Authors: T. A. Barron
Once I found myself longing to grow a beard. I imagined a great, flowing beard—the kind an ancient sage, hundreds of years old, might wear. What a beard that was! All curly and white, it covered my face like a mass of clouds. I even suspected that a bird or two might try to nest there.
But such wistful moments never lasted long. Increasingly, I felt gripped by despair. Never again would I climb a tree. Never again would I run freely through a field. Never again would I see Branwen’s face, except in memory.
I began to leave my meals untouched. Despite Branwen’s insistence that I eat more, I had no desire. One morning, she knelt beside me on the stones of our chamber, wordlessly dressing my wounds. As she tried to replace my bandage, I leaned away from her, shaking my head.
“I wish you had left me to die.”
“It was not your time to die.”
“How do you know?” I snapped. “I feel like I’ve died already! This is not a life! This is endless torture. I prefer to live in Hell than to live here.”
She seized me by the shoulders. “Don’t talk that way! It is blasphemy.”
“It is the truth! See what your powers, the ones you called a gift from God, have done for me? Curse these powers! I’d be better off dead.”
I shook free, my heart pounding. “I have no life! I have no name! I have nothing!”
Branwen, swallowing her sobs, began to pray. “Dear Lord, Savior of my soul, Author of all that is written in the Great Book of Heaven and Earth, please help this boy! Please! Forgive him. He knows not what he says. If only you would restore his sight, even a little, even for a while, I pledge to you he will earn your forgiveness. He will never use his powers again, if that is what it takes! Only help him. Please help him.”
“Never use my powers again?” I scoffed. “I would gladly give them up in exchange for sight! I never wanted them anyway.”
Bitterly, I tugged the bandage on my brow. “And what kind of life do you have now? Not much better than mine! It’s true. You may talk bravely. You may fool those nuns out there. But not me. I know you are miserable.”
“I am at peace.”
“That’s a lie.”
“I am at peace,” she repeated.
“At peace!” I shouted. “At peace! Then why are your hands so chafed from all your wringing? Why are your cheeks so stained with your—”
I never finished the sentence.
“Good God,” she whispered.
“I . . . don’t understand.” Hesitantly, I extended a hand toward her face, lightly brushing her cheek.
In that instant, we both realized that I could, somehow,
her tear stains. Though I could not see them with my eyes, I nonetheless knew they were there.
“It is another gift.” Branwen’s voice was full of awe. She clasped my hand tightly. “You have the
I didn’t know what to think. Was this the same ability that I once used to open a flower’s petals? No. It felt different. Less willful somehow. What about seeing the colors inside the flower before it opened? Perhaps. Yet this felt different from that, too. More like . . . an answer to Branwen’s prayer. A gift from God.
“Can it be?” I asked meekly. “Can it really be?”
“Thanks to God, it can.”
“Test me,” I demanded. “Hold up some fingers.”
I bit my lower lip, trying to perceive her fingers.
“No. Try again.”
Focusing my thoughts, I instinctively closed my eyes, though of course that made no difference. After a long pause, I said, “Two hands, not one. Am I right?”
“Right! Now . . . how many fingers?”
Minutes passed. Perspiration formed on my scarred brow, stinging the sensitive skin. But I didn’t waver. At length, I asked a hesitant question.
“Could it be seven?”
Branwen sighed with relief. “Seven it is.”
We embraced. I knew, in that moment, that my life had changed completely. And I suspected that, for the rest of my days, I would continue to ascribe special importance to the number seven.
Most important of all, though, I knew that a promise had been made. It didn’t matter whether it had been made by me, by Branwen, or by us both. I would never again move objects with my mind. Not even a flower petal. Nor would I read the future, or try to master whatever other powers might once have been mine. But I could see again. I could live again.
Right away, I started eating. And hardly stopped—especially if I could get bread-in-milk, my favorite. Or blackberry jam on bread crusts. Or mustard mixed with raw goose eggs, which gave me the added fun of making any nearby nuns ill. One afternoon, Branwen went out to the market and found a single, succulent date—which was, for us, as splendid as a royal feast.
