Once upon a time there was a young Gipsy named Zobar – Loiko Zobar. He was a fearless youth whose fame had spread throughout Hungary and Bohemia and Slavonia and all the lands that encircle the sea. There was not a village in those parts but had four or five men sworn to take Zobar’s life, yet he went on living, and if he took a fancy to a horse, a regiment of soldiers could not keep him from galloping off on it. Was there a soul he feared? Not Zobar. He would knife the devil himself and all his pack if they swooped down on him, or at least he would curse them roundly and give them a cuffing, you can be sure of that.
All the Gipsy camps knew Zobar or had heard of him. The only thing he loved was a horse, and that not for long. When he had tired of riding it he would sell it and give the money to anyone who asked him for it. There was nothing he prized; he would have ripped his heart out of his breast if he thought anyone had need of it. That was the sort of man he was.
At the time I am speaking of – some ten years ago – our caravan was roaming through Bukovina. A group of us were sitting together on spring night – Danilo, a soldier who fought under Kossuth; old Nur, Radda, Danilo’s daughter, and others.
Have you seen my Nonka? She is a queen among beauties. But it would be doing her too great an honour to compare her with Radda. No words could describe Radda’s beauty. Perhaps it could be played on a violin, but only by one who knew the instrument as he knew his own soul.
Many a man pined away with love for Radda. Once in Moravia a rich old man was struck dumb by the sight of her. There he sat on his horse staring at her and shaking all over as if with the ague. He was decked out like the devil on holiday, his Ukrainian coat att stitched in gold, the sabre at his side set with precious stones that flashed like lightning at every movement of his horse, the blue velvet of his cap like a patch of blue sky. He was a very important person, that old man. He sat on and on staring at Radda, and at last he said to her: ‘A purse full of money for a kiss!’ She just turned her head away. This made the rich man change his tune. ‘Forgive me if I have insulted you, but you might at least give me a smile,’ and with this he tossed his purse at her feet, and a fat purse it was. But she just pressed it into the dust with her foot, as if she had not noticed it.
“Ah, what a maid!’ he gasped, bringing his whip down on his horse’s flank so that the dust of the roadway rose in a cloud as the horse reared.
He came back on the next day. ‘Who is her father?’ he asked in a voice that echoed throughout the camp. Danilo came forward. ‘Sell me your daughter. Name your own price.”
‘It is only gentlemen who sell anything from their pigs to their consciences,’ said Danilo. ‘As for me, I fought under Kossuth and sell nothing.’
The rich man let out a roar and reached for his sabre, but someone thrust a lighted tinder into his horse’s ear and the beast went flying off with its master on its back. We broke camp and took to the road. When we had been on the way two whole days, we suddenly saw him coming after us.
‘Hey!’ he cried. ‘I swear to God and to you that my intentions are honest. Give me the maid to wife. I will share all that I own with you, and I am very rich.’ He was aflame with passion and swayed in his saddle like feathergrass in the wind. We thought over what he said.
‘Well, daughter, speak up,’ muttered Danilo into his beard.
“If the eagle’s mate went to nest with the crow of her own free will, what would you think of her?’ said Radda.
Danilo burst out laughing and so did the rest of us.
‘Well said, daughter! Have you heard, my lord? Your case is lost! Woo a pigeon – they are more docile.’ And we went on our way.
At that the rich man pulled off his hat and hurled it down on the ground and rode off at such speed that the earth shook under his horse’s hoofs. That was what Radda was like, young falcon.
Again one night we were sitting in camp when all of a sudden we heard music coming from the steppe. Wonderful music. Music that made the blood throb in your veins and lured you off to unknown places. It filled us all with a longing for something so tremendous that if we once experienced it there would be no more reason to go on living, and if we did go on living, it would be as lords of the whole world.
Then a horse came out of the darkness, andon the horse a man was sitting and playing the fiddle. He came to a halt by our campfier and stopped playing, looking at us and smiling.
‘Zobar! So it is you!’ called out Danilo heartily.
