Wednesday
Jul102013

Mira Corpora

By Jeff Jackson


Two Dollar Radio
September 2013
978-1937512132


 

Meet the Chorines

The door is locked, but peer through the keyhole and you'll spy the oracles lost in their dreamy duties. Three pale girls in pink nightgowns with athletic socks pulled over their knees. One oracle spoons mossy grounds into a trio of mismatched cups. Another lifts a kettle from an electric hot plate and sniffs the steam rising from its spout. The third removes the lid from a red sugar bowl and inspects the contents. The girls hover wordlessly around the steeping tea. Their shoulder blades twitch involuntarily. I'm not supposed to be watching this.

A hushed crowd waits inside the decaying house to see the oracles. We huddle along the wooden staircase and stare up at the water-stained ceiling. Black mold spreads in fern leaf patterns across the plaster walls. A kitchen sink rests at the end of the hallway. A disassembled motorboat engine lies in the bathtub. The pilgrims are a combination of vagrant tourists and weary travelers. Most of these patient souls have been waiting for hours. I've been here longer than any of them.

There's the click of the lock. The squawk of the rusty hinges sounds as startling as a shipyard whistle. Two of the oracles appear in the door frame. Their sinewy faces are almost ectomorphic. Their condor eyes survey the crowd and seem vaguely unsatisfied with the tally. Each holds a glass ashtray filled with damp tea leaves. Everyone around me plays it cool like parishioners at some rote worship service. I'm not so suave. My heart starts to sweat. My Adam's apple quavers. "We're ready to begin," the two oracles announce.

I'm the first in line but let the skinhead girl with the bookish glasses take my place. The crowd pushes me into the room behind her and a flock of us hover along the nearest wall. We observe the main oracle who sits in the center of the room, a black notebook nestled in the folds of her nightgown. This must be Sara. There's nothing particularly striking about her chubby figure and greasy brown hair, but she radiates an otherworldly air of detachment.

The skinhead girl kneels in front of Sara's chair. One of the assistant oracles dabs a brown smudge of tea leaves on the girl's forehead. Sara props a foot on the girl's shoulder and presses her thumb into the spot. Her eyes turn milky white and her free hand begins to write. The pen moves at its own pace, the strokes slowly accumulating across the notebook page. When the writing ceases, Sara rips out the sheet with a flourish. The message reads: 22, 7, 16. Bobbie Merlino. It's unclear from the skinhead girl's reaction if the information has significance, but she creases the paper with painstaking care and tucks it inside her plastic billfold.

I let the black teenager with the infected nose-ring go next. As Sara enters her trance, I catalog the spartan contents of the bedroom. Bare mattress arranged on the wooden floor. Oval mirror draped with black velveteen. Peeling sea-green wallpaper with sun-faded sailboats navigating toward some unknown port. Sara finishes inscribing the notebook page and marks an X in the upper left-hand corner. The text reads: This is where you will kill your father. The boy acts unfazed but he keeps blinking at the paper, perhaps hoping a different message will materialize.

I signal the man with the grizzled beard to take my place, but one of the assistant oracles seizes my elbow. She motions for me to kneel in front of Sara, but instead I keep stalling. There's so much that suddenly needs explaining. I want to tell her how I ran away from home and traveled for days to get here, faithfully following a map scrawled on the back of Chinese takeout menu. I want to tell her how I can't remember anything until the age of ten except for my mother's suicide and the day I found her body. I need to spill out the entire history of my short sad life so she can take it all into account before asking the stars what they've cooked up for my destiny. But I can't summon even the simplest syllables.

I kneel in front of Sara's chair. Her lashes flutter, as if she's struggling to bring a strange specimen into focus at the end of a microscope. She appears slightly cross-eyed, her brown orbs unsuitable for everyday tasks. Her semi-blank stare reminds me of a crab whose stalks twitch in the direction of the nearest noise. 

She splays her legs and places a foot on my shoulder. I glimpse a few curly pubic hairs sticking out like orchid tendrils from the cotton crotch of her panties. One of the assistant oracles applies the warm tea leaves to my forehead. A brown rivulet of resin slips down the tip of my nose. It probably looks like my third eye is weeping. Sara presses her thumb against the leaves.

The spot feels white-hot, an intense burning pressure, as if a hole is being bored through the bone of my skull. I bite my tongue to keep from shouting. I focus on Sara's pen as it moves across the page in swift and soundless strokes. The only noises come from the rhythmless plink of the rain, the jittery clank of the ancient steel radiator, the thin whistle of static from an unseen radio. The pen halts and Sara tears the page from her notebook and hands it to me. The sheet is blank.

A tense murmur wafts through the house. More people squeeze into the room. Someone asks me to display the sheet and it produces an eerie silence, as if I were an executioner raising his victim's head above the crowd. Nobody wants to tell me that the last person who received a blank page from Sara died soon afterwards. Nobody wants to explain that it's like drawing the Tarot card of the skeleton astride his emaciated steed. One of the assistant oracles leans close and whispers "I'm sorry." All eyes are set on me. Only Sara's gaze is elsewhere, transfixed by the coastline of torn paper that clings to the margins of her notebook.  

