Yia Yia Burns Olive Leaves To Ward Off The Evil Eye
This year, as every year, Hope spends the long summer in Cyprus. Flip-flops slap on sun-bleached lanes as she walks to her grandparents’ house. By the prickly pear cacti she once fell into, a car stops for directions. She voices her linguistic limitations – den milo Ellinika – hears the words that curve from others’ mouths grow spiky in her own. The passengers laugh, her unbelonging a joke, because, already, the sea has turned her native, smooth and brown as Uncle Savva’s donkey.
Yesterday, her father told her – eyes dancing with ironic pride – that Cyprus may be small, but they’ve the world’s biggest donkeys. In 1985, Uncle Savva’s is the last of its kind in the village. It looms, sleek and serious, nothing like the woolly Eeyores of home. Hope misses her dog. And her best friend Lucy, the dew on lush lawns, puddings unspoiled by rose water.
At the house at the top of the hill, Yia Yia and Papu greet her with wet kisses, shiny cheeks, encouraging smiles. She sits, bare toes just touching stone floor. The scratch of straw seat on bare thigh, the bruise of wooden slats through cotton vest. The trickle of sweat between
Papu offers her all his English – windy – always an appropriate word in this coastal place, even in high summer – and the contents of the fridge. She assents to the watermelon she watched him cut yesterday, vermillion flesh turned rubbery now at the edges. Shakes her head to
glyko; last year, she’d gagged at the lump of candied rind. He pours himself a shot of chilled cognac.
Hope offers them her morning at the sea. Thalassa, she says, unable to share the wonder of the octopus curled around a rock, a kingfisher that flashed by her shoulder. She doesn’t correct them when they call her Elpida: Yia Yia’s name, and the Greek translation of her own. Hope: an Anglicized name born of her parents’ pity, a name her friends can pronounce.
Yia Yia moves her chair to the courtyard, grabs a rabbit by the ears as it lollops by, invites Hope to pet its skewbald fur. Now its nostrils pulsate, breath thrums its body back and forth; but she knows this is a favourite, easily caught. Soon, Yia Yia will slit its throat and fry it with eggs.
Hope closes her heart. But can’t suppress a smile when Yia Yia removes her knotted headscarf, unspools two plaits from her head, and lets down her fairy-tale hair, still surprisingly chestnut. Papu smiles with his eyes, refills his glass.
Before Hope leaves, Yia Yia reaches for a steel briki, fills the pot with mysterious things, sets it to light on the stove. Smoke comes, earthy and other, smelling of the East. Now high priestess, she wafts the billows towards Hope, incants in whispers. Hope does not know what this
is. But she knows it means love.