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Monthly Short Story Winner: Omens

Fire escape by Michael Fey (detail)

“An omen is a phenomenon that is believed to foretell the future, often signifying the advent of change. People in the ancient times believed that omens lie with a divine message from their gods.

These omens include natural phenomena, for example an eclipse, abnormal births of animals and humans, and behavior of the sacrificial lamb on its way to the slaughter. They had specialists, the diviners, to interpret these omens. They would also use an artificial method, for example, a clay model of a sheep liver, to communicate with their gods in times of crisis. They would expect a binary answer, either yes or no answer, favorable or unfavorable. They did these to predict what would happen in the future and to take action to avoid disaster.

Though the word ‘omen’ is usually devoid of reference to the change’s nature, hence being possibly either ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ the term is more often used in a foreboding sense, as with the word ‘ominous’.” – Wikipedia

In a magical world, omens have a more dire significance and we think it’s a neat topic for short story writing. Because if you ask the question, “What could go wrong?” related to omens, diviners, foretelling and gods, the answer is usually: A lot.

Rules:

1. This must be prose or poetry.
2. Must be about an omen.
3. Prose must be 500-1500 words long.
4. Poetry must be 100-500 words long.

This month’s winning story was by Nora, with “On the Fire Escape”.

Congrats on your win, Nora!

You can find all our entries here.

And now on with the story:

– – –

“On the Fire Escape”
by Nora

Most evenings after work Hatori Sonzai can be found sitting just outside his lounge’s window, on the fire escape that hugs the side of his building, watching over the city as the sky is set ablaze by the setting sun, before it fades and darkens like a bruise blooming under cold skin. The best are the short minutes before the terminator comes rushing over the land, when both electric and natural light cohabit, giving a warm, scattered glow to the relentless streets.

Day after day and as the seasons change, Hatori drinks this view like precious mead. Sometimes staying minutes under the rain or snow, sometimes long hours into a cool summer night. He has turned this moment of silent contemplation into a personal ritual that helps centre himself and shake off his clients’ turmoils that often parasite him long hours after work.

The other reason Hatori gained in the last months to cultivate this habit is coming down the fire escape’s metal stairs with beers in her hands.

“Sorry I’m late Ha-san! How are you?”

“That’s alright, I’m okay. You?”

“Just okay? Well same here, but look, this should sort us out!”

Hatori needs no invite to take a look. Though it’s the bottles she’s showing off, it’s Jean’s curly blond hair, her easy smile and warm manners that captivate him. How they’re so at odds with his own straight jet black hair, his dour face and formal attitude, shaped both by work and the reverential distance people often keep augures like him.

She sits by him, folding her legs neatly on a little flat cushion she brings out with her when the weather permits, and proceeds to tell him about her day. How she found one of her students being bullied in the alley behind the studio. How she fought the bullies off, walked the student home, and thus discovered the micro-brewery whose hipster product they are enjoying.

Though he listens intently, Hatori struggles with the emotions inside him.

The way Jean’s curls tumble as she tilts her head. How she calls him Ha-san with just enough irony to be perfectly adorable. Her quiet, self-assured attitude as she shows off her scratched knuckles in the last rays of slanting light. It’s all there somewhere, what he loves about his neighbour–but overshadowed by a feeling of loss and yearning for someone else.

A betrayal made all the more terrible than it is for a someone he cannot remember. He hates it, how being an augure and helping others can come at the expense of his own private life.

“Whoa, Ha-san? Hatori?”

“Hmm?”

“Are you alright? You seem dazed.”

“Sorry, you were saying?”

“Well, I was asking you how was Open Day, but now I assume it wasn’t so good?”

“That’s right, today’s lot was rough. I’m having a hard time going back to my usual self, sorry.”

“Oh.” Jean’s eyes widen a bit, her beer stopped mid swig. “Shit. Want to talk about it, or..?”

Hatori shrugs. It’s often the same stories, Open Day is just a bit more desperate. People come to augures with their most pressing questions, to ask the gods and receive their omens. Booking an augure costs a lot, but regular Open Days give anyone who can’t afford the usual fee the opportunity to win a free reading; allowing Hatori and his colleagues the chance to confirm that human misery knows no social bounds.

“I first had a man who wanted to know if a late change in career would benefit him. A teacher who’d always dreamt of baking.”

