After feedback from my agents and a handful of editors at publishing houses, I am thinking about revising my manuscript yet again, I’ve posted the first chapter here for your reading pleasure. Feedback is always welcome.
There is a Ukrainian legend that once each year, on the night of Ivana Kupala, a magical flower blooms in the heart of the forest. Anyone who finds it will be granted their heart’s desire: the ability to hear the trees whisper and watch them dance, the power to make anyone fall in love with them, the magic to make barren lands bear fruit and barren women fruitful. It is a single red flower with several names: tsvit paporot, liubava, chervona ruta. The legendary bloom can grant wishes, open the doorway to the past, and awaken spirits to visit with loved ones.
I looked for the tsvit paporot when I was a young girl. I searched for it in many places, in different countries, over a lifetime. I eagerly went into the unknown, looking for magic, for mystery, for adventure. But sometimes magic finds you. Sometimes it comes in the least likely of forms: in a small black river rock, a deck of hand-painted cards, a sprig of purple herb or an envelope from home.
Just when you think that life is slowing down, magic happens. The universe sends you a message, like a tsvit paporot on your doorstep. The question is, what do you wish for?
At the age of sixteen, more than anything, I wanted to have my fortune told by the mysterious vorozhka, the Gypsy woman who camped with her people on the outskirts of our Ukrainian village. Mama expressed her disapproval countless times, but so many of the young women had gone before me and came back with astonishing stories. The vorozhka told Mariyka that she would travel across the sea in search of kisses heavy with perfume. She told Darka that she would find many children gathered around her feet on her father’s farm. Even Olena, who dreamt of going to school in Lviv to study languages, went to see the vorozhka who told her that she would soon ride a train heavy with hope. After finishing my chores, I would sit with Khvostyk purring in my lap and dream of the vorozhka’s predictions.
After my best friend, Sonya, went to see the Gypsy, I thought that Mama would finally agree.
“Mama, Sonya’s mother let her go to see the vorozhka. Her brother even kept watch as she walked through the woods to the Gypsy camp. And do you know what the vorozhka told her? She told Sonya that soon she would see everything lit up around her. That the night would be broken by light, and she would run into the arms of her husband. Who else could this be but Yaroslav? He often tends his father’s sheep at night and carries a lantern. Mama, I need to go see the vorozhka to learn about my future. All the other girls have gone.”
As I related the story, Mama never looked up from the bread dough she kneaded. Her strong hands squeezed the dough even harder as she said to me in that same tone reserved for scolding little children,
“Nadya, you will not go. I forbid it.” Mama bit down on her lower lip, something that she always did when she was concentrating.
“Gypsies are dirty. They steal and lie. What kind of life is that? They have no home. No home, Nadya. Why do you think this is?”
Mama stopped to rub her brown eyes and left flour on her brow. She looked me in the eyes. “Why? Because they take all they can and leave before people realize they have been fooled. We are not fools. This vorozhka is a fake, she performs tricks, uses pretty words to steal money from hardworking people.”
Mama returned to her kneading, “When I was a girl they came too. Marko Pavlyshyn had two cows and one horse stolen. Marusia Ivanovych had five chickens stolen that same night. The next morning when they went to find the Gypsies, they were gone. Coincidence? No, Nadya. Gypsies are dirty, they ride on a bad wind. You stay away from them and their enchantments.”
I ran out to the barn in tears and hid behind the cows. I wanted to learn about my future. I wished to experience magic and mystery, as in the stories where the young girl, Vasylyna, would go to see the witch, Baba Yaga, in the forest. Yes, like Vasylyna the Brave, I wanted an adventure.
So on the night of the new moon, I had Gypsies on my mind as I walked to the barn to leave an offering for the dvorovyi, the yard spirits. The sky was dark with early Spring but heavy with stars to light my path, as I walked to the stable. Around me, howling voices of wolves and the whirr of bat wings traveled on the wind. After my sixteenth birthday, it became my task to leave the offerings; and even though I had watched Mama many times before, I was nervous. What if I did something wrong and the spirits allowed harm to come to the cattle?
