I’ll admit to a long-lasting obsession with, and an uncanny skill at, reading the tarot; it began when I was 12 years old, in the dark unfinished basement of a 19th-century Italianate brick house (originally a sanitarium and hospital for consumption patients), in an old mountain town in Colorado’s “high country”. My father found me one evening in 1979 in the basement of the house (I remember the house as a tall rectangle of brick that listed a little to the left). He had come down for some coal for the stove, when he found me; the basement light was out and I was at a little wooden table, reading tarot cards, by the light of 100 candles; well, all the candles I could find in the house, anyway…white, red, green, black, and purple wax dripping everywhere.
He was always a bit leery of me, my father.
He was not into the gypsy history of our family, as my mother was. (“Our family—my family—she said, “comes from an old line of Roma-Irish gypsies, that’s why I call you Mihai (my name in “gypsy”). Your dad doesn’t like any of this. His family are pale, quiet Frenchwomen, married to stalwart, blue-eyed Germans. Dark-haired green-eyed witches just creep him out I guess. Why do you think he married me in the first place?” (She laughed a witchy little laugh). “That’s where your name comes from. Your great-great grandmother, my father’s mother, was called ‘Mihai’.”) “I’m named after an old-lady witch?” She gave me a wink, her hazel eye glittering like a charm.
I would invite neighbor kids and interested relatives into my “reading room” and tell them their fortunes. I took it way too seriously, I suppose, at 12. For some weird reason I never understood, I was popular at school. So, when word got out that the new black-haired kid with dark circles under his greenish eyes dabbled in Ouija, told ghostly tales after dark by candlelight, and led Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board sessions, I started gathering a little cult following. People want to know their future, being innately drawn to our shared Pagan roots. We cannot resist witchery, anymore than a moth can resist a flame.
I remember always sensing someone or something—some presence—in the back half of the basement, when I was down there. The back half, which was always in total darkness, as no bare bulb hung back there on a string. It was never wired for power, my father had said. The back room was actually at the “front” of the house. It was unused, pitch black, empty, moist; it stank like old mould; and it was always much chillier back there than in the front half of the basement.
The back half of the basement was also where the coal shute to the outside alleyway dumped into a small coal “closet”, near which an ancient coal furnace sat, watching me, like a toad, mouth filled with glowing embers. Sometimes, if the energy company didn’t quite close the door to the chute, on cloudless nights, when the moon was full-white, the chunks of coal piled on the closet floor would shine blue-black the way light does on a raven’s wing.
Photo right: The “back half” of the basement. The furnace has been removed. The square of bright light is the open coal shute.
Mrs. Rice, our neighbor, and the previous owner of the house (until she was too old to live in it alone), confided in me, once, on her porch where we were eating pecans from a glass bowl, that a young nurse had hung herself in that corner of the basement during a bad winter in, she thought, 1888. She didn’t believe me when I told her there was a bit of rope knotted on a wooden beam in my basement. But, when I took her down there, she squinted up at the beam and acted funny and said she couldn’t see a goddamned thing since she lost her old glasses. Then she hurried us out of there into afternoon sunlight.
I don’t know if the ghost of the nurse that died in my basement in 1888 prompted my tarot obsession, or if my tarot obsession prompted her presence (I also played Ouija down there). But I always knew when she was back there, maybe watching me. I only saw her form twice, shimmering first like blurry yellow light—then movement and the outline of a sharp whitish hat and shoes and a light skirt or dress at the bottom—never any face or hair or limbs.
She scared me then. But I don’t think she would scare me now. I might even try to reach her now and communicate. But age 12 is age 12. I see her in dreams, still, sometimes.
I bought a new deck, Wildwood Tarot, a few years ago. I opened it today. I began to do some practice readings, and was immediately aware of a presence in the corner of the room. It was familiar to me.
I know that Mrs. Bedelia E. Rice has long-since passed away. I had known her during a very impressionable time in my life…and maybe, too, in hers. I last saw her face, the waist-long snow-white hair twisted into a swirl on top of her head, in the late afternoon on a cold fall day…I remember her waving and us driving off, the light, amber and soothing.
It is my belief Mrs Rice skipped heaven and passed on hell, and moved right back in to the old, leaning brick house next door in which my family had lived.
She had always harbored a resentment that her family “sold that house right out from under me. You think you know people. They stole my house and tried to put me in a home. But that is my house, Mihai. Mine.”
Well, to the dead nurse — my own special ghost — and the eternal Mrs. Rice, I say a hearty Cheers! For I know they are enjoying a glass of sherry in the two crystal goblets I left in the basement for them that October day we moved away. (That’s why you never found them, Mom.)^