Authors: Colum McCann
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary
My voice was not as sweet as Conka's, but Grandfather said that it hardly mattered, the important thing was the right word, to pull it out, or squeeze it short, and then dress it up with air from my lungs. When we sang, Conka and I, he said that we were air and water in a pot and together we boiled.
In the nighttime, we tried to fall asleep by the fire, but our favorite stories kept us up late and when a story was really good we had no legs to hold us up. Her father slapped us and told us to go to our beds, we'd waken the dead. Grandfather carried me and put me beneath the eiderdown where my mother had once stenciled a harp using thread that came from cottonwood trees.
One evening, Grandfather carried home a carpet of a man's face, and he hung it on the wall above the drawer full of knives. It was a portrait of a man with a gray beard, a strange gaze, and a high forehead. It's Vladimir Lenin, he said. Don't tell a soul, you hear me, especially the troopers if they come along. Later that week he bought a second carpet—this one was the Holy Virgin. He rolled the Virgin into a tight circle with string, and positioned her above Lenin, so that if a stranger came into the caravan, he could reach up with his knife and cut the string and the Holy Virgin would come down on top of Lenin in a rush. Grandfather thought it hilarious and sometimes he cut the
string just for fun, and if he was drunk he would talk to their faces and call them the greatest of bedfellows. If there was a rumble outside in the camp, he would quickly cut the string and shove his leather-bound book into a hidden pocket at the back of his jacket. Then he stood outside with his arms crossed and a scowl on his face.
He would sooner have invited in typhus than a trooper.
If they forced a check on us they pushed their way past him without asking, stomped their boots on the floor, but they never found Lenin or the book. They tore the place up and tossed teacups to one another. From outside we could hear the smashing, but what was there to do, we just waited until they came out, down the steps, their boots shiny at the knees and scuffed at the toes.
When they were gone, we cleaned the mess, and Grandfather rolled up the Virgin again, let Lenin look out once more.
Grandfather went to the Poprad market one day and didn't come back for four more. He had built a wall for a man who had given him a wireless radio. He carried it into the camp with great fanfare, put it down by the fire, and music jumped out. Vashengo's father came to look at it. He liked the music indeed and everyone gathered around and fiddled with the knobs. But in the morning, a group of elders came and said they didn't like the children listening to outsiders. It's only a radio, said Grandfather. Yes, they said, but the talk is immodest. Grandfather took Vashengo's father by the arm and they walked down by the river and worked out a plan: he would only listen to music and not the other shows. Grandfather took it with us to our caravan, turned it very low, and listened anyway. It's my duty to know, he said, and he ran the little yellow dial along the
glass panel, Warsaw, Kiev, Vienna, Prague, and the one he loved the most, though it didn't get any sound: Moscow.
One day I heard him slam down the wooden backing on the ground: This bloody thing needs batteries, can you imagine that?
He came back a couple of days later with a sack full of batteries over his shoulder and his clothes covered in flecks of gray. He told us that the gadze now wanted walls held together with cement—all his other walls he had built with rocks and air—but if that's what he had to do for batteries, that's what he had to do.
Soon everyone grew to like the radio. Mostly we listened to music, but every now and then government voices came through. In the caravan, Grandfather tuned it in to whatever he could find, all the different languages. He spoke five—Romani, Slovak, Czech, Magyar, and a little Polish—though Eliska said he should forget all that red gibberish, he sounded the same in every language, he should come back in the next life as a loudspeaker strung up on a lamppost. He said that loudspeakers were fascist and just you wait, you black-haired chovahanio, you witch, when the good ones, the Communists, finally get power. She shouted at him that she couldn't hear him, that she must have been asleep when he was talking. He shouted back: What the hell did you say, woman? I thought that Eliska might lift her skirt to shame him, but she did not, she just turned away. She got a lash of his tongue, and he said something rude about her little enamel brush and where she could sweep it. Soon everyone began laughing and joking and it was forgotten.
Still, Grandfather got in fist-thumping arguments about the book he carried. He sat with the elders around the fire and tried
to talk to them of revolution, but they said that our men were not meant for such things. Petr the violinist nodded in agreement with Grandfather, and Vashengo too, but Conka's father was loud against him.
Did you ever hear such nonsense! If Marx was a worker, how come he never worked? How come he just wrote books about working? Tell me, did he just want to keep pissing on a hot stove?
Grandfather clicked his fingers, stood up, and shouted: Whoever is not with us is against us!
He and Conka's father stepped across the pots and came to blows.
In the morning, they drank their coffee and began all over again.
So you never answered my question, said Conka's father. If Marx loved the poor so much, how come he had time to write books?
Grandfather took me down to the river. He tipped his hat and brought me across a fallen log, and he held my hand as we balanced near the edge. Listen to me, Zoli, he said. The river here, it doesn't belong to anyone, but some of them say they own it, they all say they own it, even some of us say we own it, but we don't. Look there, see the way the water is still moving underneath? It'll keep on moving. Only inches below, girl, the owning is gone, even ours, and you have to remember that, otherwise they will make a fool of you with their words.
The next day he led me to the schoolhouse.
I had heard about schools and did not want to go, but he pulled me under the green overhanging roof. I tried to run away but he caught me by the elbow. Inside, the desks were
arranged in neat rows. Strange pictures with lots of green and blue hung on the walls—I did not yet know what a map was. My grandfather talked with the teacher and told her I was six years old. The teacher arched her eyebrows and said, Are you sure? Grandfather said, Why wouldn't I be sure? The teacher's hands trembled a little. Grandfather leaned forward and stared at the teacher. The teacher went white in the face. Bring her here, sir, she said. I'll gladly look after her.
