A full year has passed since the Grey sisters’ hasty departure from Vulturu, and Bayou Oaks Mansion is finally fit to receive visitors. Taïga has spent all her vacations in Italy or in Champs-sur-Sauloise with Granny, her mother, Rowan and Leonardo, but with a completely repaired roof, new plumbing and no sight of maleficent ghosts, she is coming home for Christmas. The last renovations are done, and it has been two full days of blissful silence. No more hammering, sawing or swearing…
When the doorbell rings one crisp morning, Granny is not surprised. It must surely be one of the workers who has forgotten something. But she opens the door on a total stranger on the doorstep, with an inert Tramp in his arms.
‘… and I was on my way to spend Thanksgiving at my parent’s in Fairview, when he just ran out in front of my car. I couldn’t avoid him. I’m sorry…’
The man is apparently in shock, trembling and blinking. Granny doesn’t know what to do so she just stands there, staring at the dog who seems just to be sleeping, was it not for the hanging, lolling head and the tongue sticking out. And all the blood.
It has soaked through Tramp’s ragged grey fur, painting his back and his muzzle a dark red. The man’s hands and his clothes are stained in his efforts to pick the dog up and carry him from the car to the house. A drop is falling in slow-motion from a dangling paw, landing on the frozen planks of the porch. Dazed Granny looks up at the man, trying to focus on what he is saying.
‘… so I thought he must be yours. I mean, I’m sorry, I really didn’t drive very fast and-’
Missy is coming downstairs, curious about the visitor. ‘Close the door for the sake of the Goddess, it’s freezing outside-’ She stops in her tracks when she catches sight of their dog in the man’s arms. ‘Is he dead? For real?´
The man nods. ‘I believe so, ma’am. I couldn’t help it, he was chasing a rabbit and I hit the brakes but it was too late.’
‘Oh. Well, so what are we supposed to do with the body?’
‘Missy!’ Granny rubs her eyes, trying to get a grip on herself. ‘Of course we’ll have to bury him.’
‘I don’t know if you have noticed, but the ground is frozen solid and we can’t very well keep him in the freezer until spring, can we?’
Granny wring her hands. ‘We’ll find a way,’ she says in a small voice.
‘Ahem.’ The man clears his throat. ‘Could you just tell me where to leave him? Maybe you have a garage? I think the veterinary takes care of these kinds of things…’ He lets the sentence trail.
Missy puts her arm soothingly around her sister’s shoulder, steering her away from the door. ‘Go upstairs to rest, I’ll bring you a cup of herbal tea. Go now.’
Granny is relieved to let her sister take charge. She’s already thinking of how to announce the loss of their beloved dog to Taïga.
Missy is secretly happy to finally be rid of the cumbersome dog. She has been forced to doggy sit when her sister vanished to sunny Italy every bloody vacation. That she had proposed it herself is irrelevant. She had met a very interesting bachelor in town when she was walking the wretched dog, and they have since spent some quality time together when her sister was out of the way. Which probably is out of the question now with the reparations all finished and done, and with Taïga coming back during the holidays. But still. She watches her sister vanish up the stairs, listening with half an ear to the man going on and on about how sorry he was. When she is sure her sister is safely out of earshot, she turns back to the man.
‘Right. I understand. Just take him to the veterinary in town.’
‘But I don’t know where it is?’
‘He’s on Main Street West. Or is it East? Whatever – there’s a big sign and pictures of cats and dogs in the window, you can’t miss it. Tell him to send us the note. Good evening.’
‘But I’m not headed that way-’
She slams the door in the stranger’s face. Humming a happy tune she walks briskly to the kitchen to put the kettle on. Christmas wishes do come true, after all.
There is nothing Granny can do, except cry and wring her hands. Considering the pros and cons concerning being the vessel of such disturbing news, she thinks it might nevertheless be better to tell her granddaughter while she’s still busy with school to take her mind off it – if even just a tiny bit. Telling her granddaughter when she happily comes home for the holidays will surely be more of a shock for her, won’t it? Dabbing at her red eyes with a lacy handkerchief, she decides that even though she knows Taïga will be devastated when she learns Tramp has been overrun by a car, she had better get the bad deed done as fast as possible. With a heavy heart she calls Taïga in France.
A few days later the two old ladies take a cab to meet Taïga at Twallan International in Falls Harbor. The young girl is finally getting back from border school in France for the Christmas holidays.
‘Granny!’ Taïga lets go of her heavy suitcase and runs through the crowd to where she can see her grandmother. ‘I’ve missed you so much! And Tramp…’ she adds in a trembling voice.
Granny hugs her, sharing her granddaughter’s pain. ‘He’s in dog heaven now,’ she tries, but Taïga only cries harder.
Missy comes stomping with the discarded suitcase. ‘Don’t you know there are Special Forces here in the airport? And they are specialists in blowing up abandoned luggage,’ she specifies, putting the suitcase on a trolley. ‘Is this all?’
‘Yes, Missy. And I’ve missed you, too.’ She hugs her great aunt perfunctorily.
‘Hmm. Let’s grab a cab or we’ll be stuck in traffic forever. Oh, look! Christmas cookies. I’ll just get us some for the journey…’ She waves through the throng towards the airport bakery.
It takes all Granny’s patience and not a small amount of gingerbreads in the backseat of the cab to stop the girl’s sniffling.
A couple of hours later after yet another bend in the winding road, the taxi slows down and Taïga gets her first glimpse of Bayou Oaks Mansion. She looks wide-eyed out of the misty window at the the massive, light green, house rising out of the snowy surroundings. What a surprise! She had seen the pictures Granny had sent her, showing the progress of the renovations, but they didn’t make the mansion justice. Just like a French manoir, the house is huge. Much bigger than she had imagined, but still kind of old and decrepit…
‘We’ll change the roof as soon as we’ll get the fundings, but the plumbing is OK now. You’ll have enough warm water to take baths every day if you so wishes,’ Granny gushes.
