The sound of the Rosary Hour was his earliest childhood reflection. He could remember, after sixty years, the monotonous chant: “Hail Mary full of grace blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus Christ.” It had meant nothing to him back then, especially since his parents were not Roman Catholics and had never gone to church. But it still carried a haunting refrain for him as he tried to recall those early years. It somehow symbolized the countless hours he was left alone in his family’s apartment and the neglect and punishment he suffered during this period in his life.
A psychiatrist had told him once that memory requires language. Without words to describe reference points, the meanings of such points become lost to the infant or toddler, unless they are associated with trauma or repetitious events. Although he was several months away from his second birthday during the winter of 1943, it was not so strange therefore that he recalled the repetitious Rosary Hour and a few traumatic sounds, such as his mother and father’s voices and the memory of being beaten randomly whenever they were around. Apart from his parents and the basic rhythm of life, however, there were mostly unrecognizable noises and visual sights during this time. Trapped for most of his early childhood in the confines of his family’s tiny apartment, his only reference points in the caboose-shaped domicile were the legs of furniture, the sides of walls, and the ere glow from lights and windows overhead. The redundancy he suffered during his imprisonment had practically branded the points in his mind. The hated noise box was located on top of a cabinet, as was the fan, which made a frightening humming sound when it was on. To a small, wobbly-legged child, such an elevation made the radio inaccessible even if he could turn it off or turn the volume down. He had no names then for any of the inanimate objects he saw repeatedly throughout each day; they were merely the boundaries of his small world. Such repetition, even the Rosary Hour, only reminded him that he was alone. But his early grasp of certain word meanings from his parents and rudimentary knowledge of symbols encountered when they gave him physical pain allowed him to recognize danger when it was near. Among these traumatic events stored forever in his mind, his recollections of various periods of terror and pain had given him a toddler’s primitive language and list of symbols. The first symbols he was to retain were the thundering voice and shaking fist from both parents, which he had learned to mean, “Shut up or I’ll beat you!” He learned with quivering lip and tearful eyes to be immediately obedient especially around his mother, since she was around the most. He also learned from his mother the words and symbols “Eat it or I’ll cram it down your throat” after only a few tries. His father, whom he feared the most, since he was always louder and more agitated than his mother, had merely to look at him to make him behave. His only physical contact with his father, in fact, was an occasional smack on the rear or head, the sensation of his hair being yanked, or ears tweaked.
He would learn years later from his mother that his father had a deep resentment against him for the way he came into the world. Not only had his untimely birth almost killed his mother, but it was possible, because of this close call, that she might not be able to bear another child. He had been born breach and required a Caesarian operation, which in 1943 was much more dangerous than it was today. From the beginning therefore, in very real sense, he had started off on the wrong foot. After he was born, he would also learn later, his brother had dropped him from the porch. This was the “official” reason for the accident. His father was convinced for many years that he was brain damaged because of this accident. Because of this mishap, the evil omens of his birth, and his sickly nature, his father treated him as if he was damaged goods, keeping him hidden from his neighbors and friends when they were visiting and, during the same visits, overcompensating for his deficiency by showing off his first-born son, who would remain for the rest of the father’s eyes, the proverbial “apple of his eyes”. From the very beginning of his life, Aaron had cast his shadow on his younger brother’s parade. He would always be the smartest, the most athletic, and the best looking of the two boys. He was also the least bruised and battered of the two.
Although his mother felt as if Noel was a treasure in the first year of his life, Noel had been a sickly baby and had caused her great woe. He was born with asthma and had cried incessantly as an infant. He seemed to develop more slowly than his older brother Aaron. While Aaron was walking and talking like a two-year-old by the age of eighteen months, Noel was still crawling in the winter of 1943, even though he could walk if he wanted to, and would talk to himself when no one was around. Cruel words from his father about his apparent retardation and inability to be potty trained would never be recalled by Noel, but the physical reactions caused by his father’s attitude toward him was felt repeatedly during this time. There was a certain look that his father would show throughout his childhood but was especially frightening back then. His father would grind his teeth and move his jaw horizontally as moved his jaws. His severe gray eyes would become mere slits, his nostrils would flare, and his fists would be trembling at his sides as if he just wanted to beat Aaron to death.
