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By Caren Liebelt
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2014 Caren Liebelt, R.N.
All rights reserved.
The Dutch don't like us. They mutter, "Gypsies!" in their gurgled tongue and pull their children inside, closing shutters and slamming doors. The Germans didn't care for us either, but at night a number ventured out to throw money at our dancing feet or have their fortunes told. In Holland, there is no such curiosity. Netherland winds blow frigid, but I suspect our welcome would be equally biting among the yellow jonquils and bright tulips of spring.
My father returns to the clearing where we prepare to spend the night. Lifting my skirts, I run to greet him. "Father! Did you find us a ship to America?"
He towers above me, standing in scarred leather boots I've never seen him without. Black hair and beard curl around his face like winter fur.
"We sail tomorrow," he says, bending to lift me. "I booked passage with a Dutch steamer leaving for England at midday."
"England? Why must we go to England? Can't we go straight to America?"
"It's not so easy, Wren. We must first get across the North Sea to London. From there we'll travel to Liverpool."
"When will we reach America?"
Our journey pounds our hearts and spirits. Exhaustion dampens hope. Hungarian plains have long since disappeared beneath Austrian mountains, rich German forests fading behind the lip of the Netherlands. Deep into September, nights are growing cold and winter chases us, a ravenous pursuit.
"America is still far away, beyond Great Britain and across the Atlantic."
"But Father, the farther we travel the harder it will be to return. How will we see Mama and Papa again? When will I play with my friends?"
My brother, Stephen, feeds a sapling into the fire. It crackles like a howling witch. "We're not ever going to see them again. Can't you understand it?"
Father sets me down. "Don't taunt your sister. We may well return when the Habsburgs lose their hold on our people. Perhaps family will follow in our path."
"Really, Father? Might we return one day?"
He loses patience easily, with both me and Stephen. "America is far away. Stephen and your mother are family enough. Your Aunt Panna is your dearest friend."
"You see," Stephen says and then ducks when Father throws a twig in his direction. "What I tell you is truth."
"Stop, please," Mother says. "There's no call for bickering."
"I'm only teasing with her. Come to the fire, Wren. Tonight we'll dance and the worry will be forgotten."
The throb of my heart pounds through to my back. Hairs rise along my neck. I lift my skirts and run across the camp to my father's sister. "Nénike, do you know how far it is to America?"
She shuffles a deck of hand-painted cards on the top of a water barrel. "It's very far. Across a great ocean."
"Stephen says we'll never see Mama and Papa again."
A shadow creases her brow. "The Empire's greed and hunger for power destroys much. Many families have been divided by the violence. We're fortunate to have escaped with our lives. We're lucky to have each other."
I look into her tired face. "Tell my fortune, Panna. Please, Nénike."
"You've heard your fortune. A hundred times."
"I know nothing of my future in the new world. Tell me of my future in America."
Her hair gleams dark as rich Carpathian soil, her skin amber as honey. The hoops of her earrings sparkle like quicksilver in the glow of the fire. She's a beauty and many say I look just like her, comments I take as the most sincere of compliments. She's my father's sister, our clan's shuv'hani, a medicine woman with the gift of clairvoyance and power over the forest, seas and air. It has been said that in time my powers will exceed hers, for I was born beneath a Venetian Veil, and to be born with even a shred is to be foreordained to wisdom and vision. At my birth, the entire amniotic sac draped my infant face and predictions of my glory have followed me forever after.
Without looking at her cards, Panna cuts them twice, flipping them one at a time across the cover of the water barrel. I stand on tiptoes admiring the deftness of her wrists. The first card reveals a lone silhouette on a sloping hill holding a yellow lantern behind a fringe of bare branches. She gathers the cards together and starts again.
"Will the cards tell of those we left behind?"
"Do you want to hear about the others or about yourself?"
I grin, for even as she scolds me, I feel the warmth of her love. "I want to know everything. I want to hear about everyone."
"One reading at a time," she says, pressing a clove of garlic in my palm.
She turns the first card, the impish satyr, a gray figure with a man's face and the horns and hind legs of a goat. Scooping it back into the deck, she shuffles again before starting her spread. The Two of Koshes appears upside down, one carved rod embedded in dirt outside the door of an old Gypsy wagon, the second splintered beneath the vardo's wheels. It's not a good way to start a reading, even worse being upside down. Panna seldom alters the lay of her cards, but she slides this one to its upright position before turning the next.
The Three of Chivs reveals a handsome Gypsy man sitting cross-legged in baggy trousers and a sheep-skin vest. Three silver knives protrude from a scrap of red carpet at his feet. His expression is grim.
My heart races. I scratch the top of one foot with the heel of the other and lick my lips, chapped raw from the northern wind.
Collecting the cards, she tilts her head back, letting her black hair fall across her bare shoulders. I touch my lip and sniff the sharp smell of the garlic.
