GOLDEN TAROT: Six of Wands

Folktales by the Fire

“I think I saw a ghost once,” Carolina said, “but to this day, I’m uncertain I did.”

We sat around the fire-pit on a cool night. The brook babbled nearby, and we heard the occasional flapping of bat wings in the orchard; fruit bats making a banquet of the pear trees. The sound of their leather wings and the dancing fire gave the garden an eerie atmosphere. Billowing clouds veiled the moon in the crisp, humid air; it had rained all afternoon, and the wetness chilled the bones. 

We had trouble lighting the fire, but once we got it going nothing could drag us away. So, with tequila to warm the bones, and faces red from the licking flames that rose to the sky, the conversation drifted to spooky folklore. 

Everyone told a story; fire-lit anecdotes of nameless acquaintances. We wove a tapestry of words and flitting embers about witches and shape-shifting nahuales. The night listened to tales of haunted houses with buried gold, elves braiding horses’ manes, and people going up the mountain to meet the Devil. And La Llorona, the restless soul who, in life, had drowned her children. 

“So, Caro, tell us,” I shivered into my woolen sarape… from the cold? From the wet? Or just the creepy conversation?

An owl hooted.

Carolina began:

“I was driving on the highway, it was December and the processions had already begun, you know, to La Villa, to worship La Virgen de Guadalupe.

“Traffic was slow because a huge procession was ambling up ahead. I glimpsed the banners and flowers, even from so far behind. It was getting late, and I was losing patience, but what to do, right? You can’t just run over people. So I stopped at a gas station café nearby, hoping they would veer off somewhere and the jam would clear. 

“I don’t know how long I waited, but the sun was setting as I climbed back in the car. I drove for a little while. Twilight was falling, and it was that time of day when the half-light hurts the eyes. It’s too light and too dim at the same time. 

“Anyway, up ahead a man was walking alongside the road, and I wondered whether he had fallen behind the procession. As I neared, I noticed he wore huaraches, and a long jorongo. His head hung low on his shoulders, and I couldn’t tell if he was young or old. 

“I slowed down. He seemed to carry a bundle of something wrapped in the front of his jorongo. In the beam of my headlights I thought I saw a rose petals peeking out from the sides of the bundle.

“I would’ve pulled over, but at that moment a semi-trailer honked. I glanced in the rearview mirror; the semi was fast approaching. Its two big headlights bore down on me, blinding me for an instant. Then, when I glanced towards the man by the road, he wasn’t there.”

“Were you afraid?” I asked.

She paused.


We remained silent, reflecting on her story. I think we all pondered the same legend, but no one wanted to say it out loud. December, the processions, La Virgen de Guadalupe, the man with a bundle of roses…

The fire crackled, sparks danced and a low howl wove through the orchard, followed by the shriek of a barn owl — a lechuza — in the distance.

“It was just a guy catching up to the procession,” I broke the silence, “I bet he knew a footpath or a shortcut, and took it.”  

Everyone nodded, and the mood lightened; even the breeze seemed to heave a sigh of relief. 

“You know, La Llorona appears on rainy days, or near water,” Pedro said, his impish smile flickering in the firelight. “And the brook is only a few paces away…”


Motherpearl Island

Phyllis sat on her widow’s walk with a heavy woolen blanket draped over her legs. She placed a thermos filled with hot chocolate on the small bistro table before her. 

The soft crush and rumble of breaking waves drifted upward on the salty breeze. The cawing of seagulls filled the air and the hubbub of traffic below her was winding down as the street cleared of cars. Rush-hour was ebbing, and this was Phyllis’s favorite time of day.

The weather chilled days before and brought an abrupt end to summer with its frosty wind. Even the sea breeze, once musky with brine and heat, was now crisp with a stinging bite.

Phyllis watched the long shadows of the pavilion as they stretched over the sand towards the glimmering water in the waning sunlight. The sound of the breaking waves and the soft twilight glow cast a mystical spell over the beach.

Phyllis’s gaze turned to the island shimmering beyond the bay. From her vantage point, she saw the crumbling buildings of the old town.

Phyllis reminisced about her childhood trips to Motherpearl Island on her father’s boat. He claimed its anglers caught the best lobsters, and there were none so tasty in the universe. 

Motherpearl Island had once been a thriving community despite its isolation. Thunderous waves broke over jagged rocks all around it; the only means of communication was a long, man-made wooden pier which jutted out from the island’s single, tiny, and pebbled beach. The settlers had built their homes and businesses, a church with pealing bells, and a clock-tower on the grassy meadow that stretched beneath a towering forested hill. A lighthouse stood atop the hill’s barren peak. Beyond it, nothing but rocky cliffs and crushing waves. 

