Pragmata Agnosta

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Digital drawing. A young woman with glasses and a bob stands with her back to the viewer and her hands in the pockets of her jacket. She is seen from waist up to the bridge of her nose. Emblazoned on the jacket’s back is a symbol: an owl with wings outspread, as if swooping down to a landing, antlers extending along the inside of the owl’s wings, and two spears rising from behind the owl. On the woman’s right shoulder is perched a bird that looks like a small owl. 

“No problem,” I said, through gritted teeth.  I’d been training for this moment, my whole life.  I’d been told it would feel as if every muscle in my body were seizing up at the same time.  I’d known what to expect and I still could never have imagined…

When I woke up, the woman who had officiated the ceremony—my mom called her a “priestess,” but she seemed more like a tax accountant to me—smiled at me.  I was still groggy.  But I could see it was a smile of congratulations.

My mom was also there.  Her eyes looked shiny.  I assumed she was holding back tears of pride or something.  But then she took hold of my right hand, gently, and raised it to her forehead. 

My throat felt dry, so I sat up and reached for the glass of water by my bedside.  I was wearing a t-shirt.  I noticed the bandages wrapped around my right arm from wrist to elbow.

The tattoo must have appeared. 

“Did I almost die or something?” I asked.

My mom frowned.  “Don’t say things like that.”  But then she glanced from side to side and peered at me.  “Do you…see anything?”

I shook my head.

But I wasn’t worried.  I had studied the “pragmata agnosta,” the “things unknowable” since I was a kid.  Since the day I accepted them into my body and became a living container for them, a living amphora. 

***

In ancient times, living amphoras were people who both contained and channeled great powers and profound knowledge on behalf of all humanity.  But over time, as leaders became afraid of losing those powers when the amphora died, they made rules about how the powers and knowledge could be passed on.  Living amphoras could no longer hold on to what they contained for their whole lives.  They had to pass on their powers, long before they could ever learn to use them.  So living amphoras no longer studied or trained.  There was no point.  All they did was contain and then pass on.  Receive and pour out.

So the powers and the knowledge were still there.  But they were of no use to anyone, because they were just locked up in someone’s body until they passed it on to another body, and on and on.

There were always places in the world where the living amphoras still learned, trained, and used their powers and knowledge.

But for the most part, the world forgot about the living amphoras.

My family was unique.  The pragmata agnosta were usually passed down from stranger to stranger.  But there were some that were passed down in families. 

I had received my prags from my mom.  She had received them from hers.  My grandmother had received them from her mother.  And on and on. 

Once upon a time, the living amphoras in our family knew how to channel and use the prags.  But we lost that ability.  We forgot. 

But a few generations back, my family began to try rediscovering how to use that ability.  We began to study and train.  And we didn’t exactly start from scratch.  My ancestors put together the puzzle pieces they came across, and we passed that knowledge down just like we passed the pragmata agnosta down.  And little by little, we learned about how we could safely release and summon the powers within us. 

At some point, one of us would be ready. 

I decided it would be me.

Instead of going through the ceremony of transference, and passing the prags on to whoever I chose as my heir (it didn’t necessarily have to be my daughter), I would undergo the ceremony of unleashing.

I wanted to be the one who fulfilled the dreams of my ancestors and my forebears, and myself.

***

When I received the pragmata agnosta, it was painless.  I was supposed to be given an invisible tattoo, wherever I chose.  I sat in a chair, with my eyes closed, listening to music.  I think I fell asleep, and when it was done, I looked at my arm.  I saw and felt nothing.

It was too bad.  I was fifteen.  I’m sure having a tattoo would have changed a few things for me at school.

But I started seeing them in my dreams right away.  I saw what I was sure was what my tattoo would look like if it were visible.  My cousin Rita was getting into drawing, so I described my prags to her.  She drew them for me.  I was carrying three.

An owl with a fierce expression, wings outstretched like she’s getting ready to land.  Within her wings, I saw the shapes of antlers.  Behind her wings, stretching out from her back were two spears. 

I got excited thinking about what I carried.

Wisdom, speed and majesty, and warrior skills.

But then I remembered that I hadn’t actually gained any skills.  I was just carrying them. 

I got that same feeling again later that year when I won a contest to go to a concert for my absolute favorite band (at the time).  My mom gave me permission too, because I’d won the ticket by writing an essay (and because she bought herself a ticket and would be chaperoning.)  But then I learned that the concert was at a venue that was eighteen and over, no exceptions.  I had to pass those tickets on to someone else.  And long story short, I never did get to see that band before I lost interest in them.

