A Gypsy’s Book of Revelation

Picture number one: I lay in a box and rest. Forever. I thought western science would find some clever way to dispose of my body. It turns out western science doesn’t attend to the dead, and so I end up impaled on the horns of a dilemma like Manolete on the horns of a bull: I rot or I get burned; either way I end up in a container. Whether this or the other has been the subject of many late-night talks with my daughter Yelena: Well, Mamita, you can’t have it both ways. “Why not?” I say, because “Why not?” is in my blood — or was. In the end I choose fire because I can be burnt in their midst, and rotting is a lonely enterprise.

It turns out western science doesn’t attend to the dead, and so I end up impaled on the horns of a dilemma like Manolete on the horns of a bull: I rot or I get burned…

Picture number two: The crematorium is a plain building painted in white. The whiteness of it makes my children squint their eyes under the noon sun. I am not driven in a hearse; I am walked there; my box held high on their shoulders. It hits me that dead bodies are walked just like dogs are walked, depending on our beloved for just a sniff of air. Luckily, it wouldn’t occur to my children to drive me through the crematorium any more than through a coffee shop or a pharmacy. We’re not a drive-through people and we’re late.

We squish together through the bare wooden door that’s doubled to accommodate boxes like mine. Behind us, a man who doesn’t belong gets in, but no one pays attention. The service is about to begin and I am ready.

Picture number three: My children watch the man reading the lines I wrote for them. They’re very surprised. I didn’t tell them I could write, and they always assumed I was illiterate. They wouldn’t even know I could use such word as “illiterate.” “Mamita!” “Who would have thought!” I can read on their foreheads. Well, little ones, I learned. Why not?

I don’t visualize the reader, only the vague outline of a light-skinned man. Confirmed he’s not one of us; the man is a Gadjo.

I can hear his voice with clarity. It makes the music of a train, which is the kind I want to hear when I’m gone. He’s trying hard, like he should. From my casket I can smell his fear building up as he reads — fear that we will kidnap and steal his children, fear that we have magical powers. Fear makes him good. The man is reading for his life. Who could do a better job?

Picture number four: All of my children have dressed up for the occasion. My boys got their hair gelled and neatly combed back. I can see traces of the comb, like narrow trenches ploughed on their heads. They’re not light on the gel; it’s tradition, something that cannot be shampooed easily. It doesn’t matter that I don’t like it, that I like their hair unruly and puffy on their skull. I don’t get to be picky, even for my cremation. It’s a package. What I have is a choice of perspective; I can open my brain to different angles of the room and outside of it. If perspective is something I can still have, then I don’t mind those images.

I see their eyes darted on the white man. He stumbles on my lines; he coughs in his fist to regain confidence. They’re toying with him as much as I’m toying with them. It’s a danse macabre, and we’re a people of good dancers. Everybody knows that.

Even if my vision is one I have cooked up inside my dead body, it is just as unpixelated as a live performance. I have cleaned up the time between my children and me. I have swept leftover vital space on my broom. Everything is as real as the small wrinkles on my children’s foreheads. I have nailed my box and picked the crematorium. It is not too far and not too close.

Gypsy with a Cigarette
(Oil on canvas, 92.0 x 73.5 cm)
BY Édouard Manet
Princeton University Art Museum

Picture number five: people in the city get to see the smoke. It rises to the north like the vertical contrails of an airplane. It is not me yet; I am not in it. It comes from the ever-alight hearth, the furnace temperature now gradually ascending to a boiling climax. Despite the stiffness, my body is full of water, and it will take a lot of heat to vaporize it all. In a few minutes I will shoot upward, and once again I realize that it is a one-way trip I’ve taken. I don’t mind this, actually. I am quite pleased with the rocket-launch departing. We are a traveling people, and I am no exception.

The crematorium is not far from our encampment. The Gadjo tells my children they will have to move once this is done. I don’t want them under the sky I will occupy. I need to rest and they need to live.

A few miles away, a wanderer asks his friend who in their right mind has lit a fire in the midst of August.

Stranger: I am not in my right mind and no longer in the right body. If anything, I have earned the right to insanity, and it took me a lifetime.

