Glass and Thread

By Jessi Johnson

“You will fall in love with her because of the first thing she says to you.”

These are the words of the Mirota Previa. They speak to the small crowd — the prince, the king, a cluster of councilors. The councilors nod sagely, as if they understand. The Nona looks only at Rafferty.

“This is what the Glass tells me.”

“What does that even mean?”

“The Glass” is a giant mirror, 15 feet tall, filling the forest grove. Its surface ripples and foams, refracting light and creating a prism: Golds, Reds, Purples, Blues; the possible thread colors. But it shows no reflection of the crowd — only Raff’s reflection. Only Raff in his white dress and his thick black hair that he refuses to cut; another small rebellion. He has precious few. Especially now that he will have a thread.

He looks down at his bare left wrist and wonders what color will be there at the end of this.

Gold wouldn’t be so bad. But as angry as he is to have choice taken away from him, he understands that Red is desperately needed.

He hears the councilors muttering, trying to pretend they understand the Mirota Previa’s words. Only a few people are allowed to witness the ceremony. In fact, very few people in the world would ever even have the ceremony, despite everyone wanting it. There are precious few Glasses in the entire world, and even fewer Mirota Previas who can understand the magikum. Villages that have access to a Glass — and most villagers would have to travel hundreds of miles to stand in front of one — have to pay for a Mirota Previa to visit; a budget almost none had.

The Nona smiles. “Are you ready?”

No. Don’t make me do this. Please, leave me at least once choice in this life. Let me choose my own person. Let me choose someone who will actually care if I live or die.

He nods stiffly and steps forward toward the glass. He stares into his own black eyes.

The Mirota Previa, “The one who speaks for the mirror”, is speaking the language of magikum. The glass surface’s ripples become waves. Light bounces crazily, creating a greater spectrum of color. The waves undulate, thicken, and then reach out from the glass toward Raff. They wrap around him, covering his mouth, his ears, binding his arms to his sides. He can’t breathe. He clamps down on his panic as best he can. The waves are drawing him toward the surface of the glass and he can do nothing to fight it.

He squeezes his eyes shut.

Then suddenly, he can breathe again. He takes a gulp of air and opens his eyes. But there’s nothing to see — or rather, on all sides there is only a thick, gray mist. He throws out his arms, trying to part it, but there is no change: the mist remains.

He strains his senses: there are no sounds, no smells. There is a cool dampness on his skin that makes him tingle.

And then:

The mist clears. She stands there.

She is...fine looking. She is not plain and she is not beautiful. She is…she is solid. Somewhat short. There is strength in her chin and in her large eyes.

He frowns.

He refuses to speak first.

Fall in love because of the first thing she says to you? He has no use for poetry or simpering. What could she say? That he was beautiful? That she burned with passion for him? Everything would be a sycophantic lie.

He sneers at her, folding his arms across his chest.

Let her speak. Let her speak and prove that this ritual is ridiculous and insulting and outdated and –

Where are you?

He is floored.

Her face is glowing with ferocity. One hand is a fist at her side but the other one is reaching toward him, trying to catch him. While the words might sound angry, her eyes are glistening with tears. Her jawline is set with determination. She is leaning toward him.

His heart stirs and he ferociously screams at it to shut up.

Why? He growls.

She presses her hand over her heart.

I will find you. I will come get you. Just stay there.

Someone…wanted to find him. She wants to find him. And he, in that moment, has no doubt that she will. That nothing could stand against her ferocity for long.

He turns his face away. He folds his hands into his sleeves to stop them from shaking. He has never spoken these feelings aloud. In his secret heart, this is what he desires most: to be found. To be truly, truly found. To be saved.

He bites his lip to bring himself back to the present moment. He looks back at her, squares his shoulder, blows out a breath.

I’m at Sky House, he says.

She gives one nod. She reaches her arm out toward him again.

Stay there.

He chuckles, suddenly, bitter. I have no other choice.

I’m coming. I swear. I will find you.

