Seven years later
“Good morning Papa,” Christine said, her teeth chattering slightly in the cold. She was sitting on a fallen log in a dense copse of trees, far enough away from the camp that no one was able to see or hear her. Pulling her cloak around her body more tightly she continued, “It’s been getting colder for the past week or so, Luca thinks it will probably snow soon. Once that happens there will be no chance of us moving until the spring, it’s too hard to move all the caravans through the snow. Danior hasn’t said why he wanted the camp to be so close to the mountains over winter, all the other clans go further south.” Christine didn’t expect that Danior would share that information with Vadoma or herself but she was slightly surprised he hadn’t told anyone else. Or if he had they were keeping it to themselves. Still the clan trusted that after so many years in charge Danior would continue to do the best thing for them.
“I promise I will still come here every day, even if it does snow,” she assured. “But I might not be able to stay so long,” she added mournfully. Christine had diligently prayed to her father every day since she had joined the clan. Over the years she had been able to visit a variety of churches, chapels and cathedrals, although none had been as peaceful as that first abandoned church that she had found at the base of a hill. However there had been locations, such as this one, and occasions when they were travelling from one site to another, that Christine had instead needed to find a quiet spot away from camp to talk to her father. The occasional extreme of weather notwithstanding, Christine didn’t mind not being in a traditional setting for prayer. Her time with the gypsies had taught her that religion and God did not require all the trappings of a church. If she believed, they would hear her, no matter where she was. She found that in some ways she quite liked praying outside, with nature all around her.
“We’ve been teaching the girls how to make quilts. They’re getting close to being finished and they can’t wait to show them to their families. However I have a feeling that there are going to be many fights about who gets to sleep under them.” She gave a wry smile.
Talaitha’s eyes had started to fail her a few years earlier, too many hours of making tiny stitches in poor light. She was still able to knit and was constantly swamped with requests for new socks and baby blankets but she couldn’t sew anymore. It had always been planned that Mala would take over one day for her mother as the clan’s main seamstress and when Talaitha found that she could no longer do the work she was confident that her daughter was ready to take on the task. Christine had never had the instinctive ability like Mala, but she was still a competent seamstress and Mala was grateful for all the help that she provided. As well as the general sewing that was always required by the clan, Mala and Christine had inherited from Talaitha the task of teaching the younger girls how to sew. Currently they were responsible for teaching eight little girls from five families. Whilst Christine had never learned to love sewing like Mala, she did enjoy teaching the girls and watching their faces light up whenever they mastered something new.
“I’ve almost finished Vadoma’s quilt as well, which is a relief because I was worried that I wouldn’t get it done in time for Christmas. Now that Luca has told us it’s likely to be a cold winter and we’ll be spending it near the mountains because of Danior I’m glad I decided to make it. I know that she’s got her mother’s quilt but it won’t hurt to have another one. I say it every year but I want her present to be really special, to thank her for looking after me.” She paused to think of her adoptive mother.
Christine couldn’t have asked for a better person to be her surrogate mother during the years she had spent with the gypsies. Whilst she couldn’t remember her own mother, and only had stories that her father had told her, Christine liked to imagine that the two women were very similar. She always thought that it was a shame Vadoma hadn’t had children of her own but, and Christine knew that it was selfish of her to think it; she knew that she wouldn’t have been able to take her in if she had. Vadoma had done more for her than she could ever have asked for, loving her, guiding her and listening to her. She had stood up for her against Danior and Christine knew that it was because of Vadoma that Danior no longer dropped continuous hints about how she should leave the clan. She had been there for the last scraped knees of childhood and was watching as she started to take the first steps towards being a woman. Vadoma had shared in every aspect of Christine’s life, except for her friendship with Erik.
