Authors: Colum McCann
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary
I found Zoli again, the following week, on the steps of the Musicians Union, where she stood with her hands outstretched, fingers apart.
A crowd of Gypsies had gathered together in front of the union. There'd been a new decree that all musicians had to have licenses, but to have a license they had to be able to fill out a form, and none of the Gypsies, except Zoli, were able to write fluently. They carried violins, violas, oboes, guitars, even one giant harp. Vashengo wore a black jacket with red bicycle reflectors as cufflinks. When he moved his arms, his wrists caught the sunlight. He was trying, it seemed, with Zoli's help, to calm the crowd. A small battalion of troopers stood at the other end of the street, slapping truncheons against their thighs. Moments later a loudspeaker was passed out of the window of the union and the crowd hushed. Vashengo spoke in Romani at first—it was as if he had laid a blanket underneath the crowd. He commanded a further silence and spoke in Slovak, said it was a new time in history, that we were all coming out of a long oblivion, carrying a red flag. He would speak with the leaders of the union. Be patient, he said. There'd be licenses for all. He
pointed at Zoli and said she would help them fill out the required forms. She lowered her head and the crowd cheered. The troopers down the street dropped their truncheons and the officials from the Musicians Union came out onto the steps. A small boy came pushing past me, laughing. He was wearing the yellow blinker from Stränsky's motorbike on a chain.
I tried to elbow my way towards her, but she leaned down to whisper something to her husband.
I moved away through the milling bodies, past the horses and carts they had lined up along the street.
I'd already memorized the tilt of her chin and the two dark moles at the base of her neck.
In the National Library, amid the dust and the shuffle, I tried to read up on whatever little literature there was. The Gypsies were, it seemed, as fractured as anyone else, their own small Europe, but they were still lumped together in one easy census box. Most had already settled down in shanty towns all over Slovakia. They were as apt to fight among themselves as they were to pitch battle against outsiders. Zoli and her people were the aristocracy, if such a word could be used; they still traveled in their ornate caravans. No dancing bears, or begging, or fortune-telling, but they did wear gold coins in their hair and kept some of the older customs alive. Modesty laws. Whispered names. Runic signs. There were thousands of them in Slovakia. They were linked with extended groups of tinsmiths and horse-thieves, but some, like Zoli's kumpanija, moved in a group of about seventy or eighty and made a living almost entirely from music. They were written about in exotic language—no photographs, just sketches.
I shut the pages of the books, walked out into the streets, under the swaying banners and the loud grackles in the trees.
From an open window came the low moan of a saxophone. These were still vibrant times—the streets were full and pulsing, and nobody yet sat waiting for the knock of the secret police at the door.
I found Stränsky swaying in the beerhalls. “Come here, young scholar,” he shouted across the tables. He sat me down and bought me a glass. I lapped it up, the high idealism of an older man. He was sure that having a Gypsy poet would be a coup for him, for
and that the Gypsies, as a revolutionary class, if properly guided, could claim and use the written word. “Look,” he said, “everywhere else they're the joke of the week. Thieves. Conmen. Just imagine if we could raise them up. A literate proletariat. People reading Gypsy literature. We—you, me, her—we can make a whole new art form, get those songs written down. Imagine that, Swann. Nobody has ever done that. This girl is perfect, do you know how perfect she is?”
He leaned forward, his glass shaking.
“Everyone else has shat on them from above. Burned them out. Taunted them. Branded them. Capitalists, fascists, that old empire of yours. We ‘ve got a chance to turn it around. Take them in. We ‘11 be the first. Give them a value. We make life better, we make life fairer, it's the oldest story of all.”
“She's a singer,” I said.
“She's a poet,” he replied. “And you know why?” He raised his glass and prodded my chest. “Because she's called upon to become one. She's a voice from the dust.”
“You're drunk,” I said.
He hoisted a brand-new tape recorder, a spare set of reels, eight spools of tape, and four batteries up onto the table. “I want you to record her, young scholar. Bring her to life.”
“No, the fucking pickled eggs there. For crying out loud, Swann, you've got a brain, don't you?”
I knew what he wanted from me—the prospect thrilled me and knocked the air from my lungs at the same time.
