The loom can be nothing but a loom, unless it is kindling. Vera considers the fibers in front of her and tries to not consider lighting it on fire. To be something else–no, that wasn’t right, but to be someone else…
There isn’t much going on this early in the morning, in the criss-crossing and meandering streets of Clevsin. Women in bright colors and what fashion is available to them draw water, and men argue over small things in the way friends do when they see each other in passing. The warm tan of the houses and tile roofs is striking against the clouds piling up on the horizon. Vera holds stormy days close to her heart, away from those who revel in the sun and relish the burn it leaves.
“Vera,” says a sharp voice from the doorway. Vera jumps at the sound, and faces the hatrencu from her place by the window. She knows Tulvna’s voice well.
“If your hands need a rest, it would be best spent studying your charts, Vera,” she says. Of course she’s here to check me. The others must have received a visit from her as well, with the ritual tonight. Tulvna has black hair streaked through with gray, but her face is still youthful. Only older women are allowed a seat with the hatrencui, so she displays her age with pride, always wearing her hair in distinctive braids to best show off her streaks of gray.
“Back to the loom,” she says sternly, raising a brow. “I’ll see you tonight,” she calls from the hall, footsteps growing faint.
Vera sits quickly and sets herself to work; the clack, clack sounds like it’s coming from another room.
The olive grove seems to agree, nodding in the breeze.
“Someone gets it,” she says to the olives. She sighs and returns to her work.
She feels a stab of guilt–she and all the other acolytes are lucky to be here in the first place. They assist the hatrencui, taking the burden of domesticity away from women whose role is to be closer to the Oracle and civic life. It’s not something Vera desires; she’s seen the assembly gather, and had been nervous just sitting in the room. She ignores the tightness of the walls around her and leans a little further out the window, looking down at the olive orchards.
Vera only peeks out the window after that. The storm on the horizon grows and grows, big clouds piling up in a dark gray situation like big, greasy stacks of wool from the Oracle’s sheep. She focuses, ignoring the sharp beauty of light green leaves against the dark sky.
In the span of a breath, an unknowableness settles on her, the way silence and unease will settle like a heavy blanket before a thunderstorm. The omens that come with that unease are common things, measurable in ways that made sense: the way the chickens clucked before a storm could be read to determine the aftermath. But this feeling of being unknowable settles into the pit of her stomach, coiling there and sending tendrils through her body.
“I am Vera,” she tells it, aloud. “I am an acolyte of the Mother, who serves the Oracle. You will rest here, and then go.” The feeling does not stir, but settles.
Lunch is a normal summer meal: cured olives and good yeasted bread with salt and oil, firm cheese and fruit. Vera chats with the other girls. What will they learn tonight? They have never done a ritual like this one. Tonight, they would divide the sky into sections with the help of a hatrencu, and read entrails by firelight.
Vera focuses on her food. It’s hard to ignore something when you have to focus to ignore it. The feeling in her middle has not gone away.
I am here to stay.
It is an alarming thing, to hear a voice in your head that is not your own. Everyone is looking at her, and she realizes she’s standing.
“Vera?” one asks cautiously.
She focuses on her friends in front of her: Virnua had spoken, but Iminae and Sumnus look concerned. The four of them share the same room on the ground floor, one of the simple acolyte rooms. They are her best friends. There isn’t a secret amongst them.
“I am… I am not prepared for tonight; I need to study.” She excuses herself before they can ask any more questions. She can’t lie to them. The feeling in her stomach slithered happily, and she fights the urge to grasp her middle. The image of salamanders writhing in a hollow, freshly split log forms in her mind, and she had to stifle a gasp. Outside in the courtyard, she leans against the stone walls, hands balled into fists. The feeling does not disappear, but winds away until it is a mere suggestion.
They get ready in a buzz long before Tulvna summons them. The acolyte sent to fetch them is younger than the four women, and meekly gives the instructions Tulvna has ordered her to pass on. Vera is giddy with the rest of them, thoughts of the salamanders tucked far away.
It happens when the hatrencu is giving instructions, asking questions to make sure they are paying attention. The bird they are to sacrifice is tethered and looking at them awkwardly, like it knows what is going to happen in the next few seconds. Certainly none of the women on the roof could have guessed.
Vera doesn’t fall so much as slump, and begins to shake violently. They treat her to the best of their ability. They know how to treat the girl with eyes rolling back into her head, body thrashing; they know to keep her tongue from between her teeth. But they do not see the glow at the base of her neck, and Vera can’t tell them about the prickling at the soles of her feet. The bird is altogether forgotten.
