The Fortune Teller

Ellen Wilbur
A stack of old issues of The Yale Review. Courtesy Pentagram
Courtesy Pentagram

Every breath you take is critical and every heartbeat in your chest is crucial. The state of all your organs is important, like a chorus where no voice can stand apart or overwhelm the rest or fail. A healthy person doesn’t have to concentrate entirely on the body, while someone ill or badly injured never can ignore it.

Just listen to me, please, no matter how I seem to skip through time and subject matter. I’ll talk about your past, specific memories you thought were yours alone. You’ll learn how well I know you, all of your life up to the present moment and everything that lies ahead.

Do not be frightened by my words. Once we’re finished, you will be a different person from before, not quite the same at all, the way each moment changes everything that is. When you leave today, you won’t remember much that I have said, and yet you’ll be suffused with a new strength, which will remain alive in you and never be destroyed.

You are the youngest of five children in your family. When you were born, your parents didn’t understand you. None of your siblings had ever been so difficult or so demanding. As an infant you cried for hours at a stretch and no one knew the reason. As a toddler you threw screaming fits and tantrums, as though you were tormented by your wishes. You didn’t learn to speak till you were three years old and often wouldn’t answer when a person spoke to you, although your ears were tested and your hearing found to be perfectly normal. You sometimes chafed against behavior when it was demanded of you. Always you seemed strange and stubborn to your parents, and yet they loved you deeply, just as they loved all their children. Nothing mattered to them more than your well-being.

Your eldest sister, Sara, was in seventh grade when you were born. Your twin brothers, Matt and Finn, were ten years old. Maria, who was five, was the only small child in the house when your mother brought you home for the first time.

Being the baby of the family made you especially close to everyone and especially distant. For years you lived in different worlds. Your siblings played with you and tried to teach you. They picked you up and held you, took you to the park. They put you on the slide and pushed you on the swings. You were so cute, they always told you, hugging you tightly and kissing your face. Your hair was reddish-blond and whether it was hot or cold outside, your cheeks were always pink.

When you were four, your parents ruled you like a king and queen. Everyone told you what to do. Your mother was a busy woman. Always, there were pressing chores she needed to accomplish. Important errands filled her head, and this was how she liked to live her life. She was shocked by people on park benches. She said she’d die if she were forced to sit that way in public, staring off into space and doing nothing. She was stern with herself and met her obligations. Always, she paid her bills on time, her house was clean, and her mind fixed on the welfare of the family. She set the table for your meals and cooked hearty food that people liked.

When you were five, you sat with everyone at dinner. Your family joined hands before they ate and offered thanks. Some nights, when your mother raised her head from grace and glanced at all your faces, she seemed to glow, like someone who’d been inundated by her blessings. As far as anyone could tell she never had been late for an appointment, she kept her promises, and was honest to a fault. She expected that her children, too, would be responsible and live what she’d have called “a decent life.” Your father was the same, a soft-spoken history teacher, who did his best at everything he tried. Your mother said he was a gentleman, the finest she had ever met. It pleased you when he gazed admiringly at her, put his arm around her shoulder, or held her hand in his.

Your mother monitored her children closely, everything they did from table manners to handwriting to the way they greeted people on the street. You were expected to be pleasant company and thoughtful. There was no yelling in the house, no arguing or hitting. Your father cared about your speech and grammar. There was a proper way to say each sentence and each word. Many times he urged his children to speak clearly and more slowly. He couldn’t understand you if you spoke too fast. While you were small, your mother liked to keep you occupied. You never dreamed how much you learned. It was beyond imagination.

You were important. Everything you did meant something. All people mattered just as much as you did. Everything mattered. Every tree and stone. It was the same with sun and earth, air and water; whatever you saw, felt, heard, or smelled was able to exist for good or ill. If you lay in the sun too long, your skin would burn. If you stared directly at it, you’d go blind. You had to know how to drink water and not drown in water. How to survive the blazing heat of summer and the winter cold. How to enjoy a fresh breeze without fear and to prevail over a gale wind.

