Ace of Cups

By Hannah Kornfeld

Note: Ace of Cups was first featured in our Spring 2009 volume. The story was featured incompletely due to an unexpected confusion with our publishers; the complete intact version is featured below.


A woman at the County Fair told me that I had keen powers of observation. I’d only stopped to read her sign, which said “Tarot, Palm Readings, & Fortune Telling,” but she started talking to me. I walked away quickly. But when I got home, I looked up synonyms for “keen” in the thesaurus. I couldn’t decide which I liked best, so I wrote these down.

  1. Avid
  2. Eager
  3. Ardent
  4. Passionate
  5. Sharp
  6. Discerning
  7. Sensitive
  8. Perceptive
  9. Clear
  10. Sometimes I say them aloud before I fall asleep.


I rarely believe something unless I see it with my own eyes. Occasionally, I’ll believe it if a person I really trust, like my neighbor Madame B, or my Daddy, tells me that they saw it with their own eyes. But I prefer to see things with mine.

In my notebook, I write down facts. What I see and hear. Things I know. So my notebook is a very reliable source. It’s an unbiased account of information and events.

For example

  1. My name is Taylor Benson
  2. I live at 2234 University Avenue with my parents, Paul and Tina Benson
  3. I have keen powers of observation
  4. I was going to have a younger sister but she died before she was born

It’s the end of June, and seventh grade begins in September. When that starts, I’m going to be too busy to watch people. Madame B says you need change to see things in a new way. I tell her I see things how they are. So if they don’t change, then I’ll still see them the way they are, not in a new way. I try to explain to her what I mean, but she just smiles this little smile and says, “Sometimes we surprise ourselves.”


The Morrison twins are little old ladies always sending away to win prizes and money. I figure if they spend so much time doing that, they are bound to win one of these days and I want to see Publisher’s Clearing House come to their door. The Morrison’s house has a thick hedge around it. A gardener comes once each week and clips it. I hide inside the hedge, and underneath it’s dark and cool and quiet.

Jane Sinclair is a senior in high school and drives a silver Toyota Corolla with a ding in the left front fender. Once, I overheard her younger sister Sally say that Jane lets her borrow a dress if it’s a special occasion. That seemed like a nice sort of thing for a big sister to do. Sometimes I follow Jane to the pool. She never notices me, because I blend in easily. Jane has a white bathing suit with yellow and orange flowers. Her stomach is flat and her bellybutton pokes in, like mine.

Steve Byron, who lives next door, is writing a screenplay. I can see into his kitchen from my bedroom. I wait until it’s dark, and then turn off all the lights so no one can see in, and then lie on my bed on my stomach and look through my binoculars and watch Steve read his lines. One day he could be famous.

The other day I walked by Elliot Masters’s house and heard a wailing coming from the back yard. I snuck around and stood beside the house, hiding in a shady corner. I saw Elliot sobbing. He clenched his fists as if that might help him not to cry, but it didn’t work.  I had never seen a boy cry before. Mr. Masters held their dog in his arms and Elliot crouched, shoveling dirt with his hands. Later, I heard Mom on the phone and she said Elliot’s name, so I went into the den and picked up the other extension and heard Mrs. Masters saying, “--thinks it’s his fault because when Elliot was walking him, Rocco lunged away and ran out in the street. Elliott’s just inconsolable.” I hung up the phone and looked up “inconsolable” in my dictionary. It pretty much means really sad.

I know that lately when Daddy says he has too much work to come out of his study and have dinner with Mom and me, lots of times he’s just sitting at his desk with his head tilted back, staring at the ceiling. The thing about watching people is you can’t let anyone catch you. I almost got caught yesterday while I was spying on Daddy.

I found a bunch of buckets in the shed in the back yard. Mom keeps her gardening stuff in there, and the lawnmower and trashcans and an old baseball glove that Daddy takes out every once in a while and oils, “Just for the hell of it.” Anyway, I found these buckets, big white five-gallon ones from when the house was painted, and I piled them up so I could see into the window of his study.

I stood on the pails and watched Daddy. The open newspaper blocked his face. Then he put down the paper and closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose with his thumb and pointer finger. After a minute, he picked up the paper again. Then he put it down. He opened his desk drawer and pulled out a pack of cigarettes and stuck one in his mouth. He sat like that for a minute, staring off into space. Then he took the cigarette out of his mouth, stuffed it back in the pack, threw the pack back in the drawer and slammed the drawer shut. A few minutes later he re-opened the drawer. Then he pinched his nose again. Then he picked up the pack of cigarettes again and looked at it as though it had all the answers.

