A Hint of Rosemary

Witches, stew, and a battle...

A well-timed meme floated into ScienceBlogs over the weekend, asking what advice we might have for our 12-year-old selves. This began as John Lynch at Stranger Fruit borrowed the survey question from Fark.com. Soon, others began to respond, including Janet at Adventures in Ethics and Science and Chad at Uncertain Principles. Why is this well timed, you might ask? Or, what could advice to a younger self have to do with witches and other figments of a Halloween-infused imagination? Well, take my answer, and season it with the spice of battles: youth versus maturity, destiny versus free will. Stir this into a bubbling pot of fiction, and you'll have the perfect Halloween treat, flavored with just...

A Hint of Rosemary

By Karmen Lee Franklin

i-59f6b80aeccfa882d67ada53e64337a5-hintofrosemary.jpgThe air was thick with the aroma of bacon fat. This was a comforting, home-like scent, yet the feeling was anything but comforting. In the midst of this tense, smoky atmosphere, an old crone hunched over the stove, struggling with a jar of herbs and cursing under her breath. Her trembling fingers painfully twisted the lid. With the lid sticking fast, her knuckles turned white. She threw a look of contempt across the room, to the figure sitting at her dining table. The edge of her lips curled upwards in a sneer, and a small puff of air escaped her nose, as if from an agitated fighting bull. The presence of the stranger gave her a feeling of anxiety, an emotion she struggled to conceal.

She set the jar onto the counter, her hands still wrapped around the cool glass. Steady, old woman, she scolded herself. 'Tis only a pot of stew, not some fragile potion. With this thought, she managed to somewhat calm herself, and with a firm grasp, she opened the jar. Measuring with her eye, she sprinkled the fragrant leaves into a dish of flour, and stirred slowly. She again eyed the stranger. The interruption of her solitude had startled her, although she ought to have expected strange visitors, in her business. But what was most unsettling was the youth and beauty, sitting in the shadows before her. Unlike her typical client, this stranger was a very young woman.

If the stranger on her stoop had been a man, she might have felt otherwise. Men were simple; all she had to do was invite them to come inside. That is, she wouldn't hesitate to ask, but only if she could sense and fulfill their needs, without sacrificing any essential part of her being. The men (but sometimes women) used to come often; but that was in days long since gone. Men hardly ever knocked anymore. The housewives came calling far more often. These women were no threat. Usually they were in trouble in some way with love, and simply sought advice. In most cases, their judgment was often clouded by emotion; all she had to do was show them the truth they had previously chosen to ignore.

For some reason, they would always accept an answer from Tarot cards, the lines etched into palms, leaves at the bottom of their teacups; rarely would they listen to advice from their friends, or even themselves. The substance of their response to this friendly advice was always the same: "How dare you tell me what I have taken such care to deny?" Flooded with their emotions, they would fight, or run and hide. If these difficult revelations came from some abstract paper oracle, however, the women (and sometimes the men) would listen, with awe and rapt attention, to the words so deftly applied to the drawing. She didn't mind their naivety; in fact, she made a tidy living from it.

The stranger sitting in her kitchen was nothing like any of the previous visitors. Not a man, seeking comfort, or some troubled mother seeking a reminder, but a girl, full of spirit and defiance. What could she possibly want from me? Her uneasiness growing, she picked up the chunks of meat that the girl had brought, and carefully dropped them into the dish of seasoned flour. Meat... how strange. Is this a gift? A bribe? A peace offering? She frowned at this thought. Peace offerings usually came paired with battles. She looked up. Are we to have a battle, girl?

Few words had been spoken since the stranger's arrival. "Are you...I mean... you're here, so you are.. but..." the girl nervously muttered when the door opened. "I... I've heard... about you." She seemed to struggle with each word. "In town," she added. "I... I was curious, I guess." Smooth, delicate hands, unfamiliar with hard labor, brought forward a package, wrapped in brown paper. "I brought this. It's only a few scraps of Chuck, but I thought maybe you could use them. My mother said to always bring a gift."

The old crone raised an eyebrow and paused a moment before removing her hand from the doorframe to take the package. She stepped aside. "Well, thanks. I suppose you should come in and rest your feet." She nodded to the rocky path behind the stranger, which wound down through the woods. "It's a treacherous hike up, isn't it?" The young girl looked uncomfortable, but nodded, and stepped inside. "Have a seat there, at the table, if you like," the old woman gestured.

