This is a story I wrote a few years ago. I was just learning about atheism at the time, but thinking about leaving the religion I grew up in (Jehovah's Witnesses). Some of the themes are (somewhat intentionally) ambiguous and open to interpretation. I'd love to hear what people make of it. :)
Long ago, the whole Earth was ruled by just one Emperor who was kind and just and wise. In the middle of an inhospitable land there was a remote kingdom ruled by a noble king. The king was loyal to the emperor, and created his Law according to the wishes of the Emperor. However, because of the difficult terrain and bad travelling conditions, no-one ever travelled into or out of the kingdom. So the
Emperor wrote a long letter to the kingdom and its subjects, and included many pages of practical laws and sage wisdom. And the people of the kingdom praised the Emperor and their King, and the land was peaceful for many years. "Surely," they said, "we are the happiest and most lawful kingdom in the whole earth!"
Eventually the king became old and died, leaving no heir. The people were distraught. Who would rule them now? So the people of the kingdom elected from among themselves a council of ten wise leaders to rule them in place of their departed king. All was well again. The council ruled the kingdom and the kingdom happily obeyed the council. When the council passed new laws and upheld them, the people rejoiced. "Surely," they said, "we are again the happiest and most lawful kingdom in the whole earth!". And so it went.
One day, without warning, the council broke out in argument over a matter of law. Day after day they argued, but no solution could be found. So, in anger, the council disbanded, and each leader began his own rulership with his own law. Gradually, the people learned what they could of the dispute and the laws, and sided with one of the ten. People moved from outlying villages to their leaders' cities. In time, where once there were many small towns and villages, now there were just ten capital cities. Where once there had been a good king and his glorious kingdom, there were now ten leaders, each ruling just one city.
In the beginning, the people of each city hated the people of the other cities because their laws were different. In time, they only
disliked them but eventually they learned to tolerate and respect the other cities. All except one city, the tenth city. This city was
smaller than others, but its leader was clever and well versed in law. He declared that his law adhered to the rules of the emperor as given in his letter. And he proclaimed that the other nine cities were disloyal to the emperor unless they adopted his law. This caused much uproar and presently other leaders began to claim that THEIR law was the best. And the people moved among the cities and settled wherever they felt the law was right. The tenth city grew larger. And as old laws were repealed and new laws put in place, life in the tenth city became a little harder, but the people were a good people and diligent, and accepted the extra work without grumbling. "Surely," they said, "we are the happiest and most lawful city in the whole earth!" And time went on, each city making and following its own law.
In time, a young peasant in the tenth city came before his leader to enquire about his law. The leader became incensed at the peasant's insolence and dismissed him. But the peasant still wondered, and asked the advice of any who would listen. "I have no quarrel with the leader or the law," said he, "I ask only for understanding." But the people of the city took him before the leader, who charged him with treason and banished him. And the leader erected a wall about his city, that those that were banished could never again enter the city unless they sought a pardon. So the peasant humbled himself and sought a pardon, since his mother and father and brother and sister were still inside the city and loved him and needed him. And the leader granted his pardon, provided that the peasant never insult him by questioning his law again. And the peasant went back to his family. But soon again the peasant became troubled. The more he considered it, the more he was convinced that the tenth city's law was wrong and did not adhere to the emperor's rules. Now, the peasant loved the emperor with all his heart, and couldn't bear to disobey him. So again he pleaded with the leader, and again the leader banished him.
And the peasant longed to return to his family in the tenth city, but he was resolved to obey the emperor, and do what was right, and thus remain outside the walls. And so he wandered in the wilderness, where the old towns once stood, and settled there and built a home there. And he took to studying the laws of the ten cities, to see which law was true to the emperor. Often he would visit the other nine cities to learn about their laws, but he vowed never to become a citizen of any until he knew which law was right. Year after year he lived and worked and studied in the wilderness, always longing to be with his family and despising the tenth city's law which kept them apart.
One day, while visiting the third city, the peasant met a farmer who had lived for many years in the tenth city. The farmer's large family
remained loyal to the tenth leader, but the farmer had decided to leave them out of duty to the emperor. The farmer and the peasant
spoke awhile and forged a friendship, then went on their way. In time, he visited the seventh city and met a peasant-girl who was born in the tenth city. Again they became friends and departed. And so it continued. In time, the peasant met many people who had lived in the tenth city and left it, or been banished for failing to follow the leader's law. And he opened his house to them, that they may lodge with him as they travelled to and fro. Presently a small village grew in the wilderness, around the peasant's house. There lived those who served no master and obeyed no laws but those which they gave themselves. And the villagers began to honour the peasant and treat him as a chieftan. And though the villagers were citizens of no city, they were peaceful and respectful of one another. Sometimes messengers would set out from the tenth city, bringing messages from loved ones and urging the villagers to return to them. And some did return but most remained in the wilderness, though they longed to see their kin again.
And the families in the tenth city were grieved to their hearts, and could not fathom the reasons why their loved ones had rejected them. "Oh, why has their love diminished?" said they. "Surely something evil has overtaken them and corrupted their hearts, such that their very souls are become dark and turned against all things pure and good." And they grew to despise the village and its people, more so even than the other cities. And they cut off their own kin and disowned them, and would have no dealings with them. And this became law to them. And the villagers sent out messengers of their own to the tenth city, and while some were secretly welcomed, most were immediately sent away. And the people of the tenth city would say, "See, they send spies to try to influence us and make us like them. Indeed, some have succeeded, and have deceived certain ones and dragged them off into darkness and the lawless wilderness." And they would shake their heads in their sorrow and in memory of their loved ones.
And the villagers wondered at the silence from the tenth city, and would say, "Why do they not answer? Can they not see how corrupt is the law in the tenth city?" And some would give thought to storming the city by force and carrying their family out upon their backs. But the wise ones of the village counselled against such actions, for such hostility would surely strengthen the fears of the the city, and set them all the more firmly against the villagers. And the guidance of the wise ones was this: "Love them, respect them, allow them free will. Hope that they will do what is right. For some must live with us and some must live without us. But all must decide for themselves where to live."