Qristina Zavačková Cummings

Appropriation of My Death
Trin giljutnja – three poems

1. Appropriation of my Death


Poppy seed buns
lined on the window ledge
dusted with snow
like a fine
of flour.

Te del o Del te merav.

We used to boil the water,
after the bones.

Don’t look back.

Aj, keci joj si šukar.

Don’t look at the flames,
licking the window ledge
tasting the poppy
seeds and snow.

Kaj džasa?

Aven ke ame.

Don’t shake
on it.

Don’t touch the flames,
or the buns
turning brown
in the puddles
melted snow.

2. Džav avri andal e melodija

I’ve lost the melody.
I’ve lost the way.

ljikerdžom melodjija …

I carried the tune.
Like a burden.

Shuffled steps,
flared skirts.

amen khelas.

I’ve lost the melody.
I’ve lost the way.

andal šundjom bašaviben

I heard music from inside.
I carried the tune.

Like a burden.

Shuffled steps,
Flared skirts.

3. Fall

I carry my ancestor’s bones on my tongue.
Chipped and broken
they clatter against my teeth,
leaves in the wind
of my speaking.

Pajtrarel man,
mukhel man te tasavel.

I carry my ancestor’s ashes in the
pale palms of my hands
so many small specks
of great big lives;

or is it dust from the roads
we are forced to walk
generation after

Mud clinging to our feet
and our souls

and our tongues.

I carry the flowers of our memories
guillotined and gathered
in my arms;

each pristine petal
stretched out across
the sky like a
cadaver's skin.

I carry my ancestor's bones on my tongue.
Each word rising
and falling from my lips

full of marrow
and ashes
and mud
and petals.

Mad Women and Strong Women

I was born on the sweet breath of some spring morning near Bardejov in Slovakia, squalling and pink. The actual day is up for debate, my birth day unregistered for six weeks. My first days were spent swaddled and hidden as we travelled through Europe, back to the UK where, despite frequent dislocation, roots had begun to grow. Surrounded by strong women, mad women, and women whose names I would never know, I slumbered steadily, wrapped in romanija like a blanket.

My family were a chaotic miasma of sound and colour. Like an ever-overflowing pitcher, we spilled out of our houses and cars in noisy pools, children flitting like the finger-sized fish we caught in the burn. I don’t remember birthday parties, except one – my first and last – when I turned five years old. Maami Babka said it was to celebrate me making it all the way to five. Not all our babies were as lucky, even then, and family came in from all over to celebrate – aunts, uncles, cousins, everyone. At the time, I was confused as to why we were celebrating me. Normally we celebrated Saints, or family days, but rarely a birthday as no one knew for sure when they were born. My siblings and I were the first to have birth certificates in our family. At some point later, my parents got them, so they could get passports, little books framing their unsmiling faces like mugshots.

When I think about my family, I’m torn in so many different directions. All at once they were so many things – Romani, Slovak, Polish, British, loud, strong, angry, beautiful, frightening, traumatized, trapped... and the older I grew, the more I realized, they were also a stereotype.

Sometimes, I think, stereotypes are something people hide themselves inside, like a matryoshka doll. Layer after layer until they all blend together and you’re the very thing you fought all your life against.

My father, he was like that.

What can I say? Those photos you see of “Gypsy Men”? Yeah, that was my dad. He was a strong man, both in physique and in intellect. He was wily and cunning. He was quick-tempered and hot-headed. Unsmiling and stern. He was also a bad drunk. The kind whose anger was fueled by the searing whiskey in his belly. He had a round, brown face and wore a mustache, his black hair close-cropped. His mother, Maami Babka was also alcoholic; her mind trapped by memories of the curling black smoke of the Holocaust and the cries of the children she lost to hunger, disease, and fear. Papu Frančišek was silent. Stoic. Harsh but fair. If you did something to deserve it, he’d beat you black and blue; but he’d make sure he was tanning the right hide. He drank too. Often, afternoons were spent around the fire, Papu and Maami drinking vodka secreted in teacups, telling stories of šerdzenja, forest monsters, the foolish but brave princes who fought them, and the magic that surrounded us.

Our lives were divided equally between chaos and order; between being proud and being ashamed.

Somehow, my family embodied all of it – a people without a past and without a future; a people at once thieves and vagabonds and mystical, mythical creatures; not all of us settled, not all of us of the same moral bearing as those we lived among, and all of us illiterate or largely uneducated. Great grandfather Vraski still had a (beautiful “Burton”) wagon and horse when I was little. Hmara was the colour of an angry spring sky – light and dark grey swirling together, a flash of lighting white down her nose. Clopping along country lanes I understood why they didn’t want to live in the little boxes their children did, even if none of this had been their choice. I had uncles who were frequently arrested; cousins who were kicked out of school; brothers who beat their wives and children. I had parents who were alcoholic, disconnected, and indifferent. I was taught to be a “good” wife and mother. I was betrothed at age twelve to a boy who promised to “keep me in line.”

