We are excited to announce the winner of the May 2023 Chattanooga Writers’ Guild Monthly Contest is G. N. Zaccaria with the submission “A Turn of the Cards” and runner-up is James Brumbaugh with the submission “Martin in Dreamland.”
A TURN OF THE CARDS
Melvino’s long fingers hovered over the cards that were spread out on his carpet. The wide sidewalk was bustling with pedestrians in the afternoon sunlight.
“You see that the constellations and planets are a part of us,” he said while he gently pointed to The Star of the Tarot cards. He paused before he turned the next card to face up. “Our lives are also a part of them…and our dreams as well.”
“This shows The Moon of disturbance laying parallel against The Star of hope,” Melvino explained. He continued to turn the cards that were laid out in in the “Celtic Cross” pattern in front of the two patrons.
“Here…the moon again… in the sky of the Eight of Cups card. Disappointment and lack of fulfillment. Here is the Nine of Swords…in reversal it reflects the same inner turmoil. The disturbed character that is awakened and frightened in their bed, alarmed by nightmares. It is in the dark of night.”
Sensing the concern of the young man and woman with their Tarot reading on this sidewalk, he used his sleight of hand skills and pulled The Lovers card from a pocket of his embroidered vest.
“Go forward happily in your life together, just be aware of the obstacles. Remember that there are ten million other stars that burn beyond this world. Residing on every planet revolving around those stars are others just like you. And every one of them are dreaming of you, as you dream of them.”
Melvino had been telling fortunes for over two years in this area that the locals called The Square. His daily setting up and then packing again at the end of a day, and after smoking a final Gauloises cigarette, had caused the faces of the people in The Square to lose their intrigue. The undercover officers, the solo street musicians, the workers in The Dragon’s Fly New-Age shop, and the kids in front of the vintage vinyl record store had become the customary denizens of his world. He watched the homeless men who walked from the Pine Street Shelter. He observed drug dealers who thought they were unnoticed, hustler boys and prostitute women. He heard the laughter coming out of the bars.
His dark skin and lean six-foot body were complimented by his faded blue jeans, the worn sandals, the necklace of copper and bone, and by the cottony Indian blouse from the racks of the Found Again consignment shop. With his brightly colored scarves and provocative good looks, Melvino relied on his slim build and dark dreadlocks as much as the brightly colored Tarot cards stacked on the rug under his feet. He knew his looks were striking, though he had been told that he did not smile enough. He often reflected in his notebook that he was at peace.
“Ah, but freedom and blessings from Allah, God love it,” he thought.
Although he spent all day describing the world of dreams and the revelations of the Wheel of Fortune card, his own dreams were dark and disturbing when he lay his head onto the pillow. He knew what would be arriving in the night: painted dogs with rabid saliva dripping from their jaws, demons with tails aflame and carrying pennants of the circular Pentacle coins, and winged women who disappeared off to the dark skies with laughter on their fetid breath. All the images off the Tarot deck cards came swirling in a nightmarish stew that often left him nauseous upon waking to face the next day. He would write the evening phantasm into the notebook.
Melvino always woke at five o’clock in his daily routine, then spent the first fifteen minutes of the day in prayer and meditation, then another fifteen minutes in yoga poses, and another fifteen in the shower. The other boarders in the house would rise and the availability of the shared single toilet and shower would be a challenge. Another block of fifteen minutes for his breakfast while he sat on his futon mattress in the rented room, as he read metaphysical texts or the writings of Gibran, sipping a morning coffee. By this time he would have known if the weather would permit him to be outdoors to tell fortunes, or if it would be one of the rainy days of unhappiness and frustration. Then his worries only could be calmed by hours spent in the Public Library a few blocks away.
It was a sunny day in late Spring. His Indian rug was spread on the sidewalk, his knapsack unpacked with the contents placed carefully within reach. He played his compact discs of soft Jazz and European “chill’ music as the first customer of the new day was about to show interest.
“Hello,” a young lady replied. She wore sandals and a flowing skirt.
“Would you like your fortune told today? Ten dollars for a palm reading, twenty dollars for a Tarot reading, and a special for “today only” of fifteen dollars for both. A great deal. I can tell your future, and your past. Any questions that you may have,” he said as he remembered to smile.
“The cards will reveal what you need to see revealed. Shuffle these, and then hand them to me.” He invited the young woman to sit with him on his Indian rug. He lit a stick of incense, and handed her the deck of Tarot cards. After he had “cut” the cards, he spread them out as a fan in his hand, and asked her to pick one card.
“This is your card…the one that represents who you are and all that you are in this earthly world”.
His Patchouli incense and her Gardenia fragrance wafted together and created an image in his mind of a Moroccan evening. He had never been to the land of his ancestors, and only knew of the Hollywood and Bollywood versions of the homeland. This portrait in his mind caused him to pause as he looked at the card she had chosen. The gentle face of the woman on the Knight of Wands card looked exactly like the young lady who sat before him. He could feel her spontaneity and energy, and found her to be attractive and very seductive.
