From the author: How long does it take for something TRUE and CONTEMPORARY to become HISTORY... to become LEGEND... to become MYTH?
This way, please. This way.
This is the heart of the last remaining ruins of a Temple of Istynn, the Goddess of Truth and Prophecy.
Watch your step, it’s a little crumbly over there at the edges.
Madam, could you please make sure your youngsters don’t venture beyond the ropes? They are there for a reason, and we don’t want any damage to the site… er, that is, of course, we don’t want the children to come to any harm. Thank you.
Sir, a word, if I may – this is unfortunately not a dual-language presentation – I lack a Translation Cube at this time – will your K’Dynn friend be able to follow? Ah, the reason I ask… I have seen what happens when some of her people give way to strong emotion, and the preponderance of orange on her facial fur suggests that she is… well, as long as you think it will be all right….
Is that everybody? Gather around, please, so you can all hear me clearly.
We are standing on what remains of the Altar Plinth in what was once the heart of this Temple. You will observe the shape of this raised dais, where it hasn’t crumbled at the edges – please, do be careful there, sir – was once a perfect circle, and in fact we are all standing here at the center of that circle, in precisely the place where the Eye would have opened in the roof of the Temple – and that would have been hundreds of feet above us. Please note the buttresses to the sides of this area, which once supported the structure and the weight of that roof.
This particular construction was traditional for Temples of Istynn – we believe that the original instructions for the architecture of these Temples were brought all the way from the First World when the Migrations started although of course we can no longer be certain of this provenance after the First World was destroyed a thousand years ago.
For those of you who may not be familiar with the cult of Istynn, she has been described as the daughter of Moc, the Elder God, and variously a number of the Goddesses of that Pantheon or human women. You will find that the lineage any particular Temple believed to be true of Istynn would be incorporated into the design of the Temple decorations – for instance, you can still clearly discern, over there on the right, that zig-zag shape that portrays the lightning bolt, the symbol of Moc, and next to it the cup, which is known to be the emblem of Jivan, one of the senior Goddesses.
Sir, please do not stray outside the demarcated areas. Some of these old ruins still have areas whose properties have not been fully explored. Thank you.
Is there a question back there? Well, yes, you are right – as the Goddess of Prophecy Istynn would have had an oracle at a Temple of this nature, and in fact we are standing at the precise spot where the oracle – or at the very least the Temple acolyte who was chosen to be its voice – would stand in order to answer the questions posed by an supplicant.
Yes, under the Eye of the Goddess – who was, as you correctly state, always depicted as blind or at the very least lacking in organs of physical sight. The myth of Istynn had it that her physical blindness was what opened her inner eye and she was therefore able to see everything, even the things that were hidden.
She could see into shadows, and through time; she could tell you things from your past, and yes, she could foretell the future. The oracle was not under anyone’s control, however, and it was made clear to those who came here that they might – and in fact they almost always did – get far more than they bargained for. Someone who came in to ask about their harvest or their child’s marriage might also learn that their spouse was having an affair or that they only had less than a year left to live, for instance. It would always be the truth, to be sure, because it was impossible for the Oracle to lie while speaking for the Goddess. One came here for answers at one’s own risk.
And yes, people came anyway. Always. Constantly. This was one of the last cults to wither, after the Gods of Istynn’s Pantheon began to fall out of favor. The Temple whose ruins we stand in right now was only abandoned after the necessary operational knowledge of keeping the Eye opening, which would have been directly above us right now if the roof structure was still intact, in good repair was lost. The consequence of that was that the direct connection between the Goddess and the oracle was also severed. The attraction, both that of a desperation to know some truth and the bracing against learning things unlooked for in the bargain, vanished, and Istynn shriveled into nothing more than a little sightless idol. You can still see crude carvings of the idol in the remnants of the cultural detritus left behind by the civilization which came in the aftermath of the cult of the pantheon of Mos. You can find replicas of those on sale in the gift shop on the way out of the ruins, on the far side of the catacombs.
The carvings are said to still possess a certain kind of power. Modern-day devotees of Istynn, and there are still some even though there has been no operational Temple for hundreds of years, will tell you that if you ask a question and make sure that the person you ask it of is holding an image of Istynn, you can get nothing but stark unvarnished truth in reply – as you would still, technically speaking, be standing under the Eye of Istynn, the Eye that sees all. You will have to decide for yourselves.
