tarot cards

The Saturday Rumpus Essay: Surprising the Psychic


Lester stood at my door out of breath and unexpected. I invited him in to the air conditioning, but he stayed on the front porch, curiosity and compassion in his eyes as he squinted and scanned me. “Come in already. And bring your bike inside.” Lester parked his ten-speed along the wall of the hallway. In the kitchen I offered him water and he nodded while fishing for something from the pocket of his backpack. It rattled and spun on the countertop, stopping upside down, but I could still read the hand-inked label on the cassette tape: the day’s date, March 18, 1993, and Lester’s name in shaky cursive.

“You owe me forty dollars.”

I poured him a glass of water from the tap. “Forty dollars? You want ice?”

“No ice. The tape’s from Providencia. It’s your psychic reading.”

“Slow down,” I said. “You’ll hyperventilate. Did you bike here from Melrose?”

“You have some things to explain,” he said, inhaling a sip too big for his throat and choking the liquid out his nose and eyes. He coughed and then began to cry. Then he hugged me so tight I lost my own breath. He asked if Ash was home.

“He’s at his mom’s,” I said, letting Lester cling to me, his T-shirt wet with the water he spewed and the sweat of Florida biking.

“I didn’t know about Ash,” he said, taking a step back but keeping his hands on my shoulders. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

I saw what he knew. “It’s not my information to share. I guess you heard from Providencia?”

“It’s not like that,” he insisted, finally letting me go and taking a calm sip of water, keeping it down. “It’s not like we were gossiping. She didn’t even realize, at first, what she was telling me.”

“Let’s go to the patio.”

“She just read the Tarot. For forty dollars, she makes a recording. You should listen to the tape.”

Out the back door, I slid a flowerpot from its shelf and retrieved a half-smoked Camel Light. “Ash is at his mom’s,” I said again and pulled a flat pack of matches from my pocket. “Tell me.” I drew the flame to my face.

Lester said the reading was kind of scary at first. “You know Providencia doesn’t tiptoe around anything. She said I was worried about my partner dying, that he had HIV, that he was getting worse and that I needed to start thinking of the inevitable. My own future.” He paused. “Which I think she might mean yours.” He finished his water and I took the glass for an ashtray.

“You know how I am with psychics,” Lester continued. “I poker face. Just listen. Try to see if they’re full of shit or onto something. So I didn’t correct her, but I thought, ‘Man, Providencia’s off her game. What a disappointment.’”

I dragged from my cigarette.

“When she asked if I worked in the stadium, Providencia mentioned your name.” Lester put his hands on his hips. “I told her I knew you. I told her you’d given me Reiki yesterday.”

“I didn’t even know if it would work,” I interrupted.

“It did work!” he said. “It worked too well. When I told her you had given me Reiki, Providencia pushed the cards together in a mix. She said this is your reading.”

I took a last deep drag and dropped the cigarette butt in the empty glass, turned my head to blow the smoke away from Lester.

Lester said he’d made the appointment with Providencia weeks ago, that it wasn’t anything urgent. He was just hoping to get direction on this bakery-catering business he was thinking of opening.


I’d received Reiki myself for the first time only weeks before, in Minnesota by an Anishinaabe spiritual teacher. I went to the land of ten-thousand lakes for a healing retreat for Natives affected by HIV, “Healing Spirits, Mending Bodies,” hosted by the Minnesota American Indian AIDS Task Force. Though I wasn’t infected, my lover was, and I went in search for anything that might help me help him. We’d explored alternative therapies before, together, but I went north solo to the boundary waters.

The trip I’d almost had to cancel for my own body’s mini-calamities: a stubborn lumbar vertebra impossible to realign and an abscessed molar that made it hard to talk, worse to chew on the left side of my mouth. The lumbar subluxation had been going on two months—I’d seen three chiropractors and Ash’s acupuncturist and massage therapist. I’d taken muscle relaxers and Ash’s pain relievers. Considering what he was living with, I tried not to complain, but the pain made me ornery; I couldn’t imagine what it would feel like after carrying luggage, sitting in a discount airline seat, and then camping on the ground at the retreat center, or, if I was lucky, one of the cots pictured in the advertised cabin-like dormitories.

The abscess tooth came up a day before the flight, a rotting torment in my tender bite, swollen gums raw, but no time to see a dentist if I was going to fly to Minnesota. And with open sores, no kiss goodbye. But I packed my gums with loose tobacco, chewed aspirin coated with Anbesol, and drove to Jacksonville from Gainesville for my morning flight. I spent a night in Minneapolis before I met the carpool and a bunch of other Indians from around the country and we drove into the wooded forests of Ojibwa territory.

