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Oct/Nov 2018 Fiction

The Hierophant

by Aidan O'Brien

Public domain image adapted by Tom Dooley


"The Hierophant," I said. "The knower of unknown knowledge." The card showed an old man with age lines like cracks in dry ground, his bottom half sprouting from a tree-stump and his twig fingers clutching a pilgrim's staff. An algae beard dripped from his brownish lips. "This fellow," I said, "lives life simply. See his bark skin." A sticky Coke stain stuck like sap to the card's bottom left corner. The stacked deck lay beside the Tarot spread. My darling son, Bernie, slept on the couch nearby, his face pressed into the crease between the back and seat cushions. An orange handprint of cheese-flavored snack dust adhered to the blue fabric above his head. My husband and I occupied our living room's wooden floor, seated Indian-style on throw pillows. Soothing meditative music played from our home entertainment system's speakers. A house centipede with its wobbly limbs lurked upon a baseboard. Stained light from our glass window ornaments—rainbow fish and a circus bear balancing on a red ball—draped itself across our legs, and a tinted yellow shard cut across Greg's cheek. A white-tipped blemish protruded below his left ear. He picked up The Hierophant and studied it, squinting.

"So what position was this fellow in?" he asked.

We whispered to accommodate Bernie.

"The Hierophant represents your ultimate goal. You are soon to embark on a spiritual journey, and this card symbolizes that which you might become. The Hierophant is a more organic self. A more in tune self. A self that can intuit, purely intuit, when I, for example, am in need of a soothing massage, the feeling of your palms and peppermint oil along my spine. A you that can finally communicate with our only child, the boy napping behind you. A you that doesn't rise at ungodly hours to make deli-meat sandwiches with too much Dijon mustard, and then doesn't breathe all over me when he comes back to bed so that I wake up from the Dijon mustard breath. Do you understand Greg?"

"I do," said Greg. He leaned over the cards, looking down. The pockets of his cargo shorts—his "weekend outfit"—sagged with two cell phones and a thick wallet, the extra fabric splaying across the floor as though he were fixed to it, lichen-like.

Bernie snored. "I like to sleep," he once told me, with the affect of someone sharing a treasured secret, "with my face lodged between the cushions, so that the airflow is bad and carbon dioxide builds up in the pocket and keeps me knocked out for longer."

I'd said, "I don't know if that's good science."

I'd been slicing a honeydew melon into fleshy tan arcs. Bernie ate them as he spoke. "I take my naps seriously," he'd said.

Bernie was a junior in high school. A smart boy who earned a mix of Bs and As and warranted simple, in-and-out parent-teacher conferences. "Bernie is Bernie is Bernie," Mrs. Lola, his math teacher, would say.

"Indeed he is," I would answer. "Isn't he a joy?"

Bernie slept whenever I read Tarot for Greg, wandering into the room as we began and dozing off by the second revealed card. I never let my husband pick from the deck, but pre-selected the cards for him, in order to better construct my arguments.

The black hairs on the back of Bernie's head trembled in a draft.

Through the living room windows I could see our well-mown lawn, our mailbox with flowers painted on it, and The Folgers scrawled in red across its flank, and our trees. The day prior, I'd attended an action-packed women's circle during which Betsy Waldheim, sallow-cheeked from her latest juice cleanse, had announced her intention to begin divorce proceedings with her husband of 25 years after discovering they were "spiritually incompatible" and cheating on one another, an announcement we'd greeted with our usual all-in show of unreserved support and positivity, hugging her warmly or reaching across the circle to take her hand and look into her eyes. We'd sat on deck chairs and nursed herbal teas. Stacy Powell had opined that it had undoubtedly been Doran Waldheim's lack of emotional availability that had driven Betsy into the arms of Leopold, a beautiful 24 year-old barista who studied economics at State College. Betsy had described their lovemaking as "transcendent" and Leonard's roommate as "just the friendliest."

The next card of Greg's spread was the five of rings. It showed five golden circles surrounding a golden rose with a single golden petal drifting off of it.

