The Prophet's Eyes
by Joshua Grasso
His hands were numb with cold. Grigorii felt his daughter’s and rubbed
them gently in his own, though she was still half-asleep, her head
bobbing with each bump in the road. He whispered something to reassure
her—or more likely, himself—but she only coughed, her eyes closed but
her body squirming uncomfortably. They had been traveling by coach for
the better part of three days, stopping only to change horses and eat;
that is, when food could be found. At this point, hunger scarcely
registered, swallowed up by the piercing cold, fear, doubt, and longing
to see his wife once more.
Staring out the window, the winter landscape stared back at him for
miles. A faint road traced its way through craggy hills dotted with
frozen grass and blasted trees. Both earth and sky shared a uniform,
steely-gray defiance. Now and then faint sunbeams pierced the gloom and
sprinkled a purplish glow across the clouds. But that soon vanished and
all color seemed drained from the earth. As each new hill revealed
another endless expanse of nothing, Grigorii felt colder and more
alone. What if they never reached her? Shouldn’t there be some sign,
some indication, that they were nearing the camps?
“Papa, are we with mama yet?” Tanya asked.
“Not yet. Soon. I can tell we’re getting closer,” he said.
“How?” she asked, looking sleepily out the window.
“Look: there are fewer trees. They chop down the trees for wood. That
means we’re getting closer to the camps.”
He had no idea if this was so, but it sounded plausible. Tanya pressed
her nose against the glass and snorted, steaming it up. She did this
several times until all trace of the outside vanished behind the fog.
“Why did they send her out here? Because of magic?”
He nodded. “Remember, they gave her a warning last time.”
“Then why did she do it again?” Tanya asked, yet without a hint of
accusation. It was an innocent question.
“Do you understand what she told you? About her magic?”
“That she can see different times. She can see someone’s past and
future just by holding their hand. But not her own?”
“No, she can never see her own. It’s kind of like looking at your own
face. You can’t see it without a mirror.”
“But why is it wrong? She’s never tried to hurt anyone.”
“It’s difficult to explain, but women are forbidden to use the arts.
According to the Council, it’s because women can’t summon the words.
Only members of the Council can do it.”
“If they can’t do it...why is there a rule telling them not to?”
Grigorii laughed; he had offered the same logic to the Council numerous
times, as had his wife. Their response was sadly predictable: no
use getting young girls’ hopes up for what can never be. They weren’t
made to hear the voice. Their mouths simply can’t invoke the words.
They’re made improperly. Or rather, they’re made properly for other
vocations, so why bother with magic?
“Besides, I know mama can do it,” she added. “I’ve seen her do it
before. She even did it for me once.”
“She did?” he said, with mock-seriousness. “And what did you see?”
“Something very important...I forget,” she said, sheepishly. “Mama
didn’t let me see it too clearly. She said that knowing too much too
quickly can hurt you. So I only got a little peek.”
“I think she’s right. When you’re older, and you better understand your
past, where you’ve come from, you can handle knowing more of the
future. And that’s why people come to her. They have fears...they need
to know if something is worth the risk. Or what happened to them when
they were too young to remember.”
“Does she tell them?” she asked, wide-eyed.
“Only if she thinks it can help them. And they’re asking for the right
reasons,” he nodded. “That’s how she got into trouble. Someone came and
wanted to know for the wrong reasons. This person wanted to hurt other
people—though she wouldn’t admit it. Mama refused to help. So she ran
off and told the Council. They came for her that very night...and we
haven’t seen her since.”
“Has it been two months yet?” she asked, hugging her knees for warmth.
“Here, come under my coat,” he said, opening it up for her. While they
snuggled he nodded, “yes, two months this Thursday. I had to petition
for days to find out what happened, where they took her. To
Arkhangelsk—the Zimla Detention Facility. So far away.”
“Will she ever get out?” Tanya asked.
“I don’t know. It’s a labor camp. They send criminals there to work out
their crimes. Not many of them come home.”
“They think...she’s a criminal? Because she tried to help people?”
“Because she broke the rules.”
“And that’s why we’re going? To see her one last time? Or can we visit
“Let’s see how this first visit goes.”
