top of page

Bruce McAllister

The Bleeding Child Tarot


That is what the deck of cards is called, and why I bought it at the little shop on the East Side last week.  I look for him—the Bleeding Child—in these cards, and I do it every night in my apartment because I must, because the booklet says he is there if you will only look, and that if you find him, you will have again what you have lost.  I have lost so much.


Where is he—the Bleeding Child? 


Not in the first card—in the wands, which are saplings, three of them in the night, their small blossoms white, not scarlet, though the earth they grow from in the darkness is the color blood might be inside us without light.  Black heart, black blood moving through black vessels.  The darkness of stone, of eternal sleep, of eyes that go out like the only stars in an evening sky.  Can innocence and hope survive what has no light itself? I wonder.


Nor here:  Two swords, their blades white, cross while a narrow white banner waves in a wind. The moon is above them, white too, but if I close my eyes, place my thumbs against them and press, the moon turns red in memory.  Is every moon of childhood shared by brothers long ago a blood moon?


The King of Wands is a wolf with a thin branch in its jaws—torn from a tree we cannot see—floating in an evening sky that twinkles like a child’s dream above it.  It bears no blood on its lips or teeth or flank, or even, in its own dream, in its eyes, from the hunger there.  It must wait patiently for blood, for a child to stumble, to fall to rocks so much like jaws.


The Nine of Wands.  They are crossed.  They are sticks, not branches with blooms, four laid against four and the ninth vertical, holding them up, a flame above them.  A torch that says, “Do not despair.”  A fire that says, “Whatever bleeds will not stop because of fire.”  The crossed wands make a cross, but there is no body on that cross to bleed.  The wands float in a storm-wracked sky, the silhouette of ragged mountains in the distance to frame, to give the fire meaning even without blood.  An old voice—my own, trying to help me when the ghost of the boy I remembered kept whispering to me about blood—says, “Sometimes the light shines brightest against the darkness.”  What felt shallow in those days feels more important now.


The raven is headless.  Or it is hiding its head in its wings.  The seven swords do not pierce it.  The claws are open and rigid, as if paralyzed by an eternity of seizing the dead.  I look for a drop of blood anywhere, but there is none.  The tips of the seven swords promise that someday each will have a drop, but that is someday.  I must wait, the swords say.  I must now have a patience with death that I have never shown and never will unless I raise my head from these dark feathers and soften my claws into gentle hands with those I care about.


This is the Hierophant, and yet it is also an elk, huge, staring at us against the same starry, evening sky, a key—an actual key—to its right, hovering in the air—and another key to its left.  What does the Hierophant wait for?  Does it wait, as I do, to find the blood of the Bleeding Child wherever I might find it, where any of us might?  Or is it waiting to understand the viewer, to understand why I might look for blood when there isn’t any in this card, when life itself certainly must have many faces that are not bloody.  The Hierophant’s eyes, however, are black as tar.  If only they glowed and glowed red, just a little, like our father’s when he was drunk, I could have faith in finding the Child, in understanding why he bleeds.


The Lovers now.  Two white cranes, dancing before us, could blind each other so easily and yet do not.  Their vulnerable necks move in an easy love and careful ritual.  In the tiny head of each crane is a particle of fear, and in that fear one of its eyes bleeds forever.  But that is only a part of it, and not the most important.  The great bodies dance on, and the particle is but illusion.  Is this what the Bleeding Child is?  A fear, a dream, a lie?  Or is this—this very question—the lie, evil trying to make the Bleeding Child unimportant when everything depends on him, always has and always will, in a world that must live on like any other?


For a moment, in this one, the two flowers—Temperance—look familiar.  I’ve seen flowers before that have blood on them.  The blood of someone’s Christ.   The Dogwood.  The petals make a cross, each petal with its hook, a fang, a talon, a little finger touched by blood.  But these two flowers are not Dogwood, and the red spots on them are but pollen at the end of a stamen.  Yet is the Child’s blood not like this, a dust to be borne on the wind, on legs and wings, so that something important, once lost, can be saved? 


