The fifth summer of the fortieth Cycle of the Leopard.
The beginning of the fourth pass of the moon, Caresight,
in the second summer pass of the moon, Rambler.
The traveller, Oracle, stopped walking; the words in its head commanded it. It was a few paces from a reaping band, which stood under the shade of an oak tree at a field’s edge, preparing to attack the crop of wheat with scythe and binding twine.
It looked blankly in their direction. It did not recognise the smell of wood smoke from their cooking fire, nor understand the reason behind the laughter of the women, as they discussed their men-folk. Oracle was only aware at this moment of the power of the words brimming in its mind.
Oracle raised a hand and pushed back its straw hat from a sun-marked brow. The golden field mouse nesting in the hat’s bowl was dislodged, chattering. It ignored its travelling companion’s complaints and cupped a hand to its sun-parched lips.
“Reapers; send dogs into wheat. There be wild boar and young sleeping.” The words were halting, measured, Oracle physically shaking with the effort not to stutter. It knew it had time to speak these words; there was no rush, no fear that the words would go unheeded by those they were meant for. No pulling of arms or screaming against the tide of reluctance to acknowledge or see.
The event was a normal one, not one that would shatter the lives of those to whom Oracle spoke. The words could be said plainly. Not gasped out in madness, as the words warred with the need of the future to hide.
The master reaper raised his hand to shield his eyes and peered through the sun’s glare at the figure on the dusty path close by. Oracle knew even through the haze of the frothing words that it had become the subject of inspection. The man’s expression reflected his thoughts: a beggar, footloose tramp, advising him, a Master Reaper, on the fine points of his work. He began to spit out a stream of curses, when the pulling on his arm of his wide-hipped wife alerted him to the nature of the tramp’s features. Its eyes were colourless, as if the visions flashing behind them had bleached the humanity out. The master reaper’s curses turned to burbled words. “You’re a Glimpser? You see what will be?”
“I, Oracle,” Oracle replied, scuffing the dirt road with its right clog. Small eddies rose, surrounding the Glimpser in a small dusty cloud. “Send dogs, drive out boar to left. Set nets there. None harmed and meat sweet. Weather hold for three more days, you time for reaping here.” Oracle added in a rush, stuttering, beating the question waiting on the master reaper’s tongue. A sudden fear had gripped the small Glimpser that if it did not say the words quickly something would happen it had not seen.
Now that the words had been spoken to whom they made sense Oracle sighed softly with relief, deciding it could return to walking. It pulled the hat back into place. Its shoulders shrugged, easing the pack straps on sore flesh. Oracle’s feet moved again in the direction of the bustling settlement seated in the oxbow of the river, which flowed alongside the road. The words demanded the journey must be continued and Oracle obliged.
“Hold… We… I, thank you,” the master reaper called, his voice tinged with relief, as he waved his wife forward to pay for the small service given by Oracle.
The rosy-cheeked woman blinked and gulped. She then bent down and rooted in a wide, shallow basket by her feet. Parcels of muslin were unwrapped, inspected and closed. The woman huffed and finally decided on two items. She straightened; glanced at her husband, who nodded.
The woman moved from his side and crossed over the small ditch that lined the field. In a flurry of flapping skirts she made her way towards Oracle, bottle of ale and harvest pie in hand. As she closed with the small figure, the released dogs gave tongue in the depths of the rippling, sun-kissed, ripened wheat.
Sharp whistles directed the dogs’ attack. Grunts, squeals and the swaying of the crop heralded the boars’ attempts to escape, but as Oracle had said, the sow and her half-grown litter burst from the cover of the wheat into the nets. Here on the rim of the field men sliced with scythes and clubbed with sticks.
One piglet squealing with fear sought to escape. It flattened its small body to the gore-covered ground and wriggled under the edge of one of the nets. It managed to claw its way up the side of the ditch, dashing between the legs of a reaper. The man pivoted at the hip; his right arm snapped across his body and he felled the small black creature with a stout blow from a scythe.
The body of the piglet shuddered gently, as the man pulled his scythe free. A rivulet of blood bubbled and bounced through the dust, gushing in a thin trickle across Oracle’s path. The sun glinting on the small river of blood caught the downcast eyes of the Glimpser. Oracle watched with a puzzled expression, as the liquid coloured the side of its clogs.
