Far from the bustling seasonal activity in Vulturu…
… high up in the Carpatian Mountains and well hidden from strangers’ views, there’s a large wooden cabin. It’s one of Santa’s workshops which is only visible during a few days before Christmas. The visitors are rare, as most people don’t even know it’s there. People? It’s actually only known to Santa’s little helpers and their family – and 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 she just admired the cuddly fur on come in all the colors of the rainbow, Taïga is too old for them.
After browsing Barbies, plastic trolls with colorful hair on end 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… She hesitates. The doll is beautiful but maybe too fragile. And Taïga doesn’t play with dolls, apart from ragdoll Bud, of course… But it could be worth it just to have it as a decoration-
‘Don’t you just love that doll?’ Missy’s brisk voice tears her out of her peregrinations. She walks briskly past her towards the shelf with the nice doll, 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…’ Granny stammers, trying to draw her sister’s attention away from the coveted item. There’s no way she will 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’s 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!’
Seething, Granny looks after her departing sister. What on earth could she be up to with Dr: Franke? Her mentioning the morgue doesn’t look good at all. Has she started to experiment with Black Magic again? No. She doesn’t think her sister has broken her promise to Grandmother Ailey. ‘But she’s right, I have to find something for Taïga. That’s why I’m here after all,’ she mutters to herself. Her gaze is drawn to the ceiling, where a steady humming is heard. ‘Hmmm… Let’s try the toy machine…’
She heads upstairs where an ancient wooden contraption happily painted in reds and blues with lots of buttons and a handle occupies a corner of the cramped area. 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, but soon a slow smile lights up her face.
‘Yes! Why didn’t I think of that before? It’s so… so obvious!’
‘What is so obvious?’ Missy is back, reading the message on the paper slip over Granny’s shoulder out loud,
“A place to read, a place to sleep
A place to hide, a place to keep”…
What does it mean? Seems like a lot of nonsense to me.’
‘Huh?’ Granny is drawn from her thoughts. To her the message is obvious – her granddaughter 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 finally feel at home. ‘Taïga needs her own room, and that’s what she’ll get!’
Missy catches on immediately, ‘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.’
‘Of course I don’t. Where’s the fun in reading if you know how it ends? If I did I wouldn’t read it again, I’m not stupid! 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 go shopping. Missy knows all the boutiques and retailers in town, and she drags her sister from shop to shop, but nothing pleases Granny.
‘I don’t know, ma’am…’ the young woman behind the counter is lost. ‘We sell a lot of these steampunk lamps to children…’
Missy quickly translates and Granny sighs. The furniture is peculiar in Vulturu, but then again it might be Missy’s choice of retailers that is special…
‘My grand child doesn’t like steampunk. She likes… Likes… Err…’ Granny realizes that she doesn’t really know what Taïga likes. She clears her throat. What did she talk about this morning? Oh, yes. Flowers. ‘She likes flowers! Yes. Flowers. And butterflies. And horses. Especially unicorns.’
The sales clerk shrugs. She has shown the old ladies just about every lamp in her shop, but the eccentric woman in grey just discarded them all. ‘I might have a flower lamp. But it isn’t a floor one and I will have to order it over the Internet…’
After paying and making sure that they will receive the lamp in time for Christmas, they continue on to the next shop, Bohemia.
A little bell announces their arrival, but the redhead behind the counter doesn’t stir. She’s deeply engrossed in a book, a huge mug with tea on her lap.
Missy nudges Granny. ‘I like her mug. I think I’ll get me one for hot chocolate.’
‘They are right up there. 40 leu,’ the salesperson says with a heavy accent and gestures with her head towards the shelf above her before returning to her book. It is lined with wonderful, huge handmade mugs, all of them different and seemingly able to contain at least three times more liquid than a standard mug.
‘I think I’ll take three. One each,’ Missy muses switching to Romanian. ‘I mean – not one of each color up there, but one for me, one for my sister here and one for Taïga. That’s my great niece. She’s not that great, of course, but she’s my niece and she lives with us so I guess I have to get her one, too.’
The young woman sighs. ‘Why don’t you just look around first? Maybe you’ll want something more after you browse a bit – I’ll get back to you if you need me,’ she says in Romanian, not even glancing at them.
‘Oh. Right.’ Missy shrugs, adding to Granny, ‘It’s better like this. I hate when the sales person follows you around anyways.’
‘Anyway,’ Granny corrects her under her breath. She doesn’t understand what the sales person said, but the body language is quite clear. She doesn’t really want to buy anything from this wonderful shop. Or rather, from this horribly unfriendly young woman. Discreetly she scratches her hair. This toupee thing is getting itchy, especially when she’s wearing her hat.
