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When the Road Is Bent
In early July, a caravan
of Căldărari came to the village
just as Victor and Igor reached the market.
Most of the vardos were round
with colorful canvas covers,
pulled by one or two Gypsy Vanners,
striking in pinto coats and feathered feet.
The rom baro drove a taller vardo
with solid wooden walls and roof
painted green and red and gold,
pulled by a dapple gray stallion.
After a bit of negotiation,
the Căldărari were invited in
to set up their caravan in the square.
They had a whitesmith and a greensmith,
and twin sisters who made silver and gold jewelry.
They had a graybeard who bought broken glass
and melted it down to make new things.
They had an old lady who sold lace and ribbons.
Inside of an hour, Victor and Igor had to
patch up half a dozen little boys in the village
who had gone scrounging for glass chips
and inevitably cut their fingers doing it.
"I could just belt that daft gypsy,"
Victor grumbled as Dénes uncorked
another bottle of pálinka to clean the cuts.
"He doesn't mean any harm by it,"
the brewer said. "They come through here
once or twice, most years. You'll notice
the older boys have learned to take care."
"Ah, he's one of those fellows who thinks
that sore fingers teach best," Igor said,
balancing Adam on his hip.
Adam managed to grab the cork
and started mouthing it.
"Easy for him, when he's not the one
meant to clean up the mess," Victor said.
"Well, we're not in need of any glass
so we can skip him," Igor said.
"Come along, let's see what
the others have on offer today.
You still have no cufflinks."
The twins had the outer side of canvas
rolled up from their vardo to display
glittering trays of gold and silver jewelry.
Victor made a beeline for the gold,
so Igor let him shop, standing back
to keep Adam from reaching anything.
"Shiny!" Adam said, waving his hands.
He pouted when Igor wouldn't budge.
"I have a shiny for you, little man,"
the silversmith said to Adam.
She offered him a candied apricot,
its sugar glinting in the sun.
Igor stepped forward so that Adam
could stuff the sweet into his mouth.
"Thank you, that's very generous," Igor said.
She shrugged, her white lace blouse
sliding off her brown shoulder.
"Your brother is looking at gold."
"Not my brother," Igor murmured,
watching for rejection, but she
merely shrugged again.
There was something about
the twins that Igor rather liked,
but he couldn't pin it down.
Victor had picked out a pair
of handsome gold cufflinks
adorned with serpents.
"They suit you," Igor said.
"Find something for yourself,"
Victor advised, taking Adam from him.
Igor went to the other sister
and her trays of silver.
"You needn't short yourself,"
Victor said to him.
"I'm not," Igor insisted as he
pored over the wares.
"I like silver better than gold, and
simple things better than frills."
"Perhaps these," said the silversmith,
pushing forward two ovals of white agate.
"Oh, those are perfect!" Igor said
as he looked at Victor.
"Have them if you want them,"
Victor said with a smile.
"We'll take both pairs," Igor said.
"It must be nice stopping in a village
where people don't drive you away
or accuse you of thieving," Victor said
to the silversmith as she wrapped their goods.
"I know we were grateful to find it last year;
it's a good place with good people."
"Nashti zhas vorta po drom o bango,"
the woman said quietly, dropping her gaze.
"You cannot walk straight when the road is bent."
"I suppose those wretched foreigners
are still stirring trouble and spreading lies,"
Igor said. "Perhaps you should consider
the source of rumors before you believe them."
He waved a hand at the peaceful village.
"Also, deeds weigh more than words."
"Of course, good sir," she said, smiling again
as she passed him the two packages.
Her sister slipped out of the vardo.
Victor and Igor moved on to where
Anne was setting out some brânzoaice,
cheese pastries dusted with powdered sugar.
They bought one apiece, and Victor
fed bits of his to Adam.
They stopped at the whitesmith
to inquire about replacing a teakettle
that Adam had beaten out of shape.
The man was happy to sell them one,
but to their surprise he added,
"The rom baro wishes to speak with you."