Christine had often wanted to tell Vadoma of her friendship with the man who lived in the black caravan. About how he brought music back to her life and was the best friend you could ever ask for. But Vadoma had lived her whole life amongst the gypsies and looked down on exhibits as slightly less than human. Whilst she didn’t find satisfaction in taunting or hurting them like some of the other gypsies, she wouldn’t have understood why or how Christine could be friends with Erik. She hadn’t been happy when Christine had first started cleaning the black caravan, nor when Danior had insisted she continue, long after she had stopped cleaning other areas of the camp. Christine felt that Vadoma believed it was dangerous for Christine to be there and this belief would likely become stronger if she found out that Christine had been friends with Erik for years and yet still didn’t know what he looked like.
“I want to give Erik something for Christmas this year,” Christine said thoughtfully. “He’s been such a good friend and he’s taught me so much. But I’ve never given him a present before. He can’t keep anything in his caravan.” Christine remembered all the times she had offered to bring him things, clean clothing, blankets, bandages when he was injured or medicines when he was sick. But he would never accept anything, unless it could be used immediately and left no trace of its existence. “I wish you were here, you always gave such wonderful presents. You would be able to think of something that was perfect to give to Erik. But you’re not, so I will have to do this by myself. And I should do this by myself. If I wish to give Erik a present I should come up with it on my own,” she concluded determinedly.
Rubbings her hands together she realised how cold her fingers were. Looking to the sky she saw that it was getting late and she needed to return to the camp and help Vadoma get ready for the visitors. She silently finished her prayer and asked that her father continue to watch over her.
Back at the camp the evening preparations for the visitors were well underway. Campfires, lanterns and torches burned in every conceivable spot in an attempt to drive away the cold. Tents and attractions that were closed during the day were opened and the smell of various treats designed to entice lingered in the air. Christine quickly returned to the caravan to change into a more colourful outfit before rushing across the camp to Vadoma’s tent. “I’m not late am I?” she asked, barging through the tent flaps.
“Of course not Sedre,” Vadoma smiled as she looked up from the cards she was arranging on the round table in front of her. “You ask that every afternoon and you have never been late yet.”
“I know, I know,” Christine grinned, reaching up to straighten the beaded decorations that hung from the tent walls and invariably got knocked out of place at some point during the evening. “But it will happen one day.”
“Come, sit.” Vadoma pushed out one of the chairs on the opposite side of the table. “We won’t have any guests for a little while yet, let’s see what you can remember.”
Christine obediently sat down and watched as Vadoma randomly selected a card and held it up. It depicted an angel, dressed in white, pouring water from one goblet into another.
“Temperance,” she identified.
“Correct.” Vadoma placed the card down in front of Christine. “And...”
“And, it can indicate moderation or bringing balance into a person’s life. It can also mean that a compromise is required even if the two options seem incompatible.”
“Anything else?” Vadoma asked.
Christine frowned as she concentrated. “Ooh,” she exclaimed, “Judgement. The two goblets are like scales balancing a person’s good deeds against their bad deeds.”
“Very good.” Vadoma retrieved the card and slid it back into the deck. “This one?” she held out a new card.
“The hermit?” Christine answered, more question than statement.
“That’s right,” Vadoma confirmed.
“It means that you either need to leave to become comfortable with yourself or if you’ve already left you need to come back and share what you have learned,” she continued more confidently.
“I prefer to say ‘withdraw from society’ rather than just ‘leave’, but otherwise that was correct. Do you remember I used it a few nights ago?” Vadoma asked.
“The older gentleman who had lost his son, I remember,” Christine said, thinking back.
Vadoma had started to train Christine in the art of clairvoyance and tarot reading when she had turned twelve. Prior to her twelfth birthday Christine had acted as Vadoma’s assistant, showing people into the tent and collecting payments. As part of her training Vadoma had drilled Christine on the tarot cards and tested her at seemingly random times. More importantly though Vadoma had taught her to read the visitors, to find out what they wanted to hear by looking at their body language. Most nights Christine would sit in the tent with Vadoma, watching her give readings and discussing each one after they had left. In more recent times Vadoma had allowed Christine to give readings of her own.
“Would you like to give a reading tonight?” Vadoma asked as she walked over to the tent flap to see whether the visitors had started to arrive yet.