Missy stops in front of a wooden bench with some nice autumn themed pillows.
‘Don’t you think we need new pillows for the living room?’
Missy puts the pillows on the floor and unfolds a neatly folded blanket they had been hiding. ‘Oh, it’s native,’ she exclaims.
Granny turns around from her contemplation of a painting of Mount Kilimanjaro. ‘Native Romanian?’ she asks absentmindedly.
‘What? Does that exist? No, this must be Navajo or something.’ Missy squints at the label. ‘Made in China,’ she states. ‘Well, then. It’s still lovely.’ She discards it, joining Granny back at the painting.
‘I’m sure the artist didn’t do that on purpose,’ she says, looking at the all-white painting with just the black outlines of the famous mountain. ‘One of his friends must have told him it’s funny how his outcast looks like Mount Kilimanjaro and he just stopped painting. Why lose time on completing something when you can already imagine what it is?’
Granny rolls her eyes. She had been thinking exactly the same thing, but would never admit it. ‘It’s called minimalism.’
‘I think I need some new oven mitts.’ Missy eyes have fallen upon some handmade things for the kitchen.
‘You never cook. You have a perfectly new set at home,’ Granny adds tartly.
‘I know. But those are lovely!’
‘35 leu. You get two for 70,’ the sales person says in English. Both old ladies jump at the sound of her voice. They had forgotten all about her.
‘That’s not a bargain,’ Granny mutters and walks away from the colorful mittens. It’s disconcerting knowing the young woman is listening to them.
‘You’re such a killjoy!’ Missy whispers behind her back, but her elder sister just answers with a dismissive wave of her hand. So annoying.
Missy has abandoned the mittens and set her heart on some bohemian looking handbags instead. She leaves her sister to the bags and continues browsing the brightly colored items, feeling desperate. There are so many things she likes in the shop, but nothing that would suit her grandchild.
No inspiration whatsoever for a child’s room…
Missy waves her over. She is gushing over some ugly garden gnomes. ‘What do you think? We’ll buy seven and she’ll feel like Snow White! She likes to play pretend, doesn’t she?’
‘Err… Yes, but-’
‘I bet we could even make them come alive somehow,’ she adds, her eyes bright with wonder.
Granny suddenly has a vision of seven ugly old gnomes running around Missy’s house and she stifles a laughter. ‘I don’t think so, Missy… They fit in a garden. Maybe… They are too… err… Too Halloweenly ugly!’
‘Hmm… I think they are cute. They’ll liven up the garden so I’ll take two, or more. In bright colors, please!’ She waves the sales clerk over.
The young woman finishes the sentence she was reading and stands up, putting her book and now empty mug on her chair. She does her best to smile but it doesn’t really reach her eyes. ‘Are you done? Shall I wrap up the mugs for transport?’
‘Yes, please. And then I’ll have seven of those. You don’t happen to have a princess? Snow-white would be perfect. I’m counting on disposing them in my garden. Maybe I’ll fix a fountain or something… A castle would be too much, don’t you think?’
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, mugs, a few pillows 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 is grey… Now let’s see if there’s a bed to go with it…
Surprisingly there is. Granny can’t believe her luck. ‘Look, Missy! The same flower painting and just the same shade of grey, and the mattress seems good. Not too hard… not too soft… Perfect!’ She looks around for her sister. ‘Don’t tell me you are going to lie down on that bed.’
Missy stops fluffing the pillow and looks up at her sister. ‘Why shouldn’t I? You can’t buy a bed without trying it first.’
Granny rolls her eyes. ‘You should at least take off your muddy shoes.’
‘Oh, all right then.’ She continues muttering, but she gets off the bed.
‘Stop sulking and come over here and look at this one, Missy! What do you think?’
‘Why don’t we just conjure one up?’ Missy says grumpily.
‘She’s eight 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?’
‘Err… You seem to have forgotten she doesn’t have any powers before she’s fifteen.’
‘Really? Usually that’s what happens. But that’s not what you’ve told me! She’s riding a broom, using psychokinesis to levitate leaves and the Goddess knows what else, and has successfully used a wand-’ Missy takes a deep breath, ‘-that’s not hers by the way- and that’s pretty damn scary if you ask me!’
‘What is scary, ladies? The beds? The price? Me?’ An extremely pale salesclerk has sneaked up on them but Granny is sure he didn’t hear what they were talking about.
