Janfri Yayal watched his house burn down without expression.
The two-story, wood-frame structure was beyond rescue. Flames leapt half its height into the night skies. Smoke erupted from windows and eaves, roiling upward like a ghost escaping the doomed flesh of its host body. A gasp came from the watching crowd as a section of roof collapsed in a shower of sparks. The firemen pulled back, all too aware of how ineffectual their efforts were at this point. Janfri’s only response was a nerve that twitched in his cheek.
The red light of the flames and the glare of the rotating beacons on the police cars and fire trucks flickered across his dark skin, highlighting the strong features set in their mask of indifference. He was oblivious to the growing crowd of thrill-seekers who jostled for position against the hastily-erected barricades that the police had set up. He watched the home he’d known for three years burning and remembered other fires. Not the cook and camp fires of his childhood, nor the pleasant crack and spit of seasoned wood burning in a stone hearth. Instead his mind thrust up memories of a man set afire and the crowd around him, jeering and laying wagers as to how long he would live. Of the wagons of his parents and grandparents and others of their kumpania burning in the night. Of the men who wore the four-armed symbol of the swastika and set countries alight with the same single-minded purpose with which they burned Gypsy wagons.
But there were no swastikas here. It was another symbol that had erased the expression from Janfri’s features. He had seen it on the wall of his home before the flames and smoke took it from his sight—a scrawl of black paint that was meaningless to the Gaje, the non-Gypsies, but that he understood with a bleak emptiness. It meant marhime. Ceremonially defiled. Unclean. It was a message from another Rom to him that there was no welcome among the Gypsies for a Rom who had become too Gaje. And yet, though he understood, he could not believe that one of his people could have done such a thing. Such a display of violence was not the way of the Rom. One who was marhime was not tolerated in the company of o phral, the true Rom. He was ostracized from every facet of Rom society, but he was not treated with violence. Or fire.
And yet…He had seen the symbol, the black paint with the excess liquid dripping from its lines like drops of blood; and who else but a Rom knew that he was one of their own? Who else but a Rom would know the secret patrin and defile the wall of his home with it?
“Jesus, John,” a voice said in hushed tones at his side. “You’ve lost everything.”
Janfri’s companion knew him as John Owczarek—one of Janfri’s Gaje names. Like all Gypsies, Janfri used and discarded names as a Gajo might a suit of clothes. Only the other Rom of his kumpania knew him as Janfri la Yayal—Janfri son of Yayal—and they were most likely to call him by his nickname, o Boshbaro, “the Big Fiddle,” for his skill on the instrument that was at this moment tucked under his arm, forgotten. To Rom who didn’t know him as well he was simply Boshengro, “the fellow who plays the fiddle.”
“I sure as hell hope you’ve got enough insurance to cover it,” Tom Shaw added. He glanced at Janfri’s face, puzzled by his friend’s lack of emotion. It had to be shock, he decided, because the stiff lack of response he saw in Janfri’s features simply didn’t jibe with the man Tom knew him to be. The John Owczarek that Tom knew was expansive in his moods, apt to gigantic joys and sorrows.
Tom stood a half head taller than his friend. He was a burly six-two, barrel-chested and meaty. Amongst the Gypsies, his size would label him as an important man, for they judged importance by size as well as other attributes. He was forty-seven this summer, which made him Janfri’s elder by two years.
“John…” he tried again, touching his friend’s arm. The wiry muscles were stiff under the light cloth of Janfri’s coat.
The Gypsy turned slowly to regard him. “Yekka buliasa nashti beshes pe done grastende,” he said softly. Forgetting himself, he spoke Romany. With one behind you cannot sit on two horses. He saw the puzzlement rise in Tom’s eyes, but made no attempt to explain. Let Tom think he spoke Hungarian. But the old saying rang all too true in his own mind. One was either Rom or Gajo. There was no in between.
“Listen, John,” Tom said. “If you want a place to stay…?”
Janfri shook his head. His dark features were pained now. A fire smoldered in the depths of his eyes that were such a dark brown they were almost black.
“There is no John Owczarek,” he said. He turned and, before Tom could stop him, disappeared into the crowd.
For a long moment Tom stood in shock. The noise of the crowd seemed to grow louder. The roar of the flames and the pushing, jostling bodies around him combined to throw off his sense of the here and now. The night was abruptly surreal, filled with strangeness and menace. A chill traveled up his spine. He stared into the crowd, trying to see what had become of his friend.
“John!” he cried. “John!”
But the night had swallowed up the man he knew as John Owczarek as completely as though he had never existed.
Copyright © 1985 by Charles de Lint