LIONS AND GONDOLAS
It has been almost seventy years since our train ride across the American prairies to Los Angeles, and not one day has passed that I do not marvel at one happenstance of that journey, or the other, depending on the rotation of life’s prism.
Then the year was 1918, and I was but a girl of thirteen. I had been slumbering within the refuge of my mother’s lap, retracing past memories in the wildernesses of my dream psyche, its reveries tossing me from tragedy to triumph, and then back again. My paranormal trance ushered forth people I had known, appearing and disappearing into mists to be replaced by another, and then another.
Abruptly, the hazy curtains once again parted, to reveal two roaring lions, which came almost upon me. Fortunately, I retained my wits and was crafty in my fleeing, but try as I would; I was not able to elude them. To end this frustration, I woke my self up, but even awake, the lions’ roaring did not stop. That the lions had the strength to develop into reality from my dreams puzzled and impressed me. However, as I wakened even more, I recalled, it was, in fact, the other way around. The lions from our reality had had the strength to penetrate my dreams by the magnificence of their roaring. I yawned myself even more awake and rubbed my eyes.
“Perhaps it is time to go visit our lions to ease their loneliness,” I said smart-alecky, audacious with my mother’s proximity. Grandmother Lena harrumphed at me disparagingly before replying in Romani, our language.
“Angelina, well, well. It is time you woke after such an expanse of time. Your poor mother’s arm has gone dead as a chunk of wood we cut for our fires.”
“Mother, please,” my mother chided her, “you know Angelica will always be as a bird against my body. And I, too, have needed the solace of my daughter’s touch at such a time,” she said, smiling the greatness of her love to me. My heart reassured, I enclosed her within a beam of my happiness, before being interrupted once again by deep-throated rumblings of wild cats. Now, seemingly, the very windows of the train were rattling. Helplessly, we sat in a breathless silence, listening: my mother, the new owner of those two stolen lions; Grandmother Lena, a renowned gypsy sorceress; and me.
Not so for the other passengers; their confused babble escalated into bedlam. One woman collapsed in a faint. Her traveling companion rushed to revive her, fanning her face with a newspaper.
“Elizabeth, Elizabeth, my dear.” There was no response.
“Sweet Jesus!” He looked around with exasperation. “Where is that damned conductor?” A man stood, clutching a long barreled pistol.
“I’ll go fetch him. And mark my words, Mister, if I see any wild beasts, I’ll shoot ‘em dead between the eyes.”
I looked to Grandmother Lena and Mother to see if they were going to stop him, but they just continued to stare straight ahead, as though none of this was of any concern to them. This is, and always has been the way of the Rom when among the gadje, the non-gypsies. For myself, I had never been successful in adopting this attitude — mainly because I did not respect it. I will always choose to fight, which is not the way of the Rom. Rather than confront, the Rom choose to leave, quietly and often within nightfall’s darkness.
“Put your face into its composure,” Grandmother Lena hissed her warning to me. “You make us look guilty.”
I knew her meaning well since the gadje always attributed any crime committed to gypsies. So I too stared straight ahead even though in this situation I doubted it would do us any good. After all, at the start of our fleeing to the west, I had already deduced that we were on the ‘lam’, stealing father’s two lions, and so were probably responsible for them and their consequences. My heart pounded beats of dread at the prospect of being forced off the train in the middle of nowhere with two wild cats. I snuck a look at the swooned woman, hoping she might have revived, but her white face was frozen as if made of wax. And unfortunately, our lions, Chieftain and Princess, had not ceased any in their violent uproars.
At the Negro conductor’s arrival, a woman in a bonnet clawed at his arm, her voice desperate.
“The truth, sir, are there wild animals loose?”
“Certainly not, Ma’am,” the conductor responded before announcing in a louder, more official voice. “Ladies and gentlemen, I want to assure you all that we are quite safe. Now where is the woman who has fainted?”
“She’s over here,” said the man still trying to revive her.
“Sir, did you see any beasts,” the bonneted woman asked the armed man sent to fetch the conductor. A crowd of people pressed forward to hear the response.
“I wish I had. They’d be dead by now,” the man said, taking aim with his pistol at the prairies.
The conductor was now at the fainted woman’s side. “If you will prop her up, here is a small amount of brandy. It might help to revive her.” The conductor stood aside while the two men gently moved the woman up, putting the brandy against her lips. The woman coughed.
“Elizabeth! Oh, thank you, God! Then you are all right?”
“I shall never be all right, Robert. I am frightened to death by that roaring. Please have whatever it is removed.”
“Boy, you heard the lady! I want those wild beasts taken off this train at once!” The conductor shook his head, before replying.
