I'm excited to announce that Dead Reckoning Tarot is expanding to include book reviews and original short fiction. We follow a curious figure from the small township of Willowsbank, the Widow of Oak Hill Lane. In Part 2, we learn a little more about Lila, and what brought her to the widow's back garden.
Again. It hadn't worked yet again. A small, frustrated sigh escaped from Lila's mouth as she rocked back on her heels. The carpet was beginning to irritate her knees and her feet had been asleep for going on 20 minutes. "All that time", she thought, "just to wind up with pins and needles in my feet." She blew out the candle in front of her and stood to pull up the blinds. Life came back into focus.
Lila hadn't been living in Willowsbank for long, but already her rented room belonged wholly to her. When Lila moved into a new space, she did it one swift blow, heaping rugs upon already carpeted floors, lugging questionable furniture to fill every corner, and tacking posters and interesting bits of cloth onto the hatefully white walls. Lila didn't move into the small apartment on Cedar Street so much as she appeared there from one day to the next, a fully manifested tenant. Her landlord hadn't minded the microrenovation of the small, second story room, but the current tenants still seemed bewildered to have acquired a strange new roommate with a long list of already entrenched quirks. Lila was a presence.
She didn't mind the stilted interactions with Joan and Barry, her two roommates. After all, Lila knew she wouldn't be staying for long in Willowsbank. The temporariness of Lila in any one location was as large a part of her personality as her love for tie died hair bands or French Roast coffee. She was a storm front rolling through cheap, one-room apartments of the Midwest, a blur of tapestries, pewter jewelry, and dew-damp journals. In the past 5 years, she had rented over a dozen rooms in various townships. To an outsider, it might look like Lila was running from something. The truth, however, was that Lila was searching.
Searching for something that she yet again failed to catch even a glimmer of. With another, slightly larger sigh, Lila stooped to scoop up the white votive candles, seashells, and uncut stones from the altar cloth on her scratchy rug. Normally, she took care to place her magical working tools in special spots, wrapping some in silk and placing gentle kisses upon others as she tidied the small space. Today, Lila was out of gentle kisses and simply dumped the collection onto her side table, grabbed a collection of coffee mugs in various states of decay, and made a quick exit from the scene of her failure.
Neighbors often said the house at 155 Cedar Street had seen better days, generally in a tone of voice that suggested they couldn't quite remember what those better days were like, but there must have been at least a few. To start, the house had a lean to it, a slight shift toward the street so that the building appeared to loom over anyone walking up the path to the front door. Coupled with the sun-dried clapboard siding and mossy roof, the house had the delightfully ominous curb appeal that generally attracted Lila to a new home.
Inside, the house seemed to stand a little straighter, but what it lacked in wild angles, it made up for in drafts, creaking floorboards, and secretive rodents in the walls. It had surprised Lila that people raved about the coziness of old homes in the Midwest. The reality was that the 12-foot ceilings collected cobwebs that were impossible to dislodge, the floors were always cold and dirty, none of the doors fit their frames (Lila had gotten stuck in the shared bathroom twice already and had needed to be saved by a handyman), and there was a general mustiness that everyone suspected was quietly stealing years off their lives.
But there is something in old homes that Lila loved, and needed: energy.
"Good morning, Joan!" Lila bellowed as she swept into the narrow galley kitchen on the first floor, trying to improve her mood through volume alone.
"Morning," Joan croaked, wincing a bit at the loud greeting. "Did you go out last night? We didn't get in until almost 4."
With a crash, Lila upended her cargo of dirty coffee mugs in the sink, making Joan wince again. Lila's shoulders wilted just a little bit, remembering that last night Barry had been invited to a house party or house show or something loud and crowded at a different old, decrepit house on the block. Lila had completely forgotten. She had been holed up at the local diner using their Wi-Fi until almost one in the morning.
"No. I was working late. I wanted to see if it would be easier to invoke a spirit on a bridge spanning a body of water." Turning on the sink and dumping a few tablespoons of dish soap into the basin, Lila eyed the mound of cups and decided they probably needed to soak for an hour or two. "You know, human social conventions have a much bigger impact on spiritual energies than we generally give ourselves credit for. Bridges are transition places. Ghosts and spirits might be attracted to them as a symbol of their death" Satisfied with the completion of her chore, Lila turned to face Joan.
"Oh, yeah. I've heard that," Joan replied, looking as though she had never, in fact, heard that before. Joan often felt adrift in conversations with her new roommate, as though she had swum a few yards into the ocean under her own power only to be carried away on a swift and lavender scented tide into unfamiliar waters. It made her want to stop swimming completely.
Lila, not completely oblivious to her tidal effect on people, decided to return to what Joan may consider safer shores. "I am going out this morning. I'm going for a walk at Easthill Park." She left out the "to forage for herbal allies to use in spell craft and divination" part of her plans for Joan's well-being.
Joan brightened up a bit, "Oh, are you going for Summer Fest?"
"Summer Fest? I’ve not heard of it," Lila replied, hopping up to sit on the counter, feeling the crunch of toast crumbs under her denim shorts.
