TOPIC OF THIS CONTEST WAS:
The cold wind battered the fortune teller’s wagon, threatening an early frost. The girls climbed down, simultaneously giggling and shivering about the message the old witch had delivered. As their feet pushed through the red and orange leaves, a shadow emerged from the gnarled maple trees. A bent man in tattered layers stepped in front of the girls, leaned over, and put his crooked finger to his lips…
(Entries must touch on the topic in some way to qualify.)
Every year it’s the same.
“Damn and blast that Jonah Smithson. This is his doing. Damn him to hell!”
Father, swearing in the barn again. The words delighted me. I repeated them quietly to myself, practicing for someday. He’d never have gotten away with that if Mother had been near. She’d have stopped him before the second word came out.
I spoke Father’s words again, throwing glossy-skinned acorns at Baby Levi’s window. It had been <i>my</i> window, once.
Lucky for me, Mother was still in town imploring the Most Reverend Charles Taylor to go speak with them in the gypsy camp. The ones that cursed our town. Ask their forgiveness and see if they wouldn’t just move quietly on. But Reverend Taylor was a coward, cut of the yellowest cloth, and would ask no pardon. He would not apologize for Jonah Smithson’s insult. No one would, he declared in loudest tones at the church steps.
Jonah was a God-fearing man, said the Reverend. The filthy rag-wrapped woman stuck her begging hand in his face – and what’s more, right after Sunday services. She earned that slap and more, old Reverend declared. He was presently on his knees in the church praying down hellfire and brimstone on the gypsies for cursing us.
Mother arrived home in the afternoon. She didn’t take Baby Levi down from the carriage. She wouldn’t even unhitch Mercy, who protested this with repeated whinnies.
Mother and Father argued some time behind a locked door. I could see through the window – Father waving his arms, Mother seated – trying to reason, trying to calm him. It rarely worked.
I reached into the buggy and pinched sleeping Levi. His scream ended their argument.
I heard a door-slam and Father stalked to the barn. Mother remained at the table a moment, then left the room. I heard her call me.
“‘Cilla!” That was strange. Mother wasn’t a shouter.
“Priscilla!” she called again.
I ran around to where she stood by the carriage, nursing Levi back to sleep.
“Get your wraps on. It’s cold out.”
“Are we going somewhere, Mother?”
“We are, indeed. We are buying protection.” Her face was tight and very red. I recognized that look. Mother had gotten her way.
The wind raged as we neared their camp. Dust blew up, carrying with it the orange and red leaves Mother loved to admire. She ignored them today.
The camp was surrounded by dried brown thistles, protected by thick brambles. Mother made me stay in the carriage while she called to those inside, begging to be heard out. I saw long, strong sticks emerge, holding back the bushes and Mother entered what seemed to be an enclosed village.
Before an hour had passed, the sticks returned and mother stepped forth. I strained to look inside. The rounded door of a red gypsy wagon was closing, a piped, wrinkled woman on the stoop watching Mother leave. I am not sure why, but I was not surprised when the gypsy woman nodded at me as I stared.
Mother, on the other hand, would not even look my way. She jumped into the wagon, tucking up her long skirts away from the wheels, checked the sleeping Levi in the back and cracked her whip. We dashed homewardly.
Or we would have done so, had not a very drunken Jonas Smithson stumbled into the road ahead of us.
“Blast and damn him!” I cried out, Father’s words escaping me, betraying me. No sooner was Mercy stopped than Mother struck me, hard.
I had no time to react. Neither did she. For Jonas Smithson raised a finger to his mouth as though to shush us, but began gnawing on it. His own blood stained the front of his clothes, but he continued to chew his own flesh.
The curse had begun to take effect, and it started with that very one who brought it down upon us. This is what it would look like throughout our town. I shuddered.
Mother ignored me again, whip cracking the air faster and harder above Mercy’s head. Mercy frothed, but kept pace.
We did not, as I expected, make for the safety of home. Instead, Mother directed Mercy toward the Smithson house. Mother stopped at the back gate, turning toward me.
“I am going around front to speak to Mrs. Smithson. As I do, you are to go through the back of the house and put Nathaniel Smithson in here.” She thrust a burlap sack my way.
“Put her baby in a sack?” I couldn’t believe she had said it. What had happened in the gypsy camp?
“I have bargained for our protection. You need to do as I say and we will never mention this day again. And keep him quiet!” She fairly leaped down from the seat in her haste to console Mrs. Smithson for all that had come upon us in recent days.
It was easy enough to make my way in through the house back, as half the town was out front. There was Nathaniel, as I expected him to be.
I did what I came to do, and as Mother saw me take my seat with the sack, she gestured toward me, telling neighbors she must get me home. They nodded, understanding.
I kept my hand faithfully over that little mouth all the way back to the gypsies. Carried that sack in myself. The gypsy woman took it without a word. She almost smiled at me.
Mother cried all the way home for Nathaniel Smithson. I patted her on her knee.
There was no point in telling her what I’d done. She’d realize it herself soon enough.