The next card overturned is the Seeker, a fool on horseback oblivious to his danger as he gallops toward a bridge that has been washed away. This is followed by the image of a burning tree shadowed by a faceless figure wielding the scythe of time.
"Is that the card of death?"
She tosses the remnants of a laugh into the air. It sounds like a strike on tin.
"Predictions aren't always as they seem. Cards may foretell the death of a bad idea or ill habit, perhaps the passing of a season."
Biting her lip, she reshuffles, but the same cards reveal themselves again. Her breath is louder than the sound of the crackling fire as she hesitates and turns the Five of Bolers, an old woman smoking a pipe beside a wagon with no wheels, its axles embedded in the dirt. She takes a card, the gruesome drawing of a dead hare hanging by one foot, and slides it up the sleeve of her blouse and I'm not sure if she's hiding it from herself or from me.
"Let's begin again," she says, rubbing the clove of garlic in my hand before turning the next card. "I've not shuffled properly."
It shows the portrait of a dark-eyed priestess, a dagger pointing toward her heart.
"The Queen of Chivs," Panna says, her voice grating as gravel down a steep embankment.
I lean even closer. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing," she assures me, fidgeting with the deck.
"Tell the truth. I see it in your face."
"We mustn't make the journey."
"But Father already has the boarding tickets. We sail tomorrow."
"If we go, many among us will die."
"No one will die. Father will protect us as always."
"You mustn't go, Wren. You're in horrible danger. Tell your father you wish to stay behind."
Clutching the garlic, I leave her to her cards and run to my mother, sitting on the footboard of our vardo, a yellow painted sun bursting beneath the curve of the slatted roof. She blows at steam rising from her bowl of pickled pork and juniper berries simmered in wine. Petite as Father is ample, she mirrors the strength of his presence. The contours of her face are relaxed, even in the face of such a grave warning.
"Panna predicts it will be dangerous for us in America. She says many of us may die. She says I should stay behind."
"We would never leave without you."
"But what of the prophecy?"
Setting her wooden bowl aside, Mother draws me close. "Don't be afraid, Wren. Panna's predictions don't always come to pass."
"But she's our spiritual guide, a great shuv'hani with powers over forests, seas, and air."
"Yes, she can see all the fields and earth, but we control the path of our destinies. We choose which doors we'll open and which we'll step through."
I snuggle into her, even as I'm drawn back to Panna. "In the past, she foretold that I, too, would be wise woman. Is that also a mistake?"
"It's no mistake. You have a great future before you, the future of a healer and clairvoyant."
"Yes, Mother," I say, and climb into the wagon.
The metal chimney from the small heat stove extends through the roof. I warm myself beside the grate, stretching my toes until they become too hot. The wagon, heavy with Father's anvil, hammers and barrels of rye, groans beneath my movement. I drop backwards onto the feather mattress to swat strings of paprika pods dangling like red tassels above Mother's crocks and copper kettles.
"No moping," Mother calls. "Come out and enjoy the evening. Your father is getting ready to play."
I give the pods one last smack and come out to sit on the step.
Father's high cheekbones shine brown as the burnished copper. I admire the straight lines of his nose and high forehead as he pulls his violin from its case. Holding the violin between his collarbone and chin, he clutches the horsehair bow and glides it across the strings. His thick eyebrows droop. His head sways with the vibrations. Poplar wood, still moist from a morning rain, crackles and sputters, smudging the sky with black smoke. Crossing the campsite, Aunt Panna comes to stand beside me.
"Did you tell your mother what the cards revealed?"
"She doesn't think we should worry."
"Of course we must worry. It's a powerful sign."
I look at my father and offer a timid smile. "He won't go back. We've come too far."
Panna's tongue probes the space left by a missing eyetooth. She turns the cards from hand to hand, speaking in husky Romani. "I'll speak to my brother."
I steal another peek at Father, lost in the music, bending to suckle wine from a goat bladder bag. "He won't listen."
"You'll only upset Mother."
"I'll upset whoever I must to make them listen. Now go, dance with Lajos. Let me hear you sing."
The fire crackles, sparks spiraling in an aura behind the silhouette of Father's black hair. The stirring of music turns aside the urgency of Panna's warnings and I step into the warmth of the fire and put her predictions behind me.
"Fa la la," I sing, and the dogs snap at my twirling skirts. Lajos, my intended, blows on the uneven tubes of his blue panpipe and manages to ignore me completely.
"Ta ra. Ta ra." I sing, forgetting him as well.
Holland is cold and damp, but the children clap and dance as though their feet slap warm Hungarian dust.
"Bring us through another night," we sing. "Guide us to another day."
Stephen pulls his wife, Seline, to her feet, whirling her around the fire. Orange flames and swirling embers reflect on the pallor of her thin face.