“Get the Mother,” Tulvna tells the girls. Iminae leaps up and races down the stairs. Before long, she reappears, waiting at the top of the ladder to help the older woman up.
They hear her bare feet on the ladder before they see her. The Mother is an old woman, white hair kept in a braid that usually disintegrates into halo-making wisps before the end of the day. She wears the same robes as them, but they know she is the Mother at a glance. Rare is the woman who survives to have hair as white as hers. It is known that she is the oldest in the whole region. Many who know no better challenge her, and they learn that she is also among the wisest.
She takes a look at the sky and seems pleased. It is a clear night, and the rainstorm earlier only made the world crisper. The women make room with bowed heads as the Mother leans over their charge. Vera breathes quietly now.
The women wait as their superior examines their friend. The Mother grasps Vera’s hands and works up the arms, shoulders, neck, and skull. Her brow creases when she feels at the base of the skull, right where it meets the neck. She rises quickly after that, looking up at the sky, and grabs at the air, muttering and pacing. The Mother looks over the town and into the hills for what feels like a very long time. The breeze falters for the barest moment, and only the faraway river makes a sound. The acolytes are silent but their breathing is ragged. Only Tulvna, with her training as a hatrencu, keeps her composure.
The Mother turns to them, and Tulvna recognizes her expression with alarm: urgency.
“The river,” she says.
That’s all it takes. The women all react as if a whip had been snapped at them, and all begin talking at once.
“Will she be okay?” They all speak over each other, gesturing wildly to the sky, Vera, the river, and anything else that could be blamed or implicated. The Mother waits patiently.
The hatrencu is the first to catch on. As an older sister gets younger sisters in line, she gives the others a dressing-down that singes their ears. They stand in silence, facing the Mother. Vera’s breath continues, her chest rising and falling in steady rhythm.
“Trust,” she says, when they are silent. Without another words she makes for the stairs, gesturing for them to follow.
The women are quick to obey, two of them taking an arm and another following behind to support Vera’s neck. They make their way down the stairs, not far behind the Mother. through the sleeping quarters of the Oracle women, and out into the side street. This was no problem, even though walking on the main road was nicer. This would have raised questions to anyone peeking out their window in the night; with the Mother leading them, it would have roused half the town out of bed.
They follow her down paths that wind down to ancient foot trails, smaller and smaller, struggling to go three abreast, and they go slowly through the bay trees that grow closer to the river. Vera’s breathing is even throughout the whole ordeal, and they at last place her where the Mother instructs.
“Lay her on the bank, and touch her or anything around her upon pain of death by their own hand.” The women put her down promptly, repressing shudders; death ordered was death done. They move Vera so her feet are in the water.
“Remove that,” the Mother says. With a lowered head, Virnua steps forward and gently removes the balled-up head covering from underneath Vera’s head.
They do not question the Mother as they did on the roof. One sharp look from the hatrencu is all they need: let the Mother work.
And work she did. She goes out into the current until the water is hip-high, and raises her hands to the sky. There is no moon, only bright, burning stars that light the river in shadows, reducing their colorful world to black and white. Sumnus catches her breath, and almost makes a ward against evil; her eyes are fixed on the Mother, and she thinks better of it. It will be put to right, she thinks. She will protect us. The Mother will protect us.
The water around the Mother begins to quake, as though the whole river were in a cup and some great hand sat drumming a rhythm next to it. The water shakes, and in the black and white night, goes completely still.
Then slowly, so slowly that the women on the bank think their eyes are deceived, the river starts to churn.
It is a flash at first, a subtle turning of black to white and then black again. But then another, and another so close behind that it cannot be a deception. The water begins to roll and then boil, but the Mother does not move, doesn’t even seem to flinch. She lowers her hands, and the roiling mass moves closer to the shore. Towards Vera, lying unaware.
“Stop her!” Tulvna cried.
Iminae grabs Virnua around the waist to keep her from running to Vera’s side, the other women just a beat slower. They hold her back just as the mass brushes Vera’s feet, and hide their faces from the river and the friend they can’t help.
Salamanders creep up out of the water, slick bodies tumbling one over the other, perhaps hundreds in a roiling mass around Vera’s inert form. The women on the bank do not see the salamander that goes to the base of Vera’s neck and bites her.
