While trying to go to sleep, her mind howled like night-wolves in the mountains above a Balkan city. They howled because of that tale about the former girlfriend who was a practicing witch. This was not what she had wanted to hear earlier that evening.
Listening to stories about current partners’ exes was always awkward; a relationship starts at day zero. It is uncomfortable to have had a past. Yet Cheryl thought she could tolerate it when Mark began talking about Olivia over Italian food and red wine at the café.
She walked into it—sort of—not necessarily by asking directly, but in leading with a question about his time abroad in Hungary.
Olivia was central to his narrative when he lived in Budapest.
As he spoke, Cheryl fiddled with her lasagna, pushing bites to the edge of the platter and leaving them there.
At first, he was hesitant as he spoke about Olivia, but felt more at ease, picking up the wrong signals that unraveled before him. Unnoticed was the untouched lasagna, and Cheryl pouring a second glass though the first was unfinished. Cheryl fingered her necklace: that was missed. She slid her fork across the platter: another sign that went unregistered.
The story began innocently enough. Mark had moved to Budapest in the mid-1990s for adventure and a job in a start-up medical supply company. At the time, Hungary struggled from decades of Communist rule and investing was fraught with risk and frustration. Yet the company persisted, and after a year was able to gain enough ground to expand its operations to Prague and Vienna before being snatched up by a private hospital system based in Switzerland.
He was proud of his work in providing needed modern medical equipment to hospitals and clinics. Then the story diverged. Mark bought Oliva into it.
Olivia arrived in his life at a rave. A goth princess with all the accouterments, made ridiculous by the orange pacifier she had bouncing around her neck hanging from a coiled silver chain.
She was from the UK—Wigan, she told him—and came to Central Europe because of the haunted Old City, and because the dole was easier to stretch here.
She was a witch. She read cards and cast spells. That night she had done both on Mark.
The lasagna was cold after the third glass of wine and went into a to-go box. Cheryl eventually threw it out.
Mark could not hear the howling of the night-wolves. He tended to fall asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow.
Maybe it was the headache from the wine, but the raven-haired witch from Wigan sat cross-legged at the foot of the bed.
She was pretty and diminutive, easily fitting on a queen-size bed. A witch with green eyes that looked deep into you to rummage your Soul.
“Oh, Great Mother,” said Cheryl.
“No, that’s a book by the psychologist Erich Neuman,” said Olivia, her voice charmingly clipped and overeducated. “Though I liked his Origins and History of Consciousness better.”
“I am not into Jung.”
“But to Mark, we are kind of… avatarish. Subconsciously, natch.”
“I note the resemblance. And I don’t like it.”
“Sorry for dropping by, but I had to meet you.”
“Now you have.”
“I guess you expect this is the part where I say something profoundly meaningful that you recall for the rest of your life,” Olivia said.
She whipped out a tarot deck. “Let’s do your cards instead.”
Cheryl saw Olivia held a Rider deck.
“Mark said you read Thoth.”
“You’re not Mark.”
Olivia placed down the first card. “The Star. You have hope and faith.”
She placed the second one on the comforter. “Ah, the Moon. You are fearful and vulnerable. You feel deceived.”
“Um, yes I do.”
“Mark was always overly sentimental. I never liked hearing about old flames, either. Just ride it out, Cheryl.”
“You know my name?”
“I’m a witch. I know everything.”
She returned to the deck. “Third card is Strength. Sorry that Mark went on too long about me. I’m no devil, but don’t listen to your fears. Work on that.”
“Fourth card in the spread is—imagine that—The Devil. No shit. You love him, don’t you?”
“Work on the control issues. Both of you. That’s why we broke up. And coming up to conclude this reading is Death. I think Mark talking about me so much tonight triggered all your anxieties. This suggests that you go for your strengths.”
Cheryl woke up and leaned forward to see that Olivia was gone.
She watched Mark snoring softly. She turned him on his side, then plugged in her earphones and listened to meditation music to ward off the night-wolves.
She whispered, “My strengths,” before falling asleep.