Beginner's Luck, Leah Mueller
I’d only been a witch for a few months.
I devised spells as I went along. Everything was my familiar. Scorpions in the bathroom and mourning doves in the trees. The creatures scared me at first, until we all got to know each other.
An abandoned asylum stood uphill from my house. Bolts of lightning streaked from the sky and hit its roof. Sometimes I saw people plummeting from the windows, but then I smiled because I knew I could make them stop at any moment.
My tarot cards came alive on command. The Star rose from my desk and shimmered overhead. Death made my flowers wilt. The Fool danced a jig on the windowsill. The Hierophant spread his enormous robes on my floor and meditated.
I felt in complete control of my destiny until everything went haywire. One morning, as the Sun rose, I gazed outdoors. My cards had exited through an open window and were enjoying a party on the lawn. The Empress and Temperance sipped delicately from their cups of tea, while the Priestess stared into space with a knowing expression. Behind them, a golden wheel spun in the light breeze.
I wanted to stay in the bedroom and admire my handiwork from afar. With only a bit of practice, my power had continued to increase. I had already updated my professional bio to read, “Three-dimensional tarot card readings, $50.00 extra.”
Then I became worried. My deck usually remained indoors. If I couldn’t control my cards, how could I control my fate? Let alone predict anyone else’s?
My exhilaration changed to anxiety. I tried to rise from the chair but remained frozen in place. My entire body felt leaden. I had stumbled into one of those terrible dreams when you try to run but can’t move your limbs.
I watched in horror as the Wheel of Fortune grew into a huge, carnival-sized Ferris wheel. A couple approached it, popcorn in hand. They weren’t wearing any clothes. What would the neighbors think? I lived in a conservative neighborhood.
With great effort, I broke through the gravitational barrier and hurtled myself from my chair. Everything seemed much heavier than usual. The door was stuck, even though I hadn’t locked it. I pulled frantically on the knob until an aperture appeared.
My feet felt like two cast iron pans, but I managed to step into my yard.
Except it wasn’t really my yard. The objects I’d seen a million times had vanished. My carefully tended fruit trees were gone, as was the goldfish pond. In their place stood Tilt-a-whirls, bumper cars, and three-shots-for-a-dollar booths. The usually sweet-smelling air overflowed with rancid aromas of greasy food and sweat.
The Lovers were still there, reveling in each other’s nakedness. The man took a bite of popcorn and smiled at his curvaceous girlfriend. Then he turned his head and noticed me.
“I’m sorry, were you first?” His tone sounded diffident, polite. “Please go ahead.”
Beside the Ferris wheel, a pompous-looking fellow sat on top of a velvet-draped throne, holding a scepter in one gloved hand. He regarded me with exasperation. “Hurry up and get in.” It was clear I had no choice in the matter. “I’ve been waiting for hours.”
Though I doubted he’d been waiting more than a few minutes, I didn’t want to argue with a guy who wore a gold crown that cost more than I made in a year. Feeling resentful, I stepped into one of the Ferris wheel’s claustrophobic compartments. A teenaged boy buckled a strap across my lap. He looked bored, like he couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there.
Despite acute discomfort, I had to pretend everything was okay and I was about to have the time of my life. This conundrum pretty much summed up my sixty-plus years on earth. At least, it was my existence until I became a witch. Who could I complain to? Not the Emperor. He’d made it clear I had no choice in the matter.
As I slouched in my seat, fuming, a last-minute passenger squeezed in beside me. This was the final outrage. The Ferris wheel had plenty of empty seats. I glared sideways at the passenger, but he smiled in return.
“You’ve forgotten your power,” he said.
I swiveled my neck for a closer look. He wore a white tunic, secured with a golden sash, and a bright red cape with large arm holes. The guy’s outfit looked absurdly hot for summer temperatures, but by now I wasn’t surprised by anything.