Vera cries out suddenly, and the salamanders rush to bind her ankles and wrists with their bodies. Without warning, lightning snakes down, and to the horror of the women on the bank, moves with the slow distortion of a salamander trapped in its own body by the cold.
The lightning touches her chest, and the women scream, blinded and collapsing in on each other in layers of sobs and moans. When they look up, the salamanders are gone. The sky does not rumble with the thunder they know should follow, and one by one they fall prostrate in the river’s direction. They do not see the salamanders slide back into the river, nor the one that disappears into Vera’s open mouth.
Vera remembers the roof well enough, and thinks she is still up there, where all healing is done. She opens her eyes and tries to find something familiar. First, of course, the calm night sky. It held simple, ecstatic joy.
But the mud on her clothes is a cause for concern, as is the mud on the back of her head matting her hair. There’s mud everywhere. She squeezes her hands into fists, digging into the clay of the riverbank. She looks around wildly, then sees the river lapping at her feet, and the Mother standing before her.
The old woman stands at Vera’s feet, water up to her ankles, and smiles down at the girl.
“Daughters, come and collect this one,” the Mother says softly.
Tulvna raises her head first and scrambles to her feet when she sees Vera. She checks Vera’s chest and pulse points.
She obeys, not minding the mud, and turns to gather up her friends.
“Leave them,” the Mother orders, and turns to the hatrencu. “Tulvna, see that they are sent to bed with a cup of honeyed wine and an extra blanket. They may sleep as late as they’d like,” she says. She turns back to the Oracle without waiting to see if her orders will be followed.
“Come with me, Vera,” the Mother says, and without another word, starts back for the Oracle. Vera looks back at her friends for a moment as they struggle to their feet in the ankle-deep river mud.
She sits in the Mother’s quarters next to a wide window open toward the dawn now coloring the sky with pale light, no hint of lightning in the pink tinge over the earth. It’s a day that rings full of promise, one that all creatures big and small know to celebrate.
The Mother sets a mug in Vera’s hands and makes a swift upward gesture. Vera knows to drink, and drink it all. It’s warm, a little bitter and a little sour, but pleasant. The Mother stands by the window with her own mug and looks out at the sunrise. When she speaks, she sounds content.
“Child, would you like to know what has happened?”
“Something to do with the Oracle, I am sure.”
She looks amused, of all things. “Put the Oracle out of your mind for now,” she says with a chuckle.
Vera balks. People don’t say things like that. The Oracle shows them when to harvest, the most auspicious marriages, who should be recruited to join their numbers as an acolyte, and much more. The Oracle is the hub to the people of Clevsin and the outlying farms. People came even from Vetluna and Tarchna.
“That does not sound right.” Even as she says it, the words made her feel foolish. The woman she is speaking to was a hatrencu when her parents were born.
“Come with me. I will show you,” she says. The Mother drains her cup, gently links her arm through Vera’s, and guides her toward the inner chamber where the Oracle waits. They pass through the living quarters for both acolytes and then hatrencu and receive gestures of respect. The Mother looks straight ahead and acknowledges the bows with a courteous nod or a smile. After a moment of stillness, everyone jumps to go back to work.
They walk through the wide courtyard where the wash is hung out to dry. The string is supported by hooks in the eaves and poles stuck in the ground to keep the line from sagging under the weight of robes and veils. It is noon, and the clothes are well on their way to drying. Everyone wears the same blues, so the courtyard takes on a dreamy, swirling hue that engulfs the both of them and nips at their noses and heels. Vera always thought this was how the wind might look from the heavens.
“Come along, come along,” the Mother says, almost chiding.
Vera realizes she had stopped to admire the laundry. She straightens herself and hurries to catch up.
“We have always been keepers of the Oracle,” the Mother says, speaking for the first time since the courtyard. It is hot in the midday, carts and people hurrying to and from shade to keep off the heat. They are on the steps leading to the front door of the Oracle, just off the main street. People hurry past, averting their eyes to keep unwanted attention from themselves and their fortunes.
The Mother motions for Vera to follow, and they climb the steps into the Oracle’s cool interior.
“The Oracle has always been an indicator only. Through time and trial, and much error, we have made some little science of how to read its will,” she says. They walk toward the inner sanctuary, where strange rumblings shake sands and priestesses decode messages in tiny portions, forming strange patterns only the Mother can fully interpret.
