Lisa took a deep breath at the sight of the Magician card on top of the stack. She leaned over the table slightly and placed both hands flat on the table’s surface beside the deck to better examine the card.
This was not the card she had seen in so many forum headers and poster avatars. Lisa recalled first seeing this card in Rebecca’s treasured deck a week ago Sunday. Like the High Priestess, it was an image and many online card readers, witches, and magicians claimed as their personal representation. Lisa wondered how many of those would have been able to defend themselves against the dream attack as she did.
Her inflating ego quickly popped when she reminded herself that the card reader had probably been working such magic against her for years. She probably only won that particular dream encounter because he was not prepared for her to rise up against him. But now that he knew… Surely, he had to know that his magic failed by now. If whatever magical backlash didn’t tell him immediately, then Aunt Helen screeching at him for ruining her plans after court would have tipped him off that something didn’t work the way he had intended.
And if there was one thing that the internet did properly prepare her for, is the retaliation that comes from rejecting an entitled man’s advances.
She didn’t even want to touch the card for fear that would be enough to establish a new magical connection between her and her would be captor. Instead, she studied the art for clues to how the card reader’s influence may appear in her life now that she was aware of him.
The image showed something like a large orange and yellow stage upon which stood a solitary figure so small in relation to the scene, they were a stick figure drawn only enough that a person could be recognized as standing there. The swirling motive of the stage continued rising behind the person without color. Something like a massive stage curtain hung from the top of the card, framing the scene in great panels of sky blues.
But what seized Lisa’s attention most about this card, was what appeared to be a gigantic speech bubble rising from the miniscule stick figure. Instead of words in the bubble, were was something like rolling hills or currents of dark water. In the meeting of the green swirls was something like a stylized sun rising with a crown of purple and gold. Over the speech bubble were three halos, as if what was coming from the figure was something mighty, terrible, and holy.
Without looking at the keywords or the list of meanings, Lisa inferred that the Magician was a person who created and recreated their world into being, and probably did that through the power of speech. The number of blog posts and forum threads about the proper pronunciation of magical words supported this idea that speech was a Magician’s greatest power.
Her dream encounter with the card reader refuted that assumption. If speech was the greatest power, then why didn’t his words capture her before she was even aware? There had to be more to a magician than just speaking without a lisp.
She moved her hands away from their powerless threatening position beside the card. Paper and ink, after all. The decorated deck’s keywords were power, logic, and talent. Lisa interpreted this as a magician needing all three, like the legs of a triangle. Innate talent to get a start, logic to refine the understanding, which leads to the gathering and application of power to make shit happen.
She smiled. Her thoughts sounded as good as any blog post she’s read thus far, so why not.
The catchphrase was both encouraging and sinister. “I can do anything. Watch me.” This better described not only the card reader’s actions in the dream, but her actions as she sought to counter him. She entertained the idea that she could be a magician.
“I’m gonna need a lot more money and a lot more books before I could be a magician. Don’t I need to have, like, a lion-skin belt and a sword and some other shit? Do I have to steal a priest’s frock and habit from a church?!” The idea of sneaking into a Catholic church to steal broken bits of crackers was too absurd even for her to brood seriously about and she finally broke her apprehension with laughter.
Lisa looked at the time. It was late. She looked around the living room. Now that there wasn’t the odd piece of clothing abandoned here or there, the space looked both empty and inviting. The empty dinner bowl on the coffee table now looked terribly out of place. She’ll deal with the card reader when and if he does attempt to make another go at her. Right now, she had a kitchen to tidy up.
Scrubbing the pot reminded her of when she would help Jean wash dishes as children. They would have bubble fights and often washing the dishes turned into mopping the floor, but they were never yelled at for making a bigger mess than what they started. Partly because they always cleaned up the bigger mess just as their father taught them to. And because often it was their father that started the bubble fight in the first place.
The joyous memory hurt Lisa enough to make her put the pot down. Their father was dead. Jean didn’t do chores with her anymore. Because everything was as filthy as a rat’s nest and why would anyone want to visit her much less actually live here.
The line of reasoning made her tears burn. She wiped her eyes and looked at the half-scrubbed pot in the sink. Eleven days ago, she would have thrown it out before she could even think of finishing the washing up. That was then, Lisa proclaimed in her thoughts.
She picked up the pot and went at it with the barely adequate scrubber. When she was done, she had to face the pain that her father wasn’t there to praise her for trying so hard and that her sister wasn’t there to ask her why she did it the hard way. “I still live in a rat’s nest, but that’s only because I’m a rat, myself. Soy una preciosa rata. And where I live will be clean, because rats are clean.”
She squeaked her thumb against the porcelain of the clean bowl and made a loud noise. “Chirri-chirri-chirrido goes the rat. And that’s how rats say they’re happy and clean. ¿Es verdad, papá?”
Lisa did not want to finish cleaning the few remaining bits in the kitchen. She did not want to wipe down the counters and the stove. She did not want to tie up the trash for disposal later. She did not want to remain in the kitchen with only the memories of long ago and far away for company.
Lisa did it anyway, not because that is what a rat would do, but because that is what an adult would do. And she had made the determination that if she could make it through this tarot business, that she could make into this adulting business, and be the adult her parents had faith that she would become.
Everything now clean, Lisa looked over the living room and kitchen one more time before going to bed. She noted the bare walls and how sterile they appeared. Her father was always bringing paintings and prints to hang on the walls. Sometimes, they were his and sometimes they were from his students. Her mother would fuss about how often he changed the hanging works.
