Authors: Frank Portman
ALSO BY FRANK PORTMAN
To the memory of Erika Hynes
The Universe is huge. The Universe is complex. Everything in it is connected to everything else. And it knows who you are and sometimes wants to show you things.
Andromeda Klein’s front wheel sliced through a shallow puddle, spattering yet more mud on her boot ankle, glazing the grassy embankment on the left side of the bike path.
“Trismegistus,” she said under her breath, invoking the Egyptian god Thoth, lord of language and magic, and, if the theories of Mrs. John King van Rensselaer were to be believed, the god upon whose ancient temple at Hermopolis the book now known as the tarot was based. This oath, an expression of frustration, had nothing to do with the puddle or the boots: muddy boots are nothing but bad-ass. It was rather an offhand, grumpy plea for insight, for clarity. And the answer came almost immediately into view: a discarded half-crushed Styrofoam take-out box floating in a flooded storm drain had two plastic knives lying crossed on top of it.
“Okay, I get it,” she muttered. The Two of Swords. She had drawn it from her tarot deck in the girls’ bathroom before leaving school that day, and here it was again floating in the gutter. And with a box, to boot. Sometimes the Universe was subtle; other times it hit you over the head like it thought you were stupid.
One dream, one card, an otherworldly instant message, and dozens of synchs involving swords, boxes, and the vexing case of Twice Holy Soror Daisy Wasserstrom: it had been an unusually weedgie week. She rose from the seat to pedal up the hill.
The Universe, continued the silent lecture in her head, chooses to show itself in tiny flashes, revealing connections amongst its diverse elements at odd moments.
say the unobservant or the spiritually obtuse, when they notice them at all. And such they are: points where aspects of reality coincide, or overlap, from this or that perspective. But educated people, adepts and scholars, seers and magicians—the weedgie people—know them as synchs, since the common understanding of
implies something accidental, and there are no accidents.
“So what do you think would happen, Dave,” Andromeda continued, out loud now, practicing a well-rehearsed portion of her tarot lecture, “to an adept armed with a perfect model of the Universe?” Dave Klein was Andromeda’s cat, upon whom she often practiced her orations, and to whom she tended to address them without regard to his physical presence. He was a tough audience, either way. And his steely stare would, she imagined, prepare her for the hostile response of many of her students, when, far in the future, she would deliver her notorious series of lectures on magic theory and practice in a hidden underground hall in the secret labyrinth beneath the Warburg Institute in London.
The answer, was, of course, that such a model of the Universe in the hands of the skilled adept became a laboratory for generating and observing synchs at several times their naturally occurring rate. In the ancient Temple of Thoth Hermes Trismegistus—itself a compact model of the Universe—magicians cast rods or arrows on the central altar and noted the results, which temple symbols they pointed to and in what number, teasing out the significant synchs and interpreting them. The modern tarot pack was in a sense a portable temple. Shuffling and laying out the cards invited such synchs, grand and trivial, though interpreting them was never a straightforward matter.
That was Andromeda Klein’s best, simplest answer for why and how the tarot “worked,” aware though she was that her views on the matter were controversial. The tarot was a collapsible temple, a laboratory, a synch factory. If anyone ever bothered to ask, she would be ready. And this answer would figure prominently in her Warburg lectures, to be published in volumes III through IV of her soon-to-be-celebrated, as-yet-unwritten work of magical history, theory, and practice,
The main road in front of the school parking lot had no bike lane. This period immediately after school let out was perilous. It was impossible to know for certain which after-school clusters of students would be overtly hostile, but it was wise to avoid them all, just in case. This required a zigzag pattern, crossing from one side of the street to the other as necessary. They could throw rocks at you or even thrust a stick through your spokes to knock you off your bike, and then … well, it had never happened to her, but she’d seen it happen to others, and she didn’t want to find out what they would do next. A few kids yelled at her un intelligibly at she zipped past, or at least, she was pretty sure she was the one they were yelling at. Some unpleasant variation on her name, perhaps, or the perennial favorite “No-Ass.” It was nice of them to take the time to bring it to her attention, but Andromeda Klein, as it happened, needed no reminder of that particular deficiency. She was well aware.
