The Proclamation by Regina Higgins

It was late afternoon, and the two old women were still in the herb garden, gathering and sorting. Mildred led the way down the narrow paths between the raised beds, stopping now and then, while Agnes watched carefully.

“And this one?”

Mildred handed a single green leaf to Agnes.

Agnes put it to her nose. “Oh, Mildred, that’s too easy. It’s spearmint, of course.”

“Peppermint.” She smiled. “It’s a subtle difference. Both are good for stomach upset, of course, but peppermint’s better for headache.”

Agnes shook her head. “I’ll never get it all.”

“You will, dear. It’s just familiarity and practice, like anything else.” Mildred reached out and picked another leaf for Agnes.

“Elderberry.”

“For?”

Agnes hesitated. “Fever. Or cramps?”

“Fever,” Mildred said. “Fennel’s better for cramps.” She placed the herb in her basket and turned to her companion. “You seem a bit distracted, my dear.”

Agnes frowned. “Well, aren’t you? I mean, are we going to talk about it or not?”

Mildred shrugged. “If you want.”

She meant the Council Proclamation posted on the door of the abandoned movie theater in the town square. Below the town crest, the text read:

Be it known that, by order of the Council, all registered wise women must cease and desist the practice and teaching of Divination (that is, discernment of the future through the use of cards or by any other means).

All other practices, including charms, healing, and discovery of safe water sources, may continue within the strictures established by the Council. Teaching of these practices may also continue, again, within the strictures established by the Council.

“A vile intrusion on our rights,” Agnes fumed.

Since the war ended, the Council had permitted wise women to practice magic “for the public good.” That was their official line. The tinctures to relieve radiation sickness, the herbal medicines, the spells for crop growth, and so on, were all specifically protected by law. Other forms of magic were permitted in practice, if only because they were largely ignored. Members of the Council were not about to knock on doors to see if anyone was singing a good luck chant over a bicycle.

“So long as we’re serving as the stop-gap to chaos or seen as harmless old coots, we’re all right,” Agnes grumbled. “But what about our own power?”

“‘All registered wise women,’” Mildred repeated from memory. She laughed. “Imagine thinking you can control us that way.”

“But they can! They do!” Agnes insisted. “They say what we can and can’t do. They’ve just outlawed the biggest part of my business. What will I do without the tarot readings? I’ll starve!”

Mildred put a gentle hand on Agnes’s shaking shoulder.

“Hush, dear,” she soothed. “You know you’re always welcome here, if need be.”

But Agnes was in tears. “And what’s next? They’ll ban teaching altogether, and then what will become of us? Who will follow us? Susannah is gone, poor lady, and who will replace her? And what about us?” She wiped her streaming eyes.

“There’ll be others,” Mildred said. “There always have been wise women, even in the worst times.”

“But they take away our livelihood, and what are we to do? They leave us less and less, and we’ll all be fighting each other for the scraps before long.” Here she hesitated. “They frighten us, Mildred. It’s deliberate. They mean to turn us against each other.”

Mildred shook her head. “Only if we let them.”

***

It was dusk by the time Agnes left, her basket filled with the healing herbs. Mildred picked some mint leaves for tea and, with her own heavy basket on her arm, made the way down the path toward her stone house. Before she entered, she placed a hand gently on one of the stones by the door, a smooth oval that was her favorite. She felt the coolness and smiled.

The tea was ready to be poured when Charlotte arrived, out of breath. Mildred hugged her and offered a cup.

“Busy day today?” she asked the young woman.

“Oh, James just wouldn’t fall asleep,” Charlotte replied after a sip of tea. James was her two-year-old. “He’s so full of energy, it’s hard for him. When he finally dropped off, I grabbed my things and ran all the way here.”

Mildred nodded. “Have you been studying the book?”

“Yes, but I’m still slipping here and there. I think I have most of the cards down, though,” Charlotte replied.

“That’s good. Let’s start.”

Mildred pulled the Tarot deck from her apron pocket. 

“Before we begin, Mildred,” said Charlotte, lowering her cup. “There’s something…”

Mildred was looking through the deck. “Yes, dear?”

“I’m a bit concerned about… you know.” Charlotte shrugged.

“The Proclamation, you mean? Are you worried?”

“I’m worried for you, Mildred,” Charlotte whispered. “I don’t want to bring you any trouble.”

Mildred looked directly at her. “Do you want to stop?”

Charlotte sighed. “I don’t, really. This is so wonderful. I’m so grateful. But I want to be careful.”

“You should be,” Mildred told her. “Is the book safely hidden? Somewhere you wouldn’t expect to find it?”

“Yes, it is.”

“And the cards?”

“The deck is hidden, too.”

“And—they’re hidden separately?”

“They are. Just as you told me.”

Mildred nodded. “Then you’re doing all you can.”

