Reflections on prophecy and speculation in agricultural markets
I will not offer myself to you as a seer. I will offer myself as a liar, and a person who has thought of lies and studied lies, believed them and then saw the truths beneath.
I will begin by telling you: I was tired of life.
I think it is easy for the young to be weary in this way. We do not know the space of time, only the furious pace of the inexperienced.
I always expected to be courted by the powerful. I believed that I could foretell an assassination, even the whispering of such a thing in the darkest corners of the city. A face glimpsed by me would be seized upon. But after a time, though I had been told that I was gifted, I already suspected that it was not the case.
My faith in myself and the world as it was taught to me gave way in an average morning, in the face of a forgettable event.
I rose early with the other students and we sat on a veranda, beneath the citrus trees. The temple was kept fastidiously clean by attendants who I couldn’t have been bothered to spit upon, but in the high heat of summer cleanliness did little to discourage the hornets. They fed on the fruit before it fell. As the heat rose it became frightening to sit below their droning and I wondered why we, who were gifted with foresight, would return to this place daily, knowing the risk of being stung.
As anyone could have foreseen, prophetic dreams or not, I was stung. I knew it would happen, not out of foresight, but common sense. The insect was large, threatening in its oranges, reds and blacks.
This was our usual point of departure, the time at which all of us would rush from the courtyard.
It hurt horribly, and to slap it and wheel my arms would draw more of them down, but I did just this, as happened so many mornings in the summer. We all rushed indoors.
As we ran, I paused for a moment and remembered my dream from the night prior. There were birds in the trees above us, with curved bills and red eyes. They lived among the hornets and through some gift of their nature the insects were unconcerned with them.
In my dream one of these birds snatched a hornet from the air. I knew they did this, a routine part of their lives, in fact I had seen it happen many times before. And on this morning, looking over my shoulder for just a moment, I saw this commonplace thing happen again.
If I wanted to, I could have dressed this dream in metaphor and convinced myself that it spoke of a growing season, or a war, or a marriage, but the most likely interpretation was that the dream said absolutely nothing about the future, or, if it did, it argued that the world would happen as it always did.
Faith is not as strong as people would like you to believe.
From that point on I doubted my gift, and though I would not say this aloud, it colored my life from that point forward. I had questions that I could not ask for fear of losing my station or having a severe punishment visited upon me. I wished that one of the other students would betray some evidence of doubt, not enough to be punished, just enough that I would see.
This did not happen. I became lackluster.
The prefects saw this. They were used to meting out discipline and they were hated, as those with authority will always be hated, so they had learned to detect it even when it was hidden. They seized on me, just as that daring bird seized upon the hornet.
They orbited me. There were many disciplines that we young seers were faced with, rarely severe, which made it sting even more. I lost most of my belief and though not formally, a great deal of status.
I would still sit in that very courtyard in the heat of the day, eyes closed, sketching the content of my dreams upon paper with sweat from my brow. I knew that this would mean bad things for certain people and great fortune for others.
For all the suspicion I felt cast upon me, I was still utilized. Acknowledging that there was doubt among the acolytes would be quite bad for our order, and I think it is the case that there needed to be a critical mass of belief within the temple, just as much as this belief needed to exist in the city outside of our walls.
When I was not sleeping, and dreaming, I was assigned to work that only the lowest in the order could be given. I waited on those who had served long enough to earn themselves a dotage of custodial care and relegation to uselessness. The sleep of the old is not the sleep of the young and so the seniors of our caste were cared for and tolerated by the youngest of us.
Many were feeble, either of mind or of body and often both. Some were sweet, some were angry, and all required care. To be served by attendants was beneath them, and so the passed over, such as myself, comforted them.
Our city was one of architectural marvels, where bridges of braided wire spanned the sacred river, and temples such as ours, with immense and sloping arches, looked down upon it. I would bring one of my elderly charges to the promenade and we would watch the water pass below. Sometimes they would remark upon its beauty, or complain of its odor, and after a time I would bring them to the baths where I would soak myself moving them into and out of the water.
This was my life for a time.