“I don’t believe that can be done, sir, seeing that the lions are cargo.”
“So you admit there are lions on this train,” Robert spat out.
“Robert, perhaps if I try,” Elizabeth commanded, putting her hand on his arm to quiet him. She turned to the conductor, altering her voice to a softened pleading.
“Sir, surely it is within your power to alleviate my suffering. And I believe…I have to believe you have the capability to understand suffering, though you are a…” The woman hesitated a beat, before stuttering out the next words, entangled within her contempt, “a negra.”
I watched the conductor’s smooth face as it swayed, struck askew by her hatred. He took a moment in his reply. “What is it that you would propose that I do, Ma’am?”
“Well, remove them at once, of course. Surely, any decent person would.”
“Ma’am, unfortunately that is not within my power. The lions have paid their passage the same as you,” the conductor said with some resolution. “And again, I assure you, they are safely locked up in the baggage car.”
Here was something rarely encountered: a stranger actually attempting to assist us, and I interrupted my pretense of non-concern to regard him more thoroughly through the sides of my eyes. A mob was rapidly forming as passengers from other cars jammed into our car. For such a confrontation, the conductor was quite nondescript and not very large.
“I wanna know who owns those lions,” said a man, his voice laced with threat, as he glared in our direction.
“Sir, to my knowledge, the lion owners are not on board this train,” said the conductor uneasily.
His eyes never shifted toward us, but I could see the passengers already suspected who was guilty of ownership. Their accusing eyes found us, and measured us – three dark-skinned gypsy women, clad in beads and coins and layers of colorful fabric. We were unlike them, which was enough; their hatred circled us like smoke. I could feel the passengers’ breaths on the hairs of my neck: hot, short pants of self-righteousness as Chieftain and Princess continued their long roars of protest. I had felt the force of such emotion another time in my life; it was when our whole gypsy klan had been slaughtered. I gripped Mother’s hand tightly.
“Boy, seemingly you do not understand our dilemma here,” Robert snarled. The taunting menace in his voice sent chills inside me. “We are on a speeding train with rampaging lions, thirsty for human blood.”
“What shall we do,” another male voice prompted.
“Take over the damn train if we have to,” replied Robert.
“Yeah, there are more of us than there are of him,” said a new male voice. As they began detecting the power inherent to a mob, I could see the conductor’s bravado shrink. I continued to stare ahead, my heart withering.
“That’s right! We’ll just take his keys and throw the beasts off the train ourselves,” said another.
“Hold his arms,” ordered Robert. The men closest to the conductor grabbed him roughly.
“Don’t move if you value your life,” the man with the pistol warned the conductor, taking aim.
“Gentlemen, gentlemen, please,” interrupted a genteel voice from a man in a derby hat. The car quieted some. “I am an attorney of law,” he continued, “and I cannot and I will not support lawless behavior. Especially in my presence.”
“There is no law out here in the prairie,” Robert insisted.
“The law is everywhere and in fact, gentlemen, in this case, I would have to offer the absent lion owners not only my testimony, but my expertise. And I assure you I am quite proficient at my work.”
The passengers glared at us, the foreigners, trying to understand how people such as us had the power to alter their lives. I willed Chieftain and Princess to just be quiet, but I knew it was not to be. It is certainly a futility to try to shush a lion. I wondered if they were excited about going to California, or perhaps they were protesting the leaving of my father and the other lions at the Circus of Cairo. In any case, the train continued to lurch with their wildness; the woman, Elizabeth, gave a soft sound before fainting once again.
“That does it! Boy, perhaps you would be so kind as to tell us when the next train to California is scheduled?” Robert’s voice hissed with such malevolence, a tremble rose in the conductor’s hand as he consulted his timetable and his pocket watch.
“The next train will arrive in about an hour and a half.”
“So in a little over an hour, we can all ride on a civilized train,” the lawyer reasoned. “Certainly this compromise is worth the wait.”
“What say you, ladies and gentlemen? Will you join us,” Robert rallied.
It was clear no one was going to stay on a train with wild lions, and at the next stop, the passengers fled the train in hasty droves. But they did so noisily, expressing their rage as they pounded and stomped down the aisles, gathering their possessions. Their protest clunked down the metal steps to the platform, their bodies and faces twisted with a most violent indignation at their circumstances.
My spinning fears rapidly churned into paranoia. The evacuated passengers would eagerly report, to anyone who would listen, the story of hungry lions owned by strange, dark foreigners on their train bound for California. The story might even be reported in the newspapers, and then Father would be able to find out where we had gone with his lions. Until this time, to my knowledge, Mother had never before in her life stood up to my father. In retaliation for his humiliation, Father might call the police and have all of us dragged away to jail — or back to the Circus of Cairo. I didn’t know which would be worse. I did know, just like the other passengers, I hated the lions’ existence. As the train shuffled out of the station, it now seemed to be completely empty. In our car, everyone was gone except for us.
