“It makes it hard to give good advice, you know?” The air in the occult store is close, dim. Patchouli coats Cassandra’s lungs, familiar as disdain. She stretches her senses to appreciate the bowl of lavender mixed with baking soda on the counter, the soy-sweet sharpness of the tarot reader’s unfinished duck rolls. Half-occluded by the generic scent of their shared tribe, these things whisper truths about the other oracle. Cassandra, silence always her preference, listens.
“People don’t want to know the future,” the tarot reader goes on. She pulls off her headscarf, grimaces, reties it over hair tacky with sweat. “They want to talk through their troubles. They want you to wrap their desires in archetypes.”
Cassandra lifts a card from the gauze-swaddled deck, and places it on the table. The Chariot. The tarot reader runs her fingers over the gold and onyx lions tugging in their opposed directions. “Yeah, that. I can still give advice, but I’m harnessed to this other thing, too. I don’t know how to balance them. I don’t want to balance them.”
The tarot reader—her name is Sofía, and she’s no more generic than her visitor—lays out further cards. The Four of Cups, the Tower reversed, the Lovers. It feels strange to read the future for someone with so much past. “You have good things in front of you, in spite of your curse, and you’re no more capable of appreciating them than others are of appreciating your gifts. But the final cataclysm is never coming for you. When the summers get hot enough that sunlight kills, you’ll find haven in the shade, and make a place where people can come to imagine it’ll get better.” She taps the last card. “And I’m still full from lunch, but dessert doesn’t count. There’s a great gelato place up the street.” Cassandra’s bright, startled smile tugs against the lines etched in her skin.
Sofía follows Cassandra up the cracked concrete steps, admiring the curve of her back. The older oracle wears her black hair plush-close on one side, while on the other it drops to her waist in a lustrous waterfall. Sofía touches her scarf again. “Doesn’t it get hot, the side that’s long?” Not what she’d normally say to a woman who caught her eye, but oracles are an honest tribe. It feels like they’re going to know each other for years.
Cassandra doesn’t touch her own hair. Self-consciousness long outgrown, she merely hitches her skirt from street to sidewalk. “I change it every few years. It makes it easier to tell times apart, when I see them. I’m saving the cooler styles for later.”
Sofía feels the irrational suspicion that her companion made up that answer—even though there’d be no reason to lie, even though it wasn’t true prophecy, just a plan for the future. But they’re of a tribe, and with effort she resists the curse-born instinct. “I believe you.” Her resistance wins another unpracticed smile.
They stroll toward Dupont Circle. It’s cooler outside by a bare degree or two, but the late afternoon sun invokes stench from the sidewalk like Delphi’s sulphur: the answer to a question about what’s to come. The air shimmers.
“What do you see?” asks Sofía.
“Change.” Cassandra gestures at the buildings around them. “I see solar panels and fallen walls, and the workers replacing the sidewalks with something bright and free of cracks. I see people marching in uniforms and with signs. I see a hungry teenager, clothed in sharp and ragless plastic, and I see a woman dancing with joyous abandon across the empty street. I see a man dying on that corner with blood in his eyes. And I never know whether it’s a maze or a labyrinth.”
“Whether there’s more than one way through.” Sofía can never tell, either. Perhaps if everyone came back to them, if they could hear stories from the survivors. But no one, alive or dead, returns to the person who warned them. The known moment lies visible around them: a panting dachshund, a drunk woman crying on her friend’s shoulder, children shrieking as they make an obstacle course of the crowd.
“What do you see?” asks Cassandra.
“Signs and symbols. That woman crying; when she bends into sunlight I see her wearing the robes of the Priestess, with the moon cooling her brow. That little dog is almost Strength’s lion. The children…” She hesitates. “I know the card means transformation, but it still feels vile every time. I see their bones.”
“Look closely enough,” says Cassandra, “and you’ll see everyone’s bones. They hold us up. If you don’t see the Tower over our destination, or ten swords, we should be all right for gelato.”
“You know the cards? I thought you just saw things on your own. Or read entrails.”
Bared teeth fit Cassandra’s face better than the smile. “I keep looking for a method that doesn’t work for me.”
