Thursday, October 1, 2009

Chapter 1 - Tower of Shadows by Jane Toombs



Jane Toombs

Chapter 1

I opened my eyes. What had awakened me? Overhead the branches of the oaks were gray shadows in the pre-dawn, a horse tethered along the creek nickered softly, then was still. The rich odor of coffee brewing wafted from the direction of the campfires.

I sat up. On one side of me Mimi stirred restlessly, on the other side Marona still slept soundly. I watched the ghostlike figures of two women who hovered near the caldron, their sweeping skirts alternately revealing and concealing the small tongues of flame licking at the bottom of the huge black kettle. A small yellow and white dog trotted up to me, sniffed my blanket but scuttled off toward the creek the moment I reached to pet him.


Startled, I glanced to right and left.


The whisper came from behind me. Looking over my shoulder, I saw my best friend, Sasha, standing just beyond the sleeping area, wisps of ground fog eddying around her green skirt.

"Tina," Sasha whispered again, "this is the day. Your day." She spoke not in English but in Romany.

I drew in my breath. Not that I'd forgotten--how could I possibly have forgotten?--but in my distress I'd pushed aside all thoughts of leaving. Pitar had yet to tell me where I was going and, more importantly, why. I only knew I must go. Today. Standing up, I shook and then brushed the folds of my skirt but saw that my blouse was wrinkled and stained past any tidying.

"Wait," I told Sasha.

Making my way between the sleeping women, I crossed a glade toward the dark outlines of the wagons, savoring the damp coolness as the dew from the new spring grass wet my bare feet.

Entering the family wagon, I breathed in the warm, close air carrying the familiar odors of burnt candles, food, and men and women. I found my other blouse in the trunk where I'd laid it, carefully folded, after the last washing. This blouse was my favorite, I liked the way the white muslin contrasted with the dark of my arms. I'd almost forgotten this deep mahogany wasn't my natural color.

Sasha was waiting for me beside the wagon steps. "Are you excited?" she asked.

"Yes. And a bit afraid. Like a baby about to take her first step."

"What is to be, will be."

I nodded. "As Pitar would tell us"--I deepened my voice to mimic the leader of the clan--"if you wish to run, you first must walk and if you wish to walk, you first must be prepared to fall many times."

We both laughed.

"Hush, hush," voices hissed from around us.

As we walked away from the wagons, the fiery red rim of the sun slid above the hill on the far side of the creek. The camp stirred around us, then all at once came awake. A dog barked, boys hurried into the woods, Pulika came to stand in the doorway of his wagon where he stretched and lazily scratched his ample stomach. From near the fires came the sounds of a woman's low laugh, the murmur of voices and the clatter of pans.

When I, with Sasha a step behind, approached the family campfire the talking stopped abruptly. I felt the eyes of all the women on me as I sat down to drink coffee, and eat the bread and cheese Pulika had "found" the day before in the village. Growing uneasy and then, despite my best intentions, apprehensive, I hurriedly finished eating and wiped my hands on my black skirt.

Grandmother MacArthur had considered cleanliness to be akin to godliness but, even when I remembered her many admonitions, it had been almost impossible not to slip into what she would have considered ungodly habits after I came to live in the camp four years before. At first some things bothered me, but I'd grown used to gypsy ways.

"Tina, are you ready?"

Looking up, I saw old Lyuba standing over me, her hands on her hips, her gold earrings, and the long chain of gold coins around her neck, glinting in the morning sunlight. The other women gathered behind Lyuba while the men and boys stood in small clusters nearby, watching us, while pretending not to.

"I'm ready." My calm voice belied my trepidation.

"Come, then."

Lyuba led the way from the campground past the horses to the path beside the creek. I followed with the older women just behind me, then Sasha and the other young women, and finally the girls. How I wished Sasha was next to me, Sasha who was my sister in all ways but heritage.

Already the ground mist was rising in curling wisps as the sunlight slanting between the trees foretold another hot June day. Birds sang their morning songs, while above my head a squirrel chattered at me from the branch of a chestnut tree. Below me the creek whispered tales of a long-ago Eden before men came to this land of mountains and valleys, of clear sparkling water, of sun and shadow.

I won't be afraid, I told myself. Even if I am, I won't show it.

From behind me came a throaty humming, almost a moaning, as Marona began to sing one of the old, old songs. Mala joined in, then Lyuba, then all the women were singing, all but me. The chant's slow and melancholy cadences spoke of sadness and despair, of love found only to be lost forever. As the last strains of the song faded away, Lyuba stopped and motioned to me.