Sir…? Oh, that – yes, that is one of the early depictions of Istynn. It has not proved possible to determine how or why the carving was vandalized – yes, the Goddess was always known as blind but in that particular instance, it does seem as though someone went to some trouble to actually gouge out the eyes of the carving. It has been dated as quite old, maybe as old as the Temple itself – maybe one of the original defacements that was done after the Temple was abandoned. We have no reliable record. It seems to have been a common thing in Istynn’s Temples, however, and you will find similar things in many other locations.
There is a school of thought that posits that it may have been a part of the original depiction, but other authorities doubt very much that a goddess would have been depicted in this way on purpose. Istynn may have been blind but she was a Divinity and it was unlikely that it would have been the sort of brutal blinding as depicted here that would have rendered her so.
Moving on, ladies and gentlemen. Please, take a moment to linger if you would like to take a closer look at something – but please do refrain from touching anything. The Temple is quite old, and very fragile, and we would like to preserve what is left for others to be able to enjoy. Do remember that you will be able to purchase souvenirs later, in the gift shop…
Once upon a time, there was a girl.
When she was born, the fairies who gathered at her cradle were silent, and one by one they drew back into the shadows without giving the child their gifts. When only one remained, the Dark One, the one who did not fear the shadows, the child’s parents cried out,
“What is it? What is the matter with this child, that all of you draw back from her?”
“She sees. She understands. She sees too much. She will be much loved, and she will be feared.”
“But she is a babe – she is nothing yet, and this can be turned from her!”
The Dark One turned her head and gazed on them. “Do you not want your child to be special?”
“Of course,” the child’s mother said. “Does not every mother wish this?”
“Then know, she already is – and any gift that any of us would have to bestow would merely take away from that,” the Dark One said. “But I will give her one, anyway, if you truly want me to.”
The parents bowed their heads. “If that is your pleasure,” they said.
The Dark One stretched out a hand over the child.
“You will live your life in pain, and end it in darkness. But you will bring light unto others. Light, and understanding, and always, always, the truth. You will be known as the truth speaker, and eventually the oracle of your people.”
“Thank you,” the child’s father said timidly.
“But the price…!” whispered the child’s mother.
They had asked, and it had been given, and it was done. The Dark One withdrew into the shadows from which she had come, and the fairies were gone.
The child grew, and became first a bright-eyed toddler and then a happy little girl whose fair hair was dressed by her mother with vivid red ribbons and who skipped and sang her way through her days.
Until the morning that the Dark One’s words began to come true.
On that day she came home from the woods where she had been playing, and she was very quiet. Her mother asked her what was wrong, and she stumbled over the words as she tried to explain – how she had seen a rabbit in a clearing in the forest, and had seen the fox waiting in the shadows, and had then suddenly seen the rabbit as the fox had seen it, had seen the fox as the rabbit saw it in the last moments of its life, had felt the light of the rabbit’s vision dim and die as the fox’s teeth closed about its throat.
“But that is the hunt,” her mother said. “And creatures of the woods have always lived the lives of the hunter and the hunted. And even we, out here, do the same.”
“How?” the child asked, lifting her big, beautiful eyes which were brimming with tears.
“Well,” the mother said, “you have seen me kill the chickens for our supper…”
“I did not think of it that way,” the girl said, looking away.
The mother thought that maybe that would be the end of it but the next time she prepared one of the chickens for the family’s dinner, the child pushed away her plate and said that she was not hungry. And she never ate anything again that had once looked out upon the world through its own eyes.
It was a year later that her mother found her sitting by the side of the road, comforting a weeping woman traveler.
“No matter how bad it seems now,” the girl said, her hand laid on the hand of the weeping woman as they sat side by side on a grass bank, “there is light that is waiting for you – and someday your daughter will be there to take care of you when you are old.”
“But I have no daughter,” the woman sobbed. “And I am lost, lost, lost and alone…”
The mother took her daughter home, after offering some food and comfort to the footsore traveler, and then forgot about the incident until the woman returned, almost a year to the day after the encounter by the roadside, and sought out the cottage where the child who had comforted her made her home. She carried with her a small bundle wrapped in swaddling clothes, and on her face was wonder.
