MAISY WU HAD LEARNED fortune-telling from her mah-mah, who’d read faces and palms in a stall in Temple Street Market, in Hong Kong. A decade later, as a university student in Vancouver, Maisy would tell fortunes at parties. Her dorm mates invariably thanked her for the advice she’d given while buzzed on hard lemonade.
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Eventually, she decided to quit her job at the Vancouver Public Library and monetize her talent, specializing in Chinese forms of fortune-telling and divination. With a small business grant, she rented a studio on a gentrifying stretch of Pender Street, where she read palms and offered her own interpretation of kau chim, or lottery poetry. The space was clean and white, with a chrome kitchen table at one end opposite a shrine for the god Wong Tai Sin.
At first, when the strange new pandemic hit Vancouver, there was no drop-off in Maisy’s clientele. Apparently, people wanted her reassurances more than they cared about social distancing. But, when her business was declared nonessential, Maisy felt absolutely unprepared. She had only $300 in her savings account. Moreover, she was single. Her internet access was limited to the data on her phone. There was no laundry room in her building.
Maisy, whose estranged mother had come from wealth, had always preferred living close to the bone. Now, she wished that bone was encased in $100 bills.
Out of desperation, she made her fortune-telling business mobile, renaming it Curbside Divinations. Inspired by the takeout drivers and delivery trucks speeding past her window, she envisioned cycling up to a quarantined house and reading fortunes from the gate. Or from the hallway outside an apartment. Either would be more human contact than she’d had in weeks. She composed a press release and blasted her socials.
A few people clicked “like” on her posts. None of them hired her. Who could blame them? No business felt more ridiculous, in those spring days of the pandemic, than fortune-telling did. If you’re so good at predicting the future, why did you book a trip to Mexico for March? Why didn’t you get your haircut when you could? Her bank account was zeroing and her credit cards had hit their ceilings when she received a notification.
“Can you help?” read the text message. “Come over ASAP.”
The client, who said his name was Pete, lived on a street off the bike pathway on East Tenth Avenue. The road was pasted with the fallen petals of magnolia and cherry trees. Arriving at his address, Maisy saw him standing behind the sliding-glass door to the second-storey balcony of a Vancouver Special.
Like the boxy house he occupied, there was something ubiquitous and forgettable about Pete. He was a pot-bellied white man in sweats, anywhere between forty-five and sixty-five years old. He slivered open the door of the balcony and cupped his hands around his masked face as if to yodel over the sound of distant traffic. “I was just looking around and found your ad,” he told her. “You are pretty young to know the future. Do you read tarot cards?”
From the edge of the sidewalk, Maisy shook her head. “I mean, I know how.” The market was flooded with tarot card readers. “But I specialize in lottery poetry.”
Pete had given up on the mask. When he curled his mouth, he flashed yellow teeth. “If you Chinese were so good at predicting the future, how’d you all get us into this in the first place?”
Maisy took hold of her handlebars and lifted her kickstand. “I’m leaving,” she said.
He called down to her, “But I’ve already paid in Bitcoin!”
A few nights earlier, Maisy had pulled open her window to scream at a group of teenagers playing basketball in the park across the alley. Instead of defying her as she’d expected, they slumped away. Couldn’t one of her social interactions—there were so few of them these days—turn out differently?
She decided to stay. From her pannier, she retrieved a bamboo tube filled with red-tipped sticks, each with a number from one to 100. She lit a handful of incense and swirled it around the tube. “The incense is for purification. Normally, you’d be doing this part and there would be an altar to the god we’re seeking help from,” she said. “What’s your question?”
“When will this all be over?” he asked.
“That’s not how it works. Give me a yes-or-no question.”
“Will I die from covid-19?”
For divination purposes, she asked for his full name and date of birth. He should have been glad she wasn’t an identity thief. Serving as Pete’s proxy, she knelt down on the edge of his lawn and shook the tube until one of the numbered sticks fell out. When she looked up, he had edged out onto the balcony.
“Eighty-one,” she announced.
Pete leaned against the railing and nodded, looking pleasantly surprised. “Now what?”
“Each number corresponds with a divination—a poem.” Maisy flipped through a booklet until she found poem eighty-one. “Ah, this one is about a crown prince who is switched at birth with a dead fox.”
“Yeah, sounds creepy, but wait, the dead fox was doing the prince a solid because there were assassins who wanted to kill the prince. When danger passed, the prince reclaimed his identity. If you apply this poem to longevity, it suggests you should trust your eyes, not what you read on Reddit. Do you feel healthy?”
“Are you asking me if I’ve got the virus? No.”
“What about your health in general?”
“Aside from these extra pounds, yeah. I’ve been washing my hands.”
“There’s your answer.”
Pete messaged her again that weekend. Soon, he’d set up daily appointments. Others would seek Maisy’s divination, but Pete ended up effectively paying her rent. At first, he limited his questions to whether his friends and family would survive or whether he’d see them again. Eventually, he strayed from the virus in his queries. He asked Wong Tai Sin whether his ex-wife still loved him, whether his son was bisexual, and whether the Canucks would ever win the Stanley Cup. Not every lottery poem yielded a positive interpretation, but even a bad outcome divined for him provided a kind of security.
Once, Pete asked Maisy how she had learned lottery poetry. “My grandmother taught me,” she said.
Later, Maisy recalled the summer she had spent in Hong Kong: throngs of people at Wong Tai Sin Temple holding bundles of incense sticks like bouquets. Closing her eyes, she could hear the click of her mah-mah’s bracelets and the scuffle of her slippers on the floorboards of her Mong Kok flat, could feel her mah-mah’s cool hands and smell their sandalwood soap.
Her mah-mah had suffered a heart attack, narrowly avoiding the pandemic that so many others were suffering now. In the hospital, her mah-mah had held up three fingers. It was her final prediction. She was admitted on Wednesday and died on Saturday.
Even decades after the pandemic, memories of Maisy’s mah-mah remained filigreed in her mind’s eye. By contrast, her lonely days under lockdown, endless yet interchangeable, could easily be overlooked. One strange day after another bled into a teary blur. If the pandemic ever came up, she would summarize the period as succinctly as possible. “It was tough for us, but toughest for the front line workers. We were all in it together. That’s how we got through it.”
One day, Maisy’s favourite granddaughter came to visit after being deserted by her partner. Maisy had foreseen this eventual split. Her son’s only child sat next to Maisy on the sofa, placed her head on Maisy’s lap. “Mah-Mah, I just want to know. When will this pain end?”
Maisy blotted her granddaughter’s tears with her thumb. A portal appeared. Through it, she saw herself, decades earlier, on the sidewalk. Pete had opened the door of his house and invited her inside for a glass of lemonade. That was when she’d known it was finally over.