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Reflections in a crystal ball

I inherited a crystal ball from my famous aunt, Yevonde. She was famous for her photography and she was beloved for her personality. She had a tremendous sense of fun and a flair for living. As a child, I loved visiting her studio in Berkeley Square in London, because it was a fairyland of props for her photographs; objects she had collected from everywhere, like the antique rocking horse with real hair mane and tail; the stuffed owl; dolls from various countries from almost life size to babies; a fake plaster bust of Julius Caesar sitting on top of a tall Greek column; an outsize butterfly net filled with tiny velvet butterflies. Everywhere you looked there was something to catch your eye; odds and ends of fabric draped over fanciful furniture like the wooden stool with cloven hooves for feet and a red satin sofa shaped like huge puffy lips. There were screens with vivid scenes of landscapes painted on them. A big lion skin rug complete with teeth-bared snarl partially covered the floor, and a zebra skin draped casually on a giant-size throne. Vondie (as we called her) never told me not to touch anything  —   except the crystal ball! 

The crystal ball sat on a shelf along with the stuffed owl and some old Chinese figurines. When my mother, who was Vondie’s sister, and I visited her we sat around one of the decorated tea tables and my aunt gave us tea and scones. If we prodded her she would tell us tales about all the objects.  But the best story was about the crystal ball. 

I had asked her more than once about the crystal ball and why she wouldn’t let me play with it.  Usually she just said, “Well, it’s frightfully rare and very breakable, and it would be immensely bad luck luck if anything happened to it.”

But once she said, “All right. I’ll tell you the story.”

“Your Uncle Edgar and I were down in Cornwall,” she began “in a  magical part of the world near King Arthur’s castle, Tintagel. Every morning we walked on the crags above the castle, and sometimes down below on the beach by the sea. On the beach there was a Romany encampment, gypsies you know, with their horse-drawn caravans and tents and their camp fires burning day and night. They used to wander the roads, moving from town to town. Some of them fished a little but mostly they made a living telling fortunes and selling herbs and potions. They are kind of stand-offish and not too friendly as a rule, but I went by quite often and I started talking to some of them. One of the old women offered to tell my fortune. I wasn’t especially interested but I was curious. I climbed the steps into her brightly painted caravan. The whole interior was filled with magical objects, hanging from the ceiling and crowded onto shelves; bird wings, moonstones, bunches of herbs, pots of geraniums. She had a table in the center of the room and set in the middle was the crystal ball. It was shrouded in a black velvet cover. 

She herself was wrapped in a red and yellow shawl with a golden fringe and her head was covered in a golden turban. Her face was dark and her eyes, huge and black as coal, were intently focused as she ceremoniously uncovered the crystal ball. I wanted to photograph her and her caravan.  She had such character in her face. 

”She looked in the crystal ball and said she saw my life there and she told me many things about myself and my fortunes. I thanked her and then I asked if I could photograph her. She looked a little sideways, a little funny. 

“Take a picture of an old woman like me? “she said. “What for?”

I told her I did it for a living and I thought she was very handsome and, most important for a Gypsy, I would pay her. So she let me.”

Here my aunt stopped a moment, looking thoughtful. 

“I went and got my camera” she continued, “and I came back and spent quite a lot of time with her. She was very patient.” ‘I’ll  have the pictures developed when I get back to London.’  I explained, ‘I’ll bring them to show you.’  She waved her hands at me as if she didn’t care.

“I went home and the pictures turned out to be absolutely magical. She looked like a seer, a witch, something from another time. Again, we went down to Tintagel though I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to find her again. Of course, they weren’t on the beach any more, but I asked around and finally we discovered them camping in a field a few miles inland. I asked for her, though I didn’t know her name. They told me she was very ill. I explained why I’d come and they said she’d want to see the pictures. My aunt stopped again, remembering. 

She began slowly, “Her grandson took me into a tent where they were taking care of her. She was lying propped up on a pile of mattresses on the ground. She didn’t have her turban on and her long white hair hung down around her face. She looked at me and said nothing. I tried to be cheerful and I took the photos out of the portfolio — they were big you know, eight by tens. She took them and looked at them, one by one for a long time.  Finally she said,

“These are the first pictures of myself I’ve ever seen. The Old Ones wouldn’t let us have our pictures taken. It would take your soul, they said. And see, you have taken my soul.”

“I was flabbergasted. ‘No, no,’ I said, ‘they are just images of your face.’ But she wouldn’t listen. She got very upset. Her grandson tried to calm her.  

“It’s OK, grandma,” he said over and over. “They”re just pictures of your face”

“The only way I can get my soul back is to buy it from you.” she declared.

‘No,’ I said, ‘I’ll give them all to you and you can destroy them if you want.”’ Though that made me feel very bad.

“That’s not enough,” she insisted. “Romero, get my crystal ball,” she ordered her grandson. She was absolutely determined that I take it because it had magic properties and was the only thing she had of worth that could possibly buy back her soul. I felt awful, of course and I tried to talk her out of it. I tried to give it to Romero, but he wouldn’t touch it. He was as superstitious as she was about some things. I reluctantly gave him the pictures, and, willy nilly, I became the owner of a magic crystal ball!  

Vondie got up and lifted the ball down from its place on the shelf. She held it out to me, “Here,”she said, “you can hold it if you like.” And she put it into my hand. It felt cold and heavier than I expected. A chill ran through me. Did it have powers? I liked to fancy that it did.

We put our coats on and kissed Vondie goodbye and we went out into the London dusk, lights coming on, cars honking on their homeward commute. My head was full of magic and I could still feel the crystal ball in my hands.

And now it rests in its special holder on my piano and no one has told a fortune in 60 years.

Chloe Scott  is a member of the Lake Oswego Adult Community Center.



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