I’d never lost interest in my pragmata agnosta. 

It was around that time that I declared to my mom that I wanted to train and study.

“I don’t just want to be an amphora,” I told her.  “I want to be a steward.”

My mom probably thought I’d lose interest in that too.

Ten years later, there we were, unleashing my pragmata agnosta.  To be lost forever.

Or to be shepherded by me…if I was ready.

***

“What’s supposed to happen next?” Rita asked, glancing at my bandaged arm.

We were out to dinner.  “My skin has been hurting. When it stops, I can take off the bandage, and I’ll see my tattoo for the first time in my life.”

“You haven’t been changing your bandage?”  Rita frowned.

“I have.  But there’s nothing to look at yet.  But the priestess told me I have to treat it as if it’s a physical wound.”  I shrugged.  I knew more than I was telling.  But Rita was about as interested in the inner workings of the pragmata agnosta as I was in the intricacies of oil painting.

Rita suddenly grinned at me with her lopsided sarcastic grin.  “I see you’re wearing the jacket.”

I returned her grin.  “Still fits.”

She had designed a kind of logo based on her drawing from high school about what my tattoo looked like.  I’d saved up money and sent it to a company that printed custom designs onto jackets and hoodies.  I loved that jacket.  I wore it all the time until I got ketchup on the cuff one day. 

I tried not to glance at my bandage when the server set my plate down next to my arm.  I knew I had to be patient.  But after ten years, it was hard to keep calm.

“So, are you going to suddenly know how to fight, or start manifesting psychic abilities, or…how does it work?”

Rita had asked the one question I truly didn’t have an answer to.    

I gasped.

The skin on my arm under the bandage had just stopped hurting.

***

Rita and I stood above the sink in the restroom.  I took a deep breath and exhaled.  But my heart was still pounding.  I started unwrapping slowly, then faster.

I started frowning as soon as I saw the edge of the tattoo.

It wasn’t what I was expecting.

“Interesting,” Rita said.

The tattoo looked nothing like an owl in flight with spears crossed behind her back and a pattern of majestic antlers on the inside of her wings.

“It’s just a bunch of symbols,” I whispered. 

“They look familiar though.”

I looked up at her.  “Really?”

“Yeah, like some kind of cuneiform or something.  I took this calligraphy class once where the professor made us read a book about ancient languages.”

I felt my heartbeat quicken again.  “Does that mean you can read this?”

“Nope, but I still have the book.”

***

All we managed to determine after scanning through Rita’s old textbook was that my tattoo appeared to be written in something called a logosyllabic language, basically a language that used symbols to represent sounds or concepts.  Or that’s what we managed to put together after reading random paragraphs and pages.  But we couldn’t figure out which language the my tattoo was written in.

By the end of the night, I didn’t know what my tattoo meant, but I still went to bed feeling good for the first time in a few nights. 

Part of why I’d gone to dinner with Rita even though I still felt tired was to keep my mind off the fact that I hadn’t been hearing my pragmata agnosta for the past few days. 

They had started speaking to me in whispers over the past year.  Sometimes I could make out what they were saying.  Most times I couldn’t.  And I tried to answer them, but they didn’t seem to hear me.

“See you soon,” I had said, on the night before the ceremony.

I hadn’t really let myself think about how worried I was that I had failed to harness my family’s pragmata agnosta.  That I had lost them forever.

***

That night, I was awakened by a whisper that started in my dreams and followed me out of them.

My pragmata agnosta were talking to me again. 

“I can hear you,” I said in a loud whisper.  “What can I do for you?”

“Listen,” the voice said.

“Yes, I’m listening.”

“I have been asleep for a long time.  I’ll be the last to wake.  But the others are coming to meet you.  Tomorrow.  If you are ready.”

“I am.  Is there anything I should do to prepare—other than listening, of course?”

“Exercise.”

Then the voice went silent.

I tried to go to sleep, so I could wake up early, and work out.  Based on a decade of research and study, I was certain I wouldn’t suddenly be able to fly like a raptor, fight like a warrior, or “do parkour” as Rita had joked. 

People exhibiting extranormal abilities, like telepathy, healing, super-strength, were thought to have come by those abilities in any number of ways.  Magic, aliens, unauthorized experimentation.  The powers and knowledge contained within living amphoras might have seemed like magic.  The powers and knowledge were cumulative and combined from many.  It was like pouring the strength of a hundred people into one person.  Or having the knowledge of several generations in one’s mind, knowledge that might not exist anywhere else in the world. 

