The Hanged Man

Sunday, March 20

Blavatsky sat in a chair on the opposite side of a glass table. She shuffled a deck of brightly colored Tarot cards and laid four abreast on the table, the second face down and the third covering it.

Rathskill sat on a couch made of curved wood withoutcushions. It was an uncomfortable piece of art. Sprout scowled in the corner ofthe room, crouched on a three-legged stool that looked like a tractor seat.Sprout seemed to have developed an immediate antipathy for him. He couldn’t think of anything he’d done to offend the dwarf. Maybe his unwashed smell.

“I’m really not a believer in astrology or card reading,” Rathskill said.

“Neither am I, Doctor,” Blavatsky said. “Faith is irrelevant. I find the action of shuffling cards calms my mind and allows me to be more attentive to details. I suppose I could cast bones in the dirt or the read tea leaves but I like the symbolism of the Tarot, the nuance. And the colors,” she paused. “I like the colors.

“I believe, Doctor Rathskill, that every moment in time is an entirety.” Her hands caressed the pack of cards. “Cut it into a thousand pieces and each piece still reflects the whole. There’s no way to whittle it into smaller pieces. The cards don’t really predict the future, Doctor. They mirror the evolving moment.”

“Call me Simon, please.”

Sprout snickered. He was perched on a three-legged stool in the corner of the room.

“Simon. The cards in this simple spread represent past, present, and possible future. The buried card represents hidden forces influencing the present.”

The first card was a burning tower struck by lightning. A man and woman were falling to their deaths.

“Upheaval and catastrophe, misfortune, pride and judgment. It was traditionally associated with the Tower of Babel built to challenge heaven. It reflects failed social norms and conventions, maybe a disloyalty to yourself. Allegorically, the tower must be torn down before it can be rebuilt.”

The middle card was the Hanged Man suspended by one foot from a gallows made of living wood. There was a nimbus around the head of the man like the iconography of saints.

“Suspended between heaven and earth,” Blavatsky said, “like Odin, a sacrifice to himself. Inherent contradictions and opposites unresolved. The Hanged Man can’t free himself by his own efforts. He must surrender, sacrifice himself for something of greater value.”

She turned the card hidden beneath the Hanged Man. A dog and a wolf howled on the shore beneath a full moon. Something crawled from the dark water onto a trail that led between two towers toward the horizon.

“The Moon rules the world of shadows, intuition, and unborn souls. It is a place of dreams and imagination, strange passions, visons, and illusions. It is both the mother of life and the destroyer. It calls to our most ancient self still pulled by the rhythm of the tides.”

The last card pictured a skeleton in black armor riding a white charger with blood red eyes. Death carried a banner, a white rose on a field of black. A king’s body lay sprawled on the ground. A priest wearing a bishop’s mitre begged for mercy. A mother and child kneeled almost beneath the charger’s hooves.

“The final card reflects the evolution of past and present, the forces resolving toward a possible future. Death is a form of transformation, a liberation from the past. It represents the end of former things and the beginning of something new.”

“That’s all very poetic, Ms. Blavatsky,” Rathskill said, “but what happened to me? Why can’t I remember? What can’t I remember?”

“Give me your hand, please.”

She took his hand, turned it, palm upwards, and rested it in her own. He thought she was going to read his palm. What next, a séance?

She remained still, her head bowed, for so long he suspected she had fallen asleep. When she spoke, it was softly, in a voice utterly unlike her own. It seemed to come from the other side of the room.

Rathskill had spent time with aboriginal healers and brujos and shaman. He knew the bag of tricks used by the profession—ventriloquism, voice casting, extracting foreign objects from living bodies with sleight-of-hand. He had never seen it done so expertly.

“A room. An unfamiliar room. Dishes clattering. Smell of smoke.”

The Apocalypto Hotel was a few rooms for hire above Linda’s Woodfired Kitchen. When he and Vanoy had finished with Chief Johnson, it was too late to return to Port Angeles. They spent the night on the reservation.

