“The King of Pentacles is a sign that you’ve been working hard,” my friend Jean said, tapping the card with the tip of her jet-black fingernail.
We were sitting in her kitchen, a fog of sandalwood incense swirling around us. She’d set the table with a black obsidian crystal ball, a small basin of stones and crystals, several bunches of dried sage, and a thick book with small print titled The Tarot Dictionary and Compendium. It was all very spooky.
I’d met Jean in high school. When I moved to California, she gave me a place to live, and when I moved out, she gave me a set of living room furniture. It’s safe to say that she’s my best friend and also the most mystic person I know — complete with dark hair, bright eyes, and a heavily-layered wardrobe.
I’d asked Jean to give me a Tarot reading as a kind of warm up, a few days before I went to a full-time professional. She began the reading by asking me to shuffle a classic Rider-Waite deck before drawing three cards at random. One for the past, one for the present, and one for the future, each an answer to the same question: “How is my new job at Uproxx going?”
The Uproxx question was kind of a stand-in for the question that all people in their early thirties seem to be asking: “Is my life going in the right direction?”
The cards I drew were the King of Pentacles, the Knight of Swords, and, most troubling, the Fool.
“You’ve built up your kingdom,” Jean said, looking down at the cards. “In the past position, well…” She opened The Tarot Dictionary and Compendium. “Basically, the King of Pentacles being drawn is confirmation that you’ve done the work that you need to do in order to have a solid foundation for your future. And with the Fool…” Her finger scrolled down the page in search of my future. “The Fool card combined with the King of Pentacles indicates that your cavalier attitude actually protects you from emotional stress and damage.”
“Whatever,” I scoffed, cavalierly.
You might have gathered that I’ve never put much stock in the “dark arts.” I grew up in the age of the televangelists and, as far as I was concerned, fortune tellers and psychics were just as bad as Benny Hinn or Jim Bakker—shallow liars charging money for non-existent spiritual guidance.
Jean tapped the Knight of Swords. “This is your present,” she said. “You’ve got a sword, which is some protection, but you can’t be foolhardy.”
That’s it? I thought, looking over the stones and herbs and other accessories of witchcraft. I’d hoped that the reading would be significantly more maniacal, with warnings of peril and woe and dark forces. Instead, Jean’s reading was practical, down to earth, and suffering from a terminal lack of the satanic.
“This just seems like good advice,” I said. “I was kind of hoping you’d see a vision of my death or the mark of the beast.”
“Don’t be an asshole,” Jean said. “Think of Tarot as a divination tool that helps you see options. Don’t think of it as seeing the future, because there is nothing sealed in stone. It’s all flexible.”
I drew a king, a knight, and a fool, and the divination that Jean delivered boiled down to, “You’ve worked hard, don’t screw it up, be prepared to take chances.”
I don’t know if I’d call it my fortune, but I’d certainly call it good, clean, devil-free advice.
“I have yet to have the devil himself appear to me during a reading,” she said, a tendril of sage smoke twining above her head. “Honestly, I think he’s got better things to do.”
“And what time would you like to come in?” the fortune teller on the other end of the phone asked.
“Don’t you already know what time I want to come?” I replied.
Okay, so I didn’t really say that, but I thought about saying it. What I actually said was, “How about 6:30 tonight?”
The mystic, with the very un-mystical name of John, said that would be fine and clicked off the phone.
I’d found John through the shop where he works, The Sacred Well — which is also where Jean buys her seance oils and spirit-stones. The shop faces the northern edge of Oakland’s Lake Merritt, just a block from my apartment. Even if getting my fortune read was a waste of time, it would at least be convenient.
I arrived for my appointment on time (the future waits for no man!) and found a cluttered space loaded with herbs, hanging roots, and glass jars filled with oddities. In the back of the shop, three people sat around a table — a young black woman with green hair, an older white man with a grey beard, and a middle-aged hispanic woman who dressed uncannily like my mother. They were reading each other’s cards and speaking to the strength of the Knight of Swords.
Even with all my skepticism, I realized that I was hoping to see something mysterious and unexplainable.
“You must be David,” the man with the grey beard said, standing to greet me.
This was clearly John. He was just a bit taller than me, thin, with salt and pepper hair, a goatee, and an inconspicuous red polo shirt. He was not wearing a robe, I noted, though I did my best to hide my disappointment.
He showed me to a small room in the back of the store. The walls and ceiling were covered in tapestries, and it was lit only by a few dim candles twinkling in the corners. There was a small table with a large crystal ball, sage, incense, and several other stones. The room was comfortable and warm and, in another life, the perfect place to take a nap. I pulled out my phone to start recording.
“What would you like to know?” John asked.
“Well, I just started writing for a new website and I want to know what’s going to happen.”
John smiled and winked and handed me the cards. Like Jean, he asked me to shuffle them as much as I wanted before drawing my set. At his direction, I pulled out five cards and pushed them forward, face down. One by one, he turned them up.
The Aeon, the Wheel of Fortune, the Knight of Pentacles, the Six of Wands, and the Knight of Cups.
“Interesting,” he said.
Hell yes, I thought. Here come the demons.
“The first two cards come together. The Aeon with the Wheel of Fortune,” John said, quite un-demonically. “The Aeon is telling me that you’re tired of being the servant girl. With the Wheel of Fortune, the Aeon is talking about transition. You’re working for a job that suits you, and you’re not going to be in a position of servitude.”
Fortune tellers are pretty much the only people these days who endorse freelancing, so I guess that’s a good thing. I nodded, waiting for the devil to manifest. Ready for some brimstone.
