The Birch Grove


When the winds sweep away winter's dreaming, March dresses up in flowers and grass and, on long wings, ushers in the spring. Then, without ever knowing why, trees raise their naked arms to the King of the Sky. As a reward they are bedizened with a profusion of buds that burst from an excess of love, transforming themselves into the Queen's Ladies who raise slender and graceful arms under their corner of the sky, resting their dreams and thoughts in green leaves.

Just as wind and rain sweep away everything old and dry, that grass blades may grow in purity, so in turn human beings must purify the depths of their souls in order to become better and more loving before the white gaze of the snowdrops.

And who other than the Gypsies, who live free under the skies, can soonest feel the coming of Spring? Nobody! While the snow still covers everything and the sun's earliest rays of spring hazard forth, the Gypsies one and all rush out into the snow, from the very youngest to the most venerable, swimming with their naked arms and washing their bodies clean of winter's frost. Because of this, illness avoids them; they are used to wind, rain, frost and, above everything, sun. The baby born during the winter is immediately rolled in the snow because he or she will live a whole lifetime in freedom under the illimitable sky.

After winter, when the pale soul longs for sun, grass and leaf, it is customary at the beginning of March to celebrate the coming of spring. This year the Gypsy camp spent a long time looking for the loveliest of birch groves, the place the Gypsies always choose to celebrate the advent of spring. The whole dark winter, women and girls sew pretty clothes and dream longingly of the day when going will get to wear them. As I began to tell you, after much searching, the Gypsies pitched camp near a birch grove situated at the far edge of a village, so that they could show their gold necklaces without any fear. It was the day before the celebration. Rain kept falling, the wind blew and blew, the little drops penetrated to the very marrow of everyone's bones. The grass sprouted and instantly the world was almost green. The girls hurried into the forest to gather kindling for the fire, but, more than anything else, to look for the little white flowers, spring's newborn-snowdrops. Their heads could scarcely be seen peeping from under the leaves where, here and there, a trace of snow still lingered. Beautiful dark-skinned girls carefully picked each flower, singing while thinking happily of the following day when they would put braid them into their black hair.

The witches and fortunetellers had run breathlessly to the riverbank to make every incantation and magic spell to invoke the spirits and good gods in order that next day be beautiful, as is the Gypsy custom the day before a celebration. They boiled secret extracts and all kinds of weeds, dried blossoms and roots in the big black cauldrons coated with ashes, and they proceeded to throw the pots along with their contents into the water. Then they stood there beside the river, crying as they implored the sky not to rain. The sky listened to their prayers: later that night, the rain stopped, and one by one the stars showed themselves. Quickly they lighted the fire and held hands, leaving their hair hanging loose down their backs. They danced ecstatically around the fire, which threw light on their hideous old faces. Then they circled the fire nine times, and the most ancient among them went to the riverbank to throw their skirts and blouses into the water one at a time. Remaining naked, she took a burning brand, put some pinches of incense on it, and entered the frigid water. The air suddenly filled with incense, which spread its sweetness into the nostrils of the other women. When she arrived in the middle of the water, this most venerable among the witches and fortunetellers proclaimed, "Te avel akh des sukhar"-"May this be a beautiful day!"

She closed her eyes and at once flung the burning brand into the middle of the river. While she slowly made her own way out of the water, the other women sprinkled her with drops of red wine from a small ceramic wine bottle, after which they flung it into the water, too. They wrapped the old woman in white cloth and gave her new garments. They felt sure now that the next day would be beautiful and the gods and good spirits would grant their prayers. The witches and fortunetellers returned to their tents fiercely proud of their achievement. It was very late but nobody in the camp had slept yet; everybody was waiting for them. They went straight to the Bulibasha and the oldest of the women announced, "Tomorrow we're going to have a beautiful day!"

He looked at her, satisfied, and threw her a golden coin. The old woman picked it up, felt its milled edge, bit it between her teeth. It was real gold. Very pleased, she said to him, "May Nivashi grant you a multitude of days!"

When dawn began to glow and the crowing of the cocks shattered night's silence, everybody awoke and gathered before the big tent. The Bulibasha asked the men to slaughter the pigs and the women to prepare pots of food for the feast. He sent the rest of the men into the forest to gather wood for the fire. After the pigs were slaughtered, the women hurried to take meat to make sarmale and other dishes, so that very soon the stuffed cabbage leaves and the rest of the foods started to boil in the pots blackened with ashes. Before the sun had reached its highest point in the sky, the foods were beautifully arranged on the round table with an aluminum top.

