Elmos Andrews


Evil Eye

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Thalia looked at me, askew. It was as if she hadn’t understood me. But maybe, I realised, she actually hadn’t. I immediately became unsure of the word I had used, a word I had just guessed: I hadn’t ever needed to tell someone that I had had an exorcism in Greek before, though I hadn’t ever used the English equivalent to describe something that had happened to me either. Maybe Thalia looked confused because I had used the wrong term, but I wasn’t sure how else I could name what I had experienced. Maybe, I suddenly thought, the word itself was the problem. Maybe the word I had used didn’t even exist, and what I had said had, in fact, made no sense at all. Thalia asked me to repeat myself. So I did: I told her that, two days earlier, I had an exorcism. And when she realised that I was being serious, that I really had meant to say what I had said, she burst out laughing.
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I watched her laugh ricochet around the restaurant, a distinctive sound that echoed across the room before being caught in the startled faces of those diners who had started to stare at us. I, too, laughed. But I told her that I was being completely serious. Now confident in the word itself, I insisted that I really had just had an exorcism. I had asked her to meet me because I needed to talk to someone about what had happened. I needed to tell this story to someone who I knew would find it as ridiculous as I did. Or, at least, had done: the more I thought about what I had experienced, I said, the less ridiculous it had all come to seem. I found it hard to explain. Thalia took a sip of her wine, and leant back against the orange wall that yet seemed to streak a strange red in the low light. She said that she now had to hear this story. It was, she told me, the most absurd premise for one she had ever heard.
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I reminded Thalia of my family’s recent run of bad luck. My mother had been seriously ill, and then my father had been defrauded. And then I had myself been mugged, in the middle of the day, on Panepistimiou. I hadn’t thought that that kind of thing happened in central Athens: someone had pushed me to the ground from behind, I explained, and had ripped open my rucksack. Thalia gasped. She hadn’t realised it was so violent. It sounded terrible. Perhaps, I continued while nodding, it had been naïve to keep my wallet in the rucksack’s back pocket. But I had already been in Athens for five months, and I hadn’t seen or heard about anything of the sort. I hadn’t ever considered robbery a possibility. I reported the theft to the tourist police: my cousin, who was with me when it had happened, suggested I make use of my British passport because the problem would be dealt with more swiftly if I posed as a complete foreigner. We then went straight to my grandparents’.
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My grandmother was very upset when we explained what had happened. I supposed she was frightened that the experience would taint both my opinion of Athens and of my time there: she kept on apologising, as if it had all been her fault. But my cousin, I told Thalia, was more shaken than I was. And she had lived in Athens her whole life. In hindsight, I was probably just really shocked. My grandmother had offered us a drink, which we had both accepted; my cousin had sat in silence while my grandmother and I discussed what I needed to do next. But as I began dialling the bank, my cousin had said that it was obvious. She said that I had the evil eye. It seemed the whole family did. I told Thalia that I had been confused. I hadn’t thought it obvious at all: I knew of the evil eye, of course, but hadn’t thought anyone close to me actually believed in it. My grandmother, however, had agreed. We had to have it removed before something terrible happened to someone else.
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I paused to have some of my own wine, and looked around as I drank: I hadn’t noticed the replicas of shallow, ancient cups that decorated the room, nor the spinning wheel that hung from the ceiling in its corner, the last time Thalia and I had been in that restaurant. Irrespective of its consciously rustic feel, I thought them odd details. Thalia tutted. She said that breaking off the story where I had done dissipated its tension. She now really wanted to hear it, so I just had to get on with telling it. I shrugged before continuing, going on to explain that I hadn’t, in the end, called the bank. I had done so later. My cousin and grandmother had instead proceeded to debate who it was who had placed the eye upon us, and had eventually settled on a distant relative on my grandfather’s side who we had all seen a few weeks earlier. My cousin reckoned that his compliments had been too generous. She thought they had invited our bad luck. And only Foivi, she had insisted, would be able to remove it.
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I told Thalia that I hadn’t ever heard of this Foivi before. I had no idea who she was. But my grandmother had immediately stood up to get the telephone, and had dialled a number without having to look it up. While she was stood there, with the phone presumably ringing, my cousin had explained. It turned out that Foivi had worked as a housekeeper for my grandparents when we were children, though she hadn’t worked in the summer, which was why I hadn’t ever met her. In fact, she hadn’t worked for my grandparents for long at all. But Foivi, my cousin had assured me, was skilled at removing the evil eye, so my grandmother always rang her whenever things went awry, when her luck seemed unfairly poor. Foivi had paid my cousin a number of visits too. She hadn’t ever thought to tell me about them. Someone must have picked up, and my grandmother began to have a conversation on the phone. And when she put it down, she said that Foivi would be at the house soon.
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Foivi, I explained, had arrived within twenty minutes. My grandmother had told me to go to the door, and I opened it to a short woman, probably somewhere in her sixties, with her silvery hair twisted into a braid that ran around her crown like a wreath. She walked straight in without addressing me. But as I shut the door behind her, she asked if it was me who had the evil eye. I hadn’t known what to say – no effort, I told Thalia, had been made to convince me that that was actually the case – but nodded anyway. I didn’t think I had a choice but to go along with it. Foivi, I explained, had sighed. She had said that she could tell. I followed her up the stairs to the kitchen, in total silence. When we reached it, Foivi had asked my grandmother and cousin to leave, had said that she needed the kitchen free of any other energy. They had immediately obliged. My grandmother had told Foivi that they would be in the living room, and asked her to pass by once she was finished.
