Meralda

Just as the sun rises every day, giving its light to the earth, so day after day, year in, year out, we Roma travel on, without knowing where we are headed but following the road that lies before us. A people of the road! Always our heart sings its sorrow in the teardrop of a song from beneath our soles, from the very earth. Grass blades turn green, trees' buds adorn themselves under the blue gaze of the sky, the world blossoms from the green of the leaf to the red of wildflowers' petal, and beyond.

The land keeps rolling on before us. Earth everywhere, yet our country nowhere, as though someone had erased it or hidden it in the depths, exactly as the old men used to say.

The road is our life, our life is the road . . .

I remember this well. How could I ever forget? It happened before I married Ceandiri.

After a long journey we had arrived at the shore of the sea, I don't know where. Each family prepared to pitch raise its tent. A little ways off, the old women gathered behind the wagons. As always they kindled the fire, reciting all sorts of incantations and spells which they chanted over it. Their hands reached to the sky imploring that the mercy of the good spirits descend upon us, to sanctify and to protect our chosen place against the fury of the evil spirits.

We children were playing our games quite near them, but we could not tell that the old women had become alarmed about the disturbing signs revealed to them.

I remember even now that we wanted so much to swim in the sea and our Bulibasha wouldn't let us. Of course we obeyed his order, because the whip awaited anyone who didn't listen to him. We were more afraid of the whip than of anything else.

Nightfall embraced the horizon, and gradually a soft darkness settled over everyone and everything. The tents were lit up by the flames of fires. Across the fires rested grills supporting great stewpots coated with ashes, in which the evening meal was boiling. We children waited, our bellies grumbling with hunger; some lay in wait for a moment when no one was around. Then with the quick thrust of a spoon they took whatever they managed to and hid under the wagon, where they bolted it as fast as they could swallow. If they got caught, they would be bitterly sorry. They could be punished with so bad a beating that for three days they wouldn't want to eat anything else. When you steal food from the fire, they say that at your wedding there will be a big brawl in which many heads will be broken.

Great joy filled our spirits when Mama or Grandma lifted the cast-iron kettle of mamaliga from the fire. We were beside ourselves with delight; our eager and happy eyes carefully watched the thick boiled cornmeal being stirred with a long wooden spoon near the fire. In the middle of the tent, lit by torches, the family set up a big aluminum table, which was, in truth, a large, circular tray. We children gathered round the table grasping spoons in our hands, waiting for our meal, fidgeting with impatience and high spirits. Only a man should turn the kettle with mamaliga upside-down on the table, never a woman, as you probably know. When we children saw the mound of cornmeal on the table, we screamed "hurrah" so loudly that everyone in the camp could tell that we had our mamaliga.

Father studied the mamaliga carefully. If he happened to see a thick line or a crack in the yellow surface, he announced with a big sigh, "Oh, what a long, long road we have yet to travel!" If the mamaliga stayed smooth, his mouth broke into a smile below his mustache. "We're going to stay a while in this place; no road beckons to us."

The loaf of mamaliga was cut with a wire, and each of us hurried to grab a piece. Then, after we were seated at the table with a hunk of it in our hand, Mama set on the table a serving bowl made of aluminum or copper tinned on the inside, which we called "the big plate." When she had filled this bowl with food, we clapped our hands and wolfed everything down quickly and greedily, as though "the big plate" would run out and we'd be left still famished. Perhaps this is why Gypsy children are used to eating a lot at one time, and eating it very fast.

Some women had too many children for the amount of food they could get-well, you know how it is, the poor always have more children than the rich-and they used to tie a cord or a head kerchief around their children's bellies and give them a big pitcher of water before a meal. That's so each child would become full quickly and not eat as much. This was the only way there would be enough food for everybody.

Gypsy children always eat the most in the evening. This is what they learn to do when they're little, and what they teach their children after them. But listen to me, my mind is wandering, lost in these reflections. I'd better get going back to telling you the rest of the story I started.

