Where Eyes Once Were
Vana leaned into Zaz. “Someone is looking at you,” she said. Her voice dripped vinegar and honey.
The House of the Initiates had come into view and Anagata was standing there outside the door.
Her words made him squirm almost as much as Anagata’s gaze. He tried to focus on the building instead. It was one of the newest in Tolslovel. The rest of the village looked like a broken horse in comparison, all soft and sagging. But not the House. The rocks of its walls were clean of moss, and sap still oozed from the timber. It stood straight. Proud in a way.
Zaz tripped and crashed to the ground.
Vana and Ratri giggled. Arms entwined, they sauntered past him. “Zaz the Drea-mer.” Vana sang. Their laughter spread quicker than floodwater.
He breathed shallow and fast, but he still pushed himself up from the ground.
Anagata was the only one who wasn’t shaking with laughter.
Zaz jogged to Vana and Ratri, but it wasn’t to catch up to them. It was to hide from the Augur.
“It’s so different without her here,” Ratri was saying.
He nodded, but Vana tugged her sister to her. “Sh. It’s better. You know how embarrassing cripples are. That’s what she’s like. A cripple.”
“She is not a cripple.” He wanted to scream it, but whispered instead.
“She does walk like one.” Ratri nodded slowly, then her head tilted, as if she was pondering something else.
“She doesn’t do that at home,” Zaz said.
Vana leaned forward, around Ratri, and stared at him. “She’s always yellow. She’s pale, and looks like sickness. Stop defending her.”
“I’m not.” Vana mimicked.
“I don’t sound like that.”
“I don’t sound like that.” Vana nudged Ratri.
They both said it this time. “Stop it.”
By the plow. They were impossible. Father should take the belt to them. But he didn’t. He never did.
Near the doorway, he realized Anagata was still watching him.
“Good day, Augur.” Zaz bowed his head.
“Zaz.” Next came the words he was dreading. “Wait here.”
Ratri and Vana looked back at him. At first shock widened their eyes, but then mischief glazed over them and their mouths formed a perfect O of surprise.
“Girls,” Anagata said, stepping between him and his sisters.
Immediately, they cast their gazes to the ground. Their faces became expressionless. “Good morning, Augur.” They tried to skirt around him and escape into the building.
“I did not permit you to leave.”
Zaz swallowed. Anagata’s voice sounded stern and harsh, more like the Regent’s instead of his own.
“Yes, Augur?” Vana asked, the words slow to come.
“You may not gaze upon a man’s face.”
“But it’s just Zaz,” Vana muttered loud enough to be heard.
Anagata huffed. “It does not matter who it is. You know the Praxis, do you not?”
“Do you not?”
“Yes, Anagata. We know”
He said nothing for a moment.
Zaz scanned the interior of the House, and found other Initiates watching them. The boys looked at them directly. Some of the girls watched from the edge of their gazes. The clever ones held smooth, glossy rocks in the palms of their hands and watched the distorted reflection. Zaz chewed the inside of his cheek. They learned that from Murin, though none of them would have admitted it.
“Have you nothing else to say?” Anagata asked.
Ratri broke the awkwardness. “I’m sorry, brother.”
“Vana.” There was a sharpness, a demand to the way the Augur said her name.
“Perhaps this is how you are allowed to behave in your home. This is not the way a proper Tarksan woman behaves.” Anagata’s voice was soft once again, but there were edges to it.
Vana’s hand twitched, clenched into a momentary fist before relaxing. She turned from Anagata to Zaz, and bowed low. “Please, forgive us.”
If he didn’t live with her, didn’t know her so well, he could have believed she was sincere. The twins were always pretending, though. They pretended the most ludicrous things. That they were rulers, that they could make things happen with words and with their minds. That they were greater and better than anyone else.
He pursed his lips. “Forgiven. Thank you,” he said. His words didn’t flow as well as hers, and sounded anything but genuine.
Vana bowed even deeper before she spun on her toe and sauntered into the House.
Ratri backed away before turning. It was an older tradition no one used anymore. Tears pricked Zaz’s eyes as she disappeared into the room.
He kept his gaze lowered, watched as the dusty hem of Anagata’s robe came into view. His shoes peaked out, with the toes pointing straight at Zaz. The last Initiates were arriving. He could tell from the way the air stirred around him.
Anagata didn’t move. He was waiting for something. He was going to ask Zaz to leave and never come back, like what he must have done with Murin to make her so timid and to make Father crazy and to make the twins turn from simply not caring to being cruel little gnats. Except, maybe he waited something else.
“Please forgive me, Augur.”
The robes rustled. “Why do you beg forgiveness?”
Zaz bit his lip. He looked in the dirt for the answer. Father and Murin had always seemed able to do that. If a crop was failing, they’d pick up a handful of dirt, rub it between their fingers, smell it and know exactly what was going on. Man skills, Father called them.
Whenever Father brought up man skills, he’d look at Zaz for a long time. Like something was missing. Then he’d look at Murin, where he apparently found it. A sweet rush of air swirled in Zaz’s throat. “I was apologizing for not doing my duty as a man. You shouldn’t have had to get after them for me.”
Another long silence drew out until Zaz felt as if fire ants lined his shoes, nibbled at his feet.
“There is no need to apologize.”
“Please follow me. I’d like to speak with you separately.”
His shoulders tightened, curled inward. Then his legs started to shake. “Don’t you need to teach?”
“Later. The Regent is speaking today.”
The Regent! But he never spoke to the Initiates. “I didn’t do anything.” He whispered, words rattling like a lid on a boiling pot.
Anagata turned, walked away from the House. Zaz stared into the darkness of the doorway.