It was a beautiful day. The old woman Iova was sitting near a tree drawing deep puffs of smoke from her gold pipe, her thoughts wandering elsewhere. Zambila, a young girl named after the sweet hyacinth, came to her. "Aunt Iova, I know that you know everything. Tell me why we celebrate the first day of spring?"

The old woman looked at the girl lovingly and then began to laugh. "You'd better go dance, don't you hear how pretty the music sounds? If I were you, I'd dance until my feet struck sparks. Hey, go away, don't stay with old Auntie...."

"I won't go. I want you to answer me, Auntie Iova. Look, I swear on my blue eyes that I'll sew you an overskirt and also give you a lovely red kerchief."

"Then sit down beside me, but don't forget to give me what you promised."

"I'll give them to you, Aunt Iova, I swear by the sky in my eyes."

The old woman started to spin the thread of the story.

"On this day, when spring comes and the buds on the trees are bursting open, just as you can see right over there, we have to be happy and good and to take care that no one quarrels. We don't want to make the mistake of bringing anger to the gods and good spirits. Today is Reconciliation Day. All people who have quarreled have to make peace with each other."

"But on other days, don't we have to act the same way?"

"Other days aren't like this day. This is the way our parents and our parents' parents, and their parents before them, gave us this day to keep, and this is this same way we have to leave it to be kept by our children. You know very well that tomorrow the holidays begin. Before the sun measures off midday in the sky, we have to wash all our possessions and clothes, to wash our hair and oil it with bear fat, because for nine days we are not permitted to wash or comb our hair, because it's a great sin to make soapsuds immediately after Reconciliation Day. If we do, then the gods and spirits will be angry with us and bring us harm, as they once did a long time ago."

"But why, Aunt Iova?"

"Why? Let me be, so I can tell you, just as I've started to tell you!"

"Go on telling me, Auntie! And tell me why every year the celebration of spring takes place only near these white trees?"

"Prick up your ears and pay close heed, because what I'm about to tell you is nothing other than the truth. I tell you what I personally heard from my elders when I was young, because I was fond of asking about this and that, as you're doing now. In this way, my Zambila, I put these stories in my ear and stored them in my heart..."

***

Once, long, long ago, I don't remember how long, there were many Gypsies who halted in a meadow and pitched their tents, just as we find ourselves today. Their Bulibasha was very young. His moustache had scarcely begun to grow and he wasn't married. Everybody had dressed up their girls to see who would be prettiest, and instructed them to ask him to dance and to make eyes at him. While the celebration was going on, just as it is now, among us here, during the time the girls were dancing and proudly showing off the gold necklaces gleaming at their throats, and while some of them were raising their wine cups and eating meat roasted on the grill as we are eating now, four wagons covered with tarpaulin suddenly came along the road and stopped before those who were feasting. An old woman, Sibinca, quickly ran to the wagons because she recognized them. The wagons came from far away, all the way from Tisa. There were members of the Manzons' big group. All the people followed the old woman to the wagons, including the handsome Bulibasha, who, I forgot to tell you, had curly black hair and eyes as blue as yours, in which it seemed the sky had drowned. The men climbed down from the wagons and shook hands with one another, as we do to greet each other. From the last wagon a young girl descended, so beautiful she seemed stolen from the heavens and you couldn't bear to look at her. Recognizing her, Sibinca said, "This girl is none other than my granddaughter, my daughter's child." The girl threw her arms around Sibinca and started to cry. Sibinca could not control herself and also cried, and through her sobs, she asked the girl about her mother. Thus Sibinca found that her daughter had died giving birth to her granddaughter. Then, instead of that handsome young boy who was her son-in-law, Sibinca could see a man, too quickly grown gray with the years, who shook his mother-in-law's hand, likewise crying. With much affection and warmth, the young Bulibasha invited them to the feast as his guests, so the old men sat at the table and the young went to dance. Among these people from the four wagons was a very handsome young man who immediately picked up his violin, and the magic of his strings captured you in a dizzying dance, you couldn't stop until you collapsed on your feet, and even then you still wanted to go on.

I must also tell you that from the moment our Bulibasha saw the beautiful Milada stepping down from the wagon, for that was Sibinca's granddaughter's name, he felt as if he had a burning coal under his feet. He went to her father and asked him to let her to dance with him. He couldn't take his eyes off Milada. Her eyes, black as blackest night, made him lose his way. They had caught him in the love's net. The boy who played the violin felt his hands trembling and the notes from his strings flew in all the wrong directions. Everybody understood why, but no one could do anything about it. No one said a word. When the dance finished, our Bulibasha went up to the old men's table, and, holding Milada by the hand, said, "This girl will be my wife!"