I pushed open the heavy door and peered into the blackness, permitting starlight to wrestle with the shadows. Each corner held secrets, each shape shifted in the light. I could feel cool air on the back on my neck. Breeze or breath? I didn’t turn to check. As I walked through the barn, I cursed the crunch of my feet on straw. Sleeping spirits did not like to be disturbed. I did not want to find their glowing eyes peering at me in the darkness.
At the eastern corner I stopped and knelt on the dirt floor. Hay cut into my bare knees; the smell of manure stung my nostrils. I reached into the napkin I carried and lifted out three slices of Mama’s morning bread. Out of my pocket, I pulled the sheep’s wool I had gathered earlier that day. I cleaned off a spot on the ground and set down the napkin, carefully placing on it the bread and wool.
I opened my palms above the offering and focused for a moment on my breath, steadied my heart, collected my voice,
“Dvorovyi, friendly neighbors, I offer you these gifts.”
I folded my hands, placed them in my lap, and closed my eyes.
“Be kind to the cattle and sheep, and watch over them. I thank you.”
I knelt in silence for a moment, hearing the scurrying of feet or claws or paws on straw. I listened to the door creak and bang against the barn wall, the soft neighing of horses, the distant chorus of creatures awakened by darkness. I could feel movement all around me.
A gust of wind rushed into the stable and caught in my hair, tossing it up and around into my face. Still I remained seated with eyes closed, my hands motionless in my lap. Only when the wind ran away to other farms, when I felt the calm restored, only then did I open my eyes and rise to my feet.
I locked the door behind me and stepped toward the house. My fingertips tingled, and the air seemed lighter, brighter than before. From the barn, I could not see the house. It was set back in the shade of the trees, but I saw smoke from the stove above the treetops. Mama was probably brewing tea. My stomach growled, and I hurried toward home knowing that inside Mama would be preparing a snack. But before I reached the house, the winds returned carrying with them beautiful violin music—music that suggested mystery and evoked images of the vorozhka and the magic of her camp. The music tempted me to follow. Tato and Mama would expect me to linger outside. “Our Nadya lives in dreams,” they always said. So I could probably steal away unnoticed for a few moments. I turned away from the house and toward the wind, urged on by the music.
Running quickly through the trees, I found myself at the edge of the forest. As I stood hidden by thick branches, I saw in front of me a woman dancing in the shadows, a whirlwind of long layered skirts, her blouse buttoned to the neck while rows of beads caught shades of crimson, copper and gold from the flames as they rose and fell in rhythm. The music mingled with the cries of the forest, carried by the winds into the trees to blend with the running waters of the nearby stream.
In the distance, a man stared into the woods and sharpened his blade, which shone ruby red in the firelight. And though I knew he could not see me, I suddenly remembered stories Mama told me about Gypsies who kidnap young women to sell into slavery in far away lands. I shivered, savoring for a moment the thought of strong arms around me carrying me into a Gypsy wagon filled with perfumes and silks and furs. I would be forced to travel to exotic places where people played with monkeys and rode on top of elephants. They would teach me to dance and dress me up in long flowing silk gowns and gold chains. People would watch me and other women perform seductive dances, and they would shower our feet with coins and pearls. I would never have to dig in the dirt or clean up after the horses and cows. Mama and Tato would never again tell me what I could and could not do.
Mama and Tato! They would soon notice that I was gone. I turned away from the camp and faced the woods, angry for having to leave. How could this beautiful music be evil? This sad melody, so soft and familiar, that slid across my body and pulled at my chest with bittersweet secrets … how could the music be “bad” when it filled me with dreams of dancing and adventure? And how could the woman who danced like flames on the wind be “dirty”?
Straining my ears to keep the music with me as long as I could, I stumbled through the forest. It seemed to take twice as long for me to get home as it had to find the camp, but I wanted to remember each turn so that I could find my way again. I went to sleep that night planning my next visit to see the vorozhka. My dreams were filled with clapping hands, stomping boots and music so powerful that it painted pictures in the clouds and lifted me off the ground to dance on air.