Astrea had a tortured history with the Council. Before she came of age,
her powers could be waved off as a sideshow act, a confidence trick,
though she never used them for gain. Her unwillingness to turn a profit
is what brought her to their attention. They subjected her to a battery
of tests, deprived her of food, threatened to imprison her parents—the
usual tactics to intimidate the precocious. Most girls caught on
quickly and suppressed their powers, until by slow degrees they forgot
they even had them (and the younger they were, the more likely they
forgot). Astrea never quite took the hint. She would promise not to use
them, but days, weeks later, reports would reach them of a girl with
the second sight, able to see flawlessly into the past and even—so they
claimed—of futures which came to pass.
The Council prepared to have her and her family arrested and exiled to
the hinterlands where no one spoke a word of Russian (good luck
divining for them!). Only something remarkable happened instead: the
tsar heard of her gifts and demanded an audience. He wanted to hear his
fortune fresh from the lips of a fourteen year-old girl. It was all
meant to be a little diversion before dinner, even a chance to make fun
of the yokels and their notions of magic. So when the tsar removed his
glove and offered his hand, Astrea took it firmly in her grasp, screwed
up her eyes and clenched her jaw, and examined the tangled visions of
the world to come.
"Your Majesty, you're going to die. Tomorrow."
The tsar's advisors, at first expecting a joke, then horrified to read
her sincerity, ordered her killed. Only the tsar stayed their hand,
reading the same sincerity but finding himself moved, even inspired, by
her boldness. He asked her how. Assassination, but she couldn't say
who. A few laughs in the court. And why not, the tsar asked her. Because
he's sitting in this room. Laughter turned into panic, and suddenly
everyone was a suspect. Astrea finally promised to whisper it in his
ear, but before she could finish the guilty party confessed, threw
himself on the mercy of the court, and revealed the entire coup.
Their doom spelled her fortune: the tsar granted Astrea his royal
protection and decreed that she could continue her line of work
unhampered by the Council. Of course, she couldn't admit she was using
magic or had any special abilities, other than a certain "inclination"
to see the future. The Council protested and made speeches to anyone
who would listen—not many—and bided their time. As expected, her
reputation grew, and people flocked from the farthest provinces to hear
her wisdom. Some she turned away, as they asked too much of her, but
others she told as much as she could, and many of them left her
apartment weeping with gratitude and promising to lead better lives. It
was a common response. Astrea often said it was less whether or not
something came true (since the future was like the weather, shifting
with stray winds and sudden storms) but that people believed it could.
Many people, down on their luck and ready to end their lives, suddenly
believed in their future, that their lives still had meaning.
As before, she charged nothing for these glimpses other than a promise
not to curtail their daughters. If a girl seemed to show talent in a
given art, whether magic or divination or reading faces, don't report
her to the Council. Encourage her to learn, to listen. And if
nothing else send her to me. Many of them did: before long, she had
a steady stream of pupils coming to her doorstep, and though she never
officially gave them a lesson, she shared the secrets gleaned from
solitude and her ceaseless visions. Her parents feared the Council
would look askance at this and begged their daughter to stop, or at
least not advertise her disobedience. She was sixteen now, old enough
to get married, start a family, leave the city. They loved her, but
they had other children to think of, and secretly resented her helping
people without padding their wallets.
For once, she agreed with them—the moving out, that is. She had lucked
into a friendship with a local bookseller who sold her (er, gave her)
the latest novels and they fell in love over a particularly toothsome
romance. She ran off with him one night and they married in secret,
setting up house in a small hamlet a few miles from the city. Life
seemed perfect just then: the first flush of romance, a stream of
grateful applicants, and the growing awareness of her powers. The more
she studied the past, the more vivid became the future; pieces of this
and that person's life began to form a pattern, distressingly
consistent in its message and warning. One night after a long session
with an old woman, she took her husband aside and told her, "the
Council—it's going to end. I've seen it. I think I have some role to
play...and I'm supposed to start now."
Her actions became bolder then, training young girls outright, or
showing people a little more of the futures than she typically
permitted. It took no time for the Council to squirrel this out;
indeed, they often sent their own spies to have their fortunes told,
often skilled enough to escape detection. With the tsar alive they did
little more than complain, but he wouldn't live forever. By the time
she had trained a small school of women to use magic, the tsar fell
into a fit and had to be nursed fretfully, night and day. Astrea didn't
need a consultation to see the future. The Council insisted, for the
good of the realm, on providing its own physicians, and with a little
encouragement the tsar died within the week (turning an odd shade of
green, which the Council ascribed to 'black humors and foreign bile').
