Chapter 7 – Palimpsest


Despite Lucille’s constant rebukes Mary became fascinated with the story of the Prophecy and didn’t miss a chance to sneak into the attic and read it again and again, until she learned its unpleasant content by heart. It gave her a strange feeling, this story about her, written generations before she’d been born, the script of her life. It didn’t even make her bitter anymore, just filled her with intense curiosity and a weird sense of control over her own future, for if one doesn’t know the script to one’s life, however vexing it happens to be, one can’t make any sense of its circumstances.

After she was done learning the contents, she started studying every other one of its details, the sumptuous snake skin cover, the dark, purplish ink, the rough pages, thick as papyrus, that made the book heavier than lead. She caressed the rugged surface for the hundredth time, as if trying to read the cursive writing with her fingers. The surface was not even, it had continuous indentations that flowed on the page like text, but didn’t follow the well known flourish of the old writing. She looked closer and gasped. Almost unnoticeable (the writer had done a wonderful job scraping off the old content before he wrote over it) underneath the dark purple lettering there was an older writing, undoubtedly the work of less learned hands.

Mary was about to jump and run to her aunt, to tell her about what she’d discovered and ask for assistance in deciphering the contents, but then she remembered that her aunt forbade her under threat of punishment to go near the Book of Prophecy again, so she reconsidered, put it away and retired to one of her mindless chores to develop a strategy going forward.

Over the following weeks she spent a few hours every day painstakingly making out the old text, sometimes one letter at a time, and then running into the desert and scratching it into the soft soapstone sides of a small cavern until the entire contents of the book embellished its walls like ancient murals.

She never tired imagining who the original writer might have been, or what the text said, because, sadly, the language was unknown to her, with its strange stick like characters that gave it uneven rhythms and the rugged quality of an art form meant to be chiseled in stone.

During her daily routine, whatever she happened to be doing at the time, her mind was always focused on her new project, which gave her a reason to look forward to each day. That afternoon she finished peeling the potatoes for dinner, washed all the dishes and swept the kitchen, and she peeked out the window to make sure the way was clear for her to take the path through the back gate out into the desert in order to delve into the activity that now had her undivided attention.

Where are you going?” Lucille boomed from behind, stopping her in her tracks.

‘Where did she come from?’ Mary asked herself, peeved about the change in schedule, and then said out loud: “Nowhere.”

She didn’t feel bad about giving a laconic answer, because in all fairness, she wasn’t going to go anywhere now, so she really wasn’t lying.

Have you peeled the potatoes for dinner?” her aunt asked unnecessarily, since the bowl of peeled potatoes was placed prominently on the table, right under her nose.

Lucille didn’t know how to talk to Mary, who was obviously hiding something, to ensure the girl didn’t get herself in trouble. She stared her down, only to be met with the usual confused stare, and then sighed and abandoned pursuit.

We have guests for dinner tonight, we need everything to be just right. I’ll make pot roast!” she boasted, pleased. Mary cringed, since she couldn’t stand pot roast, but said nothing.

Who’s coming, aunt Lucille?” she asked.

Rosemary and Giselle, dear,” Lucille choked down the extraneous commentary, more suited to grown-up talk than sharing with a child.

Oh,” Mary said, turning one shade paler, because Rosemary’s visits always upset her aunt greatly, and the poor girl had to brace against a mound of dirty dishes and Lucille’s unbearable mood after she left.

Why doesn’t she ever go to Rosemary’s, why do they always have to come here?’ she asked herself, and then she remembered Rosemary’s husband and his alleged fondness for Lucille, and figured that would move the situation from the frying pan into the fire.

She sighed, inside her head, of course, if one could conceive of such a thing, because she couldn’t take it anymore when her aunt gave her one of her half hour guilt trips about lack of gratitude and missing for nothing, and moved about the kitchen quietly to bring out the china, polish the silverware and set the table in a way that ensured nobody could find anything objectionable about it.

