For her sins, they stripped her
of her shift and bound her hands to the post in front of the
men’s house. Jokla’s father and brothers watched as the priests
laid fifty stripes on her bare back. They could have beaten her
with a knotted cord or a barbed lash, and killed her, for Jokla
was slight, with little flesh between skin and spine, but the
boy who tended the oracle had died just a few days before, and
another caretaker was needed. So they whipped her with a smooth
rope, and when they were done, the three priests dragged her by
her bound hands out of the village and up the steep gray path
through the gray rocks to the oracle’s black cave in the gray
mountains. She had long since given up asking who had accused
her, or what she was supposed to have done.
“You know your duty,” one
priest said as he cut her hands free. That was not true, but
Jokla was too afraid to do anything except incline her head.
Another priest, the one who had
grunted each time he lashed her, tossed her torn shift on the
ground. Then all three turned to walk back down the dusty path.
“How long?” Jokla croaked.
The priests kept walking.
Her shoulders ached, but her
arms were still in their sockets. Her back throbbed with
bruises, but her skin was intact. Her stomach churned and her
head spun, but she was alive.
The wind rose, hot and dry,
swirling the dust. Within the cave, something stirred.
The oracle shuffled slowly out
into the gray light. The wind cast loops of stench over Jokla,
hot breaths from a mouth dark with decay. She flinched and shut
her eyes, then forced herself to turn, and look.
That had been five years ago.
The supplicant, a grim man with
a broken nose, waited in silence, his head bowed. His cloak, an
old blanket pinned at the shoulder with an old bronze brooch,
jumped with fleas. He had carried a waterskin up the path, made
his libations outside the cave, prayed, then pierced his tongue
with a thorn and spat the blood in offering to the spirits. For
the oracle, he had brought a honeycomb, dry and crawling with
ants, and wildflowers picked along the path, their petals gray
with the dust of the mountain. Not that the oracle noticed or
cared; she dozed in the back of the cave, mumbling, shifting her
old bones on the woven-reed mat, occasionally scratching her
sores. Jokla, sitting crossed-legged and hunched near the mouth
of the cave, watched the man, scowling. Scrapings of old honey,
a few useless flowers. And his question: May I return home,
has the penance sufficed?
Silently, Jokla crawled back to
where the oracle slept. Curse the man, curse his foolish
question, curse his meager offering. The other day, a woman had
come, with two hares. Will my son come back from the sea? Ha,
ha, the waves lap him with long, salty tongues, the oracle had
said, rocking back and forth.
Jokla touched the old woman’s
ankle, then drew back. She wasn’t quick enough. The slap caught
her on the top of the head. Half blind, in the dark, the
woman’s arm was yet swift, and her aim true. “Supplicant,”
The oracle grunted. She
scratched her thigh.
“He wants to know—”
“Seven years more,” the oracle
said, and turned over and went back to sleep.
How Jokla hated her. When she
had first been brought to the cave, the woman had shambled out,
squinted at Jokla’s reddened back, her bare breasts, and thrown
back her head and laughed. “Another sinner to serve truth?
About time. I hope you’re better than the last one. Cover
yourself, then fetch water from the spring. Then you can start
She’d looked like the oldest
woman in the world. Her wrinkles were so deep gray dust
collected in them. Her back was humped and bent, and her belly
hung down like an empty sack. Her eyes were filmed, her hair
sparse, her teeth broken, decayed, and few. The muscles of her
arms were wasted, gray skin covering bones like sticks, and her
head shook with a slight but unrelenting tremor. Jokla felt
pity. The woman stank; her body was filthy, and her clothing
stiff with dirt. She must be too weak to wash, she thought.
The pity lasted until the first
slap landed. “Go! You passed the spring on your way up here.
Or did you climb with your eyes closed?”
Weak, the old woman was not,
but swift as a serpent, and as spiteful.