He spun a bit of tape out from a reel. “Just don't tell Elena that I spent our last savings on this.” He wound the spool on and pressed Record. “It's made in Bulgaria, I hope it works.”
He tested it out and his voice came back to us:
It's made in Bulgaria, I hope it works.
How inevitable it is; we step into an ordinary moment and never come out again. I raised my glass and signed on. I might as well have done it in my own blood.
The equipment fitted into a small rucksack. I strapped it on my back and rode Stränsky's Jawa out into the countryside. Under the grove of trees, I killed the engine and waited. The kumpanija was gone. A scorched tire in the grass. A few rags in the branches. I tried to follow the rutted marks and the bent grass, but it was impossible.
Beyond Trnava I went towards the low hills where the vineyards stepped down towards the valley. I leaned the bike into the corners, wobbled to a halt when a rifle was pointed at me. The tallest trooper smirked while the others gathered around him. I was, I told them, a translator and sociologist studying the ancient culture of the Romani people. “The what?” they asked. “The Gypsies.” They howled with laughter. A sergeant leaned forward: “There's some up there, with the monkeys in the trees.” I fumbled with the kickstand and showed him my credentials. After a while, he radioed in and came back, snapped to attention. “Comrade,” he said, “proceed.” Stränsky's name,
it seemed, still held some sway. The troopers pointed me in the direction of some scrubland. I had rigged a cushion in place where the seat had been stolen: the troopers guffawed. I slowly turned, pinned them with a look, then took off, scattering dirt behind me.
From the hills came a strange series of high sounds. Zoli's kumpanija carried giant harps, six, seven feet tall, and, with the bumps in the dirt roads, you could sometimes hear them moving from a distance away: they sounded as if they were mourning in advance.
When I came across her, she was draped across the green gate of a field and her arms hung down, limp. She was dressed in her army coat and was propelling herself with one foot, slowly back and forth, in a small arc over the mud. One braid swung in the air, the other was caught between her teeth. On the gate was an ill-painted sign that warned trespassers of prosecution. As I approached, she stood up quickly from what had seemed an innocent child's pose, but then I realized that she had been reading while draped on the gate. “Oh,” she said, tucking the loose pages away.
She walked on ahead, calling behind her that I should catch up in an hour or two, she ‘d alert the others, they needed time to prepare. I was sure I wouldn't see her again that night, but when I came upon them they had prepared a welcoming feast. “We're ready for you,” she said. Vashengo clapped my back, sat me at the head of the table.
Zoli stood in a yellow patterned dress with dozens of tiny mirrors glinting on the bodice. She had rouged her face with riverstone.
they called me, as if it were the only thing I could
ever be. The women giggled at my accent, winding my hair around their fingers. The children sat close to me—astoundingly close—and I thought for a moment they were rifling my pockets, but they weren't, theirs was simply a different form of space. I felt myself begin to lean towards them. Only Zoli seemed to hang back—it was only later I realized she was creating a hollow between us to protect herself. She said to me once that I had a sudden green gaze, and I thought that it could have been taken as any number of things: curiosity, confusion, desire.
I began to visit once or twice a week. Vashengo allowed me to sleep in the back of his caravan, alongside five of his nine children. The pinch of a sheet was all I had to hold on to. The knots in the wood were like eyes in the ceiling. All the way from Liverpool to a bed where, on my twenty-fourth birthday, I rolled across to see five small heads of tousled hair. I tried to take the bedding outside but in truth the darkness didn't suit me, the stars were not what I was built for, so I slept at the edge of the bed, fully clothed. In the mornings I heated a coin with a match and put the hot disc to Vashengo's window in order to make a peephole in the frost. The children joked with me— I was wifeless, white, strange, I walked funny, smelled bad, drove a cannibalized motorbike. The youngest ones pulled me up by the ears, and dressed me in a waistcoat and their father's old black Homburg. I stepped out to mist shoaling over the fields. Dawn lay cold and wet on the grass. I stood, embarrassed, as the kids ran around, begging me to play wheelbarrow with them. I asked Zoli if there was anywhere else to sleep. “No,” she said, “why would there be?” She smiled and lowered her head and said that I was welcome to go to the hotel twenty
kilometers away, but I was hardly going to hear any Romani songs from the chambermaids.
