It’s mid-afternoon in the historic city of Salem, Massachusetts, and I’m making my way toward a large building with the words “Witch City Mall” etched over the entrance. Despite the warning bells ringing in my brain (which sound a lot like telling me to turn left into the tasty Thai food restaurant tucked just inside), this is happening — I’m headed to have a tarot card reading performed by an actual witch. In Salem.
As I walk past shops filled with vintage toys, incense and other odds and ends, I can’t tell if I’m more nervous or curious.
I follow signs pointing me toward the Salem Psychic Fair and Witches Mall, and they lead me into a long, narrow room lined with round tables on either wall. As I walk straight down the middle, I try to keep my gaze trained on the floor, focusing on the frayed edges of the cute flared jeans I’d just scored on Amazon until I made my way all the way to a large counter.
The witch’s shop
The room is packed full of people and smells and textures. My senses feel momentarily overwhelmed. Perhaps sensing as much, a helpful 20-something shouts at me over the din, “How can I help you?” I tell her I’d like to book a reading, hand over $40 (apparently that’s the going rate these days to peer into your future) and wait.
I’m killing time, flipping through colorful books about divination and the meaning of tea leaves, when a woman with long, wavy jet-black hair approaches me. “Julie?” she asks, indicating I’m up. I admit I feel nervous about what I might learn (read: my fate), but she assures me that’s normal.
As I follow her through the crowded shop, I think, “This must be my witch.” Her eyes, the palest blue I’ve ever seen on a person, are rimmed in inky winged eyeliner. She’s dressed in all black, and her long, elegant fingers are dotted with delicate rings. I notice the latter detail because she uses one of those hands to gesture me to a small round table against the wall.
“Julie, this is Candace. She’ll be doing your reading today.”
I can practically feel the universe smirking at me. I’m apparently no better than anyone else in history who presumed to know the identity of a witch based on stereotypical qualifiers. But the woman sitting before me — a woman officially licensed by the city of Salem as a witch — doesn’t look at all like the stereotypes, so the joke is on me. Well played, universe.
I sit down across from Candace, a middle-aged woman with short brown hair and glasses. She’s dressed in muted, earthy tones and looks not unlike a friendly librarian or middle school history teacher. The center of her table has been cleared, but off to one side, a small collection of pedestrian items pop against the ceremonial purple tablecloth: a plastic timer, a bottle of water, hand sanitizer and a tiny tip jar stuffed with ones and fives.
As Candace begins to talk, I like her immediately. The first thing she does is pull out a decorative note card and ask me my birthday. She uses this to determine my life number, both in general and for the year. It’s 1, if you’re wondering, which is the life path number of “The Leader.” The healthy dose of skepticism I came into this reading with starts to soften as Candace relates my life path number to me in a way that feels personal.
My inner cynic crumbles more as Candace has me cut a deck of whimsically designed tarot cards and begins pulling them. I try to keep up and process the information she feeds me as she slides cards out and stacks them in small rows, like some strange version of Solitaire.
The cards tell her I am nervous about a big transition in my life. So, sure, this is vague enough to be anything, my skepticism says. But Candace asks questions based on the feelings she gets from the tarot cards, and that’s where the magic happens.
She picks up on the fact that I’m feeling ambivalent about becoming more rooted. This is significant, because I have spent the last two years exploring the U.S. in an RV with my family.
We’ve decided to once again buy a house and settle down, a life choice Candace effectively calls right down to the month we decided to do it. She tells me I am worried I will feel trapped yet offers a little reassurance — we will enjoy building community while our children are in school, but she senses my husband and I will hit the road again as soon as they graduate. Another universe wink? Candace and her husband also live and travel fulltime in an RV.
Some of the other details of the reading wouldn’t make sense to anyone but me, which makes me feel oddly validated in the process.
Candace lights on my husband and me starting a business together (we are), the fact that we’re letting the way loved ones feel about our life steer it too much (guilty), that our household cash flow has increased significantly in the last six months (it has), and other details that have been pressing on me lately. How does she know these things? Is this really like a game of cards — do I have tells?
The way tarot reading seems to work is a combination of what the cards themselves represent and what they tell the witch. Not just what she knows they mean on a surface level, but the “glimpses” they give her when she pulls them in the presence of the person getting a reading. By the time Candace’s tiny plastic timer goes off, I feel like I’ve gotten answers to questions I didn’t even realize I wanted to ask.
After saying goodbye to Candace, I think to myself that maybe the magic of tarot cards lies in confirmation bias — the tendency of people to interpret information based on their existing beliefs. This theory is admittedly dismantled a little after speaking to my friend Kristina, whose reading was specific enough to rule out any notion of generalities. Interestingly, her witch fell into this line of work after having her own reading several years prior, where she discovered she had been a witch in a past life but had been burned alive at the stake. She clearly handled that reading better than I would have.
So, would I recommend having a tarot card reading done if you ever make your way to Salem (or if you find a local coven who offers the same)? Absolutely. Even if you’re a diehard skeptic, it’s the kind of experience that’s worth having at least once. And if you end up in Salem, I hope you’d be so lucky as to wind up at a table with my girl Candace.
For now, I’m going to sit in the conviction of Candace’s predictions a little longer as I scroll real estate listings for mountain houses and inhale the spicy-sweet smell of wafting incense I picked up in a dusty shop on Essex Street. That’s magic enough for me — until my next reading.