The Fool by Ashley Clayson

Getting the other interviews had been easy. Well, aside from the everyday, material difficulties of traversing a tempo-spatial multiverse split, it had been easy.

But this subject was posing other difficulties.

Nobel Laureate Victoria Miranda Kelly, Ph. D, still liked to call them subjects, even though the field of psychology had started to call them participants at about the time she was born, around the turn of the 20th century. Sixty years later, Tori still called this group subjects because she needed emotional distance.

She appreciated that distance even more now, as she stood in front of the young woman at the shop counter. The woman sat perched on a wooden stool, elbows on knees and chin in hands, and she wasn’t refusing to participate in the interview, but she wasn’t agreeing to participate, either.

“I’m sorry, Dr… what did you say your name was?” asked the woman.

“Taylor. Dr. Christina Taylor. You can call me Chris, actually,” said Tori. The study had required the use of deception, of course. The research ethics review board had insisted. The comments on her draft protocol had said, “Due to the uncertain impacts of time travel on study participants, we recommend the use of pseudonyms for all study personnel.”

Tori hated that phrase, time travel. As if that was all she was doing. As if she wasn’t one of the world’s leading experts in tempo-spatial multiverse splits. As if her research wasn’t specifically seeking to investigate causal factors of those splits. As if she hadn’t considered the impacts of interacting with anyone from a multiverse other than her own, much less the target population of this study.

“Chris,” said the young woman at the counter. She tapped her finger to her jawbone and studied Tori. After a moment, she hopped off her stool, extended her hand, and smiled. “I’m Tori Kelly,” she said. “Come have some tea.”

By now, Tori had gotten used to hearing her own name cheerfully offered back to her like a small child proudly proffering a dandelion with sticky, grubby hands. Mostly. She followed Tori, or, as she had already taken to calling her in her head, Subject T6, as she locked the shop door, flipped the “open” sign to “closed,” and headed to the back of the store.

In the short walk from the front of the little shop to the back, Tori took in everything she could. She had already taken some field notes, but those had been cobbled together from a handful of rushed visits—peering in through the shop window in the slim light of daybreak, popping in for an herb or a crystal like she was just another neopagan in rural north Georgia in 2030 restocking her supply of dragon’s blood resin. By the end of the study she would have a full set of field notes, but for now, her notes were scattered and her mental model of the shop incomplete.

T6 led her past a series of bookshelves and paused in front of a wall of glass jars. Just everyday Mason jars, but they were in Georgia. She grabbed two jars off the shelf and then led Tori through a curtained doorway with a sign above it: “Readings.”

Having noticed the “Readings” room on her previous trips to the research site, Tori had expected it to be poorly lit and heavily incensed. Her imagination had supplied lots of gauzy purple.

But the room was—there was no better way to describe it—cozy. Mundane. Maybe even shabby chic. Like the rest of the shop, the room was brightly lit by fluorescent lights. Against one wall was a rectangular table with a red gingham tablecloth, upon which sat an electric kettle, a familiar, delicate blue willow china tea set, a white ceramic wax burner, and a glass display case featuring what appeared to be several decks of cards. A minifridge was nestled into the back corner. In the middle of the room sat a round table, covered in a white crocheted tablecloth and surrounded by four white wooden chairs.

“Have a seat,” the young woman said, motioning to the table. “I’ll make us some tea.” She set the glass jars on the red gingham table and opened the minifridge, pulling out a water pitcher.

“Are you interested in participating in the study?” asked Tori. Her voice was weaker than it had been when recruiting the other interviewees. She cleared her throat as she watched T6 shuffle about the little room, making tea.

None of the other subjects had been this elusive. True, T4 had given her a bit of trouble, but even she had come around in the end. Tori had come well-armed with both a thousand-dollar participant honorarium and the knowledge that T4 was currently a month behind on rent. Maybe it wasn’t the most ethical approach, but the ethics board had signed off on it, and T4 had been able to pay her rent. Everyone went away happy, so what was the harm? And anyway, once the subjects started talking, they always ended up enjoying themselves. It wasn’t like her study dealt with sensitive medical data. No, people were just telling her their life stories. Her life stories. Or—could have been.