Intoxicated by the chords of music that danced around my memory, I waited with impatience for the next full moon, watching the sky each night for the crescent to slowly fill. When it finally absorbed all the milk of heaven, I lay in bed waiting for my parents to go to sleep, watching as shadows poked their heads out from corners and then disappeared when I blinked them away.
I watched Mama and Tato’s nightly rituals from across the room, all the while pretending to be asleep in the bed my sisters and I shared. Even after our oldest sister Maria married, the little bed was still tight with three of us tucked inside, and I was always stuck in the middle.
Mama let down her hair and brushed it gently. Tato sharpened his knives for hunting. After he finished, he read aloud to Mama one of her favorite poems, “Seven Strings” by Lesya Ukrainka. Lesya’s words gave me courage as I waited for my parents to go to sleep,
“I have faith in that magic, faith in those powers,
Because with my heart I know them as true,
As oracle for these mysteries, these precious fantasies
With my sincerest heart, I welcome . . .”
My eyes grew heavy as I struggled to stay awake, lulled to sleep by Tato’s voice and the sound of weary fingers rubbing against onion skin pages.
When I awoke, I was aware of silence in the room, except for occasional sighs of sleep. I carefully disentangled myself from my littlest sister Halya’s embrace. She clung tightly to my waist, her head against my shoulder, as if I could keep her safe from the dreams which left her whimpering. I eased out from her arms and stepped onto the floor. Our little house had no room for secrets, and so I moved with cat’s feet to gather everything I would need. A cloud slipped away from the full moon and her light shone bright on my sisters’ faces.
Laryssa lay on her side, facing the window. Little moans escaped her lips every few minutes, while in sleep, she wiped away strands of hair that covered her mouth and nose. Her beautiful long hair, brown with golden streaks from the sun, that she brushed one hundred times each night before she went to sleep, lay around her like Aunt Katia’s hair when I found her drowned in the river. I shook away the memory and crossed myself for luck.
Halya lay curled in a ball, filling in the space I had left. Two tight, thin braids poked out from her head. She was always sad that her hair was thin, like Tato’s. That night as Halya slept silently, I hoped that she would not be troubled by the nightmares that usually interrupted her sleep. I wouldn’t be there to hold her while she trembled, to sing her back into dreams when she sometimes awoke screaming.
Deep in my stomach I felt a tugging toward them, back into the warm comfort of the down blanket Mama made for us last Christmas. I had never disobeyed Mama or Tato before, and I hoped to return before they awoke. I had a question that drove my feet into boots warm from sitting beside the fire, a question that compelled my hands to wrap my babushka tightly around my head, a question that drew me deep into the night.
I stepped outside, clutching in my mitten the small black stone I found on the riverbank after we buried Mama’s youngest sister Katia. The night after her burial, I convinced my older sisters, Maria and Laryssa, to take me to the river to offer flowers to the rusalky. According to legend, all women who drowned would become transformed into one of these river spirits, beautiful maidens who bewitched passers-by with their voices. I imagined Katia as a rusalka, face aglow with moonlight, delicate shards of music slipping off her tongue to pierce their hearts and lure them to their deaths.
While Maria and Laryssa leaned against the trees talking about how Mama could not sleep from grief, I set the flowers on the water. It was after I stepped back that I saw the glittering stone on the bank, a piece of night sky filled with stardust that settled perfectly into my palm when I lifted it away from the river. I felt Aunt Katia near me and heard silver bells on the waves; so I carried the stone home and set it beside our bed.
Although she did not tell me until I was older, that same night after we visited the river, Mama had a dream. In it, Aunt Katia’s ghost stood over my bed, touched my forehead and said, “This one hears my voice on the night air, I will watch over her.”
Mama said that Aunt Katia would do all that she could to protect me, I need only follow the river.
So I kept the stone with me for good luck, and that is why I carried it for protection the night I went to see the vorozhka. It rested inside my palm, beside a tiny gold earring I had found along the path to Sonya’s house last month. The earring was going to be my payment for the vorozhka’s fortune-telling.