“Even a block of granite sees the changing seasons, why not us as well!” He would laugh and she would roll her eyes and he would hang it anyway and she would tell him that this was the last piece she would accept until he brought another piece in and they did the same dance again.
As a child, Lisa did not understand why her mother permitted it. Lisa now understood there were more ways to say “I love you” than there were colors that could be mixed or bubbles in the sink.
She looked at the Magician card on the table beside her and forgot to be afraid. She looked at the bare walls in front of her. “There will be color. There will be life. There will be beauty enough to bring joy to a block of granite. I have spoken it. So, it will be.”
She checked the front door locks, checked that her phone was plugged in and on silent, and went to bed holding the memory of her family close.
When she woke up, she struggled to remember the dream that kept her company all night. She remembered some scenes about a tea party for a little girl. She remembered four tiny chairs. She remembered a stuffed animal almost as big as she is that was carefully sitting in one chair. She remembered the girl in a second chair. She remembered herself sitting in a chair that kept shrinking under her. And she remembered a shadow sitting in the fourth chair, but they kept melting into the chair.
All four characters in the dream were trying to comfort each other and being very silly about it. But who did exactly what and why, Lisa could not remember.
She could only remember laughing the way she did when her father did something absolutely and completely ridiculous to the point where even her mother could not help but laugh.
The dream did not make the sharp pain of loss any less, but it made it more tolerable in a way, so Lisa did not challenge the dream any further but got up for the day.
Checking her cellphone while she waited for the coffee to brew, there was a coded morning message from Jean waiting for her: “Glad I kept the vase. Be prepared for court tomorrow but tell no one. Have I got a story for you when this is all done. If your card friend can help, ask for help. It’s that weird. Love you.”
Lisa wondered if Helen’s card reader had tried to work his magic on Jean as well. While Lisa’s mind had the endurance of overcooked noodles, Jean’s skeptic mind surely had the resilience and defenses of a bear trap lying in wait. As she sipped her coffee, she tried to imagine what dream scenario had the best chance of sucking Jean and blew bubbles into the brew by snickering instead.
Lisa read the message again and stopped laughing. If whatever Jean had encountered was enough to send Lisa to an occultist, then it was no longer merely a dream in her head. If Jean is asking for Lisa to see Rebecca on their behalf, then it was time to see Rebecca regardless of not having completed the tarot cycle.
The coffee house opened at six o’clock in the morning on Thursdays, and it was already half past eight. But Rebecca wouldn’t be there until about eleven, if Lisa had remembered her schedule correctly. She had been trying to avoid thinking about the Magician card since she went to bed last night, but with the several hours of free time available, she thought to confront her fear and begin another round of research anew.
She pulled out the Hermit card and propped it against the vase of dimming flowers. Asking the Hermit for a summary of the Magician card, she felt she was sure to only find highlights of information about how the card can be used for magic. No risk of being thrown into the deep end of the intellectual sea by just skimming for information, right?
She set a two-hour timer on her cellphone and placed it beside the vase and the Hermit card, just in case.
When the alarm sounded, she stared at the screen in disbelief. There was no way that two hours had just passed. She had only begun to understand words and phrases like “god forms”, “Hermeticism”, and “Thelema” as individual concepts. It took a fair wading through mythological levels of misogyny to find examples and explanations that made some information available to her, but she realized that it would take at least months of study just to understand the practical definitions much less actually to put any of this knowledge to personal use.
She thought to make herself another cup of coffee to help distract her from the headache that was starting to form when she remembered that there was a coffee house literally down the street from her, and that in about thirty minutes, Rebecca would be there.
She shut down her small laptop, assembled both the plain handwritten deck and the decorated deck, and about fifteen minutes later, was out the door headed to the coffee house.
Lisa stepped into the shaft of sunshine and felt the warmth reflected from someplace in her soul. A week ago this day, she walked this same path and was surprised by how welcoming and comforting the sunlight was then. Today, she thought she recognized her personal experience of the manifestation of the Sun card in the overhead brightness. She said nothing, being in public after all, but she turned her head up and smiled back in return.
The coffee house was mostly empty of seated patrons today. The To Go shelf was constantly filling and emptying as most folks were coming to pick up online orders. Rebecca was seated in the far corner of the interior seating area as she usually was. When Lisa got in line to make her order, Rebecca softly called her out.
“A small latte with an extra shot, right? I already have it. Come and sit with me.”
Lisa left the short line and sat down across from Rebecca at the small table. The card reader smiled as warm as sunshine and placed Lisa’s hot drink in front of her. “I hope I remembered right. It’s been a while, hasn’t it.”
Lisa wrapped her chilled hands around the paper cup. The drink had not been made more than a few minutes ago as it was still too hot to cup with either hand. “Yea, you remembered right. I used to get the really complicated showoff drinks with complicated names, but ya know, I’m starting to appreciate the simple things. This is just right, thank you. That’s two coffees I owe you, now.”
The two women smiled at each other. Lisa felt a sudden surge of tears and used the drink to camouflage her discomfort. “Ow, wow, that’s hot. Brings tears to my eyes! Heh.”
Rebecca sipped her drink carefully and far too politely for Lisa to assume that her cover was perfect. “Mm-hmm.” Rebecca turned her head to rummage through her satchel while Lisa wiped her eyes dry. “Four days since I last saw you. Eleven days since you picked up a tarot deck. Are you okay? I’ve had so many conversations about you lately, and a few interrogations as well. But look at you. Seated here comfortably with a stronger posture than I last you with and a fire in your eyes that I thought I would never see.”
