He saw many wars. He saw death and destruction and horrible lingering pain. But he learned to survive and keep his head down and not to believe all the fine words that were said on the eve of battle. Even so, in spite of his care, one day he was wounded and laid up in the field hospital with a piece of metal in his leg. And then in fevered dreams the demon came again, This time it had a bunch of grass in one hand, and a clod of earth in the other. 'Choose,' it said. But the boy rose up from his bed and clasped the demon's neck and said, 'No, last time you offered me a choice and look where it brought me. You have to tell me what these things mean. The demon smiled and said, 'You're learning. You know what the coal meant, you've lived it. Would you like to know what the wood meant?'
'Yes,' said the boy.
'Had you chosen the wood, you would have gone down to the bay some day to celebrate your uncle's buying a new plot. Your father and uncle would drink all night in the tavern, and in the morning when the press gangs came they would be passed out under the table. But you would be there, and they'd drag you off to be a grease monkey, climbing the tarry ropes. You'd see many battles, chain shot flying through the air, men burning and jumping into the sea, dead men's eyeballs when the sea spits them out again. Then one day a bullet would catch your leg, and you'd be laid up in the ship's brig, and I'd come to you with grass and a clod of earth.'
'You're a talkative demon,' says the boy. 'Now tell me what these mean.'
'No. Only hindsight sees everything.'
'All right,' said the boy, and grabbed the grass because it was fresh and green.
In time, he healed his wound and was discharged, and limped back home along streets desolated by conflict. He found his farm burned and deserted, and in the centre of the blackened flagstones of the kitchen floor there was a bunch of green grass growing. So he sat by the old well and drank its water, which was sweet, and went into town with his severance pay and bought a plough and a horse. And in time he built the farm back, and married, and had many children and the house was full of laughter and plenty. And then one night the demon came again, and this time he had a white stone in one hand, and in the other a black.
'Oh,' said the boy, who was now a man, 'It's you. Well then, tell me what the clod of earth would have given me.'
'You would have died of your wound.'
The demon extended his gnarled palms, each with a stone on it and said, 'Choose.'
'No,' said the man. 'I've had enough of this game. Suppose I don't choose?'
'Then I will come back night after night and ask you the same question.'
The man's eyes filled with tears. 'Does this mean it's time for me to die.'
'You won't know unless you choose.'
The man took a deep breath. 'I choose the black.'
The demon smiled. 'Then I have to tell you the truth of darkness. had you chose the white, I would have had to tell you the truth of light, but no matter. You only get to hear this once.'
The demon sat comfortably on the edge of the bed and began, 'Everything you see around you is spirit wrapped up tight. This stone, your bed, this earth, it is all the blood of gods who exist far away in the heavens. These gods are so hungry they eat light, they chomp it up for breakfast lunch and dinner, these dark suns. And in their bellies, light is crushed so small it has to craft itself into matter. That is the ultimate darkness of the pit, a darkness so dark there isn't even space for light to shine between the things within it. But that darkness is within you. It's what prevents you from flying apart. It's the still centre of every grain of your body. Without it, spirit flies around like an impotent thing. When you grasp the earth, the dark in your hand is touching the dark of soil, of stone, of slime. Remember that, and maybe in your next life you will hear the truth of light.'
And the demon vanished.
Your exercise: to write a story in which three choices between a pair of symbolic things are offered to the protagonist at three crucial junctures of the story. In each case, the choice must produce wisdom, so that in effect the protagonist travels a path.