"You're mistaken," the boy with the violin immediately cried. "Milada will be never your wife, not as long as I live. She's to be my wife. She has been promised to me by her father from the day she was born..."

"You? How dare you speak like that to my face! You're nothing more than a simple, poor devil of a musician."

"She'll never be your wife!"

"Then, musician, we'll have to fight to determine which man Milada will belong to."

The music stopped. Everybody gathered round these two men. Some of them were on the Bulibasha's side, but especially those who had grown-up daughters to marry off were on the side of the boy with the violin, because they wished the young Bulibasha would take a wife from their camp. The old men approached the two of them and said, "Today is a feast day. Nobody is allowed to quarrel or fight."

"I too want no fight with anybody." the Bulibasha said. "On the contrary, I want just to start my wedding with Milada."

"Never! Milada is mine!" And the boy with violin kicked over a table laden with choice foods. They had to fight.

Milada rushed to her father, in tears. She didn't know whom to choose. It was true that in her way she loved the boy with the violin, but despite herself, her eyes were drawn to the young Bulibasha, although she wished they would look in other directions. What could she do?

The two men stripped off their shirts. Their dark skin shone in the rays of the spring sun beating down. At the beginning they were given dry beech switches and their heads were doused with a bucket of cold water. A large circle gathered around them. The fight started. They punched each other, full of anger, leaving dark blue and red marks on their bodies until their blood began to flow. Soon, their eyes seemed to be bulging out of their sockets. They struck at each other as though beating a horse stuck in the mud. Thick streams of blood gushed down their bodies, but they clenched their teeth and struck again and again with all their power. Finally, Birea, the boy with the violin, fell to his knees and his body collapsed on the earth, helpless. Somebody threw a bucket of water over him and he opened his eyes wide. He was defeated. Milada now belonged to our young Bulibasha. He could scarcely go to her, but he managed to embrace her in sight of everybody, not caring what anyone thought. He kissed her and then fell, down. Some people were happy for the beautiful Milada, others of them were disappointed. Birea was stretched out in the shade of a tree.

"We have to get them to make peace before the sun sinks down out of the sky. They have committed a great sin. The spirits and the gods will punish us."

"What, oh what is going to happen to us? . . ."

"Dust and powder. That's what will become of us. Dust and powder!"

The Bulibasha heard the old men worry. He realized he'd done a very evil deed. He didn't know what he should do. The old men, however, concluded the following: "If a boy is born from this marriage, this boy has to marry the musician's daughter, if his child happens to be a girl. A marriage must take place, even if the musician has a boy and the Bulibasha, a daughter."

Hearing what the old men said, the leader became calm at heart. He went into his tent, took a silver goblet, filled it with wine, and held it out to Birea as a sign of reconciliation. Although it was very hard, the two men at last made peace with each other and drank together for a long time under the light of the stars. At the break of day, the four wagons departed for the place they had come from. The beautiful Milada remained with the man who had won her.

Many, many days passed after these events. The seasons flew past on the wings of time, day after day after day, and twenty years passed.

The first year after she married, Milada gave birth to twin girls, the second, another pair of twin girls, and the third, yet another girl. So fate decreed.

One day, the Bulibasha told Milada, "We're so happy together, we have five girls, each one prettier than the next. Nobody can tell which daughter is the eldest and which the youngest, they all look so much like you. All five of them look just like you the moment when I first laid eyes on you when you arrived from Tisa. Oh, lord! I remember how my heart burned for you, and as you see, even today I feel the same for you, I still melt with love with you."

"This is so true. Thank the gods and spirits for what they gave us. But now we should think of our daughters, my dear. We have to find each of them a husband, because the time when they were old enough to get married passed by a long time ago."

Zambila was all eyes and ears listening to this story. She was there and she lived inside the story the old woman Iova was telling her.

One day, my dear, the celebration of Reconciliation Day was taking place, just as we are celebrating it now. The girls' father had given all five of his girls red skirts, green overskirts and white blouses. They were all dressed exactly the same way. The celebration was just beginning when, look! once again, four wagons covered with tarpaulin arrived. The guests were received and invited to the dinner feast, as had been done long ago.

It so happened that the boy with the violin had married, too, and had a son named Angar. This very boy came at that moment before our Bulibasha, holding in his hand the silver goblet he had received from his father, the sign of reconciliation. "My father, Birea, sends me with this goblet so that you may keep the pledge that you made."