Deep night had now descended, folding dark wings over the world. The sea sounded its dull roar, its waves breaking against the rocks and sand, and my mind was engrossed in all sorts of childish fancies I don't remember.

In front of the big tent, the fire cut streaks of daylight into the night. The heavens were dark, not a single star had come out. It seemed the stars had stayed hidden on the other side of the sky. People clustered together around the fire, listening to the story the old Bulibasha was telling.

As for me, I felt more and more tired, and sleep began to make my eyelids heavier and heavier. I got up quietly and went to our tent. Mama followed me. The embers in the fireplace died out, so I threw on a handful of twigs and branches and the fire immediately flared brightly. My mother quickly made my bed for sleep, and I nestled close to my little brothers.

I liked how the flames played their games, competing against the darkness of the night. Mama came close to me. "Are you sleepy?"

"Yes, Mama . . ."

"Meralda, you've become a big girl. You're fifteen. You're nearly grown up, girls your age already have children in their arms. I myself married when I was little-eleven years old, I hadn't even grown breasts. My dear, you have to think of yourself and find a husband. You have a very pretty face, so be careful which man you decide on. You have to be wary, Meralda, and remember that some boys act nice, they're handsome, they sweeten you up with their bewitching words, but after the wedding they turn mean, ugly and nasty . . ."

That night my mother told me a great many things to make me to understand. She spoke freely, while I drowsed in the spell of her words.

The next morning, when I came out of our tent, lots of children were swimming in the sea. The sun, rising in the sky, mirrored its gold on the blue of the waves. Everything seemed a dream. Such a strange thing, I felt myself between two skies-the sky of the sun and the sky of the water. I ran merrily toward the sea. When I arrived at the shore, the older boys of the camp surrounded me. "Meralda, choose! Choose one of us to be your husband."

I turned back, suddenly bashful, and ran to the tents. The Bulibasha came to me and said, "Meralda, the time has come for you to get married. You must choose a man right now. This is what we decided together."

That instant, I blurted out that the boy who brought me the most beautiful shell in the sea would become my husband. All the young men rushed to the sea and began to search for pretty shells. They searched for a long time, but I liked not one of the shells any of them found. Then, after a long wait during which my heart constantly beat so strongly it seemed about to burst from my chest, Ceandiri, the handsomest boy in the camp, came to me holding out in his hands the most beautiful shell.

I put the shell at my ear and listened. In the voice of the sea's roar, the shell whispered the most melodious songs and invocations. Destiny had made the decision. Ceandiri was my choice.

At the wedding the Bulibasha presented us with a silver goblet, and my mother gave us a large down comforter, three pillows, two rolls of thick woolen fabric, five red skirts, five blouses, five overskirts and seven beautiful weavings with a pattern of wildflowers. Around my neck, the Bulibasha hung a necklace with three gold coins and two strings of beads.

My mother-in-law, the beautiful and clever Duda, braided my hair with silver coins and wrapped the braids about my face, and she gave me a red shawl to wear over my shoulders, telling me, "Meralda, I'm very glad that my son has the most beautiful bride among our people."

The wedding feast lasted three days and three nights. Everyone ate and drank, and everyone danced. All were satisfied. After the third day, Ceandiri took me in his arms and carried me to our tent, which he had decorated with wildflowers.

Early the next morning, the Bulibasha gave the command to our people that we must prepare to move on. By the time the sun had risen, we were ready for the road. The Bulibasha always went at the front of the caravan, and the rest of us after him. Ceandiri's and my wagon, as the wagon of the newest couple, went last. You know, this is the custom among us. Ceandiri's horses were very docile and plodded ahead on their own. Ceandiri kept the reins in his hands, and I sat curled up near him, we looked into one another's eyes, and suddenly our lips were starving for hot kisses. We had eyes for nothing else. We could no longer see where we might be going. The horses clip-clopped along, meekly following the horses and wagons in front of them. From time to time we put the shell to our ears to listen the songs coming from the deep, wrapping ourselves in the spell of love.