In five years, the oracle had
never asked Jokla her name. Perhaps she knew it, from a vision,
from a dream. Or from a priest. If she did, she never used
it. You. Sometimes You, girl. Or You, fool. You, idiot.
When she was away from the old woman, gathering wood, picking
herbs, hunting mushrooms, hauling water, Jokla murmured her own
name to herself, under her breath, like a chant, so as not to
forget it. The folk from her village who came to question the
oracle never looked Jokla in the eye; strangers scarcely noticed
her. No one from her family ever came.
Now, Jokla crawled back to the
mouth of the cave, but remained within, out of sight. The
supplicant still waited in silence, hands clasped and head
bent. Pitching her voice low, Jokla cast her words so that they
would be caught by the wind. “Seven years more,” she called
out. “Seven years, seven years.”
The man’s shoulders stiffened.
Above, gray birds wheeled and
screamed. All was gray in this place, the stones, the soil, the
water, the light, the life.
Eventually the man went away.
Jokla threw away the flowers,
but brought the honeycomb into the cave.
Seven years. That was a
reasonable span of time, a common span, accepted as fitting by
everyone except the barbarians who counted by nines. Jokla kept
track of the moon’s changes, and with a stone she carved the
passing of the years into the side of a tree stump close by the
spring. When seven years have gone, the priests will return and
release me, she told herself. Perhaps they might even tell me
what sins I committed. Thus she endured, drinking gray water
and chewing the scraps of sacrifices, and tending the oracle,
washing her when she allowed herself to be touched, picking the
lice from her robes, weaving fresh mats, listening to her
nightmares, and suffering her blows. Sometimes Jokla climbed to
the high peak that loomed above the cave. One jump, one strong
leap to clear the ledge, and then the long fall, the wind in her
ears like the roar of cataracts, and then an end to all of
But seven years of anything can
be endured, she would tell herself. People have endured worse
than this. And she would step away from the edge.
Soon after the beginning of
Jokla’s sixth year in servitude, the oracle fell ill.
It began with an aching in her
joints and a mild fever that would not break. The old woman sat
hunched over the fire, coughing, and refused to let Jokla near.
The first few days, the oracle’s illness was merely an
annoyance; two supplicants came, Jokla announced that the oracle
was unwell, and the men left, disappointed. She herself did not
fall ill, and believed the oracle would recover soon enough.
The woman was old; old people were often ill.
Then her body began to waste
away. Her pain increased. She could not sleep, nor could she
find relief in any position, lying, sitting, or standing.
Everything hurt her. Jokla coaxed her to eat, while nursing in
her heart the fierce hope that the oracle would die.
Supplicants continued to come,
and after a while, they refused to depart. They camped before
the cave, and up and down the slope of the mountain, waiting for
the oracle to receive them.
“What do I tell them? What do
I do?” Jokla asked, again and again. Whenever she stepped out
of the cave, to go for water, to gather herbs, to empty a
chamber pot, the supplicants glared at her and muttered, as if
it were Jokla’s doing that the oracle was silent. The longer
the silence lasted, the fiercer their resentment grew. Jokla
could feel the hatred coming off their bodies like waves of
heat, so intense that her skin burned, as if she had stood naked
under the sun.
The oracle threw a bit of
firewood at her, then sank back into her moaning and rocking.
Though she ate almost nothing, a few sips of soup or tea in a
whole day, her belly had swelled. She cradled it in her
stick-thin arms, and whimpered.
The supplicants grew bolder.
They came to the mouth of the cave and shouted their questions
into the darkness, without bothering with libations, or
sacrifices, or prayers. They cursed and shoved each other,
battling for the best position before the cave; they argued over
how long each supplicant should be allowed to keep his or her
place at the front of the line. Blows fell, blood fell, and
still they howled their questions: Will there be war with the
Sea Folk? Should I marry the daughter of Rion the potter? Why
does my mother’s spirit return night after night to wail outside
the sheepfold, when her funeral was conducted properly, with all
the rites and ceremonies due her? Is it permitted to cut down
the tree in the middle of my barley field, now that its dryad
has not been seen for seven times seven years? Will my son
recover the use of his legs? What shall I do to cleanse my
pollution? Which of my neighbors has cursed me? Why do my
chickens die? How do I find the treasure my great-grandfather
buried before the gods took away his senses? Is my brother
plotting to dishonor me? Is my wife’s child of my seed? Should
I buy Fia’s olive grove? What sacrifice should I offer to
propitiate my house’s threshold spirit?