Phyllis recalled the strange iridescence of the rocks that gave the island its name. The entire island seemed to shimmer with a gossamer sheen of sparkling color, much like a dragonfly’s wings. Memories of Motherpearl Island evoked happiness and contentment; a simple and magical life. Her mind flooded with sun-filled days sitting on the jagged rocks, eating lobsters with Daddy, then hiking up to the lighthouse, and sailing home upon glimmering sunsets.

Then, the paradise crashed down during a wild, raging night. A storm wiped out the village on Motherpearl Island, scattering its inhabitants over the bay. Phyllis shuddered at the memory of bodies floating upon the water, day after day, for weeks. The storm also took Daddy’s boat and all the wonderful weekends at sea, the stinging breeze playing with her hair, and the waves lapping at the hull. Daddy never replaced the boat. 

Good years mingled with harsh years followed, and throughout, Phyllis watched the island from her widow’s walk and through Daddy’s old binoculars. A ghost town with decaying buildings; unreachable as the once sturdy pier now lay at the bottom of the sea.

Over the years, through the ancient lenses, Phyllis bore witness as the once-thriving town gave up the ghost and crumbled to the ground like sandcastles vanquished by a raging ocean. The clock in the old clock-tower had stopped with the storm, its hands suspended in time for years. Until one day, with a gasp, Phyllis had seen it crash to the ground. The church-tower ceiling tumbled inwards, buckling under the weight of the bells as they collapsed into the nave with deafening and discordant clangs. The lighthouse, severed in half, hunched on the hilltop; its light, fallen beside the stumpy foundation, pointed toward the sky. 

The sun had set, and the world was turning blue. Blue sky, blue sea, blue air, like the cyanotype Daddy once showed her of the beach she had lived by every day of her life, but had never known.

There had been an amusement park, Daddy said, and people flocked to it on the weekends for popcorn and lobster. But no lobster as delicious as those from Motherpearl Island.

The first stars twinkled in the sky and the blue darkened into black, as if black ink spilled on blue paper, oozing and blending over the world.

The seagulls quieted, and only the thunderous waves rumbled. All cars had gone home, and the cold settled over the widow’s walk. Phyllis stayed, draping another blanket over her shoulders, as crisp stars sparkled one by one to life over the dark inky waves.

Phyllis sipped her hot chocolate, and a smile dawned on her lips as her eyes fixed on the long-abandoned island. 

Bling! A light sparked on Motherpearl Island.  

Bling! Then another and another, until the abandoned island was aglow with tiny pinpricks of light, like a fairy village at night.

Phyllis grabbed her binoculars and lifted them to her eyes. 

Only during these hours and through these binoculars, Phyllis became a distant witness to the town’s severed heyday. Through the lenses she gazed at the clock, now back on its perch on the tower, and ticking away. The lighthouse, now tall atop the hill, shone its round, revolving beam over the breaking waves. On the soft breeze, Phyllis perceived the faraway peal of the church bells as they chimed in the shimmering reminiscence of glory days long gone.

Daddy was right, Phyllis never again ate lobsters as delicious as those on Motherpearl Island.


The Forgotten Castle

Naomi leaned back in her chair and stretched her arms above her head. She heaved an enormous yawn and glanced out her bedroom window. The ruined castle shimmered in the setting sun. Often she thought it a mirage, but she knew every nook and cranny of it. It was her favorite haunt, where she and her friends had played hide-and-seek among the ruined walls and crumbling ceilings. Her parents warned her of the dangers of playing among the ruins. Yet the warnings came with half-smiles; they too had played in the castle as children. As their own parents had done before them; a local tradition, a rite-of-passage, perhaps. 

After school, Naomi went to the castle by herself. She needed time alone; it had been a strange and trying day. She walked among the ruins and took a nap on the grass of its derelict courtyard. Leaving, she paused at the crumbling arch of the castle entrance to shake out a stone that had crept its way into her shoe. 

Now, she switched on the desk lamp and returned to her homework.

The sun cast its last rays over the glimmering land, and the castle faded into shadow, as its name had faded into oblivion; its decrepit turrets stood out against the indigo twilight. Naomi closed her schoolwork and switched off the desk lamp. The castle’s lonely silhouette blurred as dusky shadows fell. She stood up, crossed the bedroom and flopped down onto her bed; the ruinous gloomy mass still visible outside her window.

She loved to daydream about the castle’s heyday; the banquets, the tourneys, the dashing knights, and the fair princesses. She knew most of its legends, but loved one in particular. It drew her into the realm of imagination and defined the lonely ruins beyond the windowpane. 

The legend said:

A young knight rode into the hamlet on a horse so exhausted and grimy that its head bowed low to the ground as it trudged along the countryside. The knight’s head hung on his shoulders, heavy with fatigue.

The townspeople, wary of strangers, bolted their doors and shuttered their windows as he passed through the village square. Horse and knight—that ragged bundle of bones and sinew—traipsed towards the castle, unaware of the villagers’ icy reception. Field workers turned their heads away and crossed themselves, believing he was Death itself. No one approached, no one offered assistance. Upon reaching the castle gate, the guards denied the knight entry.

