The Plague Infects the Tarot Cards

Chapter 39

This is a Young Adult story tackling issues of self-harm and suicide. It is intended for teen readers or older. If you want to read from the beginning, click over to chapter 1.

Luke stood on the grass, the scent of oranges and cloves strong in the air. Kassandra stared at him. Somehow he entered the cards. Came to get her.

“Prithee, kind lady. Might I have back my ball?” She gave the barest of nods and he scooped the leather ball from her hand. “Thank ye.”

He swiveled and slipped into the crowd. Kassandra blinked. What just happened? Luke was dressed like everyone else, wearing a red outfit with oversized puffy sleeves. A wicker basket, strapped to his belt, contained assorted orange peels and various herbs—the source of the orangey smell. This wasn’t the Luke she knew. He’d been time warped six-hundred years.

She hopped up and followed. People in the crowd glared at her jeans and Converse sneakers. Kassandra avoided eye contact, glancing down at her shadow. By now the sun had risen enough to shine over the wagons.

She located Luke standing on a stump, juggling the balls. A teen girl sat in the grass at his feet with long dark hair, braided at the back—Ezabell. Kassandra recognized the girl from the mirrors in the Hanged Man card. Luke bounced one of the balls off Ezabell’s head. She smiled and plucked them out of the grass. 

The nightingale swooped by, landing on the roof of one of the wagons, which had one side folded down to make a stage. Kassandra scanned the rest of the circle. All the carts were like this one, with movable platforms. One stage showed a man dressed in a skeleton outfit wielding a scythe while another depicted someone in a lion costume clawing at a girl who hammed it up. Each wagon represented a Major Arcana card from the Tarot deck. She inspected them more closely, searching for The Magician. Maybe she could use the wagon as a way to enter the card. 

Someone in the crowd knocked into her shoulder. “Pray pardon.” It was Gabriel, but now he bustled away in the crowd.

“Gabriel!” She caught up to him.

He turned, but bunched his eyebrows together in annoyance. “I did say pardon. Now let me pass.” He gave a little bow and then slunk off.

He didn’t know who she was. Kassandra glanced back at Luke, who giggled while deliberately sending the balls flying all over. No one was the same here. Sweat beaded along her forehead. She wiped it away and noticed the sun directly overhead. How could it be noon already? It was morning only a little while ago. 

Kassandra hurried after Gabriel, who stopped by a cart where the stage had been folded up. Leaning against one of the wheels, he took out a small leather book and sliver of charcoal and started to sketch.

She tried to see what he was looking at, but couldn’t make it out through the mass of people. Finally she hopped up and caught a glimpse of the juggling balls looping above people’s heads. He was spying on Luke and Ezabell.

As Gabriel whipped the charcoal around on the paper, the shadows inched across the grass by his feet. The sun was already slipping into late afternoon. Kassandra wished she had her watch from her purse. It seemed like an entire day might last less than an hour.

Gabriel snapped the book shut and walked off, a scowl twisting along his mouth. After he passed by, Kassandra stepped forward and glanced at the tree stump. Luke held Ezabell’s face and the two kissed. 

The sky shifted colors, filling with oranges, and violets. People raised the stages and latched them to the sides of the wagons. The cooking fire at the center of the ring glowed brighter in the dim light of dusk. A scream cut through the night air as an older woman fainted to the grass. A young girl knelt down, pressing her head against the woman’s chest and weeping.

Kassandra walked toward them, but a hand gripped her shoulder. She turned to see a man’s face drained of color. Blood leaked from his nose and mouth and a thick purple boil protruded from his neck. She struggled backward but the man’s grip was tight. He tried to say something, but only a dry cough came out. His fingers squeezed her shoulder before he crumpled to the ground.

Kassandra shuffled back, putting distance between her and the man. He clutched at his stomach and coughed, spattering the grass with blood. She scooted away as a cold sweat slicked her skin. All across the clearing, more people collapsed. One boy coughed hard enough to vomit. Those not affected were wailing and sobbing.

Gabriel and Luke crouched next to Ezabell, who had collapsed on the grass. Tears streamed down their faces. Luke held Ezabell’s head up, stroking one cheek, but the skin was chalk white. This was just like the scene Kassandra had seen in the mirror, a memory. All of it happened before.

With the sun gone, only twinkling stars and the cook’s fire gave any illumination. The temperature dipped and goosebumps erupted on her arms and legs. Even her teeth chattered. She wrapped her arms around herself. 

Kassandra stepped around the bodies, now littering the ground. Some squirmed in pain, while others lay eerily still. All had bulging purple boils on their necks and armpits, signs of the Black Plague. The one she’d always read about in books. But why was everyone getting sick at the same time? She glanced up and saw the Rykell brothers still tending to Ezabell. They weren’t affected?

Kassandra maneuvered around a person in the grass, but paused. She knew him. It was the old man who’d cooked her sausages. He stared up at the stars, tongue hanging out. She knelt down, reaching forward to shut the man’s eyes. She hesitated, noticing the blood leaking from his nose and mouth. Touching him might infect her too.

Kassandra edged away as something squirmed in her gut. She bent over and hacked up a long gob of saliva. A jackhammer throbbing took up residence in her brain. She was overreacting to the sick people. That was all. Kassandra looked around. No one moved. Everyone lay silent. 

“It should have been you.” Luke clutched Ezabell to his chest. He glared at his brother. “Why do you live?”

Luke glanced across the circle of wagons, distracted by something. Kassandra turned to follow his gaze and saw a man in a black cloak. He stood amid the bodies, unaffected by the sickness, his face hidden under a wide-brimmed hat.

A shudder passed through Kassandra and she slumped to the grass. Her skin shivered as if doused in ice water. She’d caught it. The Plague (or whatever it was) had found her too. She coughed again and this time dark blood spattered the ground. The sight of it only made her want to hurl again.

Luke walked directly in front of her, his shoes swishing the grass. At the far end of the circle, the mystery man lifted his hat and the firelight caught his face. Bristly white eyebrows exploded along his brow. Wrinkles crisscrossed the skin like a roadmap. Kassandra looked down and instead of feet, the man sported hooves. It was Donald Cloots, the creep from the room of mirrors.

He turned when Luke reached him and they both walked out of the circle together, disappearing into the night. Kassandra tried to swing back to look at Gabriel, but something felt weird about her neck. She searched along the skin and discovered one of those boils, like a gigantic pimple. But that couldn’t happen. Not to her. The Black Plague was something from her history book. 

Kassandra hunched over on all fours, panting. She was infected. What was going to happen to her?

The sky lightened to a pale blue, shaking off the stars. Someone moved off to the right. Kassandra managed a glance and saw the old man standing up. He wiped the blood off his face with the back of a hand and then shuffled toward the fire. 

Other people stirred. Each one seemed fine now. The color returning to their faces. All signs of those purple boils had vanished. Even their clothes appeared clean and new again. Everything was backtracking to when she arrived.

Then why did Kassandra still feel like crap? Bile inched up her throat. She held it back, dreading to see what might come up.

People unlatched the stages from the carts and folded them down. Everyone seemed wide wake, but Kassandra felt drowsy. If she could curl up and sleep, then everything would be great.

No. Lying down meant death. Kassandra pushed herself up. Her arms shook, but held. She needed to find a way out of this place. People bustled all around, blocking any view of the wagons. All she saw were legs. The smell of roasting sausages almost made her retch. The taste of grease from her previous meal was still strong. Her stomach did a somersault. 

The nightingale landed on the grass only inches away and hopped toward the right. Puh-twee-too.

Kassandra turned that direction and spotted a wooden pole jammed into the ground. She reached over, muscles searing with fire, and grabbed it. The bird chirped, hopping around. She pulled herself up, inch by inch, body quivering under the strain until another clench seized her gut. Now she was high enough to see the stages. One performer dangled on the edge of a platform, wearing a feathered hat and whirling a long staff. Maybe this was The Magician. She coughed, speckling her sleeve with red. 

The old man tending the fire glared at her, his lips curling into a scowl. “The witch has it.” He poked a gnarled finger toward Kassandra. “She has the plague.” People turned to stare.

Kassandra took one step away and everything spun. The thudding in her head felt like firecrackers going off. The crowd pulled back, creating a space. The wagon lay just ahead. She staggered forward and nearly tripped, finally smacking into one of the wheels.

The world blurred and Kassandra blinked, forcing her eyes to work. Applause erupted as the performer with the feathered hat seemed to float in midair. She couldn’t be seeing that right.

The man took one step off the stage and hovered a moment before swinging back onto the platform. He had to be keeping his balance somehow. But with the way her brain was working, it really did look like magic. 

She stumbled over to a set of stairs leading up to the stage.

Twah-twah-twah-too-weet. Her nightingale wouldn’t shut up. It kept chattering and chirping nonstop.

She concentrated on moving, one hand in front of the other, and crawled onto the platform. The people stopped laughing and applauding. Even the guy in the feathered hat leapt off and backed away. Kassandra coughed again, and this time pain jabbed her gut, like something ripped open. Each breath hacked up more blood and saliva. 

This was it. She was going to die.

Blue curtains hid the rear of the wagon. Kassandra reached for them, but then noticed the skin on her fingers had turned black. Needles stabbed the joints, but she forced her hand to grip the fabric. Almost there. 

The nightingale fluttered onto the stage. It hopped up and down, chirping and making a fuss. She jerked the curtain to the side and crawled into the dark beyond.

The bird pecked at Kassandra’s hand. She tried to shoo it away and caught sight of Luke Rykell. He was juggling again, but not at the stump. This time he stood on the platform of the cart next to this one. 

A cold shiver slid through her bones as she remembered Auntie Jo’s words. The original name for The Magician card was the juggler.

Kassandra had picked the wrong wagon.

The Frightening Truth Behind the Collective Intelligence of Swarms

Crowds scare me. Seriously, if I had to list my top ten fears of all time, getting sucked into a crazed mob would probably rank number one. The scariest scene from the film “Natural Born Killers” isn’t all the horrors Mick and Malorie dish out. Nope. It’s when the prisoners mob the warden and tear him apart. Frightening.

Ninety-five people died in a crush at a soccer match at Hillsborough stadium, in Sheffield, England, in 1989. Taken from A NewYorker article.

Ninety-five people died in a crush at a soccer match at Hillsborough stadium, in Sheffield, England, in 1989. Taken from A NewYorker article.

Whenever I see a mob of people I get nervous. Mobs rob us of individual thought. People do things they’d never do when thinking rationally. Now, Scientists are beginning to understand why. People have known all along that collective swarms act differently.
Aristotle stated quite succinctly that “The whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts.” So then swarms of creatures function as more than just a bunch of individuals. Take the locust for example. It’s just a grasshopper. Plain and simple. But under certain conditions is transforms into the plague that is the locust.

A school of bigeye trevally in Malaysia from a NY Times article. Photo credit CARL ZIMMER Published: November 13, 2007

A school of bigeye trevally in Malaysia from a NY Times article. Photo credit CARL ZIMMER
Published: November 13, 2007

Iain Couzin, from the Collective Animal Behavior Lab in Princeton, recently discovered that locusts don’t work together out of a common goal. Nope. Each one wants to save its own butt. When the locusts get too close to each other, the nip at their abdomens. Unresponsive locusts become food.
It makes me wonder if human mobs react similarly. When the crowd hits critical mass (a certain density of people) folks bump and elbow you. Ultimately the individual gets pushed in the direction of the mob. Well, you get pushed or you get trampled.
Couzin discovered that three simple factors control swarms of creatures: Alignment (the desire to move in the same direction), Attraction (trying to stick together in a group), and Repulsion (even sticking together, creatures still want to maintain a certain distance).
You can see this everyday while driving on the freeway. All the cars have the same direction (of course, the road takes us the same way), yet there exist clumps of cars. Drivers are naturally attracted to other cars. If you’ve ever been tailgated you know this. The tailgater sticks close to you. If you switch lanes, the tailgater speed up to the next car. Repulsion plays a part to keep the drivers from crashing (usually).
Animal swarms do this naturally, typically as a defense. If the alignment is not that strong, the animals swim every which way. A tighter alignment, produces that doughnut shape we see in fish. The tightest alignment creates flocks of birds that veer and swoop as one. The birds aren’t a super-concious being (as some believe). Each bird is simply following the cues of the nearest dozen or so birds. Sticking close, but not too close. Amazingly, when a hawk heads toward the swarm of birds, they seem to react as one. Even the birds farthest from the hawk (that could never see it) veer away.
This amazing video shows starlings at Otmoor shifting and flying as one.

Want to learn more, check out the article from Wired.
Now, just keep to your feet in crowds, otherwise you’ll end up like the poor locusts.
Tim Kane