The words hammered behind Oracle’s eyes, showing the creature myriad visions of the future. Its lips began to move. “Blood, dark… ground and polished boards stained, hack and slash… time, Oracle… hurry… get there… Pugh… death in the dark… train… trick… bones… mountain home… sails in the water… guns in the air.” The syllables frothed from Oracle’s mouth, mirroring the fear bubbling in its mind, that it could be too late, and miss the juncture that had filled its soul these last few cycles of the large moon, Rambler.
The poor reaper woman looked on in shock at the shuffling, mumbling figure before her on the dusty track. She stepped forward; her eyes flickering from the pool of pig blood round the Glimpser’s feet, to the face of the creature.
The woman’s presence penetrated the rough veil covering Oracle’s vision and it was aware that interaction with another living creature was expected. The reaper woman pushed the ‘payment’ into Oracle’s extended hands and picked up her skirts, fleeing back to her husband.
Oracle forgot the red footprints it had trailed in the dust and the words of destruction it had uttered. It stared at the goods in its hands, then at the wobbling rear of the woman. Oracle frowned; the words had been spat out and left behind. The Glimpser was only now aware of an answer to satisfying the growling of its empty belly. A soft word of thanks was whispered, but the woman did not hear it.
The Glimpser continued on its journey, shifting the pie and tucking it under an arm, while it placed the top of the bottle in its mouth, teeth working at the cork. The bung came out of the twisted green bottle with a soft ‘plop’. Oracle spat the cork out and watched it bounce across the track and vanish down the river bank.
A moorhen rose, crying its annoyance at the cork’s passage. Oracle watched the bird settle back down into the green reeds, as it bit at the pie. It munched on the fresh pastry, savouring the meaty filling, washing each mouthful down with the sun-warmed ale.
The blood that had trickled across the path soon dried in the hot afternoon sun, as did the ale Oracle spilt on its ragged shirt as it guzzled the beer. The Glimpser licked each crumb of the pie off its fingers and shook the bottle well. A look of sadness at the end of the contents passed across Oracle’s face before the twisted glass container fell from its hand, abandoned on the roadside.
The Glimpser blinked its colourless eyes and felt the pull of the words; it knew it must move on. Time pulled at it, telling the creature that it had a purpose for living and being here. It must fulfil both, it must hurry. Oracle picked up the pace of its steps, shifting the hat on its head so the wide brim shaded its neck. A soft sigh escaped Oracle’s ale-stained lips and the thought that one day it might be allowed to stop and be different died in its mind as soon as it was born.
The fields, now on Oracle’s right, were black, barren, stripped of their golden harvest. The stubble left behind put to the torch days ago, the land now silently awaiting the coming of winter. Oracle’s only company as it trudged by the riverside was the harvest mouse. The small creature had wandered to the edge of the hat and was stripping kernels of wheat from the ears.
The hat had been woven from a small sheaf of wheat the Glimpser had found on the track. It had fallen, no doubt, from a harvest wagon at the end of day, when the cut wheat had been transferred to the farmyard for threshing.
Oracle had spent one warm evening sitting on the edge of a wheat field, weaving the protective covering for its head. During the following night the harvest mouse had taken up residence. Perhaps the mouse had sensed that the following day the wheat would be harvested and its home lost, or maybe it had decided to join Oracle on its adventure.
As much as it pondered anything, Oracle had thought on this when it found the small golden creature living in its hat. The mouse’s small black eyes had looked into the sparkling, colourless ones of Oracle and some connection had been made.
Each night now the Glimpser wove additional stalks of wheat into the hat, providing food for its companion and increasing the brim. The hat set down with care when Oracle rested close to a hedge or field, just in case the mouse decided it had travelled far enough and wanted to stay again in one place.
The hot afternoon drew closer to warm evening. Oracle’s shadow shimmered in the heat. On the sluggish flow of the river a barge crept up alongside the Glimpser. The boat was being poled upstream to the large town lying on the wide oxbow. Oracle's feet on the dusty track, as it now approached the tangle of buildings draped in the shifting summer haze, kept pace with the rough chant of the pole men.
