Authors: Colum McCann
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary
Conka had a bruise on her neck where Fyodor had been rough with her on the last night before he went into the hills to join the fight. Something in her sagged. She walked around like a sheet on a string between trees. She sang:
If you love me drink this dark wine.
Vashengo joined the partisans who were making noise in the hills. Stanislaus would have gone too, but he was older and his body was giving way. Still, he gave shelter to anyone who came in our direction: fighters from the Czech lands, refugees from the workcamps, even two priests who strayed our way. There were rumors of American fighters in the hills. We hid the caravans, yet twice they were spotted and shot at with bullets by passing Luftwaffe planes. We went in and fixed the shattered wood, picked the glass from broken jam jars. We carved more hovels in the mudbank, shored the roofs up with valki brick, wove reeds in the trees so the area couldn't be spotted by planes. We found frozen potatoes in the fields. Petr hollowed out the last of each potato with a spoon and filled it with sheep fat from a pot. He rolled a tight strip of cloth or string, until it was thin, then stood the wick inside the sheep fat and waited for it to harden. It did not take long and soon we had candles for the inside of our shelters. If we were hungry we ate the potatoes, though they tasted of burn and tallow. We killed a deer and, inside it, found a fawn.
The weather worsened. Sometimes the hovels flooded, carrying
what little we had away, and then we commenced building once more. We were stuck by the riverbank, living like so many of the settled ones.
When Vashengo came back down from the hills, we were not too surprised to hear him singing “The Internationale.” Grandfather walked with him down by the water and they returned, arms around each other's shoulders. Vashengo took off again, carrying two belts of silver to buy munitions. The songs we sang became more and more red, and in truth who could blame us—it was what Grandfather had predicted for many years. The only thing that seemed right was change, and the only thing that would bring change was good and right and red, we had suffered so long at the foot of the fascists. We were joined then by even more settled Roma, they came and lived in the forest with us. In years gone by we had sometimes pitched battles with the settled ones. They thought that we held our noses in the air, and we thought that they drank furniture polish and were wedded to Hoffman's tincture, but now the fighting between us stopped. We were too few to be divided. We boiled snow for water, searched the forest for food. We killed a badger and sold the fat to a pharmacy in the village. We had more pride than to eat the horses, but the settled ones ate whatever they could find, and we turned our eyes and let them.
News came over the radio: the Russians were advancing, the Americans too, and the British. We would have taken any of them. I woke one morning and the last of the fascist planes had just broken the sky. We were at the riverbank, and we watched as our caravans were riddled with bullets for the last time.
When we went in to repair the damage, we found Grandfather. He had gone in to find silence to read his book. It lay
open on his chest. I lay down beside him and read the last forty pages aloud to him before I put coins on his eyes and we carried him out. Boot, who had grown tall and was back from the war, said how light my grandfather had become. I put the Marx book in my grandfather's coffin, under the blanket, along with cigarettes wrapped in grapevine, so that he could pull them out in the unknown. His boots surprised me as much as anything; he had sewn the seams back together with fishing wire. I wanted to undo them and take them, but we burned most of everything he owned to warm him for his journey. The flames shot up and the ground outside began to steam. Some burned trees stood in the grove, they looked like dark bones in the ground. Petr and I went to sleep with our feet pointed towards the embers. No singing was done for three days and lit candles were put upon the stream. Six weeks later, we knew that he was gone for good, though I still wore the colors of mourning.
Certain things will take the life from you.
I took a trip to the lake one day, alone, and plunged myself in. The water made my skin tight and my body became a part of the drifting. I stayed for hours, trying to go deeper, right out into the center, to see if I could touch what had fallen through. My hands reached out and the further I went, the cooler it got, and the pressure on my ears was like a voice with no sound. When I opened my eyes, they burned. The longer I stayed underwater the more I struggled, but then my lungs could take no more and I felt the speed of my own rising weight. I broke the surface. My hair was pasted down onto my shoulders and I felt my necklace drift away from me. I went underwater again, longer this time. I was quite sure that I was going to drown. They were all still there, I felt them—my mother, my father, my
brother, my sisters—but who can set a lake on fire? On the shore, I sat with my knees to my chest and two days later, when I returned to the forest, much to Petr's relief, we took care of the very last of my grandfather's possessions. Sparks rose yellow into the air. I put my fingers to the ground and left my thumbprints there. Go ahead, horse, and shit.
That was the birth of me, it always will be.
I am no longer afraid to tell you these things, daughter: it was how they happened.
Even as a young girl, I always wanted too much.
The war ended, I think I was almost sixteen. The Russians liberated us. They came in, loud and red. Vashengo and the partisans came down from the hills, and flowers were thrown at their feet. Victory parades were held. The wooden shutters of shops were thrown open. We went to the city to make money playing music. We stayed in a field on the far side of the river. In the mornings we went to the railway station where Petr played his violin. Conka and I sang.
Do not blame your boots for the problems of your feet.
Huge crowds gathered and money was thrown into a hat. Some of the Russians even danced for us, hands clapping, legs outstretched. Late in the evening, as the money was counted, I wandered with Conka through the station. We loved the whine of the engines, the hiss of the doors, the movement, so many different voices all together. What a time it was. The streets were crammed. Bedsheets were hung from the windows, Russian sickles painted on them. Hlinka uniforms were burnt and their caps were trampled. The old guard was rounded up and hanged. This time the lampposts did not bend.