The mist is turning a bright, glittering white, like diamonds. Gold light is rising from the ground, circling their legs, sliding up their stomachs, covering their arms, painting their faces. They are like golden statues. He suddenly wonders if his thread will be Gold, the sign of leadership.

And suddenly, a flash – the gold light becomes an electric crimson red. Then the red light slides back down their bodies, caressing like a lover. The only place it doesn’t leave is their left wrist, now stained with that red.

He feels relief. Because when he saw the Gold, he had thought, We aren’t each other’s Red and disappointment had welled up. He wants to be Red. He wants her to be Red.

Then self-hatred. How could he give in so easily?

But her eyes are glowing. Now she’s reaching both arms toward him. Now she is trying to step forward, but the white mist is holding her in place. She strains against it and he sees that grit and determination define her.

I will come get you.

And he reaches out his arm toward her. Toward her strong face. Toward her honesty. Toward the words he had always wanted to hear. And he says:

Please.

And the mist covers them again.

***

Yalena steps back, trying to hide that her legs are shaking. Adrian grabs her shoulder.

“What did you see?” He’s excited. “Who did you see?”

Yalena turns around and sees the village square is filled to the brim. Everyone came out to see her experience with the Glass.

The Previa, the speaker for the village council, steps forward.

“Well, kako,” he says. His beard is tucked into a belt that is nearly buckling beneath his stomach. “Show us. Did it work?”

Yalena raises her arm in the air. The crowd gives a triumphant roar – around her wrist is a Red thread.

Unable to stop herself, her eyes jump to Jeremiah. He is looking at his own wrist: bare. She bites her lip and raises her arm even higher. The crowd roars again.

The Previa grabs her other hand; his apple cheeks are sweaty and his smile is beaming.

“Oh, kako, child, we are so blessed. A Red thread?.”

Yalena chest swells. Thoughts of Jeremiah are pushed back for now. She’s done it. She’s helped her tivia, her community. It’s been so long since a Red thread was seen; but it means that her person will be a lover. Most people have other colors: Blue for family, Purple for best friend, Gold for leadership. But Red is rare. Red means that children are possible. And children are exactly what they need.

In the past generation Red threads stopped appearing altogether, except in the rarest cases. And only Reds could bear children. Any Red thread holders were venerated, given the most special treatment, pampered and honored by their Tivia, who were desperate for children. Reds were allowed freedoms and riches unlike any others, even more than Gold thread holders. Because they were the future.

Men run forward and place flowers in Yalena’s brown curls. Sweet-scented petals rain around her. The nona, those who are neither male nor female, kiss her cheeks and clap her back. Those without threads on their wrists rub her arms and hands for luck, praying that one day they, too, will have Red threads – that they could bear children. From now on, she and hers would have anything they needed.

A nona pressed a black coin in her palm, smiling and crying. The tivia would have a child – maybe more than one, if Yalena and her mate were blessed.

But Yalena stared at the black coin. When the sunlight hit it, there were undertones of deep blue and purple. And when it was titled slightly, an etched face of the crown prince could be seen.

She closes her fingers around it, hard, so that the face digs into her palm.

“I must see Samwin,” she screams over the din. But the crowd is starting to mob her, desperate and joyful.

Adrian senses her anxiety and pushes the nearest people. “Out of the way! The Red needs to get through! Move! Are you kidding? I said move! Stop kissing her and move!”

When she enters her house, Samwin is seated in a plush chair. “You won’t have to worry about not being to walk,” a council member is saying to him. “You’ll be carried anywhere you want to go!”

“Why would I want that?” Samwin asks, stunned.

He looks at Yalena and she lifts her wrist to show the gleaming Red thread. Her brother’s relief echoes her own.

When the two of them finally manage to convince everyone to leave, they bend their heads together, their identical curls brushing the other’s cheeks.

She opens her hand. The black coin is still in her palm. She had squeezed it so hard for so long that her fingers are still curled. She tilts it so that the familiar face of the crown prince is easier to see.

“That’s him,” she whispers. Samwin locks eyes with her. “That’s the other end of my Red thread.”

