Lillie Franks                  Brief Q&A with the author
Lillie E. Franks is a trans author and teacher who lives in Chicago, Illinois with the best cats. You can read her work at places like Always CrashingPoemeleon, and Drunk Monkeys or follow her on Twitter at @onyxaminedlife. She loves anything that is not the way it should be.
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The Prophet

The first thing you should know is she was rock-solid. The way other trans people talk about her makes her sound wispy. They paint her like they paint magic: colorful, gleaming, and just a little transparent around the edges. Even I make her sound that way sometimes.  

She’d be easier to believe if she were less real, I think.

If there’s one thing we needed, it was someone to believe in. And not the way we believed in the other stuff: the spirits and the gods, the tarot cards, the incense. Those are just symbols, representations of something none of us quite have a name for, invitations to something else, something ghostly and half-present. It would be easy to turn her into a symbol, except she was more than a symbol.

As for the boring stuff, her name was Ruth when I met her. She worked as a bartender and threw most of what she made towards rent on a place she shared with two other queers I knew through friends. She worked as a bartender and threw most of it towards rent on a place she shared with two other folks. Her hair was a tired green, with streaks of brown and blonde. There was a stick and poke of a moth on her left arm. I remember her being particular about that; it was a moth, not a butterfly. She lived in Chicago, and it was home.

The tattoo is the only thing I’m sure is still true now. But it wasn’t because she wasn’t any of those things. She was Ruth. She lived in Chicago, and it was home. It’s just that none of it would last. None of it was meant to last. 


She was something else: a concrete, substantial piece of the future. A future with flesh and blood, one that saw you reaching for it and reached back.

We’re all used to wispy futures. We’ve had only one foot in the present for so long we get wispy ourselves. That was the difference. Ruth saw the future, and because of it, she knew how to live in the present.

I was just a wisp caught between the present and the future before I met her. Working at the same library for five years. Nice work, but that’s not why I stayed. I stayed because I couldn‘t get rid of the idea that someday, the future will be here, and I’ll have to say what I did with the present. I always figured at least I could say I was a librarian. Librarians are real.

If you haven’t guessed it already, I was in love with Ruth. And I think she loved me, in the same way she did everything. Deeply, fully, but not forever. Our first meeting was at a party. That shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. Put three or more queers in a room, and it’s technically a party. She came with her roommates, who were friends with my friends.

That first night, she saw possibility in me, but who didn’t she see possibility in? She was like an overflowing jar, and I was someone with space to be poured into. When she smiled at me from her spot on the arm of the couch, I smiled back.

“Have I met you somewhere?” I asked. It was about as close to a line as I got.

“I’m Ruth,” she answered. “I’m new here, but better late than never.”

“Ava,” I said, holding out my hand. Not exactly smooth. “Nice to meet you.”

She looked at my hand. “You’re nervous about something.”

“I’m nervous about everything. It’s kind of my thing.”

“The future isn’t frightening in the way you think.”

The tone of her voice, the confidence she spoke with, should have told me right then. Instead, I noted the remark and filed it away in my memory.

We talked for nearly two hours. I picked up steam a little when the subject was anything but myself. I told her about the library; we shared some anime and books we liked and threw out some lukewarm political takes.

When she looked me in the eyes and said, “I’d like to kiss you,” it surprised me, but I was ready to say yes.

That was when we heard the commotion.

We were in a corner of the living room, and the noise came from the kitchen. By the time we got there, there were enough people that I had to crane to see what everyone was looking. It was Nyx. They were on the floor, clearly having a full panic attack. Lizzie, their partner, was next to them, holding them tight, whispering something comforting into their ear. The host of the party – someone who, at the time, I thought was too interesting for me, but would later become pretty close friends with – had a broom and dustpan and was stepping towards the remains of a broken glass.

I could put most of it together from there. I only knew Nyx’s past to the tune of a few things they asked people not to mention around them, but even then, it was a lot. Loud noise and crowds were bad for them; something had been too much for them, they had dropped their glass and now they had the whole party staring at them.

“Let’s go,” I said. I realized that I was holding Ruth’s hand. She was staring, transfixed, even as the others started to leave or were hustled away.

“What’s wrong?” I asked. Her face was rigid, but I could see intense emotions just beneath the surface. She was hearing the call.

She and kneeled down near Nyx and Lizzie. “I’d like to show you something,” she said, in a gentle voice, not quite the one she’d talked to me with. “I think it’s what you need to see right now.”