By the winter of 1943, therefore, Noel had learned when his father was lurking in their home. From a distance, he would hear a door slam, grumbling under the breath (that sounded as if it came from a wild animal), and loud cursing, many times at his mother, which often had Noel’s name in part of the curse. There were also movements and changes in his mother’s voice that alerted him to changes in her mood. It had been several months since his first year had begun and he was obviously no longer the little treasure in his mother’s eyes. They didn’t seem to want him now and perhaps, as far as his father was concerned, never had. That his father hated him was a message he had been receiving since birth, but from his mother he had received mixed signals for the past several months. She might strike him or shake him to make him shut up or behave then turn around and kiss him and stick a pacifier or piece of candy in his mouth. Ironically, this made him trust her even less than his father. At least with him, he knew what to expect.
Today, as Noel crawled abstractedly over the cold wooden floor, the sound of “Hail Mary full of grace…” was becoming unbearable for him. During the mornings before his mother left the apartment with his older brother to go shopping in town, she would listen to a musical program, featuring the big bands. She seldom ever bothered to turn the radio off unless she did not leave the house. He would never know why she had taken his older brother and not him shopping, but he would always feel abandoned buy their exit and always wail for at least an hour after they left. This particular morning, as he listened to the dreadful chant, he let out a howl that would have set his fathers teeth on edge and caused his mother to cringe.
His neighbors had heard his crying all hours of the night and managed to ignore the telltale signs of abuse that they saw throughout the week. But this time, for the housewives at home with their children, and the sleeping husbands, who worked the night shift at the airplane factory or rail road, it was too much. Several hours passed as the hungry and forlorn child lapsed into torpor and then erupted into a new round of screams. Something dreadful must be wrong to cause poor little Noel to carry on this way. Perhaps his family’s apartment has just caught fire or he had gotten himself injured in some way.
Noel Bridger now began to wheeze. His recurrent asthma was brought on by the allergies in his home, including his mother’s cigarette smoke and his Dad’s pipe, and the sort of stress he was suffering during his mother’s absence. No one, even his well-intended neighbors, could know how much danger her was in this time.
In the apartment across the courtyard Alphonse Marello complained to his wife “Rosie, how’my gonna keep awake-a tonight. He’s at it again, that Bridger boy. Someone’s gotta go stop-a him, make’em shaddup hees mouth.”
”Poor bambino,” Rosie, who was cleaning her kitchen, paused to say, “what’s the mattah with that Bridger woman. She takes her older kid shopping but leave her baby boy at home.”
”Rosie, you let the police handle this,” Alphonse advised, turning in the bed and placing his pillow over his ear. “But call them anonymously. Don’t give your name. Tell them what we hear night and day.”
”Alphonse,” she shook her head, “they might take that baby from his mother if the know what goes on. Someone, maybe a bunch of us neighbors, could get together and go, as a group to their house. If the Bridgers saw the entire neighborhood was against them, maybe they would change.”
”Ha! Let the police do their job!” Alphonse said, rising up in his pajamas and pulling on his robe. “That woman might just punch you in the nose!”
”Not if I had plenty of people with me.” Rosie replied, shaking her head and reaching for the phone. ”She would not dare hit Madya’s grandma. That old Gypsy’s gaze is enough to make our kids behave. And Terri Johnson—she’s a big, powerful woman that no one in this neighborhood’s gonna trifle with. I don’t think Misses Bridger would mess with her!”
Alphonse raised his palms upward and looked up the ceiling as if to say, “Lord, what am I going to with this woman?”
”I will begin calling now.” Rosie nodded bravely.
”Hey, you make-a sure that Bridger woman she don’t find out, hokay?” he whispered as she dialed the phone.
