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The Witch of Portobello, Page 2

Paulo Coelho

  Finally, the Witch justifies her existence by going in search of complete and limitless pleasure.

  Normally a woman has to choose from one of these traditional feminine archetypes, but Athena was all four at once.

  Obviously we can justify her behavior, alleging that all those who enter a state of trance or ecstasy lose contact with reality. That's not true: the physical world and the spiritual world are the same thing. We can see the Divine in each speck of dust, but that doesn't stop us from wiping it away with a wet sponge. The Divine doesn't disappear; it's transformed into the clean surface.

  Athena should have been more careful. When I reflect upon the life and death of my pupil, it seems to me that I had better change the way I behave too.


  Athena? What an interesting name! Let's see...her Maximum number is nine. Optimistic, sociable, likely to be noticed in a crowd. People might go to her in search of understanding, compassion, generosity, and for precisely that reason, she should be careful, because that tendency to popularity could go to her head and she'll end up losing more than she gains. She should also watch her tongue, because she tends to speak more than common sense dictates.

  As for her Minimum number eleven, I sense that she longs for some leadership position. She has an interest in mystical subjects and through these tries to bring harmony to those around her.

  However, this is in direct conflict with the number nine, which is the sum of the day, month, and year of her birth reduced to a single figure: she'll always be subject to envy, sadness, introversion, and impulsive decisions. She must be careful not to let herself be affected by negative vibrations: excessive ambition, intolerance, abuse of power, extravagance.

  Because of that conflict, I suggest she take up some career that doesn't involve emotional contact with people, like computing or engineering.

  Oh, she's dead? I'm sorry. So what did she do?

  What did Athena do? She did a little of everything, but if I had to summarize her life, I'd say: she was a priestess who understood the forces of nature. Or, rather, she was someone who, by the simple fact of having little to lose or to hope for in life, took greater risks than other people and ended up being transformed into the forces she thought she mastered.

  She was a supermarket checkout girl, a bank employee, a property dealer, and in each of these positions she always revealed the priestess within. I lived with her for eight years, and I owed her this: to recover her memory, her identity.

  The most difficult thing in collecting together these statements was persuading people to let me use their real names. Some said they didn't want to be involved in this kind of story, others tried to conceal their opinions and feelings. I explained that my real intention was to help all those involved to understand her better, and that no reader would believe in anonymous statements.

  They finally agreed because they all believed that they knew the unique and definitive version of any event, however insignificant. During the recordings, I saw that things are never absolute, they depend on each individual's perceptions. And the best way to know who we are is often to find out how others see us.

  This doesn't mean that we should do what others expect us to do, but it helps us to understand ourselves better. I owed it to Athena to recover her story, to write her myth.


  Please, don't call her Athena. Her real name is Sherine. Sherine Khalil, our much-loved, much-wanted daughter, whom both my husband and I wish we had engendered.

  Life, however, had other plans--when fate is very generous with us, there is always a well into which all our dreams can tumble.

  We lived in Beirut in the days when everyone considered it the most beautiful city in the Middle East. My husband was a successful industrialist, we married for love, we traveled to Europe every year, we had friends, we were invited to all the important social events, and once, the president of the United States himself visited my house. Imagine that! Three unforgettable days, during two of which the American Secret Service scoured every corner of our house (they'd been in the area for more than a month already, taking up strategic positions, renting apartments, disguising themselves as beggars or young lovers). And for one day, or rather, two hours, we partied. I'll never forget the look of envy in our friends' eyes, and the excitement of having our photo taken alongside the most powerful man on the planet.

  We had it all, apart from the one thing we wanted most--a child. And so we had nothing.

  We tried everything: we made vows and promises, went to places where miracles were guaranteed, we consulted doctors, witch doctors, took remedies and drank elixirs and magic potions. I had artificial insemination twice and lost the baby both times. On the second occasion, I also lost my left ovary, and after that, no doctor was prepared to risk such a venture again.

  That was when one of the many friends who knew of our plight suggested the one possible solution: adoption. He said he had contacts in Romania, and that the process wouldn't take long.

  A month later, we got on a plane. Our friend had important business dealings with the dictator who ruled the country at the time, and whose name I now forget [Editor's note: Nicolae Ceausescu], and so we managed to avoid the bureaucratic red tape and went straight to an adoption center in Sibiu, in Transylvania. There we were greeted with coffee, cigarettes, mineral water, and with the paperwork signed and sealed. All we had to do was choose a child.

  They took us to a very cold nursery, and I couldn't imagine how they could leave those poor children in such a place. My first instinct was to adopt them all and carry them off to Lebanon, where there was sun and freedom, but obviously that was a crazy idea. We walked up and down between the cots, listening to the children crying, terrified by the magnitude of the decision we were about to make.

