Thursday 28 July 2016

An After-Hours Reading

(More horror fiction. I wrote this by request; it wasn't in the end used. Warning, as ever, for horror.)
You must be sincere with the Tarot in order for the Tarot to be sincere with you.

This is why I insist – I insist! – that never mind how late it is, we shall do this properly. The formalities must be observed if you are to be open to its wisdom.

Here. Take the deck. No, you won't have to wash your hands. It's good to give a little of yourself to the cards. Stains on these particular cards have a way of fading.

The cards, now. Look at the cards. The Tarot is a lot like a deck you might recognise, yes. Fifty-six cards in four suits, Pentacles rather than Diamonds, Cups instead of Hearts, Swords in the place of Spades, Wands for Clubs. Four Aces. Four sets of two through ten, Knights, Pages, Kings and Queens. Rather than one Joker, here are twenty-two Trump cards, each with its own name and own meaning. The Magician, the Hermit, the Tower, the Lovers, the Hanged Man, the Sun, Death.

Some call the Tarot the Book of Thoth – did you know that? – a repository of wisdom in a form of near-impenetrable complexity, visual, associative, anything but linear. Its combinations may not necessarily be infinite in any literal sense, but I can guarantee you that you will never in your lifetime, or a hundred more, exhaust its permutations. This is more than simple fortune telling. By laying out the cards of the Tarot, you lay out the past, the present and the future. You lay out your soul and your soul's fate in all its complexity, beauty and tragedy.

Bring yourself. Yes, yes, you're here, of course you are, but you know full well, dearie, that isn't what I mean. Be open! Be sincere. If you are sincere with the Tarot, as I said, the Tarot will be sincere with you.

As for the other things you bring, well. You won't need them. The knife, for example, is unnecessary. Keep it in sight, on the table between us if it makes you more comfortable.

We shall do the reading as if you were any normal client. We shall do it as if it were daylight, and you were paying. It's why you're here, isn't it? Of course it is.

Now. Every clairvoyant has their own way of laying out a Tarot spread. Mine is as traditional and as valid as any. No. You keep the deck. You must lay it out.

First. Separate the Trumps of the Major Arcana – the ones with Roman numerals and unique names – from the suited cards of the Minor Arcana, the Cups, Swords, Pentacles and Wands. Put the Minor cards to one side. We'll deal with them in a moment. Shuffle the Trumps.

I will of course watch you, yes. The effort into which you are putting into shuffling them is not only a mark of your character, it is a vital element. The more thoroughly you shuffle the cards, the more of yourself you will find there. Do not be lackadaisical. Be sincere.

Now. Cut them into three piles. Place the first on the second, the third on the first. From the top of this deck, deal yourself twelve cards, face up, as they come, in two rows of six, first the top row, then the bottom. Ah, no, don't rectify their positions if they come out upside down. It matters. Leave them as they are.

Now take the Minor Arcana and do the same. Shuffle them – inevitably you will shuffle them more thoroughly, for you have been made self conscious. It's entirely human. Cut them in the same way, arrange the piles as you did before, and deal twelve cards over the others, covering them.

Now. Each of these twelve places deals with a different part of your past, and your present, and your future. And the first cards here, the ones on your top left, these are vital. They define you. They illuminate the question that brought you – ah, ah, no. No cheating. The cards will tell us the heart of the matter. You don't need to say.

Let us see.

Four of Cups, reversed:
A goddess, hips and breasts pendulous and fecund like a Willendorf Venus, stands atop what could be a flight of steps, or a ziggurat, balanced delicately on the tiptoes of one foot. On the step beneath her, four chalices stand, each half-full of milk. She stares at you, less than content.

In this place? It's about sex. Or love. But probably sex. Does that embarrass you? Why should it? Reversed, it suggests a relationship that has ended, or which is soon to end. Let us lift it, and see what lies beneath.

VI. The Lovers:
Two women, naked, embrace. One is stiff, bluish in hue, eyes closed. She might be tired, or dead. Her head rests on the shoulder of the other who, alert, stares at you, in accusation or challenge.

Ah, the Lovers. Not always about affairs of the heart, this. Traditionally, you have three figures on this card. They represent the three angels that magicians call the Children of the Voice, Madriax, Peripsol and Gmicalzoma. Gmicalzoma appears to be absent today. How odd. No matter. The Lovers deals with a fateful decision primarily. How apt though, that it lie beneath a card that deals with the desires of the body.

