More and more, the Death card looked like the Ferryman.
Or maybe she imagined the Ferryman to look like the death card, because no one she knew had ever seen the Ferryman’s face. She certainly hadn’t. In the dim shadows that fell from the hood of the painting that depicted death in the spread in front of her, she made out the bridge of a strong but sculpted nose, high cheekbones, and a firm but not unkind mouth that was held in non-expression, neither grinning nor grimacing as he reached down toward the souls of the living.
You never knew which one he was reaching for. Sometimes, a particularly jumpy querent thought someone in the crowd looked like them, or a loved one, and in those cases invariably saw the shadowed eyes focused on that dear friend down below. Sometimes, other cards in the spread didn’t support that kind of loss, but she learned early on that if a person felt they had a reason to be worried like that, they probably did. After all, the magic wasn’t in the cards. It was in her, and the person sitting across her table, in equal measures. That was the only way it worked, her and another person. She couldn’t read for herself, not alone. Something critical was broken off, some circuit wouldn’t close.
He was handsome, Death. She liked that, about this deck, and liked the memory of handsome men.
“What does it mean?” The woman across the table leaned a little closer, casting a shadow over the cards.
Zinerva drew back, frowning, more over her own distraction than anything that the spread on the tabletop revealed to her.
“It’s bad, isn’t it? Oh, I knew it was going to be bad, I just knew. I shouldn’t have come!”
“No, no,” Zin soothed, straightening cards. “You coming to me to question doesn’t make anything that’s happening any worse or better than it would have been anyway. It just gives you some things to think about that maybe you weren’t thinking about before, and maybe you can take that opportunity to get ahead of things before they get out of control.”
“Out of control?” Panic echoed in her querent’s voice, far away still but coming closer.
Zin looked the other woman in the eyes and decided to divert the conversation. “What stopped you from going?”
“What?” she said, brow knitting up. “What do you mean?”
Not going where, she thought with a smile, touching the woman’s hand as she said, “You were going to leave. There was somewhere after this, for you. Why didn’t you go there? What’s stopping you?”
The other’s eyes fell to Zinerva’s hand on hers, expression going soft and a little guilty. “I… I thought he would come find me. When he didn’t, I got scared, and I guess I got a little used to waiting.”
She took back her hand and tapped her fingers lightly on the Two of Cups. Newlyweds, or perhaps they were waiting for their marriage. Her eyes tracked to the inverted Sun and she kept her face neutral, nodding slowly. “Sometimes you have to go find what you want, my dear,” she said.
“But he said he would be with me,” the woman protested, looking up with wide, pale eyes.
She was all damsel. Zinerva could see how a man would fall in love with her like that, a delicate thing to be sheltered, the kind of young girl who doesn’t quite know what to do with herself but usually grows out of that. She hoped her husband had been a good man; was still a good man, but he’d likely moved on. He was strong. That’s why the lost girl had been drawn to him, and why she was having such a difficult time going her own way, now.
Zinerva could take her down to the docks but couldn’t hold her hand any further than that, and the man on the boat wouldn’t. No matter what happened before, and no matter what happens after, you have to cross the river alone.
Maybe that’s why she never had herself.
“Everyone gets lost,” she hedged. “Maybe if you go, you’ll find what you’re looking for.”
The woman’s eyes fell down over the cards again, looking more at the pretty pictures than the meaning Zin distilled out of their symbols.
“I don’t want to be alone, though,” she half-bleated.
“Aren’t you? You didn’t come with anyone to see me today.”
Her eyes rose again, huge and watery. Zinerva patted her hand and went on. “This isn’t a very good town to meet people in. And it’s difficult to be found here. We’re a bit out of the way, aren’t we?”
“I guess so,” she said, furrowing her delicate brow.
“I think you should go,” she pressed, leaning over the warm space above the table. Below her, the cards almost glowed. “You had a plan, before. I think you should go.”
“How?” the woman whispered.
“Just go down to the docks. Get on your boat. It comes every day. You know the way,” Zin smiled and hesitated. “Do you want me to go with you? To the docks?”
The woman across the table breathed a long, deep breath, and then nodded. “Yes, yes I would. Thank you.” Relief flooded through her words, a relief that she probably couldn’t quite feel as such but that Zin had seen so many times on the faces of her querents because it was the relief that came from finally giving in to something that has been pressing up from the center of you for a long time.
She was glad, too, for selfish reasons because she liked going dockside when the ferry arrived. It reminded her of sunsets and the astringent odor of the sea.
The woman had ‘affairs’ to go settle at home. Zinerva waited for her, knowing that it wasn’t going to take very long to deal with her business and come away with some sense of closure about her time in the town. She treated herself to a cigarette on her stoop, watching a gradual shift in the color of the light.
Her fleeting friend arrived in a long coat with a carpet bag at her side, all bright-eyed anxiety and high shoulders.
Zin stood and smiled, put out her cigarette, and offered the young woman her arm. Their shoes crunched in the crisp leaves littering the path toward the market and docks, her soft ankle-high boots and Zin’s sturdy hobnails playing in counter-rhythm. They spoke little, over nothing of consequence. Zin knew the moment when the boat would arrive, and they walked out to the pier just as the ferry drifted to it.
“Thank you for coming with me,” the woman said as she turned to tell Zin goodbye.
“A small service I am happy to provide,” she replied, kissing her on the cheek and patting her arm. “Go on now, he shouldn’t wait for you.”
After shooing her off down the pier through a last moment of reluctance, Zin tucked her hands into the pockets of her coat. It wasn’t until the young woman was halfway down the length of dock that Zin saw the deep, bloody gash through the fine wool in the back of the coat, or the dirty patches of scalp where half-congealed scabs replaced her dark, glossy hair.
She had some difficult understanding to arrive at, when she got to the far side of the river and they sorted out where she was meant to go. Zinerva hoped they wouldn’t haggle over her spirit right in front of her. Some of them did, which she found rather lacking in tact. But there was only so much you could do for the dead.
The young woman boarded the ferry, and Zinerva picked her eyes up to the man standing in its prow. All passengers aboard, the boat nosed out toward the current again, and Zinerva waved. The Ferryman lifted one of his black arms, his hood that admit no light turned back toward her on the land. She imagined the strong, handsome features on the Death card peeping out from beneath the cowl and smiled before turning to walk back home alone.