‘Does that mean we won’t spend the summers in Monte Aquila anymore?’
‘Err… I think we could work out something,’ Granny says. ‘Let’s focus on our first Christmas together at home.’
It has started snowing again. Big, soft flakes are falling when Taïga jumps out of the taxi without putting her jacket back on.
‘Oh, no! You’ve already decorated!’ she bursts out, looking accusingly at her grandmother.
Granny trails after her, eager to explain. ‘Only what you can see from here.’ She gestures to the fir garland above them and the wreaths on the double doors. ‘We’ve started on the decorations, but we’ve left the tree for you to help us with.’
‘And the stockings?’
Granny nods, happy to appease her granddaughter’s worries. It is Missy, though, who finally puts the smile back on the young girl’s face.
‘Would you please pay the cab, dear sister. I’m kind of struggling here,’ she complains, trying to pull up the handle of Taïga’s suitcase. It suddenly gives in and with a snap she pulls it up so hard she slaps herself on the chin and falls backwards in the snow. Taïga rushes to assist her, fighting to keep a straight face. Angrily Missy brushes snow from her backside and stomps off, pulling the suitcase after her in the snow. Taïga hesitates, then she runs after her, eager to get inside and warm herself.
‘You’re so busy sniffling and snuffling over that wretched dog – who certainly is better off wherever he is right now. I would have thought you’d be curious about your room,’ Missy says tartly turning the key and opening the door to let a frenetically meowing Minuit out.
Taïga scoops the cat up and rubs her face against the silky black fur. Putting the cat back down, she looks inquiringly at her grandmother who nods encouragingly at her. She sets of to explore the mansion, followed by Minuit who has decided to stay inside after all…
She loves her new room, and after excitedly talking about school during dinner, they finally settle in the den to read a little before retiring to bed. Granny wants to hear about what Taïga would like for Christmas.
‘Jeez… I don’t know…’ She grimaces. ‘There’s so much I’d like to have for Christmas, Granny! But I’m not sure Santa exists – the kids at school don’t believe he does. And he’ll never get my letter in time in any case.’
‘Go on and make a wish list anyway, honey. Christmas is just around the corner and I’ve heard the letters for Santa are high priority.’
Missy snorts from her usual antique armchair, burying her nose in her favorite book, “Wuthering Heights”.
Taïga humors Granny and scribbles down what she would prefer on one of her grandmother’s thick cream colored correspondence papers.
Top is a pony, as usual. And then comes “a good afterlife for Tramp – I won’t be able to see it for myself, of course, but I trust you to see to it he has his favorite blanket to lie on and lots of tennis balls, because they are his favorites…”
Two days later of intensive preparation for Christmas, it is finally Christmas Eve. Granny wants to impress her daughter and son in law with something really special, but Missy is confused about Granny’s choice of food for the evening meal.
‘I’m not about to complain, but Lobster Thermidor? Why not a turkey as usual?’ she says.
Granny doesn’t even look up from drizzling the Lobster lightly with oil. ‘Turkey? Oh my! Wanting to impress our Italian guests has had me forget all about the turkey! It is still in the fridge… Can you help me with the stuffing?’
Missy sighs. Why can’t she keep her big mouth shut? She takes the huge turkey from the fridge that suddenly seems almost empty.
Humming to herself she starts grinding pepper over the turkey. She can’t fathom why her sister makes such a big deal out of cooking. It’s easy, after all.
As is her habit, it doesn’t take long for Granny to destroy her good mood.
Missy’s hands fall to her side. Stuffing. Did she really believe that she’d get away with just seasoning?
‘Yuk… I hate touching the sloppy turkey…’ she mutters under her breath.
‘I beg your pardon?’ Granny asks.
‘Nothing. I’m just getting my hands completely icky with this sticky stuff…’
But she does as asked anyway. Like this she is the one who has prepared the main dish after all. Granny continues preparing the side dishes while Missy takes care of the disgusting stuffing.
The two sisters finish the preparations for dinner, chatting amiably.
‘Where’s Taïga?’ Missy asks, checking the turkey in the oven for the umpteenth time.
‘I think she’s in the dining room, decorating the Christmas tree…’
‘Does she know she isn’t supposed to light it before tonight?’ Missy dries her hands on a towel. ‘I’ll better go and see what she’s up to. There’s no point standing in front of the stove watching the turkey change color, is it?’
Granny grimaces. Missy had always loved decorating the tree when they were kids… ‘Go ahead, dear. I’ve got everything under control!’
‘Of course you have,’ Missy mumbles under her breath, but hurries out of the kitchen nevertheless.
With Missy and Taïga out of her way, she starts on Mrs. Brown’s chef d’oeuvre – Flame Fruit Angel Cake.
The recipe seems easy enough – eggs, butter, milk and flour – but the difficulty consist in adding the rare flame fruit. It’s actually a kind of apricot and orange hybrid, extremely rare and thus expensive, only grown in the Chinese mountains around the Chinese wall. Granny has spent $79 on two ripe fruits, and is now carefully slicing them on a layer of grinded almonds that soak up the precious juice so nothing is wasted.
Painstakingly she batters the eggs and sugar, adding the flour, a touch of creamy milk and last the fruit, taking precautions to keep the batter airy.
She lines the pan with wax paper and carefully spoons the batter into it throwing in a handful of dark chocolate drops. Crossing her fingers, she switches the cake with the turkey in the oven before starting on the drinks.