"All right," Victor agreed, curious
because the Căldărari kept to themselves
aside from matters of trade and entertainment.
Inside the little circle of vardos,
it was like a roadside encampment,
with small brown children scampering
and a young woman mending clothes.
The rom baro was a middle-aged man
with silver threading his black hair,
solemn and honest in bearing.
"I am Guaril," he said, waving a hand.
"Welcome to my caravan."
"Thank you," Victor said,
and made his own introductions.
"I wonder why you've invited us."
"We have been watching you,"
Guaril said frankly. "We needed
to know what kind of people you are.
Plamen the glassblower says
that you've tended the cut fingers
of the careless little boys, and
Donka the goldsmith says
that you dealt fairly with
her and her sister Drina."
"All right," Igor said, "but why
concern yourselves with us?"
"We found a wounded gadjo
and we would rather leave him
with someone who will not
use him so harshly," Guaril said
as he lifted the cover of a vardo.
Inside lay a man swathed in bandages,
burned skin showing red around the edges.
Igor climbed up beside him, then gasped.
"I know him," Igor said. "Victor, this is Clyde!"
"How do you know him?"
"He and another man passed through
a few months ago," Igor said,
laying a hand on the fevered cheek.
"He wasn't right in the head even then,
and I didn't like his companion at all."
"Jekh dilo kerel but dile,
hai but dile keren dilimata," Guaril said.
"One madman makes many madmen,
and many madmen make madness."
"How did you come by him?"
"We found him in a road cabin,"
Guaril said. "He was badly burned,
and though we knew he had been
traveling with one who brought trouble,
we had reason not to let him die.
Yet we have no drabarni
since my mother passed away,
so we can do little to care for him."
"We'll take him off your hands,"
Igor said. He lifted a fold of skin
on the back of Clyde's hand
and frowned at how long it took
to sink back into place.
"Victor, he's dehydrated."
"That often happens with burns,
especially if the victim won't drink,"
Victor said, peering into the vardo.
"He hasn't woken since we found him,"
Guaril reported. "We tried, but ..."
He trailed off with a helpless shrug.
"Well, that's not good," Igor said.
He turned to Victor and added,
"Send someone to bring our wagon.
We need to get him up to the lab."
Victor went to the edge of the circle,
spoke to one of the village boys,
and then returned.
"It seems to me that you
know more about this situation
than you've told us," he said to Guaril.
"I know more about everything
than I have told you,"
the rom baro said dryly.
"Will you tell us more, or are you
just poking fun?" Victor asked.
"There are men in the mountains
causing problems for us and our allies.
They also squabble with each other
sar laci and'ekh vadra, like crabs in a bucket.
I would have peace again, but I do not
know where or how to find it," Guaril said.
"Let's start by working together," Igor said
as he carefully peeled back the blankets
that covered Clyde's limp body.
"If you tell us what you know, then
maybe we can help find a solution."
"Some things are not mine to tell,"
Guaril said. "Our allies are cautious folk,
and besides ..." He spread his hands.
"Si khohaimo may pachivalo sar o chachimo.
There are lies more believable than truth."
"The wagon is here," Victor reported.
"We need to move Clyde into it."
"Take up the sheet beneath him,"
Guaril said. "I will help carry him."
"There are only three of us, and
I have the baby to --" Victor began.
"Besnik, Hanzi," said Guaril,
and two young men stepped up
on either side of him.
"Everyone take a corner,"
Igor instructed. "I'll count,
and we all lift on three.
One, two, three."
They carried Clyde to the wagon
and settled him into place.
It must have jostled his wounds,
but he never stirred.
"That's not a good sign,"
Igor muttered, climbing in
to crouch beside him.
"What about these allies of yours?"
Victor asked Guaril.
"Will they help solve the problem
of these foreigners in our land?"
"They prefer to avoid conflicts,"
Guaril said, "but it is plain that
they have already made some efforts
to deal with these difficulties."