I had become accustomed to unimportance, though I still had enough arrogance to be surly, and that arrogance wasn’t misplaced. I maintain that I am among the best dreamers. And befitting as 1unacknowledged a talent as mine I was given charge of a person of importance.
She had been in service her whole life, stationed in the merchant hall. She had charge of ships and all matters nautical. Her successes were many, and as the state was always concerned with tallies, all in our order called upon her to reflect our importance and necessity. She banished doubt from the youngest and allowed the oldest to feel a sense of satisfaction in a life well-lived.
Her retirement was a matter of rumor. She had offended the Council of Merchants. Or, her skill for foretelling had buckled beneath the weight of her years. Or, most concerning, she might have deliberately mistranslated premonitions.
Were such an accusation proven she would be killed, but it was not and thus she was not. The first two blameless charges would be less troubling for the delicate political maneuverings of our city, and she had begun to wander and forget and so she was removed from her office.
This is what they told me: She was senile, weak and bitter but she had served long and served well. I felt this was an insult, and it was, so I swallowed my eroding pride and did my duty, my resentment surfacing in ways that were easily ignored.
Two prefects walked slightly behind her, to either side, and we were introduced. She smiled vacantly. I found her age repellent and the obviousness of her infirmity was abrasive. I bowed and she was left to my care.
We left the prefects and when we neared her quarters she said, “What offense have you committed that you perform this silly task?”
I had grown used to the barbs of the elderly, as toothless as the mouths they emerged from. This was not the anger of a wasting brain, directionless and rageful. It was cynical. It was sharp. It required the grasp of a situation. I looked at her, though it was rare that I engaged with the people I cared for.
I answered: “I am not enthusiastic enough.” She stopped walking, as did I.
She stared out the window. The city looked sultry and it was. For the poor and the laborers this was an abysmal time of year. They would sweat away their lives until the days shortened. I had seen a wave of heat settling upon the region in a dream, and speculation in the agricultural markets was furious. I had been aware that knowledge of things to come was only worthwhile if it was known by a few. How else to turn it to advantage?
She looked at me then. There was no appearance of confusion now. She looked sharp, like someone who had sharpened her claws on fools. She began walking again and I followed her.
Her quarters were large and well-furnished. There were books for reading and plenty of space. I was not yet sure what to make of her. When we left the halls she stood up straighter. The tentative movements of old age were replaced with decisive and economical striding. She removed her clothing and considered the shifts provided for later in the day.
I had been around nudity before. I had wrestled the old and fading into clothes many times and felt that they had been resentful of the impertinence of their bodies, just as much as they were resentful of having to hide them. Not so with her. She stood straight and there were still muscles beneath her skin.
I had only ever seen the bodies of the old. I had never had sex, or even the anticipation of sex. This wasn’t out of any prohibition against it. We were allowed to take pleasure, but it was explicit that we were not to love, marry or bear children. I was puzzled at my attraction to her, and I felt ashamed too. I wanted to turn my flushed face to the door, open it, and leave.
She turned to me and looked. There was nothing in it. It was an instance of pure receiving and of knowing without judgement. I felt confused. My own periods of looking at the world were always steeped in feeling, as for everyone within the temple. “You can leave,” she said.
“You are my only assignment now,” I told her. “If something happens to you and I am not there I will be punished.”
She nodded. “Of course.” She picked up towels, and I followed her as she walked toward the bath.
They were carved out of stone. She rubbed the inner surface. “I will get in myself. But I would appreciate assistance getting out. I would be grateful if you worked the pump.”
So I did. Belonging to the order does not make a person strong. We are spared physical labor and rarely carry anything heavier than a bowl of food. Working the bath pumps was enough to make me the physical superior to my brothers and sisters. The water was cool now, but in the winter I would haul buckets by rope from the fires outside.
She submerged herself, rose slowly, then rested her head on the edge. Neither of us spoke for a time. “I asked you before,” she said, “why you have been insulted by this duty. You said you were unenthusiastic.” She pulled her hair back from her forehead. “That is an answer, but an evasive one. So. Why?”