Twenty minutes later she checks the oven. The cake glows a warm orange, the melted chocolate crossing the cake in an intricate pattern. Her mouth waters. She pricks the cake with a skewer, deciding it could stay in the oven for another ten minutes.
She burns herself in her haste to take out the pan when the timer rings. Swearing to herself she passes her aching finger under lukewarm water until it doesn’t hurt anymore. She makes a mental note not to forget to check if there is some of her special baume against burns left…
Satisfied she takes stock of the day’s cooking. The brine-soaked turkey accompanied by buttery roasted chestnuts and apples is perfect. So are the green bean casserole, the mashed potatoes with gravy, the cranberry sauce and the Angel Cake for dessert.
As soon as the cake is cold enough, she glazes it, adding a few choice pieces of flame fruit. Time to get upstairs and change into something a little more dressed up…
Granny even has time to prepare Mrs. Brown’s specialty – hot Tom and Jerry drinks. Adding a little brandy she sips at the hot beverage thinking that Christmas must truly have been invented only to furnish an excuse for this succulent drink…
A sudden howl draws Taïga from the bathroom where she was arranging her hair. She pushes the curtains aside in the upstairs den and cleans the mist from the window with her hand, knowing Granny would scold her if she saw what she was doing. A huge black rented car has drawn up in front of the house, and she can see Leonardo put Rowan on the ground and at the same time trying to grab something from the backseat. The little boy is waving his arms and trying to run off, all the while howling with all his might. Her mother is critically observing the Grey’s Christmas decorations, absentmindedly picking Rowan up in her arms. His screaming ceases immediately, but now Taïga takes over inside the festively lit up mansion.
‘Granny! Missy’ They have arrived! Mom is here!’ Taïga is already halfway down the stairs when the doorbell rings, her elaborately fastened deep green velvet bow askew.
‘Mom! Rowan!’ Taïga is beside herself with excitement. Granny and Missy are already greeting the visitors who have come all the long way from Italy to spend Christmas with them in Bayou Oaks Mansion.
She stops in front of her mom who is carrying Rowan, eagerly looking up at them. Her brother snuggles closer, hiding his face in their mother’s fur collar. ‘How he’s grown! Do you think he remembers me?’
‘Of course he does, Taïga! And you’ve grown too. But I can see you’re still wearing extensions.*’ She looks her daughter over, her gaze lingering on her daughter’s messy braids.
‘But there aren’t any extensions left, Mom.’
‘Nonsense. I’ve brought you some new miracle products to try. They will surely speed up the growth.’
Taïga touches her hair self-consciously, not knowing what to say, but feeling sad and inadequate. As usual in front of her perfectly groomed mother.
Leonardo is his usual charming self. He bestows Granny with a huge bouquet of white roses and green ivy, kissing her hand.
‘It is always such a pleasure to see you, Signorina Grey. Granny accepts the flowers, retiring her hand that Leonardo was just bending deeply over. ‘Why, thank you, Count Di Grisogno. You remember my sister, Missy?’
Missy smiles a beatific smile, raising her hand to have it kissed.
‘How could I forget? Meeting with family only for Christmas is not enough,’ Leonardo says, kissing Missy’s hand.
Granny comes to Taïga’s rescue. ‘Why don’t you show your mother the table,’ she urges. ‘I’ll just put these fantastic flowers in a vase. Missy, would you mind taking our guests’ coats?’
Shasta puts Rowan on the floor and Taïga helps him out of his super soft white faux fur coat with black bears printed on it. She’d love to have something like that, too. He protests when she takes his boots, his pacifier falling out of his howling mouth. Taïga finds it and hands it to him, and the gesture apparently makes her acceptable in his eyes. He takes her hand as they precede Shasta into the dining room. He immediately lets go of her when he sets eye on Minuit, though, and is soon chasing the poor cat to cuddle it.
Proudly Taïga shows her mother the table settings.
‘I’ve made the Marzipan figures at school myself – Jeanne taught us all in cooking class!’
‘Jeanne? Is she a comrade from school?’ Shasta inquires but doesn’t wait for an answer. ‘You have forgotten the glasses,’ she points out very drily. Seeing Granny’s disapproving scowl, she changes the subject. ‘Did your grandmother tell you the plates are the same as when I was a child? I’m so glad they were saved from the fire.’
Granny nods. ‘Luckily the basement was only touched by the smoke and water, the porcelain and other holiday stuff were consciously packed away by Mrs. Brown, bless her soul.’
‘Yes. And Granny also told me you broke one when you got angry because you didn’t get to stay up and wait for Santa!’ Taïga says.
Shasta frowns. I have to have a serious chat with Mother about telling my daughter not so advantageous things about myself. ‘Well. I hope you won’t throw a tantrum tonight, Taïga.’
Taïga thinks the threat of a hissy fit comes more from her brother than herself. She answers with a shrewd look on her face, ‘Oh, there’s no risk-’
Shasta raises a perfectly plucked eyebrow inquiringly.
‘-because I know Santa doesn’t exist!’ Taïga says, immediately slapping a hand in front of her mouth. ‘Oups! Sorry Mom. Do you think Rowan heard what I just said?’
‘I don’t think so. Look at him…’ They both laugh and Rowan looks up at them, then he laughs too.
Leonardo has brought his new camera, and he insists on taking a Christmas picture with them all.
‘Give me five minutes to change into something more suitable.’ Shasta starts out of the room but is back only a few minutes later. Dutifully they line up in front of the Christmas tree, but it is no good as the table gets in the way. So they all troop out into the hall, and following Leonardo’s directions, sit on the stairs.
Leonardo sets the timer and speeds back, smiling into the camera with the others. As soon as the picture is taken they return to the dining room, apart from Missy, who disappears to the kitchen.