She set the package down and watched as the girl settled herself at the heavy oak table. The girl's hands nervously smoothed unseen wrinkles in her dress, which, to the crone, seemed garishly provocative. The town folk must whisper about this one, behind her back, with a hideous outfit like that. But as soon as this thought crossed her mind, she remembered her own youth, when her casual style had been so offensive to older women. Ah, yes, hideous is the idea. Spice up your life; rebel against the fashions of old... until your own style becomes old and dull and comfortable.

The girl's eyes wandered about the small room, absorbing its eclectic sense of comfort, until coming to rest on a small table in the corner. Above the table, the walls were bare, save an oval mirror with a wooden frame. The frame had been carved into an ornate Celtic cross, endlessly looping back into itself. Upon the table sat several candles, scattered amongst a series of brass bowls of varying content. In the middle of the table, on a piece of linen, sat a worn and tattered deck of cards, the backs displaying a frozen hourglass against a chaotic swirl of gray. The girl gazed at the primitive altar with a hunger. The old crone saw this, and spoke with a hopeful tone. "Did ya want me to read yer cards?"

She shook her head. "Thanks, but no... I don't really have any money... I just... wondered if you could... um..." With an unsteady breath, the girl searched for the words, but hesitated, as if she were afraid to continue. She shifted uncomfortably, shook her head again, apparently changing her mind, and quickly spoke. "I guess I was just hoping we could talk."

Talk? Who in their right mind would climb a mountain trail just to talk? The old woman frowned suspiciously. "Well... all right, if you wish." She glanced at the package, the strange offering, and shrugged. "You might as well stay for dinner, now. We can take your meat, here, and make some stew."

The girl had nodded her agreement, when an awkward silence fell upon the room. As the older woman began making the stew, the young girl seemed intent to examine the knots and swirls in the wood of the table. For someone who came to talk, she sure doesn't say much, the crone imagined. Although she didn't know the purpose of the girl's visit, she decided she wasn't fond of this stranger. Actually, she wasn't fond of strangers, period. She had spent much of her life avoiding others, eventually moving to her little cabin off the rocky path, beyond the remote mountain village, to spend her days. It was a hermit's paradise. Her clairvoyance business earned enough to buy her an adequate diet, which she supplemented with her meager garden patch. What need did she have for strangers? What could they offer, that she couldn't acquire for herself?

Filthy people. The old woman shuddered. All full of troubles, pain, and ignored responsibilities. Who needs 'em? With this, she grabbed the handful of seasoned meat and threw it into the pot. As she brushed the flour from her hands with a soft towel, she watched the smallest pieces dancing about in the pan. Soon, the juices began to exude from the flesh, and she gave an involuntary sigh. Carefully, she turned the pieces, one by one. Yes, flesh. Weak, bleedin' meat, that's all people are.

Muttering under her breath, she walked over to a basket in the pantry. As she lifted the lid, a musty, earthy smell wafted up to her nose. She reached to collect some of the root vegetables stored inside the basket. The smell brought to her mind memories of the autumns and cemeteries of years past. She thought of the hours spent, laboring at harvest, cherishing the natural feel of moist earth against her hands. The spell was broken when her fingers touched the cool, dry skin of a turnip. She remembered the pot on the stove and her enigmatic dinner guest. She gathered what she needed, closed the basket, and returned to the table, wearing a scowl for the visitor.

She ignored the young girl as she sliced a few carrots and vented her suspicions with the blade. When she reached for the first potato, however, she paused, and set down her knife. She picked up the tuber and turned it in her hands. The potato had an ancient familiarity about it, something she certainly hadn't noticed when she dug it from the garden soil. Almost pear shaped, it had a wide, round base, with a smaller, rounded top, and bore an uncanny resemblance to a pregnant woman she once called upon. Even the eyes of the potato appeared to be sprouting in the right place. It has eyes! Other sprouts came out of the side, reaching like arms around the belly of the potato. A Venus d'Tuber, she thought with amusement.