"I think it's just a local thing, some holdover from when this was mostly farms. It has something to do with celebrating when the fields were finally planted, and you could catch your breath before harvest. It's always really fun." Joan was picking up steam. Small town festivals were the one thing that everyone loved. They had a comforting, familiar structure to them. "There are rides and greasy carnival food and live music. Plus, they light the lanterns after sunset."
"What lanterns?" Now, it was Lila's turn to perk up. Of course, she liked a carnival as much as the next person (you would have to be dead to not love funnel cake), but if you've been to one, you've been to them all. Apple Festival, Pumpkin Fest, The VFW Memorial Day Fest, every town had the same festival with one of five or so names that included the same half dozen rickety carnival rides and sticky caramel apple stands. Lila once suspected that the caravan of carnival food trucks that travel the fall festival circuit were actually a band of witches completing harvest rites across the Midwest (she was almost correct).
"There's an artificial lake in the center of the park, I think it used to be a cattle pond when the land was still a farm, and there are all these great vintage iron lamp posts that ring the whole lake. I'm pretty sure the city installed them when they bought the land, ages ago." Joan got up to place her breakfast dishes in the sink and eyed the bubbling mass of cups as she released the plate to the watery depths. "Anyway, they're all kerosene or oil lamps. They have to be lit by hand, and it's apparently really expensive to do that every day, so the city just lights them at Summer Fest. It's really pretty. You should come with me and Barry."
Lila knew this was an olive branch from Joan, a kind gesture meant to smooth over the inevitable tensions of being new housemates. She knew she should accept, and probably suggest they grab dinner or coffee together, make an effort to learn about these people she shared a home with. It was a moment that could shape the atmosphere of the Cedar Street house for months to come, but Lila was wary. At best, people who didn't believe in magic treated her with a sort of amused sympathy when she started opening up. At worst...well, the witch hunts never really stopped, not for people who looked like Lila. Besides, she hadn't stayed in a single place long enough for deeper friendships to take root in many years, and Willowsbank was unlikely to be the exception.
"Oh," Lila started, hopping down from the countertop, "thanks, but I think I'll pass. I've got a deadline coming up and I'm way behind." Lila freelanced as a copy editor for small publishers, since ‘questing’ generally did not pay the bills. "I hope you and Barry have fun. I'll see you around." She swept out of the kitchen with a great deal less gusto than she entered with, drowning out Joan's slightly deflated reply. It was for the best. She couldn't divide her attention with fun side quests, even the sort that involved funnel cake.
After stopping briefly in her room to change into overalls and a t-shirt and grab her backpack, Lila hustled out the front door and gave the door frame a brief tap in farewell. She never left without telling the house goodbye, a longtime habit that took on special meaning at Cedar Street. The looming house with its cacophony of noises seemed just a little bit more alive than other buildings, and Lila thought it best not to offend the place you laid your head in every evening. It never struck Lila as odd to be more concerned about offending the actual house than the two humans she lived with, but then Lila’s mile markers for unusual had not been properly calibrated.
She unchained her bike from the side of the porch and set off toward Easthill Park.
Despite Joan’s habit of referring to the town council as “the city”, Willowsbank was in reality a small town with a population that had hovered around 20,000 for the past 45 years. Lila zipped through the historic suburb that Cedar street belonged to and cut across the Main Street with its handful of antique shops and law offices. Most of the homes were 70 or 80 years old but were well-maintained with neat little yards covered in lawn ornaments lining the streets and flags hung over sloping porches.
Willowsbank didn’t have many sidewalks, so Lila rode her bike in the street, keeping her eyes and ears peeled for cars that wouldn’t be looking out for her. Like most Rust Belt towns, Willowsbank had been hit hard first by the unemployment crisis of the 80s and then by the wave of liminal economies that rose to fill the gaps – drugs, guns, pyramid schemes. The main thoroughfares were dotted with silk flower arrangements and white crosses, marking the places that drunk and high drivers hit pedestrians and bicyclists a few times each year. Lila kept her head on a swivel and said a prayer for each memorial she passed.
Easthill Park encompassed nearly 300 acres of meadowland just outside the western part of town. It was an unusually big park for a town that was still ringed with woodland and farms. There weren’t any playgrounds or soccer fields like you expected to have at a city park. Instead, open fields slowly being reclaimed by native plant species rolled over gentle hills. Lila sped through the wrought iron gates at the park’s entrance and paused at the top of a small hill from which you could look out over most of the meadow. A lake the size of a football field sparkled under the early afternoon sun and a cold breeze ruffled Lila’s hair and shivered down her spine. She took a deep breath of the fresh air. Easthill Park felt like a place out of time. It was what drew her to Willowsbank in the first place.
Lila rolled down the hill, riding her brakes, and hopped off her bike at a gravel parking lot. She chained the bike to an astonishingly rusted bike rack and then grabbed her journal from the backpack. The grimoire held notes on spellcraft, recipes for healing tonics, and diagrams of tarot spreads. Lila didn’t belong to a particular magical path (she considered most covens personality cults as a rule), so her craft was discovered by trial and error, assembled pieces of religion, fairy tale, history, and guesswork. Her journal held the sum of her successes and failures, and like most honest pieces of writing, Lila both loved and resented it.