To my surprise, Nyx nodded. Even in their state, they could tell there was something special about Ruth, something behind her words. I was beginning to see it too. A new quality, something she didn’t have, or didn’t show, before.

“It will mean touching your hand. Is that okay?”

Nyx nodded again. Lizzie said nothing, watching as Ruth reached out and took Nyx’s hand.

And then, Nyx saw.

Their eyes went wide, focusing on something not in the room. Their entire body relaxed, as if opening up to the world. Within just a few seconds, they were entirely calm, entirely present. They shook their head and turned towards Ruth, who gently withdrew her hand.

Sometimes, I still hesitate when I call what Ruth did prophecy. But what else should I call it? She could see the future, I know that. She could show it to others. I would never see exactly what it was that Nyx saw in that moment, but I knew it was the future. The good future, the one where all of us were not just allowed, but welcome. Nothing else brought that kind of peace to someone caught in the present and dragged down by the past.

People were starting to gather again. The crowd didn’t seem to bother Nyx now.

“...Did you do that?” they asked.

“I did the showing,” said Ruth. “You did the seeing.”

Nyx smiled up at Lizzie. “It’s so much freer than I even imagined…”

My eyes snapped to Ruth’s face. There was a sadness behind it I couldn’t understand, not yet. Now, I know she was staring at the great fish that had swallowed her a hundred times before. Once again, the joy, the child-like hope that radiated from Nyx’s face was taking her into its belly.

Before I could form the question in my own mind, Nyx whispered it.

“Are you… a prophet?”

Ruth stood up.

“I have to go.”

She stopped next to me just long enough to tell me to meet her outside. Then, she pushed past the crowd and was out. 


We took the bus back to my place without talking about it. It was obvious Ruth didn’t want to. Her face turned off like a light every time the subject approached, or there was a pause long enough to let it near.

When we got there, I barely had time to apologize for the state of the place before she kissed me. Then I guided her hand to my hip, and we were on the bed. There was no time to wonder if I was just another way for her to distract herself.

Afterward, I rested my head on her chest. She ran her fingers through my hair, occasionally pulling at little tangles.

Our sex, like most sex, was a little awkward, a little too long toward the end. But the moment after it was worth everything.

“You want to know what happened, don’t you?”

I felt a lightness in my chest, the beautiful bursting sensation of a secret being uncovered, but kindly. “You don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to.”

“No, it’s better that you know all of it than just some.”

I said nothing, waiting for her to talk. Her fingers brushed my neck.

“Do you believe in prophets?”

“I believe you showed Nyx something.” I paused. “I believe it was the future.”

“A piece of the future.”

I thought for a moment. “Do you think you’re a prophet?”

She smiled. “Of course not. Prophets have beards and they wear robes. Do you see a beard or a robe on me?”

“Well, I dunno about a beard, but you could make a robe work.” I poked her nose. “Which piece did you show?”

“I showed them the happy parts. The parts they’d forgotten…You believe in them, don’t you?”

“Usually I do. Sometimes I just pretend.”

“Do you believe it now?”

I looked up into her eyes and smiled. “Yes. Right now, I do.”

There was a pause. She was so warm and soft, and her chest lifting and falling with each breath. It was one of those few, perfect moments where you don’t need a purpose or a future at all. Just this.

“You know the story of Jonah?” she asked, suddenly, letting her hand slip down to my back.

“I was a weird kid with Christian parents, yeah.”

“People always say Jonah was weak. But think about how much strength it takes to be called, really called, and get a boat going the other way.”

“Trans icon,” I said.

“Assigned preacher to Nineveh at birth.” We laughed, together. “Still,” she added, “he gave in when the fish swallowed him. He never tried to run away again.”

I twisted my neck to look at her again. She was sad, but in a placid way. A familiar, even welcome, sadness.

“I worry I’m not taking this seriously enough,” I said.

She shook her head. “Just because something’s important doesn’t mean you should take it seriously.”

“Prophets scare me,” I said, finally. “If I met a prophet, I’d have to follow them. Because they’re a prophet. And even if they were right, even if I knew they were right, it scares me a little not to have a choice.”

“You’re scared of having only one future. Even a good one.”

“Aren’t you?”

“No. Not really.” She thought for a while. “You’re scared of prophets, but do you think there are things worth prophesying about?”

I paused for a moment and nodded. “Too fucking many of them.”

“That’s what really matters.”

We fell silent again. Another perfect moment. She was beautiful. I can’t describe this scene without telling you how beautiful she was, and how beautiful she made me feel, lying there on top of her.