Rebecca placed several cloth-wrapped decks on the table, folded her hands to rest on the table beside them, and faced Lisa fully. “Miss Arroyo, why are you here?”
Lisa suddenly felt very cold and held the latté with both hands in an attempt to restoke the warmth that was no longer enthroned in her chest. She felt stripped of all surety and completely naked before the seated card reader.
She looked at the decks of cards on the table.
Jean said that one of Rebecca’s hobbies was occultism.
She held the cup tighter as she realized she still had to go through the ordeal of the Magician card.
She swallowed to keep her fear from touching her throat, but her suddenly dry mouth was difficult to work so she licked her lips instead.
“I… uh… I have a question, a concern, Rebecca. I’ve been through some shit, you see.” Lisa couldn’t face the card reader as fully as the card reader was facing her, so she kept staring at the collected decks on the table. “You’re the only person I know who can help me understand what I’ve been through.” She swallowed her fear. “And what I’m about to face.”
Rebecca’s hands were the only part of her in Lisa’s field of view. They did not move when Rebecca replied. “And what are you about to face, Miss Arroyo?”
Lisa realized by what name Rebecca was suddenly addressing her and remembered that anytime tarot-based magic was being worked against her, she would be repeatedly addressed at the end of each sentence. Lisa wanted to look at the floor, to look at the ceiling, to pull out her own decorated deck and look at the images, but she was unable to look anywhere except for Rebecca’s folded hands. She was surprised to see that Rebecca wore no rings.
Maybe she isn’t a magician after all if she doesn’t have magic rings. Are those even required for magic? Lisa could only stall by silently observing Rebecca for so long. She wasn’t sure if she was reluctant to admit her fears to Rebecca, or to admit them to herself.
“Th…” Lisa took a big drink of her small latté. It was still hot enough to make her flinch, but nowhere near warm enough to reignite the lost comfort she was almost in tears to regain. “The Magician. Card.”
She placed the half empty cup on the table and resumed looking at the cards. “It’s the tarot cycle, you see. I have one card left, the Magician. I know what’s coming, but I’m not sure what the shape of it will be when it arrives.”
Rebecca opened her hands in an open-palm gesture. “Keep talking. Continue.” She clasped her hands again.
Lisa felt better and did not recognize the command as such. “My aunt… Helen… You may have heard of her. Heh. Half the town wish they did, and the other half wish they didn’t. She has a card reader on retainer, and, well, I think he’s a magician. No, I know he is. This is going to sound absolutely batshit, but he came to me in a dream and tried to tie up my mind so I would do something stupid and play into Aunt Helen’s hands.”
The words finally having left her mouth, Lisa lifted her cup and drank the rest of the cooling latté. When she placed the empty cup on the table, she was finally able to look up into Rebecca’s face. The card reader’s facial expression remained soft and unreadable.
Lisa felt very small and very childish.
Rebecca nodded twice, slowly, as if her mind was pulling apart the words that Lisa said to devour the understanding that Lisa was attempting to convey.
“I see.” Rebecca nodded again. “Continue.”
“Well.” Doubt pulled at Lisa’s legs and urged her to leave quickly. Lisa wrapped her legs around the chair and table legs to keep her seated. She forced her words to flow over the rising doubt and out of her mouth as a verbal waterfall. “Some of the tarot cards have come through as people, and some as situations. The Magician card is very specific. It’s going to be a person, and I think it’s going to be my aunt’s card reader. I think that now that I’ve kicked him off me once, that he’s going to double down and come back to leash me for good. And while I’ve been doing a whole lot of studying, Rebecca, honest to anyone’s god, I have! The only thing I know is that if he comes after me with everything he’s got, I’m gone.”
Rebecca nodded yet again. “I see.” She closed her eyes and pursed her lips in a way that Lisa could not tell if the card reader was smiling, frowning, or enjoying Lisa’s discomfort. “Well, let’s find out if he is going to come after you as the embodiment of the Magician card, then. Hmm?”
Rebecca unclasped her hands and picked up a particular deck from the chosen resting on the table. Lisa recognized it as the deck that Rebecca had allowed Lisa to thumb through two Sundays ago. She watched Rebecca thumb through the deck face up and pull out all twenty-two of the major arcana cards and place them to the side. Rebecca closes her eyes and riffle shuffled the remaining minor arcana cards still in her hands. Watching the cards bend and flex so deeply in Rebecca’s practiced hands made Lisa wince. There was no way she would be able to do that to her own limited-edition deck.
With her eyes still closed, Rebecca stopped shuffling suddenly and held the deck face down. She pulled three cards from the top of the deck and placed them on the bottom. “Will Miss Arroyo’s aunt’s card reader be the embodiment of the Magician card for this portion of Miss Arroyo’s tarot cycle? No.” She placed one card on the table, face down. “Yes.” She placed another card on the table, also face down, to the first card’s right.
She opened her eyes and looked at Lisa, who suddenly shivered in surprise.
“Tarot will answer the question you have given it, to the detail you have given it. Open ended and vague questions get frustratingly circular and equally vague answers. Now, let’s turn over cards, then, shall we?”
Rebecca turned over the No card to reveal a man seated with four starry plates on and under him, but the card was upside down from Rebecca’s perspective. She turned over the Yes card to reveal a man with three large staffs beside him overlooking something far in the distance. The Yes card was right side up from the card reader’s perspective.
“See! He’s going to come after me.” Lisa pointed at the card with the man with three staffs. “It’s upright!”