When I reluctantly came to join her, we gazed in silence down into a glen where the stream cascaded over a waterfall before pausing to rest in an emerald pool. In the depths of the water a tiny fish glided into the sunlight, then darted out of sight between moss-covered rocks.

Lyuba clasped my hand and together we followed a path down the hill to the edge of the pool. The other women followed and sat on the gray boulders above us.

"I ask you a second time," Lyuba said. "Tina, are you ready?"

My hesitation was only momentary. "Lyuba, I'm ready."

"It is good." She looked above my head at the watching women. "Mala, come to us."

Mala, her long black hair streaked with gray, walked slowly down the hill, holding an earthenware jar in front of her like an offering. Placing the jar at my feet, she stepped back. While Lyuba looked inside, I noticed Sasha winking at me.

"Is your eye afflicted?" Lyuba missed little.

"Only by a grain of dirt," Sasha said, covering her mouth with her hand to hide her smile.

Her wink made me feel better. No matter what happened next, Sasha was with me. Last winter, beneath the new moon, we had pricked our fingers with a needle, mingling our blood as we vowed to be sisters forevermore.

"Mimi," Lyuba called. "Sasha."

With many stops and starts the two young women carried a heavy wicker hamper to the edge of the pool. Pulika, I knew, had "found" the hamper the year before in the city where Yolan died.

"Unbraid her hair," Lyuba ordered.

Stepping behind me, Sasha took out the pins and deftly undid the braids. When I shook my head, my dark brown hair fell almost to my waist.

"Remove her garments."

The two young women helped me pull my blouse and underwaist over my head, leaving my bronzed upper body naked.

"Now the skirts," Lyuba said.

"No!" I cried.

Lyuba drew in her breath sharply. Mimi and Shasha baked away, glancing uncertainly from me to Lyuba and back again.

Drawing in a deep breath, I faced her. "To have all the others see me is unclean."

"It is the way."

"I won't go on."

Lyuba leaned to me, her dark eyes angry as she spoke softly, so only I could hear. "You're never content to let the future unfold as it will. You're stubborn, always wanting to change whatever fails to please you. Pitar's to blame for indulging you."

I bit my lip to keep back my denial, digging my fingernails into the palms of my clenched hands, not daring to contradict her.

Lyuba turned from me to look up at the women on the hillside. "Shield your eyes." she ordered and the women either turned away or covered their faces with their cupped hands.

After I dropped my skirt and underskirt to the ground to stand naked, Lyuba nodded at the pool. I waded into the water, wincing at the sudden shock of cold and the rocks biting into the soles of my feet. The bottom of the pool dropped off so sharply it took no more than a few steps before the water reached my thighs. With Lyuba standing at the side of the pool, I had no fear of the deep water, even though I had never learned to swim.

"Lie down," Lyuba told me.

I first sat, shivering until I grew accustomed to the penetrating chill, then I floated on my back, my body buoyed by the water, my hair spreading darkly on the surface of the pool.

Ignoring the water soaking her voluminous skirts, Lyuba waded into the pool to stand beside me, and Mala followed, carrying the earthenware jar. Lyuba reached deep into the jar and brought forth a handful of brown powder that looked like dry, crumbled leaves. She rubbed the gritty substance first on my feet, then on my legs, my arms, my body, my face, and finally into my hair.

"Close your eyes, Tina," she murmured. "Close your eyes."

The crooning tone of Lyuba's voice, the gentle cradle of the water, and the lullaby sung by the stream, quelled my apprehension.

As Lyuba scrubbed my body with a soothing rhythm, the stream eddied around me like the swaying of a slow-moving wagon, and suddenly I remembered what I'd almost succeeded in forgetting.

We'd left our last campground in haste--Pitar didn't explain why--and traveled eastward. When, at twilight, we began to descend a long hill, I jumped down from the family wagon and climbed to the crest of a knoll beside the trail. Just below me our caravan wound slowly into a woods, while across the valley the sun lowered toward the rounded peak of a mountain.

A breeze rustled the leaves over my head, the wagons creaked, and from far away came the faint lonely whistle of a train. As I peered into the distance to try to find the train, sunlight struck my eyes, blinding me so I could no longer see the caravan. My throat tightened and tears stung my eyes as a foreboding--fear mingled with sadness--washed over me, a sense of imminent change and loss, of once more being cast adrift without family or friends.

