«Nia C. Stephens for the degree of Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing presented on April 11. 2003 Title: Scenes from the Tarot Abstract Approved: ...»
OF THE THESIS OF
Nia C. Stephens for the degree of Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing presented on April 11. 2003
Title: Scenes from the Tarot
Redacted for Privacy
a novella that explores the desire to control time. The narrator, Truth
Scenes from the Tarot is
Aiken, spurred by fear of her own death, recounts the story of her sister Beauty's death and its effects on Truth's highly unusual family. Proceeding backwards through time, Truth describes her tumultuous relationships with sisters and brother, her husband Jude, who, like Truth and her three siblings, is a prodigy, and her brilliant, distracted parents. Woven into the narrative are real-time interactions with Jude, who reads the chapters as Truth writes them, discovering secrets about his wife that will inevitably alter their future together in ways even Truth cannot predict.
© Copyright by Nia C. Stephens April 11,2003 All Rights Reserved Scenes from the Tarot by Nia C. Stephens
A THESISsubmitted to Oregon State University in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Fine Arts Presented April 11, 2003 Commencement June, 2003 Master of Fine Arts thesis of Nia C. Stephens presented on April 11, 2003.
Redacted for Privacy Major Professor, representing Creative Writing Redacted for Privacy Head of the Department of English Redacted for Privacy Dean of the Gracfte School I understand that my thesis will become part of the permanent collection of Oregon State University Libraries. My signature below authorizes release of my thesis to any reader upon request.
Redacted for Privacy Nia C. Steph'ëis, Author
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTSI would like to first and foremost thank my parents, Dr. Barbara Nabrit-Stephens and Dr.
Harvard Stephens, for their generous financial and emotional support.
would have been an even Without the assistance of Tracy Daugherty, Scenes from the Tarot stranger and messier undertaking, and one I probably never would have finished; he has earned my undying thanks.
Paula Penn-Nabrit was a voice of encouragement in the darkest times, and kept me going when I thought the book would never end.
Kate Bernheimer opened my eyes to myriad possibilities, both within the world of fiction and beyond, and persistently saw the diamond in the coal.
Special thanks to Marjorie Sandor, Jennifer Cornell, and everyone involved with the Oregon State writing program who helped make these the most productive two years of my li
If you are curious about your destiny you could kill a wild bird or pig with your bare hands then slit it from throat to groin with a sharp knife, and find your fate in viscera. If augery is not to your taste you could scry in a crystal ball, a black mirror, or a bowl filled with water stained with ink. You can drink a cup of unstrained black tea and fmd pictures in the leaves that mean something or other, you can open at random a Holy Bible and let your god guide your hand, you can walk into the future with your eyes open wide, or you can consult a reader of Tarot cards.
I have dissected many animals and drunk many cups of tea. I once read Tarot cards for a nominal fee but now I teach literature to prison inmates in a small town in Tennessee. I live in a castle that's thirty years old, ten years older than I am now, built to amuse some British bride of a country music superstar. They broke up a long time ago.
My students don't believe that I live in the castle, they don't believe that I've already graduated from university, they don't believe that I'm married at all, and certainly not to a twenty year old nuclear physicist who looks like a porcelain doll with glasses. Some of them refuse to believe that I am black, and those that do not insist that one of my parents must be white. They think I dyed a streak of my hair white to look older than I am, and they're wrong about all of these things, or my name isn't Truth Ananda Aiken.
For my twentieth birthday, now nine days past, my husband gave me a young Irish Wolthound that matches the house and a calico kitten that does not. My mother gave me an emerald set in gold that matches my coloring better than the platinum band I wear on my left ring fmger, or the plain silver band on my right ring finger. My younger sister Charmed gave me a new birth certificate and driver's license, which may well come in handy, and my little brother a very old deck of Tarot cards. The cards and the kitten and the birth certificate, which says my name is Jane Hart, are on my desk right now, arrayed around my typewriter like planets. The emerald, which is so huge it looks cursed, is on my right ring finger next to the silver ring. The young Irish Wolfhound, whom Jude has named Jane Hart, is sleeping on my feet. Jude is in the house someplace, making important discoveries about the nature of the universe. For his birthday now eleven weeks past I gave him a set of rubber knives, for which he thanked me most profusely.