Picture number six: I asked the Gadjo to hold my hand as he addresses them. This was a sidenote to my speech, scribbled in the margin. I wasn’t sure he would get it. As a matter of fact, I was quite certain he would ignore it but he doesn’t. It turns out the Gadjo is a dutiful man. I can see clearly that he does this with no heart but a lot of guts. Try holding the hand of an unknown corpse as you read their last words, and tell me about it…

In a few minutes I will shoot upward, and once again I realize that it is a one-way trip I’ve taken. I don’t mind this, actually. I am quite pleased with the rocket-launch departing. We are a traveling people, and I am no exception.

If I were still alive, the feel of his hand would arouse me. There is nothing more exciting than the touch of a reluctant body. No age for this. Given time and space to repent for my fornication, I repent not. I make the Gadjo say that, and his white skin turns bright red. An awkward silence has fallen from the ceiling, and an angel is passing through the room. I wonder whether the angel is the cause or the effect of the silence. I can never tell those things.

In any case my children are starting to have a good time; I can see Fonso’s sinuous lips lifting slightly upward at the very tip. He’s resisting it. You can do it, Fonso, hang in there. My son. In the last row Zolfina is tilting her head down and placing a rangy hand over her mouth. I could spot her miles away. And in the middle of them, Sara is holding her stomach with both hands.

Damn. I wasn’t going to make them laugh — or at least not until I had thrown some good advice in their heads.

Picture number seven: My baby brother just lit a cigarette. There are no smoking signs on every door and every wall, but Alfredo doesn’t read. I wish I could smoke. I really want to roll myself one. Smoking is very high on the list of the things I miss. If I smoked now, the tip of my cigarette would make little loops in the air like it does in front of Alfredo’s face. No one asks him to stop. Alfredo is not one to be stopped. He’s too big and too scary for that. Asking Alfredo to stop would be like standing on the railroad tracks and putting your hands forward as the train comes.

If I hadn’t forgotten to ask him in my speech, Alfredo would walk forward, disentangle my hand from the Gadjo’s, and give me a puff. He would whisper in his deep raspy voice: Here you go, sister, here you go.

Incidentally, I died from smoking. I take it as definitive proof that there is an order to all things. I had been waiting for cancer for so long, I couldn’t possibly leave without it. So take me, God, but please take my tobacco along for the ride. And don’t forget the paper.

God, who in the meantime has crept up next to the Gadjo, acknowledges. He always does. Of all things, He’s pretty good at that.

It’s not so much what I told them. It’s the mere fact that I had it in me to talk to them, that I chose a stranger to do it, that the stranger did a much better job than any of them, that I am their stranger, that I am their mother, that I am their strange mother: Mamita extraña.

Picture number eight: the Gadjo is done with the reading. I can tell he’s exhausted.

He is a man who, within the walls of a crematorium, has swayed madly upward like those inflatable figures on the side of the highway. For the first time I notice he has bushy eyebrows. I always assumed he wouldn’t really have a face. He has a face after all, and one I can see clearly through the hole of time. I don’t mind. It is not a bad face. Just a face with bushy eyebrows, which is now looking down at me.

They all follow his example.

They gather around the box and they lean over. Emilian lifts one of the golden coin off my eyes and checks me out. He sees my eyelids closed, perhaps for the first time. I never let them see me asleep; I kept my bedroom door locked at night. A sleeping mother is a monster.

But now they look and they can’t seem to get enough of me. It is very hot in the room. It is small and crowded and not very well insulated from the furnace. My children don’t mind the heat; they buzz around like flies — all trying to elbow their way up to me. I am not interested in what they see of me. I don’t want to know whether the mortician did a good job.

Picture number nine: I couldn’t avoid that one. Along with all of them, I take a good look at myself and it’s not pretty. My chin especially, it is receding. I cannot hold it in any natural way under my mouth. I don’t have any holding capacity. You’d think stiffness would help but it really doesn’t, quite the opposite. My chin hangs low under my face as from a broken string. In my lifetime I have been accused of many crimes but definitely not a receding chin. They could have tied a kerchief around my head as for a raging toothache but they didn’t. I hate to have this closing image carved into them, the everlasting shot: Mamita with the floppy chin.