As a singer she could have lived differently, with no scrubbing, no cooking, no time spent looking after the children, but she didn't isolate herself, she couldn't, she was in love with that bare life, it was what she knew, it fueled her. She washed clothes in the river, beat the rugs and carpets clean. Afterwards she put playing cards in the spoke of a bicycle wheel and rode around in the mud, calling out to the children. Each of them she named her chonorro, her little moon. “Come here, chonor-roeja,” she called. They ran behind her, blowing whistles made from the branches of ash trees. Behind the tire factory she played games with them on what they called their bouncing wall. She threw a tire over a sapling for each new child that was born, knowing that one day it would fit snug and tight.
Zoli was already well known amongst her people, settled and nomadic alike. She touched some old chord of tenderness in them. They would walk twenty kilometers just to hear her sing. I had no illusions that I'd ever belong, but there was the odd quiet moment when I sat with her, our backs against a wheelbase, a short span of recited song before Petr or the children interrupted us.
When I cut brown bread don't look at me angrily, don't look at me angrily because I'm not going to eat it.
At first she said that the writing was just a pastime—the songs were what mattered, the old ballads that had been around for decades, and she was only shaping the music so they'd be passed along to others. She was surprised to find new words at her fingertips, and when whole new songs began to emerge, she thought they must have existed before, that they had come to her from somewhere ancient. Zoli had no inkling that anyone
other than the Gypsies would want to listen to her, and the notion that her words might go out on the radio, or into a book, terrified her at first.
Before their performances, she and Conka sat on the steps of her caravan as they aligned their voices. They wanted to get within a blade of grass of each other. Conka was a full redhead, blue-eyed, and she wore coins, glass beads, and pottery shards woven in a necklace strand. Her husband, Fyodor, stared me down. He didn't like the idea of his wife being recorded. I feigned bustle when really all I was waiting for was Zoli's voice to pull through, with her own songs, the new ones, those she had made up herself.
One spring afternoon, near a remote forest, Zoli walked out to the edge of a lake and undertook a ceremony for her dead parents, brother, and sisters, floating candles out on the water. Three Hlinka guards had finally been charged with their murders and had received life sentences. There was no celebration among the Gypsies—they didn't seem to enjoy the revenge— but the whole kumpanija accompanied Zoli to the lakeside, and they stood back to allow her silence while she sang an old song about wind in a chimney turning back at the last moment, never reaching down to disturb the ashes.
At the lake edge I trampled the reeds, fumbled with the batteries and clicked the lever on: she was beginning to stretch and move the language, and, like everyone else, I was chained to the sound of her voice.
Later I sat with Stränsky while he transcribed the tapes. “Perfect,” he said as he pulled his pencil through one of her lines. He was convinced that Zoli was creating a poetry from the roots up, but he still wanted to put manners on it. She came into the city, alone, the railway ticket moist in her fist. Ner-
vously she twisted the hair that had fallen out from beneath her kerchief. Stränsky read the poem aloud to her and she went to the window, peeled back some of the black tape from the glass.
“That last part is wrong,” she said.
“The last verse?”
“Yes. The clip.”
Stränsky grinned: “The timing?”
Three times he reshuffled it before she shrugged and said: “Perhaps.” Stränsky positioned the metal. She bit her lip, then took the printed sheet and pressed it against her chest.
I could feel my heart thumping in my cheap white shirt.
A week later she came back to say that the elders had accepted it and it could be published—they saw it as a nod of gratitude to Stränsky for what he'd done in the war, but we were convinced it went beyond that; we were building a vanguard, there'd never been a poetry like it before, we were preserving and shaping their world while the world changed around them.
“The incredible happens,” she said when Stränsky took us to a bookshop in the old town. She wandered along the rows of shelves, touching the spines of the books. “It's like not having any walls.” For a while she stood next to me, ran her fingers ab-sentmindedly along my forearm, then looked down at her hand and quickly pulled it away. She turned and walked the length of the shelves, said she could feel the words running like horses. It seemed raw and childish, until Stränsky told me she'd possibly not been in many bookshops before. She spent hours wandering around and then sat to read a copy of Mayakovsky. It hadn't even dawned on her that she could own it. I bought it for her and she touched my forearm again and then, outside, she hid the book in the pocket of her third skirt.