An elder from Leech Lake gave a lecture on local herbs the first evening we gathered, and I was keen to learn more about the Yellow Thread she said was used for toothaches. She opened the display and gave me a palm full of the local plant with instructions to pinch it up in a wad and keep it wet against the abscess. I woke the next morning to normal gums and molar, pain-free except for the lower back. We had a big walk ahead of us. I almost passed on the hike but knew my suffering was so little compared to what many of my companions carried, what Ash held back at home in Florida. I stretched into the day, but by the time we returned to the camp that afternoon, my stature stooped and my back was radiating. I didn’t know if I could sit in the folded picnic chairs for the evening lecture, but I was curious about the topic: Reiki energy healing.

The teacher Jonathan told us about his first encounter with Reiki, when a group of Japanese monks toured the U.S. and visited his reservation. He said the monks were studying indigenous healing methods and met with their medicine people. “They told us about their Life Force Energy,” he said, “which they called Ki, and said it could be guided for healing the body.” Jonathan relayed the monks’ information that Reiki could be channeled and passed from hand to hand, soul to soul, and provided a potent high-energy kick a sick body could use to recover and restore its natural health. He said the spiritual leaders of his tribe decided to test the monks and their energy healing.

“The elders divided the longhouse into three spaces. The monks at one end, our leaders at the other, and a place in the middle to remain empty,” Jonathan said. “The monks meditated and sent their Reiki toward the empty space. The holy people from my nation then sent their own spirits into the middle room to get closer. They said they felt the Reiki and they knew this energy. The teachers said the Reiki worked similar to something they were familiar with and used, and they welcomed the monks to lay their hands on us.”

Jonathan offered to share Reiki on any of us attending the retreat. He’d been attuned by the monks, he said, and practicing the last three years. My back twisted in spasm. After the lecture I waited until those affected by more serious situations could put their names on the sign-up list. I thought there’d be space left, was disappointed to see the sheet already full. Jonathan walked over and introduced himself, retrieved the clipboard from the folding chair. “I don’t see your name here.”

I explained my pause and my minor predicament.

“Come to my cabin tonight,” he said. “I’ll give you a session after dinner.”

I hesitated.

“No worry. Stephanie is getting a treatment after dinner too. You can come together and witness her session first if she doesn’t mind.”

I said I’d check with Stephanie.


Jonathan never touched me during the Reiki session, and he didn’t put his hands directly on Stephanie either. Rather he held his hands four to five inches above our bodies in a sequence of positions begun at the head and which I felt most radiating when he was near my feet. Turned face-down on the table as his hands neared my lower back, the out-of-place vertebra popped so loud Stephanie gasped and my spine inched closer to the massage table, collapsing into the relief of reposition.

“That was the spot,” I managed, and Jonathan laughed.

“I felt it,” he said. “That was some kind of worry you had tied up there.”

He finished the whole-body attunement and I eased myself off the table. I felt loose, limber, but fragile in a way like my body lost its normal weight, like there was less gravity, more space between my vertebrae, a kind of wavy light. I stood taller as my spine allowed its stretch. More solid as we hugged Jonathan goodnight. The ground was wet as Stephanie and I made our way back to our cabins.


After the first pain-free sleep in months, I woke alert and activated, joined the others for breakfast and then, seeing Jonathan, decided to spend the day fasting and praying before the evening ceremony. Jonathan approached me to see how I was feeling. He said he’d had a dream telling him to initiate me into Reiki healing and asked me to think about whether that was something I’d like to do.

It felt right to me immediately, something tangible I could take home to Ash. I asked Jonathan what it entailed and he said it was another series of attunements, energy sessions similar to the last one, but this time he’d be opening my chakras, placing symbols in my aura to receive and direct the Reiki. Then he would ask me to repeat a session on him to test my flow.

There were three levels of Reiki, he told me that evening after lodge and dinner. The first was a basic practitioner’s level, allowing me to do the work on myself, but he was willing to attune me, he said, over the next two nights, into the second degree, which would allow me to practice Reiki on others and to send the energy at a distance. Jonathan had achieved the third level, Reiki Master Teacher, which trained him to attune new practitioners. He drew out the hand positions and wrote down a version of the Reiki prayer, showed me how he’d customized it to fit into his Ojibwa traditions, and that I might further yield it with my own.

I practiced on Jonathan after the second-degree attunement. I could feel it enter and leave my body. Kinetic. A tiny bit electric. A warm tingling in my palms when I redirected it outward. My only comparison to the sensation was making pee on anesthesia, where your interior is almost totally numb but you can tell something is moving through you. A thread being pulled, extending, expanding, connecting—but not exactly.


When I got back to Florida, I practiced on Ash. I practiced on my mom. I practiced on my friends Anne and Lester. Jonathan instructed me to use the Reiki often in order to strengthen it and to get to know its flow. Ash said he slept better afterwards. Mom felt a little heat. Anne said she felt cold air, relaxed, and close to me when we finished a session. Lester had come back with the cassette tape from the psychic’s.

He wanted to know about Ash’s prognosis—not good, I told him, uncomfortable discussing my lover’s secret, a secret only because he’d asked me not to tell our friends. Not yet. And here I was behind his back, lighting another cigarette and spilling tears with Lester on our balcony. Four T-cells. AZT and a handful of other daily pills. So far only affecting Ash’s kidneys. Constantly nauseous. No appetite.

“I’m going to make him muffins,” Lester said. “And I am going to open a bakery.”


After he left, I listened to the tape Providencia recorded. I knew a little about the cards he drew and agreed with her interpretations. Coming up Swords, a Nine: nightmares and anguish; the Ten: rock bottom; and Death: with her audible reminder the card was in “the place you are now.” I tried to imagine Providencia’s face as she delivered this bad news to Lester; I thought of his poker attempt playing straight. She said the illness, and it looked to her like terminal illness, AIDS or HIV probably, was praying on his soulmate and not on Lester.

“These Fathers—the Cups and the Pentacles—they show you coming through this physically unharmed. See how they’re covering the current situation. These are some spiritual protectors in your corner. Yes, see. This Eight of Swords, so interesting the battle theme in your spread, Lester. This shows you transforming from the ashes.”

I jumped at his name, “Ash,” that she mentioned him even incidentally.

I thought I heard a tear in her voice. Providencia continued. “I don’t like this Eight of Wands coming up here, nor this Four of Cups. Do you feel like you have to take the illness on yourself? This is a great worry. This shows secrecy and self-destruction.”

I heard a card flap hard on the table. “Five of Swords! I swear that’s your trouble. You feel guilty for surviving him.”

I was in tears on my back in the middle of the living room when Ash came in. The tape continued with Lester and Providencia in discovery.

“What’s wrong?” Ash said. “What are you listening to?”

I rolled up off the carpet and kissed him.

“Who is that? Lester? And…” He waited. “Providencia Star?”

She was wrapping up with “a Nine of Cups: patience while growing internally.” It was the Ten of Pentacles that led her to me: a card that meant “generous delivery, abundance,” but she saw its circles and said, “Stadium. Do you work in the football stadium? Or another round building?” Lester said he didn’t.

I led Ash to the couch and we sat down, listened to the end of it.

“The Nine of Wands: a wounded survivor, but look, here he is again, Three of Wands: finally turning his back to the past and thinking of the future. The drawing though.” Providencia paused and I heard Lester clear his throat on the recording. I took Ash’s hand. “It reminds me of Chip. Well, I keep seeing Chip Livingston. I don’t know if you know him.”

Ash squeezed my hand, leaned toward the speakers, turned and looked at me. I shook my head.

“I do know Chip.” Lester’s voice now. “He gave me Reiki yesterday.”

We heard Providencia laugh, at first a kind of involuntary explosion, a rush of air crackled through the tape player. “Then this is Chip’s reading. I’m picking up his energy instead of yours.” There was a silence through which I imagined them looking at each other, realizing what all had been said and to whom it applied. A truth uncovered and uncomfortable between them. Providencia offered to give Lester another reading for free in a couple of weeks. Then the tape clicked off.

“Lester was here,” I told Ash. “He came by after talking to Providencia.”

“You told him.”

“I did tell him. But he already knew.”

Ash stood up and walked to our bedroom. “Now everyone’s going to know,” he shouted.

I followed him and stood in the doorway. “He’s not going to tell anyone. But maybe we should, maybe you should, think about it. Your friends are going to help us get through this.”

Ash took my hand and pulled me to sit with him on the bed. “What did the tape say? You were seriously crying when I came in.”

“You know the cards don’t work that way,” I said. “And there was a mix of confusion on who was being read.”

“Do you know the spread she was using?”

“They stopped before it was finished. Lester said there was a card on top they never turned over. It would have summed up the reading.” Ash and I lay back and I stared at the ceiling. I told him what Providencia had said, that because I’d done Reiki on Lester the day before, she was picking up my energy instead of his, reading me. Us. Our situation. We were still holding hands.

“I felt it too,” Ash said, “your spirit kind of lingering after the Reiki you did on me. Like I don’t know, you go to work and I say something out loud thinking you’re right there beside me.”

It was the first time I’d laughed all afternoon.


Ash’s mom had sent him home with a tray of lasagna for me to warm up for dinner. He had an appetite that night, something to celebrate. We talked late into the night about the Reiki, the possibility of leaving pieces of our energy in other places, and how many psychic readings, or just plain intuition, might be a misread of a passing spirit. Lingering.

I told him I was going to find a Reiki master in Florida to talk to, see if there was something else I needed to be doing. I didn’t think I should be leaving my personal energy on other people.

The next morning we woke to a basket of homemade muffins outside the door. Lester had spooned three types of jam into tiny ornamental jars. A delicate box of artisanal herb tea. He left no note but on top of it all was a Tarot card. The Magician.

Chip Livingston is the author of two poetry collections and one collection of essays and stories. He teaches in the low-res MFA programs at Institute of American Indian Arts and Regis University. He divides his time between Denver, Santa Fe, and Montevideo. More from this author →