Michelle wiped a lick of hair out of her eyes and nodded. A cigarette burned between her fingers, mixing with the bluish-gray smoke of a tallow candle on the small table.
She was a waitress at the bar. Her co-worker was a thin cook with long hair and an even, deep voice. When he was at the grill, his mood was always light and joking; now there was not a hint of mirth in his eyes, and the smile he gave her was slight and firm. He reached slowly toward a wooden box next to the candle.
The two were off for the evening. Daylight had given way to darkness several hours before, and now the glint of headlights from passing cars showed through the shuttered windows. It was one of the perks for working in a restaurant; a beer was always close by when the job was through.
A few patrons stood around a billiard table, watching the action on green felt. They were silent except for the occasional crack of the cue ball, and a sporadic cheer when a game was won. A young couple kissed at a corner table, oblivious to the waitress who came to clear away their plates. A plain man in a tie and slacks nursed his vodka and tonic at the bar, where a bartender with a crew-cut and goatee polished a bar glass. It was a typical Thursday night…with one special twist.
The cook opened the box and scooped the large, laminated cards out. Holding them like precious jewels, he began to shuffle. “You know about these?”
Michelle nodded. “A little. I read palms.”
The cook grunted. “Palmistry is good…if it’s done right, that is. The art is old, dating back to the fourteenth century. In 1475 the first book was published about it—” And then he stopped his shuffling and smiled, waving a hand indifferently in the air. “But of course you probably know all that.”
Michelle squirmed in her chair. “As a matter of fact, I don’t,” she said, clearing her throat. “I never dealt into the history very much. For me the interest is in the practice.”
“Hah!” he said, startling her. “The history is the practice, Michelle. You can’t separate the two. Anyway...the book on Palmistry was by a German, Johann Hortlich. He wrote Die Kunst Chiromantie long before such things were fashionable.”
Now he was shuffling the deck again, the delicate thrraap of interleaving cards carrying on the still air like a whisper. “You say you know Tarot a little, huh? Then you don’t know it at all, Michelle. Don’t take offense, but it’s that simple. I can tell you the origins of Palmistry because its origins are, for the most part, well documented. But Tarot…” and he brought the deck close to his face, “remains a mystery.”
Michelle took a long hit on her cigarette, the ash dangerously close to crumbling from the end. “Not so mysterious, really. They say it came from the Hindus, right?”
“Wrong. In ancient Hindustani taru literally means ‘pack of cards’. That’s as far as etymologists got in tracing Indian origin. Then they tried French, where taro tee refers to the design commonly found on the backs of Tarot decks. Italians lay claim to the Tarot by way of the Taro River-where early decks have turned up. Actually, the oldest known deck was only presented to an Italian, the Duke of Milan in the mid-fifteenth century. That deck was ancient even then, and its true origins are certainly lost by now.”
Michelle nodded, then took a sip of her beer. It was no use competing. The man seated with her was a veritable walking encyclopedia of occult trivia. She vowed to herself not to interrupt him again.
“The classic Tarot deck is made up of seventy-eight cards comprised of two sections,” he continued. “The main section—the Major Arcana—has twenty-two cards, numbered zero to twenty-one. Zero is the Fool, symbolizing innocence and nothingness. Twenty-one is the Universe, symbolizing self-realization and enlightenment. In essence, the Major Arcana tells of the soul’s travel from ignorance.” He looked up sharply. “You following all this?”
“Good. Now the second deck is the Minor Arcana, which deals with more mundane realities. They represent occupation, social position and domestic situation-things like that. There can be many suits, but most decks deal with the basic four: Wands, Cups, Swords and Pentacles. All set?”
Michelle was. She had waited weeks for this lesson, and the expectant way she leaned forward made the young cook smile again. This time that smile was more normal, as if he were cracking jokes with the staff while pulling breadsticks out of the fryer.
“Okay, then. Let’s start off easy.” He placed the deck in front of her. “For this deal, I’ll cut the deck, reshuffle, then fan the cards out in front of you. Pick three cards and place them next to each other, being careful not to turn any of them upside-down.”
Michelle did as she was told. Three colorful cards were displayed on the table.
“This is the simplest configuration,” the cook said. “It’s called the Three-Card Spread. From left to right, they represent past, present and future. It’s ideal for short readings.” He looked down at a card that had nine swords hung behind a man with is face buried in his hands. “The first card is the Nine of Swords. You’ll notice it’s inverted, which tells of justifiable fear, indecisiveness or shame. If I were to interpret this, I would say that your past includes a bitter conflict that will not be easy for you to resolve. Of course, you can read many things into that.”
