“Murder and mayhem, cursed toads and twisted wishbones,” Agatha exclaimed loudly as she looked at her phone, her ash blonde hair practically falling into disarray as she jumped out of her rocking chair.
“What is it?” I asked, feeling concerned. Agatha is the youngest and generally the most composed of my wise, yet mad as hatters, aunts. Her particular craft is the healing arts of the mind and she is always the most zen of the bunch.
“Jenna has left her cottage and was spotted carrying big bags heading for the market. This could be as bad as when she set about dressing the town in mistletoe!”
I felt my tummy twisting as Agatha uttered the words. My great aunt Jenna has an affinity for matchmaking. In fact, she is brilliant at it. Only with the years she has gotten a little bit senile and doesn’t always think through how she couples people up. Therefore, a year ago around Christmas time she decided to dress the town in mistletoe and lure the right kind of people to meet under said mistletoe.
That doesn’t sound so bad, does it? It wouldn’t be. If the right kind of people weren’t married to someone else, or Catholic priests, or some other such inconvenience. The divorce lawyers in our tiny town had a heyday after that week. There’s nothing wrong with terminating bad relationships and encouraging good ones, but there are ways and means to go about it. Finding your husband making out with your neighbor under the mistletoe is never, ever, a good thing unless it’s in a romantic comedy. Our town is not a romantic comedy. Poor aunt Agatha as the town’s go-to wise lady didn’t get a wink of sleep for months. And aunt Hetty had to bake up a storm of feel-good cookies in her bakery, while Wilda was creating potions and lotions to make people feel better.
My aunts are all like that. They have gifts. All people do, really, it’s just in our family they’re a bit more pronounced. We feel things. Not least because we were all trained to do so since birth. And we manipulate energy to our advantage to create things. In short, we’re witches. But not ones with cauldrons and broomsticks (well, OK, so maybe Wilda has a cauldron to brew her herbs in, but there are no toads, or cobwebs - just plain old herbal medicine at its best). If I ever saw one of my aunts levitating, or you know, flying a broomstick, I’d probably be the first to faint. And if it were at all possible to transform people into something else using spells, I’d have transformed at least three boys in my class into mice, but alas it doesn’t work that way.
While we all have a sixth sense, being sensitive to reading people’s minds is actually more mentalism than magic. Nonetheless, having a bit more intuition has its perks. It also has its disadvantages. You don’t want to know what teenage boys think about all day long. Really. Apart from Jason. I can’t read him, so I’d like to find out. He’s kind of dark and brooding and sweet all at the same time. He’s definitively not worried what Samantha Hayes will think if he asks her to the ball, but beyond that, I haven’t figured him out. He’s my mystery and I’d like to work it out.
I’m also a mystery. I mean, yes, I can read minds pretty well and I have a sixth sense worthy of mentioning (like that time I told Samantha she shouldn’t go to the park at lunch and she did anyway and returned with a broken leg — she doesn’t like me much), but I haven’t figured out my affinity. I know my aunts had high hopes I’d take up where Jenna left off, but really? I can’t tell which of the boys suffer from Samantha-delirium, or Samantha-true-love syndrome. My mind reading skills have their limits.
Our little town is a surprisingly good spot for matchmaking though as all the people from L.A. and San Francisco come here to go skiing. Well, they come from all over California, really, it’s just that the people from the big towns tend to be more…interesting. The hippies from San Francisco and the filmmakers from L.A. bring enough eccentric ideas to keep the gossips happy and aunt Jenna busy.
Alas, matchmaking isn’t for me. I’ve tried all my aunts’ crafts and while I can bake a decent cake and brew some herbal concoctions (anyone could growing up in our kitchen!), I’m not particularly good at either. Nor can I tell what someone really needs to hear to put their life back together in one piece, like aunt Agatha. Admittedly all of my aunts studied their professions before they became great at them, but they had that seed of greatness already within them. Something waiting to burst into a blossom if only tended to carefully.
