Authors: Colum McCann
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary
Gray meadows rolled past. Dark squares of plowed earth. Faint sounds came from the harps when we went over a bump. At night we jumped down from the carriages and swung open whatever gates we could find. Everyone gave a coin for the kerosene and Conka's uncle told great Romani tales. Often they would not stop until well into nightfall, long ramblings about twelve-legged horses and dragons and demons and virgins and cruel aristocrats, about how the gadze blacksmiths tricked us with their molten buttons.
This I tell you, daughter: they were warm nights even when they were cold, and I recall them dearly and perhaps, in truth, they were warmer because of those that were yet to come.
We moved our kumpanija near the smaller town of Bänksa Bystrica, and we were allowed to stay in the field of a man we called the Yellow Farmer. The farmer had huge yellow boots that went up to his waist. He stamped around in them and sometimes went fishing down by the river. Janko was four and he was found one day on the riverbank, hiding in the boots, his little head popping out of the top rim. Nearly all of him was tucked inside, only his grin could be seen, and after that we called him Boot.
They were quiet moments in the Yellow Farmer's field, but
bit by bit we began to hear that terrible things were afoot in the country. The Germans didn't take over as they had in the Czech lands, but Grandfather said it hardly mattered, the Hlinkas were just like Gestapo, except they wore different badges. The war was coming our way. New laws were brought in. We were only allowed in the cities and villages for two hours a day, noon until two, and sometimes not even then. After those hours, no Roma man or woman was allowed in public places. Sometimes even the purest woman was charged with spreading infections and was thrown in prison. If a man was caught on a bus or a train, he was beaten until he couldn't even crawl. If he wandered the streets, he was arrested and sent to a workcamp to chop logs. We learned the sound of military vehicles the way we'd once learned the sound of animals—jeeps, tanks, convoys of canvas-covered trucks, we could tell which was coming around the corner. And yet we still thought ourselves to be among the lucky ones—many of our Czech brothers streamed south with terrible stories about being marched down the many-cornered road. Everyone now listened to my grandfather at the fire. He knew what was happening from his radio, and even Conka's father went with him to the millhouse where they were allowed barter for batteries.
Grandfather didn't have time to build any more walls, he said that now everything was held together by factory cement, but if he ever built another wall he would do it his own way, and hold it together with what he called cunning.
At night he turned the radio to polkas again, away from news of the war. Someone called Chamberlain had become a doormat, he said. Grandfather sat on the roof of our caravan and drank until he fell asleep under the stars. I whizzed the
radio away from polkas and heard a man announce in Polish about what was happening, the same thing in Slovak too. Of course there was no Romani radio, there was not even a half-hour show, and we didn't hear news of our own people.
Who needs news, Grandfather said, when it's all around us? A pig doesn't need a gold ring in its nose to know where it is sleeping, does it?
Conka's mother went to Poprad but she got lost in the back-streets near the promenade, by the fruit market. Everyone searched for her, but she was picked up by the Hlinkas. They took her to the back of a bookshop, pushed her down on a table. They laughed at her long fingernails, said they were so lovely. One said he liked her fingernails so much that he would like to bring one of them home, maybe his wife would like to see such fine artistry. They held Conka's mother down by her shoulders. All she could see was a very dark patch of ceiling above her head and then the room began to spin. One held her arm. Another held the pliers. The nails came out one by one, though they left one little finger alone—they said it was so she could please herself if she got a Gypsy itch.
They strung her nails on a little chain around her neck and sent her out of the bookshop into the street, where she fell. The troopers came out of the bookshop and brought her to hospital because, they said, she had grazed her knee. They said to the nurse: Take care of this woman's knee, it's very important that you fix her knee. On and on they went about her knee. The nurses lifted Conka's mother from the ground. Her hands were streaming blood.
They tried to heal her but she left as quick as she could. None of our people wanted to remain in a hospital amongst
sickness and death, it was not a good place to be. Conka's father drove her home, and she lay crying in the back of the cart. Her hands were huge with white bandages that soon turned brown no matter how much she boiled them. She stayed in her caravan. Every day she took off the bandages and bathed her hands in water mixed with dock leaves, and then she pasted the stumps of her fingers with woodsap and chamomile. She stared at her hands as if they did not belong to her at all. Conka said it was not the pain that made her mother wail, but because she would never be able to pluck the harp again. She tried the catgut strings with the stumps of her fingers, but her hands bled once more and that was it—the owls were in the sycamores, and things would never change.
The bookshop burned down. My grandfather and Conka's father came back smelling of petrol. A feast was held. The tent rippled in the wind and my grandfather sang “The Internationale”—it was not the first time I had heard it, but now even Eliska joined in. She made a song up too:
There are good rocks to throw and better roofs to burn,
even Grandfather liked it, and I recall the last verse was that thorn trees would learn to grow from Hlinka hearts.
We were in the thick of things. The axles were packed with grease and we got ready to leave our Polish brothers and sisters, although Eliska was coming with us. She had married Vashengo. Before we split, we gathered in a circle at the tent, and Grandfather told us the news: there was a new law out that said we needed licenses for any type of musical instrument, and so that would have to be the end of the harps for a while. The harps were buried in huge wooden containers that the men made out of maple trees from the Yellow Farmer's forest. The
men dug huge pits and laid the harps in the ground. We covered the ground with brambles and switched plants in the soil so that nobody could find them. Conka and I ran to the place of the burial, and she started a game where she jumped up and down on the ground and we pretended that music was coming out from the earth and that's when I put together a song in my mind, about down in the ground where the strings vibrate, I can still to this day recall every word, the harps listening to the grass growing above them, and the grass listening back to the sounds two meters below.
