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 woke in the mud. He was still not wood, but he was alone. No lying Lakefaces whispered or flopped in the yellow flowers and green leaves.
Not entirely alone: that was Oki's voice.
But when he lifted his face to look up the steep bank, it was not Oki he saw but a monster in a young woman's body. A thing with two faces--one of soft light and the dimmer, body-one looked like Oki's. The faces lay atop each other. That made his eyes water.
The thing was coming closer, a furry blanket clutched in her arms.
He scrambled to his feet, skidding on mud and slick greenery. Skidding on flowers of spring. So many of them, a blanket of yellow.
When it had been fall only yesterday.
The sight made him dizzy.
And it almost made him forget the monster.
The monster was fast, within fingertip's reach by the time he stood steady. He shoved her away, reeling harder than she. Her eyes, all four of them, light and body's, stared at him, wide on him. He didn't understand anything here. He struggled up the bank and ran, ran for home. Ran past people, both monster and familiar, like the not-Oki. All stared. Ran through the village to the tent he had slept in last night--it had to have been last night, no matter what the ground showed--and he grabbed the tent flap with both hands, with hands that shook.
"Osan!" That was Ot's voice.
He hoped it was Ot.
"Cousin," he panted, turning around.
Not Ot, but he was like the Oki-thing, body-face so familiar it hurt. It hurt less to look away.
"What brings you here--" Ot-thing's voice was dull when he spoke. "--Shaman?"
Osan didn't want to speak to things-not-family, he wanted to rip aside the flap. He wanted . . . to wake up. He wanted . . .
"Shaman," the Ot-thing said, "this is our family only tent. For the children."
I know, Osan wanted to say. But is it still? Like is it fall still, or is it spring? Are you Ot still or a stranger? And those inside this tent, who are they now? He backed up.
Backed into someone.
He jerked around to face Oki-thing, panting, clutching her blanket. Behind her, though, was a young woman with braided, waist-length, honey-gold hair. She was in a woman's dress. She carried a basket. In a step, she--her glowing face--was close enough to see. Oki. He could have cried. Instead, he whispered, "Oki."
"Brother!" The Oki-thing from the Lake's banks enfolded him in a hug; she had the right type of hair--wheat-colored, elbow-length--but it was braided like a woman's . . . to go with the long woman's dress and cool-weather leggings. "You've come back!" the Oki-thing said. "You're truly back."
"Oki!" Ot-thing growled, but no one heeded him.
The way the Oki-thing from the Lake's banks had spoken . . . Osan pushed her back and stared instead at the newcomer with Oki's face aglow . . . but in the wrong body? That one stared back, with all four eyes, only the bright ones his sister's. So she wasn't entirely Oki either? He looked back and forth between the two young women. "Who are you?"
"It's me." Oki's voice came from the Oki-thing near at hand. "Your sister."
"Oki," Ot-thing growled. "Don't."
The newcomer, the one with Oki's face aglow, said in someone else's voice, "He was away for a long time, Oki. You grew into a woman this spring." Her gaze skimmed Osan's body. "He's grown, too."
Osan looked down at himself.
He held his hands out before him. Were they longer? He looked at the muddy leggings that clothed his legs. Were his legs taller, stronger? He touched his face and felt some hair on his cheek where none had been before. So, he had changed, too--but how much? What had the Lake changed him into?
"Yes, he's grown very nicely," the one with glowing Oki-face in the wrong body said, playing with her honey-colored hair. Her look was not very family-like.
Osan stepped back from them all. "I don't understand, sister."
Oki-thing from the Lake's banks stepped up to him as if he had called her name. "Are you unwell?" She touched his face with a sister's touch, and her eyes--the dim ones of the body--held a sister's look. "Oh, your eyes. Your hair!" She touched them both in turn. "There's grey now!"
"Oh, brother," Oki-thing said, "tell me you are well!"
"Cousin! You can't talk to him that way." This time Ot-thing grabbed for her arm. "Listen!"
She sidestepped, moving closer to Osan, hands tight on her blanket. "I hear you well enough, cousin, without your shouting." She barely looked at Ot. "And I will talk to my brother how I wish."
