My grandmother told me that Roma didn’t need books. Our literature was the sky and the pages of our books the earth beneath our feet. Her footsteps punctuated stories of ghosts, demons, wives, and mothers. Stories that I’ve heard echoed across cultures and continents. We had no books in our house at all when I was a child – there was no need – no one could read. I thought books were unimportant. They told stories of non-Romani lives, non-Romani animals and children, and histories that made little sense to me.
Papu told me that once you wrote a word down, it lost its power. Once it was written there, on the page, it couldn’t be molded or tempered. Our language, he said, only existed in the air and could never be captured and if anyone ever did, the words would vanish. He told me a story about a monk named Baldemar, a bateris – a monk who did not reside in a monastery – instead he travelled the world writing stories. One day he came to the Romani settlement in the Ondavská vrchovina Mountains, near Bartva (Bardiów/Bardejov). Although he was very poor himself, he had brought enough loaves of sweet bread for every grandmother in the village. Even though he was strange and rude, they were very happy to invite him in.
The first night, he spent it with Papu Alojzy and Baba Gosija and their seven children: Halina, Jakub, Lucja, Albin, Markus, Pola, and Ruža. They lived in a small shack with one room and no windows. They had a small wood stove at one end and straw for sleeping at the other. Baba Gosija served nothing but the best of the food, but Baldemar complained about only eating rabbit, sitting on the floor, being too cold, and sleeping in straw like a beggar.
Even so, when he demanded to hear a story, everyone wanted to tell one.
Baba Gosija started her story about the crow with only one wing, but stopped suddenly, intrigued by what Baldemar was doing.
“Why, silly old woman, I am writing down your story! Every word!” Baba looked at the page, then looked at Papu Alojzy worriedly. He too looked at Baldemar’s writing, and then back at Baba.
“Excuse me young bateris, but how is it that you know our language?” Alojzy asked.
“I am a son of God and I have travelled all over the world. I know all the languages that there are to speak!” And with that he gestured for Papu to be quiet an for Baba to continue her story. So they went on all night. First Baba, then Papu, Halina, Jakub, Lucja, Albin, Markus, Pola, and Ruža. By three in the morning, every one of them had told a story.
In the morning, Baldemar was first to wake and strode down to the small lenjori (creek) smiling happily. The abbot would be amazed that he had found Gypsy people who would tell him stories! In all of his travels no other Romani had even welcomed him to their houses!
Suddenly, he was awakened from his happy thoughts by screaming from the village.
As he returned to the osada, Baldemar found Papu Alojzy and Baba Gosija and their seven children (Halina, Jakub, Lucja, Albin, Markus, Pola, and Ruža) sitting outside of their shack staring blankly into the distance. The rest of the village were shouting angrily, “who are you?” and “why are you here?”, but not one of the family said anything.
“What happened?” Baldemar asked. “When I fell asleep they were fine!” A tall, thin, sad looking Rom walked over to him then.
“I am Seweryn and I am the brother of the man who lives here. When we awoke we found these strange people living in the house of my brother. But, worse than that, we cannot light these logs to make warmth or prepare our food. Please, if you can, tell me what happened and where is my brother!”
So, Baldemar explained how they ate good food and told stories all night. But, when he got to the part about writing their names and stories down, the gathered crowd gasped loudly, and a baby began to cry.
“NO!” Shouted Seweryn. “No! You have stolen their words and in doing so have stolen them from our memories. These are my brother, his wife, and their seven children! We have no words to remember them by! You have also stolen words we use for lighting wood and creating things to eat! They are useless now. Where are these stories? You must return them! You must free the words!”
Baldemar handed over the sheaves of paper sheepishly, staring at Papu Alojzy and Baba Gosija and their seven children (Halina, Jakub, Lucja, Albin, Markus, Pola, and Ruža) who still sat staring and empty outside of their house. But, Seweryn shook his head and pointed to the tallest mountain they could see.
“You must go there, Baldemar. You must give your pages to the šaarkanji who lives there. Only then will the words come back to us.”