  For more than an hour, neither I nor my husband spoke a word. We went out, drank coffee, smoked, and then went back in again--and this happened several times. I noticed that the woman in charge of adoptions was growing impatient; she wanted an immediate decision. At that moment, following an instinct I would dare to describe as maternal--as if I'd found a child who should have been mine in this incarnation, but who had come into the world in another woman's womb--I pointed to one particular baby girl.

  The woman advised us to think again. And she'd been so impatient for us to make a decision! But I was sure.

  Nevertheless--trying not to hurt my feelings (she thought we had contacts in the upper echelons of the Romanian government)--she whispered to me, so that my husband wouldn't hear: "I know it won't work out. She's the daughter of a gypsy."

  I retorted that culture isn't something that's transmitted through the genes. The child, who was barely three months old, would be our daughter, brought up according to our customs. She would go to our church, visit our beaches, read books in French, study at the American School in Beirut. Besides, I knew nothing about gypsy culture--and I still know nothing. I only know that they travel a lot, don't wash very often, aren't to be trusted, and wear earrings. Legend has it that they kidnap children and carry them off in their caravans, but here, exactly the opposite was happening: they had left a child behind for me to take care of.

  The woman tried again to dissuade me, but I was already signing the papers and asking my husband to do the same. On the flight back to Beirut, the world seemed different: God had given me a reason for living, working, and fighting in this vale of tears. We now had a child to justify all our efforts.

  Sherine grew in wisdom and beauty--I expect all parents say that, but I really do think she was an exceptional child. One afternoon, when she was five, one of my brothers said that if, in the future, she wanted to work abroad, her name would always betray her origins, and he suggested changing it to one that gave nothing away, like Athena, for example. Now, of course, I know that Athena refers not only to the capital of Greece, but that it is also the name of the Greek goddess of wisdom, intell
igence, and war.

  Perhaps my brother knew not only that but was aware too of the problems an Arab name might bring in the future, for he was very involved in politics, as were all our family, and wanted to protect his niece from the black clouds that he, and only he, could see on the horizon. Most surprising of all was that Sherine liked the sound of the word. That same afternoon, she began referring to herself as Athena and no one could persuade her to do otherwise. To please her, we adopted the nickname too, thinking that it would be a passing fancy.

  Can a name affect a person's life? Time passed, and the name stuck.

  From very early on, we discovered that she had a strong religious vocation--she spent all her time in the church and knew the Gospels by heart; this was at once a blessing and a curse. In a world that was starting to be divided more and more along religious lines, I feared for my daughter's safety. It was then that Sherine began telling us, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, that she had a series of invisible friends--angels and saints whose images she was accustomed to seeing in the church we attended. All children everywhere have visions, but they usually forget about them after a certain age. They also treat inanimate objects, such as dolls or fluffy tigers, as if they were real. However, I really did feel she was going too far when I picked her up from school one day, and she told me that she'd seen "a woman dressed in white, like the Virgin Mary."

  Naturally, I believe in angels. I even believe that the angels speak to little children, but when a child starts seeing visions of grown-ups, that's another matter. I've read about various shepherds and country people who claimed to have seen a woman in white, and how this eventually destroyed their lives, because others sought them out, expecting miracles; then the priests took over, their village became a center of pilgrimage, and the poor children ended their lives in a convent or a monastery. I was, therefore, very concerned about this story. Sherine was at an age when she should have been more concerned with makeup kits, painting her nails, watching soppy TV soaps and children's programs. There was something wrong with my daughter, and I consulted an expert.

  "Relax," he said.

  According to this pediatrician specializing in child psychology--and according to most other doctors in the field--invisible friends are a projection of a child's dreams and a safe way of helping the child to discover her desires and express her feelings.

  "Yes, but a vision of a woman in white?"

  He replied that perhaps Sherine didn't understand our way of seeing or explaining the world. He suggested that we should gradually begin preparing the ground to tell her that she was adopted. In the pediatrician's words, the worst thing that could happen would be for her to find out by herself. Then she would begin to doubt everyone, and her behavior might become unpredictable.

  From then on, we changed the way we talked to her. I don't know how much children remember of what happens to them, but we started trying to show her just how much we loved her and that there was no need for her to take refuge in an imaginary world. She needed to see that her visible universe was as beautiful as it could possibly be, that her parents would protect her from any danger, that Beirut was a lovely city and its beaches full of sun and people. Without ever mentioning "the woman in white," I began spending more time with my daughter; I invited her school friends to come to our house; I seized every opportunity to shower her with affection.

  The strategy worked. My husband used to travel a lot, and Sherine always missed him. In the name of love, he resolved to change his way of life a little. Her solitary conversations began to be replaced by games shared by father, mother, and daughter.

  Everything was going well. Then, one night, she came into our room in tears, saying that she was frightened and that hell was close at hand.

  I was alone at home. My husband had had to go away again, and I thought perhaps this was the reason for her despair. But hell? What were they teaching her at school or at church? I decided to go and talk to her teacher the next day.