He claimed to be the nobleman’s son returning home, but no one believed him. All knew the son and only heir died in Holy Land; a monk had returned the family seal ring and confirmed the heir’s death. 

The young man pleaded his case.
“I have a crucifix. My mother gave it to me when I left. It bears my name.”

The nobleman asked to see it, but when the knight touched his neck to retrieve the crucifix hung up on it, he blanched. Had he dropped it? 

Unable to prove his identity, the nobleman turned the young knight away. 

He too vanished into oblivion; perhaps he took the castle’s name with him. 

Yet, people say the knight errant still wanders the land, always heading towards the castle.

Naomi’s room was now dark, and the moon beamed upon her outstretched body on the bed. She reached into her pocket and took out the trinket that had sparkled in the soil just beyond the castle grounds. She twirled it around and scratched the dirt off it with her nail; the crucifix dangled on its tarnished chain between her fingers. 

She gazed at the ruined castle.

Glowing in the moonlight, the spectral knight made his eternal and torturous journey home.



Marianne wandered away from the camp in search of firewood. She heard their voices nearby and resolved not to stray too far. She knew the danger of wandering alone in these woods so thick that faint sunlight only seeped in through the dense canopy of the ancient evergreens. This forest teemed with legends of shifting trees, vanishing paths, and whispered voices that led people astray. She gave them no credence—they were just ghost stories—but the forest was notorious for its incidence of missing hikers and strange accidents.

Marianne gathered a few more branches and twigs and tucked them in the crook of her arm. She turned to retrace her steps down the narrow forest path. But, to her surprise, it had disappeared. Marianne pivoted and scanned the forest for the opening in the trees, the jagged rock that jutted out so the path wound around it. She searched for the trail marker painted on the tall oak, but found no sign.

Marianne gulped. She listened for her friends’ laughter and hubbub, but perceived only the soft breeze blowing through the leaves.

“What the…?” She muttered. 

A strange sensation, as if a sinister blanket woven with eerie thread, descended upon her. Her heart raced, her knees buckled, and her arms trembled under the prickly weight of the firewood. Beads of sweat formed on her brow, and Marianne struggled to calm herself.

Did she get turned around somehow? Had she wandered too far away?

Marianne took several deep breaths until the pounding fear subsided. Closing her eyes, she listened, focusing on the soft trickle of the nearby stream. She gauged its direction, and still carrying the firewood, set off to find it. Then she would follow it upstream to the fallen tree; they had camped several yards from it, inward the woods.

Relief escaped from her lips when she found the babbling brook.

The sun’s last rays shot out and sparkled in the water. Marianne trudged along the riverbank upstream; the cloudless sky blazed with red and yellow flames. The oozing dusk began staining the world with its blue light.

Marianne paused for breath and glanced around her, hoping to distinguish a marker towards the campsite. But the woods were dark, engulfed in a haunting gloom. Phantom shadows meandered through the trees. She cast her eyes towards the stream; the water flowed with an unearthly, dark glimmer. 

Lightning flashed upon the riverbank and, startled, Marianne dropped the firewood she still carried. She spied four shimmering apparitions drifting downstream towards her. As they neared, Marianne leaned closer to discern them. Fallen branches? But their blinding, bluish-white glow mystified her. 

Marianne gasped. 

Four bodies floated, feet first, past the riverbank with ghastly faces, shut eyelids and blue lips, their hands crossed upon their chests, as if they lay inside shimmering, watery coffins.

She screamed. 

The first body was her own likeness! Next came the image of Monty, followed by Minnie, then Miranda—the four M’s. 

Marianne plunged her hand into the water, but the wraiths disappeared.

“A mirage!” she breathed with relief.

Wishing to leave, Marianne set off at a brisk trot, always keeping the river by her side. Her breath came in heaves and pants, and tears stung her eyes so that she tripped as they blurred her vision. The fallen tree loomed ahead, and Marianne hurried to reach it.

As she rounded the tree, she found the forest path in the waning sunlight trickling through the leaves, and her friends’ distant voices shattered the eerie gloom.

“Don’t set up,” Marianne panted as she burst into the campsite, “let’s get out of here.”

“Why?” Miranda asked, puzzled by Marianne’s ashen countenance.

“Please let’s go!” Marianne’s gaze darted from one friend to the next like a frightened cat, “This forest warned me to leave.”

Monty shrugged. He never admitted it, but he was superstitious, and he had grown up with the legends too.

Marianne’s frightened expression dried up Minnie’s protests. 

Thunder rumbled in the distance, though the weather forecast had predicted no storms. 

They reached the car parked at the trailhead when heavy raindrops fell. Thunder and lightning were now upon them, and the air was dense with moisture. 