At first he refused, but the women began to cry and the men looked very angry. So, the monk took the paper and his bag and began the long walk to the top of Stebnícka Magura. Half way up the mountain was the lair of Wojtek (some said he was the brother of the famous (and troublesome) Polish dragon Wawel) and it was there he must go.
As the day began to grow dark, Baldemar reached the bottom of the mountain and began to climb the rugged path. All of his earlier happiness had been replaced with dread. Why had he convinced Papu Alojzy and Baba Gosija and their seven children (Halina, Jakub, Lucja, Albin, Markus, Pola, and Ruža) to tell their stories? What had really happened to them? Were these few pages really responsible for the terrible confusion back at the village?
Just then, it began to snow and Baldemar decided he would turn around and leave the villagers to their fate. Never before had a story caused so much trouble. He began to think about everything he had heard about Romani people and the terrible things they were accused of.
“I bet they’re laughing at me right now! Mean Gypsies. They probably stole my money too!” He said to the snowflakes and turned to walk back the way he had come. But, the path had vanished, covered with a thick blanket of trees and hidden beneath the snow. “How?!” Baldemar shouted, “I must be confused. Stupid Gypsies!! They have me lost!” The more he looked for the path, the more angry he became. Eventually, he trudged his way over to a small cave and sat down to rest.
After a few minutes, he heard a whispering voice and assumed he had fallen asleep. But, even after splashing his face with freezing snow, he could still hear it.
“Baldemar,” it muttered, barely audible. “Baldemar… ”
“No!” He replied, shaking his head. “You’re not real! You’re one of the mean Gypsies come to play more tricks! Leave me alone!”
“Baldemar,” the voice repeated quietly. “Baldemar… ”
“NO!” He screamed, “Leave me alone! I had every right to take their stories! They are poor Gypsies and I am a monk, a son of God!”
“Baldemar,” it said again, this time though, he could feel breath brushing gently against his ear. “Baldemar… come with me… ”
Terrified, he slowly rose to his feet and turned to find where the voice had come from. He couldn’t see anyone, alive or dead, but instead there flickered a small light. Something that Papu Alojzy and Baba Gosija and their seven children (Halina, Jakub, Lucja, Albin, Markus, Pola, and Ruža) might have called an ududoro, but Baldemar knew nothing of such words or spirits.
As he followed the light, up and down through streams and thorns, Baldemar became more and more terrified, certain now that he would never leave the mountain.
Hoping he could scare the light away he begged, “please, let me go! I must speak to the dragon who lives here. In fact, Wojtek is looking for me right now!”
The ududoro flickered for a moment and then disappeared, leaving Baldemar alone on the dark mountain. Even more afraid now that his only source of light had disappeared, he sat down and began to cry. After a while, he heard a strange noise and looked up, expecting the curious light to have returned. Instead he saw two, huge round eyes.
“I am Wojtek,” the eyes said. “Why have you come here?”
“I.. well.. I..” stuttered Baldemar, his voice shaking with fear. “I have come to give you these!” Cautiously, he held out the pages with the stories from Papu Alojzy and Baba Gosija and their seven children (Halina, Jakub, Lucja, Albin, Markus, Pola, and Ruža). “When I wrote down their words, they became silent and forgotten. Seweryn told me to bring these to you and you could give them back!”
Wojtek sniffed at the paper, smiled, and ate Baldemar in one bite.
Just then, back in the village Papu Alojzy and Baba Gosija and their seven children (Halina, Jakub, Lucja, Albin, Markus, Pola, and Ruža) began to laugh.
The first time Papu told me this story I begged and begged for him to tell me the end. What really happened to Baldemar, Papu Alojzy and Baba Gosija and their seven children (Halina, Jakub, Lucja, Albin, Markus, Pola, and Ruža), and Seweryn?
“This is the end,” He would say, puffing on his pipe or cigarette. “What does it tell you, čhaskeri čhaj?”
That dragons will always eat you? That ududoro will always lead you astray? That stories aren’t meant to be written down?
Even now, I’m not sure I know.