‘You need your own cards,’ she tells me, as the large, white bus we’re riding comes to a sluggish stop. She stands up, grips my bright red umbrella so tightly in her hands that they turn white, and begins filing out of the bus, holding herself carefully as she lunges down those three, incredibly steep, stairs.
I do not reply. Instead, I follow after her, thank the bus driver, and step out onto the curb. It is drizzling, coming down lightly on the quiet street, and though the clouds look thick and gloomy, the storm of the last few days has for the most part moved on. The wind is different, too. Calm. Serene. Full of bliss.
‘You do not think you do?’ Abuelita stops and gives me a searching look, her eyes trying to pry into my head. I feel as though I’m about to sneeze.
‘I didn’t say that,’ I say, quickly. Concentrating, in my mind’s eye I erect a wall along my forehead. That relieves the pressure a bit.
‘You know as well as I do that you don’t have to say anything,’ she says, before turning the corner. ‘But, still. You need your own cards. Tu Abuela Christie bought me my first pack when I was seven and she taught me how to read them. She used to hit me with a ruler if I got their meanings wrong. I did the same to your mother when she was seven. I don’t know why she never bothered to teach you, but then again, I don’t know what was going through her mind when she decided to marry a Catholic, so, eso es, creo…’
She pops the umbrella open, and somehow it sticks out like a rose among a large green bush, a scarlet flame against the grey sky. ‘I don’t know. But you need to hone your gift. You are a seer. I will teach you.’
I learned a long time ago not to question Abuelita, no matter how incredulous the words that come flying out of her face sound at times. I’ve come to believe, (and I think I speak for everyone at home in this regard) that I feel so weird about Abuelita moving into our home is because deep down I’ve always sort of thought that she was a bit of a fraud. It sounds harsher than I mean it to sound. But I do believe it firmly. Everything that can be explained through hardcore, concrete facts, Abuelita chalks it up to something else, a gift, magic, the Gods. Something that makes us otherly, something I think she is more than happy with being.
We cross the street, my eyes scanning over a bookstore and an adult lingerie store (I tried to convince myself that I imagined this but I swear Abuelita was staring for a hard minute at the toys in the back of the shop), until Abuelita stops, suddenly, and turns to look at me. She stands in front of a window display and gestures to the sign, ‘Snake Eyes’.
‘This is it?’ I ask, taking it in. Two black cats sit on wooden chairs with Norse runes carved onto the backboard. A rainbow flag is tacked against the wall, and beside it, The Witches Crede on thick, yellowed-with-age parchment. A table with a dark purple cloth sits close to the window, with a statue of Diana, a small cauldron with coins in it, and a black candle on it. There is a small mirror leaning against the wall in a bowl of what looks like black salt towards the back of the window display.
‘Si. This is it.’ She rubs her hands enthusiastically before turning to the black, metal-meshed door and pulling it open by the doorknob. She hesitates before entering the place, stepping one foot inside carefully, like a jaguar pawing the earth for acknowledgement. A silver bell rings, and a plume of smoke rises from the back, wafting through the bead curtain dividing the front of the shop from the back, and instantly, the bitter, ammonia-like scent of stale cat urine levels me, followed by the warmth of amber and the sweetness of rose, the muskiness of patchouli and the freshness of jasmine. I can only guess that somewhere in the building, dragon’s blood incense is burning mightily.
‘Hi, there,’ floats a voice, and from the beaded curtain emerges a plump, stoutly woman with long, bushy brown hair. She radiates a lightness to her, as though she’s gliding, as she walks over to us, offering an uneasy smile. ‘Welcome to Snake Eyes,’ she says, eyeing us both, searching carefully. ‘Can I help you with anything?’
‘Actually,’ says Abuelita, her eyes on fire. ‘I have a list of different types of herbs, I was wondering if you could walk me through them?’ Her accent thickens as she continues to speak in English, and she flashes me a mischievous grin as she pulls out a folded piece of paper, walks over to the counter, and unfolds it in front of the woman.
‘Wormwood, nettle, hyssop, Beth’s root,’ she reads, eyebrows furrowing. ‘We don’t have Echinacea, or milkweed…’
Shelves and shelves and shelves line the walls, stacked with mason jars filled with herbs of all kinds, roots and leaves and dried up petals and bath salts in pink and blue and green. Crystals, zebra-striped and opaque quartz and onyx, lay in an intricate, grass and twig weaved basket, boasting triangles and circles of triskelion and epona, sold for a dollar each. Small red empty sachet bags sit in a smaller, similar basket, waiting to be turned into good luck charms, and next to it a small yew tree, dead from the looks of it, silver pendants engraved with various symbols like the Pentacle and the All-Seeing-Eye and the Triple Goddess, Norse runes, Egyptian glyphs, and Greek letters, dangling from its branches.