I didn’t want to share about this. It embarrassed me to admit that it was only a failure of my ability to be deceptive that had injured my reputation. And it embarassed me to admit that my belief in my world had broken because of a dream and a predictable event. So I couched it in vague terms and hoped she would press no harder. “I had a dream that could have been a true dream or could have been common sense.”
She smiled and was silent. After some time passed she removed the stopper from the bath. She waited until the water had drained down, passing through pipes to the river flowing beneath us, and even then she reclined there, peaceful. “I’m getting up now.” She extended her hand and I took it, then placed my other hand under her upper arm. Her skin was dry and tight from the water.
As she dressed I turned away and she spoke from behind me. “Do you remember how you qualified for the order?”
That night I had a dream of a splendid palace on fire. People in purple robes fled and fell, choking on smoke and then buried beneath flames. Almond eyes watched from the darkness of a hedge. When the sun first crested the horizon I sat in the courtyard, that unnerving buzzing all around, and drew this dream.
After my hot morning I returned to her. My first and last encounters of the day were often the least pleasant. On two occasions my charges had died in the night. Far more often than that they were incontinent. Not her. She was up and had been to the toilet. We wished one another good morning.
There was an interminable boredom to this duty. Sometimes those I cared for were unable to speak, and many more simply said the same things over and over. Out of politeness I listened, and due to lack of respect I rarely heard them.
“Did you dream?” she asked, and I nodded.
“No. I don’t dream of events any longer, not for a very long time.”
This puzzled me, but I said nothing. She had been in service for so long and been retired so recently. She offered nothing else, but pressed me. “Tell me your dream.”
I shouldn’t have. It was not a thing we were supposed to tell others. It could muddy the waters for all of us. But I saw no harm in telling her. She dreamed no longer.
“I saw a palace. Beautiful. Gleaming white. Two staircases led up to a veranda that overlooked a courtyard with a fountain in the center. It was all burning, and a pair of eyes watched from within bushes.”
She looked at me. “The adjudicators will determine that you saw the defense minister’s palace.” She examined her fingernails. “We will need to cut these today,” she said, and then turned her head toward me. “He has servants from the colonies, all with almond eyes. Several are talented gardeners. Chief among them is a man as old as I am, and his entire family serves there. They will all be suspected as conspirators.”
I nodded. This made sense. Our nation was as good at war as it was at trade and the matter-of-factness of it was reassuring. We brought profound improvements to the conquered.
She continued. “Do you know what will happen now?”
I shrugged. I didn’t know and had never considered the idea that I might care.
She crossed her legs. “All of them- the old man, his son and daughter and their wives and children, among them two small children, will be killed in the center of the city. Then there will be pogroms against their countrymen. By the end of it all it is very possible that these people will be killed en masse.”
I resented this. She was not an adjudicator- what exactly my dreams foretold was not up to me to intuit. I saw what I saw and others took action, but my doubts had never gone away entirely. “Why would you know any of that?”
I saw scorn on her face. “Because I bothered to know it.” She didn’t speak to me for the rest of the day, and so I waited in resentful silence for sunset.
My dreaming had become more vivid. I had seen a pair of those clever birds, again picking hornets drunk from fermented oranges from the air. The birds descended and drank from a puddle, but the puddle was massive, as were the birds and the hornets. I do not know how I perceived the scale of any of it.
The next morning we had the same interaction as the day prior. I told her of my dream and she considered it. “The puddle is the ocean. The birds are the naval fleet. The hornets indicate a ruse that will draw the navy into a trap. Your first dream set your second dream in motion.” She drummed her nails against the table. We hadn’t trimmed them the day prior. “Or, these dreams of yours are about nothing but you.”
This statement shook me, though I was already disillusioned. She chuckled, knowing that her remark had landed. “Think of it. The hornets are doubt. Your ideas of yourself are the bird. That could make sense, couldn’t it? Perhaps that is all it has ever been.”
We passed the day in silence. I helped her bathe, fetched food and stationary, and avoided any further talking. My gaze had turned inward.
Though I was cloistered, we received news from the world outside. There was no way to isolate ourselves effectively and still remain relevant to the work of the nation. I crossed paths with old classmates in the halls, and when I went to the kitchens I could listen at the threshold and hear the servants gossiping. They were immigrants from the colonies and they spoke bitterly.
