Marko, Angelina’s husband, walks to the porch hiding something behind his back.
“Close your eyes, Maya, and hold out your hand.”
I do as I’m instructed, a smile creeping across my face. “What is it?”
I hear the creak of wooden steps as he ascends each one. His fingers rough and callused as he opens my hand.
“Oh, Marko, it’s beautiful, truly beautiful!” A blackthorn walking stick with gnarled bark and deep red hue sits naturally in my palm. Marko takes a worn cloth from his pocket, wiping his brow from the heat of afternoon sun, clearly pleased with his work.
“I found the wood at the edge of the forest; air dried it these last few months and inscribed a rune at the end of the stave. Today it is finished.”
I look at the end of the wood seeing a single line with two smaller lines meeting at the center. It looks like a little tent sitting sideways on a straight line. “What does it mean?”
“It is a symbol from the ancient ones meant to protect the bearer on dark and lonely roads.”
My smile fades. A gesture that comes too late, I think, but say nothing.
“Try it,” he insists, pulling me to my feet. “Angelina is by the water with the little ones, gathering clay to bake our dinner. Go and surprise her.”
I have used my injured leg as an excuse to hide for months now, feeling unsafe and unsure about everything, but mostly about myself. I dress in other woman’s skirts and shawls, my hair cascading around my waist, while Angelina wears a headscarf or diklo to show she is married. I search my mind for any trace of partner or married life, but find nothing. Is there someone missing me? I wonder.
I make my way down the stairs, slowly and cautiously, the walking stick supporting every move. I am wary and vigilant, but find this new support allows a level of self-assurance I did not expect. Marko sees my grin and radiates with pleasure. He smells of sweat and wood smoke, as I hobble past.
We are in the south now at Somerset, near an estuary. Black horses with white faces and long white manes pull our wagons from place to place at night, often surprising me with a new location in the morning. I am told we move because others are not friendly, which I find difficult to understand.
The path meanders through a clearing in the woods that opens to the sea, where narrow-billed sandpipers stand on twigs probing for dinner, unbothered by the mud-slinging antics of Angelina’s children.
“Look,” says Angelina, pretending there is nothing unusual about seeing me away from the wagon. “The children have found eggs for our breakfast.”
My walking is stilted but steady, the ocean breeze a healing balm. I close my eyes, letting a salty wind kiss my face as Mila, Angelina’s youngest, runs to me, holding up two speckled eggs. Avon follows her, holding his own. They have apples in a basket and hedgehogs for dinner, which I stare at in disbelief.
“How will you remove the prickles?” I ask.
She waves her hand in the water, washing away the mud, dries them on her apron and walks to my side. “We bake it in the fire. When the hardened clay shell is removed, the prickles come off. The meat is delicious. I’ve herbs of agrimony and sorrel to go with it. Come, I’ll show you. Tomorrow we go to Kentish to meet other travellers. We will pick lavender, play czardas, share stories and step dance. It is time you met other Romanies.”
I totter along next to her, the children dancing round trees as we go. “It’s good to see you mended, my friend,” she says, threading her arm around my waist. “Now, it is time to recover your smile.”