by Roger Chartier:
Mud, mud...mud! The spring rains had turned the countryside into a soft and sometimes mushy mat of grass over damp earth. In places where people or animals had traveled the way was worn with only mud, to mark the trail. Doubt sometimes descends on us like an old heavy blanket, weighing us down for a while.
Marta's trek started out two days ago at daylight, with a horse and a very rickety cart. She was already tired, but she knew she had to continue. By mid afternoon, she heard the echoing noises of a small village just down the valley. Echoes traveled toward Marta with the slight breeze, sometimes clearer sometimes not, depending on the fickleness of the moving air. Marta slowed her pace hearing the sound of a flute… an old melody. Sure enough, the same one that the teacher in her village used to play. She stopped to listen for a while.
The warm memories flooded over her. There was no familiar person to warm her heart only the horse, and she wasn’t sure if he could understand any of the things that were said or mostly mumbled.
The cart was an old one that her mother used when even she was young. Mother had a newer, stronger one now and didn’t mind at all what happened to the old one, even if it was burned up for firewood. Marta took it to use for this trip. Well, it was shaky and wobbly and soon enough, passing along the riverbank, one wheel got into a rut, and the other went straightforward. Crash! The wagon collapsed, and most everything in it rolled down the bank and into the fast flowing water.
Some of her clothes and her bundle of food half floated as it went further and further away. She chased along the riverbank watching with a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach as she saw it sink slowly below the surface just around the bend. Dread overcame her, and tears filled Marta's big brown eyes. She had no time for weakness, but it was there. She knew now that she would be hungry. The thought of that brought on the hunger pains. Since she couldn’t use the wagon, she had no bed. She unhitched the horse from the wreck and found her blanket and a few things on the ground. This was it. She had to continue in quiet desperation.
What would mother think? She always taught that one had to be strong. If Marta were going to find the father that she never knew, she would have to be strong. Mother told her many times how he lived away in the big city. He was tall and somewhat handsome. It never was said why he hadn’t stayed with his family, Marta and her mother that is. From her tone of voice, on many occasions, Marta’s mother made it clear that she would never be welcome with her father, who probably had another family by now anyway.
Late in the afternoon she came by a path that led to a Gypsy camp. "Never go near the Gypsies!" she had been told so many times. No one could trust the Gypsies because they would steal horses and things and kidnap young girls and God knows what else. On the breeze, she could smell the stewpot cooking up something curious and delicious. Her mouth was wet with the anticipation of eating that comes even when one is not invited.
She jumped, startling both her and the horse in turn. A man was behind her walking along the same path and singing a song. She had heard that song in her village before. It was so familiar. By his clothes, she knew he was a Gypsy even though she had never seen one. His hair was wild and his eyes were dark he was quite a bit older than her but still walked with a bounce the way young people do when they’re happy. He had an old walking stick that was all carved with symbols, and when he spoke his voice was soft and easy.
"You can’t eat food just by smelling it" he whispered as if he were confiding in her. In a stronger voice, he laughed and said "Come and sit with us. I’ll see to it that your belly gets full." Oh! What to do? Was she afraid?
She asked herself, "Do I dare?"
There is something that overcomes us when we are young. For the first time, we have no parent or elder to tell us what to do, or reprimand us if we do anything that they deem to be improper. Hers was a feeling of independence and excitement and adventure, mixed with fear. If anything bad happens, I’m strong and will fight my way out and run away. Without looking at the man, she answered in a shaky voice that showed her pretense at confidence. "Yes, thank you" The path was new and wasn’t well worn. She thought that Gypsy’s don’t stay too long in one place to have regular paths, or even their own roads. Theirs was all they surveyed until they were driven from a village or farmers land and had to move on again mending pots and pans, sharpening knives, telling fortunes, helping with harvests but best of all singing and playing music! She had heard about the wonderful and wild Gypsy music, but of course, never even saw a Gypsy.
That changed all at once, a group of gypsy families all together was such an exotic sight. They glanced at her briefly then went on about their business. The man led her to the caravan where an old lady sat cutting vegetables. "Mother! Look what I found" he said. "She’s hungry and probably lost." "I am not lost" Marta quipped right away. "I’m going to find my father in the big city, and I know how to get there."