“Oh great, the Magician,” I groaned. “You’re probably going to say something ridiculous, like I can have whatever I want, as long as I can imagine it. Some new age bullshit. Well, that’s not part of my belief system.”
“I know, you’re into that Jungian shadow stuff.” The Magician’s voice sounded both melodious and sympathetic.
I fell silent. The Magician already knew everything about me. Of course he did, since he was a product of my subconscious. Mollified, I settled in for the ride. It would only take a few minutes, and then I could disembark and return to my bedroom. Once there, I’d figure out a way to bring the scene back under control.
As the enormous wheel rose skyward, I gazed down at the fairgrounds. The carnival extended for blocks in all directions. A group of people had clustered around a woman who stood with her hands around a lion’s mouth. She seemed completely unperturbed, even serene. Instead of biting, the lion appeared placid as a housecat.
An impressive spectacle, even by a witch’s standards. I’d seen it before, of course, but never like this. The wheel dove towards the earth, then rose again. My stomach lurched as I returned my eyes to the horizon.
A guy wearing a garish, polyester devil’s costume heckled a couple of children, but they looked unimpressed. “You’re not really the Devil,” one of them jeered. “That’s a stupid outfit. Your horns are made from cheap cardboard.”
Even from a distance, I could tell his horns were, in fact, made from cardboard. The rest of the Devil’s suit looked worn and shabby, with small knee rips. The poor guy probably earned less than minimum wage.
Relieved, I settled back in my seat. The Devil had always frightened me more than any other card, including the Tower. Now I could see what a fraud he was.
For someone who claimed to be into Jungian shadow stuff, I was kind of a weenie. Surprisingly, this revelation didn’t upset me. Instead, it came as a relief. So many fears and obsessions were made from cardboard. Just like my tarot cards. They had only as much power as I decided to give them.
With a jolt, I realized the Magician had disappeared. The seat beside me sat empty, and his golden sash hung over the side of the compartment. One end was caught in our seat’s armrest. A torn seatbelt lay on the floor. Its clasp had come undone.
Terrified, I peered over the edge. The Magician dangled from one foot; head pointed towards earth. The other end of the golden sash had wrapped itself around his right ankle. Despite his precarious position, the Magician’s posture looked relaxed, accepting. Even as the wheel headed downward, his expression remained unchanged.
There was nothing I could do. If I pulled on his sash and tried to haul the Magician aboard, the flimsy material might break. “How can I help?” I cried in despair. “Please tell me.”
The Magician shook his head. “I’m hanging by one foot. I’ll get down when it’s time. Then I can free myself. Right now, I have no choice but to ride it out.”
When our compartment reached the ground, the Magician’s head cleared the earth by a millimeter. He didn’t even flinch. We swung towards the sky again. I felt an immense surge of relief, until I remembered we’d soon be heading downwards.
Who oversaw the Ferris wheel? Someone needed to turn off the controls and stop the damn thing from spinning. My eyes frantically scanned the crowd. No one seemed aware of our predicament. People strolled in all directions, eating hot dogs and chatting.
Finally, I spotted an elderly man at the admission booth. He wore a dark robe that partially obscured his face and appeared to be deep in thought. An unlit lantern rested on the ledge beside him.
“Hey, we need some help over here!” I screamed.
The man continued to stare into space with a vacant expression.
God, these people were all crazy. Whose bright idea was it to put the Hermit in charge? He seemed too self-absorbed to count money, let alone take care of emergencies.
The Magician’s head plummeted towards the cement, then rose upwards. Miraculously, he had once again escaped decapitation by a hair’s breadth. His facial expression remained placid, his muscle tone relaxed.
The Magician realized that if he thrashed around wildly and tried to get free, he would only succeed in injuring himself, or worse. Sooner or later, the wheel would stop of its own volition. Our ride couldn’t last forever.
