Later that day, Leah’s two favorite friends—Her-Sweet, the Bearded Lady, and the Rubberband Man, the carnival’s contortionist—arrived bearing gifts. Her-Sweet presented Leah with a book called The Almost Anything You Might Ask Almanac, and the Rubberband Man unveiled a crystal ball with a wooden stand, thereby tapping Leah on the top of her head with one spindly finger and declaring her The Youngest and Very Best Fortuneteller in the World. Leah didn’t know if he was serious or joking, but she liked the way the sphere turned everything upside down when she peered into it.
Jeannie bent down to get her own look inside the crystal. “I keep telling you, I think she’s too young,” she said, exhaling a fresh stream of cigarette smoke that swirled over the crystal.
But the next day, the Rubberband Man sat Leah down in a tent at a small round table adorned with her new crystal ball and a white egg timer. Four black pillar candles burned on slim wooden tables, one in each corner of the tent. From a small cassette deck Romani music played in the background, while on a poster on the wall opposite Leah, an elephant charged toward her. Jeannie had sent her off that morning wrapped in one of her magic capes—a diaphanous crimson silk edged with purple velvet and silver sequins—that hung to the floor on Leah. “You’re gonna tell people their fortunes,” the Rubberband Man explained as they walked toward the tent, while Leah tripped every few steps on the velvet edge of the fabric. “With those eyes of yours, and those smarts, people will listen to anything you say.”
Leah fidgeted in her dazzling cape. “But I don’t know what to say.”
“Tell ’em something about themselves. Whatever you feel.”
“What if I don’t feel anything?”
“Then tell ’em one of your stories. Or tell ’em something that might happen to ’em—best to make it nice, though. Or just tell ’em something you know.” And as he stepped out of the tent, he turned back. “Just do what comes natural. And remember, hit the timer when they sit down!”
Within seconds she could hear the Rubberband Man’s voice rollercoastering outside the tent. “Step up, step up! Get your fortune told by the World’s Youngest and Very Best Fortuneteller! This six-year-old marvel will blow your mind!”
She went along with the Rubberband Man’s idea not because she understood what she was supposed to be doing, or even what a “for- tune” really was, but because she loved him. What she loved most, besides his gentle nature and his smooth bald head, which always smelled faintly of cloves, was that being with him was like opening a treasure chest filled with mysterious things. Sometimes the mysteries came when he pointed up at the night sky and described event horizons or when he talked about the phenomenon of frog rain or when he showed her a phantom inside a piece of quartz: “If you look into the crystal,” he showed her, holding it up to the light, “you can see how it’s grown. You can see the ghost of what it used to be.” But other times the mysteries glowed inside him, still unrevealed, and Leah liked simply knowing they were there.
“Would you like to sit down?” Leah asked.
You can view The Strange Inheritance of Leah Fern on Amazon. It is published by Melville House.
Rita Zoey Chin (pictured) is the author of the memoir, Let the Tornado Come (Simon & Schuster, 2014). She holds an MFA from the University of Maryland and is the recipient of a Katherine Anne Porter Prize, an Academy of American Poets Award, and a Bread Loaf waiter scholarship. She has taught at Towson University and currently teaches at Grub Street in Boston.