I leaned forward--my nose almost touched the window--and then the bottom of the top bucket gave out and my whole foot went through it and I fell backwards onto the grass. It didn’t hurt, but the buckets crashed down loudly. Daddy didn’t notice, but Mom yelled out the kitchen window, “Taylor, what in God’s name are you doing out there?”

“I’m fine,” I called out from the ground, then got up and carried the buckets back to the shed. I limped a little.

The people in your family are the easiest to spy on because while you’re writing, they think you’re just doodling in your journal. For example, this morning Daddy was in the bathroom, and when I walked by, I heard a buzzing, so I looked in and saw him shaving his nose hairs. So I wrote that down, even though it’s not very exciting. It’s just an example of seeing information and recording it. Then I heard Mom talking on the phone. Her voice was urgent and rushed.

“Well...It’s just...Yes...I know.”
I waited for clues.

“Maybe I will, Maddy.” Because she said Maddy, I knew she was talking to Aunt Madeline, her sister who lives in London. Maybe you will what? I wanted to ask.


I have special powers. Sometimes I know who is calling before I answer the phone. And sometimes I can tell when a traffic light is going to turn green before we reach it. But the real reason I know I have special powers is because my wish not to have a baby sister came true.

I found out about the baby right after Thanksgiving last year.

“We’re having a baby!” Daddy said. He had this big grin on his face.

Mom held up a grainy black and white photo, which was not really a photo, it was something called a sonogram, which is like a picture of your insides. “There’s your sister,” she said. Sister? All the little hairs on my arms stood up. I crossed my arms over my chest. Daddy showed me a fleck on the picture and said that was the baby’s heart.

Madame B says stretching your feet is a “calming action.” Under the table, I pointed and flexed my toes. Mom hung the sonogram on the refrigerator.

Daddy kept looking at me as if he was waiting for me to say something, but I didn’t know what to say. I flexed my right foot so hard, it started to cramp.

Mom showed me her stomach. I still didn’t say anything. She took my hand and placed it on her belly. I looked at the table. Make it not be true, I thought. Please. Make it go away.

Then, four months later, in March, I heard Mom on the phone telling Aunt Maddy that she lost the baby. Mom’s voice sounded flat, and her belly looked flat again, where before there had been a bump. When she hung up, I asked her what she meant. How can you lose a baby, I said.


I live on University Avenue. The streets parallel to University Avenue are all named for insects: Cicada Street, Dragonfly Court, Ladybug Way. Madame B’s house is on Moth Street. She says she’s glad she lives on Moth Street, because moths are special and unique creatures. They come out at night, she says, and look exquisite (beautiful, lovely, elegant, fine; magnificent, superb, excellent, wonderful; ornate, well-crafted, well-made, perfect) clustered around a porch light. A moth has ways of camouflaging itself so it can appear to be anything but a moth--a stump, a wall, a rock, a leaf.

“Watch a butterfly try and do that,” Madame B says.

The streets perpendicular to University Avenue are numbered, First Street, Second Street, Third, and keep going up until they reach the neighborhood pool, at Tenth Street.


Last August, I saw a naked man on Tenth Street. I was riding my bike home from the pool and saw a tall man squatting next to a van, tying his shoe. When I rode by, he straightened up and stood there as though he had been waiting for me. He had nothing on but his neatly tied sneakers. I couldn’t look away. My face got hot, my throat dried up, and I started sweating, like how you feel right before you’re about to throw up.

Usually in summer you can hear sprinklers and kids shouting and cars and laughter but right then it got so quiet it was scary. No, eerie. I glanced behind me to see if the naked man was doing this to anyone else, but I was the only one around.

I pedaled away as fast as I could. I didn’t tell anyone about it. For the rest of the day, all I could see was the naked man. His hairy chest and bony shoulders. The red laces in his shoes. 


Madame B’s voice is low and musical, soothing. She’s traveled everywhere, like to Tuscany and to every state capital in the Continental US and to Scandinavia and Greece, India, even Antarctica. Madame B used to take care of me when I was small, and even though now I’m old enough to take care of myself, I like to spend time over at her house. If I’m walking, Madame B’s house is exactly four and a half minutes from my house. If I’m on my bike, it’s two and a half minutes. If I’m in a car, it’s less than a minute.

Madame B and I drink hibiscus tea, which she says was the preferred beverage of the pharaohs in ancient Egypt. When we have the hibiscus tea, we pretend we’re pharaohs. We hold court on Madame B’s front porch and speak in commanding voices. Madame B puts a striped dishtowel on her head and says it’s a pharaoh’s traditional head cloth.

