“O marimos lel so godi tutar!”
My mother Maria had screamed the curse at the backs of the people of Bezonvaux as they had walked away, triumphant. She sliced her hand and let her blood color red the earth at her feet. Twelve others stood behind her, broken and beaten, but their blood also mixed the curse in with the land… to release a terrible evil.
I am restless in this terrible dream, always the same lately. “Non, mère! Na, Maj!” I cried out in my sleep in both French and my nearly-forgotten Romani, frightened by the horrible curse from my mother. She and the others had stood in bloody rags, having been beaten and raped by the vigilantes of the town of Bezonvaux in France. Many of us lay on the ground, dead, that night. The people there had feared and hated my peaceful people, the Romani, the Gypsies… our music, our passion, the spiritual ways we lived in nature.
I awaken, wet with sweat and tears, the night still bright under the full blood moon. I sigh deeply, grateful to be no longer in 1910 France, rather in 1919 St. Louis, Missouri. We had left before La Grande Guerre in 1914, before Bezonvaux was destroyed in this Great War, the land now unlivable. My mother’s curse had taken everything from them for their persecution of our people.
Rising from bed quietly in the bright darkness, I dress and pass through our tiny shanty and outside to the outhouse to relieve myself. Afterward, I wash my hands and face, and pour water over my head from the pump outside as I say the prayers Mama forbids.
“So cherta, Madeleine?” Mama, the feared gypsy leader Maria Corbeau, stands at the door, in the shadows, watching me. I am startled, but I’m sure she could not have heard my prayers. She is looking old tonight, much older than her 55 years. She speaks in our own unique dialect of Romani.
“I’m well, Mama. Et toi?” I say as I walk over to her and give her a kiss. She looks tired and upset. Angry. Angry at the past, angry at the present. Even the great Maria Corbeau is not strong enough to escape the curse of the past.
“Mama, we are American now. We’re safe here and unknown. Forget the old words, the magic, and especially the dark witchcraft. We’re French Americans, not Gypsies anymore. The gadje don’t need to know.”
Mama chuckles, darkly. “Kay zhala I suv shay zhala wi o thav.”
Yes, indeed, “where the needle goes, surely the thread will follow,” was the translation. The rest of the Coven is now here, the 13th and last arriving just a few months ago.
“Lazare et Agathe. They leave us,” Mama tells me.
“I know, Mama. It’s OK.”
“No. They no listen. They belong with Romani… here. Meken te ashunen o bunto peske glatengo!” She gestures angrily.
“No, Mama. It’s not right what you did. May they suffer to hear the sounds of their children, a curse upon Lazare and Agathe.
“If they stay, no curse, no madness. They choose.” She pauses, “You come tonight?” She steps away, turning back only to hear my answer. I know she does not want me to come, and Georges she sent away.
“Oui, Mama, I will come.”
Tonight is the gathering, the Sunet Lunêr, for the forbidden Bleeding of the Moon rite that is to bring the Romani great wealth… and suffering to everyone else.
“Please stop, Mama!” I beg quietly to the night.
— — — — — — —— — — — -֎ — — — — — —— — — — — — — — — — —
The night is warm, unpleasantly so, as though the red blood moon is as hot as the sun. Mama and the other 12 sisters have already gone to that terrible site in the woods where they go. It is a great circle with large white stones, built as a place of peaceful power in harmony with things as they must be, but it is now defiled with blood. To even visit there on normal days takes all my will.
The Coven will take time to prepare, so I have time before I must brave the forest. I am “phandando ai invisibile,” bound and invisible, replaced as the 13th member of the Coven. But even Mama’s punishment, which has clouded my mind, cannot keep me from going there.
My brother, Lazare, comes to me in the garden as I prepare myself with prayers of ritual cleansing. Agathe stands fearfully behind him. “Rolland,” I say, when I see him, my perceptions already traveling through times other than now.
“Madeleine… it’s Lazare,” he answered, and I remember Rolland is not yet born. Lazare is fearful of my madness, but he knows it is I who found and saved Agathe from the Germans, les Boches, in France. It is I who helped to heal her mind from her traumas. My other brother, Georges, only thinks me to be mad.
“Oh.” I say, returning my attention to the group, an “unkindness” they say, of ravens in the trees near the garden. The “unkindness” calls to me, however my brother needs me, too.
