Thursday, January 1, 2009

In the Cards (Full Story)

The caravan sat up against an old wooden fence, covered in rust and moss like it had been puked out by the earth. Vintage, her older brother Lem had called it, but Nim knew better. Vintage meant trash.

She pulled her shawl around her shoulders, but the wind still bit her skin. She couldn’t go inside yet. Lem hadn’t given the signal. Tonight’s girl was blonde, her skin bronzed by the sun. Nim looked down at her own milky white hands. She’d never have tan skin. She’d never have anything the girl in the caravan had—money, friends. It wasn’t in the cards for her.

Dusky pink clouds swept the sky, and by now Lem would be flipping over the fourth card—past. No matter what the card actually said, he’d be reading her some generic spiel about how she had a friend of the opposite sex whom she thought she could trust, only to have her heart ripped out. Then the fifth card on the cross—conscious. He’d tell her to trust her heart when a new person entered her life, and he’d be giving her his most charming smile.

Even as his little sister, Nim could see the beauty in Lem. His deep blue eyes could melt the heart of any girl, even the rich ones that wandered into the carnival on Thanksgiving break from school. Lem’s black hair always seemed to fall over one eye at just the right time, like he’d trained it that way. It softened him. Made him look sweet. But Nim knew him better.

Nim perched on the tow hitch at the front of the caravan, the cold on the steel worming its way through her jeans. She tucked her hands under her arms to try and warm them. Her head fell back against the caravan and she listened. She could hear the muffled giggling of the girl and Lem’s deep voice, coaxing her along, making her believe his every word.

He’d be reading the sixth card, Nim’s favorite part. On the sixth card, near future, Lem would drop a subtle hint about what was going to happen once he read the tenth and final card. And they never caught on. Not one of them. Nim’s lips pulled up into a small smile. There was nobody better at the game than Lem.

A rustling sound caught Nim’s attention and she watched a flea-bitten dog wander away from the brush. It stopped in front of her and sniffed the ground in her direction. She looked around for an owner, but she knew she wouldn’t find one. There were so many wild dogs roaming the outlands around this city, there should be a law. Maybe there was a law. Nim didn’t know. The caravan moved so often, she couldn’t possibly keep track of all the laws.

The dog was an ugly grayish-brown color. Its fur was matted and full of mange. It had a fresh cut across its muzzle and a few old scars criss-crossed here and there. But there was something about it that made her want to touch it.

“Hey,” she whispered. “Come ‘ere.” The dog whined. “I ain’t gonna hurt ya.” She reached into her jeans pocket and pulled out a chicken bone she’d picked up off the street. “Here.” She held it out to the dog. They had enough chicken bones. She could spare one.

The dog crept closer, its nose in the air. Nim smiled and cooed at it. Maybe Lem would let her keep this one. The last one they’d taken over to the chop wagon and traded it for coffee, eggs, and flour.

The dog stretched its neck and a black tongue slipped out of its mouth and touched Nim’s hand. She grabbed it by the scruff and pulled it closer. The dog whined and struggled. “Shhh!” Nim whispered. She pulled the animal to her and held it tight to soothe it. “It’s okay.” The dog calmed and took the bone.

Nim listened to the voices inside the caravan, hoping Lem hadn’t heard the scuffle. He’d be mad if Nim blew it before he got to the tenth card.

Laughter rose up from behind the tin wall and Nim breathed a sigh of relief. She looked down into the dog’s mud-colored eyes. “Sorry I don’t have meat for ya.” She stroked the smooth patch of fur, untouched by mange, on the dog’s ear, and she felt a bump underneath. She turned the ear inside out. There was a small tattoo, done in black or blue ink. It didn’t look like any letter she’d ever seen, or a number, but some kind of symbol. The sky had grown dark and she couldn’t make it out. She leaned the dog’s head back a little and tried to catch the tattoo in the light seeping through the curtain on window above them.

Focusing on the tattoo, Nim didn’t catch the annoyance in the dog’s eyes. It flipped his head and bit her hand. “Gah!” She jumped up, letting go of the dog. It disappeared into the brush, its tail between its legs. “Go ‘head. Run away, ya bastard!” she yelled after it. Nim squeezed her hand and blood oozed out between her fingers. “Stupid mutt.” She sat back down on the tow hitch and watched a cloud of breath form in front of her face. Her hand throbbed. She needed to clean it but everything was inside.

Nim strained to hear, but the voices inside the trailer were silent. Had they heard her? Nim cursed herself under her breath. She hoped that Lem had gotten to the tenth card already and that she hadn’t spoiled anything. Maybe she’d missed her cue because she was distracted with the dog, and Lem was inside patiently waiting for her.

