Authors: Colum McCann
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary
In fact when I see myself now from a distance, when I look back on it all, I was just another girl in a polka-dot dress on the backroads of a country that seemed strange to me at every turn.
Once, a motorcar passed us, and a man in a rich brown overcoat wanted to take a photograph. Grandfather turned his head. This is not the circus, mister. The man held out a few hellers. Grandfather said: I'd rather skim stones. Then the man took out a crisp note from his wallet and pulled it tight so that it made the noise of a drumskin, and Grandfather said with a shrug: Well, why didn't you say so? I was made to stand still on the steps and I held the flare of my skirt. The man put his head
under a black sheet. He looked like a hooded bird. A bulb flashed and I jumped. He did it six times. Grandfather said: All right, mister, that's enough.
He was quiet when we clopped away again under the trees, but in the next village he bought me a peppermint stick. He slapped the whip at Red's rump and said: Don't ever give them something for nothing, Zoli, you hear me?
They documented me when we got to Poprad because all Romani children had to be examined by the age of five and I was already seven. The building was grand and white, with statues outside and a row of gray steps leading up to a huge wooden door. Inside there was a curving staircase, but we were told to go to the small squat cabins in the back courtyard.
The clerk examined Grandfather's papers for a long time, looked him up and down, from his hair to his boots, and said: Is she yours?
My daughter's daughter, he said.
She's surprisingly tall, you know.
I heard a creak of leather and noticed Grandfather had stretched up on his toes.
She took me into an office, closed the door on my grandfather, turned my face back and forth in her fingers. Your left eye's lazy, she said. She pulled my head down and checked in my hair for lice and then asked where the bruise came from. What bruise? I said. My hair had begun to grow and my grandfather had sewn a single coin at the fringe, where it bumped against my forehead. She pulled back the coin, pressed her finger against my forehead. It's ridiculous to have money in your hair, she said. Why do you people insist on such things?
I watched the bob of silver at her neck. She put the cold round metal of it against my chest and listened through tubes.
She shone the flashlight into my throat, put me up against a wall, and mumbled something. She gazed at me and said I was very tall for my age. I was indeed tall, even for seven, but now I had to be five once more.
The clerk said: Five, my holy eye.
She measured my nose and the distance between my eyes, even the length of my hands and wrote it all down carefully. She took my thumb and rolled it back and forth on a soft pad of black ink and pushed my other fingers down hard onto the page. I liked the little patterns my fingers made, like bootprints down by a river. She asked me lots of questions, where I was born, what was my real name, if I went to school, where were my parents and why weren't they with me. I told her they had fallen beneath the ice but said nothing about the Hlinka guards. She said: What about your brothers and sisters? I said, Them too. She raised her eyebrows, looked at me sternly, and then I blurted: My brother, Anton, tried to break away. Break away where? she asked. I looked at my fingers. Break away where, young lady? From the lake by the forest. Who in the forest? she asked. The wolves, I said. Lord above, she said. And what did these wolves look like? I didn't say another word but she said, Oh, you poor thing, and then she touched me on the side of the face with a gentle stroke of her finger.
She took me out to where my grandfather was waiting. She looked around quickly, then leaned in close and whispered something. Grandfather stepped back and swallowed hard. The clerk looked over her shoulder again.
Do you want to make a complaint? she said.
I'll make sure it gets to the right people.
I don't know what you're talking about, said Grandfather.
The little girl told me, she whispered.
Told you what?
You don't have to worry, she said.
Grandfather nicked a quick look at me, then started talking a long line of gibberish about a pack of wolves and men who were hungry and wheels that leave a mark in the forest and birds flying above the trees. It made no sense at all, not even to him.
The clerk stared at him: I'll ask one last time. Do you want to make a complaint or not?
Grandfather went off on another long kite line of gibberish.
The clerk sighed and her voice became stern and loud again. I've had enough of you people, she said. One day you want help, the next you just spout nonsense.
She slapped her hand down on a desk bell. Another official came out from a back office. He wore black elastic bands on his sleeves. He raised his eyes to heaven when he saw us. Christ, he muttered. He shoved the papers across the wooden counter without even looking at them.
All right, she must come in and register every three months.
What about the other children? asked Grandfather.
All the Gypsy children have to do it.
And the other children?
Oh, them? he said. No, why?
Grandfather made a rattling sound in his throat and signed the papers with an XXX. On the way out I asked him why he didn't write using the letters he ‘d taught me, but he turned and pinned me with a look. Halfway down the steps he caught me by the ear and said: Never tell them that story, never. Do you hear me?
He almost lifted me in the air by my ear.
They'll make it twice as bad, he said. And then they'll just shove us under again. D'you understand me, child? Never.
The pain shot through me. We walked down the last of the steps. I looked at my hands. They were black with fingerprint ink. I sucked at my fingers, but he slapped my hand.
A respectful girl keeps her insides clean, he said. Don't bring that ink down into your belly.
The wagon was listing sideways on the cobblestones. I went up and held on to Red's reins, rubbed against her, my ear hot against her pulsing neck. Grandfather climbed up and sat a long time, staring at the building. Finally he said: Come up here, precious heart. He lifted me up with one hand and sat me on the board beside him. He sat quiet a long time, then he spat sideways, put his arm around my shoulder, and said to me that one of the reasons he wrote XXX was that he would not let them make an idiot of him with their rules.
