From the Archives: The Souls in Their Eyes

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I was looking through some old files this week, and came across one of the short stories I’m actually proud of.  I struggle with short stories, because I always want to tell more and make the story bigger and longer, which is why I predominantly write novels.  There are a few short pieces I’m proud of, and this is one of them.  I originally wrote this for a fiction course in college.  I also did a bit of work on it in 2007 and actually sent it out to a few magazines in an attempt to get it published as part of a course I was taking in graduate school.  I haven’t worked on it since, but I thought I would share it with you here since I’m still rather fond of the story.

The Souls in Their Eyes

By Heather C. Wright

Dawn comes in a fiery blaze of red.  Rhoash sits on the bed looking out the window to her left.  She hasn’t slept at all.  She can’t remember ever sleeping the night before her birthing day celebration.  Each birthing day brought more responsibilities with it but this one is different.  Almost a year ago her body began to follow the cycles of the moon, meaning that this year she celebrates her entrance into womanhood.  No more wearing my brothers’ outgrown shirts and breeches.  The sun rises above the buildings in the distance, momentarily blinding her, Rhoash closes her eyes.

“Rho!” her mother, Penrho, yells from the main room of the house.  A smile creeps across Rhoash’s face. I can always tell where everyone is. She rises from the bed.

“I’m awake, Mother,” she calls back, just loud enough to be heard.  With a sigh she opens the chest under the window and takes out the blouse and skirt she made for the occasion.  The blouse is softer than the ones she usually wore.  Her mother spun the flax and wove the cloth herself.  Rhoash made the skirt material, an emerald green with a pattern of deep blue woven through at intervals.  She pulls off her sleeping gown and pulls the blouse over her head.  It hangs half way down her calves.  She laughs, realizing she cut the pattern from one of her mother’s blouses, forgetting to take into account that her mother is a full head taller than she is.  Rhoash stopped growing when she was eleven.  Three years have passed and she shows no signs of growing again.  She pulls the cord tight at the neckline and ties it off before letting it fall back inside the blouse.  She pulls the skirt on over her too-long blouse.

Picking up her shawl and corset from the chest Rhoash closes it before leaving her alcove.  As she draws the curtain back, Yenko, her older brother, appears from her left.  They used to share the alcove where he sleeps, but since she is to be a woman now their parents gave her a small space of her own.

“Good morrow, Rho,” Yenko says as he gives her a one armed hug.  “Today is your day,” he adds with a smile as they walk to the ladder.  Rhoash smiles for her brother, but as soon as he has turned away the smile fades.  It’s not my day; yesterday was my last day.  She drapes the shawl over one shoulder and puts her hand through the arm holes of the corset so that she can go down the ladder.  She looks down to watch her feet and skirt.  In breeches I can almost slide down the ladder.  At the bottom she turns toward the kitchen to find her mother.

“Can you help me with the corset?” she asks her mother quietly.

“Certainly, dear,” her mother replies, giving the morning’s cereal one last stir before walking to her daughter.  “Let me hold that,” Penrho says, taking the shawl and tossing it over her own shoulder.  Rhoash quickly unties the cording around the shoulders of the corset, handing them to her mother before pulling the front piece out of the band on the inside and putting the vest section on.  “Hold that, there,” Penrho says, positioning the front piece on her daughter’s chest.  Rhoash does as instructed and watches as her mother’s nimble fingers quickly lace each side to the vest.  “There,” her mother says with apparent satisfaction.  “Tighten that so that it’s comfortable and keeps your blouse out of the way.”  She smiles at her daughter.  “The blue compliments your eyes so,” she says as her daughter tightens each side evenly.

“Thank you,” Rhoash mumbles.  At least my eyes are pretty, she thinks sullenly.  She has the deep blue eyes and coppery red hair that her mother does, but she hasn’t grown into herself yet.  I’m still as lanky and awkward as I was at eight.  Her mother hands her the shawl.  Rhoash goes back to the main room and retrieves the spinning wheel.  I can’t sit idly by, even today.