"Oh, is that so," said the old lady with the expression that came from the patience that only a grandmotherly type could muster. "Here help me with the supper and I’ll tell you your fortune. First let me see your eyes, and here, let me look at your hand… well, well." They worked quietly for a while, and then the old woman spoke. "You don’t know who you are, but you will, you will become like a butterfly from a moth." "Is that it?" Marta muttered. These were rather ambiguous words from the old woman, she seemed kind enough though.
After the meal that they all ate outdoors sitting around the fire on funny old wooden chairs and such, the Gypsies faces were all shining, smiling, laughing and talking. By their manner, you could see that they were a close-knit group of people, a few families held together by the common bond of friendship and necessity in an often un-welcoming world. The group was lit by glowing yellow firelight.
An old man took out his violin. It was getting dark, and he began to play. Marco, the man who had invited her into the camp spoke quietly near her ear. He told her that the song was the song that was played at the old man’s wedding many, many years ago.** He then played another song and his old wife, despite her shaky appearance got up and danced with a surprising bit of fervor, smiling at her old husband every time her eyes met his.
The next to play was a dashing young man with dark shining eyes and so handsome that any young woman couldn’t help to notice him. He held a guitar. Sitting on a stool on the side of the circle, he joked with those around him and called on "those with the fire in them" to get up and dance.
He strummed his guitar in such a way that those Gypsies jumped up and circling the fire danced like whirling dervishes, legs flying in the air. Spinning and whirling arms flailed about, with such passion!
This certainly was something that she had never seen in her village. It was much more exciting, and she truly felt the desire to cavort with the others. Something was odd. Deep inside she felt something that confused her, a familiarity, a warm familiarity despite the fact that she had never even seen a Gypsy. The young man played yet another song.* Marta lost herself in the moment and rose to enter the circle, unaware that everyone stopped to stare at the outsider who dared to dance alone in their fire circle.
Eyes closed, she moved easily with the music, at first slowly, and then a bit faster as the pace quickened. She was so energized. What is this wondrous magical feeling? The song stopped as the Gypsies applauded and a wild cheer went up.
"Who are you?" a woman shouted from across the fire. Marta could barely see the woman, but now the entire group was silent, all asking the same question with their eyes. They waited, staring. Some were leaning forward to hear her response better. She didn’t realize that she had caught everyone’s attention and felt nervous as if her answer might bring on an angry response. Facing up to the crowd, she spoke up. "I am Marta; I'm from a small village called Pisco.
All eyes turned to Marco the man who had invited her into the camp. The group formed a circle around Marta; an old woman asked her "Was your mother named Maria, Maria Beela?" "Why yes, how did you know" blurted Marta. It was quiet for too long a time everyone looked at Marta and in turn Marco and the old woman, Marco’s mother. Finally, Marco spoke up; with moist eyes he put his hands on Marta’s shoulders and said "You have found what you are looking for."
They all sat down to hear the story that only Marco had the right to tell again. "Many years ago, a bit before you were born we Gypsy’s were traveling through your village. Your mother and I met at the market place. We talked awhile. Her eyes twinkled, and she was as impetuous as you are. She was beautiful, and I pursued her relentlessly, knowing that she also wanted to share some stolen moments with me. Her parents would never agree to her even speaking to a Gypsy. We planned to meet in the forest. We met every day and soon we were in love, so much in love. Ours was a blissful and secret time until your mother became with child and could no longer hide it. When her father, who was the Mayor of your village and her mother found out, they made a lot of trouble for all of the Gypsies. Several found themselves arrested for charges that were unfounded. A deal was struck; the Gypsies in jail would be released if we all would never return to the village or anywhere near it, including me."
"So that is why we never saw Gypsies at all," blurted Marta. "Is this then why I feel the way I do with all of you? I’m one of you, the people that I spent all my life in fear of." She shyly looked up into the eyes of Marco the man who had been so kind to bring her into the village and feed her. She leaned her forehead into his chest and put her hands onto his shoulders. She wept, saying only one word. "Pappa"