“I want you to teach me how to paint,” Leodoras muttered, rehearsing the words as he strolled down the street that was assigned to his evening patrol.
He gazed up at the monochromatic gray veil of the sky, trying to imagine painting directly onto it, shaking his head at the thought. There were rumors that said it was possible. He’d never seen it nor known anyone who’d seen it. But their realm was vast. Who was to say there wasn’t a patch of gray that had been painted with swirls of indigo and black, and sprayed with blue-white stars, or brushed with a wide swathe of blue patched with soft diaphanous clouds?
Better to paint than to pierce, he thought. Better to live than to die.
He released the fantasy of future work and dropped his gaze down to the street to continue his current work.
He exhaled through slightly parted lips as he turned onto the street where Valda lived. Ever since the elderly woman had casually mentioned that she had once been a municipal painter, he had been preoccupied with various strategies to ask her to be his mentor. He had talked himself out of his “foolishness,” and talked himself back into it.
When he didn’t see her sitting on the porch of her bright yellow house, he felt half-disappointed and half-relieved, until he heard the familiar tap of a walking stick behind him, and a familiar voice.
“Looking for me?”
Valda walked up to his side, matching his stride.
They exchanged greetings and polite pleasantries. Then Valda noted that the soreness in her lower back has eased. Leo countered that the soreness in his feet had not. They chuckled, and they soon were at ease.
Leo was on duty, but it was part of his job, after all, to get to know the people on his patrol. As they walked, he came up with a plan for how to shift the conversation toward a natural way for him to ask Valda what he wanted to ask her.
He pointed to the sky.
“Did I tell you that when I was a kid, I used to fantasize about being the hero who broke the curse and freed the realm from the gray veil?”
Valda’s walking stick tapped in steady rhythm. “That’s a game that children of every generation play, dear. But continue. How did you play it?”
“Different ways. But mostly…I would sketch the moment in the margins of my homework—with my gray pencil, of course.” He flourished his hands. “I would imagine the sky bursting with color, blue, bright blue, or maybe it would be the dawn hour, and there would be other colors glowing under white clouds. Like the ceiling of the city library.”
Valda gave a brief hum of acknowledgement.
“And I would guess you gave up on that quest when you realized it was so daunting?” she asked.
Leo hesitated. He caught himself fiddling with the red whistle that was hung around his neck. He dropped his hand. Since starting his job as a harbinger, he wasn’t sure which of his views concerning the gray veil he should keep to himself.
He had given up on his childhood fantasy when he realized that people had already found ways to break the curse, and had tried those ways and failed. He had given up when he learned that some of the ways had never been tried and never would be, because the cost was too high. And over the generations, more and more people believed that the gray veil was a blessing, not a curse. A protection, not an oppression.
More and more believed that even the veil-death ritual should be discontinued. After all, the sky might be perpetually gray, but nothing else in their world need be. Their homes, their clothing, their food, their very bodies—skin and hair—could be splashed with colors bright, and colors soft. And after all, color was not the only thing the gray veil blocked. There was the changeable, sometimes volatile, thing called “weather.”
“Yes,” Leo said at last, “breaking the curse would be daunting. It wouldn’t be as simple as finding the scroll that the curse was written on, and burning it in a blessed fire. Or climbing a hill to speak an ancient chant, and watching the gray sky tear into thousands of bits to reveal a dark sky scattered with glittering stars. Not to mention a glowing full moon that illuminated my small yet heroic silhouette for the people standing in awe at the base of the hill.”
Valda burst out laughing, startling Leo into a grin.
“That’s quite the fantasy,” she said, as her laughter trailed off. “It would make a striking mural, don’t you think?”
“I couldn’t possibly imagine paint—even the commonest paint— being wasted on my dumb childhood fantasy.”
Leo had always loved sketching and drawing and imagining. And even after he realized that he would not be breaking any curses, he still wanted to do something to defy the gray sky. Being a harbinger was a solid lifelong profession for some. But what he really wanted to do, was to save up to become a painter. As it so happened, it could be one of the most esteemed and lucrative positions in the realm. Depending on the path a painter took, they might be hired by the rich to paint realistic skies onto the high vaulted and domed ceilings of their homes. The highest level painters had access to an ever-dwindling supply of enchanted paint that could paint skies with moving parts, clouds drifting in breezes, twinkling stars. His newest fantasy, one he had never spoke out loud, was that he would become skilled enough to be granted such paints, and that his own loved ones will be the first recipients of his highest skill.
