Villa Lorna was a quaint café. Red checked cloths covered the round tables, and matching curtains adorned the windows. Each drape panel was pulled back with tie cords, allowing the late afternoon light to nourish the plants hanging on hooks and resting on sills.
Guylan spotted Sister Margaret sitting in a booth to the far end of the eatery. Her drab, navy blue dress and scarf trimmed with white stood out amongst the other patron’s bright clothing. He took the seat opposite the elder nun and forced a smile. “Thank you, Sister, for all your help.”
“You might not thank me in the end, Guylan,” she mumbled, pushing a package wrapped in a brown paper bag across the table.
When he began to open the package, she reached out to still his hands. “Not here, not in front of me,” she said in a lowered tone.
He raised his gaze to meet hers. “What in God’s name is in this book that’s gotten you so spooked?”
“Not in God’s name, Guylan,” she responded, her voice quivering. Her eyes went to the package he held and then returned to his face. “Be careful,” she said as she stood up to walk away.
“Wait,” he said, standing to face her.
She shook her head and made her way to the door, leaving him staring after her in stunned silence.
“Can I help you, sir?” a waiter approached.
He shook his head and walked past the attendant, out of the café door, and to his car. Placing the package on the seat beside him, he debated whether or not to open it there or at his apartment. He touched the paper wrapper and then pulled his hand away.
In a final decision, he started up the gray Toyota Camry and drove to his home, bringing the package to his tiny den and placing it upon the oak, roll-top desk he’d rescued from a garage sale. With trembling fingers, he unwrapped the book from its paper container and stared for a moment at the raven etched on the front. Bringing his hand up to the volume, he compared it to the one on his ring. It was an exact image.
The immediate quiet of the room caused him to hesitate opening the book. He knew the unnatural quiet meant the caped stranger was nearby. He knew if he were to make his way to the window and look down, he’d see the same figure that haunted him for months gazing up at him from the street corner.
He traced the outline of the raven’s body: the leather’s grain was worn and it smelled musty. Opening the cover carefully, he ran his hand over the smooth, yellowed page that held the surname of MacRaven. Another page showed a family tree—the first entry was Ian MacRaven wedded to Katrina McDougal. From their names branched out Sean MacRaven wedded to Fanny McFarlin. Sean’s son Daniel MacRaven wed Jennifer Casey and their son Quentin MacRaven wed Adorna Hawthorn. Another child’s name was listed for Daniel and Jennifer, but it was crossed out with a heavy, black ink line and couldn’t be read. From Quentin and Adorna’s names, there was a daughter, Olena MacRaven, wedded to Zachery Sincloud. It appeared Olena had a sibling, but this entry was also crossed out, and Guylan couldn’t make out this name either. From Olena’s name came Xavior Sincloud, wedded to DeYonna Grayson, and then lastly, two more names stemmed from Xavior’s, listing Audra and Guylan Sincloud.
Guyland’s eyes rested on his name. “My name is Guylan Sincloud,” he whispered to himself. “And I have a sister, or perhaps I had a sister.” He felt numbed and thrilled all at once. Then he turned to the page with the heading Blessings Bestowed. Here was a list of family names. He read each one, stopping at the group he recognized: Sophia and Henry DelFino, and Gloria and Brian O’Riley. A cold chill crept down his spine.
Why is Nela’s family written in this book?
Below the names his eyes caught upon a decree written in beautiful script.
I bestow upon the head of these families a blessing carried on through each generation, to be bequeathed to first daughters and their husbands alike. This blessing is for a service performed to me and my family. I decree the blessing will take place upon the first Saturday in May of every year, and at the time of Beltane, when the veil is thinned between this world and the one of the here-after, the path shall be made passable. Then, and only then, these families shall unite for a time of forty-eight hours. May this blessing serve ye well in the reunions to come.
His stomach churned.
What the hell was all this about, and what service had Nela’s family done for Quentin MacRaven?
Turning to another page, Guylan noticed the index listed spells and remedies in alphabetical order—ones for aggravating instances, ailing body parts, bothersome warts, and right down to yeast infections and zoning problems—Guylan didn’t know what to think.
