By Soot, by Flour, by Beetle Track

Shena McAuliffe

When Navius, expert in augury that he was, immediately said that it would happen, Tarquin replied: 'Well, I thought that you would cut a whetstone with a sharp knife. Here, take this and do what your birds have predicted would be possible.' And Navius, hardly delaying at all, took the whetstone and cut it.
—Livy, 1.35.2

In stars, flour, clouds, and palms. In the bend of a myrtle branch. We squint to glimpse the future. We read and misread. We swallow the tea and study the leaves at the bottom of the cup. If the cheese coagulates just so, the marriage will fall apart, but what difference does it make if there is nothing we can do to stop it?

Tyromancy: fortune by cheese, with particular attention paid to coagulation

In the classical world, an augur read the flight patterns of birds. With a curved wand, he divided the sky into quadrants. Not all birds foretold the future, but owls, ravens, woodpeckers, and bearded vultures had the power. Gods spoke through their methods of flight or resting, the pitch and direction of their voices. An eagle trumped a woodpecker if both were present. But since augurs were human, they often ignored or imagined signs, looked in the wrong direction, or chose when to read. No matter how carefully the procedures were delineated, signs often conflicted or turned out to be wrong. The history of bad readers is a long history.

Umbilicomancy: fortune by umbilical cord

If the umbilical cord stretches straight, the baby will live a life of ease, but if it is looped around itself, the child will grow strange and have a wild imagination. If it is looped around her arm, she will always work for others. Around her neck, she will be a slave to love. If around an ankle, she will wander from place to place. She will never know home.

If I loop the cord before they cut it, can I change her future? If she lives, she will be beautiful.

Skatharomancy: by beetle track 
Shuffleromancy: by electronic media player (such as an iPod) 
Scapulomancy: by oracle bones

In ancient China, turtle plastrons—the ventral surface of the shell—were heated until they cracked. Females' shells were used more often, maybe because they are less concave. Ox and sheep scapulae were also useful. The cracks revealed crop yield, the future of the royal family, the outcome of a battle. The answer was carved or inked onto the bone. Later, farmers sometimes unearthed the bones and buried them again without noticing the inscriptions. For a time, bones were ground to powder and swallowed to treat malaria and knife wounds. In 1899, Wang Yirong, a collector of Chinese bronzes, fell ill with malaria. Before his friend ground the bones for his treatment, Wang noticed the writing upon them. For years, the Chinese had consumed the foretold futures of their ancestors, but now they began to collect them.

What did ancient Chinese want to know? Whether misfortune was coming. Whether a particular dead ancestor was causing one's toothache.

Dactylomancy: by finger movements

I argued with a friend about whether or not the relative lengths of our fingers disclosed our sexual orientations. Digit ratio, she said, is visual, cellular proof of biologically determined sexuality. She is partly right: digit ratio is largely determined by the amount of testosterone present during a particular stage of fetal development, and "masculine ratio" in women (the fourth finger is longer than the second finger) often correlates with same sex attraction. Yet this equation is too simple. Just as I cannot know a person's sexual preferences by knowing the shape of her genitals, I cannot know it by the lengths of her fingers.

Urticariaomancy: by itch

Everything depends on the location of the itch.

Left ankle: marriage or money.
Spine: disappointment.
Nose: You will be kissed or annoyed. Or you will meet a fool within the hour.

Shortly after I met the person I would marry, I developed an itchy rash on my shin (an unpleasant surprise). Soon, it appeared on my elbow (not listed). Then on my thigh (a change of residence). The quarter-sized blotches grew larger and scalier. I slathered myself in calamine and anti?fungal creams. The rash continued to spread. It grew scabby and cracked. The doctor prescribed Cortisol, but it didn't work. The homeopath couldn't help either. My arms swelled until I was unable to bend my elbows. Vaseline, said the doctor. It will at least help with the healing, if not subdue the rash. Prednisone and antihistamines: the swelling subsided, but not the rash. Boot heel scraping shin. The scabs bled. I tried sleeping on the floor—maybe I was allergic to my mattress? The carpet was worse. I kept my fingernails short and filed. Vacuumed. Laundered. Locked the cat out. Slept in a tent in the garden. All night coyotes circled and stars slid slowly across the sky. My strange sleeping habits and the state of my skin strained my relationship. Don't scratch. Don't scratch. Finally, and with no explanation, the rash began to heal. But what did it foretell? It came to pass: I am sometimes difficult to love.