“But the teaching…”

“That’s my concern, dear. Not yours. Now, let’s begin, shall we?”

Mildred slid a card from the deck and held it up for Charlotte to see. A skeletal rider trampling all before him: kings, maidens, children, clergy.

Charlotte took a long, deep breath. “Death.”

“Yes, that’s the name of the card. But what would you say?”

The young woman hesitated. “When someone sees that, don’t they just know?”

Mildred slid the card back in the deck and shuffled. “They may think they know, dear, but they don’t. That’s where you come in.”

Charlotte sighed. “I don’t think I’ll be any good at this.”

“I think you can be. In fact, I know it. You’re just the sort of reader I like, or you could be, if you put your mind and heart in it. Try, now.” She held up another card. “This one?”

A tall stone structure struck by lightning, falling to pieces.

“The Tower.”

“And?”

“It means collapse. Upheaval.”

Mildred lowered the card. “And?”

Charlotte shook her head. “Why do you think I’d be a good reader, anyway?”

Mildred put the cards aside. “Because you can read people, dear. I’ve seen you. You know those pies you bake to sell? When poor Lizzie Crowley came by, you let her have one for a dollar. But when Mrs. Chadwick rolled up blabbering about her big dinner for this and that member of the Council, you charged her twenty dollars.”

“I just asked what I thought each of them could pay.”

“And that’s reading people! See what I mean? Just like Susannah, may she rest in power. She was a great reader. That reminds me. There’s a meeting of the Seven tomorrow evening. You must come.”

Charlotte’s eyes widened. “The Seven Wise Women? Are you sure I’m ready?”

“You’re needed, that’s clear,” Mildred said. “I’m also certain that you’re ready.”

“Don’t I have to be registered?”

Mildred shrugged. “As to that, I wouldn’t worry. But let’s continue.” She scooped up the cards again. “I’ve got an idea. Let’s see if this works. You’ve got the traditional meanings of the cards down, I know that. But now imagine that you’re reading for a particular person.”

“Who?”

“I’ll tell you for each one. So when I show you the card, look at it, think of the meaning, listen to whom I’m telling you you’re reading for, and then go deep in your heart for a connection. Tell the story.”

“But I thought we were supposed to tell the future?”

“Tell the story, dear. That’s what they want. Ready?”

Charlotte nodded.

Mildred held up a card. “This one, for a girl who’s come to you with a friend and looks as if she’s been up all night crying.”

The Devil. Captivity.

Charlotte shook her head and looked away. “I can’t. I’m—I’m just not able to.”

Mildred put a gentle hand on Charlotte’s forehead. “Close your eyes and imagine her now. Her red-rimmed eyes, her hands nervously twisting her damp handkerchief. See the friend beside her. She’s also weary and worried, but her eyes are dry.”

Charlotte took a deep breath.

Mildred waited.

“Tell the story, dear.”

It was then that Charlotte opened her eyes and spoke.

“You are in grave danger. Look to your friends—those you can trust—to help you out of this situation. Don’t delay. You were right to come here. Now go, escape. You didn’t create this awful mess. It’s not your fault. But you must get out now.”

Mildred lowered the card and smiled. “Excellent. Better than I could have done.”

“I suddenly feel exhausted.”

“That’s how you know it’s working. Another, then. This one for a mother of a large family.”

“You showed me this one before.”

“But now for the particular person.”

The Tower. Collapse.

She began. “You feel as if things are tumbling down all around you…” Then, to Mildred, “I’m thinking maybe serious sickness, several children—”

Mildred shook her head. “Never so specific, not without more information.”

Charlotte bit her lip in thought. “You’re coping with many things beyond your control.”

“Good. More?”

“You must understand that the problems you’re having were bound to happen. You must wait out the calamity and then start again from the beginning. Build your life again from the ground up.”

Mildred smiled. “I was right. You’re gifted, dear.”

Charlotte shook her head. “I’m still at a loss about the Death card. What do you say?”

“Well, it’s different for different people. It’s change. The end of something, not necessarily the death of a person.”

“But sometimes it is death, isn’t it? If Susannah had drawn that card, wouldn’t it have meant that?”

Mildred put the card down. “Susannah died, yes. But if she had read it… well, I won’t assume, but my guess is that she would have seen it in a wider context. A beginning, as well as an end.”

Charlotte frowned. “What beginning?”

Mildred smiled and gathered the cards. “We’re about to see, aren’t we?”

***

The Seven met, as always, at Rowena’s cottage in the poplar woods. Just after dusk, they arrived, singly and in groups. The queenly Rowena greeted each of them at the door, her dark hair fastened on top of her head with a golden band. Agnes came first, as usual, and then cousins Patricia, Luisa, and Kate. Mildred and Charlotte were the last to join the group, and they were welcomed with special warmth.

In the front room was a round oak table where the Seven sat by the large fireplace. At her seat at the table, Agnes opened her satchel and carefully pulled out a large sheaf of previous meeting minutes and the formal, signed-and-stamped registration forms of the wise women. She paged through the pile, found a copy of the Proclamation, and placed it carefully in the middle of the table.

“Let’s keep the papers tidy,” Agnes said. “We’ve got to return them to the Council. Shall we take the roll?”

Rowena looked around the table. “We’re all here, Agnes.”

“Except Susannah, of course,” Agnes pointed out. “Should I strike her name off the list? And shall I include Charlotte? Because there’s the question—”

“Susannah rests in power,” Rowena said. “We are happy to welcome Charlotte. Don’t write that down, Agnes. Just note that the Seven gathered this evening at my house to discuss the Council’s Proclamation. Now, to begin—are there any comments or questions?”

Luisa spoke first. “Why this? Why now?”

Rowena approved. “That’s a good, honest question.”

Agnes wrote it down.

Rowena reached out and touched Agnes’s right hand.

“Before anyone says anything else, let’s keep in mind that we must submit the minutes of the meeting to the Council.” She looked around the table.

Patricia frowned. “Well, we’ve got to discuss it, certainly? That’s why we’re here.”

Agnes looked up from her notes. “We can discuss it. But we shouldn’t question it, should we?”

Patricia turned to her sharply. “I, for one, most certainly question it. I’m surprised to hear you say this, Agnes. You were questioning it earlier today when we read it together. You said it would ruin you. You said—”

A sharp intake of breath and Agnes blurted, “That was in confidence, Patricia. I never—”

Rowena raised a hand. “Delete all that.”

Agnes looked up, confused. “From the beginning?”

Rowena sighed. “Yes. Let’s just begin again. Now—does anyone have anything to say about the Proclamation?” Rowena looked around the table. “Anyone?”

Silence.

“Shall we report to the Council that we have read the Proclamation and that we will comply?” asked Rowena. She turned to Agnes. “Don’t write anything down until we’ve decided.”

Patricia spoke up. “I’d rather just say we read the Proclamation and we understand.”

“Understand what?” Kate asked.

Patricia hesitated. “Just—that we understand.”

Kate looked to the rest of the group. “I think we’ll get a request for clarification on that.”

“We may, indeed.” Rowena nodded. “And we should have an answer ready.”

Patricia began again. “We understand,” and here she paused, “the new strictures.”

Kate shook her head. “They’ll ask us if we’ll obey these new strictures.”

Patricia shrugged. “Maybe they won’t ask.”

“But we should still be prepared. We’ve got to have an answer.” Rowena looked around the table. “I know this is difficult, friends. But we’ve got to have a plan. Too much is at stake. Not just for us, but for the whole community.”

“That’s what’s worrying me the most,” Luisa said. “What will happen if we can’t look into the future? And the teaching—we’re not supposed to train others to take our place after we’re gone? Because forbidding the teaching of divination is just the beginning, I think. That was my first question. Why this? Why now?”

Mildred leaned forward to speak. “We may never know specifically, Luisa dear. But we do know that the Council insists on keeping the perception that they control our use of power. And let’s remember that we’ve faced problems like this before, and we’re still here.”

“We are, indeed,” said Rowena. “I remember just after the war, when the Council first laid down the strictures. Several of us thought it was time to leave this community, to find another home for our powers. We discussed it, just as we’re doing now. And we decided together to stay here on our own terms. We chose to struggle, and not to yield. It was a long, painful discussion, but we did it. That was Susannah’s leadership.”

Charlotte spoke quietly. “Did you meet here, then?”

Rowena turned to her. “We did, Charlotte. Right at this table, right by that fire.”
She gestured to the fireplace where a pile of ash and oak burned brightly.

“And it was in that fireplace that we brewed the first tincture to relieve the radiation sickness,” Louisa said. She looked to her cousins. “We were just new to the Seven, then.”

“Well, if we must discuss the Proclamation, then, let’s discuss it,” Patricia said. “But how shall we discuss it?”

Mildred reached for the copy of the Proclamation. “Let’s begin by reading it again.”

She slipped on her glasses and read aloud.

Be it known that, by order of the Council, all registered wise women must cease and desist the practice and teaching of Divination (that is, discernment of the future through the use of cards or by any other means).

All other practices, including charms, healing, and discovery of safe water sources, may continue within the strictures established by the Council. Teaching of these practices may also continue, again, within the strictures established by the Council.

“It’s clear enough, I’d say,” Agnes remarked.

Patricia frowned in thought. “Do you think we can find a loophole?”

Luisa shook her head. “Seems pretty airtight to me. No practice of divination or teaching of divination.”

“It’s specific, all right,” Kate added. “But wait—how about if we say Tarot reading isn’t divination? We could say it’s a kind of counseling. You know, support for people in crisis.”

Rowena raised her eyebrows. “An exception for Tarot? We’d have to make that case to the Council.”

“And they would probably reject it,” Patricia muttered.

Mildred carefully removed her glasses. “Let’s stand back and take a wider view of this. To whom do these new strictures apply?”

Agnes gaped at the question in surprise. “Well—obviously us. The wise women.”

Mildred picked up the copy of the Proclamation and read, “All registered wise women.”

“But we’re all registered,” Agnes protested. She looked around the table. “Well, aren’t we?” She snatched up the pile of registration forms.

“I’m not, as it happens,” said Mildred.

“Come to that, I may not be either,” Rowena added. “Not formally. And Charlotte, you’re not registered either, of course.

Agnes paged nervously through the forms. “No, I’m not finding you, Rowena, or you, Mildred.”

Mildred shrugged. “Some glitch or other in the paperwork.”

“The rest of us are here, though,” Agnes pointed out with some relief, placing the forms on the table.

“So,” Luisa said, “the question is, what makes a wise woman? Registration by the Council? Who decides?”

Mildred nodded. “Well put, Luisa.”

Rowena looked around the table. “We’re at an impasse. Let’s do a reading.” She drew her Tarot deck from her pocket and put it on the table.

“But the Proclamation—” Agnes objected.

“Don’t write it down, Agnes,” said Rowena, shuffling the deck.

Charlotte looked to Mildred. “How does this work?”

“It’s a variation on the three-card reading, Charlotte,” replied Mildred.

“Problem, present situation, solution,” explained Patricia.

Possible solution,” corrected Rowena. “It can help focus our discussion.”

Rowena placed three cards in a row face down on the table.

She turned over the first. Eight of swords: A young woman tied and blindfolded within a circle of swords.

“Patricia? Your reading?”

“That’s our problem, all right.” Patricia sighed. “We’re powerless and don’t know what’s going on.”

“And the present situation…” Rowena turned over the second card.

Three women toasting merrily, their goblets held high.

Luisa spoke up, “Three of Cups—that’s better. Harmony.”

Kate shook her head. “Let’s not get carried away.”

“Well, it reflects some power and unity, at least. We’re on the right track.”

“Do we want a second card for the present situation? For clarification?” Rowena asked.

“Let’s have it,” said Kate.

Three of Pentacles.

“Another three,” Charlotte mused. “Interesting.”

Rowena looked up, hiding a smile. “And what do you make of that, Charlotte?”

“Threes are related to growth, progress. Creativity, too.”

“Threes are powerful, it’s true,” Rowena said, “and this card—look who it is at the center.” She picked up the card and handed it to Charlotte.

Charlotte looked intently at the scene showing a stonemason working on a cathedral, watched by two older men. “The young worker.”

“And the others—the older, more experienced ones?”

“They seem to be looking on and approving.” She placed the card back on the table.

“This is a sign,” said Luisa. “I’d say we should look to the youngest of our members. You, Charlotte.”

Rowena nodded. “I agree. Charlotte, you turn over the last card, the possible solution.”

Charlotte reached over and turned the card.  An image of a young man merrily carrying a bundle on a stick, dog yapping at his heels, striding toward the edge—and over the edge—of a towering cliff.

The Fool. Innocence, exuberance, beginner’s luck.

Agnes frowned. “I’ve never liked that card. It’s so wide open. What could it mean? How do we move forward?”

The other women at the table turned to Charlotte.

Patricia picked up the Eight of Swords. “We are bound and blinded.”

Mildred picked up the Three of Cups. “But we are together.”

Luisa picked up the Three of Pentacles. “We look to you, Charlotte.”

Finally, Rowena picked up the The Fool and gave it to Charlotte. “You are off on your journey,” she said. “Be fearless.”

Charlotte took the card and placed it before her. Then she reached across the table and picked up the pile of registration forms. She looked over at Agnes, who sat pen in hand, still musing over the minutes.

“May I see that, Agnes?” Charlotte asked.

Agnes started. She handed over the papers.

“Thank you,” murmured Charlotte. She held them for a moment, placing the registration forms carefully on top. Then she turned and tossed all of it into the fireplace. The flames blazed and sputtered as the papers burned to ash.

Agnes gasped.

“And with that, my friends,” said Rowena, with a look around the table, “we are free to move on to other business.”

Mildred placed a hand on Charlotte’s shoulder. “And with that, we are free.”


Regina Higgins has been a college teacher, a university administrator, and an outreach director. But most of all, she’s a storyteller. Regina’s read Tarot cards since she was fourteen and loves the stories implicit in each card and every reading. Regina’s stories have appeared in Every Day Fiction, Luna Station Quarterly, and Rainbow Rumpus. Her book about classic children’s literature, Magic Kingdoms, was published by Simon & Schuster. Regina lives in Lexington, Kentucky, and is currently working on a novel.