It is a humble entry hall with rough columns on either side and wide enough for the elder and younger to walk side-by-side. The high ceiling makes Vera feel small, and she hesitates outside the door to the inner chamber even as the Mother steps in. She has never been allowed to this part of the Oracle before. She is not initiated.
“Mother, I cannot,” she says.
The Mother snorts, waving her in. Vera hesitates a moment more, and steps forward.
“An entity resides in you, now,” the Mother says as they walk together. They go slowly, the Mother leaning on Vera for support.
“This place is our window into the home of the gods, and you can think of the Oracle itself as another home to them. This is our purpose in keeping a sacred space, here in Clevsin and little towns throughout this land. We have waited for the woman who would be the space between the inside and outside. The one who occupies that between.”
“Why?” Vera asks. They stood at the foot of the altar, a low rugged thing elevated only by a few steps.
The Mother is silent. The younger woman bows her head, and they both sit down facing each other. “I pronounce a task.”
Vera knows when she is being deflected.
“As Vera, you may go about your tasks as normal. Your friends have all heard an explanation, but not the truth. They know you had a fit of some sort, and that you are being watched over. They will draw their own conclusions.”
Vera lets her friends fawn over her and she answers their questions the best she can. They know she is shaken and bring her warm bread with honey and a cup of wine. She smiles as they put the softest blankets on her shoulders.
It is Sumnus’ idea to tuck Vera in the middle of the two lightest sleepers: warm in the cool night, and not next to Iminae, who is like an ass when she sleeps: that is to say, she drools and kicks. Vera knows they are reassured by this arrangement: here, they can protect her. They fall asleep one by one, until it’s just Sumnus and Vera awake. Sumnus glances over at Vera—her eyes are wide open, staring at the ceiling. They drift off, soft breathing blending in with the breeze coming through the open window.
The world has just started to wake, hands of dawn creeping over olive orchards and stone houses, winding rivers and lakes like mirrors to the sky. The birds in the orchards and in their nests start awake, aware of some great change in the rhythm of the world.
Vera dreams out of the eyes of a stranger. She dreams she is someone else; she lives in her body, but it is not her, not Vera as she knows herself. A mirror. Her nose, lips, eyes.
Not her eyes. Is this mine? The thought is dreamy, and she looks down at her body as she would after putting on her dress and mantle in the morning. She would have screamed. There is no body, every freckle and scar and sunburn replaced with bright stars and the loud roar of the sun. She looks up at the mirror again, floating in front of her.
A stranger stares at her.
Vera’s eyes snap open as she wakes with a jolt. The blankets seem to smother her and she claws out of them, climbs over Virnua, and sprints down the hall. She does not hear her friends’ sleepy confusion.
“Mother,” she bursts into the study, weeping. She collapses on the floor, and the Mother quickly stoops to help her into a chair.
“Vera, tell me.”
“A dream,” she manages to get out. She describes what she saw, what she felt.
The older woman sits quietly as Vera recounts the dream. Her calm demeanor makes Vera want to shake her. She is breathless when she finishes recounting her dream. The Mother sits across from her.
“Mother, what should I do?”
The older woman waits a beat, and then begins.
“You know how our Oracle works, yes?”
“As you say, the Oracle indicates. We rely on special readings using the sands in our Oracle, which must be deciphered properly,” Vera recited quickly. A million questions fell into her mouth, but the Mother cuts in.
“It is a weak and pitiful thing, when we compare it to what you have.”
Vera balks. “How am I to harness it, if it’s so powerful?”
The Mother laughs, and Vera lowers her head. “Don’t be ashamed, girl. I wish I could tell you how many young women would ask the same question in your place. The Oracles are fleeting—they need tools and rituals that fail as often as they work. You, the Seer, will remain and give prophecy.”
“How do I become this, this Seer, Mother?”
“Vera, the Seer becomes you,” she says. Vera feels the words take root in her heart and feels the weight of them hanging in the air. She is still for a beat, and a frenzied look comes into her eyes.
“I can fight it off, Mother. Please, listen, I can still be me, I’m still me, look,” she says, surging up and motioning to her body. “I can still be a Seer, and be me.” Vera knows her voice is higher and faster than usual.
“Perhaps you can, Vera. But to See is to fall and revel in falling. Live well, and when it comes for you, do as you are bid.” The Mother sits behind her desk. “You may go about your day, Vera.”
And the day passes without incident. Vera goes about her chores and though she smiles less than usual, life goes on. It does so the next day, and the day after that. Weeks pass, and Vera relaxes into her life again. Where her dreams were once populated and active, now she welcomed peaceful sleep.