Must be careful. These pale people are moving like ghosts… Granny musters a smile at the sickly looking salesperson. He makes her think of a young cherub, what with his large blonde curls. A very sick cherub. ‘Oh. I would say the weather is quite frightful in these parts of the world.’
The salesclerk pushes up his thick black rimmed glasses and chuckles. ‘It takes a while to get used to, indeed. That’s why we contribute with furniture to the cozy homes, here in Vulturu.’
Granny doesn’t really agree with him, what she has seen so far has been extremely dark and murky if not straight out gothic…
‘Have you ladies found something you fancy?’
‘Yes, this bed-’
‘No,’ Missy almost spits out the word.
Granny looks astonished at her sister. ‘But?’
The salesclerk looks at them. ‘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.’
‘Why should I?’ Smiling, Granny turns back to the salesclerk. ‘I am buying. And I’m interested in the whole set – the chest of drawers over there and the 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!’
Granny hums noncommittally.
‘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 said she’d be waiting at the small Café Meow, just opposite the shop. The windows of the two storey brick building are lighted up with a warm glow, and a sign showing a big yellow cat tells Grannny it must be the famous place. She gathers up her skirts and crosses the street, unable to avoid the slush left by the few passing cars.
She can see an amorous couple through the misty window, they are young and only have eyes for each other. Such fools… She pushes the door open and gasps.
The facade of the severe dark building is in sharp contrast to the colored interior. The armchairs surrounding the round tables, as well as the tablecloths, are all different. The patterns are not at all coordinated, which to perfectionist grey loving Granny, is a designer faux-pas. To her surprise it makes her feel cozy and comfortable for the first time since she arrived in Vulturu.
The place is crowded. The pleasant murmur of voices is mixing with heady scents, making Granny’s mouth water.
People are queueing for Katryn Mieluș’ home baked goods and her wonderful assortment of coffees, exotic teas and hot chocolate and all the tables are occupied. She scans the place for her sister, taking in the surprising amount of sickly pale people.
‘Right here, Tara! I ordered you an old-fashioned hot chocolate.’ Missy waves her over to a table by the window.
Thankfully Granny gets rid of her coat and takes a seat opposite her sister who is just starting on her fifth cup of chocolate cappuccino.
‘… and she’s drawing funny cat faces in the foam. Look! I swear it tastes better with cream-art… How much did you pay, by the way?’
Granny glances perfunctorily at the barista’s masterpiece but is saved from commenting by her hot chocolate arriving.
‘Thank you.’ She accepts the steaming mug and appreciates the smell of hot cocoa and cinnamon wafting up.
‘15,000 leu? Don’t tell me the drawers are lined with cashmere, too! she says after Granny has told her how much she paid for the furniture. ‘Well, sister. You should have let me negotiate… They drive a hard bargain here.’
Granny morosely sips her hot chocolate. It is never fun to be made a fool of, especially in front of her younger sister. Missy goes on and on about the deal, annoying Granny immensely. She’d better put a stop to Missy’s gloating before… Before what? She’ll just go ahead and stop it.
‘Ahem. Have you noticed?’
‘… and you must know how to bargain or they’ll- What?’
‘The pale people. There’s an unusual amount of pale people in Vulturu.’
‘Oh, that.’ Missy shrugs. ‘Well. The sun rarely shines here.’
‘I don’t think it’s the same paleness we’re talking about.’ Granny lowers her voice. ‘Take a discreet look at the table behind us.’
Missy moves her eyes sideward to where a group of women are taking their tea after having done some Christmas shopping. ‘So what?’
Granny snorts in desperation. ‘They are all the same – sickly pale skin, pale eyes, pale everything. And-’ she stops to accentuate the importance of what is to come, ‘-they wear gloves. Just like Taïga’s teachers.’
Missy’s face falls. ‘We’re almost Christmas, Tara. It must be at least -15 outside. Err… 5 degrees Fahrenheit,’ she corrects when she sees Granny’s questioning expression. ‘You’ve been wearing your red gloves the whole day, too.’
‘They are Hermès,’ Granny says as if it explains everything.
‘You’re such a snob,’ Missy mumbles.
‘Missy, I think something’s wrong with them. I have a hunch.’
‘Oh. One of your famous hunches, right.’
Granny nods. They sit in silence for a while, sipping their hot beverages. Missy’s eyes are darting around the room. Finally she clears her throat. ‘So. What are they? Vampires?’
‘I must admit the thought crossed my mind, but I don’t think so. I shook hands with most of the staff at St. Andrews and I didn’t feel anything supernatural.’
‘You told me yourself that they all wore gloves.’
