The Witching Hour
by Hank Garner
She called herself Rhiannon, after the legendary Welsh witch. If nothing else, she thought it had an air of mystery, at least for the gullible suckers that sought her services. Alicia was her real name, after her grandmother. She had been in the business for ten years and had made a decent living telling fortunes and reading palms; another thing she got from her grandmother. At least that is what she told people that she was doing. Honestly, she had no idea how to tell a fortune, or what the lines on someone’s palm meant; if they meant anything. She had no idea how to properly interpret the Tarot, and when she gazed into a crystal ball all she saw was her distorted reflection. And that reflection reminded her that it was time to upgrade the gaudy blond wig. No, not a real possessor of mystical powers, just another impostor. But in her mind, she justified milking money from the strangers by telling herself that she was giving people what they wanted to hear, and if she could do that then she was helping them in some backhanded kind of way. It used to bother her, just a little, but not anymore.
It had been a long night, Saturday nights always were. She looked up at the clock, hoping that it was later than it actually was. No, eleven fifty-nine. Exactly five minutes since the last time she checked. She would be closed the next day and she desperately needed rest. Too many drunks wanting their fortunes told had taken a toll on her tonight. One too many broken hearts looking for solace in the words of a stranger that could look into the future and assure them that their life would not always be this miserable. Everyone seemed to be looking to a bright future and a way out of their present drudgery. That stupid clock seemed to never move when she needed it to most. The longer she did this job, the more it felt like work instead of a great way to showcase her flair for the theatrical. She couldn’t wait for one a.m. when she would get to close up shop.
As she was contemplating the slow passage of time, she heard the jingle of the tiny bells attached to the purple sash that dangled from the doorknob. Someone was coming in. The latest sucker. She closed her eyes and focused her thoughts. Calming herself into a state of aloofness. She tried to make herself seem like she had just been sitting there, not worried about anything or anyone and that she might be able to be disturbed from her deep thoughts and incantations to be bothered with the mortal realm for a while.
Alicia opened her eyes when she heard the person settle into the chair.
“Welcome, friend. How can Rhiannon be of service?” she said coolly.
“I need guidance,” the woman said.
“I could be persuaded to help,” Alicia said as she ran her fingers along the porcelain plate sitting on the edge of the antique cherry wood table separating the two women. “My fees are posted on the chart.” She said and pointed to a printed chart below the clock, which still registered eleven fifty-nine.
The client looked at the fortune teller with an unflinching stare. “In a moment, possibly. But first I need some proof that you are who you say you are. Tell me something about myself.”
Alicia gave a casual sigh as if this was a minor annoyance. Occasionally she would get this kind of response from people. She closed her eyes and pretended to center herself and get in touch with her spirit guide.
“Please take my hand,” Alicia said and extended her hands with an exaggerated flourish. She held her hands out, one on each side of the crystal ball, palms facing upward. There was a pregnant pause as the client looked at Alicia with an icy stare. Alicia pretended not to be uncomfortable, but the bead of sweat rolling down her back betrayed her.
The client reached her long ivory fingers toward Alicia and placed her hands within Alicia’s. The fortune teller jumped with a shock as the client’s fingertips slid across her hands and they were eventually palm to palm. Alicia tried not to look startled. Maybe it was just static electricity, she thought to herself. But was that a smile playing across the client’s face. Or was it?
Alicia gathered her composure and closed her eyes. She mumbled some words under her breath to set the tone. She liked this trick, it gave the impression that she knew some strange dark incantations that had to be mumbled to be effective. The droning of her words got more intense and she kept her eyes closed for effect. When she felt like she had made the impact that she desired, she fell silent as if in some spiritual frenzy. Then she slowly opened her eyes.
“You are single. Unmarried.” Alicia told her with quiet confidence.
The client frowned at her and neither confirmed nor denied her prediction. “That was an educated guess predicated on the fact that I wear no wedding band, which is a simple thing to guess since my left hand is resting in your right hand. You did not even have to look at my hand, but I did feel you probing my ring finger as you took my hand. You will have to try for better information than that. I will ask again. Tell me something about myself.”
The tension was palpable as the two stared at each other. Alicia was a pro at this though and had been taught the secrets of subtle manipulation from her namesake grandmother, who also had made a lifelong career of telling fortunes that did not exist. She steeled herself with a response.
“I sense an older male figure in your life, and he wants you to know while you may have had disagreements in the past, he still loves you.” Alicia smiled with confidence. This was one of the oldest cold reading tricks in the book. Speak in generalities and hope to connect with the person.