 

The blank sheet sticks out of my back pocket. I stand on the lone strip of road and stare up at the oracles' house. A tireless rain spits from the sky and puddles around my feet. My clothes are soggy. My lungs burn. It stings every time I cough. The curtains of the upstairs window are closed, but eventually Sara will have to show her face.

I scoop several handfuls of wet gravel. It's easy to find ammunition in the middle of these woods. An aborted strip of asphalt runs past a few houses and evaporates before it reaches the forest. Everything this abandoned village is in ruins: the rotting porches, fallen tree limbs, incinerated automobile husks. Even the road I'm standing on comes apart under your fingernails.
My first throw misses by several inches. The second ricochets off the sill with a dull clatter. But the third strikes a direct hit, the pebbles rattling brightly against the second-story window pane. There's no way she's not hearing this.

Eventually the curtains part and Sara appears in the window. She flits there for a few seconds, her plump palm resting flat against the pane. Her gaze runs straight through me as if I'm already dead. I shout her name, but the only thing that answers is a fading handprint on the glass.

The wind blusters in a succession of frigid gusts. My face is raw and chapped. My hands won't stop trembling. I launch another fistful of gravel at the window. The stones jangle off the rotten wooden siding, but none of them even scrapes the second floor.

"Your aim is for shit."

It's the skinhead girl. She adjusts her horn-rimmed glasses as if trying to bring my curious activity into focus. The rest of the road is empty, but the other kids must be watching, too. Hosts of them are squatting in the surrounding derelict bungalows. It's easy to imagine their round faces, like balls on strings, suspended in the dirty windows. I let the rest of the pebbles sift through my fingers.

"You freaked out by the blank page?" the girl asks.

"Of course not," I say. "It doesn't have to mean something bad."

"That so?"

"Maybe it's like my destiny is wide open. Nothing's been written yet. Everything's still up to me. That's pretty good, right?"      

"So why are you out here in the rain throwing rocks at their window?"

I start to sneeze. Violent, hunched over, full-body sneezes. My eyes are red and watery. The skinhead girl opens her umbrella and holds it over us. The raindrops thrum against the canopy and it sounds like all the pebbles I've lofted into the air are now tumbling down on my head. "Maybe they made a mistake," she says softly.

"It's no big deal," I say. "Just some old sheet of notebook paper." I pluck the page from my back pocket and stretch it between my hands. I find myself holding it up like a blank billboard toward Sara's window. My fingers are quivering.

"You're getting it wet," she says.

I crush the paper into a wad and toss it on the ground. With the toe of my shoe, I stamp on it and rub it apart. The soggy sheet breaks into smaller and smaller pieces  until there's nothing but hundreds of dirty white flecks that resemble the rubbery shavings of an eraser. 

A small audience of onlookers has gathered on the edges of the road. They stand with eyes averted, as if they've just witnessed some tragic event and are trying to downplay its importance. More people leave the abandoned houses and venture into the rainy street in twos and threes, covering their heads with bags and old newspapers. I figure they're coming to offer advice or consolation about the blank page, but they push past and flock toward the oracles' porch. They all begin to file inside.

"Time for the nightly concert," the skinhead girl says. "Maybe you can talk to Sara after the show." She grabs my wrist and leads me toward the entrance.

Everyone has assembled in the living room, huddling on sagging couches, squatting on scratchy wool blankets, standing with backs hugging the plaster walls. Sickly sweet jasmine incense fills the air and masks the stench of stale sweat. A semi-circle of candles provides the light. The melted wax marks off the stage area, spreading like tree roots across the warped floorboards.

I sit on a coffee-stained sofa, balanced on wobbly box springs that threaten to uncoil. I'm getting sicker by the minute, alternating between face-reddening fever and teeth-chattering chills. Maybe I really am dying. People's gazes circle back to me with vulturous curiosity.

The room hushes. Three pairs of white athletic socks appear through the slats of the staircase, then the oracles swish their nightgowns and make a full-bodied entrance. They assume their place at the center of the candlelit circle. The two assistants throw their arms open and announce: "We are The Chorines!"

Muted whoops, muffled applause, a stray whistle.

This time the oracles don't seem so imposing. The nylon threads of their pink nightgowns shine from constant wear. Their cuticles are stained ochre from smoking hand-rolled cigarettes. They pick the gum from their teeth. They unfold the tops of their socks and scratch the inflamed insect bites on their calves. They let the silence of the room deepen.

Then the Chorines shut their eyes, clear their throats, and start to sing. Their throats vibrate together in a simple wordless tune. The voices circle one another according to an undetectable logic until they settle on a single resonant note. The sound builds to an immersive drone. The walls of the room begin to vibrate. It defies understanding how such a huge noise can radiate from the bodies of these three young girls.

