He taught me how to read people’s eyes. That’s what Bartholomew called it, but it was actually seeing people’s lives–past, present, future–by looking into their eyes.
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.
I closed up the shop that week. I started wearing sunglasses and pretended to be blind. This is how I live with myself.
I don’t know how you flush out such complete stories so fast, Meg. This is gorgeous. And I’ll be thinking about this sentence: “That was the worst: seeing the horrible things people can do to each other and being powerless to change them, especially in the future.” for the next few days.
Thanks so much, Nate. As Kymm (I believe it was Kymm) posted recently, your comments are like a special little prize in themselves. I do have to say it takes a lot longer than I would like…I’m a sloooow writer. Agonizingly slow. 😉 And besides, you’re one to talk! You churn out brilliance all the time, and also actually post blog posts!
Whoa. Holy crap. This is so good. I love the eyes reflecting back & forth on and on. Wonderful writing, Meg!
Thanks, Susan! Means a lot to me.
Thank you! Appreciate your comment.
I absolutely loved it, and what a terrible curse to live with. You could go anywhere with this story, so I hope we meet ‘Magda’ again. I like your writing style; it has a strong voice and gets its claws in early!
Thank you, Melissa! Yeah, it would be a terrible curse, wouldn’t it? I would be averting my eyes all the friggin’ time. Thanks, too, for your kind words about my style. I wonder if it is an acquired taste? Either way, I’m grateful that you like it!
You are such a prolific and talented writer, Meg.
I’m more drawn in with each story and look forward to the next. In fact, gonna subscribe via e-mail since I tend to miss some during the WP reader scan.
I didn’t participate in this challenge either, but I always enjoy reading and voting. Good luck! xo
Awww, Michelle. You are so, so kind and thoughtful and supportive. I need to subscribe to yours too — I have the same problem with missing posts. I’m bummed you didn’t post to Speakeasy but also understand. I keep wanting to do more writing but, man, it’s a lot of work. Do you really get up at 5:30AM??? I wish I had your discipline. Thanks again, darlin’!
Actually…I get up at 5:15 so I can be at the desk by 5:30.
I’m not sure how much discipline is involved though, as it only takes a couple of shiny objects or good stories to read to take me off track 😉
Plus, I’m always ready for bed early…sometimes by 8:00 if I had my choice!!
What a wonderful story! It really drew me in as it progressed. I loved your line about the reflected eyes, “like an Escher drawing,” and the last paragraph as well.
Thanks for your thoughtful comment! I really enjoyed your piece too.
Thanks, Meredith! I need to get over to the Covey soon. Hope you’re doing well. Very much appreciate your comment and reading.
“like telling a young Sarah Palin that I could see Russia from her house. I didn’t actually see Russia. Not literally.”
How “Forrest Gump”of you. Also, I laughed pretty hard when I read that line.
Yes! Someone thought it was funny! I worried I was going a little too Forrest Gump there but it was in my head and it made me laugh. Thanks so much, S.J.!
You always take me such interesting places…
Yay! Much better than boring places! Thank you.
The Sarah Palin line cracked me up! I like the unique take you had on the prompt. I imagine it would be a curse to see too much. I wouldn’t want to know my future… what if the reading wasn’t good and it became a self-fulfilling prophecy?
Yeah, I think it would be a terrifying talent to possess, especially when it comes to people you love. Glad you liked the Palin reference! Thanks for reading and commenting, Janna!
That would be an awful thing to live with. This was unique…and I personally LOVED it!
Yes, it would! Thanks for your kind words, Kathy.
You are a wonderful storyteller – which is what I value most as a reader. I so much enjoy your work, Meg. This piece is wonderfully well done.
Ooooh, thank you so much for this … I needed to hear it. Like many wanna be’s, my self confidence with writing is as fragile as a china. Hope you’re feeling good about your recent dive back into writing and rediscovering your voice! I’m enjoying your work very much.
What a fantastic story, Meg! So well-crafted and creative. And I really like the way you used the Escher prompt. Excellent work! 🙂
Thanks so much, Suzanne. I LOVED your story this week. It was especially good and a well-earned crowd fave.
Really cool take on the prompts! Nicely done.
Thanks for reading, Justice!
Another masterpiece – you are a gifted storyteller.
Wow, thanks a million times over, Patricia. I have loved all of your stories. Your kind words mean a lot.
Well written and with a really cool premise – I like! I also used to live on a street in Boston’s North End, and it just so happens there’s a fortune teller with a 2nd floor shop at one end of the street — ever been there? If not, then I think you might just be a psychic too!
Thanks, Brian. I lived on Tileston St.(?) — can’t remember the exact name, but it is next to the Old North Church — back in 1984-5. A long time ago! I don’t remember a fortune teller in the neighborhood, so maybe I do have ESP?
I liked how you balanced the humor of the Sarah Palin line (oops), with the seriousness of the ending. Nicely crafted. Also, I don’t think I’d want to have that particular gift. Talk about stressful.
Hah! So glad the humor/darkness balanced out. You just never know! I figure Sarah Palin is always good for a laugh. Thanks a bunch for reading and commenting.
Brilliant, one of the best yet. def one of my favourite storytellers I have stumbled across in blog world, this is exactly the type of thing I like to read. have you read any Haruki Murakami? I think you’d really like his books going by your writing. have a good weekend 🙂
Thank you, Stephen! I was anxious to hear your take on this. Really appreciate the compliments and value your thoughts. I had not read Haruki Murakami before — thanks for the tip. I started reading “Samsa in Love,” which is especially fun because it’s been years since I read The Metamorphosis. And it was free! Also read an interview with him in Paris Review. What an interesting path to writing! Can’t thank you enough for your supportive words and sharing your love for writing/reading.
Ah I haven’t read that! The ‘town of cats’ story in this excerpt is so cool: http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/features/2011/09/05/110905fi_fiction_murakami?currentPage=all But for books I think ‘the wind-up bird chronicles’& ‘kafka on the shore’ are modern classics..anyway sound like I work on commission. Do you do these prompts daily? That must take a lot of time&motivation, but def be good for developing. I liked ‘through your eyes’ a lot, I find the fantasy elements mingled into reality really appealing in stories, maybe you would consider sending it out to magazines, or putting a collection together in an ebook? All the best for now anyways.
Just read the “Town of Cats” story. Wow. Loved it. I don’t do the prompts daily — it seems the most I can do is two or three a week. I had last week off and I still couldn’t do more than three. How often do you get to write?
I am so grateful for your encouragement! My goal, I think, for this summer is to actually finish a short story…something a bit longer than flash fiction. And then, if I feel good about it, submit to some magazines. Thanks again, Stephen.
It’s cool, isn’t it! I saw the original german version of town of cats on amazon for £500…maybe a bit much for a short story. No set times etc for writing…feel a bit guilty if I go too long though! But I don’t have a high tolerance for writing rubbish or just anything to get going, its probably something i should accept. I would say though, before the start of the year I’d only written a few things, then I wrote this really long thing, like 40,000 words, every day for a while, and it was rubbish, but it was a great help to get into doing it regularly and feeling like a proper hobby 🙂 you should fire through your eyes out! You know there will be rejections anyway. I can give you some places to try if you ever like.
Writing every day, or nearly every day, even just 300 words, is good practice. 99% of what I write is crap. I’m enjoying learning how to edit myself. I have to do this every day in my day job, but editing fiction is very different and way more fun. So…you should write more! 😉