This all feels similar and yet foreign at the same time. The smells, the sights, even down to the stench of acrid cat piss, take me back to a place I sometimes force myself to believe that I once dreamed up, that never happened. A game.
As it turns out, I was never really sure what was and wasn’t a game. Many times over did memories of living with her, watching her work at her shop, float through my mind and even now it still seems bonkers, with the mad, theatrical way she would wave her arms about when reading tea leaves or coffee grounds. People would visit the shop and ask for their cards to be read and she did so speaking in Miskito, as though trying to give the appearance of channeling some sacred deity with a secret language to divine a future carved out by the gods.
She was like a magician. You could try all you might but you will never see the wires or the mirrors through the smoke, the illusions she would cast when performing. And for her, it was a performance. The way she lowered her voice several octaves when reading palms and tracing their lines, the way she would seize when scrying in her favorite potted Nahuatl bowl, or even just bumping into someone at the grocery store would cause a scene, because people couldn’t make what to do with the elderly little five-foot-two Hispanic woman who screamed ‘Ayyyeeee!! The exam is a mirror!!’ because she ‘had a feeling’. There was a perverse sense of awareness in her eyes, not unlike the way a cat watches its prey before pouncing and dining upon carnivorous flesh, that added to the general anxiety that the woman would give me.
‘…they’re over here, if you’ll follow me,’ I hear, as the shop woman approaches me, with Abuelita following. ‘Excuse me,’ she says, and as I move out of the way, she reaches past me and pulls open a pair of cabinet doors, revealing small, carton boxes of different types of cards. All sorts of cards, some with planets and others with woodnymphs, some with Egyptian symbolism and others with a manga inspired theme. I spot an Alice-in-Wonderland themed deck, and I almost start laughing but I hold my tongue; laughter and mockery is one of the worst offenses to commit against a system of belief. The last thing I want is an angry Witch.
‘And they’re for your grandson?’ asks the woman to Abuelita, who nods vigorously.
‘Yes. He does not have a deck yet but I want him to have one.’ She gives me a look and smiles. ‘Consider it a late birthday present,’ she says, winking.
‘Alright, so as you can see we have many types of cards,’ says the woman, softly as she looks at me. Her pale blue eyes seem almost pupil-less. ‘Now, what brings you to want a set of cards?’
I honestly have no idea, but I give her a different answer, in the form of a question. ‘What do you mean by that?’ Stall. Stall as long as possible. Just pick a deck that feels right.
‘Well,’ she says, pursing her lips. ‘What sort of Reader are you? That will help out with narrowing the type of Tarot deck you can use. They all are used to tap into the knowledge that the Triple Goddess and the Horned God are offering us, it just depends on how you get through that journey.’
Mother always told me that the gifts we had were very simple. Everyone had the ability to tap into it, but not everyone could hone it into a craft. It takes a certain kind of discipline. And maybe she was right. I was taught the basics of belief. Of faith and willpower. Of focusing the mind, placating the Gods, invoking their power…rifling through cards here and there, sprinkling salt, the power of lavender and sage and dragon’s blood. Candles, chalk, circles, calling forth luck and discord, wind magic, blood magic, rune magic…and then my stepdad moved in when Mother got married and I learned a completely different set of fundamentals, though strangely enough, they all seemed so similar. There’s always a virgin giving a miraculous birth, always a prophecy, a fall from paradise, war. There’s always a man, always a city, always a lighthouse by the sea…ancient texts, scriptures memorized and incanted. Holy water, wine, genuflecting, crossing thyself. Amen, Hosanna, Maranatha, Hallelujah, Amen.
‘Actually,’ begins Abuelita, adjusting her glasses. ‘We’re a different kind of breed. Nicaraguan, of the ancient Maya bloodline. In our culture, a child born under the sign of the Jaguar is blessed by the Gods with gifts, which our family has. I just think cards are an easy first step towards honing them instead of staring at coffee grounds and tea leaves.’
The woman laughs, a loud, throaty laugh, and I instantly feel a chill run down my spine. The air, once warm and comforting and full of peace, suddenly becomes as cold and thick as flan, and as I turn to look at Abuelita, I can see her face has changed. A manic sort of look envelopes her face, only for a moment, before it breaks off and slowly turns into a strained smile.
