Tapestry of Fortunes A Novel - By Elizabeth Berg

When I was growing up, my mother’s best friend was a woman named Cosmina Mandruleanu. I liked her for a lot of reasons: her name, of course; her ash-blond hair and throaty voice and loud laugh; her bangle bracelets and black nylons and the way she was generous with the Juicy Fruit gum she always kept in her purse. She was someone who made smoking seem alluring; if she looked at you in that sidelong way when she exhaled, you felt as though you were sharing a risqué secret. She told me her grandmother was a Romanian gypsy who had passed on to her the Gift: Cosmina could tell fortunes. Mostly she used tea leaves, but she also read palms or used a crystal ball or her grandmother’s ancient Tarot cards. She said her gifts were in her mind, that she could use anything, even a pair of pliers, as a catalyst for accessing her powers. But people liked the traditional props, and so she accommodated them. She once told my mother that she, too, was a bit psychic, which made my mother fluff up with pride and say, “You know, I thought so.” When I asked Cosmina if she thought I had the Gift as well, she looked at me for a long time. Then she said, “You are a good student of human nature. That’s a start.”

Cosmina once volunteered to tell fortunes at my junior high school’s annual fund-raiser, so that the adults would have something to do besides drink weak coffee and watch Dunk the Principal. She sat in a corner of the gymnasium behind a TV tray on which she had draped a black cloth, and she wore a long black skirt and a black blouse over which she had a fringed red shawl. She’d knotted a black scarf at the base of her neck to cover her bright hair, and her makeup was more dramatic than usual: thick lines of kohl were drawn around her eyes. I offered her a dollar to have my own fortune read. She refused at first; she said she read adults only, it wasn’t right to read children, especially children of your friends. Finally, though, she relented. I stood before her in my pedal pushers and sleeveless blouse, my breath caught in my throat. She laid her hands on her crystal ball and closed her eyes. Then she peered into it. After a moment, she said, “Your task will be to learn in what direction to look for life’s great riches, and not to deny the veracity of your own vision.”

I stared at her, then whispered, “What does ‘veracity’ mean?”

She leaned forward and whispered back, “Truth.”

When I got outside, I wrote Cosmina’s words on the back of a flyer. That night, I read them again, then put the paper in a handmade wooden box I’d been given by my grandfather. It was large, about twelve by twenty, and four inches deep, made of black ash; and it had box-joint corners of which the maker was justifiably proud. He’d woodburned Japanese chrysanthemums into the lid, and they were beautiful—spidery and reaching, botanical fireworks. I’d wanted to save the box to use for something important. Here it was.

MY BEST FRIEND PENNY’S GRAVE HAS A SIMPLE HEADSTONE, light gray granite inscribed with her name, the date of her birth, and the date of her death, which was four months ago. Below that, as agreed, are these words: Say it. Penny believed that people didn’t often enough admit to what they really felt, and she thought that made for a lot of problems. Being close to her meant that you had to attempt unstinting honesty, at least in your dealings with her. Her husband, Brice, could get annoyed about this, and so could I—a lack of deceit requires a kind of internal surveillance that can feel like work, and there are, after all, times when a lie serves a noble purpose. But overall, I think both he and I understood the value of such candor, and appreciated Penny’s efforts to steer us toward it. And then there was this: we wanted to please her because we both loved her so much. Loved and needed her.

And here she is.

I lean back on my hands and look out over the acres of graves. I used to feel that cemeteries were wasted space, that they could be put to far better use as parks, or golf courses, or even to allow for more living space. But I’ve changed