The truck creaked and groaned down the road in the mid morning glare of the sun surrounded by the greenery of the trees and the twittering of birds nesting there. The troupe steered clear of larger cities preferring to camp outside villages and small towns who welcomed the distractions from a hard life that a band of Gypsies offered. They’d stopped for the better part of a week by Penza, making camp a mile out of town, setting up tents and stringing ribbons and posters with pictures on each proclaiming the sights to be seen inside. Torches were made ready. The women took their best dresses stored in trunks and aired them out on ropes that they strung between trees before dressing in them. And then a group of the prettiest girls and women among them journeyed into town walking the rutted dirt road lifting their long dresses so as not to muddy them.
"I don't like those people looking at you." Ivan didn't want Yelena to go. He sulked like a pampered child the night before and when Yelena put his hand on her breast he drew it away… something he had never done before. "I can't help it, Yelena… you are my wife. I cannot stand the thought of men who you don't know looking at you and wanting you the way strange men are apt to do."
"Then I will stay here with you," Yelena proclaimed, although she knew when the morning came things would be different. She said it because she loved him and she said it because it made him happy. "You are the only man I'll ever love… my grandmother told me so. Another man—any other man—looking at me has nothing to do with our love… nothing at all now that I have you. There is only you and I and our love… all other people in this world are but ghosts to me. If I have to go to town with the other women, it means nothing. We are Gypsies… this is our life."
When she placed his hand upon her breast again, he kept it there, fondling her the way she had taught him. She arched her chest under his touch waiting for him to mount her. When she came she shuddered violently clutching at Ivan never wanting to let him go.
"Get up, Yelena, and go with me," Anastasya said, coming to their tent early the next morning and calling to her. Her sharp tone sounded more a demand than a request. "You are a woman of our troupe now… we must all do our part to draw the townspeople into our camp. Our coffers are low and we have many miles to travel before we reach our destination."
The townspeople always seemed delighted to see the arrival of the Gypsies. For them, it meant a festival had come unannounced. Spontaneous celebrations broke out throughout the town with much drinking in the streets and tables brought from inside homes out of doors and laden with good food for all to partake. It was as if the wandering nomads brought a sense of revelry with them into each town they visited, reminding the people that life was more than the drudgery of day to day living.
Yelena suspected that the wisest people who live in the towns where the Gypsies stopped knew they were being fleeced. But they either didn’t care or perhaps they thought giving up a few of their hard-earned rubles for a night’s entertainment was worthwhile. Young teenage boys ran alongside the Gypsy women asking to see their ankles and when one of the women raised her dress to her knees the boys ran away giggling and laughing and pushing one another. Yelena knew from experience that she’d see the same boys at the Gypsy camp later that night carrying coins in their pockets and hopes in their hearts of seeing more than just ankles.
“I don’t like to think of you dancing for anyone but me,” Ivan said when the women returned to camp having spread the word in town about the Gypsy carnival. “Can’t you do something else?”
“My grandmother taught me how to read palms,” Yelena said, knowing her young husband was jealous and loving him for it. “If you help me, we could set up a tent. People like to have their fortunes told. They’ll pay for it. We could make a sign like my grandmother used to have nailed to the side of her wagon… a palm with an eye in the middle of it.”
They spent the rest of the afternoon scavenging white-washed boards from a barn wall behind an old tumble-down farmhouse nearby nailing them together with bent square iron nails they straightened with a hammer on a rock and finding a brush and paint among the jumbled assortment of junk that had accumulated in the old barn lop-sided lee side west but still standing behind the farmhouse. The paint was blood red. The palm and eye looked black in the light of the full moon as it rose first low on the horizon then higher in the sky as the townspeople began trickling into camp migrating first to the torch-lighted tents where pretty Gypsy women danced and tapped their tambourines and later to Yelena’s outlying tent where they plunked down coins, holding out their left hands for her to peer into.
“You were very good tonight,” Ivan praised Yelena later when the crowds had gone and they were alone in their tent and naked in each others’ arms. “I liked how you rolled your eyes back in your head when you were telling fortunes. It looked so real.”
“What do you mean?” Yelena asked, puzzled. She didn’t remember rolling her eyes back.
“When you reached out and took people by the hand, sometimes your eyes went white,” Ivan explained. “I was standing there watching. And you’d speak in a strange voice telling people who they would meet and when they would marry and how many kids they’d have.”
“I don’t remember doing that… all I did was to look into their hands reading their palms.”
“Yes, but then you would touch their hands. That’s what made it seem so real. A shudder would go through you. I could see it from where I stood. It must have made quite an impression on the people as well,” Ivan said, counting the coins in the hat they’d put out. “We made a lot of money tonight, Yelena. More than I can remember ever making.”
“Do I ever speak in a strange voice when I touch you, Ivan?”
“Only when you’re coming very hard,” Ivan laughed.
“I’m serious,” Yelena giggled, punching him playfully. “Sometimes I get impressions from you that I don’t like to think about. Do I ever say anything strange?”
“You tell me not to go. I don’t know what you mean, though. When I ask you where I am going you only say it again… Don’t go, Ivan. Don’t go. I think you might be having a dream but your eyes are open. You don’t seem to hear me though…”
Yelena drifted off to sleep that night with a vague sense of foreboding. She dreamed that she was separated from Ivan, from everyone in the Gypsy troupe with whom they were traveling, and though she searched the countryside calling out for someone, anyone, to answer, no one did. She was alone.
The next morning she was awakened by Russian soldiers rumbling into the camp riding in trucks and carrying rifles. They pulled everyone out of their tents making them stand in a row covered only by blankets while a man who seemed in charge walked down the line with a wooden rod in his hand pointing out men and boys who were immediately pulled out of line and placed in the back of one of the trucks. And then they drove away. That was the last time Yelena ever saw Ivan or his brother Igor. The women and children who were left behind wailed and pulled at their hair.
Finally, Anastasya the Gypsy leader came to Yelena proclaiming this calamity was her fault… that before she had come to live with them their luck was good. Now it had turned ill. She stood pointing a crooked finger at her saying was Yelena’s fortune-telling that brought bad luck to the entire troupe. And that she was no longer welcome to journey with the troupe.
"But I told you we should not go this way," Yelena argued through her tears. "I warned you… but you wouldn't listen… no one would listen… and now look what has happened."
Anastasya walked up to Yelena slapping her face as she cursed the girl. They left her standing by the road with only the handmade dress on her back and the coins in her pocket she had earned the night before. Anastasya knew nothing of them or she would have demanded the money be given over. Yelena was fifteen years old and alone in a world in which she’d never been on her own.