Looking Forward to It by Ed Ahern

Author’s note: the background for this story comes from W.M.L. Hutchinson,’s version of the fable, “The Prince Who Was a Seer” published in 1914 in The Golden Porch.





“I’m not in the mood for a walk, Granddad.”

Stephen’s grandfather Mel stared up at him. “Humor me, maybe you’ll feel better by the time we get back.” He spoke in that resonating tone that had convinced hundreds of people to trust him.  

Maybe so, Stephen thought. Can’t make things worse.

The adolescent and his grandfather rambled through the woods near their house, the boy’s keen eyes picking out squirrels, birds and insects. I think I feel more comfortable with animals than with those jerks at school.

His grandfather stopped him as they were cutting through the old family graveyard on their way back. “I’m tired,” the grandfather said, “let’s sit for awhile on this stone bench.”

They sat on the bench in front on a gravestone so old the name had weathered off it. “Maybe I’ll tell you a story while I catch my breath.”

“I’m too old for stories, Grandpa.”

“Oh? What’s bothering you so much?”

“It’s all right, I’ll live.”

“Now I have to know.”

Stephen hesitated, but he wanted to tell someone. “You know that I don’t fit in with the crowd at school.  I look at things differently, and a lot of what they do seems stupid or cruel.  But I thought one of the girls, Chrissie, understood me, and we talked a lot. When I finally told her how I really felt about things, she called me a raving weirdo, and told some of the guys, who got serious about picking on me.”

Mel shrugged. “So you have bad taste in women? This tale is about that problem, but few people know the story, and nobody believes it anymore.”

“Anyway,” he continued, “Once, about three thousand years ago, there was a young prince named Melampus who was hunting in the woods of Attica…”

“I’m almost eighteen, way too old for fairy tales, grandpa.”

“I doubt it, and don’t interrupt me please, because this is important. One day while hunting Melampus got tired and lay down for a nap near an old shrine. He dreamed that a large snake, with scales speckled in emerald and blue sapphire slithered onto his chest.  The snake flicked its tongue onto his eyes, ears, and mouth, looked at him for a moment, and crawled off.

“When Melampus woke up, the dream seemed so real that he shook himself as if to throw off the snake. But he was alone-no, not really alone, because he could hear birds and squirrels in the trees, and rabbits and mice in the undergrowth. Really hear them.

‘The snake has given Melampus the gift of understanding us,’ said a jackdaw crow.’

‘And more than that,’ replied a barn owl. ‘He knows the healing plants, and what the future brings.’

‘What am I hearing,’ Melampus yelled out.

“A gray squirrel chittered, ‘don’t be startled, Melampus. You hear the voices of the woods and fields. What we see and hear we can tell you, but we know nothing of the minds of men, who are often devious and evil.'”

The grandfather went on to tell how Melampus rescued the king’s daughters and claimed a portion of the kingdom for himself. He married a woman named Bias, aptly named, for although she loved Melampus, she could never see past her prejudices. And Melampus began a life of curing illnesses and looking into the future.

The old man waved his arms and talked without pause, delighted to finally reveal the story. He told Stephen that Bias gave Melampus a son, who in turn had a son, Amphiaraus.

“One day,” he related, “Amphiaraus visited the tomb of his grandfather. He felt suddenly tired, and lay down on a bench a little like this one. As he slept, he dreamt of the same brightly speckled snake, and that the snake licked its dry, forked tongue on his eyes, ears, and lips.

“When he awoke he too could hear voices coming from the hedges and trees near the burial site.

‘Amphiaraus has awakened,’ said a field mouse. ‘Look closely inside yourself, man, for you now know much.’

“Amphiaraus realized that he knew the uses of plants and herbs, and could foretell tomorrow as if it were yesterday morning. The animals began telling him what they had seen and heard, what men had really done. But he could not know men’s thoughts, and loved badly, which was his downfall.

“Amphiaraus fell in love with his cousin Eriphyle, a princess of Argos and sister of king Adrastus. Eriphyle had enticing eyes and milky skin, but she was as greedy as a magpie, and loved expensive jewelry.”

“Granddad,” Stephen interrupted, “sorry, but this isn’t helping me.”

“Patience, young man, this story was birthed many lifetimes ago, hopefully you can listen for a few minutes while I tell it.

“Anyway, a barred owl flew onto a branch near Amphiaraus and hooted. ‘Amphiaraus, you have been cheated out of your inheritance by your cousin. You should have half of Adrastus’ kingdom as your birthright, but he has left you ignorant and without power. You should claim what is yours.’

“Amphiaraus began healing sick people, and predicting futures that came true. He became more popular than Adrastus, which the king resented, but could do nothing about because Amphiaraus was revered. Amphiaraus met with scholars and learned that he was indeed entitled to half the kingdom.

“After some months, Amphiaraus visited Adrastus. ‘I have no bad feelings for you, and have great love for your sister, Eriphyle. But I am entitled by royal right to half of the kingdom, and we must agree how to divide it.’

“Now, Adrastus loved power even more than his sister loved jewelry, and to give away half of the kingdom would rip him apart. He stalled. ‘Cousin, please come back in three days and I will have a solution.’

