NEW ORLEANS — No town has more energy in the air than New Orleans. It’s not the bustle of New York or the vibrancy of San Francisco. It’s something more subtle. A whisper on the breeze, a heaviness to the humidity. Signs beckon tourists down alleys to join ghost tours, and it’s easy to believe that—even if the tours are bogus—spirits beyond our understanding flutter between the old buildings and across the narrow streets.
There’s plenty to do on a Thursday night in NOLA. But I needed my palm read. And there’s no better place for that than under fading sunlight in Jackson Square, where a cohort of women station themselves in folding lawn chairs to practice their craft. They read palms, tarot cards, and crystal balls. They know each other, sharing cigarettes and sometimes laughs, but they're mostly focused on their work: helping those who seek knowledge. I circle the square once, surveying my options, before I choose Melanie. She puts down her Newport when I sit down and sighs.
“I’m glad you picked me first,” she says.
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“Oh, don’t play with me,” she quips. “I know you’re gonna see four or five of us tonight, but I’m the one you need to talk to first.” She takes a drag of her cigarette and puts it out on the brick sidewalk.
She was right. I'm fascinated by palm reading, a vocation passed down through generations of women (and sometimes men). It's an esoteric art form built on ancient tradition, mysticism, and the humanity of two people joined together to seek some truth—and sometimes, an art form built on cold reading and confirmation bias.
I planned to see five New Orleans palm readers to learn the art of a good reading, but also because I had a problem.
There are two areas of interest in palm reading: the mounts, or raised portions of the hand, and the lines engraved in the palm. My mounts look fine, but I’m missing a line. Of the four major palm lines—heart, head, life, and fate—I only have three. I have no readable life line.
That can't be good, right?
The first time I paid someone to read my palms, I was a legal adult—19, but not yet fully formed. The day before that, a classmate with a book on palmistry had come to my dorm room. She took my hands in her hands, gently, her eyes widening.
I’ve never had beautiful hands: I bite my nails and rip my cuticles. My palms are hardened with calluses that didn’t disappear even when I stopped playing the sports that caused them. But it wasn’t until my friend turned my hands over in hers that I became self-conscious of how deeply, extensively lined they were. My palms have no smooth surfaces. They're cross-hatched from my wrists all the way up my fingers.
With a book about palmistry by her side, she traced my head and heart lines—the two strongest lines, which run almost parallel across the top of the palms. These were easy to pick out. But she never finished my reading. Instead of a life line, there were a dozen short lines intersecting, breaking, growing apart from each other. My amateur palmist gave up. She didn't know what to tell me.
I'm not particularly superstitious, but come on. I couldn't help but read my unreadable life line as a bad omen: Was I cursed? Was I going to die soon? Was I dead already? I couldn't bear the anxiety.
So, the next night, Yelp led me to a house in South Austin, my hands laid out on a table before a woman whose name I don’t remember. She told me my life line was there, but difficult to read. It was too fragmented, too blurry. The lines didn’t stack, she told me, and there were too many small lines to tell which ones mattered and which ones didn’t.
She gave me the rest of her reading: a strong heart line, a single partner in love, the cross marks of a psychic. “Why can’t you read my life line?” I asked her, when she said she was done. “I don’t know, honey,” she told me. But there was a hitch in her voice, something skipped and swallowed. “I don’t want to tell you something I don’t know is true.”
Melanie exhales through her mouth when I turn my hands over in front of me, my elbows on my knees, my body bent toward her. “Lotta lines here,” she says, looking up at me with a smile. “I like a lotta lines. Plenty to see, plenty to say.”
She skips talking about my life line early on. I hear the other things she says, but only barely. Here is what she finds: my heart line is long, extending up between my pointer and middle finger. It is also deep, because I am very in tune with my emotions. I will have one partner, probably forever, based on where this line ends. My head line, below it, is also very deep, indicating that my heart and head are often in conflict with each other. I have three wrist bracelets, which means I might live to 90 years old. The lines on the side of my hands indicate either three children, or one.
“What else do you want to know?” she asks.
“What about my life line?”
She smirks a little. “You’ve seen palm readers before.”
It’s a statement, not a question, but I answer anyway. “Just one.”
“And she didn’t say anything about this line, did she?”
I shake my head.
“You shouldn’t worry about it,” she says. “Your life line is here, but it’s stacked. There are several lines that all bind together at various points to create it.” She motions toward the center of my palm, a mess of tangled vines, never touching me, only hovering.
“But what does it mean?” My voice comes out sounding more desperate than I intended. Everything she's saying is gentle, kind enough. But there's something heavy in the silences she leaves behind, a darkness.
Melanie sighs. She adjusts her glasses, which have only one arm. “It could mean a lot of things. Because your lines are stacked together, I wouldn’t worry too much about health and vitality. That’s what this line is really all about.”
The next four women I see are in consensus: I have a life line. It is difficult to read. I shouldn’t worry. But of course, I do. The more palm readers I see, and the fewer revelations they reveal, the more worried I become. Between them, they have almost 90 years' worth of palm reading experience. Melanie has been reading for 35 years. A New Orleans native, since she learned to do it from her cousins in the Ninth Ward. Then I see Betty, who has 20 years of experience and moved to New Orleans from Baton Rouge in the early '90s.
Next is Lucille, who has been reading since the '80s. “Thirty-seven years of palms,” she tells me. “And you’re a writer, huh?” I startle a little. I’ve told each of the palm readers that I intend to write about my experience, but only after they’ve finished reading. Lucille’s booth is at the very end of the street. Could she have overheard me?