This, then, was Loiko Zobar. His moustaches swept down to his shoulders, where they mingled with his curly hair; his eyes shone like two bright stars, and his smile was the sun itself. It was as if he and his horse had been carved ofon piece. There he was, red as blood in the fire-light, his teeth flashing when he laughed. Damned if I did not love him as I loved my own self, and he had not so much as exchanged a word with me or even noticed my existence.
There are people like that, young falcon. When he looked into your eyes your soul surrendered to him, and instead of being ashamed of this, you were proud of it. You seemed to become better in his presence. There are not many people like that. Perhaps it is better so. If there were a lot of good things in the world, they would not be counted good. But listen to what happened next.
Radda said to him: ‘You play well, Zobar. Who made you such a clear-voiced fiddle?’
‘I made it myself,’ he laughed. ‘And not of wood, but of the breast of a maiden I loved well; the strings are her heart-strings. It still plays false at times, my fiddle, but I know how to wield the bow.’
A man always tries to becloud a girl’s eyes with longing for him so that his own heart will be protected from the darts of those eyes. And Zobar was no exception. But he did not know with whom he was dealing this time. Radda merely turned away and said with a yawn: ‘And they told me Zobar was wise and witty. What a mistake!’ And she walked away.
‘You have sharp teeth, my pretty maid!’ said Zobar, his eyes flashing as he got off his horse. ‘Greetings to you, friends. I have come to pay you a visit.’
‘We are glad to have you,’ replied Danila.
We exchanged kisses, chatted a while and went to bed. We slept soundly. In the morning we found Zobar with a bandage round his head. What had happened? It seems his horse had kicked him in the night.
Ah, but we knew who that horse had been! And we smiled to ourselves; and Danilo smiled. Could it be that even Zobar was no match for Radda? Not at all. Lovely as she was, she had a pretty soul, and all the gold trinkets in the world could not have added one kopek to her worth.
Well, we went on living in that same place. Things were going well with us, and Loiko Zobar stayed on. He was a good companion – as wise as an old man, and very knowing, and able to read and write Russian as well as Magyar. I could have listened to him talk the night through, and as for his playing – may the lightning strike me dead if there ever was another his equal. He drew his bow once across the strings and the heart leaped up in your breast; he drew it again and everything within you grew tense with listening – and he just went on playing and smiling. It made you want to laugh and cry at the same time. Now someone was maning bitterly and crying for help, and it was as if a knife were being turned in your side; now the steppe was telling a tale to the sky – a sad tale. Now a maid was weeping as she said farewell to her lover. Now her lover was calling to her from the steppe. And then, like a bolt from the blue, would come a gay and sweeping tune that made the very sun dance in the sky. That was how he played, young falcon!
You felt that tune with every fibre of your body, and you became the slave of it. And if at that moment Zobar had called out: ‘Out with your knives, comrades!’ every man of us would have bared his knife against anyone he pointed out. He could wind a person round his little finger, but everyone loved him dearly. Yet Radda would have nothing to do with him. That was bad enough, but she mocked him besides. She wounded his heart and wounded it badly. He would set his teeth and pull at hi moustache, his eyes deeper than wells, and at times something would flash in them that struck terror into your heart. At night he would go deep into the steppe and his violin would weep there until morning – weep for his lost freedom. And we would lie and listen and think to ourselves: what will happen next? And we knew that when two stones are rolling towards each other, they will crush anything that stands in their way. That was the way things were.
One night we sat for long round the fire discussing our affairs, and when we got tired of talking, Danilo turned to Zobar and said: ‘Sing us a song, Zobar, to cheer our hearts.’ Zobar glanced at Radda who was lying on the ground not far away gazing up at the sky, and he drew his bow across the strings. The violin sang out sa if the bow were really being drawn over a maiden’s heart-strings. And he sang:
Hi ho, hi ho! My heart is aflame,
The steppe is like the sea,
And like the wind, our gallant steeds
Are bearing you and me.
Radda turned her head to him, propped herself up on on elbow and laughed in his face. Zobar flushed crimson.
Hi ho, hi ho! My comrade true,
The hour of dawn is nigh;
The steppe is wrapped in shades of night,
But we shall cflimb th sky.
