THE TAROT READER
It was closing time, but I barged in anyway, past the jingling bells in the doorway that warned her, past the pink and white candles, the bundles of sage hanging from the wall, the poster of the Virgin, and the golden angel staring dreamily towards the things we all want, which were inside of its head.
She had just rolled up the wads of bills, and put them into her bag. When she saw me coming, she started, and you could tell her heart froze.
"Donya Ada," I raged. "Explain yourself!"
You could see the faces of hundreds of clients spinning around frantically in her eyes, her memory sliding over the ice of everything she had ever done wrong in life. There was a look of horror and desperation, and a vacuum in her soul, as she tried to place me, to pull me out of the silent masses she carried with her. Her expression had no quarrel with the guilt. She completely believed it, you could tell. She just wanted to remember what she had done to me.
Shaking with fury, yet also triumphant, because I had found her, I threw the photo of Elizabeth down onto the table.
"Please," she said. "This is a sacred table."
"You were wrong!" I exclaimed. "Wrong! You told me that she was not the one for me! I stopped trying. I let her go. I moved on to other things. For a while, those things covered over the emptiness, they hid the mistake from me. I was too busy to realize what I had done. But now, too late, I realize she really was the one for me: she was my soul mate! The emptiness! The pain!" I smashed my fist down upon the table. I picked the photograph up, brandishing it like a weapon with which I meant to kill her; I shook it in her face, then threw it down in front of her again. "Remember? I showed you the photo then! Remember?"
Donya Ada seemed to relax. The tension was released. She did not want to be strangled in the back of her store because of her sins; but she had no fear of dying if she was right. "This is a sacred table," she told me, once again.
It was still covered with the plain black tablecloth onto which she cast the cards from her Tarot deck.
"Sacred enough to count your money on?" I demanded.
She carefully tied the bag shut, and placed it behind her, on a shelf.
"You wanted her?" she asked me, casually.
"I loved her! I wanted her! I needed her! But you told me she wasnít the one for me!"
"Is that what I told you?" she asked me, softly.
I trembled with fury, I was honestly thinking of killing her. What did I have to lose?
"Sit," she told me, quietly. She sat down in her chair at the table, and from a drawer underneath the tablecloth, took out her deck of cards. "Sit," she said again.
I donít know why, but I did as she said. I sat down in the chair opposite her, and picked up the photo of Elizabeth I had carried with me for all these years. How tender, how sweet, how intelligent, how vivacious was the woman I had frozen in time, immersed in the preservative of a photograph, like an embryo in a pickle jar! In those days, I had imagined such women must grow on trees, like fruits in an orchard. Now I understood how rare they were Ė like sightings of a bird verging on extinction. All over the world I had searched for another Elizabeth, without ever finding one. She was happy now with someone else. She was the mother of three children.
"Look!" I demanded, shoving the photograph of Elizabeth over to Donya Adaís side of the table. "Look!"
She put down the cards in her hands, and picked up the photo. "I did this the last time," she said, after a while. She was beginning to remember. "You wanted me to look at her photo before I drew the cards."
"You said she was beautiful," I said.
"It was the truth."
"You said her face was beautiful like the surface of the ocean; and that in her eyes, you could see what was in her depths, leaping above the surface like a breaching whale. Her face was like a sculpture, her soul like a habitable planet in the void. I was so moved by what you said, that I decided to place my complete trust in your reading."
Donya Ada returned the photograph to me.
"I canít move on," I said, answering the implicit challenge. When you are with a psychic, you, too, begin to lose your dependence on words.
Ada looked at me, then closed her eyes.
"Donít do me with the routine," I told her, determined not to fall for her tricks again. "Why did you tell me that shit? Why did you destroy my life?"
Ada opened her eyes, which were shining, now, with a look of defiance and indifference. If I meant to kill her, it did not matter to her. She turned the cards towards her, and began to flip through them.
"Youíre not supposed to look when you throw the cards down," I told her.
