“Which?” Johnna asked. There were three bowls in front of her.
Her grandmother said, “The one you were thinking of.”
“Oh.” Johnna picked up the right hand bowl and passed it across the low fire.
The old woman nodded and turned it over in her hands, tapping her fingers rapidly around the rim. “This is a good one,” Sade said. “Now tell it to me.”
“Excuse me?” Now, Johnna shifted. But where her grandmother had changed positions to get more comfortable, Johnna moved because there wasn’t any comfortable to be had in this hut. Her shoulders itched, her feathers tingled, and her rump was sore. She had been sitting with her father’s mother for only fifteen minutes. Yet in that time, she had earned three rebukes for her failure to observe tiny and inexplicable things.
Behind the hut, Johnna heard her father and several other men hammering on the frame for the new room. She turned her head to look out the open front door and check on her half sisters, playing just outside. Ba’aita, she of three summers and a thousand temper tantrums, was leading poor little Li’ita on a chase. Ba’aita flew just out of Li’ita’s reach, never beyond the circle Johnna had chalked into the dirt, but always just at its perimeter. Li’ita, who had only one summer, flapped along after her sister, calling “Bita! Bita!” and laughing . The new baby was not outside. This youngest sister was with the wet nurse, who would bring her home at sunset.
Sade said, “Tell me the bowl.”
Johnna clammed her mouth shut, not willing to say she still didn’t understand and risk another encounter with the sharp side of her grandmother’s tongue.
Ba’aita burst suddenly through the open door. She flew straight into the flimsy back wall, knocking it down into the construction mess with the force of her impact.
“Not again, Ba’aita!” Johnna said, rising to see if the child was hurt. Although this was the first time Ba’aita had knocked down a wall, she had already cracked her wooden bowl in half at breakfast and torn one of Sade’s spell books in impish play. Naptime, Johnna thought, couldn’t come soon enough.
The small offender hovered a little off the ground, gazing down at the fallen wall with wide eyes. Blood ran in a steady stream down one arm. “Sorry,” she whimpered . Only it sounded like “Solly” because she hadn’t learned how to make her r’s yet.
“Why didn’t you stop her?” Sade demanded.
“Well I didn’t know she was going to… Oh. This is something else I should have Seen first,” said Johnna.
Sade sighed and got up herself, their lesson at an end.
Johnna heard her father’s voice. “Well here’s a mess,” Aif said, coming into view. Indicating Ba’aita’s bloodied arm with a pointed finger, he asked, “What got her?”
Sade knew without the benefit of vision. “She hit it at the roofline and scraped a nail.”
“Come down, Ba’aita. Come here,” Johnna said.
Now Ba’aita saw her shoulder and the whimper turned into a wail. “Come on,” said Johnna. “Come to me.” But instead of coming closer, her sister flew up a little higher, her bright blue feathers beating rapidly in alarm. She wanted to come down, Johnna saw, but couldn’t slow her wings.
“You have some of it,” Sade mused to Johnna, “but not the rest. You know why she doesn’t come down, but couldn’t tell she was heading for the wall in time to stop her.”’ Johnna bit back a sharp reply and Sade clucked. It didn’t matter whether or not Johnna said the words, her grandmother heard the thoughts. She didn’t chide this visiting granddaughter further, though. Whether Johnna did or did not carry her people’s magic, she could certainly tend to her sisters, which was technically the task she had come to perform. Among her own people, Johnna was studying with the bowwright. No matter what she learned now, she would never be a full Seer or Scryer.
Sade had doubtless known Ba’aita was headed inside, though Johnna wagered the old woman didn’t expect this level of damage. Her lessons weren’t vindictive. If she had realized the wall would pop out and little Ba’aita be truly hurt, Sade would have warned her oldest grandchild to be ready for the younger one.
Johnna flew up to catch Ba’aita, ruing the kick-hop she needed to get off the ground. Her father’s people could liftoff from sitting. Although Johnna shared their physical features, dark hair and skin, with wings lining her shoulders and back, she was not one of them. Still, once airborne, she caught Ba’aita easily, sliding her arms in under the girl’s wings and pulling the child in close. She stroked Ba’aita’s back, smoothing her feathers until the little wings stilled and the girl slumped into a limp puddle on Johnna’s chest. Johnna held her much in the way she held the baby, who liked to snuggle tummy to tummy.
“It hurts,” Ba’aita sobbed as they landed.
Sade stalked around the wall’s perimeter with Aif, studying it for all the world as if she hadn’t lost her sight. “Tell me the wound,” she instructed Johnna.
It didn’t take the Foresight to answer this. “It needs sewing,” she said.
Ba’aita howled “No!”
“How many stitches?” Sade demanded.