I stopped to peer into the frost-covered window where my family lay sleeping, then turned away, tightly clutching my black stone. As I walked past the barn toward the woods, I focused on the stone in my hand and the light of the moon on the path. I remembered stories that Baba had told me while I sat on the floor watching her embroider beautiful red and black patterns on cloths stories about the Lisovyk who lived in dense forests. I could still hear her voice in my ear:
“Little Nadya, you must always be careful in the woods, because that is where the Lisovyk lives, and he is a tricky spirit. Why… he casts no shadow! The light of the moon is swallowed in his long white beard. His blood is blue like the winter sky, and so his skin glows with a deep blue light that you can see in the heavy darkness of the forest. His big green eyes will open wide when he sees you, and if you see him they POP out!
“Yes, yes, the Lisovyk is tricky. He changes his size a hundred times in one night. One minute he is tall like the oak, and the next minute he hides behind a mushroom. You will see the light flicker from his skin as he runs around the trees. He wears his clothes backwards and puts the left shoe on the right foot and the right shoe on the left.
“But do not laugh, my little mouse, because the Lisovyk is proud. He will lead you in circles and make you lose your way in the forest. If this ever happens, listen to me, this is what you must do. Sit down on the trunk of an old tree. Take off all your clothes and put them on backwards. Do not forget to put the left shoe on the right foot and the right shoe on the left. This is important, little one, do not forget the shoes. Only then will the Lisovyk lead you back to where you want to go. But do not laugh at him if you see him, or you will be lost in the forest forever.”
I smiled, remembering Baba Hanusia, Mama’s mother, who lived with us until she died. I missed her stories and her warm hugs. As I passed the creek, I heard the murmur of water against rocks, like whispering voices. I began to hum softly to myself so that the rusalky who lived in the creek would not enchant me with their songs. Aunt Katia could not protect me from the spells of her sisters of the water.
Luckily, Sonya had forewarned me that I would need to bring the vorozhka an offering. She also told me that the Gypsy woman would be sitting near the fire through the night of the full moon, because it was her job to keep the rest of the Gypsies safe on nights when magic was very strong. I clutched the stone in my mitten, trying to avoid the dark corners of the forest which seemed to swell against the glow of the moon.
The hairs on the back of my neck rose, and an eerie silence grew out from the shadows, broken only by the sound of my quiet humming. As the leaves broke their hold on the sky, I saw the shudder of a campfire, but no beautiful woman sat beside it. My eyes adjusted to the light of the fire as I watched flames twist around the wood. Smoke smeared my view of the camp into a haze. I tried to blink into clarity the smudged impressions of ragged horses beside wagons, paint flaked and peeling. In my ears, neighing blended with snores and sighs from nearby tents. I closed my eyes to savor the spiced breath of the night: spilled wine, woodsy musk, and budding night flowers.
Then behind me, fingers dug into my shoulders and spun me around as I struggled not to fall. I opened my eyes and stared into the face of the Gypsy woman. The same woman I had seen dancing several weeks before, but somehow not the same. Where were her beautiful clothes? She wore mismatched rags, like those my mother would sometimes wear around the house: a torn shirt of blue and white flowers, a skirt of red and yellow stripes. The colors, which may have once been bright, were now muted by blotches of dirt. Her hair hung in heavy clumps around her thin face. I dropped my gaze to her bare feet, so tiny. Smaller than little Halya’s feet. How could a grown woman have such small feet? Then I noticed the blood.
Her feet were covered with scratches; the stains on her clothes were a mixture of dirt and blood, fresh blood that continued to spread across the dull patches of color. Her torn blouse revealed bruises on her neck and chest. And her face! Even in the dark I could see blotches covering her cheeks, forehead and chin. What had happened to this woman? We had both walked alone through the same woods.
I wanted to ask her if she had been hurt, offer some kind of help. Should I extend my arm for her to lean on or give her the handkerchief that I carried tucked inside my boot? Instead I stood there in silence, staring into those black eyes that watched me with contempt and rage.