“Why did you only show Nyx a piece of the future?”

The question escaped me, like something alive. It was the one piece of it that still didn’t make sense. If there was one thing I felt sure of about prophets, it was that they didn’t speak in bits and pieces. Everything a prophet said was complete. Even when they said there was more to be shown, it was because there was more to be shown, and that mattered.

“They needed something. I had to.”

“But why not show it all?”

She was upset. I was prodding close to something painful. But she wasn’t telling me to stop. Maybe she hoped it was something I could pry loose somehow. Maybe she wasn’t even wrong.

“I wasn’t ready,” she said, finally. “Not yet.” 


The next two weeks, I kept up with her nervously by internet messenger. She responded briefly and with long pauses, but regularly. Just enough to show that even if she was busy, she still wanted to talk.

What did I feel for her then, exactly? I don’t know. I knew I was afraid, deeply afraid, that I felt more for her than she did for me. I always feel that way when things happen fast, and it means I tuck away the fullness of my feelings someplace I don’t have to see them.

Ruth didn’t keep anything tucked away. Not in the present, anyway.

Sometimes, that alone reminded me of prophecy.

Nyx shared more about what they had seen. Every time they talked about it, words fell out of them like rain dropping from the sky. They talked about people playing, building, creating, about abundance and peace and communities that gathered to care for each other. They told us about people loving each other, and how, yes, that meant being gay too, and trans, and queer and a hundred other identities we haven’t even named yet. But this future was no loose chaos, they added. It was organized, powerful, and ready to defend itself and its members.

“It’s not just that the future deals with problems better,” they said once. “It’s that they don’t have the same problems. It’s a totally new world.”

But Nyx wasn’t the only one people wanted to hear from.

I had left the room with her that night. She had kissed me, and so if there was something sacred in her, then it was in me too. They wanted me to tell them about her. They wanted me to tell them she was special, what it was that made her special.

They wanted her to prophecy the future and they wanted me to prophecy her.

At first, I tried to answer truthfully. I struggled to tell them that it had just been another pleasant conversation, another night in each other’s arms, only as different as all of them are different from each other. But I could see the hunger in their eyes. I knew the answer they really wanted, and I knew they would keep asking until I gave it.

So I started saying nothing.

And while I said nothing, she went on to perform more miracles. I didn’t know how many were real, how many were just stories or misunderstandings, but she wasn’t hiding her gift. She showed the future, or at least, pieces of it to somewhere between 8 and 20 people during those weeks. The futures they described were never the same, but the joy they shared their visions with was.

On Monday, I called her. I couldn’t do messages anymore. I needed to hear her voice.

I needed to see what was meant to be sacred in her.

“Ava!” her voice came, joyful and uncomplicated. “Thank you for calling!”

I hesitated. It hadn’t really struck me that she would actually pick up. “How are you?” I managed, finally.

“Oh, you know that’s a lot to answer.” 

“Never ask a trans woman to do small talk, huh?”

“I’m glad you called,” her voice suddenly serious. “I’m worried. That I might have to leave soon.”

“For Ninevah or Tarshish?”

“I’m being serious. I want to see you. It’s important.”

I said nothing.

“Tomorrow at about noon I need to go to Target. The one by Lawrence. Can you meet me there? Please?”

“Of course,” I said. There was so much longing in her voice, it shocked me.

But was it for me or for anyone who’d hear her? 


“Where are you going?”

I said it almost as soon as we walked through the doors. There was so much else to talk about, but I couldn’t start anywhere else. I needed to know that.

“I don’t know yet. Somewhere new. Where they don’t know me yet.”

“Where they don’t call you a prophet?”

Ruth winced. “If you saw it, if you saw the whole future, you’d understand.”

“Can you show it to me?”


She kept walking toward the hardware aisle. “Why not?” I asked, keeping pace.

She slowed down. “Because I like this too much. I like you. Me and you. The future with us in it.”

“Would I leave you if you showed it to me?”

“Yes. And no. Sometimes you leave me anyway. That’s the point! I don’t know!”

“But can’t you see-”

She sighed. “If there was just one future, what would be the point of a prophet? What would be the point of any of this?”

She turned down an aisle. I had to spin around to follow her.

“So, are you a prophet?”

“How should I know?”

I had been afraid she’d say that. There were a lot of words that mattered. Words like evil, or racist, or American or girl. You heard them used, you learned where it was safe to use them without anyone disagreeing, but you never really learned what they meant. And one day, you had to face the awful possibility that it was nothing. That no one had ever really been sure.

