The spring before our marriage ended, we visited Cassadaga, a town built on spiritual vortexes, where every resident is a psychic medium. We’d spent the morning at the shore, watching seagulls float and fly. They were trash gulls, the kind from my childhood. They reminded me of an evening when I was four, a hotdog in my fist, held up away from the sand—and then just the bun, empty. A gull soared off with my dinner too quickly and too permanently. It was something I’d felt since, but never so pure: I’d been robbed, taken from.
There were other more delicate gulls too, with black heads and an intelligence that felt less malicious. We passed a dead one further up the beach. Most of it had rotted away, leaving bones and beak and a puzzle of plastic where its stomach once was: a disposable lighter, bottle caps, fishing line, parts of ballpoint pens, and smaller unnamable shards fitted perfectly beneath the ribcage. There was no need for divination of those thrown bones. The future seemed clear.
There were pelicans too and snowy egrets. Pipers scurried past, small and spry, their legs lilting like the staccato hop of a reel to reel. I’d forgotten about sandpipers until I saw them chasing waves, dipping beaks into bubbling holes, fishing out crabs. As a child, I chased them through the surf. Why is it I forgot about the pipers but remembered the gulls?
“There’s one kind that looks like James Cagney,” my spouse said, “with a black hat. But not that black hat.”
Just then I saw three Cagney gulls grouped up like they were in line at the speakeasy, chests puffed and necks tucked. Their hats were different, black just on top, with enough flair to suggest a tight brim and a jaunty feather, a pocket square, a watch chain. They strutted for us in their golden spats as the water washed in.
We drove from the coast to Cassadaga to have our fortunes told. The town was bright and quiet, its trees taller than those by the shore and draped in Spanish moss, the houses weatherworn but sturdy. Implied spiritual forces made them something more. Everything was drenched in the light of the magic we’d been promised. It all seemed portentous: the moss, the trees, the buildings, the flowers, the crane poised on the edge of a still pond.
A frog body splayed under a bench spilled its entrails just for us, the only ones here who couldn’t read them. All the birds of the last few days now seemed to augur in the Roman way—where gods’ wills could be seen in their flight, their sound, their type and grouping. I found myself priest to laughing gulls and sandpipers, the great ibis, kingfishers and turkey vultures, the blue heron and brown pelicans. The birds flew high, painting the will of gods whose language I do not speak.
I was tired and didn’t pay to have my fortune told. I don’t believe in psychics and I didn’t want to know what was coming. My spouse got a reading from a man who wouldn’t make eye contact. He drew furiously as he talked—concentric circles and dot dot dots covering the page. A year later, I found the paper and wondered how the psychic hadn’t seen our looming divorce, the break that freed my spouse but left me reeling, taken from. I piled the paper with the rest of their things and wondered if the psychic gave hints of truth that my spouse misheard or overlooked. It seems they overlooked their waning feelings for me, the fissures they now say had been opening through our marriage for some time.
At least we weren’t the only ones who couldn’t read the signs.
Afterwards, we wandered through a town littered with portents: lawn decorations and hand painted placards, concrete Buddhas in mardi gras beads, rusted roofs and cracked cement, silk flowers and decorative flags from Hobby Lobby or the Dollar Tree. It’s all magic, not just the romantic past, the hand hewn, but the cheap and quick present, the factory made, the identical millions, gathered lovingly in a little park with garden gnomes and molded toads, a smiling mushroom, flowers real and fake, potshards and plastic combs, ribbons tied to trees. Rocks lined winding paths with shapely sticks fallen or found, ornaments and bits of string, trash and treasure all. A sign said “Fairies, this way.” Crystals, if there were any, had been taken. You can buy more at the gift shop up the street. The particolored plastic beads remained. I walked unknowing into my future, weaving my way through this accumulation of junk, this tribute to the twenty-first century, these repeated dots scattered across wider and wider circles.
Maybe mediums are like mockingbirds, gathering every shiny stone and pretty bauble, piling it here in a nest of resonance. Maybe that’s how they know the language of birds. Or maybe, like mockingbirds, they just call back what they hear, repeat, repeat, with no real sense of what any of it might mean. It seems likely that there is no story here, no deeper meaning—there is only what we throw away. I did not feel the vortexes. I could not see the fairies. I had no idea what devastation lay ahead. Perhaps it was all a vortex. Or maybe I was the fairy— the thing most fleeting. We are here and then we die. Everything ends. Everything, everyone. Except the plastic. Those beads are the future shining bright. They will outlast us all.