“I had to come,” she said, when she found the girl who had spoken to her a year before. “I had to come, and bring this one to show you – for how did you know that before last year was out I would be blessed with a daughter of my own, the light of my life, that child you spoke of who would take care of me in my old age…. How did you know?”
“It was the truth,” the girl said simply.
And after that, they started to come. One by one, and then four or five or ten or a dozen, waiting patiently in the yard until she would speak to them. And then a hundred. And then more.
There were some who heard things they did not like, and hated her for saying them, and then went away and spoke ill of her – but the bad things came true for them anyway, and the girl’s reputation only grew. But she herself grew thinner and quieter, her pretty face getting gaunt and hollow-cheeked, her eyes haunted.
“Tell me how to make it stop,” her mother said, “because it is hurting you, and it needs to stop. How do I make them go away?”
“They will not go away,” the girl said. “Not ever. Not while I can see through every one of their eyes, into the shadows of their lives, into their future, into their past. They will never go away. Not so long… as I can see.”
And she grew even quieter after that, as if she had given herself an answer to a question she had not known that she had asked, had not even known could be asked. But it seemed to be an answer that she was afraid of, and recoiled from – right until the moment when she disappeared from her home one night, and somehow crept past all the people who were huddled out in the yard and by the roadside waiting for the dawn so that she would wake and speak to them again like the prophetess that she was, and vanished into the woods.
Her mother missed her when she rose to greet the new day, and the crowds outside roused at her cry. They fanned out to look for the girl, and there was no lack of searchers that day – but they had no luck in finding her, not until the sun was low in the sky and the horizon was blood red with the sunset in the west. That was when they came across her, huddled in the back of a shallow forest cavern away from the light, and what remained of her beautiful eyes as blood-red as the sunset as the tears of blood ran down her cheeks from where they had once been, from where she had plucked them with her own hand. So that she could no longer see. So that she could buy her freedom from the weight of truth, from the press of expectations from everyone out there who wanted to know the things that were hidden from them but not from her, never from her.
“We found her! We found the Oracle!” the searchers clamored, as they brought the wreckage of the girl back to her mother’s house. “She is hurt, but she is alive, and we found her, we found her! And after she is better…”
The mother saw the ruined eye sockets and wept, and washed the blood from the girl’s face,, and asked, “Are you in very much pain…?”
And the girl whispered, “Yes – but it is not what you think…”
“What is it? What did you do? Why did you do this? Are you sorry…?”
“I did it so that I would no longer see anything,” the girl whispered. “But oh… Mother… Now… now I can see everything…”
And her mother remembered the Dark One’s blessing at the child’s birth – You will live your life in pain, and end it in darkness. But you will bring light unto others. Light, and understanding, and always, always, always the truth. You will be known as the truth speaker, and eventually the oracle of your people.
Such are the gifts of Dark Ones, offered over cradles of innocent children in the dawn of their lives.
“It’s all screwed up,” Liam Muller complained, tapping at his keyboard and squinting at the shifting screens on his monitor. “There are dozens of different versions of it in the media, and then thousands of testimonials of those who swear they met her and she was a saint or that they met her and she was the devil or that they met her and she was a goddess, or an angel, or just a scared little girl. And that’s just online. There’s stuff in that folder back there which pre-dates the Net, and it’s all mired in all kinds of exaggeration and improbability ”
“Go back to the primary sources,” Greg Carr said, peering at his own computer.
“Greg, this was a hundred years ago, all the people who actually knew her are dead,” Liam said sourly. “I can’t question them; all I have is what they wrote.”
Greg sat back, removing his spectacles and rubbing the bridge of his nose “Well, what do you expect me to do about that?”
“Listen,” Liam said, leaning closer into his monitor. “Here, just take the three articles that I’m looking at right now. One says she blinded herself, and that she was institutionalized after that or perhaps because of that and that her fame as the oracle really began after this. Another says that it was actually one of the people who asked her a question and who didn’t like the answers he got who attacked and blinded her, and then she was institutionalized, etcetera. And the third one says that she was never institutionalized at all but that her sister took care of her for the rest of her life.” He paused, rubbing at his own face. It was past midnight, and he was more tired than he would admit. “And then there’s a fourth one which speaks of her as an only child.”
“As in, she had no sister to take care of her.”
