Uncle

Life wasn’t good for us.

 

When the sun shone bright in the blue skies, and winter was all but forgotten in May, we didn’t care to remember that after summer, with its luscious meadows of juicy grass and forests of pleasantly cool shadows, the fall would come. Intermittent rains changed top soil into mud that flowed in rivulets down the broad hill slope along which our village extended. The external walls of the better houses built of concrete and brick got soiled. Dirt permanently streaked the clean white or radiant blue of the whitewash that had been painstakingly applied in the spring. It squeezed its way through cracks into the wooden houses that the gadjos called ‘sheds.’ Those who lived at the foot of the hill were the worst off. Their houses stood inundated for weeks on end. To prevent liquid mud from flooding the interior, they cut the bottoms off their entrance doors and put in an additional layer of bricks. With time, several steps led up to the doors that were too low for an average adult to walk through without bending deeply. ‘Bow, bow lower to your rahy, lord,’ cheeky kids screamed and laughed at the helpless exasperation of the chorikanes, poor people.

 

Sadness gathered and it was magnified by the cold. Few people had enough money for even the cheapest kind of coal or for a gas cylinder to heat their homes properly. Women and children who didn’t go to school roamed the vicinity collecting dry twigs, scrap wood and paper. Each year they had to venture farther away, as the area around the village had already turned into a barren steppe. Kako, or Uncle, kept telling us that when he had been a chkhavo, a boy, there had been many trees around here. Families had kept one or two cows for milk and used dried cowpats for fuel.

Roma settlement Svinia, eastern Slovakia
Roma settlement Svinia, eastern Slovakia

I couldn’t believe it: why bother with cows and their dung when you could buy milk and coal at the market? Kako just smiled and stroked my hair ‘You’ll understand, in your own time.’ I liked his stories, we all did.

 

I hated winter. It froze the mud solid, but we never had enough clothes to keep us warm. In our wooden house frost penetrated the walls and drew crystalline watery patterns on them. Later the patches grew moldy, changing color from yellow and green to gray. Nobody wanted to sleep in a bed next to a moldy patch. It smelled bad, and the stink rubbed onto our clothes and bodies. We couldn’t get rid of it. Such a patch waned only when the summer was exceptionally dry and sunny. The other kids called us ‘stinkies’ and didn’t want to play with us.

 

In winter we had to stay on the move all the time, just to keep from freezing. Kako joked that we were running for our lives and shrieking like mad. Winter was the time most funerals took place. Babies in cots and old folk, lingering on chairs and in their beds unable to walk, began to cough. It always started innocuously with a running nose and hoarseness. Then the coughing and sneezing became incessant. The forehead burnt with fever. It was no use to go to the doctor. An unnecessary waste of money. Those who did and who bought their medicines never got better anyway. The doctor often said something about ‘a better standard of living’ and ‘proper diet,’ but who could understand the gibberish of a rahy? We just shrugged politely, to cause no more offence that we had already done with our very presence in the outpatient clinic in the gadjo town on the hilltop. The doctor spoke too fast, we couldn’t understand the gadjo language well, and even if we did, we couldn’t afford the necessary extras. The welfare people were reluctant to pay for our prescriptions, let alone for ‘a better standard of living.’ These luxuries weren’t for us, because ‘they would give us ideas.’ Gadjos in the clinic talked among themselves in hushed, but distinctly intelligible, voices that we ‘should know our place,’ and first we ‘would need to start working and paying taxes,’ before ‘demanding anything.’ The welfare service was ‘spoiling us’ and in return we just turned into ‘cheeky gypsies.’

 

Kako said we were not gypsies but Roma. Gadjos didn’t care. They knew no better. What did they know anyway? We just gasped with horror and disbelief when Kako told us that at home gadjos have large open metal boxes they call ‘bathtubs.’ After filling them with water they lie down in these tubs, and do their ablutions. The water comes in contact with the lower part of the body below the waist, flows around freely and contaminates the clean upper part of the body. After learning about this strange custom, I understood why the nicely dressed ladies and gentlemen had to resort to perfumes and eau de cologne to look presentable.