The audience seems to know what to do. They begin to join the song, fixing their voices to the choir, one person at a time. They start in the far corner and work their way around the room. Soon it feels like I'm in the middle of a hive. With each new voice, the delirious hum grows more intense.

Despite myself, I get goose bumps. Tears streak my cheeks. The buzzing inside my chest is perfectly attuned to the vibration of the music. Maybe this song is a sort of funereal requiem. Maybe it's meant for me. Sara stares purposefully in my direction. An emotional current surges between us that's understood only by the raised hairs on the back of my neck.

I begin to tremble. My breathing becomes shallow. I part my lips to join the chorus but no sound comes out. I'm choking. My throat gags. My arms and legs convulse. My body pitches itself onto the floor. The voices slowly break apart and a gallery of curious faces hovers overhead, their overlapping shadows smothering me like a blanket. Only Sara continues to sing, that one blissfully sustained note held by her open mouth.

 

I regain consciousness in a darkened storeroom. It's piled high with bundles of instruction manuals, cases of empty green bottles, and the propeller from a small crop-duster. My body is crumpled in the corner, bundled in musty beach towels. The entire house is still. I listen to the clattering music of a thunderstorm pelting the roof and the wind whipping against the windows. Somewhere overhead I start to make out the soft sounds of a late-night colloquium. The voices of the oracles.

Maybe we should have a viewing... But what if he's not... We didn't do anything the last time it happened... There could be a cool ceremony... Yeah, you might as well invite the cops... Maybe it's easier to pitch him in the river... But what if he's not... We could have roses everywhere and pennies on his eyes... But what about afterwards... There's always the garbage dump... But what if...    

I let out a series of soft moans. The voices overhead trail off into silence. Soon there's the sound of tiptoed steps skulking down the hallway. Sara appears in the doorway with crossed arms and observes me. My forehead blazes. Every hair root on my head is a pinprick of pain. The hum of the song still rings in my ears. Eventually I find the words that have been circling my mind for most of the day. I wheeze: "Did the last person who got the blank sheet really die?"

"That's right." Sara's speaking voice is unexpectedly harsh, a pinched nasal twang. "Not every prophecy comes true. But that one sure did."

I say: "Maybe there was a mistake this time."

I say: "How about another reading."

I say: "I don't want to die."

Sara chews her lip. In the faint glow filtering through the window from some distant street lamp, her lovely features appear almost embryonic. It's as if her body has cultivated an ability to erase traces of emotion, the way unprimed canvas absorbs paint. "I'll give you a second reading," she says. "But you have to promise you won't tell anyone."

I nod, but she's not finished.

"And you leave tomorrow morning," she says. "I never want to see your sorry ass again. If there are even rumors that you're lurking nearby, you'll regret it." 

My fevered mind traces Sara's path back upstairs by the diminishing echo of her footfalls. She's greeted by the tense murmurs of the other oracles. This time their conversation is more discrete, volleys of whispers discharged like soft fireworks. They all seem to be pacing at once. Several minutes pass before the trio arrives in the storage room, the assistant oracles ferrying candles to better light the proceedings. In her upturned palms, Sara cradles the red sugar bowl. She calls us to order by rattling the ceramic lid against the edges as if it were a bell.

Sara tips the contents of the bowl onto the wooden floor. It's a collection of neon yellow capsules. She pinches a pill between her thumb and forefinger. It's embossed with a smiley face. "We use these to tell the fortunes," she explains. 

"They're pretty mind-blowing," one of the assistants adds.

As Sara selects the pill, my fevered mind hits upon an idea. "If I took it, could I see my future?"

Sara and her assistants exchange a look that's more complicated than I am right now. "It's a bad idea," Sara says. "Most people can't handle it."

"I want to take it." 

The assistants shake their heads but Sara remains noncommittal. She squeezes her eyes shut and sucks in her cheeks. Finally she hands me the capsule. "No guarantee you'll get a different reading," she says.  

I balance the smiling capsule in my sweaty hand. It seems be to winking. Patches of dye rub off the edges. A yellow stain spreads on my palm like a rash. I try to calculate the odds the pill could be hazardous, then I take a deep breath and swallow it. It has a distinct sweet-and-sour aftertaste.

Now there's nothing to do but wait. The house is eerily still. The rain pounds a frenetic tattoo against the windows. Droplets of water accumulate in a remote corner of the attic. Mice burrow deeper into the soggy folds of insulation. The wooden planks groan in concert with the barometric pressure. Dust motes gently blanket the furniture, moldings, and floorboards. After a few minutes, my vision starts to cloud and the edges of the storage room whiten. At first I think I'm going blind, but then I realize there's nothing to fear. A veil is being lifted. I watch as the house transforms itself around me. The paint on the walls, the furrowed lines of my palms, the oracles huddled in the hallway with their twitching shoulder blades—everything is slowly becoming blank.