Stories were woven into my life like threads in a well-worn blanket. Muted colours of the fields, forests, and hedgerows blended with the vibrant reds, oranges, and blues of the sunrise and the ocean. Words constantly clacked like hooves on tarmac, spinning tales of love, regret, trickery, and of course good and evil. Golden dragons fought wizened old witches, wise children tricked evil ghosts, an old Rom frequently got into trouble by tricking everyone, and of course women who loved their children more than life, or on the other hand, cheated on their husbands and died in the end.
My life was built around these fantastical characters, word by word, story by story; a patchwork quilt of yes and no, wrong and right. There was a story for every life occasion, a lesson for every question we could have as children. When I was small, my aunt told me a story about a Rom and a butterfly. Really it was about a man who pretended to be able to see the future and the past, but he was stealing and hiding precious things and then making known where he had hidden them. Even though he was tricking people he managed to make a good living. One day, the Rom became angry with one of his children and beat him. The son cried and ran away.
“He was not missed at all” said Bibi Davina, quietly. “It is our custom not to search for children who run away. We have so many that we are happy when one of them leaves or runs away, we are happy to get rid of at least that one.”
At the end of the story, the Rom is left alone and poor, but against all odds he finally meets up with his runaway son who is now wealthy and treats him with great respect.
I remember the hollow feeling in my heart when she said those words. We are happy when one of them leaves or runs away. I remember my stomach falling in on itself, grasping at my insides to keep from spilling out of my mouth. For Romani, at least my Carpathian family, there was an unspoken code of family morals. They weren’t so much a part of romanija as they were something larger, darker. Romanija told us how to eat, what to wear, how to conduct ourselves in public, how to speak and when, whom to marry, and where to live. This other undercurrent told us exactly what would happen if we ignored romanija and took things into our own hands. When I was eight, I was terrified of these consequences. The ending of the story somewhat assuaged the bile-tinged fear that rose in my throat – the son and the father met again, and the son was successful despite being abandoned by his family. I assumed, in my innocence, that the boy was happy he ran away. I never thought, not even for an instant, that one day I would become that boy. That I too, would run away and my family would watch me go, glad that this one at least left.
Sitting here, at this desk, writing while I’m supposed to be working, streams of words crowd into my mind. Fragments of stories bumping up against one another, like old aunts cramming in the kitchen, jostling for attention and remembrance. Late nights, draped in front of the fire – either indoors or out – I listened to my grandfather, father, and uncles weave dreams out of words. Usually, women didn’t tell stories around the fire in mixed company, unless directly asked to do so. Often, though, my grandfather asked Maami to sing for us, and her beautiful, raspy voice rose on the smoke and disappeared among the stars. Bibi Lemija and Bibi Davina would sometimes join in. Their songs told stories of struggle and hope, beauty and sadness, love and loss. Maami told me that my heart was not just mine alone. She told me all Romani are tied together by the strings of their hearts (dorina jilestar) and if we stray too far from our families, those strings break and can’t be repaired. Papu said our family was like a guitar with many strings. If one of them breaks, you can keep playing with all the others. A lost child was just a broken string; the string itself couldn’t be repaired, but the family as a whole could be mended when a new child (or wife for an existing child) came along.
I felt it when my strings broke. Like an apple tree must feel the sickly-sweet snap of that first-harvested fruit. Pulled taught from years of being the beng čhajori of the family, the kali bakri, they finally snapped as I soared thousands of feet above the Atlantic Ocean. I felt my lungs collapse, my heart stall. I realized fully in that one moment exactly what I had done. There would be no one who would come looking for me. There would be no more attempts to convince me to choose a different path. There would be no more anything. I was gone. They were gone.
I could only hope that, like the Rom in the story, I would find a beautiful butterfly to lead me home when the time was right and there, I would find the other end of my strings, and they would be happy and proud and welcome me with a smile and a story; a story about how, sometimes, it is possible to mend a broken string and sometimes that string becomes the strongest, sweetest sounding one of all …
but, this isn’t a fairytale and it’s been years now. Most of my heart-strings no longer have ends to connect to, their owners walking down the long road from this world to the next (džal peskere dromeha), taking any hope of that bitter-sweet reunion with them. There will be no butterfly for me. No ending but the one whispered to us by my grandmother as we drifted off to sleep: “džan te sovel the dža Devlesa” – go to sleep and go with God.