 

I was horrified after Papa’s death when Kako told Mama to send me to school. I didn’t want to live among those dirty gadjos and to eat their unclean food. How could anyone live decently in a building in which, under the same roof – ugh! – there was a special room designated for shitting and pissing. Gadjos were really stupid, they didn’t see that excrement and urine are unclean. And even worse – their women – they walked around half-naked in trousers or in revealing skirts with the hem well above the knee, all the ankle and calf exposed for everybody to ogle at. To add insult to injury, the school was in a multistorey building. Unbeknownst to me, any woman could shame me by walking with her skirt over my head. I would be permanently unclean, none of my friends in the village would want to have anything to do with me. I wanted to stay away from all this uncleanness and in the safety of our family ‘shed.’

 

Kako smiled stoically: ‘Your father brought you up well,’ and patted me on my teenage back. I recoiled from his hand with anger. He said curtly ‘Nuri!,’ there was nothing more to say. I nodded in agreement. Kako Zindbo doubled as my father now. I had to obey him, otherwise I would shame Mama and my sisters. I was the only chkhavo in the family, and had to provide for them. Welfare checks would not carry us further than the middle of the month, and Kako, though generous and doing well, couldn’t be expected to help us out for much longer. I knew this and wanted to start working with him immediately, but he wouldn’t buckle, ‘First, school,’ he said.

 

What was the use of that? We could buy a driving license for me, so that I could start driving a pickup or a minivan for Kako right away. Kako, as usual, when he had already made his mind, touched his moustache lightly with the fingers of his right hand and said ‘Nuri, we may be from a gypsy village, but I play according to the rules, be they ours or gadjos’.’ Perhaps, this is what had made his transportation business last. He didn’t need to bribe the police, and because he was able to read and write a bit, if it came to that, he knew how to get a good lawyer to defend him in the dock, for an extra buck on the side.

 

To be like Kako, I would have to pick up some of the gadjo language and letters. I don’t know how he did it in his time, but ‘edukahishion’ was a bother. I had to sit still for an entire hour without standing up from my chair even once. I had to turn a deaf ear to the ridicule and jibes of the gadjo schoolchildren in my class. I was more than five years older than them, a man really, while they were still children. Kako forewarned me not to take offence at anything that would happen in school. Gadjos have no honor, so whatever they did, it couldn’t affect me. Anyway, if I hit someone, they would kick me out of school for sure. Not good.

 

Learning how to read and write took less than a year. As soon as Kako decided that I could fill in his business forms, that was the end of the blasted thing. I got my driving license and began driving a pickup delivering gas cylinders. I enjoyed the melodious shriek the megaphone on the vehicle’s roof gave out to alert the households to my presence. Business was brisk. From dawn to dusk I replaced empty cylinders with full ones, listening patiently to talkative housewives and gloomy pensioners, always prepared to say ‘hello,’ ‘thank you’ and ‘bye-bye’ in the gadjo language. Every day I spoke it better. Old folks, with no children on their hands, liked to delay me by telling me about their lives. They never failed to express their surprise, ‘What a clean and well-behaved gypsy boy you are.’ I just smiled, pitying them. Nice pensions let them live without worries about food or rent. But most lived alone, without a happy swarm of grandchildren milling around. Whatever wisdom they had to impart, it was lost. In the evening they had no daughters-in-law busying themselves with dinner for the entire family, and the pensioner had no chance to pontificate sagely at the head of the table. And who wouldn’t like to be Baro Shero, clan leader, for once in their lives?

 

Soon, I graduated to a minivan. It was a serious job to take people swiftly and safely from our country to Angliya, Niemtsiko or Frantsiya. I was surprised at how big Eunion was. I liked going to Romanobavaria best. Kako said that it was the only place in the world where all the signs, below their Boarisch versions, carried names and information in our own language, Romani ćhib. Funny that in my country each one of the names of the streets was foreign, but after driving for a day, you reached a foreign land which felt like your own village, provided you could read. It took some practice to adjust, as here they wrote Romani in Boarisch letters, different from the gadjo ones back home. But all in all, when the letters were carefully mouthed, the characters yielded the familiar sounds of our village.

