Mud City Press

The Fortune Teller's Fortune

by Dan Armstrong

Cusp
"Cusp" by Martina Hoffmann. All rights, US and International, reserved by the artist.

The fortune teller stared at the arrangement of cubed bones before her and frowned as she assessed their meaning. "No," she said to herself, moving her head slowly from side to side. "No. This cannot be." She stood before a huge chopping block in the middle of her cramped kitchen. Pots, pans, knives, and other kitchen utensils hung from a rusted iron wheel suspended overhead. A white candle the size of a large coffee can, sitting in the middle of the chopping block, provided a dim wavering light. The sweet musk of scandalwood held in the air like the suspension of time.

It was a few minutes before midnight the thirty-first of October. The only day of the year Maria Selena ever consulted the oracle for her own fortune. She leaned over the chopping block and glared at the cubes, as if she might make one move or tip over with the shear impress of her gaze. Though the shadows around the bones shifted with the candlelight, their meaning did not.

"This cannot be," repeated Maria. She narrowed her eyes and glowered down upon the measure of the moment as though she might see the psycho-physical filaments, the temporal alignments that had caused those human knuckle bones to bounce and turn and land as they had when she rolled them out across the surface of the block.

Maria groaned a long, low moaning growl. "Not me," she pronounced, turning away from the table and staring over her black skirt to the worn wooden floor. "I'm not cut out for that," she said, lasering a glance around the kitchen, intent that something somewhere must be amiss. Her eyes came to rest on one of her three cats. The cat twitched its tail twice in response to Maria's scowl, then suddenly scampered from the room.

Despite this moment of ugliness, Maria possessed a dusky, changeable beauty. Her hair was long and nearly black. Threaded with a strand of gray here and there, it lay around her shoulders and down her back like a glistening cape. Her eyes were a brilliant aquamarine, and she guarded their gaze like a miser his gold.

The men who dared look at her might say her looks were not so beautiful as exotic and alluring. Lovely–like a spider, the women might say. But now, as she turned her blazing aquamarine eyes back to the bones scattered across the cutting block, her brow and chin pinching in about her nose, she looked none too pretty at all and quite a bit like a witch. And many in the town would say she was that too. Maria might even admit to that herself with a knowing little smile as she held your palm and traced out the remainder of your life...

Maria Selena lived on the very edge of town. In a small, one-bedroom house with a yard overgrown with herbs and circuited by a weathered, white picket fence. A hand-painted sign hung from a post beside the broken and always open gate. "Fortunes Told" it said in a peculiar cuneatic script.

No one could remember exactly when that little sign first appeared at her gate–but it was ten years ago or more. And of course no one in town believed that the strange woman in the little house could really read fortunes. None except those who came to visit and pay for her thoughts. And then, it was usually late in the evening, after dark, when no one could see that they'd dared to open their fate to such a woman.

And over time, there weren't many in the tiny town that hadn't come out to her place at least once–because everyone at some time or another in his or her life feels the need to peek beyond the veil of time, hoping to relieve themselves of the weight of some immediate burden. Struggling lovers, mourners, the lonely, the sick, the disturbed are often the clientele of the mage. And though no one really believed Maria could read fortunes, she was a woman of considerable natural wisdom, and people found her easy to confide in and they revealed things to her they wouldn't to anyone else. So she had seen into almost everyone in town at some weaker moment in their life. And this gave her a quiet kind of influence over people that didn't really know her as well as she knew them.

When Maria made her furtive trips into town, it was usually at dusk, as things were closing down. Often she would be the last one in a shop, leaning over the shelves within the curtain of her hair, picking out her things with a meticulous, almost secretive care, while the keeper moved about drawing the blinds and securing the doors. Despite her clear and willfully aloof manner, she was amiable enough when spoken to. Her smile was always soft and there was a kind radiance in her eye.

But few spoke to her. The women would usually just nod to her as she passed. And Maria read this silent treatment as a measured form of respect. The men had an entirely different response to the fortune teller. They rarely acknowledged her at all in town with a direct meeting of eyes, but they always looked back after she passed and spoke of her to some other male later that day. It was that she was something of a sexual cipher to the men. All were aware that she had known a few of the local men as other than patrons to her soothsayer's art. And the rumors that followed those incidents were always hushed and provocative. Because no man ever spoke aloud, no man ever bragged about his time with the fortune teller, though it was sure to be a memory he would not soon forget—maybe even cherish, wrapped in purple and red and black within the crepe of his most private thoughts.