I thought of them like heirlooms that accumulated value over the centuries.  The powers were concentrated, matured, intense.

So I had to learn how to use them slowly, or I’d get overwhelmed.  I’d lose my connection to them and they’d fly off into the ether.

I had wanted to ask the voice I heard about the tattoos and what they meant.  But I had to be patient.  I had to learn to work with my pragmata agnosta not for them and not above them.

I eventually fell asleep.

When I woke up, I was holding something in my right hand.

It was a paintbrush.

And some of the symbols in my tattoo were missing.

I peered at the paintbrush, turning it over and around.  It looked familiar…

“You’ve got to be joking.”

***

“Two of my prags have manifested,” I said, pacing back and forth before Rita, who was calmly sitting on her sofa with a book on her lap.

I’d rushed right over as soon as I could after showering, getting ready, and finding some kind of fuzzy red pine cone-looking thing on my bed.  That cone was now lying on Rita’s coffee table, along with the paintbrush.

“What makes you so sure?” she asked.  “Are they…are they talking to you?”  She glanced down at the coffee table.

I shook my head.  “No, not all prags talk.  Some of them are like inanimate objects.  They have a purpose and properties and character even, but no voice of their own.  I expected the spears to be like that.  I would have to learn little by little what they meant for me to do with them.  Maybe it’s straightforward, like I do use them in physical fights.  Or it could be more metaphorical, like…like I use them to pierce a hole through my ignorance about something.”

“So instead of a spear, you got a paintbrush.  And this other thing?”

“I looked it up before I headed out.  I think it’s the fruit part of a tree called a staghorn sumac.  It’s named that because its branches grown in a pattern that looks like antlers.”  I stopped pacing.  “Art and botany.  Two things I know nothing about, and never studied, because I thought I’d be talking to a deer and an owl—“

“Yeah, what about the owl?  That can’t be a mistake, right?  You heard a voice last night.  It’s got to be the owl?”

I threw up my hands.  “Oh, and there’s this.”  I held out my arm to show the gaps in the symbols.  “So when the prags manifest, the tattoos that represent them vanish. Some of the symbols are gone.  But most are still here.  Even if the owl manifests, what do all these other symbols mean?  I was sure that I only have three prags.  But…now I don’t know.  Maybe I’m wrong about everything, the details, I mean.”

“So, I don’t get it,” Rita said.  “They just came out?  I thought you were in control of them now.”

“It’s…yes.  It’s like a partnership though.  They’re not my pets.  I don’t have them on a leash.  And they did announce themselves.  From here on, we’ll have to figure out an arrangement.”  I sighed. 

“Are you okay?”

“I’m not interested in being a painter—no offense.”  I picked up the brush.  “What am I supposed to do with this?”  I set it back down again, maybe a little too roughly, and continued my pacing.

“Isn’t that what you need to figure out?”  Rita set her book aside.  “And didn’t you just say that it’s not always straightforward?  So you got a paintbrush instead of a spear.  That doesn’t mean you need to learn how to paint.  Maybe it means it’ll help you develop a related skill.  The way a visual artist looks at the world, at their subjects.” 

I stopped pacing again and huffed a breath.  “You’re right.  See?  What if I didn’t know you?  That never would have occurred to me.”

“I’m sure it would have, once you stopped feeling crappy about not getting a spear for your birthday like you wanted.”

I glanced at her.  “Am I throwing a tantrum right now?”

“Little bit.”

***

Rita calmed me down. 

And while we were talking, the paintbrush and sumac fruit vanished, and the tattoo symbols reappeared on my arm.  Rita pointed out that we now knew what two of the symbols meant, and that would help us find out what language I had tattooed on my arm, probably with the help of someone with far more expertise in logosyllabic languages.

But when I got home again, I couldn’t help feeling disappointed.  I mean supremely disappointed.

And I couldn’t help feeling guilty for feeling disappointed.

So my stomach churned.

For the next few days and weeks, I manifested the paintbrush and the sumac fruit.  I couldn’t figure out what to do with the sumac, so I focused on the paintbrush.  I tried to use it to paint.  I complained to Rita when all I managed to do after a whole hour of painting was create a multi-colored series of splotches on the canvas she gave me.  (She laughed in my face when she heard how much time I’d spent.  But she stopped laughing when I made whatever stricken expression I made, after she told me how much time she typically spent on one of her paintings.)

