Librarian of Alexandria

The Dead Eye

Káffaśwerṯal son of Yasmáśfa son of Twérvali lay on the ground in front of the tea-house for half an hour before anyone found him, as it was the festival of Ótśimay1 and all were enjoying the kavvára-tea traditional at that time. This was one of the Hígal frontier towns, near the shores of the great seas, and it was common for unruly sailors to pass idly through the town, stinking of wilímvye-wine and the smoke of faraway lands; so when someone saw the body, the patriarch Sávv of the East shouted, "Curse the sailors! Let him be; as long as he is disorderly, let the Three Deaths taunt him in his stupor."

Young orphan Náfa dashed out anyway and looked at the body, despite Sávv's brazen shouting. "It is Káffaśwerṯal!" she shouted, and all, including the patriarch, ran out to see what was the matter. Náfa, with great effort, pushed him over and looked at his face.

"His eye is dead!" she shouted.

"Kewedjjí," Sávv said in the tongue of the East2. "Ridiculous. How can an eye die and leave its owner alive?" But he saw that it was true; one of his eyes was a beautiful, bright green, but the other had faded to a sphere the color of wet stone, cloudy and empty.

The priestess of the town spoke some words in the Old Language and all bowed. Káffaśwerṯal began to stir, and the patriarch knelt by him and spoke to him.

"Káffaśwerṯal," Sávv asked, "where have you been? And what has happend to your eye?"

Káffaśwerṯal blinked and turned to the patriarch. "Where have they gone? Where is the red-bearded man?" he grasped the shoulder of the patriarch, and fell back on the ground. The people brought him to Hermit Bezén on the edge of the town, who was (for all intents and purposes) the guardian of Náfa, as she was constantly there despite his half-hearted attempts to convince her to live at the temple instead. She led the way with a purposeful march as his body was moved on a wooden cart to the courtyard and laid on a pile of dry grass under a tree.

Bezén, who was a Heretic3, walked outside his house and hobbled on a polished wooden stick whose handle had been worn down from years of use. His head was uncovered. "Who is this man you have brought, little fly?"

"This is Káffaśwerṯal, the grocer," Náfa said, "and he has a dead eye. He fell down outside of the tea-house and asked for the red-bearded man."

Bezén regarded him closely, and knelt in front of him. "His hair is of a golden color; he must be from the West Across The Sea."

"He was born in the village," the patriarch said, being careful to stand outside the entrance of the courtyard. "He is more Hígal than I."4

Bezén disappeared into the fabric that covered his door, and returned with a cup filled with boiled léśtra-water5, and put it to the sick man's lips. Much of it ran down his neck and onto his cloak, but he did drink some and moaned. Bezén nodded. "I shall take him in, then, until he is clean to visit the village once again."

The patriarch stood with his hands crossed over the symbols displayed on the chest of his cloak. "You, Bezén, are welcome also to visit—"

"No." Bezén stood. "Go back to your gods. I will stay with him. You too, little insect," he said to Náfa. She stuck out her lip but walked back with the patriarch to have more tea.

It was several days until the people in the town heard again of the man with the dead eye; Náfa ran into town from the hermit's hut, telling them all of Káffaśwerṯal and that he walks once again.

"For a day, he would not move, and only stirred on occasion, to ask where the red-bearded man had gone. But the next day, he sat up and spoke to Bezén, and asked for Śimáxts grains and water, and Bezén brought them from his garden and asked him what had happend."

"What happened to him?" people crowded around to ask. "Why did he get a dead eye?"

"Bezén made me leave," Náfa said, "and I did not hear all of it. But I heard him say that he was in the woods on his way to Suráv to buy medicine when he was stopped by a red-bearded man who was trying to find the Dyufázza6. When Káffaśwerṯal said that word, Bezén made me leave."

The people were confused, as they had not heard that word before; but Sávv the patriarch nodded and climbed the hill outside of the town to speak with the Heretic and Káffaśwerṯal. Náfa ran behind him, but even her running could not keep up with the long, swift strides of the old white-bearded man.

"Náfa told me of Káffaśwerṯal's story, or what she heard of it," Sávv said once he had been welcomed in to the courtyard. Káffaśwerṯal was sitting in the shade, and he clasped an older walking-stick in his hand, but he no longer appeared ill, and color had returned to his face. His eye was still a dull gray. Bezén stood by the tree with a mortar and pestle and was mashing grains into a pulp for flatbreads.

"I sent her away after he mentioned the Dyufázza," Bezén said.

"I have heard that name," Sávv said with a slow, measured cadence. "I have never heard good said of it."7

"There is no good in it," Bezén said, and nodded to Káffaśwerṯal, who began to speak quietly, after Náfa had been sent to the village to buy fruits.

"I had not heard it before I saw the red-bearded man," Káffaśwerṯal said. "He and I found an inn on the way to Suráv and stayed, and he asked me what I knew about it. I told him—truthfully—that I did not know what it was, and he told me that he was a man of many evil things. He told me that in his youth he joined a gang of thieves and murderers and that his crimes were so many that even they eventually forced him to leave.

"He also told me that he invoked the gods constantly during this time and that his prayers fell of deaf ears. The gods, he said, would not grant him favors, and if his prayers came true, it was because they would have come true anyway. One night, when he had been arrested and was lying alone in a flooding jail cell in the summer rains, he cursed the gods so much his voice became hoarse.

"Upon waking, he found two beasts in his cell, beasts he had never seen before. One was old and sickly and its skin hung like curtains from its shaking bones, the other was strong and muscled and twitched when it moved as though it could not bear the thought of not striking the next moment. Both circled him for a time, and then they leapt at him—both, even the sickly one—and he recoiled, and then opened his eyes to find them both gone."