"Don't spin me so fast," she pleads, and he teases her as he's teased me for my whole life.
"Be careful," Mother warns. "Think of the baby."
József strums the strings of his citera, the Hungarian zither echoing against the clacking noise he makes with his tongue, sounds as sweet as the scent of sausage in the humid air. I clap so hard my palms burn, slowing to glance at Father and József, at János Lakatos, their lifelong friend, plucking his gardon, the wooden cello secure between his knees. I do not believe we are facing danger, can't imagine anything could spoil the anticipation of our aresajipe, our long anticipated journey to a new land. But József's easy tongue-clacking is sometimes deceptive and I watch Panna's movements as she skulks about the campfire, stepping to Father's side and standing in his shadow.
József dozes in a drunken stupor before his zither. His wife slides the instrument from beneath him and leads him off to their wagon. The children grow tired and stumble off to sleep. My eyelids grow heavy, my feet chilled, and I retreat to my tent, still aware of Panna at Father's side, watching from just within my tent's flap.
"There's danger in Wren's cards," she tells him, tightening her shawl against the cold and against his rebuke. "It would be best to take her back."
"Back to Hungary, after we've traveled all summer?"
"To Germany. She could stay with your friend, Franz. He could take her back to the others when it's safe."
Staring at the swells in the rushing canal water, Father rolls his tongue as though the music still pulses. "The others don't mind being slaves," he says, walking before her with long, confident strides. He holds his back straight, overwhelming her with the advantage of his height. "I will not return to slavery."
"But there's danger ahead. Danger greater than what we've left behind."
"We sail tomorrow."
"It's not too late, Mathias. We could return the passes and go home. We can join those we left behind and help with the revolution."
Father leans his body into his music, vibrating the sheep-gut strings. "I'm a musician, Panna, not a soldier."
"The cards reveal great sadness for Wren."
"There's sadness in slavery."
"More than sadness. Death lies ahead."
"Did you tell her these things?"
"Yes. It was her reading."
He grits his teeth toward cracking and I look away. "She's my daughter. I'll decide what information she's to receive."
"She's twelve, not two. She has a right to know she's in danger."
"Enough," he says, dismissing her, and closes his eyes.
Scraping his boot around the edges of the dying fire, Father banks the glowing coals so they can be rekindled in the morning. Panna reappears at his side.
"I don't wish to anger you, Mathias, but there's danger in this venture. Wren has much to lose."
He returns the violin to its case. "The possibility of loss mustn't keep her from a future of wonder."
"There's danger for us all. Death and sorrow."
"Sorrow is common. It comes and it goes," he says, walking before her. "The Revolution set us free, but it's only time until Russia joins the Austrian Empire to defeat the Hungarian Army. When they do, all of Hungary will be back under Habsburg's rule."
"She'll be alone, Mathias, alone in a country divided and stained with the blood of war."
"It's 1848, Panna. America is independent of England. They're no longer at war with the French and the savages have been chased across a great river. There's peace and freedom for everyone."
"There will be war and she'll be cast in the midst of it."
"She'll be safe with us. She'll wed Lajos."
"She won't marry Lajos."
"It's long arranged. József and I have spoken."
A cold chill swirls down my neck when she grabs his hand. "She'll be alone, Mathias. Her hands will be stained with tears and bloodshed."
"What then? Send her back to become a slave concubine when the Habsburgs regain their empire? Leave her to bear their bastard young?" He opens his mouth to a show of gold molars. "We'll go to America. We'll all go. Never again will we be slaves. We'll be robotol to no man."
"It's not too late. We can go back. We can join in the fight."
"The fight can't be won. If we long for freedom, we must go find it."
Patting the scarf of her head as he might a frightened pup, he climbs the steps where my mother waits. "Go to sleep now. Leave your superstitions to the dead."
Rolling in the nest of my blankets, I tuck my feet into the feather tick beneath my bedding. Horses and horned racka goats fall asleep. Panna gathers her cards. Lajos and his young brother, Vekerdi, lay silent under their parent's wagon, sprawled in a bed of straw and goat hair blankets. Panna studies their faces.
"Wren won't marry Lajos," she says, and the faint wind whines like my father's violin.CHAPTER 2
At breakfast, Lajos refuses to look at the others. He climbs from his bedding and stumbles to the fire. I understood he'd be hurt by Panna's words, but have no words of my own to comfort him. The children, István and Zsika, mock him and the morning becomes worse than the night.
"Wren won't marry Lajos," István taunts, pulling Midnight by his tail.
Zsika climbs on Pitch's back. "Wren won't marry Lajos!"
"Stop your teasing," Luca scolds her children. "Leave the dogs alone and come eat."
Vera runs to Lajos and wraps her arms around his leg. "I'll marry you, Lajos."
Excerpted from Shuv'hani by Caren Liebelt. Copyright © 2014 Caren Liebelt, R.N.. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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