“Let me get the tea started first, then we’ll talk,” said T6, already busy measuring dried leaves into the china teapot.

And so, Tori took a seat in one of the white wooden chairs. Optimistically, she began pulling the consent paperwork and her electronic recording device out of her faux leather messenger bag. It had taken weeks to locate and purchase a period-appropriate recording device for this interview, and it had cost her more than she’d estimated on her grant application. She scowled at it as she laid it on the table.

When T6 finally joined Tori, the tray she brought to the table was laden not only with the tea trappings but with a small plate of shortbread cookies as well.

“The tea needs about another minute, but I figure we can have a cookie while we wait.”

“Thanks,” said Tori. “I love shortbread.”

“Me, too.” T6 peered at Tori, bit a cookie, and chewed thoughtfully. “Now tell me, Dr. Taylor. Why are you here?” Her deep brown eyes pierced Tori’s own.

“Well, as I said before, I’m a researcher with the University of Georgia.” She pulled out a faux business card and handed it to the potential subject. Another exorbitant study expense. She hadn’t used business cards in at least a decade—no one had. Or no one in the professoriate class, anyway.

“I’m conducting a research study on young, female small business owners in the rural South,” she told T6. “I found your information via the Better Business Bureau and came to see if you’d be interested in letting me interview you and observe you in the shop.”

Tori delivered these lines with the same ease she had delivered the stories she’d designed for her other subjects.

“Yes, you mentioned that.” T6’s mouth was friendly, but her eyes were probing. Tori smiled but also swallowed.

A timer beeped.

“Oh! The tea.” T6 poured two cups and gave one to Tori, who picked it up and inhaled a deep breath.

“I added a bit of lavender,” said T6. “I grow it myself. Earl Gray with lavender is my favorite.”

Of course it was. Tori blew steam off the surface of the amber liquid. She took a sip. Still too hot.

“Dr. Taylor, I have a question.”

Tori nodded. Most subjects wanted to know a bit more about her study than the minimal elevator pitch she provided to recruit them.

“Could I do a reading for you?”

***

GRANT TITLE: Determining causality of multiverse splits through autoethnographic microanalysis and computational modeling

PRIMARY INVESTIGATOR: Victoria Kelly, Professor, Oxford University

PROJECT BACKGROUND: In the two decades since Malcolm’s (2035) seminal Theory of Multiverses was published, scholars in the burgeoning, interdisciplinary field of Multiverse Studies have rapidly advanced our understanding of not just other universes, but our own. Perhaps most importantly, Kelly, Zhang, Ramachandran, and Jackson (2042) demonstrated the strong positive correlation between human decision making and multiverse expansion. Studies are still needed, however, to determine whether any causal relationship exists between human decision making and multiverse expansion, including direction of causality.

Several studies have attempted to demonstrate a causal relationship using a variety of methods, including computational modeling (Kelly & Zhang, 2043; Erickson, Yeagar, and Brown, 2045; Brown and Youngblood, 2052),  and perhaps most controversially, quasi-experimental methods (Ramachandran, Jackson, Kelly, & Wu, 2053). What is clear from these attempts is that additional, novel methods for examining causality are needed. This study will supply that method.

In this study, semi-autoethnographic methods will be used. Though still controversial in some fields, autoethnography has been used to investigate a variety of psychological and sociological phenomena, including the diagnosis and treatment of rare chronic illnesses (e.g., Mackey, 2035; Syvantek, 2020), homelessness (e.g., Williams, 2031), and sex work (e.g., MacDonald, 2039).

Semi-autoethnography was chosen for this study because of the complex nature of human decision making. To gain a complete understanding of the human decision making factors present in a multiverse split, intimate knowledge of individual personality, and personal history, and larger sociocultural context is needed. Traditional interview and ethnography methods can supply some of this knowledge, but semi-autoethnographic methods can supply both more and richer information than interview and ethnography alone.

***

After meeting with T6, as she sat in her home office and looked at the data, Tori could tell a split was coming. No, it wasn’t just the data. It was…something else. Something in her own gut that could sense it coming, like a seasoned coal miner’s ability to sense an impending mine collapse.

God, what a horrible analogy, she thought. She hadn’t thought of that pit sense study in years…not since her grad school days. But that was sort of what it felt like to her: something in the universe—in her universe—was creaking and groaning, whispering to her that something was about to blow.

And she would be buried underneath.

The data did also support her intuition. Honestly, it wasn’t even that hard to predict a split most of the time. Once Tori and her colleagues had identified the correlation between human decision making and multiverse splits, Tori had immediately known—before even looking at the data—when the splits along her own timeline would have occurred: remaining in or leaving a relationship, having children or not, selecting a graduate program.

And she had been right, of course. There were other splits on her personal timeline that she had avoided, using her purposeful sampling technique. The decision to take the job at Princeton. To leave Princeton for Oxford and a full professorship two years early. To join Pramod and Angie and Song on that damn quasi-experiment.

And now, this.

Once, sabbaticals had been coveted. They were rare as of late; budget cuts—and there were always budget cuts, everywhere, even at Oxford—meant that sabbatical opportunities were becoming more and more scarce. A whole semester to do nothing but research—no teaching, no mentoring, no community outreach, no committee work—was practically unheard-of in 2059.

But recently, post-tenure academics had come to fear sabbaticals as the proverbial canary in the coal mine. It was the beginning of a slow edge-out, a handing off of a scholar’s other responsibilities until they were made completely redundant and the Dean offered a paltry early retirement package and replaced her with a brand-new assistant professor who, desperate after ten years of postdoc-hopping, would be willing to take anything, anything, so long as it was on the tenure track. Or worse, she’d be replaced by half a handful of adjuncts, who somehow managed to still be less expensive (“more cost-effective,” in the provost’s terms) than even an assistant professor. She had been watching it happen for decades now, first at the regional comprehensives, then at the large state schools, then the research universities. And now, it seemed, early retirement had come to Oxford.

So when the chair had approached her last spring with “an exciting offer from the Dean,” not just a semester but a whole year’s worth of leave, Tori could smell the bullshit a mile off.

Tori hadn’t asked for sabbatical. Tori hadn’t wanted sabbatical. She certainly didn’t want to be sitting here with a glass of pinot and her notes from the tarot reading, trying to wring some meaningful insight out of an encounter with a goddamned mystic.

She didn’t want to be here, but the money in her grants account at the university kept her butt in the chair. Several months into the research, she still couldn’t believe she’d actually received a grant she’d applied for on a bitter whim after half a bottle of chardonnay on the first lonely day of her sabbatical. She’d written it out of spite—as a joke, even. Intimately examining your own life’s major decisions and actually tracking the impacts of those decisions, not just on your own life but on the whole goddamn multiverse? Tori took a swig of pinot. That kind of study needed a clinical psychologist, not a computational psychologist like herself.

Hell, no, Tori didn’t want to be here. But did she really want to return to a department that seemed determined not to have her?

Tori knew a split was coming; she just didn’t know which side of it she wanted to be on.

***

It took three more tarot readings—mostly wands and swords, whatever that meant—for T6 to consent to participate in the interview. To Tori’s surprise, when she arrived at Azalea Herbs and Books on the evening of the first interview, she found herself a little sad that she wouldn’t get a reading that day. Apparently, there were many different tarot decks one could use in a reading, and T6 had chosen a different deck each time. Tori enjoyed listening to T6 explain the significance and meaning of the imagery on each card, even if she found the presumption of divination to be absurd. So far, T6 had used a traditional Rider-Waite deck, a Crowley-Thoth deck, a novelty deck featuring cats decked out in medieval costumes, and even a vintage tarot deck designed by Salvador Dali.

“I found this one in a thrift store in Douglassville,” T6 had confessed gleefully to Tori. “I paid a dollar for it. The owners had no idea what they had. Though I’m kind of surprised they even sold it to me instead of burning it.” Tori had nodded knowingly.

The interview was scheduled for roughly 6 p.m., once T6 had closed the shop for the night, but Tori arrived a few minutes early. While T6 counted down the cash in the register—what a novelty to see, actual cash—Tori listened to the plinking of change in the drawer and skulked around the store. An endcap held a prominent display of tarot decks and books on tarot. In the center was a three-ring binder propped open on a stand. A sign above the binder read, “Custom decks available.” The binder held pages and pages of card protectors, each filled with what appeared to be handmade tarot cards.

Tori flipped through the pages. Most cards appeared to be mixed media, and what a variety of media and subjects! In one deck, watercolor mermaids floated in watery teals and blues, shimmery and iridescent. Pastel flowers and vines snaked around the edges of another deck, so vivid she could almost smell the magnolia and azalea blooms.

“For beginners, I usually recommend the Rider-Waite, but my custom decks are also quite popular.”

Tori started. She hadn’t heard T6 come out from behind the counter.

“Ready to go?” asked T6.

“Sure. Yes.” The beauty of the custom cards had shaken Tori, but she couldn’t put her finger on why. “Where did you learn to do this?” she asked as T6 led the way to the back of the store.

“Tarot? My mentor, Gloria, who used to own this shop, taught me. I’ll tell you more about her in the interview.”

“She taught you to paint and draw?”

“Oh, no, I’ve just always loved that stuff. I’ve always been a doodler. Eventually I started taking some night classes, and then I got the idea to do my own deck. Gloria saw me working on it one day and commissioned one for herself. She eventually suggested I sell them in the shop.”

Always been a doodler. Tori considered this. Had she always been a doodler? Or rather, had she always been a doodler? Maybe the odd flower vine here and there on her notes in literature classes, but nothing that suggested the possibility of T6’s intricate designs and brilliant work with color.

As she followed T6 into the readings room to set up her equipment, she wondered what new revelations this interview would bring.

***

After the interview, Tori dawdled in 2030. She went around the corner to the diner where T6 had said she wanted to get a milkshake to celebrate sending off her graduate school applications. She walked around the small downtown, admiring shop windows and a fountain in the square. She sat on a bench and just stared off into space.

With her other interviews, she had raced home to begin transcribing, eager to begin analyzing the data. With each interview, she analyzed the new data, and then went back and reworked the old data as well, seeing if new ideas or patterns stuck out at her. She formulated equations and tinkered with data displays, trying to find new meaning in the stories that had been given to her.

But this data… Tori already knew what this data meant. So, instead of transcribing when she got home, she dropped her equipment in an empty armchair and went to bed. She didn’t go to sleep, but she went to bed.

Over the next few weeks, she avoided the new data. Instead, she redirected her energies into rereading the literature on multiverse splits, both her own work and the work of others. Mostly, she read and re-read her own 2042 piece with Zhang, Ramachandran, and Jackson in Nature. The one demonstrating so strongly, so positively, so significantly (in the statistical sense of the word) the correlation between human decision making and multiverse expansion.

She and her colleagues had celebrated with champagne when they’d finished the analysis. They’d known that their findings were groundbreaking, that they had forever changed the face of all their respective disciplines, of science itself. They knew that technically, correlation did not equal causation, and they couldn’t use their findings to say that making a major life decision caused the universe to split, but they all knew that that was how their work would get read.

But the crux of that study had been that major decisions caused the universe to split. Not teeny-tiny, butterfly-effect bullshit. Every single set of data she’d collected so far had confirmed the importance of major decisions, not minor, everyday trifles. But T6’s story didn’t fit.

Had she and her colleagues been wrong? No, no, no. The data had been rock solid. There had been a correlation between major decisions and multiverse splits. They had used so much data. They’d checked and double-checked their methods. There had been a reason that study had taken ten years.

But what if their assumptions about the direction of causality had been wrong? Again, they hadn’t made any explicit claims about causality, regardless of direction. Everyone had just assumed what the correlation meant. Including themselves. But what if—what if decisions didn’t cause splits; what if splits caused decisions? What if universes split at random, and the splits created something like a vacuum, and human decisions had to diverge in order to fill up that vacuum? What would such a thing mean?

Sitting at her desk, scrolling through Kelly et al. (2042) yet again, Tori knew she had to deal with the new data eventually; scientists and social scientists dealt with outliers all the time. And, she knew that scientists were, on occasion, wrong. If she had to overturn decades’ worth of scientific assumption, she could. Or, she could try.

She just didn’t know whether she wanted to. Frankly, she didn’t know what she wanted to do. About her research, about retirement. About any of it.

She did know that she wanted a cup of tea. Earl Gray. With lavender.

***

When she entered the shop, T6 was helping a young woman with rose-colored hair and purple, half-inch gauges in her ears select what appeared to be a pink crystal at the end of a long silver chain from a small selection of jewelry in the glass display counter.

“Oh, hi, Chris! Be right with you!” called T6.

Chris? Oh, right. The deception. Tori’s chest squeezed with guilt. She shouldn’t have come back. She shouldn’t be looking for answers in an occult shop in rural Georgia in the 2030s. But then T6’s customer made her selection and paid, and Tori made her request.

T6 did indeed make them both Earl Gray tea with lavender. She chose the Rider-Waite deck, shuffled, and then laid three cards on the gingham table.

“Ooh, all major arcana!” said T6. “Big things happening in your world, huh?”

Tori grimaced.

“This first one is the Wheel of Fortune. It can sometimes mean destiny, but I think it’s saying you’re at a turning point. There’s a decision you need to make, and you’re not sure how to make it.

“Luckily, the one next to it, in the middle, is The Star. It says that your decision will lead you to a sense of peace and calm. Fulfillment, maybe, or just contentment. So, that’s good news.”

“The next card tells me which decision to make, right?” Tori tried to joke. 

T6—young Tori—flipped the card over. A jovial man walked toward the edge of a cliff, a bindle slung over his shoulder. “Which one is that?” Tori asked, squinting at the tiny writing at the bottom of the card. “The fool? Oh, great. I can either be happy and content or walk off a cliff. That’s helpful.”

T6 laughed. “Well, the fool isn’t really as foolish as he looks. The fool is often about new possibilities, taking on new paths, or being spontaneous. But not always. He could be telling you to just stay open—that the decision, no matter how big you think it is, doesn’t really matter in the long run.”

Tori sipped her tea. When she didn’t reply, young Tori continued: “It may seem a foolish thing to say, but then, he is The Fool. But in the story of the tarot, The Fool does eventually make it to The Wheel.”

As they finished their tea, Tori flipped through T6’s book of handmade decks. Tori purchased the deck of watercolor mermaids, thinking that she could at least go home with something, even if she hadn’t gotten what she’d been looking for.

Later, she would realize that she had. But for now, she was content with the mermaids.


Ashley Clayson, hailing originally from the American South, is now a thirtysomething expat living in Luxembourg with her spouse. She writes fiction of many and overlapping types: short-form and long-form, serial and non-serial, fanfic and original fic, sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, alternate history. Et cetera. As a quasi-ex-academic, Ashley uses her doctorate in Rhetoric and Scientific and Technical Communication to dispense research-backed writing advice—along with a few spoonfuls of complete nonsense—on her blog. She takes a decade’s worth of researching and teaching writing at the college level and flings it from the battlements of the ivory tower, crying, “Be free! Be free!” Ashley can be found on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.