“And to think I expected more from you than simple parlor tricks. Of course, there is an older male whom I have had a disagreement with. Haven’t we all experienced that at one point or another? In the common vernacular, I believe you would say something along the lines of ‘two strikes’.”
Alicia stared with contempt at the woman and doubled down for her next prediction.
“You are a mostly positive person, but there have been times in the past that have greatly upset you,” Alicia stated. A good cold reader can make a general statement and watch body language to then judge which path to pursue. Usually, people are so eager to have their fortunes told that they will gladly, though subliminally, guide the reader right down the path. Alicia knew that, but this client wasn’t giving an inch. And that troubled her.
“You call yourself Rhiannon and annoy me with these parlor tricks. My patience is running thin.” The client said coolly.
“You are from England, and come from an upper-class family. You went to finishing school and have had a life of privilege.” Alicia was looking for any sign of weakness that she could find. She felt smug as she laid this latest guess on her client. The client snapped her hands back and laid them in her lap.
“Once again, you waste my time. You judge by my accent that I am English. And to your untrained ear, anyone that pronounces words properly has had the privilege of ‘finishing school’. Whatever that abominable thing might be. You have once again failed. Tell me, if you cannot move past simple and might I say pathetic, charlatan’s games, how do you suppose to ‘tell my fortune’ and ‘read my future’? I await your answer.”
The two ladies stared at one another when the tension was interrupted by a tap at the door. Alicia was glad for the interruption and made to stand up.
“Stop. The door is for me.” The client said.
Alicia sat still in her chair and watched in wonder as the woman stood up and walked toward the door. Alicia thought to herself that the woman nearly floated toward the door. Her long silver hair flowed behind her as if taken by a breeze. Her silver locks were a prominent contrast to her gauzy black long-sleeved dress. The client opened the door and a black raven flew in. She closed the door and walked back toward the table. The black raven circled the shop and perched atop a stack of books that had never been opened by Alicia, but placed there for effect. The books had strange names, and Alicia had no idea what they meant, but the used bookstore is a good place to collect old and odd books. She learned a long time ago that to play the part, you needed to look the part and to set the mood.
Alicia looked back at the clock and noticed that it still read eleven fifty nine. The client stopped and held out her hand and the raven hopped onto her finger. The raven hopped up her arm and perched on her shoulder. Its beady eyes trained on Alicia and bored into her. The client fingered the pages of the book on top of the stack, flipping to a particular passage. She drew her finger down the page reading aloud under her breath. Then her finger stopped and she arched her eyebrows. She read with a strong voice “‘Oh wretched creatures,’ exclaimed Rhiannon ‘for the sake of Lord God who knows all things, don’t put this falsehood onto me’.” The silver haired woman closed the book and smiled at Alicia. “Oh, wretched creatures indeed.”
Alicia became very uneasy. This night had turned into something she could have never predicted, and the irony was not lost on her. Alicia realized she had sweat beading up on her lip and wiped at it without thinking.
“This is a fascinating volume. No doubt the source of your name, but judging by the dust, I can predict you have not read it. My guess is that you took your name from a song or some other nonsense. This book, The Mabinogian, some say it is a collection of myths. Or is it? Oh, but you haven’t read it have you? I find it amusing that someone who makes their coin from talking is suddenly without words.”
Alicia had nothing to say.
The client sat back down at the table and placed her hands on the crystal ball. Alicia thought to protest, but the raven had her thoroughly unnerved and she kept quiet. Alicia was suddenly aware that sweat was soaking through her undershirt and was making unsightly rings under the arms of her ornate robe. Alicia did not like the feeling of being the one under scrutiny. She had become used to the fact that she operated in her shop from a place of power. She did not appreciate not being in control.
“You said when you came in that you were looking for something. Help of some kind.” Alicia said.
“Yes, and then I demanded proof that you are who you say you are. You have failed miserably at that quite frankly.”
“Well, I think it’s time to either do your reading or I am going to ask you to leave. I need to free up my shop for paying customers. It will be closing time soon, and Saturday nights usually get really busy before closing time.”
“We have all the time in the world. Look, it’s not yet midnight. And the clientele is not exactly beating down your door, now are they?”
Alicia looked at the clock and it had not moved. Panic set in and she felt her cheeks flush.
“Allow me to show you how it’s done. Give me your hands.” The client demanded.
Alicia hesitated, then slid her hands across the table. The raven still held her gaze and did not move. The client took Alicia’s hands in her own and Alicia felt the shock again, this time the surge ran up her arms and past her elbows. Her fatigue was replaced by a sense of panic and she was suddenly very alert. The client looked Alicia in the eye and did not blink. Alicia was sure that she was seeing straight into her mind, and it unnerved her.