She looked over the other vegetables she had brought to the table, and saw that the potato had company. This turnip, she thought, smiling, it's round and purplish at one end, and white at the other, just like a cryin' baby! The rutabagas appeared to be wise old monks, smiling back at her. The beets flushed reddish faces, like a disapproving mother. A family... Our roots. She felt a twinge of pain with this thought. Roots... Roots that end with me. It wasn't as if she had never been a mother. She bore a son, once, long ago, from the seed of a wandering solider.

The father of the child was a handsome, intelligent man, full of new ideas and himself. He chose his battles carefully, and to her knowledge, never lost. When he chose her, the brief battle was passionate and fierce. With the grace of a gentleman, he conquered her, leaving her sated and with child. She had no regrets from the entanglement, and raised her son alone, with love and pride. The boy, like his father, was cunning and dangerous, and put his mother through many trials. When he came of age, and left home, to make his way into the world, she was sure success would follow him.

As much as she adored her son, she always knew he would inevitably take his leave. He was heir to his father's paths, not to hers. He would always be longing for battle and would never have had the patience for such delicate arts as persuasion and divination. Naturally, fate had never given a daughter. This was the fact that plagued her now. No one to teach the crafts to... no one to share the secrets with... no one to fulfill my legacy... No one...

Abruptly, the stranger interrupted her reverie. "Do you have control? Over... y'know, things? Over what happens?" she asked, pointing to the altar.

The old crone looked up, startled. The girl was serious. "Of course, I have control of many things," she brazenly lied.

Furrows deepened on the old woman's brow. At first, she simply was relieved to have set down the knife before the girl spoke. She shivered slightly, picked it up, and started chopping again. What timin' that one has. Could'a lost m'self a finger there. But how did she...? Is she readin' my mind? She searched the eyes of the young girl, who seemed more confident, as if the crone's answer had confirmed her suspicions. Nah. She's only a young girl. She's been waitin' to ask that all along.

She expected the girl to ask her to explain after such a certainty, but wasn't sure that she would be able to answer. So instead of giving the girl a moment to inquire, she chopped the roots with loud force and a furious pace. She then turned to the stove and carefully removed the seared meat from the pan. Do I have control? What a ridiculous question. Bitterly, she poked at the bits of fat that stuck fast to the pan with a wooden spoon. Who does she think she is? That I'll pass to her some sacred, ethereal knowledge, 'cause she brought meat to my home?

She scooped up the pile of diced vegetables, and dumped them into the hot fat. The sound seemed to sear the deep scowl into the lines of her face. As she stirred the mixture, the browned bits loosened from the bottom, mingling with the tender, young vegetables. At the same time, her anxiety over the stranger loosened from her heart, and mingled with her lonely vulnerabilities. Do I have control over things? Over anything? I can't even control my legacy, or make m'self someone who'll be remembered... I can't make folks fall in love... I can't save 'em from misfortune... I don't even know if I'm free to choose my own fortune. She sighed heavily.

The old woman turned to reach for a bottle of wine from a dusty rack in a dark, musty corner, opposite the stove. As she did, she noticed the stranger was studying her, seemingly puzzled by the sudden change of mood. The girl caught her eye for a moment, but the old crone turned away, pretending to search for something else, (perhaps the corkscrew, already in her hand.)

"Did I say something wrong?" the girl asked. "I mean... I didn't mean to pry. I've just... been curious. I don't know..." She turned to the window, and seemed to look far beyond the trees. "I feel lost. Like I should be a part of something... I don't know... more important." She looked back to the old woman, her eyes now reflecting the troubled sadness. "I thought if I came here... that you could show me... you know. How you do it."

With a muffled pop, the crone pulled the cork from the bottle and set it aside. Hon, I'm no better off than you. She set the wine on the counter, and then sat down across from the girl. With determined calculation, she began. "I'm not sure what to be tellin' ye. I suppose I could show you how to read them cards, what they mean and all, brewin' potions and ingredients and that sort of thing, throwing hexes... but I'm willin' ta bet that's not what yer lookin' fer, is it?" She raised a quizzical eyebrow at the young girl, as if challenging her to disagree.

The girl shrugged timidly. "Guess I didn't think it'd be easy."