If she knew that little Noel was having an asthma attack, she would have been even more alarmed and probably called an ambulance. Alphonse, who also worked at the railroad but on the second shift, would try to sleep a few more hours but he too was troubled by what was going on in the Bridger household. His seven children, who, except little Gina, were all in school, knew who was boss in the Marinello household, but, in such matters, he knew Rosie knew best.
“Hello, is this Maureen Sutters?” she began in earnest. Alphonse had given up sleeping and was sitting next to her in their tiny living room.
“Who is this?” Maureen asked groggily.
“Remember, there is safety in numbers,” her husband whispered into her ear.
“This is your neighbor Rosie,” miss Marinello’s voice quivered. “Hey, how ya been doin’, Maureen?”
“Oh, Rosie, I’m sorry I sounded so cranky,” Maureen replied contritely. “My sinuses are killing me this morning. It’s that damn project furnace. Somebody’s burnin’ rubber or something in it. I was thinking about calling on Madya for a cure, but Harry wants me to see the company doctor. I heard Madya has some of those belladonnas now.”
“Hey Maureen, all right already. Sure-sure, Madya’s better than one of them quacks, but listen,” she changed the subject entirely, “we gotta serious problem with that poor Bridger boy. We need to get together and talk to Louise and that husband of hers. You can’t hear him like us, but he’s wailing something awful now.”
“Yeah, I know Rosie, poor little fellah,” Maureen sighed heavily into the phone, “but Harry said I should mind my own business. He works with Bob, the boy’s dad. You can see how touchy that might be, him being Bob’s workmate and all.”
“Listen Maureen,” said Rosie, “this doesn’t concern Harry. Those sons-of-bitches aren’t home. Are they, huh? This is a housewives’ call—you me and the other women here in the projects. Hey, those men don’t know what goes on. (Alphonso bristled at this characterization.) I doubt if Bob Bridger knows his son’s crying his heart out every morning, and maybe he don’t care, but I do. I’m worried that kid might be hurt or something. What if he’s sick and they’re ignoring it, huh?”
“I don’t know…” Maureen began to seriously procrastinate. ”I heard that Bridger woman has a mean temper. I heard from Madya that she’s got the evil eye, and, being a Gypsy, Madya should know.”
“Mother Mary!” Rosie exhaled deeply into the phone. “You’re twice as big as that bitch, Maureen. You’re a Christian woman, ain’t you? You think our blessed Mary would allow that?”
“Madya says—” Maureen began.
“Madya Schmadya,” Rosie sneered, “don’t quote that crazy old woman to me. I’m coming over to get you, so be ready Maureen. We’re gonna have us a talk with that Louise.”
“But Rosie,” Maureen started to argue.
By then, however, Rosie had already begun throwing on a shift and pair of slippers and was soon shuffling to her best friend's house.
The Sutter’s project sat across the courtyard from the Marinello’s. A sea of sheets and various items of clothing, freshly washed in the washroom, hung on the lines from the wooden posts cemented into the blacktop. Already many of the tenants had done their Monday laundry, and Rosie’s family’s clothing and sheets would be hanging on the same lines Friday when she did her laundry for the week. A playground sat beside the laundry lines and on the far side, near the washroom, stood the dreaded furnace used by residents for burning all manner of trash. Although there was crab grass growing on the ground surrounding the courtyard, there were only a few bushes and trees planted by the government, all of which were situated around the play and park area, where families could use the communal barbeque pit while the kids played on the swings and slide. Rosie Marinello had migrated with her husband and children to Los Angeles from New York’s Hells Kitchen. Other tenants complained constantly about the bad plumbing, cramped spaces and tiny iceboxes for cooling their perishables, but for the Marinello’s, who had big plans in Southern California, the projects were practically paradise. Even the rising problem with the Zoot suiters and Pachucos in the surrounding town could not compare in their minds with the crime rate in Hell’s Kitchen. In the months ahead, this opinion by the Marinellos would change during the Zoot suiter wars, but for now Rosie’s concerns were for her neighbors—a community that had replaced the Italian families she had known in New York.
She was as always concerned about her neighbors, this time for a tiny toddler named Noel Bridger. This latest crusade found her at Maureen Sutter’s door, but already the mystic Madya Shimanka knew what was about.