‘I’m sorry,’ she says, her English barely understood through the thickness of her Nicoya accent. ‘I do not see what is so funny.’
The woman, noticing where she committed error, stops, and her face becomes solemn. ‘Oh, I’m sorry. I thought it was a bit funny, that’s all.’ A thick, three second silence ensues, with the woman nervously adding, ‘You just don’t see too many shamans in here buying tarot cards, that’s all.’
A nice save. Abuelita’s face softens before she turns to me again. ‘Tienen velas a la casa? No me recuerdo…’
‘I think we have emergency white candles,’ I reply. ‘Not ritual candles, though.’
‘That’s okay. I’ll buy what we need. Let me know what deck you want and I’ll buy it for you, okay Lucas?’
‘Yes, please take your time,’ says the shop woman, offering a sincere smile. ‘These are very personal items. You’ll want it to feel right when you use them.’
I watch as the woman guides Abuelita through the different jars of crystals and salts and herbs, with Abuelita conversing with her, asking questions, adding to her stores of knowledge, and the woman more than happy to oblige, hopefully understanding that a wiccan occult shop is very different from a botanica, hopefully realizing that her questions are not a hallmark of being unskilled but rather from being a stranger in strange world.
At least, that’s what she should realize. Whether I believe in it or not is a different story. I think I’ve believed in everything, at least at one point in time or another, and maybe nothing at all. Abuelita told me that the three of us, including Mother and I, were born under the sign of One Jaguar, one of the nine sacred lords of Xibalba, capable of performing wonders and feats of glory. I just don’t see that in myself. I’m not as otherly as Abuelita makes it seem. I’m not a ‘seer’ like her. I don’t claim gifts holy and unholy of the Gods. I have ADD. Attention Deficit Disorder. That’s it, really. I pay acute attention to everything, aided by a photographic memory. So, everything I notice is eternally engraved, branded with the fires of the ancient winged serpents of old, into my mind, body and soul. I just can’t help it. I remember everything.
So much so that the little details, like the fact that Abuelita has now completely weeded herself into nearly everything we do at home within the last two days, cannot pass me by unnoticed. I know that she’s begun diluting our laundry detergent with her own herbs (our clothing now permanently smells like the lavender and sage we plant outside our front door). I know that she’s begun scratching symbols of Itzamna and Juracan and Tezlatipoca onto our candles, the Mayan and Aztec gods for luck, family and clarity. I know that CBD oil now ends up in Galadriel’s bowl of kibble everyday because I see the bottle gradually depleting and I see Galadriel being more calm when she hears loud noises, yet her energy is rampant, like a newborn puppy, seeing the world as new once again. I know and can see these things.
Abuelita says it’s a gift. Me, I’m a sceptic. The answer is simple: I am a writer. Do I sometimes see colors when I look at people? Yes. I do. It’s called synesthesia. Do I sometimes feel other people’s thoughts and feelings? It’s called empathy. Do I frequently, more than not, see words in my minds eye, clearly, and in people’s handwriting? Thoughts I catch midair? Sure. That’s me being incredibly observant. As a writer, I observe and think and analyze, and when I’m done analyzing, I over-analyze. Body language, intonation, motives, facial features; I look into the eyes of man and divine their secrets. But to Abuelita, it is a gift.
I sigh and glance back at the decks of cards. So many of them, in orange boxes and yellow boxes, in black and green, Le Tarot de Marseilles, Lo Scarabeo, Baraja Espanola, and, one that catches my eye. A yellow cover, with a man holding a double-edged candle, and before him on a table lie four objects: a long staff, a sword, a pentacle and a golden chalice. Dressed in white with a red coat over him, an infinity sign floats above his head.
I can see the words etched clearly in my mind leap out at me from the pack, and a voice glides gently towards me…try me…choose me…pick me…
I may have imagined it. I may have made the whole thing up in my head. But that does not stop me from carefully reaching out to take the box into my hand. I bring it close, observing the early twentieth-century drawings, the look of The Magician’s face, as he seemingly challenges me to use them.
Try me…choose me…pick me…
‘Well, look at what we have here,’ says Abuelita, startling me. She is smiling radiantly, standing next to me, and at first I think she is going to take the cards into her hands but instead, I follow her line of sight. ‘Pequena arana linda, que haces ahi? Ojala que mandas tanta suerte a mi…’
An old rhyme, an old charm, the luck that a live, domestic spider brings. In place of where the deck of cards in my hands used to be is a Daddy Long Legs, no bigger than a poker chip, climbing cautiously over another set of cards.