“Nyx thinks you are,” I said, finally.

She shook her head, reaching out for a box of lightbulbs. “It’s easy to be someone else’s prophet.”

“What do you mean?”

“Anyone can see the future. I mean, not all of it, not all at once, but we all know it isn’t supposed to be like this. We all know we’re meant to make it better. That’s seeing the future. Even if it’s vague.”

“I guess so.”

“The trouble is, we all see too much of the future. Too much doubt, too much uncertainty. People don’t want a prophet to show them the future. They want one to hide the parts of it that scare them.”

“And you don’t have your own idea?”

She stopped, as if she’d been popped with a needle. It was the first time I’d ever seen her weak.

“I can’t. I can’t be anyone’s prophet. I’m just a Jonah. I’m just running.”

We didn’t say anything else about it that day. Even if I wanted to push her, it was obvious she’d already said as much as she could.

She needed a prophet as badly as anyone else did, I realized. The difference was, she didn’t know where to look.

That night, when she text me, saying she wanted to meet at 8:00 at my house, a part of me knew what she would tell me. I also knew what I had to do.

It was nearly 8:45 by the time she showed up, but I never doubted she would. I believed in her. I believed she was kind, that she cared about other people. The more I thought about it, the surer I was that that’s what it really meant to be a prophet.

“Thank you for waiting,” she said, and smiled. “I wanted to see you again, before I leave.”

Just like I had thought.


She sat on the couch, patting the spot next to her. “I always leave.”

I sat down, close, but not quite touching her . “But why? Are we not good enough? Is it because I don’t-”

“I told you, didn’t I? About Jonah?”

I shook my head. “I don’t understand.”

“I told you Jonah gave in when the fish spat him back out. I told you that disappointed me.”

I felt a hollow open up in my chest. There was no answer to the question. I knew that, but already my mouth was stumbling to put something together, to plug the hole somehow. “He had to. The fish would just swallow him again.”

“Of course it would! But it would also spit him out again. And swallow him again and spit him out again. He could have lived like that.”

“But he didn’t.”

“Because he was afraid!”

In those four words, all of the anger and fear that had ever been just on the other side of what she was saying suddenly flared out, together. It made her smaller, more human-sized than I’d seen her before.

That made it easier.

“Why are you so afraid of what you can do?”

She shook her head. “Don’t make me say it.”

“Because they’d trust you.”

“Please, don’t.”

“And you can’t.”

There was a long pause. The question had lived under my skin for a long time. Ever since I first announced I was trans, I had always known I was trusting myself to the future. The world, I could tell, wasn’t really ready for me to exist, but if I pretended it was, other people might pretend with me. If enough of us pretended, it would be like it was real. We’d be another step closer to the time when people like me would be real, not just possible.

But there was always the fear. What if it doesn’t get better? What if I’m not a vanguard of any future, but the last of a brief freedom before a long crackdown? What if I never understood time? What if I’m going the wrong way?

It was time. If I waited any longer, I would never do it, and no one would ask me if I had meant to. I would be doing the same thing she was.

“I want to see it,” I said. “All of it.”

“And you’ll want me to guide you through it. Save you from it. You’ll turn me into its messenger.”

“No. I just want to see it. No matter how bleak it is.”

“It’s not bleak. It’s just large. Crowded. Easy to get-”

“Swallowed by.”

She nodded. “You’ll need me to guide you. And I can’t guide you. I can’t even guide myself.”

“I still want to see it. No matter how much of it there is.”

“Why?” It was less a challenge and more a real question. Why would anyone want the power she had?

“Because I want you to know that someone has seen the whole future you’re carrying and still sees you as a person. Not just a prophet.”

She met my eyes. “You think you mean that. But how can you know? How can you know what you’ll think once you’ve seen it?”

This was it. “Because I won’t.”

“I can see futures where you do. I can see you make every promise and still break them.”

“But you can see me keeping that promise too, can’t you?”

“I can see a lot of things.”

I laid my hand on the couch between us. “Just for tonight, let me be your prophet. Show it to me. I will see you as a person. I won’t allow the other futures to happen.”

She sat, silently, thinking it over. Was I the first person to say these words to her? Was I the fiftieth? And at the end of the day, did it matter?

She laid her hand on top of mine.

“Okay. I’ll show you. I’ll show it all.”

Her other hand cupped my face, gentle and tender. And suddenly, I saw.