As they drove away Marianne glimpsed the sign pinned up on the board at the trail entrance; “WARNING! FLASH FLOOD AREA!” it screamed.


Down a Country Lane

The car meandered down the country lane. Soft music sounded from the stereo. Heidi threw a quick glance at Claudia in the passenger seat. Her friend’s eyes were open, but she stared into space. Their chatter had ebbed minutes before as the length of the drive, the late hour, and the exciting evening took its toll on the two middle-aged ladies.

They had driven two hours to the city to attend a ballet performance of Giselle. Heidi figured the ballerinas in billowing tutus still danced before Claudia’s eyes. Heidi yawned and rubbed her eyelid. 

“Do you want me to drive?” Claudia asked.

“No, I’m fine, maybe a little tired,” Heidi answered.

Claudia nodded and turned up the volume. The turbulent opening notes of Mussorgsky’s A Night on Bald Mountain blared from the speakers. 

Now and again, a half-moon peeked between the boughs overhanging the lane. The narrow road wound through the forest; the October wind blew dead leaves across the crooked and snaky asphalt. Heidi shuddered. The long scraggly branches shone with spectral whiteness in the car’s high beams. The haunting Giselle still danced in her mind as A Night on Bald Mountain’s powerful and frenzied tune filled the car.

Then the car stalled. Its lights flashed and blinked as the engine sputtered. Heaving a desolate sigh, it coasted to a stop. Heidi flicked the ignition, but the engine was dead. Even the stereo was silent.

“What’s going on?” Claudia’s voice oscillated between confusion and apprehension.

“I don’t know, the car stopped, just like that.”

“Now what?” Claudia asked; her voice rising an octave, and her eyes brimming with alarm.

“Call AAA?” Heidi shrugged, refusing to show her growing anxiety.

Heidi reached into the backseat for her purse, and was fumbling in it for her cell phone when Claudia spoke.

“What an eerie night! It’s so still and silent… Have you ever known the forest to be this silent?”

Heidi paused with her hand still in her purse.

“No,” she conceded and glanced at her watch, “it’s not even midnight; the world quiets down around 3 AM.”

“I know, but listen, nothing is moving.”

“Sure there is.” 

Heidi opened the door, thinking how, if they had been in her old car, she could have rolled down the window. Her son had bought her this new car and had touted the electric windows as the eighth wonder of the world. 

Icy air cooled her arm, but did not blow through the car, as if it did not want to enter. Heidi listened. Claudia was right. No owl hooted, no cricket chirped, and no breeze blew, despite the swaying branches of moments ago.

Heidi shivered. She closed the door and rubbed her goosebumps.

“Gosh it’s cold out! The forecast claimed it would only be in the low 60s tonight. I’d say it’s more like the low 30s!”

Heidi tried the ignition again, to no avail. Claudia, meanwhile, had fumbled in her own purse and had taken out her cell phone. She put the phone to her ear. 

Frowning, Claudia said, “No signal, try yours?”

Heidi pulled out her phone.
“Nada, zilch, we’re on our own.”

The two friends stared at one another at a loss for what next, when the sound of giggling laughter seeped into the car. It was faint, yet crescendoing as female voices approached. 

Heidi and Claudia sighed with relief.

The trees beside the lane rustled, and the women discerned soft firelights floating between the wraithlike trunks. The lights bobbed and wove, fluttering between the branches. For a moment, Heidi thought it was Giselle and her spooky friends.

The sparkling lights burst through the trees and dozens of women carrying lanterns danced onto the lane.

“They’re stark naked!” Claudia exclaimed.

Not all were flitting about in their birthday suits in the nippy cold air; a few wore long, flowing nightgowns. Heidi tried to say so, but the words stuck in her throat.

Bug-eyed, they watched the twirling women. 

The car shook when the uncanny dancers surrounded it, and a biting cold chilled the friends to the bone. The frolicking sprites crossed the lane and vanished into the woods.

“They… They…” Claudia stammered. 

“They passed right through us; through the car, through the seats, and right through you and me!” Heidi wheezed. 

“My God!” Claudia shrieked. 

Just then, A Night on Bald Mountain resumed, and the car gasped to life.


By the Light of Twin Moons

Johnny Seaver and Alondra trudged up the jagged, barren mountainside of sand and rock. 

The two bright moons, round in their full splendor, lit up the sky so torches were unnecessary. Belenos had directed them to meet him at the top at midnight. Johnny and Alondra set out early in the evening. When they emerged from the residence, the hustle and bustle beyond Belenos’s door surprised Johnny.

Belenos’s people had hewn all dwellings into the mountain; Johnny wondered if they had stumbled upon ancient cave folk. Upon seeing Johnny and Alondra, Belenos’s neighbors scurried into their own homes; their eyes ever wary of the two strangers. Like Belenos, his neighbors were tall, and, in the sparkling sunset, their long shadows shimmered like meandering tendrils. Alondra wondered if perhaps these people might be shadows themselves…

“You know,” Alondra said, “they speak the language of the Ancients, perhaps these are the giants David defeated?”