Leonardo catches Rowan as he passes under the table after Minuit. He hisses him high and lets him ride on his shoulders, both talking and laughing in Italian. Taïga likes listening to Leonardo. His heavy accent makes her think of Goopy and Cipriana and how fun they have in Monte Aquila during the vacations.
Their chatting is interrupted by Missy proudly bringing in the turkey. ’Time to get seated everyone.’
‘Leonardo, mi amore, could you feed Rowan and put him to bed. He’s exhausted after the long journey.’
‘I think he should stay with us,’ Granny says. ‘It is Christmas after all and there’s enough room.’
Shasta and Leonardo sit down with their son between them, but Shasta has no intention of playing nanny during the whole Christmas dinner. Let her mother take care of Rowan. It was her splendid idea to keep him at table with the adults. But of course she’s sitting too far away to be of any use. Shasta sips her wine and studies the 18th century painting taking up a huge part of the wall.
‘Pretty isn’t it?’ Granny follows her gaze. ‘It was already here when we moved in. There were a couple of them, including the portrait in the hall. We just dusted them off and left them where they were –the wallpaper was discolored by time any way…’
Before starting in on the turkey, Granny says grace. Even Rowan sits still for a while. There’s a moment of quiet when she has finished, and then the conversation starts up again. Leonardo and Shasta leaves their Marzipan figurines to Rowan.
‘Who are we waiting for?’ Shasta gestures towards the empty place setting at the end of the table. ‘And there’s still no glasses.’
Taïga pushes back her chair, ‘They are on the table right behind me. I’ll get them.’
‘Don’t you remember?’ Granny says. ‘It’s for the spirits, dear. This place is supposed to be occupied by the souls of the loved ones – the dead who have left and this one night they are allowed to come back to visit…’
Taïga blinks away a tear, putting a glass in front of her mother and slumping back onto her chair. ‘Mrs. Brown would have loved to see how good a cook you’ve become, Granny. Do you think she’s here?’
‘Thank you, Taïga.’ Granny reaches out and squeezes Taïga’s hand. ‘I’m sure Mrs. Brown is somewhere good.’ She straightens her back, turning to her sister. ‘But without Missy’s help, there wouldn’t have been any turkey!’
‘That’s right, I did the stuffing and everyone knows there’s no turkey without stuffing,’ Missy adds proudly.
Leonardo is surprised Granny and Missy have cooked the whole delicious meal all by themselves. ‘We, the Di Grisogno’s, have always had staff taking care of the cooking. And your daughter’s cooking skills are far from being as excellent as yours, my dear mother in law,’ he says, flattering Granny.
Shasta throws her husband an annoying glare, but the other laughs. Granny’s cooking skill has really improved since poor Mrs. Brown passed away, but that was to be expected – Granny is such a perfectionist.
‘What do you eat for Christmas in Italy, Leonardo?’ Taïga asks politely.
‘Ah, we have turkey and Pannettone on the 25th. On Christmas Eve we have seafood!’
‘Seafood?’ Missy throws a meaning ful glance at Granny. Her sister was right about preparing Lobster Thermidor for tomorrow.
‘Si. And pasta and sweets.’ He kisses his fingertips. ‘Buonissimo!’ He ogles the Angel Cake displayed on the table behind Missy’s back. ‘Gli italiani preparano dell’ottimo cibo, Italians prepare excellent food, but the Grey sister’s cuisine is also excellente!’
Both Granny and Missy blush…
Minuit has jumped up on the empty chair and inspects the empty platter. Shasta shoos her away. ‘I hate animals at table. Mother, you should really-’
Missy narrows her eyes. ‘For a second I thought Minuit’s eyes were red! How bizarre…’
‘Maybe you shouldn’t have added more rum to your Tom & Jerry’s, Auntie,’ Shasta says tartly, making Missy’s already suspiciously red cheeks glow even hotter.
‘But I didn’t-’ she follows the retreating cat with her eyes. She is sure she saw the cat’s eyes glow a demoniacally red. She’ll keep a close watch on Minuit from now on…
Taïga doesn’t protest when it’s time to go to bed. All that food and adults talking is truly boring and wearing for a child who is only enduring the long evening in anticipation of the gifts the day after.
Rowan stirs when she slides into bed. ‘Tagga chrissmas?’
‘Not yet, Rowan. It’s the middle of the night…’ She fights sleep, but to no avail. Exhaustion takes its toll, and she’s soon fast asleep.
In the middle of the night she suddenly wakes up. What was that? She fumbles for the lamp on the nightstand and turns it on. She is sure she had heard something, but a quick check on Rowan reveals him profoundly asleep in his bed. Maybe it was just a dream. She’s on her way to turn off the light again when a faint rustling comes from downstairs.
Cautiously she opens the door to her room. The landing lays dark and quiet, but she can see light flickering downstairs. Keeping close to the railing, she sneaks down the winding stairs. What if it is a robber? Maybe she should sneak back up again and wake Granny. But a robber would surely not have lighted a fire in the den? It is probably only Missy who has trouble sleeping, or even better, Granny and the other adults loading presents under the tree! Satisfied, she continues sliding downstairs.
Suddenly she stops. The tree is not in the den. It’s in the dining room. She swallows and looks at the stairs disappearing into the darkness above her. Just a few steps more and she’ll be able to see into the den. She is too curious, it could be Santa after all. With utter precaution she slides down one step at a time, until she can see into the room. But she can’t see the whole surface from the stairs, she has to tiptoe over to the doorframe to get a clear view.
She peeks around the corner and stops, thunderstruck, at the sight of the large, red clad man in the den fiddling with the stockings fastened above the fireplace.
Oh My God! It is Santa!!!