He sensed that the moment had approached when he could ask. He braced himself.
“Come to spy on us again?” a voice called.
Leo glanced to his right to the man standing behind a high fence of wrought iron. The man peered at Leo under furrowed—and furry—brows.
Leo offered a wave and polite smile. “As I’ve said before, Mister Rose, you don’t have to tell me or show me anything you don’t want to.” He didn’t bother explicitly stating that he wasn’t a spy.
A harbinger’s only duty while on patrol was to blow that red whistle and alert the Veil Guard if someone moved to pierce the gray veil without official approval.
The veil was quite easy to pierce. But if anyone should do it, and let in the true sky above—whether rainy, cloudy, or sunny—that person would suffer excruciating pain, and in mere moments, would drop to their death. It was part of the curse. Just like it was part of the curse that their realm’s borders were obscured, so that none could leave or enter. In that first generation after the curse was laid, people were so desperate to see the sky or break the curse that many were not deterred by pain and death. Because of this, those in power erected a shield below the veil that blocked the piercing. If anyone still tried, the shield’s unique vibration alerted the newly formed Veil Guard, who would quickly arrive and apprehend the person.
The shield and the Veil Guard could not always stop the piercing of the veil. So it was soon discovered that the only person who perished was the person who did the piercing. Anyone else who was fortunate enough to be nearby could witness the true sky and carry that memory forward. So a custom arose where those who were close to death already, from illness or age, might choose to sacrifice themselves to pierce the gray veil and see the true sky for just once in their lives. And they would gather as many as they could around them so that others may share in the gift. The range was not far. Several feet around the person at most.
In the old days, permission was needed for a portion of the shield to be dropped. But over time, the shield wore away. The knowledge for how to repair it or make a new one lay in a few of the realm’s greatest libraries. But the work was not done. For the will of the realm’s rulers to purchase the work had eroded along with the shield. Human harbingers were hired instead, to patrol and alert the Veil Guard.
“Have you ever seen the true sky?” Valda asked as they moved past Mister Rose’s gargoyle glare.
Leo shook his head. “You?”
Leo asked no further, not wanting to intrude on what he imagined were memories carrying heavy and opposing emotions. The only way to see the sky and not perish was to have been part of a veil-death ritual. The wonder of witnessing the true sky would always be linked to the moment of a loved one’s death. He was curious. All he knew of the ritual was what he’d read about and been briefly taught in school. The bare elements. The piercing of the veil, the drinking of a veil-death elixir so that the dying would be gentle and painless, avoiding the agony that the curse death would otherwise bring, the requirement for an official to be present to certify the piercing, and the daunting fees.
They strolled in silence for a few moments. Then Valda broke off with a goodbye as Leo continued on his patrol and finished it, having lost his nerve for asking her to be his teacher.
Leo twisted his mouth in a wry smile, imagining all the ways his friend and fellow harbinger would tease him for being a coward. Leo’s patrol ended earlier, so he was on his way to a tavern closer to his friend’s patrol route.
A sudden flash illuminated the sky. Leo frowned and blinked his eyes a few times, unsure that he had seen what he thought he saw. Then a distant rumble made him gasp. A boom and crack sounded. Leo flinched. He heard cries and a scream. He clutched his chest. He took shelter against the wall of a nearby building for a few moments. When nothing else happened he cautiously continued on his way.
Leodoras gaped. He was standing before the street where he hoped to find his friend, who hadn’t shown up at the tavern. He shivered. It was cold, colder than he’d ever felt before. His boots crunched over a layer of tiny white pellets, like pebbles, only they burst under his feet. And they were slippery, as if they were coated in water. The face of the eatery and barber shop on one side of the street were dripping. He stepped carefully as he spotted his friend sitting on the back of a Veil Guard wagon with a blanket over his shoulders.
“What happened?” Leo asked as he sat down beside his friend.