Johnna’s started to say, “I don’t know,” but she stopped after the word ‘I’. “Four,” she said instead. “It needs four stitches.”
Sade grunted. “Good girl,” she said quietly. “Can you do it, or do we need the healer?”
“If I didn’t need to hold her, I could do it,” Johnna answered. “But if I don’t hold her, she’s liable to fight.”
Sade nodded. “Go then. I’ll see to Li’ita.” And she left off pacing about the fallen wall to walk around front to check on Ba’aita’s younger sister.
Over dinner, the main room’s back wall still open to the newly-built frame behind, Sade said, “I’m beginning to see how Johnna tells things.”
“And?” Aif asked.
Sade answered, “She sees with her eyes, not with her soul.”
Aif and Sade sat at the head and foot of the table with Johnna plopped in the exact center, one little sister on either side of her. Ba’aita was still subdued, her sewn up shoulder bound in a cloth that she complained hurt. She didn’t want to eat much, so Johnna was chiefly concerned with tearing Li’ita’s food into small enough portions that the little girl wouldn’t choke.
The wet nurse had returned the littlest sister. Baby, Aif explained, was too young to have a name. Among his people, a child had to live a full year before its naming day, unless it happened to be particularly swarthy. There was no sense wasting a name on a baby if it didn’t live to see the use of it. And Baby was not swarthy, couldn’t even properly be called healthy. She was still so young that her wings wouldn’t lift her, and she lay quiet most of the time.
Johnna had never known an infant so quiet, so listless. She suspected that the wet nurse shorted Baby for her own child. Therefore, she made a watery mash to put in Baby’s mouth in the morning before giving her to the nurse, once more as soon as the nurse brought her home, again before they all went to bed, and one more time in the dark hours, when the infant woke hungry, rooting for milk Johnna didn’t have.
She was contemplating Baby now, rather than listening to her father and grandmother’s discussion. Baby lay on her back on a quilt, her downy little wings flopped wide open to either side of her body. Johnna tried to decide if the infant looked any stronger since her own arrival. She thought not, and this worried her. If anything, Baby seemed more frail, less likely to live long enough to be named. Johnna rued this.
It made her glad her own mother was an Arom trader, not an Auric magician. Her people named babies at birth, a layer of protection against the world’s ills. And Johnna had been named even sooner. Since Johnna’s mother was only fifteen at her daughter’s accidental conception, the tribe had named Johnna in the womb, calling her “John”, a strong name that could be used for a boy or a girl.
It seemed to have worked, because Johnna was a healthy infant, and unlike these girls’ Ma, Johnna’s mother survived the birth and took a husband when Johnna was four. Johnna missed her mother and stepfather now. She wished spring would turn quickly to summer, then to fall. She wanted to go back to her Arom family, where her sister was turning eleven and her brothers were seven and five. In the normal course of events, she would have been with them now. Normally ,she only saw her father once a year, when the Arom passed through before winter. But after his wife’s death last winter, he invited Johnna to come in the spring and care for her little sisters until he took a new wife in the fall. Johnna came to help, but also to learn magic.
And she enjoyed these siblings. Li’ita was too little to really understand what had happened. She wanted for nothing more than cuddling and playing. If Li’ita woke up in the night, it was only to seek out the warmth of Johnna’s bed mat, to snuggle and snore. Ba’aita, on the other hand, remembered her mother, and sometimes woke in the night, crying inconsolably, so that Johnna had to sit holding her, stroking her silky hair for an hour or more. Baby only woke once each night for that little meal Johnna left covered on the table. And Baby was so quiet that Johnna slept with a hand stretched out over the child, fearful that she would otherwise fail to hear her need.
Johnna went on watching Baby wave one listless arm as her father and grandmother moved on to the topic of the room her father was adding to the hut. He was courting three women now, a widow and two who had never before married, one of those not much older than Johnna herself. Aif and Sade mused how best to decorate the room for the new wife after it was finished and whether to bother replacing the makeshift wall that had cut Ba’aita, now that the weather was warm.
Baby lowered one arm and lifted the other, an exercise in holding up a heavy weight. Then something in her sister’s posture shifted, and she was no longer holding up her arm. Rather the arm was holding the infant down. “Baby?” said Johnna, bringing to a halt her grandmother’s argument about putting a sleeping hammock in the new room. Johnna half stood, and Baby twisted her head, a sudden, violent movement that caused her back to arch. Her face turned blue and in the instant before Johnna could move, the little girl’s body collapsed in on itself and she vanished.
Johnna screamed, “Baby!” and then sat down shaking, because Baby was fine, her little hand still extended to the ceiling, the tiny fist curling and uncurling as she lay on the floor.
“Johnna what happened?” her father asked.
