Thick mist seeped through tall trees and rolled over a narrow road that twisted through the dense wood leading into the village. The earthy smell of damp soil and foliage mingled with pine scents. The crescendo of the crickets’ chorus seemed an attempt to drown out the occasional hoot of the owl in the upper branches and to compete with the ribbiting toads for supremacy of the night stage. The chilly night air teased the hairs on Jasper’s bare arms as he made his way home from his late shift along the hem of the wood.
Jasper stood at the door of his weathered cottage but hesitated before going in. He stood under the eaves, drawing on his pipe and gazing out at the road and into the darkness of the wood. There seemed to be an aura of magic this evening, almost an air of foreboding except for the slight hint of excitement rousing in Jasper’s belly. He had lived in this village all of his fifty five years, had been married to Rose for thirty of them and lived an honest, hardworking life. Village life was quiet and uneventful. He almost felt guilty for these stirrings.
Jasper and Rose were childless. It had not always been that way. Ruby had been a miracle baby; she had survived premature birth, even in their humble dwellings and almost primitive circumstances. She was their golden child.With radiant blue eyes and blonde curls, she was angelic. As she grew, so did her personality. She was spirited and radiated a joy for life and love for the earth. Then, when she was fifteen years old, she had just vanished. The villagers had searched for weeks – through the forest, in every river and well, under every fallen tree – but she was gone. Rose’s heart had broken and she had not uttered a word since. They had lived out their lives passing each other by as strangers, just doing what needed to be done to exist. Jasper had tried to comfort her, to be there for her. Once he had even suggested having another baby, but Rose’s only outburst in all the years he had known her and her only words in the years since Ruby had disappeared were enough for him never to mention it again.
As Jasper stared out into the darkness he thought he heard the faint jingle jangle of bells. He blew a puff of smoke into the night and squinted, straining to see where the sound was coming from. After a few minutes a shape began to appear out of the mist, followed by two more. Three gypsy caravans, each drawn by a strong horse, rolled out into the open. They drew a little nearer and then stopped on the edge of the wood. The sound had roused some of the other villagers still up at this late hour and a few lights went on in the cottages. Some men grouped together to watch. For about half an hour all that happened was the unhitching and tethering of the horses and then silence. The villagers went back inside their homes and sleep shrouded them once again.
At first light Jasper was the first to go outside and at the sound of his door some of the other villagers also ventured out. The wagons were widely lined up in an arc in the open fields on the edge of the wood. In a larger arc on the outside of the wagons were six large tents, two per caravan. Men, women and children were hard at work securing the tents, cooking food and setting up all sorts of intriguing contraptions. A gypsy carnival had come to town, cloaked in mystery and a sense of the darkness from which they had appeared. The village council called an impromptu meeting and declared a ban on any villagers visiting the carnival. The children were not to be left unattended and anyone caught in the vicinity of the gypsy caravans would be sentenced to six months imprisonment. According to the elders, gypsies possessed dark magic and were not to be trusted.
Jasper stood every evening outside his cottage watching the flames of the gypsy bonfires light up the carnival and the smoke dance evocatively into the night sky, almost as if a billowing hand were reaching out and beckoning him secretly into a circle of unfathomable delights. He listened to their laughter and music and watched them dance with abandon. Their wild joy seemed to mock the staid village atmosphere, although the gypsies themselves seemed oblivious to the pious attitudes of their frigid neighbours. That stirring in his belly again, and the guilt that followed, turned him indoors each evening, faithfully back to Rose who barely seemed to care, or to appreciate his devotion. Something was calling to him though and he had tossed and turned each night since the gypsies had arrived.
One night, soon after midnight, Jasper startled awake. He thought he heard his name being called, but Rose was fast asleep next to him. He eased the covers off and tiptoed stealthily out the room. He cloaked himself, and crept out the back door. He stood a while in the blustery, starless night and listened for the voice on the wind… Jasper, Jasper… He felt himself being tugged, as if a delicate hand on either wrist was leading him towards the carnival. He didn’t resist, just followed, trancelike. As the village slumbered, the carnival seemed to be thrumming almost imperceptibly at this short distance from where a little while ago he had also been asleep.