Andromeda Klein sliced through yet another shallow puddle and whisper-shouted “A.E.!” It is probable that she was the only student at Clearview High School, and perhaps the only person in Clearview itself, who had a favorite nineteenth-century occultist; and of those anywhere in the world to whom it might have occurred to make such a list, it is doubtful that many would have put A.E. first. But A. E. Waite, the gentle, sad-eyed, reluctant magician, was one of Andromeda Klein’s heroes. In his own way, he was as misunderstood as the very misunderstood Mr. Crowley, who owed quite a lot to A.E.’s direction and influence, yet who had, as a theorist, magician, and writer, overshadowed and outpaced him in every way. And who had, incidentally, despised and ridiculed him. Andromeda’s heart went out to people who were overshadowed and outpaced and ridiculed and despised. She even fake-believed the dubious notion that such people might be destined to have the last laugh in the end. So she said “A.E.” on occasion, as a kind of casual invocation. In high-spirited moments, she and Twice Holy Daisy Wasserstrom used to giggle-shriek it, confusing the masses and emphasizing the exclusivity of their Society of Two.
Andromeda could imagine other magicians of note, long since dead, looking down from their star thrones and snorting derisively at A.E.’s finicky writing and innovations on the customary design of the “small cards,” the minor arcana. (An exception was Dame Frances Yates, who appeared, like Andromeda, to have a bit of a crush on him.) Mr. Crowley’s deck might have been more theoretically sound, but A.E.’s was the deck Andromeda had learned on and still used, so the image on the card of the day was his design, painted per his instructions by Pamela “Pixie” Colman Smith in 1909 e.v.
The Two of Swords, reversed, in the tenth position, which in the Celtic Cross layout described in Waite’s
Pictorial Key to the Tarot
was meant to depict “the outcome.” There hadn’t been time to do a full spread, so she had quickly counted off cards in the girls’ bathroom just before leaving school, saving the first nine for later and noting the tenth: the Two of Swords, reversed. A blindfolded girl kneels, arms crossed, with a sword in each hand, on guard, perhaps, against unseen foes. Andromeda closed her eyes, trying to visualize the card’s image and its Qabalistic correspondences, but she had to open them again because blind bike-riding is no more practical than blind swordplay and she nearly ran her bike into a hedge.
The Dominion of Air, the Hebrew letter
, Yetzirah, the world of Formation, Chokmah, Wisdom … No matter how hard she studied she could never hold the attributions in her head. She wasn’t sensitive or intuitive as Daisy had been. She needed the books, with their charts and diagrams, spread out. The feeling evoked by the image of the kneeling girl strobed in her imagination between dread and peace, but that was an emotional rather than an informed response.
Several of the figures depicted on Pixie’s cards, some of them in pretty bad shape, had appeared in her dream the previous night, though the Two of Swords girl had not been among them. Now she appeared as “the outcome,” yet, somehow, much obscurity remained.
Anyone observing Andromeda Klein from a distance at that moment would simply have seen a slender teenaged girl on a bicycle splashing through puddles; any who happened to glimpse the face looking out of the black zip sweatshirt’s hood might have noted a tense, rather worried expression. But anyone reading her mind would no doubt have been taken aback by the confused riot of arcane images to be found within. A limitless host of glyphs, sigils, images, and mathematical processes unfolded from the Two of Swords and flashed around the edges of her awareness; yet each receded and faded when she tried to examine it directly. With enough time and study, and enough discipline, these connections could be specified and mapped; then would come a stage of knowledge when the model of reality inside her head would correspond to that upon which it was modeled so closely as to be indistinguishable from it. At that point the world could be shaped and changed as easily as one might move a token on a game board.
Andromeda Klein had a long way to go in that regard. So instead, she set the elusive symbols aside, looking ahead to a stage yet further beyond, to the book she would write one day, the comprehensive, multivolume treatment of the history and theory of magic that would supersede all others: the subscription edition limited to eleven numbered, signed copies would be bound in full goatskin with gilt-edged pages, false raised cords, and marbled endpapers, and embossed in silver with her personal sigil beneath the backward, mirror-image title,
. (This title, an abbreviation of
, was the sort of sly joke for which she intended to become known, since the literal meaning “little book” would be belied by its massive content: twenty-two volumes of exactly thirty-two chapters each, not including the two-volume index.) A satisfying achievement indeed for her future self.
By the time Andromeda Klein emerged from the eucalyptus grove that bordered the school’s southern edge, her thoughts had turned from the Two of Swords and
to the Golden Dawn, Pixie Colman Smith, and A. E. Waite’s enormous mustache.
The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was the most influential magical society to have emerged in the last several hundred years, its comprehensive magical system charting the course of Western occultism to the present day. A.E. had been a member, and Pixie had joined one of the splinter groups led by him after the order’s demise. Among the male adepts of the order, there had been no shortage of elaborate and often quite crazy-looking facial hair, and A.E. was no exception. Andromeda pictured Pixie Colman Smith: small, round, smiling like a cherub, and draped in brightly colored silks, strings of beads around her neck, her head wrapped in a bandana or turban, circumambulating the altar with an enormous sword held aloft under the eyes of a circle of somber, heavily mustachioed men in hoods. Had Pixie found these human whiskers “dashing” or “distinguished,” as women were supposed to consider such mustaches in those days? The young A.E., in Andromeda’s favorite picture of him, dating from c. 1880 e.v., had looked rather nice, though by the time he met Pixie he was, by Andromeda’s calculations, already beginning to resemble another A.E., the elderly Albert Einstein, who was not nearly as appealing. A.E. (Waite, not Einstein) always had the same melancholy eyes, however, in every picture. Had Pixie been thinking of those sad eyes while painting her tarot images? The King of Pentacles, though clean-shaven, had A.E.’s eyes. Had A.E. noted or appreciated her respect and devotion? Even if so, he had mispelled her name in his autobiography….
Thoughts of A.E. and the King of Pentacles and indifference in the face of devotion inevitably led to thoughts of St. Steve. While the mustaches of yesteryear were allegedly dashing, most contemporary ones just looked sleazy. St. Steve’s was somewhere in between. Andromeda had recoiled at first, but her feelings on the matter had evolved; St. Steve and A. E. Waite were linked by a mustache.
Andromeda Klein glided through Clearview Park via the recently paved bike path. It had been raining off and on all day. Pools and puddles were everywhere, just like in Pixie’s drawings of Swords cards, displaying muddy reflections of the sky.
Andromeda preferred rain to sun, even though most of her intellectual heroes, from Giordano Bruno straight through to Mr. Crowley, were Sun Worship revivalists. All people-including magicians—were supposed to love being in the sun. Andromeda did not. It was yet another way she was “wired up wrong,” as the mom, in her characteristically off-kilter “Australian” phrasing, had put it so many times.
So Andromeda had felt fine, almost glad to be alive, this morning when she woke up to drizzle and muted light and to the smell of ozone and damp eucalyptus. Nevertheless, the previous night’s dream, with its instant message from beyond and its astral journey through a deformed Pixiescape, was weighing on her mind.
The hood of her zip sweatshirt—she refused to call it a hoodie—was blown half on, half off, then all the way off. The wind was certainly a relief after the oppressive Clearview High School heat. Those in charge at the school always cranked the heat as high as it would go at the first hint of cloud cover. But the wind made it hard to keep the hood in place while riding. Andromeda Krystal Klein was not a fan of her own hair, which she felt tended to look better hooded; that is, veiled.