***

The Mirota Previa had cost two thousand black coins; the village had saved for a year, and many people would struggle into the next year. Because of the expense, the village Previa and council had studied for the entire year, trying to identify which person would be the most likely to be a Red.

After all their searching, they finally decided that their best chance was closest to home: Yalena. She had been shocked when they asked her to try. There was no way to guarantee anyone’s thread color, and no way to predict the Glass’s outcome. Only Mirota Previa could interpret the waves and speak for the Glass, but even then, it was a difficult and imperfect process.

“I don’t want to disappoint you.” Yalena was honest, straightforward.

But now, the two thousand black coins, the year of waiting, the sacrifices and preparation — they were more than worth it. Yalena really was a Red.

Now, she and her Red would be taken back to the Glass together — and they would have to be “united”. They would have to confront the worst things they had ever done and somehow remain committed.

***

“How can we even trust this glass?”

He picked up a vase and smashed it on the floor. It made a satisfying, high-pitched crash and he shivered. Shards of black and blue – the Younger colors – were fanned across the floor.

“I must give in to this ridiculous –” he picked up a ceremonial staff and swung it at a bedpost until both were splintering “—painful, stupid, stupid – what, tradition? It’s a prison! A curse!”

Anxiety, anger, confusion, desperation, desire: emotions skittering across and beneath his skin. The mix of his emotions was strangling him, he had to get them out, he couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think, how dare she, how dare they all trap him, imprison him –

“So was it true? Do you love her?”

His father stepped inside the room. He looked around at the destruction and shrugged. “Show me your wrist.”

In a last petulant move, Raff hid his wrist behind his back. His father walked forward and grabbed his arm, roughly pulling it forward and looking at the Red band of color. Raff wrenched his arm away and glared.

“Do you love her?” his father asked again.

“No!”

“What was the first thing she said to you?”

Where are you?

“Nothing. She just stared at me like a moron.”

What truly angered him was that he had reached for her.

“There is no way for me to know if I love a person just by looking at them one time,” Raff said. He turned and kicked a pillow across the room. The soft thud it made wasn’t satisfying enough to alleviate the anger and confusion he was feeling. How dare she.

“She will be here in three weeks time. She’s from some remote hill village in the Horse Plains. Not my first choice but hopefully that means she’s a strong breeder.”

Disgusted, Raff turned away and smashed another vase as his father left.

***

His parents couldn’t understand his temper. It was the anger of someone screaming see me! Find me! The cry into a void, desperate for love and attention— to be found.

To his parents, he was a means to an end: the continuation of the Youngers. Despite their presence, he felt abandoned by them. There was no affection. Their indifference became his resentment, and his rages.

As punishment, he was locked in his room for days; without food. He beat his fists against the door. He threw vases at it. He wept and screamed. Please come get me. I’m sorry. But no one did. They forgot. Raff was still the little boy, locked in his room for days, screaming to be let out.

But no one found him. It was like no one wanted to.

I will –

***

-come find you.

Why had she made that promise?

Because he had looked so incredibly lost, incredibly sad. Like when Samwin had been pushed into that ditch by other children and she couldn’t find him for a full day. They had had identical expressions – please, someone find me; someone love me.

And…she had felt it. It wasn’t just that he reminded her of Samwin. It was that she felt the loneliness in her bones when their eyes met.

Swaying in the saddle, she thought about that intense young man – Prince the Younger – and blushed. She felt her the red thread bound around her wrist flare hot and she yelped.

“Are you all right?”

She smiled at Jeremiah. “Yes; sorry. It’s nothing.” Jeremiah and Adrian had insisted they join her caravan to Sky House — along with a dozen other of her tivia bearing gifts of black coins, horses, dried fruits, and furs. She was grateful. Even if she still felt awkward around Jer.

Jeremiah looked down at the pommel of his saddle. He was a huge and gentle man; the horses loved him. “I’ve heard…” his soft voice began. “I’ve heard that…that through the threads, you can feel what the other person is feeling. That you can even hear their thoughts. Eventually, you could hear their heartbeat.”

