Geoff Ryman, in his desperate and beautiful science fiction novel The Un-
conquered Country, describes Third, a peasant girl in a place like Cambodia.
Numbers were portents too. They were used as oracles. This was a
practical thing. Rice shoots were counted; yields were predicted, seed
was stored. Numbers spread out in fanlike shapes, into the future.
Third could read them. She saw yarrow in her mind, ghost yarrow
she sometimes called them, and they would scurry ahead of the real
stalks. They moved too fast for her to follow, flashing, weaving. They
leapt to correct answers. If anyone asked Third how much rice was in
a bowl, she . . .  could have answered, “Six hundred to seven hundred
grains.” The yarrow stalks in her mind would click, telling her how
much space ten grains took—as represented by so many lengths cut
into a stalk— and how much space there was in a bowl. The ghost yar-
row opened and closed, like a series of waving fans, beautiful, orderly,
true. . . .  She could not follow the waving fans, but she could feel her
mind driving them. It was a pleas ur able sensation, this slight sense of
forcing something ahead. She could make them go faster if she wanted
to. It was how she saw the world; it was as if the world were a forest of
yarrow, moving all around her, as if numbers were leaves, rustling in
the wind.
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