From the first place in the reading, we cross to the seventh, beneath it, which stands in opposition to you. It is the space of relationships. Partnerships. Your heart in the world.

Eight of Swords:
A barren, rocky landscape. A hand, gnarled, scratched, protrudes from the earth, its owner presumably beneath, clawing for air, for freedom, for life. In the background, seven swords stand, thrust point-down into the earth; the shards of a broken eighth lie in the foreground.

Oh, I am afraid that the Eight of Swords is ill-omened. It speaks of ordeal, opposition. I think here it means that there is, or has been, some insoluble quarrel. Is that the case? You're looking at your hand, I see. It looks like your hand, doesn't it?

Don't be unsettled, dear. Perhaps the card it covers may yet overrule it.

XVI. The Tower:
The pinnacled spires of an ancient city stand on the shore, menaced by a tidal wave which stands, foaming, looming in the eternal moment of stillness that precedes its crashing down on the landscape below, destroying all before it. A tiny, lone figure cowers on the beach between the city and the wave, despairing, sure of imminent death.

Ah, no. Maybe not.

Perhaps the most ill-omened card in the entire deck, the Tower speaks of disaster. Your argument did not end well, did it? Still. The Tarot is not without hope. Who knows what mitigations our reading might bring you?

The second position, then. Money. The material.

Ten of Pentacles:
Ten large, round coins on a table, each inscribed with a five-pointed star. As you look, it seems that spots of red appear on them. You look at your hands.

You have come into some money. Whence might that be, I wonder?

III. The Empress, reversed:
She is regal, her hair richly oiled, her diadem savage, and she stands in some ancient torch-lit throne room, her hand raised imperiously, her throne unoccupied behind her. Kneeling before her, face fixed towards in love, fear and adoration is a naked man, a wrought-iron chained collar around his neck, his face back and arms blue with the tattooed signs of slavery.

Reversed here, the Empress is love, gone sour. Someone you used to love, but do not now. You gained money from them? As a result of the argument we already described?

You're terribly quiet. Well, let's say it's true. The Tarot does not lie.

Across to the eighth card, beneath it. Fortune. Luck. The things that fall to us.

Nine of Wands:
A circle of nine standing stones on a misty, grassy plain. They are ancient and battered. As you gaze at the card, it becomes apparent to you that a figure, wreathed in shadow, is approaching you in their midst. The figure seems to move on the card with an indefinable but growing threat, and fills you with a growing, creeping dread, as if she will climb out of the card and come for you.

Perhaps this is more properly the Nine of Stones, eh? Or even the Nine of Graves. Either way, in the eighth position, it is violence, and see how this is underlined by

XI. Strength:
A woman, body in profile. Her right arm is made of jointed metal, all pistons and carapace plates, glistening with oil, fastened to the stump of her shoulder with rivets and wires that creates raw welts in the flesh and bone to which they are anchored. She flexes the arm into a fist, and out of the corner of her eyes looks at you with a sort of satisfaction and something of menace.

Strength here? A Struggle. A fight.

Now, now. If you want to bring a knife here, if your hands carry the stains of blood that is not your own, yes, perhaps it's obvious I might say that. But you shuffled the cards, my love. You dealt them.
Now, now, sit back down, and yes, put the knife back there. For the reading has much to tell you, and we have barely begun.

The third position is the place of inspiration. Of ideas.

Here is a thing, here is

The Queen of Cups, reversed:
A woman, slim, dark-haired, stands in contrapposto on a pedestal, one breast exposed by her flimsy robe, a diadem on her brow. She holds a golden chalice overflowing with an opaque liquid of the deepest red. Her skin has a dull, waxy pallor.

The Queen of Cups is a lover. Reversed in this position, she tells us that – and this confirms what has gone before, doesn't it? – that she is not your lover anymore.

You know that, I think.

She covers 0. The Fool:
A rocky crag, silhouetted against the dawn or perhaps the dusk, yellow, pink, violet, and red, rich and bloody. A figure has leapt from the peak and is caught in midair, hands flailing towards the sun.