“Alright,” Christine agreed. “But no wealthy older men.” Christine’s last reading had been for a wealthy older gentleman and she had told him that he was soon going to be required to repay a large debt. The man had practically started to turn purple when she told him and she had been worried that he was going to expire on her. Thankfully his wife had come searching for him and he had left with her.
“No promises,” Vadoma replied wickedly. She would often tell Christine that part of her training was learning how to deal with all types of people and had been known to test Christine by having her give readings to visitors she knew were going to be difficult.
Seeing that there were a number of visitors milling around the camp, Vadoma lit the remaining candles and returned to the table, waiting for the first visitor to enter the tent.
It was a busy night, despite the cold, and there was a constant stream of visitors coming into the tent. Christine gave readings to a group of three young noblemen who had clearly drunk too much. The men tried their best to sit still and be serious as the young woman on the opposite side of the table told their futures, but they couldn’t help but randomly start giggling at the most inappropriate moments. Still, they were happy drunks and would have been pleased with whatever Christine had told them. She had been tempted to test that theory but knowing that Vadoma was watching her she elected not to do so.
A few hours later and the stream of visitors to the tent had slowed down considerably. “I should be able to manage the last few visitors,” Vadoma said, stretching her arms above her head, “You should go and see the twins; they’re both dancing tonight aren’t they?”
“They are,” Christine confirmed. “I’ll see you back at the caravan.” Leaning over to give Vadoma a kiss, Christine gathered up the cloak she had discarded in a corner and headed to the main bonfire to meet her friends.
Christine had remained friends with Mala and Milosh and the years had only strengthened their bond. When she wasn’t with Vadoma or Erik she could usually be found with one or both of the twins. Her friendships with each of them were quiet different, Milosh being the calmer, more serious twin, whilst his older sister was always looking for her next adventure. Despite their differences, and the teasing and mock arguments that still occurred, much to the despair of Christine and Talaitha, the twins were the best of friends and nothing could come between them.
Standing discretely behind some visitors, Christine watched as the twins and their friends danced for the cheers of the crowd. Another couple were the focus of the dance, but Mala and Milosh drew Christine’s attention. Mala spun furiously, her skirt flying out to form a disc around her, whilst Milosh stood proudly with the other men, waiting to catch their spinning partners. Although when they had met Milosh had been shorter than his sister, it hadn’t been long before he towered over the two girls. His height and strength meant that he had become a much sought after dance partner, although his shy nature meant that he preferred dancing with his sister or Christine.
Whilst Christine had been the one who had introduced the twins to dancing, only they had been allowed to continue learning and later to perform. They taught her what they could in their spare time and she would dance at gypsy parties but Danior had decreed that she wasn’t to dance for the visitors. He claimed, and the other gypsies were happy to believe this, that he didn’t want her to work too hard, as she already had her sewing work and working with Vadoma. But Christine knew that the real reason Danior didn’t want her dancing was because she didn’t look like a gypsy. Her dark, curly hair looked gypsy, but her pale skin clearly marked her as an outsider and Danior only wanted gypsies in his clan. He hadn’t like her performing readings for the same reason, but Vadoma had been able to stand her ground on that issue, saying that if she was limited to doing menial chores and was never seen by the visitors it would look suspicious.
The dancers made their dramatic finish, with the girls hanging backwards over their partners’ arms, before they were helped up and everyone bowed and curtseyed. Spotting Christine, the twins made their way through the crowd. “So, how did we do?” Milosh asked, casually wrapping his arm around Christine’s waist.
“Wonderful, as usual,” Christine smiled.
“Are you hungry?” Mala asked. “I’m starving. Let’s go get something to eat.”
Christine and Milosh followed Mala as she weaved through the mass of people congregating around the main campfire. The smell of food hit them as they walked into the tent and Milosh quickly secured a table in the corner whilst Mala and Christine collected their supper. The three friends talked and laughed well into the night, only leaving when it was pointed out to them that they were the only people still in the tent.
“A flat major,” Erik instructed, standing by the side wall of the caravan.