She pushed me, then dropped her hold. Stepping backward, she wrapped her arms around her chest and raised her head to stare almost above me, into the night beyond my right shoulder. Firelight caught the features of her face, and beneath the dirt and blood, I saw a plum crescent birthmark that stretched from the corner of her left eyebrow to the crease of her lips. I took in a deep breath, and the Gypsy brought her hand to her face, catching my stare.
Baba told me to respect those who had been marked for a special life, even if the rest of the world hated and feared them. Baba would stretch the neck of her blouse open to show me the tiny brown birthmark shaped like a foot on her shoulder, caused by the “guardian angel who stood there when she was born.” So the Gypsy had also been born with a sign, setting her apart from the others, marking her for a life of fortune telling and magic.
Russian words heavy with a foreign accent seemed to grow in her mouth until she was forced to spit them out in a gasp, “Why have you come here?” Avoiding my eyes, she stared above and beyond me. The only words I could mutter in my Ukrainian tongue were those I had practiced every night for two weeks while lying in my bed,
“I came to have my fortune told. Can you h-h-help me?”
The wind shifted, bringing her smell to me: sweat, blood, urine; heavy scents, sour and metallic like those that filled the barn after Tato butchered runts of the litter. She exhaled deeply and rubbed her hands along her arms.
“Of course.” She laughed to herself and looked up to the moon. “Of course that is why she came. To see the ‘Gypsy’ in the forest.” Her hands smoothed her skirts and settled into fists.
“Are you frightened? Scared of the lady covered in blood?” She began to wave her hands in front of her in circular motions and lowered her voice to a raspy whisper. “Ooh, this ‘Gypsy’ must have been doing something ‘bad’ in the woods. Black magic. Maybe dancing with the dark god?” She stopped for a long second, then looked into my eyes,
“Are you sure you should be here, gadji?”
Fear blew through me, catching the cold in my bones, strengthening my shiver. For a moment, I heard Mama’s voice as if she stood beside me, “Be careful, Nadya. Come home. Don’t trust her, she is a Gypsy. It is all a trick. You will disappear into the night, and I will never see you again.” I clenched my fists and bit my lower lip.
The vorozhka raised her eyebrows and took a step toward me. “What is the matter, peasant girl? Are you scared that I am going to have my brothers steal you?” She wiped blood off her lips, rubbed her eyes.
Then she stepped around me and closer to the fire. She was shivering. Dark circles hung under her eyes, and blood streamed in thin lines from the right side of her temple down her face. Her Gypsy face: hollow and full of shadows. . .and young. Not much older than my Ukrainian face: lighter and rounder, surrounded by brown hair woven into one neat braid.
“That is all you girls come here for. To see the mysterious Gypsy camp. To have your fortunes told.” She spit on the ground. “Your people only come here when they want something. Or someone to blame.”
I stood watching her as she rubbed her hands up and down her arms, arms covered with fine, black hair. I whispered, “What happened?”
She lowered her eyes. Her voice angry as she mocked me, “What happened?”
Looking around, she calmed herself and lowered her voice, “What happened? New soldiers arrived in the neighboring village. They decided to explore the woods—”
“Soldiers,” I interrupted. “What kind of soldiers?”
She looked into my eyes. Again the hairs on my neck rose.
“Soldiers are soldiers. They fight. Their life is war. And we. . . what are we in war? Things to be moved, broken, used, thrown away, claimed by whichever side comes through our camp.
“My family, we travel far. We see how this war breaks people and land. We pass empty villages. We see pits they dig for bodies. We know the death smell.” She rubbed her hands together. “We come here…to seek a quiet place. I went too far from camp.” She laughed bitterly. “I thought I would be safe in the woods.”
I shook my head, not comprehending. She almost smiled.
