Eyes Of Time

Photo prompt: Sue Vincent

 

“Learn to listen,” He-Who-Runs-With-Crooked-Legs told him as they sat to whittle spears and arrows out of saplings.

The old man’s hands moved the sharp bone deftly over the yielding wood, smoothing any bumps that could confuse an arrow’s spirit and send it listening to things other than the direction intended by the hunter.

He-Whose-Smile-Fades-Fast had hands that didn’t listen. The bone slipped. The sticks broke. The tips burned instead of hardening.

“You are still young,” He-Who-Runs-With-Crooked-Legs nodded at the boy’s frustration, his own fingers flying like starlings in a sky dance. “Your patience needs many more moons to grow.”

“…And you face special challenges,” the older man added, and the unexpected compassion softened the lined face in a way that soothed the boy more than the salve where the fire had wounded him. “It is your path to struggle. It is your path to overcome and become One-Who-Knows.”

“Like you?” the boy asked, eyes gliding over his mentor’s legs — one long and lean and straight, one tight and oddly bent. It had taken him months to build the courage to speak to the Shaman, and months more to dare note what all saw but was taboo to mention. The deformity was part of the man’s magic. It lent him awe. It caught the curiosity of spirits so they crowded closer to examine him, bringing hardship but also allowing him to speak and sing and plead and wrangle with them on others’ behalf.

“Yes, like me,” He-Who-Runs-With-Crooked-Legs replied. “A path of pain becomes a path of wisdom. If you let it teach you. If you open your heart and listen to your mind, your eyes, your hands, your scars.”

The boy lowered his eyes. He’d seen the man unclothed and he knew the many scars that crisscrossed the Shaman’s torso and that they were part made in valor, part born of harm.

 

He-Whose-Smile-Fades-Fast still remembered the evening when the old man had tapped the flap to the family’s dwelling, and poked his staff in to let his parents know who’d come. It wasn’t his mother who’d let the guest in. It wasn’t even his brother, who’d since become a man. But his father who had gotten up to greet the healer. His father who’d vacated the best seat and who’d served the steaming pine tea in the whorl cup.

The boy had gone to hide behind his mother’s back while the men talked. He curled his webbed fingers under his thumbs. He stuck his tripping, stubby toes under his mother’s furs. The Shaman scared him, and he felt it in his stomach that it was him the words concerned. He felt it in his mother’s muscles, too, tensing as she listened to a future that she must have known was his, and to the losses that she had to know were coming.

Shamans did not hunt. Shamans did not marry. Shamans did not dangle babies on their knee. They fasted. They prayed. They endured. They traveled worlds of mist and danger to bring back people’s souls. They blessed weapons and fought the spirits of famine and war and ill. They were feared and respected but not often loved. It was not a life a mother would will.

That night had been his last in his mother’s arms. He’d been entrusted to the Shaman since. For days he’d ran in tears to his mother only to have her return him solemnly, her own eyes dripping, to the feathered tent.

“You are fortunate,” she whispered to him once when he clung fiercely and her own hands seemed reluctant to release him. “Some Shamans can be cruel in their training, but he is not. He was my uncle once, in the years before he turned a holy man. He had been raised in violence and he promised he would not impart it on you. Go, my son. He will be like a father and mother to you now.”

 

The moon was born a dozen times since, and his mother had been right. He-Who-Runs-With-Crooked-Legs was firm and exacting, but he did not whip or lash or wound him, not in body, not in mind. Underneath the distancing exterior, the healer was kind.

The boy bent his head to the stick, determined. Still his hands refused to do his bidding and the sharp bone bit deep into his flesh. He blinked and breathed and wept but let no sound escape.

“The sky has a story today,” the old man said quietly. “Use your pain to wipe your inner eye so you could hear what it tells.”

The boy pressed his lips together and looked up through a veil of tears to see the sky ablaze. Darkness hovered near.

“It will be dark soon,” he said, and the echoes of the throbbing in his hand reverberated in his chest with a desolation only matched by the loneliness he’d felt during the first nights without his mother’s tent. “A dark time.”

The Shaman nodded.

“Fires spat by sticks of thunder. Cunning mouths and thieving hands …” the boy’s eyes lingered on his deformed palm and in the small pool of blood that gathered it in he saw the life of his people dissolve like a reflection distorted by a sudden breeze.