After many days of travel and numerous halts, the sea was now far behind us. We traveled from dawn to dusk without knowing where. That was our destiny-our life had to be the road, only the road. If the road itself were to reach its end that very moment, our hearts would cease to beat, because our life is nothing more than the road. When the sun had set and the day's journey was over, the road always was replaced by dancing and high spirits. The road and song, these are the life of our people. And this life is wonderful.

Then the sun would rise in the blue sky as it always does, and we would make ready once more for the road. The summer sun's fierce heat singed our skin from morning till night, making it darker and darker.

When we had reached a faraway place, suddenly, in our wagons' path, a group of men appeared at the edge of a road that skirted two sides of a cornfield. There were five in all, peasants who looked in a bad way, haggard and with pinched faces, dressed in tattered clothes; they seemed scarecrows hanging from sticks in the fields. As soon as they saw us, they got down on their knees and begged us to give them something to eat. Poor men, they hadn't put a thing in their mouths for four days since they ran away from their masters' lands.

Our Bulibasha, who in his own fashion really was merciful at heart, gave them three loaves of cold mamaliga, some onions, and a bottle of wine. We gathered round the strangers and watched them as they gratefully gobbled down the mamaliga with big bites of onion. After they had finished this meal and had wet their whistles with many a swallow of wine, the Bulibasha asked them, "Where are you fellows going now?"

"Well, we are going to try to look for a place to work in another country where the boyars are better people."

"Oh, woe! . . ." The old Bulibasha looked at them and let out a big sigh. "You men, you're going in search of better masters, good people to work for . . . But alas, what of us? We're in search of our country that our ancestors had to abandon many years ago, and we're still searching for it everywhere, traveling this way and that. But we'll never find it, for nobody knows where it is."

The peasants prostrated themselves and lowered their faces to the ground again, begging our pity and pleading with us, "Oh, worthy people with faces beaten by wind and sun, with great and generous souls, take us with you! Let us travel with you until you reach a new country, because only in this way will the police not find us."

"All right, I'll allow you to come with us. But don't make any trouble."

"We'll travel with you as if we're not there, because we know too well what we've left behind and what awaits us if we're forced to return."

Those peasants accompanied us for a long time and never did anything wrong. Poor men, they minded their business and were overjoyed that they could no longer be caught.

After many a week and many a road, at last we arrived in another country. We approached a big city. This city was encircled by high brick walls guarded by soldiers dressed in the finest of uniforms, and on the towers were batteries of cannon.

With great trepidation, we went right up to the city gate, and we were much surprised to see, near its entrance, a broad meadow covered with Gypsy tents. Children played in the sand with dirty faces and empty bellies, their eyes big, round and black as only our Roma eyes can be. Bare-chested men worked under the strong sun with hammers and chisels, breaking large chunks of rock. Seeing that the people were the same as ourselves, we halted the wagons. At once an old man approached us, puffing wreaths of smoke on his pipe. "What are you doing here? Where did you come from? Go away from here, this isn't the place for you. Only Saxons are allowed to dwell within the walls of this city, and there are plenty of us to work for their king."

Our Bulibasha replied, "Well, if you can stay here outside this city, we can, too."

"Go, go along your way, because no one has the right to live here and work but us."

"What kind of work is that?" our Bulibasha asked.

"Look at these large stones. We make them into cannonballs for their big guns."

"We have different skills, so we too can stay and find work."

"Here? Go away from here quickly because this isn't a place for anyone else. Go! You'll bring the sickness along with you. We don't want death in our camp."

Meanwhile the five peasants we had taken with us had entered through the great gate guarded by soldiers and didn't come back out. It would seem they found what they sought: good masters and another country.

