Walter squinted out at the lake. “I don’t think so.”
“I think he did.”
“Did you see it?” Ellen had the sight, but to Walter’s constant exasperation, she made no distinction between things she saw and things she saw.
He looked at her. Her eyes were on her knitting. “How could you know, Ellen? You’re not even looking at him.”
“I just know.”
“Hogwash.” He resumed his contemplation of the lake. He pointed. “A coupla loons.” He glanced over at her and saw her half smile. “I didn’t say we were the loons.”
Her smile widened. “Did you see the otter?” She pointed with her needle.
“No. Where? Now?” He looked where she indicated.
“No, this morning, early.”
“Why didn’t you say so?” Fifty years they had been married and still she didn’t tell him things right away. She said it wasn’t necessary, because he could see back, but still. He made a swiping motion with his hand and looked into the space he had made, a little viewpoint into the past. His heavy features lightened with pleasure. “Huh. You’re right. Good, maybe there are more.” He watched for a moment, hopefully. They had moved to inland Nunavut to escape the rising sea but had worried about the spread of pollution from the flooded cities. It was still a concern, twenty years later, but an increase in the otter population would be a good sign. “Mmm. Don’t see others.” Disappointed, he closed the vision with a wave. “How did you see it? You don’t get up that early.”
“I do lately.”
“Hogwash. You’ve never been a morning person.”
“I sleep very lightly these days, Walter.”
He looked at her, frowning, worried. “Hog—”
“—wash, I know.” She smiled again, a gentle creasing of her wrinkles. “I know you don’t want me to die. But I’m not afraid.”
“I am.” He muttered it low, but she heard.
Her eyes went back to her knitting. “You’ll be fine.”
He stood abruptly and slammed his hands against the railing. He winced. His hands weren’t as tough as they used to be. And his leg ached. He had broken it falling off the barn roof. She had warned him not to go up there.
“Have you seen me fall?” he had asked her.
“No, I just saw a shadow over you.”
“Well, I’m not going to leave the roof unfixed because of a shadow.”
Now he was using a cane and probably would for the rest of his life. His leg hurt. He was no use to anyone. Getting old was shitty.
They had both aged quickly these last twenty years. They had left the benefits of society behind and had survived with hard work but insufficient health care — just like any other pioneers. Someday, she said, more people with gifts of power would be born into their little community, including seers and healers. Their Inuit-related tribe had always produced them, but sporadically, and no one knew how or why. Their own son was “ungifted” and apparently content to be so.
“I think Julian’s coming back.”
“Oh, good, fish for dinner.” She set her knitting in the basket at her feet. She knitted only a few minutes at a time these days before her hands cramped and she had to stop. “Do you remember when we moved here? You said he’d never be happy out here at the end of the world.”
“And he wouldn’t have been, if Penny hadn’t come.” She had seen the others coming, but she hadn’t been sure there would be someone for Julian. The visions of seers were sporadic, uncontrollable, and sometimes unreliable. The future could be changed. “But she did, and they’ll be marrying soon. They’ll have children.”
“Have you seen it?” He looked down at her frizzy white hair. Her thin, veined brown fingers were like the driftwood twigs on the saltwater beach where they had grown up. That beach had long since disappeared under a rising sea. It had been Ellen and the other seers who had warned their people first, even before the scientists from Down Below. But many had chosen not to listen. Just as he had chosen not to listen to her warning about working on the roof. If you put your hands over your ears and said, “la la la,” all the bad news would go away.
“Some things I know without seeing,” she said.
He barked out a laugh, startling the birds in the garden. “You don’t know. You just — you’re just — an infernal optimist.”
She giggled. That sound took him back. He swiped at the air and smiled at his memory of her, sitting on another deck, long ago, her hair a thick, dark mass caught into a long braid down her back, her slim, clever hands busy making a dreamcatcher.
“Come back here,” she ordered, in the present.
