Lisa waited until she had finished her second cup of coffee before opening the package. If it wasn’t for Rebecca’s handwritten cards setting the expectation for how thin twenty-two cards could be, Lisa would have thought that she had been scammed with some stiff cardboard.
The outer wrapping was a letter size manila envelope that had been folded in thirds to provide extra protection to the thin box. And even then, the box was wrapped in a layer of thin bubble wrap that had been completely flattened by pressure. Lisa carefully peeled back the wrap and set that aside.
An empty flattened box acted as a stiffener and a third protective layer to some items that were not included in the actual tarot box itself. The listing claimed the contents were from a Kickstarter with all extra items included but the lister had never used the deck. From the way the items were layered in the package, Lisa guessed that the extra items included an extra tarot card and a smaller card that served as the creator’s calling card.
The back of the extra tarot card sparkled as a holographic subsurface scattered shards of light. The design was elaborate, with lots of spirals and tendrils that reminded Lisa of the curls of ferns. She relaxed into smug satisfaction as she remembered that this was an out of print, limited edition tarot deck that Becky does not and will not have. Lisa’s personal pretty.
She turned the card over to gloat over the front and nearly dropped everything that she was holding. The tendril motif on the back of the card continued as the frame of the front side image. At the bottom of the card was printed the card’s name and number in capital english letters: “XVI” “THE TOWER”
But the image in the tendril frame was not very pretty. In fact, the more Lisa examined the image, the more nauseous and queasy she became. If the card was labeled the Tower then why was a shattered mirror the brightest and clearest part of the image? Why were there three remnants of a stone or brick building and why were they, with the shattered mirror, on a platform that was held up by something looking like a whirlwind? And if the deep blood red of the background behind the whirlwind wasn’t bothering enough, the background behind the broken pillars reminded Lisa of petri dishes that had been left out too long and were growing combatting colonies of toxic bacteria.
She turned the card face down to stop the growing dizziness. This was not a pretty card. The list of meanings assigned to the Tower card the catchphrase of “Shit. This is going to hurt.” She laughed because on a level she was not able to explain to herself clearly, the catchphrase did match the visual of the card. Whatever world that particular Tower card was attempting to show, it was not a pleasant one, and there would be no passing through that without being hurt in some way.
She thought about taking the deck to Rebecca to get her opinion on the matter, but remembered that Rebecca had said not to come back to her until she had reviewed each card at least once. Lisa also asked herself did she want to admit to Rebecca that she had bought the deck out of spite. Or worse yet, would Rebecca know about the dream! She had watched Rebecca speak on many secrets that other people thought private, would her cards tell her about Lisa’s latest one as well?
She looked over the list of meanings, reading each entry in turn. Some card titles were encouraging. The Lovers. Strength. The Star. Some card titles were scary. Death. The Devil. Justice. Some of the catchphrases made no sense to her as is. Why would Death be “Can’t live without it.”? Why was the World listed as “The last page of the book.”? Some catchphrases were self-explanatory. The Hermit listed as “Alone, but not isolated.” The Justice as “The Court is not amused.”
But as she arrived at the end of the list, she found herself at the beginning of Rebecca’s card order. She picked up the card reader’s handwritten cards and saw they were ordered backwards when compared with the list. She began with the World and ended with the Magician. But the list started with the Fool. Lisa allowed herself to laugh as she caught herself looking for a missing Fool in her deck.
She found the card tucked behind the World and in front of the Sun. This was the card that Rebecca had moved out of order before giving her the deck. So if this artsy tarot was going to be her study deck, then she should arrange the cards to match this order.
She flipped the extra card back to face her. The imagery was still disturbing, but she could see how it was portraying the meaning given by the list. She put the card down and slid the entire deck out of the box. The top card was an extra card that had a keyword list of its own printed on it. Listing from the Fool to the World, each entry had three words that sometimes agreed with Rebecca’s list and sometimes had no connection to the list.
It was only at this point that she saw the Fool’s card number was zero. This made no sense to Lisa and she turned the keywords card over to see if there was more information. The magenta text on a black background was hard enough to see, but this side also had the same holographic speckle treatment as the extra card. The ever shifting surface made her head hurt so she put the card to the side to deal with the deck proper and looked at the first card of the majors only deck.
Despite the quiet of her apartment, she didn’t hear herself whispering her favorite opinion as the card’s image found a new uncomfortable boundary to transgress. “I don’t have enough fucks for this.” The card number and title were clear. “0” and “THE FOOL”. What was also clear was the blindfolded character is shown attacking himself with an axe. Chunks of flesh are missing from various body parts and the character’s clothes are stained red from his own blood and green from the floating goo surrounding him.
Lisa placed everything down on the table and quickly got dressed. Leaving everything still in place, she took her purse and left for the coffee house with the full intention of not only getting Becky’s full attention, but some hard answers about the nature of tarot and Lisa’s recent experiences. This was certainly no way to get someone in the business unless Becky had no intent of ever teaching Lisa in the first place! Maybe this was all a way to keep Lisa from breaking into the tarot scene! Maybe this was just Becky fucking with her and taking advantage of her! Maybe…
Lisa came to a stop and found herself standing next to the storefront with deeply tinted windows. She forced herself to look at her reflection again. Red eyes. Worried face. Tight grip on the purse strap because if she didn’t hold on to something she felt like she would fall.
What was it that Rebecca had told her about tarot questions? That she had the internet and that if she had questions to look them up herself. It wasn’t fair, Lisa wanted to scream. It wasn’t fair that Rebecca had all the answers but wasn’t telling Lisa any of them. But then again, Lisa hadn’t paid attention to the answers Rebecca had already given so she didn’t blame the card reader for not taking her on as a proper student.
Lisa turned around and went back to her apartment. Along the way, she reflected on the differences between the deck that she owns and the pretty deck that Rebecca showed her. Of the literally thousands and thousands of decks on eBay, why was this deck, this monstrous and disturbing deck, the one that wound up in Lisa’s hands?
As she unlocked the door to her apartment, she accepted the answer she had been avoiding. Because this is the deck that the presence of Tarot, capital T, had sent to her in answer to her prayer. In her dream, the blank face judge challenged her to fix herself, and that fixing herself would not be pretty, easy, or painless.
Lisa looked at the two stacks of cards. To Rebecca, she thought, these stacks are identical. They each have a name and a number. The artwork doesn’t matter to Rebecca much. Then it shouldn’t matter much to me, she concluded. She sat down and went through the deck card by card to get familiar with the imagery.
Some cards were easy to look at. Some cards just turned her stomach no matter how well she thought she was prepared. It took some effort to not be physically repulsed by the artwork, but she managed to reorder the deck to match Rebecca’s handwritten deck. The World as the topmost card, then the Fool, then the remaining cards in inverse order.
She tapped the deck to be square and to make sure none of the other cards slipped out. Lisa could only deal with this artwork one card at a time. The World card faced her but the image in the card was facing away. Was it looking back or avoiding her? The list of meanings assigned “The last page of the book” as the catchphrase for this card. The deck’s keyword list read as “Completion, finale, revolution.”
Why did Rebecca want Lisa to start her tarot study at the end? Why this backwards path? If the challenge was to face herself and her faults with eventually remaking them and herself, then wouldn’t today be the last day of the person that she was? If this was a diary, this is the last written page before starting a new book. That made sense to her.
She picked up the World card to get a good look at it and lost the thread of the nascent understanding. If this was the end, then why was the image that of a floating fetus? “Tarot… what the fuck?”
“Which fuck are you asking for?”
Lisa shouted blankly as the voice spoke from everywhere around her. She looked up to find she was not seated at her table anymore, but was now seated at something that looked like her table, but in reverse. She looked around the room and realized that everything was in reverse. The door was on the wrong side of the apartment. The fridge was on the wrong side of the oven. Everything was backwards.
She looked down at the card she was holding expecting it to show a backwards image as well. Instead, she was holding the World card from Rebecca’s handwritten deck. No image. No design. Just a title and card number.
She looked up and barely kept herself from running away. The blank face judge was now seated next to her in the backwards version of her kitchen table. The black robed figure pointed to the card in her hand. “You may explain which fuck you are asking for.”
“I’m seizing. I’m dead. I’ve fallen and hit my head and this is the last thing I’m going to see before I die.” She waited for a response from the judge still seated quietly next to her. “I can’t die now! My Chemical Romance got back together and I won a bet because of that!” The judge did not respond.
Tears began to drip from Lisa’s eyes but she was too afraid to notice. “This is… a dream… Right?”
“It could be. But you won’t be here long enough to explore that. Not yet. Your time here is very short. Make the most of it.” The judge pointed to the held card again. “You have a question. Ask it.”
Lisa looked at the empty card she was holding. “Uh… Okay. So I guess you’re Tarot, capital T. The image… how much does it matter? Are the two World cards the same?”
The judge held their face down as if looking at the card, then held their face up as if looking at Lisa. “The image matters if you want it to matter. If you want it to matter, then the two cards are different. If you don’t want it to matter, then they are identical. A question for a question. What are you willing to bring to a complete end so you can enact a complete beginning? When you look at the world around you, the entire world around you, what do you see that you feel you are not a part of and why did you separate yourself from it?”
Lisa’s eyes started to hurt and the tears flowed in a constant stream. She closed her eyes to rub them, pulling her shirt hem up to dry them. When she lifted her face, she saw she was back in her apartment and that she was holding the World card as if she had just picked it up. Nothing in her apartment had moved. Nothing had been added or removed. She was alone again.
Lisa calmly placed the card back on the stack of its fellows. She stood up and quietly walked to a window. Opening the window and sticking her head outside, she took a deep breath and screamed the loudest and longest scream that she didn’t realize had been building up inside her ever since she had the first dream with the judges. Ignoring the angry shouts from neighbors and encouragements to jump from passersby on the street, she straightened up, closed the window, and went directly to the bedroom to lie down. She decided this would be a good time to avoid everything and take a nap.
Sometime in the middle of the night, Lisa woke up from her deep and dreamless sleep. She laid in bed and stared at the ceiling reflecting on everything that had happened since she ordered those damn creepy cards.
No, she realized, this started when Becky… no… Rebecca… gave her the handwritten deck. In an unusual moment of self-awareness, she realized she had been renaming Rebecca in her thoughts whenever she was cross with her. As if by clipping off Rebecca’s self-respect, Lisa could gain power and respect for herself. A habit, Lisa realized, that betrayed itself when Lisa called Rebecca, “Becky”, to her face.
“No wonder she won’t let me get close. I’ve been waving a big ass red flag every time I don’t get my way. But why do I do that only with her? It’s not like I try to control anyone else?”
From the depths of Lisa’s memories came the recollection of moment after moment of all the times that Lisa had used social shame, coercion, and manipulation to either force soft-willed to give her what she wanted or to punish the hard-willed for holding their ground.
“No, that’s not me… I don’t do that to people… People do that to me… It’s not fair to hold me responsible like that…” Lisa curled herself under the sheet, pinching herself into a form much like the fetus on the tarot card.
The memories kept reaching up to cover her thoughts better than any blanket could cover her body. It was like someone was rolling through a video record of her life, pulling scene after scene where Lisa had made the deliberate choice to wield her favorite weapons of choice as she built a world without responsibilities around herself.
Included with the introspection was a growing awareness that this world that was not sustainable and was now in the process of self-destruction. She could only bluster and brow-beat so many people, so many times. She could only isolate and control so many vulnerable and lonely people for only so long before their friends and family stepped in and took them away from her.
And Rebecca… The night at the masquerade party, even through the masks and the robes, she saw in Rebecca’s eyes that Lisa had been made for the fool she always has been at first sight.
“No…” Lisa clutched her pillow over her head as if by virtue of a thick layer of artificial fibers she could prevent the exposure of her soul. “Why… It’s not fair…”
She suddenly sat up, throwing her pillow against the wall in an attempt to give herself control over her past again. “No! I’m only doing what has been done to me, dammit! If it was fair to do it to me then why isn’t it fair to do it to others! THIS IS THE WORLD I LIVE IN, FOR FUCK’S SAKE!”
Lisa had intended to scream more words at the phantasms of her memories, but the outburst pierced both without and within. The last memory to surface was the blank face judge’s words.
“What are you willing to bring to a complete end so you can enact a complete beginning? When you look at the world around you, the entire world around you, what do you see that you feel you are not a part of and why did you separate yourself from it?”
She pulled the sheets to her chest as she attempted not to cry. “This… is the world I live in… And…” Her resolve decayed and she buried her face in the gathered knot of fabric as her entire face wept. “And it has to end… it has to end… I can’t live like this… it has to end but I don’t know how… I don’t know how to end it without also ending myself… Oh God, help me… I don’t know how to get out… I don’t know how to get better… This is the world I live in, and it needs to die, but I don’t know how to save myself, so I guess I’ll just die with it. But it’s not fair… it’s not fair…”
Exhaustion covered what her sorrow exposed as Lisa fell to her side, still curled and clutching the sheets, and surrendered to what she felt was a shadow of the inevitable darkness to come one day.
Several hours later, an annoying sound buzzed from the kitchen. It increasingly clattered for precisely sixty seconds then ceased. Four minutes later, a siren wailed from the kitchen, drowning out a stern male voice demanding the listener to leave the premises immediately. Sixty seconds after the siren began, it stopped. Four minutes after silence resumed, a female voice mocked the listener for being the family failure and began reciting a well practiced litany of the listener’s sins. Fifty-seven seconds after the voice first spoke, the voice shrieked a barely understandable threat and fell silent.
Fifty-seven minutes after silence resumed, a soft and gentle percussion was barely audible from the kitchen. Lisa, who until this moment was so deeply asleep that she was not aware that she existed, so viciously and brutally exited the bed that she dragged the sheets into the doorway before they released themselves. There was no way in hell she was going to let her phone do this to her. Not as long as she lived and breathed.
She silenced the cooing voice even as it declared that they were no strangers to love. A headache caught up with her as she looked around the kitchen. Everything was in order. Nothing was backwards. Though the bed is going to have to be remade, but the sheets needed to be washed anyway. Seeing the cards on the table made her feel nauseous again, but she doesn’t have to face them until after work anyway.
Horror pricked at her as she realized exactly which alarm on her phone was the one that brought her to consciousness. Hurriedly she unlocked the phone and opened the SMS app. As she both feared and expected, there were several texts and a missed call from the shift manager for the job she was supposed to be at right now.
“Hey. Guess you got the news before we did. Don’t bother coming in today. We’re shut down.” “Looks like we’re gonna be shut down for a while.” “Where are you?” “Did you fall asleep in the stock room again?” “Don’t call back. Police wanted to know if you were inside. Didn’t hear your phone. Guess you’re alive.” “I’ll fire you once we’re open again. Have a nice unpaid vacation.”
A quick online search of her job’s address listed several short announcements about the owner of the business having been arrested for several counts of fraud. The owner’s son, one of Lisa’s “friends” and the only reason she had and kept the job, allegedly attempted to destroy the evidence by setting a fire in the stockroom. Except the building’s fire suppression equipment activated it and released a retardant that reacted with some of the chemicals in the stockroom. The resulting gas smothered the fire, but also contaminated the entire restaurant, putting everyone out of work until the matter could be dealt with, which might not be for years because of the asset seizure by the police.
Lisa quickly tallied up the loss of income. Her two months of financial independence just became one. Her world was collapsing faster.
She sat on the kitchen floor and did not try to hold in her tears. As much as she wished that she could dismiss the midnight introspection, here was another example of its accuracy.
“Okay.” sniff “I still have my other jobs. So this just means I’m available for more hours. It’s not a total collapse. Yet.” She rocked as soft as one can on cheap linoleum flooring. Her thoughts spiraled into themselves until they wore a phrase into a mantra: “My world is ending.”
After a few minutes of the sightless depths of self-pity, Lisa remembered Rebecca’s order of the tarot cards. The first card to study was the World, but it was then followed by the card normally at the other end of the deck, the Fool. Right now, it felt like the book of her life was coming to an end, and the catchphrase for the World card was just announcing the last page of that book.
What was the catchphrase for the Fool card, Lisa wondered. Her curiosity pulled her up from the emotional depths she was drowning in and led her to rise off the kitchen floor to approach the table. After nearly drowning in her own tears last night, the image of fetus on the World card no longer bothered her. Though she could not explain it in any language, written or spoken, she understood the trauma of an end, and how an end could be a beginning.
That understanding was no comfort, however, when she read the catchphrase for the Fool. “The end of the beginning.”
Lisa was sure that whoever wrote the list of meanings had several pretty decks to study and develop their understanding from. But somehow, that phrase fit the way the person in the card was busy at work literally unmaking themselves. Rebecca had warned Lisa that she may find a reflection of herself in the cards. If the World card was a reflection of the world around her, then would it be right to think that the Fool card would reflect who she is, inside?
The next two days were clear. She had enough money and groceries to not need to leave the apartment until her next job required her to show. Rebecca said that once Lisa found what it was about herself that she didn’t like, then she could fix it. If the parts of her that she didn’t like was what was keeping her stuck in this broken life, then fixing those parts will fix her life overall, right?
She picked up the Fool card. The taint-green of the goo on the card reminded her of the dried snot still stuck to her face. The person’s eyes were covered with what should have been medical bandages but were stained with a hue better found on gutter algae. Yet the person was smiling even as they unmade themselves. Lisa wondered how could a person be happy at fucking themselves up.
How could she have been so happy burning all the bridges she needed to escape?
“Tarot. Capital T. Show me the Fool. Show me the end of the beginning.”