In the weeks that followed, Astrea's students were quietly rounded up
and made to recant. Some never did and vanished into exile or the
camps. Others implicated her and told lies mixed with just enough truth
to incite the Council. With the approval of the new tsar, a man who
cared little about magic, still less about women, they arrested Astrea
and brought her before the Archmage himself. The Archmage considered
himself a man of liberal beliefs and a tolerant disposition; he had no
interest in harming her or even putting a damper on her business (he
refused to believe she didn't pocket a little on the side). He only
asked two things: that she publicly confesses what she did wasn't magic
or anything allied with the arts. At best, it was intuition; at
worst—well, he left for the gossips to decide. And of course to stop
But she refused. Magic is like sight, or music, or dreams; it comes
to everyone regardless of gender or origin. How can I see the moon and
claim I see nothing but darkness? If moved by a piece of music, the
gooseflesh rises of its own accord. No amount of dissembling can change
that. I know what I know, and though you might disapprove of the
present, the future is completely indifferent. Girls are your equals
when it comes to magic; given encouragement, they might even outstrip
Or words to that effect. Several eyewitnesses wrote it down later (with
slight discrepancies) and published it in underground journals. Very
well, the Archmage warned her, do as thou wilt (he used "thou" to
intimidate people, or to sound important—it wasn't clear which). But
if I learn of thy disobedience again, thou shalt bear the penalty and
join your sisters in exile. You may see the future, but there are many
worlds to be seen; for the good of the realm, we keep things in their
proper focus. I encourage you to do the same.
At last—a sign, broken and faded from the elements, announced their
arrival. If anything, the road became worse at their approach to the
camps, riddled with holes and uncleared snow. He looked down at Tanya,
her bright eyes drinking everything in: his story, the landscape, the
fear she could sense in her father. He wondered how much of her
was in Tanya, how much she could see that remained invisible to him.
Maybe she should show him the way?
The coach shuddered to a halt near a rickety building with three guards
leaning on pikes, the air heavy with their exhalations. Grigorii opened
the door and felt the bitter sting of the wind, colder by far than what
had accompanied them in the coach. In the distance, across a snowy
field, he discerned a line of huts, each one puffing smoke from their
white-capped roofs. Astrea waited in one of them, though whether or not
she knew they were coming—or would have welcomed their arrival—he
“This way, sir,” a guard said, gesturing him forward.
Grigorii helped Tanya out of the coach and took her hand as they
goose-stepped through the slush.
“Come from far off?” the guard asked.
“From Moscow. We traveled three days.”
“You made good time. For some it takes a week. And some never even make
it this far.”
“I take it you don’t get many visitors.”
“Who would come here? You’re the husband of that woman, the Prophet?”
“Astrea. Is she well?”
“We call her the Prophet here. She told a man’s fortune last week. He
fled across the steppe and froze to death somewhere beyond the tree
line. Devil knows what she told him. We’re all scared of her now.”
Grigorii squeezed his daughter’s hand, hoping she was too cold and
tired to listen. A few more steps in ankle-deep snow brought them to a
rough collection of huts which housed the prisoners. Here and there he
saw a woman—they were all women—shuffling about in hooded garments and
nondescript boots. They quickly fled at his approach, though one
lingered, eyeing him without directly meeting his gaze. He gave a
slight nod and she faded into the shadows. However, just as he passed,
she fell to her knees at his side and seized his hand, kissing it
“She has sent you! You come from the light.”
The guard tossed her aside and she collapsed in the snow, dazed and
silent. But when he looked back he saw her expression—like a
star-struck little girl. Her mouth and eyes beaming. He had seen that
They were escorted into the nicest of the ramshackle huts, where the
Administrator himself held court. The man acknowledged them in a
stupor, his hair disheveled, his uniform crumbled, stained, and
half-remembered. They collapsed in two chairs and waited for him to
begin, a moment he prolonged by pouring several cups of tea and
draining them on the spot.
“Her husband, I presume? I’m glad you made it so quickly. Naturally,
they informed me of your arrival. And the reason you’re here.”
“May I see her now?” he asked.