  Sherine, meanwhile, wouldn't stop crying. I took her over to the window and showed her the Mediterranean outside, lit by the full moon. I told her there were no devils, only stars in the sky and people strolling up and down the boulevard outside our apartment. I told her not to worry, that she needn't be afraid, but she continued to weep and tremble. After spending almost half an hour trying to calm her, I began to get worried. I begged her to stop; after all, she was no longer a child. I thought perhaps her first period had started and discreetly asked if there was any blood.

  "Yes, lots."

  I got some cotton wool and asked her to lie down so that I could take care of her "wound." It wasn't important. I would explain tomorrow. However, her period hadn't started. She cried for a while longer, but she must have been tired, because then she fell asleep.

  And the following morning, there was blood.

  Four men had been murdered. To me, this was just another of the eternal tribal battles to which my people have become accustomed. To Sherine, it clearly meant nothing, because she didn't even mention her nightmare.

  Meanwhile, from that date onward, hell came ever closer, and it hasn't gone away since. On that same day, twenty-six Palestinians were killed on a bus, as revenge for the murders. Twenty-four hours later, it was impossible to walk down the street because of shots coming from every angle. The schools closed, Sherine was hurried home by one of her teachers, and the situation went from bad to worse. My husband interrupted his business trip halfway through and came home, where he spent whole days on the phone to his friends in government, but no one said anything that made any sense. Sherine heard the shots outside and my husband's angry shouts indoors, but to my surprise, she didn't say a word. I tried to tell her that it wouldn't last, that soon we'd be able to go to the beach again, but she would simply look away or ask for a book to read or a record to play. While hell gradually put down roots, Sherine read and listened to music.

  But, if you don't mind, I'd prefer not to dwell on that. I don't want to think about the threats we received, about who was right, who was guilty, and who was innocent. The fact is that a few months later, if you wanted to cross a particular street, you had to catch a boat across to the island of Cyprus, get on another boat, and disembark on the other side of the street.

  For nearly a year, we stayed pretty much shut up indoors, always hoping that the situation would improve, always thinking it was a temporary thing, and that the government would take control. One morning, while she was listening to a record on her little portable record player, Sherine started dancing and saying things like: "This is going to last for a long, long time."

  I tried to stop her, but my husband grabbed my arm. I realized that he was listening to what she was saying and taking it seriously. I never understood why, and we've never spoken about it since. It's a kind of taboo between us.

  The following day, he began taking unexpected steps, and two weeks later we were on a boat bound for London. Later, we would learn that, although there are no reliable statistics, during those years of civil war about 44,000 people died, 180,000 were wounded, and thousands made homeless. The fighting continued for other reasons, the country was occupied by foreign troops, and the hell continues to this day.

  "It's going to last for a long, long time," said Sherine. Unfortunately, she was right.


  When I first met Athena, she already knew that she was adopted. She was just nineteen and about to have a stand-up fight with a fellow student in the university cafeteria because the fellow student, assuming Athena to be English (white skin, straight hair, eyes that were sometimes green, sometimes gray), had made some insulting remark about the Middle East.

  It was the first day of term for these students and they knew nothing about one another. But Athena got up, grabbed the other girl by the collar, and started screaming: "Racist!"

  I saw the look of terror in the girl's eyes and the look of excitement in the eyes of the oth
er students, eager to see what would happen next. I was in the year above, and I knew exactly what the consequences would be: they would both be hauled up before the vice chancellor, an official complaint would be made, and that would probably be followed by expulsion from the university and a possible police inquiry into alleged racism, etc., etc. Everyone would lose.

  "Shut up!" I yelled, without really knowing what I was saying.

  I knew neither of the girls. I'm not the savior of the world, and to be perfectly honest, young people find the occasional fight stimulating, but I couldn't help myself.

  "Stop it!" I shouted again at the pretty young woman who now had the other equally pretty young woman by the throat. She shot me a furious glance. Then, suddenly, something changed. She smiled, although she still had her hands around her colleague's throat.

  "You forgot to say 'please,'" she said.

  Everyone laughed.

  "Stop," I asked again. "Please."

  She released the other girl and came over to me. All heads turned to watch.

  "You have excellent manners. Do you also have a cigarette?"

  I offered her my pack of cigarettes, and we went outside for a smoke. She had gone from outrage to nonchalance, and minutes later, she was laughing, discussing the weather, and asking if I liked this or that pop group. I heard the bell ringing for class and solemnly ignored the rule I'd been brought up to obey all my life: do your duty. I stayed there chatting, as if there were no university, no fights, no canteens, no wind or cold or sun. There was only that young woman with the gray eyes, saying the most boring and pointless things, but capable, nonetheless, of holding my interest for the rest of my life.

  Two hours later, we were having lunch together. Seven hours later, we were in a bar, having supper and drinking whatever our limited budgets allowed us to eat and drink. Our conversations grew ever more profound, and in a short space of time, I knew practically everything about her life--Athena recounted details of her childhood and adolescence with no prompting from me. Later, I realized she was the same with everyone, but that day I felt like the most important man on the face of the earth.