“Once Amphiaraus had left, Adrastus summoned his sister. ‘Eriphyle, for the good of the kingdom you must marry Amphiaraus.’

“She pouted.  ‘I am fond enough of him, and he’s rich, but I don’t love him.’

‘Little sister, I can’t kill or exile him, I need his talents to predict our future. Marrying him keeps the kingdom under our control. You’ll grow to like him, and you’ll be able to bathe in gold and jewels.’

“She agreed, and Adrastus offered Amphiaraus marriage to Eriphyle if he would settle for a fiefdom under Adrastus’ rule. Amphiaraus was so smitten with Eriphyle that he gave up his birthright for her.

“In time Eriphyle delivered a son,  and Amphiaraus lived in contentment, his life rich with the conversations with all kinds of animals and the healing and counseling of his fellow men.

“But Adrastus’ urge for power could not be contained, and he made plans to conquer the neighbor state of Thebes. He went to Amphiaraus for reassurance of his success, but Amphiaraus instead told him that his defeat would be total, and that most of his troops would die in the battle. Amphiaraus finished by saying that he would not join in the fight.

‘This advice festered so rottenly inside Adrastus that he decided that it must be wrong. But he knew that his troops would not follow him unless Amphiaraus was with them. He went to Eriphyle with a magnificent jewel. ‘Dear sister. For the good of the kingdom, you must convince your husband to follow me into this battle. In return for your help I’ll give you this gem.’ And Adrastus took out a flawless ruby the size of a plum.

“Eriphyle wanted this gemstone more than she wanted any man, including Amphiaraus. She agreed to convince Amphiaraus in return for the ruby. She whined, she pleaded, she scolded Amphiaraus for his cowardice, she turned cold and withheld her favors, she belittled him in front of his friends. Finally Amphiaraus, still desperately in love with Eriphyle, agreed to to go into battle alongside Adrastus.

“They marched out as a great army, but were slaughtered beneath the walls of Thebes. Adrastus, seeing that the battle was lost, turned his chariot to flee. As he looked back over the battlefield he saw Amphiaraus surrounded by Thebans. But Amphiaraus was not killed in battle. The ground opened up beneath him and dropped him down, then closed up again, leaving only a seam of raw earth where Amphiaraus had stood.

“After the battle a gravestone was planted to mark the spot where Amphiaraus disappeared, and some say that it still stands. And that’s the story of Melampus and Amphiaraus, who could talk to animals. They were kind and wise, but were undone by the women they were closest to.”

Stephen smiled despite how he felt. “So I shouldn’t trust women, granddad?”

Mel smiled in turn, a little sadly. “You may trust either men or women to be only as good as they can be. Those of us who see and feel differently must be wary of the rest of the herd, so that we don’t get trampled. Let’s go in, I’m hungry.”

Over time Stephen was once again left alone by his classmates. That February his grandfather, his only close relative, died in his sleep. At the funeral hundreds of men and women went up to Stephen and said how much his grandfather had helped them, not just in finances but in their private lives as well. “He knew,” one man said, “what was wrong with us, physically and spiritually, and told us how to be healed.”

Stephen had just turned eighteen and was able to stay in the house without supervision. This is no life, he thought one day. If I don’t hide who I am I’m a pariah,  if I dumb myself down to fit in I’ll be screamingly bored and frustrated.

One unusually warm day in March, Stephen decided to retrace the walk he and his grandfather had taken. He came out of the woods in front of the stone bench and the weathered grave stone. He sat down on the bench feeling more than a little sorry for himself.

The spring light had warmed the bench stone, and Stephen stretched out to let the sun beat down on him as well. He drifted into sleep, and in that sleep a snake came, iridescently jeweled, and as long as Stephen was tall. As it slithered across his chest Stephen could feel its weight and the bunching of his shirt as it coiled and uncoiled. The serpent paused, then slid its tongue onto his eyes, ears and mouth, the touches dry, cool and tingling.

He awoke with a shudder and fell off the bench onto the grass. There was no snake to be seen, but he could hear voices, soft and loud, close and far.

A barred owl, never seen in bright sunlight, landed on the top of the tombstone. His words tumbled out with rounded vowels. “Boy, you know more than you can yet imagine. But beware the minds of men, they are often foul places.”

Stephen walked the woods and fields almost every day, finding plants that heal and harm, listening to the animals and looking at tomorrow like yesterday.

One day, behind the school building, he began a conversation with a colony of Norway rats that nested near the garbage dumpsters. As he stood in apparent silence two of his classmates noticed him.

“Watch out, weirdo, or you’ll smell like rotten food.”

“Creepy little turd, once you graduate you’ll get stuck in an asylum.”

Once the boys had moved on one of the larger rats spoke up. “It’s all right Stephen, maybe they’ll be one of the ones to die.”

“Die? What do you mean?”

“Other boys are putting gasoline bombs underneath the viewing stands, saying they will explode them during the ceremony. Many will die or be maimed. This is man-vicious and we do not understand it, and we sometimes have to eat our young when we’re starving.”

Stephen was shocked into silence, then asked, “What did they look like? Did you hear their names?”

