Melissa Wiley is a freelance writer living in Chicago. Her narrative nonfiction appears in literary magazines including Prick of the Spindle, Gravel, Eclectica Magazine, Gone Lawn, Tin House Open Bar, Stirring: A Literary Collection, Split Lip Magazine, Menacing Hedge, Beetroot Journal, Specter, Lowestoft Chronicle, Pithead Chapel, Flyover Country Review, Great Lakes Review, and the Museum of Americana. She serves as assistant editor of Sundog Lit and is currently at work on a collection of essays.
Love for Soothsayers
I had become a psychic rabbit with the voice of a chicken. It was, as I thought, my only option. I had seen the Cadbury bunny lay chocolate eggs all March on television, and I couldn’t just sit there hoping candy would pop out my bottom. Alan kept turning to look at Julie while outside the window fluttered my simulacrum. From my desk, I watched myself hover over the nearby gas station, turning aerial kart wheels and becoming more beautiful each rotation. My back stretched taut as a bow with nipples for arrows while I slid down a beam in a leotard shimmering like a silver ladle. When Mrs. Everman confronted the chalkboard to demonstrate long division, I made passably convincing chicken noises also. My overbite too made me look a little like a rabbit, though even the softest of bunnies can bite when their prophecies lie too long dormant.
With blue-black hair and eyes a blackened indigo, Julie was my best friend, though even absent all oracles I could see that wouldn’t last much longer. That we would wear our twin lockets, each half a broken heart resembling none that were anatomical, only so long as we both took art lessons on Tuesday evenings. Only so long as we preferred painting in pairs and shared a jar of turpentine I always dirtied the faster, staining the clear liquid the color of a flesh wound that might fester, because I accented all my black shadows with scarlet. Friends, not even best, for only a few years more, until our bodies began to stretch and reshape themselves, hers lissome as a cattail waving in some breeze I knew would be fragrant, mine more like a statue plinth with corners succumbing to erosion. Most of her paintings depicted strawberries in bowls and ducks on ponds vitreous as mirrors, while mine were portraits of people gripped by torment. Pilgrims caught in electrical storms were my typical subject. Men and women both equally bearded.
So you may tell yourself you’re a soothsayer. Only you can’t prove it, no matter how much like a chicken you may sound when you clutch your trachea, no matter how much you may resemble a rabbit in your school pictures. You may see the future clearly as any Sybil, yet you can’t lure it closer to the present. You can’t carve lines on your palm that have yet to grow, tracing their seams through alleyways on the other side of the world you have yet to wander. In New Zealand where Easter signals a holocaust of leaves decaying in autumn.
So you hiss your share of secrets to the coat closet—a sibilance leaching from a twitch at your uvula, an abnormally developed organ for a girl your age, you’re certain—yet you keep your real premonitions private, because Alan’s not in the mood for listening. Busy as he is refolding his chin into his hands while his brain bobs buoyant as a duck within the water in his skull. While he beams more of his blue eye light into Julie’s nostrils, large and dark and triangular, though this doesn’t seem to bother him at all. Her expression blank as a morning chalkboard all day long. Not a thought inside her head besides how pretty she and the ducks are looking today, her expression always seems to say. She still the wiser little woman, however, because he’s looking her way. Because he is lost, always lost, to your uvula’s wide whirl and your soothsayer’s pansophy, hatched whole inside your kidneys when your hair was slick with placenta and you had yet to unfurl your fatty fists. Your soul an old one even then, whatever your palms might say to the contrary, because there aren’t enough lines on them to justify your prescience.
Only being a soothsayer means more than foreseeing he will someday love a woman not nearly as womanly as you intend on becoming years in the future. It means knowing whether he will lend a seer an ear during recess. And he will not, you know better than he imagines. However easily you may conjure future phenomena, with just a spin of the skin at your temples where your veins look thinnest. There’s no reason to waste your breath, you know from the inception of your gift. Then if you have no breath to waste, you’ve got less than you thought to begin with.
This was all a long, long time ago, however, and I may not remember everything exactly as it was. Because clairvoyance only enfeebles memory of things past in my own experience. Because for those who see further into the future than perhaps they ought, the past crackles with static, fading the faster for quicker consignment to desuetude to see farther forward in the distance. Things old being everything that is not yet to come, everything to come being all that still occupies you. So long after I sat beside Alan and Alan directly behind Julie yet still ten years ago from the present, I stood leaning against a coiled radiator gone cold inside a hospital room aside my dying father and his best friend, Doug, who had also come to visit. Crossing and recrossing my calves while chewing an off-brand graham cracker the nurse had left lying beside the bedpan. And because Easter was so soon to come, I told my dad about when I was a soothsaying rabbit tired of having a best friend with nostrils large enough to get lost in—because there were a lot of things I never told him.
