Methods of Divination by Tara Isabella Burton

But visions are not prophecies, he told me. Prophecies come true.

I sat him down and told him to tell me everything, and promised I would tell him what it meant.

“There is a place,” I told him, “where time runs back on itself, where parallel lines converge, and where visions become prophecies. Where you will be not alone. There is a place where everything is reconciled, and the great mountains that cover you in shadow will be made flat before you. The valleys that make you dizzy when you teeter on their edges will be brought to your feet when you walk. There, you will understand your visions.”

He crossed my palm with twenty-dollar bills.

“There,” I said, “you will find her.”

Prophecies are for fools.

Outside, the streets were dark and rain-slicked. They reflected the flickered neon of the streetside bodegas; I shut up the windows so that he would not see them. “Here,” I told him, “you do not have to see anything you do not want to see. Here, the roses wilt and wither, and hang like bats from the ceiling. Here, the thyme and the sage and the lemon verbena wrap around your throat as soon as you walk in. Here, even the teapot sings a song.”

The bottles rattled every time the train clattered by, spilling essence of honeysuckle and harvested tears.

Already he’d started weeping. Already he trusted me. He stood still and straight-backed in my chair, dressed in that stiff and uncertain way I had only ever seen in daguerreotypes of my great-grandfathers, with tears dribbling wasted onto the floor; he took my hands in his and pressed his forehead upon my knees and begged me to save him.

“Madame Delongpre said that you’d understand,” he said.

Madame Delongpre owed me sixty-four dollars.

“Tell me, child,” I said—in these shadows he could not see that I was even younger than he—”what is your name?”


“And what do you want me to show you?”

“I have seen the signs,” he said again. “But I do not know what they mean.”

I asked him if he had considered the birds.

“Two turtle-doves came down and landed on my window-sill the night I kissed her for the first time.”

I knew all about turtle-doves. “And have you consulted any books?”

His eyes were bright and wet and I saw myself reflected in them. “The morning after we made love, I took out Virgl’s Aeneid and placed it on its spine on her side of the bed. I closed my eyes and let it fall open and then at my fingers I saw the words.”

“What did they say?”

“It’s Juno in Book Eight.

“By changeless Fate, Lavinia waits, his bride.”

“The entrails, too?”

He nodded so vigorously that the rosemary rustled from the shelves above our heads. “The morning she left me, I caught a rat on the fire escape and I gutted it, just like Madame Delongpre said, and in the entrails I saw her face.”

“But here you are.”



“She won’t take my calls.”

There were other charlatans who told the future, who saw death on the palms of virgins, who cast love spells on investment bankers. I was richer than all of them. I did not need to create or destroy. All I had to do was explain.

“From the beginning,” Michael said, “I had visions. I dreamed of her, long before I met her. I used to wake up in the night and rush to the window and throw up out over 63rd Street, because something within me had been so violently shaken. The night I met her, there was a flock of crows from the west that settled at our feet and watched us as I stammered—God, I stammered like an idiot—as I made up words that didn’t exist and asked for her number. I remember their eyes. There were as many eyes of crows as there were stars in the sky, and as many stars in the sky as there were hairs on her head. Everything made sense. That’s how I knew.”

“And did she know, too?”

“Yes!” They were always so quick to be sure. “Yes—yes, at least I think she did. She was crying, you know—when I told her how much I loved her. That’s when I saw the turtle-doves.”

I did not tell him that turtle-doves came in pairs, always, and that they came to feed. I did not tell him that two times two turtle-doves, pecking at the flowers on your window-sill one rose-lit morning when the world made sense to you meant nothing, or else meant that you had forgotten to put away the bread.

I did not tell him that you could get as many paper cuts as there were stars in the sky, and get the passage from the Aeneid that said:

And she with all her eyes and heart embraced him

fondling him at times upon her breast,

and still one morning, after a fight that should never have happened, not by all the comets that ever shot across the shore, he could shove up his trousers and tell you that you deserved better and close the door behind him. The universe breaks so quietly, but I lifted Michael’s cufflinks while he wept, folded them into my cloak and told him that soon everything would be revealed.

