Sightwitch – Susan Dennard

As the ɹnal words in the Memory Vow—“Once seen, never forgotten. Once heard, never lost”—crossed our lips, a telltale flap of wings echoed out. My heart dropped to my toes, as it always does when I hear that sound. Please be for me, I begged, staring at the stained-glass dome overhead—at the constellation of bright stars. Please be coming for me, Sleeper. I follow all the Rules, I’ve learned all my lessons, and I have served you without complaint for thirteen years. Please, Sirmaya, Summon me. I wanted to vomit. I wanted to shout. Surely, surely my day had finally come. Then the spirit swift appeared, swirling out of the scrying pool. A black mist that coalesced into a sharp-tailed, graceful-winged ɹgure, its feathers speckled with starlight. It circled once, with eyes that glowed golden, and a wintery, crisp smell wafted over me. That smell meant a Summoning. Pick me, I prayed, the tips of my ɹngers numb from clutching so tightly at my tunic.

Pick me, pick me— The spirit swift twirled past the telescope ledge before winging down to the Serving Sisters, fourteen of us in brown. I swayed. My heart surged into my throat. Two hops. It was almost to me, if aiming slightly more toward Tanzi. But there was still a chance it might change course. Still a chance it might twist back to me … It didn’t. It skipped over to Tanzi’s toes because, of course, the swift could not be here for me. They are never here for me. Seventeen years old, and my eyes are still their natural brown. Thirteen years at the Convent, and I’m still consigned to drab cotton. Somehow, though, I managed to keep my throat from screaming, No! I wanted to shriek—Sirmaya knows I wanted to shriek and that my eyes burned with tears. It wasn’t Tanzi’s fault, though, that the Goddess had picked her first. And it wasn’t Tanzi’s fault that our loving Goddess never seemed to want me at all. If I was going to blame anyone, I should blame Sister Rose and Sister Gwen, Sister Hancine and Sister Lindou.

All those years growing up, they had ɹlled my head with stories, telling me that I would be a powerful Sightwitch one day. That I would be the next Head Sister with a Sight to rival even Hilga’s. No, they had never seen such visions, but they were sure of it all the same. Why did I still cling to those old tales when they were so clearly not true? If the Sleeper had truly wanted to give me the strongest Sight, then surely She would have done so by now. So I didn’t cry and I didn’t scream. Instead, I forced a smile to my lips and gave Tanzi a hug. She looked so worried, I couldn’t not oʃer my Threadsister something. Her thick eyebrows had drawn into a single black line. Her russet skin was pinched with worry and guilt, an expression I never wanted to see on her face. If smiling would ease it, then smiling I could do. “One of our ranks has been Summoned,” Sister Hilga intoned. The words she always said, words that were never spoken for me. “Praise be to Sirmaya.” “Praise be to Sirmaya,” the Sisters murmured back. Except for me.

Tanzi still hugged me so tight, so fierce. So afraid. “You’re not supposed to hug me,” I whispered. Hilga was already walking toward us, the Summoning bell pulled from her belt. “Forget the rules for one second,” Tanzi hissed back. “And water my violets while I’m gone. Unless, of course, you get Summoned too.” “Yes.” I held my smile as stiff as the stars in the stained glass. “Unless I get Summoned too.” Empty words made of dust. We both knew it would never happen. Summonings are rare enough; two Sisters Summoned at once is practically unheard of. And with each day that passes, the less I think I will ever get called inside the mountain to earn the gift of Sight. Then that was it.

That was all Tanzi and I got for a good-bye before my Threadsister was tugged onward and the rest of us were assembling into rows. At the end was me, all alone, for our number does not break evenly. Hilga rang the bell once, and its bright tinkle ɹlled the observa-tory. Filled my ears, then hooked deep into my heart and yanked down. I hated the sound of that bell even more than the deeper bell that followed. The one in the belfry above the Crypts’ Chapel. At the main bell’s single toll, we walked. Little Trina, who is at least two hands shorter than I, glanced back at me. Pity clouded her blue eyes. Or maybe it wasn’t pity but rather a fear that she’d one day end up like me: seventeen and still pall-eyed. Seventeen and still dressed in brown. Seventeen and still un-Summoned by our sleeping Goddess, Sirmaya. I pretended not to see Trina staring, and when we began the Chant of Sending, I hummed the hollow tones louder than I had ever hummed before. I wanted Tanzi to hear me, all the way at the front of the line, as we wound out of the observatory and up the trail into the evergreens. Two of the Serving Sisters had cleared this path last week, but already white rubble clotted the pine-needle path.