“I called,” his friend said,” but they couldn’t get here in time.” Shivering, he turned his face to Leo and sniffed. “Someone pierced the veil…and the sky…attacked us. Stoned us. I slipped. On that…” He pointed to the cold white wet stuff on the ground. “I fell on my arm, thank the veil. But I could have cracked my head open.”
Through his concern for his friend, and his astonishment at the evidence of a piercing, Leo noted the words his fried used. Thank the veil.
The words were once spoken only by those who believed the veil was a blessing and not a curse, a protection from the destructive forces that struck from the sky. But lots of people thoughtlessly used them now.
Leo wanted to know if his friend had seen the sky. But he held his tongue. He watched the Veil Guards standing over a man lying dead in the street.
“They tried to give him the elixir,” his friend said of the man. “But he wouldn’t drink it. He spit it out. He died in pain.”
Leo wrapped his arm over his friend’s shoulder. “Come on,” he said. “Let me take you somewhere warm, where the ground is solid and dry.” He watched the watery white pebbles melt away.
“Nothing wrong with machine-made food, but it shouldn’t be the only thing we eat,” Valda said.
Leo grunted absently, his gaze darting and jumping around the street. Days had passed since he found himself on a street full of hail, and the far more disturbing sight of a dead man who would never see the sky again.
“Imagine if we lived in a city where trees grew—fruit trees—and flowers.” Valda sighed, holding up the newspaper to Leo. “Though, who knows if anything could grow—even if we had continuous sunlight. The machines were never meant to run continuously for hundreds of years.”
Leo stopped walking. “Valda…”
Valda stopped too. She lowered the newspaper and turned to face him.
“I wonder if you would consider teaching me,” Leo said. “Whatever makes sense, for the offer of a set sum.”
“Teaching you what?”
Valda knew of his ultimate aspirations now. She teased him about being extravagant with his money now that he had some. But she must have caught some sign of the terrible doubt and embarrassment he felt when she looked into his eyes. She stopped smiling and drew up her shoulders, resting both hands on her walking stick.
“Would you give me some time to think about it before giving you my answer?” she asked.
Leo exhaled, so nervous that he didn’t remember to ask her how long she needed, if she had any questions he might answer in the moment, or anything else.
A few months passed. Valda said nothing about teaching Leo. And Leo was reluctant to ask. He was focused on his work. He had become far more vigilant about his patrols after the incident with his friend. Leo caught two instances of unauthorized attempts to pierce the veil. Both times he blew the whistle and feared that he too might watch someone die. But both times, the person had only to see Leo and see his red whistle, and they stopped and dropped their piercing rod to the ground. By law, the Veil Guard had to arrest them anyway.
Not seeing either person again on his patrols, even after a few weeks, he asked after them with his superior. He was told only that one was undergoing penance and the other being treated for a mental malady. When he asked if he might visit them, speak to them, and bring word to their families when next he went on patrol, his superior patted his shoulder and told him he was a good harbinger. When he tried again, a few days later, his superior told him such requests were not within his power to grant. Leo let it go then, believing he had done his best, until he was approached on his patrol one day. The daughter of one of the people the Veil Guard had arrested asked Leo if he had heard from her mother.
“If I go to my superior’s superior,” he said to Valda the next day, “then I risk angering him.”
“Angering your superior? Or your superior’s superior?”
She was teasing him for not revealing anyone’s name.
“The answer seems simple enough,” she said. “Do as much as you can without putting yourself in danger.”
“I’m the one who’s responsible for what happened to her mother.” Leo shook his head. “It doesn’t seem enough to just tell myself, ‘at least she’s still alive.’ Her family doesn’t seem to blame me, but…”
A few days later, Leo started his patrol and never finished it.
He came across a young man he’d seen before, sitting on the steps of his family’s shop, which he often was the last to leave. They had crossed paths a few times, but the young man was usually gone by the time Leo reached that part of his patrol route.
Leo spotted the piercing rod that the young man was turning back and forth in his fingers. His heart began to thud.
The young man saw him approaching and held up his other hand. Leo stopped where he was. Leo couldn’t remember his name. He cursed himself for not remembering. He slowly moved his hand to his whistle.
