I come from a long line of fortune tellers. Diviners was the word my grandmother preferred to use. I can still hear her voice in my head: “What I do is divine the future for those who lack the ability to see it.” She didn’t help people connect with the dead, and she wasn’t there to help people understand events from their past. The future was her specialty.
She actually married someone whose last name – no joke – was Devine, and The Deviners was the name they went by when they traveled about the country. They put on stage shows where they wowed the crowds, and also conducted private sessions for those with the means to afford them, including some people I’m sure you’ve heard of.
It’s possible you’ve heard of The Deviners, in fact, as they did garner some notoriety. They do have their own Wikipedia page after all, though it is quite brief. If you read the page, it mentions how Tara and Ryan Devine split up after ten years of marriage and The Deviners another five years after that. They tried to sustain the act even after their marriage fell apart, and made a pretty good run of it. In the time they were together, they produced one child – my mother. She was determined to make sure that the family business of divining ended with my grandmother. She doesn’t discuss her childhood much, though I’ve gathered that my grandfather was an alcoholic and abusive. The constant traveling and never getting the chance to settle down and make real friends took its toll as well. My mother’s marriage didn’t last as long as her mother’s, but she did make sure to keep me in the same town, in the same house, all the way from kindergarten through high school graduation, at which point I got out of town as fast as I could. The urge to roam was as strong in me as the desire to stay rooted was in my mother. Maybe we’re just hardwired to push back against the situations created for us by others, when we have no choice in the matter.
I’m back now because my mother is dead. She passed away suddenly, a rare heart defect that went undetected. I had last seen her a month earlier, when I was home for my birthday. My birthday was always a big deal for my mother, maybe because too many of hers had been spent alone while her parents went on stage in Branson, or Reno, or maybe just because I was her only daughter and she wanted to shower me with attention in the way that mothers often do. While the lavish birthday parties were long in the past, I knew she still needed to see me, at home, each year on that day. I’ve lived in many different places since I left home, with many different people, but I never missed a birthday with my mother.
It was strange now to think back on being here just one month ago. It obviously would’ve been a shock to me if someone had told me then that my mother only had a month to live. And yet, maybe it shouldn’t be quite so shocking. We want, maybe expect, the future to be boundless. We – at least most of us – may accept that the future is, and will always remain, hidden from us, but we don’t truly accept that the future has limits. Eventually, the future runs out for each one of us, and all that remains is our past.
I languidly went through my mother’s belongings, everything in place for her to use or to wear or to eat or to drink the next day, the next week, the next month, the next year. We think we value living in the moment – the YOLO life – but hardly any of us actually live that way. I imagine death must always come as some sort of surprise, even for those lying on their deathbeds, knowing the end approaches but ignorant of the hour or the day.
I finished packing up the items in my mother’s room and collapsed down onto her bed. Each trinket or article of clothing carried some kind of emotional weight, and I was exhausted. I laid there for a while, surrounded by cardboard boxes and plain gray storage tubs, watching the sun drop down onto the neighbor’s roof, before soon vanishing behind it. This was the view I had taken in on lazy summer afternoons as a child, when my mother and I would lie down after a morning of shopping or swimming lessons, dozing as the cooling breezes played with the curtains. There was a limitless feeling in those times that somehow became lost to me – maybe it becomes lost to everyone – as I grew older in that same old house in the same old town. What once felt full of possibilities became stifling. Claustrophobic and desperate to regain that sense of possibility, I bolted. But each stop was the same. Despite years of chasing the horizon, the most freedom I ever felt was lying in my mother’s bed, curtains billowing, drowsily watching the sun set outside the only house I’d lived in all my life.
Still feeling drained, I rolled out of bed and followed my feet up to the third floor. With a peaked, low wooden ceiling, beams exposed, the third floor had been a perfect play space for me as a child. A single window overlooked our verdant neighborhood, and I could imagine myself as the heroine from a fairy tale, gazing out over the kingdom, or as the protagonist from one of the fantasy books I loved to read, setting the course for our next adventure. Since then, the third floor had become a storage space, essentially the attic it was always supposed to be. There were stacks of dated clothes neatly folded, piles of old magazines, vinyl records, used toys. I pushed gently on an old rocking horse, the squeak of its springs slicing through the still, silent air. Against one wall was a row of shelves with various items I remembered from my childhood – old decor that had since been replaced with updated home accents as my mom tried to keep up with the times. I ran my fingers over the holiday decorations my mom used to bring out every year – a haunted house made out of paper mache, porcelain ghosts, a woven cornucopia, a faux evergreen wreath. I peeked inside a box marked “CHRISTMAS” with Sharpie, the smell of cherry and chestnuts drifting out from the cardboard, memories of cookies and fresh snowfall swirling in my head.