It sheds from the mountain each time she shakes herself. I will have to clean it again tomorrow—just you wait. Hilga will come to me in the morning with that chore. Except this time, there will be no Tanzi to help. When at last we reached the chapel pressed against the mountain’s white face, the chant came to an end. Always the same rhythm, always the same timing. We all stopped there, at the entrance into the Crypts, the Convent’s vast underground library. The chant was over, but its memory still hung in the air around us as we fanned into half circles around the arched entrance. The spirit swift that had Summoned Tanzi swooped over us now, brieɻy multiplying into three aetherial birds. Then six. Then shrinking back into one before sailing through the open door. When it had disappeared from sight, Hilga nodded at Tanzi. “From this day on, Tanzi Lamanaya will be no more. She will leave us as a Serving Sister and return with the Gift of Clear Eyes.” “Praise be to the Sleeper,” we all murmured—even me, though it made my stomach hurt to say it.

Tanzi smiled then. A brilliant, giddy one with no sign of her earlier fret. And who could blame her? Even she, who waxed day in and day out about wanting to leave the Convent—even she wanted the Sight as badly as the rest of us. And now she would get it. She’d been Summoned by the Sleeper, the most important moment in the life of a Sightwitch Sister. The only moment, really, that matters. I tried to mimic her grin. Tried to show Tanzi that I was happy for her—because I was. A person can grieve for herself yet still revel in someone else’s good fortune. Our eyes barely had time to connect before Hilga gripped Tanzi’s shoulder and turned her away. They walked, Tanzi and Hilga, step by measured step into the chapel. Into the mountain. Soon enough, they were lost to the shadows. The next time I would see Tanzi, her eyes would no longer match mine. The other Sisters turned away then and marched back to the observatory in their perfect lines.

I lingered behind, my gaze trapped on the words etched into the marble above the chapel entrance. TWO OR MORE AT ALL TIMES, FOR A LONE SISTER IS LOST. We call it the Order of Two, and no matter your heritage, the letters shift and melt into whatever language you find easiest to read. For me, that is Cartorran. My aunt took me from Illrya before I was old enough to learn its written language. I could not help but wonder, every time I saw these letters, What do those words look like for someone who cannot read? I shook my head. A useless question, and one that left me running to catch back up to the group. The rest of my day unfolded in silence. Tanzi’s half of the bed is cold now, as I write this. Only without her here do I realize how adapted to her presence I am. Her sideways snorts when she thinks something’s funny. The constant cracking of her knuckles while she talks. Or even how she breathes heavy in her sleep, not quite a snore, but a sound I’m so accustomed to. I don’t want to sleep. I don’t want to wake up alone.

And I don’t want to wake up wondering, yet again, why, why, why I am still without the Sight. Tanzi Lamanaya Y10 D234 Today, I received a knife with an amber on the hilt. My mentor, Sister Hilga, told me it is the “key to the past” and that I must not lose it. “Every Sister at the Convent has their own key,” she said. “And they are not to be shared.” She also gave me a huge book called A Brief Guide to the Sight-witches and this diary, in which I’m supposed to record all events of the day. Then, upon waking, I must record all of my dreams. I hope I can remember my dreams. I’ve never remembered them before. Today, I learned the hierarchy of the Sightwitch Sisters. I don’t think I’ll forget the three kinds of Sisters, seeing as I live here now and will be seeing them every day, but I also do not want to disobey my mentor. Especially since my roommate, a girl named Ryber Fortiza, has now scolded me twice for not following the rules. Ryber is from Illrya, and she’s just like Gran-Mi always said the Illryans were: focused and serious. “Your bed is not made right,” Ryber pointed out earlier. Then just a few moments later, she said, “You will get us into trouble, Tanzi.

