“You don’t have to do this!” Joe grabbed Mara’s hand as she reached for the doorbell at number 81. “This is not you!” An odor of damp emanated from the stone facade.
“This was your idea,” Mara pushed Joe away and rang. “It’s your fault. You were the one who organized everything, remember, even the move.” Church bell chimes sounded. The heavy wooden door groaned as it opened centimeter by centimeter like the unraveling of gift wrap.
“Signora Romano, I presume.” A heavy-set lady loomed over the doorstep, the room behind illuminated by candles. Joe strained to register Madame Lumiere. She wore a white, curtain-like dress. Globe earrings hung down alongside long, black hair. Her nose dominated her face.
“And my husband Joe. Vatsula gave him your number.”
“Follow me.” Madame ushered them to a large round table, pulled the shutter ajar at the opposite window.
“Do you know what to expect?” Madame pushed in their ladder-back chairs, her dress billowing around her.
“Vatsula told me you wore a turban.” Joe spaced his chair away from the table. Madame sat down across from them.
“I answer to many callings. I reflect what spirits want to see.”
“Spirits want all these candles? You charge extra for these? Vatsula didn’t say anything about candles.”
“Where I dwell, there is only transition. Negative energy will hinder our mission. Shall we proceed?”
“Mara, this is all very weird. Let’s go.”
“What’s wrong with you?” Mara tapped Joe under the table. “Behave now.”
“So you remain true to your mission, Signora, unlike your husband.” Madame removed a match from a beaded box. She lit a large, round, cream-colored candle centered on the table, placed nail-painted hands over it, and sighed, lowering herself into a massive wooden chair behind her. “We call your grandmother?”
“My nonna, Giovanna,” Mara took her husband’s hands.
“She died at 81?” Madame closed her eyes. Joe thought back to the number on the door, 81. Was that a coincidence?
“Giovanna, blood is thick, spirits are wide. Appear!” Madame moaned. Her irises turned under her eyelids.
“There are countless Giovannas,” Mara interjected. “How do you know if you are calling my nonna?”
Madame opened an eye and peered at Mara. She shut it again, opened the other. That eye shut too. Madame opened and closed each eye while holding her hands over the candle. The flame bent sideways, up, then back down. Mara squeezed Joe’s hands.
“That candle won’t last long like that, she’ll definitely charge extra,” Joe said.
“Giov-v-v-a-a-a-n-n-n-a-a.” Madame’s eyes opened and closed at a quickened pace. Her head swayed to the flickering flame. She rose up. Her body, puppet-like, heaved to a half-standing position. She whirled about the table, arms dangling, then jutting into the air. Madame pranced, moaning. “Giovanna, blood thick, spirits wise!” The shutters banged open. A gust of wind blew the candles out.
Joe groped for a match, lit the candle. The flame flickered.
“Who’s bothering me?” Madame slumped in her chair. Her head landed on its side on the table, her eyes wide open.
“Madame, everything alright?” Joe retreated further from the table. “This is weird.”
“What do you want, Woman?” It was an old familiar voice.
Mara hung onto Joe, his mouth o-shaped. “What’s going on?”
“Tell me, I was almost resting peacefully till this.” The voice came from Madame but she didn’t move. The heavy breeze whipped through the room, swept past their chairs.
“Nonna? Can that be you?”
“Come mai? Mara, that sounds like you. Don’t tell me you’re dead!”
“Oh no, Nonna, I’m not dead. I’m here with Joe. We wanted to find you so you could tell me how you made your sauce. Yours stood up straight, mine is so runny. Please tell me!”
“My sweet Mara, you convoked me here to ask about my sauce? You didn’t hold onto my recipes?”
“Well, I tried. Joe lost them in the move. You know I always loved your cooking! Please tell me!”
Mara relaxed her grip on Joe’s hands. But the voice grew sinister. “You were always an annoying child! Couldn’t let anyone be, always crying for something. No, no recipes, figure it out yourself.”
Mara clenched Joe’s arm. “But I want to pass your recipes to my children — ”
“You married that worthless American man? Disastro! I told you to marry Umberto.”
“Umberto was over 180 pounds with greasy hair.”
“He wouldn’t have lost my recipes, would he? Umberto loved my cooking!”
Joe gripped Mara this time. Who was Umberto?
Mara was talking again. “Nonna, please — ”
“Porco miseria! You’re on your own now!” The breeze whipped around the table, the candlelight flickered.
“Hey, I’m not that bad!” Joe piped up. “Didn’t lose the ceramic bowls.”
“What happened to my jewels?” Madame was up, her body whirled around the table, her arms waving over head. Her hair spiked up lock by lock.
“I — I don’t know — ” Mara tightened her grip on Joe. “You’re scaring me, Nonna, you were never like this before! I just wanted the recipe!”
Joe peeled Mara’s nails from his skin, he was bleeding. Mara was screaming, her eyes transfixed on Madame. “Joe, I am out of here!”
“I’m coming!” Joe stood up but Madame had wedged her twirling self between him and Mara. “Madame, calm down, please! Let me help you!” She pranced, twirled. When Joe could finally wiggle around her, the door was open. Mara was gone.
“That’s it!” Joe pulled Madame into a chair. She slumped her head, moaning again. He searched the wall, flipped the lights on.
“Vatsula, I know it’s you. I said make it authentic, not weird,” he said. “Anyway, thanks, I think Mara will stop blaming me for losing her grandmother’s recipes. Here’s your 50 bucks.”
Madame’s dress fluttered. “I told her you were a bum! You’ll pay $81 and I want my jewels.” It was the same familiar voice.
Julianne DiNenna is an Italian-American writer from Washington, DC. She is a constant sea-crosser, voyaging on an open page when not traveling for work, trailing ink like footprints in soft soil. Her poems and short stories have been published in Italy, a Love Story, Offshoots, Hello Switzerland, Susan B and Me, Grasslands Review, ‘Airplane Reading’, among others.