Reading on, he also discovered a section dedicated to the mysteries of magic: this was a book of secrets. When the cell phone rang, he jumped out of his skin. Its tone broke the eerie silence surrounding him, pulling him from his thoughts. Slamming the book shut, he reached into his pocket for the phone.
“Are you still planning on coming to dinner?” Nela asked.
He glanced at his watch: it was nearing seven, and he was already a half hour late to arrive at Nela’s house. “Yeah, sorry honey. I just got involved in something,” he apologized.
“How much longer do you think you’ll be?”
He stood. “I’m on my way.”
“Oh, and Guylan,” she added. “We need to talk after dinner, in private. There’s something I need to tell you.”
He eyed the book in front of him. “Me too, honey . . . me too.”
When Guylan arrived, I met him at the door. I did my best to hide my feelings of anxiety; after all, this was Guyland, my Guylan. This was the man who, in the last year, became my confidant, my lover, and my best friend. Why, then, did I think he would be an ogre once he learned about my family’s blessing?
I sat Guylan beside Gram at the dinner table, knowing she’d win him over with her stories and sense of humor. By the end of dinner, Gram had allowed Guylan to convince her to play a piece on the piano.
We all followed Gram into the living room and sat around the piano that stood in the corner. Gram opened the lid and slid her fingers over the keys and warmed up with scales with little ditty tunes, as was customary for her to do. The classical piece she chose was Mozart’s Piano concerto No. 21, a slow moving melody known to lull the listener into another dimension. For just a few moments, the piece shifts from a serene tune to one with uneasy traces.
Hannah and I simultaneously glanced at each other, a quiet understanding passing between us. There was the connotation of a lesson in Gram’s lyrical entertainment: she was bringing us to focus on the quiet before the storm. After the havoc, everything evens out, and we’ll all move ahead with our lives no matter the outcome. We would endure my mother’s breast lump, Dad’s heart attack, Alana’s sexual orientation, Joe being in Iraq, Cara’s teen years, and Guylan’s attitude toward the family blessing. In any instance, we would all survive, and that was what mattered most.
After Gram’s little recital, Hannah was the first to leave. She hugged Gram. “Thanks for the job tip, Gram. I’ll go to see Dana Clair first thing Monday morning.”
Gram caressed Hannah’s face. “You’ll do fine, Miss Hannah; just don’t you give up.” She placed a hand over her heart. “Take yourself to the center of your balance and move out from that quiet place with your confidence refreshed, then conduct yourself accordingly.” She embraced Cara, looping a long strand of hair behind her ear. “Do you know who you were named after?”
“Aunt Nela, my Baptismal godmother. Caralena is her middle name,” Cara said.
“Well, that’s true, but Caralena was my grandmother’s middle name as well,” Gram said.
Cara frowned. “Wasn’t she a witch or something?”
Gram laughed. “Well, she had something mystical about her: she conjured up premonitions of things to come, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call her a witch.” She gave Cara a kiss. “Be good to your mother, child. She needs your support during this difficult time.”
When Hannah hugged me, I whispered in her ear: “Good luck de-germinating Little Miss Star Shine.”
Hannah giggled. “Maybe I’ll just bake my famous laxative cookies. It worked for Byron Foster.”
When Hannah and I were in high school, Byron robbed the girl’s lockers of desserts stashed in lunch bags. Hannah and a few other girls, who had been the victim of Byron’s sweet tooth, baked up a batch of chocolate chip cookies, substituting the chips with a chocolate laxative.
I laughed. “Be careful how much you use. Byron was out of school for nearly three days and looked like he lost five pounds.”
When I shut the door behind them, I couldn’t help feeling positive for Hannah. I was sure she’d land the job at Dana’s music studio and be on her way to financial security. When Joe came home from Iraq, she might even have a little nest egg saved for them to start over.
