“Ours is a family of seers,” Gran would say, before she began one of her tales. “But like everyone we can choose whether to look or not to look.”
Then she would tell us, a varied collection of her grandchildren, of what she had seen when she chose to look. We’d listen raptly as she told us stories about all the odd items in her collection of treasures from her life. She had the usual things that people had: birth certificate, diplomas, love letters from Grandpa, pictures of her children and grandchildren, books, trophies, vacation souvenirs, and so on.
But she also had things that people typically did not have: a petrified dragon scale, pearlescent flecks from a unicorn horn, a shard from the sword of a giant, a seed from a long-extinct and legendary talking tree, and so on. Every odd treasure of hers had a story to it. And every story was an adventure from her own life.
Born in the midst of war and change, my grandmother was a dreamer. She went to college to study astronomy. Before she finished school, she’d visited five of the seven continents of the world. (This is a feat I have yet to accomplish, even though as a young woman in the modern age, I have far more autonomy.) And yet she dreamt of traveling farther. Of going to the moon and beyond. Of traveling through dreams. She wondered about the worlds that must exist under the sea and below the surface of the earth.
Throughout her life, she was drawn to anything that was atypical. She once donated to SETI. She read books about alchemy, mysticism, and parallel dimensions. The only non-fantastical topic that interested her was the history of extraordinary women. She envied and admired them, from the scandalous to the magnificent. She grew up in a time when it was far more difficult for girls and women to exert their will upon the world the way that many boys and men could. More difficult to rise as far as she wanted to, as far as she could have.
When I grew older, Gran explained that much as she longed to be adventurous and bold like the girls and women she read about, she was just plain old her. She had done mostly what was expected of her for a long time. Until she realized that she wouldn’t be rewarded for her good behavior and obedience. She wouldn’t earn her chance to make her own decisions. If she wanted that, she would have to speak up, stand up. And even then, she might fail or be thwarted.
She longed to explore the world.
Like any good adventurer, Gran had a weather-beaten brown leather jacket and a pair of aviator’s goggles. She’d wear them on her journeys, along with a scarf that Grandpa bought her and had embroidered with her name, Jerica Gwenmire. She didn’t like her name much and always made people call her “Jerry.” But Grandpa would point out that people should know the great adventurer, Jerry Gwenmire, was a woman. She came to treasure that scarf, because it was a symbol of her husband’s faith in her. (And he had made sure it was nice and warm too.) But it wasn’t her greatest treasure.
When I was a child, I believed in all of Gran’s adventure stories, even the fantastical ones, where she encountered sea monsters and animals found only in myths and misguided nature books from centuries past. I soon realized she was embellishing some stories and just plain making up others. But I had a running joke with Grandpa about whether or not Gran had a tale about catching the biggest fish in Loch Ness or Lake Eerie or some other famed body of water.
Grandpa used to chuckle and say that Gran’s truest treasure was her imagination. But then his smile would fade and he would tell us that one day, perhaps, if she so chose, she might tell us the true tales of the adventure that was her life. I thought that meant there were even more fantastical stories that were maybe too gruesome or scandalous for her to tell little children. But what he meant was that she was making up these fantastic tales as allegories for the real-world challenges she faced. The items she collected were trophies. But they were not shiny gold cups with her name engraved on them. They were bits and pieces that broke off when she explored the world with all its wonders and horrors, bits and pieces with her spirit engraved on them.
She judged that the real stories would not be exciting to children. And much as I’m ashamed to admit it, she was right. I probably would have fallen asleep if she tried to tell a seven-year-old me about the brief time she worked as a secretary. Her boss, the only man in the office, was a chauvinist pig who always whistled at and cat-called his colleagues, until Gran said something to him one day. He was so shocked that he immediately stopped, and mostly avoided her from then on. But he also fired her shortly after.
The tale we received as children was of a spoiled little prince who ruled a tiny country in the east. He had many servants, mostly women, to tend to his needs. And though he was just a little boy with no true strength, he wore the crown. So he had the power. And there was nothing the servants could do. Gran was in country visiting when she took a position as a servant at court to earn enough pay to continue on her journeys. After only a week, she grew so irate at the way the royal brat treated his servants, that she went into town and had an alchemist create a concoction for her that would silence the prince.