“Why? Why should I?” He rubbed off the tear running down his cheek. With a wave of his hand, he dismissed his hovering vision of the past.
“Because I am still here. And because he needs you.”
He looked down at the beach, where their son was tying the boat up to the dock. “Don’t be silly. He’s done that by himself since he was ten. Besides, I’m no help to him these days.” He tapped the cane hanging on the railing beside him.
She shook her head. “I don’t mean right now. I mean when I’m gone.”
“What about me?” He knew he sounded childish. He couldn’t stop himself. He stared out at the water, not wanting to face her.
She sighed. “It won’t be long —” He could hear the creak of her chair as she shifted.
“Please stop saying that.”
“Let me finish.”
The snap in her voice took him by surprise. He turned around.
“I was going to say,” she continued, “it won’t be long before you join me.”
His hands gripped the railing behind him. He was younger than she was, and stronger, and healthier. His mouth opened, but he couldn’t get any words past his teeth. Everything he thought to say got stuck there, like gristle.
She was looking up at him, calm again, with that calm which had always infuriated and delighted him. At many of the worst times in their years together, she had regarded him with just that expression of peace and a faint sense of humor. He always got the impression she was laughing at him, just a little. He hated it. He loved it.
“I haven’t told you before,” she said softly, “because I wasn’t sure if it would help.”
“What …” He cleared his throat, turned and spat over the railing. “What do you mean by that?”
“Will you miss me enough to be glad to die?”
Silence for a moment while they both listened to these words, and felt them weighing down the air between them.
“Glad to die? Why would anyone be glad to die?”
“I am.” She smiled sadly. “I’m tired and in pain all the time. You know this.”
“Yes, but —”
“I know. You want me to ‘rage.’ But, you see, I know the light isn’t dying.” She waited a moment. “We can talk about this later, if you want to.”
“If I want to? If I want to?”
Their son came up to the porch, carrying his basket of fish. He considered each of their faces in turn and sighed. “You’ve upset him again, Mother.” He bent down and kissed her cheek.
“It’s what I do,” she said. “Are we having salmon for dinner?”
“Indeed. How would you like me to fix it?”
“Brushed with dill and butter, please, Julian.”
“Yes, that sounds lovely.”
“Father, you look like a plum. Do you want some salmon, too?”
“She … she …” Walter tried to unclench his jaw, then grabbed his cane and stomped down the stairs and across the garden to the beach.
“I’ll take that as a yes.” Julian turned to his mother. “What did you say?”
“I told him I’m dying. Which you both already know.” She smiled up into his brown eyes. “You will marry that girl soon, won’t you?”
He squatted next to her and took her hand. “You know I will. But that isn’t why he was so upset.”
“No,” she sighed. “I told him something I probably shouldn’t have. I probably shouldn’t tell you, either. I hope you get married soon.”
“Yes, so you’ve said, even though you’ve also told me that we will.”
She touched his broad cheek. “Seeing the future and being sure it will come to pass do not always go together. Especially when one’s emotions are involved. The observer influences what she observes, and not always for the better.”
“Yes, Mother,” he said. “Come to the kitchen and tell me how much dill to use.” He stood and held his hand out to her. She took it and stood, slowly and with a grimace of pain. “Shall I make you some of your tea?”
The kitchen was made of split pine, as was the furniture. It had been the first room they had built and was still her favorite. Walter had done almost all the work by himself. Ellen had spent most of her time establishing the garden, while Julian fished and hunted small game to sustain them. It had been hard, and lonely for Julian. Ellen had seen that more people would join them, but she had not seen any particulars. She had been optimistic, but not sure, that there would be a wife for Julian. She was still optimistic, but not sure, that there would be some with the genetic trait which resulted in powers. It had always been a fickle and unpredictable occurrence in their far northern part of the world.
As Julian settled her at the kitchen table, Ellen said, “He will be tempted to look into the past. All the time.” She rubbed the worn wooden surface, scarred from years of hard use.
