Elinor perched on a low wooden stool, alert, her pencil ready, as bright colors swirled across the old man’s face. Greens, purples, and blues blended across his wrinkled eyes and furrowed forehead; pinks, yellows, and reds dove and resurfaced across the skin of his stubble-covered cheeks.
The man, the ebber, sat straight up in his narrow sick bed, looking healthier than Elinor had expected, though his lips were twisted into a pucker. Was he worried about what the signs would reveal? It was a little late to be regretting the past.
Or did he not like the taste of the bogmyrtle? That would be a clear tell, even without the colors. Elinor could barely taste the swamp mud that the fussy ebbers complained about, though drinking anything a few hundred times during an apprenticeship might kill some tastebuds.
“The doctor says he only has a few weeks left.”
The crowd inhaled as one; the ebber’s family had all shoved together into the small, airless room. Elinor wasn’t sure who had spoken but suspected it was one of the pimpled grandsons standing on tiptoe in the back.
Readings were sacred spaces, and silence was strictly observed. An ebber’s soul wouldn’t be able to cross over to the Trinity without being read. Those poor souls who died without a reading were locked into an eternal limbo, or worse.
Zora, standing with her arms outstretched, mid-prayer, raised a single eyebrow at Elinor, then glared at the ebber’s wife. The elegant woman leapt up from her position at the head of the bed, her linen robes swaying in the still air. She stalked through the tight crowd, grabbed the boy Elinor had suspected by the arm, and shoved him out of the room in furious silence.
The family stood transfixed, not acknowledging the boy’s absence except to shift into the open space he’d left behind. A small wave of pride filled Elinor’s chest, making her sit straighter on her stool. They were all trying to see what was whispered about in the alleys and at the market, the legends that followed the famed Reader Zora. And as her assistant, Elinor was sometimes a footnote to the whispers.
The man’s colors merged, combined, and created new colors. Then, one by one, the colors faded and the ebber’s face cleared. Zora rolled up the man’s loose sleeves, baring his arms to the elbow, and unbuttoned his collar, exposing a few inches of his chest so the room could see his neck.
Settling herself on the foot of the bed, Zora pulled out her pencil and a piece of paper. She didn’t need the thick book of signs Elinor carried in her hip sack. After decades of practice and thousands of ebbers, Zora had all the signs memorized and needed to jot down only a few notes to record her reading. Later, in the city’s Book of Records, the official reading would be set down, but for the family announcement Zora’s scrawls would suffice.
The ebber’s eyes fluttered shut in fear. Some, especially the ones with secrets, had a hard time watching their family as they were read. Shame and embarrassment are easier to manage in the darkness behind your eyelids.
After a brief pause, bright and bold images emerged on the trader’s face like bubbles rising to the surface of a reservoir, each one overlapping and erasing the image that appeared before. The signs were always in order and only lasted a few seconds, so Elinor needed to be quick in jotting them down.
The signs began at the first spark of life. For this ebber, a pair of yellow antlers shone at his temples. He had been born in the North lands of the Queen. Then two lines ran from the temples across his forehead to meet in a deep brown crevice down his nose. Easy enough: he had moved to Arado as a young man.
Three silver dots appeared on the palm of his right hand, then tripled, then tripled again until his hand turned silver. He had made a lot of money in his youth.
A flowering pink branch swirled across his neck and up into his cheek; he had found love in his spring. Abruptly, the branch withered and faded away. Lost love, maybe from death? Then scarlet lines extended deep into the wrinkles next to his eyes, around his mouth, and across his forehead. He had been angry, bitter, changed from the loss. Elinor couldn’t be sure what had happened, as the reading only revealed truths about the ebber, not about the people who had affected his life.
His face became covered with tiny squares, patched together. The joining of colors commonly signified work as a trader, symbolizing the different goods and suppliers he needed to hold together to stay in business.
Two circles wound their way around his wrists before heading up his arms toward his heart, and Elinor smiled to herself; the symbol for marriage always reminded her of the binding ropes of convicts. There was no new flowering branch to accompany the circles though, so it had been a marriage of convenience.
Three blue circles and three blue squares appeared on his forehead, smudging out the anger of the red lines. His children, three boys, three girls. One circle, the fourth sign in the sequence, winked out abruptly, and the anger lines returned. He had lost a child.