My cousins, Dawn and Elena, found their gifts in their early teens, so I’m starting to feel very old for being this lost (might have something to do with people’s incessant talk of college and finding jobs, too). Both of them set off to the sunny coast of Southern California as soon as high school was over — Dawn now works with horses in San Luis Obispo and Elena does yoga and tai chi in L.A., while studying physiotherapy at UCLA.
Everyone tells me it’s only a matter of time till I find my gift, but the truth is most people know what they like long before they turn seventeen. I don’t. I mean, I really like when I get to look after people, but beyond that I’m lost. I’m not bad at most things, I’m just not great at them either. Unlike my best friend, Johanna, who designs clothes like she was born for it. Which she probably was. She may not have a sixth sense quite as strong as that of a Westwind woman, but it sure seems like she has found her calling, while I feel like a nobody. I can’t even seem to find my own sense of style. On the upside, I’m not on the verge of senility like Jenna.
“How did Jenna escape her carer?” I asked.
“Oh, she probably kept poor Jenny awake half the night playing chess. When she’s lucid, she’s still sharp as nails. If only she didn’t have those outrageous moments! Let’s get in the Rover! We better find her before she does something crazy and she’s crazy enough even when she isn’t senile! I think the years made her bolder.” With that Aunt Agatha grabbed her car keys and ran for the door with the grace of a ballerina, while I stumbled after her.
It was true what aunt Agatha said — great aunt Jenna was always the craziest of the bunch and after senility hit, it got worse. The truth is Jenna is lucid most of the time. Her short-term memory isn’t great (we’ve had to create a routine where she sets the egg timer any time she goes near the stove as she managed to burn the tea water quite a few times), but she’s in the present moment 99% of the time.
As soon as Jenna’s memory started getting a bit iffy Wilda brewed herbs for her, Agatha made her do brain gymnastics and Hetty put her on a high ketone diet, which seems to have stopped the progress of the disease. Jenna even got a little bit better and she’s stayed that way for almost two years. Which means that saying she’s senile is probably taking it too far; she’s showing early signs of senility is more accurate.
The thing with senility, in some forms, is that it removes social filters to a degree. Think matchmaker without social filters. Think crazy old lady with a big mouth in general. Think embarrassment for those around (though admittedly it can also be hilarious).
We hired Jenny to look over Jenna (yes the names are a real mind-fuck, aren’t they?!), not because it’s likely that Jenna will walk out and get lost, but because it’s likely she will walk out and give matchmaking advice. The aforementioned mistletoe disaster was when we decided to hire help. That and the look on her face when she sometimes forgets where she is; it doesn’t happen often, but we never wanted her to be scared, or do something crazy in those moments.
The thought of matchmaking made me run after aunt Agatha at great haste and jump into her dark blue Rover. Range Rover, that is, but we just call it the Rover.
I quickly buckled up, as did Agatha.
“Hold your hat darling, as Jenna would say, because we better catch her. I can’t but wonder at what she’s got in those bags…” Aunt Agatha shook her head at the same time as she hit the accelerator.
We were soon going full speed down the dirt road that leads from Windgate Cottage to the actual center of Rocky Creek. It’s a fairly straight road down a slope, with fields on either side, so no chance of running anyone down, which is lucky as Agatha loves speed.
“Who was it that called you to tell you she’s out by herself?” I asked. In a town of about 2,000 permanent residents, everyone age 20 and up knows my aunts as everyone goes to their shops.
“It was Janis.”
“And she was in her shop when she called?” Janis owns the florist shop on Main, so if she’d seen Jenna outside, Jenna must have been pretty close to the Sunday farmer’s market already.
“Yep. Couldn’t go out and speak to Jenna as she had too many customers and there was some emergency with a cactus.”
“An emergency with a cactus?” I couldn’t help but hope that one of the nastier people of our town had that emergency. The problem would be, as my aunts repeatedly tell me, if something nasty happens to someone nasty, they’ll only get nastier. The only way to create change in the world is to change people for the better. Welcome to my family of white witches.