"Fine, then how will we know them
if we meet them?" Victor asked.
"Igor is right; we need to work together."
Guaril gave them a fey smile.
"Kai zhal o vurdon vurma mekela.
Where the wagon goes a trail is left."
"What on Earth is that supposed to mean?"
Victor said, throwing up his hands.
"You are speaking nonsense!"
"If you see it, you will know it,"
the rom baro said. "If you do not see it,
"then you do not need to know it."
Clearly they would get nothing more
out of him, so Victor climbed aboard
and clucked to his bay mare,
driving the wagon out of the square.
When they reached the castle,
Victor went to put Adam in the crib
while Igor minded the wagon.
Then they carried Clyde to the lab.
It took a while to unwind all the bandages,
clean and salve the numerous burns,
and then wrap everything in fresh gauze.
The worst injuries were on his hands
and his back. "It looks as if he was
inside a burning building of some sort,
trying to shield himself from the flames,"
Victor said, miming how to cover his face.
"The burns will heal if he lives that long,"
Igor said, smoothing the blankets over Clyde.
"I'm more worried about the raging infection."
"As am I," Victor agreed, "although
he's going to have dreadful scars
if he survives this illness."
"We could try the trick with the mold," Igor said.
"That only works about half the time,
even for you," Victor said,
"and less than that for me."
"Half a chance is better than
what he has now," Igor pointed out.
So they did what they could for Clyde,
and then took turns sitting with him
to see if he would ever wake up.
Igor was there the first time he stirred,
although hours more passed by
before Clyde was anything like coherent.
They plied him with water, then broth,
and finally soup, handling the spoon for him
because his own fingers were too burned
to tolerate even that slight pressure.
"Can you tell us what happened to you?"
Igor asked Clyde once he could speak.
"There was a fire," Clyde said,
his voice still raspy.
"I don't remember much else.
I think I must have run?"
"When we met earlier, you were
traveling with another man, Alcot,"
said Igor. "Are you still with him,
or is there someone else
you'd like to stay with?"
Clyde looked away.
"He didn't make it out.
I don't know anyone else here."
Igor wasn't surprised that Alcot
had come to a bad end.
That kind of hatred and manipulation
rarely turned out well for anyone.
"All right, thank you for telling me,"
Igor said. "Once before, you mentioned
thoughts and feelings that weren't yours.
You seem better now. Did those go away?"
"I got used to them," Clyde said.
"It's not so bad away from people.
I'm all right on the road or the woods.
I can't go into cities anymore, though;
villages, sometimes, if I don't stay too long."
"Dorottya's brother Lóránt is a woodcutter,"
Igor said, his fingers tapping a thoughtful pattern.
"It may be that he could use an assistant.
Then you would have only one person near,
and work you could do when you get well."
"I would like that," Clyde said shyly.
It took time for Clyde to heal,
tender new skin growing over
the burned places, though it left
scars as Victor has predicted.
The calendula salve helped, something
they'd developed for Adam's scars,
though he didn't need it anymore.
"It's not like anyone's going to be
looking at me," Clyde said.
"That is not the point," Igor said
as he treated the delicate skin.
"You deserve to be comfortable,
and besides, you still look at yourself."
By the end of the month, Clyde had
recovered enough to leave the castle,
and Lóránt showed willing to take
the younger man as an assistant.
Victor and Igor were not much closer
to figuring out the problem of the foreigners,
despite their best efforts.
"At least we have one less troublemaker
to worry about, though," Victor said.
"Assuming that Clyde's memory
of what happened to Alcot is accurate,"
Igor said. "I can't bring myself
to feel sorry if it's true.
Alcot was horrid."
"Agreed," Victor said.
"All we can do now is
remain alert for danger."
"Always," Igor replied.
"I never thought my road would
bring me to such strangeness."
"I'm just glad it brought you to me,"
Victor said, leaning against him.
"So am I," Igor agreed.
Whatever problems arose,
they would face them together.
