Ten of Swords

Last summer when I unpacked a cardboard box after moving into a new apartment, I stumbled on a thick moleskin notebook, its yellowing edges muscling against a soggy Bon Jovi cassette cover. When I picked it up, a high school friend’s loopy handwriting transported me back to Germany, fifteen years ago, to her first encounter with tarot cards.


I considered the risk of tarot readings. Perhaps the biggest one is the potential for fraud, especially considering how reading cards isn’t a regulated profession, at best passed down from generation to generation.”

The entry extended five pages, detailing the day my friends and I had a fortunetelling session with one of the girls’ elder sisters, whom I vaguely remember dropped one nugget of chilling interpretation after another to in an effort to mess with us. Over the years, I’ve thrown away similar notebooks since they were filled with meaningless teenage memorabilia. I was, however, glad this one still existed, because the friend who wrote in it had died unexpectedly, making the notebook my only item to remember her by. More surprisingly though, the cards may or may not have predicted her death.

During a time when we had colorful braces strapped to our mouths and an obsession with Spice Girls edition deodorants, my friends and I started writing one another in notebooks, each taking turns chronicling our clichéd days. I suppose it was a forerunner of Facebook. Initially, the ‘letter-books’ were meant to bring our group of friends closer, by sharing intimate thoughts and secrets. But inevitably, it became an outlet of teen angst, pages riddled with lyrics of desolating alternative rock songs, adorations of our crushes, fears of failing the school year and frustrations with parents who grounded us for sneaking out at night.

In a rather dubious development, the notebooks fueled our competitiveness, leading us to come up with creative ideas in order to make our own entries stand out. These ranged from harmless experiments, such as flirting with a teacher to improve grades and assembling a remarkable selection of foods mixed with cannabis to rather questionable activities like speed-dating random guys who took us on road trips into neighboring towns and seducing bar owners in the hopes of gaining entry to an otherwise 18-and-over establishment.

Our introduction to tarot started innocently enough, with a friend announcing that her older sister, a senior, had taken up tarot and would offer us a free reading. As chronicled by my friend, we sat on the floor, forming a circle around the cards, with Tupac droning in the background.

The room was overstuffed with makeup and glossy women’s magazines and with their anime-like illustrations; the cards had a cheap knock-off air to them. Still, the day proved nothing short of alluring. While my friends and I asked our questions one by one, the thrill of the paranormal ravaged through us. That and the prospect of having something noteworthy to report on.

Most of us asked meaningless and superficial questions like ‘Will I be wealthy?’ or ‘Will I become a star?’ Regardless of what invented interpretation my friend’s sister jolted out, we were hooked. My friend’s turn came and she asked whether one of us would be dead within the next ten years. We exchanged a quick glance before fixing our eyes on the anime-like drawing of a skeleton riding a white horse, the ten of swords.

The inspiration for this sort of question could have arose in the horror movies we used to watch, in which at least one high school kid dies by the time of graduation or soon afterward. We were all ears as my friend’s sister interpreted the card, her dark eyes emanating a perfect somber atmosphere. Apparently, the ten of swords symbolizes sudden endings, though not necessarily physical death. Some of us chimed in with our own analysis, which according to the entry encompassed rebirth and the end of the world. We did not speculate who would die first, at least not verbally.

For the following weeks, the occult became our newest obsession, each of us thirsty to uncover any prearranged paths we were meant to follow. To satisfy our curiosity, we would meet up under a tree in the local park, at times staying until the final hours of dusk to try out an array of things we could get our hands on such as numerology, palmistry and plastic crystals. I suspect the neglected inner child in us came alive during those instances, tugging at the cloud of illusion one last time, before adulthood arrived. In the face of fate, none of our shortcomings mattered, hence we were equally doomed. However, in typical teenage style, very soon, my friends and I were back to romancing boys and chasing new small-town adventures.

A decade later, I had another tarot reading. After a family member died unexpectedly and under dubious circumstances, I was seeking answers, desperately exploring all means available. I found a lady on Fiverr with A+ reviews and whose warm eyes inspired confidence. I went ahead and mailed her my date of birth and the questions I had regarding this family member.

While I waited for her report, I considered the risks of tarot readings. Perhaps the biggest one is the potential for fraud, especially considering how reading cards isn’t a regulated profession, at best passed down from generation to generation. Fortunately, my tarot reader was courteous and, to my surprise, spot-on about the circumstances surrounding my family member’s death, as affirmed later by the autopsy results.

She was also kind enough to address my questions about tarot readings in general, explaining how the tarot deck was like a snapshot of possible outcomes if everything stayed the same. If used properly, tarot cards were powerful self-help tools, drawing attention to the important elements in our lives and clarifying our feelings about them. Therefore, tarot cards can be regarded as awareness-enhancers, which, similar to works of art, bridge the conscious and subconscious worlds, provide inspiration, prompting us to look at something in a new way. For me, the cards were a consolation, a way to find closure and peace. The notebook served as a reminder that regardless of our tendency to picture ourselves the sole creators of our destiny, life is full of coincidences.

Or is it?

On the last page of the notebook, in the high school handwriting of my lost friend was a quote by Jawaharlal Nehru, the former prime minister of India. It said, “Life is a game of cards. The hand you are dealt is determinism; the way you play it is free will.”

AP’s visval and literary work can be found in Gargoyle, Journal of Compressed Creative Arts and Calyx. Originally from Bucharest, Romania, she currently lives in Zurich, Switzerland.
Photo by Ellen Blum Barish. Copyright 2016.