“Don’t,” the young man said. He wasn’t looking directly at Leo, but had obviously caught the movement.
Leo swallowed. His mouth had gone completely dry.
“It’s not worth dying just to see the sky,” Leo said.
“I don’t want to see the sky. I want the sky to swallow me up.”
A shudder of fear passed through Leo. He should blow the whistle. The Veil Guard might not come in time. But it was the only way he might save the young man.
“Please…will you let me help you?” Leo spoke the words as calmly as he could, not knowing if that was right, not knowing if the words were right. He wanted to lunge at the young man, to wrest away the piercing rod. And at the same time, he didn’t want to risk his own life. If they struggled, if Leo should accidentally pierce the veil himself…
“How?” the young man asked.
“First, will you hand me the rod?”
“Then…then come with me.”
“Where?” the young man briefly glanced up.
Leo winced. If he told the truth, he might push the young man to use the rod. But he could think of no lie that would work. “A counsel house.” An old colleague of Leo’s mother ran a counsel house. The distance could be walked. “There’s a friend—a family friend. She can help you, or find someone who can.”
“How do you know?”
Leo felt his calm slipping. He took a breath and exhaled slowly. “She’s done it before.”
The young man raised the rod.
“Please,” Leo said. “I’m begging you.”
When the young man held out the hand with the piercing rod, Leo caught his breath. He dared to step toward the young man, slowly, and he knelt, and he took the rod.
Stunned, Leo rose, and the young man rose, and they walked to the counsel house together. Leo wasn’t sure what he should do or say on the way. Aiming to distract the young man from his own thoughts, Leo asked questions, he listened to the answers, and soon enough, he found himself at the door to the counsel house.
They accepted the young man, but they would not take the piercing rod, so Leo kept it.
He didn’t know what to do with the piercing rod. So he turned it in to the Veil Guard, lying and saying that he found it on his patrol, and that didn’t know who it belonged to.
A few nights later, his friend pressed Leo about the mysterious piercing rod, when they met again at a tavern. Leo shrugged and said as little as possible. He had planned to check on the young man he’d left at the counsel house, but he realized it might not be advisable. The counsel house afforded some privacy, but the Veil Guard could override that if they believed they had identified a credible attempt at piercing the gray veil without authorization.
A week later, Leo’s superior summoned him to a private meeting. He announced that he was placing Leo on notice for several mistakes he had made—on paperwork, in the upkeep of his uniform, and so on. He would let those other mistakes go, but he had come to learn that Leo had not completed his patrol one night. As his superior spoke, Leo felt a boiling of anger in his blood and the chill of panic in his chest. He did not trust himself to speak, other than to say that he would correct the problems presented to him. He imagined the real reason for the sudden penalties had something to do with the piercing rod he’d found. He should have kept that rod, to protect himself and the young man. He couldn’t completely hide his feelings from his superior, who patted his back and told him just to do his job as well as he had in the first months.
Leo did just that for one week.
Then his superior called him into a private meeting to let him know that he was dismissed. He was asked to turn in his whistle and uniform. A small part of him was shocked. And a greater part was angry.
And a still greater part was relieved.
And another small part, one that would surely grow as time passed, was worried.
Leo found himself walking over to Valda’s bright yellow house. He expected her to joke and tease him upon seeing him out of uniform, and at a far earlier hour than expected. He hoped she would. Hearing her laughter would have lifted his spirits.
But when she saw him, she rose from her seat on the porch, and watched him approach in silence.
“I’m no longer a harbinger,” Leo said. “I came to let you know that, and to let you know that if you agree to teach me painting, I won’t be able to take lessons from you until I find another job. I’ll start searching tomorrow, so you’ll see less of me in the coming days.”
When she said nothing in reply, he managed a gentle smile and wave, and turned to leave.
He turned back to her.
“I will begin teaching you. We can suspend payments until you are able to manage them.”
Valda asked him to meet her the next day, providing a location out of town that he would need a train to reach. Not yet allowing himself to feel hope, Leo nevertheless agreed.
Valda met him outside a cluster of long-ruined buildings that she said still belonged to her family. The land wasn’t worth anyone else claiming it. She kept up one of the cabins, and visited a few times in the year.
