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Friday, August 23, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Summer Stories: ‘Oracle,’ by Stephanie Oakes

By Stephanie Oakes For The Spokesman-Review

Hannah could see the future in car parts. In the slick backs of brake pads, and the calcified pathways charted by battery acid, in the shattered bodies of taillights, metal and filaments and needles of glass spread like entrails on the oiled garage floor.

She’d crouch in her khaki jumpsuit and study the spilled contents of some customer’s Camaro, and be struck, sudden and bright, by a vision of the future. Theresa, the shop’s receptionist, would find Hannah like that, repositioning her head like a TV antenna, neck cocked uncomfortably, searching for the clearest signal, the most accurate view of this flash of future.

“This winter will be the worst anyone has ever seen,” she said, eyes still fixed on the garage floor.

Oooo-kay,” Theresa said, drawing out the word. “The parts you ordered are in.”

Theresa was Hannah’s only friend, the only other woman Hannah saw most days. Though Theresa huffed in exasperation at Hannah’s strange ways, her odd eyes plucking images of the future from the air, her oil-veined hands, her shirking of every trapping of womanhood, Theresa tolerated Hannah in a way that most people did not. On breaks, Theresa would tell Hannah about her children, about her plans to become a nurse practitioner, about the people in her night classes (“A guy named Milton asked me out. On one hand, I really like him. On the other, his name is Milton.”), and Hannah would tell Theresa about her visions (“That guy, Milton? He’s getting arrested for shoplifting next week.”).

When that winter of 1969 arrived, it was no surprise to either of them when snow fell for months without abating. “You called it,” Theresa said one morning when, from the open garage doors, they watched cars fumble over themselves all the way down Division. Across town, snow pushed its hands over the rooftops as though to suffocate everyone beneath, and some did die inside, in the toxin-filled cabin of a car, in tunneled snow banks that swallowed children whole, in the sudden accordion of a parking garage, closing furiously.

Hannah lived alone in the woods north of town, in a cabin where, all winter, the roof groaned like a sick animal. Hannah hardly saw anyone in her woods. Those she did were covered in pelts and leather fringe, smelling sweetly of marijuana. Bigfoot hunters, survivalists, living off the land, the straps of Army-issued duffel bags stretched between shoulder blades, the memory of blood and bullet-sounds simmering inside of them. Men shy of Hannah’s eyes, who flinched away when she caught glimpses.

Into her head, an image: the man, whose body held memories of unimaginable destruction, whose very muscles wound around the memories like bird nests, would, in 40 years, live inside the salt-stuffed air where a river meets the sea. He would fish from a boat, tend tomatoes, speak to a therapist every week on a small, flat screen that Hannah did not understand.

Hannah breathed out, relief loosening her chest. The visions didn’t always go that way.

All her life, Hannah had been good at predicting things. She would shout, “Sneeze!” just before her mother’s body was wracked by one. She was skilled at getting kids at school in trouble for crimes they had not yet committed. When she saw a vision of her childhood cat jumping into a trash can, she made her parents drive 10 miles away to the local landfill where they found him, slightly battered and covered in coffee grounds, but alive.

Hannah’s family never did figure her out. They were beautiful in a way that seemed definitive, that seemed to reject all other kinds of family. Dressed in matching gingham in holiday photos. Father, with his slick car and hard drink. Mother, in her rigid smile and stiff dresses, who told Hannah exactly what the Bible said about soothsayers and women who dress like men.

Hannah got very good at hiding herself from them, hid her premonitions, hid her body behind dresses that violated something deep within her, hid the cheerleader she kissed inside the equipment shed, washed in the smell of leather and grass and sweat. And when, in a vision, she saw the cheerleader’s wedding just after graduation, she hid that, too, the sorrow that she found surprisingly easy to swallow.

The day after Hannah left school, she opened her mother’s sewing kit, pushed aside spirals of yellow measuring tape and a tomato-shaped cushion dotted with pearlescent pins, until she found scissors. Carefully, resolutely, she placed the cool blades to her scalp and cut until only a fingernail’s length of hair remained. Finished, she stared down at the pile of chestnut ribbons that had recently been attached to her, feeling like something had come away not from her head, but from her chest – from her lungs, ribs, from the tiny, slick, crimson cranny where she imagined her soul resided. She traveled downtown, to the Bon Marche, and bought a pair of canvas slacks and a flannel shirt, never wore a dress again. And she found a job at a mechanic’s shop.

Years later, she had a good life. A solid life. She had placed the bricks of it herself and now, surveying, was pleased with what she’d built. And if her visions made it hard to keep friends or partners, she was grateful for them. They had kept her safe.