Michelle thought of her parent’s divorce and her frustrations with her stepmother, and realized the cook was wrong. For her, there was only one way to read that card.
“Then next one’s the Queen of Cups,” the cook said, oblivious to her thoughts. “It tells of conflicting and just-emerging emotions, as well as a deepening inner awareness. Translated, it means you’re just coming to realize a deep or suppressed passion within you…one that may be ridiculed by friends or acquaintances.” He looked into her eyes. “Accurate?”
Michelle pursed her lips and stared into the flame of the guttering candle. “Can’t say for sure.”
He shrugged. “You may not be aware of it. In any case, the interpretations can be multifarious at best. I’m just giving you the most general.”
“What about the next card?” Michelle said, and gave a short, nervous laugh. “Is that multifarious, too?”
He looked down at card thirteen, with its rotten skeleton brandishing a scythe above its head. “Don’t panic. Death doesn’t mean death in the real sense. Yes, it can mean loss and finality, but it’s meaning is also defined by the previous two cards. Given those, I would say that you are due for a sudden and unexpected change. Not to worry.”
“I’m not worried,” she said. But the thought of that card—however benign—representing her future unnerved her. She hastily pulled another cigarette from its pack.
The cook gathered up his cards, shuffled, and presented the whole deck to her. “You cut.”
Michelle took the top half of the deck and placed it beside the bottom half. The cook shuffled the two together and dealt out seven cards in a semicircle in front of her.
“This is the Seven-Card Spread, or Horseshoe Spread,” the cook said. Then he looked closer at the cards and let out a low whistle. “Wow.”
“What?” Her heart had begun a tango in her chest.
“Check out the first three.”
Michelle eyed the first three cards and knew immediately what they stood for. She gaped at him. “Are you sure you shuffled thoroughly?”
The cook just stared at her.
“Sorry,” she said, and took another drag on her cigarette. “They represent past, present and future, right?”
He nodded. “Yes. The Horseshoe spread is more detailed than the Three-Card in that it also depicts the things currently on your mind, the others in your life, your obstacles, and the outcome to your situation.”
She nodded, and stared down at the ominous card with a bearded man sitting alone on a rocky island.
“The fourth card is the Hermit. It suggests withdrawal and abandonment of that which is established. It might depict that you have recently thought about running away or changing your lifestyle.”
Michelle gave a sad grin. “I think that can be said for most of us.”
“True. As I’ve said, there are many ways of interpreting the meanings of the Tarot. It’s as much an art form as it is an occult science.” He pointed to the fifth card, which illustrated three swords impaling a heart. “This is the Three of Swords, representing the others in your life. It depicts separation, absence and disturbance.” He chuckled. “I guess that just about cans your social life.”
Michelle frowned, disturbed at the truth in that.
The sixth card showed a male and female holding hands and walking along a lush garden. “Those are The Lovers, representing your obstacles.” He frowned. “It appears you are being held back from your dreams by impulsiveness or the tension between flesh and spirit. That’s unusual.”
“Oh, it’s nothing. I just never saw that card placed there before. The good thing about Tarot is that no two readings are ever the same.”
“Right,” she said. “Except for the first three.”
“A coincidence. But a nice one, don’t you think?”
Michelle didn’t. Instead, an invisible shard of glass raked down the sink of her spine. The cook brought her attention back to the table.
“Now this is interesting,” he said, pointing to the final card. It showed a Renaissance-era man with a staff and a small dragon in his hands. “This is The Hierophant. He predicts insight and occult knowledge. It could mean the approach of some divine wisdom.”
Michelle liked the sound of that. She crossed her legs under the table and inspected the card closely. “That seems a lot better than Death.”
The cook shook his head. “Remember that this card represents an outcome.” Then he thought for a moment, casting his eyes toward the bar ceiling. “It could be the surprise that Death represents in these two spreads.”
Again the cook collected his cards and shuffled them carefully. After having her cut the deck twice, he reshuffled and began to deal. “This is the final spread, and the most popular among readers.” He laid the first card down vertically, then the second one horizontally, covering the first. Around this makeshift cross the third, fourth, fifth and sixth cards were drawn in a clockwise fashion, starting at the top. To the right of all these, the seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth cards were placed in a vertical column, starting at the bottom. When he was done, he looked up at Michelle.