Damn right, it ain't easy. Think you know what's goin' to happen next, think you know every possible variation... Only to find there's sumtin' you missed. Sumtin' you knew was there, but caint see it till it was too late. You think you've got control... but you don't. I'm not any better at controllin' anything, just better at faking it. She wanted to shout all of this at the girl, but knew she was too ashamed to admit it. She should have control... shouldn't she?

The vegetables had softened considerably, and some were beginning to brown at the edges. The old crone sensed this, and returned to the stove. Stirring gently, she returned the scraps of meat to the pan. She then grabbed the bottle of wine, and took a few swigs before pouring the entire contents into the pan. For a single moment, there was a loud sizzle, before a cloud of heavenly aroma escaped the pan, engulfing them both. Oh, lovely wine... spirits, as they say, she thought, drinking in the heavy scent.

Spirits, indeed. The smell of the wine seemed to transport the old woman, as if through a dream, to days long past and some recent. Those happy nights, spent by the side of the fire, as the wind glued wet snow to the walls outside... The nights spent, sipping wine, reading tales of long dead heroes by long since dead writers... Nights where she willingly gave up control, to live in the shoes of some other person, to escape in someone else's dreams... These nights returned to her now, with the smell of wine and fire. How all of those spirits... in the wine, in the stories... how they must have changed me... how they must all be waitin' inside of me, to change my mind, when I think I have control... She chuckled to herself, this time. Control again. I wonder if those old dead authors had control. Probably not. Well... maybe.

The stew was bubbling now, so she pushed it to the back burner, set a heavy lid on top, and turned away from the stove. Beads of sweat were beginning to drip down her face, she realized as she stepped away. Whether this flushing was from the heat in the kitchen, the flood of memory, or from her anxiety, she wasn't sure. She pulled a clean towel from a drawer, and used it to blot her face. Then, sitting at the table, she again faced the stranger. "I don't really know what you want to hear." She chuckled slightly, mostly to herself. "It'd be a lot easier for me if you just wanted a reading," she finished, nodding at the cards perched at the altar.

With a nervous smile, the girl nodded agreement. "I guess I don't know what I wanted to hear, either. I didn't really want a reading... but..." she paused, and glanced shyly at the cards. "Will you show them to me? I mean... you don't have to tell me anything... I... I'd just like to see 'em."

"All right." The old woman smiled. "We've got some time while the stew's brewin', so why not?" She stood briefly, to take the deck of cards and the piece of linen, which she carefully draped across the table. "This helps protect 'em, you see," she began, her wrinkled fingers delicately stroking the flaxen weave. Then, one by one, she turned over the cards, explaining the names and nuances of each.

"See here, this is the Seven of Stones, 'tho they're usually called pentacles," she said, laying down the first card. "There's a gardener, leanin' on his shovel, tendin' his vines. See the seven blossoms on em? They're like, the fruits of his labor, n' he's waiting for the harvest. Here, seven stones in the field, too. That's showin' he's had to sweat n' toil to get where he's at, see?" That's odd, she thought to herself, as she took a closer look. I never noticed that before. Who'd leave a bunch of stones in a plowed field? Come to think of it, they don't really look much like stones, do they? More like potatoes. She thought of the Venus d'Tuber and grinned. Guess the ol' Tarot can even surprise an ol' sage like me.

Despite the fact that the old crone was careful to disguise her delight, the girl returned the smile. "So... you'd say this card is about waiting... or patience?" she asked.

"Well, more or less. It usually means that you're on some kind of journey... Movin' along the great cycle of being, or so they say. And yea, that involves some patience and waitin'," the old woman replied. She looked at her guest, who nodded understanding, then turned over the next card, setting it aside the last. "Ok, now here, we have the Queen of Stones. It's what they call a 'court card'... they usually are talkin' 'bout people." She cocked her head to one side, and examined the figure on the card. The Queen was sitting in an ornate throne in a garden, with mountains sprawling off into the distance. She was gazing at a large, round stone, which resembled a crystal ball. She seems so familiar, the old crone thought.