Johnny whispered, “I always thought ancient humans were shorter.”

“I doubt they are humans,” Alondra murmured, as a shadow slunk past them.

“Then, what are they?” Johnny asked.

“The Ancients,” Alondra replied, “they who enter our dreams, live in our forests and rivers, and seas. The masters of air, water, fire and earth.”

“You mean mythical beings?”

Alondra shrugged.

They were on the outskirts of town, following the barren path Belenos had pointed out, and beginning their upward climb. Alondra and Johnny soon grew silent; the ascent up the steep mountainside too strenuous for talk.

Johnny wondered if they could rest; he was having trouble keeping up with Alondra. She seemed to never tire of walking.

Two things are obvious. I traveled back in time and met Alondra, and we are not on planet Earth.

“So then,” Johnny murmured, “where are we?”

“Pardon?” Alondra asked but Johnny ignored her; his pensive expression told Alondra he was not talking to her.

In Belenos’s home, Johnny had kept track of night and day, and he surmised they were about the same length as on Earth.

As far as he knew, no one had ever discovered other Earth-like planets. Dad always said the idea was all based on statistics and suppositions. 

“The moons only seem identical,” Alondra spoke up, “but they are not. The shadows on one moon mirror the shadows on the other. Also, one glows with a faint copper hue.”

Johnny huffed as he toiled up the rocks and paused for a moment to gaze at the moons. 

He gasped, “We’re in another dimension!” 

Alondra stopped ahead of him and fixed him with a puzzled expression.

“Yes,” Belenos said.

He sat atop a jagged rock; Johnny, startled out of his reverie, realized they had reached the top.

The moonlight shone on Belenos and gave his skin a magical glow.

A deep, lush valley stretched below them, with trees so thick and strong Johnny thought a squirrel never need touch the ground.

The peak where they stood was arid, but the curly canopy of trees adorned the skirts of the mountain, like frills on a dress.

Johnny glanced back towards the desert, scraggy path and realized where they had been. Belenos and his people lived inside a volcano!

“Now,” Belenos’s deep voice rang out through the night, “we must meet one who can answer your questions.”

Belenos smiled and rose.

“Come, he awaits us.” 



Tyler leaned back in his chair and stretched his arms to the ceiling. The cursor blinked, tap, tap, tapping an impatient and expectant beat. In the past hour Tyler had changed his shoes, walked to the kitchen and chomped on a handful of pistachios. Then he walked back to his room. He paused on the stairwell and stared at the watercolor painting of purple flowers (he neither knew nor cared what flowers they were). He had turned around and sauntered back to the kitchen for another handful of pistachios. Then trekked all the way back to his room, giving the flower picture a cursory glance. He had fiddled with the knickknacks on his bedside table and patted Bear, who was lying down on his bed. Bear gave him an inquisitive yip. Tyler put his discarded shoes in the closet, stood by the window, and, huffing, sat down at the computer. 

The paper was due tomorrow, and he’d procrastinated all day. He stared at the screen and heaved an exasperated sigh. The assignment was to write a fictional story, all subjects welcome. Tyler, for the past few days, had been squeezing his brains like a dried lemon for a tidbit, a drop of an idea, but nothing. 

He glanced out the window at the whirling snow. Even the weather was cooperating so he could get this done today. The town announced a snow day and closed the school. He often went sledding or skating on these unexpected holidays, but today the snowstorm was raging so bad there was no possibility of going anywhere. 

The computer screen darkened, tired of waiting. Tyler kept his eyes on the window. 

Snowflakes splattered on the windowpane like bugs against a windshield, and the wind howled through the window frame. Outside the world was a marshmallow of thick, undulating white. The forest beyond the garden was invisible though, as the wind swept freewheeling snowflakes, he glimpsed the scraggly branches an instant before another rabble of errant flakes bespattered the window. 

Tyler thought about getting yet another handful of pistachios and perhaps a can of Coke. He made to stand, but something outside arrested his attention. 

A dark mass was lumbering its way along the trees. It tottered side to side like a pendulum as it approached his yard. Chills crept up Tyler’s spine and goosebumps sprouted on his arms. 

His heart raced, and a knot caught in his throat; he could not take his eyes off the figure as it waddled towards his house. The Beast! It was The Beast! 

Everyone knew the story; The Beast arrived when Johnny disappeared. Kids from school had seen it last summer as they had camped in their backyard, which, Tyler recalled, also melded into the woods. 

Tyler wanted to scream, but the screech caught in his throat like fishhooks. He gave Bear a hopeful glance. His heart sunk when he realized Bear, a massive mixture of Akita and Newfoundland, was the dumbest, laziest dog the Almighty ever created. If faced with The Beast, Bear would either slink away as speedy as a turtle and squeaking like a rubber ducky, or offer The Beast his disfigured chew toys. 