If I had to choose only five adjectives to describe Madame B they would be,

  1. Perceptive
  2. Gracious
  3. Adventurous
  4. Considerate
  5. Worldly

Madame B has delicate bones and looks like she would break easily, but when we rearranged her living room, she lifted heavy furniture without help. Madame B always wears sandals, even in the wintertime, even when it’s raining. She draws on her eyebrows; they are pencil-thin and perfect. She has a short bob that she dyes auburn and curls under her chin with a hot iron. She gets her nails done every other Thursday. She says when she has painted nails, she feels powerful and feminine at the same time.


Before Mom lost the baby, Mom, Daddy and I would go to an old-fashioned ice cream parlor and soda fountain called Stacey’s. The three of us like the booth in the back. I get a mint chocolate chip milkshake, Mom orders a chocolate malt, and Daddy’s favorite is a banana split with extra nuts.

Mom takes a sip of her malt and says “Yum,” in this way that sounds like it is the best food she has ever tasted and she wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in the whole world. When I get to the bottom of my shake, and my straw is making that loud sucking noise that is the last melted sips coming off the bottom of the glass, Daddy winks at me and says, “Love those drugstore blues.”

Today, Mom and Daddy are out back on the screened-in porch. I hear Mom’s voice first.

“You know, burying yourself in your work won’t help,” Mom says. “It isn’t going to bring her back.”

“I know, Tina,” Daddy says in this voice he has that I once heard Mom describe as “patronizing,” which means condescending, which means you consider something or someone to be beneath you.

“Besides, I thought you were going to take some time off.”

“Well, that was when the baby was coming,” Daddy says.

Daddy’s lighter clicks and I hear the deep inhale of his first puff. Then the exhale. Flick. Suck. Sigh. He quit smoking, for the baby’s sake, but I guess he started again. I didn’t know Daddy was going to take any time off when the baby was born. I think about the baby in a tiny grave, like the one Mr. Masters dug for Elliot’s dog.


There’s a bra on my bed. A lacy one I would not have picked for myself. It must be from Mom because the note is in her handwriting. Before the baby was going to be born and then it wasn’t, Mom said we needed to go “women’s shopping” together. She said after we could have High Tea at the English Tea Room, a fancy restaurant near Daddy’s work. I planned to ask if they had hibiscus.

When I see the bra lying on my bed, I realize that this is what she must have meant by women’s shopping. I close the door and take off my clothes and stare at myself in the full-length mirror. Here’s what I see: a skinny girl with brown hair and big feet. There are freckles on my cheek I hate. Madame B tells me that they look like little constellations, right there on my face, and who is lucky enough to have the stars in their skin?

I’m only twelve. Breasts. I hate to even say the word. I can’t believe they’re attached to me. Boobs. Knockers. Jugs. I’ve heard lots of names for them but never thought of myself as having them, not until this bra is here, waiting for me to put it on. If Mom left it, I must need it. I think about other girls in my class, other girls my age I see walking down the street. They don’t look like they need to wear bras. They don’t look like a man stood in front of them, wearing nothing but Nikes.

The breasts are smooth and pale. The nipples are the size of quarters. This doesn’t look like the body I’ve had for twelve years. I hope the breasts don’t get any bigger. I stand in front of my mirror, looking at the unfamiliar naked parts. I close my eyes. But when I open them, the breasts are still there.

After the baby died, I didn’t know Mom thought about me much at all. But here is this bra, and a pair of underwear that looks uncomfortable. When I got my period last year, Mom hugged me and cried and we drank champagne to “celebrate.” She told me that I was a woman. That was sort of embarrassing, but now I think I’d rather have that.

I stuff the underwear into a drawer. I pull my jeans back on and sit on my bed. I lie back for a minute and put a pillow over my face. I listen to the sound of my own breathing. The inside of the pillow gets warm from my breath. I stay like that for a while and then throw the pillow off. I fasten the bra around me. I put on a tank top, but I can see the breasts now, and the bra straps, satiny, poke out. I rip off the tank top and put on a sweatshirt with the Eiffel Tower on the front that Daddy brought me when he had a conference in Paris. The sweatshirt is baggy. You almost can’t tell what’s underneath.

Madame B says that sometimes we don’t notice things because we don’t want to. That our eyes see but our mind doesn’t. Maybe that’s why I didn’t realize that I need to wear a bra. Or why Mom still hasn’t touched the room she prepared for the baby.


