Today, as I walked in the sun on my lunch break, a cold gust of wind followed me, rustling the trees as I stepped by. I shuddered and stopped. Bibi Penella told me a story once, when I was seven, about a wind just like that.
Once long, long ago, there was a young Rom who lived with his father, mother, and brothers and sisters. No one knew how many of them lived in the small and rickety house because every space was taken up with a small face or a set of legs. Even though they were very poor, the Rom was very proud – in fact, many said he was too proud. He would always tell the biggest stories and sing the wildest and most outrageous songs. He claimed to have the most beautiful wife, the most children, and the most gold, but he would never share with his brothers and sisters. For example, one day after a boring day walking to the market and back, the Rom (his name was Pako, for obvious reasons) came panting up the road calling out for the head of the village.
“Wise grandfather!” He cried. “I met the most terrible fate on my journey today. A two headed giant! But, now I have so much gold and even more courage!”
Of course, all the children gasped and the women ushered them away, knowing that it was just another Pako story. No one but the smallest children believed him.
So, when he came pale and shaking into the village some years later, no one turned from what they were doing, not even the small children playing in the dirt.
“Oh wise women and men!” He cried, “Please listen to me! Today, while I was out with my brothers, we met with terrible luck.” Despite themselves, some of the women stopped sweeping, cleaning, cooking, and herding their children to listen to him.
“Pako! What this time? A giant? A troll? Or maybe a love-crazed horse?” His brother, Bagu chortled loudly and a couple of the women blushed and looked away.
“No my brother! It’s true, I told many stories before and many lies, but this is no story!” He proceeded to tell the ever-growing crowd about the woman he’d seen on the hill. Her hair long, black and coiled like snakes, her eyes burning like the embers of a fire. Her voice calling out. She’d disappeared into the mist, a single crow flying slowly from where she’d stood. Pako watched it go without a word. Soon he realized his brothers had not seen the woman and he started to weave a story of a mighty witch who haunted the fellside. He told of her fearsome power and her fire-filled eyes. He told of her ability to lure the hearts of men and women alike, and lead them into her trap. He shouted back over his shoulder, welcoming the woman to the village, inviting her to come and share their meal. As he continued down the road weaving his terrifying story, Pako heard many dogs barking and a cold wind started to nip at is heels, urging him to walk faster. He walked quicker and quicker, but the wind and the dog’s barking followed him. Soon he heard a rattling of chains and looked around for a post, fence, or cart but saw none. The wind whipped in the trees as he passed them by. But still, he continued his fantastic story about the beautiful witch.
Suddenly, Bagu interrupted him.
“Brother Pako! Where are the others? Why are they not with you?” Pako walked over to his brother and patted his shoulder.
“They are coming, brother. Don’t fear. I ran here quickly to tell you of the strange woman and ask if anyone had ever met such a woman before. Grandmother, do you know? Grandfather?”
Slowly, Grandmother Branjka inched her way forward, her hands shaking and feet dragging.
“Pako, dear Pako, you have done a terrible thing!” Grandmother leaned heavily on her daughters arm and shook her head gravely. “You have invited her here. The terrible one! Oh Pako! Why did you do this?” Sitting down heavily on the ground, Grandmother Branjka began to cry. “She is not a woman. She is a terrible spirit, a devil! O beng dur amendar!” As she spoke, a cold wind scuttled around the fire and crawled over bare arms. Barking dogs seemed to grow closer and children began to cry. “She will take us one by one, in the night. She can be anything and everything. This wood, this house, this child! When you drink at night from your favourite cup, you might drink from her lips. When you eat at the break of day, you may use her hands. Perhaps she is even this scarf around my head!” With that, Grandmother fell over and died. The headscarf she’d been wearing fluttered loose and danced away on the cold breeze. As for Pako’s brothers, they never returned to the village.
As Bibi Penella related the story to me, her voice had become barely a whisper. Now and then I’d hear a creak, a flutter, or the bark of a dog and it punctuated her words perfectly. She stopped here, with Grandmother Branjka’s warning and refused to tell anything more. Once, I knew the spirit’s name, but I forget now – and I’m glad of the forgetting. Some days, when the wind whips at the trees, a dog starts barking in the night, or I hear a rattle of metal, I think to this story. Bibi would sometimes scare me by asking, “what if that spoon is her?” or “what if your underskirt is her?!”
Yesterday, as the wind whipped the trees as I walked and a lone crow cawed his way by, I hastily muttered a greeting to him and walked a little faster. When I had the courage, I whispered, “O Del mi del tut lačho djives, mri kedvešni phuri daje.” – May God give you a good day, my dear Grandmother – the polite way to greet such a spirit and be assured of no harm.
Maybe I imagined it, but the trees became silent and the cold wind fell behind, leaving the sun to warm my face.