‘Missy. I’m a full-blooded witch from an extremely ancient and pure lineage…’
Yada, yada… Missy thinks, rolling her eyes.
‘… so you should know something as futile as gloves don’t stop me.’ She straightens her cuffs.
‘And they are eating and drinking, so they can’t be vampires,’ Missy adds.
‘And it’s broad daylight.’
‘Well. It’s snowing.’
‘3 p.m. still counts as daylight, doesn’t it?’
‘So could they be junkies?’ But a quick glance at the group of women makes Missy shake her head. ‘Geishas maybe?’
The two old sisters leave the café without having solved the mystery, but both firmly decided in finding out what the pale people’s affliction could be…
The shop delivers the furniture on Boxing Day, so it was lucky Missy had bought the large doll for Christmas or there wouldn’t have been much under the tree for Taïga. Granny didn’t have anything, a part from a pretty certificate signed by Santa Claus himself. Racking her brains, she finally decided on transforming 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 to the second floor and pushing the furniture around until Granny is satisfied.
The shop has thrown in two bedside tables also, to pardon themselves for the delay. Or maybe they were just trying to woo a good customer like Granny to come back spending her money. Placing the lamps and the rugs, the room seems almost ready.
‘There is something missing,’ Granny frowns.
‘There are lots of things missing – happy colors on the walls, toys and you promised me I could contribute, too. That you would help me.’
Granny turns to look at her sister. She raises an eyebrow.
‘Well. I chose the ceiling.’
‘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. Granny lets her younger sister help out, serving as anchor to get the energy needed.
Exhausted, Granny leans against the doorjamb. Why is she so tired? Critically she takes in the fruit of their work. ‘Not exactly out of a design magazine, but good enough…’
‘Let’s take care of the wallpaper now, shall we?’ Missy says. She doesn’t seem the least afflicted by having served as anchor, but rubs her hands with energy. ‘What color will fit the best? Pink? The rugs are already pink, mind you.’
‘She’s not very fond of pink. No… I think we shall keep a grey tone.’ Granny says, wondering if her tiredness shows.
‘You and your grey. I love pink and I’m sure she’ll love pink, too!’
‘I’m not sure about that. Her favorite color is blue.’
‘I can’t see why you’re so difficult? Just wave your wand around and it’s done in a blink!’ Her grumpy features light up. ‘I want pink. You want blue. So let’s settle for yellow then! Like Switzerland!’
‘It’s neutral aka not pink nor blue-’ she specifies when she sees the puzzled look on Granny’s face.
‘Whatever. She hates yellow…’
‘-and easy peasy to do!’
Missy has grabbed Granny’s hand still holding the wand and it splutters out golden sparkles, changing everything pink into yellow.
Granny almost faints. She can’t leave the room like this or Taïga will have a fit!
‘Oh, was that the door I heard?’ They look at each other.
‘Taïga? Is that you!?!’ Granny calls out.
‘I’ll tell her to get upstairs!’ Missy hurries out of the room, slamming the door shut in Granny’s face.
Missy leans over the railing, watching Taïga dry off Tramp’s wet paws. ‘Would you mind coming upstairs?’
‘Sure, I’m almost done!’
‘Just leave the dog outside and come upstairs.’
‘But it’s freezing outside, Missy. Look – I’ve taught him to sit. Sit!’
‘Right. When you’re done. Right.’
Granny arrives, making Missy jump with nerves. ‘You’re back early!’ Granny says, brushing imaginary dust off her shoulder.
‘I know. It’s snowing again and I forgot my gloves.’
Missy is fidgeting next to her sister, 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.’
Taïga 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. The curtains and the cute carpets in the shape of rabbits are varying in different shades of soft green, the antique bed has a matching chest of drawers and there are nice lamps in the form of flowers throwing a warm, welcoming light over it all.
Missy doesn’t seem to mind the color. Watching Taïga jump up on the bed, she nudges Granny, murmuring, ‘Green is neutral, too.’
Granny nods, fighting an urge to sit down. Or throw up. Or both. She had tried to change the yellow into blue, but had not had enough strength left. Blue and yellow had mixed, and green it was…
She concentrates on her granddaughter, who’s caressing in wonder the bedspread. ‘So smooth…’
‘It is cashmere, so I do hope it’s smooth,’ Granny says tartly.
‘Goat wool. It originally comes from India and…’ Granny starts.
Taïga doesn’t care if it comes from trolls. The word sounds exotic and marvelous, just as smooth as the texture. Tramp whines, putting a paw on the bed, looking at her with soulful eyes.
