Strategy one

I decided to create my own deck of creativity cards. I was sick of all the adverts for similar products on Instagram. You know the kind. They’re covered in pictures, patterns, and buzzwords. You shuffle the cards and draw them one at a time. As you place each card on the table, the brain’s natural desire to tell stories, create patterns and produce meaning takes over.

I made a deck without too much thought for form or consequence. It was an unconscious collection of signs and symbols. The peaks of curves. Greek letters. Compartments, boxes, arrows. I told myself that I could create new things like this. I could break out of old mannerisms and entrenched thinking.

The cards formed ranks and rows across the table top. They congealed into swatches of colours and patterns with a barely a thought from my hand as I placed each above, below, left or right of one another. I could divine no meaning there as yet.

I spread my arms wide and scooped in the deck. I shuffled once more. I thought about the patterns in pastry as you fold it to make layers: fold and fold again. All with the aim of creating ephemeral flakiness. On repeated laying of the cards, I began to notice weird mythologies emerging.

One struck me in particular. Some cards for characters, yes. They gathered there on my table. I began to hear, through the cards, a story, told in the night, about a flight of stairs that leads to nowhere. I could see the stairs, hewn from rough grey stone, leading upward into the inky sky. They were familiar somehow, as if dredged from the past but also seen through the milky lens of a dream. I could not help but imagine what it would be like to climb them.

The dark and empty air at the top of the steps comforted me. I had somehow constructed a place from nothing, and while it felt tangible to the unreal avatar that represented me there, I knew that it did not exist. It was not real and yet it was as cold as I had ever known. My fingers felt blue as I reached for another card.

I included various elemental signs in the deck. I had scribbled secret symbols on these particular cards that represented different states of matter and other physical phenomena. I turned the card with a vein blue rune denoting ice and saw my hand grasping it turn whiter, paler.

The next was a crude drawing of a bergamot flower, perhaps recognisable as such only to me. For whatever reason, the sight of it shocked me now, as though I had not acknowledged the automatic nature of drawing the design any more than the random act of drawing that card from the deck. I dropped it instantly. Began again.

As my candle dwindled I continued to construct alternative periodic tables and forgotten tube maps by this method. A circle line of Vetiver, roses, water signs and inauspicious phases of the moon. Lanthanide sequences from moonstone, thyme, quartz, heat, and hay. I was sure the results were meaningless, that there was nothing to be distilled from these arrangements and permutations. And yet, together with the strange and liquid shadows created by the flames, I felt as though I were creating new worlds. Each seemed more alive than the next, with voices that gathered at my shoulder to provide explanations.

Eventually the need for sleep began to eat into my eyes. No more reason and not much night left either, I muttered to myself. I stacked the deck and snuffed the candle. I took my head to a pillow.

The next morning I woke well after dawn and was instantly consumed with thoughts for a new design. I considered the physical nature of the cards and broke my thoughts down into their atoms, with one card representing each. I began to sense moods within the cards and even when shuffled I could feel an entire language of nouns, verbs, adjectives within, all jostling to be free.

Each draw of cards became a sentence said out loud in real time. Each line was a phrase that lifted from the table and made perfect sense with everything there in present tense. It seemed to me that this new improved deck was now narrating the world around me. I was speaking with some other voice.

The cards unravelled the truth of it. They unfolded a tale of a man sat at his table in the early evening with a deck of handmade cards. The candle newly lit and concentration across his face all writ. A man now coming to grips with the power at his fingertips. All his life he had felt condemned to wander in strange mists, but now these cards were beginning to light the way.

He saw the world around him as all forest. Dark with trees all twisted with knotted branches contorted into forms that should not exist. There were hands that stretched out to snag him from the path he now commanded. The brazenness of it frightened him but nevertheless he stood firm, certain now that this brawling labyrinth contained some sort of truth at its centre.

There, he convinced himself, he would see some sort of future shape, or a new colour, or the sound of everything at once, or infinite stillness, or something else calm as starlight.

How quickly I adapted to these new ways of working. Now the cards shuffled by chance spoke to me through the layers of my subconscious as rendered by my representations of reality into symbols and my interpretation of those same symbols. I began to experience the adventure in the labyrinth as though I were that same traveller, as though I were living his experience and not just drawing my cards one by one.

At the centre of the labyrinth stood a machine. The only evidence of its inner workings was a co-ordinated bank of lights that oscillated with changes in the data it received. Its purpose was unknown to me. The cards revealed nothing.

I started under the sudden sensation of being observed. I had become night-time viewing for a raven at the window. It stared at me with the incomprehension of a wild animal, and yet there was something of all nature’s caprices stored up in its gaze.

A bird’s eye is a window into some other terrifying intelligence, that which sees only what is there to be seen. It strips all meaning away. It reduces all thought to a stark calculation of what is needed to survive. I shuddered.

And yet I realised that this was a factor unaccounted for in my strange deck of cards. I had no way of discerning between the image of a thing and the thing itself. I could not tell whether a story told by the cards was a fiction or some read out of another time and space. I created new cards to reflect this, each sporting some variant of a black feather.

With the cards adjusted, I began to draw them out across the table once more. I returned to the labyrinth. I stood against a stone wall blotched with yellow lichen. I remember this place I said to myself as I distractedly played a finger over the rough pattens of outward radiating decay, the bristled arcs overlapping one another. More life competing for space. I contemplated the computer at the centre of the labyrinth once more.

I realised now that the computer’s lights were in fact the windows of a large city, seen from a distance. Gradually the lights blinked out one by one and stayed dark. From the overlook the city now appeared to be crumbling into a still mulch of shanty towns. Whatever message had once awaited me was fading now and becoming a harsh whisper.

Desperate for more insight I turned to the tarot. I had a deck in the games cupboard, both major and minor arcana. I felt disillusioned and dishonest for resorting to the chicanery and showmanship of these traditional cards. I felt as though I should be running a cheap fortune teller’s stall at a country fete. I could almost feel the costume beads I would wring in my hands.

I calmed myself. I needed to understand the truth of what was happening. I needed to know the meaning of it. I was resorting to these traditional methods for a reason. They were hackneyed and possibly inaccurate too, but the moment had to be grasped before it was lost entirely. A perfect set of cards might take years to produce and it would perhaps be even longer before its divinations were understood. Imperfect tools for sure, but I needed to act.

One by one they came off the pile and were arranged on the table. The page of cups. The nine of swords. The wheel of fortune. The seven of wands. Princely luck. A troubled mind. Serendipities accompanied by change. The man who stands for what he believes in.

I am outside your house. I am looking in through your windows. I see only what is. I see a man trying to arrange the future using the randomness of cards. I see someone waiting for change. Madness. A black feather shall be left here as a marker.

As we drive through the woods the headlights swamp the hedgerows and a deer’s eyes reflect it back to us. The lost moon caught in its antlers and a velvet dark is stretched across the dusk, admitting but a few stars. A familiar song plays, sweet and slow. A hundred thousand secrets are whispered over the telephone wires and conspiracies of radio waves.

The last three cards I drew: the mist, the mask, and the marsh.

· Tarot, Fiction, Short Story, Twenty

⇠ Am I caring for a naughty cat?

Old photographs ⇢