Authors: Colum McCann
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary
Robo leans over and shouts in his ear, “Over here, Uncle, follow me,” and it strikes him how foreign this boy, how distant, how dark-skinned.
He is led around a sharp corner to the largest shanty of all. A satellite dish sits new and shiny on the roof. He knocks on the plywood door. It swings open a little further with each knuckle rap. Inside there is a contingent of eight, nine, maybe ten men. They raise their heads like a parliament of ravens. A few of them nod, but they continue their hand, and he knows the game is nonchalance—he has played it himself in other parts of the country, the flats of Bratislava, the ghettos of Presov, the slums of Letanovce.
In the far corner of the room he notices two women watching him, wide-eyed. A hand pushes him at the small of his back. “I'll wait for you here, mister,” says Robo, and the door creaks behind him.
He looks around the room, the immaculate floor, the ordered cupboards, the whiteness of the one shirt hanging on a nail from the ceiling.
“Nice house,” he says, and knows immediately how foolish it sounds. He flushes red-cheeked, then draws himself tall. In the corner sits a broad-shouldered man, tough, hard-jawed, gray hair tousled after a bad night's sleep. He steps across and announces quite softly that he's a journalist, he's here on a story, he'd like to talk to some of the old folk.
“We're the old folk,” says the man.
“Right,” he says, and pats his jacket. He fumbles in his pocket and breaks open a pack of Marlboros. Stupid, he knows, not to have broken the seal already. In the silence the others watch him. His hands shake. A bead of sweat runs down his brow. He can almost hear the chest hair rustle under his shirt. He unwinds the plastic, lifts the cellophane, and shoves three cigarettes up like peeping toms.
“Just want to talk,” he says.
The man waits for a light, blows the smoke sideways.
“About what? ”
“The old days.”
“Yesterday was long,” says the man with a laugh, and the laughter ripples around the room, tentatively at first, until the women catch it and it builds, unraveling the tension. He is suddenly slapped on the shoulder and his grin breaks wide, and the men start to talk in an accent that starts low and ends high, musical, fast, jangly. Some of the words appear to be in Romani, and from what he can make out, the man's name is Boshor. He reaches past Boshor, throws the cigarettes on the table, and the men casually reach for them. The women step across, one of them suddenly young and beautiful. She bends for a light, and
he looks away from the low swing of her breasts. Boshor points to the cards and says: “We're playing for a little food, a little drink too.” The man pulls again on the cigarette. “We're not really drinkers, though.”
He takes his cue from Boshor, opens a button, slips back his shirtfront, exposing his flabby chest, and removes the first bottle like a trophy. Boshor picks up the bottle, turns it in his hands, nods approval, and rattles off a salvo of Romani to more laughter.
He watches as the young girl reaches into a cupboard. She takes down a mahogany box with a silver clasp, opens it wide. A matching set of china cups. She puts them on the table, unscrews the bottle. He is given, he notices, the only china cup that is not chipped.
Boshor leans back and gently says: “Health.”
They clink cups, and Boshor leans forward to whisper: “Oh, it's for money too, friend. We're playing cards for money.”
He doesn't even flinch; he slaps down two hundred krowns. Boshor takes it, slips it into his trousers, smiles, blows smoke towards the ceiling.
“Thank you, friend.”
The cards are put aside, and the drinking starts in earnest. He is amazed how close Boshor sits to him, their knees touching, the dark of the hand on his jacketsleeve, and he wonders now how he will navigate their secrets—even their Slovak is a little difficult to understand, their country dialect—but soon enough the second bottle is on the table. He does it calmly and quickly, as if to suggest it's always been there. The drinking unfolds, and they begin to talk to him about crooked mayors and bent bureaucrats and subsidies and the dole, and how
Kolya was beaten with a pickaxe last week and how they are not allowed into the pubs—“We're not even allowed within fifty fucking meters”—all the things they know a journalist wants to hear. Even the Gypsies have soundbites, he thinks, as if he should be surprised, all the words down pat—
racism, integration, schooling, Roma rights, discrimination
—and it's all horse-shit really, though he's getting somewhere; they become more talkative as the bottles drain, the voices rise to a clamor, and they fall into a story about a motorbike taken by the cops.
“Everything that gets stolen is what we steal,” says Boshor as he leans forward, his eyes slightly bloodshot and tinged with yellow. “It's always us, isn't it? We're prouder than that, you know.”
He nods at Boshor, shifts in his chair, seeks a pocket of silence, passes around more cigarettes, and flicks the matchstick to extinguish the flame.
“So,” he says, “are motorbikes the new Roma horses?”
He's briefly proud of his question until Boshor repeats it, not once, but twice, and then there's a giggle from the youngest girl and the men slap their thighs in laughter.
“Shit, friend,” says Boshor. “We don't even have bridles anymore.”
Another round of laughter goes up, but he pushes his question harder, saying surely horses are part of the ancient Gypsy ways. “Y'know,” he says, “pride, tradition, heritage, that sort of thing? ”
Boshor's chair scrapes against the floor and he leans forward. “I told you, friend, we don't have any horses.”
“It was better under the Communists,” says Boshor, flicking ash towards the doorway. “Those were the days.”
And that's where his heart surges, he's momentarily high on the lift of it, and just by leaning forward, ever so slightly, he has Boshor by the neck-scruff, a newsman's trick.
“Yeah, back with the Communists we had jobs, we had houses, we had food,” says Boshor. “They didn't knock us ‘round, no, friend, may my black heart stop beating if I tell a lie.”
Boshor nods, and from a battered wallet takes out a photograph of a traveling kumpanija long ago in which the men are elegant and the women long-skirted. They are out on a country road, and a red flag with a hammer and sickle nutters from the caravan roof.