In January, when Mom was still pregnant, I heard her talking to her belly.

“When you get here, you’re going to see how nice this room is that I’ve made up for you.” Mom’s voice was hushed. I didn’t want to interrupt, but I didn’t want to walk away, so I stayed there in the hall, watching her and listening.

“Your big sister picked out that mobile above your crib. It’s pretty, isn’t it?” I didn’t know Mom thought about me much when I wasn’t around. She seemed more excited about the baby being born than the fact that I was already here.

“Your big sister’s name is Taylor. And your name is going to be Ava. Don’t tell your Daddy, though, because he doesn’t know yet.” She rubbed her stomach and smiled down at it.

I tiptoed away. Ava.

Ava Benson.

I said it out loud.

I decided it was a good name.

I want to tell Mom that I like the name she picked out, but I’m afraid it will make her too sad. Maybe even inconsolable.


I know that summer is a season, but I think of it as one long month. My birthday is in the beginning of summer, June 21. That’s an important date because it’s the summer solstice, which means it’s the longest day of the year. Madame B says it’s also significant because it’s the cusp of Gemini and Cancer. I tell Madame B I don’t believe in astrology. It’s just random--it doesn’t have any fact to it. But Madame B tells me that astrology is a group of systems, traditions, and beliefs where knowledge of the stars and planets can help to interpret and organize information about people and the world. When she puts it that way, it sounds like something I could understand. Madame B tells me that astrologically speaking, being born on the Gemini-Cancer cusp means

  1. I’m a private person
  2. I’m inspirational and objective
  3. I like to take up new projects, especially during the daytime

This is just a synopsis (summary) of what Madame B told me. I haven’t studied astrology much and I still don’t know if I really believe being able to tell about people’s moods and presents and futures just by the alignments of the planets, but Madame B says it’s important to be able to read the signs of the universe even if we don’t use what we gather. She says the stars can give us clues to information that we didn’t know about ourselves.


I ask Madame B about her real name.

“Why do you go by Madame B?”

“Just like to. It’s glamorous and mysterious, don’t you think?”

“Yes, but the ‘B’ stands for something, right?

She shakes her head. No. “The ‘B’ is just the letter I chose.”

“But it has to! Is it Beatrice? Betsy? Bailey?”



“Why not?”

“Well, don’t you think it would be weird if I wanted people to start calling me Lady A, or Cleopatra or Alice or Miss J?”

Madame B shrugs. “We rename things every day. We make up names for our boats and cars, for children and pets and houses. Why can’t we rename ourselves?”


Ava’s room is painted light pink with white trim and has a crib with the mobile I picked out above it. When no one’s home, I go into the room with the door that’s always closed and talk to her.

I tell Ava about Mom buying me that bra, what the sky looks like at sunset, and the time I tried venison but didn’t know it was deer, and I was sorry, but it actually tasted pretty good.

Maybe it might not have been so bad to have a younger sister.

Maybe we’d have shared clothes.

Maybe we’d have worn the same shoe size.

Maybe she’d have been skinny like me, or had the same long fingers, or the too-loud laugh.

Sometimes, I get tired of writing everything down, and it’s a relief to talk to someone other than Madame B, even if that person only existed for a little while inside of someone else.


“Pick a card,” Madame B says. She fans out her tarot deck in front of me.

I hesitate. It reminds me of the woman at the County Fair, promising to tell the future. Like astrology, I don’t see the fact in it. But Madame B tells me she taught herself how to read the cards and believes in what they can tell us. I’m trying to follow Madame B’s suggestion to be more adventurous with my thinking, which really isn’t asking me to do anything too drastic. Madame B says when we create little adjustments, we feel different.

Madame B looks at the cards. I shift in my chair. A few bugs buzz around us, but not many. Madame B burns a citronella candle. It smells sharp and sweet at the same time. Madame B says citronella keeps mosquitoes away without killing them.

She keeps shuffling the cards. She sips her tea and shuffles. I cross my legs. Then I uncross them. I look at the deck Madame B holds. The cards are twice the size of normal playing cards. They’re worn and brightly colored, with drawings of fairies and elves, flowers, demons, kings, mythical creatures.

Madame B faces me across the wicker table and fans out the deck again. She holds the cards out to me. I close my eyes and pick a card. I turn it over and set the card on the glass tabletop. When I open my eyes, Madame B is smiling.

“Ah, the Ace of Cups,” she says.

“What does it mean?”

“When the card is shown upright, the way you drew it, this card represents beginnings.”

“I don’t know about this.” I scoot my chair back from the table.

