THE GYPSY'S SONG
Anne died suddenly in her sleep last night. With one phone call, she was taken away to Harrier’s Funeral House. Her body, that is. I finally got up enough nerve to enter her small cottage scenting of herbs and blooms. In a stack beside her desk, were four leather-bound books I had never seen before. Curious now, I leafed through one. I could immediately see that Anne had written it—I recognized her graceful calligraphic scroll, a resonance of her personality. I opened to the first page. There was a note—to me, as though she had known when was to be the moment of her earthly leaving-taking.
Lauren, my dear, do not be concerned at my departure.
Know only that you are precious to me and to the universe
around you. Here are some dabbings about my life.
After you finish reading them, please burn them.
The world does not need them… there are far too many
words and too little love. Keep the garden vibrant
as only your care can do.
This was a mystery; she had called herself ‘Angelica’, a name quite foreign to me. With that, I opened the first book and began to read.
* * *
I’ll never know what possessed my mother to steal two of my father’s lions that night.
Perhaps it was simply that she had a strong sense of history and she needed to celebrate a remarkable time in a remarkable way. For it was indeed a most noteworthy time in the world’s history, that autumn of 1918, when the Great War finally ended. Everywhere in a delirium of celebration, people were dancing in the streets.
I like to imagine my mother’s lustrous eyes lingering upon the boisterousness and joy erupting all around her. And perhaps as she watched, a simple request for happiness might have entered her heart: she could begin the journey towards her own personal happiness by divorcing my father. Divorce, at that time in the world, was unthinkable, but not to us because we are Rom, or, to the rest of the world, we are Gypsies. Gypsies are unlike all other people in so many ways, and this is just another. For when a wife tells her husband she is divorcing him, their divorce becomes immediate and final.
No, it was not really Mother’s divorce that was so unusual; it was leaving my Father that was so extraordinary. Nothing but death separates the Rom from one another, and Father was the only other Rom we knew on the American continent. It is a fact that the Rom very rarely associate with anyone else but the Rom, and this is the reason why you know nothing about us. In fact, we Rom group every other culture and race into one word — gadje. Everyone else, whether their skin color be black, red, yellow or white, whether they be from Somalia or Canada, is a gadje. To us, the Rom, we consider all others to be that different from us, and…that separate. But yet, here we were, three Gypsy women, alone and adrift within the gadje’s world.
It surprised me, and probably surprised my ordinarily submissive Mother the measures to which she was willing to go to create some happiness for herself. That is why I shall always partially attribute her drastic actions to the post-war turbulence that had swallowed us within it. And this is why my story is beginning with that great and terrible war’s ending.
But I must not discount, nor underestimate, my mother’s own quality of determination, for while she was about the business of leaving my father, she also decided to leave the whole Eastern portion of the American continent behind, taking with her only me, her daughter, and her mother, Lena, a powerful Rom sorceress.
Somehow, secretly, she had also managed to steal Chieftain and Princess, two of Father’s very large and very wild lions. Though she had told Father they were divorced, she didn’t tell him we were also leaving him and the Circus of Cairo, where we had all been living and working for over three years. Nor did she inform him that she was stealing his two lions as well as his daughter. So that night, in a flash, she left her husband, and I left my father, as it would turn out, forever. I write this now, as an old crone, nearing the end of my life, but at the time, I was but a young girl, trying to make as much sense of what I saw as best I could.
So this is how my mother, my Grandmother Lena and I came to be traveling to the end of the west…to the continent’s very edge.
- 1 -
The railroad car we entered was almost empty. Only one gadjo man was there, reading a daily journal. Mother and I crowded into one seat, while Grandmother Lena winked mischievously at us before plopping down on the banquette across from the gadjo man.
Politely, the man lowered his paper to nod a greeting to whoever had elected to join him in his journey, but was stopped dead in the middle of his gesture by the strange apparition who now sat across from him.
You see, Grandmother Lena had never changed her gypsy wardrobe to accommodate America and its ways, much less its somberly clad people. She continued to dress in layers and layers of colorful full skirts, arranged in ragged tiers. Grandmother Lena also insisted on displaying all of her wealth upon her, and jangled merrily with gold coin while she walked. Her long gray hair was tucked beneath the traditional Gypsy scarf and she used no rouge to embellish a face deeply furrowed by wind and sun. From her labors, her hands were hard like chunks of wood. The man hurriedly raised his paper to isolate himself against this odd and intruding woman. However, he would soon see in his own time and his own way that a newspaper would be too flimsy to keep Grandmother Lena’s intent away from him. The gadjo man had selected the only bench with a facing bench in the whole car, and Grandmother Lena had obviously decided she wanted it for us and our journey.