Heave and swing.
Heave and swing.
Make you mine;
Heave and swing.
Bill and Coo;
Heave and swing.
Turn you around;
Heave and swing
Spank your bottom;
Till you squeal;
The row of ten men swapped sides in a clatter of metal-tipped clogs on wood, as they worked the heavily laden barge against the slow, but powerful current. The brightly painted bow of the vessel trembled with each measured thrust of the poles, as if reluctant to disturb the hotchpotch of reflections set on the greenish-blue surface.
Slowly, in unison, Oracle and the barge crept into the edge of the town, what remained of the village it once was. Half-timbered houses, each one leaning on their neighbour, lined one side of the river road. The windows stood open to allow the summer air to refresh the rooms.
Children played in the street, unmindful of the sun’s heat. Their cherry-red faces were split with laughter, as they jumped the turned rope, counting out their future in rhyme. The sound harmonised with the song of the bargemen, and brought a smile to the face of the old woman sat by her door.
Oracle did not notice the glances its arrival brought from the inhabitants. Nor that for the few moments it took to walk past the children, they stopped their play, their bare feet shuffling, unsure.
Then, the game resumed as Oracle faded from their minds and sight. Only the old woman broke into the Glimpser’s self-created oblivion. Woman and Glimpser exchanged looks and the woman’s lined face creased even more, as she gave the creature a toothless smile and said, “Aye, I know.”
“Aye,” Oracle replied, and for the space of a few heartbeats, became human rather than the creature of the words. “May your going be easy…”
“It will, it will, near done here,” the woman answered and turned her gaze from the Glimpser to one of the girls who turned the heavy skipping rope with the deft, sure movements of youth.
Oracle shifted the pack on its back, feet increasing in pace. A hop forward and half trot replaced the measured tread. The words pounded their need behind Oracle’s temples; time was getting short.
The grassy bank of the riverside had given way to a raised wooden platform leading down to a forest of jetties. Here men and women unloaded and loaded barges, human chains shifting goods from water to land and back again.
The dust road under Oracle’s feet had turned to well-set cobbles and the clatter of horses’ hooves mingled with the creak of wagon wheels. Oracle was now nearing the centre of the settlement.
The older, half-timbered buildings had given way to brick built warehouses and small factories surrounded by the back-to-back terraced houses of their workers. The remains of the old had been pushed aside by the new. Over the new a haze of coal smoke lay. Fragmented and teased apart by the bright sun, it covered all with a layer of grime, which would grow thicker as the summers went by. Industry, steam driven, was the new God and it ruled here, binding man to it as firmly as the harvest did the reaper band.
Oracle pushed its way through the increasing crowds of people. All were about their business, scurrying in and out of the shops and factories, which lined the side of the river. No children playing on these streets, only young apprentices running on their masters’ errands, faces pale, soot-smeared, with eyes nearly as wide as Oracle’s.
The small Glimpser looked down towards the river through the crowd, sensing a journey’s end. The pole men ceased their song and moved to the rear and port side of the vessel. Sweat dripped from their brows and muscles bulged in shoulders, as they began to turn the wide-bottomed ‘lady’ in their charge towards the jetties. Again a chant filled the air, different this one, cut not by the smooth strokes of the poles into the water, but by the grunts of the men, as the barge’s nose came round.
“Ale on tap;
Pole on a side.
Drink it down;
Pole at the rear.
All in one;
Nose her round.
Fill her up;
The barge owner bellowed halt and the bow of the barge came completely round. It cut through a haze of flies dancing low over the water, as it slipped towards a space on one of the crowded piers. The flies buzzed in irritation and tumbled up over the planked path. Workers cursed and batted at the small invaders.
Oracle watched the small winged creatures as they zigzagged towards it, skittering round its sun-browned calves. “Flies, summer flies, winter flies, bloated on bodies, bloated on death. Train… trick… pick … bones… hack and slash. Curse me… you, him, curse all, turn the world on its HEAD!” Oracle screamed the words at no one, as it began to run towards a plume of black smoke curling over a large building set close to the docks.