Christine shifted her weight slightly before performing the scale. Her voice echoed throughout the caravan.
“C minor.” There was no comment on her performance, only the next command.
She slowly began to ascend the scale and was only on the second note when Erik interrupted, “Stop. You’re doing it again,” he growled. “You’re letting your shoulders drop.”
“I’m sorry,” Christine apologised, trying to straighten her shoulders.
“Don’t be sorry, just fix it,” he snapped.
Christine held back the sigh that threatened to escape and, making sure her posture was perfect, began the scale again. Sometimes she felt that there were two people living in the black caravan. One was a kind, intelligent man who was fiercely protective and she could talk to for hours and the other was a bad tempered perfectionist obsessed with music who would snap at her for the smallest error and rarely gave praise. Still, the joy that she felt when she sang and the music surrounded her made it worth it. It seemed like they were in another world during their lesson, away from the gypsies, away from the darkness of the caravan and for Erik, away from the reality of his situation. Christine knew that Erik would never push her further than she could go. He seemed to have an instinctive knowledge of exactly what she was capable of and even when she felt she had reached her limit he would always know whether she was able to go further.
“Better,” he said when she had finished. That was as close to praise as she was likely to receive. Christine gave a small smile in appreciation.
“We shall work on Tristes apprêts today,” Erik announced, the traces of irritation gone from his voice.
Although Erik had not left the black caravan in almost twenty years and it had been even longer since he had last seen a piece of music, it no doubt seemed to Christine that he knew an unending number of songs, operas and voice exercises. However what he did know was old, a result of hours spent alone in his mother’s music room when she had attempted to escape the horror of her son by leaving the house. The room had been overflowing with sheet music and was dominated by a large mahogany piano, a reminder of when the house was a happier place, a home. He never saw his mother go into the music room and would have been severely punished had he ever been discovered in there. Those hours in the music room were the only part of his former life that he remembered with anything resembling fondness, although he hadn’t shared this with Christine.
He sung a starting note for Christine and she launched into the aria. When he had given Christine her first singing lesson Erik had been extremely relieved to discover that what his mother had claimed had been incorrect and he wasn’t able to bewitch people with his voice. Had she shown any sign of being unduly influenced by his voice he would have ended the lessons immediately, as much as it would have hurt him. Christine loved to hear him sing however, and would often beg for him to sing to her at the end of their lessons.
They continued to work on the aria, concentrating slowly on each line. Relying solely on Erik’s memory of the piece meant that this was a time consuming process and he would often demonstrate a line three or four times before he was happy with its accuracy. As Christine finished a line, Erik noticed noise coming from outside the caravan. “People are starting to get up, you’ll need to leave now.”
Christine sighed in disappointment. “I wanted you to sing for me.”
“Not today. I’ll see you later this morning,” Erik said.
“Alright. Good bye Erik.” With that Christine slowly opened the caravan door, checked whether there was anyone nearby and crept out.
Later that morning Christine returned to the black caravan, a small bowl of cold stew hidden in the bucket she was carrying.
It remained a mystery to the gypsies why Christine still cleaned the black caravan, years after such a chore should have been passed on to a younger child. Many of them remembered their own, usually short, stint cleaning the caravan of the Living Corpse and if Christine was cleaning it, that meant their children wouldn’t have to, so few questioned it. Christine knew that despite the financial implications of Nicu’s attack on Erik so many years ago, Danior had derived a certain degree of pleasure from knowing that she had witnessed it and how terrified she had seemed immediately after the event. It seemed that he still believed she was terrified of the black caravan, although Christine considered that to be a very foolish notion considering how long ago it had all happened, and forced her to continue working there. Still she did nothing to dissuade him of this belief, preferring to continue cleaning the caravan so she would have a legitimate excuse were she ever caught there.
“Morning Erik,” she greeted as she entered the caravan for the second time that morning. “How was last night?”
