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Pillow of Thorns


“Come in, child,” Gertie exclaimed as she grabbed Maria’s arm and pulled her into the shabby, yet welcoming, parlor. A solid black cat snoozed on the cushion of a spindle-backed rocker. That would be Gertie’s “familiar” Maria speculated. At least, that’s what Elizabeth would say.

“I’ll bet that woman has a cat,” her mother had said while warning her away from Gertie. “Witches use them to do their dirty work. They call them familiars.”

Another cat, the shade of burnished copper, sat on the windowsill peering out greedily into the yard. Robins feasted on fat, juicy worms, unaware of the predator that watched and waited for an open window or door.

Gertie hugged Maria to her ample breast. She smelled delicious, as always. A mixture of lavender, sage, and other exotic herbs, Maria deduced.

“I’ve just put the kettle on for tea. You’ll be wantin’ your leaves read I know. We can have a look-see at the cards while the tea brews.”

Gertie’s cards were very different than those the Whitman family used. Not the usual aces, spades, and clubs with which Maria was familiar. Some of their high and mighty neighbors gossiped about the Whitman’s card playing. Elizabeth tried to explain to them that it was only simple fun. Just innocent games like draw poker, faro or monte, and they almost never played for money. Usually, they played for gumdrops or licorice. Surely it was not so great a sin that would send them plummeting into the fiery pits of hell.

On the other hand, according to Elizabeth, cards like the ones used by Gertie were wicked. “There’s no room for Tarot cards in a Christian household,” she cautioned Maria. “It’s an open invitation to evil.”

Maria sat down at the kitchen table. Its oak finish was faded from constant use and marred with deep scratches. The room was cluttered, as usual, but even in its disarray put forth an inviting hominess. Maria had learned long ago to ignore Gertie’s obvious lack of housekeeping skills. Remnants of breakfast egg, ham grease, and hardened biscuits covered the counter. A grimy spittoon sat by Gertie’s chair.

Dipping snuff was a nasty practice, indulged in not only by the poor-white class, but some of the rich as well. Elizabeth had warned Maria against such pitfalls, but she need never have feared. Maria would not entertain a habit that stained the teeth and caused foul-smelling breath. She herself used a mixture of honey and pure pulverized charcoal to cleanse and whiten her teeth. Elizabeth kept on hand limewater and Peruvian bark for those occasions when dishes were seasoned with onion. She had passed along to her daughter her own impeccable personal hygiene and beauty secrets. The pleasure of such a thing as dipping snuff was indeed a curiosity to Maria. She would just as soon chew on her little finger as to dip snuff, smoke cigars, or let any form of tobacco touch her flawless lips.

“Hot for late September, don’t you think?” Gertie asked as she shoved kindling into the cast-iron cookstove. An aroma of chicken emanated from a pot that steamed on the back burner. Maria’s mouth watered. Gertie lifted the pot lid and dropped in hefty pieces of floured biscuit dough. As an afterthought, she walked over to the basin and pumped some water into a tin cup then added it to the pot.

“Don’t want the chicken stickin’ to the bottom.”

Gertie was fortunate to have a well. Springs were plentiful in the town, and many of the town folk used them as a primary water source. Others paid the required 25 cents a month for a key to unlock the private street taps. Either method meant hauling buckets of water for drinking, bathing, and cooking. Maria was among the privileged. Her home was hooked directly onto the town’s private source. A pine log water system, fashioned after the one used by the Moravians of Salem, had been installed in Fayetteville over 20 years before. However, the system’s range was limited. The ingenious arrangement snaked down the street where Maria lived and extended into private residences through iron pipe outlets. Maria took it and other luxuries she enjoyed for granted.

Gertie’s stove, Maria observed, was fairly new. It had supplanted the fireplace that was now bricked over. Gertie wiped her hands on a gingham dishtowel and plopped down in a chair across from Maria. She started shuffling the deck of over-sized cards.

Maria tried unsuccessfully to ignore the bit of brown that stained the right corner of Gertie’s mouth. Noting her gaze, Gertie wiped her mouth with a corner of her apron. Her red hair, unruly and streaked with strands of gold, fought the confines of a lace and muslin dress cap. A creamy, unlined complexion and emerald green eyes were indications of Gertie’s Scotch-Irish heritage. Despite her plump figure and somewhat bawdy demeanor, she was a fetching woman. Gertie’s dress was surprisingly neat. A white cotton blouse and simple black skirt with matching thin, flat slippers made her look more like a governess than a fortuneteller. Maria marveled that such neat attire could be attained in the midst of the plethora of clutter and disorder that surrounded Gertie. She was a complex woman, a mixture of saint and siren it seemed, who could lure unsuspecting and foolishly vain girls like Maria onto a crooked path.

“Yes, it is rather warm,” Maria agreed with Gertie’s earlier remark about the weather and thought how much cooler it must be outside. Thankfully, a gentle breeze was blowing in off the Cape Fear through an open window over the sink. A giant red oak tree shaded Gertie’s backyard. Black crows sent out echoing territorial calls as they rested on the sturdy limbs. Another tree, a small witch-hazel elm, stood silent guard over an elaborate herb garden. An appropriate setting for the home of a fortuneteller, Maria mused. What kinds of concoctions, love potions and such, did Gertie extract from those plantings?

She took an embroidered handkerchief from her reticule and blotted the dampness from her heart-shaped face and slender neck.

“Let’s get started,” Gertie said as she spread out some cards onto the well-worn oak table.

“Ah! The Lovers!” she exclaimed and pointed to a card that held the images of a naked woman and man standing beneath the sun. Maria blushed. Gertie’s fingers touched two other cards. The Five of Cups and the Three of Swords.

“My dear child! What’s been happening?” Gertie put down yet another card. “The Page of Wands.” She shook her head. “Henry,” she deduced and leaned back in her chair. “It don’t look good. I see loss and separation.” She clucked her tongue and got up to take the singing kettle off the stove. Steam rose as she poured scalding water into the blue-flowered porcelain teapot that held the loose black tea.

She placed a flowered cozy over the pot, sat back down and shoved the cards aside.

“Let me see your hand.”

Maria stretched her right arm across the table, palm side up. Gertie frowned as she looked into Maria’s smooth hand. . . . . .