“In one to two months—six weeks is what I’m sensing—you’ll see if this job is where you’re going to be forever. There are other opportunities coming in April, May, and June, but you will be at this job when they come. The cards are saying it’s about figuring out what’s right for you instead of simply taking new opportunities as they appear.”
“Hmm,” I grunted. I had decided not to give him too much confirmation when he sounded like he might be making sense. If this was all worthless, I wanted to know.
“And the Wheel of Fortune, with the Aeon…it’s talking about the universe pulling a curtain, saying: ‘We have some stuff that we are trying to build for you, so don’t look through and screw it up.’ And the Knight of Pentacles…he’s telling me that you’re going to be traveling soon, for this job, that there are a lot of big opportunities that you didn’t expect.”
“It also talks about getting money. It says that in the next month, you’re going to get money for work you’ve already done.” And then John said a number, and that number was the exact amount of money that I’m expecting from Uproxx and a few other projects.
To be honest, that bit was pretty spooky.
Next, he placed a hand on a middle card. “This is you,” he said, tapping the card definitively. “The Knight of Cups. You’re not depressed, but you are wondering if this is all there is. Your skills aren’t being utilized. You’re having to play games.”
He continued, “Do you mind me asking…this card speaks to working through some grieving. Are you writing to get over some depression? A fight with family, a break up? Since October. That was a really hard month for you. You’ve been in recovery mode.” Before I could respond, John pulled a card at random from the deck for guidance. He placed the card face up over the Knight of Cups, revealing the horned visage of the Devil.
Finally, I thought, ready, nervous, tingling. It’s time for some demon shit.
“This card talks about doing things out of want and desire, not obligation. It’s time for you to get what you want, that’s what this new job is about. You need to go after the things you desire.”
Well, that’s not demonic at all, I thought. Once again — just good advice.
“You’ve worked hard, making sacrifices in other jobs, working overtime for your bosses so that their projects would do well. You don’t need to do that anymore, you just need work for yourself, that’s what’s important right—” And then he stopped and listened to the shadows. “Who is this woman with dark hair and dark eyes? Curvy, wears a lot of black and dark colors. She has an evil energy.”
Could he be talking about Jean Jacket?
“How do I put this…Is there an Amanda?”
“No,” I said. “I don’t know an Amanda.”
John looked at the cards, then at me, dubious at the lack of Amandas in my life. I wasn’t lying; I honestly don’t know an Amanda, at least… not a dark, curvy, gothy Amanda. He waved the sentiment off like a cloud of smoke and scooped the cards off the table and back into the deck.
“So, what’s next?” he asked. “What else do you want to know?”
“Where should I put my energy?” I asked. It was a question I’d thought up before coming in, purposefully using vernacular befitting a mystic. It’s the same basic point I’d been trying to get at with the stuff about the new job, but a little deeper.
John nodded expectantly and said, “I want you to draw three cards this time” I drew three, face down, and handed them over. John flipped over the first card. “The Two of Cups. It means there’s some competition with this new job, but there’s also a lot of transition energy.” He turned over the next card. “The Eight of Cups. It’s telling me that you need to network, and that you need to be authentic. And that you’re going to be sent to Europe in September.”
“That sounds very specific,” I said, offering an eyebrow raise. The whole criticism of these sorts of things is that they’re so vague that they can never really be wrong. Even Jean had been unwilling to treat Tarot like a real fortune-telling device.
John gave a half-shrug. “Sometimes the future can be very specific.”
Finally, he flipped over the last card, ordained with a skull surrounded by the twisting pull of smoky tendrils. “Death,” he said.
Let’s do this, I thought. Tell me of dark days and demons on the march.
“What’s haunting you?” John asked. He looked legitimately concerned. Before I could answer, he raised his hand in protest, as if he already knew.
He drew a final card to guide him — the Knight of Swords, a card that Jean had read for me the night before. “It says you’re trusted where you are. You’re in leadership, that’s the energy, but it’s more fun instead of joyful. It’s paying the bills. When drawn with Death, it tells me that this is a time of healing.”
And finally I began to understand that, like in Jean’s kitchen, there would be no demons in my reading.
John drew a second card for guidance. “Yes, it’s clear, put your energy into writing, put your energy into this job. It’s about recovery from past betrayal.” He laid the card face up over the Knight. “The Ten of Swords tells me that this is your time.”
The Ten of Swords is drawn with a man laying on a beach at sunrise. He’s relaxed, but his body is skewered with swords. One by one, he pulls them out. “Don’t wait,” John said. “Travel, see the world, write about it. This is how you heal. This is how you become who you want to be. The things you want ten years from now, you’re going to get them a lot sooner. You’ve been lost in a sea of chance and tumult, and this is how you come to shore.”
John fanned out a hand of cards in front of me. “Pick one,” he said. “And I will send you with it.” I pulled a card and turned it over. “Ace of Swords,” he said, smiling, excited. “As you pray it, so it is.”
I left The Sacred Well feeling oddly hopeful. I’d come into this project at once skeptical and overly ambitious. I didn’t believe in the stuff, but I also found myself longing for some gateway to hell or mystic super religion. I got none of that. In my readings with both Jean and John, Tarot acted more as a conduit for smart people to offer an angsty 30-year-old some well-rounded, good-natured advice.
I left wanting to do well in my job, to use writing as a tool to help me grow, and to savor the opportunity to work for myself. Groundbreaking? No. But for a field that is constantly shrouded in smoke and mirrors, the feedback I got felt pretty solid.
It was also more uplifting than I ever expected. Maybe the “dark arts” aren’t so dark after all.