After spinning a quarter of a spool, Rhoash is called to the table to break her fast.  Yenko ruffles her hair as he passes to sit between her and their father, Ashko, at the large table.  It is just the four of them now that her two eldest brothers have left for the capital city, hoping to find better prospects there.  Their adopted city, Rakal, is large enough but often unfriendly to what the nobles call “impure folk.”  I wonder what my chances are of even leaving our neighborhood when I’m olderYenko will and I want to stay close to him.  After everyone has eaten Rhoash helps her mother clear away and wash the dishes while Yenko and their father go to saddle the horse.  The entire neighborhood will turn out for the birthing day celebration at Halbe’s Inn.

Rhoash wraps her shawl around her shoulders and her father helps her mount the horse.  She looks down at her family, a rare thing since she is the shortest of them all.  Her father’s face is bright with a smile, and his pupils are small in the bright morning light, showing the deep brown of his eyes.  Yenko got their mother’s bright blue eyes and their father’s deep brown hair and muscular frame.  The neighborhood girls call him handsome when he isn’t there to hear.  Gray is starting to dull the bright sheen of Penrho’s coppery hair, but her eyes are as bright as always.  Ashko takes the reigns of the horse and leads his family toward the inn.  The place doubles as their meeting hall in the city.  The whole neighborhood migrated from the Imardan countryside as a group when the droughts left their village destitute a generation before.  Like so many Imban they ended up in the Felan cities of Arintal forming communities of their own within the large cities.

It takes almost a quarter of an hour to reach Halbe’s Inn at the slow pace Rhoash’s father sets.  I could run the distance in only a few minutes, or at least I could in breeches.  I hate skirts.  Rhoash is startled by the crowd when they arrive.  It seems like more people have come than three years ago when Yenko had his celebration.  The inn is a three-story wooden structure, with a great room on the bottom floor and the kitchen fires in a shed right out back.  The upper two stories contain guest rooms as well as rooms for Halbe and his family.

Rhoash takes a deep breath and tries to keep a smile fixed on her face as her father and brother lift her from the horse and carry her inside.  She is deposited inside the doorway, where Veznas, the eldest woman in the community, is waiting.  Veznas holds out a great basin to Rhoash, who takes it carefully.  It is full of deep red wine, the smell of which makes her a bit nauseated.  I hate wine even more than skirts, she thinks as she walks carefully to the center of the room.  The women of the neighborhood surround her in a great circle.  The men must wait behind them.

Deep breaths.  Rhoash concentrates on keeping her hands and arms steady as she holds the basin.  She watches as Veznas and Penrho walk together into the circle, each carrying a pitcher.  Veznas dips her pitcher into the basin and brings it out brimming full of wine.  The basin is suddenly lighter and Rhoash hopes she can hold it as Veznas begins the ritual by pouring the wine back into the basin.  The wine flows in a long steam of red.  It looks like freshly spilled blood.

“Wine,” Veznas begins, “the fruit of our labors runs into the great basin as life’s blood runs from the womb of a newfound woman.  Today, we celebrate Rhoash as she becomes a woman and begins her journey as a giver of life.”  The last of the wine drips into the basin as she finishes speaking.  Now Penrho fills her pitcher.

“As my life’s blood flowed into you my spirit did as well, and you grew and were nurtured,” she says, pouring the wine slowly.  “Blood of my blood, flesh of my flesh, spirit of my spirit, today you sever that spiritual connection so that your spirit may grow and be ready to nurture the spirits of the children that will spring forth from your womb.”  There is more wine to fall into the basin when Penrho is finished speaking.  Rhoash caught her practicing with the wash water one morning; she tries not to smile during the solemn ritual.

“The Goddess looks down on us with favor,” Veznas continues, “the crone, the mother, and the maid.  We are as she is.”  Penrho and Veznas each put their hands on the basin and help Rhoash to raise it above her head, presenting it to the Goddess.  “May She bless you and keep you and guide your path,” Veznas finishes as the three bend to place the basin on the floor.  Veznas cups her hands and dips them into the wine, pouring wine into Penrho’s cupped hands.  Rhoash holds her hands out to her mother, who pours the wine into them.  Rhoash bends her head and drinks deeply of the wine.

