After six days of crossing the Atlantic, and four nights of London theater, and a sail across the English Channel, and a train to Paris for four more days of shopping, touring and dining, Gamma and Celeste were both near collapse as they trundled into a private sleeper on the overnight train to Nuremberg. Aroused in the blue-black, predawn light to change trains for the final leg of the journey to Prague, they crossed the German border into the foothills of the Bohemian Forest, where Gamma sighed deeply.
“Such green air smell!” She nudged Celeste, slumped on the seat.
“All I smell is stinky train,” Celeste muttered, rubbing her nose as she hid under her coat. “How much longer will it be?” Then fell back asleep.
As the train chugged between the rolls of her beloved mountains, Gamma vigilantly watched as the countryside unfolded its sweet arms of boughs and streams. The gradual change from hills to plain, with glimpses of the Vltava River as they meandered through her homeland, warmed her heart and fired memories all the way to Prague.
“Is time now, wake up.” Gamma shook Celeste.
Struggling and cranky, Celeste shuffled onto the platform behind Gamma, following a porter who transferred their luggage to a taxi, where she slumped again as Gamma gave directions in her native tongue and the motorcar pulled away. Seeing her granddaughter’s eyes closed, Gamma poked her. “Dítě, look and see.”
Celeste opened one eye. “What?”
“Prague in early light. We not here again this hour.” She then arched one eyebrow, and Celeste bolted upright.
Traversing through the streets, Gamma pointed out the monuments, museums and churches, the castle on the hill and all the people attending their early morning duties. Unable to follow half of what Gamma was saying, Celeste almost quipped: the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker. But she refrained from the flippancy and dutifully watched as the city awoke before her eyes in a soothing, cool wash of golden light. Soon they were in the countryside, riding in silence as the sun rose higher, banishing shadows from the few houses dotting the roadside.
“How far now?” Celeste asked, stifling a yawn. “And when can we eat?”
From her pocket, Gamma fished a dinner roll, wrapped in her hanky. “Eat this, but soon, more food than you can dream.”
As the taxi labored up a hill, Celeste heard bleating and looked out the window. “Look, Gamma, goats! Just like you said.”
“Likely your cousin, going to pasture.”
“But why go to pasture? There’s plenty of grass right there.”
“Grass, yah, but something extra they need. Remember Paris goat cheese?”
Celeste thought for a moment. “The savory sweet one?”
“Yah. Is by goats eating special things in pastures like ours.”
“Soon you see. And much more, too,” Gamma added with a mysterious nod.
The taxi suddenly turned off the road and bounced up a rutted driveway, shrouded by tall pines, until the view opened onto a field of waving grain. In the distance, they saw a cluster of thatch-roof houses.
“Are we home?” Celeste asked.
“Home we are,” Gamma answered with moist eyes.
As the taxi stopped, a whoop came from the barn and a bell rang out, followed by a swarm of dogs and people running from all directions, calling Gamma’s name. “Bertra Vojen! … Bertra Vojen! … Bertra Vojen!” were the only words Celeste understood as men, women and children of all ages rushed to greet them. Their words in a strange language tumbled past her like cartwheels of happiness as the clan clustered around, everyone talking, grabbing their bags, stroking their hair, touching their garments and pinching their cheeks. Gamma introduced Celeste to everyone, but she barely heard their names before she and Gamma were swept into the biggest house, where a table was piled with more food than Celeste had ever seen.
Gamma’s elbow nudged her. “See? Like I say.”
The aroma was intoxicating, teasing her nose with sweet and savory wafts. Without another thought, Celeste sat down and heaped a plate with sliced sausages and ham and fresh-baked bread slathered with butter and jam and a hard-boiled egg and a bowl of fresh berries doused with cream, while Gamma laughed and talked with her kin. Between bites, Celeste looked around the hearth room, as Gamma had called it. One big everything room surrounding the fireplace. She gazed across the blackened kitchen pots hanging from the rafters interspersed with bundles of drying herbs, leading her eye to the long window with a cozy seat – where she spied a cluster of needlepoint pillows and her heart leapt. Gamma’s story pillows! Warmth washed over her chest. Many were the same as they had at home, depicting the stories of Gamma’s life: her travel to America, her home in New York, their Connecticut house and Celeste’s birth. Oh, it felt good to see something familiar so far away.
Then she saw a pillow she didn’t recognize, one depicting a large green heart with a copper arrow piercing it and fat strings of tears gushing from its puncture wound. Although very much in Gamma’s style, it was unlike any Celeste had seen, and she wondered what story it told. Rising from the table, she walked toward the window seat for a closer look, when a gust of laughter erupted among her relatives. Turning, she saw Gamma holding out a package to an old woman and waving for Celeste to come.