The prince had tasters who tasted his food and drink. But Gran managed to bribe one by showing him that the potion would not harm the prince, only shut him up for a while. Gran was young and didn’t think of the consequences. She did not look ahead on the road she traveled. The prince drank the concoction and Gran stood up to him and chastised him for treating his servants so poorly. When he regained his voice, the prince cast Gran out of his castle and banished her from his kingdom. (The trophy from this particular adventurer was a fountain pen that she stole from the desk of the prince-heir himself.) Gran later realized that she might have made it worse for those who were left behind. But by then it was too late to try and find out. She was banished. They too were banished from her mind sometime after she returned home.
But there was one time, she had an adventure that was far more disturbing. One that changed her, so she would never forget those she left behind again. It was the grimmest tale she ever told us. The first time I heard it, I hardly understood a word. But I was terrified, because my cousins around me were scared. And because Gran, instead of being her usual gesticulating self, sat still and quiet, her glittering brown eyes intense, her voice deep and controlled.
The summer before she met my grandfather, Gran was in Europe on holiday with friends and a rather strict chaperone. She and few of her friends went exploring outside the town they were staying in. They wandered into a vast forest and were captured by a troll, who made them work for him, sweeping floors, and cooking meals. Only, his meals consisted of the girls themselves. He would send them all out to search for firewood or fruit. But he would keep one with him, and whoever that was, he would kill her and chop her up before the others returned. He would tell the girls that he’d caught and prepared a deer or boar. If they asked what happened to the missing girl, he would scoff and say she had run away. He would warn the rest of them not to run away, for the forest was wild and they might be killed by animals. The next day, he would bring out the bloody clothes of the missing girl to confirm his tale. So the girls remained fooled until one of them learned what was really happening. When they were sent out again the next day, one of the girls stayed behind and hid nearby the troll’s house. She watched helplessly and in horror as the troll killed the girl who was left behind. She told the others, and tried to convince them all to run away. But they wouldn’t believe her, even Gran. They named the girl a troublemaker. The troll was gruff, but he never harmed them. They were afraid that there really were animals in the forest who would kill them if they wandered off.
One day, when the troll ordered the troublemaker to stay behind while the others went out. Knowing what she would suffer if she stayed, she marched up to him and told him that she would go out with the others. The troll was not accustomed to anyone speaking to him, and in such a manner. He said nothing and let all the girls go out. For many days, he did the same. And for all those days, not a single one of them died. All the girls began to wonder if the troublemaker was telling the truth after all. The troublemaker convinced them that if they planned and banned together, they could attack the troll, overpower him, and escape back home. They could take the troll into the forest with them, forcing him to lead them back, and offering him up to the wild animals of the forest, should they attack. Gran was frightened, but more and more she admired the troublemaker. If she could not be brave and lead, she wanted to follow someone who was.
But unbeknownst to them, one of the girls went to the troll and told him of the plan. So one evening, as they slept after dinner, the troll put a sleeping draught in their water so powerful that none of the girls woke when he came into the chamber where they slept and lifted up the girl who was the troublemaker, the ringleader. He carried her into the forest and left her on the cold earth. In the morning, when the girls woke, he told them that the girl had escaped. The troll was clever enough to take her shoes and make marks in the ground that showed her moving out into the forest. The troll kept them all inside that day, claiming he was going to go out and try to find the troublemaker before she froze to death or was eaten by animals. The other girls became frightened once more. They felt betrayed and hopeful at once, for they hoped that their leader, who had convinced them she could help them all escape, would come back with help. There was only one girl who didn’t believe the troll. The girl that would become my gran.
She didn’t make the mistake of trusting the other girls. She crept away by herself during the day. She didn’t follow the tracks of a girl’s shoe. She followed the troll’s tracks. There were many, but there was one set that seemed just a bit deeper as if he’d been carrying something, or someone. The day was cold though there was not yet snow on the ground. Somehow, Gran found the girl, half frozen and not moving. Gran did her best to warm the girl up with the extra blankets, shoes, and clothes she had brought along. She had a thermos full of tea that had long grown cold. She knew she could not go back to the troll’s house. But she didn’t know where to go. She was afraid they would both freeze to death. After a while, the other girl stirred. Gran told her to get up so they could both start walking in the hopes of finding a trail before dark. But the girl could not feel her legs. She insisted that Gran leave her and find help for them both. Gran knew that she would move faster on her own. So she marked the place where she left her friend and leader, and she walked west from there, following the sun.
