“And we are magic talking to itself,
noisy and alone. I am queen of all my sins
forgotten. Am I still lost?
Once I was beautiful. Now I am myself”
Valea Verde is home to strays. Summertime, at night, through the wide open screenless window, through pale curtain shifting in the breeze like itchy, sleepless ghost, Dida hears a single dog bark. Perhaps, to stave off loneliness, to break the suffocating silence of shadow, he calls to the stars. And the mountain answers back. Another yowl, higher pitched and further away, joins the first in a forlorn duet. Before long, a third accompanies the first two—the low, booming, guttural bellow of a rougher stray. Then a fourth pup, nearby, then a fifth, and soon every dog five villages over is howling in the darkness. Even to this day, Dida can only sleep when there is noise.
The villagers laugh as Dida prances about the hills like some wild thing, a motley ensemble of mutts on her tail as if she’s a prize elk—but they are gentle. One shaggy mutt limps behind the rest, red rust spotting the white whiskers of his muzzle where a boy kicked him only hours before. Dida flops to the ground, narrowly avoiding a pile of cow dung, and the injured mutt, whom she’s affectionately dubbed Păpădie, rests his fuzzy mophead on her knees. She strokes him, sings him a song, and when they both rise there’s spring in his step once more. In fact, he hasn’t been quite so lithe and spry since his puppy days, and the dribble of mucusy blood that’d clung to his nose has disappeared.
Father Andrei says sex between the unwed is a sin, and, as Dida pretends to sleep on her mattress in the corner, she learns her mother and the newest orphanage volunteer—a British man who speaks very little Romanian but uses extravagant hand gestures—are sinners who might face an eternity of hellfire and pain if Father Andrei learns of their transgressions. Though she is sure she is putting herself at risk of eternal punishment once she dies and though she is bursting at the seams to spill the secret, Dida doesn’t tell.
Like all the schoolchildren, she attends the church at the top of the tallest hill religiously and is spoonfed the flesh and guts of Jesus, though she stores his soggy bread inside her cheek until she is safely beyond the gates whereupon she spits it behind a bush. She’s pretty sure this is a sin, too. Speaking of sins, she is also a liar, and what once were cute stories and endearing pranks are no longer tolerated now that she is nearing ten. When she comes home with welts swelling beneath her clothes, her mother cries and laments to the British man—who’s spending months at a time in the valley now—that she may as well never have sought refuge from her previous life if this is what it’s coming to.
They leave the very next month. And just in time. Dida’s mother’s stomach is beginning to bulge suspiciously. Dida clings to her best friend, Rux, and sobs, promising to write lengthy letters detailing her life in the United Kingdom and to visit often. And when she flies for the first time it’s magical—the red rooftops of Bucharest shrinking like scabs beneath the wingspan of the plane until they are mere pinpricks along vein-sized roads.
At Hogwarts, her natural curiosity and propensity for experiencing life hands-on is rewarded rather than punished and she picks up material rapidly, excelling especially in classes in which instinct takes precedence over hard studying. She’s naturally gifted and intuitive when it comes to solving problems and dissecting lessons and spells and reworking them to suit her own style and methods. She’s smart, her professors tell her as the years plough on, but she needs to apply herself if she wants the grades to pursue anything she desires after school. And she does apply herself, eventually, though she finds certain areas of Hogwarts’ curriculum lacking and therefore takes on extra projects of her own with much gusto.
One particular area of interest is ghosts. For one so young and full of life, she is, rather disconcertingly, obsessed with death—from an educational standpoint. And a spiritual one, too, if she’s honest with herself. She has never quite come to terms with the shattering of her belief system and feels the best way to understand the afterlife and its implications is to interrogate the castle’s dead. The kindly Fat Friar, patient as he is, begins avoiding her and her incessant questions: “How did your religious views evolve after entering ghosthood?” and “Was it difficult, while alive, merging a godly life with one of wizardry?” and “Did you choose to become a ghost? What were the other options?” and “What was it like, dying? I mean, where did you go?”