Missy shoos him away. ‘Cashmere means no dog in, or even on, your bed! That blanket can’t be thrown into the machine, you know,’ she adds.
Taïga nods, looking up at them both, and gasps in wonder.
Dark blue like the winter sky, the ceiling is highlighted by a myriad of silvery stars. ‘Oh, Granny! It’s so beautiful… It’ll be like sleeping outside, under the stars!’
Missy clears her throat. ‘Actually, the stars were my idea.’
‘Oh, thank you, Missy!’ She jumps off the bed, hugging them both.
‘Hurry up now and change clothes, we shall meet your headmaster for Boxing Day dinner!’ Granny pries lose the excited child, straightening her clothes. Missy 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 at his fancy school.’
‘Fancy? I don’t think-’ Granny silences Taïga with a stern glance. ‘All right. But do I have to wear a dress?’
‘Absolutely. I’m wearing one myself.’
They arrive early at the Synapse residence where they will have dinner with the headmaster. Granny almost falls over backwards when her sister sheds her coat.
‘Ta-dah! It’s nice, huh?’ Missy passes her hands over the silky material, unsuccessfully trying to smooth it out over her generous curves. ‘Luckily I’m going commando.’ 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.
Is Missy some secret service soldier? She knows she must have missed something. Missy was so excited to come here, she won’t leave to go fighting somewhere, will she?
‘Why do I have to wear these stupid antlers? If you’re leaving, can I go with you? Please? I promise I won’t get in the way of the fighting.’ Taïga crosses her arms and glares at Missy.
‘Why should I leave?’ her great aunt makes a face. ‘Oh. Commando.’ She chuckles. ‘This kind of osé dress isn’t forgiving. That’s why I can’t wear under-’
‘Missy!’ Granny interrupts, steering Taïga around and trying to shoo her away. ‘Just wait for us upstairs, will you. And don’t you dare take off the antlers Mr. Synapse so kindly offered you.’ With a sigh Taïga starts up the stairs.
Mr. Synapse is back after having put away their coats. ‘Ladies? Drinks are waiting upstairs.’
‘We’ll be just a minute.’ Granny says with a forced smile. She turns towards her sister and lowers her voice, ‘Are you sure you don’t want to keep your coat?’
‘Keep my coat? Why? 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.’ She holds back from telling her sister that if she looked like a tart back then, now there’s no word to describe her…
‘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. She can see Taïga hesitating at the top of the stairs waiting for her. She doesn’t want to leave her granddaughter alone with their strange host, so she starts up the stairs leaving her sister to think about her choice of clothes. She didn’t like Mr. Synapse when she first met him, and the thoughts now running through her head involves just about everything ranging from sexually kinky to exhibitionist and nudist tendencies. And worse.
Taïga is hesitating. She didn’t expect the Boxing Day dinner to be such a formal affair. The Headmaster’s dining room is intimidating with its modern furniture contrasting with the ancient tapestries. The Christmas tree is not even a real one, it is made of glossy metal, spiraling all the way up to the ceiling a few sparse stars its only decoration. Golden and silvery balls are hanging from the ceiling over the elegant glass table. It is set for seven and she wonders who the other guests could be. There are small gift packages on each golden plate and a wonderful snow globe. She wonders if she could shake it just a little, but it seems pretty heavy. She takes a step forward, but thinks better of it. She has just caught sight of a horrible mask on the wall. It seems to be looking straight at her, grinning evilly. She looks at the gift bags next to the fireplace and swallows. Mr. Synapse has tried hard, but the Christmas feeling isn’t really there. She can hear him clinking with glasses next door, preparing the drinks.
‘Wait a minute…’ Missy’s catches up with her sister on the stairs. Her cell is vibrating so much that even Granny can hear it over the sound of jazz music wafting downstairs. ‘I knew it was a good idea to wear a bra… You can’t imagine how much some parts are sagging since the last time I wore this dress.’
‘Oh, I can imagine too well. That’s why I suggested you should have kept your coat on.’
‘Huh?’ Missy fishes the cell out of her bra and hands it over to Granny, ‘Could you take that, I can’t open it with gloves on.’
‘Let me see…’ Granny fumbles with the unfamiliar object. ‘Gah… How does it work?’
‘Just slide with you finger… Then touch the screen there…’
Granny jabs at the screen with her index finger and a message pops up. ‘WHAT!?!’
‘Who is it? Show me.’
Granny’s world is spinning. The text is from her daughter. ‘Shasta…’ Granny whispers, handing the cell back. ‘She and… ahem… Her husband are on their way. Here.’