“A dark time is coming,” the Shaman agreed, oddly pleased. “Not in my time. Not in yours. But it will come and our people will discover many needs. You have cleared your eye well, and you have listened. You are young but with patience and more moons, you will become a One-Whose-Eyes-See-Time.”

 

 

 

For Sue Vincent’s WritePhoto Challenge

 

 

 

New Born

Photo: Sue Vincent

 

He was born on a blustery night to a woman who huddled on the exposed slopes with naught but the protection of three wide backs to block the worst of the wind. The men crouched, arms linked and heads down, their eyes averted from what was taboo to watch, as they hummed the low sounds of incantations meant to shield the woman and babe from the demons and their own ears from the muffled cries.

There was no midwife.

The other woman had died not a full moon prior. It was a bad omen.

There was no spirit-guide. Their leader, too, had died.

Bad omens, all.

There was only the woman, panting desperately in the dark. And the three of them: One of whom in whose hearth she’d grown, one whose hearth she shared, one who’d preceded her in her mother’s womb. And a girl-child of barely eight winters. Pale and shivering and wide-eyed, she knelt before the woman, one hand on the swollen belly, another cradling the opening for the magic and terror that no man was allowed to look upon. But she would. She was too young. But there was no one else who could.

As the night stretched and the panting shortened, he was born.

By morning, they moved on.

A fresh mound under a rock marked the space where the smell of blood still lingered. The men had dug the hole, even though it was women’s work. A concession to their circumstance. They could not wait till the girl, or woman, gathered sufficient strength for the task. It was paramount that one put distance between oneself and the afterbirth, lest the demons seek to lug the babe back into the dark. The mother, too, sometimes.

They left all that behind.

He lived his first days in almost the same darkness he’d been made in. Cocooned inside his mother’s wraps, lips close enough to her breast to suckle, rocked by the same thunder and gurgle of her heartbeat and innards.

Sometimes, much later in years, he’d remember the indistinguishable. How inside and out did not differ by much other than air and hunger and the momentary cold that blanketed him when he was whipped out to be held above the ground to release his waste.

He might’ve stayed cocooned for longer had they not found the cave.

The old man saw it first. A black tooth in the mountain-side. Large enough to fit.

They waited two days to approach it. Demons have been known to skulk in the back of dark hollows, waiting to pounce. They were too few to risk it. Let alone with a helpless morsel who couldn’t even cling.

When nothing bigger than a ferret emerged from the entry, and when hares were spotted munching languidly nearby, they knew that whatever demons might have lived there once, had since long gone.

They brought an ember to the cave. And stones for a hearth. And moss and boughs for bedding.

The girl carried water from the spring. The woman made the tea and cooked the grain from her ceremonial parcel. They ate. They drank. They slept.

By morning the men came for the baby.

They held his naked, squalling form, indignant in the cold exposure, and passed him from man to man at the entry.

His life-force squealed vitality. His lungs breathed their collective previous misfortunes to the wind. His face, first reddened then purple with rage, summoned the sun to rise and fall. Someplace a wolf returned the howl.

It was a good omen.

They called him New Born. The reincarnation of Born, the spirit-guide they’d lost along with what safety they’d had where they came from. This New Born was a cameo. He was their future. Their hope in this new home.

 

 

 

 

For Sue Vincent’s WritePhoto

 

 

Allegiance

Photo: Sue Vincent

 

They called her Allegiance.

Contract and insurance, she was. Revered and guarded, both.

So well revered and so well guarded, in fact, that with time she became almost forgotten and had turned more a symbol than a soul. She sometimes wondered if she was in that way not too dissimilar to many of her kind through time, even if they had been so for far shorter spans.

Women often were made ornamental. Used as symbolic pawns, utilized as cementers of allegiances, then blamed for those that broke.

It helped her feel less lonely, knowing that even in her immortal isolation she was still in some way a member of a community of others who’d been perched into positions, as she was, without much of a choice. Possessions and producers, keepers of the continuity of power, serfdom and thrones.

They called her Allegiance.

And she sat in her fortified tower, aware of the two rows of guards: One row looking out against any who may get it in their minds to sabotage, the other row looking in against any indication that she may get it in hers to leave.

They needn’t have worried. At least not about her.

There was enough of misery without adding heads to spikes in any kind of rebellion, where those most likely to be harmed were those least likely to have been given part in the decision.

She accepted her place. A figurehead to keep the heads of others firmly on their shoulders and their children’s hearts safer from the sorrows of orphanage and war.