“This is the Ten-Card Spread, or Celtic Cross.” He pointed to the first card, partially covered by the second. “This represents you, the Queen of Swords. It tells of female sorrow and need, dissatisfaction or self-improvement.” He looked up. “You’re not unhappy, are you?”
“Nope,” Michelle lied.
“Good. The second card represents what’s on your mind.” He looked down. “Boy, there doesn’t seem to be any variety with you, does there?”
Michelle looked down at the Hermit. “Let me guess. According to this, I’m thinking of changing my lifestyle or running away.”
“Right,” the cook said with an even grin. “But since you work here, I’m not too surprised at the lack of diversity for this meaning.”
“Ain’t it the truth.” She blew smoke to her side, where she noticed the bartender and the man in tie and slacks watching. A slow blush crept along her cheeks.
“The third card represents your future goals. It’s the Knight of Wands, depicting a need for a journey into the unknown or a long absence. Coupled with the Hermit, I would say you are in deep need of escape, though your destination remains a mystery to you.”
Michelle couldn’t argue with that.
He pointed to the next card. “This one represents your past.” He said nothing then, but stared at the table.
Then Michelle saw it, too. It was the Nine of Swords, inverted.
“Fear, indecisiveness or shame,” she said when she found her voice. “This is really creeping me out, I don’t mind telling you.”
She could see it wasn’t creeping the cook out at all. In fact, his face radiated excitement.
“The repetition only solidifies the forecast,” he said, and looked up at her. “In any case, you’re doing very well in remembering the meanings.”
Michelle nodded, accepting the compliment. She was indeed learning quickly, and it gave her an odd sense of pride.
The cook went on. “The fifth card tells of your recent past.” He pointed to a card depicting a man prone on the shore of a lake. A crop of swords impaled his body. “The Ten of Swords looks grim because it is. I would say your recent past has been one of turmoil, sorrow and pain.”
She shrugged. “It hasn’t been a bed of roses, but I think that’s a pretty strong way of putting it.”
“Sometimes the cards show relative states,” he said. “If a person knows only bliss, even a minor inflection in lifestyle may show up as a real tragedy in the cards.”
Michelle nodded, knowing there was far more to it than that.
“The sixth card represents—” He stopped.
Now Michelle was more than just a little creeped out, and she nearly dropped her cigarette into the open mug of beer. She finished the sentence for him. “The future. Symbolizing an unexpected surprise. You want to repeat that stuff about being multifarious?”
Card thirteen, with its grinning, naked jaw and swinging scythe looked up at them from the table. It seemed that even the cook was beginning to lose his composure, because his fingers betrayed him by shaking slightly as he pointed out the next card
“This one represents your potential, and I’m glad to say it’s a new suit. The Ace of Disks represents unearthly power. Apparently you have quite a bit of untapped energy, Michelle. Success is yours if you choose it.”
She smiled. “These cards have been listening to my father,” she said.
Then, more seriously: “I thought this suit was called Pentacles.”
“They were,” the cook said, pleased at her observation. “This is the Thoth Tarot, designed by Aleister Crowley in the late thirties.”
She looked up suddenly, her eyebrows furrowing. “Aleister Crowley?”
“Don’t tell me you’ve never heard of him.”
She wasn’t sure. The name sounded familiar; a spark of recognition fired in her brain before it disintegrated upon deeper thought. “Would you be disappointed if I said no?”
The cook nodded. “If you’re delving into the occult sciences, his name should be as familiar as your own. Some texts call him the wickedest man who ever lived, second only to Hitler. An Englishman by birth, he was a bit of a crackpot even in occult circles, dabbling in Satanism as well as many notorious sects throughout his lifetime. His theme belief was that power could be had by combining sex and drugs. He had scores of mistresses, each of whom would paint the Mark of the Beast between their breasts to show their loyalty. His first two wives wound up in asylums.”
“Sounds like a sweet guy,” Michelle said. But her heart was beating fast and her palms were slick with sweat. The Beast…
The cook shook his head. “Not by a long shot. He started his own sect in 1920, the Argentinum Astrum. Its headquarters were in a dilapidated building in Cefalu, Sicily. Crowley named it the Abbey of Thelema, and took in his mistresses and any followers who would obey him. It served as a refuge for occult study and earthly pleasures. Needless to say, things went on within those four walls that nobody wanted to talk about.”
“I’ll bet,” Michelle said. Now her ears were ringing and her head felt light. Why does all this sound familiar? What the hell is going on here?
