Tatyana's Tale

Ko shom mandi - Who I Am

I tread the streets of Paris with the light, toe-balanced steps of a dancer and the sure, purposeful air of a queen, sensing the primal spirit of the city through the rounded cobblestones beneath the uncovered soles of my feet. My proud gaze is steady on whatever horizons await before me, and my eyes are lucid crystals, unclouded and shining. My colorful garments are rich and earthy as nature's autumn-crimson and emerald, orange-tan and royal blue; the motion of my skirt like leaves swirling about in brisk fall winds to rest upon the dusky loam of a forest trail. My long, multi-braided, azure-ribboned hair floats upon every stale city breeze as if it felt the openness of Romany traveling grounds, of the night breezes and the morning zephyrs. My single earring is of brightest yellow gold and my wrists are adorned with merrily chiming coin loops and silver trinkets which catch all available light and toss it into shining fragments of sparkle to mirror the moon and stars themselves. I meet the citizens' stares evenly and without deference- they, in their tattered, muted vestments, regard me with wonder or fear or a mixture of both, their pale eyes agog and their faces caught between expressions.

Who am I, you ask? I am Tatyana, Gypsy poetess, she of the flowery phrase and the vivid verse, she who can reduce the most hardened soul to fits of joyful tears at her imagery, who can rival the most learned of bards with her lilting storytelling withing the delicate structure of a poem. My stanzas shine forth with the very essence of a Romany soul, weaving together the threads of heartache and passion, loss and joy, betrayal and admiration - creating a kind of life's tapestry which depicts all humanity in its glory and shame.

My, that was quite an introduction I've given myself. It all sounds so exotic and mysterious, doesn't it? Pity that most of it is not true...

I heard it said once that a narrator untrusted leads to a story unheard and, worst of all, a message unrealized. And so, if I wish to relate my tale and explain my situations, I feel that I should be honest in my storytelling. After all, what good does it do me to write mere fiction for dubious readers to look over with unfocused eyes? No; I have a very true story to tell. This is the tale of my 21st spring, the time when the remnants of my earlier life shattered into uncollectable shards and when I was forced to start anew with the help of friends I never thought I could have.

But first, a more truthful introduction.

My name is Tatyana LaRochelle, and the very first glimmer of my origin occured when my then 17-year-old mother left her native home of Russia to venture westward toward Europe. Her poor village, attacked frequently by various invaders to the south and east, was nothing more than burned-out, gutted ruins with icy winds whistling ruthlessly through its toppled dwellings. Food was less than scarce and the lootings unrelentless, and so the remainders of the village, including my mother, gathered up whatever they still possessed and departed to the west. They did not know where exactly they were headed, or if they would even survive the day, but they kept on, scavenging whatever they could and hoping for any semblence of peace. Many died on the way, frozen as they slept or starving slowly until at last their skeletal bodies gave up the spirit. My mother wept countless burning tears as her people, including her own mother and sister, disappeared before her, but she could do nothing but carry brokenly onward. Eventually, after years of traveling, meetings with disease-frightened or disgustedly heartless townspeople, and numerous uprootings by unfeeling governments, the group was able to settle in Paris, in the immigrant slums, among the refuse alleyways and the sewered streets.

My mother's name was Natalya, and as my father told me, she was delicate, lovely but strong, like a pure silken thread. It was in Paris that she met my father, Etienne LaRochelle, a simple potter. They fell into a fervent, devoted love soon after, and at last, at the age of 22, my mother was truly happy for the first time in her hard life. Marriage with Etienne merely lifted her from the pungent, trash-strewn alleyways to the poverty of a dirt-floored, ill-equipped potter's shop- no great trade by any stretch of the imagination. No dowry was collected, no festivities attended the union, and no shining golden band adorned my mother's small finger, but it mattered little to the young bride and her adoring husband. This much was important to Natalya - she had love, and she had a place to belong.

