them’. Within the group were some light-bearers who had tried to build walls, the regular kind of walls, outside the main wall complex, around their newfound lights to protect them, and had found them snuffed out just as easily as they had been inside the main complex. This disheartened many in the group.
Over time a little experimental group developed, and all this group did was try out new ways to protect the lights from the weather that wouldn’t snuff them out. In the whole history of the wall-complex-empire, none of the wall-builders had ever paid much attention to whether the lights had been snuffed out by their efforts. The lights were weightless and lacked substance, they said, and couldn’t be measured as simply and precisely as the walls could be. So at the very beginning they had developed the habit of measuring the success of various parts of the wall project by how many miles of wall had been built and ignoring anything about the lights at all.
But this group knew that if they stopped paying attention to the quality of the lights that they would end up going the way of the wall-builders, protecting crumbling walls with the memory of the warm, bright lights long gone. So, they kept their eyes on the lights. Even though they could never write down exactly what they had done, even though they couldn’t tell if they had succeeded or failed merely by looking at a set of numbers like the wall-builders could, they knew this was the key to the whole endeavour. So every person who held a light and wanted to protect it within this new experimental group knew that they had to look, with their own eyes, to see whether their tries were working. And that was in fact, all they could do, at first. The different members of the group couldn’t write down, couldn’t exactly compute their successes and failures as if with calculators, so they had to find new, abstract, creative ways of communicating them. Thus–myths were born, and some of the earliest myths come from the earliest generations of these light-bearers.
The myths began to work well as ways of communicating the wisdom that individual light-bearers developed in working with their own light. Lots of things were tried. Some developed wings that they could flap to keep cool winds away from their lights. Some developed fine meshes that accumulated and expelled droplets of water around the lights but that allowed multiple people to interlock their meshes and thus share in the radiated warmth. Many different people came up with the idea of protective shields that surrounded a person’s light in a semi-circle, that could only truly protect the light if the person was faced towards at least one other person, ideally more. This meant many people began to rely on joining up with others in order to keep their lights alive.
Some people who had developed a new type of fabric that could repel wind and water tried to build a coalition to get all the light-bearers in the group to adopt their technology but luckily, others disagreed and fought back; it was clear by now that one of the only tenets of the new culture of the light-bearers was that decisions about how to protect a light should come from those closest to it, adaptively and involving something you could change if the method you had been using suddenly no longer stopped working. Awkwardly, in this new culture it wasn’t really possible to get a job maintaining protective barriers like you could in the wall complex; at best what you could do was open up a sort of repair shop that others could take their idiosyncratic protective barriers to, or open a school to teach a method of protection that had worked for you in particular. There was a lot of gossiping and arguing about this point, particularly from former wall-builders who had (sheepishly but with secret eagerness) joined the culture of the light-bearers and hoped to find a niche where they could be easily rewarded for their special knowledge.
Over time the old wall complex began to crumble and soon it became clear that it was falling apart entirely. Many rescue missions were arranged; it was difficult but, many felt worthwhile, to seek out and find the people still trapped inside–those huddling in the freezing dark next to each other, waiting for the walls to fall in on them. There was a lot of discussion amongst the light-bearers about whether to search for the wall-builders who still remained in that rubble. it was dangerous, many said, and the complex was very hostile to the pocket-lights in a way many people had grown unaccustomed to since their had developed their own protective barriers. Some kinds of barriers wouldn’t fit and you would have to take them off to get inside, which was like running through a collapsing building, the ones who had joined earlier search parties said. In the end, some people did decide to go and do a methodical search for survivors, but what they found wasn’t pretty.
There were some particularly nasty wall-builders who had pieced together detailed maps of their specific interior regions of the complex many generations ago and knew how to navigate them and get out for air. They kept these maps close to their chest and assembled gaggles of hangers-on–some, poor citizens and some, furloughed wall-builders who had previously had their own domains of expertise, who depended on the whims and mercies of the person with the map for their daily survival. Some of these hangers-on could be persuaded out of the building, gently, but many more starved to death, still begging information and by-now obsolete routes from the masters with the maps. The map-holders almost never left the complex, and many died there–but not all. One or two let the light-bearers lead them out and then wept when their feet touched the open ground, and wept again when they were brought into the society of the light-bearers and taught how to find their own lights. They often still made trouble but they were charismatic people, and when they no longer were able to manipulate others by withholding things from them it was found that they settled down and often others liked having them around.
All in all, the retreat was not perfect, and many lives were lost, especially amongst the wall-builders. Even some members of the search parties perished, filled as the complex had become with toxic smokes and difficult passageways. But after a long time, everyone inside was either dead or freed, and the people rejoiced. Everyone had access to their own personal source of warmth. Over time people forgot what it felt like to be in the dark, or to feel cold, or stifled.
Now, because they had seen the collapse of the wall complex empire, the people knew that they could not take for granted keeping their eyes on their lights. Many took personal vows, privately and in front of others, to keep their gaze on their own lights and not allow themselves to be seduced by the tyranny of easily built walls or easily measured progress. They knew these things had been the downfall of the wall complex. Some vowed to teach others how to find their pocket lights again if by any chance their own became extinguished, and others tried to record the best of the communicative myths that had contributed to the development of so many of the individual protective technologies, even though they knew much would get lost in translation.
For generations to come, storytellers would tell tales of the old wall complex and when they did, many wept, and they boggled at how lucky they all were to have, after all that, managed to find and protect their personal lights again.