“I must be missing something,” he said. “Please, Madame Helena, tell me what I’m missing.”

I did not tell him my real name. “How did she leave you?”

“The night began so perfectly,” he said. “She let me follow her home and kissed me on every floor of the stairwell. There was an old man who saw us as we fumbled towards the fourth floor, as he was taking out his trash—Russian, I think he was—and when he caught my eye he laughed and said ‘Tonight, you are the happiest man in the world.’ So I was.”

They always were. I calculated how much Madame Delongpre could give me for the cufflinks.

“And I leaned back on the pillow and I asked her to tell me the first thing that came into her head—anything at all—and she said to me, I remember; she said ‘I didn’t know people could care about each other this much.’ And then she asked me if we could really be this happy forever, and I told her I thought yes, and she told me—I remember—she sat up and held the sheet against her breasts and said ‘I don’t want to regret anything, Michael. But I regret this.'”

There are no such thing as prophecies.

gen_illo_topThere are no such thing as correspondences; there are no such things as herbs that mean love, and other herbs that mean pain, or planets that promise prosperity, or stones that if overturned augur a horseman coming in the night. There is nothing but coincidence, and it was only coincidence that meant that in his voice, and in his words, I heard that voice, and those words, and it was only happenstance that two beloveds had left two lovers in that same and inexplicable way.

“What is it?” He nearly leaped across the table. “Madame Helena, does that mean something?”

Of course it meant nothing. “Go on, child—tell me the rest of your story.”

“She said she’d call me in the afternoon to talk things over. She never called. That was two years ago.”

“Why come here now?”

“Last night,” he said, “I saw her. Two years later, to the day, from the day that she left me.”

Two years to the day—and so many turns of the earth around the sun, and the moon about the earth, and nothing mattered because it was only motion, but it was two years to the day since she left him, and it had been two years to the day since my man left me, and somewhere two comets on two parallel swoops around two parallel earths converged.

“Where was it?”

“On 23rd Street,” he said.

I knew then all that he would tell me. I had been there before.

“I was buying candles,” he said, “at one of the apothecaries on 23rd and Madison, because Madame Delongpre said that if I could not forget her, I would have to banish her, and I was at the register waiting to pay when suddenly I knew that she was with me. I knew she was there, and I heard her name spoken over and over again all around me as if the streets themselves were whispering it, as if all the passersby were whispering it, and I felt her with me so strongly that I threw down the candles and ran across the street, to where the voices grew louder and louder until they were so loud that I could not bear it. And in the sky a thousand birds had gathered…”

“Which birds?” I told myself that they would be robins. Robins would save me. I had seen a thousand birds on the corner of 23rd and Madison, and their wings were all so black I thought at first the sun had gone out.

“Ravens,” he said, “and crows,” and then I knew how everything ended.

“And when their wings parted, and they flew away, she was standing there, wasn’t she? Just across the street.”

“Yes!” He grabbed hold of my hands and because there was so much joy in him he could not tell that they were shaking.

I smoothed my fingers against the creases of his knuckles. “And there, she was across the street, in the shadow of that clock tower that looks like the moon, and she looked more beautiful than you had ever remembered her being, with the feathers falling all around her, and the shadows of the leaves in the trees?”

“Yes!” His hands were tighter now and he was weeping, and it struck me that he did not apologize—they always apologized to me when they started to cry, as if their tears could shock me—but kept his gaze upon me, as if he expected me to weep too.

I would not weep. I would not stop. “And you were going to cross the street, weren’t you—to go to her? But then a bus came rumbling by, and when it passed you she was gone, and because the city is so great and wide and full of smoke you could not see which way she went, and you do not know if the meaning of prophecy was that you could have reached her, if you’d set off a moment sooner, or if it was that you could never have reached her, no matter what you’ve done?”

He was finished with tears. “Then you understand?”

I would never understand. “I understand completely.”