“One was short and stuffed with tasty fat. He wore black glasses, and he was called Bob. The other, Bob called Larry, and was lean and a head taller.”

Stephen knew them both, outliers like himself. He’d sensed a wrongness in them, and never gotten friendly. Graduation was a week away, and he needed to prevent the bombing. But if he told the school principal what was planned and who was planning it the principal would question Bob and Larry, who would deny it and then go looking for Stephen.  If he called the police and told then who he was and who was planning what it would have the same unpleasant result.

Finally, after an afternoon of anguishing, Stephen walked to one of the few remaining pay phones in town and called the police. Masking his voice, he told them that the graduation ceremony would be bombed by two boys who were planting gasoline bombs under the bleachers, and hung up.

One hundred forty seven students were to graduate that day, but only one hundred forty five were in attendance. Bob and Larry were missing, and as he marched past the bleachers to get his diploma, Stephen could see five newly dug holes under the stands. The news report that evening told the story. The two boys had been caught the night before setting the timers and arrested. The town police took full credit, with no mention made of a tip off.

All the better, Stephen thought. I’m off the hook. I really need to figure out how to use this talent.

That summer, Stephen got a job at a gas station convenience store. He began making and selling herbal teas to cure the ailments his customers told him about. Those he cured told others, who told others, and soon the gas station made most of its profit from tea.

The gas station owner helped Stephen finance the opening of a small tea shop, and people began driving in from out of town. As Stephen talked with customers about their ailments he couldn’t help but perceive what darkened their futures, and began offering advice.  

There were, of course, grumblings from those whose sicknesses were incurable or whose futures remained bleak. One afternoon a police detective came into the store.

“Stephen Devick?”

“Yes?”

“I’m Sergeant Peter Marsh. There’s been a complaint filed against you.”

“Oh? What for this time?”

“Complainant Dorothy Lausten says you threatened her with a bad future if she didn’t pay you a lot of money.”

“Dorothy Lausten? Middle-aged, heavyset, brown, thinning hair?”

“Yes. The town has an ordinance prohibiting fortune telling scams like yours.”

“Let’s back up just a bit, officer. Does she claim to have paid me anything?”

“No, says she refused.”

“Does she say that I interfered with her life in any way?”

“Says she can’t prove it, but thinks you did.”

“Nobody pays me when I first make a prediction, and I don’t have the time or ability to interfere with someone else’s life. Maybe it’s helpful if I show you what I do. Your younger daughter I believe is with a man you think is bad for her, maybe getting her involved with drugs?”

“Don’t try your swindle on me!”

“No swindle, no coercion. Although she’s dabbling in cocaine she’ll drop the experimentation at the same time she dumps the boyfriend, in about a month.”

“She claims she loves him, why would she do that?”

“He’s too friendly with her best friend. Don’t mention this, just wait. It’ll turn out okay.”

“I don’t believe you. If I find out you’re taking money for these fantasies I’ll be back to take you in.”

A month later the sergeant returned. “You made a lucky guess.”

“You’re welcome. The next boyfriend will also be a jerk, but you’ll learn to tolerate him.”

Between the money he received for his teas and donations made by those whose futures had come fortunately true, Stephen piled up money. But the people came to him half in fear of what he would say, and he was as much an outcast as he’d been in high school. He found that he still preferred the company of animals.

One afternoon Chrissie came into the shop. She’d avoided the post high school swelling of many of her friends and was as lissome as he remembered her. “Stephen, you seem to be doing well.”

He’d heard from both animals and humans that she’d been engaged, and broken it off. He couldn’t resist. “Sorry to hear that the engagement didn’t work out. How can I help you?”

“I get terrible migraine headaches, and nothing the doctor prescribes seems to work. I’m desperate enough to try one of your witches’ brews.”

“That’s too bad. I’ll give you a tea that seems to work for other people. No charge, if it works you can pay me for the next batch when you come in for a refill.”

It did, and she did. “Stephen,” she asked on her return, “do you still have those weird delusions?”

He laughed. “More than ever. But I’m comfortable with them now, and they’ve helped me make a pretty decent living.”

‘I heard you’re paying a fortune to update your grandfather’s place.’

“It’s my place now, and I want it to last a couple more generations.” After refilling her order he glanced at the store clock. “It’s almost noon, would you like to grab some lunch with me while we catch up?”

Chrissie stared at him as if he was a woodland animal dressed in clothes, but curiosity crept up on her. “Okay, why not.”

Lunch lead to a dinner, then another, then other things. Early one morning Stephen stared at Chrissie as she slept next to him. How delicious she is, and how I enjoy being with her. And she’s comfortable with me. I know how badly she’ll treat me. But I relish her presence, and she’s as close as I will be to another human with the exception of our son to be. I understand your story now, granddad. She’ll be as good as she can be.

end.

Looking Forward to It originally appeared in the Spring 2015 Equinox Issue of Eternal Haunted Summer.

***

Ed Ahern resumed writing after forty odd years in foreign intelligence and international sales. He’s had over two hundred stories and poems published so far, and three books. Ed works the other side of writing at Bewildering Stories, where he sits on the review board and manages a posse of five review editors.