Vulturu houses a large wooden cabin high up in the Carpatian Mountains. It’s one of Santa’s workshops situated all over the globe. It’s open a few days before Christmas but the visitors are rare, as most people don’t even know it’s there. People? It’s actually only known to certain witches…
Granny and Missy have made the journey to the secret place riding their brooms, covered by the heavy snowfall. And while Missy squealing sets off touching just about everything within reach, driving Santa’s helpers crazy, Granny tries to find something special for Taïga. The shelves are overflowing with colorful toys, but nothing seems to suit her granddaughter.
She finally understands that the toys are organized after the age group, so even if the cute kittens come in all the colors of the rainbow, Taïga is too old for them.
After browsing Barbies, trolls and electric trains, discarding balloons, teddy bears and a huge and very realistic nutcracker, her eyes are drawn towards a lonely, ancient porcelain doll. Just like the one she had as a child… That doll is beautiful… but maybe too fragile. And Taïga doesn’t play with dolls… But it’s worth it just to have it as a decoration-
‘Don’t you just love that doll?’ Missy walks past her, followed by a little helper hidden behind a mound of gadgets in his arms.
‘It’s very well made, but I think it’s too… err… creepy for Taïga…’ There’s no way she’ll let Missy steal her idea.
‘Too creepy? Nonsense! It’s just like the one dad bought for you as a kid and I broke. I’ll take it! Wrap it up, please. And be sure it’s delivered to 46 Breach Bend on Christmas Day…’
OK. Of course her sister stole her idea. ‘Is all this for Taïga?’ Granny nods towards the spider legged mound of toys next to her sister.
‘This?’ Missy seems surprised at the amount of things she’s piled up in the little helper’s arms. ‘Nah… Some is for me, and some is for the hospital. And the doll is for Taïga, of course.’
She lowers her voice and whispers in Granny’s ear, ‘I have a project, you see… a scientific project together with Dr. Franke at the Fascinating Facts Observatory. And I need to get on the Director’s good side to gain access to the morgue…’
Granny mouth falls open.
‘I know. Don’t be jealous. It’s top secret…’ She looks at Granny’s empty arms. ‘You should really try to get Taïga something while we’re here, it’s soon closing and it won’t open again until next year!’
Granny looks after her departing sister.
Dr. Franke… The morgue… What are they up to? But she’s right, I have to find something for Taïga. That’s why I’m here after all… Hmmm… Let’s try the toy machine… She heads over towards an ancient wooden contraption happily painted in reds and blues, with lots of buttons and a handle. Just like one of those machines in a Casino. She pushes some buttons haphazardly, hoping for jackpot, but after a lot of rumbling and squeaking, the machine spits out – not a toy, but a piece of paper. A little disappointed Granny unfolds it, a slow smile spreading on her face. Yes! Why didn’t I think of that before? It’s so evident!
‘What does it say?’ Missy is back, reading the message on the paper slip over Granny’s shoulder:
“A place to read, a place to sleep
A place to hide, a place to keep”…
Taïga was so happy back at the cove to have her own little place, and now Granny wants to recreate it as faithfully as possible, making her granddaughter feel at home. ‘Taïga needs her own room, and that’s what she’ll get!’
‘Yes! It’s a great idea! Let’s install her in the attic! Far from us grownups! The higher the better!’
‘I was rather thinking of transforming the library. Why don’t we install the bookcases in the attic?’
Missy thinks it over. ‘But that will be too many stairs for my old legs…’
‘You never use the library, Missy. I haven’t seen you put your foot in the library since we got here. You always read the same book.’
‘There’s nothing wrong with Wuthering Heights. It’s a classic.’
‘A classic you’ve been reading over and over since high school, Missy. You must know it by heart.’
‘I don’t. But if you insist, go ahead and transform my house for your granddaughter!’ She ambles off, grumbling about certain persons who think they always know best…
The very next day the two old ladies goes shopping. Missy knows all the boutiques and retailers in town, and she drags Granny from shop to shop, but Granny nothing pleases Granny.
