"Granny," I asked, pushing aside the coffee she let me drink in the mornings, "Will you read my fortune?"
Granny was a fortune teller, in the grand tradition of all the village witches and all the wise old crones on the edges of the forests. She had a clientele that ranged from the truly weird to the depressingly normal; mayors, factory rats, stay at home mothers, diesel mechanics, and Chippendale dancers, all were welcome to seek answers in the stars.
I was twelve, and it was the summer. The crazy old squirrel couldn't deal with both of us at once, so during our summers away from Mom and Dad my sister and I would take turns with Granny, the other parked at some other grandparents' house and usually thankful for the respite.
"Well," she said, pushing aside her own coffee, "Let me tell you something now, because nobody else ever will."
As much as she hated children, she was accidentally good with them, because she never knew to treat them like children. She treated them the same way she treated anyone else, for better or worse.
I nodded, understanding that she was serious, now.
"There's no such thing as fortune telling. There's no such thing as signs in the stars, or seeing the future, or reading the cards, or messages from angels, or any of that other shit. It's all just ways to make people listen to common sense and behave themselves. Sometimes, people just need to think there's magic involved."
I nodded and took a long gulp of coffee. I hadn't learned, yet, that coffee was for sipping.
"Is there magic, real magic?"
"Sure," she said, reaching for the phone. One of her clients, no doubt, needing to schedule a consultation. "You've seen it on TV, haven't you?"
The first amusing anecdote in a chain of them that lead to pointless killing:
After his playboy Jihad vacation during the Russian occupation of Afghanistan, Usama bin Laden offered to take over for the American military in Saudi Arabia, believing that he and his were up to the task.
He assured the King that his mujahidin could do better than the Americans; that their faith made them bulletproof, invincible, infallible. Magical warriors, infused with the grace of God, carried by the momentum of casting out the atheist hordes and securing the Shrine of the Cloak.
But there is no magic in the world, and the House of Saud's faith in American steel and American dollars was not moved.
I stood, watching an old man known only as "the Sufi", admiring the gravity and dignity he expressed in his bearing and dress alone.
Dressed simply but well, and clearly comfortable with himself and his surroundings. It was a half social, half business call. As the elder of the valley, consulting him first would be taken as a sign of general respect by the people who lived there.
The building was old, and very large, expanded many times over the decades with additions of the same simple earth and timber construction of the original. The local architecture was fascinating, but as much as I would have liked to look over the enormous beams and clever joints, I was not in the valley as a student of native design and engineering.
The Sufi was an old, old man, even by outsiders' standards. He didn't know how old he was, which isn't uncommon, but his anecdotes suggested that the Sufi was old enough to have had a beard when Zahir Shah took the throne to become the last true King of Afghanistan in 1933.
The Sufi, they said, was magic. They said he could tell you where to find your lost goats after a storm; that he could tell you the best place to dig for water; that he could predict when the best time for a harvest would be; that he could tell if a marriage would be good fortune for the families involved.
I sat down for tea with the Sufi and saw in him the wisdom of a hundred years lived in the same valley. A man who knew every place it was possible for goats to hide in a ten mile radius; where every well had been tried and proven in the last fifty years; a person who could smell the frost and feel a storm coming in his knees; and the man who had tutored every young boy and even a few of the girls for ten generations in history, morals, tribal law, and the Qur'an.
I saw the same magic that my Granny had, and after I bowed my head and clapped my hand over my heart, I winked at him as we shook hands.
He laughed and laughed and laughed, and told his great great grandson to bring out the best almonds as he tugged on my beard. This last gesture, normally a sign of supplication, the Western equivalent being begging on one's knees, was here a finger wag and an exasperated laugh in one.
Granny taught me about magic, and she taught me how to spot a con. And perhaps most importantly, she taught me about ethics.
She had somewhere in the neighborhood of a hundred clients. Some occasional, most very regular. She forbade her clients from consulting her any more frequently than once every thirty days, "or else a lot of them would be in here every time they stubbed their toe or couldn't decide what kind of cheese to buy," she explained.