The lanterns are snuʃed at the twenty-first chimes, and lighting a candle after that would be breaking Rule 33.” Her dark eyes have been narrowed ever since and her brow sloped so low. Gran-Mi would say that she has a face for telling stories, because it is so expressive. I miss Gran-Mi. I hope I don’t cry tonight. I don’t think Ryber would like that. Oh, no, Ryber is staring expectantly at me again. I had better write what I remember from my lessons. First, we were assigned something called the Nine Star Puzzle. “Given the nine stars,” Hilga said, “connect them all with only four lines and without lifting your chalk from the slate.” The nine stars were laid out like this: But I still haven’t ɹgured out how to connect the stars with only four lines. And I’ve tried a hundred different ways. After that, we learned the three kinds of Sisters. Ryber drew the pictures for me and added the notes. She says it’s better to have pictures in our diaries, but I can’t draw.

“Not yet,” Ryber told me, “but you’ll learn.” Then she read what I’d written about her above, and she laughed. A big sound. The kind Gran-Mi would’ve called “catching.” “You can call me Ry,” she said next. “And I’m sorry I nagged you earlier. But Rule 8 says, ‘Obedience is holy.’ So you see? Only by following the Rules will Sirmaya know which Sisters are good enough for her to Summon.” Serving Sisters are acolytes at the Convent. They serve the Sightwitch Sisters by helping to clean, cook, and garden. Summoned Sisters are acolytes who have been Summoned by Sirmaya to go into the mountain. For up to two days, a Sister is underground meeting the Goddess, but I don’t really know what that means. Sightwitch Sisters have the Sight, meaning they can look at something once and remember it forever. They also can use their knives (like the knife Sister Hilga gave me) to remove memories from corpses. And, when they pray together, the Sisters can see visions in the scrying pool at the observatory.

“Oh,” I said, thinking back to the massive list of Rules that Hilga had showed me earlier. There were a lot. Ry seemed to know what I was thinking because she laughed again and said, “Don’t worry. You have time to learn it all. I’ve been here for ɹve years—since I was four years old!—and I’m still learning.” Then she smiled big, and I smiled back. “What about the Nine Star Puzzle?” I asked. “I haven’t figured that out yet.” “Me either! And I’ve been trying to solve since I got here.” She shrugged. “Sister Hilga says that it takes some Sisters their whole lives to find the answer.” I winced. “I hope it doesn’t take me my whole life.” “It won’t, Tanz. It won’t.

” Ryber laughed after that, a bright sound that made me laugh too. I like how she called me “Tanz.” “Do you have other questions?” she asked while neatly turning down her half of the bed. I hesitated. I did have a question, but I did not want to be rude. My curiosity got the better of me in the end, though. “Why did Sister Lindou say I was lucky to share a room with you?” “Oh.” Ryber’s face fell, and I knew right away I shouldn’t have asked. I should have “practiced restraint” like Gran-Mi always taught me. “They tell me I will have strong Sight one day,” Ryber answered eventually. “Stronger than other Sisters. So I guess being with me is… special.” I wanted to ask her why her Sight would be stronger and why that made her special, but this time, I was smart enough to stay quiet. Poor Ry. I don’t like how worried she looks now.

A BRIEF GUIDE TO THE SIGHTWITCHES Sister Toria Avé INTRODUCTION Sightwitches are not born; we are made. Welcome to the Sightwitch Sister Convent. After years of mentoring Serving Sisters, I decided to compile all the rules, orders, and requirements that new arrivals must learn, as well as all the questions they most often ask. To understand what life here will be like, you must ɹrst and foremost understand who our Goddess truly is. Her sleeping form beneath the Witchlands is not only the source of all magic but also the reason we exist. She is life; She is death; She is the ultimate creator. Many cultures have diʃerent names for her, but we know her by her true name: Sirmaya. The Sightwitch order was founded almost ɹfteen hundred years ago, when the first Sightwitches appeared in the Witchlands. At that time, there were no other witches save for the Paladins, whose duty it was to protect and maintain peace across the land. While those chosen twelve were born with magic, our Sightwitch magic is a gift gained simply by devoting our lives to the Goddess. Time spent inside the mountain on which we now reside leads to a buildup of Sirmaya’s magic, and ultimately the ability to see into the future. Over time, the Sisters have honed other talents with this unique form of magic. We have learned that a small cut beneath the ear of a corpse allows us to access the memories of the dead. Additionally, we have found that our own memories are thorough and infallible—every detail around us can be seen a single time and never forgotten. These three types of magic are what we now swear to protect each morning when we recite the Memory Vow, the Vow of Clear Eyes, and the Vow of a Future Dreamed.


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Updated: 12 October 2021 — 12:49

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