The Strega of Fitzgerald Street
Her Aunt Nella found the four bottles of sleeping pills and got Kathy Farisi to admit she had planned to kill herself. She flushed the pills down the toilet and sat on a plush sofa with her niece.
“You need to confess to the priest,” she said.
“You don’t have to know which priest, Aunt Nella.”
"Did he absolve you?”
“Then why do you feel this way?”
“I don’t feel like I’ve been forgiven.”
“So you’re going to kill yourself and be damned to hell forever?”
“I’m damned to hell forever anyway.”
“You aren’t. Did the priest tell you to make restitution?”
“He said I needed to go to her.”
“Aunt Nella, you know.” Kathy began to cry. “David’s ex-wife. The woman whose marriage I broke up, goddamn it.”
“Don’t swear. Did you go to her?”
“No. I can’t. I can’t and I won’t. I can’t face her.”
The two sat, glum and miserable. Kathy sobbed.
“You’ve been to the doctor?”
“Did he give you meds?”
“Did you take them?”
“Take your meds, girl. You seem determined to do yourself harm. Get them now and take them. I want to see you take them.”
Kathy obeyed. When she had swallowed one of the anti-depressants, her aunt took her hands.
“You must go to the strega.”
“I’m not going to a witch.”
“If you love me at all, you’ll go. Katie, I’m scared for you. Alessia is wise. She’ll know what you need to do. Will you do it for me, baby?”
She saw the tears in her aunt’s eyes—the woman who had saved her life.
“Yes, Aunt Nella. I’ll go. I promise.”
Two days later, she called.
“Meet me at the Farmer’s Market on Saturday. By the Borsma stall at 11:00.”
Saturday was the prime day for the Grand Rapids Farmer’s Market. People were packed in and movement at crawl. Kathy flowed with the crowd and eventually got to the stall occupied by Borsma Farms.
Aunt Nella was there. She had bought carrots and red lettuce. She handed a head of lettuce to Kathy.
“Stick this in your bag. And this.” She gave her an envelope.
“What is it?”
“Money. For the strega.”
“Aunt Nella, I can’t take your money.”
“You agreed to this. Do as you’re told. Her address is on the envelope. She lives on Fitzgerald Street, just over there.” She pointed. “She is expecting you.”
Kathy moved through the crush of people and crossed Fulton Street to Fitzgerald. Half a block down, the hubbub of the market died away. She checked house numbers and found her way to a white frame with red carnations planted all around and a neat, lush lawn. Bluebirds fought with sparrows in a ceramic birdbath by the steps. They flew off as she approached. She knocked.
She had expected a wizened old woman in a scarf. Instead, she saw a woman her age telling her to come in. she had dark hair, olive skin, and large brown eyes. She wore a burgundy blouse and a short black skirt.
“Sit here,” she said, gesturing at a table with two chairs. On it sat a small crystal ball. A drape of red cloth covered it.
Kathy sat down. The woman left the room. She came back in with a bottle of wine and two glasses. She sat them on the table beside the crystal ball.
“Kathleen, I am Alessia.”
Kathy gaped at her then remembered her manners.
“I’m happy to meet you.”
Alessia smiled. She had white, even teeth, which made her look even prettier.
“You weren’t expecting someone young, were you?”
“No. I guess not.”
“Don’t be embarrassed. Most people expect me to look like Strega Nonna in the book by Tomie dePaola or like the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. Sorry to disappoint you.”
Kathy smiled nervously. Alessia poured wine.
“I’m on anti-depressants. I probably shouldn’t drink alcohol.”
“You must drink if I’m to help you. You won’t drink enough to do you harm.”
Kathy sipped the wine, feeling its smooth, rich texture on her tongue. Alessia drank down her glass.
“Do you have the money?”
“Yes,” Kathy answered, “but”—she stopped.
“But you’re not sure you want to give it to me because you think this is all nonsense.”
Kathy finished her glass of wine.
“Something like that.”
“It’s a common thing to think.”
The woman spoke with a flat midwestern accent. Kathy had expected her to sound like an Italian émigré.
“Touch the crystal ball,” Alessia ordered.
She raised her hand but held it suspended in the air. She was afraid to touch. Feeling annoyance at herself for her superstition, she laid her fingers on the cold glass orb.
Alessia kept her eyes on the crystal. Suddenly it brightened, shining with intense light. After a second or two it went dark then transparent.
Kathy blinked, startled, her heart beating hard. Then she thought it might be a trick. Alessia had studied the flash of light, her eyes intense as if reading some vital instructions. She turned her gaze to Kathy.
“The crystal told me quite a bit, but I already knew a lot from meeting with your Aunt Nella.”
“What did she tell you?”
