Balkan Voodoo

Bina floated her finger over the cup like a magician with a wand, making circular shapes and crosses in the air. “Here it is, you see? It’s a grave, and a cross, you see, on it? That line here cuts through this one, and blends into this one.”

Mira extended her eyeball muscles, stretching her lids, and pinned her nose into the cup until it touched the rim. She felt grainy, cold matter on it, smiled at herself, and tapped her right nostril twice, removing the black muck.

“Look, if you don’t see it, you don’t see it. I see it. You believe me or not? That’s why I do what I do!”

Mira smiled again, uncomfortably. “Of course. Tell me again what that means?”

Bina pulled the cup out of Mira’s hands. She put it down on the table in front of her, and it fit almost perfectly into a white ring.

She suddenly realized that she was watching Bina’s mouth move but no sounds were coming out it. It was like watching a Charlie Chaplin movie, she thought, just not at all funny. A Charlie Chaplin horror movie.

Mira cradled her knees and pushed into Bina’s dirty carpet with her toes. Her knees hovered an inch over an old coffee table and her chest rested on her thighs. She bowed over a coffee mug, trying to see the shapes Bina was talking about.

Bina reached her right hand across the table, with her long, red-painted nails and two golden rings—the engagement one, thin with a big cubic zirconium on her middle finger, and a thick, plain gold band on her ring finger. She used her index nail to point at something, and spoke with conviction.

“You see it now? Here it is! So clear! I don’t see this every day. It’s written, can’t be undone.”

Mira looked up at the long, skinny face of a thirty-six-year-old woman with thin blonde hair, brittle and damaged from bleach, tied in a ponytail, and bangs falling to just above her eyebrows. She wore no makeup and wasn’t pretty. Mira often thought Bina’s face looked like a horse’s. Bina had strong “smile” wrinkles framing her mouth and thin, pale lips.

Put some lipstick on, for God’s sake, you look like a corpse, like a dead horse, she thought then smiled uncomfortably, worried that Bina might be able to read her mind. She can read Turkish coffee, how far could a mind be?

Mira peered into the cup again, a small, espresso-sized porcelain cup, with an ornamented and slightly chipped handle she felt scratching her right index finger when she finally lifted it up, tilting it toward the window.

“I must be blind.”

Such is Serbia, she thought. We’ll never get into the European Union trusting fortune-tellers and avoiding work like the plague.

She didn’t see, she just couldn’t see it.

Bina sighed loudly, got up from her wooden stool and leaned over Mira and her cup from behind. Mira was startled by Bina’s long, sharp claws and cold hands as they gripped her shoulders and pulled them as far down as physically possible.

Bina’s index nail glistened again.

“Hmmm, I see some good news, too. If what I said before was not good news. Just saying. I see you’ll be fine, your daughters will be fine, you’ll survive it, move on. Both of your daughters married good men,” she said and went back to her seat with the cup in her hand.

Mira wasn’t looking at the cup anymore. She was looking at Bina’s elongated white face, too white for a healthy person, she thought. She wondered if she were pale herself, having heard what she’d just heard. She cradled her neck in her hands, began touching her face with her fingers, looking for warmth. The room they were in was drafty, and she felt the air in her stomach. She suddenly realized that she was watching Bina’s mouth move but no sounds were coming out it. It was like watching a Charlie Chaplin movie, she thought, just not at all funny. A Charlie Chaplin horror movie.

Bina lifted her blue eyes and darted them into Mira’s.

“So, what do you think? What will you do?”

“What? About what?”

“About what I just said. Will you do something? Or leave it to God’s will?”

God’s will, Mira thought. Yes, I could do that. Wasn’t that what I was doing all along?

“I’m not sure,” she said.

“Well, I am. You will be a widow. So, prepare yourself. If it’s any consolation, I’ve been one for years, and it’s hard at first, but then you get used to it. Plus, it’s better than being divorced.”

Mira smiled one more time. “Thank you,” she said.

“Don’t! You know you shouldn’t thank me for reading your cup. It’s a custom.”

The two women were now standing on each side of the coffee table. Mira bowed to pick up her cup and bring it to the kitchen sink, but Bina said: “Don’t. Leave it. I’ll do it.”

