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December 16, 2013 | Fiction

Free Advice and Fortunes Told

Bonnie Nadzam

Free Advice and Fortunes Told photo

In jest you call for your horse, but there is no horse. It’s a bright lettuce-green morning, birds piping overhead. You are on foot, and follow the derelict tracks out of town past the Shell Station.  You step off the road and onto a furry plain of high golden weeds and yellow dross. This is strange. You don’t remember ever seeing such a huge spans of nothing over here. Before you looms an old train depot of bricks the color of pale mud, a ghostly landmark, as if it’s risen straight up out of the ground. A crow passes over you in slow motion, its bright feet curled into hooks beneath its shining belly. At your feet the grass parts like a curtain for a beautifully marked snake now pointing its narrow little hellface south, like an arrow.

There’s a little cinderblock house attached to the depot where a sign in handpainted letters says a traveler is welcome to Free Advice & Fortunes Told. From the blinding golden daylight you peer through the dark yawn of the doorway, and step inside.

At a wooden table a woman in blue jeans and a yellow blouse sits alone reading the newspaper and smoking a Parliament. She looks up, beckons you in. You look around. There is no one else in the place. She folds the paper and gestures with it. 

“Don’t tell me,” she says. “You don’t know how to read the signs.”

“Miss Gorse?” For it is she, the slender elementary school teacher who, thirty years ago, taught you to read. The once blonde twist on the back of her head is a frizz of white. “The point was never that you learn once,” she tells you, and crushes out her cigarette.

“I beg your pardon?”

“To read,” she says.  She nods at a chair across the table from her own, and you sit down because you always did, whenever she said to. “It was also never the point,” she leans in, “that everything be read.”

“I wasn’t reading anything.”

“The bird. The snake. The clock. The very grass.” She folds up the newspaper and laughs. “You don’t know which way to go, do you? Or what to make of what.”

“Are you the one telling fortunes?”

“Tell me,” she says and stands up, and turns behind her to a narrow gas range. There’s a huge brass kettle on the front burner, from which she ladles steaming squash soup into a bowl. “Why are you out here anyway?  Where are you going?”

“I was taking a walk.”

“No no, don’t tell me,” she says and smiles, amused. “I know. I remember you. You’re a hero. You’re out to survey and enjoy the world. Everything a quest. Everything an adventure.” She sets the soup in front of you and a metal spoon on the table, beside it.  

You look down at the soup, your hands a little lifted at your sides. 

“I know you didn’t ask for it. Eat it.” Ever compelled to follow her directions, you pick up the spoon. “It will feel good in your belly, and that’s a good lesson.” She sits down across from you with her paper and her cigarettes. The soup is good. It warms you all the way to the top of your head, which seems to blossom in the dark.

 “I bet you didn’t know that you’re being followed.”

“What?”

 “All this time,” Miss Gorse continues, “a creature has been pursuing you. Did you know?”

 “That sounds terrible.” And it does, because it is.

“Sometimes it has jobs. Sometimes friends. Sometimes shelter. Other times it is quite alone, or feels like it is, and it follows you while concealing itself beneath bridges. Rifling through garbage to find dinner. It sleeps beneath your bed at night. Whispers to you throughout the day. It keeps in its pocket a small knife with a bone handle. A gift from its best friend.”

You reach into your pocket and withdraw the knife. You set it on the table.

“That,” you say, “is my knife.”

“Do not confuse this creature or its pursuit,” your old teacher says,  “with who you are.”

The hair goes up on the back of your neck. Your eyes fill with tears. It begins to hit you. Do you understand? It begins to hit you.

“You’ve come here thinking you’ll find some answer,” she says. “Isn’t that right? Ask Old Miss Gorse? You would even have her tell you your fortune, wouldn’t you?”

 “Do you do that now?” You’re beginning to have your doubts. 

“It’s an old recipe,” she says, noticing you’ve finished the soup. “Good, isn’t it? Stand up.” You expect this is when she will tell you your fortune—you always thought she was capable of magic, all of you did—and you scan the room for a crystal ball, or some such, but she simply walks you to the door, and back out to the road where she points to the snake.

It no longer seems an arrow, and is no longer pointing south. And the light has changed too. Now there’s a dark blanket of clouds pulled by the wind from the north to the east. “A storm” your old teacher says, “that will crush you to powder if you don’t find some shelter. And,” she says, “you can’t go back the way you came.” You look to the road where you’d stepped into the field, but all that’s there is hog lot enclosed by a rectangle of creamy painted fencing.  

You look wordlessly in each direction.

 She laughs at your confusion. “Good,” she says. “That’s good.”

“Well what’s so funny? What’s my fortune?”

“Your fortune,” she says, and nothing more.

The rain begins to pock the dirt around your feet. It is very cold, and you can see the veils of it waving left and right in the middle distance. Artillery lighting flares over the weeds and the depot. You look back toward the building where she keeps the soup and reads her paper.

She waves her finger in your face. “No,” she says. “That’s where I live. Not you.” You open your mouth to respond and she sets the index finger over your lips. “Just be quiet,” she says, as she so often said.

Wind is lifting the ends of her hair, and yours. You wrap your coat tighter around yourself.

“Best if you try not to avoid it.”  She unbuttons the top of her blouse, opening her throat and chest to the rain.

You saw when you entered her little house that there was a small dumpster. A little pile of scraps and peels. Enough to forage if you could find a place to hide from the weather.

“But that,” she says, guessing your thoughts, “is the voice of the pathetic hungry creature pursuing you.”

 “Where should I go then?”

“Me! You would ask me for advice on so important a matter? Were you taught so poorly?” You are about to snap back, scream at her through the rain, for if you are a poor reader and student of the world, whose fault is it but hers? But then you see that she isn’t angry. She’s crying. She puts her face in her hands, her narrow shoulders heaving slightly in her damp blouse.

“But it isn’t your fault,” you say. You feel dizzy. The earth seems to tilt. You slowly lower yourself to the ground, to the mud. “I’m just,” you say. “I’m just going to sit here a minute.”

She looks up from her hands and down at you in the mud. Dirt and rain splash up the legs of her jeans, covering her slowly from the ground up, her hair a wild nest that closes in around you until there, soaked to the bone, the north wind tearing about you, and no visible horizon in any direction, you finally sit very still, quiet, alert, the dream broken. How proud she would be.

“For the love of the world!” she used to say, facing all the children, “Pay attention!” 

image: Andromeda Veach


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