 

I asked Kako why we wouldn’t move to Romanobavaria. He explained that home is where your family is. Sensible. Kako was wise. But once, while we were taking a rest in a meticulously organized and spanking clean parking and rest area in the hills near the land’s capital, Müncha, Kako told me a story, about my Papus, his and my Papa’s dahd, father. ‘Your Papus was born north of the mountains. There were not many Roma there, life was easy. He traded in horses. The communists were still in power, and each Rom had a job. The only problem was the border between our country and Polchiko. Slugadjiso, soldiers, took the guarding of the frontier very seriously, though those living across it were hailed as communist phrala, brothers. Yeah, phrala, should one dare walk across the no-man’s land anywhere except at an official border crossing, a slugadjis would shoot to kill in no time. Mark my words, only Roms are real phrala across any border. It is true. Thanks to phrala on the other side, Papus could have his business.’

 

‘Making money on your own in the communist times was illegal, but Papus knew how to work around the rules. Papus’s people were Vungrika. After Hitler’s Porajmos or ‘Devouring of the Roma’, Papus’s mama, barely alive at the time of her release from the Auschwitz camp, stayed in the town, once again known under its Polchiko name of Oświęcim. She married and had kids there. From time to time, they came back to our country for visits. Then we all were eating, drinking and singing in the village, family reunited. Papus arranged with some Horals in the mountains to graze herds of choice horses on passes close to the border. The best part came at night, when the Horals, pretending to be wolves, howled and frightened the colts to flee northward. Papus and his companions, as planned, waited in the nearby forest in Polchiko to catch the horses. Slugadjiso were in the business of hunting people, not animals.’

 

‘The happy days came to an end shortly after your Papa’s marriage to a Polska Roma girl, your Mama. They had hardly settled in their small room in Papus’s newly constructed house with the two fancy towers on the roof, when the gadjos went berserk. At that time the shops were empty in Polchiko, and there were no apartments for couples, while on television the Polchiko Baro Shero spoke of ‘transitory difficulties.’ It was an easy one, and who was guilty of causing the misery? Say who? The Roma, of course. Why? Some, like Papus had money and did well. On the black market, they bought daily necessities and whatever their wives might fancy. But how come the Roma could have money and a good life, when they were supposed to be the poorest of the poor?’

 

‘Obviously, they stole, “these thieves!” The authorities chimed in, it gave them a breathing space, while ordinary gadjos were venting their anger at the Roma. Almost forty years ago, just after the harvest, when once again nothing appeared in the shops, the gadjos started burning cars belonging to Roma and broke windows in their apartments. They founded a Committee to Cleanse the Town of Gypsies. Then the gossip spread like wildfire that all the Roma from the region were to be resettled in Oświęcim. That was it. One morning the gadjo crowd turned violent in the street. With burning vengeance, they threw themselves into a hunt for Roma from house to house. A woman, a child or an old papus. It didn’t matter, every Rom was fair game. After two days of beatings and looting, the police intervened. Lukewarmly. Still no solution to the town’s gypsy problem” had been found.’

 

‘The police escorted our Baro Shero and Papus, as his deputy, to the headquarters of the communist party. The town’s first secretary, advised by the Committee to Cleanse the Town of Gypsies, offered them a choice of tea or coffee. But who would suffer drinking from their unclean glasses after this tragedy with no end in sight. The secretary was talking and talking, his words empty of meaning, like those of the Polchiko Baro Shero. Like master, like pupil. At long last, he proposed that the town’s Roma should move to a specially built housing estate in a town in the mountains. They offered us a ghetto, a godforsaken ghetto,’ Kako raised his voice. Anger still brewed in his chest at the memory of this injustice. ‘Baro Shero,’ continued Kako, ‘declined. Afterwards the party people tabled a proposal we couldn’t refuse. They gave passports to all the town’s Roma (so much coveted then and all but unavailable to gadjos), and expelled us to Shvediya.’