Tyler jumped liked the Devil pricked his butt. His head snapped towards the window as another wave of snow slid down the pane. The slush obstructed his view and Tyler debated whether to open the window and wipe it clean or not. 

Better not, he decided, lest the sounds and movements attract The Beast. Heart in mouth, he waited for the snow to slide all the way down the glass. He swayed this way and that, trying for a better look. He gulped as the window cleared, and with his heart racing like a Ferrari, he pressed his forehead against the glass. The maelstrom of snow and ice still raged in whirlpools of swirling white, but the dark mass had vanished into the freezing vortex. 

Tyler paced the room trying to calm himself; Bear’s eyes followed him with mild interest. Bear gave a little peep as Tyler sat down and embraced him. He gave Tyler’s cheek a sloppy lick. Tyler listened, but heard no unfamiliar sound. He laid his head on the pillow and waited for his heart rate to slow. 

Bear yawned liked he would eat the world; a grin crept up Tyler’s lips as an idea flashed through his brain.  

“The Beast! Now that’s a story!”


Forty Winks

Erin sat on a flat rock overlooking the gorge. She set her backpack on the ground beside her, and considered whether to eat her sandwich now, or wait a few minutes. The soft breeze tousled her pony-tailed hair and cooled her cheeks. She closed her eyes and listened to the birds trilling in the trees and the river’s soft babble floating upwards the rocky crags of the gorge. Trees and plants clung onto the cliff wall; their gnarled tendrils snaked downwards towards the fertile earth by the riverbed. 

She had followed the narrow, knobby, pebbled path that hiked up, up, up through the forest; its thick canopy only allowed weedy shafts of sunlight to peek through its branches. Erin had gasped as she had burst through the trees; the world, wide and tall and warm and sunlit, had appeared before her in all its marvelous expanse. 

Something rustled in the trees behind her, and Erin opened her eyes. The blue, cloudless sky shimmered above her, while the river gushed so far below that its thunderous roar reached her ears like a mere sputtering gurgle. Dark silhouettes of mountains rose ahead like prehistoric and unreachable worlds. 

“The bigness of it all,” Erin murmured, recalling that, only a couple of hours before, the metal shell of her car had enclosed her. And the walls of her house had sheltered her, yet imprisoned her at the same time. 

Erin reached into her pack and took out her cell phone. She fought the urge to open the addicting game that kept her cooped up with its encroaching narrowness and instead turned on the camera. She pointed the lens at the gorge; sunlight obliterated the images on the screen. Blinking, Erin snapped a picture. 

She put the phone away and laid back against an adjacent rock, as if the landscape had created a hard, bumpy little divan just for her. Erin fought the urge to reclaim the phone and open the game. She placed her arms behind her head like a living pillow and interlaced those itchy fingers. She glanced upwards as the fluffy, white clouds rolled through the blue sky. 

Another rustle; Erin turned her cheek towards the sound and watched as a man emerged from the forest path. She noticed the man’s clothing: breeches with thick knee-high socks and short boots. He wore a short, belted frock coat and flat cap. He seemed to carry something burdensome, but as he reached the overlook, the man glimmered in the light, colors fading into a blur. The sun stung Erin’s eyes, and she closed them. The man seemed not to notice her.

Listening, she pictured the man’s movements. He bustled about and traipsed over the uneven ground. He stopped. A soft tapping of wood as he opened what sounded to her like a folding chair. His treading footfalls, and more tapping, clapping and rustling mingled with the sounds of the gorge. 

He’s setting up his camera, I suppose, Erin thought as the warm breeze kissed her cheeks. She wrinkled her nose. The breeze carried a faint scent of chemicals mingled with the overpowering aroma of pine, moss, and damp earth. Erin tried to open her eyes, but the light burst through her eyelashes. She could have turned her head away from the sunlight, but preferred the breeze blowing in her face. 

The sounds the man made soon faded away. Erin dozed on the rocks, with the babbling river below her, the cerulean expanse of sky above, the colossal mountains beyond, and the dense, cool forest at her back.  

A shadow passed over her and darkened the inside of her eyelids. 

The soft clearing of a man’s throat rumbled, “Pardon me, madam.”

Erin blinked her eyes open; the man’s young, smiling face towered over her. His smile crept over his features despite the bushy, dark eyebrows and eyelashes shading his twinkling eyes, and a thick vandyke beard hiding his lips. She caught his smile and returned it. 

“I did not wish to disturb you,” he said in a gruff voice and tobacco scented breath, “but your placidity enchanted me, and I wished to capture the moment.”

He held out a thin iron plate towards her, “Please forgive me for intruding on your rest, and accept this token of gratitude for your peaceful company this afternoon.”

“You’re not bothering me,” she said, “the sun’s so bright! I snapped a picture with my phone, but the glare… I couldn’t see anything on the screen.”