“Yes, I know.” He put the kettle on and got out her favorite mug.
“You must not let him.”
“Yes, I know.”
She scowled up at him. “You know, for the first time I understand what your father means when he says I’m too agreeable.”
“That’s good!” he exclaimed, falsely hearty. “A real breakthrough in your relationship.”
“I don’t appreciate this new sarcasm, either.” She rubbed her aching hands.
“Do you want an extra teaspoon of willow bark?”
“Yes.” He put the mug in front of her, and she sat back and sipped her tea, remembering. She and Walter had come here when Julian was thirteen, and they had been alone then. She had enjoyed that, the solitude. Seeing the future for three was much easier than seeing it for a village.
“Feel better?” asked Julian after a bit. He had cleaned the fish and was slicing it. She admired the sure movements of his big, brown hands. She had always hoped her vision of only one child would turn out to be untrue. “Mother?” Julian turned around.
“Yes. Yes, I am. Just remembering.” The others had trickled into this valley, settled here on the shore of their little, landlocked lake. Walter was right. Julian had been much happier when Penny had arrived with her little sister.
Julian smiled. “That’s Dad’s job.”
“Yes. I used to be a little jealous of that.”
Julian put down his filet knife and washed his hands. “Jealous? Of Dad? Why?”
“Of seeing the past. So much more comfortable than seeing the future.”
“But not as useful.” He drizzled melted butter with lemon across the filets.
She shook her head. “That depends on the circumstances. Your father still has a part to play.” Julian glanced at her, surprised. “At any rate,” she continued, “people often enjoy remembering the past. They don’t really want to know the future. They think they do, but they don’t. Even good visions seldom turn out to be what you think they’ll be.”
Julian sprinkled dill on the salmon. “Enough?”
He smiled. “I better plant more dill.” He crumbled and sprinkled the herb, put the salmon in the oven, and sat down at the table beside her. “I’m pretty sure Dad’s been jealous of you.”
“I know. Are you sorry you weren’t gifted, Julian? You were angry about it when you were young. Then, when you were about twenty, you told me you were glad your life wasn’t complicated by, I think you called it, ‘hocus pocus.’ How do you feel these days?”
“I feel I have enough to take care of with a regular life, and I don’t know how you ever managed to balance your sight with everything else.”
“I don’t either.”
They heard voices outside. “That sounds like Penny,” said Julian, surprised. “And Maria.”
“I don’t think there’s enough salmon for five. You’d better make some pilaf.”
Walter entered, looking much happier than he had thirty minutes before. “I found treasure.” He ushered in the two young women, both stocky, dark-haired, and round-cheeked. The elder went immediately to Julian and kissed him.
The younger went to Ellen and examined her carefully. “How are you?” she asked, her tone much older than her eleven years.
Penny turned in Julian’s arms and said, “Maria insisted we come. I’m sorry to intrude so close to dinner.”
“You know you’re always welcome,” said Julian. “Help me make some pilaf and join us in eating it.”
Ellen faced the serious child with an equally intent gaze. “I am fine, Maria. Are you well?” Wisps of fine, black hair obscured the little girl’s brow. Ellen brushed them back, gently smoothing out the furrows. “Did you see something, sweetheart?” Her quiet question seeped out into the room, a ripple of change.
Walter straightened up with an involuntary, “No.” Ellen made a shushing gesture towards him.
Maria’s chin trembled. “I saw you sick. I saw you — gone.”
Walter sat down heavily. Julian, who had been checking the fish, turned around, blinking steam out of his eyes. Penny put a hand to her chest and murmured, “Ohhh.”
“It’s all right, Maria,” said Ellen calmly. “I know all about it. It’s all right.” Maria sobbed and threw her arms around Ellen, who hugged her tightly, suppressing a grimace of pain as the child squeezed her. “Shh, shh, shh. Shh, shh, shh.”