“The Coven is meeting tonight, Madeleine,” Lazare said. “You should be there. They are planning to do more bad things. Dangereux. And the Zagooners will be there, too.”
The Zigeuners, I know, are the German Sinti branch of the Romani who came here long before the Great War. “I will go, but you must not leave tonight. Please, Lazare, Agathe, delay a year or you will suffer Mama’s curse. You must talk to Mama. You must not go.”
Agathe weeps and takes Lazare’s arm. “Lazare?” She is still young, 19 like me, but afraid of everything.
“I talked to Mama, and I don’t believe in her curses.” Lazare waits a moment for me to answer, but I don’t answer. They will go to Chicago tonight by train no matter what I say.
“Mama will ask too much of you… and your daughters,” I say. “If you leave…” I turn, and Lazare and Agathe are gone. I return my attention to the ravens, and one lands near my feet, in a loud flap of wings. He is nearly two feet tall.
“Bonsoir,” says the raven, and I answer. “It is time.”
— — — — — — — — — — — — -֎ — — —— — — — — — — —— — — — —
The light from the bonfire and the red of the moon colors the forest in blood and capering shadows. It is the as if revenge is painted onto the night. My own type of madness protects me, my mind flying through the past and the future, seeing only enough of the “now” to navigate along the path through the dense trees. The ravens come with me, hopping and flying through the trees from branch to branch.
It is not the usual rite I see beginning as I approach the conclave of the Coven. Gone are the scents of cedar wood and clove and pine, replaced with the burning smells of camphor, flesh, and sulfur. I feel the pain of the thirteen, their suffering, still trapped in the painful memories of Bezonvaux that they have brought with them to St. Louis. A couple dozen Romani and Zigeuner Sinti surround the circle of women, who are naked, painted in blood and already dancing around the fire, led by my mother.
Last year the plagues struck, with the Spanish flu taking out many of our enemies and benefiting us financially. “O nasulimos kai si ando stato te xasavol amare duzhmaia!” my mother had cursed in words and blood, and thousands died. As the 13th member, I nearly stopped it, until Mama bound me in a curse myself.
I see them now chanting, Romani words to call to them wealth and power, words to sicken and kill their enemies, to take their wealth. The thirteen shriek and the rest of the Romani and Sinti repeat their words in a cacophonous chant.
Tumaro sumnakai vai tumare traio!
Tumaro sumnakai vai tumare traio!
Tumaro sumnakai vai tumare traio!
It is hateful insanity I hear, and I feel the fire awaken. It seems to watch us with unbridled ferocity. There is a hint of death and icy breath within the flames, and soon the dead begin to arrive. I see the spirits of old family members who were brutally murdered in Bezonvaux. I see the ghosts of friends pulled from their sleep in death’s embrace, brought forth to walk to the flames.
“Na, Maj! Na besh sigo che drabarimasa!” I tell them in Romani to stop this evil magic, and I call upon the ravens to bind them all.
I breathe deep the night air, readying to speak.
“Hear me, Sisters! I bind you in feathers black as the night, feathers white as the Angels, and I surround you with ravens to seal your magic away! Thus, and always will it be!”
I know what I speak, though I know not the words I use. It is the language of the Angels that was the forerunner of ancient Sumerian, words that tremble the night and diminish the illness of the land.
When the Great Ravens come, it is as if the moon disappears from the sky and the great bonfire is starved of air. There is a great flapping of wings and coarse calls of these great black birds as they drive the evil from the forest and send the dead back to their rest. And within them a powerful light of Angels comes to purify the land and frighten the misguided Romani from this site of magic. Chastened, the Coven and the Sinti flee in shame from the forest, guided by the Great Unkindness of Ravens.
I sit in the circle, which is now cleansed to white ash where the large bonfire once was. My mother has been allowed to remain, and she sits naked on the ashes, weeping. Even the blood that had been on her skin has been burned to ash, coating her in white steaks on her face and body.
“Viens, maman. Il y a un meilleur chemin … there is a better path,” I tell her.
I rise and pull Mama to her feet, and I put my arm around her. I whisper to the sky in words of Angels that I little understand. “Mistress of Earth and Heaven, behold the fulfilled promise of your servant.”
When we return home, the sun begins to rise, and Lazare and Agathe are gone. I weep for the consequences of their decision. Even the ravens cannot help. I will do what I can.
Only Georges, Mama, and I are left here to build our better future for the Corbeau family.
Originally published in "New North" on Medium.