Three men had tried to court her openly. One was married and was promptly brow-beaten to his senses by his wife. One was a huge, ruggedly handsome man. Broken by her rejections, he simply hung his head and walked out of town one day, never to be heard from again. The third was tall, lanky Parson Thoroughgood, long since exiled from town for seven years after he announced from the pulpit of the Methodist Church to a full congregation that he loved her! The parson was surely the worst smitten of the three.

The stories of their torrid love-making grew to become a kind of shrouded legend in the town. Tales of a strange tantric magic that she'd used to crease the man's ego were whispered in alleys or bars late at night when the moon was full. That it all ended with a vicious fist fight–man against woman–added to the numinous nature of their sexual communion.

Some said his heart still sat in a mason jar on her mantle with a thistle, a toad, and the wing of a bat–and that he'd sworn to come back for it when his exile was over. Another story said he'd dropped out of the church entirely and become part of a satanic motorcycle gang, that he'd spent some time in prison, and that he'd eaten an entire Bible page by page as some blasphemous indictment against the myth of the Christian god.

Yes, men were a different story altogether. They looked, but did not touch for fear of the sultry flame. Still they couldn't help wonder where passion resolved in such a steamy woman who lived all alone...

After much thought, Maria decided against all her better judgment that she must ask the fates for a second opinion. She gathered up the cubed human bones from the chopping block and after shaking them in both hands rolled them out again across the hatch-marked surface. She stared in disbelief as the bones bounced and stuttered to a stop–with a reading that only verified and strengthened the first.

"Aggrhhh," she growled aloud, sneering out the window to the full moon grinning in at her over the jagged silhouette of the surrounding forest. "This is some joke for sure. SOME JOKE!" she called out to the planets and the stars and whatever conjunction of fates had cast this spell on her. Because she did believe. She did believe in her own necromancy. She did believe that all time was laid out in eternity and that it was there to be seen if one only had the vision and capacity and tools to read it.

Then, as though the fates were daring to provoke Maria even more, a loud and entirely unexpected knock sounded on her door. Who could be calling on her so late on Halloween night?

"Who's there?" she called out with a shiver of the anger the evening's readings had caused in her. The knocking rattled at her door again, louder this time. The fortune teller shook with agitation, spat on the damned bones, then ushered herself through the curtain that led to the unlit front room and the door.

"Who's there?" she repeated, trying as best she could to gather something of her ordinary voice. "Be right there," she said with something like warmth.

She lit a candle and peeked out the front window just in time to see some children in sheets running off into the dark. "Trick or treat," she said under her breath, figuring there would be no one at the door–until the knock came again. Louder yet. Right in her face, she was so close to the door.

"All right, you little devils." She quickly pulled open the door and hissed a venomous, "TRICK or TREAT." A handsome young man stood there on the dark doorstep and it caused her to step back just as her hiss had caused him. "What do you want?" she demanded, before recognizing the Hispanic man standing silently before her and changing her tone.

"I'm sorry, Gomez. I thought some children were playing tricks on me. And I guess, they were really playing them on you, weren't they?"

The mute man put out his palm to her. She smiled and took his hand, but turned him aside. "No, no reading tonight, Gomez. You go home. You go back home to bed. I'm sure you have hard work to do tomorrow. Get some sleep."

Maria ushered the man out her walk and into the street, looking up and down for signs of the children, who'd taken advantage of the mute and emotionally disturbed man. She stood at her gate and watched the man amble slowly down the road. He paused just as he reached the edge of darkness and turned to her with his palm extended. She shook her head no again and entered her house.

Maria closed and locked the door, blew out the front room candle, and returned to the kitchen. She looked around the room for a moment, pondering the curious late night visit, then scowled down at the bits and pieces of human knuckle bone and the reading she dared to deny. "Why, yes," she snarled at the night, her eyes darting anger at the laughing moon. "True love comes to me tonight. And you send the town fool." She growled deeply from the bottom of her lungs. "Damn you, oracle, witches do not fall in love. Damn you and your humor to Hell!"

In many ways, the dark-haired man who'd come to the fortune teller's door that night was as much a mystery to the town as was the dusky beauty herself. Gomez, as he was called, had been towed into town one summer afternoon more than twenty years earlier on the hand of his young and pregnant Mexican mother. The woman spoke enough English to locate the doctor and get put up in a back room in his office for three days before she delivered a dead baby, then died herself at the end of the week, leaving her toddler the town orphan. If he hadn't been such a beautiful child, Gomez might easily have been shuttled off to the city and some overcrowded orphanage, but as it was, the owners of the town hotel, Charles Foster and his wife Louise, took the boy in. That he should grow up mute and somehow emotionally disturbed only served to deepen and sadden his case. His foster father died before Gomez was ten years of age, and he came to manhood in the hovering protection of Louise Foster, who tended to make more of his disabilities than was necessary or healthy. Lonely and perpetually depressed since the death of her husband, Louise clung to Gomez, wanting him to be dependent on her, afraid that he might leave her alone one day.

