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The market was alive with commerce. All around me were the noise and commotion of transactions—buying, selling, bargaining. Such a hub-bub, a wild colorful swirl or organized chaos. Both exhilarating and familiar at the same time. How else was business to be done? I was in the poultry section. It was noisy and smelly and crowded with birds on every side. Aisle after aisle lined with foul smelling fowl; caged birds of every description: ducks, geese, chickens, squabs, turkeys. You name an edible bird and it was there. There were even birds not for eating— song birds, parrots, hawks, birds of paradise, peacocks and emus—birds whose names and purposes I couldn’t even imagine.
I had been sent to the market by my master to find Martin The Birder. Martin was the seller of a certain kind of bird used exclusively by those like my master who could read the future in a bird’s innards. Men like my master were highly valued. Their abilities to see the future was a direct link to the gods themselves. The results of these inspections carried great weight and my master was the best of these seers. They are called haruspex and I had been chosen as an apprentice. I had been lifted from my lowly station and given this chance. The master saw something in me. I hoped to prove worthy of his trust and one day perhaps the gods will channel their thoughts through me and I too will be able to divine the future from a hen’s entrails.
My instructions were to hurry to Martin The Birder and purchase two hens that he had prepared for my master. I was to get no other birds. I was to say my masters name, accept the two birds and hurry back. An important client coming and it was imperative the master have the right birds. This part I did not understand as I thought the gods could speak through any bird. I clutched four coins in my fist, two for each white hen. Twice the price of all the other white hens that surrounded me. These must have been special birds, don’t ask me how. I was only an apprentice and I had much to learn.
I had watched the master dozens of times. He would take a hen from its cage, lift it thrice toward heaven, invoke the gods and sever its head from its body. When the hen had died and bled out, he would open it up and spread out the viscera paying strict attention to the liver, heart and intestines before pronouncing what he saw. His was a powerful gift, his predictions invariably true. His pronouncements were considered final, never questioned. His clientele consisted of nobles of the highest rank, sometimes, it was rumored, the king himself.
I soon found Martin The Birder in his usual place. I had accompanied my master here on several occasions. The Birder was a gaunt, bearded man of sixty years. He had piercing gray eyes that sent a chill through me when I fell under his gaze. He recognized me and I shivered. “I am to pick up the two white hens for master Owen,” I said, my voice smaller than I would have liked.
“I have them,” said the Birder. “Four silver coins for the pair.” And he held out his hand. I opened my fist and saw with alarm that only three coins fell into his palm. I had lost one of the coins. Martin The Birder shook his head. “This is not enough,” he said. “I will give you one hen and one coin back. Tell your master there has been a mistake.”
I was speechless and almost paralyzed with fear. I took the white hen and the single coin and walked away without a word. I was afraid and ashamed to tell my master I had lost a coin, had failed in so simple a task. I dare not return with only one hen. Such incompetence would be quickly punished and I would be sent back to work in the kitchen or the field. All my dreams of becoming a haruspex, of having a better life would be lost.
I still had one silver coin. I looked around, there were white hens everywhere. When I was far enough from the Birder’s stall, I gave my coin to a random vendor and purchased a white hen. It looked identical to the first in every way except for a small difference in its wattle and comb. The difference was plain to me but small enough to go unnoticed. Oh how naive I was. I thought a hen was a hen and in the end it is the gods who decide the future. All soothsayers do is read the signs.
I hurried home with the two birds and handed them to my master, who placed them on the shelf behind the curtain in his reading chamber. “Hurry and change into you best robes,” he ordered. I could see that he was already in his best attire, the one reserved for his most important clients. I had no sooner changed than I heard a fanfare of trumpets in the yard followed by the clatter of hooves. A large entourage had entered the gate and assembled in the courtyard. I saw a number of knights and members of the royal court dismount and make way for one crowned figure. Could it be? Was this the king himself? It was.
When the king entered, Owen bowed low, something I had never seen him do. “Your majesty,” Owen said. “You do me much honor.”
“Rise sir. I have need of your services. Your foretellings are highly prized and I must know what the gods have to say.” Owen ushered the king and several of his company into the reading chamber. When they were assembled the king said, “I am considering making war on King Beltram. I have assembled a great force and we are poised to invade. I need to know if I have the gods blessing on this endeavor.” The king seemed not at all nervous as if this reading was merely a formality and all the relevant decisions had already been made.
My master signaled for me to open the curtain. “May it please your majesty to pick a bird and we shall see what the gods have to say.” The king indicated the hen on the left, the very bird I bought to hide my shame, not the hen from Martin. I had a moment of panic and felt the blood drain from my face. I dare not say anything.
Owen took the hen and killed it and, after a while, slit it open and spread out its heart, liver and intestines. My master studied the entrails for a long time. Much longer than usual. I could see him sweating and saw his hand tremble. The king must have seen it too for he said, “Pray tell Master Owen, what seest you? Is my victory foretold?”
After a few awkward moments, Owen raised his head and said in a quavering voice, “Majesty, the signs are very clear. Do not go to war. The gods are saying clearly not to go. The war will go badly and you will lose your army and ultimately your crown. I am sorry. I know this is not what you expected to hear but I cannot ignore so clear a warning. I saw the king clutch his heart and I thought he looked about to faint. One of his aids brought him a chair to sit on.
If the king was angry or disappointed, I never knew. I do know that the war never happened and for that I am grateful. Hundreds maybe thousands of lives were saved on both sides and untold suffering averted. I often wonder what the hen from Martin the Birder would have said or what would have happened if the king would have chosen that one instead of mine.
I’m not sure what this says about the fortune telling business but now that I am the chief oracle, following Master Owen’s death ten years later, I have learned how to read the signs and realize that in the end it is indeed all in the hands of the gods.
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