Mira pulled her spine straight back and retracted her arm, slowly, like a marionette, hung her purse on her right shoulder and walked toward the door. Bina was right behind her.

“Then…I’ll see you. Pleasant!” Mira said absently.

“Pleasant!” Bina said and quickly closed the door behind Mira, who was suddenly swallowed by the darkness and dampness of a marble and concrete hallway. She felt her way toward the opposite wall, smooth and cold, until she found a thick plastic light switch. The light bulb was so strong that she squinted and had to cover her eyes for a few seconds, still holding on to the wall. Then she slowly walked down, feeling every step with the balls of her feet, as if she still couldn’t see.

She walked into a cloudy day, and was grateful for the lack of sun. Her home was fifteen minutes away, and she looked at her watch. It was 2:45 p.m. Her husband might already be home, and she needed more time alone, to think. He usually worked until three p.m. but would often get off work early. Such is Serbia, she thought. We’ll never get into the European Union trusting fortune-tellers and avoiding work like the plague.

She knew she shouldn’t trust Bina. But there was something in her bones, or the left side of her brain, that just couldn’t resist going to her, and asking her to read her future from a drained cup of Turkish coffee. Maybe it had to do with her grandmother Dika believing in this magic, this Balkan Voodoo, actually knowing a lot about it, and knowing how to make it, and how to make it work. Then her mother believed in it, too, to such a degree she disowned her mother-in-law for the use of this magic, claiming she found a bunch of her hair and fabric from her clothes tied together in a deliberate manner and thrown into her backyard. After that, her mother persuaded her father that Dika hated her and wanted her ill or even dead. Mira’s father then shunned Dika, his own mother, from her own property, and she spent the rest of her years crying in front of her child’s green iron gate. Mira tried to reason with her mother but deep down there was something that prevented her from saying: “Mother, this is ridiculous! Magic doesn’t exist. Voodoo doesn’t exist. You are delusional!”

The whole village she grew up in believed in voodoo. All those people, thousands, mostly older. There must have been something to it. They had the experience. They must have seen it working.

Mira walked home along a street that had no sidewalk. She would occasionally stop to make sure the car driving toward her could pass her without running over her foot or brushing against her body. When she reached the railway crossing, she stopped, looked left and right while leaning forward, listened, and then crossed, despite the fact that the ramp was up.

Those things can be broken, she remembered her grandmother saying long ago. Stop, wait, look. And she always did. She always listened to everything her grandmother said, then her mother, then not much later, her husband.

She walked parallel to the railway tracks, again on the street, wide and long, with a weed and trash-covered area on the right that was supposed to be planted with flowers and grass. She never understood how people could throw trash on the ground; why couldn’t they wait until they found a trash can? Aren’t they bothered by living among trash? Ever since her girls learned how to speak and walk, she taught them not to litter. And now they were happy, away from her, in Austria, both married to German diplomats. The good life, she thought, something she always wanted for them, even though she missed them every minute of every day, sometimes so much that she felt as if her flesh were falling off her bones.

And she was now alone with her husband.

She began to realize that she didn’t have to put up with his temper and his infidelities any longer. Their children had flown high out of their nest, never to come back, and she once again had an opportunity to be free.

She only wanted to make sure, before she did anything drastic, and that’s why she’d gone to Bina.

And now what? Everything was spoiled.

How can I leave him if he’s going to die? I could never live with myself, Mira thought crossing the street, continuing along the dirt path by the tracks.

She knew that her daughters would laugh at her. They didn’t believe in fortune-telling. They were both worldly. And they’d both wanted Mira to leave their father years ago, when they were in college, when they’d caught him making plans with another woman, their age, while Mira was at work. She knew she couldn’t tell them she gave up on leaving him, once again, because the fortune-teller told her she would be a widow.

She suddenly stopped, as if planted in the ground by some sudden force from above, no more than fifty feet away from her home. This was the day she was to announce to him that she would be leaving. Or that he should leave and let her stay in the house. Go, move in with one of his girlfriends, she didn’t care, not anymore. Not after twenty-six years.