Nor this one.  These pentagrams—the pentacles—float above the snowy limbs and trunks of a tree that would be dead were there no snow, but that is, we know, sleeping, like the snake, dead but alive, coiled within it.  Is its sap, which barely moves in the spring, full of iron, red too, or is it a blood we can never understand?  Is the snow of its limbs and the silent earth around it a false holiness, a mask of purity that hides the inevitable decay of bodies, for it is dying, too, as all trees must?  Would a hint of red blood help us understand that the Child, unlike the things of this world, bleeds forever in our memories and cannot die, though the grinning face I remember did and always will.  As I watch, the center of each pentagram fills with scarlet and the color turns the snow below it the faintest pink, as if to say, “I am always here.  I cannot die even though you think I am gone.”


The barn owl, an animal I have always loved—because it was there in the night by voice or flash of white wherever I played as a child and still is, whether I am trying to remember my brother, or trying to forget myself—flies toward me against the blackness of the night.  Its eyes are holes through which I must see the night behind it, as if the owl were saying, “You believe I am here to fly at you, to make you think only of me, and yet what truly matters is what lies behind us all, the night of it, the darkness against which your brightness, like mine, though you do not believe it, can shine in the briefest moments of this life.”  Its talons hold a scroll of white paper, a message, a ban, a holy text, but it does not offer it.  The owl simply carries it through the night, and I have glimpsed them both in an instant of this life—bird and paper.  As I do, I see the blood in this picture.  It is in the tiny red flowers I can now see at the bottom of this card, drawn in a a boy’s jerky hand, because I am longer blinded by the white bird.


For a moment, I think I have found the Bleeding Child.  It is the Devil Card, a human body, chained, face hidden by the long hair and an arm.  But it isn’t a child, an infant, a boy, and there is no blood.  Why the Devil is chained, in pain, I do not know and never will, unless it is true, what people say—that a demon is but an unloved angel, or at least in his self-pity and rage at God believes he is.  Or perhaps I am to see the Child in the chained man here.  But why is there no blood?  Do his chains hide his bleeding?  A single pentacle floats above the man’s head, but this does not matter.   I understand and yet do not, but this mystery, too, does not matter—any more than the reason I smell our father’s drunken breath in every breath I take, the violence of his hands, world without end.


I cannot find the Bleeding Child in these cards, though the booklet says I will.  It is as if one card, perfect in every way, were missing, or it is there but I cannot see it because I look only for blood.  I see blood that might be his, but I cannot see his body, the one—infant or boy—that has (the booklet tells me) been bleeding for two thousand years, the mistake he was that night long ago, a birth that shouldn’t have been, under desert stars, to a darker Father, and so he bleeds forever for us, crying in the night, asking that we save him.


I turn one more card.  The Magician is a butterfly—one I remember from childhood playing with my dark-haired, laughing brother near our school, in the field, among the saplings at forest’s edge, in the twilight, the raven and the owl circling over us somewhere, below a blood-red moon.  The butterfly has two great mock eyes on its lower wings, and each of the minor arcana below those wings.   Wand, pentacle, sword, chalice.   As I look, the eyes blink and begin to bleed just as my brother’s did, stumbling on the path, falling to the rocks below because he was younger and clumsier and more scared as we ran from our father dead drunk and sleeping deaf on the sofa at the house, away from the fire we set that began at the curtains and blossomed into flowers, no movement in my brother’s body when I reached him except the blood on his head, which moved down to his eyes, covering them, to his cheeks and mouth, which opened just once.  The butterfly closes its wings, opens them again.  My brother blinks, his face healed somehow, the blood gone, the taste of it on my lips now because, like a wolf standing over its elk, I lick it clean, again and again.  At the corner of his eyes, no longer bloody, is the old laughter.


This is the Child. 


Bruce McAllister’s short dark fantasy, horror, science fiction and literary fiction have appeared over the years in many SFF&H magazines,. literary journals, theme anthologies and “year’s best” volumes; and have won or been nominated for awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Shirley Jackson Award, NARRATIVE, NEW LETTERS, the Hugo, the Nebula, and others.  His most recent novel, a book of linked stories that mixes light and dark fantasy, is THE VILLAGE SANG TO THE SEA:  A MEMOIR OF MAGIC; his most recent collection, STEALING GOD AND OTHER STORIES.  He grew up in a military family, but settled in southern California in college and hasn’t left since. This story originally appeared in the fall 2020 issue of PHANTOM DRIFT. Bienvenue à la Danse, Bruce.

bottom of page