I could not see the edge of the knife, but I felt the promised bite of the blade at the base of my tail. Courage is a strange thing. For when you think you have it, you are wrong. And when you think you don’t have it…you are wrong.
When I stepped ever-so-carefully onto that dais where the Ritual was to begin, I thought I had all the courage I would need.
I was wrong.
“I needn’t remind you, Seer Jonquil, that to interfere with the Ritual is a crime.”
I recognized the voice. For it was the first voice I heard in my second life. My life as a so-called “seer.” In my first life, I was Caster Jonquil. The Caster of Limbs. Too rare a profession to lose even one of middling talent. But I was getting better. I was becoming of use to my people. Until that voice came into my life. That accursed voice.
Of course I knew what interference meant. I knew. My mother knew.
I did not need to be warned.
I needed my tail. I needed it. All courage—if I had any to begin with—drained from me. But words came to my mind, and then to my lips. I spoke them.
“Are we not mice!”
I was surprised at the force of my words, the loudness of them as they echoed against the chamber walls I heard a distant whispering. There could not have been many who were present.
The child’s family would be present. I had hoped at least one of them would be roused by my words. Roused to object. And if they were prosperous enough…perhaps if they made a donation to the Hall of Ushers…
“Mice do not yield,” I continued. “In the face of danger, we fight or we bite. In the face of troubles and trials, we scrounge and we scrap. When there is a wall between us and our quarry, we build a door. When there is a path fraught with puzzles and hurdles, we find a way through, or we find a way around.” I turned my head toward the only sound I now heard in the quiet chamber, the weeping squeaks of a pup. “And when we are faced with the helpless, we offer them help, not harm.”
“Help, and more, is what we are offering this child,” the Honorable First Usher, Purslane, said.
I heard the sweeping of her robes coming closer. She was walking towards me. My tailed twitched as it was held in the grip of one of the guards. He tightened his grip and pressed his blade closer. I held my breath.
I could not lose my tail. I did not expect her to threaten to cut off my tail. How would I move about the world without it?
“If it is envy that drives you to this action,” Purslane said, “then please know that all Seers are precious to the Hall. Not only the young and the new, but all. You will not lose your place among your brothers and sisters.”
Once, such patronizing words would have inflamed me. The Usher’s empty logic would have driven me to an astonished and incredulous rage. But I had heard her say such things a dozen times now.
“Usher Purslane,” I said, “what is there to envy?” I turned my head from side to side, so those who were present could see me, and see what a pitiable creature stood before them, his tail in the hands of another. An honorable Seer, indeed.
I heard the sweep of the Usher’s robes again, moving away from me now. She was likely facing those who were gathered.
“What is there to envy? Why only the greatest gift our founders gave us. A gift so rare that only those who are blessed by the ghosts of our founders will ever receive it—even if they deny that blessing, like Seer Jonquil here. And even among the blessed, only a rare few will truly manifest that gift. The gift of special sight. The power to see the ghosts of our ancestors.”
“The only special sight I gained when they blinded me was the power to see cruelty,” I said.
I listened keenly for any reaction. I heard little but the shifting of furs and fabrics.
“We hear your words, Seer Jonquil,” another voice said. He sounded sad, but resolved. He must have been the pup’s father. The First Usher would not have allow anyone but the child’s parents to speak. I was only allowed because it was one of my privileges as a Seer.
He continued. “And we thank you for gracing us with your presence and for speaking in favor of our pup. But as the Usher said, this is a great honor for our child. It is a great honor for her to join ranks with one such as you. And after all that we mice may say and do, after all of it, this is the will of the ghosts.”
I had expected as much, and still my heart sank. And that poor pup’s weeping grew louder.
“It is not the will of the ghosts,” I said. “Only the kindest and most righteous among us can become ghosts. Think of the living mice you know who are the kindest. Would they will such a thing?”
“The decision is made, Seer,” Usher Purslane said. “If you wish to remain present for the Ritual, you must vow not to interfere.”
“Why would I wish to be present and do nothing while a child is mutilated?”
“Take the good seer outside,” Purslane said. “We must keep the chamber pure.”