And my spirit revived along with my appetite. I began to explore the hallways, the cloisters, the courtyards of Saint Peter. The whole church was my domain. My castle! Once, when no nuns were about, I stole into the courtyard and took a bath in the shallow pool. The most difficult part was to resist singing at the top of my lungs.
Meanwhile, Branwen and I worked together every day for long hours, trying to sharpen my second sight. For my first practice sessions, we used spoons, pottery bowls, and other ordinary utensils that she found somewhere in the church. In time, I moved on to a small altar with subtle contours and grains in its wood. Eventually, I graduated to a two-handled chalice with intricate carvings on its surface. Although it took the better part of a week, I finally came to read the words inscribed on its rim:
Ask, and ye shall receive.
As I practiced, I realized that I could see objects best if they were stationary and not far away. If they moved too quickly or remained too distant, I often lost them. A flying bird simply melted into the sky.
Furthermore, as the light around me grew dimmer, so did my second sight. At dusk I could see only the blurred outlines of things. I could not see anything at night, unless a torch or the moon pushed back the darkness. Why my second sight should need light at all, I could only wonder. It was, after ail, not like normal sight. So why should darkness smother it? Then again, second sight seemed to be partly inward, and partly outward. Perhaps it relied on what was left of my eyes, in some way I could not comprehend. Or perhaps it required something else, something inside me, which failed to pass the test.
Thus, while second sight was certainly better than no sight at all, it was not nearly as good as the eyesight I had lost. Even in daylight, I could discern only the barest wisps of colors, leaving most of the world painted in variants of gray. So while I could tell that Branwen now wore a cloth veil around her head and neck, and that it was lighter in color than her loose robe, I could not tell whether the veil was gray or brown. I began to forget much of what I had learned about the colors of things since arriving in Gwynedd.
Yet I could accept such limitations. Oh, yes—and gladly. With my emerging ability, I walked to the cloisters or to meals with Branwen. I sat beside a nun and conversed for some time, seeming to look at her with my eyes, without her suspecting that those eyes remained useless. And one morning I actually ran around the courtyard, weaving in and out of the columns, leaping right over the pool.
That time I didn’t hold back my singing.
As my second sight improved, Branwen helped me to read the Latin inscriptions in the religious manuscripts at the church. Strong smells of leather and parchment washed over me every time I cracked open one of those volumes. And the images, stronger still, carried me away—to the flaming chariot of Elijah, the last supper of Jesus, the stone tablets of Moses.
Sometimes, as I pored over those texts, my troubles melted away. I became one with the words, seeing deeds and colors and faces with richness and clarity that I could never see with my eyes. And I came to understand, in a way I never had before, that books are truly the stuff of miracles. I even dared to dream that someday, somehow, I might surround myself with books from many times and many tongues, just as Branwen had once done.
With each passing day, my vision grew a little stronger. One morning I discovered that I could read Branwen’s expression by the curl of her lips and the glint in her eyes. Another morning, as I stood by my window watching the wind toss the branches, I realized that the rustling tree where the cuckoo lived was a hawthorn, broad and dark. And one night I glimpsed, for the first time since before the fire, a star shining overhead.
On the next night, I positioned myself in the center of the courtyard, far from any torches. Low on the northern horizon, a second star glittered. The next night, three more. Then five more. Eight more. Twelve more.
Branwen joined me in the courtyard the following evening. Together we lay on our backs on the stones. With a sweep of her hand, she pointed out the constellation Pegasus. Then, slowly and rhythmically, she told me the tale of the great winged horse. As she spoke, I felt I was soaring through the sky on Pegasus’ broad back. We leaped from one star to another, sailed past the moon, galloped across the horizon.
Every night after that, unless clouds completely covered the sky, Branwen and I lay there under the dome of darkness. As much as I loved reading the church’s manuscripts, reading the manuscript of the heavens thrilled me even more. With Branwen as my guide, I spent my evenings in the company of Cygnus, Aquarius, and Ursa—whose claws raked my back several times. I tied the sails of Vela, swam far with Pisces, marched beside Hercules.