“Are you psychic too?” I ask her. She laughs. “No,” she says, “you just have ink right here.” And she turns my right middle finger toward me, revealing a inch-long smudge.
Palmistry, like any art, is a practice. Just like becoming a yoga instructor or a pastor, listening to people and giving them back what they need to move forward takes time to learn to do well. It’s a combination of what you see in the hand, what you hear from the mouth, and what you feel in the air. Sure, the lines and the mounts might tell you things, but the client's demeanor informs how you should present your findings. Does your seeker need patience? Confidence? Honesty? Lucille takes a direct approach with me, which I appreciate. “Trust me, this life line you’re so worried about ain’t nothing.”
“What do you mean?” I ask her, and she purses her lips before she tells me about a man with hands that said he was dying, a man with hands that showed no love, a young lady struggling with fertility with no child lines, an older woman with clear signs of sickness.
“Do you tell them you see these things?” I ask, and she shakes her head. “Only if they ask specifically. Most of the time, people already know.”
Jade, the fourth palm reader I sit down with, finds the same things in my hands—the tenets of palmistry have apparently become fairly consistent over the long history of its practice. My palms seem to say the same thing to every reader, no matter what. But near the end of her reading, Jade stops me before I pay.
“How many more palm readers are you gonna see?” I tell her just one more. She nods.
“And the first four have all said the same stuff?”
“Put your palms back out, girl.” And I do. “See these?” she asks, indicating the pinky side of my palm, where lines cross each other back and forth over and over again like grill marks. “These are psychic crosses.” She shakes her head at me. “Now you obviously aren’t trained, but you’re picking readers from in here.” She pokes at her torso, under her breast bone. “That’s why we all agree. You picked us all,” she says, laughing.
“Do me a favor,” she chuckles, “Go see Miss Cindy next.”
Miss Cindy is busy when I’m done with Jade. She’s seated under an umbrella just around the corner. The shadows cast by the surrounding buildings are lengthening. It’s hot outside, but not Louisiana-in-the-summer hot. It’s only 80 degrees, with a breeze through the sticky air. I take a seat on a bench inside the square to wait until Miss Cindy is done with her clients, a girl and a guy in their 20s, both hunched over silently. Behind them, a bar blares pop music and displays a inviting sign: “Daiquiris To Go.”
Three groups of people head in and emerge carrying tall, colorful towers of booze before Miss Cindy is ready. Miss Cindy does not play any games with me. She tells me up front how much this little reading is going to cost, and that I will get no more than 10 minutes. When I ask her how long she’s been reading, she abruptly tells me, “longer than you’ve been alive.”
I turn my palms open toward her, but she looks away. “Why’re you here? What do you want to know?”
I stumble a little over my words. No other palm reader has asked me questions before looking. “My life line is weird. I want to know what it means,” I tell her. I hope the twinge of fear in my words wasn't too obvious.
“The thing you gotta understand about palms,” Miss Cindy tells me. “Is that there is no right way to do them. Even the books contradict themselves… some say hatch marks mean psychic, some say they don’t mean anything at all.”
With life lines, she goes on to explain, the biggest concern for most people is the length of the line. A short line, in some readings, can indicate a short life; a long line, vitality. A deep line can mean a sense of purpose or that you are resistant to diseases. A large swooping line can indicate creativity or vigor. The reading, in other words, will tell me some things, but what matters is how I interpret it.
“Doesn’t that kind of logic undermine what you do, though?” I ask, and she stares me down. “Not at all. My job isn’t to decide your future, or even to tell you what it is. My job is to look at your palm and help you see what you need to see.”
We are four minutes into our allotted 10 minutes when Miss Cindy flips over my hands with her own. She’s the first palm reader to touch me. The first one to use her own thumbs to feel how tensely I’m holding my hands. “Relax, girl,” she says, and I do.
She runs her fingers over my heart and head lines, nodding. “Now,” she says when she’s done looking, “I’ve seen you seeing a bunch of readers over there. What have they said?”
I summarize what I’ve been told: not to worry about health and vitality, that I will probably have multiple jobs, that the branches off my line indicate creativity, that the many lines that cross it mean I probably have too much anxiety.
“So what is it that you feel like you don’t know?”
She leans back in her chair as I tell her about the first palmist's hesitation, about how her doubt cast a shadow over me. I wondered: Was there something in my palm that defined me and my future that I couldn’t see?
Miss Cindy leans forward and grabs my palm.
“Okay,” she says. “There are two things I’m going to tell you. The first is this.”
And then she points to the break. Down at the bottom, near the first bracelet on my wrist, is a clear break in the life line.
“If you were younger, say 17 or 18,” Miss Cindy says. “This would worry me.”
“Why?” I ask.
She shows me how the break is situated, how it’s composed of two distinct lines. “This could be very bad,” she says. Something like an illness, or a disaster. “It could have been life threatening.”
I don’t tell Miss Cindy that her interpretation (by coincidence or not) is right. Doctors found the thing that could have killed me when I was eight years old, and it took them three surgeries and two years to get it stabilized. As she watches me, for a second I think she sees the memory in my eyes. She nods.
“The second thing is a little harder to reckon with,” she smiles. “But not as bad. People don’t like uncertainty. I don’t like it. You don’t like it. A certain life line is an easy one to read and an easy one to accept. Yours is not.”
I wanted to ask her what it meant, how to find out, how to become the person fate and desire could will me to be. I wanted her to tell me when the right path would become clear for me. I wanted to ask her if everyone’s path was so muddy, and if my line would become clearer over time.
But she just motioned to her wrist. Our ten minutes were up.
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.