Bourbon Penn 10

An Oracle

by Gwendolyn Edward

Every generation, a new Oracle is chosen: she is always a girl of twelve, the choosing always occurs the day after the old Oracle dies, and the new Oracle is always chosen by a cow. If I didn't live on this island, didn't grow up with gaseous caves and earthquakes and hadn't been prepared for this possibility since I was five, I might laugh at the statement. But I am twelve and do live here, and this morning I wake to find the Namer of Oracles outside my window, her wide black nose smearing snot and water on the glass, her garland of flowers broken and half-eaten and, somehow, still around her neck.

I sit back on my bed and stare at her. I want to hate the cow, but she's just as much a victim of circumstance as I am now. People come from all around Greece to ask the Oracle questions. They are almost always unhappy when they leave. What they don't understand is that an Oracle has no control over what she utters, doesn't usually remember any of it, and cannot decipher the cryptic messages that issue forth from her own mouth. We do not choose this life: a cow chooses it for us, and we're all just dolls for the gods to arrange as they choose. No girl in her right mind would choose to age quickly, sit in a cave on a fault line, inhale obnoxious sulfurous fumes, fall into epileptic seizures, and become hope and hate together in a hideous marbling. At least for the next two months I will be trained slowly, not thrown into the pit like a piece of steak to the dogs. As I look at the cow, all I can think about is how she will be the one butchered.

I am awake before my parents, but already our neighbors are emerging from their white-washed houses, standing on gravel paths or in the rocky meadow, looking at the Namer of Oracles. I can see them out the window, awkward statues. I can see Kristina, paler than the rest, white as marble; her veins look like lapis. I get up, put on a robe, and go outside. The cow is waiting for me, her head a furry triangle, and I take her lead and begin the descent down the hillside. No one follows me. It's against the rules. I am supposed to lead the cow to the police station, where she lives in an open barn, and then the mayor will record my name in a book with real parchment leaves. Then I will go home and eat breakfast. Collect what I want to take with me to my new life. Move up into the hills and live next to the cave where I will sit and make predictions as Oracle.

But right now, it doesn't feel any different. I suppose the few times I considered the possibility of being named Oracle, I thought it might be something akin to being a superhero. We're told there will be changes, but none of us like to think it's true. As I walk with the cow's bell clanging behind me, the ground feels the same. I have no superhuman strength; the compost piles don't smell any sweeter; I am twelve and still have no boobs. I pray it takes longer than normal for me to transform.

The cow halts every so often and I cannot budge her. She eats grass or weeds or sometimes she just stares and moos at nothing. A walk that should take ten minutes takes thirty and by the time I make it to the police station the mayor is waiting outside for me in a purple pinstripe suit with a matching bowler hat. I'm sure that he got a call right away and got up with enough time to put on his finery. The police chief is there with a camera, taking pictures of me and the cow as we approach, and I wish I had put on real clothes and not this robe. The mayor shakes my hand and together we lead the cow into the barn. I realize I do not know her name, and I whisper "Who are you?" into her velvet ear before the mayor claims me, writes my name with a grand flourish near the front steps, and sends me on my way.

When I return, my parents are awake and excited, but I go in my room and lock the door. I no longer have a name. I am the Oracle and I want to pull an Ino and jump off a cliff; I want to escape the madness my life is about to become.

• • •

The old Oracle was a nice woman, as far as I can tell. A little loopy, but I'm told she was always like that, even before. I didn't know that she died. I find out from the paper my dad shoves under my door that she choked on an almond. No one else knew that she died either. The cow just wandered off in the morning to choose the new Oracle, and it just so happened that she was dressed for the occasion. She's kind of a celebrity. We bring her snacks and magazines to look at, though she usually just eats them, and we dress her up in scarves. If someone takes the time, occasionally she'll get a flower garland. Some of the dwarf iris blooms are still on the ground outside my window. They are wilted and flat in the sun.

I wish the old Oracle hadn't died so prematurely — she was only fifty-two — because then I could stay in school and go to university and become a financial analyst. I am not sure exactly what this means but Constantine Polodorius did this and now when he returns to the island to visit he comes on a yacht and brings the entire town tins of Turkish Delight, disgusting powder-coated candies that none of us like but that we eat anyway because they are exotic.