When you woke up each morning, you couldn’t know how you would feel. Maybe because of a dream you’d had or a canker sore had suddenly appeared at the corner of your mouth and hurt. You might be hot or cold in bed, tired, nervous, numb, hopeful, or excited by the feeling of the day. Outdoors, the weather never stayed the same, just as the moods which overcame you changed, as though you hadn’t any say about your happiness or sadness, and your state of mind was chosen for you by the world.

Your clothing was important. It had to be clean, not stained or ripped. Your shoes should not be scuffed or run down at the heels. Your socks needed to match. The zippers on your clothes must work, and buttons on a shirt should not be missing. You needed to be clean from head to toe. Your teeth had to be cared for daily. All odors emanating from your body should be pleasing. Your fingernails and toenails must be clean and nicely trimmed.

While you were young, your family noticed that your face was often serious. You smiled, but hardly ever laughed. There were many things that pained you. As always, you were full of longings and strong wishes, but your heart was soft. You apologized if you bumped into someone or stepped on a person’s toe. No one had to urge you. It made you sad to see somebody hurt. A human being was so breakable, the skin so soft, it could easily be bruised or punctured deep enough to make somebody scream out loud. It could bleed and scar. You had to guard it and protect it.

Your parents watched you closely. Every look that crossed your face was an announcement, and every movement of your body made a statement. Your tone of voice was not supposed to be surprising unless you’d been attacked or shocked by grief or pain or fear, or if you wanted to be funny. When your siblings laughed hysterically, fractured by a joke, you smiled and stared at them, sometimes with fascination, as though your thoughts were too complex to be confined to laughter.

Your family went to church on Sundays and took up an entire pew. The church was full. Row after row of people moved together. You kneeled and prayed in sync with everyone. You crossed yourselves, sat silently, or stood up as a group in the enormous room. When you were six, you had a special singing voice and sang with perfect pitch. The more you knew the hymns, the louder you would sing them. At home your family sometimes sang together. Your father sat at the piano while you gathered side by side behind him. You sang song after song and harmonized until your voices made a blended cloud of sound. Each time you sang, your cheeks turned to a dark rose color, your eyes shone, and when a song was done, you smiled.

Your family noticed how sensitive you were. When Sara left for college, you missed her presence in the house and cried at night the first weeks she was gone. Also, your health was fragile. Your siblings didn’t get sick the way you did. Always, you were coming down with stomach viruses, head colds, and allergies. You never minded being in your bed with a high fever. Lying idle and half-conscious was a kind of freedom. Your sister Maria liked to read to you and was cheerful, yet your mother suffered every time you became ill. She hovered over you with medicines and foods, cold drinks and worried eyes till you recovered.

Your siblings often laughed at your strange questions. What would be wrong, you wondered, if you wanted to crawl instead of walk the four blocks down your quiet street to the playground? You wouldn’t be hurting anyone, so what was wrong with it? What if you wanted to whistle while you walked the whole way backwards on the sidewalk? You knew you might be stopped by somebody and questioned. If you said you were doing it for fun, would someone ask you to please stop? Questions like these have always cropped up in your mind.

When your brothers became old enough to get a driver’s license, they were so excited, they spoke of nothing else. Sometimes you rode with them while your father taught them driving on back roads. There were speed limits to watch and signs that ordered you to slow down or stop. Matt and Finn took turns behind the steering wheel. They had to learn how to accelerate and use the brakes. Also to adjust the windshield wipers, the defroster, all the mirrors, headlights, and turning signals, and to read the blazing dials across the dashboard. Your family’s car was long and shiny white. It was brand-new without a single dent or scratch. One day, when he was practicing, Finn hit the brakes too suddenly and hard, throwing the rest of you forward in your seats. You bumped your shoulder on the door, but nobody was hurt. Another day Matt turned onto a one-way street. Your father called a warning, while cars blared out their horns and people shouted at him on the sidewalk. The more you watched, the more you thought you’d never want to drive, though all your fears were needless. You’ll never hit an animal or person with a car or have an accident. You are a careful driver.

When you were eight, your family spent a week in Maine for a vacation. Sara was with you, home for the summer. Your mother asked you to run next door and buy a loaf of bread, and handed you some money. As you went down Front Street in the little town, two women suddenly appeared before you, heading for the store you were approaching. They wore long skirts. From behind they looked as though they might be a normal mother and her daughter, but when they turned to hold the door for you, you saw that neither one of them had a nose. At the center of each face was a round, dark hole below the eyes and just above their lips. You stared at them an instant and tried to hide the horror that ran through you. Inside the store you turned away, breath-taken. You kept your back to the women until you heard them leave. Moments later, when you stepped outside, you were relieved to find they’d disappeared. You ran quickly, holding the bread, and when you told your mother what you’d seen, she saw your startled eyes. “How terrible!” she cried. She threw her arms around you and rocked you from side to side. You thought of how many children must wail and shriek just at the sight of the two women, and the way some grownups would stare cruelly at them with naked disgust.

“Maybe it’s good at least they have each other,” your mother whispered in your ear, kissing your cheek.

When you were ten years old, a man drove through a red light and hit you with his car as you were crossing Farwell Street. He raced away as quickly as he could and left you bleeding and unconscious in the road. You have no memory of the accident, of people running towards you, the sound of sirens, or the shaft of sunlight that hit the road and shone directly on your pooling blood. By the time the ambulance had reached the hospital, you were in a coma, so badly injured no one expected you’d survive. Your right leg was broken, one hip was badly shattered and your head was deeply gashed.

One by one your family members gathered in the hall outside your room, your mother shaking head to toe with terror, as though she’d never known that such an accident could happen. You lay expressionless, like a rock that never changed, and looked more helpless than an infant, encircled by beeping machines. Tubes of fluids poured into your body while nurses medicated you and watched your vital signs.

Your family took turns beside you. Often your mother sat by the end of your bed, her head bent forward, praying, as she held your feet, while Maria leaned her cheek against your sheets and touched your ankles. You never saw your family’s faces, twisted up and paper-white, tear-stained and desperate as they paced the halls while doctors came and went, expecting you to die.

For days you were encased in an unbroken silence more complete than any you had known, as you lay senseless, lost to all connection with the world. On your third afternoon in critical care, one doctor thought you wouldn’t last another day, and yet that very night you felt a vague awareness deep inside you, a tiny pierce of longing which began at midnight. Every hour it grew stronger and more adamant, like a hunger. The need kept growing till it was so fierce your mouth dropped open and you groaned. You heard your mother’s voice, and when your eyes came open, you saw your family’s faces close above you, as though you had been given everything you wanted. It was a miracle, people said, the way you came back and recovered.

There was a piece of metal planted in your hip. Your broken leg was treated till it healed. After months of surgery and struggle, you began to walk quite normally. Soon it was only when you exercised too long that you would start to limp, which still is true today. Sometimes you thought about the man who’d hit you with his car. Your parents always spoke of him with outrage and disgust, and the police would often say they were determined to track down the swine and see him punished. You listened to the fury and revulsion all around you, and yet the man appeared to be beyond your comprehension. When you thought of him you felt more fear than anger, as though something inhuman, like an arrow or a gun, had shot you down.

When you came home from rehabilitation, you were a quiet child. I’m sure you can remember it. You never felt more deeply loved by all your family, yet something huge had changed. Your mind seemed to be new, and your thoughts no longer felt familiar. Your parents saw that you were different. It was as though your final stubborn wish was to survive the accident, and after that you had become a passive person stripped of all desires. When the family sang at home, your singing voice was not so pure as it had been and not so forceful. It was as though you’d lost all passion along with the color in your cheeks, which now were permanently pale. As your birthday approached, you couldn’t list a thing you wanted.

When you returned to school, you finished your assignments, but had no interest in your studies. You did not look miserable. You had a group of friends, who welcomed you. Matt and Finn were turning into stars at basketball and soccer. Maria could draw anything beautifully. You knew you’d never draw that way. You loved no special games, activities, or sports. In your free time you were happy to watch television, whatever show it was, or to lie resting on your bed, staring at the tree outside your window, a tree and bed you might have lost forever.

