Authors: Colum McCann
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary
Stränsky looked at us hard and askance, whispered to me: “She's got a husband, son.”
We took the train out to the countryside. The other passengers watched us: me in my overalls, Zoli in the colorful dresses that she hitched sideways when she sat down. Together we read Mayakovsky, our knees not quite touching. I recognized it as a tawdry desire, but more than anything I wanted to see her hair loosened. She couldn't do it, it was the habit of a married woman to wear her head covered, though I had begun to make sketches of her in my mind, what she might look like, how that hair would fall if unfastened, how I would take the weight of it in my fingers.
At the station she ran towards Petr who sat waiting on the horsecart, his dented hat on his knee. He looked a little confused, but she whispered in his ear. He laughed, slapped the reins, and took off.
I saw myself then at a distance, as someone else, doing things that only another person would do—I waited for them to return. The Stationmaster shrugged and hid a grin. A clock-tower chimed. I remained three hours, then walked the long country roads towards the camp with my rucksack on my shoulder. At nightfall, my feet bloodied, I reached the camp. The men were by the fire, cheering. A jar of booze was shoved my way. Petr shook my hand. “You look like you've been slapped,” he said.
Zoli had made up a song about a wandering Englishman waiting for a train station whistle and, with the violin at his shoulder, Petr played alongside her while the crowd laughed.
I grinned and thought about punching Petr, pounding him into the mud.
He walked around camp, wheezing. He seemed to carry his sickness tucked under his arm, but when he sat, the sickness spread out all around him. After a while, he didn't have the strength to leave the caravan at all. Zoli would come back in darkness, after singing, and sit at his bedside, waiting for him to fall asleep, his cough to subside.
“How young are the girls when they marry in England?” she asked. She was on the steps of her caravan, absently pleating the hem of her dress.
“Eighteen, nineteen, some not until they're twenty-five.”
“Oh,” she said, “that's quite old, isn't it?”
The truth was that I didn't really know. I had for some years considered myself to be Czechoslovakian but, in retrospect, I was too English for that, too Irish to be fully English, and too Slovakian to be in any way Irish. Translation had always got in the way of definition. Listening to the radio in the coalshed in Liverpool with my father, I had dreamed myself into the landscape of his country. It was not the place I had foreseen— endless mountains, rushing rivers—but it didn't matter anymore, I'd become someone new and the thought of her held me fast. Each word she came up with sent a thrill along me—she called me Stephen rather than Stepän, she liked the strange way it brought her teeth to her lips. She would giggle sometimes at the Englishness of what I did, or said, though it didn't seem English to me at all. I bought her a fountain pen from the market in the old town, discovered books for her to read, gave her ink, which Conka used to stain their dresses. I began to learn as much Romani as I could. She touched my arm, looked my way. I knew it. We had begun to cross that hollow that had come between us.
A light snow fell in early September, six months after Petr died. I strayed from the camp. On a sandbar in the river were the footprints of wolves. They plaited their way towards a final twist in the riverbank and disappeared into a light forest. She was standing by the water, listening to the small thumps of snow from the branches. I came up behind her, put my hands over her eyes. My fingers went along her neck and my thumb lay in the hollow of her shoulder. My mouth touched briefly against her cheek. She pulled away. I said her name. A sharp intake of breath as she took off her red kerchief. She had, in mourning, cut her hair quite close to the scalp. It was against tradition. She turned away and walked the riverbank. I followed, put my hands over her eyes once more. She went up on her toes in the snow, a soft crunch. I rested my chin on her shoulder, felt the press of her back against me. My hand to her waist, she breathed again, and her kerchief was wrapped around my fist. She turned, pulled at the neckline of my shirt, moved within the shadow of my shoulder, pushed the small cloud of her stomach against my hip and held it there. We went to the ground, but she rolled away. She had not, she said, seen the underside of a tree since she was a child, how strange the leaves looked from underneath. We did not make love, but in the snow she said any fool could tell what had gone on, and she stamped up and down in her shoes. She left, full of tears. The ill-fitting lid of Petr's old lighter clinked, marking the rhythm of her steps. I sat for the next five hours, terrified, but she returned, tripling her route so as not to be followed, bright with eagerness, and I forgot as we pressed against the cold bark of a tree. I could almost hear the wolves returning. The moles on
her neck, a perfect dimple on her left breast, the arch of her clavicle. I traced my finger down the path of her body, pulled a ring off her little finger with my teeth. I had suffered so many fantasies over the previous few months, it was terrifying to think that this was a riverbank, not some dingy alley, where I had dreamed Zoli, afraid of nostalgia, in printing rooms, corridors, against hard machinery.
Zoli believed there was a life-spring that went down to the center of the earth and that it ran both ways but mostly it rose from the well of her childhood. It was what she talked about, in her hard country accent, her days traveling with her grandfather, the roads they had covered together, the silences. When she talked about him she took her kerchief all the way across the bridge of her nose and covered her face. She figured her skin too dark, too black, too Gypsy to be in any way beautiful, that her lazy eye somehow marked her, but it seemed to me that for those few days that the moon was rolling along the ground. I was quite sure that eventually we would be caught together, that people would know, that the children would see us, or Conka would find out, or Fyodor, or Vashengo, and we were alert enough to know that the snowmelt would finally flood the bend, but it didn't matter.