"So, the Queen of Stones would be a woman, young or old, with black or white hair... She could be you or I..." The old woman trailed off, and raised an eyebrow at the girl. "'Tis almost strange... she looks just like you, even." Or a younger version of me, she thought. No... not the young me... but my flesh n' blood...Oh my. The old woman turned a bit pale. Could she be my granddaughter? She'd heard rumors, years back, that her son had fathered a child in the village during his adolescence. When she had asked the boy if the baby girl was his, he claimed it was impossible. She let her son have the benefit of the doubt, but it was shortly thereafter that the young man left the village. Could she be his? Putting this thought to the back of her mind, she continued. "Anyways... you can see she's lookin' at this stone in her lap, not around her," she said, tapping the card with her bony finger. "She's withdrawn, not for isolation... but because she is focused on her goal."

She looked into the eyes of the girl, (who had been, so far, an apt pupil,) and saw laughter dancing in her pupils. Why is she about to giggle at this card? She raised an inquisitive eyebrow.

The girl blushed in embarrassment. "I'm sorry... I just noticed." She pointed down at the card. No, not the card, my finger, the old crone thought. "You have... um... well... I didn't know witches really did have warts!" The young girl snorted, slightly, trying not to laugh out loud (and failing miserably.)

With a scowl, the old woman pulled back and curled the finger in question under her other hand. So I'm a witch, eh? No wonder she thinks I have secrets. She looked at the cards, then at the hooded cloak hanging by the door, which she wore on trips to the village. I suppose with my business, and that dark hood wrapped around my face all the time, I really do look like a witch. She uncovered her hand, and examined the wart on the side of her index finger, then shook it at the young girl. "You'll get yours someday, girl... just wait...You'll get yours."

The young girl suddenly looked quite worried. Bet she thinks I can put a curse on her, the crone thought. "You don't mean..." the girl stammered, nervously.

Laughing, the old woman winked. "I mean... sometimes when you get older and wiser, warts... amongst other things... happen."

"Oh... I see," she replied. She frowned in disappointment, and then shifted in her chair, as if to push aside her discomfort. Her eyes brightened. "So, these cards, because they're stones, are 'bout success, right?"

"Ah, you catch on quickly.... Success, work, fulfillment... physical matters, so to speak." The old crone nodded, smiling, and reached for the next card. "Let's see what else we have here, shall we?" The next card showed a figure carrying a stick, standing on the edge of a cliff. His face was drawn tight with fierce determination, as six more sticks seemed to be coming at him. "Want to take a guess at this one?" The old woman glanced across the table, inquisitively.

"Hmm... It's the seven of... um... sticks, isn't it?" the girl asked, curiously.

"Wands," said the woman.

"Oh, Seven of Wands, then. I'm not sure... it looks... well, it looks like a battle. And this guy wants to win, I think."

"That's not bad," the old woman replied with a nod. "This card represents inner strength and courage... preparing for what is ahead." Have courage, she thought with a chill. The battle draws near.

"Ok, so he's about to fight a real battle, but this could mean sumtin' like.... oh... a spiritual struggle?"

"Right, you're catchin' on. In fact, the wands are usually referrin' to spiritual things, the same way that the stones usually mean physical things. " The old woman smiled. This one may be a little strange, but she's bright and curious. It's like she has this unique... oh... flavor. Her smile grew.

She turned the next card over, and read "The Hermit" when an odd sensation came over her, and her smile faded. She blinked, and looked down at the card. What the..? She took the card into her hands, and examined it carefully. She drew a sharp breath inward, as she realized the figure on the card was no old bearded hermit, but an old witch, wearing a dark hood. Rather than a long staff and a lantern, the figure was holding a wooden spoon and a jar of herbs. It's me, she thought with a shudder. I must be losing it, she told herself.

She suddenly felt weak and thought perhaps she might faint, and was glad to be sitting in the chair. That's twice now you've about hurt yourself, woman, get a grip! She scolded. Even with this mental slap, however, the card did not change back into an old bearded man. She forced herself to continue, hoping the stranger wouldn't notice that the hostess had lost her marbles. "This is the Hermit. It's one of 22 of what they call the 'Major Arcana' ...they all kinda tell a story on their own. This one... well, it means isolation... going along one's path alone... well... a hermit."