‘Oh, good! I thought they wouldn’t make it. As they’re touring,’ she adds, searching Granny’s livid face.
‘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 of the Dazzler… Oups.’ Seeing Granny’s thunderous expression, she adds, ‘I guess I just forgot to tell you.’
Granny fumbles at the wall for support when a gust of cold wind makes them turn towards the open door.
Taïga glances over her shoulder at the couple downstairs. ‘Mom?’ Maybe it is Christmas after all…
Granny hugs her daughter perfunctorily, caught completely off guard.
‘You look good. Healthy and you carry your pregnancy well… And those rubies! Where have I seen them before?’
‘Must have been a Pomellato ad, Mother.’ Shasta touches her earrings and smiles up at her husband. ‘Leonardo is very generous.’
Finally she gets to meet her son in law. She is surprised to find that he must be her own age. Self-consciously she lets him kiss her hand.
‘Such a pleasure, Signorina Grey. Your beauty is only eclipsed by your daughter’s.’ His accent is musical, with rolling “r’s”.
Granny frowns slightly. She can understand how her daughter has fallen under the spell of the charming Count. ‘It’s a pleasure to finally meet you, err…’ What was his name again? ‘Count di Grisogono-’
‘-di Grisogno dell’Aquila. But you must call me Leonardo.’
‘You’ve succeeded rather well in hiding my daughter away in the Italian country-side. Leonardo.’
‘It would be un piacere, a pleasure, to have you as a guest at my old family estate, Signorina. It would be an honor to show you all the marvels of the Italian country-side.’ His attention is drawn to Mr. Synapse. ‘Scusa, I have to greet our host and your… eh… charming sorella.’
‘Mom.’ Taïga’s voice is just a whisper.
Shasta kneels and the little girl rushes over, throwing herself in her mother’s arms. ‘I’ve missed you so much, Mom!’
‘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?’
‘Of course. Meet Leonardo, my husband and your new stepfather.’
Taïga politely greets the elder man who smiles nicely at her. She glances at her mother’s swollen belly. At least her sister will have a father, even if he’s so old. She’ll get the whole package – a grandfather/father in one go.
‘Your daughter is a beautiful miniature of you,’ Leonardo compliments them both. ‘Give me your coat, carina. Oh, you must be the famous younger sorella? How err… charming.’ He kisses Missy’s outstretched hand, giving her their coats. ‘Now where is our host?’
The little group troop upstairs. Taïga holds her mom’s hand, dancing up the stairs 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!’
Granny listens distractedly to her sister and Miss Hasdeu’s conversation about Christmas traditions. The discussion being held mostly in Romanian has nothing to do with her not being able to focus. No, she’s worried about Taïga. With a hint of protectiveness she watches from across the room how her daughter and granddaughter awkwardly get acquainted again after more than a year apart.
‘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”, no less… Can’t she see how she hurts her daughter, how jealous she must be? Just look at her, how happy she was to finally see her mother again and now this! She has heard enough.
‘Can I have a word with you, Shasta?’ she says icily.
They 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…’ she hugs the excited dog, trying to calm him somewhat.
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. Even if Leonardo and Mr. Synapse are blissfully unaware of what just happened, Missy and Miss Hasdeu are watching Shasta hurry away to the bathroom to dry her tears.
Missy watches Taïga desperately trying to calm the japping dog with ill hidden disgust. ‘God, I hate that dog. Barking, drooling and shedding fur all over the place…’ She grimaces.
‘Now, where is he by the way?’ Granny looks around her, a little worried about the impression she has given.
‘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’s 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 a symbol of the Three Wise Men looking for Jesus Christ.
Nobody notices that Missy and Shasta has stayed behind.
After the departure of the singing children, they all troop back indoors and gather around the table to open their little gifts while Miss Hasdeu busies herself in the kitchen. Taïga is happy to find a little angel made out of birch bark to hang in their Christmas tree.
‘It’s wonderful! Thank you, Mr. Synapse! Show me yours, mom.’
Shasta holds up an intricate little star made of straw.
‘I got a star, too. In paper,’ Granny exclaims holding out the object for Taïga to admire.
Miss Hasdeu wheels in a cart from the kitchen, the signal for everyone to put away the gifts.
The dinner comes from one of Vulturu’s better restaurants – thin slices of grouse and mashed potatoes with truffles, which Taïga unsuccessfully tries to separate from the rest. Unfortunately the mashed potatoes taste of truffles anyway. She moves the sophisticated food around her plate, swallowing it down with large gulps of water. How come the adults seem to like it?