She wandered all day, but found no one and no road. It was too cold to sleep, but it was too dark to continue on. She had a lantern, but she was afraid to use it and attract attention. When morning came, she set out again, hoping her friend had survived. The day seemed just a bit warmer. She wandered again for hours, still due west until she came across someone at last.
A hunter and his hound. The hound found her first and that was the day she formed a lasting love for all creatures canine. She told the hunter all about the troll and the girls. The village dispatched all their hunters to find the troll and the girls. They found Gran’s friend, near frozen to death but still alive.
But alas, they never did find the rest.
“Sometimes the heroes don’t win,” Gran always said at the end of the tale. She would sigh and crease her forehead. She would say that she hoped the girls made another plan and somehow managed to escape or slay the troll. From that ordeal, she had no souvenir.
One day, I asked my grandpa if he knew what the real account behind the forest troll story was. I asked him if it was very painful and if so, I would respect Gran’s wish for it remain untold. Grandpa replied by telling me it wasn’t his tale to tell. And that if I really respected my gran and really wanted to know the story, I would have asked her directly. It was one of only a few times in my life that Grandpa seemed sincerely irritated with me.
I wasn’t just curious about the troll story. I was curious about the story that came after. My favorite of Gran’s stories. The one about her truest treasure. So timidly, hesitantly, I asked Gran one day. She said nothing for a moment. Her expression grew sad and angry.
My grandmother felt a sense of responsibility and duty in the way that most of us who grow up protected and privileged do. The way I’ve often felt when I see situations far worse than mine. The difference is that she actually tried to do something. Something that nearly cost her her life. Something that made her realize that the world was brutal and slow to change. And she might never change it, by herself or by the help of others.
It was a time of change, she said, and there were those who were afraid to see the rambunctiousness in a young woman that one expected to see in a boy. A boy who was expected to ask questions, to poke and prod and explore the world that he was meant not to serve but to inherit.
The summer before she met my grandfather, she was indeed sent to Europe, but not on holiday. She was sent to a boarding school. She had been to one before. She knew about the rules and the strict headmasters and headmistresses, and the cruelty of fellow classmates. But from the first day, she could tell that something was amiss with this one. She wouldn’t tell me its name. She said it had long ago been torn down, and she bid it good riddance. She said that the troll in her story was the headmaster. Sure enough, he never laid a hand on any of the girls in the school, who ranged from five at the youngest to twenty-five at the oldest. His headmistress wife did it for him.
Punishments for disobedience did include reasonable tasks like doing a greater part of the chores, or even cleaning the latrines. But there were harsher punishments, lashings and even brandings. The only phones in the institution were in the offices of those who ran it. If the headmaster was reported, he would claim that the girls involved were trouble and attacked each other. Half the girls at the school were there because they were outcast from their society for being “difficult.” He would instill fear in the girls so that when they left, they would say nothing of the torments they witnessed or endured. They would only be glad to leave it behind. The harshest punishments mostly went to those girls who did not have family or friends who would see the wounds and investigate the girls’ stories. Such was the leader of their little gang, the troublemaker. A girl whose name Gran would not tell me. This time, because the name was precious to her. The girl could bear no more lashings and beatings. She thought she would fare better in the wide world. Even if the world was just as cruel as the headmaster, she would still prefer it, for she would be free.
Gran did indeed admire this girl, and follow her. And the girl was indeed betrayed by someone among their number. Gran never learned who. Gran remembered waking up far too groggy the next morning. The headmistress had drugged them all. She and her husband had carried the girl who was inciting rebellion out into the woods and left her there to fend for herself, just as she had wished. From then on the tale was as Gran had told it, save that there were no hunters going into the woods to root out the troll. But there had already been rumors in the town about that boarding school. A few other escaped girls had ended up in the town.