The gelato shop is cool and welcoming; it will be many years before anything terrible happens there. The two women examine the flavor list at leisure. Often Cassandra wishes the past bared itself as vividly as the future. She would caress the fuzz of the peach and smell the melting chocolate, and place her hand against the flexing arm that mixed ice and cream. But of course there’s pain amid that history too, and disbelief, and even less to do about it. She forces her attention to the pleasures of the now: the draft from the cooler (the power plant will strain in the summer heat, pushing toward a blackout) and the smile of a boy tasting samples (the plastic spoon will crack in the landfill, its shards sickening a crow) and the bright colors of the gelato (the crying woman, buoyed by chocolate, will hit send on the job application that’s terrifying her; her work will lead thirty-two people through disaster to survival).
Sofía, thinking of Grecian slopes and fauns at dusk, orders scoops of olive oil and grapefruit. Cassandra, considering opportunities that must be grasped swiftly before they pass, orders maple.
At the next table two men discuss the latest climate models in urgent tones, and predictions for the hurricane season that’s already breaking records. Embassies and think tanks dot Dupont Circle’s spokes; the smell of patchouli is only in Cassandra’s imagination.
“It’s a different thing,” says Sofía. “They’re scientists. They can point to why their predictions work. They can figure out how to make them more useful.”
Cassandra shrugs, and licks gelato from the metal spoon she keeps in her bag. “We could prove our arts work, would anyone attend the evidence. And they share our curse.”
The oracles listen. Cassandra hears a Cat 5 storm roaring down forests, and Sofía sees the Tower scribbled on the back of a napkin. Cassandra takes her companion’s hand. “There’s more to changing the future than predicting it. I don’t know that art nearly as well. I’ve tried.”
Sofía sets down her gelato, puts her free hand over Cassandra’s. “We should practice. I’m tired of just watching.”
On their way out of the gelateria one of the consultants looks up. He smiles in recognition: he’s seen them at a conference, or in the ever-blurring cycle of symposia. He lifts his hand and Cassandra presses it, palm to palm and fingertip to fingertip. No other greeting is needed. The consultant will not remember this meeting, but he knows his tribe.
“I believe you,” Sofía tells him, before fleeing into the waning day. But it’s more than belief that she yearns for, as the heat pushes back into her bones. Tongue still cool with the taste of cream, she tries to name the desire moving, goading her from beneath the flashing faces of the cards.
They kneel on Sofía’s futon, naked under the blur of the ceiling fan, palm to palm.
“What do you see?” asks Sofía softly.
Cassandra looks. Futures peel from the futon, the fan, the sweltering park below the window. “You. The more you believe me, the less I can see you beyond the moment.”
“It’s a good moment.” Sofía’s hands stray from their mirrored pose, seeking elsewhere. “Hard so many places, but sweet here. There are good things in front of you, if you appreciate them.”
Cassandra can’t stop thinking. “What does it mean, that we’re here together? Do we make each other stronger or weaker?”
“Interference patterns,” Sofía murmurs against Cassandra’s ear. “Labyrinths superimposed to form a maze. We make each other different.”
“Yes.” Cassandra wraps her arms around the other woman, feeling skin and sweat and the moment unencumbered by certainty. She doesn’t know what comes next, but her hands move to shape it, second by second.
Later they lie entangled, dreaming, and they do not dream of prophecy.
In the morning the summer heat shatters into a downpour, the blunted edge of a hurricane that’s shredding itself against the coastline far to the south. Every street casts off its mask and becomes a relentless stream, the detritus of lawns and sidewalks flowing lower, lower, until it finds the Potomac or the Anacostia or one of the filters that ward them.
Sofía checks her phone, not quite scrying. “We could take a bus to Raleigh and help with the cleanup. Or we could find a place here in the river restoration effort. They say one year soon, people will be able to swim in the Potomac all summer. I can never see it on my own. We could look until we learn how to make it true.”
“Maybe there are others.” Cassandra is shaking. “Other oracles whose futures mesh with ours to make possibilities. I don’t know. I don’t know, and that means it might be true. Maybe we could make it true.”
“Bigger mazes,” says Sofía. She’s afraid too. She’s in awe, too, and so very ready to do more about the future than read its entrails. “We could find more dead ends. And more ways through.”
They dress, running their hands over denim and cheap silk, lifting leather jackets to breathe in the taste of fertile earth and bone. Then they walk out together into the mingled streams of the street. Rain chills their arms, weighs down their hair, and makes rivulets across their backs. I believe this, they tell each other, and they talk with fearful joy of how to shape an uncertain future.