"Who says Iím throwing the cards down?" she answered. She began to carefully pull out cards, one by one, and to lay them down on the table in front of us. "I canít remember the whole spread," she said, at last, "but I remember these cards: The Lovers, The Hermit, The Page of Pentacles, The Magician, The Queen of Cups, The World, and The Five of Wands."
I regarded her with controlled savagery. "Your reading was entirely wrong. I talked with one of my friends since then, who is an expert in the Tarot, and he told me, while I could still remember some of the cards, that you should have predicted a life of bliss for us. Why did you tell me it wouldnít work? You irresponsible and incompetent fraud! Or are you only a witch, who wants to torture human souls, to derail our rightful destinies and stand back and watch the train wrecks which you have created?!" I stood up violently, again, as though I might overturn her table and trash the place, delivering it to utter chaos.
She only smiled, faintly, so as not to set me off; but she could not help herself.
"Sit down," she said again.
Looking at me for a while, watching my body shake and resist, then finally sink down again into the chair across from her, she said, at last: "Your friend was not here. There is more to this than the cards that are drawn. Did you tell him their position? More than that, do you know how much space there is inside each card? Do you know that each one is a universe unto itself?" She shook her head, at my ignorance, and went on to demand: "Do you think the cards are castle gates meant to lock the reader out? I go in through the door whenever I wish." And again, she shook her head. Slowly, she worked with the cards. You could tell there was still some nervousness left in her hands, which trembled slightly in my presence, but it was only a remnant of what she had first felt when I burst into her little storefront property, with the thought of smashing her to bits. The flame of fear had burned down to a few embers, inevitable traces of human nature which none of us can fully master. She spread the cards out in the form of a cross, with the Queen of Cups in the center, the Page of Pentacles laid on top of it, the Lovers above it, the Five of Wands below it, the Hermit to the right of it, and the Magician to the left of it. Off to the side, she laid The World.
"That card!" I exclaimed, pounding my fist, again, on the table. "It is the card of bliss, union, the attainment of all dreams, fulfillment! On that day, the card meant that Elizabeth and I would have been perfect together! And look Ė is that not the end position, the final result? You lied to me, Donya Ada! You unredeemable bitch!"
"I remember the reading well," she told me in a barely audible voice, her eyes showing that she had already drifted away into some impervious trance state which was like a sturdy house which keeps all who dwell within it dry, as the rain pours down mercilessly on those who remain outside. I was furious to be so close to this woman, only one or two steps away from her throat, with the power to kill her throbbing in my hands, and yet to feel that I was on the other side of a wall behind which she felt perfectly safe. "It wasnít conventional: my reading. But why should it have been? You do not have to walk in a straight line unless you are trying to prove you are not drunk." She nodded, which was a way of washing her hands. Like Pontius Pilate, or merely someone working in a hospital who had just changed the sheets of a sick patient? "I told you exactly what I felt."
"What you felt ruined my life," I told her.
She shook her head again, as though the possibility of there being people like me in the world utterly amazed her. And then she began to explain: "Elizabeth was the Queen of Cups. The Goddess of Love. The Beautiful One with the Giant Heart. The one who was the center of the reading. You wanted her. You wanted to be with her. Over here, was The World, your union with Elizabeth, your euphoric and inseparable connection, the end result of one possible trajectory of your life. The end of one road you could have traveled. But, before that, there was a fork in the road. To get to The World, you had to take the right turn; to choose the correct path."
"You told me not to take it!"
"Here," Donya Ada told me, warding off my objection, "is The Lovers."
"We were the Lovers. We should have been the Lovers." I looked at that card, with a naked woman and a naked man standing near each other beneath an angel with spreading wings who seemed to rest upon a cloud. It was as if we were pieces on a chessboard who he was on the verge of placing together.
"It is not just about lovers," she explained. "It is about choices, about dilemmas in love, who to love, whether to love, whether to love only skin deep or to reach down into the soul. Of course, a beautiful and romantic love is its highest possibility."