She turned to the most recent page, scanned her notes and, with a brief nod to herself, waded into the tall, grasses of the meadow, slipping the journal into her bag pocket. Lila turned her face up to the sun, letting the heat soak into her cheeks and eyelids. Flexing her fingers wide, she ran her hands over the waist high grass, letting the tops of thistle tickle her palms. After being cooped up all morning in the same cramped position while she scried, having the wide-open sky above her and earth under her feet felt like a release.
Turning her eyes back to the earth, she spotted the tall black iron lanterns that Joan described around the lake. Lila had been to Easthill park once before but didn’t remember noticing the lamps. They were clearly old; grooved iron posts crowned by elaborately worked cages missing their glass panes, if they had ever existed. There was an old paved path that ringed the lake, the only path in the park, and it looked like the lamps followed the path, placed every 20 feet or so. It struck Lila as odd that a little town like Willowsbank would pay to install such striking lamps. but not a paved path or benches around the lake. Maybe Joan hadn’t been right about the park’s history.
Most of Easthill Park was open to the bright afternoon sun, but old fence lines crossed the park irregularly and were lined with gnarled trees and thick brush. Lila aimed herself toward one of these tree stands, the farthest from the gravel parking lot. Under the old oak trees, the shade was cool and deep. A hundred different species of bush and vine curled around the trunks and the old cattle fence. Lila stepped under the canopy and began walking with the fence line, keeping an eye to the sunny edge of the field to catch a glimpse of distinctive white and purple wildflowers of black cohost in bloom. The ground was a little moist here, and Lila began to regret wearing the simple yellow ballet flats. She didn’t often forage for her own magical ingredients, preferring to order dried leaves and roots from online herb shops. But the longer time went on, the more worried Lila became that she would never find what she was looking for. After so much time and energy invested in her pursuit, she was ready for results. Ready enough to find and prepare her own herbs with the hope that fresh and local plants would be stronger.
Lila walked until sweat beaded on her brow and frustrations laced her breath. She stopped to take swig of sun warmed water and check her grimoire’s notes again. Black cohosh prefers rich soil and is typically found in partially shaded areas. Lila looked around. The shade of the tree line was warm and lush with the smell of the black soil under her feet. If there was any black cohost in Easthill Park, it would be here.
Of course, Lila thought to herself, snapping the grimoire shut, if I’m not the first person to come looking, then any black cohosh that was here may be gone. The thought was distressing. She knew that the scrying spell would only be so effective without the black cohosh tonic to open the door, and Lila was tired of half measures and good enough. Tucking the notebook into her backpack, Lila surveyed the old cattle fence to her right. It would be simple enough to climb over, taking her out of the park and into some farmer’s land. There were no signs posted that warned against trespassing, but Lila wondered as she strode over to the nearest wooden post if that was because the owner didn’t care, or because everyone already knew not to venture onto the property.
The fence was in disrepair, the wide wire mesh rusted and warped by the growth of honeysuckle and hackberry trees. Wooden posts held the wire in place every 10 feet, grey with age and lichen, but still upright and whole. As Lila approached, she saw that the post in front of her was carved with graffiti and initials, typical marks of existence and bravado found across the world. “Trey was here”. “Ashley loves Veronica”. “Bulldogs suck”. In some places, the graffiti was so thick, carved over and over the years, that it became impossible to read, as if the markings were from a language long dead, deep and dark on the old wood. Lila placed her hand on the top of the post, and using the wire mesh as a step ladder, hauled herself over the top of the simple fence.
On the other side of the fence, the brush of the tree line was dense and run through with brambles and poison ivy. Lila stepped carefully at first, trying to avoid the scratch of vine or the reaching ivy vines that grew around tree and bush. It was strange, Lila pondered, that this side of the fence line had so many more thorny and poison plants than the park side, which was green and soft and simple to walk through. She turned her head to glance back to the fence to see whether any of the vines were growing over the fence, when a tangle of thorny branches hit her left cheek. The impact sent a shock down Lila’s spine, the smack forceful enough to make Lila glance down to see if she kicked a bush and accidentally brought the branch colliding with her own face. But there was no obvious tangle at her feet, and when she looked to the left to inspect the offending branch, saw that the nearest one was hanging languid and still, two feet away from her face.
Staring at the branch that hit her but shouldn’t have, Lila realized the tingle in her spine hadn’t abated yet. Shivering, she swatted at her hair and backpack, wondering vaguely if she was allergic to whatever plant that branch belonged to. The tingling stopped, and stopped fidgeting and started pushing through the underbrush again, moving toward a clump of sycamore trees at the edge of the tree line.
And in an old farmhouse at the center of the property, an old woman looked out the back window and wondered who was in her garden.
To be continued...
Alex is the founder and primary spiritual navigator for Dead Reckoning Tarot. She has been working with tarot cards since she was an anxious and overeager teen, and now as an anxious and overeager adult enjoys finding ways to infuse the every day world with magic. You can book a tarot reading with Alex here.