Peering out her heavy satin curtain, she spied the Italian matriarch moving as a storm through the bellowing sheets. A faint smile broke her chiseled features. Clearly in her dark eyes the mysteries of her ancient people dwelled. When Maureen finally answered her door, her worried expression did not deter her friend.
“Come on Maureen.” She reached and yanked her wrist. “By the time that Bridger woman is back we’ll be standing united by her door. We gotta let her know where we all stand!”
Protesting all the way, Maureen was led toward Lois Blevens’ domicile. Unlike, the more timid Maureen, Lois, who was just now bringing in her laundry, agreed immediately.
“Sure, hon,” she chirped, “lemme put this away. I’ll be with you in a jiff.”
“Meet us at Terri’s place,” Rosie waved, charging through two of the caboose-shaped projects with Maureen straggling far behind.
“Terri won’t go for this,” Maureen called faintly. “Her husband’s one of those conscientious objectors.”
“Yeah, like you huh, Maureen,” Rosie called back over her shoulder. “Please, I know you’re afraid of that Louise, but Terri ain’t. She’s the biggest broad in the projects.”
Terri Johnson heard Maureen arguing with Rosie about how the big blond was friends with Louise Bridger and would not believe that Louise was endangering her son. Upon reflection, however, Terri realized that Louise had been acting standoffish lately and she didn’t ever remember seeing her youngest son.
“All right what is this?” She opened the door suddenly and startled the two women half to death.
“Oh hello, Terri,” Rosie said with a gasp. “You look upset Terri. They found your husband yet?”
“No, Rosie,” she sighed, “I suspect he’s at his parents. I think his Dad’s trying to talk him into reporting before the deadline.”
“I thought they were going to arrest him,” Rosie looked quizzically into the dark room in back of Terri, an inner sanctum that no one had ever seen.
“He’s got one more week,” Terri shrugged. “I gotta get a job at the cannery or Goodyear tires. Maybe I’ll become a riveter at the airplane factory or join the nursing corps.”
“What about his job at the Railroad?” Maureen asked, pretending concern.
“He managed to get himself fired, and those sons-a-bitches reported him to the draft board.” Terri explained, searching Maureen’s expression.
She knew Maureen despised the philandering Clu Johnson for constantly making passes at the other woman (other than Maureen) at the projects, including Rosie, herself. The fact that the handsome Clu was being drafted, she knew, filled the homely Maureen with mixed emotions. For her own part, she had a Dear John letter already planned out in her head and plans of her own.
“It’s about the Bridger boy,” Terri said, amused by their mute expressions. “Ruth Schoenberg called me about the crying. I told her it’s none of our business, but I’m not so sure now. To tell you the truth, Rosie and Maureen, I think that Bridger boy might be Clu’s son. That’s why Louise is always hiding him in there.”
“Nah, I don’t think so.” Maureen shook her head vigorously. “Louise is a lot of things, but a slut ain’t one of them. I know my husband sure eyes her a lot, but I never seen her flirt with anyone here.”
“You're in denial, Maureen.” Terri smirked at her.
“Come on, let’s go.” Rosie nudged Maureen. “You comin, Terri.” She frowned at the overbearing blond.
“I’ll go, if Ruth goes,” Terri snickered, giving Rosie’s dark curls a pat. “Hey, you folks don’t like that Jew lady, do ya?” she asked them both.
“That ain’t true,” Rosie protested indignantly. “Ruth is just unfriendly. That woman stays locked up in their twenty four hours a day.”
“Well, did you know that her parents were murdered in their shop by Nazi thugs?” Terri snarled, her big blue eyes blood shot from weeks of dipping into Clu’s supply of gin.
Rosie, Lois, and Maureen had forgotten how tall Terri was. She had begun to intimidate them both, her attitude bespeaking alcoholic abuse more than unfriendliness. Everyone knew about the rumors coming from Europe, but it was enough to concern themselves about day-to-day affairs at the projects.
