Essential Lies

Joanna Manning

I come from a long line of fortune tellers, women who would have been called prophets in one era and witches in another, though predicting the future in the remotest parts of Appalachia where these women made their home required no particular skill. Their lives were largely preordained—an eighth-grade education for those who were lucky, ten children under foot and a few in the grave—but they still dreamed of other possibilities for themselves, seeing alternate realities in tea leaves and coffee grounds and in fortunes they read to each other in decks of ordinary playing cards.
        From my first visit to the old family homestead in West Virginia, I understood why these women would spend their precious idle time imagining life outside of the hills. It was beautiful country but stark and inhospitable, with evidence of difficulty all around, beginning with access to the place itself. The drive alone used to terrify me as we snaked along the switchback mountain roads, roads so narrow I feared any movement from the back seat of my grandmother’s old Chevy might hurl us over the precipitous drop into the woods, nothing to break our fall but rusting old refrigerators and other junk that had been dumped there through the years.
        Dumping grounds aside, there was a certain mystique to this mountain home, a feeling that is only amplified now by the hazy impressions it has left on my memory—Uncle Mac with his guitar singing “Frankie and Johnny,” the disapproving cluck of Aunt Spicy’s tongue as he played it. Bacon in the skillet, creak of floorboards, scent of cigars. Thump of Papaw’s Bible on a table, Holy Spirit creeping, watching for sins committed in the dark. My head is filled with memories of things unseen. I can recall the sound of the women reading cards late into the night, whispering as if they were afraid that God himself might hear them. Scripture was clear in condemning any kind of divination, but they were coal miners and farmers
back there in the hills. Damnation was the least of their concerns. So they comforted each other with their cards, seeking assurances God had seemingly failed to provide, their fortunes always the same—forecasts of financial gain, enduring love, good health. The good life.
        For people who were inclined toward action, the good life could only be found outside of Appalachia, and migrants moved in droves to cities in the Midwest or to major metropolitan areas to the north to find work in burgeoning industries there. My grandmother was among those who managed to escape the hills, landing in Baltimore in the late 1940s, along with displaced coal miners and various restive spirits. If she had envisioned the world outside of West Virginia as a land of milk and honey, though, the city must have disappointed her. She found an equally oppressive life waiting for her there—the back breaking work now on an assembly line rather than a farm, the abusive man in her home her husband rather than her father. Remember that part about predestination? At times she must have wondered if it was simply a woman’s fate to suffer for wanting too much from life.
        I can never know if my grandmother told fortunes with the earnest belief that they would prove revelatory or if she did it to feel connected to the life she had abandoned with an adolescent willfulness. As a child I never thought to question her motives; I only wanted to possess some of her magic. During every visit, I would study the cards alongside her, soaking up everything I could learn about fortune telling, though as I watched her, I may have learned more about unfulfilled desires, how want can sharpen even the softest face.
      The ritual intrigued me. The cards were placed in a circular pattern around a face card that represented the person whose fortune was being read. The readings were a bit like theater—there were the catch phrases and little flourishes, the pauses for effect. Those were the parts that took real skill, and in watching my grandmother it was clear that I was in the presence of a master. Though all of the cards had general meanings relating to the big things like love and money and trouble, certain cards had specific meanings and some were more auspicious than others. Drawing the nine of hearts, for example, would guarantee a person’s wish. Two threes falling together represented a pregnancy, two deuces, an inevitable event. Two deuces never lie was my grandmother’s phrase. The fortune teller is free to, of course. And I learned quickly that the easiest way to tell a fortune is to tell people the lies they want to hear.
       Card reading is simple, really, a party trick. I still do it on occasion when people are relaxed and friendly from too much alcohol, eager to connect with anyone, wanting to be seen themselves more than they want to see into the future. All I need is a standard poker deck and some time to observe, though even observation isn’t always necessary. Most of the time, people offer up information without realizing just how much they are revealing to me. I once learned of a neighbor’s affair by explaining the possibilities for the king of diamonds that had appeared in her present. Kings are older, father figures, married men, I explained. The mention of a married man was all it took for her face to flush, for her eyes to grow wide and still.
        “But he’s separated from his wife,” she said.
        I had everything I needed.
       The key to a convincing reading is to make liberal use of generalizations and invoke them as if you were saying something intensely personal and specific. Eye contact helps with this. You’ve been going through a period of change. You are filled with great untapped potential. Exciting new things are on the horizon. People will see themselves in anything.
     Almost everyone wants to know the same things from a card reading. They want insight into their love lives or their financial future, listening only to what suits them, the same way most people listen to the news. A few brave souls have asked me to dig deeper, to unravel the mystery of mortality. But that is too easy, the work of an amateur.
        Death is the one thing anyone can predict.               

When my grandmother was just a girl, a fortune teller told her she would die at age eighty-two. She died at sixty-nine, nine years after being diagnosed with lymphoma, perhaps eight years longer than her doctor anticipated—her tenacity to live inspired, I believe, by that fortune teller from her youth. Eight years lived by sheer force of will. Eight years gained from one essential lie.
       When she had had her fortune told at age fifteen, eighty-two years must have seemed an eternity. But those years tumbled on, gaining momentum with each memory, tumbling faster than she could ultimately live them. This is how the end will come to us all—as a shock despite its certainty, having spent our lives lying to ourselves that time is in endless supply.
        Lying is such a complicated endeavor. That exhortation not to lie, one of the first moral lessons of childhood, is immediately muddied with exceptions. There are the morally defensible white lies we learn from our mothers, ones we tell when decorum prevents us from speaking the truth. As we grow older, we learn the art of self-deception, lies we tell ourselves to ease the sense of dissonance we feel when we fail to act according to what we profess to believe. Lying is so much easier than examining certain hard truths about ourselves. Some people tell themselves lies that they go on to accept as truth: that they are shameful, unworthy, or deficient in some way. Others take a more optimistic approach: that they are exceptional or morally superior, beyond comparison or reproach. We make sinners and gods of ourselves with these lies. But they’re all forgivable in the end. After all, as my grandmother knew, sometimes lying to ourselves is all that keeps us alive.  
    But then, it was also self-deception that stymied any efforts my Appalachian grandmothers might have made to improve their lives. They accepted the worst parts—poverty, abuse, bodies that belonged to babies and men, never to themselves—because they believed not only that it was their lot in life as hill people to struggle, but that it was their divinely ordained burden as women to pay the debt of Eve’s sin.
        I have come to believe it is both the most profound truth and the most destructive lie that we have no control over our lives. These Appalachian women lived with a sense of resignation. They understood that everything was subject to the whims of fate: The harvest was never guaranteed. Their husbands might never emerge from the mines. Death visited children and the elderly alike. In light of this, they were more inclined to view life as something to endure, and to assume that they would ultimately be rewarded in the afterlife. There was little sense in trying to build a mansion from a deck of cards. Instead, they took comfort in believing an eternal home awaited them in heaven.    
      As a younger woman, I might have looked on their lives with pity. I would have said that with education and birth control and even a small sense of hope, these women could have lived out the lives they envisioned in their card readings. As I get older, I realize the calculus is not so straight-forward. While I’ve been freed from the constraints of the hills, have stacked some of the cards in my favor, I am still subject to the same vagaries of life that they knew so intimately.
        I have lived with the lie that I have control over some things, allowing fate to control the rest. But the truth is, fate controls everything that falls outside of the purview of the mind. We only control how we respond to what becomes of the choices we make. My foremothers were wise to understand this. They accepted life as it was presented to them and wanted nothing more, shouldering their inevitable burdens together, in a community that was unshakable in its faith that their suffering had as much purpose as their joy. The card readings were merely a diversion, a party game, too, in the end. I imagine what fortunes they would see for me, another foolish daughter of Eve, so eager to know what God had always intended to be unknowable.
     I still tell fortunes for myself at times, turning the cards in private meditation, trying to connect to a past that I can never hope to reclaim, to a future that will always be beyond my grasp. It’s tempting to believe I might find some way to access either one with this trick, to decode some meaning or purpose in all of it. How much of my life have I shaped for myself and how much has been shaped for me? Could my ancestors have predicted it all, or would I have surprised them with how cleverly I subverted the natural order of things?
     Sometimes, when I find myself groping for answers in the dark, I whisper my card readings aloud—to my foremothers or to God, I can’t be sure—asking them to tell me the truth of my life, even if they have to wrap it up in a little white lie. Tell me what I want to hear, I say. Send me two deuces, a nine of hearts, and teach me—at long last—how to accept the cards as they fall.   

Joanna Manning is the author of the essay collection Now I Understand You (Subduction Zone Press 2022). Her columns have appeared in the Tacoma News Tribune, and her essays have been featured in Iron Horse Literary Review, Tahoma Literary Review, Water~Stone Review, The Other Journal: An Intersection of Theology and Culture, and others. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two children.

Originally published in Moss: Volume Eight.

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