Family Oracle

Celia Bell

Summer 2019

The oracle sits before a bowl of slightly moldering oranges, the smoke from the incense insinuating itself into her tightened nostrils and giving her a headache. The incense is scented with peach or pineapple or coconut, one of those fruity flavors that smells, when burned, like fever sweat. The oracle’s name is Lila Borden; she is thirty years old. Snub-nosed, with a round, rosy face. Her ash-blonde hair is prematurely graying—or does she dye it that way to lend gravitas to her otherwise youthful appearance? 

Only one way to find out. I am a diffuse presence not located in space, but my attention is concentrated on the pockmarked oranges, the false flicker of the electric candles, the smoke making a screen between the oracle and the—my—the family. In the little dish of blood beside the oranges, the dark, viscous surface throbs with the guttering light. Someone should replace those bulbs. It’s pig’s blood, but Lila the oracle is bleeding too, into a plasticized napkin adhered to her underwear, and that will make everything easier. She knows this. I focus on the little dip in the back of her skull, and she tenses. 

It’s like a whirlpool, going down—I touch that place where the infant bones grew together, and suddenly I’m being sucked into the net of nerves stretched tight from the crown of Lila’s head to her coccyx. She lets out a ululating wail and curls herself up like a chick inside an egg. My roots are deep inside her ribs, but the wailing doesn’t cease. It’s partly myself, feeling the squeeze of flesh once more, the roughening of her throat as she shrieks, the dull cramps of menstrual pain. It’s partly Lila, vainly trying to buck off her ghostly rider, for even if the girl has the talent for it, it’s not pleasant to sell your body for a living. I can feel the elastic band of her slacks digging into the soft flesh around her waist. She retches—I taste bile, again, mingling with the scent of the incense and the rotting oranges and the blood. The room is foul, but I am used to foulness. Didn’t I wring out the last gasp of my own desiccated, sweating, incontinent corpse less than six weeks ago?

Which means, of course, that I ought not to have been called back. A fresh ghost often becomes disoriented when confronted with the incense and offerings, prone to curse rather than offer mercies. It’s difficult for the oracle, too, to welcome an angry spirit into her body. But the faces assembled—they want something from me. Something too pressing to let me sleep and dissolve fitfully back into the air.

Old ghosts are called up during family festivals, to provide continuity with the ancestors. That I’ve been summoned so soon after my death means there’s been a haunting. I don’t remember. 

Do I remember?

“Damn your liver,” I grunt, through Lila’s throat. “Gerald, you were too good to attend my deathbed, I hope your syphilitic nose falls off. Marcus, Monica, did you think I wouldn’t see you fighting over the family silver when I died?” I should say that I have no idea whether they actually did this. My memories of my post-death are all in a storm, but that’s hardly a reason for self-restraint. “Did you shed a single tear at my funeral? I wish on you cancer, tinnitus, diarrhea, uterine prolapse, I hope your next baby—” 

But a curse on a baby is a graver matter than the same on an adult, infants being as defenseless against spiritual influence as they are against diseases of the bacterial kind. Lila gasps and, remembering that she was supposed to be directing her rider, unclaws her hand and takes a bite of one of the mushy oranges, her teeth piercing the skin. The curse stays unuttered, the sickly sweet juice slides down Lila’s throat and not only stitches me a little bit more closely into her but subjects me to her will.

She’s clever, maybe, if not wise. Quick-thinking.

Celia Bell is an MFA candidate at the New Writers Project in Austin, Texas. Her work has appeared in Bomb, Five Points, and the New York Times Magazine.

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