“Celeste, meet my niece Lidia.”
Celeste blinked. The woman was much older than Gamma; at least much more wrinkly. Celeste’s confused expression made the others in the room laugh, and her face flushed hot with embarrassment.
“Yah, clear you see. Lidia older to me.”
Someone translated what Gamma said and Lidia scoffed.
“Still, she is niece,” Gamma continued. “Daughter of my eldest sister, who marry before I born.”
Celeste nodded, still a little confused, then turned and smiled sweetly at the old woman who viewed her with cold, narrow eyes.
Lidia nodded gravely as she inspected her young cousin.
“Now, she village elder. So to her we present our gift,” Gamma summarized as she handed the package to Lidia for unwrapping. Then she whispered into Celeste’s ear: “Maybe is time, you tell pillow’s story?”
Celeste blanched, shaking her head. It was too frightening to speak in front of so many people. Plus how could they understand? She spoke only English and maybe a little French. “I don’t think so,” she whispered back, then tugged at Gamma’s sleeve to ask about the crying-heart pillow. But when she turned to point it out, it had vanished. Leaving the group, Celeste looked all around the window seat but could find it nowhere.
Laughter burst out again as Gamma held up the new pillow, showing their Gladdenbury life: the creek, the church choir and their hardware store, centered around the town green. In her old language, with an exuberance of sounds Celeste had never heard before, Gamma told the story of each image. It made her feel a little homesick, and she forgot about the crying-heart pillow.
When Gamma finished, everyone applauded and began to depart, returning to their daily chores, leaving Gamma and Celeste to go up to their room, change out of their travel clothes, wash up and nap. A couple of hours later, they rose and dressed in slacks and sturdy shoes to walk about the farm.
“And the goat pasture?” Celeste reminded.
“Yah, if not too tired.”
“Oh, I’m not tired.”
But by the time they’d climbed the hill to the pasture, Celeste had to lie down in the middle of some wildflowers to catch her breath. The sweet scents enveloping her matched the delicate flowers floating around her face. “You did this everyday?”
“Um-hm, only faster; because the goats like to run.” Opening the paper sack she’d brought along, Gamma spread out a cloth napkin and placed on it cheese, bread and dried apples. “Eat some, you feel better.”
As they snacked, the sun began to wane and a light wind rustled the trees.
“You hear?” Gamma tilted her head. “Is forest name: Šumava.”
“Shoo-mava,” Celeste repeated, trying to memorize everything.
“Means: noise of trees in wind. Shooooooo-Maaaahhh-Vaaaaaa”
The sound washed over them, reminding Celeste of the ocean sucking at the sand, but soon she grew restless. “Shouldn’t we get back?”
“Ne, Over the hill we go now” Gamma answered, gathering up their picnic. “To meet old friend.”
Celeste brushed off her slacks. “A childhood friend?”
“First I know her mother – when I a young girl. And now I am friend with her daughter. Their Gypsy family come here every summer.”
“Gypsies!” Celeste interrupted. “Aren’t they bad people who rob and steal?”
“Celeste!” Gamma’s voice sharpened. “Every people have bad seed. But gypsies are feared because they are strangers, traveling place to place. My friend and her family come to Šumava every summer, long before I born. I meet her here, this very pasture, and learn much things. Things no one else could say.”
Gamma squeezed Celeste’s leg. “Like you coming to us, four years before you born.”
Celeste face twisted. “Like a witch?”
“Ne,” Gamma shook her head. “Not spells. She has gift of Second sight, of prophecy, as does her daughter, who now we go to see. To hear story of our ancestors. The first Bohemians.”
“Why don’t you tell me that?”
“Because you hear better this way. Like London theater.”
Celeste giggled nervously.
“And dítě, listen well, for her talk is odd, but truth she tell.” Gamma said, standing and tucking the paper sack under her belt, then picked up her walking stick and led Celeste across the field. As they marched along, she pointed out the thistle and laurel and lavender that made the goat’s cheese taste so nice.
Down a hill and across a stream and up the other side they walked as the sky darkened, giving Celeste a creepy feeling, until she saw a glow at the top of the path. Scuttling to catch up with Gamma, Celeste took her hand as they approached a circle of wagons. Gamma paused and yelled:
“Hooo Ahhhh!” Then nudged Celeste to sidle between two wagons into a clearing where a roaring bonfire danced.
“Hooo Ahhhh!” A gypsy woman answered, whirling her skirt as she came toward the sweet-faced adolescent and white-haired woman entering their camp. Nodding respectfully to the older woman, the gypsy grasped the girl’s chin, pulling her close and peering into her face before exclaiming: “Ahh, yes. The cut of jaw, the lifted cheeks, the kind-filled eyes – is Vojen clan.”