Bright-Oki-Face-In-The-Wrong-Body laughed, and Ot-thing's dim body-face flushed as he shouted some more, but no one heeded. Instead, Osan stared at the one touching him. Stared at her wheat-colored hair. Though he didn't know why she wore a woman's braid, it looked like the hair he knew on the Oki he knew. He touched it. It felt real. Her skin felt real, and when he touched her, it was easier to see beyond the glowing face, easier to see the same face and same person he had always known--but a little older, a little taller, and a lot stronger. Still, he saw her at last. "Oki."
Oki, his sister, his responsibility, smiled. "Yes."
But who was this other woman and how did she get Oki's face, too? He looked at her. And why did this other face of Oki's glow? "Is she . . . who?"
"Her?" Oki looked back at the other woman, then returned to him. Her dim familiar-face scrunched. She tightened her arms about her blanket. "Sua. Sawa's eldest daughter, and Chief Rood's. Is it hard for you to see, brother, with your eyes like that? That color? Is everything grey--?"
"No, Rood is . . ." Rood was an elder warrior, whose wife was named Sawa, and they had many daughters, one named Sua who had turned woman two summers back. But Rood was not Chief, and Sua had never looked like Oki. "Where is Chief Tomar?" What would he do if they said there was no Tomar? He rubbed his head.
Perhaps his eyes had changed, as Oki had said. But his eyes did not see in grey; they saw in . . . confusion. Just like his head thought in it.
"Rood challenged Tomar," Sua said, her fingers playing with her empty basket. "And defeated him."
That was a sensible answer . . . if it truly was spring.
That meant Chief Tomar was dead and Tomar's sisters now Rood's responsibility. He stared at Sua, one answer gained, but the other question . . . still glowed in her, staring out at him. "I know you." He reached out to her, to that glowing face of a sister inside Sua. "I do."
"Not yet, Shaman." The dim lips of her body smiled. "But I want to know you." She freed one hand from her basket and ran it down his clothed chest to his stomach.
Before he could step back, repulsed, Oki shouted, "Stop!" She grabbed Sua's braid and yanked. "Stop playing with him. He's confused! He just came back from the Lake!"
"Oki!" Sua's basket dropped as she grabbed for Oki. "Stop! Stop!" she screeched, slapping, and Oki was forced to drop her blanket to hold onto her braid. They were a tangle of fighting sisters, then. Something he should stop, for they were not children--but they were not sisters either. Before he could move, Ot-thing in Ot's body--or was he just Ot?--jumped in. Yet, no matter how Ot pulled on arms and shouted, dim face reddening, he could not stop them.
That was when another voice thundered, "What is this noise?!"
Fighters and Ot stopped and turned to look. Another two-faced man stood there, dressed only in the cooler summer loincloth. He was short and strong and large, with lots of hair everywhere, some flecked grey. It was hard to see whom any of him was.
Ot grabbed Oki. "I have her in hand, chief," he said, tightening his hold.
Chief Tomar? No: Rood. Osan stepped forward to speak for Oki--troublesome Oki--his responsibility.
Sua spoke faster, though, as she stepped to Rood's side, "Are you a child, Oki?" She straightened her hair, no longer neatly bound. "Maybe you don't understand our ways yet." She glanced at Oki's panting chest, and then she glanced at Rood who stared at Oki there, too, sharply.
Disapprovingly, Osan thought. For women do not run until they pant, so they most certainly did not fight until they pant, unless they ran from something or had something to fight.
Something other than fellow village women.
"Well," Sua said, smiling slowly. "You will learn, Oki. Father will help that."
Rood turned on Sua, red-faced, and Oki stepped on Ot's foot, twisting free. She snatched her blanket from the dust and tucked close beside Osan, as Osan moved to block her from others' notice. Not easy to do. She was as tall as he now, and even when she'd been small, she was always noticeable.
But Rood only noticed his daughter. "I sent you to forage food, not mischief." He boxed Sua's head, and she stumbled back. He kicked her collecting basket. "It's empty!"
Osan tensed, wanting to stop him, insides churning at the red blotch on Sua's face. Chief or no chief, he did not hit family. But as bright and right as the Oki-face was in Sua, that was not any Oki he knew. She was not his responsibility.