"You didnít say that then."
"I am sure I did," she objected. "Below it in the spread is the Five of Wands," she continued, forging ahead. She was flowing now, like a hissing, frothing river, racing amidst sharp rocks, like angry waters plunging off the side of a mountain that werenít going to stop for anything, least of all for me. My rage was being reflected, like sunlight from a mirror, directly back into my eyes. It meant she was no longer afraid. In that card, there was a band of men who seemed boisterous, to be shouting and fighting each other with giant poles.
"So what?" I demanded. "Strife. Itís everywhere. Conflict. Struggle. Every couple has to face that. We could have overcome it."
"Competition," she said, sweeping my interpretation aside. "If you want something, you have to fight for it. Do you know all that Jason went through to get the Golden Fleece? Did you ever read the Arabian Nights? Donít you remember all the trials that the suitors had to go through to win the hand of the princess? And the more beautiful she was, the harder they had to struggle."
I felt a sudden wave of nausea in my stomach, a lump in my throat. I couldnít speak.
Donya Ada pointed to the other cards in the spread. "The Page of Pentacles. Thatís you." What a blow; I felt that I was shrinking by the minute. "Elizabeth needed the Knight of Wands, or even the Hanged Man. A woman such as her deserved nothing less than that audacity, that sacrifice. But here you are, the Page of Pentacles, with your industrious, hard work, your incipient economic success, your mastery of trivia and small victories. Do you see a hero here? A hero worthy of her hand? And here you are again, this time, in the incarnation of the Hermit. Transfixed by a solitary nature, that in your case, has nothing to do with deep reflection; it is all about egotism. You do not physically withdraw from others, which might make you wise, but deny them your heart even as you dwell under the same roof; you live among others without ever giving yourself, without ever sharing yourself."
"How can you say that?" I protested, mad with pain. She might as well have shot me with a gun.
"You are in front of me. Am I wrong?"
"You have no right to judge me in that way, to rule my possibilities, like a dictator!"
"I am a psychic."
"You are a monster!"
"I am a mirror."
"You are a liar!"
"I am a Magician," she said, pointing to the final card. Everything was still, I could hear the ticking of the antique clock on the wall, which was like a heartbeat coming from Heaven. It seemed that we, ourselves, were not alive. I could not even hear us breathing. "I am the Trickster," she said, at last. "I am the Alchemist, the one who can transmute lead into gold, the one who can put the dragon that guards the treasure that is yours to sleep, the one who can quiet the unforgiving storm, calm the vindictive sea and deceive the wind that would tear you to pieces. I can show you the way to everything you have ever desired, or trick you into walking off a cliff, by making it seem to lead to paradise."
I stood up, now, my rage as fierce as when I had first walked in the store.
But she merely looked at me with pity, and my fury hung its head in shame.
This time, it was she who pounded her fist on the table. I was taken completely by surprise. "Look at her!" she demanded, indicating the Queen of Cups. I saw the Queen peering intensely at the mysterious lamp in her hands, as though her own exotic power had been externalized and she was looking at herself; and I saw the tiny angel hidden underneath her throne, which might have been our child if only I had had the courage to court her. Ada did not need to say more, and yet, she went on, in spite of it. For men such as me, who cling so madly to the past, must be definitively led full circle. We must have others tie up the loose ends of our lives for us. "Look at her," she said again, this time in a tone of reverence. "She is the Queen of Cups." And pointing back to the Five of Wands, to the men battling each other with giant logs, she said: "She deserved a man who was willing to fight for her. A hero. Look at these men. Battling each other so ardently, with entire tree trunks, it seems, which they are wielding as weapons. And all I asked from you, to win her, was to love her enough to go to her in spite of what my cards said!"
Again, she shook her head. She was sure she was right, and did not care if I killed her over it. I was sure she was right, now, too.
Tears in my eyes, I removed the photograph of Elizabeth from the table and placed it back into my wallet. I didnít know what to say. She didnít either.
