Grandmother Ava, who had long been considered an oracle by her family, had early on prophesied a strange destiny for Jacqueline. Jacqueline could still remember the day her grandmother had paused suddenly while chopping the onions, and in the guttural tone that signaled her particular type of witchcraft, she had said,
“Jacqueline will be resolute in pursuing her future. She will dare much, and there is a great chance that she will prosper, if only she follows the way of the hawk and avoids the hyenas. The raven may be danger or not, time will tell.”
When Jacqueline heard this, she felt like she had been bitten. Her mother had been there, and had written it all down, as was their habit if they were able to catch the prophecies as they fell from Grandmother Ava’s mouth.
“Probably much of this metaphor,” her mother had said.
Grandmother Ava had shaken her head over the cutting board, eyes squinting tears.
“Come put the onions in the pan for me, Jack,” Grandmother Ava had said.
Now, at twenty-eight, it was hard to determine if she had done as her grandmother foresaw. She thought not, though. Usually, there was a chord of knowing struck. The family all turned to look at one another or someone called Grandmother Ava on the phone, and confided the revelation.
Jacqueline had not had that feeling; the prophecy was unfulfilled. Once, she went to the zoo and peered at the hyenas, who were not laughing at the time, but only lounging there, looking out at the crowd. Later, as she left the park, she heard their eerie cackling echoing behind her, climbing up into the air, and she shuddered, but it wasn’t with the sense of knowing. As her mother said, the hyenas were doubtless a metaphor.
Jacqueline tried to pin down the virtues of the hawk. He could see from a distance what was most beneficial to him, and when he spotted it, he dove. He was decisive and bold. She tried to make decisions of quick wisdom. Her mantra became: fear is not an excuse.
With this phrase in her brain, Jacqueline gritted her teeth and went skydiving, moved to New York and then to Boston, asked for raises, made unlikely friends, and generally did well, but for the moments when her pulse quickened and the fear threatened to paralyze her, before she conquered it. She had a good apartment, an impressive job, a ring of socialite friends.
Fear is not an excuse, she said to herself when the president of the zoo introduced himself at a party. He was rich, good-looking, polite. He asked her to go for a ride with him. He said he’d show her something worthwhile. The socialite friends who had brought her to the party cackled with glee when they saw her with him. They toasted her with their champagne glasses and one gave her a lusty wink.
“Yes,” Jacqueline said, though her skin prickled with fear.
He handed her a drink, saying “one for the road,” and watched her down it. He escorted her outside with a strong hand at the small of her back, and the street and the building seemed to lean in toward her. She might have blacked out in the car. They were at the zoo now, and he was walking her as though she were elderly, as though she were very sick, now with his arms encapsulating her, and through the fog of the alcohol, she felt the sense of knowing. The prophecy will reveal itself now. I should tell him.
As they went by the aviary, the raven croaked, and the man stumbled and loosened his grip on her for a moment.
“Where’s the hawk?” she asked.
“Shhh,” the man said. “He flew away.”
That can’t be right. Zoo animals don’t fly away.
They reached the hyenas’ cage, and the knowing struck Jacqueline hard, like a hand.
“I need to go,” she said.
In front of them, in the cage, she saw movement and the glittering of black eyes, hungry and avid in the dark.
As if he hadn’t heard her, the man said, “Animals need to feel their natural instincts, don’t you think? Even if they’re in the zoo, they have a right to smell fear, to taste the sweat of a living creature before their teeth lacerate its flesh and break the surface. They are not truly who they are, without this. All animals need to keep to their instincts.”
“I need to leave,” she said again.
“Your instincts are correct now,” he said, gripping her hard on the arm. “But you should have listened to them sooner.”
He unlocked the cage and shoved her in. He threw something else in with her, and it smacked cold against her back and then fell. The smell of blood was on the air. The hyenas closed in. Off in the aviary, the raven croaked again, whether in warning, approbation, or despair, Jacqueline couldn’t tell.
About the author:
Emily Livingstone is a high school English teacher living in New England with her husband and German Shepherd. Her work has appeared in Black Petals and is forthcoming in Chiron Review and Necessary Fiction. She also writes here.