The silver goblet was received from the Angar's hand, and he was invited to join the head table near the Bulibasha. The leader felt as if he were drowning in boundless anguish in the deepest core of his soul at the thought that he had to separate his daughters. Angar was calm and watched the boys and girls and dance. Well, as he sat there, he suddenly saw coming out of the biggest tent a girl with a red skirt, a green overskirt, and a white blouse embroidered with gold threads, her long black hair woven into braids adorned with snowdrops-just like in your hair, Zambila.

Angar stood up from the table and went to her, "I have come here from Tisa. My name is Angar. It's only for you that I have come. What's your name?" The girl blushed shyly and couldn't say a word to him. "Please, come with me somewhere because I have much to say to you! So many times I have dreamed only of you."

The girl looked down and smiled to him, but a young boy interrupted and asked her to dance. Angar stared after her like a man bewitched, because the girl was extremely beautiful.

When the dance was over, he again went up to the girl in a red skirt, green overskirt and white blouse. "How well you know how to dance. Come with me so we may talk." This girl looked at him in great surprise because she had never talked to him before. "I liked you the first moment I laid eyes on you, when I saw you coming out of the tent."

Meanwhile, another young man approached and asked her for a dance. The girl smiled at Angar alluringly and went off. In the middle of the hora, the circle stopped, the boys and girls stepped back and she began to sing. Listening her song, Angar was transported with happiness. How beautifully she sang!

After the dance, he went to her again and told her, "My father sent me, because he had arrived at an understanding with your father twenty years ago. Why don't you want to talk to me? Every time I come near you, you act as if you don't know me..."

Somebody called to the girl and off she went. Angar remained alone once more, gazing after her with longing as she moved away from him. To his bewildered eyes, the girl seemed to be playing a part in a scene in a theatre.

When the scene ended, he went to her side and whispered some words in her ear, but immediately the girl fled. Angar remained very puzzled. Why, he wondered, does she act as if she doesn't know him whenever he comes near her? Angar went to one of the old men and told him his dilemma. The man advised him not to be sad but to take part in the dances, and that later he would speak personally to the Bulibasha about his daughter. Angar, however, couldn't make himself comfortable in his heart.

At the same time, a great misfortune revealed itself to the fortunetellers, a calamity hovering right above them. As the poor, confused boy sat there, suddenly the girl in the red skirt, green overskirt and white blouse passed by him. Without a word, he suddenly embraced her and kissed her. The Bulibasha appeared on the scene, however, took the girl by her hand and sent her into the tent.

"What about your promise to my father?" Angar asked the Bulibasha. "Today is Reconciliation Day, just as in the old times..."

"You speak about reconciliation-you? Do you suppose I didn't see you? You're a liar, a cheat. You promised all five of my daughters that you'll have them for your wife. How can I give you one of them, when you've beguiled all of them?"

Angar had no idea of what to do. He knew wasn't guilty of anything. Extremely angry, he returned to the four wagons where his people were asleep. The Bulibasha went to his own tent and raged to Milada, "My girls! Our beautiful daughters! That son of the musician doesn't know what he wants. His father has avenged himself on us, he's an unspeakable scoundrel. Angar spoke with all five girls. He can't deceive me! And as for me, I'm not to blame for any of this-what did I do that was wrong? It's not my fault that the gods made the five of them look so much alike?"

Milada remained silent. She knew not to say a word to him. At this very moment, it became so dark outside that no one could see anything, even right before their eyes. No star shone in the sky. Angar went to the riverbank and remembered his mother's wise words: "If your heart is full of pain, cry. Your pain will flow away in your tears, and your heart will be as light as a feather."

There was nobody around Angar, so he gave vent to his tears. The moon rose in the sky, but where were the stars? How lonely the moon is, he thought to himself, as lonely as I am. He wiped his tears away with the back of his hand and said, "My mother was right. My heart is much lighter now. If I will cry, I feel much better."

While he sat there, he suddenly heard the tantalizing voice of enchantment. "Angar, I'm the girl, the one you're looking for. I'm the woman you love." He felt as if gentle hands were touching his shoulders.

"Look at me, my dear... Look..."

"Where is your black hair?"

"The moon has bleached away its darkness..."

"Where is your white blouse with threads of gold? Where are the beads you wore around your neck? Where are your red skirt and the green overskirt? You... you have frightened me... I'm afraid..."

She soothed him with sweet words. "It's night now, Angar. At night, I never dress as I do when it's day. Look at me, here I am! Look..."

"Oh, forgive me, I didn't understand you." He at once wiped away his tears and he seemed happy. "I was looking for your smile and your eyes. Now I know it's you. Here you are, my dearest, look at me, I don't know what I can say, only that I'm so much in love with you."

