The Pool

Destanie McAllister


The lord whose oracle is at Delphi neither speaks nor conceals, but indicates.

We travelled all this way for a sign. For me, my sister said, though her doubts carried us here and now it is she who refuses to leave. Not until we see something, she says. Not until we are told. Not until we know.

So we go every day with the rest of the pilgrims, wealthy, desperate, indecisive, and we sit by the water, waiting for it to stir. A ripple means yes, continued stillness, no.

We who are here day after day wait for a yes. I pointed this out to my sister at the end of our first day: how those who were new to the pool, like us, but feared to see it stir left as quickly as devotion allowed. Some left too quickly for dignity. None glanced back, so great was their fear that the god might change his mind.

“Attend the pool,” my sister said. “Not the other pilgrims.”

On our second day I noticed more about those waiting for a no: how their eyes, unlike my sister’s, skimmed the water rather than seeking its depths, how they were eager for conversation, how they favored activity, how they became anxious when one approached the water. They held that piety entailed keeping one’s distance.

“We must not risk speaking for the god, even accidentally,” I heard one say. “The pool is the god’s mouthpiece. We must not risk the fate of those who interfere.”

My sister sits as close to the pool as its guardians allow. A rich silk veil frames her long face, blocking from sight all she considers extraneous—the vendors, the guardians, the other pilgrims. She rolls beads through her fingers, perhaps repeating her question as each one slips along its string. I do not know this for certain as she considers it rude to talk about one’s prayers, but my sister’s mind is strong and straightforward, and this is what I suspect.

I do not pray. I do not know whether to hope for a yes or a no, and do not know that we have not been given our answer already in the series of days the water has lain platter-smooth while we wait.

I venture to share this idea with one of the pilgrims, but he, like my sister, seeks a positive sign. I wait through explanations I have already heard. The god is quick to negate but hesitant to affirm; the god is not bound by our idea of time. Pilgrims should not presume to have received an answer too soon. There is virtue in waiting. Great men of the past, whose resources allowed it, remained at the temple for years, wanting to ensure that in accepting a sign they were not rushing the god.

A girl my age is more sympathetic. We meet buying fried fish from a vendor. She asks about my sister, whose veil she admires. She wants to know about the stones making up my sister’s beads. I know they are precious, nothing more.

The girl says this is her second pilgrimage. Before this, she was taken to a temple by her parents to put a question to the priestess. They waited long before she was selected—who knew the logic of it—and in the end, her parents were not happy with the outcome. The girl pulls herself up and assumes an older woman’s authority to convey what her mother said.

“That raving-mouthed priestess, unlaughing, uttering unadorned, unincensed words, claims to reach out over thousands of years with her voice. But such a creature cannot speak for the god.”

Her parents came to the pool for a sign of greater subtlety. They receive their sign and are soon gone. Few pilgrims show the devotion of my sister.

The weather turns. I know the question my sister is contemplating must soon be decided. The guardians of the pool express amazement at the god’s long silence. I ask my sister under what conditions she would be willing to leave.“

By the god’s sign,” she tells me, long trained to express anger only through her eyes, if at all. “The god sets the conditions. That is why we are here.”

The pool remains still. I hear a pilgrim wonder if the god has perhaps returned to the city, refreshed by his time taking the waters. Another posits that the god has moved to a different, perhaps more spacious abode. I do not share these jests with my sister, who is unlikely to find them amusing.

One evening, as we are leaving the pool, she turns to me with eyes bright and countenance uplifted.

“We have been given an answer,” she tells me. “Tomorrow we return home.”

On the road she seems merry, younger. Her mood elevates me and I tease her as I still know how and make her laugh. There are few travelers on the road and when we stop for the night we take our meal alone. My sister’s eyes seem unable to rest on any object. I suspect her giddiness owes as much to her return to the comparative richness of the world outside the pool as it does to wine.

I ask her, as if still joking, why she finally accepted that the god’s answer was not what she had hoped. For the pool had remained still on the day we left.

“My hopes have not been disappointed,” she tells me.

My confusion is evident. She smiles.

“It seems to you that the god’s answer did not change. On the surface, you are right. The water did not stir. However—” She hesitates, then seems to decide she can continue without risk. “However, yesterday I realized that I had been mistaken about how to ask my question.”



Destanie McAllister’s fiction has appeared in Word Riot, LIT and Prick of the Spindle and was performed at a Liars’ League NYC event in August 2016. She is a fellow of the CUNY Writers' Institute. She lives and occasionally works in New York.                                                            

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