We had to leave that city because we had no choice. Traveling on as we always did, we eventually arrived at a village. On both sides of the road, we could see fresh graves. There wasn't a living creature to be found. The village appeared to be empty, and in fact, it was; nobody lived there anymore. We were completely silent, it seemed as though we were waiting for something, but this eerie waiting lay heavy on our hearts and filled our eyes with sadness. Where were the people? Why were houses empty, why did graves line the road on one side and also the other, as if the village had become a graveyard, or a graveyard had become a village? We proceeded farther along the road in great sorrow. Suddenly our wagons stopped; a noise shattered the strange silence. Ahead of us, a man and a woman were wailing beside a grave over which earth had just been heaped.

Our Bulibasha climbed down from his wagon and started to cross the road straight toward the two people, but the man called out from the far side of the road, "Go back! Are you crazy, man? Don't come close to me!" Our leader wasn't put off by these words and took a few steps more. "Stop! Do you want to die?" the man asked. "Don't come closer!"

"Hold your tongue, man, don't talk to me this way. Why are you trying to scare us?"

"Stop! Can't you see that this whole village has turned into a graveyard? Nobody's alive anymore. Here among us, Lady Plague now dwells. It is she who has killed us all. Cast your eyes on the hill where the boyar's big mansion can be seen! Well, that's where Plague has taken up residence. Our master and everyone in his family are dead."

Our leader returned to the wagon and remained sitting there, without any notion of what to do next. Seeing his bewilderment, his wife spoke out in a loud voice, "We mustn't be afraid of the Plague. Our good spirits and our gods will protect us. We can't be touched because we have the magic of Healing Hart's Tongue. Let's go up the hill and make our camp there, because night's already coming. Look, the sun's starting to set."

Nobody disagreed with her suggestion. We went on to the mansion without any sort of fear. The mansion was empty, its great doors thrown wide open. From the rich boyar's house, we women took whatever caught our fancy. We pitched our tents somewhere behind the castle, on a little meadow.

After we had helped ourselves to anything we wanted, we gathered wood and made the fire; each of us cooked what we had. Then without warning, it turned very cold. I remember that I became frightened. We sat around the fire with the warm down quilt draped across our backs. Ceandiri put more branches on the fire, but as we sat there, my teeth started to chatter so loudly that they sounded like wagon wheels raising their clatter on a rutted road. My mother-in-law, wise Duda, immediately came to me and recited incantations, after which the trembling stopped. Ceandiri gave me the flask of strong brandy. I took some swallows and passed it back to them to take some sips, too. Then I began to be feel much more frightened. My mother-in-law tied around my neck a good weed bound in a kerchief, and my fear disappeared. Later, she went away, leaving us alone.

Ceandiri held me tightly in his arms, but, although it was late, I couldn't sleep. It got later and later, until it was well after midnight. Finally, when I was getting tired and my eyes were filling with sleep, the dogs' growls and loud yelps broke the silence of the night, startling everyone. The horses tied in back of the wagons began to paw the ground and snort nervously, wanting to be set free because they sensed close to them a very bad smell. The dogs howled like wolves in the winter when they are starving and find a living creature that has been trapped, and they don't know which of them will be the first to sink its fangs into the animal's neck.

The witches immediately came out. The oldest of them clutched Healing Hart's Tongue in her hand. This is a special type of weed whose magic we Roma believe protects you as long as you keep the Hart's Tongue in your grasp; nothing bad can happen to you while you hold it, even if you see an evil spirit right before your eyes.

The dogs barked more and more fiercely. Not a thing could be seen. A terrible fear overcame everybody.

Even the fortunetellers drew back. Only the very oldest among them spoke, directing the others to retreat into their tent. The old woman remained there by herself. It turned out that she wasn't at all mistaken about what was happening. Plague had been cornered and attacked by the camp's dogs. The old sorceress cried out to our entire Gypsy camp, "No one come outside! Cholera's daughter is here among us."