Once a day, Jokla would speak
from the cave. “The oracle is silent,” she would call out, or
else, “The oracle sleeps.”
Still the questions rushed on,
endlessly, a roaring stream impossible to dam. The oracle, her
eyes shut, rocked and moaned. Nothing intelligible came out of
her mouth, nothing Jokla could even pretend to interpret. In
desperation, Jokla crawled to her spot of concealment just
inside the opening of the cave, where the shadows from the
overhanging crag and the curve of the cave wall made the
darkness nearly impenetrable to eyes peering in from without.
One supplicant, a woman, was screeching something about a
dowry. Jokla waited until the woman paused to draw breath, then
boomed out, “Woe, woe! The oracle weeps!”
Commotion and confusion erupted
as people shouted to those farther below that the oracle had
awakened. A man shoved aside the woman who had been answered,
and screamed out his own question.
Jokla barely paid attention to
the words; she waited for the third repetition, then called out,
“Alas, alas, the oracle laments!” Let them make of that what
they would; it was a true report. More questions came, and
Jokla answered, “The oracle grieves,” or else, “The oracle
moans,” or else, “The oracle tears at her belly and sobs.” All
true, but Jokla trembled. Surely the visitors to the cave would
catch on; surely they would realize that the oracle was neither
seeing nor speaking, and these brief reports that came booming
and hollow out of the darkness were no true prophecies. But the
people accepted them, bending their heads under the weight of
the unhappy news, departing with their own groans and
lamentations. The subterfuge sufficed. It cleared the
squatters out, and those who toiled up the path once more
approached with reverence, and made libation and sacrifice.
Time passed, one day dying into
the next, but the old woman did not die. Her arms and legs grew
thinner still, her face skeletal, while her abdomen swelled up,
the skin stretched tight as a drumhead. She lay on her side,
and barely moved. She allowed Jokla to wash her now, and brush
the flies away, and wet her lips with cold tea. She kept her
eyes shut, and rarely even moaned. Each morning Jokla was
certain the old woman would not live to sunset, and each night
she was certain she would not survive to morning, and yet day
followed day and the oracle did not die.
Any pity Jokla had ever felt
for the old woman had been extinguished long ago. Jokla tended
her, as was her duty, but she would have suffered more sorrow
for a dying cat. She could feel no compassion for the
supplicants, either, for all their nervousness as they
approached the cave, for all their sacrifices, richer now than
ever before in hopes of eliciting a favorable response, for all
their strained desperation. Ill-tidings were all she had to
offer them. If they longed for something else, then let them go
She was standing in the sun,
wiping the grit of a long, sleepless night from her eyes, when
she spotted the family toiling up the path. The man was in the
lead, a large wicker basket strapped to his back; its weight
bent his shoulders, and he labored upwards with the help of two
staffs. Two women, one bare-headed, her hair loose as that of a
woman in mourning, and carrying nothing, the other older, her
dress that of a debt-slave, followed him. The slave bore a
harvest-basket on her head, and carried an earthenware jug in
Jokla retreated, anticipating a
rich sacrifice. There might be a lamb in the man’s basket, or
even a young calf. The woman with unbound hair walked the
rugged, rocky path on bare feet, but the man wore boots, and the
staffs he gripped were ringed with silver. Even the slave wore
sturdy sandals, and an embroidered girdle. These were members
of a wealthy household.