“Momentarily,” he said, glancing at his daughter. “But you can only go
in one at a time. Ivan will go with you.”
“I can’t take my daughter with me?” he laughed, mirthlessly. “Do you
suspect her of smuggling contraband?”
“Criminals aren’t afforded the same privileges as the rest of us. And
no one has privacy out here,” he said, gesturing out the window with a
look of disgust. “I assure you she’ll be well looked after. Besides,
you only have five minutes, each of you. Then it’s back on the road.”
Grigorii let out a gasp, and the wall of resolve he had constructed
brick by brick collapsed in an instant. Tanya ran over to embrace her
father, whose silent tears shook his chest, burst at the seams of his
throat. The Administrator gave a look of distaste, less for Grigorii’s
emotion than his own quivering conscience.
“I suppose if you’re going to make a scene...very well, I’ll give you
ten, but I’m sending two guards—Ivan and Simon. And no touching!” the
Administrator snapped, staring at himself in the samovar.
Grigorii recovered himself, kissed Tanya’s head, and said how much he
loved her. He wanted to say so much more, things he scarcely even
understood, but in her eyes, he could see more than a nine year-old
girl. Wiping his face he stood up and followed the guards to a small
office in the back, where a few chairs and a bare table stood in
“Sit here,” a guard gestured. “We’ll bring her here. No touching or
exchanging letters. And no sudden movements.”
He nodded. They left the room, closing the door behind them. Silence
weighed heavily in the room, which had nothing to distinguish it; the
sole window looked directly onto a scraggly tree, blocking out the
adjoining huts or the vast, snowy plains. He thought of what to say to
her; whether or not she knew he was here; if she wanted him to come; if
this was the last time he would see her alive.
Footsteps. He almost panicked, wanting to leap out of the chair and
hide—or crush her in his arms. The door opened and she came in,
followed by the guards. Her eyes immediately swept over him, but almost
blankly, as if not recognizing him. A second sweep flushed with
recognition, and she stepped back, almost fell into the guards’ arms.
They eased her onto the chair across from him. Astrea seemed reluctant
to look up at him, as if he would vanish with a second glance. So he
had to start.
“Astrea. It’s Grigorii.”
She looked up, her eyes shimmering, lips clenched tight.
“I knew you would come. But I still can’t believe it.”
“They told you?”
She shook her head.
“I saw it. I saw you and Tonya in my mind, days ago. A single coach on
the barren road.”
“You can see that now?” he whispered, cutting his glance to the guards.
“Oh Grigorii, my visions have deepened, I can see so many things—some
beautiful, others frightening. They rush in like a torrent. I scarcely
even know where I am.”
The urge to grab hold of her nearly split him in two. Her head was
shaved, her eyes sunken, her chin cut and healed in an angry purple
scar. For the first time in his life he couldn’t date the scar, or the
shave, to any specific event he had been part of. This had all happened
in another world. He might spend the rest of his life not even knowing
if she was still here, or long dead, buried beneath the blighted earth.
“You brought Tanya? Can I see her? My dearest light…”
“Of course—they wouldn’t let us in together. She’s waiting outside.”
He glanced at the guards, who stood against the wall, trying to look
away, at anything else in the room (but hard pressed to find
“I only came to see you. Not for the reasons they wanted. Please
understand that. I had no expectations. Just to see you once more.
Nothing else,” he said.
“They let you come...on conditions?” she said, reading his thought.
“Yes. The Archmage paid me a visit—more than once,” he nodded, rubbing
his eyes. “Your disappearance has caused civil unrest. Women from all
over the country have besieged the tower, demanding answers. There were
a few incidents…a magician died. By a woman’s magic, they said. You can
imagine the scandal.”
She smiled the way she used to, unencumbered by the prison and her
precarious fate. Her hands crept onto the table, the fingers sliding
out, reaching for him without moving forward. He placed his own hands
as close as he dared, expecting the guards to admonish him. So far,
they ignored it.
“It could have all been prevented,” she said. “But now it’s larger than
a single person; I can’t wave my wand and restore the past. Things have
been set in motion. The women know who they are…and what they were
“He didn’t seem willing to discuss that. I did sense fear in his eyes,
in his voice. He’s scared of you—or at least what you represent.”
“Which is why I’m here, to quietly fade away.”
