The woman you go to see for your reading isn’t old, but her eyes have aged more than her skin as if she’s seen horrors but hasn’t learned to hide them. Her name online is Butter, and you see why. She’s a punkinskin, her complexion high yellow and dotted with freckles. Long braids adorned with brass clasps brush her forearms as she gestures for you to take the seat across from her with a hand laced with silver rings.
As you sit on the chair, a huff of air releases from the embroidered cushion, scented with dogwood blossom and dried sweetgrass, mixing with your nervous sweat. At the door, she asked you to remove your shoes, and after a moment of hesitation, you did, and now your bare toes curl uselessly against the jute rug.
Butter offers you a drink, but you refuse. Your mamma taught you not to drink from everybody. She isn’t offended, or doesn’t seem to be. Instead, she settles into an overstuffed chair, then folds her right leg underneath herself. When she pulls her left leg up, a chain of shiny dimes around her ankle jingles like a wind chime heralding a storm. She tugs her long skirt down and looks at you expectantly.
“I want to know my future.”
You don’t say, I feel lost. You don’t say, it’s all too much. Life—just living—is so hard and I’m tired of the hate and the hurt. You smooth the fabric of your good jacket, the one you save for funerals. It’s been getting too much wear lately.
“My sign is—”
She holds up a hand. “Where you from?” she asks, and you tell her.
“Hmm, a Southern gal. I don’t need your star sign. The ones you know are not for us.” Her accent is languid and loose, the song of the South, of lazy days and sticky nights, and her words creep closer on tiny legs to whisper in your ear. “They don’t tell the whole story of how we are.”
She pulls a deck of cards from the drawer of a walnut-hued buffet table. They’re almost larger than her hands, but she grips their worn softness firmly and with confidence. On the backs of the cards is a batik print, blue and white, bleeding into flowers.
“You can learn, grow, run all you want. But the South never leaves you. Its aches and pains are yours, but its future may not be.”
She shuffles the deck, the sound a fleeting ruffle. “Shall we see?”
You wait heartbeats before realizing her question wasn’t rhetorical. You nod.
“I’ll place these cards here on the dining table in the zodiac spread, a circle of twelve running counterclockwise.” She places the deck in front of you on the wooden tabletop crisscrossed with nicks and scars. “Now cut.”
Without a thought, you reach out, lift off more than half the deck and place it next to the shorter stack. Butter takes the shorter stack and places it on top of the larger, then flips the top card and places it on the table with a snap.
The card shows not a bowl of rice, but the plant itself, green stalks bent forward under the weight of beige-husked grain.
A voice speaks, melodious and silvery, yet resonant enough to echo within your mind and heart. Your gaze flips to Butter, but while her lips are parted, they don’t move. Her head is tilted to one side as though she’s listening along with you.
People born under the sign of this revered food understand creativity, even though they may not trust their own. They know the origins of things. That what many know as truth about your people is not so. Until the lion has its historian, all tales of the hunt will celebrate the hunter.
Centuries have been spent separating you from what you were meant to be. You will have to spend many hours, perhaps your lifetime, learning to put yourself back together.
Butter flips the next card, placing it down and to the right of the first.
Self-sufficiency is your mantra.
You are like the largest oak in the South—the Boar Hog Tree. It stood for many years alone, growing of its own accord until the day the city came to cut it down. It reached out then, calling for help—too late for its people to save it.
“You’re strong and capable, but don’t know when to ask for help.” The sound of Butter’s actual voice after the unearthly one is a shock, but you manage not to jump. Her eyes don’t waver when she says, “This’ll kill you. If you let it.”
The third card parts the curtain of silence that fell at her words.
You have seen much and endured more. You feel the pain of those around you, but don’t know how to help. You have no idea that just a few scrapings of yourself are enough to heal.
Food prepared in cast iron becomes infused with the iron itself, easing the weakness of blood loss. Share your food, your words, that which you have made with the world and see how it soothes, invigorates others. Share, but remember to care for yourself.
Better yet, teach someone who wants to learn how to care for you.
Your eyes sting with unshed tears, and Butter must know the reading is true. Perhaps she knew before. This time, when she offers a drink, you accept.
While she is gone from the table, the desire to look at all the cards in the deck surfaces. Hearing your existence from another is deep, revealing, and you feel flayed open for the world to see. Why did you ask for this?
Maybe this reading of your soul can end quickly. But your hand shakes and you can’t bring yourself to touch the cards. Your reader returns with a sweating glass; you take it without a tremble and drink. Sip after sip until you feel able to continue.
The picture is of the marsh at sunset, waning rays of light turning the tips of cattails to indigo and the water to honey-fire.
You draw people as there is something inside you that calls to others.
You embrace those kind to you, giving succor and solace. Your enemies are also lured in, but they meet a different fate—becoming mired in their jealousy, unable to extract themselves without great effort. Do not help them.
Marsh girls put off decisions, preferring to recall better, easier times.
“You got spirit music,” Butter says. “That’s what the old folk used to call it. Careful, though,” she warns, “or you’ll stagnate. Even marshes need a fresh supply of water to survive.”
A drop of water from your glass falls to the tabletop, sinks into the wood, enriching its color.
Stop your drought.
The Front Porch:
The porch drawn on this card looks exactly like the one in front of the house you grew up in. But that … can’t be. Upon closer inspection, you realize it is different, only just.
The people … oh, the people marching through your life are endless. Do they mean anything? Anything at all?
