The bedtime stories of my grandmother, Baba Jela, changed after the Bosnian civil war. Before the shooting began, her stories were ordinary, positive, life-affirming, with a clever hero or good-natured idiot overcoming challenges and a greedy foe soon reduced to pitiful scrub. But after a war of nearly 100,000 deaths, Baba turned her stories and lullabies dark and horrifying.
To acquire fame and reputation as a Turkish coffee fortune teller one must possess good intuition, decent eyesight, a wide knowledge of symbolism, and the ability and willingness to scare the devil out of skeptical audience members.
My grandmother, Baba Jela, met all these proficiency requirements, easy. Bored, workless, and irascible women of Gacko, a small, rural, post-civil-war Bosnian town, frequently visited Baba Jela in the hopes that the slimy grounds in their coffee cups would coalesce into recognizable, chocolate-colored figures of flowers, kangaroos, camels, sheep, fish, the sun, or any musical note. According to the omniscient Baba Jela, these things promised happiness and good fortune. On the other hand, dreaded animals and objects included: bayonets, balloons, babies, birds, snakes, all types of insects, rocks and pebbles. Because they forebode misfortune, these symbols were usually met with frowns, gaping mouths, and headshakes of disbelief.
There were also a lot of monkeys! On good hair days, when her bangs spread out evenly across her forehead and the puffiness in the back was just right, Baba Jela would cheer up the members of her clique by telling them that the monkeys in their coffee cups were, in fact, handsome secret admirers. But on humid days, when her hair turned frizzy and jumbled, Baba would see evil monkeys sneering and laughing at the coffee drinker’s misery, developing secret plans of destruction.
“You must finish your coffee in four gulps if you want your wishes to come true,” Baba Jela would say whenever she was annoyed with a guest and wanted her (most men were not interested in the future) to leave our house. Poor women would burn their tongues and throats because they truly believed that their wishes would go to waste if they didn’t swill as fast as the old woman commanded.
“I see a giraffe in your cup,” was a finding that expressed Baba Jela’s exasperation with the intruding neighbors. Baba would look them straight in the eye and say: “Do I have to remind you of what it means to have a giraffe in your cup? It means that you need to keep your lips zipped and think carefully about what’s going to come out of your mouth. If it’s drivel, then misfortune will befall your every step, for an entire week. I don’t make up the rules. I wasn’t the one who put the giraffe in your cup.”
Sonja Markovic, a jobless, restless, and a hopeless widow who lived three houses down the road from us, visited Baba Jela three, sometimes four times a week. As soon as she found out about her husband’s death, Sonja took to her balcony to publicly swear to herself, and to all the accidental passersby, that she would never marry another man again. Though Sonja stayed true to her word, she often came to Baba Jela with a collection of unwashed coffee cups, secretly wishing and hoping that Baba would spot a gondola, a water anchor, a palm tree, a parasol, or if she was really lucky, a racing horse right in the middle of her cup. All of these symbols promised success in love. Whenever Baba Jela was in a good mood, she easily spotted plenty of love symbols that made Sonja’s cheeks red and warm, and her face covered with a wide, irrepressible smile. “Forget about love,” Sonja would say, blushing and smiling, “I want to know if I’ll ever find some kind of work in this hellhole.”
But on one humid August day, Baba Jela woke up with especially frizzy and tangled hair. This meant that all propriety was thrown out of the window until humidity levels agreed with her desired hairstyle, or at least until a better quality hair comb was purchased. Unaware of the embarrassment that awaited her at our house, Sonja Markovic and a friend knocked on our door before even the sun had risen and forced Baba Jela to cover her head with a shawl, something she did only as a last resort. After they settled into their chairs, they politely asked Baba Jela to take a look at their cups. Baba took Sonja’s cup first and without much delay she said:
Light brown is the color of your cup
Release what’s in your chest before you blow up.
In the middle I see an enormous bull
With fears and worries your mind is full.
Next to the handle there is a long spike
Feel free to shout and cry as much as you like.
In this corner I’ve detected some barbed wire
With it you have wrapped your main desire.
You are restive because here is a trail of ants
The only remedy for this malady is found in a man’s pants.
Upon hearing the last line of Baba Jela’s poem, Sonja opened her eyes in a frenziedly tragic stare and indignantly said: “You old hag! I’ll never come back here again.” She staggered toward the entrance door and broke into sobs as her shoes eluded her feet. Ashamed and dizzy, Sonja picked them up with her shaky hands and clambered out of the house barefoot.
Sonja Markovic came back a week later holding two empty coffee cups in her hands. We all knew she was going to come back. There wasn’t much else a young widow could do in the small, rural, post-civil-war Bosnian town of Gacko. With tears in her eyes and cracks in her syllables, Sonja recited a long apology and asked Baba Jela to take a look at her cups because she had spotted a mouse in both of them and they worried her. Baba Jela accepted the apology with a gracious smile. That day, her hair was perfectly coiffed.
Blog post courtesy of Milan Djurasovic, a Bosnian American collage artist, blogger, and book author. He currently lives and works in St. Petersburg, Russia. His educational background is in psychology and history.
Image by Gaston Lisak