“No, he did this to scare you—to scare us. He knew you wouldn’t listen
to him otherwise. And he wanted...he wanted me to be the messenger.”
“What did he promise you?” she asked, her eyes locked with his own.
He hesitated. She guessed what it was; he could see that from her
stare, the tilt of her head. But she didn’t know how they sweetened the
“He said I could bring you home. That’s why he sent me, so you would
have to tell me ‘no.’ I did tell him no, actually, but he kept after
me...and the thought of not seeing you again...”
“I understand. And I’m glad you came. Even if my answer is no.”
She smiled and tapped her fingers on the table. He looked down, and saw
them trace symbols invisibly on the grain. Finger-speak. He followed as
best he could without her expertise, trying to imagine the intricate
tracery being left behind by each finger, the symbols becoming her
I’m already free. I can move through time now. I only stayed to see
Had he understood her correctly? Seeing his confusion, she repeated the
signs. Yes—it was exactly as he thought, and worse than he feared. He
had to draw her out, to learn as much as he could as quickly as
possible. He stammered a few vague responses before asking,
“Are you sure that’s your answer? Don’t you want to hear what he said?”
“If it keeps you here a little longer, yes,” she said.
I found you in the past. I kissed you for the first time again. I
love the taste of your lips, your skin. I wish you could hold me now.
“He told me something else,” he continued, anxiously. “I didn’t know
whether to believe him. He said you were ill. That you had delved into
your powers too quickly. That it was killing you. That’s the main
reason I came...I wanted to see for myself.”
“Well, I wouldn’t call myself the picture of health, but otherwise, I
hope to live a long time,” she said, with a shrug.
Do you believe him? That I’m mad? It’s what they want you to think.
That’s why I can’t live here anymore: the perpetual lies.
Were they lies? He examined her eyes, seeing the familiar Astrea from
so many years back, but with an added intensity. A desperate, almost
religious fervor stared back at him, someone completely at one with her
actions. He remembered, too, the woman outside who kissed his hand.
Like a devotee. Toward the end many of the girls became like that. Some
of them called her “the light,” or “the mother,” and it scared him; she
was still several years shy of thirty.
“He said he could help you. If you came with us, and agreed to listen
to his demands, he would help you. He would leave us alone.”
“How decent of him, to let an innocent family live in peace,” she said,
with the slightest edge.
Damn them. Their temple will burn. And then they will know. I’ve
seen their end.
“Yes, I told him you wouldn’t agree, that it was much ado about
nothing,” he nodded. “Again, I wasn’t even sure I could believe him.
But I agreed, if only to see you again, so Tanya could see her mother
and know what she fought for. I worry that in a few years she won’t
“She’s a bright girl, and you can teach her,” Astrea said, her hands
“I can’t be what you were, what you are to her now.”
Her hands resumed their tracing, her eyes smiling into his own—the old
I love her more than life. I will never be far. Tell her to wait.
I’ll find you.
He felt her slipping away from him. Only minutes—a minute?—remained.
The guards seemed antsy, shifting more frequently from one position to
the next. Mere seconds left to luck upon the right words, anything to
restore her compassion, her fear of losing them both. But everything
sounded like lies, the truth most of all.
“Naturally, he wants you to write a confession. Tell the world how you
did it. Not magic. Something else...reading faces, a trick of numbers.
Anything to make them lose faith in your power. That’s all he cares
about. Not us…”
“I already told them I wouldn’t lie,” she sighed, her fingers dancing
across the table. “If they call that resistance, so be it. Others would
call it compassion. I do.”
I’ve seen a better world. That’s where you’ll find me. Please
believe in me, beloved. Just as I believe in you.
Perhaps I’ve already betrayed her, he thought to himself. Because he
didn’t believe her. He didn’t trust any of this. She told him once that
the visions were unclear, that they required careful thought and
interpretation. And even then, she could be wrong...no one knew the
future. It wasn’t a series of dates and events, but impressions and
possibilities. There was always more than one conclusion. So how could
she know for sure?
“There’s so much I want to say to you. And there’s so little time to
explain. Seeing you now, though, it gives me hope. It tells me what I’m
doing is right.”