“I have a few colors here that I didn’t acquire quite legally,” she said, as she showed him the back porch, where brushes and pots of paint were arrayed on a table, and few canvas boards were propped against the warped railing. That answered his unspoken question of why she had summoned him to that place instead of teaching him in her own house.
Valda stepped down from the porch and led him out into the open field beyond. She stopped and gazed up at the monochromatic gray veil above them.
She smiled. “I stood in this very spot the first time I saw the true sky.”
Leo wondered if he might see it too someday, though he doubted it. Among those he loved best and who loved him, there was no one so well-off that they could pay for the approvals needed.
“I know there will be beauty, wonder, and truth that I will never see or know,” Leo said. “But I think I can become a skilled painter anyway.”
Valda lowered her head and smiled at him. “I think so too.” She raised her arm to show that she was holding an iron rod that was sharpened at one end. A piercing rod. “But I still want you to see it.”
Leo felt a lurch in his stomach. She had stepped away from him, put distance between them.
“It is dangerous to pierce the veil,” she said, “but not in the way you think.”
Leo gulped. “It’s better to live, Valda. I can’t speak for those who live in despair. But for the rest of us, it’s better to live.”
“I agree. It is better to live. I will not die. Nor do I wish to die.” She raised the rod.
“No!” Leo cried. “You can’t risk it!”
“I already have, twice in my life. I’m still here.”
Leo wanted to believe her and to trust her. Part of him did trust, but…
“If all we suffered was a perpetually gray sky,” she said, “that’s not such a burden to bear. But that’s not all we bear, is it? You know that something is wrong.”
Leo huffed. “I’m…afraid.”
“Afraid for me.” Valda smiled. “I know. There is something you can do.”
Leo nodded. “What can I do?”
“Catch me when it’s over.”
She raised the piercing rod above her head. Leo had never seen how it worked before. The rod glowed, silvery white light.
In a sudden burst, the gray above their heads tore away, and the sky beyond shone through. Bright blue, vivid and sharp. Sunlight beamed down, warm and then hot, so hot it made him sweat. Leo knew not to gaze directly into the blazing disc. Beneath his feet, he felt the ground tremble and shift. The empty field erupted with blades of grass in dark green and yellow-green. Wildflowers bloomed in rich hues, magenta, orange, deep pink, golden yellow. Stems extended upward, dividing and branching. Leaves unfurled. A perfume spread through the air. The scent was fresh and wild, mingled with dirt and leaf. And it was softer than the stinging scents of the artificial floral perfumes that some people used. Buds bounced against his elbow, brushed against his hand. Cool and soft. Leo’s eyes began to water, from bursts of pollen maybe. He heard a rapid, chirping song. He caught his breath as a small brown creature hovered over a thorny bush filled with small white flowers.
Leo gasped as the bird rose into the air and darted up and away.
A summer day through a sky gray.
The gray veil began to re-form itself, threads and shreds appearing and joining.
Still gawking, Leo glanced down at Valda. And panic struck him.
She was falling.
Leo rushed to her and caught her as the sunlight winked out.
He lay her on the grass, which was fading and decaying as quickly as it had burst into life.
“If only I could lay in the grass just a bit longer,” she said. Her voice was weak but steady.
Suddenly, Leo lost all faith. He gulped. “Do you have any elixir?” he asked. “In the house? I can bring it out.”
Valda groaned again, as she raised her arm and gently slapped his cheek. “I’m not going to die, my sweet boy. Not until I’ve taught you everything I know.”
Leo caught her hand. “You’re not just talking about painting, are you?”
She motioned for him to help her sit up. She shook off what seemed a wave of dizziness. She slipped her hand out of his and pressed her index finger to Leo’s temple. “I’m talking about piercing the veil.”
Leo peered into her eyes. “I believe I understand.”
“I agree to teach you. But I warn you, there will be danger. Do you still agree to learn?”
Leodoras drew a deep breath. “I do, but…I warn you. I will have questions. And I won’t always accept your answers.” He pressed a hand to his chest. “And I won’t always accept you risking yourself.”
Valda met his gaze. “Challenge accepted.”
Copyright © 2022 Nila L. Patel