He was sipping chocolate milk from a straw that bent at its neck and asked what I had specifically predicted. Just some depanting during gym, I said, for a girl named Jenny Miller with splayed and yellow teeth that had made me wince. Then, able to recall nothing more in particular, I apologized for what I may have misremembered, because Jenny Miller’s teeth may have been closer together and no yellower than my own were now that I drank so much coffee. No yellower than the white of my dad’s eyes either, revealing a fresh leakage of bile from a ruptured liver. Then Doug interrupted, saying he didn’t think “misremember” was a word, Melissa, that I had just invented it, and I didn’t want to argue, because what I remembered and what I misremembered hardly mattered. Then Doug changed the topic to a new model of pickup. And though caring as little for trucks as Doug did for my vignettes, I listened, feeling something sharp and jagged beginning to grow inside my stomach, like mold with talons, because I would never confess to my father that I had once killed a wholly innocent person, because I had also predicted Mrs. Everman would die and she did soon afterward. A fact floating, indissolvable as a Styrofoam cup, through my bloodstream now for decades, where the ducks and the strawberries should have displaced it.
Then to a dying man what would one more death matter, and a death so long past? And because I knew this was how my dad would have reacted, I decided not to mention it. To let it pass and feign interest in truck engines. And I agree with the man now ten years dead whose perspective I intuited. That though Alan would revert his gaze to Julie as soon as I’d made my prediction, the effort was not wasted. A few more moments of his face breathing air stale with mashed potatoes from the cafeteria into mine were worth the woman sacrificed on a Florida highway overpass. The life of someone I didn’t love for a few more inhalations spent swimming in the eyes of someone I did, because his eyes were vast and cerulean. A fateful jump of the median.
And then with my mother’s dirt brown hair and my father’s eyes yet dirtier, I was the plainest of plain brown rabbits, well camouflaged to raid the cabbage patch. Because soothsayers don’t have to be beautiful for their prognostications to be accurate, though were I so I would have kept silent.
So the soothsaying Cadbury bunny I became and the soothsaying Cadbury bunny I stayed, well past Easter and at the back of class, as close to an exultant ululation as I would come for far too long. I got used to inserting subliminal chicken frequencies into the Pledge of Allegiance and used to Alan’s sideways smile when he heard them. Because what good are psychic powers if no one is there to witness? Everyone except Mrs. Everman, who wore her hair always in braids brown as tree branches, a little too old to swing them like the whips they could have been.
Mrs. Everman, my mother’s sometimes tennis partner who tried to silence the psychic Cadbury bunny forever during parent-teacher conferences. Mrs. Everman, with a hard serve and stronger backhand still careless enough to cross the clairvoyant. Because she gave my drawings of Pilgrims all equally bearded and androgynous singed with lightning forks limned with red a C- and Julie’s ducks an A+. Julie, who would not see a female duck raped beneath a stone bridge in the north of England a year after her father died as I did while trying to hike in Wordsworth’s footprints, because the lives of dead poets are supposed to provide some solace. Julie, whose ducks reproduced as asexually as strawberries, one easily intuited. Julie, who didn’t realize rape was sometimes the only way to get the love you needed. A rape, for all my broken recollections, I can still see clearly as the parade of purple clouds from the storm in the distance as I bent over the bridge at the waist and watched the goslings disperse in frenzied panic. Hearing the mother’s shrill cries the while from the thrust of a corkscrew cock then echoing her the louder as if this were a song. Thinking yes, this is what love does; I knew it all along.
Knowing everything there was to know except that only such loveless bunnies as myself would become psychics so early on, diving down a dank rabbit hole on an otherwise perfectly sunny afternoon. Knotting their fists into their eyelids trying to see among the phosphenes the shapes of lovers to come. Seeing instead only bearded women in electrical storms. Seeing no strawberries among the ducks when she at last saw some in person.
During Lent, Mrs. Everman had begun following me on the playground, blowing the whistle she kept tied at her neck like a talisman when she caught me closing my eyes and raising my hands to my temples. I had done no harm, she should have only known; I had disobeyed no explicit rules. Only squatted like a defecating hen in the lunch line occasionally while keeping all real knowledge tacit, divining only trivial things. Staying largely silent yet seeing certain things more clearly perhaps than a little girl still ought to have done. Knowing she would have done better not to put an end to Alan’s sideways smiles and letting my little uvula continue to wag with pleasure when I whispered to Alan and Julie both that Mrs. Everman would die this summer—just wait and hear the clap of thunder.
About a month after school had ended with the dawn of June, I was watering the fern sprawled on our window ledge in our dining room, stroking its spores and making the ends of its leaves curl and uncurl like caterpillars slithering down a crack in the sidewalk, when my mom answered the phone, spoke a few soft words, hesitated and hung up the receiver, then whispered Mrs. Everman had been killed on a Florida highway, as of course I’d known. A semi-trailer had crashed through her windshield while she was driving to visit her daughter near Pensacola. Then my mom started crying with little spasms at her chest I hoped would not morph into convulsions while I continued stroking the leaves’ velvet abdomens, until my finger pads were all dusted brown with spores wholly otiose, because no new ferns would grow here on this carpet.
