Gypsy Spirit
by Ute Carson
Falling in Love Again - Love the Second Time Around
Edited & Designed by Whitney Scott
Outrider Press, Inc., Crete, Illinois (2005)
ISBN# 0-9712903-2-6

The palm of my right hand stung as I swatted three mosquitoes on the splintered windowsill, leaving a trail of fresh blood streaked across the peeling white paint. The suckers had been full to bursting. With my blood! I propped my feet up on the sill with the soles pointing toward the smudged window and wryly looked at the carnage, sighing, "All dead. Like my marriages."

Nestled in the hills of Wisconsin, my cabin was only a five minute walk from the campsite where I taught art for the summer. The sparse cabin interior of the cabin had exposed beams and buckled planks. Each time I took a step, gray dust particles flew up and tickled my nose. When my son Jack heard that I was stepping out on my own again, he gave me three oval braided throw rugs to soften the floor. Opposite the door that always jammed stood a wrought-iron bed, a round wooden table and a rocker. My portable radio found a spot on the windowsill. I'd brought my favorite tapes, gypsy songs from Hungary.

I was ambivalent about the lone portrait of two women on the wall. Framed in ornately carved rosewood, the picture both unnerved and attracted me. The woman in front wore a cornfIower-blue dress, printed with wavering wisps of white, like clouds. The fabric was tight over her broad hips and square shoulders, and her back was rigid as if stiffened in opposition. She clutched a velvet handbag parishioner style. Over her shoulder peeked the other woman's finely-chiseled face. Tar-black strands of hair draped over her forehead like a bridal veil. Her tortoise shell earrings glittered. The rest of her body was hidden except for her hand holding a single tiger lily, and her gracefully curved throat which seemed to pulsate slightly. The glass over the picture welled with air-bubbles like blisters on skin as if to disguise the two figures.

As the light paled, fleeting sunrays stretched across the floor like streaks of gold as the evening mist rolled in, enveloping the hills in privacy. The silence in the room slipped into my mind. I sat a long time and tried to return to that place inside myself where everything was calm. But my soul was uneasy, and an abyss of remorse was opening up. My body, like my life, was showing deep wear and tear. Even my dreams were tattered.

A month ago, with only a day's notice, I had left my third husband, Melvin. Even after he'd implored me, "Give us time, we can work it out," I had not listened. Once a certain restlessness gripped me, I was like a ship tossed high by the rising tide, my anchor torn from its moorings as I rushed toward the open sea.

Mel, who helped me raise my children from my previous marriages, was the kindest of my three mates, patient and long-suffering. This short, balding pediatrician with protruding leaf-like ears and gentle, darkly veined hands had heard the patter of tiny feet for over 30 years. Though well acquainted with poopy diapers, runny noses and bruised knees, he lacked insight into the dark recesses of grownups' souls where fears lurk and passions hide. My recurring agitation baffled him. How could he keep a hold on a centipede that scurried off at the slightest provocation?

As before, it came over me at a fancy dinner party. Suddenly the food tasted too rich and moldy odors from overstuffed furniture clogged my throat. I felt caged among the well-dressed, well fed bodies and a single desire drove me: the need to escape. A craving for mud between my toes and the perfume of pine needles overwhelmed me. In mid-conversation I tuned out and disconnected myself from my surroundings. The lure of an unattached life drew me like bait draws a fish.

My parents died when I was three. My grandmother raised me. In her gabled gingerbread mansion in Germany, I never lacked for physical comfort, good education or lively company. But I was short changed on emotional nourishment.

Grandmother Ursula was like an ancient oak tree, her roots reaching deep into family soil, and her limbs and branches protecting everyone under their wide-spread umbrella. Potatoes, always still in their skins, were the staple of her diet and she served them at every meal. "A potato is a woman's best friend. It soothes the stomach and keeps appetites grounded."

I hated potatoes even without the tough peelings. They settled in my stomach in heavy lumps.