Now you are nineteen, away at school. Some days, like everyone, you walk in such a dream across the campus you see nothing that you pass. So much is taking place inside you, your concentration is entirely devoured. Other times you are humiliated by your mind, the way it judges everyone in sight. Although your face shows nothing, your head seems to burst with harsh opinions. How foolish people look to you, how overweight they are, how awkwardly they move, how smug they seem, as if there was no end to all the flaws and vices you can see. On days like this you’ll touch the scar on your left cheek that makes a jagged line across your face. You’ll rub the scar, unknowingly, the way you do when your own thoughts are terrible to you, and find it a relief when you admire anything along the way, whether it’s a plant or bird or person who uplifts you.

As always, your compassion wakens easily for others, but you have little pity for yourself. Sometimes you can see nothing but your flaws, as though you are far more despicable than anyone you ever judge. If only you could view yourself the way I do. You are not ugly. Your scar and limp are not the person that you are. When you are older, you’ll forget the scar. For months on end it will not matter to you in the least. Yet if you think right now about your future, what fearful, twisted thoughts you have. You are, like all your classmates, so blind to everything that lies ahead. I wish to heaven you could clearly see all of the good that you will do. There is no question of it.

Some things about a person never change with time. Your kindness will stay with you all your life. Also your perseverance. Right now you have no special interest or excitement as you study for exams and write your papers, and yet, from the sheer effort you put in, your grades are always high. Your intellect is a stove that has been stoked and stoked with driest, dusty wood, yet one day soon a spark will light your mind with such a fire that it will illuminate the path to your life’s work. Quite suddenly you’ll feel that nothing matters to you more than what you can discover. A heightened color will flood back into your face.

In two weeks you’ll return to your hometown for Christmas. Sara lives alone with her young baby, Toby. She was divorced six months ago. Your father is now dead and gone two years from heart disease. Your mother mourns for him, yet he is still so much a part of her he’s never left her. You imagine him at least one time each day and sometimes say his name out loud. When he dropped dead, you’d never known a hurt so huge, like a horrific pain that never stopped. Each time you thought of him, you wept in helpless waves. You hadn’t cried so uncontrollably since you were a newborn.

The winter break from school will be a rest and a relief. When you see your family, they will be as you expect. You know each one so deeply, the shade and texture of each person’s hair, as though you’d seen it magnified under bright light. Also, you’ve memorized the feel of all their hands, their arms and cheeks against you as you greet them. The scent of each of them will be familiar when you breathe it in.

Each time your family comes together as a group, you smile to see their faces all around you. It doesn’t matter that you once were crippled by your father’s disappearance. As you celebrate with meals and talk together, you will not feel the full extent of anyone’s importance to you. Like a cold, unplugged machine, you can’t begin to sense life’s greatest losses in advance. You may imagine them, but you will not be able to protect yourself or to prepare for family deaths.

All people come to me for some small shred of certainty. Any is better than none at all. If only you could see how admirable you are. Have you heard the slightest scorn in what I’ve said to you today? I know too much for scorn. You are not a lost, pathetic, foolish person. Soon you will find your way. Someday you will be married, like Maria and your brothers. You’ll have children of your own and love them more than you have ever loved yourself.

I see too much for you to ever see. All the clothes and shoes you wear in your whole life piled up together in a heap would make a pointed hill, like an Egyptian sculpture standing in a desert. All the shadows you have ever cast. A map of every fingerprint you’ve left behind. There’s nothing I can’t see.

Does anyone know you better than I do? Please try to think of this, my friend, far longer than you’ve thought of anything before.

Ellen Wilbur has been a Radcliffe Bunting Fellow, an Ingram Merrill Fellow, and winner of a St. Botolph’s Award in fiction. Her stories have twice been chosen for the The Pushcart Prize.
Originally published:
April 1, 2018


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