I felt the blade leave my tail as the guard sheathed his knife and grabbed my shoulder with one paw, even as he kept hold of my tail with the other. I felt another pair of paws on my other shoulder. The guards pulled me down off the dais. I turned toward it. I could not see the pup. But I spoke to her. The words would give no comfort now, or perhaps ever, but no one else was speaking words of comfort to her. Not even her beloved family.
“You will survive,” I told her. “You will survive it. And you may be stronger or you make be weaker. But you will survive, and if you so choose, you will live too.”
The guards began to drag me away from the dais. My tail was not free, but I remember the feel of the floor. It became smoother as one approached the dais. It was becoming rougher now. They were taking me outside, as they had been ordered to do.
“It will not hurt!” I yelled back. “There will be no pain! But know this is wrong what they do to you!”
And I was sorry I could not stop it, but I did not say so, for it would be of no comfort or help to the child now.
I was seized with a sudden memory. My mother. Screaming and yelling. When last my eyes saw her, she was being dragged out of the Seers’ Chamber by the guards, cursing the name of the First Usher, warning her to keep away from her son.
To keep away from me.
I had watched from the same dais where I had just been standing. I had done nothing to save my mother or myself. I could do nothing. I was not a pup then. I was a full-grown mouse, and yet, I could do nothing.
The memory faded. It drained me. My muscles slackened. I couldn’t move them by my will. The guards halted a step, dragged down by my weight. They adjusted their grips and pulled me along.
There must have been no one outside in the hall, for one of the guards, the one who had threatened to cut off my tail, shoved me out of the door. I stumbled and regained my footing.
I felt a paw on my arm. It was the other guard. She handed me my satchel, which I had forgotten inside.
“Seer Jonquil,” she said. “It is the will of the ghosts.”
And just as she swung close the door, I heard the opening line of the Ritual of Blinding.
“We are all born blind,” Usher Purslane said, “and then our eyes open, and through those open eyes, the world’s corruptions enter us and corrupt us.”
They call all of us Seers. But they know we are not. We cannot see ghosts. We cannot see the future. And thanks to them, we cannot even see the natural world.
Twelve times before I had tried to stop the Ritual. Twelves time before I had failed.
And who knew there were so many mice who were destined to become the True Seer? The one who would see the ghosts of our ancestors, the way the founders did.
The Founders. The ghosts. The Hall of the Ushers to the Spirit Country.
I had done more reading on all of them after I was blinded than I ever did before. They were right in some ways, those Ushers. I had gained some powers I did not have before I was blinded. My whiskers could read faster than my eyes ever could. My ears were keener. My tail was stronger.
I had tried to tell the other Ushers. The younger ones. Or the kinder ones.
I had tried to tell them that the Ritual was not an ancient one.
It was started by a mouse who blinded himself because he was some kind of zealot, who went beyond admiring the three legendary founders of our old and revered colony, and took to worshipping them. He wanted to be like them, the three blind mice.
The legends and the histories of our founders had become confounded.
According to legend, the three humble mice had lost their sight in different ways, and been shunned by the company of other mice. They found and befriended each other, and escaped danger together. Always they were harried by greater beasts who preyed upon them. They longed for a safe place to call their home. A fortified place. A prosperous place.
They spoke of it often, and then, one day, one of them was attacked while he was out scrounging for a meal. He stumbled into their hovel, bleeding, almost dying. He had lost his tail. And he had lost all hope. But his fellow blind mice rallied around him. They healed him. And when he was healed, they all three left to find the home they dreamt of.
And find it, they did. They built a shelter, then a village, then a colony.
When asked how three blind mice could have done what sighted mice could not, they said it was the will of the ghosts of their ancestors. And when asked how they knew it was the will of the ghosts, they claimed that they could see the ghosts. For as they had lost their sight of the living world, they had gained sight of the spirit country where all ghosts resided.
So went the legend of the founders.
History agreed that our colony was indeed founded by three mice, three brave mice. But on the subject of their blindness, history differed from legend. The founders may not have been physically blind, at least, not all of them. The impression of their blindness may have derived from a flawed or incomplete transcription of records written in the old tongue. Or the reference to their blindness may have been a poetic way for ancient authors to speak of the founders’ heroic qualities, to say they were “blind to danger” or that their eyes “refused to see the world as it was.”