I had expected it to be like a movie in my head. My apartment and the couch and the giant pride flag I’d gotten from a friend would all fade away and I’d see something else, what was to come. But it wasn’t. Instead, it was just like Ruth had said. The world was crowded with futures. And for that moment, I could see them.

All of them.

I looked at Ruth’s face. Behind it, I could see futures blooming. I saw her burst out crying, realizing that leaving was a huge mistake. I saw her take out her phone and start sending texts to cancel everything. I saw her sleep in my bed that night, next to me, and I saw every possibility we might wake up to: There we were, going out to dinner. There, she met my family, and I met the parts of her she still cared about. There, the two of us walked down the aisle at a big church wedding, no, a little garden party with friends, no, just the two of us at the clerk’s office with drinks afterwards, no, a hundred other things for the hundred other lives I saw us living together.

But there, right beside it, I saw her walking out the door, without even seeing goodbye. I saw myself crying into the arms of my best friend, saying I just wanted her back. I saw myself getting over it, meeting new people, loving someone else. I saw us never meeting again, and I saw us bumping into each other, awkwardly in an airport, no, a train station, no, a coffee shop. I saw myself overcoming that wound, and I saw myself falling into it, letting it destroy the person I’d become. I saw futures where she stayed, and it didn’t work. I saw myself becoming bitter, small, yelling at her about a thousand different details of a thousand things that hadn’t happened yet. I saw us making up and splitting up, and I could see that every decision we made, every single one, was right and the only thing we could have done.

But it went further, much further.

One by one, every future for either me or her, tumbled away into nothingness. Some were quick: an automobile, an angry stranger with something to prove. I saw Ruth become a prophet and a martyr, and I saw her killed on the street and called a man in the newspapers. I saw myself dying in a hospital, in my home, in my family’s home, in a hundred other places, none of which were beautiful enough for it.

And still, time went on, and I, unprepared, tumbled forward into it. My name was forgotten. Ruth’s name was forgotten, or it was carried forward by future generations. I saw the bright future that she had shown Nyx. I saw people come together to tear down this world and build a new one, one that they would be proud of, not ashamed. I saw fields and plants bloom across the country and people eating the food they had grown, with no one to give them pay or permission. I saw families tell their children about trans people the way they told them about the sun setting or the moon’s smile. I saw people who had no one beneath them to trample, and nothing to be afraid of when they reached up.

But there were other futures. I saw the world grind on in dreary sameness, with new names and faces inheriting the same old wealth and the same old poverty. I saw the world torn apart in an instant, or step by step over centuries. I saw the great machine grow so large that there was nothing to do but feed it, oil it, and try to keep it running. I heard people laugh at the dream of having your own home, your own family, at naming yourself or making art. I saw them forget what it was like to have plenty or to stand together. I saw the same people who had been called heroes for imagining a kinder world torn apart by machine guns and thrown into unmarked graves. There were even futures where the earth hung, lifeless, a few radioactive stones and toothmarked bones all the memory that there had ever been the possibility of a future unlike the present.

There was no constancy, no one moment that decided any future. Every one of the futures hung equally in every moment. Every one was constantly being decided, undecided and reshaped. Like smoke from a fire, they drifted from the moment, from the two of us and the room, and floated lazily away into eternity.

This was prophecy. Living and choosing was prophecy. Everyone in every moment prophesied some world. The difference was that only some allowed themselves to see the world they made themselves the emissary of. In that moment, I could see.

Ruth took her hand from my head, and the room was bare again. No world, no armies or revolutions. Just us, us and the clock my last roommate had left behind ticking away slowly.

But they weren’t gone. I couldn’t see them, but they were still there, floating and entwining, always getting closer and closer to substantial

“You don’t need to be sure of anything,” I said, and suddenly, we were holding each other.

“Are you still going to leave?” I asked her.

She thought for a long time. “Yes,” she said, finally. “But I’ll come back. I’ve never said that before, but this time I will. I’ll come back.

In the morning, she was gone, and I was alone to find my own way to the future, without her sight. Still, I believed her. I prophesied for her, and she believed me. Now, it was my turn to believe her. She will come back, and together, we’ll build a future. Not a certain future, but an uncertain one.

There is no certainty in the future, but sometimes there is in the present. Us holding each other that night was certain. Showing me the world was her choice, but holding her was ours, and I know it was the right one. That warmth, that togetherness, was perfect.

Any future that springs from soil like that is a future worth living.