I was put in the corner with the youngest of all, dribbles from their noses, one even wore diapers. The older children giggled when I sat on the tiny seat, but I stared at them until they were quiet.
That night, when it was raining, and the sound of it was drumming off the leaves outside, there was an enormous fight in the singing tent. Stay where you are, said Eliska. But I want to sing, I said. Stay where you are, she said, if you know what's good for you. I huddled up under the eiderdown. There was screaming and shouting. Then it stopped and the music started and I could hear Conka's voice drifting out under the rain.
They broke they broke my little brown arm.
She got the words wrong, muddled them up, and I wanted to run through the wet grass to tell her, but I heard some more shouting and the whip of a tree branch, so I pulled the eiderdown over me and stayed quiet. Grandfather came in with his hat dripping wet. He didn't seem to notice a cut on his cheek, by his eye. He sat by the window and smoked some grapevine, looking out.
No matter what, he said, it's my choice.
He kissed me goodnight on the forehead and he turned on the wireless radio and it played a polka. In the morning I was caught by the oldest woman, we called her Barleyknife because of the scar on her breast. She slapped me nine times. I walked
over to the fence, my face stinging. She tied back her hair with a clothes peg and shouted after me: You'll learn to marry the butcher's dog, wait ‘til you see, mark my words, you'll marry the butcher's ugliest dog.
Rain dripped off the slanted school roof, down the window-pane. The teacher smelled of lye. Her neck was goose-white and she wiped chalk from the board with her elbow. My knees kept bumping against the top of the desk. I wore a blue skirt with white polka dots and a frilled hem. Across the room, the older gadzo boys were able to spit silently through the gaps in the front of their teeth. Soon one side of my hair was soaking wet with spittle, but I did not turn. I think they expected me to shout, but I did not. They whispered an old rhyme at me, saying:
Marienka sold a horse for a dog, she ate the dog with rotten haluski.
I said nothing, just stared ahead. I hated the way that the chalk rubbed the blackboard, it squeaked and made me feel cold. They laughed at me and the way I talked, but the schoolteacher could not believe that I already knew the ABC's and, after a week or two, she gave me a book about a prince who turned into a lion.
The older children shouted at my back and threw bird eggs at me. I picked up the shells and put them in my dress pocket. I tucked the book in the hedges near the school and covered it with leaves. When I got back to camp I held out my hand full of birdshell. The women were delighted, even Barleyknife, she said that maybe school wasn't so bad after all, and she went off to paint her fingernails blue, though she also painted the nails on her feet—that was one difference between the Slovaks and Polish, we kept our feet unpainted and never wore rings on our toes.
One day I forgot about the rain, and the book in the hedges
was ruined, all the pages were stuck together. They tore as I opened them. The schoolteacher said that I should have known better, but still she gave me another one, wrapped this time in oilcloth.
She insisted I take a bath in her house, close to the school, every morning, though I washed in the river with Conka every day. I told her that a Gypsy girl will bathe in running water, but not in a bath and she laughed and said: Oh, you people. She fiddled with my clothes, even gave me some she pretended were new. They were wrapped in brown paper, but I could tell they had been worn before—I saw the roll of paper and twine in the corner of her desk.
She ran her fingers hard through my hair, looking for lice, then combed paraffin through my braids and wrote a long letter to my grandfather:
Sir, Marienka needs to take proper care of her hygiene. Her mathematics and wordcraft are up to standard, especially given her circumstances, but it is imperative that the highest levels of cleanliness be maintained. Please ensure that the proper steps are taken. Yours, Bronislava Podrova.
Grandfather rolled a grapevine leaf around the note and smoked it.
She talks more shit than a factory outhouse, he said.
After that, I didn't go to school for a while. Everyone was delighted, especially Barleyknife who made up her very own song about a black girl who goes to a green schoolhouse and then becomes white, but finally on the road home she turns black again. I thought it was a stupid song, and so did almost everyone else, but Barleyknife sang it whenever she had climbed down into the bottle.
There was still talk of punishment for my grandfather because not only did he send me to school, but sometimes he sat
in the open now, reading his book. The punishment never happened, though. Vashengo's uncle stood up for him and said it was all right for one child to go to school because then we would know what was going on, not to worry, it was time to stick together, we would use it for our benefit, one day, just wait and see.
Petr, an old man with a soft handsome face, played his violin and Grandfather stood clapping his hands in the middle of the big canvas singing tent, and it seemed like everything was going to be all right.
The teacher gave me more books. Conka loved the pictures of wild animals and we snuck off and put the jaguar, the dolphin, the tiger up in the stars beside the badger and the wagon, the hen and the wheel—I had no idea then that others had different names for the stars, the plow, the hunter, the seven sisters. There was so much I had yet to see. Bit by bit, the stars turned on their sides and fell below the line of the earth.
I began at an early age to like the feel of a pencil between my fingers. Days in the caravan, I sat in silence with Grandfather as he spread his playing cards on the table. Red limped past in the muddiness outside. One morning, Grandfather sat beside me at the diamond window and looked outside and said he thought ofthat horse as a sickness he was catching. He had ridden the animal many times, and in his voice he said that he might not be able to do so too much longer. That was the way of things, he said, it was all right, he would still always catch the sound, all he had to do was open his ears and listen, that was enough.
Red disappeared into the trees by the water. We listened to the shake of her mane and the whinny of her throat and the dip of her flank in the water. The bushes bent and the stems snapped as she returned through the mud. We harnessed her up. I stayed in the caravan as we went down the roads. I sat with my pencil, sharpening it, and I shaped to a stillness the sound of Red's hooves in the muck outside: