I feel the heels of my black pumps sink into the mud of the once grassy path by the splash tank. I had already breezed past the food booths, the smell of fried food tempting my rigid diet. I used to love the fair. I used to ride on my dad’s shoulders as we walked through the food booths, trying to decide what to get even though we all knew, Mom and I would split a stir fry and Dad would get the roasted turkey leg. Then, we’d all share a giant elephant ear while we rode the ferris wheel over and over again.
This year, however, I push the memories away and huff as I adjust my grip on the bulky black briefcase strung over my shoulder. God knows why my boss decided having a booth at the county fair was a good idea. Not even my marketing classes had prepared me for trying to sell weight loss wraps at the super bowl of fried foods. But it was over, and the promotion is practically mine.
Just as I’m coming up on the exit, I take one last look at the glowing ferris wheel, remembering the way I used to laugh and squeal and rock the cart at the top while Dad held onto the back my shirt so I didn’t tip right out. My mouth tastes like copper as I recall the happy times and I turn to leave, but something catches my eye. Above a small dark tent hangs a beautiful hand painted sun and moon emblem on a wooden sign.
I glance at the near perfect mirror image of a sun tattooed on my wrist as I creep closer until I can see what the table holds. A deck of Tarot Cards lie face up in a perfectly straight line, unattended by anyone. My eyes light up with curiosity and my fingers dance along the edge of the cards.
Mom had her cards read one year. It was a terrible reading, something about death and sorrow. I was sixteen, and absolutely terrified, but Mom had just laughed and said, “Oh, don’t take it so seriously, darling. Life’s all just one big game.” After that, we got that same sun and moon from the cards as henna tattoos and then, a couple years later, real ones. Dad had teased us, said we were tempting fate. But, he held both of our hands when the time came for the real tattoos. Mom got sick a few months after that, right before I left for college. I gaze at the cards as if watching the memory play out on top of them.
“So, you’re curious as to what the universe has to say, huh?” A voice cuts through the busy carnival noise.
“Uh, no,” I say, jumping back like a child caught in a lie. “I- I’m just looking.”
“It’s okay,” The voice says, “They don’t bite.” A figure emerges from the dark beneath the tent. The bright lights dance eerily on her smooth, olive skin. Her long purple skirt swishes airily and long curly hair spills over one shoulder. She gestures to the cards with delicate, henna covered hands, “Would you like a reading?”
“Oh, no,” I say, snapping out of my dreamy, nostalgic state. “I don’t really believe in…” I wince a little and drop my eyes when I hear my skepticism out loud.
The woman chuckles. “Then do what all the other cynics do.” She sweeps the cards into a tidy stack then whisks them into her hands and shuffles them knowingly, like a dealer in Vegas, “Treat it like a game.”
My head jerks up at the familiar words and my heart races as I lock eyes with the mysterious woman. I hold my breath for a moment. Maybe it was the memories of the fair, or the perfect placement of the tattooed images, or the way this stranger’s words matched my mother’s from eight years ago. But for some reason, I find myself slipping through the flaps of the tent. As my eyes slowly adjust to the dim lighting of the tent, I peer around at the colorful gemstones and strongly scented candles. The woman has already taken a seat near the back and gestures to the seat across from her as she pulls a bundle from a small wooden box.
“That one is just for display,” she says, nodding to the front of the tent.“This one is my baby, so I keep her safe.” She gently unwinds the fabric to reveal a well-loved, yet, well-used deck that she begins circling with burning sage.“To cleanse it,” she says, offering an explanation to what I’m assuming must have been my burning, inquisitive eyes. “Don’t get too caught up on the outfit. It’s kind of a bit. My day job is banking, but a pantsuit doesn’t bring in as many customers, now does it?” She adds and then chuckles to herself.
I force an embarrassed laugh that hangs in the air for just a second too long.
“Well let’s get to it then,” Z says with a breath, breaking the silence. “What was your name, again?”
“Uh, it’s Emily,” I finally say. “And, what should I call you?”
The woman stops for a moment and I wonder if anyone else has ever asked her that.
“Call me Z,” she finally says. “Alright, Emily, and is it safe to assume you’ve never had a reading before?”
I nod, eyes locked on the cards in front of me.
“Well, I’ll explain as we go but all you need to do right now is pick up the deck and start shuffling.”
I obey, scooping the deck gingerly into my hands.
“Now, while you shuffle, think of an intention.”
“A what?” I pause, mid break.
“An intention,” Z repeats. “like what do you want the reading to be about? It can be about anything: family, relationships, goals…” She trails off. “Love,” she adds, dramatically.
“Oh, uh okay,” I say, my eyes traveling to the ceiling, “I guess–”
“Oh no, I don’t need to know,” she interrupts. “That’s between you and the universe. I’m just a messenger.” She flourishes her hands and bows her head in service.
I cock my head to one side as I continue shuffling. My hands begin to grow more comfortable, operating from muscle memory. Soon, I start bending the cards to create a bridge like the one I used to watch Mom make whenever she and Dad played pinochle. They liked to play late at night, after I had gone to bed. I’d sneak down and sit on the steps, just out of their sight but where I could still see Mom’s hands at work. I loved the sound of the rhythmic slaps of the cards finding their place. I’d sit there until Mom won, or Dad quit. Whichever came first. More than once I fell asleep sitting right there and Dad had to carry me back to bed.
I force a breath, trying to ignore the memory. I try not to notice how my now shaking hands are clumsier than Mom’s perfect ones. I keep having to tidy up the deck before shuffling again. As I shuffle, I consider my intention. I quickly jump over the thoughts of family or romance, knowing the only thing that’s been on my mind for months is this promotion. Just as I start to feel an excited, nervous energy in my fingertips, I hear:
“Whenever you feel like you’re ready, go ahead and stop shuffling.”
I shuffle a few more times, watching the cards fall perfectly into place, just to mix them up again. Finally, I plant the deck directly between us. Z raises her eyebrows, as if asking permission. I hesitate, for a brief moment, my sense suddenly catching up to me. I wonder if this is just another carnival trick. Before I can decide, Z leans forward to begin.
“Now, basically, this is how it works: I am going to draw three cards– Usually those cards correlate to Past, Present, and Future. As I draw each card, I’ll explain a bit about what the card signifies. If it doesn’t make sense, feel free to ask questions,” Z looks up at me. “Ready?”
I clear my throat. “Ready.”
“Okay, then,” Z swiftly pulls the top card from the deck. “First we have: The Tower…” She places the card on the table. “Great start,” she mutters to herself.
I analyze the card on the table in front of me. Bright yellow lightning and angry orange flames envelope a crumbling stone tower. Two figures flail aimlessly as they fall through a dark, broken sky. I look up at her, baffled.
“I know it looks scary,” Z says, reading my panicked face, “and frankly it’s one of the worst cards in the deck. But, there are some important points to this card.” She begins what sounds like a well-rehearsed speech.“So, upon first glance, obviously, things aren’t so great. The Tower is crumbling, literally underneath their feet. Usually this card means something has shook you to your very core.”
My stomach drops and the ringing in my ears drowns out the rest of her explanation. I know exactly what this card is. The night I found out. I was alone, in my room and I collapsed, sobbing, on the floor. I’d curled into a ball like it was the only way to hold myself together. Dad’s voice still spoke but I had dropped the phone.
“Emily, Baby, I’m so sorry. She’s gone.”
I stare blankly at the card on the table as I try to focus on my breathing, forcing deep breaths to prevent myself from hyperventilating like I did that night. I can feel Z’s eyes on me as she continues to explain the meaning of the card and I pray she can’t hear my heart pounding.
“– taken those plans, the Tower, and ruined them beyond recognition. Sometimes it’s the loss of–”
“My mom died,” I finally say. I just need her to stop talking. “Six years ago.” I speak mindlessly, more to the card than to the woman across from me. Z sits, quietly, stunned by my outburst. “I only got to come home for a week, for the funeral. My dad thought if I stayed any longer, I wouldn’t go back to finish school.”
I remember the fight that ensued between my dad and I the night before I left. I’d wanted to stay, wanted to be home, with him. He insisted I finish the semester, at least.“It’s what she would have wanted,” he’d said. But then it was the year, then it was the next year until I eventually stopped coming home altogether.
“My dad and I never really talked about it after that,” I say to Z, after a moment. I sit very still and pretend not to feel her eyes staring at me. I hadn’t meant to share that much but it all came pouring out once I started. Suddenly uncomfortable, I lean back into my chair. Feigning my composure I add, “But I finished my degree.”
“Well there you have it, I guess,” Z says.
“Yeah, except, my intention was about my career,” I say, dropping the act. “This is the opposite of what I wanted. I’m hoping to get a big promotion soon. Not reminisce on my broken family.” I bump the table as I stand to leave and the card floats to the floor.
“Sometimes the Universe tells us what we need to hear,” Z says, raising her eyebrow et me. “Not what we want to hear.”
I stop and meet her gaze. We hold each other’s eyes for a moment before she breaks.
“Shall we continue?”
I stoop to grab the card from the floor and place it on the table as I slide into my chair.
“Alright, so, that card represented something of your past,” Z glances up at me, “and you seem to know what that was. So, this card will be your present.” She flips the next card onto the table. “The Queen of Pentacles,” she says. “Inverted.”
I lean forward to get a better look at the card and Z pushes it closer to me. Off her cue, I take it and flip it right side up. An elegant woman sits perfectly composed, perched on a golden throne in the middle of a grassy meadow. She is the epitome of calm.
“When upright, this card has to do with nurturing and security.” She indicates to the card as she explains. “The Queen takes care of things. That’s just what she does.”
My mom’s face flashes through my mind. I think about all the times I used to curl up in her lap when things went wrong and she’d run her fingers through my hair.
“But,” Z plucks the card from my hand and flips it back upside down. “When she is upside down, or inverted, it signifies being up-ended or disconnected, not being grounded. This card often has to do with someone who has thrown themselves into something and stopped paying attention to other things in their life. Things that may often be falling apart…”
My eyes remain fixed on the card on the table as she speaks. I feel a familiar knowing pit form in my stomach and my hands begin to clam up. I have a sneaking suspicion that this card has to do with my work. I’m suddenly acutely aware of my stuffy black pumps and I cross them and tuck them behind the bulky black briefcase beneath me. Embarrassed, I tuck my sweaty hands underneath me. Z looks at me, expectantly.
“I guess you could say I’m working a lot right now. But I don’t really feel like my life is falling apart,” I quickly jump to my own defense, as if she had been the one to bring up work. “Like I said, I have the opportunity for a really great promotion. But I won’t get it if I don’t work my ass off. Plus, work is my life. There’s nothing else to fall apart.”
“Hey now,” Z says, “Don’t shoot the messenger.”
“Okay,” I breathe. “Can we just move on?” I don’t know why I’m getting so worked up.
“Sure,” Z says. As she reaches for the deck, she says, “Finally, we have your future card. Now it’s important to note that this isn’t predicting the future, per se, but really it’s just, like, a suggestion for the near or distant future, so don’t get too hung up on it.” She flips the next card. It reveals a man hanging by his feet from a tree branch in the middle of the woods. His eyes are closed peacefully and the calm serenity envelopes his whole body:
“The Hanged Man,” She finally says. “This references a lot of martyrs or religious individuals, often times who willingly sacrifice themselves for something greater. But really what this card tends to signify is surrender, oftentimes to the thing that’s causing you so much stress. It’s about letting go of control and taking the time to recollect on what brought you here,” Z explains.
I fixate on the calm countenance of the man. I expect something to spring to mind. The last two cards clicked immediately. I wait for the realization to come, for my stomach to drop or my hands to clam up and for the moment to hit me. When it doesn’t, I look up at Z.
“So, what did you think?” She says, already gathering the extra cards, but leaving mine.
“Interesting, for sure,” I say, realizing the reading is over now. I start to gather my things.
“I told you they didn’t bite,” she says with a chuckle. “Have a great night.”
“You too,” I say over my shoulder, shoving a $10 in the tip jar as I leave. The cool night air shocks me. My mind feels muddled as I continue to process. The reading left me more confused than I was before. I hadn’t meant to open up so much and now I just feel hollow. I meander through the crowd, still thinking about that last card. When I glance back at Z, I can see she’s already moved on to the next customer, cleansing the deck once more.
My stomach growls and I think about the salad waiting for me at home. I’m not in the mood for salad. I’m tired and grumpy and emotionally drained and I just want some comfort food. I head back to the food booths. The line for stir fry is ridiculously long but the Turkey Leg line isn’t as bad. While I wait, I replay the cards in my head.
The tower’s crumbling facade: My mom dying. I was only 18, I’d barely started college. She was supposed to help me through it: Talk me out of dropping out when I failed a class, make my favorite cookies every Christmas break, cry at my graduation. Instead, she was so sick she never even got to visit. I swallow hard and it feels like pebbles going down my throat. My eyes sting but I don’t want to cry so I look down at my now muddy black pumps and move on to the next card, the too-busy, ungrounded queen: Me, I guess. I hadn’t even realized I had become such a workaholic. I catch myself staying at the office until well after 7:00 some nights. I just don’t want to go home, alone, to an empty apartment. I shift my weight anxiously as I stand in line. But to be fair, I did always work hard, even in college. Dad used to call me every Sunday for a weekly update on my classes, until mom died.
I sigh. Dad, is he the last card? I hadn’t realized how much things had changed. Or maybe, I had realized but I chose to ignore it. Especially when it came to Dad and I. We used to be like two peas in a pod. But when mom died, he drifted away. We used to talk about everything. After she died, we could hardly hold a conversation. Neither of us wanted to be the one to bring it up but neither of us really wanted to talk about anything else either. So we settled on school or work. One day, I just didn’t answer– I texted him and said I was too busy with a paper. Then it was a research project, or studying for a test. Eventually, he just stopped calling. After I finished undergrad, he’d offered for me to live at home, “To save money,” he’d said. Instead, I took a job all the way across the country. I haven’t been home since. I can’t even remember the last time I called. Was he supposed to be The Hanged Man? The Martyr? Or Surrender? It all feels so heavy and nothing makes sense right now.
“Ma’am?” A voice pulls me back to reality. “What can I get you?” The man is sweaty and I’m sure he’s been on his feet all day.
“Just a turkey leg, please.” I say, reaching for my wallet.
“Is that all?”
Out of the corner of my eye, I catch the glowing lights of the Ferris Wheel. I can practically hear my dad begging me to sit still and stop rocking the car. I can’t remember the last time we all went to the fair together. I can’t even remember the last time I heard his voice.
“Actually, do you have elephant ears?”
Cara M. Hall is a junior at Pacific Lutheran University where she is pursuing a BFA in English, with an emphasis in writing, and a BA in technical theatre. She considers herself very lucky to be receiving a degree in two of her favorite things.
© 2019, Cara M. Hall