Erin took the plate he handed her. 

“I beg pardon,” the man said, his eyebrows knitted together in confusion, “I had no trouble with my camera, and I placed my portable darkroom tent beneath the shaded boughs. Tintypes are excellent for outdoor photography.”

Erin sat up and glanced at the thin sheet of metal in her hands. 

Fixed upon the plate was a grainy black-and-white image of herself asleep on the rocks. 

“Thank you,” she said, “what a beautiful picture.”

The man smiled and nodded, giving his cap a light tap. 

Erin gazed down at the picture and admired its prodigious detail. The man must be a pro, she thought, even if he is an odd duck in old-fashioned clothing

She turned to the man, wanting to say something kind. A heavy wind gusted from the forest and snatched the words from her tongue. The man had gone, leaving the twirling leaves in his wake. 

Was he a vision? A dream? A ghost?

Yet, the tintype remained in her hands. 


Opportunity Knocks

Zoe leaned back in her chair and sighed. She gazed around the silent office and past the darkened cubicles surrounding hers. Down the aisle, she glimpsed the gloomy windows. She never enjoyed staying late, but the boss had heaped last-minute work on her and she thought it best to get it done as soon as possible. It didn’t help matters she had spent the past half hour daydreaming about quitting the company. 

It had taken her a while to admit it, but she did not like her job. She got along with everyone and always pasted an eternal smile on her lips. But, in the past few months, she had been dragging herself out of bed every weekday and resisting the urge to call in sick. 

Things had been changing at the office; the new boss treated his employees like machines and had taken an especial dislike toward Zoe. Why? She could not say, but glancing around the empty office, it sure seemed true. He seemed to dump all eleventh-hour work on her, and only her. 

Zoe rubbed her eyes and yawned. Exhausted, she glanced at her phone and saw a new text message from her friend Norman. He had contacted her days ago and explained he was starting a business, wondering whether she would join him in the venture. 

Zoe had said she needed time to consider it. In fact, she had been daydreaming about quitting this job and throwing all cares to the wind. She had been pondering Norman’s offer. 

“Zoe, I believe we’d be a helluva team,” Norman’s deep black eyes had fixed their serious gaze on her — one blue and one brown — heterochromatic eyes. 

“But if I leave,” Zoe rested her face in her hands, “I’ll be taking a significant risk with my life. I also wouldn’t have time to do both jobs. What should I do?”

Zoe contemplated her options for another moment, before setting her hands on the keyboard. The characters on the screen melted into one giant blur; she blinked the exhaustion away and continued. 

Muffled footsteps and the sound of shuffling papers distracted her. She glimpsed an older woman she didn’t know, walking toward the copier room. Zoe gazed after her; she thought she was the only person left in the building. 

“Working late?” Zoe smiled as the woman approached on her return to her own workstation. 

The woman paused; an exhausted smile spread across her lips.

“Yes, I am. I wish I wasn’t though, but there are bills to pay and I need the overtime.”

“Yeah, I hear ya,” Zoe said, “I need to get this done by tomorrow, some last-minute stuff my boss requested.”

“Ah, yes, I worked for him many years ago.”

“What was he like?” Zoe asked, eager for a break and a little gossip. 

The woman leaned against Zoe’s cubicle. 

“Unkind and a terrible boss, somewhat of a bully, too. He enjoys demeaning and overworking the people he doesn’t like. He tests the waters with them, and if they give an inch, he grabs a foot and then some. If I were you, I’d request a transfer. You’re on his blacklist.”

“How do you know?”

The woman shrugged, “You’re the only one in his department working this late.”

Zoe took a deep breath. As the woman turned to go, Zoe made a split-second decision. 

“You know,” she spoke and the woman, halting, attended her, “my friend has asked me to join him in a startup. I’m hesitant. I don’t know what to do, it’s like I’m between a rock and a hard place.”

“What’s keeping you from taking your friend’s offer?”

Zoe thought for a moment, “Fear. I’m afraid it’ll fail and I’ll be out on my butt.”

“What’s the alternative?”

“Staying here, I suppose, and hoping a transfer goes through,” Zoe shrugged, “maybe I’ll search for another job, at another company as big and heartless as this one.”

“I had an offer like that once. My friend Norm asked me to join him in a risky venture,” The woman said in a voice brimming with melancholy and nostalgia. 

Zoe caught her breath when she heard the name; she always called Norman ‘Norm’ because he never bent the rules. 

“Wh-what happened?” Zoe stammered. 

“I turned him down and stayed at my safe and cushy job, working under a boss who disrespected me at every turn. I applied for transfer after transfer to another department, but it was years before that came through. Found out later the boss had thwarted all my opportunities over and over until he couldn’t anymore. By then, it was too late. Exhausted, I was drowning in debt with my small salary just keeping me afloat. Meanwhile, Norm and the person who took the offer I’d turned down were rolling in dough like Scrooge McDuck. In my darkest hour — unlike Scrooge McDuck — he loaned me some money, which went a long way.”

