The Moon lay face down on the soil.
She was made of thin card, rectangular in shape and softened by the touch of many hands. Larger than a playing card, her job was to be read and scrutinised not palmed and concealed. As she lay, her face turned to the ground and her patterned back exposed to the sky, a conversation took place above her.
One voice spoke more than the others: a woman’s voice, belonging to Maryam, her keeper. This voice was deep with a half century of experience and spoke with the slow pace of someone used to being listened to. There were pauses and brief bursts of laughter.
The conversation was turning to her. Soon it would be her turn to speak.
“And finally the last card,” said Maryam as she slowly flipped the Moon over, exposing her face to the night air. “It’s upside down, so something to consider, yes?”
With Maryam, a young man and woman sat on the reddish brown soil, squinting in the torchlight to get a better view of the tarot reading laid out before them. They were both dressed in army fatigues, crumpled and loosened, clearly off duty. Darkness had fallen around them, and with it the relief of a cool breeze blowing across the landscape of jagged mountains. They studied the depiction on the card.
It showed a full moon, large in the sky, hanging over dusty plains and hills. On the horizon were two pillars, each one the mirror image of the other. A dog and a wolf, one dark, one fair, faced each other from across a plain. In the foreground there was a pool of water reflecting moonlight and a crayfish was kicking its way towards the water’s edge. A footpath wiggled across the middle of the card, leading from the pool of water away to the horizon.
“This position can be taken as an overview of the reading, or as a ‘by the way’.” The two young faces looked at Maryam and nodded for her to continue. “The Moon represents the realm of imagination, dreams, the subconscious, uncertainty. Perhaps all is not as it seems. It symbolises reflection. Both kinds, yes? Thinking, thoughtfulness. Also the mirror image. It can be a warning: keep your feet on the ground…”
The man gave a short bark of a laugh.
“…Or it may be a reassurance: your worst fears may not come true.” Maryam shifted her weight forward and brought a finger to rest on the Moon’s face. “Pay attention to your dreams but do not be inhibited by them.” Tapping the dog and the wolf, she continued.
“Dreams can also be nightmares, yes? Here we have the otherworld, the realm of dark magic. Phobias, over-thought fears. Indeed, over-thinking itself… The card represents a change, a journey, either one into darkness or one lit by moonlight…” Maryam raised her eyes to the young woman. “Does this card speak to you, Huma?”
Huma gave a shrug with her mouth, enough to show she was yet to be convinced. Maryam folded her hands in her lap. The silence that fell between them left space for the sounds of celebration taking place around them. There was crackling and popping from a nearby fire, shouts and laughter, short cracks echoing around the hills that could either be fireworks or soldiers firing their weapons into the sky.
“There are a pair of rivers in a country on the other side of the world.” Maryam waved her hand behind her, as if the country lay just over her shoulder. “At a certain point they converge, yes? One of these rivers is bright and foamy, almost white; the other stirs up the dark soil and silt of the riverbed, almost black. At the point they converge, and for a time after, they run side by side. Black and white. Distinct. After some distance they mix together, of course, but for much longer than you would expect they remain separate. A river split in half. Or a river with its mirror image, if you like.”
Parik spoke to Huma. “I like what she said about the Moon. Imagination, thinking. Always with your head in the clouds.”
Huma grimaced. “Actually I prefer these two rivers.” Maryam narrowed her eyes as Huma spoke about her last day.
The lookout tower was elevated 15m off the ground by a pylon-like structure. The building at the top was rectangular, divided into two squares by a solid wall down the middle. Each square room was occupied by a guard from one side of the border. Each guard climbed steps from their own side to peer out of a single window facing the other’s territory.
Huma had arrived at work as normal, climbing the steps that criss-crossed up to the lookout post. She relieved Parik, blinking at her with bleary eyes, and listened to the metallic clanging of his footsteps as he made his way down these steps for the last time. It was the last day that the border would lie along these exact lines and by chance also her last day of service.
She settled into her chair and picked up her binoculars. She liked to gather her thoughts before her first scour of enemy land. But today they weren’t quite enemies, she thought. What is it you call someone who is no longer an enemy but not yet officially a friend? She could already feel a slight lift of the dense atmosphere of tension that had blanketed her country for longer than she could remember. It was almost scarier in its absence, wondering what would move to fill the hole that this tension left in people’s lives. For three years she had worked on this border, her days of watching marked by non-events that brought with them a bolt of fear. She was going to try and treat today like any other so that the work was not made insufferable.
Now she was ready. She picked up her binoculars, gave the landscape a quick sweep and radioed her first report of the day.
Later on the sun had properly got to work and the heat seemed to be pulsing off the walls around her. She scanned the landscape she knew better than any, a landscape she had never set foot on. The hills fell away into a deep valley that was scattered with bushes and trees. The vegetation had always reminded her of a mouse or some other small mammal, balled up and clinging to the soil like it had just heard the footstep of a predator nearby. A scattering of rude dwellings lay in the base of the valley and Huma watched the slow movements of people through a shimmering heat haze.
For a moment her heart caught in her throat. Was that a gun? She frowned through the binoculars, wheeling the dial to try and bring the group of people into better focus. “Not today,” she thought. “Please, not today.”
The shape at the front of the group turned to speak over his shoulder and she saw, with a rush of relief, that he was carrying a rake. A farmer, most likely. She wondered if he was even aware of the change that was coming, of a pencil line drawn on a map decided in another country. At that point there was a sharp bang from the room next door and a call, muffled through the wall. “Cigarette?”
Huma braced her leg on the handrail at the top of the pylon structure and scrambled onto the rooftop. On top of the lookout she faced the guard from her former enemy’s land, the man who had chosen this day to break their mutual silence by inviting her onto their rooftop. He was about her age and as they took each other in they became coy, unsure how they should extend their greetings after spending so much time in neighbouring rooms.
The two guards sat on the rooftop with their backs to each other, facing out across their own territory for a change, each describing what they saw to the other. She noticed his accent, his speech dotted with unfamiliar slang. Huma was careful to remove any traces of triumph from her own voice. It was a hollow triumph anyway. She knew that life would probably be more awkward or distasteful for that farmer she’d spotted earlier, or for others like him, but she also knew that she would forget about this later and join in the celebrations.
She looked out over the nearest town on her side as a tank rolled through it.
“What’s that cheering?”
“Just some farmers. Drunk already.” She continued her description, “And so the road leads up to the hillside… On the other side of it there’s a well with the sweetest water…”
“That’s it?” said Parik.
Huma shrugged, “We spoke about the future and suchlike, where he would work on the new border, what I would do next, but yes – that’s it. It felt a bit like the last day of term up there.”
“Lucky you. For some of us there’s a new term coming.”
“But a new term nonetheless.”
Huma turned to Maryam. “Thank you for your reading.”
The Moon remained on the soil as the minutes ticked away towards midnight. Maryam had left the reading out as she always did, to run her eyes over it and to try and fix it in her mind. Huma and Parik laughed together as they were absorbed by the crowd growing boisterous around them.
As the wind picked up the group was suddenly bathed in a thin, silken light and, without realising, they looked up as one. The Moon watched her counterpart skipping out of the clouds above. This other moon was full and fat, sitting heavily in the sky. For a minute it graced them all with its presence.
The crowd was counting down: “…Five …Four …Three …Two …One …”
The other moon slipped back behind a cloud as the Moon was turned over and tidied away with the rest of the pack, readied for another reading on a different day.
The Moon Speaks was written as a companion piece for William Hsu’s work in the exhibition Hermes’ lack of words at Artspace, New Zealand. You can read a review of the publication here, or buy a copy here.