My father did not make the drive down from Nashville with my mother and siblings because he was busy writing a book. I found this very, very interesting, since he had never expressed much interest in memoir before. My brother says that he is writing a about being a black physicist in Oak Ridge, Tennessee at the end of the Cold War, and about raising prodigies, about all the things he knows. His memoir is already three hundred and seventy six pages long, and he has only been writing for a week.
When my brother said this we all paused with our forks full of chocolate birthday cake halfway to our mouths. I shut my eyes because the world had shifted, very suddenly, to the left, then tilted right.
Then I opened them. This was the sixth dizzy spell in as many days, but I did not invite my family up to the castle to scare them. I smiled at my family, and ate a bite of cake.
"Well," my mother said, putting down her fork. "I for one am intrigued. What do you think your father knows?" No one knows what my father knows. He does not publish articles any more, he has never spoken at conferences, he set the telephone pole across the street from his house on fire. He no longer really occupies the increasingly dilapidated farmhouse at the end of Tulip Tree Drive. He stays in his bedroom but he lives in his memory palace.
I do know what his memory palace looks like. He told me about his extensively, when he was teaching me to build my own.
"Don't trust text," he said, tying my shoe. We were at the Nashville International Airport, and I was about to fly across the Atlantic without my mother for the first time, to meet Mom and Beauty in Paris.
I was afraid I did not have enough books for the flight, and was failing to convince my father to buy me a new journal.
"I like text," I told him. "Especially my own."
"That's fine, as long as you remember that words lie. They are reductive. Their meanings shift. If you want anything to remain clear and precise you must remember it. Build a room for it in your memory palace, create for it the right symbol, and whatever you want to remember will always be there, unchanged."
My memory palace is a house of cards, Tarot cards, of course, though you can't tell that from the outside. In fact, if you were to see my memory palace from a distance at night you would see nothing at all. The backs of the cards are black and printed with constellations. It is bigger on the inside than it is outside, and each step forward takes you farther back into the past.
Down the hall from the bedroom and the kitchen there is a room with a gigantic red door. It is so tall
garden, the way my grandmother once grew herbs, is a purple spiral notebook, which was my journal at the time, a pack of cards, with the ace of cups on the bottom, and a photograph of my family. We look great in the photographmy mother, father, my sisters, and mevital, cheerful, and we're standing close together. I, of course, am too small to inspect the photograph, which is essentially life-sized, but I see it clearly from the floor. It is not at all distorted by the glass.
I think the rooms in my father's memory palace fit him perfectly. Outside it looks like his farmhouse, and on the inside something like a sculpture gallery. The hallways there stretch forever, but most rooms are small, with a single object in the middle representing something or someone or other. I know he keeps the doors shutare there drafls in his memory palace? Cats or goblins that rearrange things while he's elsewhere? I know there are rooms filled with obsolete scientific instruments arranged in complex ways. I know he spends a lot of time in these rooms, tinkering with these things, running odd imaginary experiments with results whose implications are far reaching and wild in the world outside my father's mind.
I don't know what my father knows. I wonder. I consult my cards. They say, The Hermit. The Heirophant. The Emperor. The cards are so old the edges are soft, the tops of the cards silky. I shuffle, I lay out a Celtic Cross. Strength. The Hanged Man. The World. I fold them back in and count cards, this time pulling Judgment and Justice and the Wheel of Fortune. I shuffle the cards again.
Jude believes the world is chaotic but comprehensible. He named the kitten Mary Catherine, and calls her Merricat. He thinks I don't know when he's pretending to sleep and refuses to believe he is bound to me by anything other than love. He is not above binding me to him with pets and affection and a castle in the woods. He will hang tapestries on the walls to stay warm in winter, and lurk in the tower to look at the stars. I will grow herbs in the solarium and place a moondial in the courtyard. We order our universes as best we can, foolishly, and with much faith.