She paused; Zoe gaped. 

“I’ve always regretted turning down his job offer,” she fixed her gaze on Zoe. 

The woman stepped towards Zoe, who gasped when the light from the table lamp shone on the woman’s eyes. One eye was blue, the other brown. Zoe’s own face, drawn and haggard, stared back at her. The clock on the wall struck the hour and Zoe snapped her gaze away. When she turned back to the woman, no one was there. 

BRUEGEL TAROT: 2 of Pentacles

Two Sides of the Same Coin

As children, John and James had lived embroiled in a constant tug-of-war. Being identical twins, they shared a physical appearance, and there, the similarities ended. 

With their loving mother dead, the boys’ father had taught them to compete against one another. Who ran fastest, who jumped higher. Who was smarter, who was better-looking; it was a constant push and pull. What belonged to John, James wanted. What belonged to James, John wanted. But it was never enough to exchange belongings. As soon as they had traded, they both wanted the original back. 

And so they entered adolescence, as cunning and ambitious as the day is long. 

One day, John realized how exhausting the constant competition was. He had looked into James’s malicious gaze, triumphant over some trifle, and a thought had flashed, quite unbidden, through John’s brain—I don’t want this life for myself anymore. 

That moment, that life-changing instant, launched John’s wellbeing and James’s demise. 

John had let go of the rope that bound him to James and made his life apart from his twin brother. But James had been tugging so hard, that when John’s resistance gave way, it sent him tumbling into a life of crime.

John moved away and lost all contact with his sibling. 

Aware of the wedge their father had driven between them, John changed his surname and adopted his mother’s maiden name. Life rewarded him with marriage, kids and success, and most important of all, peace. He lived in peace and free from all competition. Little by little, with patience and hard work, John achieved what most unscrupulous people do not — a quiet, pleasant and comfortable life. He coveted nothing and lacked nothing. 

Years and years passed, the kids grew up, graduated, married and had their own lives and their own families. It was in the second year of John’s widowerhood when he first heard from his twin brother. 

James came to him in a dream, rather, a nightmare. John woke up sweating that night with a heart beating so hard it would pop out of his chest. He placed his head in his hands and tried to wipe the dream away. Yet, even then, the dream was foggy, and all John recalled were still images, like faded photographs, with James front and center.  

He lay back down on the hot pillow, frowned, then with the herculean effort necessary for a man in his seventies, turned over the pillow. The cool satin calmed his flaming brain, and he soon drifted into sleep.

The next night, the nightmare returned. Once again, John tried to grasp it and make sense of it, but it was like a damaged silent film which was scratched, burned, and had missing bits and pieces. 

“Should I seek James?” John asked himself as sleep overtook him. 

On the third night of waking up in a panic, John resolved to search for his brother. 

He asked his grandchild, a lanky, screeching boy of thirteen, to help him in his quest. Andrew—contorting his facial muscles into many annoyed expressions—huffed, puffed, then agreed. 

He typed James’s name into the search engine. 

John’s face fell when Andrew clicked on the first link. The news article detailed James’s crimes. It spoke of rackets, gangs, betrayals, backstabbing and, always in the middle, James.

John shook his head and stopped reading. Andrew continued, wondering why his tranquil, do-gooder grandfather would be interested in this person. Then he reached the end of the article and saw the photograph. 

Andrew gasped as his grandfather’s face glared at him through the screen. 

“Grandpa,” he whispered. 

John, head bowed in—what? Shame? Sorrow?—answered in a dull voice, “I know, he looks like me.”

“Why?” Andrew asked. 

“Because he’s my twin brother.” 

“It says here he’s missing,” Andrew said, “the article says he was carrying a shi—boatload of evidence against some mafia boss, a much bigger fish, when he disappeared. That evidence could put this guy away for human trafficking, murder, prostitution, and then some. The FBI is seeking information on his whereabouts.”

John took a deep breath and exhaled, his tired old-man eyes fixed on his grandson’s youthful, pimpled countenance. The weight of his childhood had, in that instant, fallen on him like a ton of bricks, and it showed in his exhausted, wrinkled-paper face. 

“Grandpa,” Andrew read the right meaning in his grandfather’s expression, “you know where he is, don’t you?”

John nodded.


John sighed, “He is among skeletal trees that cling to a jagged crag overlooking a furious ocean.” 

“Is he alive?” 

John shook his head, “The trees caught his mangled body in their gnarled branches, invisible to all above on the cliff’s edge, and unreachable from the ocean-beaten rocks below.”

“How do you know all this?”

“James showed me in my dreams.”

Andrew stared agape at the loving man whose twin brother was a hardened criminal. 

John picked up the telephone, “He also showed me where he hid the shitload of evidence.”