In days of old, men had crossed the sea for the woman they loved, braved oceans of towering dark waves in fragile wooden ships, because they could not stand to be separated from the one who they knew was Godís gift to their soul. They had battled dragons, searched for treasures on the other side of the world, fought off lions and serpents, pitted themselves against mighty warriors in single combat; Orpheus had descended, with his aching heart and songs of love, into the frightening depths of the Underworld - the terrible, tortured land of the dead, from which no living man had ever returned - to reclaim the woman whose embraces he could not forget. These men in love, these heroes of love, had climbed great mountains because their hearts would not succumb to prudence; they had pulled themselves up rocky ledges until their hands bled, and leapt over chasms thousands of feet deep that stood between them and the women who waited for them on the other side; no slip, no fall, no plunge to the bottom of the earth seemed more dangerous to them than a life lived without her in their arms. These great men, dragged behind uncompromising, valiant, generous hearts, had overcome a thousand deadly obstacles for love. I had failed to fight my way past a deck of Tarot cards. Was this the man that Elizabeth deserved? This woman who, had she lived in other times, would have been burned forever into human memory like Penelope, like Helen, like Eurydice?
Fate, you are no match for true love! The fault was all mine. I had proved myself unworthy by not making war on Destiny.
"I am sorry," I said at last, as I forced the wallet back into my pocket. Always, before this, I had felt that the photograph of Elizabeth belonged with me. Now, I felt sordid, corrupt, contemptible for having it; as if, somehow, I had kidnapped Elizabeth at gunpoint and was keeping her chained up in my dirty basement, which had taken the form of a photograph. "I am sorry, Donya Ada," I said, again, as I prepared to leave. "I failed the test. I have no one but myself to blame."
Whatever craft this clever woman used to survive in a world that she sometimes had to con to get by in, it now gave way to sympathy. And I could tell that it was genuine. You could see that she wanted to wipe my tears away, but that would have been too intimate. So she spontaneously drew a card out of her deck, and laid it down on the table.
It was the Eight of Cups. She and I just looked at it, without saying a thing. There was a man in a cloak or coat, leaning on a staff, weary and defeated-looking as he walked away from a stack of eight cups symbolizing love, which he must leave behind. Above him, the moon watched his departure with a face that was simultaneously cold, impassive, and satisfied with the sentence that had been passed on him: the sentence of losing what he thought he could not live without. And yet, at the same time, one did not feel that the moon was crushing him as he left; she did not weigh a thousand pounds, nor did she have sharp edges; she dismissed him gently. One could detect her allegiance to the laws of love, and a trace of hope in her serene face that he would finally understand those laws and find happiness by obeying them.
"You canít change what has already happened," Ada told me.
I stood there for a moment, so filled with emotions that I was still not fully conscious of the tears running down my face, which would have embarrassed me and caused me to flee back into the dusk had I been aware of them. "The future is for me to make, not your cards," I said, at last.
She bowed slightly. I was taking power from her, yet also freeing her.
"You must let go," she said.
I agreed. "Let go of what I lost, but not of what is still within my reach. Let go of Elizabeth, but not of my will."
"You must never let anyone or anything take away what is inside of you. No one can live well who is not brave enough to live from the inside."
"You were arrogant to play the part of God."
"You were foolish to let me play that part."
"I loved her."
"But not enough to push me aside to reach her."
"You protected her. Thank you," I said, at last.
"Let go," she said. "You still have years of life ahead of you. The world is waiting for you to return." And she drew one final card before I left, which happened to be the Ace of Cups. "Itís starting again," she said. "Once your heart is open... Itís in the air. Itís in every bud thatís opening, in every flower thatís blooming. You canít get away from it. This time get it right."
As my hand wiped the tears from my eyes, I finally realized that I had been crying; and saying, "Thank you," I quickly left. The bells on Donya Adaís door jingled supportively as I staggered out into the street, returning, at last, to the world I had not been a part of for many years.
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