Spur on your horse to meet the day
That glimmers o’er the plain,
But see that lovely Lady Moon
Is touched not by its mane!
How he sang! No one sings like that nowadays. But Radda murmured under her breath: ‘I would not climb so high if I were you, Loiko Zobar. You might fall down into a puddle and spoil those lovely moustaches of yours.”
Zobar threw her a furious glance, but said nothing. He was able to control himself and go on singing:
Hi ho, hi ho! If daylight comes
And finds us both asleep,
Our cheeks will burn with crimson shame
As out of bed we leap.
‘A splendid song,’ said Danilo. ‘Never have I heard a better one; may the devil turn me into a pipe if I have!’
Old Nur stroke his whiskers and shrugged his shoulders, and all of us were pleased with Zobar’s brave song. But Radda did not like it.
‘Once I heard a gnat trying to imitate the eagle’s call,’ she said. It was as if she had thrown snow in our faces.
‘Perhaps you are longing for a touch of the whip, Radda,’ drawled Danilo, but Zobar threw down his cap and said, his face as dark as the earth:
‘Wait, Danilo! A spirited horse needs a steel bridle! Give me your daughter to wife!’
‘A fine speech,’ chuckled Danilo. ‘Take her, if you can.’
‘Very well,’ said Zobar; then, turning to Radda: ‘Come down off your high horse, maid, and listen to what I have to say. I have known many a girl in my day – many, I say – but not one of them ever captured my heart as you have. Ah, Radda, you have enslaved my soul. It cannot be helped – what must be will be, and the horse does not exist that can carry a man away from himself. With God and my own conscience as witness, and in the presence of your father and all these people, I take you to wife. But I warn you not to try to curb my liberty; I am a freedom-loving man and will always live as I please.’ And he wlaked up to her with set teeth and blazing eyes. We saw him stretch his hand out to her, and we thought: at last Radda has put a bridle on the wild colt of the steppe. But suddenly Zobar’s arms flew out and he struck the ground with the back of his head.
What could have happened? It was as if a bullet had struck him in the heart. But it was Radda who had flicked a ship about his legs and jerked it. That was what had made him fall.
And again she was lying there motionless, a scornful smile on her lips. We watched to see what would happen next. Zobar sat up and held his head in his hands as if he were afraid it would burst, then he got up quietly and went out into the steppe without a glance at anyone. Nut whispered to me: ‘You had better keep an eye on him.’ And so I crept after him into the steppe, in the darkness of the night. Think of that, young falcon…
Loiko dragged one foot after the other as he walked, his head drooping, his arms hanging as limp as whip-cords, and when he reached the bank of a little stream he sat down on a stone and groaned. The sound of that groan nearly broke my heart, but I did not go near him. Words cannot lessen a man’s grief, can they? That is the trouble. He sat there for an hour, for another, for a third without stirring, just sitting there.
I lay not far away. The sky had cleared, the moon bathed the whole steppe in silver light so that you could see far, far into the distance.
Suddenly I caught sight of Radda hurrying towards us from the camp.
I was overjoyed. ‘Good for you, Radda, brave girl!’ thought I. She came up to Zobar without his hearing her. She put her hand on his shoulder. He started, unclasped his hands and raised his head. Instantly he was on his feet and had seized his knife. God, he’ll kill her, I thought, and was about to jump up and raise the alarm when I heard:
‘Drop it or I’ll blow your head off!’ I looked: there was Radda with a pistol in her hand aimed at Loiko’s head. A very daughter of Satan, that girl! Well, I thought, at least they are matched in strength; I wonder what will happen next.
‘I did not come to kill you, but to make peace,’ said Radda, pushing the pistol into her belt. ‘Put away your knife.’ He put it away and gazed at her with fuming eyes. What a sight that was! These two staring at each other like infuriated beasts, both of them so fine and brave! And nobody saw them but the bright moon and me.
‘Listen, Zobar, I love you,’ said Radda. He did nothing but shrug his shouldres, like a man bound hand and foot.