“They killed old Prabat- him and all the rest. Cut them up in the square, the old man last. He had to watch the children.” I heard the cook suck air through her teeth. “Wicked.”
Another voice, that of the pretty girl not much older than I. “Wicked wicked. It’s these useless dreamers.”
Finally, an old man’s voice, over the thud of a cleaver. “Enough. It’s not safe to say this.”
I waited. I didn’t want them to know that I’d heard, and I didn’t want myself to be responsible for the things I heard. After some minutes I entered and they looked at me with reproach.
I returned to her quarters and she seized upon the doubt on my face. She didn’t smile imperiously, or direct some other scathing look my way. “Well?” she asked.
“You were right about the old man,” I said. “How did you know?”
“I knew because I know enough about the world to fill in the gaps between cause and effect.” She sighed. “Here. I will tell you.” She leaned back in her chair and threw an arm over the backrest. “I was like you, but better at deception. I had doubts, ones I couldn’t express, and I hid them very well. I was sent into the world, into the merchant’s house. You know that we are no longer separated from the adjudicators when we leave? And so he and I worked, mostly predicting weather, and I saw how easy it was for us to lie.”
She looked like her mind was far away. “It was years before I realized that we were not the only ones lying. You know that you are only responsible for the content of your dreams. Interpretation isn’t your job, and neither is action. There is a thing about prediction. If action is taken that prevents the foreseen event then there is no means by which to evaluate the truth of the vision. The interest in the merchant’s house falls upon matters of trade. Obviously. All things bear upon these concerns. The satisfaction of the people. The weather. War. Even domestic concerns. Love and hate. Good health and infirmity.”
“Money flowed based upon our predictions. A storm foreseen will send the wise merchant into lust. A stormy Autumn could send the price of grain stocks soaring, or speed up the laborers in the fields. The merchant’s battle against their own knowledge, and against the veracity of what they are told by such as us. In their scrambling for wealth and influence they will double down on their investments, each one trying to anticipate the correct moment at which to divest themselves.”
“When Autumn arrives they will steeple their fingers. They have already played the game. They own futures of something that is far more valuable then when they first invested. If the storms arrive than they will smile. They will be richer still, until the following fall. If no great storms are foretold then they will sell, as soon as they can. The price will fall, so fast that the slowest to divest will be ruined. Then those wiser and more cunning will buy grain shares again, this time for nearly nothing.”
“I came to know a thing that I had been ignorant of. We assume that our predictions are kept as secrets. This is not the case. For the merchants, they are never secret. They go to war with what we tell them. They whisper the premonitions to one another in front of servants, siblings, children, some of whom will sell the information on to another merchant. Then these servants are bribed, and then bribed again, sometimes back and forth for five cycles. They do not make decisions based upon what we saw. They make decisions based upon how shrewd they think themselves, and how shrewd they think their enemies.”
She sighed. “That is enough. It tires me to think of this. We are trained to honesty and despite all the lying I did I am weary of it. Here is a premonition: You and I will be friends. Fetch a board. We will play merchants.”
It was rare that those like us gambled. We looked down upon it, I think out of fear, though the stated reasons were that there was little point for men and women who could divine the future to wager. She beat me again and again that day.
Time passed. There was great discord. Terrible weather had been seen in that hot summer and there was furious speculation in the agricultural markets. The lower classes ground their teeth as they starved and riots erupted outside the storehouses. The gallows were full after the first one, and the pyres.
News of this sort reached us through circuitous channels.
She had grown bored, as is natural for someone who can anticipate the future and who can anticipate the grasping of the powerful. Sometimes she was sullen and sometimes she was very quiet.
One day, in the middle of a game, she told me a story.