Sua marched up to Rood and thrust out her chin. "You're not my brother or mother. You have no right to touch me."
"As your chief, I do! You'll give me the respect I deserve!" He raised a fist to her face, making her shrink back.
Osan had to tighten his hold on Oki. If he held her, he couldn't do anything wrong, he couldn't interfere. Sua was not his sister, not his responsibility, but Sua's brother's. Where was he?
"Respect?" Sua stooped and snatched up her basket. "Give it to yourself, Rood." Head held high, she walked away, empty basket balanced on a swaying hip.
Rood rubbed his chin hairs, arm muscles bulging, staring after Sua, and what Osan saw in him as he stood like that pierced his tension: Tomar's face glowed inside Rood's body. So Tomar was still chief? Or Rood? Osan rubbed at his head and eyes until they hurt and everything was splotched with black. He didn't understand any of this.
"Shaman," he heard Rood said. "I must speak with you."
He rubbed harder, wanting to rub his ears, too.
"No." A new voice broke in, a familiar one, almost guttural, "The young shaman comes with me."
Osan's head snapped up. The spots he saw on Shaman were not from his fingers' pressure. Bright, spotted white furs and cat ears and tail hung over dimmer, white deerskin leggings and tunic and headpiece; it hung in the same way a glowing face hung over a dim one.
But Shaman had only one human face beneath the misty cat mask.
This person was Spotted White Cat.
This person was Shaman.
"You," Osan said. You came for me that night. You took me to the Lake. You threatened my family.
Shaman did not move, but one row of glowing whiskers flicked.
Had Shaman come to carry out his threat? He pushed Oki further behind him.
Rood stepped up, stepped in front of Shaman. "I just asked for his visit." Rood glanced back at Oki and him; mostly at Oki, whose hand tightened on his arm. "On an important matter," Rood added.
"Young Shaman," Shaman said and turned. He started up the path Sua had taken. "Come."
Osan's head cooled and thoughts stilled. He felt as if he were falling again, falling into the cold, cold lake, guided by claws this time.
His legs moved after Shaman.
Ot cringed and lowered his head. Rood growled, clenching fists and brow.
But it was Oki who said, "Wait."
And so Osan did. His legs stilled, were his own again. A shake of his head cleared the cold fog, but it made his head pound, pound so hard he could barely see.
Something furry was pushed into his hand. Oki said, "I made this for you. Every day I went to the Lake and worked on it, waiting for you to return from your shaman training. They said you wouldn't, that no one could, but I knew you would, just like First Brother."
Her voice cleared the last of the chill from his mind, but his fingers still fumbled, numb. The blanket she had pressed into his hand fell open.
Though his head pounded, he could see more clearly, could see that the fur was only on the edges of the blanket. In the center of the blanket was a design: The dark Lake with a tree sprouting out from it, its branches in all seasons. At its top, in branches like fingers, it grasped four round shapes, same-sized. The first three were familiar and in order of arrival: the Ringed Moon, the Bitten Moon--and yes, looking up he saw that the real Bitten Moon sat in the real blue sky like a half-eaten piece of yellow bread. The last moon on the blanket was the Rose Moon, not yet come. But what was the fourth circle? A white sun?
"I ran out of yellow," Oki said. "But you can pretend it is a star instead of the sun." She glanced at Rood, who stared at her and rubbed the hair on his bare belly above the loincloth. "Chief Rood will give you your tent things, but this--" She touched the blanket's edge. "Is from me."
He glanced back at the children's tent, home.
Home no longer.
"Come," Shaman said, cat ears down. This time, the chill command moved Osan's feet and no one held him back.
They walked to the other end of the village. Beyond it were trees and Shaman's private area, but it was here on the path, in the area between both village and Shaman's domain, that Shaman turned on him, whiskers bristling. "What are you doing, Osan?"
Osan's feet stopped, and his head ached. He grasped at it, shivering. The blanket brushed his cheek, and he clutched at it instead. It was warm and comforting and real--normal.
Shaman awaited an answer.