“Then tell me what it means. I am not afraid. If it means to forget her, I’ll do it.” He swallowed. “I’ll try to do it.”

He spread more twenty dollar bills across the table. I did not pick them up.

Against the vault of the sky there are stars and no one has hung them. Against the vault of the sky there are stars, and when they move, we move with them, and sometimes we find ourselves on the corner of 23rd Street and Madison, tracking the planets, choking on feathers, racking with sobs.

I do not often look my men in the eye. Even the fools are quick, in their loneliness, and although they have come to me in their belief deep down they do not believe, and when they catch my eye they know what they have always suspected. They know that prophecies do not exist. They see me waver, or see me—even in the spectacle of my lie—glance too long at their wallets, and though they do not stop me before my reading is finished we both know that my promises mean less than turtle-doves.

Not him.

Him I looked in the eye. Him I pressed to my breast, and him I called child, and him I whispered words to without knowing what they meant, or if they meant anything at all, and then, together, we wept for all our paper cuts, and for all the rats that we had murdered whose entrails showed up nothing but bile, and for all the moments since then that had meant nothing, because visions are not prophecies, because nothing augured ever comes true.

“I’ve never told this to anyone else,” he told me. I understood.

“My friends—they can’t stand to be around me any longer. I try to explain and it never comes out right, and then I start laughing at myself, at how silly it is, because in public you have to laugh these things off, don’t you? They tell me I’ll find somebody else. But you don’t – do you? Not when you’re still wondering whether you’ve fallen so far from the path that you can’t get back again. My friends all think I’m insane.”

“You’re not insane.” I told him. It was the only gift I could give him. It was my only thanks.

“I’m only myself when I’m reading the signs,” he said.

I took him in my arms.

Around us the city: the blaring of sirens and the glaring of neon, and us shut up from everything we did not want to see.

Above us the flapping of birds.

This is what I tell the men who come to me: she loves you. She will remember that she loves you. You will find her—or someone like her—waiting for you, and all your sufferings have not been in vain. Your pain will teach you how to love. You are still caught in a net of stardust. You are not alone.

They always believe me. They never need come back, not once. They pay me and recommend me to the friends they can no longer stand to be around. I have set them free.

This is what I told Michael: “Your case is a difficult one. Come back tomorrow.”

Back when I thought I had the sight, my man and I took turns scrying in the pond at Central Park, out where children shipwreck toy boats. We told one another’s fortunes.

“Tonight,” I told him, “you will be the happiest man in the world.”

This,” he said. “Us. This means something. Because I have loved you, everything has changed.”

That night I saw thirteen ravens in the sky. I should have known.

But tonight I flung open the shutters and saw that the moon was full. The birds gathered at my windowsill and I fed them sprigs of rosemary and stray thyme, and I sprinkled so much bread on the street below that they cooed and cawed until the clocks all called midnight.

But tonight I mixed potions and threaded herbs and I called the stars by name. That night I saw everything. I took down my copy of Virgil’s Aeneid from the shelf and I lit every candle in every corner of the apothecary. I leaned out the window and felt the salt air blow in from the sea. I opened my mouth to the moon.

gen_illo_botAt midnight the world made sense to me. At midnight, visions were prophecies, and the birds that clucked and crooned were calling out my name. At midnight, the valleys had been lifted up and the mountains laid low. At midnight, a man had wept and I had wept, and the earth had harvested both our tears, and there I had understood. There the world turned back upon itself, and nothing had ever ended, and every minute the clock chimed was for the restoration of all broken things. All the times I had cast my lots without an answer, and all the times he had cast his lots without an answer, had only ever been for this.

At midnight, we are never alone.

At one o’clock, thirteen ravens crossed the moon.

There are no such things as prophecies.

Ravens mean nothing, and thirteen means nothing, and the world will not tighten itself around us, if we only will ourselves to break apart its seams. Visions are not prophecies. They are only suggestions. We can shut our eyes and stop our ears. We can shut out everything we do not want to see. We can pretend that the world is senseless, and perhaps it will hurt a little less. Perhaps a little more.

