They descended from the sky at the light of dawn, with their patched and coloured tents, their knick-knacks and their animals. And then, they disappeared the same way: swift ascensions which people spoke about continually with dismay: were they still here last night!?
They came and went like an instantaneous breeze, not giving you the time to sense their caress or feel them shiver, they didn’t even leave you the time to understand which good wind had brought them here and which restlessness guided their passage from sky to sky, embracing the winter clouds and disappearing into the baking heat of the summer.
They were wrapped in many mysteries, and like many people, I too was caught by their irresistible fascination. Consequently, on many occasions, I even had the courage to go close to their camp and to play with the dogs that grovelled in its surroundings. No one said anything to me and above all, no one attempted to kidnap me as my mother had warned. I had already turned nine, and I felt like a young bull, agile and full of life, with my head amongst the clouds, and perhaps because of this I never hesitated to push myself beyond the limits imposed by the many rumours about them. Nevertheless, it seems that even legends, at times, aren’t entirely lacking in truth, because the story of kidnapping was true, very true. In fact, in the beginning they stole my heart, then my body, and in the end my soul, leaving me forever prey to a seemingly incurable passion; a passion for reaching unlimited spaces, to annul the frontiers that limit my thoughts and my movements. Even though many years have passed, when I remember that episode, I still feel the same sensations that I felt in those days, and I take off again, at least in my imagination, in the way I did with that small and charming gypsy, Zahida, a mere shadow and now nightly presence, in who’s honey coloured hair I breathed in the air of many regions.
It was only the third time, or perhaps even more, that I penetrated that forbidden territory, losing myself behind the plaits that beat against those minute shoulders and the forest of small flowers, underneath which two sincere feet lifted silver bunches of dust and made a path of silence, at times, shy smiles, and finally, some quiet word and her thin finger that indicated the twilight. While I turned under her blue eyes, from the extreme one to the other one, live flames burnt in my heart. One of the men, occupied in a dangerous game in the shadows of a wooden van, threw me a rapid look and liberated the dice from his closed fist, beating them strongly against his chest. “Du Shesh”, “you’re double”, I was thrilled, and before he could throw me a coin of ten “piastre”, I ran to her with all of my might, crossing the space of the camp like an arrow. A few dogs began to follow me, but in that moment I couldn’t see anything but her plaits, two wings that kept her suspended above the field of daises that extended until the Armenian cemetery, furrowed by a path that snaked through the tombstones and then emerged in a descent where it ran below the shadows of a formation of birch trees, a calm stream of limpid water.
Spontaneously, I had opened my arms, and imitating her, I ran behind her, folding my waist to the right and left like a glider that is swimming thoughtlessly through the upper air currents. We traversed meadows near and far, with our chests against the wind, repeating weird refrains, perhaps in her language, or perhaps in a language that we had invented ourselves in that moment of absolute harmony. After a quarter of an hour we threw ourselves on all fours, far from each other, and then, rolling on the damp grass, we approached each other, almost touching arms. A wild scent emanated from her body that still convulsed lightly. At a certain point, as if pushed by a strange movement, she pulled her gaze away from the twigs that bent themselves according to the evening breeze, and she fixed me in her gaze. I was propped up on my elbows, intent on observing her smooth chest. Suddenly, with the jerk of a frightened cat, she hurled herself against me, and squeezing me with both her arms, she kissed me on the lips and ran away towards the camp. I remained immobile, shocked to the point of fainting. It was the first kiss I’d ever received from a girl, or better, a woman, as we used to say at the time. Afterwards, I spent about an hour moving around this place that had witnessed the most wonderful thing that I had ever experienced. I was confused, lost, disoriented, and above all, terribly happy.