“Listen, Terri, if you can talk that lady into going with us, she’s more than welcome,” Rosie was growing impatient. “Please, this is a serious matter Terri. We got to stick together and do what’s right around here.”
Without another word, Terri lurched out her door and forged ahead of them as they searched for Ruth’s domicile. Ruth lived in back of the Bridgers and could hear everything that went on their house. Ira, her shy husband, whose 4-F classification allowed him the freedom to work at any job he wished, was currently selling appliances in town. He, like mister Blevens and mister Marinello, wanted no truck with the Bridgers, but to the three women’s surprise, his wife Ruth immediately, though quietly, obliged them when they came calling.
“There is safety in numbers, eh Ruth.” Maureen elbowed the bony little woman playfully. “We’re the Nazis here!”
“You wouldn’t know a Nazi from a Zoot suiter,” Terri snickered, now walking ahead of the smaller woman as if she was the leader now.
“Aren’t we gonna invite Madya along?” Lois whispered to Rosie.
“We don’t have to,” Rosie said knowingly, as they stood finally in front of the Bridger project.
Suddenly, inexplicably, Madya Shimenak was standing in their midst, her colorful, flouncey Gypsy dress belying an hourglass shape. Reminiscent of a hawk or eagle, two dark eyes peered out quizzically from her head. An amused smile played on her lips, as she studied her neighbors.
“My dearest, you call upon Madya and voir, here she be!” she cried, jangling her bracelets as she raised her arms as if to bless them. “You are concerned about the Bridger boy. He is quite ill you know!”
“What are you talking about woman?” Rosie’s eyebrows shot up. “What’s wrong with the kid?”
“Do you not notice how quiet it is now inside their home?” she asked, prancing onto the Bridger porch and rattling the door handle.
“How could you know that, Madya?” Lois frowned. “No one ever sees the kid. He could have two heads for all we know.”
“We must break in and save him,” Madya grew frantic.
“Madya, are you acting again?” Rosie was growing suspicious.
“No,” Madya shook her head and pressed her ear to the door, “I am growing psychic. I cannot explain these things. We must get in there now!”
“Nothing doing,” Ruth found her voice.
“Are you serious, Madya,” laughed Terri, “we could get arrested doing that!”
“Not if my Roxy does it for us,” Madya offered matter-of-factly.
As suddenly as Madya’s appearance, as if on cue, little Roxy appeared out of nowhere. Her red, white, and blue Gypsy dress and blouse was filthy for wear, and her dark round face was covered with grime.
“Why isn’t that child in school?” Rosie asked with concern.
“Roxy is only four years old,” she explained. “She seems much older than she is.”
“Her clothes are filthy, and she needs a bath” Ruth said in a small voice.
“Enough of this idle chat.” Madya waved dismissively. “Roxy will find a way in.”
“Wait a minute.” Maureen held out her hands. “I don’t want any part in this!”
Roxy followed the foundation of the building, which overlapped he bottom of the building, on her toes while gripping the windowsill, which on the rude government housing amounted to a splintery two-by four. It almost seemed as if she had done this before. When she was at the window, she merely scooted the unlatched window open and crawled simian-like into the room.
“Dear God!” cried Maureen.
“I been drinking,” Terri confessed with a giggle. “This might be hard to explain.”
At that point, the five other women began retreating, leaving Madya standing alone on the porch. Then, after hearing Roxy call out “Mama! Mama!” the door opened awkwardly and Roxy came struggling out with little Noel in her tiny arms. Madya quickly scooped the wheezing boy up and immediately laid him on the ground.
“He’s turning blue!” Rosie wrung her hands.
“He’s having an asthma attack,” declared Madya calmly. “I’ve seen that before. Listen to his chest. Poor little Noel.” ”Here little one,” she drew out a tiny blue vial; this will make you feel better. ”
“What is that?” asked Maureen. “Is that dope?”
“It’s all right,” Madya said, opening the tiny bottle and waving it in front of the boy's nose. “Grandma has asthma too. Let him breathe it in a while, and it will lessen the paroxysms.”