 

‘Papus and your parents weren’t happy in that cold country of winter-that-never-ends, and immediately after the collapse of communism, they came to our country. Soon, everything went to the rikonoheh, dogs. You were born then, the only happy event from those times that I can recollect.’

 

Lachkho, good, let’s move on, the sun will soon be setting.’ We drove on. Well, moving to Romanobavaria didn’t look like a bad idea, I thought, mulling over Kako’s words. The lights of Müncha dispelled the deep darkness down in the valley.

 

*      *      *

 

Kako had a soft spot for horses. When he was given an opportunity he talked with abandon about caravans and camp fires in the woods, and about fragrant grass that was the only kind of fuel horses needed. The age of horses was gone by the time Papus was middle-aged; now the mechanical horses under the bonnet did the job. The real – flesh and blood – animals disappeared; they died or were put to the butcher’s knife. Kako knew it well, but he had had a good opportunity to see the end of the old world, and what he saw made him regret that it had vanished. Like a shy puff of smoke from a chimney, immediately wiped away by a violent gust of cold wind.

 

Automobiles brought Kako an income, but his heart was with the three horses he kept. It was his only vice. His wife berated him time and again for wasting money on ‘those beasts,’ when there was not enough for the children. Kako smiled his famous smile and touched his moustache. His wife threw up her hands in despair and threatened Kako with her skirt. He pretended to duck, which made her laugh. No one could remain angry at Kako for long.

 

Sunshine comes after a storm, the transportation business picked up, and Kako’s wife resigned herself to her husband’s costly folly. My cousins and I loved the horses. We brushed them clean. Kako showed us how. We grazed them between the blocks of apartments in the gadjo town, and in the country, on the other side of the hill, making sure that none of the horses ventured into a gadjo’s wheat field. The rare reward we worked for was a ride. We preferred the black pony, Kalo, with a white spot on its forehead. Kalo was smaller than the other two horses, and enjoyed our caresses the most. He was one of us, our size, a kid really.

 

Driving the minivan, I had no time for the horses, and gradually stopped visiting the makeshift stable. One night, after a harrowing haul from Frantsiya, I woke up and couldn’t go back to sleep. The large alarm clock with the fluorescent numbers on its face glowing in the dark was slowly tick-tocking away. I missed something. Quietly I dressed without rousing Mama or my sister, and went out. The stars shone brightly in the moonless sky. I sauntered lazily and aimlessly. My legs carried me to the horses. Next day I told Kako I wouldn’t be going to Angliya, that the work was devouring my soul. Without asking a single question he handed me a wad of banknotes. I carefully folded them and stuffed them into the concealed pouch in my belt.

 

It was fall. In the morning I went for an hour to the meadows skirting the forest. With a sickle I cut some grass and spread it out to dry. Every other day I carried back two sacks of fragrant hay hanging from my shoulders. Before the first snow withered the grass, the stable was full of the sweet smell of summer. Mama and Bibi, Auntie, scolded me but without any firmness in their voices, in fact with a note of longing. Every morning I ate breakfast alone, too early for any of my sisters to be awake. Mama had prepared some sandwiches for me in the evening. In the plastic bag, she had placed a few sugar cubes. For the horses, I knew.

 

When all the family gathered for a holiday, marriage or funeral, the occasion wouldn’t be complete without Kako’s horses parading, pulling the carriage with the newlyweds or the hearse with the deceased. I led the horses, the reins firmly in my hand. Kako paid me the same, though I didn’t ask for a haléř, a penny. Food alone would be reward enough. My soul had found peace.

 

I lost my wristwatch and stopped glancing at the calendar. My days began at sunrise and ended at nightfall. I preferred not to leave the stable and in the spring I built a small room leaning onto it. The smell of the horses and of me melded into one. The girl Papusha, Doll, so-called because of her fair, gadjo-like face, once came near the stable after lunch, and looked on. She knew her parents had offered her to Papa as my future wife. I wasn’t that good a catch any more. They didn’t know how to break off the engagement politely. I understood; when she would eventually turn into a woman I wouldn’t make them give her up to me. What kind of life would she have with me in the stable? But I liked her shy daily visits. Papusha stood demurely, staring curiously at the horses that were visible through the door that was opened a crack. When I was leaving on an errand, I greeted her softly, and she replied in a whisper, lowering her eyes. She was modest and wouldn’t meet my gaze.