He must have heard her draw in her breath because he turns around and a benevolent smile lights up his bearded face.
‘Hohoho! You must be Taïga?’
A little uncertain she steps out from her hiding place behind the door post. She can’t help herself – staring wide-eyed at the imposing figure she raises her hand and points at him, even though she knows it’s rude. Thoughts and questions are swirling around in her head. He’s huge! How could he possibly fit in the chimney!?! And there’s no sack with presents! And how is he supposed to leave, now he’s lighted a fire? But the only thing escaping her numb lips is, ‘You’re Santa!?!’
‘Uh-huh.’ He fiddles with his white gloves. Peering at her over his steel rimmed glasses he succeeds in looking both guilty and smug at the same time.
‘What are you doing here? I mean, sorry, it’s obvious what you’re doing here, it’s just- I mean, you’re not supposed to-’ Taïga stammers.
‘What? Get caught red handed? I’m actually looking for your tree,’ Santa says, scratching his beard. ‘It used to be in this room, next to the window over there-,’ he gestures behind him, ‘-but I suppose your grandmother has decided to dress it elsewhere…’
‘It’s in the dining room,’ Taïga answers helpfully. ‘Does it matter much?’
‘No. I guess not… I found your stockings, didn’t I?’
‘Oh, yes! I hung them up myself!’ Taïga looks at the empty stockings. Only one is filled. Rowan’s. She tries not to look disappointed, Santa is for small children anyway and she’s not exactly a little kid anymore.
Santa chuckles, then he grows serious. ‘I’ve heard about what happened to your dog, Tramp…’ he says in a low voice.
Taïga looks up at the jovial face, feeling her eyes burn. She tries to swallow the big lump in her throat. ‘I’m really sad about it, Santa, but Granny said Tramp was old and now he’s in dog heaven, so I guess it was for the best… She doesn’t seem to want to talk about it, so I don’t, but I think about him all the time…’ Her eyes fill with tears, and she snivels.
‘Don’t cry little one.’ Santa kneels in front of her to come level with her eyes. ‘It is always hard to lose a beloved pet. But it is part of the life cycle, and it teaches you something.’
‘What?’ she hiccups. ‘I don’t want to learn things if it means someone has to die for it.’
Santa looks thoughtful. He had not expected that answer. ‘Everything that happens in life is a lesson that makes you grow and become someone special. Not only happy things.’ He withdraws his glove and then he reaches out and strokes her cheek.
Taïga hiccups again. Bizarre… She doesn’t feel sad anymore…
Santa winks. ‘It is the magic of Christmas.’
Taïga stares at him. Did he just read her mind?
Santa continues, ‘You must not worry about your dog, he is at peace. But I have something for you that didn’t fit in the stocking-’
He fumbles around behind his back and withdraws a large box with a big red bow that could not possibly have been hidden, not even by his large frame.
‘Merry Christmas, Taïga!’
The box is surprisingly heavy and filled with small holes. Taïga looks curiously at it, preparing to shake it but Santa stops her with a hand on her arm.
‘Oh. It’s fragile?’
Santa nods. ‘Take good care of my gift, now.’
‘I will, Santa! Thank you!’ She starts out of the room to put her gift under the tree. ‘Do you know that I didn’t really believe you existed? My grandma is a… well, she’s special! You see, I thought she was putting the gifts under the tree and if you just wait I’ll get Rowan. He’s my brother and he’ll be absolutely awed-’ Taïga happily chatters away.
She walks into the dining room but stops on the threshold at the sight of their big Christmas tree. There are no gifts, but she is sure Santa will take care of that. The box in her hands suddenly shudders as if something was moving inside. Warily she puts her ear against it and almost lets go of it as the thing inside slides and changes the center of gravity. It is not really heavy, more kind of unsteady and difficult to hold…
Carefully she puts it on the floor and sits staring at it. Then the thing inside starts to whine.
There’s no way she’ll let a vibrantling, whimpering gift under the tree until the morning – even if there are breathing holes. She tears at the ribbon and with trembling hands she opens the lid half an inch…
A tiny black snout helps her push the lid away. Astounded she watches the cutest little black and brown puppy jump out of the box.
‘Hey… Aren’t you beautiful, little one? It feels good to be out of that box, doesn’t it?’ She lets the little puppy whimpering lick her fingers. ‘I love you already! Santa, has it got a name? Santa? … Santa?’ She shuffles to her feet, looking around her in panic.
‘Oh no! He’s gone!’ Taïga runs to the door and throws it up wide, but there’s no sight of Santa. She stands on the frozen planks in her stockinged feet until she can’t feel her toes anymore, looking through the dark night after a sign of her visitor.
Of course, she can’t see much because of the heavy snowfall obscuring her vision even more, as if the darkness wasn’t enough to hide Santa from prying eyes. In the distance a faint sound of bells is quickly fading and when she looks up she gets a glimpse of his sleigh disappearing into the night sky. Did he wave to her? She is not sure of anything anymore.
She walks back inside and leans against the closed door shivering from the cold. Nobody will believe her… The puppy tugs at her leg, and she picks it up, admonishing it a little for biting her pj’s.
‘What are you doing, Taïga? And is that a dog in your arms?’ Granny is standing at the top of the stairs, looking at her with disbelief. ‘Did your mother buy you that?’
‘Granny you won’t believe me if I told you…’
Granny pouts. ‘Try me. You will never know if you don’t tell me.’
Granny is right, as usual. Taïga starts telling her grandmother about meeting Santa as she walks upstairs. They meet halfway, both standing in the middle of the huge staircase, petting the little dog. Granny is totally charmed by the little puppy. She puts her arm around Taïga and together they walk upstairs.