Now in his mid-twenties, a graduate of the eighth grade, Gomez shuffled through any number of odd jobs on local farms, picking berries, hauling manure or hay, while living in a tiny apartment at the back of the hotel under the heavy wing of Louise. Whatever money he earned, he gave to her. Whatever free time he had was turned to maintenance at the hotel. Whatever chance he had of becoming something for himself, Louise told him was out of his reach. And within this life, which he had been convinced was best for him, his future was uncertain and his past best forgotten...

"Where have you been?" demanded Louise when Gomez entered their small first floor apartment at half-past midnight that Halloween night. She was in her robe. Her thin, wiry gray hair was in curlers. She had been sitting up, waiting for his return. "You have no business being out this late."

Gomez cowered at her voice.

"The only thing you can do at this time of night is drink or chase women." She took him by the arm and pulled him up close to sniff his breath. "You don't smell like alcohol. Where have you been?"

He hung his head, then held out his right palm and used the index finger of his left to trace the lifeline in the open palm.

His mother turned two hard eyes on him. "You've been out to have your palm read? You've been out at the fortune teller's house at midnight?" she asked, incredulous.

He nodded.

"For what? That woman's a witch. You've no business with her. Did she take advantage of you?"

Gomez pantomimed knocking on her door and getting turned away.

Louise nodded back at him. "Don't ever go out there again. What was it, some kids prodded you into it? Cause it's Halloween night? Was that it?"

He bowed his head ashamed.

"That woman is a witch. You're lucky she turned you down. They say she's got Parson Thoroughgood's heart nailed to her bedroom door and eats fly agaric. I think it would be wise for you to be staying away from her. There's plenty of work around here any time you get so bored you've got to have your fortune told. Go to bed. We'll talk more in the morning."

For the next few days, Maria Selena could not get Gomez's unexpected visit out of her mind. She had known of Gomez and his sad story for many years. He often walked by her house, but she had never spoken to him, never really thought much about him until that night the sheeted pranksters got him to knock on her door. Ever since she'd wondered why she hadn't read his palm? But she knew the reason. It was because of what she'd seen in the oracle already that night and a fear that it might somehow be repeated in the mute man's palm. This unnerved her. For once a fortune teller becomes afraid of what she might see, she can no longer see.

Six days into November, just as the sun was going down, Maria saw Gomez walking into town, kicking along at leaves as he passed her house. On a whim, she called out to him, not really certain if he could hear or not. But he turned and looked at her.

"Gomez, are you still interested in having your fortune told?" she said, walking out to her broken gate.

Gomez watched her approach, then looked at the ground. In spite of his mother's words, he like all the men in town found the fortune teller extremely interesting, if not a bit frightening. He looked up at her and extended his open right hand. With the other, he rubbed his thumb over the fingertips. Then extended both hands, palms up.

"You want your palm read, but you've no money to pay," she smiled. He was a foot taller than she. He'd been working all day and smelled like a farm animal. "After turning you down Halloween night, I think I owe you one," Maria said. "Give me your hand."

Gomez came to the gate and again extended his right palm. The fortune teller took his hand in hers, looked up into his eyes and saw, in full cinema, as it had never happened to her before, the most important moment of his life replayed…

Gomez was alone with his mother. Racked with fever and infection, she reached out for her thirty month-old-son, clinging to him in the last moments of her life. Sometimes crying, sometimes talking clearly, sometimes ranting, sometimes calling to Christ, sometimes just squeezing his little hand, she fought her way into death.

In a sense, Gomez was still part of his mother then. Though over two years out of the womb, he remained palpably within the extended maternal membrane. The living psycho-physical bond was still fresh and uncluttered. Their emotions were shared. Their psyches nearly one. And within this invisible umbilical connection, Gomez experienced his mother's death with full organic empathy.

"Gomez, please, some water," his mother begged with her last words. Standing to the level of her face, he saw her eyes go still and suddenly he was traveling with his mother down the dark tubes of her eyes and into the vast astral opening of the moment of death, as though he, himself, was about to die. But as that pit exploded, Gomez, like a psychic bungee-jumper, sprang back into himself instead of dying biologically as his mother did. Yet he'd seen into the infinite abyss with vivid clarity. And at two and a half, it was too much. Way too much. Thus to the outside world, Gomez became alien and silent. While behind his eyes, a vision of eternity spun hidden to others. Until the fortune teller happened to peer right into that explosion of light…

Cusp
"Le Petit Mort" by Martina Hoffmann. All rights, US and International, reserved by the artist.