‘I don’t know, ma’am… We sell a lot of these steampunk lamps to children…’
‘My grand child doesn’t like steampunk. She likes… likes… Err… She likes flowers! Yes. Flowers. And butterflies. And horses. Especially unicorns.’
The sales clerk shrugs. She has showed the old ladies just about all lamps in her shop, but the eccentric woman in grey just discarded them all. ‘Why don’t you take a look around? I’ll get back to you if you need me.’
Granny walks around the brightly colored shop, feeling desperate. No inspiration whatsoever…
Missy calls her over. She is looking at some ugly garden gnomes. ‘What do you think? We’ll buy seven and she’ll feel like Snow White!’
‘I don’t think so, Missy… They fit in a garden. Maybe… They are too… err… too Halloweenly ugly!’
‘Hmm… They’ll liven up the garden so I’ll take a couple, or more. In bright colors, please!’ She waves the sales clerk over.
While Missy is sharing her bright ideas about decoration with the shopkeeper, Granny finally sets eye on something interesting.
What is that? Rugs? On the wall? ‘Could I have a look at that pink rabbit thingy over there on the wall, please?’
After stocking up on garden gnomes and rugs, they head over to the Fanciful Furniture Store. Most furniture is heavy and dark, but in a corner Granny finds a real pearl hidden from view.
Hmmm… I like this chest of drawers. Girly but not ridiculous, and it’s grey… Now let’s see if there’s a bed to go with it…
Surprisingly there is. Granny can’t believe her luck.
The same flower painting and just the same shade of grey. Perfect! She looks around for Missy.
‘Come and look at this bed, Missy! What do you think?’
‘Why don’t we just conjure one up?’
‘She’s ten years old! You should know that she can’t sleep in a magic bed!’
‘Hmpff… Can’t eat magic food. Can’t sleep in a magic bed… What purpose is there to have a witch child if you have to treat her like a standard human model!?! Huh? Tell me?’
… and the mattress seems good. Not too hard… not too soft… ‘Err… You seem to have forgotten she doesn’t have any powers before she’s 15.’
‘Really? Usually that’s what happens. But that’s not what you told me! She’s riding a broom, using psychokinesis to levitate leaves and has successfully used a wand –that’s not even hers by the way- and that’s scary!’
‘What is scary, ladies? The beds? The price? Me?’ The salesclerk has sneaked up on them, but luckily he didn’t hear what they were talking about.
Must be careful. These people are moving like ghosts… Granny musters a smile. ‘Oh. I would say the weather is quite frightful in these parts of the world.’
The salesclerk chuckles. ‘It takes a while to get used to, indeed. Have you ladies found something you fancy?’
‘Yes, this bed-’
Granny looks astonished at her sister. ‘But?’
The salesclerk looks at the sisters, ‘Shall we try to find an agreement here?’
‘Just a moment.’ Granny lowers her voice, speaking to Missy. ‘There’s only one bed and I want it. Why don’t you wait for me downstairs?’
Missy glares at her. ‘OK. But don’t come complaining afterwards.’
Granny turns back to the salesclerk, ‘I am buying. And I’m interested in the set – chest of drawers and bed.’
‘Are you out of your mind? 15,094 leu! For a bed!’ She listens to the sales clerk.
‘The bed, the chest of drawers and the blanket.’
‘But I don’t want the blanket. We have hundreds of blankets at home.’
‘Ultra-soft, warm and classy cashmere blankets?’
‘Oh, the bedspread is cashmere…’ Granny sighs.
‘Yes, ma’am. 100 % pure cashmere. 360g/m². Touch it… Your granddaughter will sleep like a princess!’
‘For 15,000 it’s yours.’ He holds out his hand.
‘Well, I take it – with the blanket… For 15,000 leu.’
They shake hands and agree on the delivery.
Missy is waiting at the small café just opposite the shop. ‘Don’t tell me the drawers are lined with cashmere? Well, sister. You should have let me negotiate… They drive a hard bargain here,’ she says after Granny has told her how much she paid.
Granny morosely stirs her tea. It’s never fun to be made a fool of, especially in front of her younger sister.