* * *
"Gypsies" form a common trope in gothic literature. A more appropriate term for such people is Romani, but the cultural hash presented in mainstream entertainment more closely matches the vulgar term.
Therefore I was delighted to get a trope which asked for genuine traveler folk. The Căldărari are one of several tribes who frequent Transylvanian territory., and they are renowned metalsmiths. A vardo is a caravan wagon, the traditional home of Romani folk. In Romania, the most popular style is a barrel-shaped wagon with a removable canvas cover, although some people still favor the solid rectangular sort, and mixed caravans are also seen. For the purposes of this series, it is further stipulated that the area has road cabins with rustic facilities for cooking and washing to aid travelers of all types.
Gypsy Vanners make up a breed of draft horse, selected for different weights, and favored for caravan work in single or double harness. They are gentle, intelligent, hard workers with spectacular appearance. Most are pintos and their feet are heavily feathered.
Rom baro means "big man," although it's often translated as "gypsy king." This is the leader of a caravan or tribe, not an absolute ruler, but a mature leader whose word people widely respect.
A whitesmith works in tin; a greensmith works in copper. While most villages of good size will have their own blacksmith, workers of other metals are less common, so it's profitable for a caravan to offer a selection of metalworkers.
Read the poem "A Children's Chant of Smiths" which was inspired by this poem.
Pálinka is apricot brandy, convenient for cleaning injuries. Note that children need to face age-appropriate risks in order to learn risk assessment. Victor is bitchy partly because he has to clean up the mess, and partly because his parents were overprotective idiots.
Candied apricots are popular throughout central Europe and elsewhere.
Cufflinks are popular among some collectors. Here are Victor's gold serpent cufflinks. Igor's look similar to these, silver with white agate faces.
Nashti zhas vorta po drom o bango.
You cannot walk straight when the road is bent.
-- Romany phrases
Romanian cuisine includes many delights, including the cheese pastry brânzoaice.
A rom baro is a caravan leader. It is often translated as "gypsy king" although "big man" would be more accurate.
The rom baro leads by public acclaim, not external authority. People follow him because he has the traits of a trustworthy leader. Learn how to earn the trust of followers.
Gadjo means anyone who is not Romani. It can be merely descriptive or downright pejorative.
Jekh dilo kerel but dile hai but dile keren dilimata.
One madman makes many madmen, and many madmen make madness.
-- Romany phrases
Compassion is a virtue. Know how to cultivate and practice it.
A drabarni is a combination of healer, magic-user, and wisewoman in a caravan.
Burns vary in severity and require meticulous care, often causing dehydration because the skin is too damaged to retain vital fluids. When sophisticated treatment is not available, there are home remedies which use many of the same ingredients to make salves or creams.
Secrecy and discretion are important both for leaders and for persecuted people. Understand whether and how to reveal a secret. You should also know how to keep one.
Sar laci and'ekh vadra
Like crabs in a bucket
-- Romany phrases
Evil people often squabble amongst themselves, and criminals tend to have poor social skills. Know how to teach and learn social skills.
Si khohaimo may pachivalo sar o chachimo.
There are lies more believable than truth.
-- Romany phrases
A basic rule of first aid is: don't move an injured person unless they are in immediate danger. This also assumes that expert care will come to the crisis location, which isn't always feasible. So it's good to know how to transport a casualty with help or by yourself.
Kai zhal o vurdon vurma mekela.
Where the wagon goes a trail is left.
-- Romany phrases
The history of penicillin includes quite a lot of mold-based treatments over time and cultures. This is an example of how Victor and Igor are doing things that aren't as sophisticated as some modern options, but a lot more so than the Georgian era in which the original novel was set.
Bad behavior often leads to a bad end.
Burns tend to leave scars, although good care can minimize that. A variety of oils and salves can help heal burns with less scarring. Burn survivors often have issues with body image. There are tips and exercises to improve that. Having a productive job with limited social expectations may be helpful for survivors who don't feel comfortable in crowds.