"You may open your eyes." Lyuba's voice startled me from my reverie.

I obeyed, standing and looking down. I gasped. My body, gleaming in the dappled sunlight, reflected palely from the surface of the pool. I pulled a strand of my hair forward to look at it. My hair, a few moments ago a beautiful brown, was now the color of straw.

"What have you done to me?" I wailed even though, deep down within me, I knew my hair and skin had been tinted weekly with Lyuba's dyes. But after four years I all but believed I truly had a gypsy's coloring. Staring at my yellow hair, I wailed, "I'm ugly!"

"No. Like all of us, you are what you were fated to be."

My lips trembled as I watched the brown film on the water slowly drift downstream. "My pride has been washed from me," I whispered.

"Don't talk foolishness. They will call you beautiful."

"They? What do I care what they say? How do you think I look, Lyuba?"

"I didn't know it mattered to you what I thought," Lyuba said sharply. Her voice softened. "I think you are what you are, no one can be more or less. Come from the water, Tina. Here, dry yourself. Good, now cover your body with this."

Handed a formless white garment, I slipped the strange covering over my head. It came to my knees and from somewhere inside me emerged the name of what I wore. "A shift," I whispered, remembering that when I lived with Grandmother MacArthur I'd worn shifts.

Lyuba turned to the others. "We are ready."

The women hurried down from the hillside, their skirts rustling, to form a staring circle around me, all the while whispering and exclaiming as they nudged one another. Marona grimaced at what she saw, and Ruika narrowed her eyes in distaste.

I was ugly. Any beauty I may have possessed had been washed from me.

"I like your hair," Sasha assured me. "Really I do."

Tears stung my eyes. My friend meant to be kind but what Rom could like such a pale, unnatural color?

"The hamper," Mimi said. "May I open the hamper?"

When Lyuba nodded, Mimi lifted the wicker top. Lyuba walked a few steps away while the women crowded around the hamper, lifting the clothing from inside, displaying undergarments by raising them above their heads, giggling as they postured with the strange clothes held against their bodies. I knew none of the clothes were from my time with Grandmother MacArthur because I'd been barely fourteen when she died. Nothing I'd worn then could possibly fit me now.

"Wait until we dress you, Tina," Mimi said. "You'll be the most elegant lady in all the land of Pennsylvania."

"Put this on." Sasha offered me a long white and black underskirt.

"No," Mimi objected. "The underwaist goes on first."

"You're both wrong," Mala told them with a superior air. "This does."

I recognized what Mala held as something called a corset. Though I'd never worn one, Grandmother MacArthur had. The garment looked stiff and uncomfortable. "Why must I wear a corset?" I asked.

"To alter your natural shape so you'll look like they do. When tied as tightly as possible, the corset thrusts you out at the top." Mala used her hands to demonstrate. "It pinches

you in down here, while pushing you out again in the rear."

The women laughed, shaking their heads in amazed disbelief. I eyed the corset with mistrust.

"Ah," a small girl, said, her eyes alight with the awe that comes from new-found knowledge. "I always thought they were born shaped that way."

"You may all snicker and shake your heads as much as you please," Mala said, "but I have read the truth of it in the book."

Except for myself, Mala was the only one of the band who could read or write.

"The book," Mimi cried, "have you brought the book?"

Mala reached deep into the hamper, then stood triumphant with a thick volume held aloft in her hands. The women clapped in excitement. "The gaje book of a thousand wonders," one of them said.

"Tell us again the name of this book," Mimi begged.

"This is the book the gaje consult to make their wishes come true," Mala said. "It is called the Catalogue of Sears and Roebuck."

"The Catalogue of Sears and Roebuck," the others echoed.

"I will name Tina's garments for you, Mala went on. She pronounced the unfamiliar English words syllable by distinct syllable. "Cor-set, cor-set-cov-er, draw-ers, pet- ti-coat, shirt-waist, skirt."

The naming brought back the memory of my grandmother's small house, and of my life before I came to live with the gypsies. That time seemed so long ago and so far away that I could scarcely recall the girl I had been then. And yet I was she, a gaje whether I wanted to be or not. If the truth be told, there was nothing I wanted less.

The women clustered about me as I dressed, offering advice, pulling the drawstrings of the corset tight until I gasped for breath, watching me fasten the drawers, the petticoats and the skirts.