At the shop, as snowplows slashed pathways through the mountainous snow, Hannah bent over the clicking, golden engine of an Oldsmobile when her vision grew bright. She straightened, waiting for the future to slide fully across her eyes.

Hannah saw herself, her own body, not much older than she was now. Her buttoned shirt had rounded out, her broad legs slightly bowed, as though hefting a great weight, and inside her, Hannah could sense, the red throb of an infant, sitting just between the fan blades of her pelvis.

A dull feeling ran through her, chilled her. Though she had never been wrong, Hannah knew this vision could not be true. She’d always believed having a baby to be impossible. A sense she had that her body, with all its edges, would be inhospitable. Even the word mother, too soft, too aproned and done-up and ready with dinner.

The year before, she’d attended her sister’s baby shower. The frothy confection of her sister – the elegant globe of her belly, tenderly pink, trimmed in lace, haloed by her sister’s delicate fingers – cemented the certainty in Hannah’s mind that motherhood could never be hers. When her niece was born, Hannah declined to hold her. Too fumbling, too calloused, too grease-covered, the opposite of maternal.

Hannah shook the vision from her mind, the image sliding away like a photo slide across a projector. It was a mistake, she thought. She was bound to be wrong sometime.

But the vision returned the next day, while changing a battery. And the next day, while sweeping metal filings, curved like silver fingernail clippings, from the shop floor.

“You’ll never guess what I saw.” Hannah crouched beside Theresa’s desk on her break.

“Pregnant?” Theresa asked, eyes trailing across Hannah in her jumpsuit.

The idea of her pregnant, Hannah knew, was ridiculous. “I’ve never been wrong before.”

“Who says you’re wrong?” Theresa asked.

Hannah could only stare.

“You could do it, you know,” Theresa said. “Doesn’t seem so far-fetched to me.”

“I could never–” Hannah sputtered. “Not with a man.”

Theresa shook her head. “Who said anything about a man?”

Even before the first sperm bank in Washington, there were other ways, older ways, Theresa explained, for a woman who had no interest in men to become pregnant. Women in Spokane had long whispered about a woman you could go to with the kind of problems that couldn’t be solved elsewhere. Some called her a witch, and others called her a low-cost medical alternative, who cured crabs, and bad ovaries, who planted seeds inside the uteruses of women like Hannah and removed such seeds from those of others.

“But my visions,” Hannah said. When she’d allowed herself to picture a child, she also saw, stepping-stoned in front of her, all the pain the girl would know. Pain Hannah would see coming. Her daughter, crashing her bike, gazing from the red oblong of unshuttered flesh on her knee, studded with gravel, to where Hannah stood. “Did you predict that?” she’d ask. And when Hannah’d say, “Yes,” a sob the girl had clenched inside her chest would unloose itself.

Every paper cut, every dog nip, every failed test, every wrong joke. Through all the humiliations of girlhood, with its blood, with its bite, with its lack of mercy, her daughter would harbor just a speck of resentment. Because Hannah could save her from all of it.

“That’s called being a mother,” said Theresa. “You could save them from pain, but somehow it wouldn’t make them hurt less.”

And so, slightly dazed, Hannah found herself traversing the snow-covered miles to a cottage near the national forest, prepared to place three $100 bills inside the hand of a woman named Rosemary, who wore a patched corduroy dress and a smile that split her face like rays of the sun.

“It’s really not that ‘out there,’” Rosemary said, explaining the theory behind artificial insemination. “Farmers’ve done it forever with cows.”

“My mother would say it’s an abomination,” Hannah said, eyes roving around the cottage, full of macramé and dried lavender and sickly looking potions in brown glass bottles. “A rejection of good morals.”

“Your mother sounds like a peach,” Rosemary told her, hunched over a small chest freezer.

“Take your pick.” Rosemary held up two frozen shot glasses of the stuff. The options were bleak: that of a 19-year-old who ran the witch’s errands, or that of a mountain man who left his hidey-hole only often enough to visit the Colville Stop-N-Shop for Wonder Bread and whiskey. In the end, Hannah said she couldn’t decide, because either way, the baby’d be there in the end, and so Rosemary selected for her.

It was not painful, but Hannah grimaced through the whole encounter, the frozen plug dissolving slowly, aided by a tablespoon of sugar (“Helps them get their sea legs,” Rosemary explained), radiating cold throughout her body.

Hannah gazed at the witch’s ceiling and, in the cross-hatch of bare beams, a vision assembled. The same one, of her body, convex. She saw that perhaps she would look ridiculous, in her dungarees and buttoned shirts, hunching over a car engine, while outside rivulets of snowmelt siphoned into storm drains, rivulets of sweat falling across her abdomen through the summer of ’69.

But, in her vision, Hannah could see, at last, that there was nothing confusing about her body. It was strong. Good. It had been all along.

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