When the Lady Speaks

(Originally published in What Fates Impose.)

 

The first thing you need to know is this: She lies. They're pretty lies, tasting of raspberries and kaleidoscopes and promise, and she smiles when she spins her tales as if that makes it more acceptable. Others will tell you you're a fool for paying, for listening, for daring to believe a fortune teller, but you know in your heart of hearts that they're the fools because lies are often just another variation of the truth.

The truth is, her lies have nothing to do with you.

 

The Star: Hope, confidence

"And this card symbolizes a choice you have to make." Marina pauses to look across the table.

The woman's eyes hold tiny specks of storm. "A difficult choice," Marina adds.

The woman nods slowly. "Does it tell you what I should do?"

Marina turns over the next card: The Lovers. The woman's breath hitches. "I think you already know the answer," Marina says carefully, ignoring the itch in the palm of her hand. Tears spill over the woman's lashes and down her cheeks, but her eyes remain focused and hard and she gives a small nod.

Yes, it was the right thing to say. Once again, Marina's intuition serves her well. Money exchanges hands. From the feel of the folded bills, it's more than the agreed upon amount. This doesn't surprise her. She knows the woman will be back as well, as she knows the card layout is all chance and no mystery. Everything she says is ambiguous, but her clients never notice. They arrange what the cards reveal to fit in the spaces of their lives. They always do.

Marina locks the door, twists the blinds shut, and heads back through the beaded curtain, parting it with both hands so the strands don't get tangled in her wig. Leaving the lights dimmed, she sinks down into her chair, as though her entire body holds the weight of what is yet unknown and unspoken.

The walls of what she calls the parlor are a dusky red, cluttered with mirrors and tiny shelves, with dragons, gargoyles, and crystals. The table is a simple thing, but covered with several heavy tablecloths, all with tassels hanging from the corners. She found the chairs at a thrift store—the dark wood and velvet cushions from another time. A Turkish rug, another thrift store find, covers the floor completely. Every bit of fabric holds a trace of the incense she burns every morning before her clients arrive, a potent blend of frankincense and musk. But not too much; she isn't a church, and absolution doesn't come in a deck of cards or a mouthful of evocative words.

She peels the fingerless gloves from her hands. Drops them on the table with a weary sigh. In the center of her left palm, the tip of a red thread pokes from the skin like a tiny drop of dried blood. When she touches the thread, she smells the tang of oranges, tastes honey on her tongue; both small gifts from the magic. She takes a quick breath before she pulls the thread free. There's a sharp bite of pain, like the last little sting of a scab tugged from a wound. Not a gift, but a price to be paid.

And the itch in her palm vanishes.

The thread goes into a small glass bottle with the others. Six clients; five threads; five stories. Five true answers to questions asked from the heart. Not everyone does, and the threads only answer those who do. How they know the difference between a true wish and one merely formed with lips and tongue, Marina doesn't understand, but she doesn't need to. Not everything in life comes with an explanation. She is only the vessel, the pathway, as her mother and grandmother before her.

As she caps the bottle, her chest tightens and her fingers tremble. The threads, while borne of her body, don't truly belong to her. In days past, she discreetly plucked a thread free and worked the answers into her readings. Hiding the truth inside an expected illusion.

Perhaps she's the one who needs absolution.

But she isn't stealing anything. She's merely…borrowing. If the threads would answer her own questions, she wouldn't need to, but the magic doesn't work that way. And her clients don't truly need the answers; they'll experience them on their own. Knowing or not knowing won't make a bit of difference.

She swallows the guilt and carries the bottle upstairs to her small apartment. The rooms are a far cry from the myriad of colors in the parlor, all beige and brown, sparse and scented only with a hint of last night's dinner left too long in the oven.

Her hands are slow but sure as she removes the wig of long black curls; wipes away the smudges of kohl around her eyes; exchanges the long skirt, the shawl, and the copious amounts of gaudy jewelry for a pair of loose, comfortable pants and a long sleeved t-shirt.

Without the bulk of her disguise, she appears inconsequential. No longer Marina of the cards, but Marian of the late middle age, complete with close-cropped greying hair, loose skin about the jawline and neck, a haiku of lines on her forehead, and a waist thickening a bit more each year. Someone a client could pass on the street without noticing. And yes, it's happened several times.

