14. Playing in the woods

While she was walking into the woods behind her auntie, Nadia’s mind flew again to the usual subject. David. She thought about David’s voice, then Davide’s eyes, David’s hands, and David’s smile. She trembled before the image of David’s mouth and can’t stop her tongue licking her lips. To her, he was a mood to feel, a coat to wear, food to savour, a liquor she was drunk of. She knew he liked her. She knew he had dreamed of her.

Thinking about David, she giggled and turned her laugh into a song she had just learned. Before her, Aunt Sandra was walking steadily, into the deepest of the Northern Woods. Nadia looked at her aunt and thought she had never seen her be more confident than today. David’s image flew away from her mind, and she stopped bouncing around after her aunt’s steps.

How is that Aunt Sandra knows so well the woods? Does she come here often? Or did she learn her way back here at first sight?

“Auntie, do you have an eidetic memory?”

Sandra carried on at the same pace without answering Nadia or even taking notice of her question. Her stride was so firm and steady she didn’t seem to be the same person Nadia thought to know so well. Nadia stopped.

“Auntie?”

In the silence of the woods, Nadia heard her voice sound like the cry of a scared little girl. Sandra did not turn or answer. She kept on walking, crushing leaves and small branches in her trail. Nadia could still see her, even in the woods; her blonde hair was sweeping the air like a flag or a flame.

“Auntie?”

Called Nadia under her breath, more to herself than to Sandra. In the silence of the woods, she could hear herself breathing and the sound of Sandra’s feet. There was no wind. There were no birds. She had seen one lonely hare jumping away right before meeting Sandra, but now nothing. She saw the ends of her hair being pulled up by the static in the air, while the hair on her arms raised up straight. Sandra was no more visible.

Nadia opened and closed her mouth a couple of times and told herself not to panic. She moved one foot, then the other. She focused on her aunt and closed her eyes. One foot, then the other.

If you are a witch, you should feel her. Where is she? Can you sense her?

One foot, then the other. Nadia felt the soft ground under the thick sole of her boots. She felt the electricity in her hair, the dry air on her skin, the emptiness in her mind and then she envisioned a bright flame burning not too far ahead. She walked towards that light, putting one foot after the other until the focus was impossible to hold and she had to open her eyes. Sandra was in front of her, at the opposite end of a circular clearing, limited by tall bushes. She was looking at her blankly, and Nadia did not dare to speak. Instead, she moved into the clearing through the bushes, making a lot of noise and ripping her shirt on some thorns.

“Nadia, is all ok?”

“I suppose it is.”

“Look what I found!”

Exclaimed Sandra all excited, wearing her usual cheerfulness again up her cheeks. Nadia looked at the ground, where Sandra was pointing with a hand, and could not believe her eyes. In the middle of the clearance, partially covered by leaves, dirt, and sticks, there was a spiral made of white stones. The stones were all different in size and material, but all were white, tightly posed and deeply buried in the ground. In the centre, a big white seashell served as the starting point. Nadia felt on her knees. With trembling hands, she reached for the stones but could not dare to touch them.

“How… how did you find it?”

“Oh, coincidence! I was looking for some ferns to dust the Madonna.”

“Madonna? What Madonna?”

“This one – Sandra moved a step aside to let Nadia see a small niche with a minuscule statue of the Virgin Mary inside, all covered in leaves and cobwebs – this poor Mary, here.”

“How strange…”

“Isn’t it? How could someone put a Virgin shrine here, where nobody can come and pray and keep it clean? – She pondered a little, a cheek in her hand. – Maybe a someone was lost in the woods and had a vision of the Virgin Mary pointing the right way, and then they came back someday after that and put here a statue, as a token of gratitude.”

“Yeah.”

Answered Nadia, her mind already elsewhere. She wanted to clean the spiral, but she felt not ready to touch the stones. Something like a broom moved beside her.

“Wanna try this?”

Sandra was handling a big branch of ash, full of yellow leaves.

“Now, where did you find that?”

“I told you, right here! I was looking for something to clean up the shrine, and I found this nice branch. It was laying here, in the middle of this tomb. I grabbed it, and it moved a lot of dirt out of the way so that I could see the stones. I thought that it would be a good thing to sweep up this abandoned tomb – she paused, the branch in one hand, her forehead in the other – But I couldn’t. I suddenly felt so dumb and tired that I had to let go of the branch and look for a place to rest a little. And then you found me.”

“And then I found you. That’s it? Really?”

“What else?”

Said Sandra, fluttering her innocent eyes.

“Auntie, I’ve been looking for this place for years!”

“Really?”

“Really.”

Sandra shook her shoulders, placed one hand closed in a fist at her waist and looked again at the stone spiral.

“Well, if it’s the case. Let me try again – she pushed Nadia gently with her improvised broom – stand up and let me do my job.”

“But…”

“Now that you are here, I am sure I will do just fine.”

Nadia moved away from the broom but asked her aunt to wait for a moment and plunged both her hands in her canvas bag, looking for a thing.

“Now show me the branch.”

Sandra did it, and Nadia murmured some words and threw two big handles of salt grains on the branch.

“Done?”

Asked puzzled Sandra.

“Just one more minute.”

Nadia went to sit before the Virgin Mary statue, covering it from the sight.

“Now you can go.”

And Sandra, the expert housewife, started to clean the spiral, sweeping away the dirt in long gracious gestures, in gentle waves, in a hypnotic dance.

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