Yalena blushed again. She was a romantic. It was just that her — how did Adrian put it?—“rush-in-ask-later-break-things-save-the-day” attitude  often hid that. But the idea that she could feel the heartbeat of a lover against her own? Who wouldn’t think that was romantic?

For now, the thread was a thin band of color flush against her skin. But once she and her Red were united, it would expand, wrapping around her entire forearm.

They had been traveling for three weeks. When they passed through towns, they saw only smatterings of threads. Most people with them had Purple and Blue colorful bands wrapped around their left wrists. In one town, a young nona had a Gold thread gleaming. They saw no other Reds.

When it was announced that Yalena was Red, the towns bent over backward to make her welcome; they were desperate for her blessing. She would awkwardly pat their heads and rub their wrists. Adrian howled with laughter when one man asked her to “bless his crotch” so that it would be fertile.

Yalena kicked the man’s groin and asked sweetly, “Would you like 1000 more blessings?”

***

What if she didn’t come?

What if he wasn’t good enough?

He wasn’t worth finding. His own parents forgot him. He wouldn’t come, if he was her.

Where are you?

***

It had all happened so quickly.

When they were announced at the castle archways that led to the reception courtyard, they had been immediately bustled inside in a flurried mix of “You’re early!” And “You’re late!” A wide-eyed Yalena was pushed and pulled and until she was somehow standing in a white dress stitched with designs of swans in red thread. The sleeves were short so that her Red thread was easily visible.

Then pushed outdoors. Pushed into a carriage. Jostled for an hour. And then, finally, let out into a forest clearing.

***

“How do you feel?” Adrian asked.

Yalena smiled at him. “Confused. Queasy. Anxious.”

“Those don’t sound like ‘smiley’ emotions.”

“He’s here. I can feel him nearby.”

“That’s the thing, though,” Jeremiah said. “No one’s sure where he is. He does this apparently: wanders off.”

“I’ll find him.”

Adrian rolled his eyes. “Remember how we talked about ‘you can’t rush into everything’?”

“This isn’t rushing in. This is a...a...sacred duty. Who else could find him?”

With no way to counter that, they watched her stride confidently under the trees. Thankfully, no one else noticed right away.

***

Yalena wandered for at least 20 minutes, unsure what name to call out, unsure exactly what to look for. Her skin was tingling and her nerves were frayed.

She picked her red slippers over some rocks, lifting her white skirt. Ahead was a stream: much welcome so she could wash off some of the sweat. Maybe it would be easier to get her bearings if she followed the direction of the water. As she rounded a boulder and bent down to touch the slow water surface, something jumped out and grabbed her wrist.

Squealing, she turned and grabbed whatever had grabbed her.

It was also a wrist. A wrist that belonged to a man. Stunned, she stared into the deep black eyes of Prince the Younger.

He was equally flabbergasted. His grip on her wrist tightened and they both looked down at it: he was gripping her Red thread. His eyes bulged and then he dropped her like he had been burned.

The only sound was their heavy breathing.

His presence was so intense. How had she not noticed him right away? It felt like he was filling the entire space. Heat radiated from him. His eyes locked with hers and her head was swimming. Her mouth fell open.

Slowly, he raised his left arm to show her his own crimson Red thread. She took his hand in hers. She felt heat travel up their arms from where they connected.

She desperately tried to clear her throat and managed to rasp out: “You…”

“Rafferty.”

He seemed to have much better control even though Yalena could feel him shaking.

“Yalena.”

He nodded. “Yalena.”

He lifted his right arm and placed his hand on her cheek. “Yalena.”

He took his left hand out of hers and wrapped it around her waist. “Yalena.”

He leaned down and rubbed his nose against hers. “Yalena.”

Then, in a soft breath across her lips: “You came.”

***

Adrian and Jeremiah were just trying to hide their worry and reassure the gathered crowd that “she wanders off all the time, don’t worry”, when Raff and Yalena stepped back into the clearing. They were wearing identical white and red dresses splattered with mud and water at the hems.