“Cite everything,” Greg said. “Just write that there are conflicting accounts of her life and cite every single damn thing you find. You can let whoever reads this find their way through the maze. You’re giving them the maze, not the map.”
“We are supposed to be journalists. We’re supposed to tell the truth,” Liam said, exhausted but obstinate. “And even if… well… it would just be the crowning irony of all if we didn’t tell the truth now, here, about a woman so many believe was an oracle.”
“You’ve done a hundred of these profiles before and you’ve done them in half the time and with a quarter of the kvetching. Just get on with it!”
“I can’t,” Liam said helplessly. “This one’s different.”
“No, it isn’t!” Greg said, exasperated. “She’s just another…”
“No,” Liam said, with conviction. “No, she’s not. This one is just special. Something really unique happened here.”
“Really unique. Tell me you didn’t just qualify that word.”
“No… yes…but you know what I mean. Yes, we’ve done a hundred of these profiles. But this particular one is going to outlast both you and me, Greg. People will be telling this story a thousand years from now.”
“You know this how?” Greg demanded. “Look, it’s late. Why don’t we just knock off for the day?”
“No,” Liam said, after a short hesitation. “I have to get it done. I have to find what the truth was.”
Greg sighed, and pushed his chair back, yawning. “Fine. I’ll see you in the morning, then.”
Liam’s attention was already back on the computer screen. “Sure.”
Greg shrugged and left the room, rubbing both hands wearily on the nape of his neck.
Liam spared him a glance as he vanished through the door, and the glance had a good deal of regret in it – in some ways he knew that Greg was right, that they were both tired, and that he was putting far more work and effort, far more meaning, into this particular profile than it probably deserved. And yet… and yet. There was something. There was something waiting for him, if only he dug deep enough, if he was careful enough.
The truth was there. Her truth, the one whom they had called the Oracle in her own lifetime. The girl who could only tell the truth. The blind girl who could see everything…
The blind girl who could see everything,
He shivered, with an almost superstitious awe and understanding starting to wash over him. It was as though all the confusing accounts of one little girl’s life, one young woman’s pain, suddenly coalesced for him for a moment into a vivid pattern of understanding - as though he had asked the question of the Oracle herself… and she had stepped out of the past and given him an answer, his answer, the truth he had been groping after all along.
In some ways, nothing that was said of her was true. In some ways, all of it was.
In that sense Greg was right, and making judgments on what was ‘true’ became almost irrelevant in the face of the greater truth, the greatest truth of them all.
“It isn’t sight,” Liam said, leaning forward, his hands curling over his keyboard, suddenly inspired. “It’s vision. And she had the vision. She didn’t need anything other than that to be able to see…”
The night closed in, around the glow of a computer monitor lighting up a face that had assumed the expression of an apostle, against the sound of soft but rapid clicking of the keys on a computer keyboard, as the chrysalis of a life once lived trembled and cracked along its seams and something else, something different, something greater, waited to be born.
I think it all started when I was six, and we moved into the house in the tree-lined suburban street which was supposed to be the fairy tale castle – or so my little sister, then four, and I were told. I remember standing on the sidewalk looking up the garden path to where the house sat, innocent and sleepy amongst the trees, with my mother holding my hand on one side and my sister’s on the other.
“Look,” she said to the two of us, “Look, the house is smiling at you. Can you see it? See those windows up there? One of them will be your room. Aren’t the windows just like a couple of twinkling eyes, smiling down at you?”
Once she said it, once I saw it, I could never unsee it again. The house had eyes from that moment, forever more. Mother had wanted to make the house seem welcoming to us, as if it were something living, a friend, something comfortable and sympathetic which we would see as our ally and our sanctuary and thus love immediately.
Instead, the house looked at me. And saw me. And I stood there on the pavement, rooted to the spot, for that moment at least so completely terrified that I could not move at all – and when I did, finally, it was when Mother dragged me forward, step by unwilling step. The house stared me down with its unblinking eyes of sparkling glass panes, and when I crossed its threshold it reached inside of me, owned me, knew me, and I knew it. And those “eyes” that looked out onto the street, they became mine, too; there were times I could simply close my own lids and the street would unfold before me – sometimes in the bustle of the rush hour when all the neighbors were coming or going, herding children or dogs, husbands and wives racing to work, gardeners mowing lawns, a constant and turbulent motion; sometimes in the middle of a moonlit night, empty and still, with cars parked somnolently in driveways and just the occasional dog barking at nothing in particular as a lonely counterpoint somewhere in the distance.