No fingers; this is actually what she wanted to say. His eyes burned
and he looked away, knowing he had failed. There was no way to convince
her, even though he felt now, more than ever, she would die in pain and
confusion. The magic had overtaken her, made her stronger, certainly,
but a step removed. More the “mother” and less the woman, less his
“You’re so brave. You always were,” she said.
He winced, unable to control himself. The tears came and he buried his
face in his hands. The guards turned pale, frozen like statues against
the wall. Astrea slid her chair back and got up, stumbling around the
table without a word or a look at the guards. They said nothing, even
turned away to allow a modicum of privacy. She knelt to her husband’s
side, took his face in her hands and kissed him. He sobbed, crying his
wife’s name, knowing he would never see her again. She enfolded him in
her arms and whispered a phrase in his ear, a line from a
long-forgotten poem: “be thou the tree, and death the falling leaf.”
It was time to go. He took a last look at her, hoping the madness would
dull her pain. That she could live and die in her memories; in that
sense, don’t we all travel in time? She caressed a rune into his face
with her finger: remember. A final kiss, and he stood up from the chair
and followed her back to her own. Their hands lingered together, then
parted. He walked back to the main room in a daze, only to find Tanya
playing cards with the Administrator—and winning.
“Tanya, your mother is waiting.”
“I beat him so many times, papa!” she smiled.
He took her hand and led her to the room, or as far as the guards
allowed. Needlessly cruel, but true to their word. They opened the door
and ushered her in. Grigorii stepped back, catching a fleeting glimpse
of Tanya falling into her mother’s arms as it closed.
“A fine girl,” the Administrator said, with a chuckle. “If you like, I
can let you stay in my quarters for the night. It’s a long journey. Too
long for a child like her.”
“Thank you,” he said, still fixed on the door.
“Your wife has quite a following here. The women think she’s a prophet.
That she can walk through time and see the future. If so, how did she
wind up here? Didn’t see this coming?”
He had been aware of the signs for years. The more she used her powers,
the more she seemed to dig into herself. The longer it took for her to
climb out. The visions became more dire, more apocalyptic. Her role in
the struggle assumed ever-more monumental importance, until she began
to see herself as a savior, and at times, the only one. What worried
him was when the girls felt the same, and touched the hem of her skirt
with reverence, attributing her hair with sacred powers (her brushes
often went missing). Maybe they would have grown out of it as they grew
up, developed powers of their own. But that would never happen in this
world, not under the watchful, benevolent eye of the Council.
“That’s what you don’t understand,” the Archmage told him, at
the end of their interview, “we don’t deny them magic from fear of
competition or a faulty belief in our superiority. Far from it. It’s
because magic is more intuitive to women. It’s something they’ve always
known, and if we encourage it, it becomes their waking and sleeping,
their dreams and real-life. It drives them into paranoia and
delirium—and all too soon, an early demise. Ages ago it was decided to
deny them the power, even though we learned it from them. The first
sorcerer, of course, was a woman...”
For their own good? It sounded like a fairy-tale, a pat reason to
imprison those with a claim to the throne. Of course, fairy tales were
told for a reason. What else could have driven them apart, placed her
mission above their love, their daughter’s protection? He wanted to
believe in her; that’s why he came, to prove himself wrong. But it
didn’t work. He found himself doubting everything...the last six years,
their courtship, their memories, their life. Only Tanya made sense to
At length the door opened and Tanya skipped out, tears having dried on
her cheeks and replaced with sunshine happiness. He embraced her with
weary delight. At least he could take her away from this place. It
wasn’t too late for her; he could still protect her from magic and the
“Mama told me so many things,” she said, as if sharing a treasured
“I’m glad you had time together. Perhaps, one day, we’ll be able to see
“Oh, we will...she’s already waiting for us.”
“Waiting? In her cell?”
“No...the future,” she whispered, her eyes growing wide. “That’s where
I saw her.”
“Yes, that’s what she showed me before and I forgot. Now I remember.
Isn’t it wonderful, papa?”
The same look in her eyes. Like Astrea. Like the girls. Like the woman
in the snow. All of them looking to the future.
© 2019 Joshua Grasso
Bio: Joshua Grasso is a professor of English at East Central
University in Ada, Oklahoma, where he teaches classes in British
Literature (the older, the better), Humanities, and SF/F, he has
published several indie novels on Amazon as well as articles on
numerous eighteenth-century writers such as Defoe, Fielding, and
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