She glances at her stepfather next to Granny, she’s curious about him, but he’s sitting with his back to the fireplace, right under the scary dragon mask, making him seem both dark and mean so she doesn’t dare look at him much. They are all talking about grown-up stuff, not paying much attention to her. Only Granny is silent, her gaze lost somewhere in the space over her granddaughter’s head. She doesn’t notice when Taïga discreetly slips a slice of grouse to Tramp who’s lying on the floor by her side, softly whimpering.
The young girl’s attention moves on to the big snow globe next to her plate. The glass sphere encloses a detailed winter landscape with a miniature snowman and some fir trees, the branches heavy with snow. She wonders again if somebody would scold her if she shook it a little. Tentatively she pushes at it, making the snowflakes churn up and slowly settle. She meets her grandmother’s gaze. She shakes her head imperceptibly. ‘Later,’ she mouths and they smile at each other.
Missy doesn’t eat much neither. She’s more interested in tasting the wine from Leonardo’s wine yards he and Shasta brought with them, and compare it to the rich taste of the Moldavian wine Mr. Synapse has suggested.
‘It is issued from the famous aromatic wine grapes fetească neagră or Black Maiden, that…’ Miss Hasdeu stops talking and stares at the fireplace, her face falling.
‘What?’ Mr. Synapse stops swirling the red wine in his glass and follows her gaze.
‘Jezabel!’ Miss Hasdeu screams.
It all happen so fast. Tramp is barking loudly as he lounges for Mr. Synapse’s striped cat, Jezabel, who jumps from the fireplace onto the table, skidding on the glass surface, clawing and hissing her way while Tramp is going berserk trying to get onto the table and catch her. Mr. Synapse rises so fast his chair falls over, wine spilling onto his fancy white outfit and onto the expensive rug.
‘I knew it would end like this,’ Missy shouts with glee in her voice. ‘The stupid dog isn’t fit to be indoors!’ She grabs her overturned wineglass before it empties completely onto the table, holding it high in the air and trying to step aside as Tramp barking squeezes past, Taïga in his wake. It’s finally Leonardo who laughing grabs the excited dog’s collar.
‘Che cavolo! You’d better take your cane downstairs… Sta’ calmo!’ he addresses Tramp, caressing him and trying to make him sit. In vain. ‘Let him out a little moment to calm down.’
‘Thank you.’ Taïga takes Tramp’s collar and drags the wimping dog towards the stairs. Mr. Synapse picks up Jezabel, making sure the cat isn’t hurt before leaving her in the bedroom and closing the door safely behind him. Taïga can hear Granny proffering excuses as she descends the stairs, blushing furiously.
Tramp is the only one not affected by the incident. As soon as Taïga lets go of his collar to open the front door, he japs and runs off in the opposite direction. Taïga mumbles under her breath and sets off after him into the gloomy hallway.
‘Tramp! Come here,’ she calls softly, not wanting the adults on the upper floor to hear her. Half running, she turns the corner only to see her dog enter a half open door further down the dark corridor.
She catches up with him on the threshold of a gloomy room. The dog is standing stock still, sniffing the air. Taïga recognizes the smell. Books. She fumbles for the light switch and draws in her breath. She was right. They are standing in Mr. Synapse’s study, she can see his desk by the window. Neatly stacked papers, holders with classes and years on them and what is this? She picks up a paper with the hospital’s logo on it. St. Andrei Șaguna Sanitarium. Could the headmaster be sick?
She can’t read Romanian very well anyway, the only thing she recognizes is Mitchell’s uncle’s signature at the bottom, so she puts it down again, turning towards her dog who’s sniffing and scratching the floor by one of the bookcases lining the wall.
‘Stop it Tramp. You’re completely ruining the parquet,’ she hisses. Tramp continues sniffing, replacing the scratching by a persistent whining.
Taïga admires the neatly stacked books. ‘What is this?’ A whole series of books with letters on their backs. It’s an encyclopedia, and Taïga tries to take down the one with a “D” on it. ‘Let’s see if we can find something about dragon masks is in there,’ she says to Tramp, who’s now lying on the floor, attentively following her movements. ‘I know. Internet is faster, and I probably can’t read what’s in here anyway, but I’m sure there are pictures…’
She pulls at the book that seem somewhat stuck but let’s immediately go when the library starts shaking, followed by a low rumbling. Tramp whimpers, creeping backwards and unsuccessfully tries to hide under the antique sofa.
The old chandelier rattles, dust snowing down on Taïga who’s standing right under it. She’s too awed seeing a part of the bookcase sliding open to care about the dangers of the chandelier falling down.