"This card indicates material wealth," I whispered, "an unhealthy attitude toward earthly riches; a desire for power; a bower-bird stealing red string from another bower-bird's bower; an investment banker buying whores with revenue from his investments; a Norse king buried with his servants, the servants still alive and wailing; a rich fop throwing pennies at a child beggar during winter, or buying the beggar a small coffee and pretending to hand it to him, only to pour it over his head at the last second, giving the child burns that the child soothes by packing snow on them. This card is all these things." I loved speaking this way and prepped my speeches. "This is exactly the card I would have chosen for a man who still has wet dreams. Especially the sort of man who will not disclose the content of those dreams to his wife, so that she imagines they might be violent or pedophilic or might tap into some even more debauched and fetishistic fixations, a man who has these wet dreams even as his wife lies fitfully awake, having been disturbed by the rude mustard breath he breathes, and awaiting his unconscious ejaculation."

"Darling," said Greg, "be nice." He rarely stood up for himself. I was impressed.

"A glutton," I said. "A man with a predisposition for chapped lips. A bad father."

My son whistled in his sleep, exhaling through the slight chink between his upper front teeth.

I scheduled one Tarot reading a month with my husband. We penciled it into our Seasonal Birds calendar next to outings, Bernie's school events, my women's group meetings, Greg's physical therapy sessions, and vacations. I used these readings as opportunities to address and redress the many grievances I suffered in the course of our marriage, grievances that had built up over the years like the yellow plaque on improperly tended teeth. I would say, "Greg, my gosh, you need a haircut," or, "this card indicates you have become lazy, and have been both carrying too much weight and not carrying your weight, if you know what I mean."

Greg pulled his left shirtsleeve up and down. He opened his mouth to speak but could not, giving me a view of gums and a tacky tongue sticking to the roof of his mouth like a pink amphibian. I moved to flip the next card. "I know about your college boy," he said. Nervous, he gargled on the words.

Following that last women's circle, I'd gone spelunking at the local bar, trying to talk up the liquor-slickened undergraduates. I'd winked at the young men with their first dustings of yellow stubble. I'd sipped vodka. Old mounted box TVs blared from the bar's corners, the grainy images reflected by and warping along the curves of the glass mugs. There, I met Wilfork Bensen, an English major with crisp hair and a starched collar he nibbled on when nervous, lisping saliva with a drunk tongue along the checkered fabric. He'd wobbled on his barstool and flirted by offering breath mints from a red tin he kept in his pocket and had trouble opening. "Want a mint?" he'd say, fumbling with the tin's metal lip. That was his opening line. His fingernails were close-cut. His soft knuckles bespoke a healthy stock of moisturizing balm. I made love to him in his dorm, atop his cot's deodorant-scented sheets, watched over by a Pulp Fiction poster and a tennis racket that hung from a hook embedded in the wall. It was wonderful and freeing and terrible. I kept in my mind the knowledge that this was a symbolic victory, a defeat of malaise. I was having a well-deserved awakening. No more of this stagnant middle-class life for me. This was two weeks prior. A crystal bottle of deodorant called Enflame had sat atop Wilfork's dresser by a folded pair of blue polka-dot pajama pants. The underwear littering his floor had reeked of night-sweats, and the rug needed washing.

"This boy of yours left a message on our answering machine," Greg said. My face felt warm. The next card dangled like a water-droplet between my thumb and index finger. I could see it was the seven of wands, a signifier of competition, of life's unforgiving race.

"What did he say?" I asked.

"He said he loved you," said Greg. Greg smiled. Something ugly and awful. "It was Bernie who found out. He came home from school, and the light on the message machine was blinking and he decided to listen to it. When I came home, his face was dead white and he was shaking, holding an unfinished bowl of cheesy puffy snack sticks because he couldn't bring himself to take another bite." Greg's smile persisted. Something terrible and warped. The smile was like a deformed snake's extra head. "The message was disgusting. It was one of those 'here's what I'd like to do to you' type of messages. Packed with nauseating details: aspirations to unhygienic behavior, your little golden thigh hairs, the smell of armpits after the antiperspirant can no longer hold back the deluge."

"Greg," I insisted, "be quiet."

"Gross sexual noises like a foam pool noodle slapping swamp water."