“Just give it a try. Maybe you’ll figure out something you didn’t know before,” she says. “The Ace of Cups is the planted but still dormant seed of insight. This card shows the potential, but not the final result of a situation. The Ace of Cups is a guarantee that you will have the chance to make happiness for yourself if you want to.”

I think about the Morrison twins sending out those forms with their name and address filled out in the little boxes. “So it’s like a promise of something?” 

“More like a promise to yourself. The Ace of Cups is the card of awakening intuition. It tells us your dreams have a chance to be realized. Because you drew the card, Taylor, now is a time to pursue those ambitions--if you want to.”

I think about Steve Byron pacing in his kitchen, over and over, every night, practicing his lines. “But Madame B, I’m only twelve.”

“So? ‘Ambitions’ don’t have to be big goals like wanting to be the head of a television station or a lawyer, or be images of what your life might look like twenty years from now. It can be something simple, like my dream to change this yard from a patch of weeds into a fine-looking garden.” Madame B gestures toward the tangle of wildflowers and long grasses below the porch.

“It seems like some of my wishes come true and some don’t.” I think about the bra I’m wearing. It’s itchy and tight around my ribcage.

Madame B smiles that little smile, like she has a secret. “Drawing this card will not make your wishes come true. This card is about allowing your wishes and ambitions to become part of your reality.”

I nod as if I understand.

I think about how much I wished not to have a baby sister and then suddenly I wasn’t going to. I think about Daddy alone in his study, holding the half-full cigarette pack. I pull up my knees and hug them to my chest.

I wonder if any of this would be different if I changed my name to Penelope.


I open the front door and hear Daddy and Mom arguing. When I come into the kitchen, they stop. They both look at me as if I am a stranger who just walked into their house and they don’t know what to do with me.

I go to my room and lie down and look at the ceiling. It’s not as smooth as the ceiling in Ava’s room. There’s a snarl of cracks that used to scare me in the middle of the night. The cracks took shapes that disappeared in the morning. Mom used to tell me, “See, nothing scary here.”

But I knew the truth.

I pull the pillow off my bed and put it over my head so I can’t hear their argument. All I hear is my own breathing.


I’m lying on my back by the pool. My eyes are closed and I feel a shadow. I think it’s a cloud covering the sun, but when it doesn’t move, I open my eyes. Ashton Manning, who is sixteen and who works at the snack bar, is standing over me, sucking on a popsicle, one of those kinds that is half cherry and half pineapple and your mouth stays orange after you finish. I squint up at him.

“Nice tits,” he says. The popsicle drips onto my stomach. He stands there for another minute. Then he walks away.

I wipe the stickiness off my torso. I cross my arms over my chest. Everything around me is suddenly quiet. That oniony feeling like I’m going to throw up moves through me but I swallow it back down. A fly lands on me and moves down my ribs, just softly enough that I don’t swat it away.


I’m still at the pool when I hear them talking.

“It was a while ago, but did you hear about what happened to Tina?” I open my eye a crack. It’s two women from Mom’s book group. I press my body down onto the concrete, disappearing like a moth into the towel.

“Yes. Poor thing.”

“I heard they even had a nursery ready.”

“I can’t imagine having a miscarriage when you’re so far along.”

The women sigh together.


Inside it’s chilly, even though outside the sun is shining. I go straight to the research section and look up miscarriage in the dictionary. I whisper the word aloud a few times. I read the definition. “Inadvertent loss of a pregnancy,” says the small print next to the pronunciation. Then I look up inadvertent, which means accidental. I flip back to “miscarriage.” I read the definition again. “A considerable proportion of pregnancies end in a miscarriage.”

I exhale and it’s long, the way Daddy does after he takes the first drag of his cigarette. There’s a lump in my throat like when I swallow a bite of bread that’s too big and it feels stuck in my back. I read the definition again.

The words blur together on the page.

I read it again.

And again.


Madame B tells me, sit up straight, open your chest, breathe deeply, and you’ll feel better. I think I finally understand what she’s talking about because I’m gulping the air like it’s water and I haven’t had a drink in weeks.

During the school year, when I get home in the afternoons and take off my backpack, it feels like I’ve been carrying that backpack for days and when it’s off I’m so much lighter. I stretch, my shoulders without the pressure of the backpack making me feel almost weightless.
I stretch like that now, reaching my arms toward the ceiling in the cool, quiet library.

I repeat the words of the definition over and over in my head.

I breathe again, deep, and leave the library. Outside, I blink in the bright sunlight, and walk toward home.

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