I held the brush and looked at the world around me.  Rita explained how we normally filter things out, so we can navigate the world without becoming overwhelmed by our senses.  A visual artist, she explained, had to learn how to un-filter, perceive all the details.  But if she hadn’t been sitting next to me, pointing out how the color of a purple balloon was reflecting off the cheek of a woman standing next to it, I never would have noticed, even with my pragmata agnosta in my hand.

Every night, I listened for that voice to speak again, my third prag.  But the voice was silent, even when I called out to it.

I wondered if the other prags were still waking up too.  I’d been groggy after an overnight ceremony.  My pragmata agnosta had been sleeping for generations.  Maybe they would be groggy for much longer.

Maybe I needed to help them get fully awake, get them some coffee and fresh air, so to speak.

So I stopped trying to figure out what to do with them by trying to use them.  I manifested them to give them some time out in the material realm.  But I let them be.  I went back to hitting the books (and got some free crash courses from Rita.)

But I really, really didn’t want to be a painter.  If that’s what my prag was meant to do, its purpose would be wasted on me.

***

When I saw the shadow flickering near the sunlit window from the corner of my eye, I thought it was a bird outside.

Then I saw something hopping toward me and I turned. 

I was sitting in my bedroom reading one of the art books that Rita had lent me, marked up with her notes.

My breath caught when I saw what was hopping toward me.

An owl.

“Greetings, Darya!” she said, and she fluttered up to land on my desk.

She was definitely an owl, but she was only the size of my hand, smaller actually.  She ruffled her brown-and-white feathers.

I bowed my head.  “It’s an honor,” I said, a little dazed.  “I’m glad to see that you’ve woken.”

“I am not fully woken yet,” the owl said, and she teetered a little, as if to demonstrate.  “I have much to teach you.”

My heart began to swell.  “Thank you, I’m glad to hear it.”  I held up one of the books I’d borrowed from Rita.  “I’m not having much luck learning on my own.  The other pragmata agnosta can’t help me in that way.”

“Of course, I am happy to help.  But while I may be awake, my knowledge is still asleep.  It will take some time to wake.”

“Oh? How much time?”

“Not much at all.  Twenty, perhaps thirty.”

I hoped she meant minutes.  But I had a feeling, it would be longer.  “Days?”

She cocked her head. “Years.”

“What!”

I stood up and looked down at her.  That swelling in my heart that had felt like hope and excitement now sunk to my stomach and floundered there.

I couldn’t do it.  I’d already waited ten years.  I had been happy to.  It meant I would l be ready.  I had inherited the powers.  I had released them.  I should have been able to use them.  I couldn’t wait until I was 40-something or 50-something to benefit from the owl’s knowledge. 

I snapped my fingers, feeling another swell of excitement.  “I’ll pass you on to Rita.”  I nodded my head to myself.  “That’s perfect.  She’ll appreciate you.  She’ll know what to do with you.”

I didn’t know if it was even possible.  Rita hadn’t been preparing to be a living amphora.  But she could be.  Almost anyone could be a living amphora.  They didn’t need to study or train to just contain the pragmata agnosta.  All Rita would have to do is finish some brainteasers and do some interviews.  She would pass for sure.  And there would be no pain or discomfort if she just passed it on.  So Rita could preserve the pragmata agnosta for the family. 

But if Rita chose to do what I had done, and release the pragmata agnosta after receiving them, then she would for sure know what to do with the paintbrush.  She wouldn’t mind at all if she had to wait a few decades to receive the owl’s wisdom.  And she’d probably even figure out what to do with the sumac.

“You don’t want us?”  The owl looked up at me and cocked her head.

I shook my head.  What am I doing?  What am I thinking?

 I was doing it again.

“I’m sorry,” I said, sitting back down.  “I’m sorry.  I’m being so ungrateful. I just thought I knew…I thought I was ready…for what I would receive.”  I said the words I said to be diplomatic to the owl.  But when I repeated my own words to myself, the meaning seemed to change.

I had only been confident that I was ready because I’d been confident about what I’d receive.

I held out my hand, and she hopped up onto it.  She was so small.  Like a chubby little sparrow.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

She looked up at me and cocked head.  “I am me.”

I couldn’t help but to think she was cute.  This being who was probably as old as the cosmos.  But she looked so young.  She looked like a baby owl.

“May I give you a name?” I asked.

“If you do, I will answer to it.”

“What about ‘Micro’?”

The little owl first cocked her, then shook her head.

I laughed.  “Okay, I’ll work on it.”

“I am not what you expected,” she said.  “None of us are.”

I shook my head, but said nothing.

The old hooted softly.  “Typically, we know exactly how to use the powers we earn and learn.  But we don’t always know how to use the powers we inherit.”