We went that night from the Yellow Farmer's place, sloshing down the bowerpaths through a mudstorm. The wheels got stuck in the puddled roads. We lifted them out and walked bowlegged for a better grip, following the notched bones and bundled straw and other signs. A boy my age, Bakro, the cousin of Conka, walked alongside me. I think he already had the desire for me. He squandered his time in the mirror at the back of the caravan, fixing his black hair. A line of tanks went past and the last one stopped to search us, they didn't even clean their boots on the steps. Conka and I hid under an eiderdown, but the Hlinka who came in lifted it immediately and prodded at our dresses with his boot, then spat at us. Nothing could be worse for a Romani girl. When they left, we called them pigs, lizards, snakes. They were unclean, the last of the last.
On we went, walking at the paced hollow clop of the horse's hooves. Bakro whispered to me that he would protect me, no matter what, but my grandfather fixed an eye on us and I did not feel a sway in my belly for Bakro the way I did for other boys.
At night, Grandfather released Red and stepped between the tongues of the carriage, hoisting it with his bare hands. He turned it slightly while I slipped small rocks under the wheels, and in the morning we moved on again.
The radio reports came in from across what we now called, once more, Slovakia—it was confusing with Bohemia and Moravia and Germany and Hungary and Poland and Russia, and so Grandfather stood up one night and said that one day it would all soon be Rromanestan or the Soviet Russia, but someone else said that it might be America, where a very blue lady would hold a torch for us and everyone was created equal. We were moving around the country then, every week a new place, but someone, usually Boot's father, always returned to the forest and stayed with the harps. At night he slept near them. He swore there were restless spirits who came to play.
I soon reached womanhood and had to burn the red rags. It happened in a forest of white poplars and Conka knew what was going on, she had already been through it herself. She gave me a strip of cloth to clean myself up. I was careful now where I stepped, the touch of my skirt could dirty a man. She said no matter, but be careful not to go behind the hedge with a boy, they might take advantage. Together we sewed pebbles in the hem of our dresses to weigh them down. Nine days later Grandfather said that I had to learn to call him Stanislaus now; he did not want to be grandfather to a grown woman. I blushed and knew that soon it would be time to walk under the linden blossoms with a husband.
Stanislaus, I said, go ahead, horse, and shit.
It was the first time I had said such a word in his presence, and he squeezed my shoulder and pulled me to his chest and laughed.
Bakro gave me a silver chain and, although I didn't wear it around my neck, I kept it in my pocket and wound it around my fingers. The next day he came along and put a gingerbread heart in my hand. I was quite sure we were to be married and I begged Stainislaus not to let it happen, but he looked away from me, said he had other things to worry about, and walked off through the mud to talk to Petr.
Grandfather pointed over at me, and Petr nodded. I put my head down, kept my paths to myself. In my mind the old songs repeated themselves, took a new direction, turned, swerved.
We went further east and, by the banks of the Hron River, on a muddy morning, Red died. She was found on the ground with a single eye open. Grandfather lifted her with ropes and took her off to the glueyard. The blood sloshed in her as she was dragged along. I would never forget the sound. She was hoisted onto a cart. The body thumped, her eye still open. Grandfather came back with a bottle of fine slivovitz and offered me some, but I turned away and said no. He said, These things happen, girl. No they don't, I said. He grabbed my braids and said to me: Do you hear me, girl, these things happen, you're no longer a child. He let go of me and I watched as he stamped away through the bushes.
A couple of years later, chonorroeja, when so much of my life was taking place in the city of Bratislava, and in the printing mill, using words that had come from the songs, I asked Strän-sky and the Englishman Swann not to put the few pages of my first poems together with glue, rather to stitch them with thread. I thought the glue might have come from the same yard. They didn't know what I was talking about, and, in truth I don't know why I expected them to. I could not stand the notion
of the glue of Red traveling along the spine of the book, leaning down to things so foreign to her, who would want their own horse in their book, holding it together?
I was writing things down then, on any paper I could find, even the labels from bottles. I dunked them in water, dried them out, and filled the emptiness with ink. Old newspapers. Brown butcher sheets. I dried them out until the bloodstains were faint. It was still a secret, my writing. I pretended to most that I could not read, but, I thought, then, surely it could do no harm? I said to myself that writing was no more nor less than song. My pencil was busy and almost down to a nubbin.
Wash your dress in running water. Dry it on the southern side of the rock. Let them have four guesses and make them all be wrong. Take a fistful of snow in the summer heat. Cook haluski with hot sweet butter. Drink cold milk to clean your in-sides. Be careful when you wake: breathing lets them know how asleep you were. Don't hang your coat from a hook in the door. Ignore curfew. Remember weather by the voice of the wheel. Do not become the fool they need you to become. Change your name. Lose your shoes. Practice doubt. Dress in oiled cloth around sickness. Adore darkness. Turn sideways in the wind. The changing of stories is a cheerful affair. Give the impression of not having known. Beware the Hlinkas, it is always at night that the massacres occur.