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The Last Oracle

Raven Jakubowski lives in New York City with her spouse and their enormous cat. This is her first published story. When she isn't writing, she works as a wardrobe person and tailor for Broadway shows. She tweets about sewing and writing at @Quoth_a_Raven.

There was a saying among the oracles, when there were still oracles: Every vision is a choice.
Through the window I can see the great capitol of Ethrehym burning in the valley. Warriors will be here soon, and whether they are ours or theirs, I no longer think it matters. I am the only remaining oracle; this is the choice I made almost sixty long years ago.
An oracle's first vision is never discussed, even in the safety of the temple. I never told anyone about mine, about that day when, tumbling through the heather with Tashi, I saw the future rolled out before me like a bolt of black silk. The vision blotted out the summer sky with the quivering night of my death, fire burning in a city, smoke rising like a pale yellow pennant in the dark. There was the smell of ashes on the wind, and the high, keening wail of faceless women far away. I did not know them.
I woke from the vision lying in the furze, a warm trickle on my forehead where I had struck it, Tashi barking in alarm and trying to lick me up from where I had fallen. That is as tied to my vision as anything, the false night, the true day.
It was a choice. Already I had heard from the oracles in the temple their saying: Every vision is a choice.
My great aunt Ilan had a vision of her death and denied it. On her deathbed she sighed and clutched my mother's hand and said, "It could have been different. I was afraid. Everything had such promise, when I was young."
The oracles in the temples, behind their blue veils, who were they? Ordinary women who chose to shut themselves away, eternally answering questions, never asking their own.
Sometimes in the night, waiting for the visions, the Goddess herself would come to me, smelling of dark, sweet wine, of fat and ashes, stroke my face softly with Her feathered hands.
Her body, darkness on darkness, She was a weight in my bed, a caress on my hands, my chest, my heart.
There were no visions those nights, but a wholeness, a sweetness, terrifying, as though my body were another wound in the flesh of the universe.
If She visited the others, we never spoke of it, though when Eneis threw herself from the tower I heard talk that she had been abandoned. When Her visits to me ended I thought I knew what it was that Eneis had felt, the feeling that one last, joyous flight may be worth the price.
Around me the other women grew older, and still I was the youngest, though no longer young.
The farmers continued to visit, troubled with the injuries of their daughters, the lack of a male heir, the agony of a foolish marriage. The nobles, too, visited, concerned with bloodlines and blood feuds, and always there was the rumor of wars far off in the west, refugees bringing their gods over our borders.
My sister married and left; my brother married and stayed. My parents died. I took lovers from the handmaids, cured my loneliness with the more comprehensible love of human women.
But no more novices came.
I do not think the visions left them, all those poor girls, running through thickets, skinning knees. I cannot believe I was the last woman of Ethrehym to be given the choice. But I was the last to take it.
The temple is empty, tonight. The last handmaids have scattered, all but Lilia, who sits beside me and pours the last of the sacramental wine into our cups, unblessed.
We did not light the lamps. I always knew they must be unlit. The smell of battle on the wind is familiar, fat and ashes, and I am waiting, as I have been, to feel Her feathered hands through my hair. Any moment She will come for me, in flames and the edge of a sword, as She must.
"Hide," I tell Lilia. There is a tunnel beneath the altar stone, unneeded for lifetimes but still clear.
"Hide with me." She reaches for my hand. Her skin is as soft as fine paper. She is not young, either, anymore.
"I can't. This is what I chose. This is the bargain."
"You all used to say that every vision is a choice," she says softly.
"Every vision but one. Every vision but the first."
She doesn't say goodbye. Her bare feet pad softly from the room.
The temple is silent.
Who was the last man to come to me for counsel? I cannot remember. I wonder what he chose? After all, the future is not fixed. No man is bound to the word of the Goddess when She speaks through me. She can only say, "This may be." Though my visions are as visceral as the vision of my eyes, it does not make them fact. I have lived every stillborn son, every unhappy wife, every failed crop. I have starved, died on the battlefield, been crowned in a foreign land. But whether these events ever came to pass was up to the querent.
The soldiers speak to me in a tongue I do not recognize, but I do not hear them. I do not see them. Behind them I can see Her face clearly for the first time. My Goddess. She has come for me at last, wings and feathers, fat and ashes, and when I fall to the ground again, as I did so many years ago, She is beside me.
In Her depthless eyes I see: somewhere in the city, at this very moment, another girl, slender, scared, is hidden in a cellar. The Goddess is with this child, too, unrolling the black silk future. The little girl smiles, nods, chooses the time and manner of her death. It is not today.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, October 28th, 2014

Author Comments

This story sprang from the notion that a person who knows with absolute certainty how they will die will be able to live a life without fear. Of course, in this case it becomes part of a bargain: know with certainty how you will die, but devote your life to telling the future of others. I drew atmosphere for the story from the Greek myths and legends I've loved since I was a kid, but I think that the history of most cultures is the story of disasters and triumphs and people who saw them coming but were powerless to stop them.

- Raven Jakubowski
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