Ellen refused to discuss it until everyone had eaten. She ate very little these days herself but refused to see freshly grilled salmon sit untouched. The pilaf never happened, but they made do with leftover cornbread and salad. Ellen sipped her tea and prayed for strength.
“Now can we talk?” Walter pushed his plate away. “Did you see this, Ellen? Couldn’t you have warned us that Maria would develop the sight?”
“You know I don’t see everything. I can’t demand it.” Ellen turned to Maria. “This is a difficult thing that you have been called to do. I wish I could say different words to you. I wish I could promise to always be here to help you through.” She shook her head. “I cannot.”
“Do I have a choice?” whispered Maria. Her eyes were the color of the split pine walls.
“No. The visions will come. But you will have guidance in how to deal with them.”
“And who will be doing that?” demanded Walter.
Ellen smiled, almost laughed. “You will.” She looked around the table. “You all will.”
Julian and Penny were holding hands, Penny’s eyes shining with tears. “How, Ellen? How can I possibly help her with this?”
“Well, you’ve made a good start by falling in love with my son. He has a lifetime of watching me process visions.”
Julian tilted his head inquiringly and opened his mouth.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Ellen,” burst out Walter. “Watching isn’t enough.”
Ellen turned and lifted one hand to touch his cheek. “I know how hard all of this is for you. But you must be strong and courageous. For Maria.”
Walter glanced at the child and lowered his eyes. “I just don’t understand,” he muttered.
“I think Mom can explain things, Dad.” Julian rolled his eyes. “She’s just doing it in her own good time, as usual.” He glanced around. “That was supposed to make you all smile.”
Penny tried to smile at him. “Maybe… maybe Maria should go out and say hello to the goats for a few minutes,” she suggested.
Maria looked at her sister, torn, desperate to escape all this tension, but also desperate to know.
“Let us figure things out, chick, then we’ll talk, okay?” said Penny gently.
Maria’s face lightened. “Okay.” She touched Ellen’s arm gently. “You’ll be okay?”
“Oh, yes, sweetheart, I’ll be right here for a while yet.”
Maria stood up, hugged Ellen again, and rushed out the back door.
The adults drew breath. Penny sobbed, Walter cursed. Julian hugged his fiancee and said, “Am I right in assuming that Dad is going to be remembering a lot over the next few days?”
Ellen smiled. “Are you sure you don’t have the sight?”
“Ellen, please.” Walter closed his eyes. “When you foresaw the flooding, it was so —” he searched for words “— so hard to cope. How are the three of us going to be able to help a child like Maria if she should have a vision as difficult as — as that was — without you?”
“You’ll have my memories, Walter. You and I are going to make sure you have everything you need.”
They began the next morning, while they were still in bed. Walter opened a window into the past, and she helped him find the memories she believed would help Maria. He had not often been called to use his gift in this way; he had to “mark” the remembrances so that he would be able to find them again, when they were needed. After her death.
They began with Ellen’s earliest recollections of her own first visions. Her parents had found a seer to help her understand and develop her gift. There had been hundreds of people in the community they had grown up in, and several seers. Their warnings about the crisis to come had not been appreciated. When the sea level began to rise, and the visionaries told people they would have to give up their homes and their saltwater lives, some had turned on the seers. Walter and Ellen and their young son had fled from the violence of their panicked neighbors.
In this new little village, which now homed fewer than a hundred people, Ellen and Walter had been the only gifted ones. Until now.
After breakfast, they continued their work. “You know,” said Ellen, “there may be another child out there. One with your gift. There’s never been any predicting it. Even for those with the sight.”
They were sitting on the porch again, watching their son working in the garden. He was harvesting for a feast. The wedding date had been brought forward. Ellen had told them it needed to be, if she were to attend.
Walter grunted. “Let me get this one sorted first.” He pulled his chair closer to hers and swiped at the air. “Here’s when you were fifteen, and you saw your grandmother’s death. I was with you that day. You cried a lot. I was only twelve, and I didn’t know what to do.”