“Perhaps he will come after you,” Rebecca purred. “Except that’s not how I read Yes/No card pairs. The higher number wins regardless of orientation and I don’t include trumps. Four is greater than three. So no, he will not be the embodiment of the Magician for this part of the tarot cycle. No matter how much he wanted a second shot at you.”
Lisa relaxed and lifted the empty cup to take a celebratory drink before being reminded that the cup was empty. She put the empty cup back on the table with full intention to laugh away the chill that the clinging fear was infecting her with. One look at Rebecca’s incomprehensible smile nearly drowned her in the suddenly surging fear.
“Go get another coffee, my dear. Use the facilities, as well. I have more time available to sit with you. I want to salute the progress you have made, and I do believe, there are other discussions we need to have. For completion’s sake.”
Lisa complied with the softly worded command immediately. She did not realize what was done until she was washing her hands in the locked bathroom and the flow of water rinsed off what had entangled her mind. What was it she had read online about magical lineages? Whoever initiated you into the lineage had power over you. Who had given Lisa a tarot deck with full explanation of what was passing through her hands and a clear warning of what was coming with it? Rebecca.
Lisa thought about leaving the coffee house immediately. Rebecca was seated in a corner that had no visibility to the bathroom or the rear exit door. She had taken her purse with her to the bathroom. She could just walk right on out and run home.
But what good would that do? After all the challenges she had faced thus far, to just give up because yet another person in her life turned out to be something entirely different than what she was led to believe would be betraying all of the triumphs she had made in the previous eleven days.
It would make a mockery of Barbara’s memorial and the faith of the staff at the diner. It would make a mockery of Bob’s offer of a second interview and the faith he showed when he defied Aunt Helen. It would make a mockery of Jean’s steadfastness and dedication to keep Lisa safe from Aunt Helen. It would undo everything she had achieved and shatter every new hope that had been raised within her.
With the water still running to mask her voice, Lisa whispered to herself. “No, Elpis. I’m not running. Keep your ass in the jar. If Rebecca is the Magician, then, like she said, let’s get this over with. For completion’s sake.”
Lisa ordered a large half-caf mocha latté with whole milk, thick foam, and a drizzle of actual caramel over the foam. It wasn’t a drink that she would order to show off how complicated she could be. It was a drink she ordered when she needed the balance of flavors to keep her focused on what was at hand. She picked up the hot drink and sat back down in front of Rebecca who had reassembled her cards but had placed the deck face down on the table.
Lisa recognized the deck as one that many online magicians used as a tool for magic.
“You’re the Magician.”
Rebecca clasped her hands and rested them on the table. “I’m a magician, Miss Arroyo.”
The use of Lisa’s family name made Lisa’s ears itch.
“Different name.” Lisa did not mean for her observation to be an accusation, but now was a good time as any to find her inner strength.
“Is it? It is your name, Miss Arroyo. It has always been your name.”
Lisa felt unsettled again. “Yes, but… is being super formal part of the challenge?”
Rebecca looked away from Lisa and let her sight wander over her decks. “What have you learned about the use of names in magic, Miss Arroyo? If your studies did not lead you to consider such, I will give you a hint. I do not permit anyone to rename me or to bestow a nickname upon me. Why?”
Lisa recognized that Rebecca was looking away to give Lisa time to remember the answer in relative peace. Eleven days ago, at this table, in these chairs, Lisa had called Rebecca by a nickname to express her annoyance at the older woman, and Rebecca brought everything to a stop to correct Lisa sternly.
Lisa whispered the memory. “There I go again… assuming… there I go again… assuming…” She closed her eyes and forced herself to relive the events immediately after the failed interview. She could feel the tangling of her hair in the sudden weather, the taste of a greasy lock in her mouth, the cramping of her back in the unwelcome chairs, the cold look of Rebecca calling her out because…
“There I go again, assuming a level of…”
Lisa opened her eyes to see Rebecca watching her closely. “Control.”
“Why are you here, Miss Arroyo?”
The wording of the answer assembled itself on Lisa’s tongue immediately. She almost bit her tongue to bleeding to keep from saying it. She knew why she felt unable to answer Rebecca’s question and it wasn’t any type of magical interference. It was years of emotional abuse that was both a leash and a whip on her psyche. It was why she lived in a rat’s nest of other people’s making. It was why she allowed other people to treat her as a personal toy. It was the way Aunt Helen’s voice crawled under her skin and made her hate herself for the sin of existing. It was the way the one thing that her father had given her had been taken from her to the point where she had begun to forget even the sound of it.
There was no single word in the English language that could capture, hold, and convey the spirit of the answer to Rebecca’s question. And until Rebecca had asked her question literally just now, Lisa was not even aware that this is what she had been wanting when the blank-faced judge first offered their hand.
But now that Rebecca used words to encapsulate Lisa’s desire, there was nothing else Lisa wanted more in the world. Why was she here, facing the embodiment of the Magician tarot card?
“I want to take control of myself, Magician. I want all of myself in my control again, Magician. I want my self back, Magician. I want my name back, Magician. That, is why I am here.”
Rebecca smiled and sighed as a release of tension that Lisa was not aware was present between them. “Very well, then.” Her voice seemed to double in Lisa’s hearing, and she heard echoes of the judges’ flat intonation under Rebecca’s rich timbre.
“But first, a confession. Our meeting was an accident only to those who need accidents to bring about such meetings. Surely, in your studies you have already read of those who were touched, or claimed, by the supernatural long before they made a formal introduction, investigation, or engagement, yes? We do not have the time nor the space for me to speak on it in depth, but did you ever consider what chain of events would have had to happen unknown to you to not only place you at an invitation-only thousand dollar per head, masquerade ball, but to keep the you that you were sober and level headed enough to engage with me as you did?”
Rebecca smiled to herself as she recalled that event six months ago. “There were many who were mortified that you were present. They were so sure that nothing good would come of your presence there, that they immediately began plotting to remove you from the ball without insulting your sponsor, or worse, informing Mrs. Winston. Yes, I know who your aunt is. And I know who her card reader is. And that’s neither here nor there.”
“My point being, your first encounter with Tarot, capital T, was eleven days ago, but you have been marked for this for a very long time. Eleven days ago is when you became available for it.”
Lisa was barely able to hold her strength. Holding her drink was enough to suffice for now. “Then I never had a choice. Tarot was going to be in my life, one way or the other.”
Rebecca smiled again, a deep and warm grin that frightened Lisa even further. “Oh, you always had a choice! We… always had a choice. The circumstances of the point of decision may have been manipulated, pardon the phrase, to hell and back, but we always have had a choice about whether to be involved and to what depth we think we are involving ourselves in.”
“You see, Miss Arroyo, to a person who has never set foot in the sea, the water of one shallow wave is threatening to them, even though those of us who have already drowned know that the high stepper is safe and sound. Eleven days ago, your feet touched the wet sand left behind at high tide, and you, made the decision to follow that current until your feet have been covered.”
“Each card you entered, experienced, and passed through, has been another step away from the childproof barriers crowning the salted dunes that kept those who are mundane at a safe distance. They cry about the undertow and the way that the occult swallows up those who dare to touch it. But before we begin in earnest, allow me to tell you from firsthand experience, there is no undertow. There is nothing that will rise up from the depths to seize you and pull you past the point of no return. You can quit this at any time. Leave the decks on the table. Leave the table for the outside. But you have already tallied up the cost of quitting, and you have made the choice to continue. How far are you willing to sound the depths of this current, Miss Arroyo?”
Lisa could not bear to look at Rebecca’s face. The appearance, no, the very structure of her face appeared to shift and flow. Lisa felt like she was looking at several faces superimposed on each other, as if she was seeing the faces that Rebecca wore when indulging in her… hobbies.
Lisa looked away to stare at the decks on the table. She remembered that her aunt’s card reader’s appearance began changing wildly in the dream when she became lucid and started to challenge him. But she was wide awake and in public, surely there wouldn’t be any magic being done out in the open like this. People would see!
Lisa lifted her head and looked around. For all the words that Rebecca had poured on her and the table, no one was paying attention to them. Seated folks remained seated. Preoccupied folks remained preoccupied. Working staff remained working. No one was even looking in their general direction.
She realized what magic Rebecca was working. It was too uncomfortable to look at Rebecca’s face, so Lisa voluntarily chose to look away even as she was aware the card reader was doing it. Rebecca had made her corner of the floor too uncomfortable to interact with, and those people who had no fucking clue about magic just followed Rebecca’s soft guide and refrained from interacting with her corner at all.
Lisa turned to face forward. She drank a large gulp of her drink and looked up at the still shifting face.
“How far am I willing to sound this current? As far as necessary to get what I want out of it.”
Rebecca’s face snapped to the version Lisa was comfortable seeing, which made Lisa even more uncomfortable. “Well then,” Rebecca purred with her caramel voice. “Let the challenge begin. Because you are… a novice… I shall use a soft hand. Did you bring the deck I gave you? Pull it from its place and lay it on the table, please. I will explain the challenge before we truly begin.”
Lisa pulled both the decorated deck and the handwritten deck from her purse. She left the decorated deck in its box but pulled the rubber band off of the handwritten deck. She placed both on the table in front of her.
Rebecca put away all but one of the decks she had laid on the table. From a richly blue cloth bag, she pulled a full tarot deck with a blue and yellow backing. Lisa could not tell if the design was a reflection of steel or lace, but the intricate loops and swirls would have had her father declaring it an art piece and asking for a print to frame.
Rebecca noticed Lisa staring. “You are familiar with decks that have the potential to be used for magic. This is the Sweeney Tarot, an independent deck self-published by the designer. This is not a collector’s copy like your decorated deck, but it is a treasured one.”
Rebecca turned the deck face up and began sorting through for the major arcana trumps. “The Sweeney Tarot was designed for regular matters, and any use of it as a magical reading deck is accidental at best and deliberate only at the choice of the deck reader.” She placed twenty-two cards on the table in front of her and placed the rest of the deck to the side.
“By choosing to use the Sweeney in my challenge, I will not be able to rely on any… accumulated inertia… that may have been built up by other magicians using certain decks for certain reasons. This way, I will be drawing solely on my current, just as you will be drawing solely on yours.”
Rebecca gestured to the handwritten deck as she picked up her separated cards. “I see that the deck is in order. Please, pick it up and shuffle it to the best of your abilities. As I shuffle mine, I will explain your goal and my obstacle.”
Lisa did as commanded, again. She was aware of it and her anger sparked a seed of warmth in her chest.
“I have your name.” Rebecca’s words were more of a breath than a voice. “I have your complete name. And that is the root of the reason why you are doing as I have commanded today. Your goal is to complete the tarot cycle as I have given the cards to you. The trophy of completing your goal is the recovery of your name. Once you have it back, even though I know it intimately even to the etymology of it, I can not use it as leverage over you. And neither can anyone else.”
“My obstacle is simple. To stop you. To keep you. To hoard your name and not release it.” She laughed a small laugh, as if this was just a friendly game of cards and not something that would determine the mastery of Lisa’s life.
The laugh fanned the spark warming Lisa’s heart and encouraged it to a small flame of determination. Now Lisa understood why the Sun’s encouragement had left her. Rebecca’s challenge was starting Lisa at her base level, without any initial assistance or boost from those tarot card spirits who was friendly towards her.
Rebecca placed her shuffled deck on the table, face down. “Here are the rules for our conflict: Card reversals don’t matter. An upside down Tower is the same as a right side up Tower. No physical attacks, keep it clean. While we are cloaked from casual inspection, loud yelling will draw attention. Whoever causes the cloak to be broken, loses. This is not pigeon chess, after all. Leave the table before the challenge is over and forfeit the game. If this is acceptable, pull your first card and I will pull mine. Using only what power your pulled card makes available to you, counter me and mine.”
Lisa shuffled the deck surprisingly well, though some of the marker ink smeared on the edges. She placed her deck face down. “How will I know when I’ve won?” She could not allow herself the luxury of speaking fair. As far as she was concerned, there was only one outcome to this game. The only question was how long it would be dragged out.
Rebecca smiled at Lisa’s question. Lisa could not tell if the chill that nibbled on the edges of her barely held warmth was sourced from her personal fear or from whatever magics Rebecca was working. “You’ll know when you have achieved your goal, of course. You do remember what your goal is, right? Because I will not remind you again. Now, draw a card, or leave, Lisa.”
The use of her nickname nearly smothered her heart’s flame. Lisa recognized that this was intentional. She was hurt that someone she considered a friend would hurt her in this way, but as the shame of rejection began to creep up her legs again, she understood that this too, was part of the challenge. How many times have she been betrayed by people she thought was her friend, only to find they were using her as a means to an end.
“Okay.” Lisa reached for her cards and picked up the top card to view it. She announced it as she laid it face up beside the face down deck. “The Fool.”
Rebecca picked up the top card on her deck and turned it to look at it. She chirped a little laugh and turned it to face Lisa who stared at the card in quiet surprise. The card showed a figure sitting on the ground beside a brick wall. He held an empty wine bottle upside down and was viewing the emptiness of the bottle through the dry neck. “The Fool,” Rebecca announced as she laid the card face up beside her own face down deck.
Lisa felt as foolish as both cards put together. How silly this game was, of staring at cards and then staring at each other. What was supposed to happen? That someone rip a fart so disgusting that they leave the table to check their pants? Lisa laughed as the infectious silliness spread through her psyche threatening to distract her from the point of righteous rage she was supposed to be nursing.
Lisa caught herself. No. Those thoughts are what other people what her to have. Lisa had already been that kind of naïve and innocent child. This wasn’t the time to lose her guile. This was the time for a new beginning. “I choose to begin at the end. I accept that I don’t know as much as I should, but I’m here, dammit. I’m making a new beginning as whatever the hell I am. I win this round! Next card!”
Rebecca nodded and gestured. Lisa’s hand jerked as if to move, but she quickly regained her self-control. Remembering the rules forbid yelling, she whispered her rebellion. “I’ll turn when I damn well please, thank you.”
Rebecca yielded the turn with another gesture and Lisa stopped feeling compelled to turn a card. Only then did she turn over the next card in her deck. The single word was to the point, but it fanned the warmth in her chest enough to give her hope. “Death.”
Rebecca turned over the next card and showed it to Lisa before laying it on the face up pile. A person sat cross-legged on a reflective surface with a large open book in their lap. The upright portion of the card showed them lighting a tall candle with a lit match. The reflection was nearly a perfect mirror except the reflecting image had their hand raised and seemed to be lighting the candle with an aggressive flame as if by some power or compulsion. “The Hierophant.”
The warmth in Lisa’s chest was suddenly buffeted by a strong compulsion to yield not only the decks but the game to Rebecca. After all, she was Lisa’s elder in several ways, and was it not the nature of initiation that the initiated serves the initiator in some way. Here was a chance for Lisa to gain power such that all the braggarts and blowhards online wished they had the scent of its wake much less any portion of actual power. All she had to do was to stop seeking this foolish and unsanctioned goal of hers and yield to the power already over her.
“No.” Lisa was conflicted by this desire that had renewed in her. How much of her life had been spent trying to please other people. This was a flower that needed to wilt and die, already. The moment she had the thought of recognition, the desire faded. “That is what was. It needs to go to seed so that what will be, what should be, will come. There was a time when living like that kept me safe. That time is gone. I do not yield and I claim this round. Next card, please.”
Lisa did not realize how much Rebecca had tensed up until the card reader had completely relaxed. “Death is difficult.” Rebecca spoke quietly. “Even after you’ve gone through it a few times, it is still difficult. Death comes to all living things, you know, and when it calls, it is very, very hard to deny.”
Lisa thought of how friendly and encouraging the girl child apparition of Death was to her, but then remembered that the apparitions she saw was not the same as others would see. What version of Death challenged Rebecca, then?
Before Lisa could ask, Rebecca lifted the next card from her deck and showed it to Lisa. An elderly man stood to the side of the image. Smoke trailed lazily from his thin pipe and the long lengths of his beard flowed into the long lengths of his robe. He held a staff like a guide in one hand, and in the other was held a warmly glowing lantern. “The Hermit”.
Lisa pulled her next card and laid it down face up. “Temperance.”
