The Oracle of Matches

“It’s pretty simple, actually, once you get the hang of it.”
The matches were spread so intricately on the table between them that their arrangement bordered on the essentially chaotic. The little box they came in was resting next to the pile. Waiting. Eagerly. In fact, the client wasn’t exactly sure any longer whether the wooden confusion before him was entirely a product of chance or whether his opposite had tampered with the matches. He remembered having slid one part of the box open to pour them out onto the polished surface of the table. In flamboyant letters the lid of the box stated:
“Welcome to the Oracle of Matches!”, while its belly proclaimed: “1. Take the Box; 2. Shake it!; 3. Turn it Upside Down With the Matches Facing Downwards; 4. Pull it Open in One Go; 5. Read Your Fortune!”

The boxes started popping up all over town a few weeks ago. No everyone tried them out, of course. Some regarded them as mere children’s toys, others stayed away due to some deeply rooted suspicion. However, like after the first two or three weeks, everyone knew somebody who had at least bought one of them once.

First, there only appeared one brand of the Oracle: the ‘Originals’, all with a small ‘TM’ and everything, all right and proper. These had or rather have a vintagy look to them, as if someone smuggled tons of them out of some turn-of-the-century match factory. The Original Kids, like they started calling themselves after the first bootlegs that turned into full-blown brands in their own right started hitting the streets, still swear up to this date that these are the only ones actually working.

But let’s be honest, at this point there are so many different Oracle brands that you simply can’t tell anymore what really works and what doesn’t with everyone griping about how their favourite type of box is the only accurate one. Plus, most of the people apart from diehard fans are using multiple sorts of Oracles. ‘Originals’ are supposed to be questioned when you’re about to make some general, important, potentially life-changing decision. ‘King’s’ seem to have become the go-to when it comes to matters of love. ‘Marx’s’ ironically for monetary considerations. Now, about two months after ‘Originals’ started cropping up, you can count about twenty-seven different kinds of Oracles. More are sure as hell to follow, even now.

The most important matter, however, is, of course, how you read the pile of matches once it’s on the table. Rumour has it that some of the very first ‘Originals’ had instructions on them, either in words or as little pictures. Some of these have been preserved by the Original Kids – or so they claim – and are guarded as close-kept secrets. The Kids keep ‘em under lock and lid better than the Oval Office does nuclear launch codes. For some time, the word on the street was that there were instructions on the inside of some boxes, so everyone started hoarding them like canned food conserves in the face of civil war. Never throwing them away, examining them like crazy. Even one they ended up in the trash, because no one managed to find anything on the inside, the sound of scavengers digging through heaps of refuse to get their hands on them could be heard echoing through the nights. You know, someone told them they had to hold them close to a heat source, under UV lighting or put them into weird kinds of chemicals for them to divulge their secrets. One day, even boxes with sort of one-way best before instructions got into circulation which were only valid for the one single Oracle of Matches box they were printed on. Afterwards, they became useless, naturally, but that didn’t keep nutsos from collecting those either. I don’t have to tell you how much dough one of those could fetch you in mint condition.

As you can imagine, by and by the Readers followed the introduction of the Oracles. What kind of sense does an Oracle make if you can’t tell what it means? Those ain’t new, you know. Already the Greeks had seers exaggeratingly examining bones, entrails or the way birds swooped up and down the skies. Most of them are crooks, but some are the real deal.
Once a guy, rich investment banker living luxuriously as shit, seriously made his next multi-million dollar deal depend on how he cast and another person read the matches. So he went to that lady who in the meanwhile had established her own reading salon, furnished with ape shit expensive divans, all spruced up employees running around with silver platters you had to lay your card on before she’d even see you. She’d paid for the entire salon by Reading, no prostitution or other shady business involved. I’ve been there once, the waiting room in itself is already gorgeous, cream-coloured leather cushions, furniture handcrafted from ebony. Not a single dime wasted. Lady’s got taste for sure, can’t compare her to those clichéd, turban-wearing morons sitting in tents somewhere at the fringes of country fairs. Anyway, that banker guy comes in, leaving an entire fortune in her hands as a Reading Fee, small fry, he thinks, believing he’d be earning several times as much money in the weeks to come.

Turns out lady’s a cheat but he can’t sue her or anything as Reading did not fall under fortune telling regulations back yet. Plus, he doesn’t have a single penny to his name, only heaps and heaps of debt and a lawyer won’t be taking that as payment. Apart from that, lady says, he brought her a bad box of matches, she can’t read from third-rate, cheap-ass bullshit and looking at her Reading Salon can’t help believing her.