Greg revealed to me the recent torment of my only son, leaning in so that the boy would not awaken from where he slept on the couch. He spoke quickly, nervously. Bernie had come to him only yesterday with flaccid, plum-colored bags under both eyes and, while Greg washed brisket broth residue out of the crock pot, relayed the recent nightmares he'd been having about his various teenage friends secretly making love to me, his very own mother, on the sly. Greg's eyebrows pistoned up and down. His fingertips trembled. He grew hoarse with excitement and sipped from the glass of lemonade he'd brought into the living room with him. A tattoo on his forearm read, Forever is composed of nows, an Emily Dickinson quote he'd left unattributed on his skin, an ink bridge between two fat-embedded veins. A drop of yellow liquid slithered down and dangled from his chin. Overweight and cross-legged, he resembled a bad and ugly Buddha. "Imagine," he chortled, starting to enjoy himself, "encountering such a traumatic voicemail at such a formative moment in the boy's life. Can you imagine the counseling he is going to need to even begin processing this? Far more counseling than even the hours you spent dragging me to couples therapy, to mountain ponds, to those Tibetan couples retreats with the spiders and the zero electricity."

"Do you care?" I asked him. "Do you, yourself, care about what I did?"

"You don't care if I care," he spat. "It's all about Bernie with you."

Behind Bernie's couch, a blue-green quilt with white polar bears and ying-yang symbols covered much of the beige plaster wall. To my left I could look into our kitchen and see, tacked onto the cabinets, pictures Bernie had drawn as an infant by grasping as many crayons as his fist could hold and scraping them across sheets of white paper. One read Ma at the bottom of it, and another, Da. He'd made one for each of us. Between the ages of 11 and 12, he'd spoken in his sleep, dreaming dreams of the innocent, often befriending shy woodland animals. "Hey there, little fellow," he'd say, or, "No mushrooms for me. No. No. Not any."

"Bernie is an average student, but a sweet, sweet boy," his kindergarten teacher had said. "He understands most of what I tell him, but he doesn't get all of it."

Percentile-wise, Bernie was always an even 50 across the board. In fifth grade, he'd aspired to comic book writing and had invented a hero named Animal-Man who was half-man and half-animal (though which animal, Greg and I never learned) and who could call the creatures of the forest to aid him in his fight against variously powered investment bankers ("the true villains," we'd taught him).

"Bernie is an artist," I said to Greg. "He is easily disturbed, but it will pass."

Greg frowned. He began shuffling through the Tarot deck. He tossed unwanted cards behind him. A few surfed under the couch and one flew up and drifted down again to settle on Bernie's rising and falling back. Greg slapped four cards in front of me in a line, one card after the next. His linear spread disgusted me. The soul grows in four directions.

By my foot my green tea's steam blew upwards like a small tulle cloth in a cross breeze.

"This," said Greg, flipping the first card, "is Bernie." It was, in fact, the jack of pentacles. The card showed a youthful man with pale skin and voluptuous lips sitting straight-backed on a unicycle with a pentacle for its wheel. He wore the same sort of outfit old English kings get pictured wearing, black and gold and with puffy, voluminous sleeves. "Notice how happy he looks. Everything is fine for this fellow," said Greg.

"Bernie is still happy," I told him. "You have underestimated him. See," I pointed behind Greg, "he's sleeping peacefully."

"Wait," said Greg. "Wait." He revealed the queen of coins, a half-nude elf with silver hair and golden-clad attendants surrounding her. "This is you," he said.

"Predictable," I said. "There's no subtlety to this reading."

"You are greedy," he said.

Again, I asked him to be quiet for our son's sake.

"You are greedy," he whispered. "Bernie was both of ours, but you couldn't share him." He pointed to the kitchen. "When he was a baby, he drew pictures for both of us. Both of us. Do you remember him then? He would waddle up to you and then to me, and he would give each of us a piece of his artwork. 'Da,' he would mumble. 'Ma.' But you monopolized him. You take him out to dinner, alone. You instruct him spiritually. You suggest potential dates. He never asks me for my advice. He never looks to his father for guidance."

"You are a man with mustard breath," I said.

"And then you heard about Betsy Waldheim's economics major, and it pushed you over the edge. Yes! I know all about this! You are always telling me to become awakened to the truth, and now I am awakened, and Bernie is mine."

"That sweet sleeping boy," I said, "is fine. He's just fine."

