Sorry I haven’t posted in a few days. I know I said I was going to post at least one a week and it’s been one almost every day, so I really don’t have anything to apologize for, but I do have one sitting here that I haven’t posted yet, so here it is. Yesterday I didn’t write anything because I had a job interview to get ready for and then the rest of the afternoon filled up, but I wrote a short thing this morning that I may either post later or tomorrow, we’ll see.
There was nothing magical about what Sibyl did, nothing really mystical, and no gods were involved. She just knew. She didn’t know how she knew, so maybe the gods were involved in that, but as soon as a supplicant entered her cave and approached her seat, she knew not only who he was but what he wanted to know and what the answer should be.
They’d never believe her if she didn’t go through the motions, though sometimes she was tempted to just blurt everything out. It would stun them, and that would be satisfying. Still, she held back. Atmosphere was everything. That’s why she was sitting in this stinking cave instead of in her own house, wearing these ridiculous veils and bangles, humming and weaving around and inhaling the vapors from the earth that made her cough and retch by the end of the day. Atmosphere. Belief. It kept the customers coming. Not that she ever referred to them as customers, or that they would think themselves such. They were supplicants, seekers, even worshipers. It flattered her to pretend, anyway. After all, they brought her food, drink, goods, gold so she could purchase what she needed that they did not bring. How different was it from what they brought their stone and metal gods on their altars in the temples? Only she was living, breathing (with some difficulty) and answering their prayers.
Of course they believed it was the gods answering. And maybe they were who gave her the answers, but she never heard their voices or felt their presences. The knowledge would just be there. Maybe that was how the gods worked after all. Sibyl didn’t spend much time thinking on it.
The man before her now, a merchant by the name of Petrinus, was laying out fragrant fruits from distant lands. Sibyl’s mouth watered at the scent. She was starving; the line of supplicants had been constant since she rose that morning and she hadn’t had time to break her fast. She wished she could snack between supplicants, eat while they explained their latest mundane concerns. But just because you gave a goddess food didn’t mean she was supposed to need it, plus they felt they deserved her full attention.
Petrinus wanted to know, would his next voyage be profitable? Would it go smoothly and safely? Sibyl wanted to tell him that since the last few had, why not? The season’s storms had passed, the latest known band of pirates had been wiped out by the King’s navy only weeks before. But he would not be satisfied with reasoning. The gods worked in mysterious ways, after all. Maybe he had done something recently that he feared had angered them. Sibyl had heard the priests’ gossip about how many offerings Petrinus had been making lately, to many temples. The official story was that the bounty of his voyages had been so great that he was offering huge amounts to the gods in gratitude, but the priests spoke of how fretful the merchant had seemed, how long he had knelt and prayed in earnest fervor, as if for forgiveness of an unforgivable sin.
Sibyl got down from her perch, turned her back on Petrinus, and swept behind her pedestal to the crack in the earth behind, the true altar. She knelt beside it, bowing her head. Some said the vapors that rose from the crack were the breath of the buried earth goddess. If that was true, the earth goddess had reeking breath and could stand to chew some mint and parsley, Sibyl thought. The blasphemy of the thought amused her. Her head swam as she breathed the vapors, and her empty stomach churned. For a moment she wondered if this discomfort was the sign, the gods’ displeasure. But the knowledge that had been with her when the man entered the cave did not change. Petrinus should go.
She elaborated details on her own to make up for the explanations she did not get from the gods. “The gods are pleased and placated by your sacrifices,” she told the merchant. “Go on your voyage; they will keep you safe. Only make sure to give them twice as much upon your return, in gratitude.”
“Thank you, Sibyl,” Petrinus said, and left walking backwards, bent at the waist.
It was not Petrinus himself who visited her months later, but his eldest son, Polonus. It was a relief to see him, though his eyes flared and his face contorted in rage. The priests moved forward to intercept him, but Sibyl held up her hand and they stopped.
He opened his mouth to speak, but Sibyl cut him off. “Your father is dead, his ships’ goods littering the bottom of the sea. A sudden storm, as from the hand of Zeus himself.”
“You knew!” Polonus said.
“Of course I knew,” Sibyl replied.
“Then why did you tell him his voyage was blessed?”
Sibyl drew herself up to full height. She was a tall woman, taller than most men, including Polonus. “The gods don’t tell me the truth. They tell me what the supplicant needs to know in order to carry events out according to their plan. This was your father’s destiny.”
“No,” Polonus uttered through gritted teeth. “All the men of my family were on that ship aside from me, as I was home with fever.”
“And so you inherit all.”
“I inherit nothing!” he yelled. “My father owed debts, massive debts. The spoils of this voyage would have wiped them all out. You have ruined us!”
“The gods have ruined you.”
“No, someone paid you. Whose employ are you under?” Polonus demanded.
“No one’s. I make predictions according to my knowledge, what the gods tell me to tell.”
Polonus bared his teeth. “Did you predict this?” he growled, pulling his dagger and sheathing it in Sibyl’s stomach.
She sighed, then, not screamed. It was a gentle sigh, like the sound one makes when embracing a loved one. She stepped back, a bit falteringly, until she could sit back on her pedestal.
It had been a boring existence, always knowing what would come, who would come, what they would ask, what she would reply. Every day was a slog, waiting for things to play out as she predicted.
Had she predicted this? “No,” she said with a laugh as her limbs went leaden. “No, I didn’t.”
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