The shop delivers the furniture on Boxing Day, so it was lucky Missy had bought the large doll or there wouldn’t have been anything under the tree on Christmas Day. She herself transformed the large chest she saved from the fire into a new magic chest for her granddaughter, but she was strangely tired afterwards. The burns are healed now, and she has gotten used to her magic toupee, but apparently the fire has taken its toll on her general strength, leaving her drained after every magic exertion.
The delivery van pulls up while Taïga is out walking Tramp, so they know they won’t have more than an hour to fix everything. The two men who deliver the furniture are very helpful, carrying the heavy gear up the stairs, pushing the furniture around until Granny is satisfied.
The shop throws in two bedside tables also, to pardon themselves for the delay. Or because they want a good customer like Granny to come back spending her money. With the lamps and the rugs, the room is almost ready.
‘The ceiling is important, and we can’t very well paint it,’ Missy arguments and, to her satisfaction, her sister gives in to the use of magic for the last touch, letting her help out.
Granny leans against the doorjamb, critically looking the room over. ‘Not exactly out of a design magazine, but good enough…’
‘Let’s take care of the wallpaper now, shall we…’ Missy says. ‘What color will fit the best? Pink?’
‘No… I think we shall keep a grey tone.’
‘You and your grey. She’ll love pink!’
‘I’m not sure about that. Oh, was that the door I heard?’ They look at each other, ‘Taïga? Is that you!?!’
They both put away their wands and closes the door to Taïga’s new room.
They stop on the top of the stairs, watching Taïga dry off Tramp’s wet paws.
‘You’re back early!’ Granny says, brushing imaginary dust off her shoulder.
Missy is fidgeting next to her, wringing her hands. ‘Darn it! There’s a surprise for you, upstairs!’ she squeals excitedly. ‘Or rather, here on this floor. Well, upstairs from where you are.’
Taïga dashes up the stairs and into the guest room, looking around her.
‘No! It’s in there!’ Missy points towards the closed door to the library.
Granny motions her to hurry, the excitement finally getting to her. ‘Come on. Open the door.’
She can’t believe her eyes when she steps over the threshold. The two old ladies have done an amazing job in transforming the murky library into a warm and relatively girly room. There are carpets in the shape of rabbits in different shades of pink, a bed with a matching chest of drawers and nice lamps in the form of flowers throws a warm light over it all. But what makes Taïga stop and stare is the ceiling. Dark blue like the winter sky it is highlighted by a myriad of silvery stars. ‘Granny! It’s so beautiful! It’ll be like sleeping under the stars!’
Missy clears her throat. ‘Actually, the stars were my idea.’
‘Oh, thank you, Missy!’ She hugs them both.
She jumps up on the bed. ‘So smooth…’
‘It’s cashmere, so I do hope it’s smooth! Hurry up now and change clothes, we shall meet your headmaster for Boxing Day dinner!’ Granny is already on her way out.
‘Why can’t we have dinner at home?’ Taïga asks. She can’t wait to go to bed in her own room, reading.
‘Because Mr. Synapse wants to invite us, that’s all. Now, hurry up!’
‘And he’s a very special friend of mine,’ Missy muses. ‘Without me you would never have been accepted his fancy school.’
‘Fancy? I don’t think-’ Granny silences her with a stern glance. ‘All right. But do I have to wear a dress?’
They arrive early at the Lonely Literary Café, the little restaurant where they will have dinner with Mr. Synapse. Granny almost falls over backwards when her sister sheds her coat.
‘It’s nice, huh?’ Missy passes her hands over the silky material, trying to smooth it out. ‘Luckily I’m not wearing underwear,’ She winks at Taïga who gapes at the sight of her great aunt’s feisty figure threatening to burst out of the very tight Bordeaux dress. ‘This kind of osé dress isn’t forgiving.’
‘Missy!’ Granny interrupts, steering Taïga around and shooing her away. ‘Are you sure you want to wear that outfit?’
‘It’s my best dress. I wore it for prom!’ Missy says petulantly, ‘And everybody said it looked extraordinary.’
Granny rolls her eyes. ‘Exactly. Err… Missy, look. That was 45 years ago. And if you looked like a tart back then, now there’s no word to describe you…
‘But it still fits! And I think Mr. Synapse likes it. You should have seen how he looked at me when I took off my coat…’
Granny is out of arguments…
‘Wait a minute…’ Missy’s cell is vibrating. She hands it over to Granny, ‘Could you take that, it doesn’t work with gloves on.’