Shaking, she chose not to wait for the girl's reply before turning the next card. With trembling fingers, she lay the card over the first four, beginning a new row. "The Page of Swords," she read. "A young man, prepared for battle..." she muttered, and then trailed off. It's my son! She knew that before, and for as long as she had kept the deck, the Page of Swords of her deck was a red-haired boy, dressed in a medieval outfit. The card before her now was quite different. A devilishly handsome young man, with dark hair and dark eyes, brandished a large sword, looking smug and proud. The clothes he wore were familiar to the old woman; they were the same clothes her son wore, the day he left home. Oh, my son... What ever happened to him?

She pressed her fingertips to her temples, and stared at the card. I caint keep doing this... I may be old... but senile? Already? She shook her head, softly, and looked up at the young girl. "I'm sorry... I am feelin' a little lightheaded.... must be hunger, I suppose. Could you do me a favor, dear, give that stew a good stir, n' see how it's comin' along?"

The young girl nodded, and walked to the stove, where the pot simmered away. The lid, which was rattling slightly as the steam rose, silenced as the girl lifted it from the stewpot. She took the wooden spoon from the counter, and stirred carefully, breathing in the pungent aroma. Glancing briefly back at the old woman, who still sat staring at the cards, she sipped at a spoonful of broth. The young maiden smiled, and licked her lips. "Mmm, good Charles," she muttered, and pinched back a smile. "Oh, how clumsy of me...'Chuck.'"

The old crone's eyes opened wide, and she turned to look at the girl. What did you say, girl? Or was that some figment of my imagination? Here... I'm thinkin' about my son... and you go n' say his name... but... she shuddered, unable to continue the line of thought. Oh, I'm definitely losing it.

When the girl returned to the table, and sat down, the old woman said nothing, but gave her a sour look. "Can we go on?" the young girl inquired. "This is pretty interesting, if you ask me. Let's do some more."

Swallowing back a lump that had grown in the back of her throat, the old woman nodded. "Shall we?" Closing her eyes for a moment, she prepared herself with a deep breath before reaching for the deck. Her trembling fingers had developed a dull ache, but managed to grip the edges of the stiff paper. Turning the card over, she felt her careful breath escape. "Death," she whispered. Of course. At first, the card appeared as it always had, with a skeleton, dressed in black armor, riding upon a majestic white steed. In his bony fingers, he clutched a black flag, decorated with a white flower. Villagers seemed to fall faint as the horse drew near them, while the Hierophant, the High Priest of the Tarot, prayed in the background, perhaps for mercy or forgiveness. "Death," she stammered again, "it isn't always what it seems."

"How so?" the young girl asked, lifting her brow with a curious smile.

"Well... it can mean death... but it also means change... transition... like... y'know, rebirth. See the sun in the background? Risin' or settin', it's a never ending cycle o..." Here the old woman froze, her mouth hanging open, leaving the "O" still formed upon her lips. She felt the wine she had drunk earlier churn in her stomach as she looked at the card. The image on the card was changing.

As she looked at the sun, the sky on the card began to turn from a greenish-blue to a bloody reddish-brown. Like broth, she thought. Then, as she looked closely at the figure on the steed, it too began to change. At first, she thought it was simply turning red, like the sky, but as she looked closer, realized the bones of the skeleton were growing veins. The reddish lines snaked across the figure, spreading outward from the face to the fingertips. Following the veins grew the flesh. Thick, red and purplish muscle appeared, and the once faceless skeleton now smiled cruelly with actual lips, like some apparition, ripped of skin, seeking an angry revenge. The old woman felt waves of nausea wash over her as the muscle was rapidly covered with its missing skin. Then, the transfiguration of the skeleton was complete.

The old crone let out an involuntary gasp. Her eyes moved back and forth between the faces of the Page of Swords and the Death card. They were identical. She heard a laugh, a wicked cackle that sent a chill down her spine. On the card marked "Death," next to the image of her son, whose flag was now garnished with a sprig of rosemary, the Hierophant had disappeared. In his place a new figure appeared--her granddaughter, the stranger at her table, wielding a butcher knife and laughing. Oh, you sick little witch, the old woman thought, glaring. He was your father! The girl sitting at the table laughed along with the girl on the card until the old crone caught her gaze. The girl's eyes twinkled defiantly. It's her, she realized. She's doing this to the cards! She clutched at her stomach, which seemed to twist into a knot. Is this all part of some sort of plan of hers?