I am recalling the name of his boat, the Heliotrope, and biting my nails down to the quick when I realize the changes are beginning to occur.

"Sweetie," my mom says, scratching at my door, "do you want breakfast?"

I do not answer. I can see the shadows of her slippered feet begin to move away, come back, and then leave again. Instead of bleeding, I am oozing honey. I am careful not to chew on my fingers anymore. It's too much like self-cannibalism.

My father is talking with neighbors. I can hear them all laughing and they're probably congratulating him on his Oracle daughter. I want to run to him and for him to save me, but my father is no longer my father, my mother no longer my mother. I know this in my bones the way I know I was their daughter yesterday. They are beginning to feel distant, and I begin to feel light headed. I think a seizure may be coming on.

• • •

My new house is built into a cliff side. It has a thatched roof with blue sod planted on top of it. Because I am the Oracle, I never have to cook. Most of my meals are provided by villagers and people who travel to see me. I do not have a kitchen, so my friends and I sit at a tacky formica table in the one room that is my home as the keepers turn tourists away. The Oracle cannot see anyone for two months. There are shouts about travel costs and polytheistic heresy.

"So, this is it?" Kristina asks, looking around. People say we could have been sisters, and a few people say we are. My mother had twins, but the rule is the rule and the weaker one is always exposed. When I was five, Kristina wandered into town. We have the same brown eyes and our brown hair waves in the same places. She usually wears hers up so people can tell us apart, but today it's down around her shoulders in an act of solidarity.

"It's not… bad." Vicky is trying to be optimistic, but I just slam my forehead back onto the table top. "No, really," she assures me, "we could paint the walls and get some posters and you're the Oracle so you could totally demand movie channels...." Her statement dies down as she looks at my TV. It is not a flat screen and it has rabbit ears. "You could get a new TV," she says quietly.

"You guys, this is going to suck." I look at them, Kristina with her eyes like fissures erupting and Vicky, splotchy and blushing to her blonde roots with embarrassment. "Maybe you can still bring me homework assignments and stuff. Keep me in the loop with classes."

"You still want to do homework?" Vicky asks, astonished.

"I gotta do something," I mumble.

"There's a great view of the sea," Kristina says, pushing back her chair that scrapes on the hardwood floor. "You're close enough to see the dolphins. Maybe you could take up landscape painting."

There is a knock at the door. I get up, but ignore it. I go to stand beside Kristina and I hold her hand. It feels like my hand, the same moist palms, nails manicured to the same length.

"Should I get it?" Vicky squeaks.

Kristina and I are breathing in the same rhythm. "When will you come back?" I ask.


The keepers are here for my instruction. They tell me it is time for my friends to leave, remind me I can only have visitors once a week, and then ask if there is anything I require. As Kristina and Vicky dejectedly wave goodbye, I demand, in my most regal voice, to have the cow brought to me.

• • •

There are rules about being an Oracle. An Oracle can only accept visitors on Mondays, an Oracle is a woman at twelve, an Oracle may not wear revealing clothing and must remain a virgin, which sucks, and an Oracle must devote her life to the mysteries, which means no school, no vacation. An Oracle cannot be vain and an Oracle cannot have mirrors in her home. There are no rules about whether or not an Oracle can have a pet so the keepers have to bring me the cow, even though they protest against it and try to plead tradition.

"The cow lives at the police station," they whine in unison, a chorus of mindless bald men.

"The cow now lives with me," I tell them. "For the next week."

A week from today, there will be a feast in my honor and the cow will be slaughtered for offerings and barbeque. A new cow will be chosen when the smoke from the fire moves in the wind towards one of the other cows which will be in a row, ten feet apart from each other, in a line as long as it needs to be. That damn cow deserves more than that, I think, and I tell the keepers as much.

Within a few hours, there are craftsmen at my house building a shelter for the cow. I am reading Heraclitus and his ridiculous account of the Pythia's prediction to Croesus, and I am reminded that people are going to hear and see what they want, no matter what I say. I could fall into a trance and tell someone that they are in for a great and wonderful surprise and they'd ignore the promotion they get and claim the free bible handed out in front of the nudie bar is a sign they are meant to be Christian. The one thing I can't say is that I'm not the Oracle.