The oldest witch held a bunch of Healing Hart's Tongue leaves firmly in her hand and went up to Plague without the least fear, banishing the dogs. Never speaking a word, the old sorceress took her by the hand and led her into the tent. She knew that she couldn't speak to Plague, because if she did, she herself would drop dead on the spot. The other witches stood there in the tent, each holding Healing Hart's Tongue in her hand. When the old woman entered the tent with Plague, their own fear disappeared. They too knew that it was forbidden to speak.

The tent began filling with mist from the place where Plague stood. Plague was short, completely covered with black veils so dark that nobody could see her face. These veils were stained with blood and badly torn, and through the rips in the veils open wounds could be seen here and there where the dogs had raked her with their fangs. Her hands were long, longer than her body, and they too were covered by tattered veils, her fingers ending in long, curved nails. Plague's feet were bare and splattered with blood. Nobody could see her face.

The old woman put a large cauldron of water to boil over the fire and added many sorts of medicinal herbs and good weeds. The other women brought brushwood and larger branches and made a great blaze as if it were midday, so bright was the light of its flames.

Plague rested and tried to get warm, but the cloud of mist about her never dissipated. When the water boiled, the oldest of the witches sent the rest outside. Only she remained with Lady Plague. First she placed a wooden tub near the fire and poured the water into it. Next she took a big piece of soap and undressed Plague, bathing her as if she were a baby. Then the old woman dried Plague with a white cloth, spread ointments to salve her wounds, and dressed her in traditional Gypsy clothing that had never been worn. All the while, Plague hadn't shown her face hidden under the covering of black veils. Never for an instant did the old witch let go of the magic Hart's Tongue. While bathing Plague, she kept it firmly between her teeth. After Lady Plague saw that she had been washed and her wounds healed by the herbs added to the cauldron, she drew herself up to the fire. The ancient woman placed a red pillow for her to sit on. Plague warmed herself. Now she had become Gypsy-woman Plague dressed in red, a red skirt and also a red overskirt, but her face was still black. The old woman didn't say a word. Nobody in any of the tents was sleeping, even the littlest children lay wide-eyed. Nobody had any desire to sleep.

My mother-in-law, the clever and wise Duda, came to my tent and held me in her arms. From time to time, Ceandiri added more wood to the fire, trying to hide his fear from my eyes.

When the cock could be heard crowing at the first gleam of dawn, breaking the spells and the power of evil spirits, Plague turned her face toward the sunrise in such a way that the old sorceress couldn't see her features. The mist covered her so thoroughly that she seemed a black patch broken off the darkness of deepest night, and nothing could be seen. Plague said, "You took pity on me. Therefore I forgive your people among the world's peoples. Neither I nor my daughters after me will ever touch the Roma people for as long as we remain here on this earth. We will flee your path. Amen."

That was all she said. Then she disappeared as if she hadn't ever been there. The old witch took the leaves out of the mouth and summoned the rest of us. We entered that tent. She told everybody what she had done for the Plague. Near the fireplace something black remained. It was Plague's veils. One of the witches lifted them at the end of a stick, without touching them by hand, and threw them on the fire. A marvelous thing happened. Instead of burning, they extinguished the flames. Instantly, the old witch realized the veils were sacred; that was why Lady Plague left them for us. Whenever anyone became sick, the old woman took from the leather sack she kept filled with leaves and roots a tiny piece of one of Plague's veils, which the sick person had to eat. By this means the sickness immediately departed, as if it had been seized by hand and plucked out.

When morning came, our Bulibasha ordered us to gather our things because we had a long road to travel. The witches told us we had to return where we had left. Our Bulibasha decided, however, to proceed in the direction we'd been going, telling us that straight before us we'd find what the Roma have been searching for all these many years, that is to say, our lost country, which nobody can reach because in both directions the road to it is made of chimeras with long, white wings.

