The Oracle Opens One Eye
by Patricia Russo


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,” Jokla muttered.

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 gathering firewood.”

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 this. 

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 somewhere else.

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 each hand.

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 nothing more. 

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 darted everywhere.

“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 her?

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 Jokla’s body.

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 face.

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 eye.

“The oracle weeps…” whispered the father.

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 said.

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,” she rasped.

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 her limbs.

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 free?”

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 freedom.

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.



About the Author:

Patricia Russo has had stories in Corpse Blossoms, Zencore, Read by Dawn Volume Two, many issues of Tales of the Unanticipated, numerous issues of Not One of Us, and a whole hell of a lot of other places, some that still exist, such as Fantasy and City Slab, and some that have kicked the bucket, such as Surreal and Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fantasy Magazine.



Story © 2008 Patricia Russo.