Ellen smiled. “You did fine. You took me to Megan, which was just what I needed.”
“Yes, see, that’s what I mean. We don’t have a Megan to take Maria to. We won’t have you.” His voice cracked.
“Yes, you will, Walter. You’ll be able to take Maria to Megan. She’ll get a vision of Megan, so she’ll hear exactly what I heard. You and Julian and Penny just need to provide the physical part. Hug her and kiss her and tell her everything will be fine.”
“Everything won’t be fine.”
“Yes, it will. It may take a while, but it will.”
“You’re an infernal optimist.”
“A cockeyed optimist!” she sang, with only a slight tremor in her voice, “I’m only a cockeyed optimist, immature and incurably green!”
They didn’t have movies anymore, but sometimes Walter opened a window to the past and played one for her. (“A blasted parlor trick,” he called it.)
“You’ve never been immature,” he said. “Not even when you were fifteen.”
“I just didn’t seem so to you, because three years younger is such a lot in teen years.”
Walter sighed and marked the memory. “What comes next?”
Ellen’s eyes sparkled mischievously. “I foresaw our first night together.”
“But didn’t tell me about it.”
“Well, not then. How could I? You were just fourteen, and I was a very sophisticated seventeen. I went straight to Megan and begged her to tell me the future could be changed.”
He paused in opening the window to this memory and said, “You never told me that part.”
“No?” She closed her eyes. “Well, it was a bit much, you know. Walter, I think you and Julian and Penny should review these memories together — before they are needed. I think it will help you to help Maria if you are all forewarned about how it may go.”
“And what if it doesn’t go this way?”
“All the more reason to be forewarned. Oh, Walter, it will be close enough. Young women mature along a fairly predictable timeline. Megan managed.”
“Megan had the sight!” Walter pounded his fist on the arm of his chair. His raised voice caused his son to look up from his work in the garden.
Ellen groaned and seemed to shrink in her chair. “Walter, what can I say? This is the best I can do.”
He slid out of his chair and knelt at her feet. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I’m sorry. I’m just so frightened, Ellie.”
She stroked his white hair, still so thick and soft. “I know. But Walter, you’re so much stronger than you think you are. There’s never been a time when you weren’t able to do what was needed.”
In bed that night, he held her gently. “Tell me,” he said slowly.
“Tell me why you begged Megan to change the future. I mean, I saw what you said to her, but still —” She shook in his arms. “Are you laughing?” he demanded.
“Yes. I’m sorry.” She kissed his chest. “I had never had sex, Walter. I had never even kissed a boy.”
“Well, I should hope not. Whom would you kiss?”
“You didn’t kiss —”
“I am not going to discuss with you who I did or did not kiss before we were married.” She was shaking with laughter again. “Not at this stage of my life. My point is, that seeing the experience of an orgasm with a boy who was, to me at that time, a snotty fourteen-year-old, was an existential shock. I panicked. And Megan helped me, as always, and she will help Maria, too, if such a thing should happen to her.”
“Oh,” said Walter with a groan. “Oh, Ellie, I really, really can’t handle this.”
“Yes, you can.”
“No, no, I can’t.”
“Yes, yes, you can.” She tickled him and he jerked. “If it makes you feel any better, I’ve seen you dead before Maria is seventeen. That’s why you need to be sure to share all the remembrances with Julian and Penny.”
He stared into the darkness. “No, no, I don’t believe that makes me feel any better.” His arms tightened gently around her. “But… it doesn’t make me feel any worse, either.” He sounded surprised.
“Hogwash.” Her voice smiled in the dark. “You’ll rage. When I see you again, I’ll know you immediately, because your spirit will be plum-colored.”
“Have you seen that?”
“No.” She shook her head, her wispy hair brushing his chest. “But I can depend on you, Walter. In all the chaos we’ve endured, I’ve always known you would be there for me, raging on my behalf.”
He smiled. “Well. I can handle that.”