She leaves the apartment via the back door, the only door she uses when not in disguise, the glass bottle tucked into her pocket. As always, the bus smells of urine and stale sweat. Marian sits toward the front and keeps her eyes turned to the window, to the streets passing by. From time to time, she touches her pocket and traces the outline of the bottle. No one on the bus pays her any attention; she's reached the age of invisibility.

The nurses at the hospital nod and smile when she passes them in the hallway; Marian pretends not to see the pity in their eyes. She pauses for a moment outside the door to Natalie's room, steeling herself for the sound and the smell.

Marian's feet on the tile floor are barely a whisper against the hiss of the respirator. She brushes Natalie's hair back from her face. Rubs ointment on her cracked lips and holds her hand. Her daughter's skin is paper-thin, resembling that of a woman at the tail end of life instead of one in her mid-twenties, and it feels as if it's one touch away from splitting open like a too-ripe fruit. Beneath the blankets, her limbs are frail and still. Her hair, once a rich chestnut hanging halfway down her back is now dull and cropped short.

"Hi, babygirl."

Only the respirator answers; Marian wishes she could pretend it's Natalie's voice murmuring hello in return.

She tells Natalie about her day, about the clients, and finally, she removes the bottle. The guilt returns, and she pauses, as always, before she places the thread on Natalie's palm. She curls Natalie's fingers around the thread and holds them there as she closes her eyes and concentrates—the thread will not unravel on its own. A hint of sweetness on her tongue tells her the thread has begun to spin its tale. She takes her hand away, lest she pull any of the magic away from Natalie.

Natalie's eyes begin to flutter beneath her lids like butterfly wings. Her fingertips twitch and the corners of her lips give a hint of a smile. Marian's eyes burn with tears.

"Come on, sweetheart. Please wake up. Please."

When the thread is spent, the pattern beneath Natalie's lids slows and the ghost of a smile fades. Marian repeats the process with the rest of the threads. Surely her clients would understand. Her mother and grandmother, too.

In the first few weeks after the accident, one of the doctors recommended reading to Natalie or playing the radio or the television. Sometimes the outside stimulation helped, he said. Marian immediately thought of the threads. They contain powerful imagery, like waking dreams, yet even more intense, and when she placed the first thread in Natalie's hand, Natalie smiled. Even after the doctors started using the term permanent vegetative state instead of persistent, Natalie responded to the threads.

Marian refuses to give up. She knows Natalie is still there, locked deep inside. She needs a little help, that's all. And besides, a year isn't that long. Marian read about a woman who woke after five years and a man who did the same after eight.

With enough hope and a bit of magic, Marian is certain Natalie will wake. It's only a matter of time.

 

Strength: Perseverance, composure

Marian turns over the card—The World—and the woman blinks rapidly and raises her gaze.

"Is that good?"

"It symbolizes accomplishment and success."

The woman smiles.

At the end of the day, Marian has six threads in her bottle.

She was thirteen when the first thread poked its way free from her palm. Her mother and grandmother sat her down and explained the way of things—the gift, familial expectation, her duty. They didn't need to, of course. She saw her mother with clients many times, holding their hands and offering words of encouragement before allowing the client to pluck the thread free, yet it always filled Marian with unease. The threads were theirs to give, not for someone to take.

 

The Sun: Optimism, energy

Marian places the last thread—one of only four today—in Natalie's hand, and Natalie's fingers curl in on their own.

"Yes, babygirl, that's it."

But after a moment, Natalie's fingers uncurl once more. Marian's throat feels three sizes too small, and she shakes her head. It's okay, she tells herself. If it happened once, it will happen again. Marian traces the smooth skin of Natalie's palm, a palm that's never birthed a thread. Marian's great-grandmother didn't have the ability either, although she passed it down to all four of her daughters. According to her mother, the gift once skipped three generations and they thought it gone for good. Perhaps the lack of her own gift is why Natalie reacts so strongly to Marian's.

"I know you're in there," she says. "Please come back soon, okay?"

 

Wheel of Fortune: Possibilities, fate

As she's pulling a thread from her palm, Marian's phone rings, a sharp, shrill sound that sends the thread skittering out of her hand onto the floor. Her heart races when she sees the number. She hasn't spoken to her son-in-law in four months, not since he admitted to her that he fell asleep at the wheel.

He walked away from the accident with a broken arm, a sprained ankle, and a scratch on his face. Maybe Marian could've forgiven him if his injuries had been worse.

