Magic exists in many forms—and I’m not talking about the magic of stage magicians who perform tricks, or that of the poets, who squeeze it out of their imaginations and deposit it on miserable vowels and consonants. Rather, I’m taking a lower angle, preferring those neglected (in many parts of the world) types of men and women who read fortunes to the unfortunate—and in this case I will focus on a single sort: the coffee cup reader.
One of these lived in our neighborhood, back then in the lost horizon of the 1940s, when the war was going on. Her name was Tasoula, a widow, a large-framed older woman, portly and rounded, but as pleasant a personality as you could imagine. She always came to our house for the reading sessions wearing a smile, talked deferentially to her clients (for she had a legion), and exuded confidence and cordiality. Despite her excessive weight, which she bore with difficulty because of arthritis, gout, and swollen legs, she moved with a nimble step, “rolled along,” as my father used to put it, especially after she had collected her fee for her services and she departed by lightly descending the stairs, counting her money; for a downward movement is always more effortless for a person laden with coins.
My mother invited her for reading sessions but also on occasion for her genial company. Women gathered in our small sitting room, a corridor facing west next to the balcony, and chatted in the afternoon hours about this and that, exchanging news of the neighborhood, always a handy subject, especially during the war years when there was much to report—mostly sad news, for mines exploded and bombs fell, and air-raids interrupted the peace of the morning. But the afternoons were usually free of stress, and the women banded together—and also bonded well—and my mother was the kindest and most considerate of hosts, offering what she had, usually a little coffee mixed with ground roasted chick peas, and the blend satisfied their tastes, for palates, as we know, are adaptable.
So Tasoula came, with or without invitation and joined the other women, a cousin, or an in-law, or my mother’s sister Eleni who lived some distance of five or ten minutes, at the edge of the town, and made her appearance often enough. When Tasoula entered small talk faded away, for she always had the bearing of a benign dictator who will impose on the company, if not his or her will, at least the presence of one who knows and guesses everything. She could detect trouble a mile away (so to speak), and she knew whether one of the women in the group had a problem. Then, she would unfold endless wisdom—expressing it in superlatives, like “the most exciting news I’ve ever heard,” or “it’s appalling! appalling!” and other such epithets of flavor—and usually these periphrases led to an inevitable reading of the cup. A woman had a son whose leg was about to be amputated, for he had stepped on a mine across the fields of Acarnania, and naturally, she wanted to know if the leg could be fixed if exposed to steam from boiled chestnut leaves, a cure usually recommended by local witch doctors–still existing in the outlying areas of the island. Tasoula of course would offer a sage opinion, after my mother had prepared for her and the other women a cup of coffee. The cup was drained; then it was placed up-side down on a saucer and left there for ten or fifteen minutes, until the dregs dried. When Tasoula deemed that the cup grounds had settled, she would pick it up, after crossing herself and murmuring a prayer, turn it right-side-up, and begin to peruse its contents with the look of Pythia predicting the Peloponnesian War. Her expressions were calculated, and could be interpreted in two or more ways, but she was firm in giving the exact signs she saw in the bottom of the cup. Such was—her favorite—a straight line; that could mean either a road that led to success, or a death, if a spot lay beyond the line. If the line bent, it meant a sickness, but if the bent produced the shape of a Π, then it was possible that the illness would be healed. Triangles, squares, and other geometrical forms that escaped the comprehension of her audience usually produced complicated explanations to fit almost any occasion. Big splotches of coffee dregs meant disaster but a hole in the middle meant escape. Two blocks meant money, but if one block was smaller, the money would be lost quickly. It was impossible to fathom the extent of these intricate and knotty interpretations, but the women drank Tasoula’s words as thirstily as my mother’s coffee, and always asked for more details. Tasoula obliged, and long sessions produced more coins in her pocket, which was deeply sewn at the side of her gown. It could hold the national treasury, if needed, but her face gave the impression that she took it only out of courtesy, not wanting to offend her “donors,” as she called them. What she was doing—she let us understand that—was charity, for the poor and rich alike. If those who could give gave, that was fine with her; if not, she could read a cup for anybody in need, for people in need are the worthiest—etc., etc. I figured, by reading too many short stories, that she was an impostor, but nobody else had the slightest doubt of her reliability or credence, so I never said a word. My father was indifferent to such trifles, pleased to see my mother escape the tedium of the afternoon that way, and he never even brought the subject up at dinner, when an exciting piece of news floated around as the result of one of Tasoula’s readings (that the war would be over soon, for instance).
Well, things got serious when a real emergency descended upon our peaceful household. One of my mother’s aunts, Aunt Agatha, arrived one morning from her village, her donkey behind her, her boy riding on its saddle, huddled in rags and leaning forward, gravely ill. As soon as they were inside, and my mother barely had time to greet her, Agatha announced in a voice cracking with emotion that her son was near death! My father happened to be at the house and at once he asked what the matter with the boy was.