Carefully she peeks around the edge of the bookcase, Tramp hiding behind her back. What has she done?
She’s looking into a very dark space, the only light coming from the waning gibbous through a spider web covered window, partly shaded with a heavy velvet curtain. A hole in the floor reveals a wrought iron spiral staircase leading into more darkness.
‘We’d better try to close this and leave,’ she whispers to Tramp, who surges forward, descending the stairs.
‘Tramp! Come back immediately or there will be no more jerky cuts, ever!’
But the dog doesn’t even turn his head at her menace, the clattering noise of his claws against the elaborate ironwork rapidly fading.
There’s no choice but to follow him.
A faint light flickers to life triggered by motion when she’s halfway down, but it remains dim, the economic light taking its own sweet time to power up. She can hear a faint growling getting louder as she sneaks up to the corner and tries to see where Tramp is. What if he has run into some scary monster? Or a dragon! Mr. Synapse must have got the mask from somewhere – maybe he’s killed the beast himself? Maybe it has already eaten Tramp… Carefully she adventures a glance into the room.
The humming comes from an old air-conditioning device. Or a heater. Whatever. It’s not a monster. She lets out a sigh with relief when a movement makes her catch her breath again.
It’s only Tramp sniffling around. She squints to see beyond the machinery and her face falls. Talking about monsters. Maybe there is one after all.
‘Psst. Tramp,’ she whispers. ‘Please…’
But the dog is too busy to pay attention. Trembling he sniffles around the wrought iron cage, that if it didn’t contain something so horrible it would actually be quite stylish.
Taïga can see everything needed to keep a prisoner. A human prisoner. There’s a rusty unmade bed, the filthy blanket thrown aside as if the person who’d been using it just woke up and walked away.
A toilet, a washbasin and a worn armchair completes the vision of horror. Even though Taïga doesn’t really get the whole pervert meaning of what she’s seeing, she still understands that something very wrong is going on in the Headmaster’s basement.
She calls for Tramp again, and finally the dog listens. With a firm hold of his collar, she steers him back upstairs. She wants to go home, but she can’t leave her mother and Granny here without defense. Will they believe her? Probably not. Better wait to tell Granny until they are home, otherwise maybe Mr. Synapse will imprison them all… Swallowing a big lump in her throat, she ties Tramp to the balustrade and heads upstairs where she can hear laughter and clinking of cutlery. If she’s lucky, they’d have served the dessert by now.
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.
Her mother and Leonardo are the first to leave. They will have to drive back to Bucharest this evening, as their flight is before noon. Taïga asks a little timidly if she can touch her mother’s belly. It’s a strange feeling. Suddenly there’s a kick and Taïga withdraws her hand.
‘Here. Put your hand here and the little Countess will surely kick your hand…’
Taïga does as her mother says, and sure enough, the expected movement is almost immediate.
‘Can she feel my hand?’
‘I’m sure she can. She-’
‘Here’s your coat, carina.’ Leonardo holds out her fancy ski jacket and Shasta shrugs elegantly into it. Taïga sighs. Her mother is so beautiful. She holds back her tears when her mother quickly hugs her. ‘Goodbye, Mom… Promise you’ll call?’
Another quick hug, a cold rush of air and they are gone. She rushes into the adjacent room to watch their departure, but the high wall surrounding the garden prevents her from seeing anything. The little countess… Her sister is an aristocrat in the old country. Wow. She can hear Granny calling, so she quickly dries her tears and puts on a brave face. Better hurry up and leave before the Headmaster decides to capture them, now that Leonardo and her mother are gone.
Missy downs her third glass of plum brandy, clucking her tongue and squinting. She misses the last step, falling heedless into Mr. Synapse’s arms. He steadies her taking a step back.
‘Goodbye, Mr. Schnaps. Shank you and Murry Chrishmas.’ 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 younger sister to stabilize her somewhat.
‘Just following doctosh ordesh.’
Granny raises her eyebrows. ‘Really?’
‘Yup.’ Missy continues, slurring slightly and counting on her fingers, ‘Five vegetables and fruuush a day. Raishens and plumsh.’
‘I’m sure the doctor didn’t exactly mean-’
Taïga can’t hear what they are bickering about, she’s running ahead of them playing with Tramp. She’s nevertheless 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 feeling 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 avoided the subject as soon as it was raised, leaving Taïga with a hollow feeling in her stomach. She realizes she never even got her mother’s cell. Of course she loves Granny, but still… 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 forgotten 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 20