As twilight faded, the gypsy led Celeste and Gamma to the campfire, pointing to a log for them to sit on, then clapped the air, bangles clashing down both arms, bidding her family to join them. “Brothers, sisters, come quick! As prophesized by our great Madre’ – God rest her soul – to our hearth the young one has arrived. From across the ocean she come, to learn her spirit roots. Behold – the beauty of Madre’s vision – sixteen years from birth.”
The gypsy gazed at Celeste and then Gamma. Two peas in a pod, sharing a pale, round shape with high, ruddy cheeks and liquid blue eyes, one skin smooth and luminous, the other softly folded and powdered bright. As long shadows closed out the forest, the gypsy knelt, snatching a handful of dirt and raising it to the darkened sky. “Oghma, Celtic God of Wisdom, tonight I beseech you: Silver my lips with your gift of words that I might persuade this young heart to hear and feel the story of her kin, upon whose great land we now sit.”
Flinging open her hand, she slashed dirt into the fire, where it spit and snapped, doubling the flames’ height. Startled, Celeste jumped in her seat, spontaneously clapping until Gamma gently squeezed her hands quiet. Turning their attention back to the gypsy, they saw her standing alongside the fire, her arms lifted high, pointing long bony fingers as she spoke. “Is story of long ago, before the rise of Greece or fall of Rome. Before the birth of Mohammed, Buddha or Christ. Before words were written or candles lit the night. Of a time after the icy north’s fingers withdrew their grip and left upon this land a magic dust.”
With her lithe body in colorful garb, only gray streaks in the gypsy’s raven hair gave any hint of her age. Prowling the campfire with pursed lips, she arched a bushy eyebrow at Celeste. “And south from here, in the land between rivers, this icy dust made a valley fertile. A hearty loam with minerals that proffered many crops: wheat, barley, sesame and flax. When news of this abundance spread, to that basin many tribes flocked for the promise of fruit and bread. To Mesopotamia the masses flew, and among them a noble group: the people of your ancient heart – the Celtic tribe of Boii.”
A flash of recognition crossed Celeste’s face as she looked to Gamma, who nodded and closed her eyes.
Spinning around the fire, her bangles tinging furiously, the gypsy suddenly dropped onto the log beside her startled young visitor. “Your people, the Boii, journeyed to find a home to live in harmony. To grow crops and raise families and honor the divine Goddess from whom all goodness flowed.”
Standing in the shadowy edge of the campfire, a younger gypsy girl swayed, with a ruddy-faced baby on her hip. With narrowed eyes and pouting lips she scowled at her mother’s embellished delivery of the old Bohemian tale.
“Like many people of the time, the Boii were in need of new earth to call their own. Roaming south to east to north to west, with every sense awake, they watched for signs of what direction they should take.”
“What kind of signs?” Celeste interrupted in a clear voice.
Gamma’s eyes flew open as the gypsy replied.
“Oh, there are many kinds. Signs crawl below and fly above. A whispering breeze on the back of your knees. A fallen tree blocking your way. A prickle of skin when someone walks by, or a burning ear at the sound of a lie. Everywhere signs are waiting to be seen or heard or felt. Signs of change, signs of comfort, signs to snap alert. A tall, white bird standing in the creek told us of your birth long before your grandmother’s letter reached our hearth.”
The baby’s sudden cry turned the older gypsy toward the girl, visible by the fire’s glow, her eyes seething and defiant. With a flip of her hand, the older gypsy dismissed her daughter and fussing grandchild and returned her attention to their guests around the fire.
“Following the signs, the Boii were led; first to that Mesopotamian fertile basin between the Rivers Tigris and Euphrates. But instead of harmony and health, the Boii found a valley distressed. Crowded with camps and quickly sprouting cities, bloated with people shouting in strange tongues and with scheming kings, demanding their will be done. Under such confines, the Celtic spirit withers, so the Boii moved on. To the north, along mountains they climbed, then west across vast open steppes until at last they come to this grassy plain, flanked by rivers and mountain forests. Only then did they feel the ‘Ahhh’ in their breast, confirming the land where their hearts could rest.”
Celeste interrupted once again. “Excuse me, but how could they know?”
“Know what?” The gypsy asked sharply.
“Their heart’s call?” Celeste asked, her rounded eyes sincere.
With chin in hand, the gypsy looked over the girl’s head into the eyes of Gamma, who smiled benignly, lifting her eyebrows in return. The gypsy shrugged, but felt a brief quiver in her chest. “Is simple. In each heart lies the code for what your spirit seeks.”
Celeste sat up taller, slightly raising her hand. “But what does it sound like?”
