"Where are you, Ociee?" shouted Ben as the kitchen door slammed loud behind him. "You gotta see, you just gotta see!" My brother's blond curls dripped wet from running hard. Ben's gray green eyes wide, he sputtered out the words, "It's a real gypsy, Ociee! And he's set up his camp down by Miller's Creek. Come on, quit fooling with those dern beans, girl. Come on, aren't you hearing me?"
I tossed the handful I'd been stringing back in Mama's blue bean bowl. Annoyed as much as curious I said, "What's this commotion about a gypsy, Ben Nash?" At that time, all I knew about gypsies was exactly what folks said. I heard that they were strange, strange, and dangerous. What's more, I believed we were smart enough to leave them be. I picked up a bean and shook it at him saying, "Can't you see I'm busy getting supper ready?" "Gracious sakes, Ociee," he panted, "Supper's every night, the gypsy is right now!"
There was no saying "no" once my brother got going on anything. I don't know why I tried that time either. I hardly got my apron off when he pulled me from my chair and pushed me out the kitchen door.
Ben was talking fast as lightning. "Ociee, I was up on the top of the rise watching as that old gypsy stopped to give his horse a drink from the creek. He looked around real careful, kind of like he was making sure no one saw him. Then he said some foreign stuff to the horse. Next thing I knew, he was settling in and starting a campfire. I came straight home to get you."
I couldn't argue. Ben was right. Imagine, a really and true gypsy was camped near our farm. We had to watch what he was doing. Surely Papa would understand why I had to go with Ben.
He wouldn't worry, not for a minute. Papa would say, "Ociee, go on, see for yourself." Well, maybe he would.
We raced like wild ponies straight toward Miller's Creek. Through the apple orchard, up the clay bank, around the old Indian burial ground, my heart pounded. Thoughts of gypsies pushed me faster than I had ever run before. We reached the crest of the hill.
"Stop!" Ben threw his arm back across my chest. Putting his finger to his lips, he said, "Shhh! See! What'd I tell you? There it is, an honest to gosh gypsy wagon." His chest puffed out with pride.
"Gracious, Ben, I never saw anything like it, look, oh just look at that." I breathed in the scene.
The gypsy didn't appear to be there, so we decided to creep closer to take a better look. Easing downhill toward the creek bank, we gripped each other's hands as much for courage as to balance ourselves.
I was excited, scared, but mostly, proud that Ben had asked me to go with him.
We made our way across the creek struggling on its water-slick rocks. We approached the camp like two wary deer in search for food.
"Easy," urged Ben.
"Easy, yourself, Ben Nash. I'm just fine," I frowned at him. What I wanted him to notice was how brave I was acting.
The gypsy wagon loomed much larger as we got close to it. "Ben, it's tall as our barn!" I exclaimed. That August afternoon in 1898, our barn suddenly seemed farther away than the country mile we had just run. That afternoon, Marshall County, Mississippi, our home, was as far away to me as Papa's favorite star.
Inquisitive more than courageous, we inched ever closer. The side of the wagon we could see was the rich blue of a sky in autumn. In the center, sunshine sparkled on a gold border which outlined the fancy painting of odd-shaped trees and extraordinary birds that surely never nested anywhere near Mississippi.
The best part was the beautiful lady in the center of the picture. She was olive-skinned with crystal blue eyes. Her gold earrings glistened through her long curly brown hair. She wore a bright purple veil and her shoulders were draped in a deep red shawl with black tassels. Other people were painted far back almost as if they were walking toward us from a deeper place hidden inside the wagon.
I felt like I was under a magic spell. "Oh Ben, it's so pretty. Look at the blue and gold sky. It makes me think of the painting on the back wall in Sunday School class. Why, it looks like Heaven."
"The pretty lady makes me think of Mama," he said. "Does she look like Mama to you?" Mama had been dead almost a year, but it was like the sad just kept hanging on to us all: to Ben, to Papa, to our big brother Fred, and to me. Sometimes I'd open my eyes in the early morning. I'd feel happy just for an instant only to be jolted awake by the dreadful memory of Mama lying there in that cold pine box in the front of church.
I studied the painting on the gypsy wagon.