You encounter so many—on the street, at the gas station, on the train, at work, online. You barely look at them, only a rare glance when you feel brave. Rarer still, a person looks back. Gives a nod that means, I see you, Sis.
Yes, sometimes they mean everything. Let those that matter come and sit awhile.
You have no time to ponder this image as the voice begins to speak its evocative words before the card reaches the table.
Once, you were a free thing, crawling upon the trees, the dirt. Flying when you chose, which wasn’t often.
Then you were caught. A string tied under your gold-green wings. Now when you fly, it’s only a short distance, and in never-ending circles. But you remember your freedom, not at the end of a cord as some child’s plaything.
When the child goes inside to eat or sleep, you chew through the string, releasing yourself back into the world. But a piece of that string remains, caught under your carapace, and it rubs … just enough to remind you of your brief captivity and it spurs you on, crawling when you must, but flying much more often now.
Your back aches. Right under the shoulder blades, and you press your shoulders down until there is a series of bubble wrap pops. You feel something …
A string. It takes a while before you realize it’s attached to your shirt and not to you.
The ancient wisdom of ancestors trudges through your life, giving the benefit of its long years. Serene, it edges forward, persevering through ridicule and jeering, through self-doubt and detractors. One step at a time.
A virtue, yes. But when you are able to move quickly, perhaps with a swift tide, do not be a fool and continue to plod.
“Want me to keep on, or do you need a break?”
Butter slips a small square into her mouth—a cracker, maybe. It crunches softly as if from a distance. You take one from the woven basket she proffers and place it on your tongue like a sacrament. Salt floods your mouth, and you’re in the ocean. Its embrace is warm.
You ask her to go on and the next card flicks from deck to table.
Again, the picture on the card is of the plant, verdant green. You’ve never seen okra before it was picked, so you had no idea the pods grew upwards, away from the soil, defying gravity.
You aren’t for everyone. Lots of people will hate you. You have an uncanny knack for having no idea of your effect on others. You might be tempted to change, be more conventional, but do not give in to this. There will be those that love you, but they will be few.
That is what you must accept: While others will have many, you will have few.
The urge to weep wells up inside you and you manage to strangle it back. So few, too few …
Butter’s eyes move back and forth over you, as though words are written on your skin. “You will have few,” she repeats. “This is what you must accept.”
You gulp down air to help you swallow this painful truth.
She takes the facedown deck and fans all the cards out, indicating you should choose three.
The insect is perched delicately on a camellia bud, its wings iridescent as cellophane. On the underside of the branch is a dried husk, curled in on itself. The cicada gazes, not at its former shell but off into the distance.
You’ve never liked bugs, and you frown.
“Don’t give me that look,” Butter says. “They’re complex creatures, and people don’t understand these symbols of immortality, rebirth.”
Alone, you face danger, threats to your life and livelihood. When you band together with like minds, like hearts, you are able to overwhelm your predators. Lives may still be lost, yes, but most survive.
Find your sisters, keep them within reach of your song.
Butter laughs, gently. “Shoulda known you’d pull this card.”
People of this sign are born with strength in their cores; a toughness. Soon, more quickly than expected, frost touches your leaves. The frost of experience, of wisdom, of acceptance. It doesn’t soften you completely, but it makes you aware of your own limitations.
You come from a place where the lapping waters are the color of collard green liquor, and you wonder how many people met their first frost here. Your gran said to never to pick collards that hadn’t had frost lick their leaves. Maybe that applies to people too.
Then your thoughts turn to Butter, this young-old woman reading your life and arrowing your truth back into your heart. Does she have a family? Did she hone her gift under the watchful eye of her own grandmother?
You’ve convinced yourself to ask, but she turns over another card first. It surprises her.
“More pain,” you whisper.
“Not necessarily.” She runs her tongue over almost-straight, almost-white teeth.
In these cards, Cotton doesn’t mean death, per se; it means change or the end of a difficult journey for a Cotton girl. This change doesn’t come without memory. The slave ship is always in our blood, swaying. We move forward, recognizing the past as water we must wade in for a time. Children of the South, do not succumb. The shore is in sight.
“Final one,” Butter says, plucking a card from the deck. She places it on the table, completing the circle.
You hold your breath.
The haint is shadowy one moment, distinct the next. A ghostly form shifting in and out of a background of Spanish moss-draped fig trees. Its hands are cupped, holding something out to you, but you can’t tell what.
Your future is there to grasp. Don’t fear what holds it. There are many obstacles in life, which you could fall down on, and just as many places where you can step up. Trust your intuition, heed the message in every sign, each is within you. You are made of all the stars.
The voice ebbs away, and the two of you sit in the quiet, absorbing, until Butter gathers the face-up cards, adding them to the rest of the deck. Shuffles with a soothing shoosh.
Your reading is over. While you want to process what has happened, your need to fill the quiet is overwhelming. Once you realize you don’t know what to say, you stand up and head for the door. You’ve already paid online; what else is there to do?
After sitting for so long—how long isn’t clear, but you can hear night song encroaching on your fellowship—your legs wobble. You’re working your feet back into shoes when you remember your manners.
“Thank you for … well, thanks.”
Butter lights a candle against the coming dark. The orange flame sparks, and for a moment, you see the shadow of something—someone—within her. Someone familiar and you smile. For the first time in a long while.
“Thank you,” she replies, shyly returning your smile.
You know why she gave her thanks. For trusting her sight, for trusting the cards, and the signs themselves.
As you head to your car, your stride is strong with intention. Purposeful. You look up into the sky. It is not quite dark, but the stars are emerging.
You are among them.