Getting on the bus, Nadia was happy Denise wasn’t there. They had an appointment later that day, but she didn’t want to chat with her on the ride to school. As soon as she reached an empty seat, Nadia put the headphones on her head, her satchel bag on the seat next to her and a blank expression on her face. A pair of round green sunglasses were already on her nose. Usually, a setting like that was more than enough to avoid any company on the bus.
It was a warm October morning and Nadia had been tempted to wear the long red knitted hoodie her grandma had made for her to go to school, but that wasn’t the right day to call casual attention. The red hoodie and mini skirt she was wearing the day before, the day she had met David on her way to granny’s home, were laying on her bed at grandma’s. That morning she had put on comfy jeans, a white ribbed bodysuit and a black and red flannel shirt.
The sun was shining out the window seat but Nadia didn’t want to see it. She pulled down her black hat to cover her eyes and closed herself to the world. In her mind, the sun was setting over the stone bridge. David was there with her, they were kissing and he would not let her go. In her ears, a young man was singing at the sound of an acoustic guitar and saying that words were not enough. When the song ended, Nadia pushed the replay button to hear it again, and again, and again.
Lessons that day were more boring than the usual but fortunately, a union protest of the school teachers graced Nadia and all the other students of the last two hours. Probably Denise had decided to skip the entire day of lessons to stay at home and study Latin. Nadia knew she needed to catch up because, even though Denise was one year her ahead of Nadia, she took Latin lessons from her from time to time. Nadia left the bus at a stop in the northern part of San Martino to be closer to the woods. She hoped to find Denise along her way to the Red House or even inside, in the waiting room at the back of the building. But she wasn’t there.
“How is it possible that you don’t know her? We are together all the time and you know me!”
“Don’t know what to say, Nadia, I don’t know your friend.”
Tommy, one of the volunteers that policed the Red House, was clearly bouncing her. They were talking on the back side of the abandoned house the youngsters of San Martino used to hang out and have casual sex in. As soon as Tommy had seen Nadia angrily coming to the house from one of the attic windows, he had reached her and led her to the rear garden.
“You really have the nerve! C’mon, she’s my cousin!”
“I know your cousin and he’s not a girl.”
“She’s from the other side of… oh, please! You are fooling me around!”
“I didn’t make the rules…”
“Sure you did! You, my womaniser cousin and all your little gang of creeps made the rules of this shitty fuck house!”
Nadia didn’t like the Red House, at all. But thanks to her cousin Marco, she had found some interesting books there, in the second waiting room on the back. Nadia was obsessed with the Roaming Witch of San Martino and was investigating about the legend in books, local chronicles and all around the town and its woods. She had formulated her theory about the witch, after some searching, but wanted proof and more information. That day, she wanted to explore the Northern Woods together with Denise and had instructed the girl to wait for her in that specific waiting room, if she had arrived at the house alone.
Tommy didn’t respond to the insult, though. He simply stood there with his hands in his pockets, patiently waiting for her to cool down.
She turned her back to the guy and walked towards the house.
“Nadia, are we cool?”
She turned to him just to show two middle fingers and stormed away from the house. Apparently, the Roaming Witch had infested the woods of San Martino for about a century before her disappearance at the eve of the WWII. Old people in town used to say that it was Nadia’s grandfather who had defeated the witch, but he had died long before Nadia was born and her nana seemed to know nothing about that story. She had arrived in town as a school teacher only in the fifties. Someone had told Nadia that the old doctor knew something about that story first hand, but he laughed every time she tried to bring up the argument during a visit. She was just thinking about doctor Agnello and his fascinating son when Nadia had her second odd encounter of the week.
She was walking along a path that went into the deep of the Northern Woods, looking for a nice spot to sit and chew on the lunch bag grandma had prepared for her and Denise all by herself when she noticed a tall girl sitting under a tree. Nadia didn’t want to disturb the girl, who seemed to be absorbed into some kind of meditation process, sitting in the lotus position, her back against the oak bark, but a subtle feeling of familiarity moved her feet towards the tree as they possessed a will on their own.
Step by step details of the sitting figure became clearer, her curly blond hair, the fold of her lip, her strong greek profile, and the feeling of intimacy grew stronger inside Nadia but she still could not recognise her. When she was at less than five steps from the sitting figure, she turned her head towards Nadia, opened her golden eyes and spoke.
“Hello, Nadia! So nice to see you!”
Her aunt gathered her legs and bent them under her bottom, then tapped the grass to invite Nadia sitting nex to her with a smile. Nadia came closer to her but didn’t sit.
“What are you doing here?”
“I took a walk.”
“Oh, eh… I can see. Do you… do you do it often?”
Nadia seated in front of Sandra. Looked at her for an instant with her eyebrows clung together, then pointed at her head.
“Did you get a perm?”
Sandra touched her hair.
