I was good. Gifted, even. Within my first week, I had read five people’s eyes. I saw Egypt and the planets surrounding Gliese 667C, a star 22 light years away; watched a young man catch a whale on the high seas, and a grandmother sew her last quilt. I saw Einstein.
We worked in a small storefront on Boston’s North End, where the Italian ladies turned up their noses at us when they walked by. Even with my ginger hair and blue eyes, they thought we were gypsies. Bartholomew Jacoby, my employer, proud Anglo-Saxon, was from Mississippi where his ancestors had settled after Ralph Jacoby served honorably during the Revolutionary War. They still didn’t trust us, likened our work to witchcraft, and often snuck in, like all good hypocrites, late in the afternoon during winter’s fading light, to get readings of their own.
Most of our customers were tourists. I was paid by the reading so I did them as quickly as possible, though I learned not to rush. It was possible to read a person wrong and change their lives in unexpected ways – like telling a young Sarah Palin that I could see Russia from her house. I didn’t actually see Russia. Not literally.
The stories I learned by looking into a person’s eyes were most often joyful or soothing. A woman from Pennsylvania, tormented by nightmares about losing her arms, asked me what the dreams meant. I said that in another life she was a doctor at Gettysburg and saved many lives, and this gave her peace. A stockbroker from New York worried about his obsession with wealth and I saw that he would meet a librarian who would help him find his center; they would start their lives anew raising lambs on an Ohio farm.
Every morning, Bartholomew and I sat by the harbor, watching ships come in, drinking cappuccino, talking about basketball and hockey. He was getting older and losing his vision; he relied on me to help him read the newspaper when business was slow. “I’ve seen too much,” he once said, sighing. “I saw a mother of three kill her children.”
“Past, present or future?” I asked, as if it were a game.
“Future,” he said, glumly. That was the worst: seeing the horrible things people can do to each other and being powerless to change them, especially in the future. With such a reading, the person is most likely to be in denial, rejecting our visions as hogwash.
I learned to avoid eye contact outside the shop. The burden of accidentally reading the dry cleaning cashier’s eyes or the bank teller’s or a prospective date’s was too heavy. Too much information. TMI. I had been to Baghdad during the insurgency, and rode roughshod over thousands with Genghis Khan, and witnessed the skeletal survivors of Buchenwald. While the joy of babies and marriages, falling in love and doing good works, the tulips of Holland and fields of lavender in France, the big sky of the West, backdrops to lives of decent, sometimes heroic beings—in spite of all that joyous noise, the sights of terror were breaking me down, piece by piece.
Then one day, a tall, pale man, slightly gray around the temples, walked in the shop, requesting a reading. Bartholomew asked me to take the man back to the reading table. I made him a cup of tea and then helped Bartholomew sit down. He was growing a little weaker every day.
A half hour later, the tall man emerged from the curtained area, tipped his head to me and smiled wanly, walking out the door.
“Magda,” I heard Bartholomew call me by my shop name. “Magda.” I pulled back the curtains to the reading area and found Bartholomew hunched over, breathing heavily.
“What is it? What happened?”
“His eyes reflected my eyes, reflecting his eyes, and on and on into eternity, like an Escher drawing,” Bartholomew said, breathless. “This is the story of my death. That is how we who read see our own futures. Through the dead.” Bartholomew’s head dropped heavy onto the table, his arms swung forward. He had passed through the eyes of death.