‘Many a man have I seen, but you are the bravest and handsomest of all. Any one of them would have shaved off his moustaches had I asked him to; any one of them would have fallen to my feet had I wanted him to. But why should I? None of them were brave, and with me they would soon have gone womanish. There are few brave Gipsies left, Zobar – very few. Never yet have I loved anyon, Zobar. But I love you. And I love freedom, too. I love my freedom even more than I love you. But I cannot live without you any more than you can live without me. And I want you to be mine – mine in soul and body, do you hear?’
Zobar gave a little laugh. ‘I hear,’ he said. ‘It cheers my heart to hear what you say. Speak on.’
‘This is what else I would say, Zobar: do what you will, I shall possess you; you are sure to be mine. And so waste no more time. My kisses and caresses are awaiting you – and I shall kiss you passionately, Zobar! Under the spell of my kisses you will forget all the brave life of the past. No longer will your gay songs, so beloved by the Gipsies, resound in the steppe; now shall you sing soft love songs to me alone – to Radda. Waste no more time. This have I said, which means that from tomorrow on you will serve me as devotedly as a youth serves an elder comrade. And you will bot at my feet before the whole camp and kiss my right hand, and then only shall I be your wife.’
This, then, was what that devilish girl was after. Never had such a thing been heard of. True, old people said that such a custom was help among the Montenegrins in ancient times, but it never existed among the Gipsies. Could you think of anything more preposterous, young man? Not if you racked your brains a whole year.
Zobar recoiled and the steppe rang with his cry – the cry of one who has been mortally wounded. Radda shuddered, but did not betray her feelings.
‘Good-bye until tomorrow, and tomorrow you will do what I have said, do you hear, Zobar?’
‘I hear. I shall do it,’ groaned Zobar and held out his arms to her, but she went away without so much as glancing at him, and he swayed like a tree broken by the wind, and he fell on the ground, sobbing and laughing.
That was what she did to him, that accursed Radda. …
When I got back to camp I told the old men what had taken place. We considered the matter and decided to wait and see what would happen. And this is what happened. In the evening when we had gathered about the fire as usual, Zobar joined us. He was looking downcast, he had grown haggard in that on night and his eyes were sunken. He kept them fixed on the ground and did not raise them once as he said:
‘This is how things are, comrades. I searched my heart this night and found no room in it for the freedom-loving life I have always lived. Radda has taken up every corner of it. There she is, the beautiful Radda, smiling he queenly smile. She loves freedom more than she loves me, but I love her more than I love freedom, and so I have decided to bow before her as she ordered me to, that all shall see how her beauty has enslaved the brave Loiko Zobar who, until he met her, played with women as a cat plays with mice. For this she will become my wife and will kiss and caress me, and I shall lose all desire to sing songs to you and I shall not pine for the loss of my freedom. Is that how it is to be, Radda?’
He raised his eyes and looked at her grimly. She nodded without a word and pointed to the ground in front of her. We could not imagine how this had been brought about. We even felt an urge to get up and go away so as not to see Loiko Zobar throw himself at the feet of a maid, even though that maid be Radda. There was something shameful in it, something very sad.
‘Well?’ cried Radda to Zobar.
‘Do not be in so great a hurry. There is plenty of time – time enough to grow tired of me,’ laughed Zobar. And his laugh had the ring of steel.
‘So that is how things are, comrades. What is left for me to do? The only thing left for me to do is to see whether my Radda’s heart is as strong as she would have us think. I shall test it. Forgive me.’
And before we had time to guess what he was up to, Radda was lying on the ground with Zobar’s curved knife plunged into her breast up to the handle. We were dumbstruck.
But Radda pulled out the knife, tossed it aside, held a lock of her black hair to the wound, and smiled as she said in a loud clear voice:
‘Farewell, Zobar. I knew you would do this.’ And with that she died….
‘Now I shall throw myself at your feet, my proud queen,’ said Zobar in a voice that rang out over the steppe. And throwing himself on the ground, he pressed his lips to the feet of the dead Radda and lay there without stirring. We bared our heads and stood in silence.