“Oh no, it happened! – She touched the back of her head with a displeased expression – I should know it. It happens every time my hair dries naturally.”
“But you look good!”
“No, no. I don’t look good. I look like a fungus. But I think for today is ok. Look what I am wearing! – She lowered her voice and invited Nadia to came closer using her finger – I stole this shirt from your cousin’s room while he was asleep!”
She laughed and Nadia laughed with her.
Sandra looked amused and rather proud of her little crime. She looked also a lot younger than the usual, thought Nadia.
“I think you look great today.”
Answered Sandra, bowing her head.
“In fact, I did not even recog… – Nadia stopped to speak and smiled at her aunt as wide as she could -Would you like to share a delicious lunch bag made by the most excellent cook North of the Po river?”
“What were you saying? Sorry, you spoke so fast I didn’t catch a word.”
“Good! I mean, well… grandma made me and Denise a lunch bag but since Denise bailed out I can share it with you – she paused – I mean, if you want. If you’d like to.”
“What time is it?”
Sandra gasped and put both her hands on her mouth.
“Oh my gosh! I left home without a note for your uncle – Sandra fluttered her eyelids repeatedly – and I didn’t cook anything either. Oh, my!”
“What’s the problem? Uncle Roberto doesn’t know how to boil some pasta?”
“Ahem… I think he does but I am supposed to cook for him.”
“But you didn’t.”
“So what? I don’t think he’s going to starve. Or is he?”
Sandra shook her head.
“See? On the other hand… what are you doing here? You are pretty far from home.”
“I wanted to take a walk.”
“You sure took a walk!”
“Didn’t I? It is that this morning I felt so sad, so desperately sad and lonely.”
Nadia didn’t know what to say or even if she was supposed to say something. Usually, when adults tried to have some deeply emotional conversation with her, like her mother or some guy – her dad, fortunately, had never dared to do it – she used to walk away, shut herself in her bedroom or plainly tell the person to shut up. But she was auntie Sandra and Nadia could not even think to be rude to her. So she started to unpack the lunch without saying a word.
“Oh, mama’s frittata! What was the last time I ate it?”
They ate panini with frittata and sliced tomato, a piece of cake and can of cola each. Nadia had always loved to eat with auntie Sandra. She had spent a lot of time at her home when she was little and her parents were still pretending to love each other. Auntie Sandra was able to appreciate food for what it was and never counted the calories or said anything about sauce stains. She ate with gusto and smiled at Nadia’s healthy appetite. And when the eating was done, she used to sweep away all the crumbs and the dirt from Nadia hands and mouth with a fresh cotton napkin. Her mother, Patty, used to leave Nadia at her aunt’s house to rehearse with her family ballroom dance orchestra. Sometimes her father knew it, sometimes it was a “little secret” between Nadia and her mum.
“Hey, little gipsy, why so serious?”
Sandra words shook Nadia from her thoughts.
“I was thinking about mum.”
“Uhm. Did you have any napkin or wet ones in your bag?”
Nadia found a pair of paper napkins on the bottom of the lunch bag and gave them to Sandra. Nadia cleaned her hands on her jeans instead.
“Did you hear from Patty, recently?”
“Yeah, she calls almost every day. She’s doing ok.”
“Ain’t she going to come back for your birthday?”
“In fact, she is.”
“So? Don’t you want to see your mama? I’m sure you miss her, even if you act all grown up and independent, just like my blonde little animal .”
“Don’t be so sure. I mean, about me. We all know deep down Marco is a mama’s boy.”
“And you, angry kitten, what are you?”
Asked Sandra embracing her niece’s shoulders.
“I am team nana.”
Answered Nadia letting her auntie embrace her.
“Good girl. Not so deep down you are a good girl.”
Sandra stroked Nadia’s hair.
“Yeah, but I am still angry with Denise. She bailed me!”
“Sh-sh. She must have had a good reason. Where were you supposed to meet?”
“Ehm… around here.”
“Around this tree?”
“Yeah, about here.”
“But when you arrived you were already angry at her.”
“Because she wasn’t here!”
Sandra was still stroking Nadia’s hair. In the silence of the woods, surrounded by trees tinted in red and yellow, she felt again a little girl who’s looking for fairies into the woods.
“I love your hair, so dark and smooth. Just like your mother’s. I mean, before all the perms and the colouring. – She cleared her throat – You girls didn’t have to meet at the Red House?”
“No! – Nadia escaped her embrace – Not at all!”
“Ok, ok. I believe you. – Nadia was keeping her eyes to the ground – Do you want to see a very rad place?”
“Antie, please, how are you talking?”
Sandra chuckled, raised up on her feet and cleaned her leggings from some leaves. Then offered her hand to Nadia.
“Little gipsy, do you want to see something very… cool?”
Nadia took her hand.
“Cool is alright.”
And follow her auntie into the deepest of the woods.