When I closed the lid, something tucked away in a corner on the bottom shelf caught my eye. I looked again, and it was like something was there but also not really there – almost like a small black hole had emerged in the attic. I bent down and reached my hand towards the darkness. There was something there, something curved and cool to the touch. I reached out with both hands and pulled the object, which was quite heavy, off the shelf. Although the light from outside was fading, I could see the reflection of the window in the brilliant blackness of the orb, about the size of a grapefruit, in my hands. I had spent enough time with my grandmother as a child to know exactly what this was. It was obsidian – my mother, who hated all things to do with divining, had kept a crystal ball.
* * *
Back downstairs now, the daylight having completely given way to night, I stared at the crystal ball on my mother’s kitchen table. Every fortune-telling family has a story about how their ancestors prophesied for royalty, and ours was no different. My grandmother had told me how we were descended from the soothsayer for Queen Elizabeth I, who apparently gave great credence to her diviners when debating plans for war, as well as more personal matters. It was said that the crystal ball used by those oracles for the queen was made from pure obsidian. And now here I was, in my mother’s small house, in this small town I’d wanted to escape from so badly, seeing my own face staring back at me in black. Why had my mother kept this? She must have gone through this same exercise when her mother died, I thought somewhat guiltily, as she had never asked for help with cleaning out grandma’s house, but I had never offered it either. Did she just want something precious of her mother’s as a reminder of her? Why the crystal ball though, when she had made it very clear throughout her life how little she thought of the practice of divining? Was it really that valuable?
I knew that different types of crystal balls were supposed to have different properties, but my mother had done well shielding me from much of my grandmother’s expertise, and I had to look up online what obsidian signified. Protection. Healing. Clairvoyance. I placed my left hand on the ball and felt a warmth I hadn’t noticed before. In those moments I had alone with my grandmother, she always said that our family’s gift could never truly be rejected. If someone was exceptionally smart or exceptionally athletic, it wasn’t something they could just turn off. The talent may grow weaker without regular practice, but the gift was still there. I had seen her work before, in her little home in the little spiritualist community two hours from our home, sharing her vision of the future with others. My mother would say she was just telling people what they wanted to hear. Even if the news is bad, people would rather feel certain than have to deal with the fog of the unknown, even if that certainty is a lie. But it had looked so real as I watched my grandma, felt so real for her paying guests. I put both of my hands on the ball now, like I had seen my grandmother do. With the touch of my right hand, the kitchen lights dimmed slightly. I closed my eyes and breathed deeply. What would my mother say now, after all the time and effort she had put into breaking us away from our family history? The thought that I could, if I wanted to, actually hear what my mother would say, and not only imagine it, was tantalizing. It was so recent that she had cooked and eaten in this kitchen, slept in the bed I had laid down in earlier today. Surely her presence must still be here. People don’t – they can’t – just disappear.
I continued to breathe deeply, eyes closed, while I kept both hands on the crystal ball. A memory of my mother, working in the garden in our backyard, seeped into my mind. She would dig and plant and water, tending to it carefully year after year. Some years she grew luscious tomatoes, massive zucchini. Other years, hardly anything grew at all. But this never seemed to discourage her. She felt that all she could do was do the work the way she knew how, and the way it turned out was not up to her. I could see her smiling in her sun hat, jeans dirty from kneeling in the garden, trowel in hand. Another memory: sitting next to my grandmother at the table where she performed her work. Her voice again: “What I do is divine the future for those who lack the ability to see it.” A smile and a wink.
I opened my eyes and took my hands off the ball. Everything was as it had been. The kitchen was still well-stocked and well-appointed, as if my mother would be coming home soon to cook dinner for us at the end of a full summer day.
But my mother would not be coming in to cook dinner, or boil water for tea. She would not come in from working out in the garden, fingernails dirty and back sweaty. She wouldn’t be laying down in bed, dreaming of what might be. Instead, I would be the one doing those things.
Looking around the old house, with all the secrets and memories it held, I knew I was looking at my future.
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I liked the descriptions of the home and its surroundings, and the emotions you conveyed attached to them. If I had to offer a suggestion, it would be to describe the characters' physical appearance more, but maybe this was intentional. It was fun to read!
Thanks, I appreciate the feedback. I wasn't thinking too much of the characters' appearance as I wrote, but I see how this could've helped with their development. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.
I love the story.
Thanks for reading, Bayan