Key I The Magician Divinatory Meanings: Power. Knowledge. Creativity. A Sense that Life is Magical.
Reversed: Weakness. Suppressed Energy.
All physicists juggle except my father. Usually they pick it up during their under-graduate days; it fills time in the lab, and it gives them something to do with their hands when they're thinking. My husband Jude is one of the best jugglers I've ever known. He can keep up to nine balls in the air with a partner, five by himself, and he can juggle knives though I seldom let him. When we drive into the city on Sunday evenings to visit my father at his house, my mother in her apartment, and Jude's parents at their commune just north of Nashville, sometimes on the way home to our castle sixty miles from town, I suggest that we keep driving until we find an old-fashioned circus and join up.
"I'll get pregnant and be a contortionist," I say, putting my feet on the dash, my chin on my knees, wishing I could tuck my ankles behind my head. I am not very flexible in the status quo.
"There are probably easier ways to get relaxin into your muscles than getting pregnant," he reminds me, adjusting his glasses with his eyes on the road. In the half-light of a mid-summer dusk, his hair and skin and eyes are all the same pale gray. "You could get your mother to write a prescription."
"She never writes useful prescriptions," I say, though there's one exception. When I first menstruated my periods were so bad I thought I was dying. My mother wrote a prescription for the pill when I was twelve that I have only twice allowed to lapse. There is no drug store near the castle, and I never learned to drive. "Maybe I'll hang out in the freak tent. I'll grow a beard. Or I could get tattoos all over my body."
Jude pauses a moment, and considers. At twenty neither of us can legally get a tattoo in Bern County, where we live, but we could in Nashville proper. I think he's thinking of what I would get, and where, but I'm never sure. For all that I've known him since we were three, and we attended Islington together, then Harvard, though he finished up at MIT without me, I don't understand him, and he does not understand me.
"You could tell fortunes again, you know."
"You think?" "Certainly," I sigh. "People are unlucky in love, they grow old, then they die. Or they don't grow old, and they die. That's all."
"You must have been quite a Tarotiste when you were gone."
6 "I was," I say, somewhat defensive. Reading Tarot cards is a better job for a runaway than prostitution or drug dealing, but it is not in any way fun. When I lived in New Orleans I rented out the back of a store that sold the implements of voodoo, everything from the dusty top hats and skeleton greasepaint to shredded snake skin, and blood-soaked dolls. I got along very well with the proprietress and she sent good business my way. I spread my cards for older men and young women and told them what they wanted to hear, that is, I told them the futures they would never know.
"I could be the woman spread-eagled on the target for the knife-throwing act."
"Let's not join the circus," Jude concludes after a moment or two.
We drive in silence, then we speak of other things.
Much later, after I have scribbled out my Monday lecture and Jude is through with signs and symbols for the night, we go to bed. He suggests, with a warm hand on my right hip socket, or his fingers tucked into the grooves between my ribs, "Maybe you should become a pregnant contortionist."
"Bad idea," I say. "Think what the child might inherit."
"As long as she gets your face I don't care what else she inherits."
"I don't want to give birth to any more freaks. The Aiken line stops with me."
"You have two little siblings who might have kids."
"Charmed and Strange? Are you joking?" "They're still very young. It could happen."
"Not a chance. Not even another Islington kid would marry one of them."
"They're young," he says again. "And I promise not to name our children after the qualities of subatomic particles."
"Beauty and Truth aren't bad names," I say, in sudden, irrational defense of my father. "Charmed isn't bad, though Strange..
"This has been going on for fifteen days, Jude. If I were just getting the flu then I would be seeing other symptoms by now. And look at this bruise."
He turns on his lamp and looks at my bruise, which is plum colored and covers much of my shoulder.
"What happened?" "I slipped in the shower."