‘Let me see… how does it work? … WHAT!?!’
‘Who is it?’ Granny’s world is spinning. The text is from her daughter. ‘Shasta…’ Granny whispers, ‘She and Leonardo are on their way. Here.’
‘Oh, good! I thought they wouldn’t make it, as they’re touring.’
‘Yes. Leonardo is on a world tour, and Shasta is accompanying him. He performed in Bucarest yesterday, and I thought it would be a good idea to have them over. Mr. Synapse didn’t mind. He’s a huge fan…’
Seeing Granny’s thunderous expression, she adds, ‘Oups. I guess I just forgot to tell you.’
A gust of cold wind makes them turn towards the open door.
Granny hugs her daughter perfunctorily.
She looks good. Healthy and she carries her pregnancy well… and those rubies! Where have I seen them before?
She is surprised to finally meet Leonardo. He must be her age! She lets him kiss her hand.
‘Such a pleasure, Signora Grey. Your beauty is only eclipsed by your daughter’s.’
Granny frowns slightly. A charmer, huh. ‘It’s a pleasure to finally meet you, Count di Grisogno. You’ve succeeded rather well in hiding my daughter away in the Italian country-side…’
‘Leonardo. You must call me Leonardo. It would be a pleasure to have you as a guest, Signora.’
His attention is drawn to Mr. Synapse, and he walks over to greet him.
‘Mom.’ Taïga’s voice is just a whisper. Shasta hold out her arms and the little girl rushes over, throwing herself in her arms. ‘I’ve missed you so much, Mom!’ Taïga jumps up and down with excitement, ‘Did you know the sun NEVER shines here? Granny said we’d visit you soon and now you’re here! And I danced the Diamond Fairy at the Spring festival last year… I wish you could have been there. I can do perfect échappées now, I’ll show you!’
‘Oh, darling, I’ve missed you too! Has Granny given you my birthday present?’
‘Yes! Wow, thanks Mom… I’ve tried to call you, but you’re never home! Can I have your cell number?’
Granny watches her daughter and granddaughter get acquainted again.
‘How you have grown! When I left, you were this big!’ Shasta makes a gesture with her arms, making Taïga giggle.
‘Now you’re exaggerating, mom!’
‘Well, maybe a little…’
Taïga can’t keep her eyes from straying to her mother’s swollen belly. ‘Wow, Mom! You are huge!’
‘And it’s only six months,’ Shasta chuckles, ‘It will get even bigger!’ She caresses her baby bump, ‘I can’t wait to hold this little bundle of joy in my arms…’
Taïga bites her lip and shuffles her feet.
Granny clenches her fists, “Little bundle of joy” … Can’t she see how she hurts her daughter, how jealous she must be? Just look at Taïga! How happy she was to finally see her mother again and now this!
‘Can I have a word with you, Shasta?’ she says icily.
Granny and Shasta talk with low voices so nobody can overhear them, but the discussion soon gets heated.
‘Don’t you dare “Mother” me. You’re a mother too. And I will not stand by and watch you ruin her life! Again!’
Tramp goes from whining to nervous barking, and Taïga just wants to cry…
‘Calm down… It’s nothing…’ Taïga hugs the excited dog.
Granny is seething, but she tries her best not to show how upset she is. It’s Boxing Day after all, and she doesn’t want to make a scene at the Headmaster’s dinner. But it’s too late, Shasta has crying run away to the bathroom and Taïga is desperately trying to calm the japping dog.
Missy watches the scene with ill hidden disgust. ‘God, I hate that dog! Barking, drooling, and shedding fur all over the place…’
‘Now, where is he by the way?’ Granny looks around her, a little worried about the impression Missy gives.
‘Who?’ Missy looks away from the disgusting scene.
‘The headmaster? Mr. Synapse?’
‘Oh. He’s out smoking with that charming husband of Shasta’s… Don’t you think we should let out the dog too? He’ll only be a nuisance, barking like that.’
