The Oracle

I arrived at the oracle at 4:30 pm. A sign at the entrance read: Hours 9 am to 5 pm. This infuriated me, even more. A truck carrying steel pipes had been blocking the road for over an hour. Now I would have just a few minutes to check. I walked as fast as I could, as the solemnity of the place and the occasion did not allow me to run. I crossed without stopping by the ruins of the temple of Jupiter on top of the hill and then, following the signage, went down some stone stairs until I reached a long corridor surrounded by high stone walls on both sides. At the end of the corridor, a large trapezoidal-shaped stone entrance marked the entrance to the enclosure. I entered without even stopping. My heart was pounding, partly from the effort, the tension sustained during several hours of travel, and partly from the anticipation that had brought me here.

The grotto led me through a central passage where every 15 or 20 meters a weak ray of sunlight fell, coming from skylights placed on the ceiling, rhythmically breaking the gloom. I did not even look at the vestal enclosures or the secondary passages. Time was pressing, I just wanted to get to the den, at the bottom of the grotto.

When I got there I was disappointed to see that there was only a small, crude niche carved into the rock, shaped like an arch with a flat surface that served as a seat.

I sat in a meditative posture, still feeling for a while the pulse in my chest and head, tinged by the cooing of pigeons nesting everywhere.

I began to quiet my mind, seeking to find in the silence the questions I had prepared. However, I could not erase from my screen the image of the truck, moving at 20 km per hour, impeding traffic. What did it cost him to pull off to the side for a few minutes and let all of us behind him pass? 

I tried to concentrate. I figured I only had about 15 or 20 minutes left and I had to make the most of it. In the distance I thought I heard a woman’s voice. I thought it might be someone from the archaeological complex staff coming to take out the stragglers.

I tried to put my mind at ease. My main question, for the meaning of life, for the crossroads I was going through, in my work, with my partner.  The voice became louder, now I felt that it was several voices talking, approaching me. If I stay in this meditative posture – I thought – and with my eyes closed, they will be quiet out of respect and remain silent.  The doves were no longer cooing. I could only hear voices talking, and footsteps.

Closing my eyelids, I thought hard about my future, about which path to take, and I asked the question in a half-voice, as if to reinforce the consultation, to give it more reality.  The voices were silenced, but the answer did not come. I increased the rhythm and intensity of my breathing, doing the full cycle to get more oxygen to my brain. All I could hear was my breathing.

Suddenly a man’s voice in an incomprehensible language began to speak. I opened my eyes, only to find myself surrounded by about 50 Asian tourists who, squeezing into the small space, were listening to one who was acting as a guide and pointing to different crevices and details in the rock. They were all taking pictures, of the niche, of the pigeons, of me. A slender woman in her 50s sat down next to me and said in stammering English, «excus-mi-foto.» I understood that she wanted me to pose next to her for a photo that a man in a white fedora was already taking. Then she said «thank you» and again «excus-mi-foto» and the man in the fedora sat down this time next to me and she took the picture, but not before making a face at me indicating that she wanted me to smile.

By now I was hesitating between giving vent to the indignation I felt or just getting up and leaving the place. Neither alternative made me feel any better. Some sane voice inside me kept saying, «wait», «calm down», they’ll go away.

I closed my eyes again and stayed like that for a while, trying to tune out the situation and at the same time feeling absurd and ridiculous. I kept my attention on the cooing of a pigeon that was perched on one of the ledges above the niche where I was still sitting. This calmed me down, and after a while I could see that the voices were moving away again, returning towards the entrance of the grotto.

I let a few minutes pass and I put my mind in blank again, asking the oracle to pronounce itself. After a while of silence, I heard clearly, a soft and melodious voice, very faint, but floating and bouncing from every corner of the grotto.  «Signore», it said, «signore» ……» sono i cinque del pomeriggio», it is five o’clock and you have to leave.

I opened my eyes to find a short, thick lady in a gray-blue uniform, a flashlight and a large cell phone. She was standing in front of me in a waiting attitude. I understood from her body posture that she would only be leaving the place behind me, the last of the day’s tourists.

My first reaction was to protest. After all none of this was my fault. A long trip, planned a year in advance, then the hotel in Naples, 2 days of waiting, until Monday which is a day when there are almost no visitors to the complex and the oracle, according to the young lady in the tourism department. And then 2 hours behind a stupid truck carrying steel pipes to who knows where – and then that horde of Chinese, or Japanese or whatever tourists who without any consideration for my meditation took turns to take pictures and with unbelievable impudence told me that I should smile. This is totally unfair.

Suddenly I felt something sliding down my chest, something cold and dark. I put my hand to my shirt, only to find that the pigeon that had calmed me down a few moments ago, now seemed to have passed me the bill and had pooped exactly above where I was standing.

I immediately looked at the wide-hipped woman but she didn’t laugh. She was still standing in front of me, looking strangely like an hourglass, through which time was inexorably ticking. A soft smile chiseled on her face only made me even more uneasy.

I understood that all was lost. There was no point in arguing with this guardian dressed in safari clothes and with key rings on her belt.

I clasped my hands over my head, sighed and bitter tears of frustration already fermented into failure streamed down my face. I no longer cared about anything. Nor had I totally lost my dignity in front of this park ranger, because my dignity had steadily deflated until there was not an ounce of air left in it.

I stood up without even trying to dry my face, and she motioned me towards the entrance, as if to say «this way, if you would be so kind as to follow me». I followed her like an automaton. The anger, the truck, the Chinese tourists and the pigeons were gone. Only a very deep sorrow that forced me to take a deep breath as I walked down the stone corridor towards the entrance. A sorrow without faces, without culprits and without images that became wider and lighter, like a clamor that was filling the place, like a sad melody that repeats to infinity.

When I reached the entrance, I stopped, not daring to look back. Then it was that I felt, very softly, almost imperceptibly, a whisper in my ear in perfect Spanish that said:

«he who dies before he dies, will never die».

I turned my head and stared at the little woman, but her face gave no sign, she was only looking towards the door, and then she tapped her index finger on her watch to tell me that it was already late.

Before I headed for the entrance to the complex, I looked back at her. She was already walking toward a service door, and I’m almost, almost certain I saw her smile.