The train began its slow shuffle out of the station, and I divided my attention between watching the ugly scorched railroad yard move away from me and Grandmother’s antics to move the gadjo man. She began to lightly massage her hand. Briefly, the man looked at her from behind his newspaper. Too bad for him; Grandmother Lena now knew she had his attention. Slowly, she increased her scratching to include her arms and legs. Soon she began to examine more indecent places on her body, implying a certainty of vermin. The man looked up again, appalled at her activities, and fled to another car. Mother and I quickly moved to take his place.
Mother and Grandmother began a conversation so quietly; even my curious ears could not hear their thoughts. I knew not to interrupt and crossed to the facing bench to occupy myself with a solitary exploration of America from my window. But the night lacked its moon, and as much as I tried, I couldn’t see much. A few bumps and valleys passed, invisible and nameless and thus not mine. I was surprised by my sentiment; it was certainly gadje. Obviously, I had spent too many hours with my gadjo friend Randolph who would study his many atlases and maps as we journeyed through new and foreign places in our circus wagons. “Clinton”, he’d announce proudly, pointing to his map. “Yes, that must be where we are. Clinton, New Jersey.”
I would repeat the meaningless syllables, with some mirth. How ridiculous, I had thought, this gadje sensibility of attempting to claim land with names. To me, naming by the gadje was so often a presumption, an attempt to encircle something so they could better believe someone had the right to own it. But now, this night of lion stealing, I realized that I had succumbed to the same gadje sensibility I had mocked, and had probably done so long ago. Like sand, the foreign sensibility had blown into my brain crevices, and all too soon, a whole philosophy had presented itself. Now as I gazed out at the unknown land from my window, I too longed for maps with names to decrease the bigness and the strangeness of the world around me. Moreover, I also wanted Randolph to be next to me, his familiar voice calling out the names of small towns. I missed Randolph immensely already; we had left so suddenly, I had not even known it had been the time to tell him goodbye.
Here and there, a few lights designating houses and villages glided by too quickly due to the rush of the train. Just as abruptly night would resume, as if it were jealous that the continuity of its darkness had been interrupted. It was then I realized my window had a mysterious capability to reveal many different worlds. To visit another world, all I had to do was shift the focus of my eyes. To peer about, my window was better than any crystal ball.
I switched the focus of my eyes from the dark night outside to somberly regard my own reflection in the train’s glass window. I knew it would seem to Mother and Grandmother Lena as if I still watched the fleeting landscape. I studied my eyes to see if I looked like a criminal, masked and ashamed. No, I decided, with some relief, I still looked the same even though I had now become a lion thief.
I shifted my eyes once more and found a third world; my window had become an excellent mirror with which to spy on Grandmother Lena and Mother. I watched to see if their faces would finally relax and reveal to me the truth of what was really transpiring. I already knew the faces and actions of my mother and Grandmother Lena could hide big secrets, but our departure had been a very large secret indeed. This night just like any other night, I had gone to bed early, and now that very same night, here I was a lion thief, ‘on the lam’, speeding to California. It felt very American to know such an expression, ‘on the lam’. I had learned it from a dime novel I borrowed from Randolph about a notorious outlaw, Jesse James. That’s where I learned about the existence of ‘Wanted Posters’ in post offices, too. I knew there were few accidents in the way in which life meanders, and it was certainly no accident that I had just finished reading about the James Gang, so I was more educated about how to accomplish a successful getaway. Which was what I decided we were doing.
“Do you think Father will offer a reward for our capture?” I asked in Romani, our language, so no gadje could understand us. I tried to convert the tremor in my voice to bravado but I knew Mother heard it anyway when she encircled me within her strong, brown arms and gave me a kiss.
“You’ll see, your father won’t even care that we’re gone,” she assured me, “because I followed the breaking-love spell exactly. While your father snored, I used a dagger cast of an ancient iron to lop off a lock of his hair. Though my heart pounded very loudly with my fright, his eyelids didn’t even flutter.” Grandmother Lena snorted contemptuously before interrupting with her opinion.
“I knew Antonio would never wake after drinking that much brandy.” Mother nodded, and continued.
“Then, at the exact timing of the newest of new moons, I burnt his lockof hair, knowing by the next new moon, as I had invoked, your father and I would become separate. So here we are, here.” My face must have looked skeptical, for Mother rushed on with more of her reasoning. “And besides,remember, I only took his two least favorite lions, Chieftain and Princess. He never could manage them and was about to send them away to a zoo.”
“But you know nothing about lions,” I protested.
“It is your mother who raised those lions from kittens,” chided Grandmother Lena, “holding them as she did you as a baby to keep them safe from harm. Living beings do not forget such times. Do not worry, your father will never find us, Angelica. I have made sure we are encircled within a great spell.”
But I could not stop my worrying. I wondered if robbing lions was a crime comparable to robbing banks in America, punishable by death. The Jesse James book still tugged at my mind.
“What will be our punishment, if we are caught,” I asked. My eyes felt very large. I was ashamed that I was the only one afraid, but the panicked feeling had dug deep within me, and had found my stomach.