Her vision swims a little as she raises her head.  What she has not drunk from her hands has flowed back into the basin.  She sits in a daze as each woman comes to her and she pours wine from her hands into theirs so that they might drink.  Rhoash looks down at her hands when the last of the women rises and takes her place in the circle again.  They are stained with blood, Rhoash thinks in her daze.  Only one kind of wine stains the hands as red as blood, she thinks in sudden panic, Diala wine.  The ritual is that of her mother’s people, the Imban from the country.  Rhoash has the gifts of her father’s side, the Felan of the city.  “Diala wine amplifies the gifts your father passed on to you,” her mother had said, “You must always be cautious when you drink it.”

Rhoash looks up, seeing the women ringed around her not as she remembers them, but as figures overshadowed by deep shades and colors, as if she were seeing their spirits outside of their flesh.  As she gazes out among the women her head seems to clear and her vision extends to the ring of men standing behind them.  The men also glow in a rainbow of hues.

“Come so that you all may be blessed,” Rhoash hears herself saying.  She reaches her hands back into the basin to scoop up more wine.  The men come slowly at first and then in a steady stream to share in the blessing of the Goddess.  Rhoash smiles to her brother when he kneels across from her.  His eyes are wide with awe and she sees a reflection in them that is not her own, but that of a woman more beautiful than any she has seen, as if she has taken on the visage of the Goddess herself.  When the last of the men has come the circle closes again and Rhoash lets the last of the wine slip between her fingers.  She takes the basin in her arms and stands slowly.  Veznas and Penrho return to her side and they carry the basin with her to the edge of the circle and beyond to the door leading to the yard.  When their feet touch the bare ground they tip the basin together and pour out the blessings of the Goddess onto the land of this foreign city.

Rhoash leads them back into the inn where the men are already setting out the tables for the feast.  Wekol, Halbe’s wife, and the other women of the neighborhood have been preparing the various dishes since well before sunrise.  There will be roasted meats, succulent and tender with spices saved for occasions like this one; many vegetables from the gardens and fruits from the trees that grow at the inn will be served.  Rhoash was born on the eve of the fruit harvest so her celebrations always hold the promise of a cold winter and the memory of a rich harvest.

Rhoash is given the seat of honor at the high table with her mother on her right and Veznas on her left.  The meal passes by in a blur of dishes and greetings and congratulations.  Rhoash wonders if she will feel the same way when it is her daughter at the high seat.  Will I even have a daughter?  She looks out at the room, crowded with faces she has known since childhood.  She sees Thetos, her oldest friend, he is between Yenko and herself in age and the three of them did everything together when they were children.  Last year when they celebrated his entrance into manhood she said goodbye to him; they rarely see each other now.  He works with his father at their tailor shop.  Rhoash has seen him only at festivals and town meetings and on the rare occasions her mother has her deliver something to Vetos’ shop.  Vetos’ wife died three years ago during the fevers and he has no daughters to take over her place in the business.  To bring in a little extra money for the family Penrho does the fine embroidery Vetos’ wife used to do.

Rhoash does not have hands as skilled as her mother’s, so she can not help with the work.  She has taken over her mother’s duties sewing the family’s clothing instead.  Her stitching is even and sturdy, but not fine and delicate enough for the fancy dresses Vetos sells to the noblewomen.  I have no skills for use outside the home.   Yenko is learning to work leather from their father, as their other brothers did but there is nothing for her to be taught.  I will be dependent on family to protect and provide for me forever, she thinks as the final course is served.  The season’s first berries and apples are served with a dollop of cream.  Rhoash nibbles at the fruit as women continue to come to the table and wish her well.  Some talk to her mother and father when they are done, but Rhoash can not hear what they are saying.

As the younger women begin to clear away the dishes Rhoash knows that it is time to invite everyone to stay and continue the celebration with dancing and music.  She rises from her chair, feeling less steady on her feet than before.  The hall quiets when they see her standing.

“I welcome you to stay and dance with us in praise of She Who Is, let us raise a joyful music to her ears,” Rhoash recites.  She drilled herself for weeks on that one line, knowing she had to get it right as her first act as a woman.  Rhoash lets out her breath as everyone cheers and bustles about to prepare the hall.  The trestle tables are dismantled and stacked against the walls and the chairs are piled on top of them.  Rhoash slips to the back of the room as the musicians assemble and begin to play.

