The children filed into the building. Inside it was like a church or a castle, large and open with long wooden beams holding up the ceiling. The windows were small and purposeful. The floor was a greyish wood, which caught most of the light. The temperature was mild. The children talked to each other and ran about the dusty hall, playing their games, in bare feet and summer clothes. Their voices and shouts echoed around the building.
At the far end of the hall were two wooden tables, on each a collection of ornaments and objects.
Two men walked in from a side door near the tables. Their shoes clapped loudly on the wooden floor. They were close to each other, talking in each other's ears with hushed voices. It was clear they knew each other fairly well. At the sound of the men's shoes on the wooden floor the children stopped running about and became quiet, talking nervously in small groups.
The men finished their conversation and stood apart, each one behind a table. The man on the right was wearing a light blue t-shirt and jeans, he had fluffy brown hair and was about forty. The man on the left looked like he had just come back from work. He was wearing suit trousers and a white shirt with the collar undone. He wasn't wearing a tie. He had cropped black hair and an angular face. He looked a little younger.
The man behind the table on the left clapped his hands loudly. The children turned to face him.
"Will everyone line up in front of the tables please? Single file, don't worry about the order; just find a place in the line. Thanks." He turned to the man behind the right table and smiled, whispering something.
The children fumbled around and eventually formed a somewhat sloppy line in front of the tables. Friends stuck together in the line, chatting quietly to each other. Groups of girls turned to face each other and boys leant their heads to the side to see around the line and what was happening at the front.
The man behind the right-hand table now began to speak.
"All right, you all know how this works. First you come to my table and you pick a virtue and then you wait over by the side. Once everyone has chosen we'll get you line up again and each one of you will choose a vice. Don't worry if you're right at the back of the line, the person who gets the final choice of virtue gets first choice of vice, so it's all fair."
"Okay. You first," the man said, pointing toward the boy at the front of the line.
The first boy smiled nervously and marched toward the table, acting brave. His eyes shone in the light reflected off the objects on the table.
On the table were trophies and goblets, swords and knives, clothes of beautiful patterned fabrics, ancient books - all sorts of artefacts and wonderful objects. There was a bird in a golden cage and a small vole type creature curled into a warm ball. There were bottles of wonderful liquids and numerous complicated and fantastic tools which the boy had never seen before. There were instruments and even things which seemed to be beyond physical description.
"You have only one choice so choose wisely. Anything you touch is yours," said man behind the table and he smiled down at the first boy.
At the end of the table, in the corner was a soft golden ball, pulsating and radiating light. The first boy felt drawn to this, he knew this was what he had to choose. He walked over slowly and picked it up, feeling it in his hands. It was soft but it wasn't warming, nor did it flow through him like he had expected.
"Ah, a good choice indeed, one of the best on the table - Benevolence. You will be smart and talented. Things will come to you easily and you will perform them well. You'll help those around you – and help yourself. You'll be loved by many people and treasured by your friends. You'll do great things for humanity and you will not often stumble. You will be a true asset to all. A very good first pick young man – noble and courageous – you have set us off to a good start, a very lucky human being."
The boy looked down at his gift in wonder. He moved away from the table, toward the long seats by the wall, to sit down and examine what he had been given.
The other children collected their virtues one by one. The first to go were the popular choices beauty, wealth, popularity, strength, courage, power, intelligence, humour - These all went fast. Next were the more common ones – athleticism, patience, charm. As each child collected their gift the number of children sitting at the wall increased, each one examining their new present. The first boy watched each child come and sit down, wondering what it would be like to be in their position, with what they had been chosen.
Finally only a few children were left in the line and only the less popular virtues were left on the table – luck, warmth, cleanliness. These were taken without much excitement but with a stale necessity.
Once all the virtues were gone the children lined up again in front of the left table, in reverse order this time. The boy with benevolence stayed seated on the chairs and watched the other children pick their vices. There was no need for him to go up until the end.
The petty vices disappeared quickly. Clumsiness, forgetfulness. The more familiar vices were soon to go after them. Selfishness, lustfulness, arrogance, cowardice, laziness. Once each child collected their vice they would wander around the hall, somewhat dazed, talking to other children or just wandering off outside to play.
As the number of children left in the hall dwindled the vices began to get nastier. Violence, emotionlessness, stupidity, aggressiveness, manipulativeness. Each child chose with fear and worry in their eyes, silently wandering out of the hall after it was done. The boy with benevolence began to worry.
Finally all the vices but one were gone. The boy walked over to the table to collect what no one else had wanted. Left on the table was a single grey pebble, smooth and dark with a purple tint. The boy picked it up and weighed it in his hand. It was heavy, very heavy and it was cold against him. It ached through his skin and up his arm.
"Ah, I thought we were going to be left with loneliness this year again, seems not to be so," said the man at the right table to the man on the left.
"Nope, loneliness went a couple of children ago, quiet girl picked it up."
The boy, holding the pebble tight, looked up toward the man on the left, who looked back down pitilessly.
"Looks like you've been left with sorrow my friend. It means you'll be dreadfully sad. Often. And for no real reason. There won’t be anything you can do about it either. It'll just happen and you'll have to wait for it to pass. That's what you've been left with."
A shiver ran down the boy's spine. He didn't quite understand. The man on the right hand table spoke up.
"It isn't so bad. You'll learn to live with it. Personally I think some of the others are worse. This is just the one no one else wanted."
The boy turned around and walked away from the tables. He did not know yet what to think about today's events. He put the pebble in his pocked along with the golden ball. He could feel it aching through his trousers. The golden ball didn't provide any warmth or shield like he had perhaps expected it to. The first boy continued walking out of the old building, bare foot, into the bright sunlight, to play with the other children.