Excerpt: Annie Hartnett, "The Oracle's Endangered Species Holiday Special"


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"The Oracle’s Endangered Species Holiday Special," by Annie Hartnett

We called the Oracle’s hotline every morning to listen to our daily horoscopes. We watched her two-hour talk show every afternoon, and we subscribed to the monthly magazine. We owned all of her cookbooks and her deluxe cake mixer and her donut fryer and we wanted her three-tier fondue cheese fountain but it was on backorder until next year. We went to her book signing in Long Beach after The Oracle: A Life came out and we shook hands with her ghostwriter. Once, we sent the Oracle an email introducing each of us, with a family photo attached, a picture showing off our fishtails.

But we never, and I mean never, expected her to write us back. She took two years to do it, too; by the time we got her reply, we’d just about forgotten we had written her at all.

The email was sent to Neptune’s account, so he saw it first, even though he was the one who hadn’t wanted to write the letter. Nep hadn’t gotten into the Oracle until later, after the accident. He’d since grown into a true fan, though.

He printed it and we read it over and over to each other at breakfast. We practiced reading it with her Tennessee accent.


Lucy, Neptune, & Ellie, 

Thank you for your letter. My oh my! Everyone’s special in their own way, but you three are the peach-crisp of my day. Your family photo made my heart tear up in joy.  

Honestly, you don’t know how lucky you are! I’d trade half my eyeballs for a sibling. Y’all get to grow up together, be each other’s best friends, and you’re still in the thick of it! You’re just guppies! The world is your oyster, as they say.

Well, what I mean, my little honeys, is that I’d love to have you three on The Oracle Show.

Please call—888-888-8888, ext. 4675—to confirm your appearance. We’ll film in L.A. July 12th.

With majestic motion,
The Oracle

We called the hotline and were put on hold. The show’s theme song played on loop.

“Do you think she really wrote it?” I asked. “It sounds like her.”

“Dictated,” Neptune said. “I bet it was dictated.”

We were beside ourselves, of course. But there was also that postscript, the part of the letter Neptune and I were trying to ignore:

P.S. – We’ll be taping the Endangered Species Holiday Special. You three wear Christmas sweaters and warm slipper-socks. There will be a snow machine and I don’t want my little sweeties to freeze!

“You three,” the letter said, three times. But there weren’t three of us anymore—and Eleanor was the only one who’d truly been endangered. Our sister Ellie had been half manatee. She had been beheaded in a jet ski accident the previous summer.

 “Several species of seahorses are endangered,” Neptune reminded me. He curled his tail toward his tummy.
But things were bad for me. Just days before, The New York Times had run an article titled “The Scourge of the Lion Fish: From Beautiful Novelty to Alien Invader.”

I was half invasive species—not just common, but invasive. What could be worse! I ran a finger along one of my fin rays, and felt my tongue swell almost immediately. I had killed my mother during childbirth; she’d had a severe reaction to the venom in my fins. Most people get a bad rash and a headache, sometimes they vomit, and even I get hives and swollen lips if I touch my fins, but death is very, very rare. Dad always has to explain this to the school nurse when she calls home because someone in my class bumped their leg against my tail and now they have a closed-up throat and puffy eyelids.

“Aren’t mermaids endangered?” Neptune said. “Wouldn’t you say?”

We came from a long line of mermaids. It came from my mother’s side, but it had skipped her and she’d been legged. Our dad was legged too, a completely ordinary man for most of our lives. We lived out of water because of this, and we could walk fine on our tails, waddling along the ground the way you’ve seen a seal move. We just had to stay hydrated.

The only other mermaid we knew was our grandma, who was half blowfish. She’d also killed her mother, our great-grand. Nana liked me best because of that. “I took a puffer breath when I shouldn’t have,” Nana explained to me, showing off a black-and-white snapshot of her bluefish mother.

I shook my head at Nep. “We’re not endangered, because it’s not a species. It’s a hereditary oddity. Like people who are born with an extra limb or without thumbs.”

“How’d you get to be the smart one?” Neptune asked, blowing bubbles into his orange juice. He’d gotten nicer since Ellie died.

“Do you think she’ll still want us without Ellie?” I asked. “Since we’re not really endangered?” 

“We’re not gonna tell her!” Neptune said. “Not until we get there. And besides--” He paused, gulping the last of the Minute Maid. “We can bring the jar.” 

*   *   *

Dad kept our sister’s head in a jar on his bedside table. Her blond hair had become knotted from the formaldehyde and acquired a greenish tinge, like strips of rockweed.

“Medusa,” Dad would joke, rapping on the jar with his one good hand.

Dad had a disease where his muscles and tissue turned bit-by-bit to rock. He was mostly limestone, though parts of him were sandstone and one toe was granite. No rhyme or reason, the doctors said, and then asked to take photographs for a manual on bone disease. The textbook was now in its sixth edition, and Dad had his own chapter.

By the summer of Ellie’s death, Dad could only move his left arm and his face, and he had to be hooked up to a ventilator. His limestone chest was crushing his lungs. Ellie pulled the tubes in and out of Dad’s nose twice a day so he could eat, but the rest of the time the ventilator had to be going. It sounded like a wolf, and I could hear it panting outside my bedroom while I tried to sleep.

Read the rest of this story in Unstuck #3.