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Foivi had me sit back down at the kitchen table, and had smiled when she noticed how I was fiddling with the tablecloth’s delicate hem. She began by asking me what had happened. I had explained, I told Thalia, what I had just told her: I had been robbed, though my father had also recently been robbed, while my mother had been very ill. Foivi had clicked her tongue, slowly shifted her head to the left and right, and looked me up and down. Her suspicions, she had said, were confirmed. It was undoubtable. I had the evil eye. She asked me if I had had it before. I told her that I hadn’t or, at least, hadn’t known that I had. I told her that I wasn’t sure I even believed in it. She shook her head. It didn’t matter, she had said, whether I believed in it or not. It was obvious to everyone else that someone had cast it on me, or on someone close to me. The evil eye was real. And it had to be removed straight away.
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I told Thalia that Foivi had walked over to the cupboard under the sink, and had pulled out a plastic bottle of olive oil from within it. She had then reached up to her left, grabbing hold of a glass. She ran the tap. And when the glass was full, she returned to the table with both it and the bottle. She placed them before me, started muttering something I couldn’t quite understand, twisted the bottle open, dribbled some of the oil into the water. She lifted the glass from the table, holding it between us with both hands; I could see the oil floating above the water. But she then started swirling the cup between her fingers, and the layer between those substances somehow started to dissolve. Crossing herself, she offered me the glass. She didn’t say anything. I took it from her, and hesitated: I had expected, I explained, for oily clumps to begin to coalesce before returning to the water’s surface. But they didn’t. So I drank it. It had, I said, seemed the obvious thing to do.
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Describing the experience as an exorcism had, it turned out, been mistaken after all: Thalia insisted that what had happened was not an exorcism. To her mind, an exorcism was an extraordinary, formal ritual conducted by a priest. But the test of the oil and water, she explained, was neither extraordinary nor formal. Everyone in Greece had likely experienced it at some point in their lives. It could be performed over the phone, and there was, she was sure, even an app for it. I shrugged. It had felt pretty extraordinary to me. I hadn’t ever experienced anything like it. Thalia nodded: I hadn’t, after all, grown up in Greece. But she hadn’t heard of anyone drinking the cure. I almost certainly shouldn’t have done. I laughed, suddenly nervous; Foivi had, I admitted, looked surprised when I had done so. Thalia told me that the ceremony was supposed to involve the oil sinking into the water, not mixing with it. If the oil sank, she explained, you had the evil eye. You then had to throw the liquid away. If anything, the ceremony concluded with spitting. With expulsion, and not with consumption.
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I told Thalia that I couldn’t believe she didn’t find this all absurd, that she, it now seemed, had herself experienced something similar. I hadn’t encountered anything like this on any of the trips I had taken to Greece as a child. But it was strange: now I was aware that this sort of thing did take place, everyone I knew seemed to have seen it happen or had it done. My father had just laughed when I told him. Everyone knew this story, and what had initially seemed ridiculous to me appeared normal to everyone else. Its given premise was just that: it was a given. It didn’t seem to be absurd at all. Thalia laughed. She supposed it wasn’t. But this particular version of the ceremony was weird. In fact, the more she thought about it, the weirder she found it. The oil and water couldn’t mix. That was the whole point: they did not mix. That I had seen them do so was a fiction, an illusion presumably produced by the speed with which the water had been spinning when the oil was dropped into it.
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I protested: I had seen what I had seen, and I assured Thalia that I hadn’t made anything up. It really had played out exactly as I had said it did. Thalia sighed. She didn’t doubt me. She just reckoned that I had found myself so woven into the story’s dynamics, so caught up in its momentum, that I had lost control over it. I had seen what the story wanted me to see: I had seen the oil and water mix because that was what its direction demanded. That was probably why I drank the cure when I shouldn’t have done. Had I known how the ritual normally played out, I would have conformed to its expected parameters and acted otherwise. But that didn’t make what I had, in the end, actually seen any less real. Foivi was right: it didn’t matter that Thalia didn’t herself believe that what I had seen was possible. I had lived it. And now that she had that image in her head, an image of water and oil somehow mixed together, maybe she would see something similar if she had the evil eye removed again.
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We both finished our wine. Thalia said that it was from her grandmother that she had learnt something of the ritual, that it was only her grandmother who had ever performed it on her. She had done so whenever Thalia seemed sad. And when she lived with her grandmother, Thalia explained, she probably had seemed sad most of the time. Thalia had, after all, moved into her house just after her mother died. No: she didn’t believe the evil eye was real. However persuasive it was as explanation and narrative, she thought it mere superstition. But despite her disbelief, despite the fact that she thought the evil eye a fiction, she admitted that the ritual itself still held a certain power. Hearing about it reminded her of a lot of things she couldn’t really explain. And though she had gone through it often, had had the eye removed a number of times, it seemed to somehow always be with her, somehow watching her all the time. I nodded, but was distracted: one of the replica cups, I realised, had painted eyes. It sounded, I went on to say when I looked back at her, like she actually did believe in it. Even though she thought the evil eye a fiction, she still invested meaning in it. It was a contradiction, though it was one that I now understood.
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Elmos Andrews is from North London. He is a recipient of a London Writers Award in literary fiction, and is currently doing a PhD in English at UCL.

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