Aphelion Issue 241, Volume 23
July 2019
 
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The Prophet's Eyes

by Joshua Grasso




1.


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 again?”

“Let’s see how this first visit goes.”

2.


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 training girls.

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 you.

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.

3.


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 couldn’t say.

“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 fervently.

“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 look before.

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 witness.

“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.

4.


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 distractions).

“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 meant for.”

“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 fatal poison.

“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 innermost thoughts.

I’m already free. I can move through time now. I only stayed to see you.

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 remember.”

“She’s a bright girl, and you can teach her,” Astrea said, her hands falling silent.

“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 eyes again.

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 wife.

“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.”

5.


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 him now.

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 Council both.

“Mama told me so many things,” she said, as if sharing a treasured secret.

“I’m glad you had time together. Perhaps, one day, we’ll be able to see her again.”

“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.”

“You 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.



THE END


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 Equiano.

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