Yalena walked to her friends and hugged them, apologized for being inconsiderate, and then asked that they get started.

***

The Mirota Previa was humming deep in their throat, eyes closed. The ripples of the Glass surface quickened, becoming waves.

Raff and Yalena faced each other in front of the Glass. They held each other’s left wrists in their left hands. Their eyes were locked, their mouths slightly open, and they had a lost, dreamy look; belied by the iron grip they had on each other. Their Red threads glowed.

The Glass’s waves broke free from the surface and enveloped both of them.

“The Glass will reflect your true selves. You must choose, then, to unite. The Reds do not force choice: they make choice visible.”

***

A thick, gray mist. Raff’s firm hand in hers. Their Red threads burning hot against their skin.

She opened her eyes.

The room was in tatters. There were shards all over the floor, ripped paintings, splinters of wood. There were scratches on the walls. It looked like a giant animal was kept in here. Against the far wall was a massive fireplace, and a four-poster bed next to it, with torn drapes.

She whirled around: someone was crying. It was a little boy. Thick black hair. Bloodied nails. He had been scratching at the door. Now he was hugging himself, crying wretchedly.

She dropped to her knees and gently touched his back. Little Raff looked back at her.

“They forgot me here,” he whispered. “They don’t love me. They left me here and then they forgot. I’ve been here for days.”

Yalena’s heart broke and broke and broke. She reached out to gather him to her but he suddenly scratched her hand.

“Ow!”

“Don’t touch me!” He looked like a feral cat. “Why should I let you get near me? So you can forget about me, too?”

“I won’t forget you. I will love you.”

“My own parents don’t love me. And they know me best in the world: they’re my parents. So if they think I”m not good enough to love, why would you? Why should I?”

“It might always be like that.”

She turned and there was adult Raff, staring at his crying younger self. “It might always be you reaching out both arms while I just reach out one hand. And then I still might scratch you. Would you really choose that?”

So. That was the Glass’s game. It wasn’t that it showed “the worst thing they had ever done” — it showed the deepest parts of themselves; what shaped them; what would make them hard to love. Because if love has no hard choices to make, then it never gains the depth of commitment.

“I think…” Yalena began. Then she hummed. Then she bit her lip. Then she grabbed Raff’s hand and pulled him down so that he was level with her and his younger self on the ground.

“Hug him,” she stated, pointing at the little boy.

“What?”

“I think...that if you really love someone...I don’t think…” she took a deep breath, trying to explain herself. “I can’t fix your past. I can’t make this not happen, which means I can’t make you not act like this. I think if you choose to love me, you will want to change for me. But I think the only way to change is for you to bring peace to your own past. So..hug.”

Dumbstruck, he stared at her. She rolled her eyes and then tried to force him and little Raff together. “Huuuuuug.”

He had never met someone like her.

“If I change...would you choose me then?”

Suddenly, she looked afraid. “I can’t make that decision until you see who I am.”

***

He opened his eyes.

“You never think, Yalena!”

A broad-shouldered, red-haired woman smacked the back of Yalena’s head. She winced and rubbed it, looking ashamed.

“You rush in, you’re reckless, and people get hurt. And not just ‘people’ this time: your own brother.”

Raff looked down and saw a young man with the same brown curls as Yalena. He was seated in a wheelchair and his head was being bandaged by another woman.

“You act like I put him in that ditch,” Yalena said. “I’m the one who found him!”

The woman who must be Yalena’s mother glared. “Your behavior put him in that ditch. And then he was lost for a full day. Take responsibility; you’re his big sister.”

The mother threw up her hands and then walked away, muttering about needing a moment to calm down. The other woman banding the boy’s head followed her.

It was just Yalena, her brother — and Raff.

Yalena kneeled down in between her brother’s knees.

“It’s not your fault,” her brother whispered. “It’s my fault for being in a wheelchair. If I could walk, none of this would have happened.”

Yalena kissed his cheek and said, “Maybe you’re right.”