“Yes, I don’t really know what happened. Didn’t have time to chat. I think someone must have stung themselves on it. I bet they’re covered in one of Wilda’s creams right now.”
I nodded at this. Aunt Wilda’s ointments are so famous in Rocky Creek I don’t think there’s a single family that doesn’t have a couple of different ones stored away in their cupboards.
We were starting to get close to the end of the road leading down the slope from Windgate Cottage. At the end of the road, you join one of the main roads leading into the center of Rocky Creek.
“Agatha, I think you should slow down.”
For some reason, my very zen aunt likes to drive fast. I think it’s a habit that stuck after living in L.A. when she was studying and working for some famous psychologists whom she claims were batshit crazy. At least once a year she is struck by wanderlust and takes the Rover and just drives off — usually into the desert, or to the coast to do the PCH, but one year she drove all the way to New York. Something about liberating the mind by leaving your physical abode behind.
Yup, hippie witches and typical Californians. Though I suspect aunt Agatha just wanted to go ice skating at the Rockefeller center the year she drove to New York. She has a weakness for NYC in winter. Not sure why as it’s cold as h*** (and if you think I’ve got a potty mouth, you should hear Jenna — my aunts speak their mind, some hippie liberation idea springing from San Fransisco, no doubt…or maybe just the fact that she spent time in London in her youth and can swear like a real Londoner, posh British accent and all).
As we came to the end of the road we made a left and shortly thereafter a right onto Main. We live about three kilometers away from the center.
“Let’s park by the country store,” Agatha said just as we passed the florist shop. Janis was waving at us at the same time. She must have been keeping an eye out. Being market day she was outside, displaying flowers on the pavement. And some rather large cactuses I noticed. They’ve become fashionable as of late, or so Johanna tells me and she knows almost as much about interior design as she does fashion. I guess cactuses being trendy is good for California. Finally, a plant that naturally thrives here, though we’re a bit too far up the mountain for that.
It suddenly occurred to me that we had no actual clue where Jenna had gone. The official market starts just a little while further up the road from Janis’ florist shop, but it’s a long road and she could have veered off it.
“Uhm, where do we find Jenna? You really think she went to the market?”
“My gut tells me that would be the place to find her. If nothing else for the sake of Mrs Galloway’s bonbons.”
That was a fair point. Anyone with any kind of sense would stop by that stand to pick up the most delicious homemade bonbons on the planet. At least I think they’re the most the delicious ones, given I’ve not seen much of the rest of the world. I’ve only really seen a lot of California, some of the rest of the U.S. and Tuscany (aunt Hetty decided to take a cooking class there one year).
“Yes, Jenna has a real sweet tooth. I think I might buy some for myself as well,” I added. No reason not to. They’re made of honey and maple syrup so they’re almost healthy. Mrs Galloway does some sort of save the bees initiative too, so buying them is kind of like donating to Greenpeace, or something. Then again any Californian business is like that. Unless you are saving either humans or the planet you’re officially not cool enough to live here.
We were just about to turn into the parking lot for the country store (a.k.a. the supermarket, a.k.a. one out of two grocery stores in our town, but this is the oldest and most charming looking one), when aunt Agatha hit the brakes and startled me. Really annoying given I was imagining the strawberry flavored bonbons just at that moment.
“What are you doing?” I asked, perturbed.
“I spotted her, she’s over there with Mr Jones.” Agatha pointed at one of the first stands to the left along the road (blocked off from cars starting from about five meters ahead of us).
“Is he married?” I asked. I knew he owned an apple orchard, but beyond that, I couldn’t remember anything about him. The thought of another divorce created by my great aunt didn’t please me.
“Yes. No. I can’t think. Let’s get out.” On that note Agatha parallel parked the car hastily and poorly, not bothering about the no parking sign that was enforced on market days. Clearly, she did not want to spend thirty-seconds extra turning into the actual parking lot for the country store. My zen aunt is really not a zen driver.