“Uh…uh…” He fumbled for words, distracted by her appearance and mannerisms,
Melvino spread the cards out in an arc on the rug. He instructed the young woman to pick cards randomly from the spread deck, and to hand them to him. As he laid each card face up on the rug, he explained the images and symbols. He specifically noticed the jewelry on her fingers and wrists, noting that there was no ring to indicate an engagement or marriage. He momentarily stuttered as he spoke to her, but regained his composure when he looked into her deep brown eyes that were the color of powdered cinnamon.
Finished with the receiving of her fortune and paying her money, she thanked him and turned away before he asked “Perhaps one day we shall meet again?”
Melvino looked at the crowd, the pedestrians, the traffic, and the wrought iron fencing that surrounded the small pocket in The Square. He heard the throbbing of the bongos and congas from the group of young men who had gathered with their drums, the teenagers with their amateurish attempts at Hip-hop and Rap mumbled over the repetitive drone of their sound machine. He smelled the fried Vietnamese and Ethiopian foods from the restaurants, the beer and cigarettes, and heard the clacking of pool table balls and the wooden slap of the pool cue sticks.
“Perhaps,” he whispered to himself, “perhaps my God my Allah would allow tomorrow to come to us all, but that it may be different for me.”
Alone late that evening, Melvino lay on his lumpy futon mattress with his head turned toward the open window. As he recollected his day, he drifted off into quiet dreams. The memories of the single-serving liquor bottles and the used matches and discarded cigarettes on the dirty pavement under his sandals all faded into the blackness. The nightmare images off the Tarot cards did not visit him that night.
Instead, as he fell into a full slumber, he once again saw the eyes of the young woman who had come for her fortune. In those minutes she had taken him from the concrete and metal of The Square and into a land of sunshine, palm trees, and cool breezes that caressed his slender body as he rested in memories as soft as the sands of Morocco.
The next morning he awoke and again began a day of the turning of cards and the wishes on the future. Although he realized that the cool tropical breeze of his dream was only the cold chill from the open window, he wrote to himself in his notebook:
“Remember that the stars are all a part of us.”
G. N. Zaccaria is an award-winning fiction-writer, playwright, artist and performer. He holds a B.F.A. from the School of Visual Arts in New York City. He is a long-term member of the Atlanta Writers Club, PenAmerica, The Dramatists Guild, Working Title Playwrights, and the Chattanooga Writers Guild. Specializing in short stories of Magical Realism and Speculative Fiction, he has also presented in Spoken Word and Performance Art. He is currently working on a second novel.
Martin in Dreamland
Martin stands at the prow of his little ship, dull knife in hand. He saws at the waterlogged ropes that affix the figurehead to the boat. A massive carved dragon, tongue lolling out between ivory fangs, insane eyes rolled back. It would not do to frighten the spirits of this land, and Martin is too weak after his long journey to store the figurehead on the boat. His arm burns with effort, he curses his poor tool. But it must be done. It would not do to threaten the spirits of the land. Finally the ropes split, the dragon crashes into the sea, splashes Martin’s face with freezing salty spray. He lies on his back, curls up like a child in the womb, waits for the ships berth on dry land.
Once, the ship had been crewed by forty good men, savage warriors trained in combat. In the open sea, far from home, far from all known land, the sickness had come. A shaking sickness that turned men’s skin black, made their eyes bleed, rotted men’s teeth until they fell out of their heads. Brave warriors, men accustomed to blood-soaked battlefields, brutal men who worshipped death, had died crying, died gripping their swords to their chest for comfort. Some, when the black mark of the sickness fell upon them, had jumped into the sea in full armor, had allowed themselves to be dragged into the deep. The punishment of the gods was upon them and they knew not why. Nor does Martin know why he has been spared. He is the final man left. Alone, he cannot crew the ship. One oarsman is insufficient. He hoisted the sail when the last of his comrades died. Every day he cuts himself anew, lets the blood run into the sea as a sacrifice to the gods in the deep.
Now there is land, pulling him in on the tide. When he saw the shore in the distance, he wept with relief. His craft scrapes against the shallows, will move no more. He hops out, desperate for earth under his feet. The cold tide licks the tops of this boots. We wades forward and falls on the rocky beach, lies there for a moment in silence before picking himself up. He is surprised to see a fox beside him, grey and scrawny, fur missing in patches, and with human eyes, eyes the same as his own.
He wanders inland and the fox follows him. For a long time he traverses snowy fields, seeing no sign of humanity. The sun sinks in the horizon, the frozen grass crunches underfoot. The fox drags itself behind him. In the distance he sees a fire glowing. Martin is unarmed, and afraid, but he is in an unknown land without companions. The fire is his hope.
There is a cauldron bubbling over the fire, and a hunched figure in a tattered robe. He calls out to the figure, but there is no response. As he approaches, he sees no movement. He gazes into the cauldron and sees a liquid black as ink. The darkness is hypnotic.