The days wear on into fall and then winter, when lightning forks through the sky and thunder keeps the hatrencu of the Oracle vigilant for signs in their sands.
It is on a day like this when Vera wanders through the olive grove under her window.
She sits at the base of one of the trees, thankful for a break in the rain. The ground is dry here, and she feels blessedly alone. Or as alone as she can be.
“Vegoia,” says a voice. It is the voice that has been coming for her.
Her arms prickle at the sound. This is what she had heard the morning of that last dream. The whisper of wind in her ear sends a shudder down her back.
“You call the wrong name,” she says aloud, keeping the tremble out of her voice. She looks around and is afraid: the landscape has changed, but subtly. Everything is too still. No rustling wind, chirps from bugs and birds, or the distant pulse of the town. A constricting calm has settled over her world. A bird sits frozen, midair. She could pluck it from the sky.
“I don’t think so,” it whispers in the other ear. There was no gender to the voice. “Listen, Vera.”
Vera ignores the stillness around her and instead feels: rough bark at her back, rich earth beneath her hands and heels.
“Whatever you have to say, say it.” The chill creeping down her spine does nothing to harden her voice.
“I’m not here to speak. I’m here to give you the power of speech.”
“I can speak well enough on my own. Give me what message you have.”
Vera feels rather than hears the chiding tsk from the voice. “Vera, if only you understood. Would you like to see what life would be, if you lived in both worlds?”
“I’m ready,” she says. She looks over the edge.
Vera resists what she sees at her feet. A precipice with events yet to occur, a world of secrets, still within earshot of the world she knows. Time passes. She resists the pull of the precipice, as the women who find her in the grove must restrain her as she tosses.
“You are what the world has been waiting for,” the voice says from deep within her mind. She looks into that portion of herself as it calls to her, starry heights like vast cities of light swimming before her eyes.
“You have many prophecies to give, Vera, soon Vegoia. Together we will divine the lightning that glides through the sky, to deliver your cities from ruin, ruin of ages to come. Trust that you can save them, will save them.”
She needs no more time to ponder, and recalls all the things that tether her here: Virnua, Iminae, Sumnus; a thousand little moments of laughter; the loom.
The time between her decision and her action is the space of a frightened rabbit’s heartbeat. In it, she Sees.
They are moving her inside. Hatrencui carry her with a special sort of reverence, feet-first through the door, the Mother following and supporting Vera’s head. The older woman looks gentle and at peace, smiling absently as she strokes Vera’s forehead. My forehead, she thinks.
Vera shifts her gaze toward her friends. They plan in the dark of their room. She knows they suspect everyone and everything. They suspect something terrible is happening to their dear friend.
They are right. They are wrong.
Her bearers move her into the Oracle and up the front steps. The hatrencui are glad for the audience gathered at the foot of the steps. The Mother stops to address the crowd, but Vera-that-soon-will-not-be does not listen to her; instead, she flutters open an eyelid, appreciates a blue the color of the big vein on her right arm, appreciates the gentle dome of the sky for the last time through these eyes.
The heartbeat ends, and she forsakes it all. Vera rushes up to merge into something greater than any one person could be.
The presence descends on her in the span of an eyeblink. A wave of calm settles over her, like so much of the laurel wind that sweeps from the west into her second-story window. There is no Vera. She wanders on the rings of the sixth planet, stares down into the vast abysses of the fifth’s gaseous surface. Vera whispers from her new home among the planets, fascinated with the grand images of what has come before her. Thoughts of who she had been flit, flicker, and are replaced with thoughts of things to come.
A calf in a field. Water flowing. Peaceful croaking. Wind through trees and over vines.
A wolf suckling two boys…
A city on one hill, then three, then seven hills… And then more hills than she can count in the half-heartbeat in which she Sees. She is all the things that make up the bits between stars.
Her friends tumble into the Oracle, with hatrencui and other acolytes moments behind them, ready to stop them from interrupting the sacred. They breathe a sigh of relief when they see Vera seated at the bottom of the steps, eyes closed. She looks peaceful. The Mother stands next to Vera.
“She’s going to be alright,” Virnua breathes.
“We’ll all be here for the New Year festival,” Iminae says aloud.
“Vera? Vera, wake up.” Sumnus reaches out to touch her, then stumbles back into the other girls with a yelp.
The body that once belonged to Vera opens milky white eyes to the world. Only the Vegoia remains.