I lifted the purple outer skirt so I could see to push my feet into narrow black shoes, buttoning them over my ankles. How confining they felt Taking a few experimental steps, I stumbled and almost fell. "I'm a prisoner of these clothes," I protested.

The women, laughing and calling to one another, helped me climb the steep path leading from the glen. As they paraded me along the track to the campground, I felt for all the world like a captured wild animal about to be placed on display. My feet hurt, and the pressure of the corset forced me to take short, shallow breaths.

"Pitar will see you now," Lyuba told me when we entered the camp. The older woman led me to the largest of the wagons and pushed me up the steps. When I turned to her, intending to ask her to come with me, she shook her head as though reading my thoughts, and walked away.

Drawing a deep breath, I stepped through the open door. On the far side of a narrow table, his whiskered face shadowed by the gloom inside the wagon, sat Pitar. He appeared incredibly old to me, though I knew he couldn't have seen many more than fifty summers.

Pitar told me to shut the door and then nodded to a straight-backed chair. I sat rigidly on the chair's edge, not only to show my respect for Pitar, but because the gaje corset permitted no other posture. With the door closed, no sound entered the wagon and in the oppressive silence of our isolation I suddenly, and for the first time, wondered if Pitar was a lonely man.

I watched him strike a match and hold the flame to the wick of a tall black candle, his eyes glinting in the light. When he spread his fingers on the table I saw that his fingers were gnarled and the backs of his hands were brown, covered with tiny gray hairs.

"You have been asked twice," he said. "Now I ask you for the third and final time. Are you ready?"

I drew in my breath, started to speak, then hesitated, looking at my unfamiliar hands--how pale they were!--clasped in my lap. Then I glanced across the table at Pitar, at his graying hair and his dark, lined face, into the brown eyes that seemed warm, yet distant, like home fires viewed from afar. Sasha and I had often made fun of Pitar behind his back, mocking his solemnity, but now I wondered what would have become of our clan without him.

We would have been scattered to the four winds.

Pitar was father of us all, he guided our wanderings and our lives--our wanderings were our lives--the reins held loose in his hands at times, at other times held tight as he settled quarrels with a command, a curse, or a joke.

At first I had half-feared him. At times I had hated him. And now?

"Is it really true that I must go?" I asked. "There's no doubt at all?"


"Then I'm ready."

"My heart aches to see you leave us."

I put my hand to my mouth to conceal my surprise. When I could speak, my words seemed to come from a stranger, a woman I didn't easily recognize as myself. "My heart aches as well." I realized then that now, mingled with my unease, replacing any fear or hate of him I had once felt, was a generous portion of love.

For many moments we sat in silence. I watched the candle's unwavering flame and the dark rivulets of wax, knowing that ever afterward when I saw a black candle I would think of Pitar.

"So." Pitar pushed his chair back and stood. He wasn't unusually tall, but at that moment his presence seemed to fill the room. "When you leave us today," he said, "you leave behind the name Tina MacArthur as well. Your name among the gaje is Margaret Christina Wentworth."

I stared at him, shocked into speechlessness, the name echoing in my head. Margaret Christina Wentworth. An imposing name, I thought, a harsh name. Only the Christina had been known to me before, because that's what Grandma MacArthur called me. But I'd grown accustomed to being Tina, and wanted to cling to that name. The other names--Margaret and Wentworth were completely unfamiliar. Where had the MacArthur gone?

"My grandmother MacArthur?" I asked.

"She was no blood relative of yours. Your father, Aaron Wentworth, had me take you to her when you were a child of four summers. She had been a servant in your grandfather's house until, late in her life, she married. Her husband passed on before her, and when she died, there was no place for you but with us."

Grandma MacArthur--how could I call her anything else?--had rarely spoken of my father. I'd come to believe both he and my mother were dead.

"Now you have been summoned by your father," Pitar said. "The time has come for you to go to him."

"My father's alive?" My voice rose in excited surprise.

"He is alive, though blind."

Blind? Yet he was alive and I was to go to him! "And my mother?"

Sadness flitted across his face like the shadow of a dark cloud. "She died at your birth. Because the blood of our people flowed in her veins, thus in yours, your father entrusted you to my care in his hour of torment. He was afflicted and afraid, afraid not for himself but for you. Though he never revealed the cause of his fear, I always believed he had an enemy, one who sought vengeance."

The reason for my father's summons seemed clear to me. "This enemy must now be dead and so my father is free to send for me."