The gypsy grunted as she rose from the log, crashing one bangled arm against the other. “No single sound, but to all - it feel the same. In here -” The gypsy tapped her chest as her voice trembled. “Where you feel - the sound of Yes.”
Around the campfire, the other gypsies stomped in agreement as Celeste smiled weakly, glancing across the weathered faces.
With outstretched arms the gypsy whirled. “And here is where the Boii heard 'Yes.' Among the seven hills of Prague and along the River Vltava, they made their home and found their truth and freedom to raise children and grow crops and work their crafts, sharing the secret of living from the heart – for two thousand years, or more.”
A distant howling in the woods sent a shiver up Celeste’s back, but she would not unlock her eyes from the gypsy’s.
“Artisans and honest traders, the Boii were known for vivid colored threads and joyous carvings in stone, bone and metal crafts of copper, iron, tin and bronze. But for one gift the Boii were most renowned: Masters of the Story Told.
All at the campfire was very still as the gypsy spoke, save the cackling flames and wandering smoke. “A skill so great, their stories traveled well beyond these hills, on the lips of travelers to lands far away, and scribed on papyrus by ancient Greek scholars.”
Celeste’s eyes followed the gypsy pacing around the campfire three times, then standing still, looking to the sky. In a loud whisper, Celeste dared to ask: “Then why did they leave?”
Without moving a hair, the gypsy replied: “Jealousy. Envy. Greed. Man’s worst enemies.” She glared at the girl for a moment before softening. “Fifty years before the Christ was born, a sulking unrest crept across these lands with swords, battles and bloodshed by marauding barbarians, hired by Caesar to vacate the land. Feeling the discontented winds, the Boii built fortified walls for protection, but was not enough against a sudden assault by warriors who savagely killed every Boii they could find. Those who survived scattered west and south, toward France, Spain and Italy and perhaps farther still. But it is said, on this land, a handful remained, tucked safely away until quiet returned.”
Sitting taller, Gamma pushed back her shoulders and raised her head, eyes dancing with pride. Celeste looked at her and quietly mouthed: “Us?” Gamma nodded as the gypsy strutted around the campfire.
“As quickly as they came, the barbarians left, and save the pocket of Boii safe in these northern forests, the rest of the land lay fallow for many years until, from the east came the Slavic clans, who embraced the remaining Boii and lived peacefully alongside.”
The gypsy slowed her pace, stopping in front of Gamma and Celeste. “Through it all, the Bohemian spirit thrived, and in 600 A.D., when the Bohemian-Slavic mix rose to claim this land as their own, they named it Bohemia – Home of the Boii - and thus it remained, no matter what kingdom rose or fell, for thirteen hundred years, until … until …”
“After war, was no more,” Gamma spoke in an icy voice.
Roiling her hands in pained discomfort, the gypsy silently invoked the smoky fire and wind to wash from her heart the final, soothing words. “Yes, is so. Our Bohemia is forever gone but not the Bohemian Heart. For in these trees and soil the bohemian spirit still soars, passed by blood from grandmother to son to daughter and further still to children soon begotten. And with its people flung across the world, the Bohemian spirit thrives in distant lands, through all those who seek truth in the wisdom of their heart.” The gypsy abruptly turned to address her tribe, while pointing to Celeste. “And from the loins of this Vojen girl, a great Bohemian spirit will rise and travel forth, teaching many more the true wisdom that lies within each chest.”
Suddenly exhausted, the gypsy twirled three times, clapped her hands and ended the story. Without another word, she clasped Gamma’s and Celeste’s hands and escorted them to the camp’s edge, where she stroked Celeste’s hair and kissed her forehead. Then gazing deeply into Gamma’s eyes, she raised her arm and shook her many copper bracelets before selecting six and offered them to her. As the bracelets exchanged hands, the Gypsy murmured something to Gamma that Celeste could not hear, and with a final nod, she abruptly left, leaving her honored guests to be guided home under her brother’s safe care.
The old gypsy slowly climbed her wagon’s steps and pushed open the door, where she found her sullen daughter sprawled on the bed with her baby suckling her breast. Swiftly the gypsy grabbed the girl’s arm and hissed. “Daughter, you are disgraced by your tantrum tonight. The campfire is now yours to tell the nightly tale, but this night was my destiny and right, prophesied by my mother two decades prior. To tell the Bohemian Tale you so despise because of the Bohemian man who gave you that child. Now, you too are forever tied to Bohemian blood and one day, mark my words, it is you who must do what I did tonight: to tell the tale to the last child of our young visitor. Yet you, so hateful of all things Boii, will likely detest her on sight. But caution what I say and be wiser than today, when that true Bohemian arrives - in forty years time.”