 

The Moon: Doubt, anxiety

Natalie's fingers twitch, but don't tighten on their own.

"No, you have to hold it," Marian says.

Another twitch and nothing more.

"It's okay. I know it's hard. I understand."

Natalie's foot moves beneath the sheet; Marian covers her mouth to hold in a gasp. She watches and waits, her heart heavy with hope, but it doesn't happen again.

 

The Magician: Action, practicality

Marian walks into Natalie's room and her son-in-law is standing next to the bed. She freezes in place, her mouth open in surprise. He visits on the weekend, never during the week.

"Hello, Marian," Josh says, his voice restrained. Cautious.

"Is everything okay?" she says, forcing her feet to move.

"I tried to call you a few times, but you never answered. I wanted to talk to you about Natalie."

Marian ignores him. "Hi, sweetheart," she says, pressing a kiss to her brow.

"Do you think she'd want this?"

"What do you mean?"

He rakes his fingers through his hair. "All of this. This room, these machines."

"Until she wakes up, this is what we have."

"And what if she never does?" he says, but his gaze is directed at the floor, not at her.

"She will. You'll see."

He opens his mouth. Snaps it shut.

"I know my daughter," Marian says, her voice unwavering. "She's strong. She's going to wake up. She will."

"Marian, I…" He shakes his head. "Never mind. I'll go so you can have your time with her. I'll talk to you soon."

The door closes with a quiet click, and Marian rests her head on the edge of the bed. Natalie is strong. She just needs help finding her way back. And Marian knows Josh isn't serious. He said the same things a few months after the accident. It's hard for him, for both of them, to see Natalie this way, but things will be better when she wakes.

"Come on, sweetheart," she says.

With each thread, Natalie's eyes move and her fingers twitch.

 

The Tower: Change, impact

Marian puts the last thread in the bottle with a smile on her face. Today was a good day. Seven threads, two of which pushed out of her palm twined together. An auspicious sign.

She grabs her phone and her smile crumples. There's a message waiting from Josh: "Marian, I know this is hard for you, but I've been talking to the doctor. A lot. And, and I don't think it's right to keep her alive like that. She'd hate it. You know she would. Please call me back. I've made the arrangements to take her off the respirator, to let her go, and I want to make sure you have time to say goodbye."

Marian puts her face in her hands. No, no, no. He can't do this. He can't. He thinks he knows what Natalie would want, but he doesn't. He doesn't know her like Marian does. He wasn't there when she removed the training wheels from her bike; when she stopped a bully from pushing a smaller child down, earning bruises of her own in the process; when she rescued a dying kitten and nursed it back to health. She's a fighter. She's strong.

Marian dials his number, her hands shaking, and doesn't wait for him to speak. "Please, Josh, don't do this to her. Don't kill my daughter."

"Natalie wouldn't want to live this way. I know she wouldn't. I'm sorry, Marian, but I've been thinking about this for a while and my decision's been made. It's time. Next Sunday—"

"It's your fault she's there." The words come out barbed at the edges and there's a long pause.

"Don't you think I know that?" he says.

She pretends not to hear the emotion in his voice. Her hands clench into fists; a knot forms in her chest.

"You don't have the right to do this, Josh. I'm her mother, and I know she's still in there."

"And I'm her husband. I love her more than I ever thought I could love someone, and I can't bear to see her like this anymore, wasting away to nothing. I love her enough to let her go. It's the right thing to do."

"No, it isn't the right thing. I know she's going to wake up. I feel it in my heart. Please, just give me a little more time. Another month, just a month. Please, please, I'm begging you."

Another long silence. She squeezes her eyes shut, trying vainly to hold back the tears.

He gives a long, shuddering sigh. "And after that, you'll ask for another month and then another, and I'll keep finding excuses to say yes. I'm sorry. You, we, have to let her go."

Marian doesn't say goodbye, doesn't say anything else. The phone tumbles from her hand to clatter onto the floor.

 

The Chariot: Struggle, conviction

Marian pats Natalie's hand. "Don't worry. Everything is going to be fine. I know you want to wake up, and I know you just need a little help."

Marian talked to the doctor, but even though his eyes were sad, he didn't tell her anything new. She called an attorney who told her that Josh, as Natalie's husband, had the right to make the decision.