“No!” Raff turned and saw the full-grown Yalena next to him, in her white and red dress. Her eyes were waterfalls, her face splotchy and warped. “No! Don’t say that to him!”

Raff saw her brother’s eyes fill with tears and the younger Yalena walk away without a backward glance.

The older Yalena grabbed Raff’s arms and cried: “Please! I’m so sorry! I was angry and I wanted to blame him but it was my fault his head got hurt! Someone’s physical ability is not a fault or blame or burden — I’m so sorry, please, please forgive me!”

Raff held the sobbing Yalena to him, unsure. She had seemed to know exactly what to say to him during his vision. But he had no idea how to comfort her. He could feel her intense emotions through their bond and his heart was breaking that someone normally so assured was feeling so hateful and worthless.

Wait.

Raff pulled back and wiped Yalena’s cheeks with his fingers. “It’s all right,” he whispered. He slipped out of her arms and walked to her brother, who was staring miserably at the fireplace. Taking a chance, Raff asked: “What’s your name?”

Sure enough, the boy looked straight at him and said, “Samwin.”

“Right. Samwin. Do you love your sister?”

Now Samwin’s eyes filled with tears and he looked even more like Yalena. “More than anything.”

“Did Yalena ever apologize for what she just said to you?”

Samwin looked over Raff’s shoulder, so he turned and saw another vision: the younger Yalena sobbing much as the older one had, hugging Samwin to her and begging for forgiveness.

“And did you forgive her?”

“Of course.”

“Do you think she meant what she said?”

“No. She has proven since then that she didn’t mean it at all. She never makes me feel like a burden.”

“Because you’re not,” the older Yalena called out, and Samwin smiled.

“I see.” He awkwardly patted Samwin’s head, thinking that might be what Yalena would do.

He turned back to her. “This isn’t the worst thing you’ve ever done. What the Glass is showing is a character flaw: self-hatred. Inability to forgive yourself. You are quick to care about other people but not really yourself. Do you...do you even like yourself?”

Yalena seemed to concave. “It’s easy to feel confident when people need me. But if it’s just me…what if I’m really a horrible person? You heard what I said to my own brother.”

Raff shook his head. “I know horrible people. You are not. You’re..you just make mistakes.”

“But I can’t afford to make mistakes. Everyone needs me to be perfect.” He felt her desire to protect everyone she cared about.

“Yalena, you’re being ridiculous.”

Her mouth fell open.

“I’m sorry. I know that's not what you would say to me. You would say something a lot wiser and nicer. And I want to be more like that. But — sometimes you just need to hear that you’re being ridiculous. Yalena, you’re not perfect. Sometimes you’re selfish and reckless and say things you can’t take back. Just like all of us. And you still love people. And people still love you. Trust their feelings about you.”

She wrapped her arms around herself. “Raff, could you choose someone who struggles to like or forgive themselves? What if you had to do that for me? That would be the real burden.”

“You saw who I am: someone who lashes out and holds on to trauma. I mean, that seems way worse right now, but I understand how you feel.”

He pulled her into his arms, kissed her Red thread and then kissed her cheek. “Yalena, you came to get me. You found me. You can’t understand…Yalena, I don’t want you perfect. I love that you’re reckless and strange and confident — I don’t think you would have found me if you weren’t. I can’t promise that I will always love everything about you, but I choose to try.

“I don’t know if these Red threads are forcing us together. Maybe I don’t really have a choice. But even if that’s true, I would still choose you.”

Yalena was crying again. He was realizing she was a bit of a crybaby, despite her confidence.

She hugged him tight and said, muffled against his chest: “I need someone to tell me I’m being ridiculous. It’s so loud in my head sometimes. Raff, I promise to encourage you to make peace with your past. I can’t do that for you. But I promise I will always come get you.”

Raff inhaled the scent of her hair: spiced apples and grass. He wrapped a hand in her curls and another around her waist, pressing her to him.

A glittering white light, like diamonds. Their wrists were burning hot.

They chose to commit to trying.