Magazine article Tikkun


Magazine article Tikkun


Article excerpt


Judith Harris

Judith Harris' book of poems, Atonement, is forthcoming from LSU Press this fall. She teaches English at George Washington University.

There are various ways of trying to read somebody's mind, or predicting good or bad fortunes. Helen and I were obsessed with seeing and thinking things that weren't there and still getting them right. We studied palm reading, assiduously mapping life lines on the smooth sides of our palms, tracing tributaries of sickness, catastrophe, or crossroads of love. We would sit under a canopy of hung-over pussy willow branches, on the half-mowed and rain-drizzled back lawn, muddying the hems of our washed-out skirts, as we inspected each other's palms as if trying to pick out a splinter. The crepe-paper trees that dotted our lawn fluttered with each desperate revelation, each inch of roped-in exclamation, in which a wish or dread was confirmed. Helen said I was to have a very long life, longer than Grandma Bertie's who'd crossed the ocean three times. The swaybacked oaks and linden trees hovered in seemingly deep concentration, as the clouds drifted on in great, slow parades of colossal ice castles and marbled lions' manes.

Helen found fate in my hands, twigs and scratches for eventual offspring, and an ominous sign of poor health. With her hands on mine, I watched the sky float over the dunce-cap peaks of trees before reaching further into space. If Helen was correct, the stars were always there whether we could see them or not, even in daylight. Sometimes I thought the skittish sparrows congregating on our roof would eventually take themselves up to those stars. Then the birds began to chortle, and acorns began to scatter like beads on the ground.

When it came to predicting the future, we needed more than luck. Because of Grandma Bertie, Helen thought we had gypsy blood. Draping a veil around her head with an elastic band, Helen twirled barefoot around our living room, pretending to be a fortune teller. She propped our mother's overturned crystal bowl on the table and ran her hands over it. She insisted that she was making contact with ghosts, rolling her r's in a bubble of saliva, which sounded like a Hungarian accent. I pretended to be a rich widow who wanted to talk to her rich husband. Helen told me all sorts of things, and I stared at her the way our mother stared at the girl who polished her nails at the beauty parlor, a solicitous but curious stare. I promised to return to her tent at midnight and rescue her from the robbers and cutthroats who had kidnapped her.

Summer turned to fall, and the leaves steadily wound off the branches and fell in gold and copper heaps in the yards. We raked them, gathered them, tunneled through them. One night my father set the yard on fire, burning the stacked leaves to a fine ash. At school that week, we were already studying Pilgrims, although Thanksgiving was more than two months away. We drew turkeys by tracing the outlines of our fingers spread out flat on the page and then coloring them in with crayon strokes like feathers, and adding clawed feet. There was also talk about ancestry, and we were asked to draw our family trees. I consulted Helen, but she was sure we didn't have one and suggested I try to make one up.

"What kind of tree should it be?"

"Maybe maple. Put on little leaves and then try and write some names there."

"What names?"

"Any names at all. I like Marjorie for instance."

"Helen, people don't live on trees. Why are we doing this?"

"Because," Helen explained, "people take pride in their roots."

I thought of Grandma Bertie. A tiny woman, with a black streak in her iron gray hair, whittling her way through the cluttered apartment, her rayon dress somersaulting with roses--her voice was a flurry of gruff sounds and thunderclap coughs as she squeezed between the plastic-covered cushions. I never took my eyes off of the diamonds in her ears, little starlight, silvery microphones bristling from the naked lobes of her ears. …

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