Porajmos - The Devouring - 1
Antje has woken up early, but in her bedroom, she can already feel the heat of the sun through the heavy curtains. They seem as though they’re bulging with the weight from the other side of the window. Like the sun's rays are bursting to get in to her pretty room.
It’s late summer and the cockerel from the next door farm has crowed so regularly at this time all through the season that Antje barely notices its sound anymore; but still somewhere in her mind, it’s her alarm clock. She gets out of bed, opens the curtains and lets the light flood her room. When she gets back into bed, she remembers, as she has every morning in the last week, that her mother isn’t at home.
The thought makes her sad. Sad for her grandmother, who her mother says is not likely to get better this time. And sad that her mother is all those miles away in Berlin, sitting at her mother’s bedside, waiting for something to happen. It occurs to Antje that she misses her mother as much as her mother will miss hers when she’s gone.
There’s a knock at her door and she’s surprised and so pleased to see her father walk in, carrying a tray full of breakfast things. He’s carrying it carefully, balancing the crockery and the bread, the coffee pot and the slices of meat. It’s wonderful and strange to see him there and she giggles with delight at it. He puts the tray down at the end of the bed and comes over to kiss her.
“Good morning, my little sweet pea. The sun is shining and it’s a beautiful day.”
Antje moves her head to look into his face and she sees he looks tired. She wants to hug him and keep him safe with her. She doesn’t want him to go off to work again in other countries that she can’t imagine, with people she doesn’t know and has no picture of.
“You’ll stay with me today, won’t you Papa?” she says.
“Today, my little Antje”, he replies, “we will have lunch together and dinner too. I’ll even be here at bedtime; and we’ll have milk and cake and we’ll tell stories and sing songs until the moon settles down to sleep. You’re a big girl now you’re seven and I’m sure you can stay up later than the moon!”
Antje smiles and snuggles into the stiffness of his uniform. Then together, they begin breakfast and while they eat, there is only the happy sound of the clinking of cups, the scraping of plates and the brushing of crumbs off the counterpane.
When they’re finished, her father picks up the tray and leaves the room, saying he’s got to work for a while, but that he’ll be back with her by lunchtime. Antje nods her head solemnly, already missing his huge smile and how smart he looks with the colourful braid on his collar. The crease of his trousers and the shine of his boots.
As usual, when Ina woke up, it took her a few seconds for her to realise where she was. If the truth be told, even when she realised, she wasn’t sure where this was, actually was. All she really knew was that it wasn’t where they’d ever been before. It wasn’t in their caravan, it wasn’t in any of the towns they moved around, it wasn’t outside in the fresh, warm air.
It was only this place and it was cramped and dark and it smelt horrible. And Ina missed the sun. It never seemed to reach this place, although she knew it was still there - as a sliver at least - through the room’s small, high window.
Her mama wasn’t with her any more. The last time she’d seen her was a long time ago on the narrow strip of ground outside the building her and her dada were now in. A man in a uniform had sent her mama one way through a tall, metal gate and she had gone through another metal gate in to the building where they were now. Ina had cried as her mama had left her, but her mama mouthed to her to be brave and she was trying her best not to let her down.
As her mama had turned away, Ina had caught sight of the swell of her belly and she hoped she would see her again soon enough to see the new baby when it came.
So, she was here with her dada. In bunk beds, three on top of each other - her dada on the bottom bunk, Ina on the middle one and a man she didn’t know sleeping above her. She felt quite scared of the man on the top bunk. He seemed old and sad and at night, sometimes he cried out in his sleep and woke Ina up.
Every morning since they’d been wherever they were, her dada would ask her to come down from her bunk and he would sit her on his knee and talk to her, while they waited for the men in uniforms to open the door and take them into the bigger room.
“It’s alright, little Ina”, he’d say. “It’s alright”. But she saw how tired and thin he looked and like the old man in the bunk above her, she’d heard him cry out in the night.
The room they were in had lots of other people in it too and it seemed either far too hot or freezing cold. The rough blanket she had as a cover neither warmed her nor comforted her, so her dada’s large hands around her middle, when she sat on his knee in the morning, felt the best part of the day.