As far back as I can remember, Grandmother Ursula tried to ground my appetites, and as I rushed excitedly from one activity to another, she sternly ordered me to sit still. "You are not a raggle-taggle gypsy, do you hear?" Her lips were pinched together like the edges of an oyster shell. She grew tall and erect whenever she reprimanded me. But she was fiercely proud of me as long as I toed the line. Grandmother Ursula tried to keep everyone together in one house, one town, and one country. "Stay with one mate, always," she warned sternly.

Her sister-in-law, my unmarried Aunt Vera, on the other hand, reminded me of that gypsy I was not supposed to be. Her long, flamboyant dresses with no pants or bras underneath swished loosely around her lanky body. She smelled of wildflowers and chamomile tea, her gold chains and wrist and anklet bangles jingled and clinked musically as she moved barefooted through her house, which was always in marvelous disarray. A child's paradise.

Every year Aunt Vera took me to a traveling circus. Once, we paid for a palm reading. The psychic cackled, "You'll roam the world, little tiger. Your spirit is restless and wild. But don't forget your camouflage, little tiger, for escape." Aunt Vera nodded approvingly.

Like warring adversaries, my rooted Grandmother Ursula and my footloose Aunt Vera fought to gain dominion over my soul. Wayne was an American enlisted man, strong and dashing in his uniform. He was starved for sex and I was ready for adventure. When he asked me to marry him, I said, "Let's give it a whirl."

And a whirl it was. We left Germany for the United States on a military transport. I spent most of the voyage leaning over the rocking ship's guardrail, trying to get my rebellious stomach under control, while Jack's strong heartbeat was thumping away in my womb.

Life on the army base in Georgia was dreary and monotonous. The match flame of pleasure which had attracted us soon burned low. Boredom and disappointment spread through me like poison. When Jack was two and Wayne was away on a six-week assignment, I packed our bags and, with Jack straddling my left hip, placed a note on top of the chipped fake-wood dresser that looked like all the other chipped fake-wood dressers on the base.

"1 can't stay any longer. I'm becoming part of the furniture, the broken blinds and the green plastic sofa. Jack will be fine with me."

Wayne never came after us.

We drifted across country with the wind. It was during the late sixties and we survived as members of first one commune, then another. I helped with household chores, threw pots and made macramé shawls sold at flea-markets. Eventually I also added my paintings to my sales booth.

I met Ted during a raid on our compound. The police found the usual stashes of marijuana and enough cocaine to arrest a few group members. When Ted flashed his blazing blue eyes at me, I was vulnerable. As he questioned other people, he stood very close to me and fiddled with his tie knot. His words brushed passed my ears, "You don't belong here."

He had broad hands with tapered fingers, the nails yellow and hard. But his mouth was full and smelled pleasantly of peppermint gum.

Maybe I attracted solid men. Ted was solid. He promised me that I could get rid of my Salvation Army clothes and eat fresh peaches and raspberries year round. When I told him I was pregnant, he said, "I'm gonna teach you to shoot."

He gave me a 9mm Glock, saying, "You want a weapon you can trust. You carry a weapon to protect your life. You don't want click, you want bang."

But besides target practice together, there wasn't much to the relationship. The dynamics changed after we were married. Soon I felt roped like a calf at branding. Ted tried to alter my lifestyle. He grumbled about my colorful clothes, disapproved of my purple nail polish, and wanted Jack's brown curls cut.

Three months before Madeleine was born I moved out. This time I told Ted in person. He turned away from me as I spoke, his back ramrod straight. "I saved you and your son."

He shot me a look from those eyes and said, "Get lost before I lose my temper."

We bolted out the door like horses from a burning barn. Jack and I giggled, then laughed the liquid laughter of relief.

Melvin bought six of my paintings while my little son clung tightly to my legs. We could have stayed at the YMCA for a whole year on that one sale.

He was not only interested in my pictures. After carrying them gingerly, one at a time, to his car, he returned and asked, "Would you like to have dinner with me?"

"Can't you see I'm about to have a baby?"

"Well, I'm a pediatrician."

When Mel asked me to move in with him, I agreed without a moment's hesitation. I had glimpsed some unusual kindness in this small man. Jack, and later Madeleine, quickly learned to love him and knotted an umbilical cord around us all.