Oh, this doesn't end here, does it? With a deep breath, she nodded to the girl, as if to accept some unspoken challenge, or to offer one. "Next card?" she asked. When the girl smiled, she stared back coolly, but drew a card, laying it along side the two pictures of the soldier. "The Nine of Wands," she said, struggling to keep her voice steady and calm. "Looks like another card about battle, doesn't it?"

The young girl nodded agreement. "But this one doesn't look so confident. He looks rather like a loser, I think." Indeed, the figure on the card, while holding the same staff as the soldier on the Seven of Wands, did appear to be somewhat defeated. He wore a bandage around his head, and was glaring off to one side, as if at some unseen adversary.

"Yea," the old woman crooned. "He may look like he lost, but the battle ain't over yet." She wasn't surprised, this time, as the figure started to change, turning from a young man into an old woman. Oh, that's me, all right. "This card is really about keeping control... the spiritual struggle doesn't end, and this is usually a reminder to be humble." She raised an eyebrow at the girl and took a long look at the cards. For something that wasn't supposed to be a reading, this is becomin' a hellishly vivid spread. With four cards on the bottom, then three above, the layout appeared to be building into a pyramid. What happens when we get to the top? And just whose spread is this, anyways? She took the next card from the top of the deck, and carefully set it into place, starting the second to last row of the pyramid. There's my answer, she thought ruefully.

"The Magician," she read, feeling as timid as a schoolgirl. When she heard the timbre of her own voice, it felt like another mental slap. She realized that she felt like the apprentice, and the young girl before her was now the teacher. Oh no... I don't think so. Just wait, granddaughter. Two can play at this game. With a devilish smile, she tried to stare at the card, believing that it would change under her gaze. Instead, she blinked--and as she did, the card did indeed change. Instead of the four suit symbols, a stone, a sword, a stick, and a cup, there was now a bottle of wine, a Venus-shaped potato, a package of meat, and a stewpot. The figure, as she now expected, looked old and familiar. Ah, yes, here I am again, she thought. She ran the tips of her fingers across the words at the bottom, which no longer read, "The Magician." The card was now "The Chef."

She felt a odd shiver run down her spine as she read these words. So... I... I'm a chef. No... The Chef. She puzzled over this for a moment, before the awareness of her own image dawned on her. So... I'm The Chef... and this is all Stew. I am in control... at least with the ingredients I can find and those I've grown... my roots, the spirits of those passed... and my flesh.

Suddenly she was hungry. The smell of the stew was no longer appetizing, but she found a strange new craving. Oh, the spices of life... how I have wasted all this time, hiding here on the mountain... when I could have been... cooking. But she didn't need to leave her mountain--yet. There, in her kitchen, was this unique... flavor. She looked up at the stranger, moistening her dry lips with her tongue. What was that baby daughter's name, anyways? The old witch grinned with a sort of mad hunger. Ah, I remember now... Rosemary. Of course.

As she carefully veiled a giggle, the old crone realized she was enjoying the battle. And since we both know... why wait? Without explaining "The Magician" (or "The Chef") she reached for the next card. The girl, Rosemary, simply smiled, and gave a polite nod, as if giving consent to continue, but no more.

"Two of Swords," they spoke in unison. Their eyes met in a cold gaze. On a beach, on the card, sat a woman, a twin of the Queen of Stones, upon a stone bench. Her eyes blindfolded, she crossed two swords across her chest. The meaning of the card seemed anything but subtle to the two women sitting face to face at the table.

Stalemate, the old crone thought. "Looks like we're at a crossroads, eh?"

"Indeed. It's six of one, half a dozen of the other, right?" Rosemary replied.

The old crone nodded, then paused. Oh, hell... I'm not ready for this. I don't want to know what lies beneath that last card. She gazed into the card, and watched the waves crashing against the rocks. Oh, she's good... Or... perhaps we both are. The fact that she could taste the salt on her lips, as the sheets of water broke into drops over the jagged rocks, and then into spray, and then fine, invisible mist, didn't surprise her. She watched, as the waves from the distance met the waves flowing from the shore joined together. So, what now? But even as the thought crossed her mind, she knew. "I reckon that stew could use another stir," she calmly suggested.

The young girl wrinkled her nose. "But... what about the cards?"