“Stepped on a nail,” Agatha moaned, “and those quacks up the village said it’s nothing, and now it’s getting swollen, and it’s worse, and it smells bad too!”
Losing no time, my father helped the two women carry the sick boy upstairs and then rushed to the local pharmacy, where Doctor Grigoris usually spent his morning hours with his patients. The boy’s name was Zois, and I actually knew him. He was almost the same age with me, about 12-13, and when I was at the village, at my grandfather’s during the early days of bombings, he taught me how to use a sling and lay traps for birds. I never hit or caught anything, but Zois was a nimble goat-keeper, quick in crawling up branches of trees, fast on his feet, and he boasted he could shoot down a single almond from those left after the harvest on my grandfather’s trees with his sling–and he could, and then let me crack it and eat the contents, as a treat. He was generous, friendly, and always let me keep one of the birds he caught, despite that fact that he and his family often went hungry.
The doctor arrived in no time. All of us gathered in the room when he examined the hurting foot of Zois. It was badly bandaged with rags, and as he took these off, I could see fluid ooze out of the heel of the foot, which was by now swollen to the size of a gourd. It was turning brownish—a horrible hue–and smelled like rotten meat.
“Hmm… very bad,” Grigoris prognosticated almost immediately.
Then he took my father aside and said in low tones, though I was close enough to hear him: “Gangrene has set in. You must take the boy right away to a hospital in Patras. The foot has to be amputated. If this is not done now, the entire leg will rot, and then there could be no is chance of saving him. Even now it might be too late.”
My father communicated the news to Aunt Agatha, who started moaning and cursing her luck in a loud voice. “How can I do that? I have no money in the world, and that other son of mine won’t give me a penny, the Scrooge!” That one was her eldest son, Andreas, a baker, who had recently married and whose brother-in-law, a trader, had helped him buy flour in the black market, and that is how he had made his living. He had actually helped his mother and her other sons (she had four in all), but now he had a wife who and expecting a baby, and these days one had to be looking out for himself.
I saw my father thinking, and I knew he had already made up his mind to do something for the destitute widow. His eyebrows were twitching, and his hand was rubbing against his stubble–for he shaved at the local barber’s only twice a week–a sign that he was about to take matters into his own hands.
“We’ll take the boy to Patras tonight!” he said without much hesitation, and I saw my mother’s thunderstruck look. During a war, a trip by boat–the only way to go–was a death trap, with all those mines floating in the sea, set up by the Germans and Italians to sink English warships. Steam liners and fishing boats obtained permission to navigate through passing lanes, but one never knew when a stray mine would hit and blow up a ship–and it had happened.
My father lost no time and went to find Andreas, who worked at a nearby bakery. When Andreas heard the news about his brother and what Doctor Grigoris had said, he took off his baker’s apron, tossed it on a bench, told his boss he had an emergency at home, and followed my father to the harbor to inquire about the Corfu-Patras line. They were told that Pylaros, a pre-war liner still making that route, was due for Patras in a couple of hours. Andrew bought two tickets, one for himself and one for his sick brother; my father bought a ticket for himself, having decided to go along and help them.
They left early that afternoon, carrying the boy on a stretcher. Zois was in good spirits, seemingly not too much in pain, and not very alarmed by the fact he had to travel. Aunt Agatha, seeing her son being carried away, wept and tore at her cheeks, as if she were at his funeral. She thought she would never see her boy alive again. She insisted on going along with the men, but Andrew convinced her she must stay behind. A wailing woman would be of no use in dangerous trip, he told my father. Both men assured her that Zois’s illness was not all that serious and that they would all be back home soon. The three went on board on Pylaros, and I saw my father on the deck waving his straw hat to my mother, who stood on the wharf with us boys and Aunt Agatha. She blew her nose with her handkerchief, and turned her face away from me. I felt sorry for her, and took her hand as we started back home.
It was a dreary, cloudy mid-afternoon, and when we got back she got busy preparing a snack to steady our spirits. She soaked bread in water, sprinkled it with oregano, drops of olive oil and vinegar, adding feta cheese, fresh tomatoes, salted sardines, and boiled eggs. We all ate in silence. Aunt Agatha, usually loquacious, kept her thoughts to herself. The rest of the day passed in dull silence.
While father and Andrew were away, a routine was established for the rest of us. My brother and I found life duller than usual. When back from school, we sat in front of our desks and did our homework in silence. Mother finished her daily chores by the middle of the afternoon, and then sat in the guest room with Aunt Agatha for a cup of coffee and a survey of the events of the day. Agatha sat on a cot, using it as a bed, sofa, and recliner. She talked about her son constantly. Nobody could prevail on her to change the subject. The anxiety about her sick boy fed on her mind the entire twenty-four hours; she hardly slept; barely touched any food. Her face, lined deeply and distorted with pain, showed her dismal mental state. And she never stopped voicing her fears. The house echoed with her loud talk, and her laments and cries could be heard throughout the whole neighborhood.