The gadze tugged our elbows and said, Come sing for us,
Gypsies, come sing. Tell us of the forest, they said. I never thought of the forest as a special place, it was just as ordinary as any other, since trees have as many reasons for stopping as people do.
Still, we sang the old songs and the gadze threw coins at our feet, and we raised ourselves on the tide. Giant feasts were held in the courtyards of houses that had been taken back from the fascists, and the loudspeakers pumped out music. We gathered under megaphones to hear the latest news. The churches were used for food stations, and sometimes we were allowed to stand first in line, we had never seen that before, it seemed a miracle. We were given identity cards, tinned meat, white flour, jars of condensed milk. We burned our old armbands. Under the pillars of a corner house a market was in full swing. The soldiers called us Citizens and handed us cigarette cards. Films were shown, projected on the brick walls of the cathedral—how huge the faces looked, chonorroeja, on that wall. We had been nothing to the fascists, but now our names were raised up.
Cargo planes flew over the city, manned by the parachute regiment, dropping leaflets:
The new tomorrow has arrived.
Out in the country, the leaflets caught in the trees, settled on hedges, and blew along the laneways. Some landed on the rivers and were carried downstream. I brought them to the elders and read them aloud:
Citizens of Gypsy Origin, Come Join Us.
The farmers no longer called us a pestilence. They addressed us by our formal names. We listened to a radio program with Romani music: our own harps and strings. We sang new songs, Conka and I, and hundreds of people came down the roadways to listen. Photographers with movie cameras pulled up in jeeps and
motorcars. We waved the red flag, looked down the road into the future.
I had hope right up until the end. It was the old Romani habit of hoping. Perhaps I have never lost it.
Many years later, I was to walk up the granite steps and pass the fluted columns of the National Theater, in a new pair of shoes and a black lace blouse with patterned leaves, where I listened to Martin Stränsky read my own song aloud. You do not know what you are hearing when you hear something for the first time, daughter, but you listen to it as though you will never hear it again. The theater held its breath. He had little music in him, Stränsky, for a poet, but afterwards the crowd stood and cheered, and a spotlight swung around on me. I hid from it, sucking on stray ends of my hair, until Stränsky put his fingers to my chin and tilted it upwards, the applause growing louder: poets, council members, workers, all waving program sheets in the air. The Englishman, Swann, stood in the wings of the theater, looking out at me, his green eyes, his light-colored hair.
I was taken to the inner courtyard where huge wooden tables were laid out with an assortment of wine and vodka, fruit, and bowls of cheese. A flurry of formal speeches.
All hail to a literate proletariat!
It is our revolutionary right to reclaim the written word!
Citizens, we must listen to the deep roots of our Roma brothers!
I was guided through the crowd, so many people pushing towards me, extending their hands, and I could hear my own skirts swishing, yes, more than anything I could hear the sound of cloth against cloth as I went out into the quiet of the street, it was one of the happiest times I remember, daughter. From inside the theater I could still hear the hum from the people, they
were on our side, I hadn't heard anything quite like it before. I walked out in the cool air. A sheen of light was on the puddles, and night birds arced under the streetlamps. I stood there in the silence and it seemed to me that the spring of my life had come.
I was a poet.
I had written things down.
HE ROOM WHERE I LIE
is small but has a window to what has become an intimate patch of sky. The blue of daytime seems ordinary, but on clear nights it is made obvious, as if for the first time, that the wheel of the world is not fixed: the evening star spends a tantalizing few moments hung in the frame. The shrill gabble of birds on the rooftops comes in odd rhythms and, from the street below, I can almost hear the engine of my motorbike ticking. The rattle of the road is still in my body: one final corner and the bike rolled out from underneath me. Strange to watch the sparks rising from the tarmac. I slid along, then smashed into a low stone wall. In the hospital they did not have enough bandages to make a cast—they splinted my leg and sent me home.
I have given up searching, but it is impossible to think that she is gone, that I will never see her again, or catch the sound of her, the grain of her voice.
Just before the accident, near Piest any, a raw gust of February wind blew off my scarf. It snagged on a row of barbed-wire fencing by a military range, fluttering there a moment before falling to the ground. Zoli gave me the scarf years ago, but I could see no way of retrieving it and feared what might happen if I tried to climb the fence. The scarf blew back and forth, like most everything else, just beyond my reach.
Thirty-four years old—a shattered kneecap, a heap of overcoats, a pile of unfinished translations on the table. From the
hallway comes the squeaking of floorboards and the soft slap of dominoes. I can hear the mops dipping in bleach, the keys in the door, the incantations of solitary men and women home from work. Christ, I'm no better than all those numberless mumblers of Ave Marias—how I used to hate confessionals as a child, those dark Liverpudlian priests sliding back the grill, bless me, Father, for I have sinned, it has been how many decades since my last confession?
My father once said that you can't gauge the contents of a man's heart by his greatest act of evil alone, but if that's true then it must also be true that you can't judge him without it: mine was committed on a freezing winter afternoon at the printing mill on Godrova Street, when I stood with Zoli Novotna and betrayed her against the hum of the machinery. Since I've done little worse, or measurably better, in the days before or since then, I'm forced to admit that my legacy to the world may very well be this one solitary thing that's with me now almost every breathing moment.
There are those of us who haven't yet told our stories, or refuse to tell them, and so we become them: we hide away inside the memory until we can no longer stand the shell or the shock—perhaps that's me, or perhaps I must tell it before it's forgotten or becomes, like everything else, something else.