The symbols cleared, leaving the ebber with his skin mottled and his breath rapid but otherwise unharmed.
Elinor sat back. Not bad. Quick, yes, but she had seen each image before. Anyone who had been present for more than a single reading would be able to puzzle out what those signs meant. There was nothing that required looking up.
The next phase always represented the present. It was trickier; a lot of the symbols would refer to the ebber’s current state of mind and his character. They would be open for interpretation and dependent on his mood. The order of the signs mattered too, forming a chain of current events, one cascading from the other.
Yellow lines flashed on his cheeks, reaching up to his ears; he liked to hear himself talk. A yellow glow emanated from the base of his throat; a skilled orator, he excelled at debate. Clearly a man made to be a trader. Elinor smiled again; Zora had predicted that before the reading had even started. The family was one of the wealthiest trade families in town; it wasn’t difficult to see how they had gotten their wealth.
The glow at his throat faded as a red line streaked from his lips all the way down his chin, stopping at his throat. Elinor suppressed a gasp. The sign of a liar, and a pretty significant one too—it was the longest she had ever seen. Most people’s liar signs ended at their chins, not their throats.
Another branch bloomed across his face, this time on his other cheek. Somehow, the old man was in love. Then a single blue spot flashed on his forehead. He had another child, not with this family. Zora caught Elinor’s eye, and Elinor nodded. She’d caught it.
Streaks of purple snaked down from the ebber’s hairline. Elinor wasn’t sure what they represented. Blue was a sign of intelligence, but purple? She jotted it down to look up later.
A whirlpool of changing color rose up the man’s neck, covering his chin, then his cheeks, finally reaching into his hairline. This one was harder. Blue and greens usually meant a good man who did his best to make good decisions. The changing colors meant conflict. But what conflict? Was it a fight within the family that was bothering the old man? Maybe over the business? The other child?
The colors retreated back to his chest, turning to blue and silver flickering flames. The sign of fire usually indicated what the ebber thought was most important. The old man’s silver flames showed that he had devoted his life to money, but the blue flickering indicated that it was for the sake of his family.
A gray band appeared across the trader’s closed eyes—another sign Elinor didn’t recognize. She scribbled it down.
Then the ebber’s face cleared again, and Elinor waited, staring intently. If there was to be a third reading, focused on the future, it would be quick. The Trinity never liked to show humans too much of what was coming.
The trader’s face remained clear. Disappointed, Elinor leaned back, slumping on her seat. The future was always captivating, a preview of what was to come. Sometimes a simple skull appeared, indicating the upcoming death, but at other times the ebber’s face would shine gold, hinting that a gift of money would be given. An orange mask meant a long line of descendants. Purple meant the ebber was a scholar whose teachings would continue into the future. A lot of Readers showed a purple mask in the third phase. A blue mask, which was rare, meant the ebber would live on in stories and fables told throughout the world.
The rarest was a red mask with black tears. Zora claimed to have witnessed it once, years ago, when reading a dying general. Without his strong leadership, his soldiers had run wild and ransacked the city on the night after his death. They were all captured and hanged for their crimes against country and crown.
The trader’s family noticed Elinor’s changed posture and slumped in relief. The reading was done.
Zora leapt to her feet, muttering one final blessing over the man and her paper, before turning to ebber’s wife. “Please give me a few moments to consult with my apprentice before announcing the reading.”
The ebber’s eyes fluttered open at Zora’s voice. “Is it over?” he croaked, before clearing his throat. A deep baritone filled the room. “I mean, thank you, Elder Zora, for your reading today. I’m sure it will be a source of pride for my family and future generations.”
His implied meaning stilled Elinor’s ruffling pages. He knew the truth but didn’t want it revealed. Of course, ebbers never wanted their sins revealed—as if the Trinity would judge only their good deeds.
Zora nodded, then shoved Elinor down the stairs to the main room. The boy who had spoken earlier sat sprawled across a bench; he jumped up and ran upstairs to rejoin his family.
Zora rolled her eyes. “Well? What did you see?”
This was now a test of Elinor’s skill, not the trader’s life.
“Don’t bother with any of his history,” Zora added. “That was something even Calliope could read from sharing a bedroom with you.”