“That's my Uncle Jozef.”
He takes the photo from Boshor, turns it in his fingers, and wishes to Christ in the clouds above that he had clicked his tape recorder on, for now it has begun, but he wonders how he will reach into his pocket without attracting too much attention, if the small red light will shine through his jacket, and where he should begin his real questions. He wants to say that he is here about Zoli, do you know about Zoli, she was born near here, a Gypsy, a poet, a singer, a Communist too, a Party member, she traveled with harpists once, she was expelled, have you heard her name, did you hear her music,
We sing to sweeten the dead grass,
did you see her, is she still talked of,
From what is broken, what is cracked, I make what is required,
was she damned, was she forgiven, did she leave any sign,
I will not, no, never call the crooked finger straight,
did your fathers tell stories, did your mothers sing her songs, was she ever allowed back?
But when he mentions her name—leaning forward to say, “Have you ever heard of Zoli Novotna?”—the air stalls, the
drinking stops, the cigarettes are held at mouth-level, and a silence descends.
Boshor looks towards the doorway and says: “No, I don't know that name—do you understand me, fat-neck?—and even if I did, that's not something we would talk about.”
HERE ARE THINGS ABOUT
youth that only youth knows, but what I recall most clearly was sitting in the back of the caravan, wearing red, staring out at the roads going backwards.
I was six years old. My hair was cut short. I'd hacked it off with a knife. I tell this to you directly, there is no other way to say it—my mother was gone, my father, my brother, my sisters and cousins too. They had been driven out on the ice by the Hlinka guards. Fires were lit in a ring around the shore, and guns were pointed so they could not escape. The caravans were forced to the middle of the lake as the day grew warmer. The ice cracked, the wheels sank, and the rest followed, harps and wheels and horses. I did not see any of it happen, daughter, but I could hear it in my mind and, although there was great music to come along later, sweet sounding moments when our people were raised up and strong and valued, that will always be a time of looking backwards, listening and waiting for my dead family to catch up.
Only Grandfather and I escaped—we had been out beyond the lake, traveling three full days. We came back to silence. He clapped his hand over my mouth. The horse reared and the caravan shuddered. Ash from dead fires ringed the lake. Grandfather jumped to the ground. Wait here, he said. He was not a man with whom you could dispute. He thought that places
were good and most people were good, but the rules they put on the places were vile, and that people became vile with them.
He did not wait to shed a tear, nor did he pick up the hats and scarves and boxes that were floating among the shards of ice. Instead he walked across to me, his hair at his shoulders, and said, Quick now and silent, Zoli, don't say a word.
We pulled the curtains on the windows and wrapped the sharp knives in towels so they would not clink. He draped the mirror in a shirt. All the dishes were put in cloths. The road we took was small, with a line of green down the middle, two mud-tracks worn on either side. It was already spring, which was why the ice had cracked. Small buds were beginning on the trees. Birds whistled and the sun was bright as tin. I shut my eyes against it. I kept waiting for my mother to appear, my father too, my brother and my two sisters, all my cousins as well, but Grandfather pulled me close, looked over his shoulder, and said, Listen here, child, the Hlinkas are still out there, you must not make another sound.
I had seen the Hlinkas, their leather boots that wrinkled below their knees, the billyclubs that slapped along their thighs, the rifles across their chests, the roll of fat at the back of their necks.
Grandfather guided Red along until dark, then pulled us into a grove of trees. The stars were like clawmarks above us. I sat in the corner and rocked back and forth, then chopped my hair off with a very sharp knife. I hid the braids in my pillow. When Grandfather saw me, he slapped my face twice and said, What have you done? He took one of the braids, put it in his pocket, pulled me close, and whispered to me that my mother had once done the same when she was a child, it was not a good thing, it was against our laws.
When we woke, there were dark marks in a line down my grandfather's cheeks. He went outside, plunged his face in a stream, fed some snowmelt to Red, and we went on.
For days we traveled, first light until last. We went through a village where the four-faced clocktower told three different times. The shops were open and the market was bustling. When we entered the square Grandfather's shoulders went stiff.
Some Hlinkas were gathered around the church steps, laughing and smoking. They fell silent when they heard the clopping of our horse. An armored truck came from behind the clock-tower. Quiet now, said Grandfather. He whipped Red's rump and we left quickly, out past the church and into the countryside, far away.
Fascist snakes, he said.
We knocked on every door, looking for food, and late in the evening we came upon a laneway with high brambles. A stone house sat surrounded by high trees. A cat watched from a windowsill. Grandfather bartered with a peasant to repair a gable wall in exchange for some soup and a little money. The peasant said, Go ahead and fix the wall first. Grandfather said, I can't with the child so hungry, look at her, we need money for food. The peasant said, If I give you money you'll run off and gyp me. Grandfather held his tongue and said: I'll build the wall if you give the child food.
The peasant came out from the house, balancing a small bowl of borscht for us to share. We drank from the same side of the handle-shorn cup. The soup was measly and watery.
There are times in a fountain's life, Grandfather said, when even it must learn to swallow piss.
We stayed that night in the weedy field behind the peasant's
house. The peasant had a radio, and we heard it faintly but there were no reports on the killings. I leaned in close to Grandfather and asked why my family had not bolted across the ice, and he said to me that my father was strong but not strong enough to escape the fascists, and my mother was strong but with a different strength, and my brother surely attempted but was probably beaten back. He looked away then and said: The Lord or whoever have mercy on the soul of your youngest sister.
When the dark was fully down, Grandfather pulled hard on his tobacco and said: When ice breaks it sends out a warning, child. The Hlinkas ringed the lake with their fires and waited for the day to get warmer. We were lucky they never found us.