What is to be said at a moment like that? Nothing. Nur murmured: ‘Bind the fellow,’ but nobody would raise a hand to bind Loiko Zobar; not a soul would do it, and Nur knew this. So he turned and walked away. Danilo picked up the knife Radda had tossed away and stood staring at it for some time, his grey whiskers twitching; there were still traces of Radda’s blood on the blade, which was curved and sharp. Then Danilo went over to Zobar and plunged the knife into his back over the heart. After all, he was Radda’s father, was the old soldier Danilo.
‘You’ve done it,’ said Loiko clearly, turning to Danilo, and then he went to join Radda.
We stood looking at them. There lay Radda, pressing her hair to her breast with her hand, her wide-open eyes gazing up into the blue sky, while at her feet lay the brace Loiko Zobar. His curly hair had fallen over his face, hiding it from us.
* * *
We stopped for lunch not far from Balagoe – a small township between Moscow and St. Petersburg.
“Take care. There are lots of Gipsies living in this area. Don’t look straight in their eyes, otherwise they might think that you are ‘challenging’ them. They are very hot-blooded and quick to grab their knives and axes. A young lad from St. Petersburg has been killed here last year,” – said Ivan, unpacking the bag with our lunch.
“Well, it is a long story. Gypsy lads are not allowed to touch Gipsy girls until they marry them. They still have a tradition of hanging out bloodstained sheets after the first night, you see. And gipsy girls are not allowed to bare their bodies in public, even arms and legs. Only their faces can be seen. However before Gipsy lads settle with Gipsy girls they like having fun with local Russian girls, who are perceived as easily accessible. Look at the way Russian girls are dressed, exposing everything they possibly can. They like getting male attention, don’t they? Unfortunately they are playing with fire. As the result, from time to time Gipsy lads get into troubles with local Russian guys.”
“Gosh, sounds more like a story about wild beasts rather than human beings. And it is only 300 kilometers from St. Petersburg!!!” Ivan was just about to take the last sandwich from the bag, when I quickly grabbed it and took a big bite.
“Well, we were much wilder ‘beasts’ in the past too. A couple of generations ago the bride’s virginity was a matter of communal importance in Russia and, until it had been confirmed, either by the finger of the matchmaker or by the presence of bloodstains on the sheets, the honour of her household would remain in doubt.” He gave me a wink.
“Yuck! This fact has never been mentioned in our school textbooks!”
“And at the wedding feast guests sometimes acted as witnesses to the bride’s deflowering” – continued Ivan.
“What?!” – a peace of sandwich stuck in my mouth. “Right, I see. You are telling me all of this only because you want to get hold of this sandwich, don’t you? Don’t even hope – no matter what our ancestors did in the past, I am going to finish this sandwich.” I bravely took another bite and inspected my shabby jeans and short-sleeved top.
“Would you mind to take your shirt off?”
“Come on, take it off. Believe me, Gipsy lads won’t get into fight with me over your beautiful arms,” I put Ivan’s shirt on.
“Can I borrow your cap as well?”
“Go for it.”
I tucked my long hair under Ivan’s cap.
“Can I have a go at the steering wheel now?”
“Are you sure?” Ivan did not seem to trust my driving skills.
“Not, but just want to get a taste of it. Please.”
“All right. Just a little bit.”
We packed our bags and hopped onto Ivan’s moped. We did not get far, when suddenly the front wheel skidded and we both flew into the air.
“Ouch”, – something hot touched my leg.
“How are you?” – asked Ivan.
“Fine,” – I slowly got up off the ground, checking my bruised body.
“Look what you’ve done?” – Ivan was almost crying, inspecting his moped. I managed to pull out every single wire on it.
“And what on earth happened to you? Why did you drive it right into this heap of sand in the middle of the road?”
“I could not see it.”
“Why could not you see it?”
“Because I did not have my glasses on?”
“Where are your glasses then?”
“In my bag?”
“Why are they in your bag?”
“They did not match my new outfit.”
“What?” – Ivan gasped in disbelief.
“They did not match my new cap.” …
( Photo by Sfa )