No one kept Shaman waiting long lest he found certain things about his body--like his urine--not waiting for his own commands. So Osan said, "I don't know. I don't know, not anything." He wanted to grab his head and shake out the fog until things made sense. "Why did you take me?" And he remembered Oki because of her blanket. "You won't--" He clutched the blanket close. "You won't take Oki?"
"What would be the point of that?"
Osan sighed and sagged into still, still relief.
Shaman snorted. "You are no shaman, that is clear. I thought as much when you had no spirit guide."
Spirit guide? Osan looked about.
"Can't you even see?" Shaman thrust a sharp finger at his side, near his foot.
He saw a path of dirt made by many feet over many years.
"What do you see, Osan? Anything?" His ears--those cat ears, not his human ones--flicked in dismissal.
"No." But that was wrong. Osan remembered something. "There was something from the Lake." Or was that not real, either? Was the threat? Was anything? "I had a Lakeface, a soul--"
"No! That is not yours." Ears flicked back. Claws glinted.
Osan stepped back, quickly agreeing, "All right."
But it was not all right. If the soul was real, then what it--he--the soul said was . . . was real?
Shaman glared at Osan for a long while before he smoothed down his fur with his paw-hands. "So you see nothing." Shaman sighed, a bare parting of lips. He did not look at Osan as he turned away toward his own area. The relief was like warmth flooding through him after a long winter. Shaman would leave him alone.
But Shaman also had answers. Shamans always had answers.
And Osan had so many questions.
Not the least of which was a whisper, Olas.
Though he didn't know if he wanted to ask, ask anything, the questions were pressing on his tongue. As Shaman walked away, further away, yet further still, the questions began spilling out, "Why did you do this?"
Shaman kept walking. Osan tightened his grip on the blanket.
"What did you do to me?"
"Why do I see Oki in Sua and Tomar in Rood and--"
Shaman stopped. One ear swiveled back.
Finally, yes. Maybe he could get answers, get some help, without bringing up the Lake and the soul and . . . and Olas. Osan took a deep breath; again; then asked, "Why do some faces glow? Why are some not? Why do some look wrong, and you look right? Why do only you have one face?"
"So," Shaman said. "You have the Sight. A mere sliver. I am surprised you have that." He did not turn around to face Osan; instead he started once more toward his private area. "Come and let's see what else you have wrong and right."
Osan did not want to follow Shaman. He did not know if it was the old fear from his sinful days still grasping or a new fear, but he did not want to follow Shaman, although his legs went weak with want to obey. So Osan shoved his legs close until his knees knocked and he clutched his blanket and he repeated his questions, the safe ones, again and again until Shaman stopped. Until Shaman's tail lashed. Until Shaman turned around, golden cat eyes narrowed.
Finally, he told Osan of the glowing people: "Souls." Of glowing-face Oki in Sua's body: "Souls kin to your soul." Of the disfigured, everyone but Shaman: "Do not worry about that. In the breath the body is born, the soul leaves on a quest to gain knowledge; another comes to warm the body. That one does not leave unless displaced. But few souls return to their born bodies. Not without help or . . . ordeal."
Osan looked back down the path to the village and saw a group of children duck and scatter like leaves in wind. "Why don't they match, Shaman? Can't we make them match? Can't I make Oki match?"
"Slow as star-death you are, Osan."
"Slower." Then Shaman hissed. "There is nothing you can tell me." He walked away without a backwards glance. "Nothing at all."
Osan did not know he was supposed to tell Shaman anything, but he suspected he asked a question not even old, powerful, knowledgeable Shaman knew. And if it were beyond Shaman, it must be beyond Osan. Better that way. He would just mess it up. Just as he had his questions: why didn't he ask about the seasons or why Shaman had taken him to the Lake or why the Lakeface had spoken Enemy tongue outside the Lake?
But he was glad he had closed his lips and mind tight on the last. Glad he had not asked how the Lakeface could speak that tongue and Olas's name, how it could be . . . both in one.
Fear had closed his lips. Maybe rightly. Maybe not. Perhaps Osan was too slow to understand any of these things.
Or afraid to understand too much?
Or just afraid.
Well, he had a start, at least. He went back into the village, hoping this time when he looked, if he looked long enough, things would make sense without Shaman.