So you may have your presentiments, but you can’t make a rabbit lay eggs. And you can’t kill the Easter Bunny, no matter how much you want to. All you can do is fold a piece of newspaper into a sailor hat, set it floating on a pond of emerald water, and hop low inside its fold. Knot your legs inside its brim, hoping that the man with the nut-brown eyes and curling aubergine hair looking a little like Alan only a grown man by will see you passing by. That he’ll wave when he sees you lunge ashore, breathing heavily from the river’s maelstrom. That he’ll pick you up, holding you within his hand’s warm sulcus, sealing you inside an envelope and sliding it beneath his pillow. That he’ll suffocate you where the stamp should have been. Snuff out the air putrefying like mold among bathroom tile inside your lungs so you won’t live longer than you hoped you would have done from the beginning. Hope being something you still entertain when you bring your hands down from your temples, resting them in the film of darkness moistening the gap between your knees you hold close to your chest cavity.
The year after Mrs. Everman was buried, Alan and I sat two rows apart; we were both ten years old. Julie and I still shared a jar of turpentine, but I had little to do with rabbits. Because Mrs. Everman had taken all the fun out of fortune telling.
My first Easter away from home I spent at my college sculpture studio, sitting on a low, oaken stool plying my chisel against a block of stone. I was incising a disembodied rib cage almost too heavy for me to carry to the other side of the room. The rib cage not even of human scale. No wider than a monkey, it looked unfinished still when the weekend was over. Because, viewed in isolation, it is impossible to tell if the ribs are expanding or contracting, if the air is leaving the body or just entering them. Crudely hewn in the shape of a honeybee skep and stripped of all breath with too dense of stone to admit any oxygen, statues remain trapped, unable to tell us their true shape within a cage we may or may not break open. Because I have chipped away and away at it since then, trying to get it right, to make the stone breathe until it seems to heave, until it has become much too small to house any kind of heart or any mammal beyond that of a chicken maybe. Sitting mutely as it does in the corner of my bedroom, alive to only an itinerant ablation every time I feel the need to lend it more reality. Leaving me to do all the misremembering.
Because another memory has just surfaced within me. That I was more than the psychic Cadbury bunny the year Mrs. Everman taught me to diagram a sentence and do long division. That I was a dodo bird as well, the nickname Alan gave me the day Mrs. Everman drew a picture of a bird with a bulbous beak and stubby feathers across the chalkboard, explaining they had gone extinct and since become legend, that no one was able to determine their plumage’s color for certain. Native to the island of Mauritius off the coast of Africa, they never learned to fly because life had always been so pleasant on the ground for them, until Dutch sailors introduced the predators who wiped them forever from earth. Some very ignorant people still considered them mythical, she said, though they really lived—could we have only seen them!—and we must make sure to remember them. We must not misremember, she said with a stern shake of her branch-brown braids stiffened with hair spray. And though by this point I had already consigned her to an early martyrdom for failing to love my Pilgrims, I promised her that I would never forget these birds she had just mentioned.
“Why the dodo bird?” I asked Alan after he whispered, “Dodo bird, what did you get for Christmas?” “Dodo bird, can I borrow a pencil?” for a spelling test. “I’m not dead,” I said handing him one with the eraser eaten off of it. “I can’t fly, but neither can you,” I pointed out with logic. “No,” he said and smiled as if he hadn’t long known it, “But years from now no one will ever believe me when I tell them about you. They’ll all think I made you up.”
And depending on what he tells them, they may be correct. I might be just a phantasm who sees herself dancing above gas stations. For all this harm I’ve caused, then, someone else is responsible.
Four years ago, my husband and I spent Easter in Queenstown, New Zealand. Half the leaves on the trees had already fallen, ochre and umber and burnt sienna and blackened gold, the colors of a dying fire as winter approached. Not a tulip, bonnet, or a pastel cotton dress lay within our vision. The weather had dropped 10 degrees from the day before. Everyone we passed were wearing down jackets, faces obscured by tartan scarves of gray and navy blue. There must be a church in Queenstown, yet I don’t remember seeing one and I heard no bells that echoed through the air as they should have done. I only know that I was grateful for the silence.
The only indication of the holiday was a six-foot rabbit circling the currency exchange then pausing to lean against the building. One of his eyes was almost fallen, attached by two threads busy unraveling. Its red felt tongue was sewn sideways as he (or she) paced in a wider ellipse, kicking one leg before the other while whistling “Sweet Jane,” I noticed. I laughed as I walked past and a group of teenage girls ran up to have their picture taken with it. After they turned down a side street, he (or she) then waved me closer, and I felt myself wanting to look deeper within the pupils permanently dilated, to see if they were the eyes of a soothsayer or not, to see what kind of knowledge they kept quiet. I kept laughing, though, preserving my distance, then walked closer so I could glimpse two human blue eyes as he (a he, I knew now for certain) continued waving me nearer for our own picture together, though I had no camera. I had seen all I needed, though, so I kept walking, making my way toward the beach to gaze out on Lake Wakatipu, dark clouds gathering for a storm in place of a pale blue sky not pale for much longer.