New Year’s Eve. It was one of the few nights of the year that Danior would allow the gypsies to close the attractions and tents early and ask visitors to leave the camp. The coming weeks would be busy, especially for Vadoma, Christine and the other gypsies who provided fortune telling services and that meant there would be a greater number of visitors for the other gypsies to tempt. But tonight was one of their nights, when they could celebrate the coming of a new year and the passing of the old and have a good time with their friends and family.
Whilst the passing of the years meant very little to Erik, he was somewhat grateful for New Year’s Eve, as well as the other rare nights that Danior allowed the camp to be closed to visitors. Not only did it mean that he spent less time being paraded and humiliated in front of visitors but it also meant that his guards were in the best of moods and there was very little Erik could do to genuinely get them angry. He had tested that particular theory once, many years earlier before Christine had arrived, by attempting to escape on the anniversary of the clan’s founding, another night where the camp was closed early. While he had been caught before he had barely made it out the door of the caravan, the beating he had sustained was no worse than one he would receive on nights where one of the guards was in a foul mood and decided to take it out on him. Certainly it was nothing like he would have expected for an escape attempt.
Tonight the visitors had just trickled in, most people having other things to do on New Year’s Eve than visit a gypsy camp to see the Living Corpse. They had been calm, the guards not being able to whip them into their usual frenzy because there were so few. He had been dragged to the front of cage twice and the sack pulled from his head, but the whip hadn’t broken his skin, due in part to the slightly thicker shirt he was given to wear through the winter, and the kicks had been kept to a minimum. It would take two men to drag his struggling body towards the crowd, on some nights they needed to call in a third man if he was feeling particularly aggressive. Erik had promised himself a long time ago that he would never help the gypsies in their perverse display, although he knew that struggling in some ways added to the atmosphere the gypsies were trying to create. But there was also a small part of him that would always say that maybe this time would be the time he finally won and they would leave him at the back of his cage. Tonight yet again had not been that time.
He could hear music coming from the centre of the camp, the quick melody, the shaking of tambourines and clapping of hands infiltrating the black caravan. There was a barely discernable hum of people talking and laughing, celebrating the occasion. Over the years Erik had come to hate the gypsy music, associating it with the arrival of the visitors and beatings from the gypsies. He had refused to teach Christine any gypsy music and had lost his temper with her whenever he had heard her singing or humming a gypsy song. She had quickly learned to never sing their songs in his presence.
Erik had always taught Christine music that belonged in the opera houses and theatres of Europe, which was very different to the music that Gustave had shared with her travelling throughout France. He thought back to the events of Christmas Day, less than a week ago. He had expected to see very little of Christine that day, knowing that the gypsies had a full day of celebrations and that Christine was expected to stay with Vadoma for the majority of the day. Still the chores had to be done and she had appeared in the caravan earlier than usual to clean up the mess from the night before. When she had finished she had gathered up her equipment and walked to the door as if she were about to leave, but at the last minute she had turned and walked back to the bars that separated them. She had told him to sit down and then asked whether he was comfortable. He had watched as she positioned herself in the centre of the caravan and started to sing ‘D’où viens-tu, bergère?’. When she had finished he had remained in stunned silence until she nervously asked whether he liked it. Erik had immediately assured her that he had. With a sigh of relief Christine had explained that it was his Christmas present because she couldn’t give him anything that he could keep in the caravan. Once again Erik was dumbstruck. He had been given a Christmas present. From Christine. He was constantly amazed by the depths of her friendship and prayed to an entity that he didn’t believe in that she would always be in his life.
Wanting to see Christine, he lifted himself out of his coffin, feeling a twinge in his right shoulder when he put too much weight on it. Creeping to the back wall of the caravan he pulled the sack tight around his face and put his eye up to one of the numerous holes in the wall. The black caravan was closer to the centre of the camp than usual, Danior having ordered that all the caravans and tents be situated closer to each other so the gypsies spent less time out in the cold when dashing from place to place, and Erik had discovered that at the right angle he could see what was happening at the main campfire.
His guards were sitting close the campfire, drinking. He hoped that they didn’t decide to check on him at some point during the night. Whilst they had been cheerful earlier in the evening, they were both violent and abusive drunks, especially the younger one. Erik could just see that the older man had his hand resting high on a woman’s leg so it seemed unlikely that he would be coming to the black caravan. Erik could only hope that the younger one found something similar to occupy his thoughts and that he didn’t bring her to the black caravan. The young gypsy had a penchant for bringing women into the caravan late at night, finding that their fear of the Living Corpse only added to his excitement. And he was not the first man to do so. In his younger years, Erik had watched, curious as to what was happening. But as he got older he learned to see it for what it really was and he would lie in his coffin trying to block out the moans.