“You know that I was stationed in a merchant’s home. But you do not know my fall from grace.” She stared into the distance. “You will know already the shape of the lives of the powerful. Their children are born and they take milk from a stranger rather than their own mothers. They play under the eyes of a nanny. Their meals are brought to them by attendants. When they are old enough they learn their history and math from a cold and distant tutor. Any love they receive is incidental, and only apportioned as a reward for strict obedience. Marriages are arranged for them, and these marriages pivot on advancing their parents’ political fortunes. All of this makes them strange and arrogant, and by the time they are grown the only pleasure they take is from victory over others like them.”
“All of this is accurate as a general rule, and naive when applied to the instance. It works as cover and fails in most other ways. As much as the plebe is obedient, the master is shrewd, which is to say only in public. This all defines appearances and says nothing for substance.”
“We think ourselves beyond reproach and corruption, but this is appearance as well. When someone wants a foretelling we assure ourselves that our words are true. But just like your bird and your hornet, we only truly speak to inevitability.”
“In the house where I was stationed, the head of the household only gave birth to daughters. Five of them. He had no trouble in marrying them off, and both he and the families of their suitors saw benefit from these marriages. Except for the last. She was different. Simple. And she looked different as well. I would not say she was not beautiful. She was. Sweet and kind. Adored by her caretakers, who could be so sharp and resentful. Anyone could see she was not able to be married. But her father needed to forge an alliance with a distant grain merchant and so she was told and readied. But she wasn’t ready.”
“I had a dream in this time. I will not tell the details because I do not want to speak them, but they were of cruelties and horrors. I knew the match was not just wrong but evil, and like anyone I knew that ‘evil’ was a word with little meaning. I went to her father and told him what I’d seen. He stared at me from behind his desk and said, ‘No. You had a different dream,’ and I was frightened of him.”
“The next morning I told him that it would be a happy marriage. There would be children. Everyone would benefit. I had to prove myself a liar, a thing I had already known, and while my lies had been used cynically, even in a deadly fashion, this seemed a step beyond. But as well, I had to disbelieve myself and my own abilities. She died a year after the marriage, her father paid for an elaborate funeral and otherwise seemed unbothered.”
“I had never liked him, but after that I hated him for what he’d made me a party to and so I set out to get revenge, on her behalf and upon both he and I. I was as guilty as the husband and the father and I thought that the city should burn.”
“I began to lie, and then contradict these lies, and then introduce doubt into them. I knew the routes that information took and I fed into them. And so his luck sagged, as did the luck of the other merchants. Last year’s drought? I saw it. The fires, the riots, the storms that came after, and then the trials. They were necessary. The people were too angry, too ready to bleed for the sake of justice. He was the only one put to death, as appeasement for the misery that his speculation inflicted. I watched him hung and I was happy for the first time in a full year.”
“My happiness did not last. In the maneuvering for control of his fortune the murderer of that poor girl emerged as the victor. Upon assuming his father-in-law’s position he summoned me. I sat across from him, so handsome and so undeserved of it, and gave orders. His family was in charge of the militia and was in need of new direction. The fury of the following year required that the leaders among the people be removed, should another cycle of its sort emerge.”
“I planned. I would give them what they thought they wanted. There was a popular cleric among the poorer classes. The man was not a firebrand. If anything he was a godsend to the powerful. He had risen to a high place in the minds of the dangerous classes, but had used his position to advance mild demands. Price controls. Trial by jury. An inconsequential venue to air their concerns. But he was loved for this.”
“I took to directing the new Lord’s men toward this man. I glanced birds of the kind that adorned their temples bringing down mighty eagles in Summer heat. Those very same eagles were devoured by inconsequential flies. A river of gold was traversed by the impoverished, who tore down the battle standard of his house.”
“And so, he directed his ire at the cleric and his followers. With every thrust the middle ground eroded and the Lord became more hated. He crushed the people who would have buffered the resentment against him, until the city was feverish with anger. In this heat engine, I presented another dream, one of the crossroad dreams where two things could occur. The eagle was brought down by a stone as it circled its nest. The eagle escaped the stone to an island.”
“He left on a feast day, certain he had avoided calamity. But I knew differently. There were no eagles or stones in my true dream. Just that man and his retinue, torn apart by a mob. His body hanging from the abandoned temple of that unfortunate cleric. It was not enough. Nothing would have been enough. But it was adequate.”