A search party was sent to find Gran’s friend, and they did find her. But her legs were so frostbitten, they had to be amputated from the knees down. Gran was lucky. She lost a few toes, but no more. Gran was taken out of the town and brought home as soon as possible. She got in touch with her friend some weeks later, and they wrote to each other often, but never met in person again.
After she finished the story, I was quiet for a while, not knowing how to respond, what to say. But Gran spoke first.
“Sometimes we must tell the truth as it is. Bare and unadorned. But sometimes the truth is too much for people to handle. Or even for the truth-teller to handle. That’s why we must disguise it as something…something a bit removed from us. Something we know isn’t real. That way, we can hear the story of the truth that lies beneath the disguise. And to make that disguise, we need one of the most powerful gifts we have, our imaginations.”
Still haunted by the true story behind the troll, I remembered something Grandpa said that made me smile. “Grandpa says of all the treasures you own, your truest treasure is your imagination.”
Gran looked at me sideways. “Well that’s an improvement. When we were your age, he used to tell everyone my truest treasure was his heart.”
I laughed as much at the grimace on Gran’s face as the sweetness of Grandpa’s sentiment. The tension of the grim story was broken, and I asked her about a few more things I’d always been curious about.
“Did you ever want to be a journalist, Gran? Or a writer?”
“I never wanted to just tell the tales, darling. I wanted to live the tale. To be the tale.”
“Even after that horrible experience at the boarding school?”
“I was lucky I wasn’t harmed. But I couldn’t rely on luck forever. Not if I wanted to continue as I was.”
It was after the boarding school (or troll) incident that she knew she needed a tool to help her when she encountered the powerful and the wicked. She had the idea to have a telescope crafted. A telescope not to see the cosmos, but to see the road ahead of her. To see the truth of what was before her. To help her be wiser. To help guide her and keep her from risking others even as she risked herself.
I’d heard the tale many times before, but never grew tired of it.
In her studies, she had read of a great many wondrous telescopes. There was one that caught her attention. It was an ancient handheld monocular scope, beautifully and cleverly fashioned from rare wood and metal by an ancient astronomer who was also a craftsman. The scope was painted with beautiful patterns that represented different worlds. And it had a name. Ruya, the Arabic named meaning “sight” or “vision.”
It was not difficult to find Ruya. Only those with the predilection for seeing what others could not see would perceive the wonders that awaited on the other end of the scope. To anyone else, it was a regular telescope. But it was also a treasured artifact. My grandmother was having one of the best years of her life. She had finished her studies and met her future husband. That year, she went on a true holiday. She went east to the cradle of civilization, to search for the telescope.
My grandmother hoped to borrow it on the grounds of scholarly study. But she wasn’t even allowed to be in the same room with it, much less look through it, and far much less borrow it. She languished for many months in the desert paradise where Ruya lived. Then she began to hear fearful rumors. Danger was approaching. A giant made of rock and earth marched against the city. The vizier called upon all those who were able-bodied to ready themselves to fight the giant. And he called upon all the land’s magicians, sorcerers, and witches to prepare spells of defense and attack.
Those who could not or would not fight had to hide. Gran wanted to fight, but she hadn’t the skill. So she tried to help by gathering those who were weak and sick and guiding them to safety. She volunteered to be one of the last to leave the great city, where the giant was headed. She had heard many stories about why the giant was marching on the city. All had to do with various grievances he had against a long-dead sultan.
While the city was under attack, Gran ducked for cover as rocks fell from the giant. He was trying to wave aside the bullets that were showering him on one side. From below, there were even archers and spearman. Gran stayed as far away as she could from the spell-casters who tried to fell the giant with sleep or death curses and spells that called upon all the elements in the world. She was trying to make her way out of the city and away from danger when she spotted a boy. He too was trying to escape the city, but he was trapped. In the dust of and smoke of the battle, no one else saw him. Gran rushed toward him, relying just once more on luck. She reached the boy, grabbed him, and ran as fast as she could towards cover. Moving quickly and decisively sometimes, slowly other times, she carried the boy through the besieged city and out into the desert plains towards safety.
The battle raged for days, while those who hid ran food, water, and ammunition to the fighters in the city. The giant was only one, but he was near-indestructible. No spells had any effect on him, so it was up to the bullets, bombs, and axes.