And that, I believe, was the beginning of it all. Because once I saw, I could not unsee – once I saw anything, I could not unsee – and the world was full of eyes. I kept on seeing them. I kept on watching, and I kept on being conscious of being watched.
“She’s changed,” I overheard my mother tell my grandmother once, maybe a year after we had come there. I was seven, and it was late, and I was supposed to have been tucked away in my bed and asleep but I had been thirsty and I’d come down the stairs for a drink of water… and instead walked into these voices, talking just out of my sight, talking, I knew, about me. “She used to be so happy, you know. She was my laughing one. Now – she’s so quiet. She doesn’t talk to me anymore and when she does it’s about things I don’t understand, and they’re beginning to scare me. Even in her sleep, you know. Once I was walking past her room and I heard her saying in this funny little singsong voice, ‘I can seeeee youuuu! I can seeee youuuu!’ And I looked in and she was fast asleep. Honestly, it freaked me out.”
“She’s probably going through something,” Grandma said soothingly. “She’s of an age…”
“She’s seven,” my mother said. “They go through ages at the Terrible Twos, or when they’re teenagers. Not now. Now they’re supposed to be happy little children. Do you suppose she’s just unhappy that we moved here? She loved our old house…”
“She was a baby,” Grandma said. “She can’t remember that much about it.”
Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t. That wasn’t the point.
The point was that this house had eyes, and that it had made me see through them. And then it just got worse, and worse, and worse. Because there were eyes… everywhere.
They took us down to the central city one day, and there were windows all around me, and every one of them was a gaze aimed squarely at me – and then I could see through all of them, I could see people scurrying in the streets and waiting at traffic crossings, and tapping impatient feet and talking on telephones – and I could see the birds that zipped in and out through the canyons of glass and steel – and I could see the rats burrowing through the dumpsters in the service alleys. All of it. And I got quieter and quieter, more and more still, until I could barely move at all and could hardly speak, and the outing was cut short and we went home again.
I saw a woman taking a photograph of her children in the park. And the camera in her hand was an unblinking eye.
The stuffed animals on my bed stared at me.
I began to cry when I saw a dog or a cat; our own cat, Mimsy, began to hiss and arch its back when I came into the room, and we could not look each other in the face.
And worst of all… mirrors. With my own haunted eyes looking back at me, and my vision swimming as it doubled, tripled, multiplied, me looking at my mirror self and my mirror self looking at me and me looking back and she looking back until my brain swam from the echoing images and I would sometimes enter strange hypnotic fugue states, standing in front of a mirror frozen in place until someone came to shake me loose and away. Eventually the mirrors in the bathroom I used were taken down, and so were the ones in my room – but there were others in the house that would catch me sometimes.
Out of the house, every plate-glass display window was a danger. I walked with my eyes downcast when I left the house, wary of meeting my own eyes through a careless glance cast at a pair of pretty shoes in a shop window.
I was filling up with vision and I was struggling to cope with it, stumbling under the weight of it, being driven into either catatonic sleep or white wakefulness for twenty hours or more at a time as I tried to find a way out of it. I would merely look outside – through a window – from within a house – and I would happen to lay eyes on a bird on a tree branch, and the things it could see would flood into my own mind. At night, sometimes, lying awake, I would stare at the slightly lighter shape that was the window in the darkness of my room and I could swear I could see eyes out there, staring right back at me through the windows, sometimes plaintive and weeping and sometimes demonic, red, malevolent, seeking me out to do me harm because I was seeing it all and it was crushing me, crushing me…
Mother was right. I had gone quiet. Who could I possibly have talked to about this? Whom could I have told about it and not been considered to be mad? I could not tell my parents or my grandmother because they would have never left me alone again, I would have never had another day of being on my own again, I knew they would do their best to help and to try and ‘cure’ me but what that would mean would be endless tests and medical procedures and probably therapists and psychiatrists and drugs and perhaps they’d even end up locking me away somewhere, so that they wouldn’t have to worry about me, so that I could be safe, so that I would be away from them and they would not have to worry about me or think about it. And I could not talk to my sister, who had not heard what I had heard, who had not seen what I had seen, who was a normal and happy little girl and whom I loved and could not destroy by dragging her into the nightmare with me.