“Nobody, that is,” he continued, “until a Crowley disciple by the name of Raoul Loveday dropped dead in the Abbey, supposedly after drinking cat’s blood in one of the rituals. An investigation was conducted, and the Sicilian government threw Crowley and his people out on their ears. But I’m running away with myself. The fact is that Crowley developed his offshoot of the Pentacles suit at the Abbey.”
Michele examined the card closely. “What’s the difference?”
“Mainly the way in which they’re read. Crowley did away with the Pentacles denominations of King, Queen, Knight and Page, and opted instead for Prince, Princess, Queen and Knight. He also disagreed about the inversion factor, so cards of the Disk suit are read according to their surrounding cards. Crowley called them ‘well-dignified’ or ‘ill-dignified’. Your seventh card is not a royalty card, so it’s neither. Here…” and he handed her a card from the deck.
“What’s this?” she asked.
“That’s the Prince of Disks. It’s also a likeness of Crowley himself. He loved to paint, and although he was never good at it, he always put himself in his works.”
“That’s him?” She brought the card up close. The figure at its center was draped in ceremonial robes; a single disk was clasped in his hand. He had a round face that made him look nearly Oriental. “You say he wasn’t very good. This card is a masterpiece.”
“That’s because he didn’t draw it,” the cook said. “The artist modeled it after Crowley to pay homage to the creator of the Disks. Personally I can think of more appealing faces to attach to the highest ranking card in the suit.” He looked at her. “You want to continue?”
“Sure.” She gave him the card, which he replaced in the deck.
“Moving on, we have your card eight. That illustrates the changes in your environment.”
Michelle looked at the card. It showed a huddled couple being ferried away across a lake. Six swords stood on end in the boat.
“The Six of Swords”, the cook continued, “tells of a pathway or course, or a messenger. Translated, it could mean that somewhere close lies the key to your journey.”
“Like a husband?”
The cook shook his head. “Unlikely, but good thinking. It implies more of an event in your life that will trigger a new path.”
She shook her head. “Reading these is going to take a lot of work.”
“Not really. Just a lot of practice. Keep the basic definitions in mind and you’re home free. Now here’s card nine.” He pointed to a card showing a lone woman walking down a flight of stairs. Eight cups were stacked in the distance. “The Eight of Cups symbolizes the abandoning of a doomed state of mind. It illustrates your emotional state. Reading this, I’d say that you were about ready to accept a different outlook on life.”
Michelle shrugged. “That’s a pretty general interpretation.”
“Most of them are. If you watch the events in your life unfold while keeping the cards in mind, you’ll see a relationship. You may even avoid undesirable situations.”
“How about the last one?”
“Ah. The tenth card of the Celtic Cross represents the outcome to your—” Again he stopped.
The Hierophant glared up at them, the dragon and staff in his hand.
“My outcome?” Michelle asked.
Michelle recited from memory. “Predicting insight and occult knowledge. Maybe indicating the approach of some divine wisdom.”
“This is unbelievable,” the cook said after a while. “In all three spreads, the same readings showed the same cards. That’s pretty conclusive, Michelle.”
“Okay…so I’m headed for a change, because basically my life sucks. Is that it?” She hoped the bitterness in her voice didn’t sound like sarcasm.
He held up his hand. “You’re in for a change, all right. But only because deep down you feel dissatisfied with your current situation. You grope for answers, yet the unexpected solution will come to you when you least expect it.” He looked up at her, the candle flame burning in his green eyes. “Sometime very soon.”
A chill swept through her, and for a while she was unable to move. Then she gathered her purse and snuffed out her cigarette. “I have to go.”
“Hey—see you tomorrow?” The mysterious look was gone, and in its place the face of a normal short-order cook beamed a smile in her direction.
“Sure,” she said, glad the spell was broken. But she had to concentrate as she walked from the bar, because her head still felt light and there was more than one butterfly batting off the walls of her stomach.
The cook watched her leave. He stared after her for what seemed like a long time. Then slowly, as if drugged, he started packing his things to go.
The night was warm, but as Michelle made her way from the entrance of the bar, she hastily threw on a sweater to cover her bare arms. It was done to combat the feeling of vulnerability more than any chill.
She had learned more than she expected to. At this rate, mastering the Tarot would be a snap. A good deck was expensive, but she decided the moment the cook had set up shop that she would get one. He was right, really. All it took was practice.
You’re not unhappy, are you?