“Welcome, stranger,” says the figure. Martin is startled and turns to the it. It is a wretched creature indeed, with a shrunken man’s body and the head of a goat. Bulbous inhuman eyes stare at him. “Welcome to Draumrlöd.”
Martin is shaking with fear. “What manner of land is this?” he asks.
The goat smiles. “Draumrlöd. The land of dreams. Every dream and every nightmare that has ever been and ever will be lives here. You think me strange, but you are the strange one in here, as you are no man’s dream.”
“Are you a dream? Am I living in a dream?”
“No, you are not dreaming. And I am not your dream. I was made thousands of years ago, dreamt of by a god long dead. What brings you to this place?”
“I’m a warrior of Gotland. There is a sickness in my home, a terrible sickness that no one survives. My crew and I set sail, looking for a healer or a wizard strong enough to break the sickness. But they have all succumbed and I am the only one left. Tell me, is there any such healer among you in this land?”
The goat-headed man stares at the fox, padding softly in the snow behind Martin. “Your fylgja, your spirit,” it says, “is very weak. You can see he is sick. This bodes ill for you, warrior. And you have taken a poor turn, for there are no healers here, at least none for the ills of your land.” At this, Martin buries his face in his hands. Despair fills his throat, makes it feel stuffed as with a rag. Breath comes with difficulty. “But,” says the goat-man, “there may yet be something I can do for you, if you do something for me.”
Martin was raised with stories of trickster spirits, creatures always looking for advantage. He was taught to never trust any wicked denizen of the spirit realms. But stranded as he is, hopeless as he is, he sees no choice.
“What can I do for you?”
The goat-man scratches at his chin beard. “There is a giant in this place, a bastard son of Thiazi. He has been hunting the dreams of men and consuming them. Bring me his heart, and I shall give you what I can. Reach in the cauldron if you agree, and pull out a weapon suitable to smite him.”
Martin begins to question the goat-man, but as he speaks he sees that the beast has fallen into a trance, or some deep sleep. He approaches the cauldron, the inky blackness. The fox runs to him, nips at his heels. He looks into its fearful eyes, kicks it away. He reaches into the cauldron.
The liquid is searing against his skin, painful beyond pain. He reaches down to his shoulder before his hand grasps something solid. He grips it and pulls out his arm. With it comes a sword, huge and shining and unbelievably sharp. He sets off in search of the giant.
He hears it before he sees it. A massive creature, three times the size of a man. The earth shakes under its footsteps. It does not see Martin.
Martin is a Northman born, trained to kill and die without fear. Still, this creature stirs his soul. A jötunn, an enemy of the gods. He stifles his fear, readies his weapon. He charges at the oblivious giant, his fylgja running behind him. He swings his sword with all his strength. The sword chops into the giant’s leg and it lets out an inhuman scream. It raises its fist and as it brings it down to crush Martin he rolls away, but not fast enough. He hears the bones in his leg crunch under the massive fist. He lies prone in the snow. The fox licks at his face and cries. The giant is hobbled by the wound in its leg, it kneels stiffly and grabs at Martin with both hands. Its hot breath warms Martin for a moment. He kicks with his good leg but it is no use. The sword is very heavy in his hand, he does not believe he can muster the strength to raise it. He aims a bunch at the beast but it catches his fist in its jaw, rips away his hand. Red blood spurts from the stump. Dumbly, Martin considers that it is the most beautiful color he has seen since he left home.
The jötunn laughs. The mockery shocks Martin, angers him. He is a born Northman, a warrior. He is willing to die but unwilling to suffer mockery. He raises his sword with his remaining hand and shoves it deep into the giant’s insane red eye. It pierces the jötunn, slides in all the way to the hilt. The giant shrieks and drops Martin, falls to the ground with a crash that reverberates through the land. It shakes and sputters and weeps blood and dies.
Martin is dying himself. Stupid with pain, unable to think of anything but his mission. He crawls to the beast’s head, paying no mind to the trail of blood he leaves in his wake. He collects his sword and uses it to painstakingly cut the heart from the giant’s chest and cradles it to him. He can no longer move.
The fox grips his tunic in his teeth and drags him through the snow. It takes many hours. When they reach the goat-man, Martin is barely breathing, has lost almost all the blood in his body, and is nearly frozen. The goat-man pries the heart from his frozen grip, drops it into the cauldron. It sizzles and is gone.
The goat-man turns his attention to Martin, cradles the dying man in his arms.
“I give you what I can, Northman. Sweet dreams. Dreams of family, of your land, dreams without sickness.”
And Martin dreams.
James Brumbaugh loves to ride his bike and is a doting father.
The Monthly Contests rotate through a pattern of Poetry, Fiction, and Creative Nonfiction throughout the year, with a new theme each month. Go to the 2023 Monthly Contest Series Info page to view the genre and theme for each month.
This contest is free to enter for members of the Chattanooga Writers’ Guild. To become a member, click HERE