“Close that door.” The Regent’s voice boomed the command. “Now children, today I am going to speak about the Svarasa, and the very roots of our heritage.”
Bhas, from the village North, watched Zaz as he closed the doors.
Anagata cleared his throat.
Zaz was supposed to be following. “Coming,” he mumbled. They wound around the House and made their way to a small entrance. The door had no handle. No hinges. It was completely smooth. The Augur moved his hands over the wood as if he was drawing a symbol.
“Turn around, boy.”
Zaz obeyed. Anagata was powerful indeed if he could open that door. Then Zaz heard scraping, a complicated medley of sounds he couldn’t hope to identify, and then a click and the scratch of wood over stone.
“Come on now.”
Zaz turned, found a passage where the door had been. “How?”
“It’s none of your bother.”
Questions bit Zaz’s tongue, begged to be asked. Was this where the Augur had rejected Murin? Why did the House of the Initiates need a secret entrance? Why couldn’t anyone go in? And most of all, what could Anagata have to say to him in such privacy?
Anagata drifted into the darkness without looking back. Zaz was alone in the alley. There wasn’t even a goat, or a nosey neighbor to share this moment with him. Of course, Murin wouldn’t have hesitated. She thought she was obedient. Sure, she kept her head down, her shoulders slumped. Weeds! she even walked with her knees partly bent so no one in town would realize how tall she really was. But she always faced things. Whether it was a group of girls with stones in their hands, or boys with scissors to slash at her hair, she walked right into it.
Zaz ambled down the stairs, and stepped into the darkness, too. The passage was more convoluted than the Village’s alleys. He came to one turn, then another, then a set of stairs and more turns and more stairs. The torches were spaced too far apart, and he had to stumble in the dark while keeping his gaze to the next beggared pool of light. Sometimes the light grew faint as Anagata’s body crowded the space it occupied. Finally Anagata stopped at a door. Hand poised on the latch, he waited for Zaz.
“This is a sacred space, boy. You may tell no one of it of your time here.”
Zaz’s heart raged, collided with his ribs and made everything sound hollow.
“Do you swear it?”
“But I—what if Father asks?” Murin.
“I can’t disobey him.”
“You would disobey the town Augur instead?”
Zaz breathed loudly through his nose. It was an impossible question. “I can disobey neither.” His palms felt slimy, and it seemed a thousand needles pricked his face.
“What is beneath the House of the Initiates, boy?”
“But we are not under the House.”
Zaz pressed his lips together.
“If Vapan asked, what will you answer?”
Tears fogged his vision. Vana and Ratri’s taunts returned. After a long while, he said, “Nothing.”
Anagata tapped the latch, and opened the door. The room was bare, save for a table, a lantern, and a vial. He closed the door once Zaz entered, gestured toward the table. “Please, sit.”
Zaz inched toward it. The fluid in the vial jittered when he hopped on the table.
Anagata picked up the vial, rolled it between his fingertips. “You are not like the other boys.”
You are not like the others. He probably started with Murin this same way.
“You are small. You always have been. And sensitive.”
Like a woman. The Augur didn’t have to say it for Zaz to hear the words.
“I wish to change that.”
“Huh?” He looked up. The old man was staring down at him. Sadness weighed heavy at his eyes, the corners of his mouth. Zaz slammed his eyelids shut. “Please forgive me.”
A hand clamped on his shoulder. “It’s alright, I permit it in here. Expect it, even.”
Zaz opened his eyes, and slowly looked up.
“Do you know what this is?” The fluid danced in the vial.
He shook his head.
“It is help.”
“For you to become a man. A real man, not just one in word. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
He was supposed to want that. Everyone told him that’s what he should be, so he nodded. “But how does that change—” what he already was.
“You drink it. It makes you stronger and braver.”
“It’s not very much for such a big change.”
Anagata sighed. “Well, this is only the first ministration.”
They sat for a while in silence. Everything above them seemed to press down, the buildings, the earth, even the sky. Anagata cleared his throat. “I must ask for something in return, and you must not refuse.”
Zaz closed his eyes. His throat tightened again.
“You will tell everyone that once a month, instead of Initiation, we have private study to train you in the ways of Augur.”
Anagata looked away. “This is what you will tell them if they ask. I will teach you some small things. So you can share them. If they ask. Mainly, you will share your own stories with me. In exchange, I will give you another dose.”
“Careless fool. I forgot. Here, drink it.”
He had to obey, didn’t he? He pulled the stopper loose, sniffed it. The strange smell he expected to attack him was missing. At worst, there was maybe a trace of earth. He dabbed a spot of the liquid on his tongue. It tasted bitter and sharp. It was the kind of taste that was supposed to make him strong. He downed it, and grimaced as it burned. In the next moment, his tongue thickened and became numb. The numbness spread through the rest of his body. He had a question. What was it? Right. “What stories?”
“Of your family.”
Zaz’s gaze drifted to Anagata’s face.
“Of your father. Your sister. And most importantly, your mother.”
“But I have three sisters.”
“Murin. Only her.”
Cold fingers pried his eyes open. A huge eyeball examined him. “Hmm. Alright then. Off with you.”
“I will send for you. When the time comes, you will tell me all of their stories.” Anagata helped him from the table, guided him to the door, and opened it for him.
Zaz stumbled down the passage. When he emerged from the darkness, he felt lighter, less real. The high sun beat his eyes until it was all he could see. He waited. Shadows emerged, and then shapes. Finally, he recognized the alley, and the buildings. He frowned. That wasn’t right. Why hadn’t he noticed that before? Stones, as new and bright as the ones of the House of the Initiates filled spaces where windows once were. He glanced behind him, where he’d just been. A Murin-story came to his mind. Actually, it was just something she said once.
Nothing good grows in the dark.