Elinor hesitated. The signs she hadn’t recognized had been in the book, but, like all signs, they were open for interpretation. “He’s good at his job, at convincing people they need what he’s selling. But he lies. A lot. Probably about his goods, their worth, but also about his love for another woman. And that he has another child.”
Zora shrugged, as if this were obvious, and waved her on.
“The purple streaks mean he’s intelligent but thinks he’s more cunning than he actually is. I would guess they also mean that his family knows about the child? And his mistress?”
Zora nodded, gracing Elinor with a smile.
The next one was harder. “At times he’s been a good man, but his wants conflict with the right thing to do. So he sometimes cheats those less intelligent. He’s devoted himself to his business, for the betterment of his family…” The gray band across his eyes was especially difficult; it looked as if it had meant that he wore a mask. Elinor faltered. “He isn’t being truthful about something…something other than the child and its mother. I’m not sure what.”
“What was not shown on his face?” Zora prodded gently.
Frustration rose up, hot in Elinor’s throat. How about a thousand other signs? “I don’t know, Zora.” It all seemed so easy when she practiced at home, in front of her mirror or on her sister, but during an actual reading…
“What about the third reading?” Zora’s voice held an edge of annoyance. She was losing her patience.
Elinor frowned. Zora had told her over and over again to trust her intuition, to look for other clues while doing a reading, but Elinor’s brain remained stubbornly blank. The signs had come and gone too fast. There were too many other factors that could change their significance.
“The third reading…” Elinor shook her head. No golden glow, no red glow, no orange or blue glow…and no skull. “He’s not dying. Gods! He’s not dying!”
Zora’s hand slapped over Elinor’s mouth, and she scanned the low ceiling. Motes of red dust sifted down between the wide boards as the crowd moved above them, oblivious to Elinor’s shout.
Zora lowered her hand, cautious. “We’re all dying, but yes, he’s not dying any time soon. Either the doctor is a fraud, or the trader is faking being sick and has convinced the doctor to lie to his family.”
“So the gray band? He’s healthy but pretending to be sick?”
Zora paused, and Elinor could see the possibility running through her mind. “The mask is a sign that the truth is being hidden. And gray is a sign of exhaustion, only a step away from death. Usually the exhaustion stems from whatever you spend most of your time doing. I would say that the trader is tired and wants to retire, and yet, for whatever reason, cannot. But you can’t expect a man on his deathbed to run a business, can you?”
Elinor shook her head. It made perfect sense, and a swell of pride pushed a smile onto her face. She had seen it; she had gotten the signs right.
“How do you read that to his family, though?” She glanced up at the ceiling. The crowd was getting louder, restless, and the Code required that the truth be read and put into the official record.
Zora smiled grimly. “While we can’t be responsible for the truths we are shown, we are responsible for how we tell those truths. A hard truth can be swallowed as long as there is hope.” She brushed her hands briskly on her pants, ran her fingers through her hair, and straightened up. “Wish me blessings, child.”
Elinor smiled in encouragement. “Blessings. May the Trinity make your tongue true and your words kind.” This was the standard Reader blessing, but Elinor meant it every time she repeated the words.
Zora turned without responding and led the way back upstairs.
The family fell silent at their entrance. Each face seemed to hold something different: fear, excitement, pride, anger. There would be arguments in their house tonight, once the truth was free. Elinor hoped it might bring the family together.
Zora cleared her throat, but everyone’s attention was already on her. Elinor loved this part, and feared it in turn. It would be her job someday, standing in the spotlight, commanding the attention of a room. While Zora practically glowed from it, Elinor was sure she would barely get a squeak out when her first time came.
“Trader Mosen Raskatin shall be remembered as a child from the North, born of snow, but building his wealth, his family, and his business in Arado. His skill in words and debate led him to find love, but like many of us, he lost it at a young age. His following marriage was fruitful, yielding six children blessed with his and his wife’s name. Life tests us, though, and the fourth child passed on to the next world.”
Zora paused. The details of Mosen’s life, the children’s names, and all the other details thus far revealed would be entered into the record; they were not the reason the reading had been purchased. Stating these obvious facts would reassure the family of the Reader’s honesty, showing that their money had not been wasted on a fraud.
The family exchanged glances but remained silent. No one protested, which was required if the Reader got the beginning wrong. The family could demand a new reading or, Elinor’s greater fear, a new Reader, at the old Reader’s expense. Zora was not only the best but the only Reader in Arado, and so it would be an expensive challenge.
