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Zoli, Page 2

Colum McCann

  “Isthat so?”

  Boshor nods, and from a battered wallet takes out a photograph of a traveling kumpanija long ago in which the men are elegant and the women long-skirted. They are out on a country road, and a red flag with a hammer and sickle nutters from the caravan roof.

  “That's my Uncle Jozef.”

  He takes the photo from Boshor, turns it in his fingers, and wishes to Christ in the clouds above that he had clicked his tape recorder on, for now it has begun, but he wonders how he will reach into his pocket without attracting too much attention, if the small red light will shine through his jacket, and where he should begin his real questions. He wants to say that he is here about Zoli, do you know about Zoli, she was born near here, a Gypsy, a poet, a singer, a Communist too, a Party member, she traveled with harpists once, she was expelled, have you heard her name, did you hear her music, We sing to sweeten the dead grass, did you see her, is she still talked of, From what is broken, what is cracked, I make what is required, was she damned, was she forgiven, did she leave any sign, I will not, no, never call the crooked finger straight, did your fathers tell stories, did your mothers sing her songs, was she ever allowed back?

  But when he mentions her name—leaning forward to say, “Have you ever heard of Zoli Novotna?”—the air stalls, the drinking stops, the cigarettes are held at mouth-level, and a silence descends.

  Boshor looks towards the doorway and says: “No, I don't know that name—do you understand me, fat-neck?—and even if I did, that's not something we would talk about.”



  THERE ARE THINGS ABOUT youth that only youth knows, but what I recall most clearly was sitting in the back of the caravan, wearing red, staring out at the roads going backwards.

  I was six years old. My hair was cut short. I'd hacked it off with a knife. I tell this to you directly, there is no other way to say it—my mother was gone, my father, my brother, my sisters and cousins too. They had been driven out on the ice by the Hlinka guards. Fires were lit in a ring around the shore, and guns were pointed so they could not escape. The caravans were forced to the middle of the lake as the day grew warmer. The ice cracked, the wheels sank, and the rest followed, harps and wheels and horses. I did not see any of it happen, daughter, but I could hear it in my mind and, although there was great music to come along later, sweet sounding moments when our people were raised up and strong and valued, that will always be a time of looking backwards, listening and waiting for my dead family to catch up.

  Only Grandfather and I escaped—we had been out beyond the lake, traveling three full days. We came back to silence. He clapped his hand over my mouth. The horse reared and the caravan shuddered. Ash from dead fires ringed the lake. Grandfather jumped to the ground. Wait here, he said. He was not a man with whom you could dispute. He thought that places were good and most people were good, but the rules they put on the places were vile, and that people became vile with them.

  He did not wait to shed a tear, nor did he pick up the hats and scarves and boxes that were floating among the shards of ice. Instead he walked across to me, his hair at his shoulders, and said, Quick now and silent, Zoli, don't say a word.

  We pulled the curtains on the windows and wrapped the sharp knives in towels so they would not clink. He draped the mirror in a shirt. All the dishes were put in cloths. The road we took was small, with a line of green down the middle, two mud-tracks worn on either side. It was already spring, which was why the ice had cracked. Small buds were beginning on the trees. Birds whistled and the sun was bright as tin. I shut my eyes against it. I kept waiting for my mother to appear, my father too, my brother and my two sisters, all my cousins as well, but Grandfather pulled me close, looked over his shoulder, and said, Listen here, child, the Hlinkas are still out there, you must not make another sound.

  I had seen the Hlinkas, their leather boots that wrinkled below their knees, the billyclubs that slapped along their thighs, the rifles across their chests, the roll of fat at the back of their necks.

  Grandfather guided Red along until dark, then pulled us into a grove of trees. The stars were like clawmarks above us. I sat in the corner and rocked back and forth, then chopped my hair off with a very sharp knife. I hid the braids in my pillow. When Grandfather saw me, he slapped my face twice and said, What have you done? He took one of the braids, put it in his pocket, pulled me close, and whispered to me that my mother had once done the same when she was a child, it was not a good thing, it was against our laws.

  When we woke, there were dark marks in a line down my grandfather's cheeks. He went outside, plunged his face in a stream, fed some snowmelt to Red, and we went on.

  For days we traveled, first light until last. We went through a village where the four-faced clocktower told three different times. The shops were open and the market was bustling. When we entered the square Grandfather's shoulders went stiff.

  Some Hlinkas were gathered around the church steps, laughing and smoking. They fell silent when they heard the clopping of our horse. An armored truck came from behind the clock-tower. Quiet now, said Grandfather. He whipped Red's rump and we left quickly, out past the church and into the countryside, far away.

  Fascist snakes, he said.

  We knocked on every door, looking for food, and late in the evening we came upon a laneway with high brambles. A stone house sat surrounded by high trees. A cat watched from a windowsill. Grandfather bartered with a peasant to repair a gable wall in exchange for some soup and a little money. The peasant said, Go ahead and fix the wall first. Grandfather said, I can't with the child so hungry, look at her, we need money for food. The peasant said, If I give you money you'll run off and gyp me. Grandfather held his tongue and said: I'll build the wall if you give the child food.

  The peasant came out from the house, balancing a small bowl of borscht for us to share. We drank from the same side of the handle-shorn cup. The soup was measly and watery.

  There are times in a fountain's life, Grandfather said, when even it must learn to swallow piss.

  We stayed that night in the weedy field behind the peasant's house. The peasant had a radio, and we heard it faintly but there were no reports on the killings. I leaned in close to Grandfather and asked why my family had not bolted across the ice, and he said to me that my father was strong but not strong enough to escape the fascists, and my mother was strong but with a different strength, and my brother surely attempted but was probably beaten back. He looked away then and said: The Lord or whoever have mercy on the soul of your youngest sister.

  When the dark was fully down, Grandfather pulled hard on his tobacco and said: When ice breaks it sends out a warning, child. The Hlinkas ringed the lake with their fires and waited for the day to get warmer. We were lucky they never found us.

  He ran the blade of his knife along his thumb. I asked how deep the water was and what happened when the ice got thinner, but Grandfather said no more questions, they would be mule soon, spirit, they did not want to be disturbed. Maybe they were able to swim away, I said, under the ice. He looked at me and sighed. I asked if the horses were spirit too and he said no more questions, girl, but later in the evening, when the night had fallen upon us, he lay down beside me and said that he did not want to think about what the first crack was like, nor the screaming of the horses, nor the creak of the wheels, nor the breath of the soldiers, nothing at all. He pinched my cheek and told me a story instead about nails and a forge and a sky that was pushed into place with strong hands, and he finished it off by saying that good things would be built in the long days to come.

  In the morning the peasant came out of his house and said, Away with you.

  Grandfather slapped Red on the rump and asked her to leave a big steaming one for the peasant outside his house, but she did not. We went on, but that became his favorite saying, and then his never-ending joke, whenever we got somewhere he did not like: Go ahead, horse, and shit.

  No small turn of my gra
ndfather's head was lost to me. He was made up of elaborate things. He had three shirts and he did not believe a man should have more. The open collars were folded down outside the lapels of his black jacket. His enormous mustache curled and the hairs on his chin were long. His nose was bony and it had been broken many times. He wore a Marx pin on his hat, but he always removed the hat before we got near a village, stuffed it in the waistband of his trousers where it made his jacket bulge. The pin would only bring trouble, he said.

  He liked to smoke very thin rolled cigarettes, he held them between the fourth and little finger of his right hand. The grapevine turned his fingers green, and the smell of the tobacco drifted back over the air.

  As far as he knew, Grandfather was thirty-nine years old. My grandmother had escaped this world years before I entered it. He kept a photograph of her inside his jacket, but half of her was worn away from forever coming in and out of his pocket. They had been mother and father to many, but all except one were already buried. The last one still alive had taken gadzi-kano ways, which meant he was dead too. Nobody said anything about him anymore, not even his name. From my earliest days Grandfather had called me Zoli, a boy's name, after his first son. Sometimes, when I was called Marienka, I would not even turn to answer. He said that the most important thing about names were the namers, to hell or high water with what anyone else said. We are full of names, he said, we always will be, that's our way.

  We drove on, Grandfather and me, we left it all behind: the chocolate factory, the tire plant, the rivers and the mountains. We called the mountains the Shivering Hills, though of course they were the Carpathians. He wore shiny knee-boots with concertina creases at the ankles and the right boot was split at the back seam. I liked to lean out from the back of the caravan to watch it, it looked like it was speaking, open and closed, open and closed, though there were long stretches of road where it didn't say much at all. I was not old enough yet, daughter, to know why my family had been driven out on the ice.

  The spring before, I remember waking early one morning, me, my brother, and my older sister. My mother and father were sleeping, the baby, Angela, too. I peeped into the zelfya, which was hung from the ceiling, and watched her little chest rise and fall. We tiptoed out, down the three steps. The sun had not yet fully risen. Outside the fields shone green and white. Most of the other children were already playing outside. There were twenty of us, maybe more, making a lot of noise. Father came to the door and threw his slipper at us to make us quieten.

  Shut up! he shouted.

  We hushed and went towards the fields, near the factory, and crossed the low wall, made of tires. It gave a tiny bounce. My shoes were made from rubber too and they squeaked when I landed. We looked out over the field of frosty grass.

  The game we played was to see who could find the longest sleeve of ice. The greenest blades were best since they stood tall and straight and did not bend over with the weight. Slowly we went through the field, over the hard muddy ridges of ground, searching. I could hear my brother shouting how he ‘d found a sleeve, possibly the biggest sleeve ever, you could fit your finger in it, maybe even your arm. We pushed and shoved and yelped and laughed and laid the ice out on our fingers to measure it before it melted.

  I loved the feel of the frost and I stayed in the long grass, looking. The trick was to hold the bottom of the blade steady and then to coax the ice along—too slow and it broke, too fast and it fell. The most perfect sleeve came off almost whole and you could see down its sparkling length. I put it to my mouth and blew air through. I could feel my own breath at the other end and then the ice dissolved on my tongue.

  I stayed in the field until the sun rose over the trees and the others were gone. The shadows grew long and then sprang back all of a sudden. The sun topped the highest branches and soon everything began to melt. My socks were soaked through. I ran back over the field and over the bouncing tire wall, towards the caravans, just beyond the edge of the cypress trees. The fire was already lit, and my father had his hands cupped around the first smoke of the day. Everyone else had already eaten, and they had run off towards the chocolate factory. My mother banged the last of the kasha out of the pot and said: Zoli, we thought the gadze got you and took you away, where in the world were you? My father said: Get over here, you little pup. He grabbed my ear, pulled it hard, took a piece of bread from his pocket, and gave it to me. How was the ice? he asked. Delicious, I said. Was it not cold? he said with a laugh, and I said, Yes, it was cold and delicious together.

  My grandfather once said, Show me a child of ours who is not happy and I will show you a gadzo dwarf.

  We went down the road, Grandfather and I. My days were spent still staring backwards, waiting for my dead family to catch up, though of course I knew then that they never would.

  We ate from the forest: boiled leaves, pine cones cracked open in a fire, wild garlic grass, and whatever small animals he ‘d caught in a trap the night before. We could not eat birds, we were not allowed, it was ancient law, but we ate rabbit and hare and hedgehog. We filled our canteens from the taps of houses where they welcomed us, or from the fast-running streammelt that came down from the mountains, or from wells abandoned in the fields. Sometimes we stopped with the settled ones who lived in tin huts and underground hovels. They opened up with great friendliness, but we did not stay, we kept moving on, there was no time for that, Grandfather said we were meant for skies not ceilings.