‘Don’t kill it,’ she tells me. ‘Never kill a spider if you find it in the house, remember? I’ve told you that before.’
‘Why is that?’ asks the woman, floating over, the air about her charged with hues of purple and yellow. Arrogance. A word that writes itself across her face.
‘If you find a spider in the house, you let it live,’ says Abuelita, not taking her eyes off it. ‘It brings bad luck if you kill it.’ Abuelita and her superstitions, a story for anything and everything, always eager to share the knowledge she has, always willing to give. ‘And it’s good luck if you let it live. Blessings for the house and its people.’
The woman laughs again, and this time, there’s a hint of cold, ugly pity. Yellow the color of jaundice. ‘That’s so strange,’ she says, offering a toothy grin. ‘I don’t know where you’ve heard that, but I’ve always believed that any creature sent to you by the Goddess is a blessing if you take care of it and treat it right. Your beliefs are so…interesting.’
Very rarely am I talked down to. Maybe it’s my height. Maybe it’s my demeanor, my attitude, how I carry myself. But watching a stranger belittle my grandmother, mi Abuelita, is as heartbreaking as it is horrifying, and I find my nails digging into my palms so hard my hands are white with anger. I can’t believe the nerve on this woman. I feel the urge to yell, to scream, to strike back, tic for tac…
‘Are you the owner of this shop?’ asks Abuelita, calmly. I look at her, and though I can see her speak through a clenched-shut jaw, I cannot read her at all. No words, no thoughts, no hues bleed off her. She is of marble and steel.
The woman smiles brightly. ‘I am. Pepper O’Hagan, resident Witch, at your service,’ she says, feigning a bow.
Abuelita watches but says nothing for a few moments. Then, ‘Lucas,’ she says, turning to me. ‘Are you all set?’
I look at the deck of cards in my hand and then glance back over at her. ‘Yeah,’ I say.
She turns to Pepper. ‘We’re ready when you are.’
The Witch’s smile grows wider. ‘Fantastic! Follow me to the counter, please.’ She pivots on her foot and begins walking back calmly to the counter, where Abuelita has piled bags of dried roots and herbs and bone fragments and candles, red and white and blue and green and yellow and black, and sticks of incense.
Before she reaches the counter, however, I freeze. The hairs on my arm and the back of my neck stand up, and I feel a static change in the air; Abuelita raises her right hand slightly, and with the flick of a wrist, her index and middle finger joined and pointing straight at Pepper, a few sparks shoot out, dancing with the invisible wind as they hurtle through space. The effect is unmistakable; Pepper, as though someone shoved her on her back, cries out and stumbles forward, her knees breaking against the floor as the rest of her crumpled body follows.
‘Mira, Dios mio,’ says Abuelita, suddenly, rushing over to help Pepper up. ‘Are you alright?’ Sarcasm. Fake sympathy. Manufactured feelings. I forgot that Abuelita is master of all.
‘Yes, I’m fine,’ says Pepper, managing to get back to her feet. ‘I don’t know what happened. I probably just – I dunno – I probably just lost my balance, that’s all.’ She chuckles to herself before offering a semi-saccharine smile at us. ‘Okay. I’m fine, thank you.’
I watch as Pepper rings up the merchandise Abuelita is purchasing, but deep down, I feel a growing knot in my stomach, like I’m going to be sick. That didn’t just happen. I imagined that. My ADD, my overactive imagination. I must be dreaming.
‘Now you can start reading,’ says Abuelita, smiling as she hands me my brand-new pack of cards. Seeing my apprehensive look, she rolls her eyes, her smile growing all the while. ‘Oh, that?’ And then, she doesn’t speak, but her thoughts are floating out of the doors of her mind, like they’ve been flung wide open.
That’s just a little game, mijo, it’s harmless.
It’s only a game, I need to remind myself, it’s only a game, but I can see in her eyes, the tongues of fire have now become full on forests ablaze, as though she relishes that challenge.
Don’t worry. I’ll teach you that. I will teach you how to wield wonders and work marvels and make miracles. I will teach you everything you need to know. And then, nobody will ever screw with you. We will never be forgotten, Lucas.
‘Blessed be,’ says Pepper, bagging all the items. She smiles, but I can see straight through her phony exterior. The yellow and purple, almost like comedy and tragedy masks, float around her. ‘We’ll see you next time!’
‘Yes,’ says Abuelita, devilishly. ‘Blessed be.’
We will be strong.