“Nothing!” said Johnna. “I feel foolish.”
“Johnna!” he said sharply, “What did you see? Look at me and tell me what you saw!”
“I didn’t see anything.”
He took her by the shoulders and said, “Then what did you think you saw?”
“I thought… she died.” Johnna indicated Baby with a wave. “She died and disappeared before I could get up out of my chair.”
Aif growled in the back of his throat. Then, “Johnna,” he said, more gently than she had expected, “if you must see with only your eyes, then you must learn to trust them. Now take her quickly to the healer. Come get me if I am needed.”
Johnna stood, and though her legs would hardly hold her body, she walked across and gathered Baby in her arms, a warm reassuring weight. But small, so small. Outside, instead of walking, as she preferred to do after dark, Johnna flew to the healer’s hut, remembering as she kicked off the ground that he had said, “See you this evening,” when she left with Ba’aita earlier in the day.
Indeed, he was waiting when she landed once more at his door. But when he saw the tiny bundle in her arms, he let out a dismayed whistle. “I thought it would be Ba’aita again,” he remarked, taking Baby out of her arms. Johnna expected confusion then. She thought he would look at the baby and ask her why she had brought it instead. But he cradled Baby and held two fingers to her tiny throat. He said, “Go for your father.”
As she turned to leave , Johnna thought she heard a rattle as Baby drew breath.
After that, she didn’t know anything. Aif left for the healer’s hut, and Sade and Johnna cleaned up from supper in surreal silence. Johnna wrapped Li’ita and Ba’aita in their sleeping mats, then lit a lantern and sat vigil in the front room. She expected to be alone, but Sade soon joined her at the table.
“What will happen?” she asked her grandmother.
“It depends on what is wrong and what magic they can conjure.”
“Then you can’t See?”
Sade said, “No.”
Forgetting Sade could hear her thoughts, Johnna wished she had understood the depth of Baby’s illness sooner.
“No,” Sade repeated. “Some things simply cannot be Seen.”
“Oh,” said Johnna.
“But I can tell you this,” Sade went on. “If Baby survives, it will be because you saw with your eyes what the rest of us could not see with our souls.”
It was a compliment, but little comfort. Johnna didn’t answer and leaned heavily on the table. Stacked in front of her, waiting for breakfast in the morning, were the three bowls her grandmother had been teaching her to scry with earlier in the day. Johnna picked up the top one and handed it to Sade, who did not need to be told to reach out.
Johnna said, “The bowl is two shades of red, swirled together and spiralling out from the bottom. The darker red is deep like heart’s blood, like it leaned in too close to a volcano and came away scarred by lava. The lighter color is more like clay, or a bird’s feathers, rising up from the earth’s center and lifting the heart’s blood away from the burning heat.”
“Good girl,” said Sade.
Johnna went on, speaking quickly before she lost the thing she had seen at the very bottom of the bowl, balanced between the vermillion and the flame. She said, “And my sister’s name is Earthbound Bird. I do not know the words in your language, but that is how it goes in the common tongue, and she must have it if she is to live.” Johnna was breathing heavily when she finished, shaking as badly as she had been when the vision of Baby’s death overcame her at supper.
Sade turned the bowl over in her hands. “Loma’ai,” she said. “Earthbound Bird. Not small?” Johnna knew enough of the Auric tongue to know that ‘ita’ at the end of a word meant small. Ba’aita translated to ‘Small Firebird’ and ‘Li’ita’ came out ‘Small sky’. They would likely drop the diminutives as they grew, as most of the tribe’s children did.
Johnna shook her head. “Not small,” she said. “Not Loma’aita. Loma’ai.”
Sade nodded and turned the bowl over twice more before setting it on the table. “It had best be me to tell them, then,” she eventually concluded. “The namer will spend less time arguing about the waste if she does not have to complain because it was first Seen by an outsider.”
Johnna agreed. She watched her grandmother walk to the hut’s door and lift into the sky, knowing Sade’s magic would guide the old woman as if her eyes had not been so badly dimmed that she could not differentiate between light and darkness. Johnna watched the door for a long time after Sade left. Then, because nothing else seemed to help at all, Johnna picked up the bowl and stared hard into its center, trying to find things that simply could not be Seen.
This is a standalone piece that wound up being a companion to Curve of the Tree.
For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Barb Black challenged me with “Describe a color, any color, to a blind person.” and I challenged Melissa b with “Every Thursday, Al shut off his phone and ‘forgot’ it in his desk. He changed out of one work suit and into another. He liked his second job much better, though the pay was abysmal, and he only got to do it for a few nights a week.”
Jessie Powell is the Jester Queen. She likes to tell you about her dog, her kids, her fiction, and her blog, but not necessarily in that order.