Káffaśwerṯal began to cough, and Bezén and Sávv brought him in to the Heretic's house and sat him down on a bedroll and waved scented bags near him, and his coughing began to cease. He continued.

"After that point, whenever he would pray, his prayers would be not unanswered, but actively thwarted. If he prayed for rain, the sun would shine; if he prayed for sun, it would rain; if he prayed for a woman, none would appear; if he prayed for solitude, all would surround him. If he prayed for something he did not desire, his trick was seen through by the gods—they would peer into his heart and see what he truly wished, and send whatever that was not.

"He told me this had happened twenty years ago, and that he constantly wished for death, which of course would not happen as long as he wished for it. He had decided to find the Dyufázza, which he told me was the one place that one could be severed from the gods."

He stopped here, and his lone eye seemed to fail to focus, and he mouthed words to the air, as though speaking inaudibly to a being none of them could see. He turned back to Sávv and continued.

"I agreed to accompany him on his journey, and we walked over three of the ranges of the midlands to find this place, which he said was a temple older than any building in this land. We finally came across a stone structure, round and covered in writing I did not understand, and he stood in front of it and shouted to the skies, demanding that he be granted an audience here.

"I turned and two beasts surrounded me—one gaunt, and one muscled, just as he had described—and glared at him. He fell to his knees and asked, and then demanded, and then begged, to be released from whatever curse plagued him. The beasts shook their heads. He asked if he needed a sacrifice, and they shook their heads.

"'I'll sacrifice whatever you'd like!' he said to them, 'I'll sacrifice this man here, the only man to pity me in my life!' And he took a knife from his belt and lunged at me, shouting, 'You will see death! You are my sacrifice!' And then he stumbled and fell, and the beasts stood on either side of him and devoured him, beginning with his feet and ending at his neck, leaving only his head. And yet he did not die; his head turned to me and cursed me, saying, 'This is your doing! Sacrifice, if I had cut your throat, it would be you being devoured in my place!'"

Here he stopped for a long while and sat, looking away into the distance, as though thinking quite painfully. Then he continued.

"The beasts turned to me as the red-bearded man continued shouting, and they spoke to me, although I do not know how. The gaunt one said to me, 'You have been named as a sacrifice. By the laws of the land, you must see death. It would be best that you close your eye.' And at this, I became unconscious; when I arose, I was alone at the stone circle, and I could not see out of one eye.

"I perceived that it was somehow closed, although my eyelids were clearly open; I felt as though some part of my soul was keeping it closed. As I walked back, deliberately not seeking out the red-bearded man, I tried to open that eye, but only a bit, as I recalled—as though an awful dream—the admonition of the beasts. When I was sleeping in the woods, barely half a day's walk from our village, I awoke and became overtaken with curiosity and finally opened the eye."

He muttered to an unseen interlocutor, and continued. "I cannot describe what I saw, but I shall say that I believe it to be the foundations of our world. It was not unlike the backstage of a play; and while we in the audience see palaces and hovels and all manner of places when we look, backstage a multitude of forms are made apparent, and things are seen to be flat and insubstantial. It was the death and life beyond the truth of the world, and it was as though all the truth of your life had been stripped away, and all those close to you had been shown to be merely actors following a script for your convenience, except that the universe itself was this way. I had seen death."

They were silent for a long time. Sávv spoke again. "Is your eye now open?"

"No," Káffaśwerṯal said. "I do not believe I can open it again and remain here, for it would shape my spirit in such a way that I could not remain with my body and mind intact. I shall attempt to keep my eye closed for as long as I can. I have seen death once; perhaps I can avoid seeing it until it cannot be put off."

Sávv and Bezén shared tea with Káffaśwerṯal for a bit and spoke only of pleasant, idle things, and then Sávv returned to the village to help Náfa bring things back. Káffaśwerṯal regained his strength gradually and began to return to the grocery, working slowly and methodically carrying goods and no longer taking the trips they used to ask of him.

A few months later, neither Sávv nor Bezén were surprised when he disappeared.

  1. Ótśimay is the Hígal deity of the winds; his festival was traditionally associated with the drinking of kavvára steeped in warmed vradmyór-milk, which was a mild stimulant, and various dances and traditional songs. It was a relatively minor festival, and not all celebrated it, choosing to work instead. 

  2. Sávv is clearly a Malakéd immigrant of some kind, who was elected patriarch for a period of some years (as most Hígal towns do.) The tongue of the East is Malakéd, and the word keweddjí actually refers to the shedded skin of native birds, and is a mild oath with a meaning roughly like "bullshit." 

  3. A Heretic (aśbwárku) is, in modern Hígal, synonymous with 'atheist,' but at this point it would have referred to anyone who does not observe orthodox Nexnévenal. Given Bezén's attitude later in the story, it is clear that he is not an atheist, but believes in some derivative, personal form of the Nexnévenal religion. 

  4. At this point in history, ethnic membership was often determined by birthplace and not physical features; failing accurate information, most people determined a person's ethnicity by their accent. 

  5. Léśtran (singular léśtra, dual léśtral) are berries with relaxant properties. They have a great deal of natural hydrocolloids—a substance sometimes called "Trindúrian pectin"—and as such were often used to create a thick, sugary drink called léśtra-water. 

  6. This word resembles the Vérdash word juhfáshah, which means 'unclean.' 

  7. Traditional Nexnévenal myths do not mention a Dyufázza anywhere. It is most likely an interpolation by the author.