The family stayed silent, watchful. The next part was what they longed to hear.
“Elder Mosen, battered by life, became angry, hard, and closed to the joys that life can bring. He made choices that he most likely regrets today, choices that a happier man never has to contemplate but that a sad man wrestles with daily. Morality can lose its meaning when a person is faced with despair. It wasn’t until he found love in the form of another child that his suffering eased.”
Elinor’s eyes flew to Zora. She had missed it, but Zora was right. The ebber’s anger had disappeared after the birth of the other child.
The family shifted, uncomfortable with the truth. Mosen’s eyes welled up, and he clenched his jaw, the muscles rippling beneath his whiskers. He nodded in agreement with Zora’s words.
“While conflicted between his loyalty to his family and his newfound joy with his seventh child, he remained steadfastly committed to being the strength and guiding light of his family. His business provided for all, and to that ideal he committed his heart.”
Mistress Raskatin reached out and grabbed Mosen’s hand, her mouth a severe line. He placed it on his heart, and her face relaxed for a moment.
Zora paused briefly, then launched into the final and most delicate part of the reading. “The future is a mystery to all mortals, but we have some tools with which to guide the way to the afterlife. The reading told me that Trader Raskatin’s work is done. He is tired and seeks the peace that can come only from being with his family as he finishes his final chapter. All of his family.” Her point was sharp, but needed. Exchanged looks flew around the room. “His heirs will continue his business, with the trust that he has taught them well. In easing his burden, may you extend the time you have with him, so his grandchildren may know his name and his legacy, without needing to consult the Book of Records. While one can never deny death its due, one may persuade it to pause at the door for a while. May the lies of the past be forgiven so a new stage can begin with trust. None of us know the time of our passing, but it is never too late to start down a new path. The choice will lie with Trader Mosen Raskatin. May this reading release his soul to find rest with the Trinity.”
Mosen stared at Zora, then nodded again. He had a duty to acknowledge the truth of her speech, especially if no one had protested after the first phase, and Zora had showed him kindness in revealing his truth. But sometimes, rarely, ebbers refused their readings. They could claim a reading was false. It would still be put in the Book of Records, unaltered, but their note of refusal would be included as a rebuttal.
A grim smile spread across the trader’s face. He raised his arm. Zora reached out, and Mosen grasped her forearm, his hand underneath her elbow—a canyon sign from the olden days, showing respect for the wisdom of the person before you.
He held out the payment, a tightly rolled wad of money, in his other hand. “Thank you, Elder Zora. Blessings be on you and your household.”
The reading had been accepted. Zora smiled her small, unreadable smile back at him. “And yours, Trader Raskatin.”
In the desert canyon city of Arado, the past is never forgotten; it shows up as colorful symbols on the faces of the dying. Trained Readers use bogmyrtle plants to bring form to the images and interpret the signs, in order to ease the path to the afterlife. But there is a cost. The dying must allow their buried secrets, past sins, and moments of strength to be revealed by the Readers, regardless of the consequences.
Independent and perceptive, Elinor is training to be a bogmyrtle Reader. But her city is dying of thirst, its water stolen by the volatile kings living high above her valley. She longs to leave her dust-choked life and leaps at the chance to read the dying Queen Mother. As a result, however, she is soon trapped in a dangerous world of half-truths and long-hidden secrets. The Queen is not as innocent as she seems, and if Elinor exposes the truth, it may cost everyone in Arado their lives.
The idea of Bogmyrtle sprang from my daughters and the concept of telling the truth. Truth can be hard to pinpoint, especially coming out of the mouth of a five-year-old, and I wondered what society would look like if everyone had to confront the truths of their lives in order to ensure an afterlife. What kind of corruption would need to be hidden, and what truths could topple kingdoms?
The environmental crisis that Elinor faces is an extension of my concerns and reflections on climate change—and as I wrote I noticed striking parallels between the flow (and hoarding) of water and of information. While the book is written as a not-quite-apocalyptic fantasy, my hope is that readers will see parts of our own society and conflicts reflected in the characters and the plot.
E. A. August is a former corporate writer turned non-profit writer, who also enjoys traveling and herding small bands of children and dogs through suburban Chicago neighborhoods.
Embark, Issue 12, April 2020