Sometimes, while exploring the stars, I imagined the entire sky shrinking down into a single, glorious cape. In a flash, I would put it on. Deep blue, studded with stars, the cape fell over my back, sparkling as I moved. The stars riding my shoulders. The planets ringing my waist. How I would love to own a cape like that one day!
Yet even as I celebrated, I could not forget how much lay hidden from me. The clouded sky obscured some of the stars; my clouded vision obscured more. Still, the thrill of all I could see far outweighed the frustration with what I could not. Despite the clouds, the stars had somehow never seemed so bright.
And yet . . . there remained a dark place inside of me that even the light from stars could not reach. The ghosts of my past continued to haunt me. Especially what I had done to Dinatius. I still heard his screams, still saw the terror in his eyes, still felt the twisted and useless remains of his arms. When I asked Branwen whether he had survived, she couldn’t say. She only knew that he was still hovering at the edge of death when we had left the village. Still, this much was clear. While he had done plenty to provoke my rage, his brutality could not obscure my own.
On top of that, something else continued to plague me, something deeper than guilt. Fear. About myself, and my dreadful powers. The merest thought of them threw up a wall of flames in my mind, flames that seared my very soul. If I lacked the strength to keep my promise, would I use those powers or would they use me? If, in the grip of uncontrollable rage, I could destroy both a person and a tree with such ease, what else might I one day destroy? Could I annihilate myself completely, as I did my own eyes?
What kind of creature am I, really?
Perhaps Dinatius had been right after all. Perhaps the blood of a demon really did flow through my veins, so that terrible magic could rise out of me at any moment, like a monstrous serpent rising out of the darkest depths of the sea.
And so it was, even in the new brightness of my days, that I remained troubled by the darkness of my own fears. As the weeks passed, my vitality, as well as my vision, continued to grow. Yet my unease continued to grow as well. I knew, down inside, that I could never put my fears to rest—until I somehow learned my true identity.
There came an afternoon when I heard a new sound outside the window of my chamber. Eagerly, I moved closer. By stretching my second sight, I found the source of the sound, nestled among the boughs of the hawthorn tree. I watched and listened for a while. Then I turned back to Branwen, who sat in her customary place on the floor next to my pallet, grinding some herbs.
“The cuckoo has nested in the hawthorn tree.” I spoke with a mixture of certainty and sadness that made Branwen put down her mortar and pestle. “I have watched her—seen her—sitting in the nest every day. She laid her only egg there. She guarded it from enemies. And now, at last, the egg has hatched. The young bird has emerged from the darkness.”
Branwen studied my face carefully before responding. “And,” she asked in a trembling voice, “has the young bird flown?”
Slowly, I shook my head. “Not yet. But very soon he must.”
“Can he not . . .” She had to swallow before trying again. “Can he not stay with his mother for a while longer, sharing their nest for a little more time?”
I frowned. “All things must fly when they are able.”
“But where? Where will he go?”
“In this case, he must find his own self.” After a pause, I added, “To do that, he must find his own past.”
Branwen clutched at her heart. “No. You don’t mean that. Your life will be worth nothing if you go back . . . there.”
“My life will be worth nothing if I stay here.” I took a step toward her. Though my eyes were useless, I probed her with my newfound gaze. “If you cannot, or will not, tell me where I came from, then I must find out myself. Please understand! I must find my true name. I must find my true mother and father. I must find my true home.”
“Stay,” she begged in desperation. “You are only a boy of twelve! And half blind, as well! You have no idea of the risks. Listen to me, Emrys. If you stay with me for just a few more years, you will reach manhood. Then you can choose whatever you want to be. A bard. A monk. Whatever you like.”
Seeing my blank look, she tried a different approach. “Whatever you do, don’t decide right now. I could tell you a story, something to help you think through this madness. What about one of your favorites? The one about the wandering Druid who saved Saint Brigid from slavery?” Without waiting for me to answer, she began. “There came a day in the life of young Brigid when she—”