We call them ‘playing cards’ now. That’s in keeping with how we tend to treat things whose importance or consequence we’ve lost track of. They end up in the ‘entertainment’ bin. Or else we blithely hand them over to the kids to distract themselves with, so they might leave us to our distractions in peace.
But I’m not sure they were always diversions, those cards. I suspect that for the longest time they were divinations. I’m wagering that they were the nuts and the bolts of soothsaying. Fortune telling, yes. But not future telling. Sitting with them stilled the oncomingness of life long enough to get a feel for the prevailing breeze. They were a chance to get unused to life again, to see things, to corrupt the habits of the eye, and of the tongue, and the mind, so the bones of life could show through. Dealing, and being dealt: there was something of fate at play, and at hand. When the cards came out, you were awake, and the old Gods were murmuring.
I can’t recall the place or time anymore, but years ago I saw a handful of these old cards. Not fifty-two of them. That would have been too much wonder, too much beauty in one place for a civilian or a mortal. They were made of vellum, limed and chalked and scraped lamb skin, cream-coloured to the eye, with a surface you could see into. The designs were done with earth dyes, plant medicines, imparted with a kind of stylus that coaxed the colours, bled them into the vellum. There were hieroglyphs indecipherable to me, suits I’d never seen, numericals I’d never counted. Rounded on the corners, rough edged now and knicked from generations of being relied upon and resorted to and flung to the floor and held to the heart, they were a kind of family bible for sage work, for soothsaying, for finding a way, for staying the course. Unforgettable, really.
Given everything, given the giddy skipping towards ‘normal’ that we seem to be in the throes of now, it seems that we could use a handful of these old vellum spirit maps. Even though the schemes and skills for resorting to them have been set aside, demonized or denounced or put down, left or lost or trivialized, still it could be that having a few of the creased cards close by might help us reshuffle the deck on how it all could be, might help us make meaning of our lost days.
Scratches and hash marks, black scores and cross hatches across the blank screen of the old ways now mostly lost to us, the grabado prints of A Generation’s Worth were a prompt for me towards the old poetics and portents we are proper heirs to. Making an ordinary mystery of an old jarana, a beaver felt hat, a charro coat, a pair of worn farm boots, I was casting the bones of my own near future, wondering if there’s place still for Nights of Grief and Mystery, whether people would gather if we came their way, whether they should. Whether I’d get to don the get-up of my trade one more time, parry the monsters, clear the fens, sow wonder in the back alleys. What might be my generation’s worth.
Postcards: postcards are a distant relative of those old soothsaying lambskins. On our end we hope you’ll take up our offer to send in a question for the livestream Generation’s Worth q/a session we’re planning for the end of September. Each of the orders filled so far have included a postcard to you from us for that purpose, one of five reproductions of the grabado prints in A Generation’s Worth. Maybe you’ll decide to keep the card, post it on the fridge. You could send an emailed question in its place. We’re looking forward to a proper back-and-forth with you about the book in six weeks or so, and your questions will be the map we follow to do so.
Founder of Orphan Wisdom