Before I returned home, located in the upper part of the village, I cast a frightened glance towards the camp that stood out against the plain like a cameo, and in response to the question of whether they would be there the next day, I felt myself wrapped in a terrible anxiety. That night, I couldn’t manage to sleep due to my agitation, and when the Muezzin announced the Morning Prayer from the minaret that stood out against the grey sky, I left the house. The streets were still deserted, apart from the mobile sellers of milk and Sahlab, a warm drink prepared with milk, powdered rice starch and sprinkled with cinnamon. I bought a glass and began to sip it as I walked along the street. So as not to be seen by my uncle that worked as the night guard in that zone, I descended towards the farmers market, and following the edge of the river, I clambered towards the ascent of olives that, after a line of streets, opened up towards the plain. When I arrived at the shop of the Master Blacksmith Artin Malbatjian, who was intent on examining the foot of a white mule, the shouting and the rackets began to reach me from the camp. They were tranquillizing sounds, but at the same time, grounds for preoccupying thoughts: was that my world, or was I pushed by a simple, infantile curiosity? Even if I had done so with caution and some fear, I had continued to proceed onwards, when I found myself face to face with Zahida. She held a crushed cloth bag, and in her hand she had a piece of bread spread with butter. On seeing me, her intense green eyes opened disproportionately and her mouth stopped chewing. Then, passing by me without looking at me, she nodded at me to follow. I quickly understood that a difficult test awaited me. When I finally began to follow closely, she was already at the first door, and was knocking, repeating in a high voice the usual refrain of the beggars:
"God bless you, please give me some money or something to eat, God will protect you from every ill, please give me something..."
"Go away… Go Away… we don’t have anything to give you!” replied a female voice from inside, while Zahida repeated her request from the beginning.
I didn’t approach her. Stopping on the other side of the road, I pretended not to know her. Finally, the door opened angrily and a rough hand thrust out, holding dry and wrinkled bread.
“There! Now Go Away!"
Zahina took the bread, and without paying any attention, slipped it into her bag. Skipping across the protruding stones to avoid the puddles, she arrived at the next door. Then, she stopped, and with narrowed eyes, said:
“Come, now you do it.”
Unconsciously, I took a step back, and I don’t know why I didn’t immediately flee: I wanted to stay beside her, but I was afraid of my actions.
"You are afraid, right?" she challenged me.
I shook my head, lowering my gaze.
“You’re afraid…You’re afraid…”, Zahida began to leap, spinning around and slandering me.
Slowly, and with an exhausted force, I stepped forward. Becoming aware of my movement, she stopped, and began to observe me curiously. I needed greater force to take the next step. In the meantime, rivers of sweat invaded my neck and spine and my visual field shrank until I lost all discernment. Then, a hand pulled me forward, and a whisper which seemed to come from far away.
"God bless You..."
"God bless You..."
"Give us something to eat..."
"Give us something to eat..."
"So that God will reward you with well-being and happiness... "
"So that God will r…. "
After every syllable, every word that I pronounced, I felt lighter and my voice became clearer and more resolute. Hand in hand, we moved from one door to the next, laughing and joking with the so-called benefactors that often chased us brutally, and when our persistence tired them, they threw water on us or ran behind us with sticks or thick rope. Nevertheless, at the falling of the sun, we returned to the camp with a sack full of bread, with sweets, dried fruit and even some money in our pocket. Even this time, even though I entered with Zahida to the centre of the tent where one emptied the daily collection of foodstuffs, no one acknowledged my presence. Zahida, like a mature woman, gave the order to her contemporary to get her sack and empty it into a wicker chest, and then, taking two apples from a contorted tray and went outside, running nimbly between the tents and scattered objects. I followed her, along with the dogs that ran far ahead of us, stopping at the edge of the field to wait for us, barking at the top of their voices, and there were barely moments before we found ourselves rolling together or watching the water in the stream. In the end, when we left the camp, we were wet and soaked from head to toe. Apart from a stolen kiss, we didn’t exchange a single world, but I remember that when I walked away, she remained to watch me for a moment with an air of absence. Maybe she already knew, but maybe because it was a habit, she didn’t say anything to me. And in spite of the reprimands and the two slaps from my father because I was begging with the gypsies, I never renounced either the habit of taking flight towards the open camps, opening my arms and my chest to the winds, or the idea that the gypsies travelled embracing the clouds, exactly the way that Zahida, that one that I never saw again, had in that cold night in November.
Translation Katie Hepworth