“She told me why you’re here, but I didn’t mean that. I read your spirit from her because she had been near you that day.” She stood up and stepped back. “I knew you would be skeptical, so I will convince you this is not a fraud and I am not a charlatan. Do you like my outfit?”
Kathy looked at her again. The dark burgundy blouse outlined her figure, her even shoulders, slender waist and pretty breasts. The skirt hung on her hips in a graceful wrap. She wore black nylons and had long, nicely shaped legs. Kathy felt something familiar and unsettling when she saw Alessia’s clothes.
“You look very nice.”
“Thanks. So did you. I bought these clothes because they are identical to the clothes you wore the day you decided you wanted to have an affair with David Urbanic. You picked them very carefully at the Express in Woodland Mall. You knew the colors and styles he liked. You went to his office and he told you how good you looked. You said you wanted to ask him a question about James Joyce’s story, “Grace.” He asked you out to lunch. You two ate at Marie Catrib’s. You had a BLT, he had a portabella burger. He gave you a little kiss on the cheek when you returned to your school, and you knew you had done it—you knew he would go after you, and he did.”
She gaped, her eyes wide. All of it was true.
“The two of you got it on the first time,” she continued, “Friday of that same week in Room 132 at the President’s Inn off Plainfield. After you had finished, David amused you with the story of how he deceived his wife by saying he had to meet a colleague to discuss a very timely topic. You laughed and laughed”—
“Stop it,” Kathy said, slamming her fists on the table and almost upsetting the wine glasses. A heavy silence fell. “All right. You’ve proved your point. Here.” She handed her the money.
“Thank you. This is how I live, you know.”
Kathy did not want to look at Alessia. Her magic was real. She had seen everything. Her soul was naked before this woman’s sorcery. Tears of shame filled Kathy’s eyes. She looked up. Alessia had sat down once more.
“What do I do?” she asked.
“You’ve confessed your sin. Father Kubiac absolved you. He also told you to go to Sossity Chandler and ask her to forgive you.”
“You don’t want to do that?”
“I can’t. I can’t face her.” She took a deep breath. “If I think I have to see her, or even be near her, I’ll kill myself. I would rather die than see her, and I mean that.”
Alessia regarded her.
“Excuse me a minute.”
She put her fingers on the crystal ball and leaned forward. For an instant she looked like the stock figure of a fortuneteller form a cartoon or cheap movie or TV show. The ball glowed. She gazed intently at it. The light faded and she looked up.
“I can give you an answer, but if I give it to you, you must obey my words—or else.”
“Or else what?”
“I’ll come for your soul. We are not playing a game, Miss Farisi. This is a serious matter. If I tell you to do something and you don’t do it, you are in my debt and thus in my power—and I have a great deal of power—the power of the fifty generations of practitioners in whose succession I stand. I don’t like making people my possessions, but I will, and I have done so many times. Fail to do what I instruct you to do, and you are mine forever.”
Fear had taken her by now. Yet she had to make it clear to this woman that one thing was non-negotiable.
“I’ll do anything except go to Sossity. I won’t agree if you tell me to do that.”
“I will not ask you to do that or ask you to do anything like it. I promise as much.”
“What do you mean you’ll make me your possession?”
“You don’t want to know,” Alessia answered darkly.
“All right. I agree. I promise to do whatever you say.”
“Listen. This afternoon at 4:00 go to a tree on the campus of Aquinas College. An ash tree stands all alone close to the footbridge at the edge of the woods. You will know it when you see it. Go there. Pick up one of its fallen leaves and bite off a small portion of it. Chew and swallow it—only a small bit. Do not eat the entire leaf. Throw what is left—which will be most of it—back to the ground. After you do this, the answer to what you must do to get on with your life—to get out of this depression, to feel forgiven, and to build a successful relationship with David—will come to you.”
“As I said, the answer will come. As with the tree, you will know it when you see it. That is all I have to say to you.”
“Thank you,” Kathy said, her voice uneven with fear.
She left, keeping her eyes down, afraid to look at Alessia. Outside, the warmth of the sunny fall day fell on her. Cars moved down the street. Children shouted and played. A jogger ran by her. She saw the red leaf lettuce in her bag and wondered if Aunt Nella was still at the Farmer’s Market. She looked at her watch. It was near noon. She was not that far from Aquinas but it was too early to go there.
She drove to Wealthy Bakery, ordered a croissant and a latte, ate and pondered. Her phone rang. It was David.
“Hey, baby. I thought I’d call and check on you. How are you?”
“I’m okay. The Zoloft is really helping.”
“Good,” he said, sounding genuinely relieved. “Are you home?”
“I’m at Wealthy Bakery. I went to the Farmer’s Market this morning.”