“Supplicants come,” she told
the oracle, as she always did. The only reaction was a slight
change in the old woman’s breathing; for a few seconds, it
became a bit more rapid, a little raspier. Jokla expected
The visitors halted, the man
leaning on his sticks, panting. The mourning woman stood aside,
her hair hanging over her face, while the slave set down her own
burdens and helped the man lift the large basket off his back
and place it, with great care, on the ground. The man laid down
one of his staffs. Still leaning on the other, he unfastened
the cord that bound the basket’s latch, and raised the lid.
Jokla expected to hear a bleat, or a grunt, when the sunlight
fell on the animal’s eyes. Instead there came a cry in a voice
that sounded nearly human.
The slave bent over the basket.
She began to sing, in a low, cracked voice, something that
could have been a wordless lullaby. The man spread a blanket on
the ground, while the mourning woman stood as still as a stone,
her hands clenched at her side.
The man and the slave lifted a
child out of the basket and laid her on the blanket, a child
with bent limbs and a twisted neck, and large dark eyes that
peered anxiously about her. She spoke, in broken, slurred words
Jokla could not understand. The man looked away. The slave
woman hummed soothingly.
The man performed the rites,
while the mourning woman stood silent and the slave crouched by
the blanket, humming. The child squirmed, but did not have
enough control over her limbs to move off the blanket. Her eyes
“O Wise One, deep in knowing
and foreknowing, I come to ask a lawful way to put an end to the
suffering of this wretched creature, daughter of my own body and
the body of my wife, whose life is a misery to herself and a
grief to all who must gaze upon her.”
The slave woman winced.
Slowly, the mourning woman
raised her head; her face was a mask of despair, her eyes black
pits of hatred.
“For sixteen years she has
suffered; for sixteen years we have borne both biting grief and
bitter shame on her account. O Deep-seeing One, ask the gods
how this burden may be lifted from us all.” The man bent his
head to await the answer, his hands loosely clasped in front of
him, his shoulders as rigid as if awaiting the lash.
The child grunted and arched
her back, but could not lift herself more than a finger’s
breadth from the blanket. No, not a child, Jokla thought, but a
young woman, sixteen years old, though her body, even if
imagined with its limbs unbent, its neck straight, its back
uncrooked, was no larger than that of a girl of six. Jokla
rubbed her eyes. She tried to think of what to say. The oracle
gushes forth tears like a waterfall? Would that suffice, would
the young woman’s father take those words as permission to drown
Jokla looked again at the
mourning woman. Her expression reminded her of something; it
took a moment before the memory came clear. So her
second-eldest brother had looked when the priests had dragged
her before the men’s house to be whipped, his expression one of
raging helplessness, while her father turned his head and her
other brothers stared at the ground. Her mother had not come to
witness Jokla’s punishment.
Drowning was an easy death, so
it was said.
Jokla pressed her fingertips
together, and drew a breath.
Behind her came a rustling.
Jokla froze. It could not be, but the oracle was turning on her
mat. Fear and wonder raced together in Jokla’s blood; she
looked over her shoulder. The oracle was rising, a skeleton
with the belly of a glutton, one eye open and one eye shut, and
her mouth as slack as an idiot’s. Jokla scrambled to her feet.
The oracle’s open eye was clouded, but she reached out a bony
hand and gripped Jokla’s shoulder tightly. Her fingers were
talons. “Lead me,” she said, in a voice as dry as straw. She
turned toward the mouth of the cave, supporting herself with
It wasn’t until the oracle took
a step that Jokla realized she meant to go outside. If the
priests had been there, they would not have allowed it. But the
priests were not there, and slowly, leaning half her weight on
Jokla’s shoulder, the oracle emerged into the light.
The slave woman let out a
shriek, then clapped her hands over her mouth. The man flinched
back. Jokla glanced at the young woman; she was still
wriggling, struggling to crawl off the blanket. The mother
stood still, at her distance, and something new appeared in her
The oracle blinked and blinked,
her body trembling. The sun must hurt her, Jokla thought.