It was two years later that I was born, and three years later that Natalya passed away. It seems that my birth was very difficult for her, and she never quite recovered from the strain. Of course I cannot really blame myself for this tragedy, though it does sometimes occur to me that my existence did what 5 years of cold, suffering travels and gutter life could not - extinguish the life of a determined, strong woman who had already prevailed against so much hardship. I should not be so morbid, I know, but to this day I lament the fact that I never knew her. I bear the mark of her heritage with my Russian name, and I bear it proudly for her memory, just as I do my father's French surname.

My father Etienne's subsequent sacrifice was one of rearing me while trying to keep up his pottery craft. And so he was my sole parent, kind and patient but always firm with rules. I was a very energetic, busy child and I owe my continued existence to my father's stern punishments and protective love. Though dirt-poor and largely uneducated, he was a surprisingly smart man - the depths of his station could not smother the flame of my father's keen intellect. He had essentially taught himself to read many words, and as I grew older, he instructed me in the reading and writing of as much French as he knew. From there, I took it upon myself to strive further, saving up for old books and painstakingly sounding out each word, savoring all of the new expressions on my tongue like sweet wine. I then turned to attempting poetry; simple, awkward verses which held comically misspelled words, but poetry nonetheless. The knowledge of words was as sustaining food to me, and I learned with ardency everything I could obtain. Thus, my father presented me with the gift of verse, and I became a poetess - at least that much of my introduction is the honest truth.

Alas, even the most poignant poetry on this earth does not produce much of an income, and so I needed to apprentice my father as a potter for many years. I learned to prepare the clay, spin the wheel, and ready the kiln, all the while hating every moment. It wasn't that I objected to helping my over-worked father, and I fully comprehended the need for a profitable skill... but I would be foolish in maintaining that I could ever be a potter. The work presented me with no satisfaction and offered no pride, even when I tried my best on one of my lopsided, paint-smeared pots. The clay simply fell apart under my maladroit hands or took on thick, lumpy shapes which burst into shards within the fires of the kiln. I could never quite imitate my father's solid, symmetrical vessels with their delicate, interweaving designs, as desperate as I was for his approval. He was always proud of me anyway - that went nearly without saying - but I so fervently wished to please him, to see him look upon my creations with something other than a pained grimace.

It should be said that nothing, no matter its tediousness or terribleness, is without a positive side, and so it was with pottery work as well. As a boon, this work presented my father and I with time together, time to talk and laugh and tell tales to each other. The steady whirring of the pottery wheel was a nearly musical accompaniment to many of my freshly-written poems, as I ventured to recite them to my industrious, half-smiling father for critiques or praises. Likewise would he relate anecdotes or tales, often second-hand tales which originally stemmed from my mother's fertile imagination or life experiences, or even Russian folk tales. These stories mercifully lessened the monotony of the toiling, brightened my mood, and perhaps improved my horrible skills as I struggled at apprenticing. There were histories of my mother's village, fanciful tales of royalty, and complicated, intertwined webs of love. But perhaps best of all were the tales of the free-roving, mysterious Gypsies...

As perhaps one could surmise from my imaginatively false introduction, I had been fascinated (and dare I say a bit obsessed) with Gypsies for as long as I can remember. Whether I first became aware of them by way of my father's tales or by simply observing them walk the streets of Paris matters little- to me, they had always represented beauty, pride, a regal splendour which somehow was never dampened by their lowly status. I have ever seen in them the royal children of Egypt living disguised as paupers, their majestic free spirits unbounded by the oppressive squalor of Paris' narrow streets. While aiding my father to peddle his ceramic wares in the marketplace, I often watched these intriguing Gypsies with wide, distant eyes, listening to the lively, exotic melodies of the fiddle and tambourine, observing the graceful dancers with their billowing skirts and jangling brass ornaments, smiling at the impish laughter of bright-eyed Romany children as they skipped through the squares.