We both got out of the car and quickly walked over to aunt Jenna. I knew from Agatha’s worried expression what she didn’t say out loud: that she wasn’t as worried about poor matchmaking as she was that one day Jenna might get really senile. So senile she’d lose her way entirely.
“Jenna!” Agatha called as she was walking hurriedly towards her and Mr Jones.
“Ah, Agatha. How perfect you should arrive just now. You were worried about me, I take it. I should have left a note. Quite forgot. Jenny dozed off and I needed to run some errands. Had a big old load of rubbish to give to the charity shop. Forgot it’s Sunday, mind you, and they’re closed. What did I mean to say? Oh yes, quite. Mr Jones would like a massage at the Sanctum Sanctorum, wouldn’t you Mr Jones?” Jenna said and winked at Mr Jones. My 90 year old great aunt actually winked at a 70 year old man and I’ll be the first to swear that the man blushed as she did so!
“Uh, I never had a massage. I’ve heard they can be good.” Mr Jones shifted his weight from one foot to the other, looking nervous. Poor man.
“Yes, Agatha,” Jenna filled in, “he has never had a massage and he has terrible pain in his back. Age, I take it. Damn it to hell. But I think you could at least do something to help. Give him some of Wilda’s ointments too. And some of those little pills. What are they again?”
“The anti-inflammatories?” I volunteered.
“Yes, thanks, Louise. Those little pills are great. Cured my arthritis in a heartbeat. Can’t get enough of them.” Saying this Jenna leaned forward sort of conspiratorially as she spoke and made it sound more like a come-on than a remedy for back pain. How she does those sort of things I don’t know, but I have a feeling that the pick-up artists could learn a lot from her.
Aunt Agatha shook her head and smiled. I can only imagine what it must have been like for her when she was a kid and Jenna was in her prime. Imagine your mother’s sister flirting with anything that moved! Not that Jenna ever cheated on her late husband, Bertil, but she was always a flirt. And when he passed on she started dating again — in her seventies! Said she didn’t want anything serious, only some male companionship.
“Oh, I must get some of those pills. Can I ask for them at Wilda’s?” Mr Jones asked.
“Yes,” Jenna nodded. “Say I sent you and that you want a discount.” At this Jenna winked again and Mr Jones turned a darker shade of beetroot.
Jenna might be a bit senile and ninety years old, but it’s obvious she still has what it takes. Probably much thanks to a healthy lifestyle and happy life. When she first started forgetting things she became withdrawn for a while, but once it became clear that it wasn’t getting any worse, she relaxed and joked about it. The fact that she could still walk three kilometers without a problem was a testament to the power of her fitness regime!
“So,” aunt Agatha said, “are you ready to come with us home? Or are there other errands you want to run while we’re here? I want to pop by the country store for one and Louise wants to get some bonbons at Mrs Galloway’s stand.”
“Bonbons,” Jenna exclaimed. “I think that’s a grand idea. After that, I want to go home and put the kettle on. A nice walk to get here, but now I’m spent. Figured someone would give me a ride back. Not a person in this town who doesn’t owe me a favor.”
And on that note aunt Jenna happily blew a kiss goodbye to Mr Jones and strode forward towards Mrs Galloway’s stand, while in a theatrical whisper saying to myself and Agatha: “Now, Agatha, all you have to do is book Greta Ashby in at the same time as Mr Jones for a massage. Make sure they get to sit in the waiting room together. Then start asking them about Wilda’s pills. Greta has arthritis too, so they will have plenty to speak about. Even creaking joints can bring people together, you know. Hurry up you two, I really want to have that cup of tea sooner rather than later.”
And that’s how your 90-year-old, somewhat senile, great aunt makes you feel like you really have quite a lot to live up to if you ever want to be as cool as she is. Semi-British accent, and all.