‘You witnessed a rare event tonight. Santa is not one to get caught in the act, so to say,’ Granny says thoughtfully. ‘I think he wanted to meet you… Let’s get you into a dry pajamas and to bed.’
Taïga yawns. Her encounter with Santa is fading away as if it was just a dream. ‘Can I sleep with her?’ she asks, reluctant to let go of the little dog snuggled in her arms.
‘You can keep her in your room, but NOT in the bed. That little beast will grow and take up a lot of room later on…’
Taïga didn’t think she would be able to go back to sleep, especially with the little dog whining next to her bed. She waits to hear the door to her grandmother’s room click shut, before reaching out and lifting the little dog onto the bed. With the puppy cuddled in her arms, she soon gives in to sleep.
She wakes up early the next morning and tiptoes over to Rowan’s bed. ‘Wake up, Rowan… Santa’s been here!’
She carries her little brother piggyback downstairs, and puts him down just outside the dining room.
Rowan is more interested in the dog scrambling down the stairs behind them, than in whatever awaits him in the dining room. Taïga pushes him gently forward. ‘Come on, Rowan. Puppy will follow…’
‘Puppy,’ Rowan repeats, grinning at the dog.
‘Yeah, puppy. But I have to find her a real name.’
That is when Rowan catches sight of all the gifts under the sparkling Christmas tree. Granny and the other adults have outdone themselves. The little boy gets all excited and almost hurts his head on the table when he breaks into a run.
Taïga catches his arm just in time. ‘Hey! Watch out!’
They start opening their gifts immediately… Rowan mostly tearing and throwing paper around him, laughing and screaming happily.
Missy is the first adult to arrive. She kneels next to Rowan and starts rummaging through the boxes for something with her name on it. She absentmindedly glances at Rowan who has discovered a hammer that comes in handy to use on the Play Doh, efficiently plastering the paste into the gaps between the planks of the old parquet floor. An antique Christmas decoration comes crashing down next and makes Missy finally react.
‘You little scoundrel, that was a gift from Uncle Max!’
Rowan smiles at her. ‘Uncle Max!’
‘Right. Oh, no! Don’t you dare use that wretched thing on the tablet,’ she says, making Rowan look from the hammer to his new kiddie tablet. Bang!
He inspects the screen that flickers and changes to green grass and blue skies. Bang! Now there’s a red and yellow parrot. Bang! A dog chasing a cat. Bang! A-
Missy tries to wrench the hammer out of his hand, but the only thing she obtains is a bloodcurdling scream.
‘Here! Take it back! Just stop! Shuut for heaven’s sake!’
Rowan grins and prepares to hit the tablet again when Missy leans over him and pulls out a huge gift from behind the tree he had not yet seen.
‘Thank the Goddess his name is on it,’ she mutters. ‘Here!’ She pushes it in front of the little boy who throws the hammer at Minuit, making the poor cat scramble up and sit precariously on a heap of identic boxes behind Taïga’s back.
It is a kind of tricycle, and Rowan knows exactly what to do with it. A few seconds later he is pedaling around the dining table laughing so hard he almost lets go of his pacifier. Almost.
He nearly runs Granny over when the grown-ups join them a little later. She fakes missing to catch him and he hollers happily and sets off for yet another tour.
Taïga’s puppy comes dragging “Buddy”, happily chomping away on the poor ragdoll.
‘You’re not supposed to chew on my toys,’ Taïga admonishes. ‘Let’s find out if there’s something for you under the tree…’
After opening all the Christmas presents, Leonardo and Shasta disappears upstairs again, stopping briefly to kiss under the mistletoe, and Granny goes to fix breakfast.
Taïga hugs her puppy, but she looks a little disappointed.
‘What’s the matter?’ Missy is lingering at the doorstep.
She looks up at her great aunt. ‘I suppose Santa didn’t really read my letter…’
‘How come? I think he read it, but just decided to ignore it,’ Missy says with an ounce of nastiness in her voice.
‘Why should he? I mean, I just asked him for a pony, nothing else, to ride when I’m home on vacation!’
Missy sighs: ‘You just got a dog, didn’t you?’
‘Oh yes! I’m so happy! Maybe I’ll get a pony next year?’
Missy makes a face. ‘I sure do not hope so! I’ll better write Santa a letter, too, asking him for no more animals.’ With that she turns on her heels, muttering, ‘Dogs. Horses. We already have a cat, don’t we? And a new dog that will pee all over the place because it’s a pup. Sheesh…’
Taïga looks after her great aunt and shrugs. Rowan is trying to get her attention, scrambling to get up on the cowboy rocking horse. Taïga lifts him up onto the saddle and swings her leg over to sit behind him.
‘I’m riding shotgun, Rowan. Hold on!’
The Christmas holidays are rapidly over. Too rapidly for Shasta who has pushed all important matters ahead of her. Why do something today when you can take care of it tomorrow or the day after? Shasta and Leonardo are due to leave for Monte Aquila the following afternoon, and she knows she can’t put off a discussion with her mother any longer. Should she tell her mother about her secret? Or is it too soon? What will her mother say? Will the news about a new baby make Taïga happy – or jealous? And what about initiating Taïga to witchcraft? She wonders if her mother has noticed anything off with the girl… There’s so much she should talk to her mother about before leaving tomorrow… Better push it off until tea time. Missy will be there, too, an unlikely but certain ally. That way her mother will be alone against the two of them.
Leonardo disappears into the study after lunch to take care of some important business, and Shasta tries to put Rowan to bed for an afternoon nap. Of course the little boy has chosen today of all days to throw a fit when she put him to bed. Exasperated she asks Taïga to take him downstairs to play, while she puts away the pajamas and touches up her make-up. On her way downstairs again, she stops irritated at the noise.