The dinner unfolded exactly as Mary had imagined it, with the invisible sharp arrows of wit flying precariously close to her head between Lucille and Rosemary, while Giselle interjected completely absurd and unbeknownst to her inflammatory commentary at the least appropriate moments.

So, my dear Lucille, don’t tell me you’re the last to hear the news again?” Rosemary asked.

Whatever do you mean, Rosemary?” Lucille replied.

I’d rather talk to you about this some other time,” Rosemary made an obvious gesture towards Mary, who, evidently, was somehow entangled in the latest gossip.

We have no secrets here, if it concerns Mary, she should know about it,” Lucille encouraged.

It’s just that… Well, you see… I’m sure it’s just talk, Lucille. I don’t mean to bring strife into your household,” Rosemary looked down, waiting for Lucille’s encouragement to continue.

Sure you do,’ the latter thought, then continued out loud. “What could possibly have emerged that all of us don’t already know?” she asked.

Well, people talk.” Rosemary paused. “It appears there is a copy of the Que’d out there, and since this whole story started with all of us thinking dear Mary might have sought her own reflection, and with all the prophecy wisdom being visited upon us again, some of us feared this new peril might have something to do with you,” she whispered.

The Que’d?!” Lucille laughed heartily. “Did they find the Ghost of the Mists too? The Midnight Fairy?”

Don’t laugh, Lucille! This is serious!” Rosemary replied offended.

Sure it’s serious! The Que’d! From the fairy tales! Why shouldn’t I take it seriously?”

Somebody swore they saw it with their own eyes. Nobody had used the old language in centuries, if it wasn’t the Que’d, how would they have known?”

Anybody can make up gibberish, how would the person know it was the old language?” Lucille retorted. Rosemary looked a little less unsettled.

Maybe it was somebody who could read it,” Giselle threw in her two cents and crumbled under the weight of dread springing from both sides.

Nobody can read the old language, dear!” Lucille bore down on her even more.

Rumor has it that some people do,” Giselle continued, oblivious, making Lucille’s cheeks suddenly flush. The reaction didn’t escape Rosemary.

How can you say such a thing, Giselle! You know as well as I do that the old language was banned when the Book of Prophecy was written, it is forbidden to teach it to anyone, especially the young. Who would dare expose themselves and their children to shunning?” she stared Lucille straight in the eyes, thinking ‘Oh, my, she can read the old language, sure as day! I wonder what else she knows?’ She continued.

You didn’t hear any of this, Lucille? I was hoping to learn more about it from you, why, with your family descending from the scholars’ line,” she pushed.

Lucille got instantly aggravated. Being a descendant of the scholars’ line had been the bane of her existence and something she had tried to make people forget her entire life. It kept her out of the better circles, away from prestigious positions and generally held her at arm’s length from sophisticated society. Only grace to marrying her husband, whose lineage had never been tarnished by unseemly ancestry she finally succeeded in reaching a better place in life. The fact that Rosemary never missed a chance to bring that up really did a number on her stomach acids. She paused for a second, to express disapproval, and then answered.

Of course not. We never discussed forbidden subjects in my family, I’m surprised you’d even ask.”

Please forget I said anything, then. You know, I’ve been waiting for that exquisite peach pie of yours since the beginning of the evening, do you think we should start dessert?” Rosemary smiled sweetly.

Mary breathed a sigh of relief because she could finally skip out to the kitchen and sort out what she’d just learned, without the all knowing stares of Rosemary and Lucille reaching all the way to the back of her head. She made a mental chart of knowns and unknowns: Lucille could read the ancient language, somebody had discovered the cavern, the even older writing under the old writing was germane and nobody really knew what it said.

The best part of her analysis was that regardless of the content of the older writing, the modified prophecy written over it was no longer relevant. She reminded herself to find out everything she could about the scholars’ line, transferred the peach pie to the silver platter that had made it out of the attic and back into the dining room, despite its reflective properties, and brought dessert to the table, to the guests’ delight.

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