My firstborn and I were joined from the start. Whenever we were together, we sat on opposite ends of a couch, our bare soles flat against each other. Our mutual understanding flowed best that way.

Jack was a nature guide on rivers, and also taught survival skills to the more dedicated. When I moved into the cabin, he told me to sprinkle drops of citronella oil on my bed and other warm hiding places to repel spiders and other insects. He lived half a day away in a cabin like mine. From there he watched for poachers and worked to preserve certain endangered species, his favorite, the Timber Rattlesnake.

Fog had settled over the countryside. I felt snug in my cabin. While gently rocking, I noticed my breath laboring. A draft made me fetch my macramé shawl. Then I heard humming, like power lines. The wind became angry and a light rain muffled the air, spraying against the window. A shadow of change cast itself across my mood. Suddenly I smelled something like the odor given off by musty clothes. Then I spooked when a hand crawled slightly over mine like a tiny bug, and a breath slid across my shoulders like a snake. At that moment, hairpins flew into my loose hair, braiding it into a threefold cord, and pinning it to the chair.

I heard a crackling like ice splintering. Reflected in the window, I saw a zigzag line bisect the picture, and two figures stepped from the rosewood frame. Grandmother Ursula and Aunt Vera. They glided across the floor until they crowded me like two bookends. My knees knocked together.

"You are not a raggle-taggle gypsy." I knew that voice. "Go. Go," urged the other. Then the room was so still, it was ghostlike.

My heart was speeding and my mind was needle-sharp as I grabbed my bag, pulled my shawl closer and left my seductive solitude. I cut a swath through the brush and felt the wet ground beneath my bare feet. The jeep at the camp was unlocked, the keys on the driver's seat. I adjusted both mirrors and started the engine. As dawn spread its bright halo, I reached Jack's slumbering cabin, steeped in witches' smoke.

I stepped in and saw Jack dozing, his head leaning against the headboard of the bed. His right foot was bandaged and propped up on a pillow. My eyes burned as if I had stepped through a brushfire.

"Are you all right?" I nearly choked on my words.

His eyes opened slowly. "I'm all right." His irises were dilated big as pennies. He blinked and asked, "How did you know?"

"Your great-grandmother and your great-aunt returned as smoke and wind, a humming insect and a hissing snake. They told me."

I was so relieved that Jack was okay, I started to cry. Then I sat on his bed and listened.

"Of all snakes, the rattler bit me," he explained. "I had come upon this beautiful female. She rested on a rock, the rattle on the tip of her tail absolutely still. Her head was only an arm's length away and for a moment our eyes met. I didn't want to disturb her, so I stepped back quietly. Snakes have babies in August. I should have figured her den was near. A baby got me right above my boot."

Jack's entire face grimaced, remembering the pain. "Luckily I got only a small amount of poison. Hazards of the trade." He paused, giving me a meaningful look. "I'm so glad you're here, Mom. When I called Dad, he got here right away, disinfected the wound and gave me a shot of anti-venom."

I pulled back within my inner walls and then placed a hand on Jack's arm as if to anchor myself. "Mel is here?"

"You know snakes symbolize transformation." Jack reached for my hand and pulled it close to his chest. "Maybe this was a sign, too, like the smoke and wind and go find Mel."

He was sitting on the back stoop of the cabin. Wordlessly, he patted the spot next to him for me to sit down and then looked up with his sad, longing eyes. I worked my mouth but no sounds came out.

"You don't have to run away. We can travel whenever and wherever you want." He glanced at my bare feet, muddy from my dash to the jeep. "Even with mud between your toes. Please, just...." There was little room in his steady voice for me to refuse. He sat there aglow, his face flushed with expectation. Then I saw something in Mel's eyes that I had missed before- acceptance? understanding? He would hold on to me but not hold me back.

My heart took an unexpected turn and my entire body burned hot under his glance. I dropped my defenses like a wilting flower, for I knew then that I had come home and that factions, however incompatible at times, could merge within my soul. I extended a naked foot into the dirt, drew a magic circle there and said softly, "We could try again. Gypsies never lose their wanderlust, you know. But they do take on fellow-travelers."

- ~ -