Moving away from his guards, Erik’s eye drifted across the celebration, taking in all the colour and movement. He soon found Christine, dancing with a circle of girls and women, their arms linked. There was a happy smile on her face as she danced the quick steps that moved the circle around. The light from the campfire bathed the dancers and brought out red highlights in Christine’s curls. As they danced their full, colourful skirts flew to the side and you couldn’t tell where one skirt began and another ended. Erik knew how much Christine loved dancing with her friends and how disappointed she had been when Danior stopped her, so he was pleased to see her being able to enjoy herself. He continued to watch her dance, moving infinitesimally against the caravan wall so he didn’t lose sight of her.
Soon the dance came to an end and the dancers playfully curtseyed to the applause of the men. They broke into smaller groups, chatting and giggling with each other. Another song soon started and there was a flurry of activity as the women founded men to dance with. The couples quickly sorted themselves and the dance began.
Erik had lost sight of Christine in the rush to find partners. Once the dancing started he found her near the edge of the dancing area. She was dancing with a tall, dark haired gypsy. Her hand was in his, his other arm wrapped around her waist and their bodies pulled flush together, like all the other couples. Christine tossed her head back with laughter and Erik’s heart fell to his stomach.
He watched as the couple continued to dance, their bodies never separating and the man constantly leaning down to whisper in Christine’s ear so the smile never left her face.
Christine had often spoken to him about how much she enjoyed dancing at the gypsy parties and how Milosh would only dance with his sister or herself. At least he assumed it was Milosh holding Christine. But what if it wasn’t? What if there were other men who danced with Christine. When had he started thinking of Milosh as a man and not a child? For if Milosh was a man that would mean Christine was a woman. Erik pulled away from the wall and rubbed his hands over his face, the fabric of the sack scrapping at his skin. Of course Christine was still a child, what had he been thinking? But when he put his eye back up to the window and found the couple again he discovered that his initial thought had been correct. Christine had grown up. She was no longer a child but a beautiful woman.
Even from the caravan Erik could see that the man’s fingers were intertwined with Christine’s. He felt his anger rising and his fists curl into balls against the caravan walls. How dare this man, even if it was Milosh, act so familiar with his Christine? What gave him the right to touch her and to make her laugh like that? Why should this man be able to hold her hand and rest his arm around her waist when he could never touch her, not even the smallest brush of skin on skin?
Erik pulled away from the crack again, this time with a gasp. What was wrong with him? She wasn’t his Christine. A monster like himself shouldn’t touch a beautiful thing like Christine. He shouldn’t even be thinking about it. But suddenly there was nothing he wanted more in his life than to know what her skin felt like. Just the smallest touch, he tried to tell himself, would be enough. But it wouldn’t be enough. He wanted to know what her hand felt like wrapped in his, he wanted to see her smile as she looked into his eyes, he wanted to be able to whisper in her ear that he loved her.
Oh god. Erik almost choked as the emotions threatened to overwhelm him and his heart battled his mind. He was in love with Christine.
No he wasn’t the more sensible part of his mind howled. He wasn’t in love with her; he was just being a good friend. He didn’t want to see being taken advantage of by an unscrupulous young gypsy. But Milosh was anything but unscrupulous. Milosh and Mala were Christine’s best friends and she talked to Erik about them constantly. He knew that Milosh was a good man and would take care of Christine. But he could take good care of her as well, his heart whispered, and Milosh could never love her like he did.
He slumped to the floor under the weight of it all. He had opened Pandora’s Box and he could never go back. He was in love with Christine and he wanted her as his own.
How could he have let this have happen he berated himself. What did he possible hope to achieve? He should never have spoken to her when she came to clean the caravan; he should never have suggested music lessons. But she had spoken to him and treated him like a human being, rather than a monster that was to be feared. And he had so quickly come to depend on her visits, a break to the crushing loneliness that had engulfed his life for so many years. He had often thought of sending her away, but he could never bring himself to do it. Now the situation was so much worse. The loneliness had been bearable and looking back now he felt that he would have survived had she left in the first few years.
Now he knew that he would die if she left. And it would happen. She would marry soon and have children and she wouldn’t have time to come to the black caravan. But she would be happy and when he died he would know that there was somebody who used to care and who might mourn his passing just a little.
