The Prognosticators by Matthew Burnside

It occurred to all of us about the same time that our little brother could see the truth at the bottom of the well: how all fates entwined, triple-knotted and gleaming in their misery, held together by a wise but stubborn old snake named Mister Misty McRattly Tail, Esquire.

In those days we took turns dangling him by his dusk-colored ankles when we weren’t busy picking at scabs on the porch, or catching too-low clouds scudding overhead toward a big pink horizon of demise.

While it was my turn my sister Witch Hazel counted her splinters gleefully while Buck Owen tore apart a rocking chair and Salinger packed an ant pile into an old pie tin. “Look how big the peppercorns panic!” he hooly-hawed, before pouring it down the back of Zipperboy’s overalls.

“What’s baby see now?” yelled one of em again. I don’t know which.

“Getting closer” I reported, lowering the rope cinched round baby’s ankles as he giggled furiously into the void. “Good baby. Go go go!”

The game of it was just so: Noose up thine soft baby ankles and let descend. Get baby close enough to catch snake in mouth. Pull up for a prize. Most days it wasn’t about winning—just giving a name to our madness.

Soda bottle chimes clanked together strung from their limbs now. An owl peered out from a knothole. “What’s baby see?”

“Not quite yet” I reported, feeling sludgeblooded and starved for action. “First one to brick a bird gets to pet the spider!” one of em announced. I don’t know which.

Next thing I know the sky is thick with salmon dust and breathing is a chore. “Cut it” a neighbor hollered. They must had been burning; I could smell it in the air. Disinfected suds and gristle.

Then all were out wide in the yard equidistantly posed: one burning up the kiddy pool, one blowing black bubbles, one pinching mushrooms, one picking for nose coal. Deep diving.

“What’s baby see?”

“Almost almost,” I reported. Flung my attention down the hole and heard a rising whistle. Like fishhooks swirling around in a bowl made of molars. Glass clicking through its crooked lips.

Someone yodeled. Another yelled out a word we were taught never to say aloud.

Everyone fell down at once, crashing through the grass itch-riddled and red.

“What’s baby see?”

“Nigh coming up” I reported, feeling a sugar high. Sudden summer heat in my bones.

I could feel the future rumbling in my belly, like that pie tin full of ants. Could taste time and rain backwards. Throat full of dandelion parade…little baby bulbs and serpent skulls. Giddy and sad without knowing or caring to know the extent of my own edges.

“What are you children up to now?” said Mother, summoning us for dinner.

Inside, we dunked our heads, said grace, scraped our plates clean.

“So—” Father finally said, slurping his canteen. “How was your day?” In the distance hills were hiccupping; sirens sloshed around like wild bells drunk on panic. Our sheepheads tilted as night was coming on strong, guttering through the slanted board. Mother gnawed a cactus in the disposal.

“Everything is wonderful” I said as baby wriggled, laughing through the snake writhing round in its gummy maw. “Why do you ask?”

 

Matthew Burnside is the author of Postludes (KERNPUNKT), Rules to Win the Game (Spuyten Duyvil), and the hypertext novel series Dear Wolfmother (Heavy Feather Review). More work may be found at https://matthewburnsideisawriter.tumblr.com.

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