 

A year passed and then another. Winter turned to spring, and then the first intimation of summer arrived with an unusually early heatwave. We sweltered during Easter week, when not a single cloud crossed the hot face of the sun. Life in the village slowed down, almost stood still.

 

In the oppressively hot weather Kako visited me at the stable at noon. It was unusual. In recent times he had grown the large paunch of a respectable Baro Shero-in-the-making, and he disliked the heat that made him sweat so profusely. He had fitted his house with an air conditioner, so at home he felt as comfortable as at work, in one of his luxurious long-haul buses.

 

Kako patted me on the back and congratulated me on my wisdom. I told him to stop making fun of me. He smiled, touched his graying moustache and placed a newspaper in my lap. I took it up and brought it closer to my eyes, now unused to reading. The memory of letters was returning slowly. Boarish letters danced on the colorful page of the tabloid Dives, speaking to me in the Romani ćhib. The journalist related in the alarmed voice of an excitable girl, ‘Ash Cloud Over Eunion. The Icelandic volcano, Eyjafjallajökull, has erupted in an unprecedented explosion that blasted off the top third of the mountain, and opened a kilometers-long crack, awakening an entire range of smaller, long-dormant volcanoes. This roaring geological choir is emitting a continuous plume of rocks, ash and noxious gases that envelop Eunion.’ I stopped reading and looked up. The sky was as blue as always. Not a trace of ash in the clear air.

 

Kako followed my gaze, and pointed his finger to the rest of the story, ‘Brussels has introduced a ban on all air traffic over Eunion. Geologists agree that the natural wonder will last for months.’

 

Months turned into years and people forgot about flying. At the same time the oil fields became exhausted worldwide, sending the price of gas to stratospheric heights. The gadjo town emptied of young people, businesses closed down, and beautiful houses turned derelict. No one bothered to repaint them, and when a door hinge or faucet broke there was no money to repair it. The vestiges of the health service disappeared, and the last doctor in private practice soon left the town. The old folks had no money left to pay him. They were dying one after another. Their children stopped coming to the funerals. It was too far, too expensive. They wired the town hall with a modest sum for a standard ceremony to be organized by the town. The roofs of the unclaimed houses of the deceased caved in and collapsed under the weight of accumulated snow during the winter. The place looked like a ghost town.

 

When the last grocery closed its door to customers, gadjos began visiting the shops in our village. Timidly at first, ashamed in front of one another, but soon with visible pleasure at the color and bustle that continued here. Old gadjo men and women delighted at the sight of our children swarming around the yards and streets. They distributed sweets, missing their own grandchildren, whom they had no chance to see and spoil. They even picked up some Romani to tell stories to Roma children, if they cared to listen. The lonely old gadjos became part of our village community, joined our celebrations and family parties. Another set of poor relations you don’t have the heart to turn away.

 

 

*      *      *

 

Kako bought more horses and raised my pay, adding to my duties the overseeing of the construction of three large stables for fifty horses each. For grazing he bought the gadjos’ fields that were lying fallow. In no time horses of various colors teemed on the hill and around it in the meadows that extended to the woods, a good fifteen kilometers away. We didn’t separate stallions and mares from their colts. Equine families were happy and bred well. Kako employed many new hands to help me with the rapidly growing operation. The dream of boys in the village was now to become a coachman or a cart-driver. Girls wanted to help in the stables, to milk the mares. Mare’s milk cheeses sold widely at a good price.

 

From the forgotten museum in the gadjo town we dragged out a couple of richly ornamented Roma wagons. Carpenters happily set to work, producing brand new ones modeled on them. The sheds of our village emptied of their inhabitants as they took to the wagons, following their herds of horses. They returned to the village for wintering. In their spare time women and children competed in painting their family wagons in an intricate lace of dazzling flowers and woodland scenes, in preparation for the new season.