“This, my dear is how it’s done.” The client commented. She placed Alicia’s hands palm down on the table and then held her hands on either side of the crystal ball.
“Your cheap tricks annoy me. You would not know what to do with a real crystal. There has never been magic in this one.” She said dismissively.
She slid the crystal ball over to the side of the table, out of her way. Her fingertips moved in tiny circles above Alicia’s hands as she mumbled something. A cloud of fog emerged between the client’s hands and scenes began to unfold like a holographic image.
“You claim to be able to conjure the future, yet are unable to successfully glimpse into the past. However, I can clearly see yours. I see the day you buried your kitten when you were seven years old. Mittens, I believe you called it. Then of course, there is the day you spent with your aunt when you were twelve. You know, the day before she died. Of course, we cannot leave out that weekend you spent on the beach with that boy. You remember, don’t you? You were sixteen and you snuck away. If I am seeing correctly, the police were notified and they found you two shacked up. That made for an interesting ride home with your mother didn’t it?”
Alicia sat perfectly still, as if pinned to the chair. The blood draining from her face more and more as the client told her each successive detail. She wanted to protest, but could not find the ability.
“Oh my, look here. The deeper I look the more juicy things I find. I see a bride in a wedding dress. Three times. Couldn’t seem to get that right, could you?” The client looked Alicia in the eye with a ferocity that could have melted glass. “What’s the matter? Cat got your tongue?”
Alicia felt as if her tongue was a foot thick. She shook her head in panic.
“Would you like for me to go on? Would you?”
Alicia’s eyes grew wide.
“You may speak now!” The client said and with a flourish of her hands, Alicia was free.
“I don’t know who you are, but…” Alicia stammered.
“Oh, you do not? You claim to be the great and powerful Rhiannon, ripped straight from the pages of folklore and from the hearts and minds of the faithful. Nevertheless, I have seen inside you, and you are lacking.”
Alicia had enough. Saturday night crazies were one thing, but this person had gone too far. She knew every trick in the book. She had after all been raised in the business. Show business was in her blood. She was still trying to figure out what the woman’s angle was, but she was finished with this waste of her time. Alicia stood up and tried to gather her composure and put on some sort of air of calm and control.
“Enough! I am Rhiannon! The great and powerful! I demand that you leave my parlor at once. If you do not, I will be forced to call the police and have you escorted from the premises.” She smoothed her skirt and pushed her shoulders back. She appeared confident, but her trembling knees told another story.
The two women stared at one another. The client rose to meet her, and as the two women stood with only the table separating them, the client spoke. The lights grew dim and a fierce countenance came over here. Alicia was dumb struck.
“Rhiannon, you say. You are the great and powerful? Tell me, have you walked where no mortal man has walked? You have been married three times and now you do not love the man you are with. That sounds like a far cry from giving up a place with gods to follow your true love into the land of mortals. No, love has escaped you.
“Rhiannon, you say. Have you ridden a white steed fast as the wind and thwarted evil doers with magicks this world has never seen?
“Rhiannon, you say. Have you companions that sing the songs of heaven and bring comfort and healing?
“Rhiannon, you say. Tell me, child. Have you been accused wrongly of murdering your child and been brought low and humiliated in front of human kind? Have you paid a price that was not yours to pay? Have you looked upon the deeds of men and wept for they knew not how to live?
“Rhiannon. When your miserable life is done, will the bards write your stories and sing your deeds? Or will you be remembered as an impostor that sold false hope to fools? Will your deeds bring you back to the righteous paths of the bright world when you are done? Or will you turn to dirt and ash like a mere mortal. Please, tell me, oh great and powerful. I await your answer.”
Alicia opened her mouth to speak, but though she was capable, she felt woefully unworthy. A million things rushed through her mind, and powerful images were conjured in front of her. Images of heroes of old. Images of battles and celebrations. Noble steeds and magic creatures that flew about bringing joy and terror. Alicia was given a glimpse into the other realms; this time for real. So many times had she pretended and made empty predictions and promises that when she actually saw the things she had lied about, she could not bear it. She began to weep.
“I have one last thing to say to you, Alicia.” The client spat the name like a bitter herb she was trying to get out. “Do not use my name again.” The client reached for the raven, elegantly and calmly turned, and as she walked through the door and into the night, Alicia knew that tomorrow she would spend the day looking for a new line of work.
Lightning flashed and thunder crashed and the clock on the wall struck midnight.