She heard an owl hooting one evening, and froze in terror, covered her eyes, said something about the spirit of her grandfather returning, shamed.
“We can't do this,” she said, and she stepped off, feet snapping on the cold leaves.
The train to the city was strangely old-world, brown-paneled, the wind rattling at the broken windows.
“They'll tie your balls around your neck and knot them like a bulb of garlic,” said Stränsky.
“We haven't done anything. Besides, she wouldn't tell a soul.”
“You're a naive fool. She is too.”
“It won't happen again.”
“Don't touch her, I'm warning you. They'll pull a sheet across you. She's a Gypsy woman. She belongs to a Gypsy man.”
“And is that why we ‘re printing her poems?”
He pulled up his collar and lowered himself to his work. It was almost a relief to get out from the mill, away from Stränsky and his obsessions, to get lost underneath the streetlamps of the city. He rarely called me his son anymore, but I walked taller for those few months—my chest was drawing breath from Zoli, she was filling me out. We published her first chapbook in the autumn of ‘53, and it was embraced by all sides, the younger poets, the academics, even the bureaucrats. She wanted it threaded, not glued, for no reason I could fathom, something to do with a horse she had once known.
Small matter, the work was now towards a longer, more lasting series of lyrics. I sat, happy, on an upturned bucket, in the street outside my flat, watching the sun rise between the old buildings.
There exists somewhere, hidden away, a photograph of the three of us—Stränsky, Zoli, and me—taken in the Park Kultury beside the Danube on a gray afternoon. The water ripples gently. Zoli wears a long, flowing skirt and a frayed bolero jacket. I wear a bright white shirt and a Basque beret, tilted at an angle. Stränsky—almost fully bald by then—wears a dark blue shirt and black tie. He has a slight stomach that Zoli used
to call his kettle. My foot is up on a dockside bollard. Zoli is as tall as me, while Stränsky nestles between us. My arm is firmly around his shoulder. In the background a cargo ship passes with a giant sign pasted along the hull:
All Power to the Workers’ Councils!
Even now I can step towards that photograph, walk along the edge of it, climb down into it, and recall exactly the sharp thrill of being photographed with her.
“Please don't look at me,” she said at times when the spotlight caught her, but it seemed to some that Zoli had begun to develop a small fondness for the microphone.
Once, in the village of Prievidza, she was taken to the Hall of Culture, which backed out onto an enormous courtyard. The yard had been full for hours with all manner of Gypsies, waiting. The reading was given in the upstairs room where the ceiling was corniced and the rows were orderly. As the locals filed in, the Gypsies stood, bowed, and gave up their seats to the villagers, then took a place at the back of the room. Bureaucrats sat in the front row, families of the local police took the seats behind. I couldn't quite fathom what was going on. It seemed the officials had been ordered to go along as part of the policy of embracing the Gypsies. The room filled and soon only a couple of Gypsy elders remained—I thought they might fight, or start an argument, but instead they willingly gave up their places and went out to the courtyard. “A point of pride,” said Stränsky. They were amazed that any gadzo would want to come to hear one of theirs. “At the end of the day, Swann, they're just being polite.” Something in me shifted—it had seemed to me to be part of some elaborate ritual, and I hadn't thought of such simplicity.
Zoli begged for the reading to be switched to a bigger hall,
but the organizers said it was impossible, so she bowed her head and went on. She was still not used to reading aloud but she did so that evening; she spoke of a light rain in the onset of winter, and a set of horses tied to telegraph poles, a brand-new lyric that suddenly went off-kilter and she could not haul it back. She stammered and tried to explain it, then left abruptly, tearing off one of her new earrings as she went.
Afterwards she opened up the bottom-floor windows and passed plates of food out to those who had waited in the courtyard for her. Stränsky and I found her later, smoking a pipe in the blue shadows of the hall, one eye closed against the smoke, fingers trembling. There was talk that trouble had flared in the local bar.
“I want to go home,” she said. She put her head against the wall and I felt privy to her sadness. It was, of course, the oldest idea: home. To her it meant silence. I tried to take her arm but she turned away.
Zoli disappeared for four days then and I found out only later that she had been taken around by horsecart to all the settlements where she did not read for them but sang, which is what they wanted anyway—they wanted her voice, the secret of it, the one thing that was theirs.
I had printed up a poster with Stränsky: it was a new take on an old slogan, and it included an approximation of Zoli's face, a drawing, not a photograph, slightly idealized, no lazy eye, just a working woman's stare and a gray tunic.
Citizens of Gypsy Origin, Come Join Us.
She liked it when she saw it first, falling from cargo planes over the countryside, landing on the lane-ways, tumbling through farmyards, catching on branches. Her face was pasted up along all the pylons and telegraph poles of the countryside. Soon her tapes were being played on the radio
and she was talked about in the corridors of power. She was a new sort of Czechoslovakian woman, taken out of the margins to illustrate our steps forward under socialism. She was telling the story unlike anyone had told it before. Zoli was invited to the Ministry of Culture, the National Theater, the Carlton, the Socialist Academy, screenings in the Stalingrad Hotel, conferences on literature where Stränsky stood up and bellowed her name into the microphone. She spoke five languages with varying degrees of fluency, and Stränsky had begun to call her a Gypsy intellectual. A shadow crossed her face, but she didn't silence him, something in her liked the novelty.