The buzz seemed to grow louder as he neared, and although there really wasn’t much noise as such, it was almost deafening as all of his senses suddenly exploded into heightened awareness, sending him reeling from the intensity of sensations. The light from the bonfire and lanterns pierced his eyes, the chemistry flowing from each of the gypsies as they danced sent a current through him that felt as though it singed his skin, and the scents of incense taunted his nostrils. He didn’t know if the throbbing was his own heart or the beating drums. His world began to spin and dark haired gypsies circled him and began to urge him to dance. He felt his spirit surge and the primal desire to celebrate life begin to move his body in ways he didn’t recognise as his own. Years of pent up pain and submission welled up and erupted as he surrendered to the music, to the night.
A dark, disfigured shape approached and dragged him towards the tents. In the centre of the arc was a small, round table. In the middle was a set of dice, nothing else.
“Throw”, the coarse voice growled. “Let destiny find you… if you dare.”
“I… don’t… understand,” Jasper gasped, weary from his outburst.
“Highest number decides… six tents… which one will it be…?” rasped the crone-like figure.
“What will I find?” Jasper began to feel nervous.
“That is fate’s hand… but throw a six and beware,” the crone warned and then erupted into an eerie cackle.
Jasper hesitated. He began to tremble. He should go back now, dawn was approaching. If he was caught here it meant six months imprisonment. It meant Rose’s disappointment. It meant he couldn’t provide for her. But something had been released, never to be caged again and he was tempted, curious, hungry for a little more of the reckless ecstasy he had just experienced. He would just roll the dice once, explore one tent. Then he would go back. Back to his mundane existence, with the memory of this night clutched in his heart to ease his sleep once again. He picked up the dice, held them cupped in both palms and then waited.
“Tell me what to expect in each tent,” he urged the crone.
“Perhaps in one, a fortune teller. Perhaps in another, a magician. But throw a six, and beware,” she cackled again.
Aah, Jasper thought. Of course… palm readers, crystal balls, tarot cards… the stuff of gypsy lore. This was the fate of which the crone had spoken. Now he felt better. Jasper was not a superstitious man and so he did not fear these things. In fact, he thought this would be just a little amusing. He began to shake the dice, and the old crone taunted:
“Throw a six and beware.”
Completely unfazed now and confident that all he was in for was a bit of hocus pocus prediction in some form or another, Jasper rolled the dice. Everything went still and all that could be heard was the tumbling dice. Despite his nonchalance, Jasper held his breath, and was aware of all the gypsies that had now gathered seeming to do the same. The dice came to a stop… a one… and a SIX! Jasper gasped, and then laughed at himself.
The crone wailed. “Now prepare for your fate. Sometimes what you wish for most will cut you deepest.”
She took him roughly by the wrist and dragged him towards the sixth tent. He felt himself resist, but she was stronger than he had given her disfigurement credit for. He was still pulling away when she pulled him through the tent flap and his eyes locked with those inside the tent.
Shock… Fear… Confusion… Panic… Recognition. Unlike any of the gypsies he had been engaging with this face sent him into a spiral to the very pits of his tormented soul. Blue eyes, framed by golden curls, stared in horror at him. He felt himself sink to the ground as a thick fog submerged his mind. He looked up into the face of his daughter and instead of seeing joy, or relief, or any of the other emotions he had dreamed of seeing on his little girl’s face when he found her again, he was struck down by reflections of shame and guilt that painted her face.
Then he understood. She had run away. Seeking the same euphoria he himself had indulged in only moments before. She was his child, her spirit was as his own, but it felt as though his heart had been ripped from his chest. All those years, not knowing, thinking she was dead. And Rose… his lovely Rose… her light had gone out. But now, now he could bring Ruby home, and Rose would bloom again. They would be a family, and life would be good again.
He moved forward to embrace Ruby but she moved away and he knew – she would not willingly go back. He wanted to ask why, but he knew all too well the suffocation of the staunch village laws and limiting beliefs. He felt himself torn between his loyalty and devotion to his wife, knowing he could ease her pain, bring her back to life and make her happy again, and his kindred spirit with his flesh and blood, not wishing to chain her and subdue her free spirit. He asked her to walk with him, to explain, just for a few minutes, to get to know his daughter, to try and convince her to return with him.
At daybreak Jasper walked into the village, into the chains of the waiting sheriff to serve out his six months for contravening the ban, and to serve out the rest of his life carrying a secret that if revealed, could end the suffering of one woman he loved, while imprisoning the other.
© Deirdré Amy Gower