Taïga is playing tug of war with the growling and japping puppy, laughing and encouraging the little dog to pull harder. Shasta feels for Minuit who is hidden under the antique sofa, watching the puppy monopolize her human with gleaming, jealous eyes.
Her son emerges from the living room, happily sucking on his pacifier and pushing some god awful noisy toy in front of him. He hardly acknowledges her, concentrated on following the elaborate pattern of the parquet.
Missy and Granny are reading, but when Shasta walks into the living room, her mother shuts her book with a loud thud and stands up. Melodramatically she touches her forehead in a sign of desperation.
‘Impossible to get any reading done in this ruckus! I’ll fix us all some hot chocolate,’ she adds and strides towards the kitchen, trying not to step on the puppy.
Suddenly Rowan lets out one of his famous bloodcurdling screams and sends his toy crashing to the floor.
Shasta turns on her heels, half expecting him to have been bitten by the horrible little dog, but he just screams harder and points an accusing finger, not at the dog, but at Minuit.
‘What happened?’ she almost barks at her daughter. ‘Did the cat hurt him?’
‘Err… I don’t think so. I didn’t really see…’
The puppy is whining nervously and Minuit is rubbing against Taïga’s leg with an indescribable expression. The cat almost looks smug, purring loudly. Taïga doesn’t think Rowan looks like he’s been hurt.
‘I guess Rowan just got scared. Minuit probably just wanted to attack the toy. She’s been lying under the sofa for ages waiting for the right moment to jump it.’ She smiles at her little brother. ‘It is kind of fun, actually. Stop crying now and let’s see if Minuit wants to play with us.’
Rowan picks up his toy again, and with a firm grip on the handle starts walking towards Taïga. Shasta panics. She can’t let the kids ruin the afternoon with their noisy games.
‘Taïga, I need to talk to your grandmother about something very important before we leave tomorrow. Can’t you both go outside and play? The sun is shining and Granny will fix hot chocolate with marshmallows for when you get back…’
Once outside in the garden, they play a little with the puppy, but she is soon trembling of cold, so Taïga lets her in again. She pulls Rowan around on an old wooden sled and when she is too tired, she suggests they should build a snowman. Rowan wants to make his own but he gives up when he sees how big Taïga’s has become, wanting to help her. Together they finish the snowman, with charcoals for buttons and a big carrot nose.
While the children are busy outdoors, Shasta takes her courage in both hands and tells her mother and aunt about her preoccupations.
‘… you must have thought about it! She’s almost a teenager and you know what will happen when she turns fifteen!’ she finishes a little out of breath.
‘Yes, Shasta,’ Granny answers, her irritation shining through. ‘Who are you to remind me? This fact is darkening my mind more for each passing day. But there’s still time. To prepare her – and us.’
Shasta acquiesces. ‘She seems innocent enough, but she is not like other witch kids her age-’
‘Hmpfff… She’s already used magic. At border school, to catch a lobster to impress her friends, no less!’ Missy interrupts, spilling the secret.
Shasta is shocked at her mother’s reaction to Missy’s comment. The old witch actually chuckles.
‘Can you imagine? A lobster to outshine the other kids’ crayfish. A lobster in the river, haha. I insisted on intensifying her biology and geography lessons after that little mishap.’
‘Mother! How can you laugh about something as serious as my daughter using her full powers before her fifteenth birthday! What if the Council finds out? If she is capable of a prowess such as conjuring up a living thing, people will talk and then it won’t take long before the Council decides to take action. Leonardo is highly regarded in the Council’s eyes but he won’t be able to protect me if they discover how special Taïga is… I won’t be safe anymore.’
‘I know, I know…’ Granny seems to debate with herself. She wonders what her daughter would say if she knew how she had surprised the little girl with the whole kitchen crawling with “living beings”…
Finally she wipes some imaginary dust off her lap, clearing her throat. ‘I have to tell you something, Shasta, and you won’t be happy about it…’ Granny proceeds to tell her daughter, and Missy, about Taïga’s strange “dreams”, about her ability to see the Grim Reaper and the dead. The only thing she holds back is her ability to use a wand. More important – someone else’s wand. ‘… and she’s also very skilled with the broom,’ she finishes proudly, rubbing her moist palms against her brown woolen trousers.
‘Wow. You never told me about this…’ Missy whispers in awe, thinking about how she had misjudged her great niece, and planning how she might use the little girl for her own projects.
Shasta is silent. It was stupid of her to believe that her mother would not notice that there was something off with her granddaughter but she’s surprised that her mother has not put an end to the little girl’s extravagant behavior. Who would have thought Taïga would succeed in wrapping her stern, rigorous grandmother around her little finger? Of course she has seen the signs during the vacations spent in Monte Aquila, how her mother has let the girl run wild all over town with her unsuitable friends. This must be stopped before it is too late and she, Shasta, will get in trouble. It has been hard enough to keep Signora Aleramici busy elsewhere while Granny and Taïga stayed with them… Luckily they won’t bother them during summer vacations anymore, now that the manor finally is ready. It has been hard enough to avoid having them during Christmas… She takes a deep breath.
‘What shall we do? The Council sent Signora Aleramici and Lugubre Chantelamort to see us, Leonardo and I. Luckily I was pregnant at the time, so they could not use my uterus to see if I had already had a child, and Leonardo didn’t know about Taïga yet so he passed the lie detector potion. Of course, they could not use it on me as I was pregnant. Thank God.’
‘The Goddess,’ Missy mutters.
Granny frowns. ‘Lugubre Chantelamort? Why did that old cow come to see you? She’s the Council’s authorized representative in France, not Italy.’