She knew he would deny it. She knew he would say no. “What girlfriends?! You’re crazy, you’re delusional, you’re irrationally jealous…”

He would never admit it! Admitting it would make it final. This way, there was always a small chance that he actually never cheated, that it was all in Mira’s head. It could never be proven unless he confessed.

But now, what if she left, and something terrible happened to him? And she’d been warned? She could never live like that! She could never forgive herself. He was her husband, her children’s father. The only man she’d ever been with. She’d fallen in love with him when she was eighteen, loved him still, she thought. At least, that’s what she thought love was.

She freed herself from gravel and dirt and walked onto the concrete again, eyeing their house—white, three-leveled, with a big backyard and a marble fountain, the house filled with antique furniture and old paintings. She was proud of her house, her handpicked things. She made sure all the pieces, from the curtains in the living room to the coffee cups in the kitchen, were special, rare, and well-taken care of. No stains, no chips, no breaks. Everything matching, as in the latest home decoration catalogue—arm chairs and carpets, tablecloths and china. She’d also made a small shrine to her grandmother in one corner—an old, heavy, rusty iron and an ornate golden-colored coffee grinder on hand-woven, white-laced doilies.

She was at the tall iron gate, looking for her keys in her purse, when their fourteen-year old dog barked, came to her, licked her hands through the gate and began wagging his tail. She pushed her way into the corridor, shooing him away so he wouldn’t, by accident, slide by her. He ran manically around her, trying to woo her to play with him, chase him, throw the ball for him, but she ignored him. She opened the massive wooden door to the outside hallway she’d added to the house after they bought it, so the shoes wouldn’t smell inside her living room, and, through a window, from the hallway, saw her husband on the sofa watching TV. She closed her eyes for a second, her back pressed against the wall, so he couldn’t see her, and thought of what her life could be, would be, if she would say “enough” now, this minute, as she’d been planning to do for months.

Why did I go?

Her breath deepened and she began taking her shoes off in slow motion, to buy time, her eyes still closed.

It’s written, it’s can’t be undone; it’s written, it can’t be undone; it’s written it can’t be undone, the words buzzing in her ears until she couldn’t hear any other thoughts.

“Mira?” her husband called from the living room.

“Yes?”

“What took you so long? What are you doing in the hallway? Where were you, anyway? You know I hate when I come back from work and you’re not here!”

She opened her eyes, breathed out and said: “I had coffee with Bina.”

“You went to see that witch again? Didn’t I tell you I didn’t want you to see her anymore? We’ll discuss that later. Now, I’m hungry. Did you make dinner before you left?”

She stepped inside their living room, looking at his back. He was still watching TV, a soccer game was on. The sounds of whistles and horns filled the room. She smelled sweat mixed with alcohol. He didn’t turn around, he didn’t even look at her. He was mesmerized by the ball on TV. Like a dog, she thought. How could I have fallen in love with someone like that?

She was looking at the bald round spot on the top of his head with its thin dark skin, then his small ears, his wrinkled, saggy neck, his tiny shoulders. When she met him he’d had long curly dark hair and moustaches. He was riding a motorcycle. He was charming and seductive. She’d stood no chance.

Five months later, she was pregnant and engaged. Two years after that, she was married with a toddler and a newborn. She wasn’t even twenty-one.

“Mira, dinner, I said. How many times do I have to say I’m hungry? And bring me another beer.”

A vein on her temple began pulsating. She felt hot, so hot that she took her cardigan off. Her chest and stomach felt tight, and the tightness spread into her hands and legs, itching and tingling.

“I want a divorce,” she said, quietly and pulled her head and neck down into her shoulders.

He didn’t say anything. A referee on the TV blew into his whistle.

“I want a divorce,” she said more loudly, and hugged herself, as if she were cold.

“Huh,” he said. “Don’t make me laugh, I had too much beer.”

Her eyes landed on a crystal vase with dried red roses she had bought herself five days ago at the green market on the corner. The last time he bought her flowers was when their second daughter was born. A month later, she heard he was having an affair. He was seen with another woman, walking, drinking in kafanas, smiling. God knows what else, Mira thought.

