The One Who Sees
Short Blurb: After nearly drowning in a magic lake, young Osan can see the souls dwelling inside people, and he discovers they are in the wrong bodies and have been so since birth. Mythic Fantasy Novelette, 18,000 words approx.
The village slept that cold night, but Osan did not. He walked past the rows of tents on the path that he should follow tomorrow.
That kept him awake.
He walked the path to the forever-protector, First Brother, a path he had never walked before and should not walk until tomorrow.
That kept him awake.
Tomorrow those tents would empty out. The village would see him and the other boys off and welcome their return as young men. Many boys would leave as little brothers and would return as headmen to sisters and to sisters' families. Oki would see him off and welcome back her first brother, the head of their little family.
That kept him awake.
And being awake kept the dream asleep, but not the memory the dream held; no, that never slept, never wearied. It only grew stronger every day, every season. It was eternal as the Ringed Moon overhead . . . but this this memory never ebbed. The fear of it slowed his feet now as fear always did. Slowed, so that if he stepped less and less, he might hear the sounds of those asleep in their tents, warriors, brothers, sisters, sisters' children. All people he would leave behind.
The fear of this dream, the memory, slowed his feet so much that if he stopped, he might hear those he had left behind three summers ago: His family who was no more because of him. His first uncle, his mother, and his other sisters who were no more because of him. The sisters and nieces and nephews who would not be because of him. All because of the fears that had never ebbed since birth, that first sight and touch: a white spotted cat with sharp teeth and sharp claws. And that first sound heard: a name, Olas.
Three summers ago, those same fears, those same memories had woken him.
Three summers ago, on the day his brother would have been fifteen and made a man--if his brother had lived longer than an hour outside their mother.
On that day, his mother screamed for first uncle, cried for First Brother; on that day, first uncle lay quiet and only Osan stirred. On that day, he crawled to her. The air blistered, as if on fire. He felt as if he breathed fire. He crawled to mother, past his sisters, past first uncle slumped beside her. Mother grasped Osan with one hand, held her belly with the other, a belly round and full with his third sister. Her breath burned on his cheek. She pulled him close. "Shaman, son." Closer. "Shaman. Your sister comes. Oki comes."
"Oki?" He had to say it a few times more to understand. "My sister comes?"
"Oki, I name her Oki," Mother whispered. "I name her Oki. She is your responsibility. Your sister."
"Ma-mah, Oki is born." But she wouldn't listen. So, he looked around and found Oki lying there on her blanket, next to little Oso. Something was wrong.
He tried to stir first uncle, but first uncle did not wake. Hot to touch. So he tried Oki. "Oki. Oki, tell her. Tell ma-mah you are you."
Oki did not hear or move.
She never listened to him.
So he grasped Oki and pulled her up. She moaned, head lolling. "Let me sleep, Osan. Go. Let me."
He pulled her to mother and showed her. "This is Oki. This is her." He shook Oki to hold her up, to wake her up. "Ma-mah, this is Oki. She was born with me, remember? Oki and Osan."
Mother just moaned and held her belly. "Your sister comes. Olas. Oh, Olas, son. Shaman."
Olas was . . . the name that filled his dreams. The name he had woken to life to. The name he had woken to on this day, too. Olas was . . . "My brother? Was my brother . . . to be named Olas?"
No. No "Olas." His brother had not lived. He had no name. This was so, always so. Nothing talked to in him the dream-dark or in the waking-light. This Olas he had heard was untruth--Mother babbled. His hearing babbled.
Mother babbled. That thought pushed through. Knowing something was wrong, more wrong than forest herbs could cool, Osan took his sister away outside and sat her there in front of the tent. Cooler there. "Bring water," he told her. "I must get help."
Oki nodded, her head lolling.
He shook her. "Do you hear?"
"Water. Yes, water. I am so thirsty, Osan. Give me water."