Shasta looks astonished. ‘Oh, you haven’t heard? She’s one of the Four now. We all received a very official letter, it must have been around Christmas when we visited you in Transylvania.’
Granny widens her eyes in an expression of surprised outrage. ‘I can’t believe she didn’t send us one. We are the Grey’s, a lineage that goes straight back to Lady Ravendancer! Could it be because they never knew I was in Romania? They should at least have notified Missy. Even though she’s second born, she’s still of Lady Ravendancer’s blood! I can’t believe Lugubre did this. Or I can. She must have done it on purpose, she has always been jealous of me-’
Missy fiddles with her necklace. ‘Err… I think I might have thrown it away…’
Granny draws her breath sharply. ‘You did what?’
‘You know I used to receive lots of invitations for stupid charity Christmas parties, and I never went anyway. Too many spoiled kids running around…’ Missy tries to justify her actions, but Granny just shakes her head.
‘You threw an official document from the Council in the trash?’
‘It didn’t exactly have “Council” written on it.’
‘What was written then?’
‘Err… I don’t remember.’
‘You don’t remember?’
‘I didn’t check. I just threw it in the bin! It looked like an invitation-’
‘Mother! Aunt Missy! We have an issue to discuss here,’ Shasta interrupts.
Unwillingly Granny looks away from her sister. ‘You are right, dear. But there is not much we can do – yet. It’s a good thing she’s at boarding school, with “normal” children her age. The Council won’t look for her there.’ Granny scrutinizes her nails. ‘As for the preparations for her turning fifteen…’
Missy and Shasta looks at her expectantly. ‘First – we will go through with her initiation with the help of some old friends that I know can keep their mouths shut. Second – I think Taïga is too young to get engaged and I will do everything in my power to keep her from the Council to avoid it.’
Shasta stares at her mother. ‘I was her age when I got engaged, Mother.’
‘Yes… And I was, too…’
‘-and we all know how that worked out, don’t we,’ Missy gloats. ‘One suicide on the wedding night and one virgin witch joining her mother on the Council’s black list.’ She looks slyly at Shasta, adding, ‘At least virgin when it comes to powers…’
Shasta glares back at her. So much for having her aunt siding with her. Granny just looks embarrassed, muttering about it not being her fault young Earthan Murik, Jr poetically slit his wrists in the tub on their wedding night.
‘So maybe now is the time to tell us!’ Missy continues maliciously.
‘Tell you what?’ Shasta asks on her guard.
‘Well… You can always start from the beginning.’ Missy waggles her eyebrows the way only she can, making her look suspiciously like Groucho Marx. Then she seems to think better of it. ‘No. Wait. I’ve changed my mind. Just tell us who Taïga’s father is and we can get the juicy details later.’
Shasta looks at her aunt as if she were crazy. ‘Her father does not know about her, and I think he has the right to know before you do, Missy,’ she finally admits.
‘So he’s alive, then?’ Missy pushes.
‘Well… I don’t know.’
‘How come you don’t know?’
‘I don’t. I haven’t heard from, nor seen, him in more than ten years!’
Granny has been listening. ‘Taïga’s father isn’t the issue here. The Council is. I have been cloaking Shasta since she had to leave the house at fifteen-’
‘-before she was initiated a full witch-’ Missy interrupts.
‘Yes. And Taïga was under the same cloaking spell-’
‘-without your knowledge-’
‘Yes. Until Shasta left her-’ She looks meaningfully at her daughter. ‘-and married Leonardo,’ Granny finishes.
‘Right. So you’re not cloaking her anymore? Shasta?’
‘I don’t have to.’
‘Because the Council blessed their union! I remember. So what’s the problem?’
‘The Council,’ Shasta says in a gloomy voice.
‘But they blessed-’
‘-the union. Yes. But when I gave birth to Rowan, the well-kept secret that is Taïga, was revealed. And now I will probably be punished!’
Both Missy and Granny draws their breath. Granny’s hand flutters to her heart and it feels like the room is drained of oxygen.
‘I thought they didn’t know about her?’ Missy asks.
‘They didn’t. But Signora Aleramici was sent to keep Leonardo company when I was in surgery and the complications indicated it was a second child.’
Granny is not sure she can speak yet, so she just nods. She doesn’t care how the Council found out, they did, and now Taïga must be protected at all costs.
‘-actually, the Doctor told them this time it was not possible to go through with a vaginal delivery but they had to perform a C-section. Insisting on this time.’
Missy nods understandingly and the three women sits in silence for a while, each of them fighting their own demons.
Missy finally breaks the silence. ‘So, if I have understood things right…’ She pauses for effect. ‘Taïga is next in line to be married.’
‘Of course. Yes. The Council are looking for a suitable husband and will let me know as soon as they have tied up all the loose ends after my “defection”. I think you get the seriousness of the situation. What will they do to me?’ Shasta wrings her manicured hands, looking totally devastated in a groomed way.
Granny clears her throat. ‘So they know about Taïga, but not where she is?’
Shasta nods. She has promised to reveal where Taïga and Granny lives in time for her daughter’s fifteenth birthday, but maybe now is not the time to tell about such a treaty with the Council…
‘I will continue cloaking Taïga, and the manor, for as long as necessary,’ Granny continues. ‘The Council might discover her any day, but they must not’- she stares at her daughter, then at Missy, ‘-absolutely not find anything suspicious about her or they will surely take her from us and raise her for their own purposes.’
‘I’m sure you’re exaggerating, sister. Times are changing.’
‘Not for us, Missy, they are not…’
Shasta looks incredulous at her mother. How come this conversation has become centered on Taïga when she is the one in trouble? She snaps her fingers impatiently.
‘Hello? What about me?’
Part I – End of Chapter 50