Twenty-nine and rapidly losing her battle with self-disgust, the oracle takes the complicated step of formally rejecting her birthright. It’s a big deal, but, as with most of her decisions, the enormity of it is inversely proportional to her confidence about it. When she meets her sisters at a bar downtown, she is cagey, leery about questions, and secretive about her motives. She meanders from point to point. A hummingbird in a sea of carnivorous flowers.
She tries to soften the blow of her departure even as she formalizes it. She tries to play it off casually, but winds up defending her desire to leave with more passion than she truly feels. An actor in a play, in an ill-fitting costume lined in pink seed pearls, stumbling over her overwrought lines, she chatters like a parrot at the table. Cigarette smoke fills her vision. Three pairs of unfeeling green eyes stare at her through the gray haze, but she can’t seem to stop talking. There isn’t any money in prophecy anymore. Truth isn’t a commodity worth selling.
“It’s my choice,” she says. Inside her starchy, rigid white blouse, her flesh recedes with horror at the sound of her voice, which wobbles, cracks, and then fades into nothing but noise. The hummingbird, which at least possessed its beauty even when it was lost, transmutes into a blood-soaked mosquito.
Her sisters listen in dutiful, but sullen, silence. Identical oval-shaped faces hovering above thin necks and clasped hands, symmetrical as gems set in a choker. They don’t say it, but she understands what they want her to do. She takes a deep breath and focuses on their eyes, turning the key in her mind that exposes her to the current of their true feelings. The hard pebble of honesty, lost in the dirty waters, retrieved by her hand. Swirling around her sister’s irises as monotonously as stock tickers along a marquee, she reads the dull, soapy froth of feelings that collect there like tea leaves: condescension, apathy, and, naturally, glee. The unabashed and unconcealed joy of lesser members watching the scion fail.
Even more than this sisterly contempt, which she expected even as she implored them to consider her feelings, she hates the shame of unfulfilled potential, a dagger which she aims at herself and which rises in her throat as she walks home, bilious, chunky, aggressive as heckling after a poor performance. Standing naked in the shower, she punishes herself with the image of their eyes.
Defeated, she turns off the spigot that is her emotions. She unplugs her brain and recedes into a tepid 9-to-5 during which she takes calls for Kim, a sweet, unthreatening non-profit director. She cleans the coffee machine in the breakroom as diligently as an art conservator working on an ancient relic. She spends an afternoon toying with fonts and colors to craft a professional, yet eye-catching, e-mail signature. She begins to derive satisfaction from well-organized meeting minutes, knowing full well even Kim won’t read them. Her dreams for her own life, once as grand as the hot and huge universe, shrivel to nothing.
Still, she pretends. The performance that she created for her sisters still lives in her mind, and its red hands can look clean, if she tries. She pays her rent and, occasionally, enjoys an evening with a half-off wine bottle on a riverfront patio with an acquaintance she treats as a friend. She preaches a mantra of simplicity, of zen, of self-love, which in all honesty is derived, in her case, not from tender healing but from the vapidity of retail therapy and incipient alcohol abuse. She surfs Amazon at work, a constant headache beating in her temples like a heart. She suppresses her gifts. When she transfers calls, she forces herself not to think about the vivid green splinters she sees in Kim’s palms, suggesting an early, painful death. She also tries not to think about the perfectly round pink dots along her hairline, which she sees when Kim pulls her hair back into a tight ponytail, suggesting that Kim is duplicitous, uncaring, and untrustworthy. The oracle suspects she’s been siphoning funds from the NGO and spending them on satchets of tiny cream-colored designer drugs.
She might be prompted to abandon it all. She dreams of orbiting the Earth, and then, with the snip of the scissors, disconnecting from its gravitational pull. But she can’t leave. At least, not yet. Despite telling her sisters that she was out of the game, despite her insistence that her services were unwanted, every so often, someone does find her. She doesn’t tell her sisters this, though she knows their surprise at even this small-time success would please her, however perversely. Instead, she leaves the theater of rivalry behind. She accepts she can’t forgive herself, or them. She gives up. She lets go. It’s not freedom from pain, but at least it’s freedom from the beat of its constant reminder. She puts her capable mind to other things.
Through an intricately curated online directory, a low-res video covering urban arcana, or word-of-mouth filtered through the thousand-headed Hydra that is the city’s whisper network, strangers make their way to her. She meets their eyes on the street, and feels the thrill of recognition. She waits until after work hours, watching the sun set over the buildings beyond her small office window. She gets calls that dim her heachache, and that she knows instinctively not to answer in her role as a receptionist. She responds with her true name when the caller cries for her over the line. She murmurs noises of comfort as they give her a play-by-play of a desperate life, a set of impossible choices. She fishes a spool of thread from her bottom desk drawer and, gently, begins unwinding it in the yellow light of her desk lamp. The phone receiver cradled against her shoulder, her eyes closing as she leaps into the dark hole of a stranger’s fate, the oracle tells them their fortune.