Lisa looked at the cards and could not think of how the Hermit could be a challenge or how Temperance should counter anything the Hermit could bring. If anything, Lisa thought, the Hermit would be highlighting just how little she knew about tarot card magic and the need for her to withdraw from the challenge so she could go home and prepare. After all, Rebecca didn’t say that she couldn’t try again if she failed, and she had the idea that Rebecca wanted her to win, but to win fairly. So, it would be prudent then, to yield, to withdraw, and to continue her studies in peace.
Lisa looked at the handwritten title of her card. Would being prudent really be taking the tempering route? She forced herself to remember what happened when she allowed the spirit of the Temperance card to run without boundaries in her life. “Everything in moderation, including moderation. No. I am not withdrawing. I won’t always have the chance to min-max my skills and resources for maximum potential. Sometimes I just have to roll with what I have in my hands. I will not yield. Next card, please.”
Rebecca nodded. “Good. Because if this combination had kicked your ass, I would never let up on you or be soft again.” She lifted the next card from her deck, studied it, then laid it face down in front of her. “You first.” She closed her eyes and waited.
Lisa felt no compulsion or command in Rebecca’s words which bothered her more than if she had. She pulled the next card, looked at the handwritten title, and laid it softly on her stack of face up cards.
Rebecca kept her eyes closed and lifted her card for Lisa to see. Against a dark green background, a dark-skinned man with large and long locks of hair stood naked from the waist up. In one hand, he held a shallow bowl in which grew a bright green and writhing plant. His other hand is held low and extended to the viewer. Bright green lines wound around both arms and hands that hint at something written in symbols and in plain sight. He is looking at the viewer with an unspoken command.
Rebecca laid the card face up on the table. A sound more felt than heard shattered outward from the card and Lisa flinched, closing her eyes in reflex. When she opened them, she found herself standing upside down on the mirrored ceiling of the coffeehouse. Looking around her plane, there were no other entities standing there with her. When she lifted her head and looked “down” at the coffee house floor, she saw herself seated at the table with Rebecca and their respective cards laying on the table between them.
She held still for a moment to watch for movement. Neither figure seated at the table was breathing. She looked at other patrons and staff within sight. No one was moving. Nothing was moving, not even steam from the milk frothers. It was as if time had stopped in the normal world.
Lisa looked around at her level again. “COME OUT! ALL OF YOU!”
Her voice was loud in her ears, but no echo returned to her. She ran around the mirror ceiling, chasing shadows. She realized that while she saw no light, there was some visibility around her, and that the greatest visibility was around her chest.
“I KNOW WHAT THE MOON MEANS, DAMMIT, AND I AM NOT AFRAID! NOT OF YOU, REBECCA! NOT OF THE JUDGES! NOT OF THE TRUTH!”
“Are you afraid to dream?”
Lisa whirled to find the blank-faced judge standing behind her. “The fuck you mean by that?”
“Are you afraid to dream? It is a simple question. You said you are not afraid of the truth. Therefore, this should be an easy question for you to answer.”
“Of course, I’m not afraid to dream!” The area of visibility diminished slightly. “I mean, yea, that motherfucker that Aunt Helen hired gave me the heebee jeebies for a bit, but I kicked his ass once, I can kick it again!” The shadows encroached a little more.
Lisa began to feel the edges of panic again and puffed up her ego to reproach them. “I may not know what’s hard edged real anymore, but I can adapt to the reality I’m in! I know the rules and how they can be bent!” She wasn’t able to see the mirrored floor anymore and with that loss, wasn’t able to see the normal world anymore as well.
“Listen to me, you blank faced motherfucker, I know what you are and I know how to control you! I will bend you to my will and you will give me what I want!” The darkness now surrounded her such that only what she was directly looking at was visible. Lisa was afraid to turn away from the judge’s face as she was not sure she would be able to look back at them.
“Then you have lost. Yield.” The judge’s condemnation was without emotion, but it smothered all the visibility that Lisa had remaining.
She wanted to scream that it wasn’t fair, but she had no sense of a voice, physical or projected. She wanted to stomp her feet and sweep the table, but she had no sense of a body. She felt nothing, saw nothing, heard nothing, tasted nothing, smelled nothing. She had only her spiraling thoughts, and even those were circling into the same three words.
It’s not fair!
Lisa had enough presence of mind to recognize the spiral. She tried to remember the judge’s question. If she could still think, then she could reword her answer. Are you afraid to dream? There was no bluffing her way out of this one, Lisa understood. As she had already learned several times the hard way, the only way out was by the truth.
Her answer was not spoken, not transmitted, and was only heard by her heart. Yes. I’m afraid to dream. But it was enough.
A tiny glow came from her chest, and she found herself huddled on the mirror ceiling. Her body was very cold and what was outside of the area of visibility granted by her soul’s flame was seen as if bathed by a light so sterile and devoid of warmth, it covered everything with a tinge of slate gray.
She did not know if the judge was still present or if Rebecca knew anything that was happening to Lisa. Lisa understood that this was not a battle against Rebecca. This was a battle against herself, and it was time to bring it to completion.
Her teeth chattered as she struggled to breathe and speak. “I’m afraid to dream, because every dream I had either died or was taken from me.”
She curled herself tighter against the rigid mirror surface. “I used to dream of Mom and Dad and Jeannie and me. I used to dream of laughter and giggles and tea parties and we were always very happy in my dreams and then I would wake up and we would be happy together.”
“And then…” Lisa grimaced as she tried to hold back the tears. “And then… the dreams stopped because… because…” Lisa couldn’t finish the words, but the thoughts that fueled them threatened to smother her soul flame again.
