When you are born, as the priests sprinkle water on your forehead, they pray that you will not lie.
When you play in the village square, bumping into the elderly priests on their errands, they chide you that you should not lie.
When you become an adult, they tell you the truth: you may lie, but only in great need and only three times in a life.
After saying this, they place a tiny copy of the scripture underneath your tongue, written in characters so small only an insect could read them. Occasionally, the sticky-sweet taste still dissolving on your tongue, you ask why you are allowed to lie three times in your life. The priests are patient with these inquiries — most asked the same during their own initiations. They then begin to repeat the story that every adult of our culture knows by heart.
At the beginning of time, the Divine Truth created the world, was the world, but then the Divine Lie came like a dragon in the night, tearing a great gash in the firmament, still visible if you look up at night at just the right angle. The Divine Lie knocked the harmony of creation out of balance, and all the sorrows and miseries of our earthly existence followed.
By following the commandments — by hewing to the words of the scripture we had just absorbed into our blood — we would slowly close the gash and heal the world. If, on the other hand, we lied — if we took advantage of others, if we killed and robbed, if we behaved contrary to the commandments — then the gash would grow and eventually consume the universe.
Outsiders do not know the truth. Outsiders lie with abandon — we must never forget that. Our lifetimes of careful devotion, save our three permitted lies, would just balance out the lies of the outside world.
The priests are lying, of course, even if they don’t know it themselves.
After the initiation, the priests take confession. When my turn came, I tearfully admitted that I had lied once in my youth. The priests forgave my transgression — they had, after all, done likewise when they were young.
To atone, the priests asked me to write out the details and burn the paper in a purifying flame. To this day I remember the exact wording.
For no reason at all — for I was not particularly hungry that day — I had stolen a pear my parents had set aside for my younger brother. I greedily tore it to pieces, licking my lips theatrically as my brother came looking for it.
He ran to my parents, sobbing. They interrogated me. Despite the evidence of the sweetness still on my lips, despite the great guilt I felt, I couldn’t bring myself to admit it. I swore up and down that I had seen nothing and done nothing — that, as far as I was aware, the pear was still sitting on our counter, right where they had left it.
They nodded at me skeptically, but for just a moment I could see a flicker of doubt in their eyes. Who wants to doubt their own child?
Later that afternoon, I saw my brother happily eating a pear that looked for all the world identical to the one I had stolen. All was right in the world, but not in my mind. I felt so guilty I was sick for a week, but I never managed to admit it to my parents. I never managed to admit it to anyone until I wrote it down on a piece of paper and burned it as sacrifice.
As the last ashes of the paper blew away on the wind, the priests intoned a prayer of forgiveness, as they had many times before. “After all,” the chief priest said, “you still have two lies left.”
The second time I lied, I like to think I did it for a good reason.
I was still a young man, recently married. We had recently moved to our own dwelling, but we had not yet been blessed with children. So when a traveller from the great mercantile cities to the west came to our little town, we were asked to provide housing for the days he would be staying with us.
We tried to be the best hosts we could, but the man seemed depressed the entire time. He did not offer a reason for traveling and we were too polite to ask. After a few days, however, he finally opened up to me. My wife was visiting her parents in her own village, so he and I had taken the customary evening tea alone together.
Sitting there quietly, he finally looked up at me and spoke. “I am heading into the Primeval Forest tomorrow.”
I frowned. “But what reason could you possibly have?”
Few men and women walked into the Primeval Forest and fewer still walked out. Legends were attracted to the Forest like flies to a soup. It was said that, in the Forest, trees could talk, whispering sweet nothings to each other; that armies of wild boars trooped through the undergrowth, tearing apart any intruders with their wild tusks; that spirits waited in dark corners to steal wayward souls. Other legends were more inexplicable still — tales of glades that transported you to the other side of the world without noticing; stories of meeting doppelgangers that claim to be you from the past; references to structures that appear man-made but serve no recognizable purpose.
The traveller looked at me sadly. I could tell that he had heard all these legends, and more besides. Clearly he knew exactly what going into the Primeval Forest entailed. “There is a legend that says the Primeval Forest hides a secret. Deep in the Forest’s secret heart, there is a crystal-clear pool. If you drink from it, you are granted your deepest wish.”