The sun was high in the sky as our wagons clattered down a road beside which was a wide river and high mountains covered with fir trees. It was extremely pretty, that road. The caravan was moving at a slow pace. Ceandiri walked near our wagon, gathering wild strawberries from alongside the road. He would pick a handful for me and immediately come to the wagon to give them to me. I kept hold of the reins, and I was thinking of nothing else except receiving more wild strawberries.

The sky clouded over rapidly, and a sudden downpour, such as you find in the mountains, caught us, soaking us to the skin with cold rain. The wagons could hardly go forward, travel became extremely hard.

The Bulibasha always went at the front of the caravan, not knowing what lay before us. When something bad is possibly going to happen to you, you become anxious and go straight on, without knowing where your steps might carry you.

After the big rainstorm, we reached a pass. The wagons halted. From ahead of us came soldiers on horseback, their greedy eyes glittering at the sight of our girls and women. The soldiers had guns.

Ceandiri quickly covered me with a thick layer of hay, hiding me well so not to be seen. My eyes were wet with tears and my heart shrank as small as a flea. Women hid behind their husbands and started to weep. Men held in their hands the whips they used to strike the horses, some of them had clubs, some hammers, and the Bulibasha had a long scourge. Without a word the soldiers charged them, and a terrible fight began. The women struck the soldiers with whatever they could, defending themselves from the barbarity of these men who were trying to rape them. Both old women and young girls fell victim to the cruel lust of the soldiers. The men were beaten and stomped by the soldiers, their blood mixing with the mud of the road, but they wouldn't let themselves be defeated by these savages. They fought as well as they could.

At long last, after the soldiers left, we took to a hidden road for fear they would return. Nobody said a word. We were subdued and sad. We had escaped from Plague, only to meet disgrace from ruthless brutes. Much better had Plague eradicated us before this.

Later that night we took shelter under the branches of the forest on a hidden road and slept gathered together near a fire, but without anyone's speaking. Our old leader was so downhearted and upset that he couldn't sleep a wink. He sat all night near the fire, sighing and smoking pipe after pipe.

When day broke, we had hardly awakened when another calamity befell us. Now it was the Turks. We were surrounded. We couldn't make the slightest movement. The Turks' leader came with two soldiers and ordered us to give them our boy children, every last one. We were lost. We began to pray to Nivashi to defend us, but our prayers went unanswered. The witches were in tears, mothers hugged their children to their bosoms, you could feel your heart bursting as the Turks snatched the little boys away, breaking their tiny hands and legs to pry them loose from their mothers' arms. Mothers flung themselves down, beat their chests with their fists, pulled their hair out of their heads, screaming like raging lionesses when they defend their cubs from danger.

Some mothers held onto their children so tightly that the Turks couldn't pull them from the women's arms. One woman had only a single child left, a little boy three years old; two others had died before him when they were no more than a year old. She wouldn't be separated from this child, so the Turks cut off both her hands. Only in this way could they take the boy.

After our boy children had been stolen from us and put into wagons with a lot of other children as well, the Turks continued on their way. Those mothers who lost children wanted to die. Their weeping seemed to move a corner of the sky.

Our Bulibasha was weeping like a little baby and couldn't summon up within him the capacity to hold back his tears. He managed to say between sobs, "Without power, without justice and without a country anywhere on the face of this earth, it's no longer worth living. Gather all you have. We are going to head south. Nobody is to eat anything or even drink water for three days. Let us not stop anywhere for three days and three nights. Maybe then we'll arrive at sunset where our country will be."

The people could scarcely hitch their horses to their wagons. We traveled with our hearts bleeding, and from the eyes of those mothers whose children had been taken rained down many teardrops, not clear, but red with blood, for they wept with such great grief for their children who were gone from them forever.

The wheels of our wagons turned slowly, passing over grass, sky and the dust of the earth. We went on and on along the road, without knowing what other misfortunes might await us, always hoping that our lost country was near. Then we would have power and justice, and above all, a country.