The fight. It wasn't a thing you thought through, was it? The ending of your love affair, I mean. You did it on impulse, acted on a gut feeling. That's what the Fool represents, an action unconsidered, and possibly, given context – the Tower, the Lovers – perverse, for the Fool is the eternal recusant, the droplet of water that refuses the ocean, and perversity is always part of the Fool's story.

What stands opposite? The ninth position speaks of contracts, agreements. Plans.

Seven of Pentacles:
A hand, its owner unseen, crafts with a knife or scalpel an intricate design onto a roundel made of some sort of pale-coloured leather or skin. Six more are pinned to the wall in the background, drying.

This is interesting. The seven normally denotes planning, craft, when all up to this point has given us an impulsive action. But here, we have the quintessential card of planning. Perhaps the card it covers will illuminate.

XVII. The Star:
A creature, gilled, fish-tailed, drags an ornate carved golden star down into the depths with clawed hands. As it retreats it stares at you with blank, milky round orbs that seem nonetheless loaded with malice.

Illuminate is what this card does by definition. You poured your soul into what you did, dreamed and plotted, festered, until one day you lashed out, is that correct? Still, the Tarot seems to be hostile to you this evening. Its images are moving against you.

Why is that, I wonder?

The fourth position, then. Security. The home.

Three of Wands, reversed:
Some winged creature of primeval nightmare, skin glistening and rubbery, squats across three crossed branches, its long beak-like snout open in some sort of cry, filled with dozens of needle-sharp teeth.

What you did, It removed any sense of safety you had. You feel ill at ease. I don't need to be a clairvoyant to work that out, dear. On the run, perhaps? It was hard for you, wasn't it? Ah, but how hard? Harder than anything, for here is

XII. The Hanged One:
A figure hangs upside-down, suspended by a web of cords, straps and chains attached to the body, wound tightly around chest, limbs and neck. Barbed hooks keep the body in suspension, pull the skin out of shape, like clay. The figure's mouth is open, wide eyes rolled back so the whites are mostly visible, and it is unclear whether this is due to pain or ecstasy.

You shift in your seat at the thought of it, aware of the stickiness at your fingertips; no small part of your disquiet is due to the resemblance you perceive this figure as having to you, and the flutter of excitement in your stomach and between your legs as you find yourself wondering unbidden what it would be like to be tortured that way, and whether you might enjoy it.

This card shows that you have sacrificed everything that mattered to you. Do you care, though? Let's see. For in the tenth space is your honour. The result of your principles.

Four of Swords:
Four knives, very like the chef's knife that you placed on the table between you and the cards when you got here, hang from a rack on what could be a tomb.

The four in this position is a card that prefigures loneliness, seclusion from the world. Perhaps beneath it is the reason?

Why don't you lift the card?

Ah. There is a reason.

VIII. Justice:
A right hand holds a human heart, freshly cut out of its host, so fresh it seems almost to be beating still. Blood pools between the fingers; it runs down over the heel of the hand and trickles down the wrist in sticky, clotted rivulets. You can feel the stickiness on your own fingers, snd your stomach knots in fear, but not guilt, never guilt.

Justice. To be separated from the world by Justice? One might assume a sojourn at Her Majesty's Pleasure, perhaps? It would be easy to be so literal, but do you know, my dear, I think the Tarot has other surprises in store.

Part of you wants it, perhaps.

Already it is moving for you. Can you see it?

Of course you can. Here, here we see how it accommodates you, for here, in the fifth position, the position of things beginning, the Five of Cups has become the

Five of Wounds:
A woman's face, one you know, bearing an expression of comically dumb, open-mouthed surprise. A trickle of blood runs down between wide, unseeing eyes from one of five deep round wounds in her forehead. She – the she you wanted to know about when you came here – she had that expression, you recall, in the second before her body caught up with her brain and she slumped, already so very dead, to the floor. Those lifeless eyes, frozen in shock. Those eyes.

Self-explanatory, I think, and look, my darling, my beauty, no High Priestess lies underneath for you, oh no, your future has incurred the wrath of  

II. The Revenant:
A figure sits at a table on which a bloodied chef's knife lies beneath a twelve-place Tarot spread. Behind the figure, a woman's corpse reaches out a hand as if to grasp the querent by the shoulder.
You feel a terrible cold prickling at the nape of your neck.

You will not look over your shoulder.

