Monday, June 20


This is a museum, presumably an empty one. In the halls, sometimes, you hear an echo of a chime, and always a persistent tick, tick, tick. There is no one here to watch you walk down the blue-tiled hall toward the room with the china doorknob. As you head down the empty hall to the last room the ticking grows louder, and sounds somehow dustier. On your right, a stuffed cat with stitched-on wings grins bleakly. Its golden eyes were gouged out long ago, giving it an oddly cheery look that is just a touch piratical. A tiny jade egg-cup filled with tokens rests between its front paws. Take a token and turn the Delft-patterned doorknob, entering the room whose sleeping sounds drew you into this abandoned building.

Remember to take precisely three steps forward. Now, duck under the black ropes surrounding the Oracle. No one is here to stop you from touching the levers, from turning the dials, and no one will find you in the morning, dress tied backward and hat inside-out. If you lean forward just a bit, you will see a standing brass plate with scalloped edges, covered in a thick, oily-looking dust. If you brushed it with your handkerchief, you could almost (but not quite) make out the faint etchings. Still, then your handkerchief would be dirty, and you can already hear your nursemaid muttering dire warnings about dirty handkerchiefs and the girls who carry such things.

The Oracle is nearly four cubits in height, and intimidatingly dense. It is contained in a battered cabinet of gleaming beechwood, the only item in the entire building that has not been layered in dust or dirt. Its gears are brass and iron, heavy things that turn with the gravity of universes, bound with straps of rich red leather. The left lever has a handle of lapis lazuli. Pull it down with your right arm, and stop at your waist. The right lever must be at the level of your head, with its silver tip just behind your ear. Turn the dial at the top of the cabinet to your age. Place your token in the third right palm of the little Indian goddess who sits, smiling, on the middle shelf.

Fix your question firmly in mind and touch the fifth button from the top. If the Oracle judges you properly respectful, if you have been a very good little girl and prepared yourself to the letter, you will see the future. Now close your eyes and turn sixty degrees exactly to the left.


This is the Forest of the Eventual. If you finish the left turn, as most do, continuing the motion they began in front of the Oracle, you will be sent back to the doorway of the empty museum, clothes blown inside out, but no harm done. If you are brave enough and listened to your nursemaid when she told you the rules of this place, you will instead step forward, touching your toes to the round jade cobblestones, which are the seeds of the path to the cauldron of the west. Step lightly on these cobbles; they are frangible, not sturdy like the bricks and stones of your plane. When you reach the fork in the road, turn down the silver path and avoid the gold. While you trip cautiously along, you may encounter a tired-looking woman with brightly colored hair. If she asks for some bread, give her your entire lunch. If she asks for water, give her the flask. Do not antagonize her, or you will be turned back--if you are not turned instead into a small pile of salt. You may encounter a small animal, struggling in a trap. Free the animal if you wish to continue. You may pass a rowan tree heavy with berries, leaves, and flowers all at once. Do not strip a twig from this tree unless it invites you to do so. Remember the things your mother told you.


This is the Grove of the Years. In this grove live the seasons, who gather to share stories at each solstice. You should not be here on the solstice, little girl. If you have followed your heart and your grandmother's instructions, you will find a small patch of strawberries mixed with snowdrop flowers. Step tactfully around this patch. Do not crush the berries or dare to nibble them. Slink through the forest with your teeth bared, like a tiny mink. This is your freedom. Enjoy it until you reach the doorway.


This is the Doorway to the Fates. Lean soulfully forward and whisper your question to the doorknob. Grasp its face firmly in both palms and kiss it gently. Now turn it to the east as if you were breaking a small animal's neck, firmly and decisively. Step through the door backwards, taking a last look at childhood and a world where everything you have ever believed in is real.

This is your future. Lower the veil over your eyes and wait for the wedding march to begin. Don't think about what you could have done or who you could have been; your place in the home awaits, your stairstep children and days of dishwashing and obedience. Place your hand demurely in the crook of your father's arm and step out to the plaintive strings. Step, pause, step. Step, pause, step. Do not let the tears drop into your bouquet. Someone might see.


Or, take the gold path. Share your lunch with the tired-looking lady, and your drink, and ask her where you can find work. Stomp upon the jade cobbles, and break them like hearts. Pluck the animal from the trap and set it free, but never ask it to return your favor. Take the rowan wand and make your vow to whichever deity you please. Forget your nursemaid, your mother, your family, the rules, and run wild in the forest like a tiny mink until you find the strawberry patch. Pluck flowers and weave them into chains and garlands. Sit and eat strawberries and listen to the stories the seasons tell, and sing the songs they teach you. Be sure to laugh at the bawdy ones, and never, ever look through the trees to the Door. Live the rest of your life on your own terms, in a lovely (if sometimes terrifying) tale, and refuse regret. Do not forget to listen to the five-year-old in your heart, struggling to survive. Everything she tells you will be important, but the most vital lessons are the ones you learned from fairytales.

This post is for the Indie Ink Writing Challenge, a response to my prompt from Chelsea, who instructed me to describe the "best advice I've ever received, from a random five-year-old girl who happened to pass me by". Happily, I am the only five-year-old I am likely to encounter, and I never, ever fail to heed her advice.

I challenged Catherine to provide some "advice from the opium den", and I can't wait to read what comes from that.