So she stayed.

As centuries passed, those who’d placed her there took less care with guarding her and the promises she’d represented. The tower crumbled. The guards played cards and drank and slept and grew lazy, and she took comfort in knowing that at least this meant they weren’t in battle. Even if she shivered, windowless, her walls crumbling all around.

Perhaps, she thought, as winds whistled and the stories of her had become lore printed onto metal plaques for tourists to ignore, it was all as it should be.

Perhaps one day there will not be a need.

Perhaps one day allegiances will be built-in, rather than built-up and set with guarded fences that time and lassitude and apathy were certain to erode.

Till then, Allegiance waited.

For the moment, the ruins of her tower stood.

 

 

For Sue Vincent’s WritePhoto

 

 

Embers Hot As Coals

Photo prompt: Sue Vincent

 

She could feel them.

That’s why she came.

Why she took every opportunity she could to escape the drudgery of sewing and hoeing and weeding and feeding and washing and threshing and mending and tending and all the multitudes of tasks that never seemed to end and somehow only multiplied.

“It’s life,” her mother had sighed, when as a young child Mayra had burst into tears of fatigue and frustration when yet another basket of wash needed to be scrubbed. “We rise, we work, we eat, we sleep.”

Mayra, a dutiful daughter, had just nodded and sniffed and bent to her work. But inside her a restlessness rippled. She was expected to grow up to be like her mother: solid and stolid and capable. The capable part she was on path to mastering, if painfully slowly. But solid she wasn’t, in her wispy willowy frame, and stolid she could not be, when her feelings and thoughts bubbled in her mind like an ever boiling pot that used embers as if they were coals.

She would boil over. She would.

If she didn’t manage to find a chore that allowed her to put some distance between herself and the village and to reconnect with the souls amidst the stones.

They calmed her. They reached around her with fingers as wispy as her hair and plucked the edges of too-sharp words and smoothed rough irritation off of her being.

Most people avoided the stones. “They are haunted,” they whispered, as if that was a bad thing.

Mayra said nothing. Perhaps it was something in her that needed ghosts to sooth the places that she felt would otherwise burst and cause harm. Perhaps her difference drew her to what others knew to keep away from.

Still she came.

In secret. To avoid blame.

It was only when she was about to wed that she realized it had been her mother who’d conjured errands out of thin air for her, so the child could manage some relief.

“For some, this is life, too,” her mother smiled.

It was a rare transformation of the face that often showed so little beside focus on the thing at hand, and suddenly Mayra saw the girl her mother had been, reflected in the sky-hued eyes.

“You, too?” Mayra whispered.

Her mother’s eyes twinkled. The berries. The mushrooms. The bark. The herbs. The kindling that could not wait till the morrow to collect. All those times when her own pot was set to almost overflow atop life’s embers, hot as coals.

“I did, and I do. It is our grandmothers there, helping you.”

 

 

 

For Sue Vincent’s Write Photo challenge

 

 

Blend In

Photo: Sue Vincent

 

They walked toward the light. The brambles, the thistles, the burrs, the thorns — all attempted to snag and ensnare and scratch and mark them for what would be held as treachery.

Still, they walked. Some of them bare-legged and bleeding. Others somewhat better clothed, but not much better off once flaps of torn fabric opened windows to the ravages of all manner of sharp things.

They walked toward the light. The dark, the fog, the cold, the hunger, the fatigue — all conspired to force them to turn back.

They did not.

Not when the tunnel they had managed digging, spoonful by spoonful of rock-hard soil, hiding the scrabbling sounds under the cover of endless mandatory chanting, could finally accommodate a slithery passage underneath the electrified fence.

They’d been digging it for months.

Waiting. Counting. Hoping. Dreaming. Fighting against those who dismissed the possibility, against those who threatened to give them away, against the weighing down by those who’d surrendered to messages of futility and given up.

It had been a fluke, really. A careless corner of a printed flyer that the wardens did not burn completely. A few lines and enough to give them the potential for a plan.

But they had to destroy the evidence. And not everyone believed.

Sometime even they began having doubts.

When the light arrived, many of them cried. Surreptitiously, of course. Lest the guards see. Lest they be found out.

And when the cold bit deep enough to keep the guards huddled by the watch-station’s stoves, and when the hour was late enough for no more chants to be required, they wriggled, one by one, under and out.

And fled.

Toward the light.

Where the masses congregating in the desert could swallow them. Where they would be hidden in the flocks of floodlighted extras dressed in rags. Where their dust and grime and hollows under eyes, would blend in with the crowds in caked-in dirt and post-apocalyptic make up. Where their actual horror, worse than any movie, could be made less real at last.

 

 

For Sue Vincent’s WritePhoto Challenge

 

 

Ethera

The Offering: painting and photo © Sue Vincent at scvincent.com

Photo prompt: Sue Vincent

 

She was Ethera, and she came at the peak of the longest night, on the cusp of the broadening daylight.

She was Ethera. A human. A spirit. A soul. Sometimes one. Often all.

She’d lived among them, flesh and blood and hope and heartache. She’d hungered and shivered and grew and raised and danced and cried and plowed. There had been nothing in her that foretold what she’d become once she passed the veil to the realm of Nether. Where summer did not come and winter did not grip the land and where the prayers of people held substance, unlike bodies, which did not.

She was Ethera. Unseen by most. Perceived by some. Hoped for by many. Feared by almost everyone.

Feared though she’d rarely brought on harm that wasn’t already in the making. Feared though she heralded truth, which for a reason she hadn’t been able to fathom, so many fought against.

She passed like air. Like wind. Like the willow whispering a breeze into one’s ear come silent night.

She was Ethera. And she came bearing gifts: Of scented fields. Of sunlit glens. Of fruit blushing ripe atop the trees. Of roots awaiting the fattening of rain. Of undulating earthworms sliding through the layers of the dirt to aerate the unseen.

As she could, too, pass between the layers of being.

She was Ethera. Some thought her fog. Some thought her ghost. Some knew her as the mist that rose to hold the moments yet to come and the droplets of the feelings those would bring.

She came at the deepest hollow of the longest night, and in her palms she held a bowl of alms, collected by the people’s dreams to appease the frost and sing the morning in.

 

 

 

For Sue Vincent’s Write Photo Challenge

 

 

Out Of Sorts

Photo: Sue Vincent

 

“I thought I’d see better,” she frowned.

“Your thoughts were wrong.”

The matter of fact tone caused her frown to deepen. It really was no way to speak to her, especially given the circumstances.

“Is there nothing you can do?” she rubbed her eyes, squinted, tried to adjust the angle of her head.

“Nothing needs doing,” came the response.

She wondered how it was possible for her to feel anger. Wouldn’t she be beyond all that by now? And yet … there it was. She wanted to strangle something, but there was no way she could manage it. Not that she really would, anyhow … Or, well, maybe …

Almost everything about this new situation was distressing. A bit more sympathy would be nice. And yet there this was, cold as the ghost of Christmas past.

Then again … perhaps it couldn’t be helped.

She wasn’t sure if that made her angrier or made her sad. Perhaps both.

“Is it always going to be this way?” she tried, feeling vulnerable and suddenly quite terrified. Always was such a very very long time!

“Always is a misnomer.”

She wondered if tossing something would make her feel better. She really expected this to be quite different. She certainly believed things would be a lot less cryptic.

She sniffed and was surprised at the sensation. She squinted, almost expecting tears, though of course there were none.

The display around the tree remained as she’d remembered it from the day before, only fuzzier, as if seen through a film, with the pixels all wrong. Not one thing had the borders that it ought to have. The wooden figurines seemed softer, though. That pleased her. And the way she could sense the space between the molecules, see the atoms floating.

How could she see that and yet be unable to manage basic focus?

There was a sort of chuckle in the reply, even though she did not voice the question. That’ll take some getting used to, too. The total lack of privacy.

She sighed and a memory of her first day in college floated to the surface. She didn’t think she’d ever get used to being there, either, at the time. Yet she had, somehow.

Heaven should be easy, after that.

She let her form relax. The angel and the candle merged into the table and with it rose the notion that she could now pass a hand through solids.

The room was blurry. So was her mind. It was not quite unpleasant. She was not quite anxious. Adjusting, more like.

Of course she would feel out of sorts.

After all, it hadn’t even been a full day since she died.

 

 

 

 

For Sue Vincent’s Write Photo challenge

 

 

 

Backdrop

Photo: Sue Vincent

 

They were cold to the bone, but it did not matter once the light broke out to illuminate the edge of clouds.

“We’ll be home soon,” he breathed into her neck.