He took the reins in his hands and was about to slap them down on Red's rump, but then he looked back over his shoulder and whispered: Go ahead, horse, and shit. And as if by the very string of heaven, Red lifted her tail and left two steaming loads on the cobbles outside the grand white building, and we drove away laughing, we never laughed so hard. At the end of the road we looked back and saw a man lifting the clumps up on a shovel with a scrunched red look on his face. We laughed even harder until the building was out of sight and we went out on the country road with the trees in bloom and the midges rising and blue dragonflies on the air, the kind that leave the shine from their wings on the glass once you put them in a jar.
Grandfather put his hat back on his head and wound his curling mustache around his finger and said very loud again to the road: Go ahead, horse, and shit.
We followed signs—a knotted wishbone to turn left, a broken twig for a right fork in the road, a white cloth for a friendly farmhouse where we could water Red and fill our canteens.
It was late summer and the cherry trees were heavy and drooping. We crossed a lovely clean river and went deep into the forest where we were shielded from view by thick lines of yew, green oak, sycamore. Among the wiry grasses grew wild orchids and dandelions. Grandfather brought me into a clearing where fourteen caravans stood, they took my breath away, beautifully colored and carved. Water came up from the ground around a piece of swampy grass. A tin cup was upended on a nubbed pole. A girl came towards us with a drink. It ran cool against the back of my throat. I watched as Grandfather took giant strides across the camp and put his arms around the shoulders of his very own brother who he had not seen in years. He shouted at me to hurry up and come meet my cousins, and cousins of cousins, and cousins of other cousins. Soon we were surrounded, and I was scooped up immediately into a new life which was so much like my old life.
A few of them had strayed down from Poland, carrying harps. I had never seen instruments so tall, beautifully carved and strung with catgut. They stood twice my height. Even when I stretched on my toes I could not reach the top of the strings. They were varnished and carved with wheels and griffins and birds. The plucked sound carried through the trees. There was nothing so lovely. The women who played the harps had very long fingernails. They painted their nails every night, using whatever colors could be found, boiled up from animals and red riverstone and some from bird eggs, light blue. The
colors were brushed on with tiny brooms made from weed-grass. Eliska, a Polish woman with hair black as thumbprints, owned a very fine enamel brush—she had found it at the back of a theater in Krakow, she said it belonged to a famous actress who could be heard on the radio. Who needs a radio when you have Eliska! she shouted.
She took my arm and walked me across the camp: You have the eyes of a little devil, she said.
She laughed and spun me round in the air and later told me to sit with her as she brushed the color onto her fingernails. Her words were quick and clipped. Eliska had fallen in love with a young man named Vashengo and soon she would marry. She said she would teach me an old song that I could sing at their wedding. Hers were the old laments I already knew, but then she taught me a new one.
I will fill the empty cup, it is not so hollow anymore, I will fill it with wine, it will come from the palm of your hand.
I learned it quickly and wandered around the camp singing it, until Vashengo said: Please shut up, you'll drive me to the nuthouse. I sang another verse and he clipped me on the ear. Eliska whispered to me that I was all right, not to worry, pay no attention to the men, they wouldn't know a good song if it kissed them on the lips. Come here, she said, and I'll braid your hair like your mother used to. How do you know how my mother braided my hair? I asked. It's a secret, she said. I began to cry, so she said: Oh your mother was famous for many things, most of all she was a great singer.
She leaned down to my ear and sang, and the songs grew and grew, and she took my face in her hands and kissed my forehead. Pity about your eye, said Eliska, otherwise you'd be as pretty as she was.
It was my talent that I could remember words and phrases, and so I was kept up late at night to listen to the songs. Sometimes they shifted and rolled and changed. If the women were swaying with cucu, they could not remember where the song had led the night before. They said to me: Zoli, what did I sing? And I would say:
They broke, they broke my little brown arm, now my father he cries like the rain.
Or I would say:
I have two husbands, one of them sober, one of them drunk, but each one Hove the same.
Or I sang:
I want no shadow to fall upon your shadow, your shadow is dark enough for me.
They smiled when these words came out of my mouth and told me again that I had the look of my mother. At night I fell to sleep thinking of her. I pictured her in my mind, she had a row of perfect teeth except for a bottom one missing.
It is strange now to talk of such things, but these are the moments I remember, chonorroeja, this was my childhood, I try to tell it to you as I saw it then, and as I felt it then, when I was not yet shunned, when it was all still free and open to me, and for the most part it was happy. The Great War hadn't yet begun and, although the fascists sometimes hunted us to give us another dose of their hatred—we were no more than wild animals to them—we settled as far away from them as possible, kept to our own ways, and made music where we could. That, back then, was enough.
In the new camp there was another girl the same age as me. Conka had red hair and freckles in a band across her nose. Her mother had sewn a string of pearls in her hair. Her dresses were threaded with silver, and she had the most beautiful voice of all,
so she too was kept awake at night to sing. The canvas flap of the singing tent was pulled back for us. We stood on buckets so we could be seen. Grandfather shoved his hat back on his head and lit up a smoke. Everyone gathered in a half circle around us. The women played the harps at a furious pace, once or twice they bent a fingernail backwards in the strings, but still they kept going.