Saturday, April 11, 2020


«Φόρα και μια χάντρα θαλασσιά, να μη σε ματιάσουν τα νησιά,» Yiannis Kalatzis.
“Of course your sister is sick,” my grandmother pronounced, dismissing my assertion that she was merely suffering from a bad cold. “Someone put the evil eye on her at church. I told your mother not to take her to church on Ψυχοσάββατο, but she thinks she knows better. Look at her now. Θέλει ξεμάτιασμα το μωρό.
I was eleven and my baby sister’s rasping cough wracked her whole body. She was running a fever and her eyes were watery. Taking my grandmother’s words literally, I imagined my sister as an infirm Argo of myth, covered in eyes that needed removal, one by one.
“I suspect I know who it was too. She’d better watch herself,” my grandmother muttered as she fumbled with some bottles. Then, approaching my sister, she began to intone incomprehensible syllables under her breath.
“What are you saying, yiayia?” I asked.
“Shut up, these are not things for boys to know,” my grandmother snapped and began to mumble again. This time, leaning forward, I managed to decipher the words: “Panagia Theotokos, release this girl from the evil eye.” After praying for some time, my grandmother began to yawn. Almost immediately, my baby sister yawned as well.
“See,” my grandmother crowed triumphantly, “That’s a sign. They have definitely put the eye on her. Now, it’s time to get rid of it.” She made the sign of the cross over my sister three times and spat in her face, also three times. Looking at her handiwork appraisingly, she frowned. “This eye is very evil. It is beyond my capabilities. I need to call Thekla.”
Unlike my grandmother, θεία Θέκλα, was possessed of powers so supernatural that she could, in those heady days before skype and video calls, remove the evil eye via the ordinary household telephone. Departing this earth just after the introduction of optic fibre cables to telecommunications, her powers managed to transcend even that medium of conduction, so attending to my sister should have been a piece of cake. Holding my sister in one am, my grandmother described her symptoms to theia Thekla over the olive green telephone in the hallway in painstaking detail. I could hear nasal grunts of «Χμχμ,» emanating from the handset, a prelude to an intensely devout bout of incantation.
Απαπα,” theia Thekla exclaimed at last. “This is too much. The girl is badly eyed. This is not just any ordinary eye. This is the type of evil eye that needs to be named so that it can be removed. This is what you do: Get together a few cloves and pierce each one with a pin. Then, you need to light a candle and take a pinned clove with a pair of scissors. This you have to use to make the cross over the poor girl, while you ask her to think of a person who may have given her the eye. Once you do this, you must hold the clove over the flame. If the clove burns silently, there is no evil eye present and there is some other problem we need to look at.  However, if the clove explodes or burns noisily, that means the person in her thoughts is the one who has cast the evil eye. Remember, as the clove explodes, the evil eye will be released. Also note that cloves that burn with some noise are λόγια, someone foul-mouthing the girl, who we should be wary of. Be sure to take the burned cloves and extinguish them in a glass of water. Then bury them in the garden along with the pins. You don’t want to be contaminated by the evil.”
Καλάμαρή συ Θέκλα,” my grandmother asked indignantly. “The girl is a baby. She barely knows the difference between day and night. How is she supposed to think of who gave her the evil eye? And why would I bury the eye in my garden and curse my produce forever? Are you serious?”
“Fine, don’t listen to me,” theia Thekla puffed and promptly hung up the telephone.
“Stupid old bag,” yiayia spat, in execration. “We will try the oil. There are three types: We can place a drop of oil in holy water.  If the drop floats, there is no evil eye involved. If the drop sinks, then we will know she is afflicted and we can get rid of it. Otherwise, we can place two drops of olive oil into a glass of water. If the drops merge, we will again know that she has the evil eye. Failing that, there is the method that Soumela, that Pontian woman, told me about. She should know. All Pontians transmit the evil eye. It’s true. From ancient times. They get a plate full of water, and place nine drops of oil. If the oil drops become larger and eventually dissolve in the water then definitely she has the evil eye. It is the first drops are the most important and the number of drops that will dissolve in water will indicate the strength of the evil eye.”
“You know, yiayia, apparently only priests are allowed to pray against the evil eye.”
“Garbage, who told you that?”
“There was a priest who came to visit us from Greece the other week. He said it.”
“Nonsense, they just want money, that’s all. It’s like saying only priests are allowed to pray. And what would they know about healing. They are men after all.”
“But yiayia, mum says this is just a folk superstition from Islamic times.”
“Rot. Now leave the room.”
“Leave the room.”
Fifteen minutes later, my grandmother opened the door and handed me a cup. Her brow was dripping with sweat and she reeked of burnt garlic. “It was as I thought,” she panted. “A very bad case. Only one person is that malicious so as to inflict this μάτι on a baby, that pernicious Maritsa who lives two streets down and is jealous because her daughter just left her husband for another man. Καλύτερα να σου βγει το μάτι παρά το όνομα. Now take this cup, go outside and empty it over the neighbour’s fence, where the gum tree is.”
The gum tree is question was a perennial bone of contention between my grandmother and her neighbour. Its roots extended under the side fence into my grandmother’s garden, blighting her cucumbers and rendering them bitter. No amount of inducement could persuade the neighbour to remove the tree, causing my grandmother to invoke a vast array of curses of immense lexical diversity and complex imagery every time she went out into the garden. Obedient to her commands, I emptied the contents in the spot indicated.
A week later, something remarkable happened. My sister, after a course of antibiotics, made a full if not totally unexpected recovery. “Did you know that the idea of the evil eye is an old as the ancient Greeks?” I asked my grandmother while telling her the news. “The ancient Greeks would drink their wine out of kylixes that had eyes painted on them to ward off evil as far back as the sixth century. And Plutarch believed that the eyes were the chief source of the deadly rays that were supposed to spring up like poisoned darts from the inner recesses of a person possessing the evil eye. And it’s also true that in Roman times, it was widely held that the Pontian and Scythian tribes were considered to be transmitters of the evil eye. I read it in the Καζαμία.
“You sound pretty proud of yourself,” my grandmother winked. “It is technically possible to give yourself the evil eye, so remember to remain humble. In the meantime maybe we should have drawn the eye on your grandfather’s wine glass, though why anyone would want to put the eye in him is beyond me. Take this pair of secateurs. We are going outside.”
I followed her to the backyard. There, on the side fence, the overhanging gum leaves of the neighbour’s tree had taken a pallid, yellowish brown hue as they clung limply to brittle branches. A month later, the entire tree was dead. My grandmother looked up and cackled with glee. “Your sister is a blessed child. She will always be lucky. Everything she plants will bear fruit. Remember that. And no evil eye will ever touch her again.”
Three months later, when the stump remover came and removed a few palings from the fence in order to extract as many roots as possible, I observed the muddy crater he left behind. There, behind a large clod of clay, indolently lay, a blackened, undecomposed, malevolent clove of garlic.
Three decades have passed, as have my grandmother and her neighbour and nothing has grown in that spot since. And every morning, as I drive down that street to take my daughter to school, playing “I spy,” to pass the time, I stop her just before she says the words “with my little eye.” You just never know.
First published in NKEE on 11 April 2020