So I endured, and withdrew, and soon they took me out of school and my mother and grandmother tried to give me lessons in the basics at home – but I became a recluse inside my own house, inside my own room, sometimes huddling in the darkness of the depths of the closet because there were no eyes there and I could find some peace. My sister had posters on her walls, with people on them – I could not, my room was bare, almost monastic, with nothing in it except what I absolutely required and even that pared down to the barest and simplest minimum – a bed, a chair, a plain table for a desk.
And even then sometimes the eyes played on the blank walls and stared at me as I lay in bed at night, looking, always looking, seeing everything – I saw everything and knew everything, and they all looked right back at me. I don’t know if they were even aware of it but all those gazes could have seen me for what I was if they had had any idea that I was there. But they did not. And instead I began to scribble down things on pieces of paper, on that plain desk in my room, answers to questions I had never been asked. I was naming names I had no right to know, and giving them answers to problems they had no idea that anyone other than themselves knew anything about. I would write the answers down, and then I would shred the paper on which they had been written, ripping it convulsively into confetti, trying to hide what I had done, feeling guilty, feeling resentful, feeling helpless under the onslaught of it all.
It was my little sister who broke it eventually, despite my silence – she found one of my notes and took it to my parents and they started keeping an eye on me and more of the notes found their way to them and then one day something I said came true, right on the news, and that scared them all.
It was a name – no more than a name – a name they had found on one of the notes that my sister had taken to my parents. It had been a bad one, it was a pair of eyes that had haunted me, and I had not been able to escape him, in the end. I had never met him, never spoken to him, he never saw the note that I wrote with his name on it – but I had scrawled on that note that he was going to die, and violently – and when the name turned up on the evening news I could see them recognize it, and blanch, and I saw them recoil from me. They tried to hide it, but I saw it, and I had, after all, a gift for seeing, and for truth. I knew that it had been real. And it had been that which cracked open our cocoon because it was that story that scared them – scared them enough to let what had still been a family secret out, and the world in. The people through whose eyes I saw suddenly knew that I could see… and they came, they all came, until the quiet street became choked with people seeking to come to me and ask me things which they all just knew I would know – ones and twos, and then handfuls, and then dozens, and then hundreds, and then more.
We had to move again, eventually. But people who wanted to find me did not stop looking, and they found me again, in the new place. And they kept coming.
Eventually it was thought best that I should be separated from the family, so that they could have some semblance of a normal life, and from the world, because people would pay and cheat and kill to get to me, to get to the Oracle. And so my family found a place where I could live behind high walls, almost like a prison even though I had done nothing wrong, and they left me there. And they went away, my mother and my father and my little sister.
Trying to find a life with a little peace.
I could not blame them, really.
But that night they left me alone, that was the night I cried, and cried, and cried, until the tears were dry and the blood came, until I reached for the eyes that were showing me all the truth in the world, giving me all the insight and all the answers, all except what to do about it all.
With clawed hands, with pushing thumbs, with hooked nails, I started tearing at those eyes that could not help seeing things, until I could see no more. I understood the pain, I accepted the agony, I did it with full awareness, I knew when the wetness on my cheeks changed from tears to blood.
Darkness had once been a sanctuary. There was a time when I could bury myself in the back of my closet, stuff my face into a fold of my coat, shut the sights of the world away, and I could find a few moments of peace.
But that had been before. When the seeing was still young. When it had not yet fully taken root in me, perhaps.
I was willing to accept the pain and the blood. I had freely offered up my physical sight, paying the price I thought I needed to pay. I wanted… needed… to abdicate from this high place of being a witness to the world’s suffering, and I was almost happy to embrace perpetual darkness if I could have that quiet place to which I could go, and be free.
But I had not realized until it was too late… until it was far, far too late…that I had merely liberated myself from the shackles of the sight that was of the physical realm, of flesh and of blood.
Instead of the quiet black emptiness I had reached for – instead of giving up the sight that had caused me so much anguish – instead of the rest and solitude that I had craved – instead of seeing nothing… I could not help seeing everything.
I could not help… suddenly, vividly, with no chance of escape and no place to hide… seeing it all.
This story originally appeared in Athena's Daughters.