“We have done no wrong, so nothing will happen to us. I even made sure to return the lion wagon. Now, Angelica, why don’t you try to sleep? It is late. Come lie down in my lap.” Mother made a pillow out of her shawl, and I put my head on it. The baby lamb’s hair made it a soft nest to comfort my smallness.
I closed my eyes, but only pretended to sleep. I knew I had to remain alert. Only then would I be able to catch my destiny as it unraveled toward the future. So I watched, and I watched.
But nothing occurred to reveal the direction of my future. Only the events of my past emerged. They had been dammed up far too long and were in a hurry to spill out of my heart into my head. We were not always only three Rom in number or this alone.
For truly, the Rom always stay very close to one another. Only when they die, do they become separated. And to my knowledge we were not yet dead. And yet somehow, we had managed to become so very, very separate.
- 2 -
Until I was ten, I lived in an Old World across an immense sea. Now, of course, I know it to be the continent of Europe, and the year to be 1915. But as with everything, then was then, and now is now.
Most of the time, when I contemplate the life I led sheltered within the Rom tribe, my memories swell out like balloons – free, colourful, and happy. Our family was one of a small Gypsy caravan made up of about fifteen vardos or wagons. My memories juxtapose themselves much like the way the women of Rom wear their long skirts. Gypsy women are never content to wear just one skirt; they wear layers and layers of fabric, arranged in differing lengths, to display luxuriant palettes of prints and textures. My memories of my childhood among the Rom are layered as that, richly. But because I myself now have become more like a gadjo, my feelings about my past have become twisted around like a snake engorging itself on its own tail. So perhaps it wasn’t like that at all.
This is why I now write my story, to interpret the Lowara Rom, my own people, to not only the rest of the world, but to myself, since I have not lived among them for many years.
* * *
If you ask the gadje about the Gypsies, they call us thieves, but all Gypsies know it is the gadje who are the worst thieves. We Rom know if the gadje had their way, they would own everything, and if they could, they would even claim to possess the sun and then charge everyone else for sunlight. Whenever the Rom encountered some especially astonishing gadje claim of ownership, we could only shrug and remark to remind ourselves of the earth’s true intent. We would say to one another, “after all, some shade is good for everyone”. For we Rom did not even have a word in our language for ‘possess’, while for the gadje, it is probably the most significant and the most defining word in their language. Surely, it is only by possessions that the worth of an individual gadjo can ever be determined. The gadje believe everything must be owned by someone; contrarily, the Rom believe nothing is or can ever be owned, and in nature, everything exists for the pleasure and delight of all humankind.
And this is not the only difference between us. The gadje call Gypsies lazy, but this is because the gadje know so very little about us. This is no accident; the Rom have always been most content living in the margins of history, rather than in its forefront. The wise among us have long understood that being ahead of anyone else, only meant that we would be in danger of getting run over.
So it was, that at my birth in the early part of the 20th century, the Rom had succeeded in neatly sidestepping history. As we traveled slowly from village to village in our luminous wagons drawn by our splendid horses, it worried none of us that we lingered yet in the human evolutionary phase of ‘hunter and gatherer’. It was obvious to us the gadje had moved on to another way of life, the ‘Industrial Age’, they called it, but we coveted nothing from that lifestyle. We Rom were an uncomplicated people and had happily escaped many of the epidemics that plagued the gadje world, including one of its most common – neurosis. Perhaps it was because we believed instead to live in truthfulness to one’s nature, rather than live in service to the gods of materialism. The Rom paid those gods no homage, at least not with our hearts.
And we needed no history books to explain our past; our memories were strong and sufficient to extend back four or five generations, long enough for a full and proud ancestry. Since we had no libraries containing books of mythical or legendary heroes from the past to compare ourselves to, we did not belittle our accomplishments, nor goad ourselves on to inflated heights of glory, which did not serve our life force. Each of our lives was to be lived as best we could, extending few side glances over at our neighbor.
As for our future, we left it to its rightful owners: the wind or to fate. So unlike the frightened gadje who lined up for predictions from the gypsy fortune-tellers to reassure them about their lives. There are those gadje who accuse Gypsy fortune telling to be false, their proof being Gypsies don’t read fortunes among themselves. This interpretation is indicative of the way we Rom continue to be misunderstood – because the gadje insist on seeing us through their own prisms. The real explanation is actually much more simple. The Rom do not tell fortunes for one another because we are not obsessed with our futures, and will allow neither the past nor the future to yoke itself to us. We know how to live absolutely immersed in the present, remaining susceptible to any gales the winds might usher in, because we know a gale will always ultimately be embellished with rainbows.
But now I am both gadjo and Rom; I stand with a foot straddling both sides of an ever-widening canyon. Perhaps that is what is not possible. So I shall write my story, in hopes that someday it will be read and perhaps understood. Even if only by my self.
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