Cold Reading - A Free Creative Nonfiction
October 01, 2013 flash fictionI was careful as I shuffled the tarot cards one more time. They were a pack of cheap Ryder knock-offs. Still, I couldn't afford to lose even one. My parents refused to give me an allowance; saving for this deck had taken me two months, and I'd had to shoplift the book of interpretations.
Five boys crouched in a circle around myself and Mike, the kid who had volunteered this time. It was my third reading of the day, but they still stayed huddled around my bunk. Their breath puffed out in quiet clouds as they looked at me, the cards, Mike. A fire crackled in the cabin's fireplace, and the smell of canned stew nearly overpowered the stink of unwashed preteen boy. Glancing out the window, I saw the snow-covered branches glittering in the fading evening sunlight.
"I think this will be the last one," I said. "There won't be enough light in the cabin."
The other six boys groaned. With so much snow on the ground, our troop's camping trip was spectacularly boring. Since they couldn't pound each other (and me) in a game proving their machismo, my weird cards and book had to suffice.
I handed the deck to Mike. "Cut the deck while thinking of your question," I told him. "And no-"
"Yeah," he said. "No pocketknives. It was a stupid joke the first time, dumbass. I was here."
I flushed, and Mike handed the deck back across the bed to me. I laid the cards down in the thirteen card pattern the book recommended, muttering instructions. "This one covers, this one crosses, this one..." When I finished, I had no idea what the arrangement of cards signified.
I hadn't the other times, either. Not really. Sometimes enough familiar cards would come up that I got a feel for things, but I insisted on looking up each card in the book to be certain. Though I’d only had it a month, the book’s pages were already dogeared and worn.
"What does it say?" Mike's tone was different. Quieter - not the sarcastic put-down that I'd always heard from him before.
I began flipping the pages. "That card," I said, pointing, "covers you. That's your environment. That card is" - I found the page - "the five of cups." I read the interpretation straight from the book. Then I did it again, with the next card. Mike didn't say much, just nodding as I worked my way through the cards. I was still confused when I finished, but Mike's eyes stayed wide.
"Dude," he said, "that was completely right. That's freaky, man."
That night, I watched shadows shift across the walls. It was my watch, staying awake to keep the fires burning, but my mind kept dancing back to the afternoon. With the first few readings, I thought my accuracy was due to my Eastern European ancestry. But that didn't explain Mike. With him, I just read out of the book, no sense of power, or spirits, or whatever. Later, I learned about cold readings. I learned what people consistently want to hear, and how "fortunetellers" make generalized predictions that can apply to anybody. Logical, skeptical stuff - and I still run into that kind of profiteering fortune teller all the time. Why can't they see the future lottery numbers, right?
But that failed to explain Mike. Mike didn't like what the cards said about his situation. It wasn't what he wanted to hear. But it helped him. It helped to hear another person put things in a different light. I didn't know his situation - but for whatever reason, my reading gave him a new perspective on his problems.
That's when I decided to keep reading horoscopes, too. Maybe there are people who can make predictions about the future - I don't know. But I realized that wasn't the point. Fortunes and forecasts were not really about lottery numbers and what exact events are coming up ahead.
They're about getting another point of view from another person. They help you avoid getting too wrapped up into your own perspective. The tools - cards, charts, whatever - may truly work. They may not. But they always give you a chance to open up and hear another person.
I realized it didn't matter if they were truly prediction. They're wisdom.
That's worth more to me than any vision of the future.
Thanks for reading this essay I originally wrote for Bridgette Walther and check out What Fates Impose, now publicly available in print and digital formats.