I have decided to name the cow Ariadne. It may not follow the myth, but they're both being treated in a metaphorically similar sense so whatever. She seems oblivious to the workmen who are hastily putting up rough beams, whole trees really, only cleared of their branches and turned upside down so the roots don't take to the earth. She is content to swing her tail to shoo the flies away and to watch them do all the hard work.

"Okay then," I say to her, resting my elbow on her back. "What do you think?"

She does not answer, but I did not expect her to. The area is quiet except for the pounding of hammers and nails since the keepers have blocked the path up to the caves. One workman who I don't recognize is especially cute. I wonder what will happen if I don't remain a virgin.

My cottage is next to the caves, which I have yet to explore. "Not too much too fast," the keepers tell me. Bullshit. When they're gone tonight I'm taking Ariadne and a flashlight and going in anyway. It seems strange now that I've never been up here before. It's beautiful in its own desolate way, and already it's beginning to feel like home. I don't know if this is because I need it to be, or if it is because of the changes. Regardless, the view of the island reveals it to be sparse and rocky; there is a reason why our people are traditionally herdsmen and not farmers. There are few trees, and the ones that grow are either tall, slender pines or squat, bushy olive trees. These grow more readily on the west side of the island where the ruined castle complex is, I'm told — another place I've never been. It's over the mountains, not far, but seemingly impossible to pass. At times I can forget that there are planes and motor boats.

This new home is about 2 kilometers up a wide, dirt path that has been carved out of the hills. The east side of it has been fortified with flat white stones, a low wall to keep rocks and landslides from tumbling into the way of tourists. This path ends near the entrance to the cave, which used to be just a hole in the schist, a granite-like rock found only here. Now they've built a permanent wooden door shoved into a circular frame. Above it, carved into the rock, there is a bull's head with gilded horns.

Oracles used to be associated with a certain god or goddess, but we've abandoned that now. We don't know who speaks through us, only that this island is its own entity and that like our ancient ancestors, we fear earthquakes that can ruin us, the thundering tread of invisible bulls hammering the earth apart with their hooves. I seem to remember the sounds of stone falling, the curved feel of a cold bathtub, the heat of flame as some other Oracle's home fell to the centuries. I wonder why we don't use a bull to choose the new Oracle. Perhaps the keepers are worried about a young girl getting gored through.

• • •

When I wake, it is dark. Wolves are howling, and the cow's bell is fervent. I step outside and see her with her legs against my house, reaching her thick neck to my roof, trying to get at the blue grass. She looks absurd and awkward, so I give her a gentle push. She moves to the side with an angry moo and I stand on a rock, gather tufts of grass in my fists and throw it all down to the ground for her. My bones are creaking and I fear I'm aging too fast. Even the effort of feeding the cow has left me winded and sore and my stomach is cramping. I go inside to find a flashlight and when I do, I switch it on to see the sun-bleached hair on my arms and legs as dark lines; my down has become pin feathers.

Outside I grab Ariadne's rope harder than I mean to but she is not put off. She's eaten all the grass and trails behind me to the cave entrance where I pull the door open and peek inside. Our people used to believe that one of the entrances to the underworld was here, in this cave system. I can almost believe it. The rock moans and shifts in the cooler night air and somewhere below, Sisyphus is rolling his boulder up an incline. White cloth has been rigged up around the walls. The cave smells like rotting eggs and is not impressive. We cross the first chamber, the bell echoing, and I pull the curtains back to reveal the Oracle's chamber. It's a closet with the door at the back. On the ground is a brazier and a thick blue cushion. This is my cubicle. Ariadne pushes in and steps on my seat, leaving a dirty mark on the cushion, and I try the door but it is locked. Behind it are more tunnels, I know, but how many and how deep I can only guess.

• • •

The keepers demand that I coat my body in olive oil, exercise, then scrape it off with a strigel, a scythe-shaped grooming device that will clean my skin and shave my newly darkened hair. I ask them why I can't have a razor and they chime together "tradition, tradition," and I know I've already pushed my luck with the cow.

I pour oil from a flask into my palm. I am sure this is going to make me break out. Afterwards, I go outside in my swimsuit, for modesty's sake, and jog up and down the path until I feel like I can no longer breathe. In the privacy of my cottage I scrape of the top layer of skin, see the hairs come away. I still want to take a shower and when I do, notice blood pooling near the drain. I have not cut myself; I am becoming a woman, and I am relieved to know that not all of my insides are thick and golden.