She would tell them if they tried to insist, or offer to pay extra, that the stars (or forces, or whatever it was that they preferred to consult) needed time to move and wheel (or work or regenerate or align) and that no person or amount of money could hurry the forces of the universe.
"It would be unfair to them to take their money just to take it. I don't want to run their lives or bleed them dry. I don't change my rates, and I don't let them lean on me too hard. And if I let them call or come in all the time, they'd be spending money that they should be spending on the rent or their kids. Some people, they think they need more help than they really do."
I nodded, watching the tickets pile up at her feet in huge chains, too enthralled by her impeccable luck to even think about the fat rolls of brass tokens in my own pockets.
We were in the middle of an immense games arcade. To me, it seemed endless; looking back, it probably had four walls just like any other ripoff joint.
We were on a day trip to the arcade because I wasn't old enough to sneak into the casino yet, and the flashing lights and bells and half the games themselves were all the same here, anyway. They even let her smoke her Virginia Slims as long as there was nobody else around.
Slamming another handful of tokens into the video slots, she would tell me between cackles that the surest sign you're being taken for a ride by a long con is that you start to feel like you could never get anywhere at all without them.
"You start to feel helpless without someone, or you get your business all tied up in someone else's plans, and those little hairs on the back of your neck should stand right up and start giving you the willies."
When it became known that failure actually was an option after all, morale collapsed.
A strategically important forward operating base on the border had been closed down as part of the consequences of high level political football, and repeated viewings of the local militants "running the invaders out" and "taking over" the empty base didn't help the growing feeling that we were expendable resources in an opaque and senseless conflict.
A lot of us knew people who had bled or died to keep that supposedly all-important hilltop secured. It was the linchpin of control of the porous border, in a war where control of the border dominated strategic planning for the theater.
And it was sacrificed to prove a political point, exculpatory evidence manufactured out of whole cloth by generals more concerned with maintaining spheres of influence than winning the deranged war of worthless politicians and an ignorant public.
Sure enough, the following spring offensive was the worst in years, with more enemies and materiel flowing across the border than in the previous three years combined.
She's a saint, you know. My Granny.
As the liquor bottles piled up under the mattress, and the credit cards defaulted, and even the Fentanyl stopped cutting the pain of terminal lung cancer, the fear of death finally got her.
She took out even more credit cards (cackling madly the whole time I'm sure, at this, her final con) and used them to fund the restoration of a cathedral. Not one of the many identical brownstone churches that dotted the diocese. In fact, not even a part of the diocese at all.
She settled on a heretical splinter of the Catholic church, long divorced from the Holy See over non-canon beliefs regarding some miracles by the infant Christ, and what he did during the lost years. It is a slowly dying sect. I understand it peaked somewhere in the mid 20's, and never reached much farther, geographically speaking, than a few counties.
Being the wealthiest patron they'd had in years, I guess they took it as a sign from you-know-who that a fortune teller would suddenly find the spirit and give more in six months than they saw in five years of tithes and collections, and she was sainted shortly after her death.
But what does she watch over? Is she the patron saint of con artists and credit card debt? Shall we whisper a prayer and clutch a gin bottle while we seek her benediction?
I have a photo, somewhere, of the Sufi's tomb. A Chinese knockoff of a Polaroid, sold by an enterprising local hoping to capitalize on pilgrimages to the tomb.
Two years after I spent the spring and summer in that valley, I found myself back again, hoping to sit down with him again. The tomb is decorated in the old way, but even the local branch of the Boy Scouts knows better than to try to change that the way they did down in Kandahar. He was far too important, locally, to make too much of an issue of the idolatry.
It's painted a bright blue, and tufted with flags, and festooned with trinkets and figurines, and covered with shiny fragments of mirror embedded in the concrete.
"There is noone to take his place," one man told me when I asked about him.
"We know the Qur'an, but he had something more."