Maria turned away, stunned. "Come inside," she said, taking him by the hand into her house, puzzling over what she'd seen.

In the front room was her divining table, a small, round table with a green felt cover. A single, tall white candle burned in the center. The fortune teller led Gomez to one of two straight back chairs at the table. She took the other and looked across the flame of the candle into his face. To her surprise, she saw the whole man, not the mute. A very special man. One that she, however improbably, could love. And it seemed that, yes, Gomez was the one spoken of by the bones on Halloween night.

"Give me your hand again," she said, wary of this meaning and the vision she'd seen in his eyes moments earlier. She took his hand in the palm of her hand and placed it beneath the auric halo of the candle. By the way she held his palm upon hers, it happened that the most significant lines in each of their hands were placed side by side. They were not the same, but they intersected in such powerful coincidence, that the fortune teller thought for an instant that the two palms were one. Startled, but not showing it, she now understood that this man was meant to be with her the rest of his life. And that it would be more than love that would bind them. It was something of the spirit. A necessary resolution of souls. She lifted her eyes to his and once again ran in upon an astral fiber. She felt the cleaving of life. She felt the cleaving of the soul from the body. The opening of infinity as the self disperses. The spirit of the thing that is death to life, she felt it cleave and open. Deep within, Gomez held an image of death as a black lotus, and through his eyes she saw it bloom.

In confusion, the fortune teller dropped her gaze to his palm. "What is written here, Gomez," she said hastily, "I can not tell you." She ran a finger down his lifeline. "What I have seen you are better off not knowing." Then she got up and ushered him to the door, closing it quickly behind him, only to watch him from the window meander off down the road.

The fortune teller was at a total loss. She paced around the room, trying to deny her own denial. There was something unusual and unmarveled in this man and she knew it. He had some kind of magic in his soul, something alive and powerful no one else had the vision to see–but her. He was a gift for her that she was unwilling to unwrap–because she did not want the love she felt this man implied. Besides what use has a fortune teller for love? Love is too emotionally expensive for the sensitive to allow. She needed to live alone. Or so she told herself as she stalked about her tiny house from room to room alternately sounding her heart and cursing her soul.

It was worse for Gomez. He had immediately assumed the only fortune a fortune teller could not reveal was that of death. And he took a long time walking into town, wondering how it might be that he would die. And when he arrived at the hotel, he did the chores his mother commanded, then retired to his bedroom without dinner. He lay fully clothed on his bed, eyes to the ceiling, thinking in his peculiar fashion about the fortune teller's non-reading and what other reason could there be for her silence.

Because Gomez's muteness caused him to seem retarded and slow, the people of the town treated him that way and so imprinted him with this role in the town. He accepted his part and never considered that he was anything other than a mute orphan of little worth. But he did know there was something inside him. Something fantastic. He even knew that if he could talk there would be no way to describe the vision he had carried with him since the day his mother died. And it wasn't that he was besieged by grief or that his mother's death ran a perpetual dirge through his thoughts. It was that he had seen through to the other side. He had gathered the grand vision. He had seen the whole thing at once. The chasm of the void. Paradox justified. Unspeakable beauties of symmetry cleaved by unutterable asymptotic randomness. So awesome, so ungraspable, it had silenced him for life. Unless, or until, someone could provide him with the key to open this treasure in his soul.

In this way, Gomez was the purest example of the very thing that the fortune teller had sought all her life. He held in his heart and soul, proof of the thing itself, the jewel of the Orphic mysteries. And she had seen it in him. And she had turned her head and told him to go. This dilemma burned in the mind of the fortune teller all that evening as she ruminated on her decided denial. In the deepest, darkest caverns of her mind, she grappled with the greatest horror of the mystic mind–the freeing of faith, the unchaining of the thing that was cloaked at the heart of all occult teachings, all the arcane arts–gleaming spiritual transcendence–the emasculation of magic–crystal ball shattering, enlightenment.

"God," Maria screamed to her three cats. "God damn," she wailed to the moon on the wane. "God damn, the light of day," she bellowed to the array of stars overhead. "I want my darkness. I want my swamp nature. The very shadow of my being is at stake. I do not wish to give up this that I have cultivated all my life. I do not want love. Let that boy rot for all I care."

So, on this evening in early November, one confused young man fretted over the prospect of death, while one willful woman sputtered over the prospect of a new life and love.

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