The Three of Swords, in some ways, was the heart of my book The Horned Gate. So instead of writing an essay-style post today, I thought I’d offer an abridged excerpt from the story instead. Jake is narrating here:
There’s not much in the way of paintings up here. Except for one: a heart with three swords piercing it. Piercing all the way through it. And the background makes it worse—gray sky with rainy clouds.
I raise my eyebrows at Lev. “Cheerful.”
He just gives me a thin smile.
“So that’s . . . what? Just an original painting by some depressed artist?”
“No. It’s based on a Tarot card: the Three of Swords.”
“What’s it mean?”
Lev stares at me for a moment before answering. Not in a bad way, exactly. He’s not measuring me up this time. “There are numerous ‘official’ interpretations. You’ll learn those soon enough; consider Tarot part of our curriculum.”
I blink. “You want me to tell fortunes?”
That gets me another smile. “No, we use the cards for meditation, not to pretend to predict the future. Various decks use both alchemical and Kabbalistic symbols—”
“Okay, okay. So why don’t we start with this card?”
“Very well. Tell me what meaning the painting conjures up for you.”
“Come on, man, that’s not fair.” I give him a look. “I don’t know anything about alchemy or Kabbalistic whatever.”
“You don’t need to, Jake. Whatever personal meaning you find in this card will be just as valid as anything more official.” He pauses. “In fact, I keep this painting here precisely because of its personal meaning for me.”
“Okay. So what’s it mean to you?”
He smiles and shakes his head. “No. I don’t wish to influence you.”
I roll my eyes. “Fine. Well, um, it’s a human heart. A human heart in pain, I’d guess, from those three swords piercing it. And a heart in pain like that—I don’t know. Maybe it’s supposed to be metaphorical, but I think of real, physical pain. Like my dad must have been in when he had his heart attack.”
“That’s what your father died from.”
“Yeah. A massive one.”
Lev doesn’t bother showering me with sympathy. “Physical distress to the heart is certainly a valid interpretation of this card,” he says. “What else strikes you?”
I stare at the picture for a couple more minutes. “Swords are old fashioned. But I don’t know if that means anything. You said this card is the Three of Swords, right? So that’s a suit.”
“Yes. The modern poker deck we use today has its origins in Tarot cards. Swords became Spades to us.”
“But I didn’t mean to distract you, Jake. Continue.”
Fuck, what am I supposed to say? “Lev, I’m really not good at this.”
“Jake, consider this part of your training.”
“All right, all right.” I stare at the painting some more. “That heart is crazy vulnerable. It’s just this free floating thing, you know? It’s not inside a body. It doesn’t have a rib cage protecting it. And since swords are old fashioned, you expect to see them with somebody in medieval armor or something. But this heart has no skeleton, no body and definitely no armor.”
“You see?” He gives me a nod of approval. “You’re doing just fine. Now, why do you think this heart is so vulnerable?”
“How would I know? It’s not like the picture tells me.”
“You’re right. Speak from your own experience instead.”
I’m still standing in the middle of the room, by the way. That feels a little awkward, but there’s no point in taking a chair. I can see the painting best from right here.
I take a deep breath. “Fuck it, maybe it’s all metaphorical after all. Maybe it’s about emotional pain.”
“And if it is?” He’s still got that neutral tone going.
I shrug. “Maybe it’s intentional, maybe not. Conner always tortures himself mentally over this, that or the other thing. I think that’s just the way he’s wired.”
“But there are cases where you think the vulnerability is intentional?”
“Sure. We all have to put ourselves out there emotionally, right? If you’re not a total psychopath, and you actually care about other people, then you know you’re going to get hurt.”
He doesn’t answer. Which is fine, because I’m busy remembering the first time I held Gus in my arms.
“It’s especially true when you have a kid, I think.” I pause, trying to find the right words. “When you’re a parent, you want to protect your kid from everything, but you can’t. It sucks, because you know you’re in for a world of hurt whenever something bad happens to him.”
“Yes.” Lev hesitates. “That’s, ah, exactly the personal meaning I draw from that card: that it represents the human condition. To be fully human, we have to be vulnerable to the tragedy of watching those we care about suffer. Or of losing them altogether.”
“So we pretty much walk around like that, right? With swords piercing our hearts.”
I see this card the way Jake and Lev do: that if we’re fully human, and fully open to caring about other people, we spend our lives walking around with swords piercing our hearts. The only consolation, I think, is that it’s worth it.
How do you view this card? Does it represent physical pain to you, emotional pain or both? Do you see it as emblematic of our human condition, or do you have a different interpretation?
As always, if this card inspires a meta, story or poem for you, leave a link in the comments! Meanwhile, let’s draw a card for next week: The Hermit. (Led Zeppelin fans, rejoice!)