Take my advice: stay away from all these fancy places with even fancier names. The more professional and expensive it looks, the more sure you can be about careening into Scam Land. You can get the most reliable Readings from your average Plain Jane, unremarkable-looking folks who don’t take more than a cup of coffee as a Reading Fee. Some of them don’t even want that, they’re happy with a handshake, a certain kind of look you give them but only they can fathom, a handful of paper clips, you get the idea. I got lucky several times with these types and had some pretty nifty things happen to me, because I listened to them. Turned up at the right place at the right time – hell, I might’ve even hooked up with the woman of my dreams if things go according to plan.

But you shouldn’t get carried away with Reading or Being Read. Those Bogus Readers are trying to come up with all sorts of new ideas to set them apart from their competitors. Yesterday, there was one guy in the paper, stoner turned pyromaniac or the other way round, don’t remember. Result stays the same, anyhow. Told his client how there was actually one instruction they did not put onto the Oracle boxes, like you had to keep one match and light the entire pile to make it properly Readable. Reader was one of those New Age idiots always jacking up on weed and ‘shrooms before Readings, to ‘open his mind’ or whatever. Once the pile started burning, he couldn’t tear his eyes off the matches, the other guy thinking all this mysterious, dopey gazing was part of the plan. Naturally, his table littered with all kinds of esoteric knickknacks, incense, baskety decoration thingies, caught fire and they nearly burned down the house in the process.

It was only a matter of time before Reading turned more … old-school, if you know what I mean. Things went pretty fast from “Prick your finger and let exactly one drop of blood drip onto the pile of matches” to “Bring an entire live chicken and a cleaver” – which did not make Readings any more accurate, mind you. People would waste hours driving out of the city into the country to lay their hands on free-range, organic chickens – obviously the results were better with these than with your factory-grown Frankenchicken. For some time it was pretty hilarious, if you had the right type of humour, hearing the cluck-cluck-clucking from under the coats of passengers who couldn’t afford a car and had to use public transport. Cluck on the bus, cluck on the train and don’t get me started on the first pig I saw a middle-aged lady pull into the carriage. The second you saw that kind of person, you knew what they were up to, right away.

Without so much as noticing, the population had turned to good old ritual sacrifice to catch a glimpse of the future. You wouldn’t believe how obsessed people can be about the things to come, what they would give to know, to know. It’s like the Burke and Hare murders all over again but only with the bodies going to shifty Readers instead of doctors. It’s fascinating how fast an entire economy starts flourishing around some pounds of fresh meat. You’ve got the Readers who go “Oh, you’re gonna need a fresh corpse for a proper Reading, the fresher the better”, the people who ‘procure’ the corpses and those who buy them. In the end, the customer’s always the idiot, of course; he pays both the dude getting the goods and the Reader, who’s off the hook in any case, just implying that you’d “probably need” a corpse, without telling anyone directly to hasten anybody’s demise. However, as always, there are exceptions to the rule: some Readers would say “We need a fresh kill, as fresh as possible”, their customers would turn up with live people – hookers, junkies, heck, lost kids even – and slit their throat during the Reading, blood gushing over the Oracle spread out in front of them. Some would proceed by setting the Oracle on fire, mixing in some more blood, human or animal, whatever tickled the Reader’s fancy. And while we’re on this subject anyway: did you hear about this oldish man who brought his own wife to such a Sacrificial Reading? Crazy thing is, she came voluntarily. Fuelled by the desire to See, to Know. Big words. She wanting him to lead the best life possible, knowing the future, true love.

When things kinda got out of hand, the government finally joined the fray. One day you’d see cops shaking matches and paying top dollar to find out about which lottery ticket they should buy, the next they’d be getting down on Readers and their customers with batons. All of a sudden you’d need a proper license to offer Reading Services, those being handed out more or less arbitrarily. Always thought it would be sorta funny to watch shops burn, rocks being thrown, the city turned into an urban guerrilla war zone, until I actually saw it happen. Police had their hands pretty full for quite some time, things quieted down, everything went back to normal. For the most part, Reading and Oracles got boring since the entire business was put on a governmental leash. Now there’s either legal or illegal reading, for the first you pay taxes, for the second you don’t, easy. The thing people enjoyed the most, at least that’s how I see it, was that short period of novelty, of gleeful anarchy.

Certainly, there’s still quite some illegal Reading going on, no question about that. But the Oracle of Matches wen the way of the VCR, of late-afternoon cooking shows, of teleshopping or door-to-door hoover salesmen. It’s become part of society, everyday life. Humanity always somehow manages turning the most extraordinary things into the most mundane ones. The English went mad when trains were introduced for the first time, their ‘break-neck’ speed frying your brains. But after a little bit the novelty wore off. Do you remember Digibeta? Those fugly trolls? Or Fruiters? Hell, even I don’t remember FruitersTM. But I heard there were pretty damn fine.

The Oracle of Matches