I caught the tale end of my mother’s conversation as I re-joined the family at the kitchen table. Mom was explaining to Guylan whywe were holding the reunion in my cramped flat. “Usually, we have the yearly reunion at my house, which you know is much bigger than Nela’s. But because an old oak tree fell through the kitchen window after the violent storm we had two weeks ago, we’re having reconstruction done. Geeze, everything is such a mess.”
“Gram loves to cook,” I added. “And everyone knew a torn-up kitchen wouldn’t suffice, so we moved the plans here.”
“And you’re a wonderful cook at that, Mrs. DelFino,” Guylan praised Gram. “I’ve never tasted tomato sauce so delicious.”
Gram beamed. “Please, call me Gram, and the trick is to simmer the sauce with the meat all day.” She smiled. “Let me explain to you, Guylan, that for Italian folks the grandmother’s home is the family gathering place. On Sunday, Gloria would bring the girls for the rounds before returning home, and what this meant was a stop at Gram’s house for an after-church dessert. The girls, wearing their black patent leather shoes, little pink toppers during spring months or faux fur jackets with matching muffs during the winter time, would run into the kitchen. Quickly, their coats were removed to reveal their polka-dotted Swiss dresses beneath. We’d all sit around, chatting and drinking steaming cups of hot chocolate or a cold glass of lemonade, weather depending.” Gram sighed. “Such times were the best.”
My mother chimed in. “Then once I got all the girls home, and changed from their Sunday clothes, I’d fry meatballs, simmer sauce, and we’d have ziti and homemade Italian bread.” Gloria laughed. “I always called non-Italians those Americans, which was so silly. I was born in the United States; I was an American, too.”
“An Italian-American,” Gram corrected. “Americans did things different than we did: they went to the market, but we bought from the milk man, the vegetable vender, the baker, or we made our own bread and grew our own vegetables in a garden.”
My mother chuckled. “Wasn’t it your mother who hated going out for too long because there was no one left home to watch the house?”
“My mother was the same,” my father added. “And she was Irish.” He shook his head and smiled. “I remember, after my brother and I devoured all our Easter candy, we were made to take Caster Oil.”
“Your mother was a wise woman, Brian,” Gram said. “Too many sweets disturb the natural flow of things in the body.”
The heat rose to my face, and I cleared my throat. “I’m sure Guylan doesn’t want to hear about such things.”
“No, its okay, Nela, really,” he assured me. “I like hearing about your family’s ways.” His expression saddened. “Growing up in an orphanage, not ever knowing your parents or what their home life was like, could make for a lonely existence at times.”
“Well, you’re lonely no longer, Guylan,” Gram said. “Once you marry our Nela, you’ll be a member of the family, too.”
“Yeah, enter at your own risk,” Alana grumbled.
My father cast a threatening glare her way—the same one he used when we were children.
“Excuse us,” I said, reaching for Guylan’s hand.
Everyone knew what I was about to do.
Gram gave Guylan’s arm an affectionate pat and smiled. “Make sure you’re back in time for dessert; I made a pecan pie.”
He licked his lips. “I love pecan pie.”
Gram gave him a playful wink. “I know.”
Guylan followed me downstairs to the beauty salon and sighed. “Your grandmother is a sweet heart and is aging so gracefully.” He flashed me a mischievous smile. “They say if a man wants a preview of what his wife will look like in her olden years, all he needs to do is look at how the mother and grandmother turned out.”
I stopped to flick on the light switch.
He took a seat at one of the hairdryers and looked around the room. “It’s strange in here at night.”
I knew full well what he meant. The usual bustle by the sink or at the comb-out counter was constant during work hours. Now it was quiet, the silence almost eerie. I sat on a chair opposite him. “And do you like what you see?”
“You mean with your mom and grandmother?”
He smiled. “Yeah, honey, I do. Your grandmother and mother are very beautiful women for their age.” He sat back in the chair, bumping his head on a dryer cap.
I stood and pushed the plastic drying bubble aside.
“How old is your grandmother, anyway?”
“She just turned eighty-seven,” I said.
“She doesn’t look that old,” Guylan reflected.
I returned to my chair and met his gaze. “That’s because she was only seventy-nine when she died.”