In depictions of the founders, this “blindness” to dangers and obstacles was represented as physical blindness, with the mice wearing bands over their eyes, or walking with the aid of canes. Sometimes one of them would have a tail missing, sometimes not. But always the three mice were blind.
And so in later days, mice began to believe that the founders were indeed blind.
One of the founders once said, I will make my blindness my strength. Those words were corrupted to mean that strength came from blindness.
And after the zealot blinded himself and claimed he could see ghosts, his story became twisted together with the story of the founders. And later tales began to add details that were not present in earlier accounts. They said that the zealot had been driven to do what he did, to blind himself, in part because he had discovered that he was descended from one of the founders. They said that the founders had left a prophecy behind. One that spoke of how their work could not be finished in their earthly lives, and so they would return as ghosts to direct their descendants, so that the colony and all the mice in it might fulfill their true destinies.
The Ritual of Blinding was born from this cauldron of mad tales.
A few must become blind so that all may see.
The Hall of Ushers began to search for those who possessed even a drop of a founder’s blood. And they would test this mouse for other qualities, ones not divulged to the public. And if that mouse was deemed “worthy,” that mouse would be marked for the Ritual.
Most who were found were young, just pups. But the choosing could come at any time in a mouse’s life.
I was not a pup when I was chosen. I was full-grown, though barely. I paid little heed to the Ritual before I was chosen for it, I must admit. For all I knew of the Seers was that they need not work or worry over the fates of their families. For the Hall would provide for them. They would live lives of comfort and privilege…if they agreed to serve in the Hall.
I did not agree.
And so I was not privy to that privilege. I had to work like any honest mouse.
And once they took my eyes, I could not do the work that I believed the ghosts intended me to do.
As a youth, I had learned all I could of the workings of our bodies. Fur and whiskers. Tail and tongue. Heart and liver. Vessels and nerves. Down to the tiniest corpuscle. I learned how they worked alone, and how they worked together. How they worked when all was well. And what went wrong when they failed to work. Accident, disease, and sometimes a purposeful injury caused mice to lose their senses and their limbs. And I had set on a course to be one of those who restored lost limbs. I had applied to and been accepted to the Guild of Casters. I had only just begun my work when I was chosen.
But now…now I shook away thoughts of the past as I made my way to the guild-house where I earned my keep. It was not the House of the Casters I went to. It was the House of the Historians. As I swept hallways, and folded towels, and did whatever odd jobs the house’s keepers required and assigned, I was privy to the lectures that the professors gave. The House of the Historians had been good to me. They had given me work. And they had taught me how to read by whiskers. Perhaps the House of the Casters would have done the same. But I could not bear to return there after the Ritual was done.
“Seer Jonquil,” a voice called from behind me.
I sighed. And as she came closer, my nose twitched by reflex, as it always did when it sensed the heavy perfumes she doused upon her fur. I would never understand why young folk felt the need to perfume themselves.
“If you must call me at all, call me Jonquil only,” I said, quickening my pace just a bit. I was on my way to the dining hall for some dinner. My stomach rumbled as I walked.
“Of course, forgive me, sir—uh, Jonquil.”
I sighed again. At myself this time. “No, forgive me, Sagua. I am in a dark mood today.”
Saguaro of the Guild of Engineers had found me a few months past. She had found me in the hallways of history, claiming that she needed my help with her work. She was building something. She would not tell me what until I promised her that I would help and that I would keep her work secret. But whatever she was doing sounded like the casting of limbs to me, and I did not wish to hear of it.
Nevertheless, she persisted.
“I was there, Jonquil,” she said. “I was in the Hall this morning, when you had a knife to your tail.”
I halted. All the fur along my back prickled. I felt her paw on my shoulder and I resisted recoiling from her.
“If you are willing to go that far to help your fellow Seers, then you must help me with the work I am doing.”
“And what work might that be?”
She hesitated, and I prepared to continue down the hall from whence I could already smell the aroma of fresh-cut apples and sweet grapes. She pulled me forward. “Please, come outside, where we can speak privately.”
“And will you tell me all you are about then?”
“I will tell you enough.”
I sensed us moving from dying light to shadow, and the air turning from warm to cool as Sagua walked us under the eaves of the neighboring lecture hall. The hall itself would be mostly empty at that time of day. I waited for her to speak. I imagined she was gathering her thoughts. Then, she began.
“Since there have been Seers, there have been those few Seers who speak out against the Ritual. You are not the only one. But I believe that you are the only one who would understand what I am doing. And after this morning, I believe you may be the only one who would be willing to help me with what I am planning. Though I will do it with or without you if—”
“Do what? What is the great mystery?” I threw up my paws. “I don’t know any other Engineers. Are you all so mysterious?”
“There is a new procedure for the Ritual. Do you know that? It is quicker. Painless for most.”
I crossed my arms. “Yes, we’ve come far from the barbaric days when they put mice’s eyes out with hot skewers.”
She took a wavering breath.
I uncrossed my arms, and unfrowned my brows. “Please, continue.”
She took another breath, and I waited.
She cleared her throat. “My mother is the one who devised the new procedure. Not many know it. The Hall of Ushers keep the knowledge secret…in case the Seers or their families seek retribution.”
I paused. “Why would they do that? It is the Hall that performs the Ritual. If your mother has made it easier to bear, I would think the Seers and their kin would be grateful. And anyway, what benefit is it to the Hall to protect your mother?”
“The Hall knows that the Ritual is losing favor. Having the procedure itself be less…traumatic, it helps them to keep dissenters at bay. But they are only slowing a beast that is still galloping on. It won’t happen in our lifetimes, but I envision a day when no mouse is forcibly blinded.”
“Then you have happy visions, my good Engineer. And I regret that I do not share them.”
“You might, once I tell you the rest of the story, the part that the Ushers do not know and do not yet suspect, ghosts-willing.”
“It is, in theory, reversible.”
I frowned. “Reversible? The…the Ritual?”
“The blinding procedure, yes.”
I felt a strange fullness forming in my heart and a fluttering in my gut. I reached out and grasped Sagua’s arm.
“Say no more here,” I said. “Will you come to my house?” Realizing the forwardness of the request, I added, “My mother is there. And you may bring whom you trust.”
She lay her paw upon my own. “I will.”
I would have set another date and time, but Sagua was ready to come with me that very evening. She had been ready for months. I was the one who had been unprepared.
And so we walked into my house, where the lights were already lit, and we heard the shuffling sound of movement in the kitchen.
“Your mother is an excellent cook,” Sagua said as we walked in. “Something smells wonderful.”
I smiled, and a voice other than my own answered the Engineer.
“It is not my cooking,” my mother said from the doorway to the kitchen. “If it were mine, it would smell even better.”
In response, a burst of laughter came from the kitchen from the mouse who helped us to keep our house.
“Oh!” Sagua said, and I heard her move forward, likely to help my mother to her seat. The Engineer had just realized something about my mother that I had not told her.
“I did not tell her you are blind, Mum,” I said.
“Well, what is there to tell about that?”
After a dinner spent listening to my mother’s pleasant but affected discourse with our guest, I invited Sagua to sit in the kitchen, and we speak freely.
“It should have been a happy day,” I started. “The day I learned that the blood of heroes coursed through my veins. But it was the worst day of my life. It was the day the world went dark. It was the last day I saw the field of blue daisies that grew in the valley beyond my house. I lost color that day. I lost shape and form that day.” I tipped my head toward the side room where my mother had settled for an after-dinner nap. “I remember hearing her scream and rage. It took four full-grown mice to keep her from me.
“You heard what the Usher said this morning. I don’t think they would have cut off my tail, but the threat was terrible enough. And they have doled out other terrible punishments to objectors. And even terrible gifts. My mother’s punishment—and mine too as it turned out—was to be separated from me for one year. They believed it would make us both stronger. So, I did not know at the time. They did not tell. But in her grief, my mother requested to be blinded too. ‘Whatever my son suffers, let me also suffer,’ she told them. And they relented. It was only later that she realized what she had asked for, and regretted it, because if she could not see, she could not care for me, and even for herself.”
“Why did they agree to it?”
“Because they did not believe it was cruel. Both of us would have been cared for if I remained in the Hall.”
“I…I have no words…”
“I have forgiven them for taking my eyes,” I said. “I will not forgive them for taking hers.”
Sagua was silent for a moment, before responding. “I would feel the same, if it were my mother.”