“Darkness. The smell of earth…thick, damp, decay. Tinkling glass, like pebbles thrown against a window pane. A mist rising from the earth. A darkness made visible. It flows from the forest. Drawn to you. Drawn by you.”

He remembered going to sleep that night after eating pizza with Vanoy; nothing more.

“The cry of a night bird cut off abruptly. The ticking of a clock. A whispered name. Simon Magus.”

Rathskill caught his breath. Simon Magus was the pet name his mother had called him. Simon the Magician. Simon the Sorcerer. Simon the Apostate. No one else knew; no one living.

He tried to pull his hand back. Blavatsky held it in her grip. He suspected no matter how hard he pulled, her grip would be unrelenting.

“Bare feet on wooden stairs. The cold of night on your skin. The breeze whispering your name. Mist lapping your ankles, your thighs. Like a woman’s touch. Like your mother’s touch. Calling you. Enveloping you. Such longing! Such desperate need!”

He was unclear whether Blavatsky was describing his need or the mist personified.

“Empty streets. Dark houses. The ground rising toward the forest and a full moon.”

Hadn’t there been a partial moon the last few days? A gibbous moon, he was sure.

“A gathering darkness among the trees. Carried on the mist like an ebbing tide. Carried forward. Held in place at the edge of the woods. Staked to the ground like a goat. Struggling to escape.”

Blavatsky’s hand began to tremble.

“Resisting. Unbearable pain. Unable to scream. Blood and bone and cells interrogated. Memories flayed like skin, layer after layer. Stripped naked to the bone.”

Blavatsky rocked as if struck, her head thrown back. Her eyes were open but entirely white, the pupils rolled back in her head. She pulled her hand away reflexively. Immediately, Sprout was beside her, cradling her head in his arms.

“What the hell,” Rathskill said.

“Enough,” Sprout said. “She won’t be able to tell you anything more.”

“Is she alright? She looks comatose.”

“She will be. She’ll sleep for a few hours.”

“I don’t understand,” Rathskill said. “What does it mean? I still don’t remember.”

“Don’t ask me. I’m not the psychic. I just clean up afterward.”

Sprout carried Blavatsky upstairs to bed. He was surprisingly strong for a dwarf, Rathskill thought, and then reminded himself he had little data for comparison. Afterward, Sprout offered to drive him back to the college. Probably to get rid of him, Rathskill thought.

Sprout drove a Ford Pinto that was a Frankenstein mismatch of body parts, paint, and primer. It was only a few miles to the campus. (Nothing in Port Angeles was very far from anything else.) Sprout didn’t say much and Rathskill wasn’t interested in casual conversation. He was exhausted. As much emotional as physical, he suspected. And worried. Was the three-day lapse in consciousness indicative of a new episode of psychosis?

They sat silently waiting for the traffic light to change at the corner of Race Street and Lauridsen. Something crashed onto the hood of the Pinto. They both jumped in their seats, constrained by their safety belts.

“Jesus Jumping Christ,” Sprout said. “What was that?”

Rathskill looked closely. “A purple martin, I think.”

“A bird? A dead bird fell on my car?”

Something pounded on the roof of the car. Sprout unbuckled his safety belt and reached for the door handle.

“I wouldn’t,” Rathskill said. “Not just yet.”

Sprout gave him an acid look. “And why wouldn’t you?” He shook his head. “Never mind.”

As Sprout opened the door, dead birds pummeled the car. They bounced off the hood and windshield and hammered against the roof. It was raining dead birds. They fell thick as hail for less than a minute. Then there was silence. Dead martins littered the street but only the pavement immediately surrounding the car. They lay where they fell, without a twitch, stone dead.

Sprout sat behind the wheel. One of the dead martins lay in his lap. He had the look of a person who had just spanned the negative and positive poles of a battery.

“Light’s green,” Rathskill said.


In mythology, the hero descends to the underworld. What happens when the underworld ascends? Whistlepig, a serialized fiction. Table of contents.

@ 2018 Charles Thrasher All rights reserved.

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