  In the evenings Grandfather sat and read—he was the only person I knew who could read or write or count. He had a precious book I did not know the name of and in truth I did not care, it sounded strange and ridiculous and full of huge words, nothing like his stories. He said that a good book always needed a listener, and it sent me to sleep quickly—he always read from the same pages, they were heavily thumbed and they even had a tobacco burn in the bottom left corner. It was his only book and he had stitched another cover on, a brown leather one with gold lettering from a catechism to fool anyone who questioned him. I found out years later that it was Das Kapital—the notion still makes me shiver, though in truth I'm not sure, chonor-roeja, if he ever got a lot of meaning from the pages, they confused him as much as they finally confused others.

  Why didn't Mama read? I asked him once.


  But why?

  'Cause she didn't want to feel the weight of my hand, he said. Now run along and stop asking me stupid questions.

  Later he gathered me up in his arms and I snuggled against his long hair and he said it was tradition, it had always been so, only the elders read, and that one day I would understand. Tradition meant sticking with old ways, he said, but sometimes it meant making new ways too. He sent me off to bed and tucked the blanket around me.

  On our slow trip eastward, under the shadow of the mountains, he promised that if I kept quiet he would teach me to read and write, but I must keep it secret, nobody else could know, it would be better that way, it would cause a fuss among those who did not trust books.

  He unbuttoned the breast pocket of his shirt where he kept his eyeglasses safe. The glasses were broken, wrapped in bits of wire and tape. The cross frame was held together with a supple twig. I laughed when he put them on.

  When he began he did not start with A, B, C, but with a Z, although my other name was Marienka.

  We slept under the sky, the weather was fine and the nights were full and soft, except of course for our yearning for those we ‘d left behind. We had little left to remember them by, but there was an old song my mother had sung: Don't break bread with the baker, he has a dark oven, it opens wide, it opens wide. There were times I would sing it for Grandfather while he sat on the low steps and listened. He closed his eyes and smoked his tobacco and hummed along, and then one day he stopped me cold and asked, What did you say, Zoli? I stepped back. What did you say, child? I sang it again: Don't break bread with the Hlinka, he has a dark oven, it opens wide, it opens wide. You changed the song, he said. I stood there, tremblin
g. Go ahead, sing it again, you'll see. I sang it over and he clapped his hands together, then rolled the word Hlinka around in his mouth. He repeated the song and then he said: Do the same with the butcher, precious heart. So I did the same with the butcher. Don't chop meat with the Hlinka, he has a sharp knife, it slices deep, it slices deep. He said: Do the same with the farrier. Don't shoe horses with the Hlinka, he has long nails, they'll make you lame, they'll make you lame. I was too young to know what I had done, but a few years later, when we found out what the Hlinkas and Nazis had done with ovens and nails and knives, the song changed for me yet again.

  In fact when I see myself now from a distance, when I look back on it all, I was just another girl in a polka-dot dress on the backroads of a country that seemed strange to me at every turn.

  Once, a motorcar passed us, and a man in a rich brown overcoat wanted to take a photograph. Grandfather turned his head. This is not the circus, mister. The man held out a few hellers. Grandfather said: I'd rather skim stones. Then the man took out a crisp note from his wallet and pulled it tight so that it made the noise of a drumskin, and Grandfather said with a shrug: Well, why didn't you say so? I was made to stand still on the steps and I held the flare of my skirt. The man put his head under a black sheet. He looked like a hooded bird. A bulb flashed and I jumped. He did it six times. Grandfather said: All right, mister, that's enough.

  He was quiet when we clopped away again under the trees, but in the next village he bought me a peppermint stick. He slapped the whip at Red's rump and said: Don't ever give them something for nothing, Zoli, you hear me?

  They documented me when we got to Poprad because all Romani children had to be examined by the age of five and I was already seven. The building was grand and white, with statues outside and a row of gray steps leading up to a huge wooden door. Inside there was a curving staircase, but we were told to go to the small squat cabins in the back courtyard.