I saw Grandmother Lena reach for her Tarot Cards, but I was too immersed in the jumble of my own thoughts to mutter my usual insults regarding her superstitions. Reverently, she opened the special pouch carefully stitched into all of her clothes to ensure that her Tarot cards would always remain quite close to her heart. On this occasion, she spoke aloud both to declare her duties of stewardship toward the Tarot, as well as to remind the Tarot of its obligation to her as its guardian. She also took the opportunity to remind me of what she considered to be my destiny.
“Angelica, I inherited this Tarot from my mother, your Great-grandmother Portia. She told me the Tarot would always divulge the wisdom of the universe to me, if never neglected. It will become your duty, when I pass the cards to you, that they stay always either in your hands or close to your heart. Only then will they speak their knowledge — of what was true, what is true and what is truly going to be.”
I rolled my eyes at Mother, but unfortunately, she had reverted to her usual place of acquiescence; her eyes beseeched me to be quiet. I angrily sucked my cheeks in, biting down harshly with my teeth to try to keep my silence. Otherwise, I knew, of their own accord, bitter words of contention would come tumbling out of my mouth to be known.
Grandmother Lena’s patience waited for both of us to join her; she studied Mother, then me to her satisfaction before gazing out at the sky. As if on cue, a crescent of moon rose above the horizon. I willed my thoughts not to align with theirs, but I had spent too many years as my grandmother’s granddaughter and my mother’s daughter to be successful. Though we regarded the slightest sliver of that silver light with silence, I knew we shared the same knowing: a new moon always announced cosmic beginnings.
“So this night, then, is to be our beginning,” Grandmother Lena whispered in a dramatic tremor. Because of the significance of this omen, Grandmother Lena shuffled and then reshuffled the Tarot deck many times before spreading the cards of our fate on the seat across from us.
Slowly, slowly, she painstakingly put down the seven auspicious cards from right to left. But she did not stop there, and I groaned inwardly as she put down seven more and then yet another seven. Apparently Grandmother Lena had decided she would not be content to examine just our future; additionally, she was going to study our past, as well as our present. This was going to be an eternity of useless information, I petulantly declared to myself, gritting my teeth again to stay silent. But I knew my eyes said plenty.
Grandmother Lena ignored my ill humor, and with great gravity she nodded once before closing her eyes. This was something she always did before beginning her reading of the Tarot. It was not only an acknowledgment of the rightness in and of all occurrences in existence, but her knowledge of this rightness, as well as her surrender to it. The nod was her assent to comply with whatever destiny the Tarot would reveal to her that night. But her nod plunged me into a chasm of anguish. I tried to ward off the memories spilling out of my heart, but there was no escaping them.
It had been four years ago, beside a stream where our Rom klan camped, when Grandmother Lena had also searched for direction in her Tarot cards. It had been an evening when our family was happy together, a rarity. I remembered how jauntily Mother had danced with her shawl to flirt with my father. That time, the Tarot reading had all been for naught. My eyes narrowed with their pain of remembrance, still so fresh after so many years.
If the Tarot was so perfect in its relating of the future, why had it not told her that our gypsy klan was in mortal danger? Why had the Tarot not directed us all to flee before the gadje massacre had begun, which would end the lives of so many I had loved?
I steeled my self to not trust any story my grandmother was about to tell us. But it did not matter that my mind was dusted with distrust; Grandmother Lena had begun to speak in Romani from that world she alone as a shuvani witch could inhabit, and began the story she knew would become our lives. I decided to avoid her eyes by looking down at the Tarot spread. And as I did so, I could feel the radiance of the Tarot resonate within my being. Gently, carefully, the richly tinted cards from ageless antiquities smoothed the jaggedness of my distrust toward a reluctant attentiveness.
“Ava, this is mostly about you and so it must be about us, also. Look.” Grandmother Lena pointed to the first card in the row of cards closest to us, the row designating our past. “’Four cups’,” she indicated its importance with her whisper.
“My secret number,” said my mother with wonder.
“This is how I know this Tarot is about you, daughter. Yes it is your number, but when it is in the suit of ‘Cups’ the Tarot speaks of disappointment in love.” Grandmother Lena paused. “Well, we know enough about all of that and so it is not necessary to tarry with the tale.
Copyright © · 2012 Laura Shepard Townsend | Website by MJCimageworks