I smiled.  “Wise words.”

She may have been small, but she was measuring up.  Unlike me.

“I’m a jerk, aren’t I?”

“You are you.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Yes, you have said.”

“I did expect to get psychic powers, and superhuman agility, or something like that.  I mean, I thought I would have to learn how to control and regulate and hone whatever ability I received.  But I did believe it would be…”

“Extraordinary?”

I nodded.

“Is that how you expected me to appear?”

The owl was looking over my shoulder.  I glanced behind me, and saw my jacket hung over the back of another chair.  The faux red leather, with the patch in various shades of dark red, red-pink, and red-orange.  “Something like that,” I said.

I turned back around.  The owl’s feathers had turned from dark brown to reddish brown.  “It was just a guess,” I said.  “I have no right to expect you to appear as anything but yourself.”

“Oh, I understand.  But I didn’t change the color of my feathers.”

I frowned.  The red receded.

“Could have something to do with that,” the owl said, tipping her head toward the book I’d been reading when she arrived.

“Color theory,” I whispered.  “It’s actually really interesting.  Rita was right about being able to see things differently.”  I looked down at my hand and at the wood grain surface of my desk.  Streaks and knots of brown appeared on the back of my hand.  I gasped and jerked my hand away from my desk.  The wood grain pattern on my hand receded.

I flipped my hand over.  “Okay, whenever I see people using chameleon powers in movies, it always looks so cool.  I’ve never thought about how weird it must feel to watch your skin instantly change color to match, like a tartan robe or something.”

“You are a fast learner.”

“It’s been weeks!  I’ve made no progress till now.”  I sat forward in my chair.  “It must be because of you.”

“Or perhaps it’s because of you.”

I held out my arm with logosyllabic symbols tattooed on it.  “I don’t suppose you can read this.” 

“I can,” the owl said.  She glanced up me, and I finished her sentence.

“But not today.”

***

I would let the owl be for a while, just like I let the paintbrush and the sumac fruit be.  I needed to let them wake.  I needed to let them get to know me.  It was strange that it had never occurred to me—at least not consciously—that my pragmata agnosta had to learn about me as much as I had to learn about them.  But that’s how they attained their knowledge and their powers in the first place, by learning from the world around them and from those who contained them, the human beings who gave the “unknowable” beings shelter in their own bodies.

“Are you hungry?” I asked the owl.  “I have read conflicting things.  Do you need to eat?  Or want to eat?”

“Not at the moment.”

“Then, would you like to hear what I’ve learned about the staghorn sumac so far?”

“I would be delighted.  Also, that symbol that looks like wavy lines covered by two crossed sticks, that’s a fire.”  The owl hooted happily.  “It’s come back to me!”

The symbol, she said, was not a pragmata agnosta itself.  It was one of the powers possessed by the pragmata agnosta.  This one belonged to the staghorn.  I summoned a small piece of branch.  And then I summoned the fire symbol.  The branch ignited, and the room filled with warmth.  Too much warmth.

I held the branch out and away from me.  “I’m gonna set my bedroom on fire!”

“You won’t,” the owl said.  “Summon it back in.”

“I can’t!  I’m panicking too much!”

The branch.  Summon the branch back in.  Without it, the fire will die.

I reigned the sumac back in, watching the fire vanish in a blink as the symbols for both the sumac and the fire reappeared on my arm.

When I’d caught my breath, I turned around to thank the owl.

“Brilliant thinking!” she said.  “Strategic!”

I stared at her for a full minute before I realized that she had not told me to summon the branch back in to reign in the fire.  I had told myself to do that.

I sat back down in my chair, still catching my breath.

“I really need to be more patient,” I said.  “I thought I had learned to be, but…I haven’t been for the past few weeks.”

“It will take time,” the owl said.  “Perhaps your patience is like us, and it needs to wake up.”

I raised a brow.  “Some of us don’t have eternity.  But you’re right.”  Then I grinned at her.  “We can talk about sumac later.  If you’re up for it, there’s someone I’d like for you to meet, and also get to know.”  I rose and reached for the faux red leather jacket.  “She’s the one who designed this version of you.”

“Won’t she too be disappointed?”

I shook my head. “No, she’s wiser than I am.  You have that in common.”

I swung the jacket around myself and shrugged it on.  The owl flew toward me and perched on my shoulder.  I took a breath and calmed myself, and walked out the door, feeling the slightest weight on my shoulder from the owl.

Copyright © 2021  Nila L. Patel

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