Reading the Omens Jonathan Helland
A field mouse ran from the shadow of a hawk while the wind blew warm from the west. A slender cloud passed in front of the sun and the wind turned chill. The seer watched. The omens were clear. As they had been yesterday and the day before that. War was coming, and soon.
He turned his face in the direction of the village that raised him and the forests where he learned his craft. A ridge of high hills, not quite mountains, separated him from there. From her.
There were so many unsaid things he wished he could say to her. But how, before the armies fell upon this valley like a spring flood? How, before their two villages became separated by a new border that would remain hostile for a generation?
Perhaps, the omens? She was as skilled a seer as he, but omens were read. They were not written. Not by a man, alone, a valley away.
* * *
They had learned to read the omens together. Side-by-side, they had walked behind the old man along the deer trails and hunter’s paths on the wooded hillsides. They would not fit on those trails today, not side-by-side, since he had grown shoulders and she had grown hips.
“There,” the old man would say as a jackdaw took flight from a dying elm. “There,” he’d say of a cloud the shape of a sleeping bear or the skull of a fox, not quite picked clean by beetles.
Then he’d ask, “what does it mean?” and they would try to tell him.
He would never tell them what they had done wrong, what to do differently, how to read the omens better. Reading them required the weaving together of associations, imagination, and intuition in a way that could be learned but never taught.
By the time they had grown to an age where shoulder and hip had sometimes bumped on the trail, an age where their proximity to each other became a subtle but persistent distraction, they had become so good at their craft they didn’t need to have any thoughts at all. Seeing the omen and knowing its meaning were one and the same act, done in an instant.
It had been this very skill that had undone them. A village does not need two seers to tell them when to plant or to warn them of a coming frost, so he had been sent away to read the omens in the next valley over. He received a cottage of his own and a share of every harvest. The village that raised him and trained him had received a breeding pair of sheep to replenish their flock. She had stayed behind to take over for the old man.
The last time he saw her, they had spoken no words but had read a thousand omens in each other’s bodies. They would meet again, he had thought, at markets and festivals. They would speak then.
But now, he knew, they would not.
* * *
He pondered how he might write an omen that she might read. Not about the coming war or its consequences. She would know those as well as he.
But there would have been no omens to tell her all the other things he’d have her know. How he felt about the distance between them and about the greater separation the war would bring. His willingness to do the unthinkable for her, to betray his new village, his duties and obligations, to run away with her to some other place.
There was a danger, he feared, in thinking too much and too deeply about omens. Would he unlearn the easy way he read them now? Would he kill what dwelt under his mind by uprooting it to examine it with his thoughts?
He would have to create an omen the same way he read them. Unthinkingly, guided by instinct and intuition.
He found a place that reminded him of her. A deer trail on a wooded hillside where, as children, they might once have been able to stand side-by-side. A place full of life where soft green light filtered through the leaves.
A squirrel ran clockwise around an old white oak and warned him of heavy rains and the coming war. A swallow darted after an insect above him and warned him of a hot summer and the coming war. The single muddy footprint of a wolf in his path warned him of a late harvest and the coming war. He ignored them all.
Instead, he made himself feel every fathom that stretched between him and her. Every day apart now stretching before them. All his regrets of things unspoken and his secret hopes that now seemed impossible. And when he felt these things as strongly as he could, he let out a yell, a scream, a howl that carried those feelings into the trees.
At the sound of his scream, a fawn leapt from its hiding place in the nearby brush, and a flock of black birds burst into the air, their wings beating like a hailstorm. He watched as they circled higher and turned east. If they stayed true, she’d see them flying over her valley, or maybe the fawn would wander there and she’d see it drinking from a cold stream, far from its mother. And surely, then, she would read the omen of his heart.
He picked his way back down the trail toward his cottage. He went slowly this time, content. It was almost sunset when a small brown hare paused directly in his path. This, he knew, was the omen of her answer. The hare looked at him but did not flee. It turned back toward the hills and paused, as if inviting him to follow.
PATREON EXCLUSIVE: THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY BY AUTHOR JONATHAN HELLAND
I was living in China, working at an international school, when the pandemic hit. Naturally, this meant that I had to cancel my plans to see my loved ones in the US (including my partner of 11 years) during the summer of 2020, and, though I didn’t know it yet, that I wouldn’t be able to see them over the winter holidays, either. For much of that year, what was on my mind was the question “should I break my contract and leave a job that I love, in order to go home to the people I love.”
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