I don’t like dancing either.  She sighs knowing she’ll have to.  Skirts, wine and dancing, and Yenko said it was my day!  Yesterday was my last day to be myself.  Now I have to be what everyone expects me to be.  Rhoash hides in the corners of the room for as long as she can.  Her brother finds her though and drags her onto the dance floor.  Rhoash yearns for the days when they played in the trees with Thetos and tried to climb the walls to see the gardens hidden away in the nobles’ estates.  Every time their mother caught them at it she yelled and screamed, telling them they would get into trouble with the guards if they kept at it.  The only time they made it to the top the guards had caught them and brought them home by force.  The image of that garden was worth it though.  The fruit trees’ petals floated down like soft purple snow and the pool at the center reflected the bright colors of the flowers surrounding it.  That garden is still the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.

She tries not to trip over her brother’s feet.  The music is fast and the dance is complicated.  As soon as the song is over Rhoash makes a break for it, trying to reach the edge of the dancers before anyone else can ask for a dance.  She makes it to the bar, where Halbe and Wekol have set out juices and wines.  Rhoash takes a cup of juice and drinks slowly.  Thetos comes up beside her and takes a cup as well, raising it toward her before taking a drink.  She returns the gesture.

“Feeling like it’s over?” Thetos asks casually.  Rhoash nods, not wanting to really say it.  “I thought that too,” he says, smiling down at her.  She has to crane her neck to see him.  She is eye level with his chest when they are both standing straight.

“Was it over?” Rhoash asks as she watches the dancers.  She sees Yenko dancing with one of Halbe’s younger daughters.  Rhoash looks up when Thetos doesn’t answer her question.

“Yes and no,” he says finally, meeting her eyes.  His are a cool green with flecks of brown and blue and gold, making them dance in the fading light from the windows.  “I miss you,” she hears Thetos saying; his lips do not move.  She looks away, her brows furrowing.  She doesn’t touch people much or look at their eyes too long because of things like that.  She doesn’t want to hear other people think.  I wonder if father has this kind of problem with people too.

“How so?” she inquires to cover her discomfort.

“I don’t see you or Yenko any more for one thing,” Thetos says sullenly.  “All I do is work in the shop and take orders and deal with the books.  He hasn’t even asked me to help make anything yet.  But I get the evenings to myself more often now.  I can go to the markets in town and watch everyone parade around.  Father lets me make deliveries some days too, and I get to see the gardens from the inside,” he adds with a smug grin.

“I wish I could do that,” Rhoash replies wistfully.  She wishes for a lot of things she can’t have.

“You could work for one of the noble families,” Thetos suggests.  “They take in girls to help cook, clean, and sew all the time.  I see them when I bring the dresses and suits to the estates.  I talked to one of the girls while her mistress approved of the dress.  She sent her money home to her family and was given a place to sleep and ate with the others in the kitchens.  It doesn’t sound so bad.”  Rhoash glances up at him briefly, wondering if he is serious.

“If I’m going to cook and clean and sew I might as well stay at home and let mother do more work from your father’s shop,” she replies, trying to keep the bitterness out of her voice.

“I didn’t mean to upset you,” Thetos says softly, reaching a hand to pat her shoulder.  Rhoash moves away with a jerk, glancing up to see the hurt look on his face.

“I…It’s…” she trails off, not knowing how to explain.  “I have the gifts of my father’s people,” she says flatly.  “I don’t want to hear you in my head,” she adds when his expression doesn’t change.

“If you don’t want to cook and clean, maybe those gifts will help you do something else,” Thetos says softly, as he walks away.  Sadly, Rhoash watches him go.  She’s lost the one friend she always said she wouldn’t.  She fights the tears that suddenly well up inside of her.  She jumps when a hand touches her shoulder.  Turning around quickly she sighs in relief when she sees her father.

“Feel like you just lost one?” he asks in a sympathetic voice.  Rhoash nods as her father puts an arm around her shoulder and guides her to a couple of chairs beside the bar.  Why doesn’t his touch bother me like everyone else’s, she wonders fleetingly.

“I felt like I had lost all of my friends when I turned fifteen,” Ashko says, looking down at his daughter.  “It’s never as bad as it seems.  Thetos misses you,” he adds in a confidential tone.