“Great. I love it that you’re getting out again and doing things. The conference ends at five, so I should be home about six thirty.”
David was attending a one-day seminar in Lansing. He had wanted to stay home but she had insisted he go.
“I’ll have a good salad for us. I didn’t buy much at the market. The place is so crowded in the morning it was a little overwhelming, but I’m heading back to get some more produce.”
“Be sure to stock up. Remember we’ll have the kids next week.”
“I’ve got to go to a session now. Take care, baby. I love you. If you need to talk, call.”
She closed up her phone. She had not thought about planning meals for the children because she had decided to kill herself. Now she saw how her death would have adversely affected Cheryl and Brett—not to say David and Sossity, Alex her own child, and a host of other people. Her Aunt Nella’s discovery of her suicide plan had been a grace from God. Then, she thought ironically, sipping her latte, she had gone to a witch.
She wandered back to the farmer’s market. The crowd had thinned. She bought vegetables, organic meats, and indulged in fudge as a treat. After driving home and putting things away, she set her alarm and took a nap. When it rang she got right up and drove over to the campus of Thomas Aquinas College.
She parked in the lot of by the Performance Arts Center. She remembered, before her affair with David, when she and Sossity were friends, how they came here to see a stage version of The Perfect Wedding by Robin Hawdon—the irony of it struck her with full force as she walked by the theater. They had seen the play and then gone barhopping until 2 a.m. She walked down the path that led into main campus. The sun shone brightly through the red, yellow, and purple leaves. She came to the footbridge. The ash tree—she did know it at once—loomed up in front of her.
She walked over to it. The smooth grey bark, free of the usual carvings ones sees on ash trees, looked luminous in the late autumn sunlight.
Kathy bent down, picked up a leaf, and bit off the sharp end. A harsh dry taste filled her mouth. She chewed with her front teeth, crushing it to a paste. Though, as Alessia had instructed, she only bit off a small portion, she had trouble swallowing it. Finally she got it down and threw the remainder leaf on the ground.
She heard something and looked up. She saw Cheryl Urbanic and her mother, Sossity Chandler, coming across the footbridge.
Panic struck her. She gaped. Cheryl had a basket on her arm. Kathy realized she was collecting leaves. Sossity was right behind her. She stopped when she saw Kathy. Cheryl looked up.
She wore saddle shoes, white slacks, a light pink top and a shocking pink nylon jacket. Her mother had tied her hair in a ponytail. She looked the image of innocent childhood beauty. Her eyes shone with the excitement of what she was doing.
“Hi, sweetie.” She looked up. Sossity, in jeans and a leather coat, stood a few feet away.
Kathy held her breath. What would she do? Her old friend’s lips quivered. She met Kathy’s eyes for a moment.
“Hi, Kathy.” An awkward silence fell. After a moment Sossity spoke again. “We’re doing the leaf-collecting thing everyone in school does at her age. Remember?”
“Sure I do. How many leaves do you have to get, Cheryl?”
“Twenty different ones. This is the last one.”
She scurried forward, stopped in front of Kathy, bent down and picked up a leaf. Kathy saw it was the leaf she had bitten.
“This is an ash leaf,” Cheryl said, holding it up.
“That one has a broken top. You ought to get one that’s all intact.”
“I like this one,” Cheryl said, twirling it in her fingers. “I like the colors.” She let it fall into her basket and turned. “That’s it, Mother. I have twenty.”
Sossity smiled—a sad smile—and nodded, brushing her daughter’s hair with her fingers.
“Good. We’d better go now. You still have homework to do.”
“Bye, Kathy. I’ll see you Monday.”
Kathy winced. She looked at Sossity. She could not see anger in her old friend’s eyes, but it was hard to be so close to her. They had not seen each other since the whole thing blew up.
“We need to go,” Sossity said. “You take care.”
Kathy nodded, unable to answer. Sossity and Cheryl walked off across the footbridge and into the grove of trees that showed their riot of autumn color.
The sun sank lower. Shadows gathered as she stood and felt the air growing cool. Wind rustled the dry leaves. The answer, she thought, had come from the dark source of things and from the source that said God is light. Each had counseled her to do the same thing. She had to go to the one she had wronged—to the woman she had just seen, to whom she had just now spoken. No choice—disobedience to either side would cast her into perdition. She had to go and make it right.
Kathy stood there a long time. She heard the wind pick up again. A few dead leaves lifted off the ground. A cascade of them floated down from the branches of the tree, swirling all around her. She glanced at her watch. It was past five. She needed to get her son at daycare. David would be home soon. She wanted to be there when he arrived so he would not worry.
As the leaves continued to tumble all about her, she turned, crossed the footbridge, and headed for her car.