“No. I have to face this. I have to face what Aunt Helen took from me. How she ripped the dreams out of me. How she broke or sold or stole every good memory that Mom and Dad gave me and Jeannie! She wouldn’t even let me have…”
The light in Lisa’s chest suddenly flared and filled her body until her skin glowed from within. She laid on her back and allowed the fire to extend and fill her form as knowledge and understanding pushed back the darkness.
“She wouldn’t let me have my name. She forced Mom to name Jeannie, Jeanette, after some stupid tradition. And we all hated it, but we worked around it. Dad signed my birth certificate before Aunt Helen even knew I was born. Dad named me, not her. And when he died, that bitch took my name from me.”
Lisa’s hands curled into fists that held animate jets of flame. “She’s the one that started calling me Lisa. She’s the one that forced Jeannie to call me that in front of her. Aunt Fucking Helen Marie Winston is the one that gave my name to her pet diviner so he could work his bullshit on me, and it worked because I did not have my name!”
Lisa first sat up, then stood up. She saw she was still on the mirrored ceiling of the coffee house. Her soul flame was burning bright enough to illuminate the entire coffee house, both the physical form below her and the mirrored version around her.
Lisa walked forward until she was standing over her physical body. Nothing had moved. Even the steam remained frozen in place. Lisa looked at the cards on the table below her, then at herself.
She opened her eyes and rivers of hot tears flowed down her chilled face. She heard the milk frothers loudly steaming up another batch of milk. Someone across the floor sneezed and someone else blessed them for it. She wiped her face to clear her eyes and looked across her table to Rebecca still seated across from her. She noted that Rebecca looked very tired and very weary, but the fire in Rebecca’s eyes reminded her of her own ignited soul flame.
“Do you yield, Lisa?” Rebecca may have appeared weary, but her voice was strong and still full of challenge.
“No, Rebecca. I do not yield.”
“No? Then have you something to say, Lisa?”
“Yes, Rebecca. I have just two words. I win.” She took her stack of faceup cards, turned them over, and placed them over the cards still unplayed.
“And what makes you think you’ve won, Lisa?”
“Because Rebecca, my name is Melissa. Melissa Débora Arroyo. My father named me after his mother, Melissa, and after my mother, Deborah, to honor them. And if my name is too unusual for you to adapt to, you may call me ‘Miss Arroyo’. But I give you no leave to call me ‘Lisa’. Not anymore. That is not my name and I have not given you power to rename me.”
The two women sat quietly at the table and regarded each other. Rebecca smiled a pained smile before she started to silently cry. “Well done, Miss Melissa Débora Arroyo. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance. You have succeeded in completing the tarot cycle. Welcome.”
Melissa looked down at her hands and realized she had clenched her fists to the point where her fingernails were digging into her palms. “Ow. That’s going to fucking hurt.” And as she relaxed her hands, they did. But the pain was forgotten as the unrestrained joy of remembering herself flooded over her.
“My name is Melissa. And no one will take that from me again.”
“Is… Is there more? Because I don’t think I could get any deeper in the current right now. I feel like I’m about… no… that I have drowned and suddenly I’m back on land again.”
Rebecca dabbed at her eyes with the rough napkins. “Oh it gets a lot more deeper than this, if you’re willing to go deeper. Which I don’t suggest you do, not right now. You still have to deal with the consequences of what you have done thus far, Melissa. What a lovely name. It fits you a lot better, especially when you have your hair down.”
Melissa was far less discreet and wiped her face on her sleeve. Good thing she decided not to wear makeup today. “It means honeybee, so does Mom’s name. Mom used to tease Dad about calling me his precious rat when I was named after a bee. He would say that he tried to pet a bee once, and got stung for it, and that’s why the mothers in his life are named after bees, but I’m not his mother so I get to be spoiled.”
Rebecca laughed. “Yea, you’re his kid, alright. Lemme get more drinks for us and some nibbles. We need something to recharge with after that. The staff here is used to seeing my clients an emotional wreck, so you’re not out of line. And thank you for not yelling.”
While Rebecca was in line, Melissa remembered Jeannie’s request. When she brought a fresh version of Melissa’s drink and a turkey sandwich, Melissa brought the topic up.
“So, like, Jean…” Melissa thought about her words. “Jeannie, my sister, asked if I would ask her that if there was any way you could swing tomorrow in her favor, would you. We have a court appearance that to be honest, I don’t know anything about, but if it goes our way, we’re clear of Aunt Helen forever.”
Rebecca listened as she collected her cards, shuffled them, and put them away. “Heh. No.”
Melissa held her fresh drink carefully. The heat stung the sore spots in her palms. “Really?”
“Yea, really. I’ve meddled enough in your life, don’t you think? Besides, I think you know enough to swing things your way, already. After all, Fortune does favor the brave, and you’re more prepared than you were before.”
Melissa nodded. “Yea. But. To be honest, Rebecca, I’m still worried about Aunt Helen’s card reader. What if?”
“And whose name do you have?”
Melissa smiled and realized how tired she was. “Mine.”
“Tell you what, Melissa, you do what you have to do for your court case tomorrow and leave that fucking bastard to me.” She smiled at Melissa, and the younger woman was relieved that she did not face the card reader at “full strength”, for whatever surprises that entailed. “For right now, put your cards away, and let’s sit here for a bit to refill ourselves. And let’s not talk about magic or tarot or any of that ‘witchy’ stuff. I’m sure you have other aspects to your life.”
Melissa put her cards away as instructed and the two women sat silently in each other’s comfort until there was no more coffee to drink and no more sandwich to eat.
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