She stopped. Where did that come from? She shook her head in an effort to clear it. From now on she would insist on watching the cook as he read some other person’s damn future. Acting as doctor and patient all at once was a bit hard to handle.
The streets were mostly deserted, and she was surprised when she looked at her oversized watch and realized the time. Only a sporadic car made its way past her, filled with college kids trundling home from the library or a fraternity party.
She walked down the sidewalk and to the intersection, feeling her legs go gradually numb with each step. Then her head swam, and she had to support herself with the light post at the corner to avoid toppling over.
You’re not unhappy, are you?
A car came from somewhere far off, its headlights cutting through the dark like a blade. Michelle could only stare forward, toward the red sign that warned against crossing. Her car was there, on the opposite side of the street. She groped beside her for the button to signal a walk. Her body felt like it was encased in warm cotton.
The car. It was closer now. The roar of its wheels was in her head, the whoosh of air around it blotted out everything but the strange feeling. And then another voice spoke to her.
A horn. A rush of wind. The squeal of tires on slick asphalt.
. . .
She was standing upright on loose sand, the night sky sprawled over her like a black canopy. She looked around, goggle-eyed and frightened.
But it was gone. In fact, her clothes were, too. She stared down at the loose-fitting dark robe which she wore. Her head was clear now, and it struggled to make sense of the illogical.
“Help you, love?”
A dark figure smoked a cigarette only yards from where she stood.
She asked the first question that came. “Where am I?”
A plume of cigarette smoke spilled out of the figure. “You are here, my dear. With me.” The voice was slow and theatrical. And definitely English.
“Who are you?”
The figure stepped closer, revealing a round face and a wide smile. Her adrenaline system kicked into high gear.
“I am me, my dear. And you are you. And we are—the both of us—tied together by the same strand as all like-minded souls.” He grinned, and held out a large Tarot deck. The Prince of Disks was at the top. “You see?”
Michelle stared at him.
“Don’t be afraid. I won’t hurt you. You know that, don’t you?” He took another puff of his cigarette. Only it wasn’t a cigarette, and the pungent fumes of marijuana filled the air.
“Yes,” she said without meaning to. Of course he wouldn’t hurt her. The man had to be dead years now.
Since 1947, wheezing through his last days in a boarding house, his mistresses caterwauling at his passing like banshees…
How did she know that?
The man smiled. “You look for direction, love. We have it for you. It lies there,” and he nodded in the distance toward a run-down building. Several figures could be seen milling about its foundation. “We are a better place. You know of it.”
Michelle could only stare at the building, unsure.
“Is this your answer?” The man brought a card out from the deck. It was The Hierophant. “All-encompassing knowledge, my dear. Call it a promise…from me.”
A smile caught the corner of Michelle’s lips. “I can learn the Tarot?”
“You can learn the All.” Now the man was smiling again, and Michelle could see that his teeth were filed to points—
—which he used to sink into the wrists of his women when he met them…when they joined him—
“I want to learn, then,” she said, and her smile widened.
The man held out his hand, and pressed it to her chest. Something warm and pleasant passed between them. When he withdrew, Michelle saw a circle with three entwined sixes tattooed on her skin.
His mark. I’m gonna like this, I think.
Then teacher and student walked toward the Abbey, the low chants of the other pupils filling Michelle’s ears until there was no memory of what she had been—only the hope for a future she had never dreamed of.
. . .
The streets weren’t empty anymore.
Several police cars blocked the intersection, their lights a brilliant fireworks display that spangled off the surrounding buildings.
A car, dented at its hood, was pulled to the side. The driver was sobbing uncontrollably next to it. A uniformed policeman was taking notes, but as far as he could tell, it was very apparent what had happened.
Somebody crossed the street before the light changed. Somebody else wasn’t paying attention to where he was driving. The outcome was a body, thrown twenty feet from the point of impact. The driver swore—between sobs—that the woman fell into the street directly in front of him, leaving no time to react.
In a few hours the driver would deny all responsibility and hire the best lawyer to see it passed in court. The cop had seen it all before.
Still, he was thankful. He didn’t have to see the body. The way the car smashed into it, he would probably take years to forget the image.
He didn’t know was how right he was.
Those who were first on the scene would certainly never forget. They had politely covered the body as soon as they arrived, so not too many people would see the young woman’s final expression as she left this world. The medical examiner would later classify it as post-mortem rictus.
Most would simply see that she was smiling, and would think that whatever final reward she had gone to, she was very much enjoying her stay.