• • •

I read that the ancient Oracles were epileptic. That they were chosen because of this. Now, it seems as though epilepsy comes with the job. I'm relatively sure I've only had two seizures so far. One on my first day, and the other yesterday, Wednesday, because I blacked out and woke up on the living room floor. The keepers assure me that in time I'll only have them when I'm making predictions. But this does not comfort me.

What does comfort me is Ariadne. I had been taking my books outside and reading aloud to her but now I've managed to shove her through my doorway and she stands in my cottage with her head out the window towards the sea. She moos from time to time, long bellowing sounds that make me laugh. She is fawn-colored and warm and prefers sour apples to sweet and she knows not to shit indoors.

I am carving her portrait right now in a banana peel with a toothpick. Her head is missing, exposed to the breeze, so it's really just her body. Tomorrow the lines I etch will be dark and creased and I wonder if there is some sealant I can use to preserve this memento of us. When I am done, I stand beside her and reach out the window to scratch the top of her head. She is mooing at the dolphins down below and her pink tongue is testing the salt-air.

• • •

Today is a trial run. Ariadne tries to follow me into the cave but the keepers shut her out. I am made to sit on the cushion in the closet and am instructed to burn some herbs in the brazier. I complain that it's hot in the closet and the keepers ask, "what is a closet?"

While I am waiting for a seizure to kick in, I quietly stand and try the door again. It won't budge, but upon further inspection, it does not have a lock either.

Apparently, when asked by a keeper about the state of the country's fiscal cliff, I predict that with great gain comes great sacrifice. They take this to mean that there will be a financial recovery and I take it to mean that they are incapable of interpreting predictions correctly. When I emerge from the curtain they are bobbing their heads like baby birds and I plead exhaustion. I walk back to the cottage and more time has passed than I thought. It is almost night and I realize that the seizures will put me out for hours. It only felt like minutes. How much of my life's time will be spent in limbo now?

When the keepers have retreated down the path, I push Ariadne into the cottage. I give her a bucket of water with crushed lemons and put the tablecloth over her. She knocks the bucket over and walks across the wood, hollow and thumping. She moos at the window. I open it and she thrusts her head out. The skin on my hands looks thinner and more stretched. My fingers are slender and my knuckles are swollen. I do not have a mirror and cannot see what I am becoming. I am beginning to understand the rules.

The twin bed is across the room and I push it towards the window. I leave enough room for Ariadne to stand and then I lay down. She smells a little sour, and like hay, but she is alive and breathing and her gentle snorts make me feel less alone.

• • •

I wake up to the sound of askomandouras, our version of the bagpipe, being carried up from the village. Ariadne is standing at the door, waiting to be let outside. I expose us both to morning sun and find a tray of spanikopita and a basket of fruit. I wish someone would bring me a hamburger.

Kristina is coming up the path towards me. She is wearing a long yellow dress with an empire waist and she looks like a goddess. I count the days in my head. Today is visitor's day. Today is the festival and Ariadne will go to be with the gods.

Kristina and I sit on rock and eat and Ariadne walks in circles. Perhaps she knows her time is up. She seems antsy and full of anxiety.

I ask Kristina how I look.

"Different," she says without apology.

We compare arms: yes, I can see that my skin looks older and lacks a certain shine.

"It's supposed to be this way," she says, and then quieter, "if I could trade places with you I would."

When Kristina came to the village no one wanted to take her in. Finally old Yia Yia did, but the woman never cared much for Kristina. Kristina's family is a river and oranges and being the Oracle would be fitting for her. She has always been alone and unwelcomed, and she bears it well. If she was the Oracle, at least she might feel needed.

When I was younger I tried to get my parents to take her in. My father pleaded Oedipus and told me that the Oracle had made a prediction to him: your first child will be a great joy, your second a great shame. We did not know if Kristina was the exposed daughter who was supposed to die. My father wouldn't take the chance that she was. It seems the prophecy has come true, assuming Kristina is my sister, and assuming we weren't mixed up after birth and I'm really the second born. I've never told her about the prophecy and never will.

"Tell me it sucks down there," I say, referring to the village. "Tell me it's boring and stupid and that I'm much better off up here."