“Poor stupid girl, you don’t understand.” Sighing heavily, she turned around to face the fire. I gasped when I saw the gash that divided her blouse in half, lines of blood criss-crossing like embroidery on silk. She continued, “Five of them. They threw me on the ground. Laughing. Shouting, ‘You like it, Gypsy bitch. Bark for us. Lick it. This is your lucky night.’” Her voice cracked, and she shuddered. “I tried to bite them. Hit them. Scratch them. They beat me. Two held me down. They—”
Suddenly she turned around to face me, tears in her eyes. “Now do you understand?” She shook her head. “Probably not.” The Gypsy picked up her skirts in her left hand and turned toward the river.
“Wait here, peasant girl.” She wiped her face. “I am drabarni, a vorozhka. I will read your fortune.” She looked around the camp. “But first I need to clean myself in your river. Be quiet. You do not want to wake my brothers.”
She walked away.
I held my breath, feeling my chest tighten as I watched her walk into the forest. When she finally merged with the trees, I exhaled, my hands cupping my nose and mouth, afraid even to make a whimper. What if the soldiers were still nearby? What if her brothers awoke?
I sat down and looked around. Each time the moon crept out from the clouds, shadows darted along the campsite. Light would linger on dirty clothes and dishes arranged in strange, neat little piles. Firelight blurred with moonlight on the dull surfaces of the metal washtubs stacked beside an old maple tree. I looked around for cut wood for the fire but could not find any.
Such a woman, this Gypsy. So strong. That she could gather up her skirts and walk to her family’s camp with her head up, wiping away blood. Who was I next to her? She was right. I was only a peasant girl. What could have brought me away from the safety of my family?
Then I remembered why I had disobeyed Mama, why I had crept through these woods. I needed to ask the vorozhka if Stephan and I would marry.
He seemed so far away from me as I sat in the Gypsy camp, and I knew he’d be furious if he knew I’d come alone, especially if he knew about the soldiers. They must have been Russian. Tato said he heard rumors that Russian soldiers planned to reclaim our land from the Germans, but Tato had shrugged these stories away. Ever since the Germans closed down the schools and libraries, information became more and more difficult to learn from the outside. So rumors hung on every tongue. But if they were Russian soldiers, I wondered how their return would affect Stephan.
I remembered how the German soldiers came to our village two years ago during the hot summer. They gathered all the young men, including Stephan and his brother, for three weeks of “training”. When he returned, Stephan wore the uniform of German police, his eyes darker, heavier; scars on his hands and face. His brother never came back.
When Uncle Vasyl spat at him and called him a traitor, I could only clench my fists. Stephan’s skin lost its rosy color, the laugh lines vanished from around his eyes, his lips. His “training” had silenced the music that once filled his face. After putting on that uniform, he never again picked up his guitar. I can’t even remember him laughing. Never aloud, only chancing a few careful smiles with me. Stephan would not tell me what happened during those three weeks. He never talked about the missions he would be sent on, when he would be gone from the village for weeks. I searched his scars for clues, peered into his eyes for pictures, but they never came. He was closed to me.
The flames began to die down to a flicker, and I thought perhaps I could gather wood for the fire. No sooner had I lifted myself up, when I saw the Gypsy returning from the river, carrying firewood. She walked toward the camp, and I was mesmerized by the thrusting, swinging motion of her hips. When she walked, she led with her pelvis in a motion both awkward and graceful. Small feet followed her hips through the grasses; her shoulders and arms an afterthought in movement. She was beautiful and terrifying. The vorozhka had a warrior’s spirit. Baba had talked about it, told me stories of women who rode the steppes with long swords strapped to their backs in days long ago. They would return after dying in battle to live a new life fighting for their freedom and their families. This Gypsy was such a woman.
She stopped beside me, near the dying embers, and put the logs on the fire, blowing the flames into life. Her clothes were wet but rid of most of the blood. Her hair smelled of the stream, and I wondered how she had escaped the rusalky but did not ask.
I was puzzled by her calm. She stood aglow with fire that shimmered in her skirts, her fingers, her eyes, her hair. I wanted to touch her, to see if she was real, embrace her and tell her that I was sorry for all that had happened to her, but she frightened me. And she was proud . . . a vorozhka with the spirit of a warrior. I was only a peasant girl.