His heart still protested. Nobody else could have her. He could make her happy. How, his mind questioned. The gypsies had held him for almost twenty years, they weren’t about to let him go. He could try to escape. He’d made attempts in the past but he had never had something like Christine waiting on the other side. And then what? Force her to leave her family and be unable to support her. He was a fool. Christine was good enough to be his friend, she could never want anything more from him. She deserved someone who was as beautiful as she was, who could provide for her and wouldn’t take her away from her family.
If she found out she would be disgusted, he told himself. To know that a monster loved her and wanted to touch her. She would leave him one day, but he didn’t want to be the cause of her leaving any sooner than necessary. He wouldn’t tell her. He would continue to be her friend and watch as she fell in love with another.
Hauling himself back up the wall he looked out the crack again. The dance had just finished and whilst some couples had already separated, Milosh still had a hold of Christine. She was saying something to him and he bent down to place a kiss on her forehead before releasing her. Erik continued to watch as Christine walked away from the dancing area and out of his sight, leaving Milosh, who immediately sought out his sister.
Leaving the dancing area, Christine walked to the other side of the campfire to get herself a drink of water and sat down on a crate, her back to a tent. Despite the cold night air, she was hot from the energetic dancing and fanned herself briefly with her hand. She let her eyes drift back to the dancing area, where Milosh and Mala were dancing in a group.
“If we put Vadoma’s tent near the entrance, she should attract more visitors.” At the sound of a male voice speaking about her surrogate mother Christine’s ears perked up and she turned her head slightly.
“She’s told me that she feels confident Christine will be able to see visitors on her own in a few months. So that should increase the numbers as well.” Christine allowed herself a small grin of pride when she heard this.
“Good.” Christine instantly recognised the voice as Danior. “It’s about time she started contributing to the clan.”
“Well to be fair, she has been teaching the younger girls to sew. And she still cleans the Living Corpse’s caravan and you know how hard it was getting a child to do that work for longer than a week or so.” Another male voice said hesitantly. It sounded like Tamas, one of Danior’s most trusted men.
“That doesn’t bring in money,” Danior snapped. “And that is precisely what we need now. That girl has been here for almost ten years, imagine how much money has been spent on her.”
“She’ll be going soon won’t she?” It was Nicu speaking now. “Didn’t you always say that when she was old enough to support herself she’d be out?”
Although Christine had initially felt bad about listening into the conversation, she had no such reservations now and shifted closer to the tent so she could hear the conversation better.
“That was the plan initially, yes. But I’ve come to realise that it’s not going to be that easy,” Danior explained.
“So what are you going to do?” Tamas asked. “There’s been talk in recent months of Christine and Milosh. People have seen how close they are and have suggested that they might want to marry soon. If Christine marries a gypsy you’ll never be able to get rid of her.”
Christine raised her hand to her mouth in shock. People thought that she and Milosh wanted to get married?
“I’m not worried,” Danior said confidently. “As leader of this clan I have the final say in any marriages and I will never allow my nephew to marry an outsider.”
“So you won’t let her marry into the clan,” Nicu said. “What’s the plan then?”
“A wedding,” Danior announced.
“Huh?” Tamas and Nicu seemed to say this simultaneously.
“The girl has been with us for so long that many people in the clan seem to have forgotten that she’s an outsider. Hell, she’s not even a gypsy. She’s not going to leave voluntarily and the reaction would not be good if I told her to leave. Vadoma alone would never give me a moment’s peace,” he muttered. “But if Christine were to marry, she would have to follow her new husband.”
“You want her to marry someone outside the clan,” Nicu said slowly, starting to catch on.
“Precisely. No one’s going to be suspicious if Christine leaves the clan to be with her husband. Instead they’ll be happy for her.” Christine could practically hear the smirk in his voice.
“Have you got anyone in mind?” Tamas asked.
“No one in particular yet. I would have preferred someone who wasn’t a gypsy, that way we could be certain that she was never going to cause any issues for us again. But unfortunately visitors don’t exactly come to the camp looking for a bride.” The innuendo dripped from his voice. “So it will have to be someone from another clan. I don’t think it will be too difficult. Most clans have a few older men who are eager to have a young bride. They won’t care that she isn’t a gypsy.”
The three men chuckled at this comment. Christine felt sick to her stomach. She knew the type of men that Danior was talking about, the ones that no one in their own clan would marry, and the thought of being married off to one of them didn’t bear thinking about.
“Who knows? Maybe we’ll even get something for her,” Danior commented.
Not wanting to hear another word Christine jumped from the box and ran, knowing exactly where she needed to go.