"It's boring and stupid and you're much better off up here," she says, and then we both laugh.

We play four games of backgammon and I lose every time.

"How come Vicky didn't come?" I ask. "My parents?"

"I don't think it's the same for them anymore," she admits, and she is right. I know I care less about them, and assume they feel the same way. It upsets me that I'm losing my own history. I am still managing to love Kristina though. "They don't view you as you anymore. You're the Oracle," she continues.

"How do you see me?"

"You're a girl and my best friend and the only person I love, and until you tell me to leave, I'll be here."

I cry and put my head in her lap. She stokes my hair, which is beginning to fall out in grey strands, and tells me a story about a princess who sleeps under a spell for a hundred years.

• • •

They've lit the path down to the village with oil-filled torches. Below, the people are waiting for me to appear with Ariadne. I have dressed her in eleven garlands and she is trying to eat all of them.

We stand near the cave and I am apologizing to her. "I won't eat you, I promise," I tell her.

The instruments are playing and I know the procession is eager to start. I've forced the keepers to retreat to the rest of the people. I have been given a white dress and a wig. I am wearing neither. Instead I have on denim shorts and a tank top. I am not going to the festival.

I click on the flashlight and pull Ariadne towards the cave. Inside, she waits while I try the closet door again. When it still doesn't open, I kick it until the old wood splinters and I am weak with effort. Behind it is a tunnel, and Ariadne almost pushes me over to get into it.

We fit side by side and walk for a long time. The ground begins to slope downwards and the sulfur smell increases. It is cool and windy; the tunnel must have other openings but we do not see any.

Legend has it that this tunnel was once part of the island's castle complex. The castle was abandoned thousands of years ago. Archeologists say its destruction was due to the earthquakes. They actually discovered three castle complexes buried under rock and dirt. It fell three times before my ancestors gave up. Before their gods forsake them and drove them into the ocean in boats that took them to the mainland.

I do not know how these caves and tunnels can be attached to that broken down and forgotten place. It's on the other side of the island with the olive trees and this tunnel would have to run for almost 200 kilometers.

I wonder when they'll come looking for me.

Without a watch I estimate that when we reach this river we have been walking for close to two hours. It is a bad estimate because it could be four or one. Ariadne is doing well, but I am tired and these old bones ache. I should be surprised that water is here, but I am not. Something else has come with being the Oracle, an intuition that tells me my thousand year life is remembered in this leathered skin.

When we come to the river, I am excited for the first time in a week. It is small, maybe a creek, if a person can define a creek by being in a cave. On the other side, the tunnel opens into a cavern so large my flashlight cannot find the walls. On the other side, there is a tree, a pomegranate tree, and I am hungry.

We step into the black water and I think we both hear the voices. Ariadne's ears twitch but she doesn't stop. I don't even have to hold her rope anymore. I wonder where we'll be put. The fields of punishment for abandoning my post. The Asphodel Meadows for ordinary, indifferent folk. The Elysian Fields, for heroes. I am not sure what I am anymore.

I do not know what will happen when they discover us gone. There will be no smoke from Ariadne's fire to choose a new cow. Without a new cow, there can be no new Oracle. Without an Oracle… I'm not sure what happens. I imagine Kristina laughing at them all, calling them fools and then running into the night to live our life. Maybe we're both the second child. Prophecies are strange like that. The Oracle never said the first child had to survive. Perhaps that child died as a cluster of cells in my mother's uterus and none of us are any the wiser.

Someone is calling us home. I pluck a fruit from the tree and hold it out. Ariadne crunches through the skin and the juice explodes across her fur, a battle wound for the words she never had. I tear it apart and give her half. The other, I eat seed by seed, letting each burst in my mouth, coating my teeth in tart red juice that tastes like the moon.

Gwendolyn Edward retains a MA in creative writing from the University of North Texas where she was the editor of North Texas Review and worked as a reader and non-fiction contest coordinator for American Literary Review. She is now pursuing a MFA at Bennington and also works as assistant non-fiction editor for Fifth Wednesday. Her speculative short stories have appeared in Jersey Devil Press, Lissette's Tales of the Imagination, Circa, The Copperfield Review, Separate Worlds, Scareship, Haunted Water's Press, and others, including anthologies.