The Rebel Angels. The Cornish Trilogy #1 by Robertson Davies

What had happened was that she was experiencing that in­toxicating upsurge of energy some women have when their husbands die. She grieved in true Gypsy style for Tadeusz, declared that she would soon follow him to the grave, and took on tragic airs for several weeks. But working up through this drama, part genuine and part ritual, was the knowledge that she was free, and that the debt of gadjo respectabilty she had owed to her marriage was paid in full. Freedom for Mamusia meant a return to Gypsy ways. She went into mourning, which was old-fashioned but necessary to assuage her grief. But she never really emerged from mourning, the fashionable clothes dis­appeared from her cupboards, and garments which had a markedly Ciganyak look replaced them. She wore several long skirts and, to my dismay, no pants underneath them.

Dirty things, she said when I protested, ‘they get very foul in a few days; only a dirty person would want to wear them.

She had returned to Gypsy notions of cleanliness, which are not modern; her one undergarment was a shift which she gave a good tubbing every few months; she did not wash, but rubbed her skin with olive oil, and put a heavier, scented oil on her hair. I would not say that she was dirty, but the North American ideal of freshness had no place in her personal style. Gold chains and a multitude of gold rings, hidden away since her days as a Gypsy restaurant fiddler, reappeared and jingled and clinked musically whenever she moved; she often said you could tell the ring of real gold, which was like no other sound in the world. She was never seen without a black scarf on her head, tied under her chin when she went out into the gadjo world, but tied behind when she was indoors. She was a striking and handsome figure, but not every­body’s idea of a mother.

Mamusia lived in a world of secrets, and she had in the highest degree the Gypsy conviction that the Gypsies are the real sophisticates, and everybody else is a gadjo — which really means a dupe, a gull, a simpleton to be cheated by the knowing ones. This belief ran deep; sometimes sheer necessity required her to accept a gadjo as at least an equal, and to admit that they too had their cunning. But the essential sense of crafty superiority was never dormant for long.

It was this conviction that led to the worst quarrels between us. Mamusia was a dedicated and brilliant shop-lifter. Most of what we ate was pinched.

But they are so stupid, she would reply when I protested; Those supermarkets, they have long corridors stacked with every kind of thing anybody could want, and trash nobody but a gadjo would want; if they don’t expect it to be taken, why don’t they guard it?

Because they trust the honesty of the public, I would say, and Mamusia would laugh her terrible, harsh Gypsy laugh. Well, actually, it costs more to guard it than to put up with a certain amount of thieving, I would go on, rather more honestly.

Then they expect it. So what’s all the bother? ; this was her unanswerable reply.

But if you get caught, think of the disgrace! You, the widow of Tadeusz Theotoky, what would it be like if you were brought into court? (I was also thinking of my own shame if it should come out that my Mother was a clouter.)

But I don’t intend to be caught, she would reply.

Nor was she ever caught. She never went to the same super­market too often, and before she entered she became stooped, tremulous, and confused; as she padded up and down the aisles she made great play with a pair of old-fashioned spectacles — her trick was to adjust them, trying to get them to stick on her nose, and then to make a great business of reading the directions on the label of a tin she held in her right hand; meanwhile her left hand was deftly moving goods from a lower shelf into the inner pockets of a miserable old black coat she always wore on these piratical voyages. When she came at last to the check-out desk she had only one or two small things to pay for, and as she opened her purse she made sure the checker got a good view of her pitiful store of money; sometimes she would scrabble for as many as eighteen single cents to eke out the amount of her bill. Pitiful old soul! The miseries of these lonely old women who have only their Old Age Pensions to depend on! (Fearful old crook, despoiling the stupid gadje!)

I ate at home as little as I decently could, not only because I disapproved of Mamusia’s method of provisioning, but also because the avails of shoplifting do not make for a balanced or delicious menu. Gypsies are terrible cooks, by modern stand­ards, anyhow, and the household we maintained when Tadeusz was alive was a thing of the past. The evening meal after our great fight about Hollier’s visit was pork and beans, heavily sprinkled with paprika, and Mamusia’s special coffee, which she made by adding a little fresh coffee to the old grounds in the bottom of the pot, and boiling until wanted.

As I had foreseen, a calm followed the storm, my bruised face had been poulticed, and we had done some heavy hugging and in my case some weeping. Among Gypsies, a kiss is too im­portant a thing for exchange after a mere family disagreement; it is for serious matters, so we had not kissed.

Why did you tell him about the bomari? said Mamusia.

Because it is important to his work.

It’s important to my work, but it won’t be if everybody knows about it.

I’m sure he’ll respect your secrecy.

Then he’ll be the first gadjo that ever did.

Oh Mamusia, think of Father.

Your Father was bound to me by a great oath. Marriage is a great oath. Nothing would have persuaded him to betray any secret of mine — or I to betray him. We were married.

I’m sure Professor Hollier would swear an oath if you asked him.

Not to breathe a word about the bomari?

I saw that I had made a fool of myself. Of course he’d want to write about it, I said, wondering whether the dreadful fight would begin again.

Write what?

Articles in learned journals; perhaps even a book.

A book about the bomari?

No, no, not just about the bomari, but about all sorts of things like it that wise people like you have preserved for the modern world.

This was Gypsy flattery on my part, because Mamusia is convinced that she is uncommonly wise. She has proof of it; when she was born the ages of her father and mother, added together, amounted to more than a hundred years. This is an indisputable sign.

He must be a strange teacher if he wants to teach about the bomari to all those flat-faced loafers at the University. They wouldn’t know how to manage it even if they were told about it.

Mamusia, he doesn’t want to teach about it. He wants to write about it for a few very learned men like himself who are interested in the persistence of old wisdom and old belief in this modern world, which so terribly lacks that sort of wisdom. He wants to do honour to people like you who have suffered and kept silent in order to guard the ancient secrets.

He’s going to write down my name?

Never, if you ask him not to; he will say he learned so-and-so from a very wise woman he was so lucky as to meet under circumstances he has vowed not to reveal.

Ah, like that?

Yes, like that. You know better than anyone that even if gadje knew about the bomari they could never make it work properly, because they haven’t had your experience and great inherited wisdom.

Well, little poshrat, you have started this and I suppose I must end it. I do it for you because you are Tadeusz’s daughter. Nothing less than that would persuade me. Bring your wise man.


Bring my wise man. But that was only the beginning; I must manage the encounter between Mamusia and my wise man so that neither of them was turned forever against me. What a fool I had been to start all this! What a gadji fool! Would I get out of it with my skin, not to speak of the admiration and gratitude and perhaps the love I hoped to win from Hollier by what I had done? If only I had not wanted to add something to his research on the Filth Therapy! But I was in the predicament of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice; I had started something I could not stop, and perhaps in the end the Sorcerer would punish me.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson