Black Petals Issue #103, Spring, 2023

Home
Editor's Page
BP Artists and Illustrators
Mars-News, Views and Commentary
All the Sky Is Waiting to Be Told: Fiction by Daniel I. Clark
Fire Sale: Fiction by Christopher Pate
Kregah: Fiction by Ron Capshaw
The Beauty of Machinery: Fiction by Hayden Seay
The Cold Sore: Fiction by Chris McGuinness
The Lake: Fiction by Harper Hargis
The Price: Fiction by Josh Hanson
The Tailbone Is Connected to the Hipbone: Fiction by Michael Fowler
The Thorn Tree: Fiction by Lawrence Buentello
They: Fiction by Tony Ayers
Work Experience: Fiction by Martin Taulbut
Burns: 3 Connected Drabbles by Hillary Lyon
Grandma Medusa: Flash Fiction by M. L. Fortier
I'm So Sorry, Computer: Flash Fiction by M. L. Fortier
Invasive: Flash Fiction by Paul Radcliffe
Jumper: Flash Fiction by Kurt Hohmann
Personal Things: Flash Fiction by Cindy Rosmus
The Good Doctor: Flash Fiction by Ron Capshaw
Another Tomato Invasion, Again: Poem by I. N. Shimabuku
Curse of the Crazies: Poem by Kenneth Vincent Walker
Ghosted: Poem by Kenneth Vincent Walker
Meteor Moon: Poem by Kenneth Vincent Walker
Halo Around the Sun: Poem by Kenneth Vincent Walker
Maker's Image: Poem by Bindi Lavelle
Specimen: Poem by Bindi Lavelle
Blood-stained Jupiter: Poem by Meg Smith
Cat Science: Poem by Meg Smith
Mortician's Powder: Poem by Meg Smith
The Pinups of the Afterlife: Poem by Meg Smith
Dark Gate Park: Poem by Meg Smith
A turntable fabricates hope during the apocalypse in 3 parts: Poem by Dennis Bagwell
Reverend Mother Munchausen: Poem by Sophia Wiseman-Rose
Whispers of Winter: Poem by Ashley N. Goodwin
A Man Is Nothing Without His Wife: Poem by Ashley N. Goodwin

Lawrence Buentello: The Thorn Tree

bp_103_thorntree_hlyon.jpg
Art by Hillary Lyon 2023

The Thorn Tree

By Lawrence Buentello

 

          Again, the man dressed in fine black velvet sat at a table in a corner of the tavern, haloed by the light of a single kerosene lamp hanging by his head. His black hair shone in the lamplight, as well as his black eyes when they glanced away from the cards he dealt upon the table to assess the cowering men who dared still drink at other tables. For three nights he’d come into the tavern, a stranger to the village, occupying the same table, which had been declared forbidden by the other imbibers. After ordering whiskey he dealt his cards, which were neither traditional gambling cards nor Tarot, waiting.

          To a man, the villagers felt this stranger possessed an evil influence, some whispering epithets, which described an agent of the devil, or the devil himself. And they knew why he waited.

          When Doren Orney Byrne entered the tavern that third night, having little care for strangers or the superstitions of villagers, he sat with the others with his pint of beer, which to his mind tasted sour and cheap, and ruminated only on his own sad state of affairs.

          A young man shouldn’t have so few prospects, he felt, and so little hope for the improvement of the prospects he already owned. Poor, uneducated, a laborer with callused hands, he wondered why men were only born to labor, suffer, and die without having the good fortune of others, or the love of the fortunate, which hurt his heart immensely.

          For he loved her, but she regarded him as nothing but another common laborer, so young Doren Orney Byrne shook his dirty blond hair at the world, drank his beer, ruminated and cursed the fate of men born poor.

          “She loves another?” the old man, Walsh, asked at his elbow while keeping a close eye on the stranger in the corner.

          “She loves her dreams, does lovely Shauna,” Byrne said, the sarcasm lilting his voice. “And her dreams won’t suffer an ordinary life.”

          “There are plenty of women who would suffer an ordinary life, my friend. Why worry over only one? You’re young, and not unhandsome. Forget this girl before she makes you morose.”

          But Byrne couldn’t forget her, the lovely Shauna; her eyes held the oceans in their blue, her face caught every beautiful ray of the sun, and while she was never enchanted, she seemed charmed to the young man, who was foolish enough to believe in the singularity of beauty. So he could not forget her, or forget that the reason why she rebuffed his overtures lay in his poverty.

          “Who is that man?” Byrne said, nodding toward the stranger. He would rather change the subject, since he would never renounce his love for Shauna, and the stranger made for an easy distraction.

          “Forget him,” Walsh insisted, leaning back into his chair. “He is a seer, an evil man. We’d throw him from these premises if we didn’t fear his magic.”

          “You believe him magical?” Byrne laughed. “He’s only a gambler hoping to take your money.”

          “He’s waiting to take more than money, young Doren. Ignore him and think of your future.”

          But Byrne had come to drink to forget his future, which included only enduring poverty, endless labor until his death, and the loss of the love he cherished most in his mind. The class of men with which he consorted also commented on his future, and their lack of courage in the face of strangers proved they deserved their lot. Why cower from a gambler? No dearth of sporting men existed in the province, why should this one seem so frightening?

          When he’d had more beer, he announced, “I’ll speak with him.”

          “Sit down!” Walsh said, clutching at the young man’s sleeve.

          Byrne shook off the old man’s hand. “Are you so superstitious you’d let yourselves be cowed by a gambler?”

          “He is not the man you believe him to be.”

          The young man stared incredulously at the men sitting silently at their tables. “You are all old women.”

#

          When Doren Orney Byrne stood before the stranger’s table he found himself questioning his own resolve—but for only a moment. The man’s dark brow and shimmering black eyes seemed mere shadows in the sunken face, his thin lips calmly pressed together. His gaze met Byrne’s and held it as a man hold’s the gills of a harvested trout; and then he released the young man’s gaze and gathered the cards upon the table.

          “Sit, if you wish,” the man said, his voice echoing deeply in a room where no echo should exist.

          Byrne, disarmed by the stranger’s stare, shook off his own superstitious impulses and sat across from the man. “Who are you, then? Are you a gambler?”

          “Not in the sense that you understand.”

          “In what sense?”

          The stranger quieted the cards in his hands. Then, as the young man watched, he laid down each card face up upon the table in three rows of seven. Byrne studied the display before him and noted that each card bore a different image, some stark and horrifying, some pleasant and picturesque. A card of the darkling grave, one of a tormented face in flames, one of an alabaster palace on a hill, one of two young lovers in a passionate embrace—each card held an impression of either great beauty and joy, or immeasurable suffering and pain. And as Byrne was familiar with the Tarot, he felt confused by the symbolism of these cards, for they seemed nothing more than fantasies.

          “What is the meaning of these cards?” he asked, fascinated by their images.

          “This is the Deck of Fates,” the stranger said, his hands resting, palms down, before the array. “They foretell the course of a man’s life.”

          “Then you tell men’s fortunes?”

          “No.”

          “Then what?”

          “The cards decide your fate, nothing more.”

          Byrne shook his head over the cards upon the table, then regarded the stranger. “I’m Doren Orney Byrne. What is your name?”

          “Call me Hughes.”

          “Well, Mr. Hughes, I don’t understand why you’re in our village. If you’re not a gambler, not a fortune teller, what is it that you do for money?”

          “Why do you think I have need of money?”

          “Then you’re wealthy.”

          “In my own way.”

          The young man laughed. “You’re an entertainer, by my eyes. You wait for men to buy you drink and food in exchange for amusement.”

          “Some are amused, some aren’t. I only deal the cards.”

          “For whom, Mr. Hughes?”

          “For those who wish me to.”

          “Why would I wish you to?”

          Young Doren Orney Byrne then listened to the stranger’s disquisition on the nature of the cards upon the table—

          A man may study the cards as they lay face up before his eyes, Hughes explained, memorizing the future of his desires: in this way he would be able to influence the course of his life and become master of his fate. But then the stranger would turn each card face down upon the table, changing each card’s position in the array under studious eyes. When these manipulations concluded, then the man wishing to influence his future would choose another of the cards which would be turned face up again.

          Whichever image met the light would inform the man of his fate.

          “Close study is essential,” the stranger said, waving one hand over the cards, “if a man is to choose wisely.”

          Byrne nodded over the presentation. “And if he fails to choose the card he actually desires?”

          “Then he must accept the card he’s chosen. There are no exceptions.”

          Byrne leaned back in his chair. “Why do you make this offer?”

          “Why would you accept it?”

          The young man smiled and leaned over the cards again. Many posited horrific circumstances; fire, drowning, death in chains; others offered blissful contentment, pastoral feasts, gloriously apportioned houses, gold coins piled high in coffers. Of course, his eyes fell upon the card displaying the contented lovers, and he knew which card he’d most desire to see turned up in the lamplight.

          He turned briefly to regard the other men seated in the tavern and marked the grave concern in their expressions, but they were superstitious, and foolish to think a stranger bearing a colorful deck of cards portended evil.

          Byrne turned again to the stranger. “What does it cost to play your game, Mr. Hughes?”

          “The cost is your fate, young man, be it joyous or pitiable. No coin could buy the future of your dreams.”

          “Do you mean that if I choose to play I owe you nothing?”

          “You only receive that which you select.”

          “And if I select the card displaying the future I most desire?”

          “Then you shall receive it.”

          “Your game seems never to bring you one penny,” Byrne said. “What remuneration do you receive for playing?”

          The stranger’s thin lips widened in a smile. “Solely for the joy it brings to me, I assure you. Seeing a man achieve his dreams offers great satisfaction.”

          “And what if the poor soul chooses a terrible fate?”

          The stranger’s smile faded. “Then that is the luck of the cards.”

          Byrne studied the display of cards again, fixating on the young lovers. Of course this would be the card he’d choose if he played the stranger’s game, but why should he play? Certainly he didn’t believe the card he chose would decide his fate—

          “It is a trick of the mind, then,” the young man said. “I choose a card and decide I must fulfill the prophesy myself, be it good or ill. That is the fate of weak-minded men.”

          “If you say.”

          Then the young man noticed the card adjoining the lovers to their left which he hadn’t before—a stark, simple image of a black thorn tree on a hill surrounded by billowing black clouds. This tree seemed little else but an ugly ornament stabbed into the hill, signifying nothing of consequence the young man could perceive. The thorn tree seemed only a tree, nothing more. What in the world could it represent?

          Intrigued, he asked, “What is this tree?”

          The stranger didn’t bother to glance down at the table. “It is a thorn tree.”

          “Yes, I see, I am not ignorant. But what does it mean to a man’s fate?”

          “You would only know should you choose that card.”

          Byrne smiled, but nervously. “You mean to lend mystery to your game.”

          The stranger did not comment on Byrne’s suggestion, but only said, “Do you wish to play?”

          The young man stared wonderingly on the blissful lovers again, wishing the stranger’s proclamations were true. He glanced back toward the tavern’s regular patrons, who gazed back on him as if he’d been made filthy by his association with the stranger.

          “My friends believe you’re an evil man,” he said, succumbing to the superstitious impulses he knew were foolish antiquarian beliefs. Still, the strangeness of the circumstances perplexed him. “Are you only waiting to steal a man’s soul, Mr. Hughes?”

          “Men corrupt their own souls,” the stranger said gently. “I have no need of unquiet spirits. I only serve to foretell the future of men’s lives.”

          Byrne once again studied the idyllic image of the consorting lovers, substituting his own and Shauna’s for the faces on the card. “If I choose the card I please, then I’ll choose my future?”

          “The card you choose will tell your future.”

          The young man felt it might be a sin to indulge the prurient games of a mischievous man, and he knew no man may wish his future into existence, but if he could choose his future—a future with the woman he most wanted for his lover—

          Byrne decided that the man’s game had been offered entirely in jest. That no dire consequences awaited a poorly chosen card, any more than sweet fulfillment. Even so, he would win the game, conquer the stranger’s manipulations, and triumphantly present the result to his cowardly brethren.

          “I’ll play your game,” he said, ignoring the anguished stares of the other men in the tavern. “I’ll win your game, too, and have the future I desire.”

          “There are no winners or losers, my young friend. Only players. Now, study the cards well.”

          Byrne understood the intention of the game and felt prepared: he fixed his eyes upon the card illustrating the joy of the young lovers and forced himself to concentrate upon it only. The stranger waited a moment, then began turning each card face down upon the table, though still in their original positions. The young man kept his eyes focused on the lovers’ card even after the stranger turned it down; only for an instant did Byrne’s eyes move from the overturned lovers to the adjacent thorn tree as the stranger turned it, too—

          “Watch carefully,” the man said, then began slowly exchanging positions of each card, so that no one card occupied its original position.

          The young man had prepared for this maneuver, always keeping his eyes fixed upon the correct card even as the stranger moved it from place to place. When all manipulations were completed, and all cards lay displaying the same scarlet backing to the world, the stranger placed his hands upon the table and nodded to Byrne.

          “Choose your card,” the stranger said. “Choose your fate.”

          The young man recorded the correct position of the lover’s card in his mind before daring to look up from the table. He was certain of its position, even face down upon the table. More than certain. In a moment, he would see the lovers again and, if the stranger spoke truly, he would also know a future with his beloved Shauna.

          Doren Orney Byrne touched the tip of his finger to a card upon the table; then the stranger reached down and turned its face to the lamplight.

          Staring up from its dark hill and stormy skies stood the ugly black thorn tree.

          “That’s impossible,” the young man declared. “I know I chose the right card!”

          “You did choose the right card,” the stranger said, nodding. “For any card you chose would have been your future.”

          How could he have chosen the wrong card? Was he so taken by the mysterious image of the thorn tree that he let his unconscious mind choose for him? Now he would never know the love of his Shauna—

          “But what does it mean?” he asked, perplexed. “What does the thorn tree mean to my future, Mr. Hughes?”

          “Only you shall know.”

          Now the young man felt his anger stir, for he was convinced of his selection and knew he must have been beguiled by the stranger. No man could tell the future of another. The man only delighted in playing games, tarnishing peoples’ desires, giving false hope—

          Byrne would have unleashed his anger upon Hughes, but something in the man’s persistent stare stayed his hand; instead, he decided he must save his pride by dismissing the proceedings entirely, laughing at the game and declaring it folly.

          In the face of the young man’s ridicule, the stranger gathered the cards into his hands again. “I have other villages to visit, and other fortunes to tell. Like yourself, young sire, someone always wishes to play.”

          After the stranger left the tavern, to the relief of its other patrons, the young man sat again with old Walsh and proclaimed the proceedings nothing but poor theater.

          The old man only watched him with bleary red eyes.

          For a long time Doren Orney Byrne wondered over the meaning of the thorn tree, his chosen fate, but couldn’t discern any possibilities in the symbol. He continued his pointless labors, his covetous wonderment of others’ prosperity, and his fruitless pursuit of the affections of his Shauna—if only he’d chosen the lover’s card!

          One day, years later, drunk and impassioned by unrequited love, he killed the woman who refused his betrothal and found himself swinging from the gibbet.

          After he died, and found his soul hanging eternally from a thorn tree in Hell, he finally understood the meaning of his chosen card.

 

The End

Lawrence Buentello’s fiction has appeared in many magazines and anthologies. His fiction can also be found in several short story collections. He lives in his hometown of San Antonio, Texas.

Site Maintained by Fossil Publications