Pitar spread his hands. "Who can say? During all these years we have left word with men we trust, telling your father you were well, but we heard nothing from him. Until yesterday. Perhaps when you see your father he will reveal all, perhaps he will not. What will be, will be." Pitar took a small box from a drawer in his desk. "I was told by your father to give you this," he said.

I opened the box. There, nestled in blue velvet, I found a deep purple amethyst set into a gold locket on a gold chain. Pressing a small catch, the cover flew open to reveal a daguerreotype--the face of a beautiful woman. I glanced up at Pitar.

"Yes," he told me, "your mother." He paused as I looked at the picture, wondering what this woman I had never known had been like, wondering whether I resembled her in any way. "Your father," Pitar went on, "said that if ever you needed to know who you were, this locket would help you."

Frowning, I said, "What did he mean?"

Pitar shook his head. "Your father told me no more." After taking a last look at the hauntingly lovely face of the stranger who had been my mother, I reluctantly closed the locket, and fastened the chain around my neck.

"There is something," Pitar went on, "you must learn and learn well. Remember these words: 'The Rainbow comes and goes, and lovely is the Rose.'"

"But what does it mean?"

"The words are from a poem. By a William Wordsworth. The meaning for you?" Pitar shrugged. "You must be patient and it will become clear."

"You've given me a locket and a phrase from a poem. Is there more?"

"You already read and write and speak the gaje tongue. Lyuba has taught you the ways of men and of women. You are prepared."

"But I know little of the gaje world. Grandma MacArthur preferred to speak of the past, the time of her youth. I will make many mistakes."

"Perhaps you are fortunate to be able to enter into that world with unclouded eyes. But our time together is short, so I must ask you our questions for the last time." He leaned toward me. "Who are you?"

This was a familiar catechism. "I am myself. I am responsible only for myself, not for my mother nor my father nor my husband, nor my friend. Only for myself."

"And next in importance to yourself?"

"The family. After the family, the people."

"Who can you trust?"

"Only myself since the enemies of the people are everywhere."

"What can you be?"

"Whatever I am capable of being. Whatever my heart and my mind allow me to be."

"How shall you be judged?"

"Not by what or how much God has bequeathed me, nor by what he may bequeath me in the future. Rather I will be judged by the manner in which I make use of what I have."

Pitar leaned on the table, his gaze fixed on me. "We can give you no more than what we have already given you."

"I was wrong to ask."

"No question asked with a sincere desire for knowledge is ever wrong."

"Then I have another question, Pitar. Why must I leave so suddenly?"

"Your father's message to me urged the utmost haste. I had always planned to return you to him by taking you myself, seeing you safe in his arms." He shook his head. "Now this cannot be. You must travel in secret and, for the most part, alone. For months there have been rumors, tales whispered around the campfires telling of horsemen riding in the night, of questions asked, of hooded men who seek a gaje girl among our people.

"The signs, too, speak of terrible danger. The moon on rising is the color of blood, the horses stampede without cause, the dogs howl even on moonless nights. We leave our campgrounds in haste, we travel with the greatest stealth, yet still they follow us."

I felt the hair on my nape prickle. "Who seeks me? What do they want of me?"

"I do not know." Pitar walked to the rear of the wagon and opened the door. I listened to the familiar sounds of the camp as one might listen to a well-loved song she knows she will never hear again.

"Pitar, this has been my home for four years. I don't want to leave."

He frowned and crossed his arms. "Lyuba tells me you have the gift of our people. That you are able to see beyond the veil of time."

I nodded. "But the seeing comes and goes as it will, not as I will."

"If you stayed with us you would read the future for the gajes. You would tell them their money is cursed, as Lyuba does so well, and you would instruct them to bring it to you so you may cleanse it. Is that what you want?"

Biting my lip, I lowered my head. Much as I respected Lyuba, I had never fully accepted some of the gypsy ways. "No. I couldn't. For me, it's not the path to follow."

"If you stayed with our caravan you'd soon be ready to be a wife. Money would change hands. You work hard, you're cheerful, you would bring a good price. Is that what you want?"

"No! When I marry I'll marry for love."

Pitar smiled at my outburst but sadness darkened his face again as he held out his hand. "Come with me then, Margaret," he said.

The syllables of my new name, my birth name, fell harshly on my ear. I knew then I was no longer Tina and would never again be Tina. Whether I wished it to be so or not, the gypsy camp no longer had a place for me.

Pitar took my hand in his. "The time has come," he said. "Your journey begins."

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