She leaned over me and pulled a shawl out of a dark satchel hidden beside a log. I was struck by the beautiful scarlet and silver flowers embroidered on the black cloth that shimmered in the light. She pulled the shawl tightly around her shoulders and picked up the satchel, tying it to her waist. Only then did she turn her gaze back toward me and said bitterly,
“So, you are still here. My brothers did not find you and take you into the woods.”
I stumbled on my words, “I’m sorry. I-I came to ask—”
She interrupted me, “About love, yes? All you girls running into the night aflame with love. Do you know that all around you trains carry people away? To be shot, burned, tortured.” She sat in front of the fire and motioned for me to sit down next to her. I could smell a perfume, like berries and mint, on the scarf around her shoulders. She continued, “Each girl thinks that time stops death for passion. Well, I will read for you, but my hands shake with what I know. If you saw with my eyes.” She sighed. “If you saw with my eyes, then you would seek different answers.”
She rubbed her hands together over the fire and said, “First, my payment, peasant girl.”
I gave her the gold earring. She put it between her teeth, biting down. Then she lifted it closer to her eyes.
“This is all you have for me?”
I nodded, panic spreading through me.
“Very well. I will read for you.”
She pulled something out of the satchel and began to unwrap a set of cards from the scarlet silk cloth that held them together. She placed the silk on the ground in front of her and handed me the deck. I began to look through the cards, pausing to admire each one. They were beautiful, covered in pictures of kings and queens dressed in fancy clothes of bright colors and gold. Only the icons in St. Sophia’s Church could compare with these hand-painted cards. Each one told a story, and looking at them, I felt carried away into another land. The vorozhka placed her hand over mine and said,
“No. Not for your eyes to admire. You would get lost. Just shuffle them back and forth, placing one hand over the other. Think about the question that drew you out from your bed and carried you here.”
I closed my eyes and pictured Stephan in his uniform, swinging me around, his arms at my waist. Shuffling the cards, I remembered how he would wait outside my teacher’s house to walk me home. I could feel my cheeks in a half grin as I thought of how handsome he looked in his crisp, dark uniform. His dark brown hair tossed about like stalks of wheat in the wind. I could smell the leather strap that held his gun when I threw my arms around him, as he whirled me around and around. He would say in that deep voice,
“My precious Nadya. What have you to share with me today?”
He would set me down and take my books into his arms, watching my lips as I told him of that day’s lesson, interrupting me with quick kisses, then urging me to continue. The right side of his lips would hint at a smile, the small dimple hidden there almost revealed as I jumped about with excitement because I had learned a new thread of history or a new poem by Taras Shevchenko.
“Your face is on fire when you come back from your studies, Nadya.” And he would draw in a deep breath, “You are so beautiful.”
Then I would blush under his dark brown eyes. Baba used to say that dark eyes were enchanting, they held the magic of the night. Would I marry this man, spend my life with him?
The Gypsy again put her hand on top of mine, took the cards and started to lay them out on the silk in a pattern of lines and crosses. When I began to ask her a question, she looked at me sternly and brought her finger up to her lips.
“I need silence to tell your story, peasant girl.”
I grew braver, “My name is Nadya.”
“You are gadji, not Gypsy.” She didn’t look up.
I watched as the cards transformed into story on the silk before me, stained glass gods and goddesses glowing in the fire’s light. She spoke their names as she turned each card over. They sounded like poetry or a prayer.
“Lovers, Queen of Swords, Star, Emperor, Page of Cups, Devil, Seven of Cups, Tower, Sun, Ten of Coins.”
After laying out the ten cards, she closed her eyes. When she took my hand, I jumped. Her palm was cool and dry, mine was sweaty and warm. When my lungs began to hurt, I realized that I had been holding my breath. I exhaled, watching her. The smell of coming rain hung in the air.
The vorozhka finally opened her eyes. She ignored a tear that fell down her cheek.
“My name is Liliana,” she said. “I will read your fortune.”
* * *