Though ample energy is channeled into academics, she has oodles to spare on other things like friendships and recreation. She has a penchant for making people laugh of which she is quite proud. However, she does tend to put more energy into people than they invest in her, and while she mingles with many different and diverse groups and individuals and engages in various spontaneous shenanigans, she feels somewhat replaceable—entertaining yet expendable. She misses the close-knit familiarity reminiscent of her childhood days—the ragtag team of misfit orphans who were once so dear to her heart and basically family—and she can never quite achieve that level of intimacy with any of her newer cohorts.
When they become infatuated with boys, they lose her completely. At first, Dida tries to understand, but it seems like such an act. Who can get Donnie to kiss them?—Who would want to? In an effort to keep up with the crowd and experience the same sorts of thrills, she sleeps with a single boy in sixth year who reminds her of Father Andrei possessed by the holy spirit. She stores his soggy seed inside her cheek to spit behind the headboard. Just like with the promise of eternal hellfire for earthly sin, she doesn’t quite swallow the hype. She’s unconvinced that this is the way things are supposed to be—they’re certainly not the way she wishes.
Dida graduates and spends a year traveling abroad with her stepfather’s money. She returns to Valea Verde in the end, which is what she’s wanted all along, why she traveled in the first place, though she doesn’t realize this until she’s laying eyes upon the rolling green hills and complementary red-hued houses lined up in the landscape’s crevice. And there’s the very casa she grew up in. Everything looks the same, minus some updates, paint jobs, and additions, and though Dida has spent her budding, burgeoning years rooted in the harsh wilderness of the Hogwarts grounds, nothing nourishes her heart like the sweeping scene of her homeland bathed in the warm glow of setting sun rays.
She finds Ruxandra in a neighboring village and nothing has changed between them except their bodies, which now crackle with electricity when they touch. Does Rux feel it, too? She must, because she returns the embrace with equal passion, mouth pressing against Dida’s cheekbone, and doesn’t back away when Dida tilts her chin and peers hungrily into those pasture green eyes, inhales the taste of home on that salty breath, navigates the curves of the hills on those thick, swollen lips. “I love you,” she says, though there’s no need. It’s written all over her face. They are caught, and Dida is told to leave. She is no longer welcome there.
She spends the rest of her twenties and early thirties as a soother, administering end-of-life care and comfort to terminally ill or dying wix, easing the transition into death. While the job is tough, it can be oddly rewarding. She learns so much from her wizened patients; they discuss anything and everything from personal philosophies on life and the afterlife to regrets and memories of loved ones and struggles and triumphs. They offer sage advice without reserve. Dida adores every single one of them, even the grumpy ones who tell her to shove her wand where the sun don’t shine, and they inspire many an essay and eventually a book entitled Wand vs. Scythe.
Ruxandra keeps in touch over the years. Dida receives letters detailing her courtship and marriage of Mihai, a boy from their childhood whom Dida remembers for throwing stones at cats and squashing frogs beneath his bare feet. Soon still photographs of chubby, green-eyed babies begin filling up the shoebox where Dida keeps her most precious memos and mementos. Time is slipping away and she wonders if perhaps her duration on this planet will be defined by nothing more than living vicariously through others, listening to the dying’s memories of things she herself has never experienced, and aching for something that doesn’t exist. Aching for meaning and purpose—a small role in the universe.
But perhaps she’s not giving herself enough credit. She’s a cherished daughter and stepdaughter, the best older sister a set of spirited younger brothers could ask for, a faithful friend to many, an affectionate acquaintance to many more, a flame or a fling to a select few, and a source of peace for her patients. She’s just unsure who she is when she’s alone.
She’s only been at the post for a short while but already finds working with children to be a refreshing change of pace. True, she’s already been reprimanded for giving a group of seventh years firewhiskey, but she’s sure with a little patience and faith from her superiors she’ll get the hang of responsible staff member in no time.
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