I couldn't say whether the lady really looked like Mama or not. The fact was I had a hard time remembering exactly how Mama looked. I squeezed my eyes shut to try to clear my memory's blurred picture of Mama's joyful face. Like always, the image faded until it was gone.
Ben kept right on talking. "I'll bet those are angels in the way back part of the picture," he said setting his jaw. He squinted hard looking for details in the painted faces.
A sudden burst of wind shattered my gentle daydream. Even though it was hot summertime, a horrible chill seized me. A noise came from inside the wagon. The hairs on my arm stood straight. A second sound. I couldn't move for fear.
The door of the gypsy wagon flew open. I heard an ominous roar. The enormous man thundered out from inside his wagon. The earth rumbled as he stomped down the trembling wood steps. His greasy curls were tied back in a red bandanna, a single gold earring swung back and forth in a hole stretched long from time. The gypsy spat with the breath of a fiery dragon and bellowed, "You keeds, get away from here, or I weel eat you for my supper."
"Run for home, Ociee!" shouted Ben.
My eyes riveted on the monster man, yet somehow my feet obeyed my brother's voice. We took off and ran straight through the creek. No slippery rocks would trap us. Wet shoes wouldn't matter because we were running for our very lives. I chanced to look back. Putting his massive hands on his brown belted hips, the gypsy man reared back his head and laughed. His laugh welled up from way down inside his big belly.
The sound echoed through the valley way past the Indian mound. We raced for the safety of home. I wondered if the spirits of those long-dead Indians shuddered in their graves at the sound of his deep roaring bellow.
I stumbled and fell over a broken tree limb. I landed on my arm. My elbow was bleeding, but I wasn't about to cry.
Ben doubled back to help me up. "Are you okay?" "'Course, I am, Ben. Let's go." "Hurry then," he shouted.
"Oh, Ben, I hope Papa's home." "Me, too, Ociee. Or, at least, Fred."
We made it through the orchard. No gypsy followed. Our farm was mercifully in sight. Closer and closer we got to the shelter of home. Then, thank the good Lord, I spotted Fred coming in from the pasture. I knew we'd be safe with him in sight. We charged through the chicken yard. "Out of my way, Hector, you old rooster." Dirt dusted up, chickens scattered.
Up the steps, we charged across the porch and into our house. Ben slammed the door behind us and held it tight with his whole body. We were panting our lungs out. Caked with dirty sweat, grass, leaves and water, I took a deep, deep breath and collapsed at the kitchen table.
Fred raced up onto the porch. As he kicked the rail to get mud clods off his work boots, he hollered, "What in the world have you two been up to now? I just saw chickens flying every which away."
I ran outside into my brother's huge arms. Ben charged up behind me and grabbed Fred's shoulders shouting, "A gypsy, Fred, a gypsy chased me and Ociee all the way home."
My hands on Fred's cheeks, I turned his head toward me and screamed, "He must be ten feet tall."
"And sure as sunshine, he breathed fire right on us." I showed my elbow. "See, this is my burned place."
"Ociee, that's where you fell," Ben interrupted. "After he breathed that fire on me." I insisted.
Fred hung on every word. Even though he had never seen a gypsy close up, he knew a lot about most things and that, of course, included gypsies.
"Fred, he had a wagon tall as our barn," I tried to tell, but, of course, Ben corrected me, "Two barns, at least, Ociee."
Our big brother gently eased both of us back inside and asked, "Do you know why gypsies have such tall wagons?" Wide-eyed, we shook our heads no.
Scratching his chin, Fred explained, "That's so they can keep farm children locked up in the top of the wagons and cook 'em in big pots whenever they get hungry for supper!"
With that, he bit Ben on his neck. Ben jumped sky high.
I screamed at the top of my lungs.
Fred gathered us up into his strong arms and the three of us rolled around on the kitchen's cool wood floor.
Ben raised up on his elbows, "Fred, you gotta go back with us. You just gotta see." he pleaded.
"Tonight, when it's good and dark?" suggested Fred.
"Well, maybe in the morning instead," Ben said. "So we can see his camp site better."
"Oh, so we can see better?" Fred was grinning.
"Let's ask Papa to go, too," I suggested. "Papa's braver than that old gypsy. With Papa and Fred, we wouldn't ever worry about being any gypsy's supper. Supper! I clean forgot all about supper."