At last, the people of the city prevailed. Perched in a tree, Gran and the boy that she had saved watched as the last of the giant crumbled to the earth, crushing a building as if in a final desperate attack.
The next morning, Gran was to learn something astounding. For the vizier and the royal guards came to search the camps of the survivors and when they found the little boy that Gran had saved, they dropped to their knees before him.
No one had recognized the boy, for he had been sheltered for many years since his father had died. The boy was the son of the sultan. He was the prince and heir.
But this prince was not like the other one Gran had encountered. This prince was gracious, humble, and strong. After she bowed to him, he bowed his head to her. In only a few days, the city was cleared of enough debris from the battle that the people could return and begin rebuilding.
The prince had insisted on keeping Gran close by, for she mentioned she would be leaving soon. He wanted to show her the best of his city before she left. She stayed at the royal palace for another week. On the day she was to leave, the vizier told her he wanted to give her a gift of her liking in thanks for helping his people and saving his prince.
Gran asked if she might take a piece of rock from the giant’s fallen body as a memento of her adventure and her time in his beautiful country.
“What tales can you tell of a rock?” the vizier replied, laughing. “Here, take this instead.” He waved his hand and servants appeared carrying a tassled pillow atop which lay a shard of sparking silvery metal. It was a fragment of the giant’s immense sword.
“I too wish to give you a gift,” the prince said. He waved his hand and more servants appeared with a gift that took Gran’s breath away. It was the telescope. It was Ruya.
Gran was wiser now. She admitted that she longed to accept the gift, but could not carry away such a great treasure.
The prince confided in her that Ruya, while much treasured, was not his country’s only great telescope nor its truest treasure.
“I have seen wonders and only wonders through this scope,” Gran said the first time she showed it to me and let me touch it. I had just graduated college.
“Does it show you the future?”
“Only so far as your own eyes can tell you the future. If you’re walking down a road and you see that the road bends to the east, then you can predict you’ll be heading east if you stay on that road. This scope just helps you see a bit further.”
“You mean farther.”
“Of course I do.”
I smiled and took the telescope. It was heavier than it looked. I closed one eye and looked through it with the other. I saw as much as I would expect to see from a high-end monocular.
“Ours is a family of seers,” Gran said, as she had said to me many times before.
“I think I’m choosing to look,” I said. “But I don’t see anything…unusual.” We were at the beach. I looked out to the ocean and saw seagulls.
“It took a while for me too, before Ruya began to show me things I never thought I’d see.”
I asked what the true story of Ruya’s acquisition was. I wondered if the giant made of rock and earth represented the army of a rival nation. If the telescope was not so much a royal treasure as a precious gift from someone she met on her travels. Gran never did tell any different tales about the telescope.
After accepting the generous gift, Gran studied the telescope, looked through it, made notes on the markings all around it. She was on a sea voyage when she saw the first wondrous site through the telescope. Merfolk sunning themselves on a rock so far away that the ship’s scopes could not see. The merfolk knew the ranges of human scopes and would dive into the ocean when the ship came closer. But they had not counted on Gran and Ruya.
The vessel was an explorer. She anchored close to the rocks, and Gran took out a boat to investigate. She saw large glittering scales and collected a few before returning to the ship.
And so the more fantastical adventures began.
A year after Grandpa passed, Gran followed him into whatever adventure awaits in the world beyond this one.
She split up her treasures among her seven grandchildren. But we all knew what her truest treasure was. I thought maybe someone would fight the will. But no one did. She must have told them. It seemed as if everyone but me knew that the telescope would come to me.
She left no individual notes, only one for all of us, her children and grandchildren. She wanted to make sure that all us “knuckleheads” knew how much she loved us. She told us she would be moving on and that we’d have to look after ourselves and each other from then on. And that she hoped she would see us again. That when she did, she would have stories to tell.
Sometimes I wished I could have put the telescope in the casket with Gran. So she could have it with her on her final journey in this world and her first journey into the next.
But if that was what she wanted, she would have willed it so. Ruya was of this world. The world that Gran wanted me to see. The telescope was my treasure now.
And I hoped I would see wonders through it, and only wonders.
Copyright © 2015 by Nila L. Patel.