The vase was behind his back, on a small glass coffee table, messy with his pieces of paper—scribbles on them, names, numbers; beer bottles, and a few peanuts left in a bowl. He bought her this empty shell of crystal for their fifth anniversary. It was delivered with a card: I have to work late. Happy anniversary!

She walked to it slowly, like a cat and pressed her right palm against the cold crystal, half-filled with yellowish water, and closed her fingers.

“Mir..?”

He finally turned around. She hugged the vase into her chest.

“What the hell are you doing? What got into you?” he said, his eyes wide but thin, like a snake’s.

The cheering sounds began filling the room.

“What?! Did I miss…I miss a goal because of you, bitch. Move your fat ass,” he said getting up.

Mira shook. Her body felt feverish.

“No. We need to talk.”

“What is wrong with you, move I said. We can talk after the game. MOVE, NOW,” he said. “Move, I’m warning you, don’t make me get up. I will wipe the carpet with you!”

Mira stepped to the left. He started swearing at the TV. She was still holding the vase.

 

The water from the vase was mixed with blood on her white Turkish carpet, and for the first time she didn’t care. She looked at his distorted face, and on it she could read horror, disbelief and pain. His right hand was clenched above his head, like a paw, pointing toward her, accusing her, threatening her. His mouth was moving but no sound was coming out of it. She knew what he was saying: If I survive this, you won’t.

Then she was hit by a wave of unexpected pain that completely shut her body down. She bowed forward, as if something collapsed on her from above, her face hovering above her knees, her head hanging upside down, cradled by her hands. The tears began dropping simultaneously from her nose and her eyes onto the floor. She was afraid to look at him again.

The dog was whimpering and banging at the door.

She finally lifted her torso up and looked at the immobile body on the carpet. His dark eyes glassed over and looked brighter. His hand was still clenched into a fist.

He did not look peaceful.

Mira fell on her knees next to him and pressed her head to his chest. It was still warm but silent. She rocked back and forth, like a cradle, her body squeezed in a tight ball.

The water from the carpet seeped onto her pants, and she began to shiver. She started pulling her hair out and gasping for breath.

The pain seemed like a beast now, swallowing the whole house, as if it were a bubble that threatened to burst and destroy all her memories, twenty-six years of her life, sending it to hell.

She finally released her muscles, lay flat on the wet carpet, the glass and blood, and like a beaten doll, with her heavy head on his chest, she closed her eyes. She could hear the wind howling and the dog’s cries. But then it all quieted down, as if someone had pressed the “off” switch. The only sounds were coming from the TV. She opened her eyes and looked at the green screen with black and white, and red and white dots running around. Then, up-close, the men hugged and kissed, and the red and white clothed audience jumped and screamed in joy. The black and white clothed ones dragged themselves out of the stadium, their heads bowed. The black and white team was the one her husband was obsessively rooting for, ever since she met him. She knew that if he could, he would be swearing and shouting at the TV now.

But he couldn’t. Not anymore.

She slowly lifted her head, as if she’d been in a coma and was learning once again how to control her body, pushed the carpet away and lifted herself up. She looked at her red and white palms and pulled two shards of glass from them, then picked up the remote from the sofa and turned off the TV. She stuck her tongue out and gently bit it, then pulled her wet shirt with three of her right-hand fingers, and mockingly spit three times inside of it, into her chest, then stepped outside of the spot she was in, deliberately, to the right. She stood motionless, on a fresh spot on her carpet, unstained by yellow water and blood, as if waiting for the time to pass. She then rubbed her arms and walked to her purse slowly, pink water drops trailing behind her. She dipped her hand into it, and rummaged around. Coins, makeup and pens rustled.

Was it 92 or 94? she wondered for a second. Then she dialed ninety-two, and put the phone against her right ear.

“Hello? I need to report an accident.”

Marija Stajic is a writer, journalist and linguist. She has written a collection of short stories placed in Yugoslavia from beginning of the 20th century until today. She also blogs at belgrade-dc.blogspot.com. Her fiction and poetry have been published in The New YorkerThe Writing Disorder, Imitation Fruit, Orion Headless, Inertia, Gloom Cupboard and The Burning Word.