You will not.

You will not.

Stay seated. You have no choice, do you? You are the one who sees things through to the end, are you not? I think all three of us know that, don't we, my darling morsel?

Here, you can lift the eleventh card. It's the position of your desires.

Go on.

Three of Cups:
An indeterminate number of men and women, nude, shaven-headed, engage in a tangle of writhing limbs, gasping faces, in several varieties of sexual congress: genital, mouth, hand, orifice. Three hands protrude from the writing mass, holding cups, one of which collects freshly ejaculated semen.

See, fulfilment. Catharsis. That's not so bad. It is what you wanted from the beginning, isn't it, my pretty? Release, without thought, or responsibility, or the burden of choice. But what sort of catharsis, hmm? What sort?

XV. The Devil:
The clairvoyant is laughing at you as you lift the Three to reveal a depiction of a figure, lion-headed, man-bodied, massively endowed, rests taloned hands on the shoulders of a young man and a young woman, both shackled around the neck. The man has his eyes closed, and bears an expression of resignation on his face. The woman, however, stares at you, pleading for help.

This sort of catharsis: self-destruction. Slavery. The surrender of your self to your appetites. You gave in long ago.

For see, my lovely, my morsel, it strikes me that you have already destroyed yourself with your crime.

You killed her. You killed her and oh your heart is full of guilt and shame and the knife lying there on the table in front of you with her blood going all black and sticky on its edge, that's just another reminder.

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. We are in a pickle, aren't we? Stare at the knife all you like, my pretty, but you and I both know it's staying on the table.

I think you know what's coming in the sixth position, the place of responsibility, of consequences. Of course you do. Here. Pick it up.

The Knight of Eyes:
A figure in clothes resembling yours, face ruined by bloody, empty sockets reaches out towards you plaintively, the eyes missing from the face in the palms of each hand.

Pentacles, Eyes. Valuable, see. Currency. Whoever has eyes to see, let them see, eh? Hah!

You came here for illumination, didn't you? You wanted to understand what you'd done. But the Tarot doesn't explain to you what you know already, and it's none of my business to know how or why you murdered your lover so brutally, so... messily. I don't want to know.

Pick it up. Don't be shy now.

XIII. Death:
Skull-faced, in jeans and a T-shirt, the Reaper stands over an open, shallow grave shovelling earth in. A hand reaches from the grave, pleading, begging succour. No sympathy is given.

Of course it's Death! What else could it be? The irony is of course that this is one of the most benign cards you've dealt yourself, for it is the card of endings, of the finish. It tells us that it will be over soon, my pretty.

Only one spot to go, the twelfth, for the unexpected, for the outside influence, for the secret ending. And look! Oh, look! My Tarot has outdone itself for you. A Queen of Swords is your nemesis, but here, for you, it has become

The Queen of Books:
A woman of stately age and impressive girth, grey curly hair framing a round, hard face with eyes so blue that they bore into you, triumphantly. She sits on the opposite side of the table, a twelve-place spread of the Tarot between you. On the near side of the table, the bloodied chef's knife, and a pair of hands spotted with blood, as your own, resting on the baize. The twelfth card in the pictured reading duplicates this card, and you know that if you stare hard enough, you will fall into it, into an infinite recursion, forever.

What sword bites as comprehensively as a book? And the Tarot, why, I told you at the beginning that the Tarot is the Book of Thoth, the infinite repository of divinatory wisdom. It is itself the Queen of Books, and as the Queen of Books, my dear, my darling, my lovely, my beauty, it is your nemesis.

Here we are. You sought refuge, but the Tarot offers no refuge for such as you, with your threats and the blood on your knife and the blood on your hands, only truth.

If you are sincere with the Tarot, the Tarot will be sincere with you. Didn't I say? It is being sincere with you.

One last card, then. One final card to finish you off.

XX. The Reckoning:
You – it's you, it was always you – sit by the window of the room, clutching at your throat, eyes bulging, as the spectre of your murdered lover, butchered, a walking corpse, stands behind you, hands tight around your throat, calmly strangling you. You try to scramble for the knife, look up at the smiling clairvoyant, but you already feel the cold fingers at your neck, so cold they burn your skin.

In the picture on the card, the world outside the window explodes in mushroom clouds and fire. An apocalypse, the end of everything.