And while he spoke to her, Ina remembered her life before this time. With her mama and dada and her uncles and aunties. In the open air, under the shifting sky, forever moving. And she remembered the music and the dancing. One picture that kept coming back to her was of her mama when they were camped by a lake, just outside Garbsen. It had been a warm day and they’d been travelling for hours; so when they stopped and set up camp, everyone was happy.
They’d made their campfire and eaten, and as the sky saw the sun set, the singing had begun. Ina and the other little ones had jigged alongside their families, round and round, laughing and dizzy. Her mama had come out of their caravan and sat on its steps. Ina’s uncle Nicu was playing guitar and her mama began to sing along with his melody. It was an old song called Dorogoy Dlinnoyu and Ina could remember the words well.
They were riding in a troika with bells
And in the distance there were glimmering lights
I’d rather go now with you my dears
I’d rather distract my soul from yearning.
Along a long road on a moonlit night
And with that song that flies away with a jingle jangle
And with that ancient seven stringed guitar
That tortured me so much at nights.
Her mama had looked so far away as she was singing and Ina remembered she could see the camp fire reflected in her mama’s eyes.
But the fire and the memory faded when her dada brought Ina back to the place they were in now.
“Stop thinking about brigaki djilia, the songs of sorrow, my Ina. No good will come of it”, he said, as the men in uniforms opened the door to their room and they went out into the other room for breakfast.
If it could be called that, thought Ina, sipping on the thin, herbal tea in the metal mug. As her dada produced a piece of bread from yesterday’s dinner and put it in front of her, she noticed a rat running under the long table and into a hole in the room’s wet, wooden floor.
She wanted to share the bread with her dada; but he shook his head and so she began eating it, thinking that one day, she would be gone from the world - they all would - and that would be that.
“Wake up, Antje, wake up”. She’s fallen asleep under the trees in their garden, after the biggest of picnics. She feels so sleepy and full as her father gently shakes her awake.
The remains of the picnic are still spread out in front of them on the big, checked cloth. Eggshells, crusts of bread, the rind of the ham, cake crumbs and apple skin. They’ve had such fun together. Before they ate, they played hide and seek in the garden and she’d tricked her father when she hid behind one of the tall, golden sunflowers at the edge of the vegetable patch.
“Where are you, my little Antje?” he’d called. “I can’t see you anywhere. So she’d jumped out on him and he said he’d never had a bigger surprise in the whole of his life.
Then they’d eaten and napped under the apple trees, their branches still in the windless, perfectly blue sky.
When she sits up, her father is wrapping up the cloth and everything on it into the wicker picnic basket. Antje thinks that if her mother was here, she would have sorted everything into separate piles and compartments, but that’s not for her father. She notices him put one of the remaining strawberries in his mouth and it squishes out of the edges of his lips, so it looks like the blood on his face that he sometimes gets when he’s cut himself shaving.
Outside, Ina was watching her dada dig the trench at the back of the building. With the other children, she was watching the men as they chopped their spades into the ground, filled them up with the dark soil and emptied them on to the piles behind them.
Some of the children were older than Ina and some were a lot younger. But whatever age they were, they stood closely together in one group, as though they were protecting themselves, but from what Ina didn’t know. The sun was shining out here, but it wasn’t the sun that Ina had known from before. This sun was glaring and white and it made her feel sad when she looked up at it in the lilac coloured sky.
Another thing that was different here was the silence. No one at all spoke – not the men digging, or the children watching, or the men in uniforms standing with their guns. Ina thought she missed noise – in her life before, it was always there – on the road, in the camps and in their caravans. The crying and laughing and chatter of her people.
When she heard a man’s cry, she looked round and saw her dada had fallen forwards over his spade and was lying on the ground. She didn’t think and ran from the group of children to help him, but she was stopped instantly by one of the men in uniforms.
“Get back you gypsy bitch. Lazy bastards have to pick themselves up.”
And she watched as her dada slowly stood up and continued digging. Watching him, Ina thought that even with his dirty skin and hollow eyes, her dada was still so handsome.
Later, as they were queuing for their watery soup, Ina saw the sweat still there in droplets on his forehead and the purple bruise on the side of his face.