A moment later, the Ferris wheel ground to a halt. My agile companion dangled in mid-air, immobile. Then, with one swift movement, he slipped his foot from the sash. The Magician did a back flip, landed on the ground, and disappeared into the crowd. The sea of bodies parted and swallowed him up, as if he’d never existed.
Well, they didn’t call him the Magician for nothing.
I waited my turn as the Emperor released the riders, one compartment at a time. After each passenger disembarked, he slammed the metal gate shut behind them, yelling “Next!” They filed out obediently and wandered into the fairgrounds.
As soon as my feet touched the ground, I felt a surge of exhilaration. My body seemed weightless as a child’s. I stared at my hands and noticed, with astonishment, that the deep wrinkles had vanished. I’d miraculously become young again. My limbs felt like they had been filled with helium.
For the first time, I got a good look at the compartment I’d shared with the Magician. It looked much fancier than the others. An imposing structure, flanked by two Sphinxes. One was black, the other white. Behind them stood a set of wings and a couple of golden wheels. They all shimmered with a supernatural brightness, as though they had been painted by deities.
I should have known the Emperor would give my friend and me a seat in the Chariot. He must have sized us up and decided we were fit for the journey. The Emperor was an astute guy, even if he was kind of a jerk.
I drifted away from the Ferris wheel and entered the throng of revelers. None of them paid the slightest bit of attention to me. As I passed the Hermit’s booth, I noticed he had fallen asleep. His lantern remained unlit, but I could see his cash box on the ledge. It was easily accessible to whoever decided to grab it.
Good help was obviously hard to find at this fairground. Perhaps the Hermit needed some assistance. I made a mental note to summon Justice as soon as I got home. She was good with numbers and would know how to distribute the cash in an equitable manner. Justice didn’t mess around. People said she was harsh but fair. Everyone knew she would do the right thing.
After more thought, I decided not to interfere. The Hermit had been at the fairgrounds for an extended period and would remain long after I returned to my bedroom. He probably possessed an intuitive methodology that I couldn’t grasp.
As much as it pained me to acknowledge that I didn’t know all the answers, I needed to let other people think for themselves. Though I had trouble admitting fault, I accepted my fallibility with a shrug. After all, I was young again, and had at least a hundred years to re-learn everything.
I could see my house in the distance. The windows shone with welcoming light. I gazed at the sky and saw that night had fallen. Overhead, the full Moon beamed like a police spotlight. How many hours had passed? I’d left my bedroom early that morning, taken a ride on a Ferris wheel, and now it was dark outside. Had I spent the entire day at the Fairgrounds without realizing it?
My stomach rumbled, and I remembered I’d gone all day without eating. I hadn’t even felt hungry, but I never cared much for carnival food. Stepping across my threshold, I unlatched the door. My warm, illuminated kitchen offered its usual promises of soup and chocolate. Maybe a glass of wine. I could certainly use one.
I peeked into my bedroom. My cards lay in a pile on my desk, as if they had never moved. I looked forward to hearing what they had to say about our excursion. Until that afternoon, I’d only known how to give orders. Was it too late for me to learn how to listen?
I silently thanked the Hanged Man for teaching me the importance of surrender. An important lesson. My hardest assignment yet, and I had so much makeup work to do.
The World was mine to keep. But I had to earn it first.
Leah Mueller is an indie writer and spoken word performer from Bisbee, Arizona. Her most recent books, "Misguided Behavior, Tales of Poor Life Choices" (Czykmate Press), "Death and Heartbreak" (Weasel Press), and "Cocktails at Denny's" (Alien Buddha) were released in 2019. Leah’s work appears in Midway Journal, Citron Review, The Spectacle, Miracle Monocle, Outlook Springs, Atticus Review, Your Impossible Voice, and elsewhere. Her essay "Firebrand, The Radical Life and Times of Annie Besant" appears in the book, "Fierce, Essays By and About Dauntless Women" which placed first in the non-fiction division of the 2019 Publisher's Weekly Booklife contest.