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By Madeline Polzer
The glass panel was old, foggy with grime and dirt. Everyone on the other side looked distant and dirty--drawing closer, pressing against her glass case, only made them look worse. She felt like she was under threat. They made her want to get up and leave.
The stars spun out above the carnival lights clear and bright, over the county fairground that was, tonight, her kingdom. No one had come to her in hours. They had put her between the Tilt-a-Whirl and the little roller coaster again. She glanced down at the well-worn tarot deck in front of her. A group passed by in a flurry of laughter and smooth, fiery movement, as incomprehensible to her in her rigid stillness as the stars dancing through their parts over her head.
She tried to cheer herself up. It was only Thursday night, she thought, she would be busier tomorrow. She watched for groups of girls, teenaged girls. They were the most likely to come to her, packs of them, their eyes begging questions about love and power, pulpy lips ripe for answers and playful chatter: of course none of it was real, but what’s the harm? One after another they’d press their coins into the slot to make her arm jerk, the cards shuffle in their little cavity, the ancient recording roll to make the counterfeit of her voice say, ‘Let Madame Zora reveal the mysteries of the future…
She used to get people of all sort--she supposed they just stopped believing, or never had and just found some better distraction. Like the Tilt-a-Whirl.
Young couples were probably the second most common visitor, but she saw them less than the little hoards of teenaged girls. It was usually the women who antagonized the visit anyway, wanting to know the course of this fresh love blooming under the hot summer night and vivid lights like it lived on darkness and cheap colors.
A girl was looking at her, from a distance--she looked clean down to her eyes, even as she walked closer. She looked uneasy, like she couldn’t tell if the woman in the glass case and faux-gypsy garb was real or fake. She was small and curvy, with long, heavy looking dark hair and wild eyes. Her ears were double pierced; metal glinted at the corners of her jaw like slivers of the well lit night sky.
Zora found something in herself ease, as if she was exhaling, when the girl looked away to dig through her pocket. She wondered what the cards would say. She wondered about everyone, but she had a feeling this future would be particularly lovely, unusually cutting.
The girl inserted her coin. Zora jerked into her imitation of life, the cards shuffled. Three appeared on the little table top in front of her-- the Wheel of Fortune, the Lovers, Death: fate, choice, change. Past, present, future. Zora felt her gears tighten with envy.
The girl looked at the cards, oblivious the the unspooling crackle of Zora’s false voice. She smiled, looked up at Zora with eyes that saw more than they would ever tell, and disappeared into the carnival crowd.
That night, after everyone had left and all the dizzying lights had been extinguished, Zora sat up in her box shuffling the cards and dealing them out.
It was her function, her ritual, for almost a hundred years. Watching the fairgrounds eaten up with trash and shadows and the dark masses of the tents or machines so they were almost identical no matter where the carnival went or what year it was, she dealt the Tarot as she watched her unwanted kingdom, the bitter benefactor of unwanted estate. Things changed and she watched her life pass in decades instead of years--the carnies and games changed, the freaks and animals disappeared, the roads got smoother and the kids seemed to get lost less often, but she was still there: so old her imitation of life occasionally frightened children, unsettled adults, but with gears that still clicked and rolled, her recording still spilling out the same voice of decades past, dust and rust clinging like a lace shawl only to be remedied by so many changing hands to fix her.
Zora dealt her cards: the Moon, the Hanged Man, the Devil. Illusion, suspension, bondage. These were the cards she always drew, no matter what. She was tired of her fate down to the representing pictures: the placid moon, the man with the rope around his ankle, the horned creature so many people found foreboding but which she just found tiresome. She would have sighed, if she could have. She was half-sick of the urge to sigh.
She shuffled the deck, cut it, and dealt. There was the Moon, then the Hanged Man, and then, like revelation, Death.
Change. Something ignited where Zora’s heart would have been. She shuffled the cards again, only to get the same three cards, the same new future.
She glimpsed something walking up the dusty paths of the carnival. It was coming towards her. Pale thighs luminous in the dark, a jaunty walk--Zora assumed it was the girl from earlier that night, but wasn’t certain until she paused squarely in front of her, with her boots and wild hair, staring at her. It was the same look she had given her earlier, only fiercer, focused, as if she was trying to figure out the answer to an equation.
“I know what you are,” the girl said, her voice muffled by the glass. “I know who you are.”
Zora felt like she might crack. No one had spoken to her so directly, so earnestly, in so long.
The girl stepped around her box, opening the entire back panel. Zora was greeted by a balmy, sweet summer breeze, tickling her ceramic skin and loosening dust from neglected corners. Opening her box almost gave the sense of breathing.
“You don’t have to stay here,” the young witch said, and the words rang around and through her. Leaving the box open, the girl walked back into the summer night as if the whole world was an opened latch.
Zora, new legs shaking, pulled herself upright and stepped into the night air. She pulled off her raggedy costume, the grimy fabric unpleasant against her skin. Holding on to the side of box, breathing deeply, almost gasping, she started crying. The air filling her lungs was delicious, the ache of her straining muscles praise worthy. She was afraid, and happy, and so shocked. She had been so certain she was beyond everything, anything. Faster than the turn of a card she was free, and she would never come back, she would never be the same.
#Unreal #Fiction #MadamZora #Fortune #Witches #Freedom
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