The One Who Sees
Copyright 2011 Jodi Ralston
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.
Osan fell alone for so long he feared he would not stop.
When the Lakefaces returned with their pale light and touched him, he saw he did not fall at all.
He also saw he did not breathe.
He flailed and flailed until the Lakefaces calmed him with touches and light, and they gave him their bubbles.
When the first passed his lips, he saw differently. He saw far away, saw his family, saw others' families--some familiar but most in unfamiliar colors and clothing in lands unseen.
When the second bubble passed his lips, he saw differently again: Death. Brother killing brother; sister killing mother; father killing son. People in all colors, all types of clothing, in all types of lands. Families mixed on both sides of spear and arrow and weapons he could not name. He saw death. And he saw Soul Eaters like fat, fat thunderclouds with bright, hungry eyes. He saw them cooking and swallowing the light nestled in each person's body. He saw Soul Eaters eating and eating until nothing and no one was left but darkness.
Then, in the darkness, he saw himself come . . . glowing. But this cold darkness was not the darkness of death but of the Lake all around him.
He saw his glowing self waiting.
His soul did not have bubbles or death to give. It only gave itself, cracking open his mouth, slipping something bright out, then slipping itself in.
Afterwards, when the Lakefaces crowded close, Osan had the strength to shove them and their death-bubbles away. This they did not like, but he shoved and shoved until he was free.
Kicking and lunging, his chest burning, but which was up? Which way? The only light was many: darting Lakefaces gobbling up the froth of his bubbles.
A few bubbles escaped their stubby fingers and greedy mouths; he followed their escape, kicking and burning away.
Kicked until he saw a light like a star above him.
He kicked more.
It became like a lamplight--like a sign of home. He kicked harder and harder and the light grew and the Lakefaces fell away and bubbles were just bubbles.
The lightfire grew as large and bright and yellow as the Bitten Moon.
As large as the sun.
One Lakeface floated down toward him, a stray. He shoved it away.
It cried out in pain.
It cried out, Olas.
Olas. In the same voice from the shadows and memory. Olas. Olas.
No, no. It couldn't be: this face was the dream catching him, hunting him--
Please, the stray Lakeface said.
But the dream had never said anything but Olas to him. Neither had the memory. The fever had added the rest--"son"--to his mother's tongue.
So, if not Olas, if not "son," what was it? Osan squinted until he could see it better. A Lakeface. Just a Lakeface: But this one was different. Younger, thinner, brighter--
Please, I am lost. Its voice was watery, weak, confused. Help me.
Osan hurt; he burned. He shook, and things were dimming and shuddering all about him. If he didn't move soon, everything would dim, his lightfire would wink away, and so would he. He'd be lost to the Lake and Lakefaces--and the dream, the eternal dream . . . and the Soul Eaters.
This was a Lakeface. Just a Lakeface. It had touched him, like the others. Wanted him. And if he could see some features of his mother in it, of Oki, of himself, it was . . . a lie. A lie.
A horrible lie.
Osan reached upward for the sky and light and air that were only kicks away.
Please. It reached for him, floating sideways. Please, I barely see you, but you are the only thing here. Please, help me. I don't want to die.
And it sounded like that dream-fear. That Olas. No matter how he closed his eyes against it; no matter how he closed his ears, it never changed.
So maybe the appearance wasn't a lie.
Maybe its name wasn't.
Maybe it was all real, as real as the spirit cat, as real as . . .
Olas, his brother? His lost brother.
His dead brother if he left it here.
And Osan didn't want any of those bubbles from before to come true.
So, he reached out to the Lakeface, and he tucked it under his arm--it began whispering Olas, Olas, Olas, like a heart throb. Using one arm and both legs, Osan kicked toward the light. The growing light.
It was not until he was several arm-lengths from the surface that he saw a face staring down, eerie, pale, and white, one with spots and yellow, glaring eyes.
Like a spotted white cat.
Like his fear.
In a blink, it was gone.
Gone. But it had been there: fear awaiting him.
And what waited below?
The Olas, Olas, Olas sound grew under his arm as the Lakeface--his brother--stirred.
He had to get up to the surface. He stretched out his hand again. Now.
Then, sweet air kissed his fingertips.
Another kick; his elbow was free.
His head popped through, and the sweet air poured in, clean, bright, and burning.
He sucked in that air as loudly as a lung-sick man, and the sun burned his eyes, but he did not close them--better pain than eternal dark.
When the pain in his chest eased, when he could see shapes again, he kicked toward the shore. Then, he scrambled up it, ripping slender green plants as he clawed and clawed until even his feet touched sweet air. When he could move no more, he dropped there, and his thoughts moved instead: why was he not wood?
Because he was not like First Brother saving First Sister from Lake and slaughter.
So, why was he alive?
From the corner of his eye, he spotted the Lakeface--his brother--flopping, gasping, aglow. He had survived, too, and he wasn't wood either.
"You're safe now," he told Olas. "You're not lost anymore."
Thank you, it said and flopped. I won't forget you. Flop, flop.
The words in his head were not weak or confused, they did not come through a touch, and they did not whisper his brother's name: no, the Lakeface spoke the Enemy tongue, and he understood he heard it and understood it, very clear.
Not Olas. Enemy. Not family. Never.
His vision darkened; so did it. Quieting, stilling, it never stopped saying, Thank you.
The last he saw before all went dark was a spotted white hand--more paw and claw than hand--pluck up the Lakeface.
The enemy wasn't thanking him anymore.