I had never heard such a legend. Risking impoliteness, but driven by my curiosity, I had to ask. “What is your deepest wish?”
He looked far off into the distance, his eyes glassy with nostalgia. “My wife and child… perished. In a ship accident.” He looked back at me sadly. “Do you think I’ll find it?”
I looked deep into his eyes. I knew in my heart that he was telling the truth, but I also knew there was nothing but death and madness in the Primeval Forest. I did not have the heart to tell him that, though, so I lied to comfort him.
“Yes, I believe you’ll find what you truly wish for.”
I grew older. My wife and I had children. We lived a humble but fulfilling life of simple honesty, as many generations before us have and as many generations after us will, until the Divine Lie is finally vanquished.
One day, a cousin from a nearby village asked for me. They had heard from a traveller, who had heard from another traveller, and so on, that a wealthy man in one of the great mercantile cities of the far west was asking for me by name.
I left for the west, despite my misgivings. It was a long, hard journey in the company of my cousin, but eventually we found our way. A local innkeeper — who cheated us of the rest of our travel money — directed us to a massive mansion overlooking the water. Only I was allowed to enter — the owner had been expecting me for some time.
I found myself in a massive sitting room, surrounded by the useless detritus of a wealthy life — finely-upholstered leather sofas, the skulls of beasts I had never even imagined, a wine cellar where each individual bottle could buy my entire village.
“Well? How do you like it?”
I turned to find before me the traveller I had lied to so many years before, aged but still recognizable.
“Are you surprised to see me? I must say, I only survived thanks to your hospitality. I found the wishing pool! I actually found it! It provided me with treasure beyond my wildest dreams.”
“But what about your wife and child?” I asked, remembering his wish.
He looked conflicted for a moment, then started laughing, as if to disguise his feelings. “I completely forgot about that little lie. No, no, I was seeking my fortune, which I found, with your help.”
“I did little enough,” I said, thinking of the evening tea.
“Oh, no, you did everything,” the man said with a laugh, but I could hear the hollowness beneath it. For the first time, I realized how empty the mansion felt.
“I don’t understand.”
The man looked at me strangely, then went over to look out the window. I rose and stood next to him. He pointed at something, dimly visible over the lights of the city. “What do you think that is?”
I squinted through the smog and oil lamps. Then, suddenly, I realized what I was looking at and shielded my eyes in abjuration. “It is the Divine Lie.”
The man laughed again. “I forgot how naive your people are. Please, that’s just a group of stars. Our astronomers have mapped it.”
“That’s a lie! That’s the gash from the Divine Lie!”
“I can show you the charts, if you prefer.” He insisted on bringing them out. He pointed out each and every planet and star that his astronomers had named. For a moment, just a moment, I felt a hint of doubt. And when I looked up, I found that the gash was, in fact, nothing more than a galaxy. I gasped.
“Even if it were a lie,” the man continued, “by saying it I will it to be true. At least, as long as you believe me. I suppose I should be careful, though — your culture is very gullible. One legend says that’s where the Primeval Forest came from — one too many lies told to one too many gullible people.” He paused, and then pulled out a small bag. I heard the clinking of gold pieces. “Anyway, I just wanted to thank you for helping me. You told me I would find what I truly wished for, and it came true.” But he did not sound that sure. “I wanted to give you a little token of my gratitude.”
I took the gold and left.
My cousin and I traveled back to our homes. I buried the gold where it would never be found — I could not quite bring myself to believe it was really gold. Not long after, I heard from a traveller that the wealthy man had died, though he did not say how.
I returned to my life, to my wife and children, but I was distracted by my thoughts. Could it be true? Could every lie told shape the world in its image? Wouldn’t that merely lead to chaos? Did the priests know?
My wife noticed my state and, one evening, asked what was bothering me. “What did you learn in the city? Do you have doubts?”
No, I said, shaking my head. No, I have no doubts at all. Everything the priests say is completely true.
And by saying it, I willed it to be true.