“I know,” Rhoash says, gazing across the room to where Thetos is talking with her brother.  “I saw it in his eyes,” she adds.  “Why do I hear things when I look people in the eye too long?” she asks, looking up at her father for an answer.

“Because you have your grandmother’s gifts,” Ashko answers.

“But what does that mean?” Rhoash responds.  “What gifts?  Why are they gifts?”

“Let me tell you a tale my mother told me a long time ago,” Ashko replies.

“When the world was new, Wekashna was alone in the world, having been born of the Yenféln.  She wandered the world in search of a companion.  She met all the creatures of the field and the fish of the seas but found none that could be her companion.  So she sat down on the beach where the land and the water met.  She let her awareness cover all of creation and looked in search of a companion.  Still she found none, so she returned to the Yenféln, the great flower of life, and let a drop of her own blood fall on the petals.  The petals closed and she lay down to sleep beside the flower.  When she woke the flower opened and Múashna lay within it.

“However, Múashna lay lifeless and Wekashna had to breath part of her own life into him.  When she had done this he had life, and breath, but still was no more than any creature she had met before.  Wekashna touched Múashna’s head and his face, looking him in the eyes and willing his spirit to grow.  As she did this her own spirit reached out to touch Múashna’s, bringing it to life.  Múashna became the companion Wekashna had searched for.

“You have heard the other stories about Wekashna and Múashna, but the Imban do not tell that story,” Ashko finishes.

“Why don’t they tell that story?” Rhoash asks.

“Because they do not understand the touch of two spirits,” he replies.  “When you look into another’s eyes, or touch their bare skin, you connect with their spirit.  You do not feel it with me because you are always touching my spirit.  The same is true of you mother and brothers.  You have a connection with us that can never be broken, so you do not notice the deeper connection when you touch us.”

“Is that why it upsets people when I draw away?  When I tell them I have your gifts?” she asks, hoping for a simple answer.

“Some of them,” he replies with a smile.  “However, I think Thetos misses the closeness he was allowed when you were younger and did not notice these things.  When you were five or six he carried you home from the inn with bloodied knees and a giant lump on your head from a fall out of a tree.  Things like that confuse him now that you shy away from his touch, especially since your brother doesn’t do the same.”

“I just don’t want to pry,” Rhoash replies, lifting her hands up in appeal.  “I don’t want to be alone either,” she adds.

“You won’t be alone,” Ashko assures his daughter.  “You will always have your family,” he adds.  “And I can teach you to shield your mind against the thoughts of others so that you can interact with them normally.  We can work in the evenings when you have no more chores.”

“Will I be able to do more than that if I try?” Rhoash asks, remembering Thetos’ comment.  “Could I use my gifts to help bring in extra money or support myself alone?” she asks, realizing how daring the question is only after she has spoken it.

“Yes, you can make money with your gift.  Lost children, and lost belongings, can be found using your gifts and many will pay handsomely for that,” Ashko responds much to Rhoash’s surprise.  “You can also learn to use your gifts to heal if you can find someone to teach you,” he continues.  “There are many things you can do with your gift.”

“Will mother let me?” Rhoash asks.  My mother wants me to marry; she hopes her father will be on her side.

“Your mother wants you to be happy,” Ashko says, feeling her worry, as he always has.  “Marriage made her happy, so she thinks it can make you happy as well, and it might, but she will never say ‘no’ to you if something will make you happy.”  Rhoash smiles up at her father with hope dancing in her eyes.  “You’ll have to work hard to earn the money for a teacher if that is what you want,” he warns her.

“I will,” she says.  “I’d even work on an estate cooking or cleaning if I could learn to find things or heal people.  I’ll work hard,” she promises.

“All right,” Ashko says with an indulgent smile.  “We’ll talk to your mother tomorrow then,” he adds, standing to leave.  “I think your brother will be wanting another dance,” he adds as Yenko spots them.  Rhoash smiles up at her father and goes willingly when her brother takes her hand and leads her onto the dance floor for the final song of the evening.  Yenko twirls her around the floor laughing.  Today is not my day, but maybe tomorrow could be, she thinks as Yenko lifts her into the air.

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