So I took out Virgil’s Aeneid and sliced my fingers with paper cuts; so I bled into the pages and cracked open the spine, so I whispered invocations and chanted useless pleas; so I begged the moon to wax when it waned and wane when it waxed, and for the wings of birds to hide the stars.

I knew what it would say:

By changeless Fate, Lavinia waits, his bride.

I sat until the clock struck two, and I willed the words to rearrange themselves upon the page, and I knew that they would not. Thirteen ravens had crossed the sky, and somewhere, prophecies came true, and somewhere she was waiting for him.

She had never waited for him. She had left him and she had said with my man’s voice I regret this; she had said with my man’s voice I’ll telephone you later; there was no explanation for her—because there is no explanation for anything we bear.

There is a place, beyond prophecy, where everything makes sense.

Thirteen times I split the spine, and thirteen time the verse was the same.

By changeless Fate, Lavinia waits, his bride.

By Changeless Fate—and she was not waiting for him. Changeless Fate—I was waiting for him. Changeless Fate—there were ravens, but there were also turtle-doves, and I had only to read the signs properly and then I would know where to find him. Then we would be healed.

I caught a rat on my hands and knees. I caught a rat and broke its neck with my fingers. I stood on the fire escape. Above me, the moon, the shadows of thirteen ravens blotting it out, which all my howling could never wash away. With my nails I ripped it apart; I tangled and untangled its entrails; with my hands covered in blood I scratched at the walls and I looked for an answer.

“Because I have loved you,” my man told me once, “the world has changed.”

Because my man loved me, I know how to read the signs.

In the entrails was a woman’s face.

Not mine.

The stars spin, and sometimes collide. The earth tilts, and sometimes there is a full moon. Sometimes two people stare at one another across 23rd Street and Madison Avenue, with a bus and a thousand birds between them, and then they know that the signs were true, and that, for them, there is an answer.

But there is always a third. There are always the ones for whom things come true by halves. These can tell you the signs, and these can interpret the birds of the air and the beasts of the drainpipe, and these can tell you that the world is full of stars that net you, but the birds do not build their nests for them. These are the witch-women. These are the crones.

We read the signs, but to us they have nothing to say.

Michael came when I summoned him. He saw the blood under my fingernails and asked me what I had learned.

I told him: “By changeless Fate, she waits.”

I told him: “She regrets losing you.”

I told him: “Tonight, you will be the happiest man in the world.”

I took his money. I slipped his cufflinks back into his pocket when he wasn’t looking.

“Thank you,” he said. He stared me straight in the eye. He broke down in tears and did not apologize. He broke down in tears, and I longed for his relief. Above us, ravens, and also turtle-doves, and I do not know which were his and which were mine and which were those that were meant for both of us together. All I know is that they followed him when he left me.

I told myself: You will find him, or someone like him—waiting for you—and all your sufferings will not have been in vain. Your pain will teach you how to love. You are still caught in a net of stardust. You are not alone.

I told myself: There is a place where time runs back on itself, where parallel lines converge, and where visions become prophecies, and where you will be not alone. There is a place where everything is reconciled, and the great mountains that cover you in shadow will be made flat before you, and the valleys that make you dizzy when you teeter on their edges will be brought to your feet when you walk. There, you will understand.

This I did not tell him: “There is a girl who rips apart rats to find your face written in their entrails. There is a crone who lies awake nights and counts the birds that cross against the moon. She twists rosemary and thyme into a vine and whispers into it the sound of your name, and she waits with the Aeneid on her knees and each night and every morning she opens it to an unknown page, and every morning and each night it is the same.

“The inward fire eats the soft wound away

And the internal wound bleeds on in silence.”


Interview with the author, Tara Isabella Burton | Buy Shimmer #19 | Subscribe

3 thoughts on “Methods of Divination by Tara Isabella Burton”

  1. Wow. Very good job indeed. Beautifully written. Flowed like an ocean wave with a soul.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Speculative fiction for a miscreant world

Powered by eShop v.6