 

Kako beamed with pride and added, ‘I wish Papus and your Papa could have lived to see this.’ I nodded in agreement. Eunion’s green funds pumped money into Kako’s innovative transportation projects. Horse-drawn omnibuses, tramways and long-distance coaches reawakened towns, cities and countries from their volcanic ash slumber. Unmaintained roads and highways, still used by the few sturdy SUV motorcades of the super-rich, filled up with relaxed horse traffic. Collectors of horse manure cleaned up after the coaches and wagons. They had the daily harvest of it sun-dried and compacted, and then they sold it for use in ovens, heating furnaces and neighborhood power plants.

 

Long distance freight and commuter wagon convoys again linked our country with Frantsiya and Romanobavaria. Their routes criss-crossed Eunion; fuel grew at the roadside. Large reloading stations opened at the frontier with Kazakhstano and Syriya, untouched by the plume of the ash cloud. The airports in Damascus, Baku and Astrakhan re-connected Eunion to the rest of the world.

 

We rented rooms and entire houses in our village to migrants and seasonal workers flocking to work for Kako’s intercontinental transportation company. Soon there was no place left for the newcomers in the village. We spruced up the gadjo town for them and new buildings mushroomed all over the hill, housing newly opened companies, shops and freight agencies.

 

Papusha’s parents were more than happy to give me their daughter in marriage. Kako staged a royal wedding for us. Hundreds of guests ate, danced and made merry for three days and two nights at tables set out in the meadows. When they were exhausted they retired to their family wagons parked around the place of the festivities.

 

The local gadjo bishop officiated at the marriage mass in the village’s St Christopher church, but first Kako blessed us himself. In quick succession two sons and three daughters were born to us. With so much to do, I hardly had time to play with them. Luckily, Papusha kept me company in our family wagon that followed me wherever I needed to go on business. Thanks to it every day our family sat down together to each meal.

 

Kako grew old and more eccentric. I ran the business for him. He didn’t care. The old stable for his three pet horses still stood as nobody had time to demolish it. It was cheaper and more convenient to build from scratch on the pristine land, free from the clutter of earlier structures. Kako moved to this former stable, where he now held court. In their palatial house, Bibi raged at this injustice occurring to her in her old age, but a multiplying circle of grandchildren and great-grandchildren mellowed her mood and kept her busy. She had no spare moment to think about Kako.

 

Old friends and local gadjos, wizened with age, visited Kako at the shed to talk about the good old days. To keep their minds fresh, they fortified themselves with never-ending rounds of strong sweet coffee, twice boiled in copper pots on slow open fires under brass stands filled deep with flour-like sand. This coffee came served in tiny cups, pialkas, to be tasted in tiny sips.

 

Before noon young Roma men came looking for jobs and for loans so that they could marry and start their own businesses. Afternoons were reserved for foreign gadjos to talk about big projects and big money. Kako couldn’t stand more than one or two of them a day. When he touched his moustache it was the sign the audience was over. But Kako stopped smiling, as he used to, when gracing the onlookers with the famous gesture.

 

And evenings Kako liked spending alone, with his own thoughts, cleaning and putting the old stable in order. He had the old stable boxes knocked down, and one day three old-style cars running on petrol arrived. Not that he couldn’t afford such a luxury, but the folly could hurt the green image of our company, if journalists sniffed out the story. I told him this, but Kako patted me on the back and dismissed it, saying nothing. He was a man of few words.

 

On different days, he drove an Audi, a Ford and a Škoda, ‘Alphabet is good for keeping order,’ Kako liked repeating, and – indeed – a shy smile returned to his lips. At first the unseemly sight and noise of his cars frightened the horses in the streets of our equine city, but they got used to them. When they saw him approaching in one of the vintage automobiles, coachmen and cart-drivers gave Kako a wide berth. He was prone to speeding and kept to the center of the road. His cars were too fast for him to stop and reply to the greetings of the inhabitants. Kako smiled benignly at them all, his soul content.

 

Czissowa, Easter 2011

Dùn Dè, October 2016

 

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