“I know,” she whispered, her teeth no longer chattering. She’d stopped feeling her toes so long ago she almost forgot she had ones.

It would have worried her, in the past. The risk of frostbite. Amputation. Loss of the ability to walk.

Not anymore.

They were beyond all these things now.

They were going home.

For the rest of time.

“How long?” she asked, fretting a bit in spite of herself. She never found transitions as easy as he had. Especially such big ones. Especially those that were irreversible.

“Soon,” his voice was barely audible but she felt it reverberate through her chest. The finality of it.

The knowledge.

His strength.

She sighed, and though he did not move she knew that he was smiling.

Another moment passed. Or perhaps it was an hour. She’d lost track of time now that it made no difference.

As her body chilled, her eyes stayed focused on the shimmering curtain of light. Its movement became the backdrop to the last views she will ever have of Earth.

Before it neared enough to carry them.

Home.

For all the eras yet to come.

 

 

 

 

For Sue Vincent’s Write Photo Challenge

 

 

Night Flight

Photo: Sue Vincent

 

It was the island that saved her, in the beginning, in the middle, in the end.

At first it had been the noting of it. The realization that there was a place, not large and yet separate enough as to hold its own. Like herself, if she could manage it.

She wasn’t sure when exactly the understanding settled, only that she’d come to trust that if she ever had to, she could go there. To be safe.

That knowledge had held her in the years of interim. The island was the picture that she’d scanned across her mind each night as she tried to not take notice of what was taking place in her, on her, all around her. She took herself there, in a sense, long before she actually did. She nursed her wounds with the option. It was a salve onto her lacerated soul.

Then came the end.

Or the beginning.

Of other things. Of opportunity. Of a rebuilding of what she could be and didn’t until then form into a tangible possibility.

She made her way there under darkness. She’d had all the facts by then, gathered through secreted research and observation: the distance, the temperature of the water in different seasons, the topography, the places where there had been some shelters, and the times when people weren’t likely to frequent.

It rained the night she fled. A calculated risk she took and refused to worry could backfire. To stay would have been worse. She wouldn’t, anyhow.

The chill sucked her breath but also numbed her agony. She swam. She swam. She slammed laden limbs into the water and took herself onto the island and clenched her teeth against the chatter. The crossing had taken all she had. Almost. Just almost.

For from the flicker of willpower that remained, she lit a shallow fire, and the flame sustained her through the night and into dry clothes and the final ease of trembling. By the next night she slept, and by the third she made her plans for what else she’d need to be doing.

And she laughed.

For the first time in a long time.

Because she was safe.

She was not large, but she was now separate enough to hold her own. And she was strong.

He’d look for her, but he would not risk telling others, and he would not seek her where she was. She knew.

Her father feared the water, and from the moment she’d realized how the island could offer an escape, she’d made sure he believed she feared the water, too.

 

 

 

For Sue Vincent’s Write Photo challenge

 

Halfway Home

Photo: Sue Vincent

 

She never grew tired of it.

Even if fatigue had become part and parcel of her every day. Of her very breath.

It did not matter. Her fatigue didn’t, that is. At least, it did not matter as much as it would have otherwise. As much as she knew it could. As much as it had in the other place, where there was naught but white walls and white squeaky soles on squeaky clean tiles and antiseptic air and officious hands and flickering images on a screen where well-dressed persons babbled about things that did not feel relevant to her in the least.

They’d urged her not to leave.

She left.

No regrets.

Not when the trade-off was brisk air and the smell of just-trampled grass and the scent of rain and the open vistas of the world rolling down into the horizon where the sun met the mountains and the sky kissed the ground.

No regrets.

Not with the play of night and day around her, not with light that flickering on her covers and the sun licking her fingers as she lay in bed. Not with a world that breathed and changed and lived and died and reemerged. With yips of puppies racing down the lawn. The hiss of wind. The chirps of birds.

Sure, others were concerned, or so they said.

She did not share their dread.

Death did not scare her. Nor did the warnings that she’d be too far from hospital to get assistance in time if another crisis came. For a crisis was bound to come, and when it did, she knew she’d be content to face it with her face to the hills and her eyes on the valleys and the snow-capped mountains where her soul would soon roam.

For she was halfway home.

More than half, perhaps, now that most of the sand in her hourglass had been shed.

It did not matter.

She was halfway home, content with whatever lay ahead.

 

 

 

For Sue Vincent’s WritePhoto Challenge