She had done her task, but he hadn't done his; he had run to Shaman, seen Shaman leave a tent, and all he had seen was the spotted white cat, all he had heard was the whispered Olas, all he had remembered was the fear of both, how one might be true then how the other must be too. He had run back with this secret fear, found more herbs and more water, and tried to help them himself. At first.
They called it the Sleeping Fever, a curse from the Enemy to the East, the Golden Mud People. The curse had burned in him when he went to beg help three summers ago; now, in his fifteenth summer, he swore it still smoldered inside him. He could feel it, even though the autumnal cold bit through his leggings. He could feel it as he fell to First Brother's worn, wooden feet and stared at the grey furrows of First Brother's holy scars.
"Please . . ."
But words caught in his throat, and though he rubbed at it, they would not come. His brain was as hot as the fever long ago.
He had come to pray to First Brother, but in First Brother's shadow, that day still waited. Always waited. If First Brother could move, He would turn his back to Osan; He would not let a family-killer become a man. He would not let a family-killer become a first brother, a headman.
Neither of them, First Brother or Osan, would let three summers ago become tomorrow.
No, no, the truth was clear: Osan would leave tonight; should have done it before he turned fifteen last week, but fear always made him slow. There was no praying for the damned. No praying for those sinners meant for the greedy Soul Eaters' cookfires. No praying for family-killers. He rose slowly to his feet. He would not walk the man's path, the warrior's path, the path first uncle had walked and first uncle's brother had walked after him. No. His path lay the other way. Beyond the village, where his fears would burn and kill no one but him.
So, he turned back, walked back along his path, head low. Halfway through the village, he noticed something odd. Warriors sat slumped at their duty, shields, bows, and arrows resting over them like blankets gathered in sleep.
Warriors sat slumped like his dead first first uncle.
The Fever reborn? He touched one on the chest. No. Not hot, but cool. And asleep.
A noise, or the ghost of a noise, lifted his head. He looked beyond the nearest tents, toward his aunt's children's tent; maybe it was the ghost of the first brother who should have been and whom Osan had never seen.
Something moved around the children's tent. Toward that tent. He saw it: a large, spotted white cat.
No. Shaman in his spotted white cat furs. Shaman, not dream-fear.
Osan mustn't listen to old fever talks, old words, old fears that he should have cut out and buried with his family. "You waited too long," Shaman had said back then. "All will die."
But Oki hadn't died--and why was Shaman entering where Oki and cousins slept now? Shaman lifted the flap and popped his head into the tent.
He hurried close, shouting out "No, stop!", and the head popped out. Its cat ears moved, like from his dream, like from his fears. Not Shaman. A spirit then. The spirit from the past. So First Brother had turned his back on him after all; if he listened, might he hear the creaking of those wooden legs? He waited until the spirit came nearer to admit, "I am the one you seek. Osan. Not my sister."
Now the spirit had his name; now it had no choice but to take Osan away.
Spotted White Cat scooped him up without a grunt. Its claws, its touch chilled his mind; made him cold and limp. He thought of the warriors. The spirit must have touched every man, hunting for him. He must wake them; free them. Death came when magic held the body tight and mind tighter: Death from enemies; death from angry spirits. Death.
His body might be limp, neither head nor legs moving, but his tongue was not. "The warriors--they are not part of this."
Spotted White Cat did not slow or even twitch an ear.
Shaman had said that spirits never hurt people unless commanded . . .
The anger was meant for Osan, not them. "Can you not wake them?"
No answer. Spotted White Cat walked on.
No response from the tents--dark, silent shapes--despite his noise. Whatever the spirit had done to the warriors, he had done to the whole village. To get him.
They went past still tents.
They went past slumped warriors.
They went fast, faster than any normal cat.
His tongue couldn't still. "Spirit, where are you taking me? What will you do with me? Is this about my family?" Are you carrying me to the Soul Eaters at last? Although I am not dead? Will they eat me to nothingness while I am still alive because I told no one my sin?