Hatori smiles, remembering the gentle mannered man, his soft brown eyes lost behind silver spectacles; tidy, well-worn corduroy clothes almost screaming his profession, and only a slight paunch to hint at a love for baked goods.

“I only had to cast the cords for him.”

Hatori’s beautifully woven strings had fallen down in patterns only meaningful to him, and their message had been rather favourable. “Follow your heart, the omen is good but the gods bid you know it will be hard work.” That’s the other side of the job, more counsellor than divine spokesman.

“The second one had a husband who wouldn’t give her a penny to spend on getting news of their estranged son. She wanted to know if he was well.”

“Was he?”

Cords are for questions about oneself. Asking about others requires deeper connection between augure and client. Hatori had taken the woman’s frail hand, put his forehead and nose to hers, and so invited her feelings and memories to flood him. She had asked and the gods had whispered their answer.

Each time, it felt like waking from a dream, saddened by the loss of someone you couldn’t remember, yet had loved deeply till you woke.

“I told her he needed her and she had to make a hard choice.” Not a very good omen. “Then came the real hard one.”

Jean twirls her bottle, patiently waiting for him, and even through the numbness of his heart, he feels warmth for the woman who understands so well.

“She wanted to know if her daughter was still alive.”

A poor mother whose child had disappeared without a trace, leaving nothing behind but harrowing doubts and a criminal investigation file covered in dust by years without clues. Hatori had not cared to know how many times the woman had applied to Open Days before getting the audience to ask the question she almost didn’t want an answer to. Uncertainty left room for hope. In the States, where an omen is word of law, Hatori’s verdict would seal the case.

“From the long face I take it she was dead?”

“Yes. And long dead, at that.”

Hatori had performed the connection, heard the question, and felt the crushing wave of years of motherly love engulfing him, followed by the crippling cold tide of loss, like a great current had swept him under polar ice and pinned him there, trapped in time even as agonizing months ticked by, the face of a daughter he’d never had unchanging before his ageing eyes. It had punched a hole in his heart in the shape of a little girl, and through it had poured the gods’ ill omen. Long dead.

“At least she can grieve now,” Jean says, rubbing his shoulder.

“Then I had a last lady for the cords,” Hatori says, shaking himself up. “Jealous, like so often… Left John and Wu to share my last two people.”

Being the head augure of his western-style shrine had to come with some sort of benefit. In the cases where the clients enquires after someone they hate, the augure is often left pointlessly angry and irritated. Many augures of his standing had long stopped doing Open Days, so Hatori figured he could at least cut himself some well needed slack.

“Too bad,” Jean sighs, looking back over the city, “I thought maybe I’d ask you for an omen tonight.”

Hatori gapes at her, stunned.

An omen for Jean, who makes a bigger deal of his having a car to borrow than the gods’ words to share? Who hasn’t even asked for a word of luck or a forecast in all the months since she moved in and joined him on the fire escape? He cannot tell if it’s terror or excitement he’s feeling, if he wants to please her or dreads the sort of question that would be important enough for her to ask.

He looks at her, smiling at him and waiting. He knows she’d leave him be if he asked, but curiosity burns too deep.

“What kind of omen were you after?”

“I wanted to know–” Her hand falls on his.

“Wha–”

Her body twists, propelling her too close, too fast to avoid collision. Her forehead bumps into his, and her voice explodes through his skull–” if the man I love loves me back.

The vision rushes in, and Hatori feels his heart swell, anxious–her feelings, not his. Jean, shy and timid? He has no time to wonder. There is a man she loves, and he sees him through her eyes–his dark hair he lets her pleat, the way his M shaped mouth curls and brightens his serious face when he smiles just for her, his quiet regard and attentions, and the kindness that flows not from what he says but the way she sees him lead his life.

It takes the longest time for him to realise–Hatori has never seen himself in a vision.

But the instant her question makes sense, the silence in his mind becomes loud, resounding! There is no voice whispering the truth to him, no push from the gods. He needs none. In that moment, Hatori is a god, who knows the answer, who can speak for himself.

“Yes, he does.”

Their noses bump, she kisses him, and laughs, and wipes his cheeks.

“I do, I do,” he says against her lips, “I love you too!”“

– – –

Congratulations again to Nora! If you’d like to enter our monthly writing contest, check out our forum for more information.

Happy Writing!

Title image by Michael Fey.

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Rating: 10.0/10 (5 votes cast)
Monthly Short Story Winner: Omens, 10.0 out of 10 based on 5 ratings
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