"Let's go to your wagon, I feel cold..." Angar took her hand and they climbed in his wagon together. "Angar, I want to be yours my whole life long. Kiss me! Kiss me!"

"I feel something floating in the air, as if I can hear songs calling someone. It's as if they're summoning me somewhere but I don't know where..."

"Don't talk on and on this way. Just lay your head upon my breast and sleep. Sleep..."

As soon as Angar fell asleep, she covered him with her black veils.

Much later, the cocks finally began to crow. But the witches hadn't slept a wink this strangest of nights-for all night long they could hear melodies on the flute. They kindled a big fire and recited magic spells and charms. They felt something strange was taking place. Now, after the cock had crowed three times, the fire would not burn; instead of flames, only smoke rose up from it. They realized that bad spirits were very close by, that is to say, right there among them in the Gypsy camp. Quickly, they lay down with their faces to the earth. Flames started to issue forth from the fire. Only then did they stand.

They hadn't been mistaken, they had known the truth. The dark clouds of night were unraveling one by one, and the sky gradually became light. As they were standing there, they saw rise up as if from Angar's wagon a kind of golden net in which a man had been trapped. The net started to fly away with Angar in it. The witches screamed, arousing all the camp, "Wake up! The White Lady . . . Manzona is in our midst."

Immediately all the Gypsies rushed out of their tents. As soon as the five girls saw Angar caught in the net that flew overhead, they started to wail and to pull their jet-black hair from their heads.

"Father, you must do something..."

"Don't abandon him, Father..."

"I love Angar..."

The White Lady Manzona was laughing. Only her voice could be heard, "Cry, cry, beautiful girls. Weep your hearts out. Angar is mine now... Mine!"

The girls didn't hesitate in the least. The five of them rushed after the net which held Angar. Nobody could stop them. And then, like that-they were gone.

"Oh, Father's dear girls... my girls... my beautiful girls."

Milada embraced each birch tree one after another. "Oh, my daughters..."

The distraught father prayed to the gods and the good spirits to bring his daughters back. It was too late. The spirits and the gods had taken revenge on him because he had neglected the vow he made them long ago. Screaming and crying, he fell with his face to the earth and immediately died. Milada couldn't find any strength left in her soul. Everybody looked at her baffled and had no idea what might be done to help her. Her suffering was too great. The Gypsies had no wish to reach out and touch her because they were afraid. They knew they would die. Poor Milada, her daughters had died. Her husband no longer had had reason to live. Drops of blood began to trickle down from her eyes. And she too died. Then there was great mourning. They took the Bulibasha and his beautiful wife and buried them in the shade of the five birch trees. For that reason, in their memory, Reconciliation Day always takes place close to these trees with white bark. And this, my dear Zambila, is the miracle, the story of the birch grove.

***

"They cried, Aunt Iova, and my eyes and heart are crying as well. Tell me, why is the fate of human beings so sad? I feel so much pity for the Bulibasha, the musician, the five girls."

The old woman dried the girl's tears with her hand. "Don't forget, my girl, that if you don't obey the commandments of the gods, you'll come to know their vengeance."

"But, Aunt Iova, here was no rash pride, here was no sin, it was only love and more love. It was love that made Bulibasha fight with the musician."

"Love, my little girl, is the biggest struggle. Everything starts from this."

"You're right, Auntie, but tell me, what are the souls of the five girls doing there in the trees?"

"Oh, poor child, poor child! If on this very day, right after nightfall, you rest your ear against the bark of the tree, you'll hear the saddest song. It is the sigh of those five sisters who cry because their road has no end."

"I don't understand. What sort of road?"

"Don't you know?"

"No, Auntie, I don't, I swear I don't."

"The girls, Angar, all who die, go on a road. This road goes far, far away. It never ends. We too, when we die, in fact we never die, we go on road with no end. Do you understand me?"

The old woman's story had gone on for a long time. Many young men had come to ask Zambila to dance but she wouldn't. The sun was beginning to set when the boy who played the violin approached her and invited her to dance with him.

"Zambila, let's dance! We're the only ones who haven't yet danced!"

"I'll come with you, Angar, let's go..."

"Why did you call me Angar? My name's not Angar!"

The old woman, listening their conversation, turned to them and smiled. "Don't forget, Zambila, you have to give me what you promised. An overskirt and a red kerchief."

"I won't forget, Auntie Iova!"

"Now, go dance. You've spent more than enough time with an old woman like me."

Zambila went off. She was dancing but her mind was far, far away. Her thoughts flew to Angar, to the White Lady Manzona, and... we can only guess... to those who have passed into the world of shades and who must travel the road without end, that leads... who knows where?