I continued. “When we were reunited after a year, my mother…was awkward with me. I thought that she was still upset by what Usher Purslane had done to me. Then I feared that she was upset by what I had become, not a blind child, but a Seer. I assured her every day that I could not see ghosts. I could not see anything. But she was silent for many days. And then one day, she admitted to me that she too was blind. I had already left the Hall. But I would be welcomed back if I returned. And so would my mother. I told her so. I told her that I would ensure we were cared for. But she told me not to go back to the Hall. She told me that we would find a way, with the help of others. And she told me that she would not fail me again.”
“She believed she had brought this upon me, by bringing me to the attention of the Ushers. She was faithful. To the Hall. To the Ushers. But above all, to the ghosts. She is still faithful to the ghosts. But all else…”
“She was betrayed, by the very faith that had sustained her through her whole life.”
“Not by the faith, by Purslane. By anyone like Purslane.”
“Begging your pardon, sir, but I’m not sure you have completely forgiven.”
“You need not beg for anything, Sagua. I’m not sure I have either.”
“Then let me tell you what I came here to tell you.”
I nodded and sipped my evening tea.
“From what I and my mother, and a few trusted others, have gathered,” Sagua said, “there is nothing in the sacred texts that oppose the restoration of natural sight in the Seers, if that restoration occurs on its own.”
I sat in thought for a moment. moment. “Spontaneous healing?”
“And your plan then is to wait until after the Seers are made, and then undo the procedure?”
“Yes, we would approach the Seers themselves if we believe they wished to see again as others see. Sometime the families are in support of the Ritual and perhaps in need of the privileges the Seer enjoys. Sometimes the Seers themselves are honored to be chosen and wish to remain blind. Those we would leave be.”
“But how would you hide what you are doing? If Seers suddenly began to regain their sight, the Ushers will notice.”
“Everyone will notice. And we can say it is the will of the ghosts.”
I shook my head. “That phrase is overused.”
“In time, people will begin to question the Ritual. If so many Seers regain their sight, then perhaps the Ritual should not continue.”
“And how long would this take?”
“I don’t know.”
“And what would happen if you were found out? At best, you may be hailed as heroes by some. But by others, denounced as heretic. And worse yet, all those Seers might be blinded again.”
Sagua was silent for a moment. “True, there is much I have not yet considered. But I must do something. You are a Seer. And your word, your very person, was disrespected in the very Hall where you should be honored.”
“Ah, so you seek to appeal to my sense of vengeance.” I twisted my whiskers. “Or perhaps you believe the Ushers are becoming too…forward.”
“All of that and more, Caster Jonquil.”
I frowned. “You don’t need my help as a Caster. You need my help as a Seer.”
“Yes, I…I had hoped you would be the first.”
“To undergo the reversal procedure.”
I caught my breath. “Me? I would be able to see again?”
“Perhaps. I am certain it would be so if the procedure used on you was the one my mother developed. She intended it to be reversible. But if it was one of the old procedures, then that will require more time. And I must warn you, the reversal procedure has never been performed successfully in a mouse before.”
“So, it is dangerous?”
“There is some degree of danger to any such procedure. But no, it is far less dangerous than the Ritual. The reversal may not work, that’s all. We have tried it on volunteers who have lost their sight by accident or who have been blind since birth. It did not work on any of them, and we expected it would not. But the Ritual of Blinding uses a unique procedure. The reversal should work. If it doesn’t, then the rest of our discussion tonight will be moot.”
I frowned. “You were so confident about it working. Already making plans for infiltrating the Hall of Ushers. Now you say it may not work?”
There was silence, and though I could not see it, I imagined she had shrugged.
“I will agree to let you perform the reversal on me,” I said, “but I have a condition.”
“What is your condition?”
“And that is all I agree to for now.”
“Of course. The others would want to speak with you and meet you anyway, before we plan any further.”
“My condition is this: you must also perform the reversal procedure on my mother.”
“If she agrees, yes, of course.”
“I would prefer it my way,” I said. “To prevent the Ritual from happening in the first place. But my way is not working.”
“Not yet, but it will.”
I shook my head. “Why did they have to see ghosts?”
“The founders. Why could they not simply have been mice who were blind by birth or by accident, who adapted to the lack of what others have, and who accomplished an extraordinary feat by their own efforts?”
“Perhaps that is too plain a tale.”
“We are fools then, if we do not find it extraordinary that three mice—in any condition—founded a great colony. This great colony.”
“Yes, we are fools. But…every wise mouse began as a fool. There is hope for us yet.”
I smiled then, for Sagua was young and bright, and her hope was sincere. Her plan sounded flimsy. But at least she had one.
And for all I knew, there may be some part of the legend, history, and prophecy surrounding the founders that supported her plan. Perhaps I could find such knowledge.
I convinced my mother to agree to the procedure. She was scared, not of the procedure, but of the consequences. She was scared of what other mice would say when they learned that she could see again. And she was scared of what Usher Purslane would say. My mother had renounced her faith after we were both blinded. But many did so. There were not many, however, who dared to defy the Ushers directly. And in my mother’s mind, regaining her sight would be such a defiance.
I was scared too. But my fear was that it would not work.
On the day of the procedure, my mother and I clutched each other’s paws nervously. She did not speak much. And I was afraid it might be too much for her. I almost asked if she wanted to change her mind. But I wanted her to see again. When we were parted, I made Sagua promise to take care of my mother should anything happen to me.
It was only a few days later that I sat in my own kitchen again beside Sagua. I had recovered more quickly than my mother, who had developed a fever. Sagua’s mother was tending to her as we waited.
I gazed down at my tea with eyes that still saw nothing but darkness.
“I’m sorry,” Sagua said, for the hundredth time it seemed.
I shook my head. “It’s no matter. Only, tell me again that you were able to learn something of use. Your mother’s procedure was not used on me. You are certain?”
“Yes, we are.”
“So the same must be true of my mother. She was blinded soon after I was.”
“Not so soon, actually. It was a few months later. And her eyes looked different from yours. My mother believes that her procedure was used on your mother. My mother was not the one who performed it, but she says it looks like whoever did performed it correctly.”
We sat in silence for a while, sipping our tea. I still felt tired, but I would return to my work in the House of the Historians the next day.
“Sagua! Jon! You must come!”
The cry came from Sagua’s mother.
Sagua and I rushed to my mother’s room.
“She’s awake,” Sagua said as we passed through the doorway.
My mother spoke. “Jonquil…” Suddenly, she burst out laughing.
I hadn’t heard my mother laugh that way in many, many years. The sound of it jolted me. And it seized my heart with a feeling I had not felt in many, many years…hope.
“I can see you, son.” She managed that much, and began to laugh again. But after a moment, her laughter tapered off. “But…you can’t see me, can you?” I heard her getting out of the bed. Before I knew it, she was holding my jaw and turning my face this way and that.
“What happened? Why did it not work for him?”
Sagua and her mother explained.
“Don’t you dare ask them to blind you again, Mum,” I said. “We’ve all gone to a lot of trouble so that you may see again.”
My mother sighed. “I would prefer that it had worked on you and not on me, but as it is, I would not dare to throw away this gift that our new friends have given me.” Suddenly, she began to cry, and she cupped my chin once again. “The gift of seeing my son’s face again. I never thought I would.”
She recovered herself. “And when I am fully restored, I too will perform an extraordinary procedure…in the kitchen.”
Sagua and her mother laughed.
“We will need a good meal,” I said. “We have much to discuss.”
“Yes, like how you are going to get my son his sight back,” my mother said, her voice turning toward Sagua.
“Mother, I may never get my sight back. I must be prepared for that. And so must you. If the last sight I ever see in this world was my mother fighting to save me. Then that is a good last sight.”
My mother took my paw and squeezed it. She had never quite adapted to losing her sight. I had thought I never would either, but…perhaps I was wrong.
“There are…other ways to see,” Sagua said. “My work is not as subtle as my mother’s procedure. But I am building something, for those who cannot be helped by the reversal procedure. I would like your help, Caster Jonquil, not in testing it, but in building it, if you are game.”
I felt a spark of fear in my gut. I had learned I was not possessed of much courage, or brilliance, or even good sense. But what measure I had, I would make use of it. I gave my young friend my answer.
“I believe I am.”
Copyright © 2018 Nila L. Patel