Transylvania, the first week of September 1981...
Still an hour short of midday, two peasant wives of Halmagiu village wended their way home along well-trodden forest tracks. Their baskets were full of small wild plums and the first ripe berries of the season, all with the dew still glistening on them. Some of the plums were still a little green ... all the better for the making of sharp, tangy brandy! Dark-robed, with coarse cloth headsquares framing their narrow faces, the women cheerfully embroidered tidbits of village gossip to suit their mood, their teeth flashing ivory in weathered leather as they laughed over especially juicy morsels.
In the near-distance, blue wood smoke drifted in almost perpendicular spirals from Halmagiu's chimneys; it formed a haze high over the early-autumn canopy of forest. But closer, in among the trees themselves, were other fires; cooking smells of spiced meats and herbal soups drifted on the still air; small silver bells jingled; a bough creaked where a wild-haired, dark-eyed, silent, staring child dangled from the rope of a makeshift swing.
There were gaudy caravans gathered in a circle under the trees. Outside the circle: tethered ponies cropped the grass, and bright-coloured dresses swirled where bare-armed girls gathered firewood. Inside: black-iron cooking pots suspended over licking flames issued puffs of mouthwatering steam; male travellers tended their own duties or simply looked on, smoking their long, thin-stemmed pipes, as the encampment settled in. Travellers, yes. Wanderers: Gypsies! The Szgany had returned to the region of Halmagiu.
The boy on the rope in the tree had spotted the two village women and now uttered a piercing whistle. All murmur and jingle and movement in the Gypsy encampment ceased upon the instant; dark eyes turned outwards in unison, staring with curiosity at the Romanian peasant women with their baskets. The Gypsy men in their leather jackets looked very strong, somehow fierce, but there was nothing of animosity in their eyes. They had their own codes, the Szgany, and Knew which side their bread was greased. For five hundred years the people of Halmagiu had dealt with them fairly, bought their trinkets and knick-knacks and left them in peace. And so in their turn the Gypsies would work no deliberate harm against Halmagiu.
'Good morning, ladies,' the Gypsy king (for so the leaders of these roving bands prided themselves, as little kings) stood up on the steps of his wagon and bowed to them. 'Please tell our friends in the village we'll be knocking on their doors - pots and pans of the best quality, charms to keep away the night things, cards to read and keen eyes that know the lie of a line in your palm. Bring out your knives for sharpening, and your broken axe-handles. All will be put to rights. Why, this year we've even a good pony or two, to replace the nags that pull your carts! We'll not be here long, so make the best of our bargains before we move on.'
'Good morning to you,' the oldest of the pair at once answered, if in a breathless fashion. 'And be sure I'll tell them in the village.' And in a hushed aside to her companion: 'Stay close; move along with me; say nothing!'
As they passed by one of the wagons, so this same older woman took a small jar of hazelnuts from her basket and a double handful of plums, placing them on the steps of the wagon as a gift. If the offering was seen no one said anything, and in any case the activity in the camp had already resumed its normal pace as the women headed once more for home. But the younger one, who hadn't lived in Halmagiu very long, asked:
'Why did you give the nuts and plums away? I've heard the Gypsies give nothing for nothing, do nothing for nothing, and far too often take something for nothing! Won't it encourage them, leaving gifts like that?'
'It does no harm to keep well in with the fey people,' the other told her. 'When you've lived here as long as I have you'll know what I mean. And anyway, they're not here to steal or work mischief.' She gave a small shudder. 'Indeed, I fancy I know well enough why they're here.'
'Oh?' said her friend, wonderingly.
'Oh, yes. It's the phase of the moon, a calling they've heard, an offering they'll make. They propitiate the earth, replenish the rich soil, appease... their gods.'
'Their gods? Are they heathens, then?... What gods?'
'Call it Nature, if you like!' the first one snapped. 'But ask me no more. I'm a simple woman and don't wish to know. Nor should you wish to know. My grandmother's grandmother remembered a time when the Gypsies came. Aye, and likely her granny before her. Sometimes fifteen months will go by, or eighteen - but never more than twenty-one - before they're back again. Spring, summer, winter: only the Szgany themselves know the season, the month, the time. But when they hear the calling, when the moon is right, when a lone wolf howls high up in the mountains, then they return. Yes, and when they go they always leave their offering.'
'What sort of offering?' the younger woman was more curious than ever. 'Don't ask,' said the other, hurriedly shaking her head.
'Don't ask.' But it was only her way; the younger woman knew she was dying to tell her; she bided her time and resolved to ask no more. But in a little while, fancying that they'd strayed too far from the most direct route back to the village, she felt obliged to inquire:
'But isn't this a long way round we're taking?'
'Be quiet now!' hushed the older woman. 'Look!'
They had arrived at a clearing in the forest at the foot of a gaunt outcrop of grey volcanic rock. Bald and domed, with several humps, this irregular mound stood perhaps fifty feet high, with more forest beyond, then sheer cliffs rising to a fir-clad plateau like a first gigantic step to the misted, grimly forbidding heights of the Zarundului massif. The trees around the base of the outcrop had been felled, all shrubs and undergrowth cleared away; at its summit, a cairn of heavy stones stood like a small tower or chimney, pointing to the mountains.
And up there, seated on the bare rock at the foot of the cairn, working with a knife at a shard of stone which he held in his lap - a young man: Szgany! He was intent upon his work, seeing nothing but the stone in his hands. He gazed down across a distance of little more than one hundred feet - gazed seemingly head on, so that the women of the village must surely be central to his circle of vision - but if he saw them he gave no sign. And indeed it was plain that he did not see them, only the stone which he worked. And even at that distance, clearly there was something... not quite right with him.