“And he did die, spectacularly, killed with fists and then mutilated. It began a riot that lasted for days and saw the militiamen abandon the city for a time. Naval ships burned. Storehouses were sacked.”
“Afterwards I adopted the manners of the doddering and the senile. I forgot names, and confused the people of the present with those of the past. I smiled and said nothing. I even soiled myself, which is a hard thing to do on purpose. And so I received no discipline and was retired to this place.” She spoke no more, and a silence weighed upon us.
She was so much more than I had known.So much more than an irksome responsibility. And I saw the bitterness and regret in her. She was proud but not arrogant. Ruthless but not cruel. She was more than I could hope to be and despite her strength she was in pain, for not doing enough, and for doing not enough too late. She had sacrificed people to give an evil man what he deserved and did not know if the cost had been too high.
Our relationship changed at this juncture. I loved her. The young are supposed to find the old repellent, but she was not. One morning she had the look of someone who’d had a particularly impactful dream but would not speak of it. I took her hand from across the table and held it, and then we held one another in the desperate way that one crosses the barriers of convention and concern erected between two people. She was gentle, as I was, and for the first time I knew romantic love.
We lived this way for a month. That is a short time for such a powerful thing to take place in, and at the end of that time I had a dream that broke my heart. She floated down the river, dead, and not on a burning raft, as was the custom. She was alone and this bothered me horribly. Then I saw one of the birds that had been instrumental in my disillusionment. It sought to eat one of the hornets but could not. The insect was colored like the robes of the order and turned upon the bird, embedding its stinger in its eye before making its escape.
I woke panicked and went to her quarters. I could not bear the thought of her dying. I would have slept with her in the night, but what was between us was a secret and so we performed our roles when we were in sight of others.
She had not left her bed. She was breathing but could not speak. It was her eyes that guided me to the table on which we had played so many games of merchants. There was a letter there. I retrieved it and read it on her bedside as I held my hand to her cheek.
These were her words: “It is time. I knew this would occur but I could not tell you. I am sorry. I have had something beautiful for my last days and I thank you for the gift. I have a final request and a word of caution. Please take me to the river. I want to leave as I die. As for you: This nation is rotten. It will make an idiot of you, or a liar. There is a reckoning coming and it is just. Do what you will with this warning. I love you and if there is anything left of me to miss you then I will.” Her name was signed with a flourish. I did not keep this letter. I left it to trouble the minds of others.
I cared for her throughout that last day, and when all were asleep I picked her up, the way a groom is thought to carry his bride across a threshold. The water was running slowly and when it was deeper than I would be able to hold her above I held onto her hand and floated on my back. As we moved downriver I stared at the sky and thought of how little I knew. I had spent my early life cutting importance out of my dreams, but none of it had been important, and nothing outside of this last month meant much of anything.
We travelled past the districts where the lights never go out, and the places where canals were being dug by hand, the men using the night so as not to die by heat. Fisherman hunted eels with lanterns hanging off of the prows of their boats. And somewhere in these hours there was plotting, and I wished the plotters the best of luck. No one saw us, and I wondered how much of this journey she had seen beforehand.
It was not clear when she died. I did not feel her pass but I hope she did not die before we reached the sound, or even before we reached the mouth of the ocean.
From that point on she would not be preordained. The chaos was too grand. And I found a kernel of fear within myself. With this obligation gone I thought perhaps there was something more for me to do, and as this gave way to certainty I knew that I would have to struggle or die. I swam hard, desperately and breathlessly and I exhausted myself.
I could not reach the shore. I let go. I stopped fighting. I turned onto my back again and knew that I had nothing left to give. I wondered where I would go and I thought that perhaps I would reunite with her, or with the spirit she brought to my life. Perhaps she would be young or I would be old and I wondered what we would do. I thought of this for a long time until I felt sand on my pack and the fullness of gravity was upon me. I lay there, so tired, and I laughed. I did not know what I would do. Perhaps declare my uselessness, or perhaps smile to myself, mysterious in my years and upsetting in my knowledge. I would seek the city’s enemies and give them the whole truth. I would not be tired of life.