"Them cards'll wait a minute. Smells to me like the stew's starting to stick again... wouldn't want it to burn." You heard me, girl, she added in her mind. Go stir that damned stew. As the girl rose from the chair and reluctantly headed to the stove, the old crone pushed back her chair and turned to the altar. Quickly and quietly, she pulled open a small drawer beneath, and slipped a small object into her palm. Then, she turned back to the table, and nodded to her guest. "That's good, dear. Thanks. Shall we continue now?"

The girl turned from the stove and glared. "Yes," she hissed in a snotty tone.

That's right dear, act your age, the old woman thought, clutching the object from the altar tight in her hands. The talisman had been brought to her, long ago, for safekeeping. They said it came from some other place, she recalled. Indeed, it felt foreign, as if made from some unearthly material--almost metal, but unlike any metal she knew, kept a constantly cool temperature, despite being trapped in her warm, sweaty palm. As she focused, it seemed to come alive. A hush fell over the room, as if the entire mountain had been silenced, waiting for the next moment. Even the stewpot ceased its rattle. Just like high noon, she thought.

Now... ready... Draw. The old crone looked into the eyes of the young girl as she reached for the card. The girl's eyes narrowed as she returned the look. Neither spoke. I know what this card is going to be, now, don't I? The old woman pondered. Did I choose it, in some way? No... She was sure that she had not made the card move itself to the top of the deck, somehow. No, it's just the right spice, the right ingredient. The corners of her mouth edged into a malicious grin as she turned the card over, and set it atop the pyramid.

"Now, this one," she said, resuming her role of the teacher, "is another of those tricky cards, that means many things." She pointed at the figure on the card, hanging upside down from a tree by a rope tied to his ankle. A bright halo glowed about his face, upon which was a grin matching that of the old crone. "One obvious meaning, as you can see, is reversal. It could also show reaching some higher plane of wisdom." With her words, the figure on the card disappeared, and the dark woman (the one that is both of us, she thought) appeared in his place. The words, which once read "The Hanged Man", also disappeared, and were replaced. "The Changed Woman" was the new title of the card. "If you ask me, I'd say it means your world is about to turn upside down," she said. Her sly grin widened, her lips stretching to reveal the yellow teeth below. The young girl's eyes widened. Aye, girl. Now, I draw my sword.

As the old woman gripped the talisman, summoning all of her stamina, the card began to spin. Both she and the young woman watched the card with the same wide eyes, as it spun with increasing velocity. Then, suddenly, the card began to steady, and the room began to spin, instead. The old woman grabbed the table as feelings of vertigo washed over her. She held back her nausea for a moment, until the blackness washed over her.

When the old crone opened her eyes, she felt refreshed. Better than she'd felt in years, in fact. She walked over to the small mirror, hanging over the altar, and peered in. Ah, yes, she smiled, and touched the smooth, youthful skin on her face. She turned in front of the glass, posing and turning pirouettes, until interrupted by a deep groan of pain. She looked at the crumpled figure, lying on the floor, just beginning to stir.

The stranger brought her fingers to her face and opened her eyes. Bending the stiff digits, she cringed, the arthritic pain easily readable on her wrinkled face. She looked up. "What did you do to me, you evil thing?"

Turning from the mirror, the woman smiled, and returned to the table. There, she carefully stacked cards, which had all returned to normal. She wrapped the deck in linen and put it in her satchel. With a smile, she patted the bag, as if for assurance that it would be safely kept. Then she opened the door, stepped through the threshold, and paused, turning to answer. "I told you that you'd get yours, dear," she said, her hands delicately resting on the brass knob. "Oh, and, by the way... enjoy your stew. I'm very sorry I can't join ya... There are just too many other flavors out there." The old crone in the young body cackled, closing the door behind her.


The End

A special thanks to Rich, who is as responsible for this twisted tale as I.

For anyone who would rather read or share this story the old-fashioned way, that is, printed, try using this link, from the original post on ChaoticUtopia.com.

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Thanks for the comment Steve. I actually wrote in a comment here a few weeks ago asking what was happening with this blog after the announcement that O'Reilly was dropping the Digital Media division. It's really refreshing to get an honest comment on what's happening. I really hope the blog picks up again.