With my interest, however, I also could not help witnessing helplessly as the temperamental, cruel city guards set upon these Gypsies like vengeful curs under a ruthless hunter, wrenching dancers from their steps, poets from their scrolls, storytellers from their tales. As the days passed, my sympathy for their race deepened until every Gypsy I saw unfairly trampled underfoot affected me as if my own family were violated. I longed to be closer to these people, to capture that dogged pride and unfettered passion which shone within their dark, almond-shaped eyes, to fully understand all about them, culture and art, language and expressions. I wanted to know their secrets, especially how they managed to remain so noble and crafty under such widespread oppression. I wanted to fight their battles with them, alongside of their king, against all of the hate and violence which loomed over all of their lives.

Though I was still too bashful to ever approach a Gypsy and declare my loyal friendship, or to intervene in the skirmishes I saw, I took more distant measures to ally myself to the Romany spirit and comprehend what it was that drew me to them so. I began to compose anonymous verses to the Romany images I glimpsed each day and hid the scrolls away from day's light within a battered oak chest- "Ode to a Gypsy Wildbird", "The Ethereal Dancer", "Romany Gentleman", "The Gypsy's Dirge", countless admiring titles which were never to be seen because of my lack of confidence. In order to learn more and fuel my ever-growing interest, I secretly befriended a few Gypsy children, bribing them with sweetcakes and whatever silver I could muster until they told me more about their people and culture. There was a little Gypsy girl of perhaps only 10 summers, named Vashti, who patiently taught me words of the Romany language at a cost of merely a cinnamon roll per lesson. Of course the children were quite wary of me and certainly would not tell me everything about their folk, but I learned all I could from them, content in the knowledge that they would not dare tell their elders that they had been conversing familiarly with a strange but curious giorgio girl.

Another secret I held was my "Gypsy costume", put together from a patched white blouse and one of my mother's old earth-toned patterned skirts, augmented by a vivid waist-scarf and a brass bracelet bartered from my little friend Vashti. It was not a particularly detailed outfit, but it looked very Gypsy nonetheless, and I kept it within the chest among the myriad scrolls of my unread poems, out of sight but comfortingly there. I only ever once wore the entire outfit, and only for a few moments within the private confines of my little house, to look at myself in our badly scratched, spider-cracked mirror and wonder if I would ever have the courage to stand up for the Gypsies and make myself known as their friend. I didn't dare to wear the makeshift costume to market or indeed out on the streets, partly because I didn't wish to be harrassed by the guards and bring trouble to my dear father, and partly because I feared the Gypsies would laugh at my pathetic posturing.

"Look at the bland giorgio trying to pretend she is Romany!" I imagined their rich-accented voices crying with mocking derision. "Dordi! Dordi! She doesn't even know what she is!"

And truthfully, those jeering sentiments from the mouths of my beloved Gypsies would cut me deeper than any guard's sword. And so I was a tacit comrade to their cause, a silent ally who was too shyly frightened to do much more than observe and scribe more quickly-obscured poems.

Some might say that these confessions paint me as a foolish child, glorifying and idealizing what is in truth a race of thieves and swindlers, degrading my own heritage in the wake of a silly, pointless fascination. Indeed, some like Paris' own Minister of Justice would say worse, but these claims do nothing to quell my feelings - I understand the Gypsies as well as any giorgio ever could, and I also know that no race is inherently evil. Swindlers and thieves come from all groups in the world, and poverty and oppression do much to breed lawlessness in otherwise honorable people. I cannot blame the Gypsies for their desperate situation, and I can only blame so much trickery on truly immoral people. As for my own lineage, I can never be anything other than I am. My heritage is duly important to me, a reminder of both of my parents, never to be forgotten, and no matter what clothes I wear or language I speak, I will ever be the daughter of Etienne and Natalya. I do not want to be something I am not. I merely want to be on the side of light and understanding, upholding the weak in times of hardship, and the origin of my blood does little to affect the ways of my heart. I could do worse than to be idealistic.

As it happened, my life very seriously intertwined with the Gypsies I so ardently followed, and were it not for the Gypsies, I might now be nothing more than another mound of earth marked by a small grey slab of stone. As I mentioned before, it was in my 21st year that I saw everything that I held constant suddenly crumble before me, and for the first time in my life, I was truly alone.

© 1997 Rachael M. Haring