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Once upon a time there was a ball of dirt. This was no ordinary ball of dirt - it twinkled and crackled with the crystals of sugars and acids that encrusted and saturated it. Every now and then, it would roll, just because the chemical reactions inside it made its weight shift.

Do you know what a soul is? A soul is what you have when you take the feeling of being hollow inside, the feeling of your skull being thick and padded somehow even though you can tell it really isn't, and the physical feeling that comes with a mood that stays down even when it ought to be going up again, and reverse those feelings. Reverse them so far that you have energy bursting out from inside you like beams of light out of your forehead, so that you're much better at hearing yourself thinking when you shout. That's what it feels like to have a soul. Well, one day this ball of dirt noticed that it had a soul. It was troubled by this. (You'd be troubled too if you were just a ball of dirt and had never, strictly speaking, noticed anything before - not even the time when that rock split you in two!)

The ball of dirt was crackling and twinkling with energy now. It had a soul, and because it was just a ball of dirt and didn't have a brain or a way to get around, it wasn't sure what it was supposed to do with a soul. There must be something it was supposed to do with it, it believed, because that's just what a soul feels like. The ball of dirt lived with this feeling for many years, as rain, erosion and its own highly volatile interactions caused it to roll many, many yards, into a carrot patch.

Before too long, a beautiful princess strolled by. This princess was very beautiful, but she was impossible. There was absolutely no chance that a princess like her had ever happened, was currently happening, or ever would happen. Not only were there no kings and queens in the area handsome and lovely enough to sire such a beautiful daughter, but there were no kings and queens anywhere in the area. A beautiful princess might have come from another area, but if she were really as beautiful as the princess that was impossible, she never would have come to a carrot patch like this. Besides which, if she'd had a striking queen for a mother, she'd end up wearing too much makeup and ruining her looks.

The ball of dirt saw the princess by the carrot patch, and had a realization: "Aha! This is what you do with a soul! You fall in love with a princess, of course!" The princess was impossible, which suited the ball of dirt with a soul just fine, as you can well imagine. Knowing what to do with its soul felt good, but it led to another question: the ball of dirt didn't have the faintest idea how to love someone.

Within minutes, the ball of dirt noticed that, not only was the feeling of having a soul not getting any less troubling, but that it was feeling increasingly nervous as well. Gazing upon the fair, translucent skin and spiderweb-light auburn hair of its beloved did not seem to make it feel any better, either. In fact, if it didn't know any better, the ball of dirt could have sworn it was about to fall off of something, something very tall, and was clinging for dear life to this princess, this impossible princess.

"I love you," said the ball to the princess, who had no ears to hear.

"That's very strange," the princess replied. "You're a ball of dirt. You don't have a heart, unless it's an animal heart buried inside of you, which might not even help."

"I don't think I have a heart, although I haven't checked. But I do have a soul, and I think I love you."

The princess startled as if she'd been caught stealing a crab cake. "A soul? Why... that's... how do you know you have a soul?"

The ball of dirt thought. It was not very good at thinking, not having the requisite organs, but we've covered that. Try as it might, it couldn't come up with a very good explanation. "Well," he said to the princess, "think of your soul. How do you know you have yours?"

"Why, I don't believe I do. I don't have anything. I'm not possible," the princess replied sadly.

And all at once, the ball of dirt knew that he loved the princess, and he knew exactly how to do it. "You'd better eat me, then," the ball cried. "That's the only way you'll know what having a soul is like. Do it now! Then we can both be happy as soon as possible!"

The passion in the ball of dirt's words thrilled the princess into action, and she hurriedly snatched the ball of dirt up from the carrot patch. The outside of the ball was dry, and the princess' fingers scattered a good forty percent of its mass all over the patch when she grabbed it. The rest, she took into her mouth in two great bites.

Nothing felt different. The princess felt mildly annoyed, and perhaps a bit silly that she'd just gotten so excited about shoveling (so to speak) a bunch of dirt into her mouth. But she soon found herself thinking bemusedly about the different flavors in the dirt, the crunchy bits that tasted like lemon and metal and spice, and she was able to pay close attention for any change in her mental state.

Time passed, and before long, it was time for the princess to go off to college. When she finally graduated after five long years, she was a fully accredited steam train. On the whole, it was a decent career: on the good days, her coal burned hot, steam coursed down through her haunches and she blazed forwards, always forwards, with a strength that intoxicated her. There were times, though, when she was wistful: although she was a lot more possible these days, she was no longer a princess.

One day, as she squealed to a halt to allow a mail inspector on board, she took a sidelong glance through the brush and saw that a scant hundred feet away was the very carrot patch at which the ball of dirt had fallen in love with her. The carrot patch was as healthy as ever, although nothing about it seemed unusual, as we always expect things to look later on after something happened there which we believe to be magical. It looked smaller, too.

For a moment, she wanted so much to pull up the carrots in the carrot patch, taste the dirt encrusted in their skins, and ask them if they had any stories to tell. But she had no fingers and no arms, and to be perfectly honest, the conversation probably would have been awkward.

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