To ease her suffering, my mother invited the neighborhood women for a visit and a chat with Agatha during the afternoon hours–the best time for leisure and gossip. The women offered various opinions about the illness of Zois, most of which were favorable predictions. Naturally, Tasoula led these sessions, reading one cup after another, and making countless prognostications.
Agatha was aroused by Tasoula’s presence, and listened to her words with growing interest. It was the best thing to revive her spirits, especially when q whole chorus of women around her gave out exclamations, “oh! ah!…” every time Tasoula’s enigmatic utterances were heard. Few made any sense to them, but it didn’t matter, for sometimes it’s better to be confused and hopeful than clear-headed and miserable. Before leaving for Patras, Andreas had left his mother handfuls of change, so Agatha could afford to pay the fortune-teller on her own to read the dregs of the coffee cup for her, though it was my mother who provided the coffee, the cookies and other treats for these sessions–some of which lasted for hours.
Two days after the men left, a telegram came saying that the trip went well, and that the doctors were examining the boy. Another telegram came a few days later. It urged Agatha to have courage, and promised further news soon. A week passed. Then a letter came indicating that the boy was critically ill. This last piece of news so unnerved Agatha that she had a notion to get on the boat and leave for Patras immediately. She feared her son was near death. My mother was barely able to convince her to stay put and wait for better news.
To help her calm down, she invited Tasoula was called for a special session that afternoon. Tasoula was glowing in her sense of importance as she glided in heavily, like an enormous cotton ball. She sat on the cot, which creaked under her weight, took her coffee and sweets, ate, and then placed the cup upside-down on a saucer to dry. Agatha sat on my mother’s stool, waiting anxiously.
The reading began in about ten minutes–it took that long for the coffee cup dregs to dry. Then she offered a few conventional wishes, such as continued health for the lady concerned, her family, and all her friends and relatives. This time Tasoula was unusually ceremonious; she twisted the cup several times sideways, then up and down, making sure the dregs had settled and dried completely; she read prayers from a yellow booklet she carried in her pocket, invoking names of saints: Saint Anargyros, the Miracle-Doer, Saint Onufrios, the Helper of the Lame, and other such. At the same time she was making the sign of the cross, holding the Holy Text directly over the cup with her left hand. Then she took the cup and started examining it intently. All the women–for most had gathered on this occasion–leaned forward.
“I see a shape like a triangle,” Agatha began. “Another shape is here–next to a horizontal line. This is a long line. Then another triangle–a big, big triangle!”
“What does it mean?” Agatha asked breathlessly, hardly comprehending what a triangle was.
“Then another triangle, how sharp!” continued Tasoula exuberantly, without answering. “God! I have never seen such a thing before in my life. Five triangles! And look at this long line going around the rim. This line is never broken by anything. How miraculous! Here! The line reaches the big dot! See?” All eyes followed her finger, as it moved around the inside of the cup, stopping before a large, half-dried smudge of dregs.
“What does it mean?” Agatha asked again.
“It means your son is sitting up. He was lying down a long time–the horizontal line says that. But now he is sitting up. This is a good sign. Your son will be well. This other line (she actually pointed to the same line) shows that he is proceeding to take a long trip; a long, long one: that is, the one coming home. This dot here is you, waiting to receive him.” Tasoula ended her prediction with triumph in her voice.
Agatha gave a loud cry of joy. Her eyes shone, tears ran down her cheeks, and she smiled for the first time in weeks. My mother seemed deeply moved too. The words of Tasoula had proved a tonic for all the women, who seemed in revived spirits and talked about the return of the boy as a sure thing. No coffee cup reading had ever been so conclusive. It was a God-sent prophesy, with the blessings of the Saints. The boy was coming home; they all knew that. Were Tasoula’s predictions ever in doubt? The excited women tipped the fortune-teller generously, inviting her to come to come to their homes for readings; they all had their problems, and they all could use some useful advice and pep talk. They went away, talking to each other and making plans. Tasoula also received a large fee from my mother and an extra-large one from Agatha, who took her to the door with tears in her eyes. The fortune-teller rolled down the stairs, and out into the street. I watched her from the balcony, as she stopped to count the coins she had collected.
Father arrived that same afternoon. He came out of the steamboat, Pylaros, and walked all the way home, carrying his suitcase. Mother gave a start when she saw him at the doorstep so unexpectedly, his straw hat slightly tilted backwards over his head, his eyes sad and serious. She did not have to ask him for the news from Patras. She knew just by the look of his face that the boy had died.
By Constantine Santas