No response. Instead, they left the silent village, went past the silent field that housed First Brother, and entered the silent trees. In a blink, they were in the grain fields, which were awaiting harvest. Ahead lay more trees, the white kind that grew near water, and he saw where Spotted White Cat bore him: to the Lake that had turned First Brother to living wood so many, many summers ago.
Hot sweat beaded on Osan's icy neck like rain. Many seasons back, in the winter before his cowardice, he and Ot, the bravest of his cousins, had run across the Lake's frozen surface, forgetting everything else, throwing snowballs, their breath white with fear and excitement. The Lake was safe when frozen. But they had not peered down; the face you saw, if you saw any, was never your own. Silent faces.
Surely they would go past the Lake.
On a patch of brown shore grass lay a white skin; on that, Spotted White Cat set him. Once free of the spirit's arms, though, Osan found his body free, too. He scrambled off the skin.
Spotted White Cat's whiskers flicked down.
"No." Osan shivered, but he did not step back on the skin. "No." Could you tell a spirit no?
Would that anger it more?
As if in answer, the spirit's rounded ears twitched back.
Osan licked his lips and looked back at the water, at the certain death and the deathless faces swimming there. They had pressed up to the surface. He looked back at Spotted White Cat and its narrowed golden gaze, horrible then and horrible now. "No. No--" Its tail twitched. Stop saying no. "You can't drown me. You can't feed me to them. You can't, you can't until you tell me why you took me." Spirits never threw people to the Lakefaces. Not even his dreams held that fear. "Why did you take me here? Why to them?"
Even as he spoke, the past returned like a fever: Oki . . . and mother and first first uncle and little Oso and the little sister without a name. The little sister who did not exist without a name, same as his brother had not; same as they both should exist, like they all should. All but the brother-that-should-be weighed on him like fatty sins that would pop in the Soul Eaters' cookfires. Once the Lakefaces were done with him, that was.
"This is for them, isn't it? My family?"
Spotted White Cat picked up the white skin.
Spotted White Cat shook it at him.
Spotted White Cat bared fangs.
Spotted White Cat spoke, voice guttural, "You will go in the Lake or I will take Oki in your place."
So it knew her name, which meant it had power over her. Spotted White Cat turned its back on him, moving to leave, moving to take Oki.
"No!" Osan shouted.
One spotted ear swiveled back toward him. The spirit waited.
Osan looked at the Lake. He could see them, Lakefaces gliding like carp and catfish. Hungry forms. Blurs. Silent. Legends said the Lakefaces wouldn't let him drown first. No, they would chew and heal, chew and heal; he wouldn't die for a long, long time.
His stomach moaned. So did his bravery.
The ear swiveled forward again. A foot moved forward again. To carry the spirit onward to Oki.
"No! Spirit, wait, I'll go! See." He paddled back before fear weakened him again. His feet hit the water, moccasins sucking tight around his feet. Cold. He shuddered. "S-see? I go. I will go alone. Please."
Spotted White Cat jerked around, snarling, claws up.
Osan waded faster.
The water was not cold where the faces touched him, swirling toward him, around him. He felt their fingers through his leggings, then through his shirt, then on his face as the water rose higher and higher. He did not close his eyes when they pulled him under. His lungs began to burn. He would drown or be eaten first, but that was his body. His soul would meet the Soul Eaters' spit and fire upon waking. And then there would be nothing left to him at all.
As he went deeper into the Lake, he could see the Ringed Moon overhead and the darting Lakefaces, but he could not see Spotted White Cat. Had he done right? Had he done wrong? Was Oki safe?
His chest ached.
He could not hope to become wood, because he was not strong and brave like First Brother. Still, he wished to the spirits he could be so before he was eaten and healed and eaten again. First Brother had never dealt with Lakefaces.
His lungs burned, then his chest. He was burning, fingers burning, eyes burning, everything burning. He kicked and flung his arms and twisted, but he only sank and burned, sank and burned. The Lakefaces only pulled him deeper, deeper, deeper, until he could not see the Ringed Moon.
Until he could not see Lakefaces.
Until it was dark and cold.
And he was alone.