We were both insiders and outsiders. People longed for our “simple, country, nomadic” lifestyle, yet when we were forced to settle in towns and cities, we were feared and reviled. This “national narrative” belonged as much to us as it did to outsiders. For my fajta and my family, this narrative and our history included themes of migration, exclusion, and cultural trauma. However, it was a history largely shrouded in silence, as if Hitler had exterminated our past as he tried to eradicate our future. My family were cocooned inside themselves, all trapped within a repeating pattern of upheaval, suffering, and oppression, held together by tradition and language.

A tradition of silence. A language of loss.

A language like a flock of magpies, gathering up glittering orbs of curiosity along the way, zmrzlina, škola, Indija ... foreign words drawn close to our hearts and sewn into the blanket of our lives. To Maami Babka, words were like water – essential. Labelled a “witch” for her fortune-telling abilities, she revelled in taking a few coins to tell someone what they already knew. It was easy to read them, she told me. Their eager, nervous faces, wedding rings, key chains, or smooth unruffled hands all gave her knowledge of the right words to throw down like old, dry bones.

“Magic,” she said, “is only in the words, in the naming.” In fact, in our dialect the word for magic is akhaljiben, which is related to the word akharel – to call, name, invite. Maami Babka told me that names were everything. She had a song she sang about the naming of the world and all who rode his rhythm. She told me that I had many names: a Romani or true name that none but my family should know; a use-name that was mine to wear every day; a nickname, usually based on some physical characteristic; and a non-Romani name that would be on my birth certificate and was to be used outside.

Gypsy Magic” doesn’t exist at all. Really, it’s a collection of words and the breaths lying naked between them.

When I was a little girl, Bibi Lemija, Maami Babka, and sometimes Bibi Leena would take us kids up the back of the council houses to the low moor, by the “Wash Burn” (so named because it was used for washing). We’d pick mushrooms, berries, and build a small fire. It was common land back then, for anyone to use. Sometimes you’d see a couple horses and wagons, though over the years they disappeared too. Sometimes as we walked Maami would stop and address a particular flower and bend low to inhale its breathy scent. As a young child, I’d copy her, muttering half-formed words to bent flower heads, half hoping that they’d whisper back. She told me that each flower, each tree, even each leaf had a name of its own and you could only talk to them if you knew who they were. As a child it was magical to hear her address the big solid oak at the end of the burn as “Baro Peřořo” (big little belly), because of the sunken, narrowed shape of his trunk, and to imagine the wind creaking through his ancient branches was his gentle breath.

Walking with a horse and wagon you get used to the land and the sky as they breathe in and out, sleep and wake. You learn the cycles of the seasons, the stars, the patterns of nature that exist all around us. You learn the words of the forests as they gather their skirts for the coming winter’s chill. Bartering for food or work you learn the lay and the words of the people – who is likely to be supportive and who to steer clear of. Soon enough you know just by looking at how someone’s dressed, the way they walk, how they interact with the environment around them. You learn the words of the horses, how they breathe when they’re sad, or snicker, gently in your hand when they’re happy.

Our words embrace these multitudes like a mother swaddles a newborn child; our breath fills our words like sun ripens fruit and they fall, together, creating the world.

džal dromeha – walk down a path, breathe out or exhale

vodji – soul, being, breath

balvaj – wind, breath

zasirdlo – overcast, out of breath

Words; breath; life; magic

Words so held are indeed powerful, but magical? What is magic, anyway? A gentle word spoken at the right time? Righteous anger given unabashedly to those who deserve it? The chattering of a moorland burn? Or maybe the innocent, breathy first laugh of a baby?

To me? It’s my grandmother’s words, whispered on the wind into the gentle arms of a towering oak called Baro Peřořo; it hides in the skirts of all the mad women, strong women, and women with smoke in their hair and sadness in their eyes who sang our world into being.

Qristina Zavačková Cummings

Qristina Žavačková Cummings is a Romani author, educator, and activist who currently resides in South West Ohio. Born in Slovakia and raised in the North East of England, Qristina holds a Bachelor’s in International Studies and a Master’s in International Communication. Her work has most recently been published in the German-language Romani newspaper, Bachtalo. She spends most of her time running her blog and collating an online database of names and published works of Romani authors.