"The hanging man," Greg shouted, and flipped the next card.

"Quiet."

"The hanging man." Greg smiled. Something slimy and nocturnal. "A betrayed lover; an alienated father; confusion and fear; believing that the earth is flat; a son, warped by his debauched parent; a butterfly tacked, still fluttering, to a cork board: this card is all these things. Have you noticed that the hanging man has the same face as the jack of pentacles?" I looked and saw it was true, the same thick lips, the same sunburst of blond hair. Both looked nothing like Bernie though, Bernie with his baby fat and the facial blemishes he chewed to bleeding with his fingernails. But still, this shook me. How could Greg spot something I'd never noticed?

"Predictable," I said again. "Your selections are without imagination. Your speeches are obviously pre-prepared." I picked up a fistful of Tarot cards and threw them at him. "No reading could penetrate that thick skull. You are the jack and king of coins. You are death."

Greg threw the cards back at me. I threw them at him. We did this for some time. The cards became bent. One tore. Most didn't make it across the two-foot gap between us, colliding with the air and wilting down into the center or twisting up and back towards whoever had pitched them. This went on until Greg knocked his glass over and the lemonade spilled out. The cards darkened as the liquid seeped into them.

We were panting. A lock of hair, matted with sweat, stuck to Greg's forehead. In college, in his Buddhist phase, he'd shaved his head bald and worn an orange monk costume I'd thought was wonderful. He'd been so self-knowing. "It's wonderful to be in the moment with you," he'd said to me. We went to the duck pond and fed them the soft, shitty bread we bought at the supermarket. We took classes together and shared notes. We took a seminar on "natural child birth" together at the Community Center while I was expecting. Greg had held my hand while we looked at slides of crowning blue baby skulls. Across from me, Greg started to cry. The tears slid down either side of his oversized nose. He revealed the last card of his spread, death, the paper flaccid from the lemonade and with a dark sheen of sugar lamination. The card showed a simple reaper with an oversize black hood like a foreskin. Greg began to hiccup but tried to stop himself by opening his mouth extra wide, as though to swallow them back down.

"I didn't want this," he whispered below the music. "I don't even want Bernie."

"Bernie is our whole world," I stated.

"But why did I have to lose you? Why did you have to give me up when we had a child?"

"I can't take care of two children," I said. Greg keeled over, right off of his throw pillow. He lay with his legs curled. Behind him, Bernie's back expanded and contracted with his breath. Greg crawled over and pushed himself up beside me, a wet card sticking to his cheek.

"Do you love me?" he whispered into my ear.

"As much as is possible," I said.

"Okay," he said, "okay." We sat facing Bernie. He leaned in again. "Do you love your college boy? Do you know that he said he loves you? I told you that, right? That's how the message ended, he said he loves you." His hiccups popped hot and gastric in my ear.

"I don't love him," I said.

"Do you know that I would never betray you?" he asked. "Do you know that? I wouldn't. Not ever. But Bernie would." His lips tickled my cartilage. "Bernie definitely would. I said that we should talk to you together, but then he said he couldn't. So do you know what our plan was? Our plan was for him to pretend he was asleep. To lay there and make like he was sleeping so he could listen in." He was speaking oh so quietly, so that Bernie would not hear.

I felt heat in cheeks again and heat in my stomach.

"Right now he's faking," whispered Greg. "He has betrayed your trust."

"You're lying," I whispered back. "He loves me. He is sleeping like a babe."

"Get up and check," said Greg. He nudged me in the ribs. "See for yourself."

"If he is asleep," I said, "then he has betrayed you. And I am certain he loves me more."

"If you are so certain, get up and see," Greg said. A strain on his shirt collar made it look like he'd been drooling. His tacky fingers pressed into my back. One of my socks was wet from the spill. Froth bubbled at the corners of Greg's lips. "Go see," he whispered. "Please," he spit.

I wanted to but could not get up.

Bernie's back expanded with a breath. His thin shoulder blades sighed towards one another as though to kiss. Greg and I sat together and watched, unmoving, like we'd used to watch him in his crib. The house centipede crawled in our direction.

I imagined Bernie with his eyes half open, straining with evil ears to hear me.

"My boy is asleep," I whispered to Greg. "My sweet son is sleeping."

 

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