But it isn't right. It isn't right at all. How can they just want to let Natalie go? Why is she the only one who believes that she'll wake?

"Natalie, you have to hurry, okay?"

Marian pulls out the first thread then pauses. Maybe there's another way. She drops the thread back into the bottle and worries a cuticle between her teeth.

 

The High Priestess: Intuition, sound judgment

Marian puts on her wig. The kohl. The jewelry. Funny how it doesn't take much to change a person into someone else. While she waits for her first client, she shuffles the cards. The first she turns over is The Hanged Man. She shuffles the cards again. Again, The Hanged Man.

"I won't," she says, her voice iron hard and fragile as spun glass. "I can't."

 

The Empress: Mothering, comfort

On Friday evening, Marian takes out the bottle; this time it's half-full with twisting threads. She listens to the hiss of the respirator. Inhales the antiseptic stink of the room. The despair. This has to work. It's the only thing she hasn't tried, the only thing she can think of. She pats the back of Natalie's hand.

"I need you to wake up, sweetheart. Please. I know you're in there."

She puts all the threads in Natalie's hand at once. Marian sees a flash of color and shape in her mind's eye when the threads begin to tell their tales, and she pulls her hand away. Natalie's fingers curl in. Marian holds her breath.

Natalie's eyes trace chaotic patterns beneath her lids. Her fingers twitch and twitch again. Her toes, too. Her eyelids snap open; her gaze fixes on Marian's, fixes and holds. The hand without the threads reaches and grabs Marian's almost tight enough to hurt.

Tears turn Marian's vision to a blur. "I knew you'd come back," she says, her voice thick. "I always knew. I love you so much, so very much."

Then Natalie's hand goes limp and her lids flutter down. "No, oh, no. Come back honey. Wake up." She shakes Natalie's hand. Her shoulder. "Please, please, please. You have to stay awake."

But Natalie remains still, her eyes closed. Marian sinks to the floor, the ache in her chest too much for one woman to hold.

"I don't know what else to do," she says between sobs.

Finally, she stands and wipes her cheeks dry. She'll tell Josh everything. He won't allow the doctors to disconnect the respirator once she tells him what happened. She'll even break the family's code of secrecy and tell him how. She'll show him so he can see it for himself. Then he'll truly understand, and he'll have to give her a little more time. A few more weeks, that's all she needs. Maybe a month or two. Surely not longer than that.

Then all the air rushes from her lungs. Emerging from her daughter's palm is a single red thread. No, it's not possible. It's not. Marian clutches both hands between her breasts. Natalie's chest rises and falls, rises and falls.

With her mouth pressed into a thin line, Marian tugs the thread free. She cups her hand around it, closes her eyes, and waits for the answer to her question.

 

The Hanged Man: Letting go

The last thing you need to know is this: The locked door has nothing to do with you. You can look inside—there's a gap in the curtain—and see a hint of shadow. You might stand there for a moment, bills in hand, swallowing your hope while you wonder what happened between last week and this. You might feel a moment of frustration or even embarrassment; you've been foolish for coming, for spending your money. Maybe you'll dare one last look and see movement beyond the beaded curtain. You'll lift your hand to knock, then let it fall.

In the end, maybe it's better not to know.


Damien Angelica Walters is the author of Paper Tigers (Dark House Press, 2016) and Sing Me Your Scars (Apex Publications, 2015), winner of the This is Horror Award for Short Story Collection of the Year. Her work has been nominated twice for a Bram Stoker Award, reprinted in The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror and The Year’s Best Weird Fiction, and published in various anthologies and magazines, including Nightscript, Cemetery Dance OnlineNightmare Magazine, and Black Static. She lives in Maryland with her husband and two rescued pit bulls. Find her on Twitter @DamienAWalters.

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Comments

I've read a lot of stories that are about tarot cards, but this is one that really resonated with me, which is why we published it here. What do you think about them—believer? Skeptic? My friend Martin (RIP) used to read mine all the time and they were creepy—accurate and intense.

I don't know what to say; words fail me. I always expect the best from Damien's work, and she always manages to blow my feeble expectations away. This is just stunning. Amazing. Beautiful. Heartbreaking. About as perfect as you can get. I really got choked up with this one. Another great short from one of the greatest writers I've ever read. How Damien isn't a superstar by now, I do not know. Wonderful stuff, aching and vibrant.