Worse than standing, worse than walking, the sun must burn like
fire. Tears spilled down the old woman’s face from her one open
“The oracle weeps…” whispered
The old woman squeezed Jokla’s
shoulder hard, and Jokla said, “The oracle will speak.”
Silently, all waited.
Though her grip was still
tight, the oracle was shaking so violently Jokla was afraid that
the old woman’s knees would give way. If she allowed the oracle
to collapse in front of supplicants, the priests would rain down
punishment on her for certain. She put her arm around the
oracle’s waist to lend her body more support. The old woman bit
back a groan, but made no other protest. “This child,” she
said, then stopped, struggling for breath.
“This child,” she continued,
after a moment, and the man, and his wife, and the slave woman
all gazed at her with fear, “has her destiny, given to her at
birth. I see great deeds in her future, but my vision is
clouded now by age. The gods are leaving me. You must return,
when the next oracle is chosen, to learn more. Tend the child
well, and your rewards will be many.” Jokla felt the old
woman’s body sag, and moved closer, tightening her hold; she was
keeping the oracle on her feet now, supporting almost all of the
old woman’s weight.
The slave woman’s eyes shone.
The mother folded her hands together; Jokla could see she was
fighting not to cry. The father called out, “When shall the new
oracle come? When shall we return?” But Jokla had already,
gingerly, wincing at the pain radiating from the oracle’s body,
begun to turn, the old woman’s weight heavy on her.
“The oracle has spoken,” Jokla
The slave woman murmured
something that might have been: praise the oracle.
Praise the oracle, Jokla
thought. With slow, hitching steps, they made their way back
into the coolness and the dark. Jokla was afraid the old woman
would crumble as soon as they were out of sight of the
suppliants, and indeed her body shook and swayed like a sapling
in a storm. They had nearly made it to the oracle’s bed when
her strength gave out. She fell, and Jokla fell with her, her
back twisting, her knee hitting the ground hard. Sparks danced
in her eyes. The old woman lay over her, her breaths wheezing
in and out in a raspy panting.
“It’s all right,” Jokla said,
after a moment.
The oracle shuddered. “Idiot,”
Jokla had grown strong in her
years of service, stronger than she knew. She managed to slide
out from under the old woman’s body, then, kneeling, to take the
oracle into her arms and rise. She carried her to her bed of
woven mats and laid her down as gently as she could. She poured
a little water into a cup and helped the old woman down two
swallows, then found an old rag and began to wipe the sweat from
She could hear the thump of
feet and the creaking of wicker; outside the suppliants were
loading up their burden for the long trek down the mountainside.
“Do you know when you will
die?” Jokla asked.
The old woman’s breathing had
eased a little. Both her eyes were shut. “No,” she answered.
Jokla touched the wet rag to
her face. “Do you know who the next oracle will be?”
Jokla wiped the old woman’s
forehead. Softly, she asked, “Do you know when I shall be set
An eyelid fluttered, and the
old woman let out a small sigh. “No,” she said.
“Why did you go outside? Why
did you call more pain on yourself?”
“I wanted . . .” She ran a dry
tongue over cracked lips. She opened one eye, but Jokla did not
think she could see anything. “I wanted to do something good.”
Jokla sat motionless for a
space, trying to control her rage. Her chest tightened; she
could hardly breathe. So there was kindness in you, after all,
hidden deep in some crevice of your withered old soul.
But not for me.
Jokla had nearly lost the
capacity to shed true tears. But her eyes stung, for there was
courage in the old woman as well, courage to defy the priests,
to defy the gods, perhaps, and Jokla wished she had even a scrap
of that courage within her, just enough to either smother the
old woman where she lay and end her pain, or to simply stand up
and walk away, out of the cave and the gray mountains, to
Perhaps it would take seven
years of suffering to grow such strength, or seven and seven
years, or seven times seven.
Jokla dipped her rag into the
water jug again, and began to wash the old woman’s feet.