“Mother,” I asked, “what is a cell phone?”
My mother approached me, hand raised. She smacked me across the face. “Never ask such questions, again, True.”
Later that night, after my siblings and I were tucked into the bed we shared, I listened to my parents through the cloth curtain my mother had woven and hung to separate our sleeping alcove from the rest of the hut. “True’s got the gift, Seth. You see that, don’t you?”
I slipped from the warmth of the bed. Padded across the cold floor in my bare feet. Peeked through a slit in the curtain. “No, Seth. True is our child. She cannot help if she…”
“Keep her quiet then, wife. If you have to cut out her tongue to do it, then for God’s sake, do it. If the government finds out we have a reader-of-the-past among us, we’ll be banished. And Mercy…” He shook his head. “Cutting her tongue out would be a kindness.”
I felt my eyes widen in the dark. I wondered what it would be like to have no tongue; no cushion upon which to balance my words and my food. Nothing to taste the wind. Nothing to catch the blackened snowflakes as they reached for the earth.
My father stopped talking to me that day. And thereafter, my mother watched me intently. She kept me within her sight always. I no longer attended the school in the village with my siblings. I was no longer permitted to play with my friends. I became known as the village idiot.
Day after day, I sat upon the bed and called back the man who called himself Daniel. In my days of darkness, he was a cheery sort: Red cheeks and spectacles. A full beard of white. He was thin and tall like me and wore a blue shirt with a line of white things he called buttons. He wore heavy-looking pants he called jeans. They were nothing like the one-piece garment my father wore.
Daniel loved to laugh. Daniel loved to tell me stories.
And I loved to listen. What else was a girl of eight to do to occupy her mind when she was locked behind a woven cloth curtain; hidden away from the world like a poison?
Daniel called himself my great-great grandfather. He said I had the gift. The gift came every hundred years, he said, to one person in the family. We were linked, he and I: he to the present, I to the past, bound together by an invisible link of time and space and genetics.
I told him about the floods and the disasters. I told him about the government takeover and the confiscation of land. He scowled then, and shook his head. “Is there no…technology in the future?”
“I do not understand, Daniel. What is technology? Is it like your buttons?”
He told me the most wonderful stories. Stories about things called books: words bound together between hard covers. Stories about things called computers: words and pictures traveling invisibly through the air. He told me about cell phones and refrigerators and television sets and cars. He told me of a place called Disney.
He painted wonderful pictures. I nearly believed him.
One day, as my mother was foraging for greens in the forest, Daniel came to me.
“Daniel,” I whispered. “Am I crazy?”
He shook his head. “There is a stone, child. Beneath your bed.”
He watched as I shifted the bed from the wall. It was dusty there. And, as Daniel had said, there was a large stone.
“Lift it,” he said, standing and coming to my side.
The stone was heavy. “Can you not aid me?”
“I cannot. My strength cannot cross time. Only my spirit.”
Bit by bit, I moved that stubborn stone. Underneath, there was a hole.
“Reach inside,” Daniel said.
“Will there not be rodents?” Nevertheless, I reached in my hand. “There is something hidden here, Daniel!”
“Take it out.”
It was a box. I picked it up, blew the dust from the cover. Hands shaking, I opened the lid and withdrew something square and blue.
“It’s a book of sorts, True. A book of memories. Open it.”
I folded back the outside cover and gasped. There was an image—a picture—of Daniel. Beneath the image there were strange marks.
I pointed. “I cannot understand these markings. What are they?”
“Those are words, True.”
“Tell me what they say.”
“Diary of Daniel Gray Smith.”
“You tell me, Daniel, that you come from the yesterdays. Are you certain you don’t come from the tomorrows?”
He nodded. “I am certain.”
I sat upon the bed. “Why are you here?”
Every day, while my sisters were at school and my father was hunting our food and my mother was going about her chores, I sat with Daniel. Bit by bit, I learned to read.
“We cannot leave her at home, Seth.”
“It is too dangerous, Mercy.”
“It’s more dangerous to leave her here alone. They’ll suspect something.”
“We’ll tell her she died.”
“No. She comes with us.” With tears in her eyes, my mother slapped me again. “Keep your mouth shut, child.”
For eight hours, we walked in silence. When we reached town, I noticed something I didn’t notice at the last Counting: Words. Words everywhere.
Words everywhere and no one to read them.
I ran my hand along the stone surface of a wall. Fitted my fingers into the letter T.
“What is that, True?” My sister asked.
“It’s a sentence. It says…I read slowly. Carefully. Haltingly: Technology…destroyed… this… society.”
I was seized roughly by the shoulders. My father dragged me up to an officer. “She has the gift. She can read the markings.”
I was taken to the gallows immediately. My family gathered at my feet. Others began circling, watching and pointing.
“Any last words?” he said.
I looked at my father. “And what will you have me tell your great-great-grandchildren?”
For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, M. Hunter challenged me with “Every 100 years, someone in your family spontaneously develops the ability to see and speak with one other person in your family with the same ability, usually dead or not yet born. This time, it’s you.” and I challenged Brad MacDonald with “He slept until noon. When he woke, it was completely dark outside.”