She stood, brushed the hair back from her shoulders and adjusted her shawl. It wasn’t ideal to pop in with blood dripping from her palm, but there was no time to find a wash bucket. Nim reached for the handle, stopped only for a moment to utter, “Showtime” and pulled the door open.

Nim held her eyes wide as they adjusted to the soft glow of candlelight. It didn’t help them focus any faster, but this part always went better if she appeared to be seeing things others couldn’t.

The air was so full of the blonde’s cloying perfume, Nim was sure it would stick in the back of her throat long after Lem had sent her on her way. Nim didn’t allow her nose to wrinkle. The smell was no worse than the usual must of the caravan. Lem called it character.

The blonde’s back was to her. Lem always seated them so he could see the door and give Nim her cue. He would lean back in his chair and smile. He always said the same thing, “Nim, just in time.  Would ya take a look at these cards? The lady has quite the future.” But it wasn’t the words that were important, it was his gesture. If he swept his left hand over the cards, that meant love; if it was his right, money.

Nim would approach the table slowly. She knew just how to let her head fall so that she appeared to be listening to the spirits. It was an easy sell. She already looked like a ghost. After a moment, she would speak softly in a way that made her words seem profound, and tell them she saw a great love in their future. Or money. Or fame. Or whatever it was Lem had figured they wanted most. It didn’t matter what the spirits actually had to say.

Of the dozens of signals Lem had designed, they used only three or four, but as Nim stepped into the room this time, he used none of them.

Because Lem wasn’t there.

There was only the blonde and the table and the four walls of the caravan. Nim took another step and could see that the blonde’s shoulders trembled and her arms were covered in gooseflesh.

“Hey,” she called, but her voice sunk into the thick shag of the carpet. The blonde didn’t move. Nim tugged her shawl tight around her shoulders and stepped around the table. The girl had a strange and focused look in her eyes. Nim glanced over the spread of cards. Nine in all, with the tenth clutched in the delicately jeweled fingers of the girl. “Hey,” she said again, this time louder.

With a start, the girl dropped the card. “Oh, hey.” She smiled. Her teeth were whiter than pearls. “Sorry. I must’ve totally spaced for a minute.”

Nim stepped back as the girl got to her feet and slung her purse over her shoulder. The strap was leather with shiny silver studs. “Would you mind? I mean, I’ve gotta go.” She dug her cell phone out and started rapidly tapping at the screen. “Just, uh, tell ‘im I said thanks or something.”

She moved quickly. The door fell shut behind her and Nim listened as she stepped into a jog. Nim couldn’t blame her. This wasn’t the sort of place for city girls after dark.

It didn’t take long to search the space. There were only so many places a person could hide in their tiny caravan and Lem was in none of them. Nim frowned at the mess of blankets on his bed. If this was part of the game, he’d have told her.

Coming back to the table in the center of the room, she traced the pattern of cards Lem had laid. The spread was filled with cup cards. Lem would’ve had no trouble reading them as love. He called that sort of thing magic.

It was the tenth card that made her hiss through her teeth. It lay over the sixth, and Nim knew from the bit she could see that it was Death – the card of transformation. But the tenth card was not one she’d ever seen before.

A mangy dog with muddy eyes and scars criss-crossed over its nose stood on dusty ground. It’s lips were pulled back in a snarl. Blood dripped from one of its sharp teeth. ‘The Cur’ was printed across the top in jagged, black font. Painted in the same style as the rest of Lem’s cards, this one could’ve gone unnoticed to someone else, but Nim knew better.

Nim shivered in spite of the warmth of the caravan. Fire seemed a fitting companion for this card. She would burn it in the trash bin and then find Lem, but as she reached for the card, something in the background caught her eye.

The Cur stood some distance away from a caravan. Nim recognized it as the trash it was, but it was the figure standing by the door that made her catch her breath and hold it: a boy, dressed in jeans and a loose button down top with a deck of cards spilling from one hand and dark hair falling over one blue eye.

“Lem?” She asked, her voice strained and hollow.

As if in answer, Nim heard a dog bark outside her door. Shoving the card into her pocket, she pulled a knife from the wooden block by the sink and opened the door.

The flea-bitten mutt stood ten feet away. He was hard to see against the dark sky, but Nim could see the reflection of candlelight in its eyes and on its pale paws.

“What do you want?” Propping the door with one hand, she held the knife in the other. The handle pressed against her forgotten wound. It throbbed in a dull, distant way.