What’s worse is the softness of tissues, the idleness. Apathy is the word; I have no passion left in my skin. I am deflated; I am a sagging woman. Perhaps I should embrace the sweetness of the void, like one accepts sleep. No matter. Acceptance of a slothful skin coat is not in me, never has. Some things never change. Please get me out of my sight.

But they won’t hear me. Not after what I told them through the Gadjo. My words have opened hidden furrows in their skin, and they’re getting all fusional on me. It’s not so much what I told them. It’s the mere fact that I had it in me to talk to them, that I chose a stranger to do it, that the stranger did a much better job than any of them, that I am their stranger, that I am their mother, that I am their strange mother: Mamita extraña.

Picture number ten: In one corner, someone called the Master of Ceremonies is trying to raise the curtain to the furnace. Only the curtain is no more than a garage door, and something is wrong with the opening mechanism. It’s gripped. The screen only opens halfway. It makes funny noises. It sounds like the gurgles of a giant with really bad stomach flu. It is stuck half shut and half open. The dramatic effect is completely missed, and I am so relieved that the attention of my children has drifted away from my face. For a few minutes it is total chaos. The MC is desperately pushing on the buttons of the panel next to the screen. Alfredo is beside him, which would drive anyone to the edge under the circumstance.

Les roulottes, campement de bohémiens
aux environs d’Arles
, 1888
(Oil on canvas, 45 × 51 cm)
BY Vincent Van Gogh
Musée d’Orsay

I love this moment.

My children start to unwind from their torpor; they engage in small talks across the room. This is recess. They enjoy the intermission. I am not entirely gone yet, and they have some time to kill. A facetious spirit drifts among them, and they wonder whether it is mine — a simple non-talking me who decided to linger with them a little while longer. I just had to press pause and they’re free.

I can tell because they do things without thinking, things a bit unthinkable next to my dead body. Fonso picks his nose and rolls on the coarse texture between his thumbs; Sara kisses her girlfriend on the mouth; Zolfina twists Emilian’s hair around her long fingers. Even the Gadjo makes his fingers crack and checks his nails. Alfredo puts a friendly hand on the MC’s shoulder, who’s about to pass out.

I love this moment.

Two technicians materialize out of nowhere, and they start working on the curtain.

Unnumbered Picture: They’ve fixed it. Two undertakers start sliding me into the hole. The MC puts on music, something classical. Taaa-taa-di-daah. Taaa-taa-di-daah. It is holy music, if holy is the adjective for full of holes. It trickles out of four speakers hidden in the ceiling. The music pours out of a machine, it is recorded and served cold; unmistakably dead like me.

At first, none of them seem to notice. It is so completely off. I have this weird feeling in my center that my children are dead too, that all of my people are dead. We’re all zombies walking the surface of the earth, capable of stomaching dead music for our dead; perhaps we’ve been dead all along, we’ve just lived in the pretense of life. That’s a new perspective. A perspective I hate as much as the notes regurgitated from Hell’s studios into this room. I am already halfway into the furnace; one more push and they’ll close the rickety screen on me.

Then Fonso’s accordion takes over, and the road is in the room, not just a few yards of it that you’d believe is all that could fit in the crematorium: the whole entire thing — all the road our people ever traveled.

Alfredo is the first to move. He goes to the MC and murmurs something into his ear. I’ve never seen Alfredo murmur anything to anyone. Whatever it was, his new buddy the MC makes the holy music stop.

They also make me stop on my orbit to the boiler; the undertakers stop; everything stops. No one beeps. They’re all in waiting. Me too.

The first note from Emilian’s violin hits us like a banderilla, and something inside us is starting to bleed. Yelena’s haunted voice gushes straight out of her core and pours salt on our wound. Later, Zolfina’s banjo tries to mend us from them both with a few stringy tricks, and she prevails for a few measures. Then Fonso’s accordion takes over, and the road is in the room, not just a few yards of it that you’d believe is all that could fit in the crematorium: the whole entire thing — all the road our people ever traveled. The room is cut deep in the middle, and we are all falling. My children’s music is sliding forever, and they push me onto the burner because it is time. I am burning in a room full of noises that capsize into one another.

The Gadjo is crying.

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