The High Priestess

Diwa shuffles the deck of Tarot cards. They are a trifle too large for her hands and her fingers are spread uncomfortably, but she finds the card player’s method of shuffling the one that works best for her, even though she’s tried simply cutting the cards into each other or scrambling them on a table top.

She owns several decks, all from Lo Scarabeo, bought in better days. One is the Universal Tarot, patterned after the iconic Rider-Waite deck; another is the Crystal Tarot, all stunning colors and angled shapes.

But her favorite, the one she uses for questions about romance and family, is the Art Nouveau deck by Antonella Castelli. The colors of this deck are soft and dreamy with a touch of warmth, the figures and foliage drawn with the whiplash curves and swirls beloved of fin de siècle Europe.

The decks were purchased years ago from that bookstore at Bonifacio High Street that stopped stocking them after a couple of years, making all the more precious for being irreplaceable in her present circumstances.

Riffling the cards crease and fray them, but the close contact makes her feel connected with the cards, making them almost an extension of her fingers.

She places the deck in the center of the round table, its surface covered by a purple silk cloth, the edges embroidered with gold and green. The material is smooth and slippery, the easier to push cards around.

“Cut,” she instructs her client, Mrs. de Vega. She’s one of the regulars, comes once a month, usually on the 16th or 17th, unless those days fell on a weekend, then she’d come the next weekday – numbers that have a special meaning for her. Sometimes she arrives a week or two late; it all depends upon the monthly remittance from her son, a chemical engineer working for Dubai’s largest oil and gas company.

“Will my son marry that hotel worker he met in Sharjah?” Mrs. de Vega asks. Diwa has heard about this prospective daughter-in-law many times, and knows that this woman dislikes the idea of her son marrying because she is afraid her allowance will be reduced. How then would she be able to indulge in her nightly mah-jong games and occasional slot machine playing over at the casino above the racetrack in Cavite?

Diwa despises her for this, partly because she’s never had enough money to live comfortably herself, much less gamble, but what her clients choose to do with their lives is none of her concern. She focuses on the cards and what they may reveal.

She draws the Queen of Swords in the “you now” position. She stares a moment at the illustration: a woman with long tawny hair. A golden coronet proclaims her rank. Her long gown is an old rose hue, edged with cornflower; in her right hand she holds a straight sword pointed downward. The queen looks pensive. Her eyes seem to look straight into Diwa’s.

One after the other she lays down cards in a Celtic spread, unfurls them one by one. Pentacles, cup, swords, wands, The Star, The World, The Tower. Minor and major arcana with their key meanings, their words of power, their messages offering choices and options.

“What do they say?” There is tension in Mrs. de Vega’s voice, a rough, negative energy that pushes Diwa back in her chair. She is shocked; this has never happened before with any other client.

Diwa collects herself, returns to the task at hand. La Reina de las Espadas is intelligent and astute. She speaks to the point, is realistic and unpretentious. It was a message for her too, Diwa realized, reminding her to be always be honest with the client.

“The Queen is straightforward and direct,” she tells Mrs. de Vega. “If there is something troubling you, you should address it head on. Not in circles.”

“What, like ask my son?” Mrs. de Vega brays with scorn. “He doesn’t like me ‘intruding’, as he calls it, into his life. That’s why I come to you.”

Diwa turns over another card. The Two of Pentacles. “There are infinite possibilities in life,” she says. “Change is inevitable, so it is important to stay flexible. To overcome a problem, be ready to look at the options, adapt. Find new ways to handle situations.”

“Like accept that woman if my son… no, no. That’s not what I came here for. You have to tell me. His future will be ruined if that marriage happens.”

“But Tarot does not predict the future,” Diwa says. “It reminds you of things you already know, the possible paths, and only you can decide which one to take.

“This spread says you can either accept the inevitable, which will make it easier for everyone involved; or deny it, then you would have to be prepared to face whatever the consequences might be.”

Her client stands up. “I don’t come here to be told what I already know.” She paws through her designer bag, drops an envelope on the table. “I won’t be back next month. There’s a man over in Antipolo they say can tell you what will happen in a month, a year, five years from now…” Her voice trails off as she exits.

Diwa sighs. That’s another client lost, and that one a regular. Times are harder and she is losing business. Fewer people want to hear the truth—which is often painful—and to think and act for themselves. Nowadays they want to hear only what coincides with their own opinions, and to be led, as sheep.

Her chronic back pains make it difficult for her travel; she prefers to work from home. It used to be that she’d make enough from her at-home readings to keep herself without having to get a day job.

Diwa believes, as many other spiritual workers do, that asking for payment is disrespectful to the primeval Goddess, Bathala, or whatever powers that be they believe granted their psychic gifts. But clients left discreet offerings of cash and food and somehow it had all been enough for her simple needs.

She needs a change for the better. But what, and how? She stands, draws the curtains. Dusk has fallen.

* * * * *

The moon was full that night, pregnant with otherworldly light. After her comforting supper of sardines, cucumber, and tomatoes with pandesal, washing up, and feeding Kristal, her cat, Diwa decided to pull cards for herself.

Each Tarot card, she knew, has their own meanings. Each deck contains all the possible answers to any question, yet Tarot does not foretell, but only serves to guide and provide options or a fresh perspective on things.

It had been some time since she had read for herself, and she needed to be shown a different angle to tackle her worries and perhaps seek a new path.

*Ding* A text message on her phone. Diwa squinted; it was from Mrs. de Vega. “Am in Antipolo. Mang Juaning is not just manghuhula, he is also faith healer. My son will not marry that girl daw, sure siya. You shd visit him n learn how to make hula so u can improve ur services. He can cure ur back also.”

Her eyebrows raised, Diwa texted back: “Thank u po. Ingat kayo pauwi.”

Good for her, Diwa thought, that Mrs. de Vega had at least found the answer she wanted to hear. She wasn’t too sure about ‘learning’ from the man. Either you had the power or you didn’t, Diwa believed, and her particular gift was that of story, teasing out the narrative hidden in the cards.

Somehow her mind had an uncanny knack of flying over the varied images of the major and minor arcana, their meanings weaving together subconsciously until at last floated to the top the message for the person she was reading for.

But trying to predict future outcomes without a genuine gift was not foretelling, it was just fortune-telling. For Diwa, being a manghuhula was not an option.

Kristal rubbed against her ankles and meowed. Diwa reached down to pet the cat’s glossy black fur. Turning back to her cards, she laid out a three-card spread for past, present, and future.

She drew the Knight of Pentacles for her “past.” The image was of a man in armor astride a horse and holding a large gold coin. It suggested someone committed to the task at hand with a tight focus, sure and methodical, but who could be hampered by hesitancy.

Her “present” was the High Priestess. Her fingers stroked the edges of the card; it was one of her favorites, showing a woman in a white robe wearing a horned crown of silver. It brought to her mind the ancient Goddess religion of other cultures, long suppressed by the rise and dominance of male-deity beliefs.

It also reminded her of babaylans, the ancient Filipino priestesses who presided over the rites and rituals of pre-colonial ancestors. The eyes of the High Priestess on the card were level, showing an openness without judgment and a wisdom that considers all things, all viewpoints.

She turned over another card for “future” and gazed into the face of the Magician. It was a powerful card pointing to mastery of the four elements, the ability to create and forge a new path with all tools at hand. Over the Magician’s head hovered an infinity symbol.

The message was clear. She was stuck in a rut, proceeding along it too slowly, hesitant to begin in a different direction, reluctant to seek assistance from others. Yet she had the wisdom and the strength to make a change. If she followed her instincts as she considered the choices open to her, she would succeed in creating herself anew again and again, with perseverance and commitment to reach her higher self.

The possibilities, Diwa realized, were endless—they were infinity.

Going over the events of the day, she felt ashamed for thinking ill of Mrs. de Vega’s gambling and selfish attitude toward her son’s marriage. Diwa should have been more understanding and less judgmental. Perhaps it was with the clicking of mah-jong tiles and whirring of slot machines that the older woman filled her empty days now that her son was grown and about to start a family of his own.

In a way it was a cry for help— and that thought led to Diwa’s epiphany.

Before going to bed Diwa took all her Tarot card decks, shuffled each of them thrice, and put them on the windowsill to bathe in the moon’s rays. The silver light spilling over the brightly colored rectangles of cardboard seemed to wash them clean—of sorrow, doubt, and the worst of all, despair.

Standing in the healing light, she felt renewed.

* * * * *

Diwa looks around her, enjoying the cacophony of music and conversation, the riot of colors in the waving banners and bunting surrounding her booth at the “Babae Ako, Babae Tayo” fair. It is the first event of its kind, a collective project drawing together women artists, poets, writers, bakers, and all sorts of makers sharing their work, passions, and experiences.

It has been a busy day for her. She sits at a little table on which one of her Tarot decks is placed on its special silk cloth, waiting for people to approach with questions or to ask for a reading. Beside her on another low table are her other decks, a stick of sandalwood incense burning in a holder, a small amethyst geode, a teapot, herbal teabags, and small cups.

She still thinks of Mrs. de Vega. It has been three months since that last reading, that day Diwa turned her fate around.

Diwa visited Mang Juaning where she obtained temporary relief after a treatment of coconut oil, banana leaves, and prayers to Bathala written on pieces of paper folded up small.

The session left her more optimistic and open to new things. For the first time in years, she reached out to family and friends for help—help going to doctors’ appointments, getting writing assignments on an astrology blog, and setting up social media accounts to reach more people.

She began giving readings outside her home, at other people’s residences, at coffee shops. She no longer calls those who approach her ‘clients’—they are friends.

Diwa now knows that her gift is a calling, not a means to live. She was summoned by the Goddess to serve Her by helping others, by using her talent for meanings and narrative and communication to ease pain, give encouragement, provide understanding and sympathy.

Is she a babaylan? Perhaps not in the strictest sense, but in her own way, with her cards, she is laboring as one in bringing the kind of spiritual healing and nourishment that others need.

“Hello. It’s me.”

Diwa looks up. It is Mrs. de Vega. Her eyes are softer than they used to be. Her hands clutch, unclutch the bag she carries. “My son did get married to that girl. She’s pregnant.”

As Diwa murmurs “It’s good to see you again, congratulations,” Mrs. de Vega asks: “Can you guide me like before? What do I do now? I would like to see them when the baby comes but I don’t know how to repair the relationship…” She drops into the chair in front of Diwa.

“I would love to help you, my friend. Here, have some chamomile tea while I shuffle the cards for you.”

Slowly, as the soothing drink makes its way down her throat, Mrs. de Vega relaxes her grip on her bag. Her voice drops, becomes gentler, as she tells Diwa about the wedding in Dubai that she did not attend.

Diwa takes up the Art Nouveau deck, whispers a prayer for guidance to the Goddess, and lays out the cards, searching for answers to questions about love, marriage, birth, and rebirth. ***




More Stories