By Elizabeth Liberty Lewis
I watch through frosted windowpanes as the alchemist rides into town.
His furs are damp with dew, his hands hidden but for his reddened fingers. He glances up at the orphanage, and the vision lashes my eyes like a pine branch.
A fat old man with dead eyes. A little black bottle in his lap.
But he’s not yet old or fat. He’s young, and handsome, and scowls at the village as if he would have melted it down to its elements long ago.
Mother Birgit’s voice rings from below. “Katya!”
I continue to stare until the newcomer passes out of sight.
My reflection flashes in the glass. Pale hair on the water. Trees leaning down. Riverweed in an open mouth.
Footsteps scuff behind me. Andreja clears her throat. She cares more than I do whether I get scolded, or switched, or sent to bed hungry.
When I don’t reply, she pulls me to my feet and looks into my face.
I flinch. When I see her, I always see—
A wailing newborn. Dark hair on bloodied sheets. A sobbing man clutching her cold fingers.
I hang my head, avoiding her eyes. Andreja frowns and pulls me downstairs.
At least she’ll be loved someday.
Birgit is already in her wool coat. “There you are, svolach. Hurry up.” She throws a shawl around me and yanks me out the door. Her death plays across my eyes. Alone in the cellar, clutching her chest. A guttering lamp. A spilled basket of potatoes.
As I stumble through the muddy streets, I sneak glances at the forest. It circles the village like a dark wreath, swallowing travelers and villagers alike, as if insatiable.
My mother died in those woods. I saw it in her eyes before she left. She threw herself into the river.
Like I will.
Birgit sees me looking. “Svolach.” Scum. She cuffs my head. “You want to end up like your mother? Your grandmother?”
“No,” I whimper.
People can change their deaths. I’ve seen it. The villagers pay Birgit dearly for the chance. They live—and die—by my visions.
But nothing has ever changed mine.
The alchemist already draws a crowd, but they move aside for us, whispering and sneaking glances. I stagger under the wave of images. Frozen still as stone, eyelashes full of blizzard snow. Struck through with a spear, in a war no one has yet dreamed of.
The alchemist stares. “What’s this?” His voice is crisp as frost.
“Your pardon.” Birgit curtsies. “This child”—she drags me forward—“is the village seer. Of late she will not sleep or eat. She’s plagued by nightmares.”
“Nightmares?” He takes in my skinny neck, the hollows beneath my eyes. “Of what?”
“Death,” I whisper.
The nightmares are worse than the visions. They go on and on, splitting their seams with gore and slaughter.
My mother used to wake screaming.
“I can cure her,” the alchemist says finally. “Of dreams and visions.”
“What?” Birgit gasps.
“I can brew a draught that will stop both as long as she takes it.”
Birgit’s eyes gleam. I sway, my knees going watery. This will be another thing I’ll owe her. Another thing to keep from me when I disobey.
The alchemist’s mouth curves, and before my eyes, his death changes.
A glass beaker shattering. Blinding light. An acrid smell. Pain almost too fast to feel.
And when Birgit turns to me, hers is different, too.
Billowing flames. A sound like the spine of the world cracking.
“Wait,” I hiss, and my fingers creak as I clench them. “If you do this…”
“What?” Birgit shakes me. “Katya?”
My eyes dart through the crowd. Everywhere, it’s the same. Smoke. Embers. An explosion that shakes the ground.
This potion of his will kill us all.
“Wait,” Birgit is saying. “Perhaps—”
“Nonsense.” He lifts his chin. “I’ll cure this girl and your superstition.”
My insides are ice. My frantic gaze finds Andreja, lingering at the edges of the crowd. I search for her familiar death and see only fire.
I rip from Birgit’s grasp, leaving furrows in my skin. People scatter away from me. I run.
Towards the forest.
The shouting fades as the trees gather and lean over me. Their sticky-sweet smell pierces my lungs. My heartbeat shakes my body.
I’m too weak to go far. I stumble through weeds, through rushes, and then onto wood. A bridge.
I fall to my knees. The river rushes below, black and cold, and when I look down—
Pale hair on the water.
My lip shakes. I think of Andreja, of her someday-love, about how even that changed, though it never had before.
Another vision of my future flickers in the water, like a shadow.
I catch my breath and crawl over the bridge, into the trees.
Soon I regain my feet and wander deeper. I’ve lost the river. My death will have to find me somehow.
A smell tickles my nose. Smoke. I shy back, but it’s only woodsmoke, winding like a gray scarf through the trees. I stagger after it.
A valley opens below me, with a cottage in its depths. I drift nearer, spellbound.
There’s an old woman at the door, her hair the color of mine. She looks up.
A cup of tea. A warm bed, cooling. A woman kneeling by the body, her hair a blond veil.
“Katya,” she gasps. Tears light her eyes. “My love. Your mother… I thought you were gone. I hoped you’d come back to me.”
My mouth shapes a sob that doesn’t come. “Who—”
She shakes her head, reaches forward to gather me in her arms. I dissolve into tears against her warm shoulder.
My mother’s visions led her to death in these woods. But my grandmother found her way. And I…
The cottage window glints. I look up and meet my own eyes.
A warm bed, cooling. A pale-haired daughter, kneeling, weeping, beside me.