The door bursts open and Mr. Synapse waves excitedly at them, ‘Mersul cu steaua! (Going with the star) Hurry!’
They pile out onto the porch to listen to a singing group of children in hats, carrying a brightly colored star. Mr. Synapse whispering explains that the whole set up is in symbol of the Three Wise Men looking for Jesus Christ.
Nobody notices that Missy and Shasta has stayed behind.
The dinner draws to an end and after finishing the meal with tasty cozonac filled with walnut cream, seeds and dried fruit, it’s time to take their leave.
‘Here Taïga, this is for you! A late Christmas present!’ Shasta comes back from outside where she has fetched a big box from the car.
Taïga holds back her tears, ‘Goodbye, Mom… Promise you’ll call?’
Missy downs her third glass of plum brandy, clucking her tongue and squinting. ‘Goodbye, Mr. Synapse. Thank you and Murry Christmas.’ She shakes the headmaster’s gloved hand vigorously, stepping outside into the cold winter night.
‘Missy, you forgot your coat.’ Taïga hands her airhead of an aunt her outerwear.
Missy turns ineffectively on herself, jabbing with her arm at the heavy material, and Granny has to help her. ‘That was maybe two brandies too much,’ she sermons, hiking arms with her sister to stabilize her somewhat.
‘Just following doctor’s orders.’
Granny raises her eyebrows, ‘Really?’
‘Yup.’ Missy continues, slurring slightly, ‘Five vegetables and fruits a day. Raisins and plums.’
‘I’m sure the doctor didn’t exactly mean-’
Taïga tones out the two sister’s voices, walking ahead of them deep in thought. It had been so nice to see her mom again, but at the same time it had felt strange somehow. Granny had told her about the pregnancy, but seeing her mother’s swollen silhouette, and touching the baby kicking, had made it all real. She will have a sister. A little sister that will live with her mom. She doesn’t believe that Shasta will let her come and live in Italy with her anymore, she had avoided the subject as soon as it was raised, leaving Taïga with a hollow feeling in her stomach. Of course she loves Granny but she isn’t mom…
Taïga hesitates in the garden. ‘I’ll be right in, Granny! There’s something I have to do first…’
‘Just don’t stay too long, dear. It’s almost half past two and you should already be in bed.’
She trudges out to the backyard with Tramp in her wake, looking for the perfect spot. The dog sniffs around his usual bushes, succeeding in peeing on them even though he has marked just about fifty different spots on their way home. She lets herself fall backwards into the thick snow, arms and legs flailing to make a snow angel…
She lies immobile, staring up at the twinkling stars, hardly noticing the warm tears slowly dripping from the corners of her eyes as she searches the dark sky for the constellation Ursa Minor. She focuses on Polaris, the North Star, until everything becomes blurry except the bright point which had led lost seamen home for centuries…
Derek’s low voice echoes in her head, ‘Just follow the axe of the Big Dipper, see? It looks like a bowl with a slightly bent handle. Continue somewhat higher until you find the Little Dipper… There, can you see it? It’s a mirror image of the Big Dipper. Now, follow the handle and there it is, the brightest of them all…’
‘What are you both doing outside? Weren’t you supposed to do your homework before dinner?’ Mrs. Vargas looks from her sons to the sky, but the moon is not visible yet, and anyway it’s just a waning gibbous tonight – not the full moon. Both Teddy and Derek rush forward to help her unload the car, carrying the numerous bags into the house.
‘Where’s your dad?’ Mrs. Vargas doesn’t wait for an answer, ‘I suppose he’s totally forgot I was in Mount Vernon for the Boxing Day Sales and that he was supposed to make dinner tonight. It’s already five thirty and…’
Derek drops the bags just inside the door and sneaks out again. Teddy loves cooking, he’ll help their mom.
He walks down towards the river, and suddenly drops into the snow, backwards. Taïga loved making snow angels… I wonder what she’s doing now… Automatically his eyes brush the starry sky, fixing the North Star. Could she see it from where she is? Her soft voice reaches him as if she was lying right next to him in the pristine snow.
‘It shines so bright… Do you really think it will always lead us home?’
Part I – End of Chapter 17