“Uneventful,” he announced. Every morning he said this Christine would let out a breath she hadn’t realised she had been holding. Erik would not cancel their singing lesson for any reason, nor would he let anything interrupt it, so it wasn’t until her second visit of the day that she would discover how he had survived the previous night. Unfortunately there had been mornings where she would find out at this time that he had been injured the night before and had hidden it throughout their lesson. She still hadn’t been able to find a way to determine straight away whether he had been hurt and he refused to tell her any sooner, saying that her singing should come first. It had become a source of ongoing dispute between the two in recent years.
“Good,” she smiled. Reaching into the bucket to pull out the stew she continued, “I brought some stew from last night. It’s cold so I don’t know how it will taste...” she trailed off, poking dubiously at the stew with a spoon.
“It will be fine,” Erik assured her as he collected the small bowl from where Christine had placed it by the bars. Retreating to the back of the caravan, he removed the sack covering his face in preparation to eat.
“Well, tell me if it tastes bad and I’ll find something else,” she said warily.
“That won’t be necessary,” Erik replied, taking a bite. He wasn’t really concerned with the taste of food; as long as it was digestible he was satisfied.
Christine walked back to the front of the caravan and started to clean. The past years had taken their toll on the black caravan. When Gustave and Christine had first seen the caravan it had been painted a glossy black, instantly drawing a person’s attention. Now, the elements had eroded the gloss, leaving a dull black that seemed to draw in all the surrounding light. The paint was starting to chip away, especially on the corners and around the door frame. Inside the floor had been worn smooth by countless visitors and Christine had to be careful to ensure she didn’t slip over.
“There’s another one,” she announced indignantly.
Erik swallowed his final mouthful. “Another what?”
“Another crack in the wood over here. The wind is going to come right through. Luca says it’s going to be a cold winter and you’re going to freeze to death in here if nothing is done about the state of this caravan,” she cried. “I wish you’d let me do something, bring you a blanket or tell someone so it could be fixed. It’s not as though they don’t know I’m in here.”
This was something Erik was still having trouble adjusting to. The idea that a person, that Christine, cared whether he lived or died. She cared when he had been beaten, got upset even. A voice inside him still insisted that it was just a matter of time before she realised what he was and would be horrified that she had ever considered him a friend and would simply stop coming. He tried to ignore the voice because he didn’t think he could survive if Christine left him. He had always had a very strong survival instinct, much to his disgust at times when he just wanted it all to end and his traitorous body had refused to give up, but knowing that Christine would be upset if something were to happen to him made him want to continue on, no matter how much he suffered along the way.
“True, but they would want to know why you cared. You know how the gypsies feel about me,” Erik replied bitterly.
“I know. I just wish there was something I could do. I hate the thought of you stuck in here, freezing all winter,” she replied, the distress evident in her voice.
“Please don’t be upset Christine,” Erik pleaded. “The cold doesn’t bother me and the cracks are small, I’m sure they won’t make that much of a difference.”
“I’m going to find a way Erik,” Christine promised. “One day I’m going to make sure that you’re never cold again.”
Her promise alone sent a rush of warmth through Erik’s body. He didn’t think that she would ever be able to fulfil her promise but that she wanted to make it was enough. Clearing his throat, he asked, “Tell me, ah, what’s been happening with your friends?” Although Erik didn’t care for any of the gypsies, he could appreciate that they made Christine happy in their own ways and it gave him a contented feeling to see her so.
“I know what you’re trying to do,” Christine said, reaching for a broom. “So I’ll leave it. For the moment. But I’m not going to stop trying to think of a solution,” she said stubbornly.
As Christine went through the motions of cleaning the black caravan, she told him of her friends and what was happening in the camp. She spoke of the little girls that she taught and how they were progressing with their quilts. While she spoke fondly of the children, Erik casually thought that Christine would make a good mother one day before quickly dismissing the thought; she was still a child herself. She continued on, telling him that a friend of Milosh’s had recently been betrothed and that the couple was planning to have the wedding early in the new year. She talk about Azir the fire breather, who had decided that he was getting too old to continue fire breathing and wanted to return to his home in the east. And she told Erik of her conversations with Mala and Milosh, where they would wonder what their futures held.