The mutt whuffed and it sounded like laughter. He bobbed his head, dropping something to the ground at his feet. Nim was sure he grinned, but she had no time to wonder. The dog spun and ran leaving Nim alone in the soft light of the caravan.

“Come on Lem, it’s not funny.” Any second now Lem would step out from the shadows and laugh, Nim was sure of it. She waited, straining her ears for any recognizable sound. Cars passing in the street, the tinny music of the carnival’s old ferris wheel, even the mutt’s growl. But it was as though she were the only one left in the world.

A gust of wind broke the stillness, making Nim shiver. Pulling her shawl tighter, Nim took a step toward the thing the dog had dropped. Light glinted off it in a way she recognized and her skin prickled. A tarot card. Nim could hear it calling to her. It sang a song unlike any she’d ever heard before, and Nim had heard them all.

Lem never let Nim give readings. He thought he was the one with the talent and she let him go right on thinking it. Lem had no idea that while he made up fortunes, Nim saw the real thing. She meant to keep it that way.

The cards spoke to her. It started as whispers soon after their mother died. But now their voices were so loud that they kept her awake. At night, while Lem slept, Nim was forced to lay spread after spread, until they’d spilled all their secrets and finally gone quiet.

Their mother had always warned them not to misuse their gifts. Nim had obeyed, but Lem couldn’t resist using his charm. Through the cards, Nim knew the hearts of everyone with the carnival, whether she wanted to or not. Worst of all, she knew the greed that lived in Lem’s.

The song from the dropped card seemed to swell and grow until it surrounded Nim. The melody wove itself into her bones and she bent down to pick up the card before she even realized she’d walked to it. Nim hesitated. “Lem?” She called one last time, but she’d given up hope of a reply. If this was a joke, Lem would’ve come out by now. Even he wasn’t that mean.

The card lay face down in the dust. It was the same size and shape as Lem and Nim's deck, but with an ornate symbol drawn on it’s back. The symbol reminded Nim of the tattoo in the mutt’s ear. The way the lines twisted into loops and doubled back on themselves sparked a memory. She’d seen a mark like that before.

This belongs to the women in our family. It’s yours now, Nim's mother had whispered, one night near the end. She pressed a small, intricately carved wooden box, just big enough to hold a deck of tarot cards, into Nim’s hands. It will open when you need it. Don’t ever let anyone see it, not even your brother.

Nim could feel the eyes of the mutt out there somewhere. Watching and waiting to see what she did next. With a painful squeeze of the knife for courage, Nim snatched up the card and sprinted back to the caravan.

She slammed the flimsy door shut and latched it, knowing the caravan wouldn’t keep her safe from anything outside. It couldn’t even keep out a strong breeze.

The candles flickered and threatened to go out as Nim dropped the knife back in the block and laid the card face down on the table. She wasn’t ready yet to see what message the dog had left her.

Instead, Nim looked again at Lem’s last spread. He’d thought it was for the blonde, but the cards told a different story. His story. Death in his near future. The Fool as his significator, crossed by the Four of Cups. Greed. And the new card, The Cur, as his outcome. She pulled that one close and studied it. Lem’s face was frozen somewhere between horror and outrage. The Cur seemed to be staring right at her. Not with a snarl, as she’d first thought, but with a grin.

“How?” she asked the cards, but for once they were silent. Only the new card, the one the dog had dropped, still sang. With a shaky hand, she flipped it over.

Nim’s breath caught. The words at the top of the card read The Legacy, and like The Cur, it looked like it belonged in the deck but Nim knew better. It took her a moment to recognize herself because the girl on the card was smiling. But just as she was sure that the boy on The Cur was Lem, she knew the girl on The Legacy was her.

Unlike Lem’s, her card was a portrait. In one bite-scarred hand she held a small wood box. In the other, a deck of cards.

Nim ran to her bed and dug the box her mother had given from it’s hiding place underneath. The top was carved with the same intricate design drawn on the backs of the two new cards. It hummed against her palm, the vibrations a soft thrum in harmony with her heartbeat. At her touch, the lid popped open with a soft click.

The velvet-lined inside was filled with tarot cards, their backs all bearing the ornate symbol. Nim flipped through them slowly. An unfamiliar feeling, power, surged through her as she realized just what she held in her hands. Nim spread the tiny prisons out before her. Every drawing was unique. Each one featured a different scene, a different person, but one thing was always the same. The Cur. His mangy, scar-covered face grinned at her from every card.

*Photo by Paolo Camera (vegaseddie) via Fickr Creative Commons

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