“All right Madya.” Terri wrinkled her nose, dropping down on her haunches to sniff the bottle. “What’s in the bottle? Smells like cleaning fluid to me. You sure you know what you’re doing?”
Madya withdrew the bottle, and reached into a pocket in her skirt and brought out a small rag. After pouring the fluid on the rag, she held it up to the boys face. Soon the wheezing stopped. Noel Bridger looked up at the five women, frightened of these strange she-creatures who resembled his mother. It was the first time he had seen human beings other than his parents. He really could not consider his mischievous older brother human, but the smallness of Roxy appealed to him now. He held out his little hands to her and flexed his fingers as toddlers often do.
“There-there little one,” Madya consoled him, as she cradled him in her arms. “Here, Roxy,” she directed gently, “he wants you. I think you’ve made a new friend.”
“Hi Noel,” murmured Roxy, gently squeezing his little hand.
Noel looked up into Roxy’s dark eyes unwaveringly for several moments as the five women discussed this event. Of all the faces on earth hers would haunt him the most throughout his long, often troubled life, but this hour, with his primitive and undeveloped perceptions of life, he was not quite sure what she was. She was not a she-creature like his mother or a he-creature, like his father. Nor was she a beastie-boy like his older brother, who hated him for being born.
Who was this warm, purring creature? He wondered. Roxy was special. Roxy had fallen immediately in love with her little neighbor, her desire to have a baby brother now seemingly fulfilled by her brave act. Noel sensed in his toddler’s mind that he had found protectors, foremost of which was the little girl cuddling him now.
Then suddenly, from nowhere, a familiar voice rang out that made Noel’s heart-shaped face contort in fear.
“It’s her,” Madya looked up into Rosie, Maureen, Lois, Terri, and Ruth’s frightened faces. “Don’t be afraid. Let me do the talking.”
“How we gonna explain this?” Lois murmured to Maureen.
“What are you doing?” screeched Louise as she dragged her four-year-old son Aaron along by his arm.
Aaron, who was simpering now, had candy apple smeared all over his face. He looked pampered yet exhausted from a morning’s shopping. Louise was holding several packages with her free hand. As she exited her automobile, she had looked haggard from her ordeal with Aaron, but now her face was animated with rage. The secret was out, Terri was certain. Her little bastard had become public. In Rosie and Madya’s minds, however, no such suspicion came, but it seemed unconscionable that this beautiful child had been hidden for so long in his home.
Maureen, Lois, and Ruth were merely terrified by this dreadful woman. What would she do when she found out her house had been broken into to retrieve the child? Would she call the police or just attack them with maniacal rage?
“Why is my son in the arms of that little wretch?” Louise’s pretty face became an ugly mask. “You damn Gypsies got some nerve? What are you doing here Terri? And you in cahoots with them brauds?”
“Your son nearly died from an asthma attack.” Madya stepped forward, as Roxy continued to hug Noel. “We heard his screaming. When the screaming stopped, I called out but no one was home, but the door was unlocked, so I went in and brought him out. He’s all right now, but you shouldn’t leave an asthmatic child alone like this.”
“It’s none of your damn business,” Louise said acidly. “My son doesn’t have asthma. He was just throwing a tantrum. I can’t take both of my sons everywhere I go.”
“You never take Noel,” Roxy said boldly.
“Get your filthy hands off my son,” Louise snarled. “That’s none of your business!”
“We made it our business,” Rosie said, folding her arms. “If Madya hadn’t given Noel that medicine, he’d a died. And all you can do is act like the stuffy bitch you are and frighten that sweet child!”
Maureen and Lois felt great pride and respect for their friend and gave her a spontaneous hug. Even the timid Ruth was bristling with anger at Louise’s attitude at such at time.
“Rosie’s right,” Terri came forward menacingly, “you really are a bitch! You talk to me like that and I’ll knock you on your ass!”
Aaron ran into the house, probably to use the restroom, totally unaffected by this conversation. He had probably seen his mother this way before. Louise reached down, without another word, rudely raised Noel up into her arms, and stormed into her house.
“You hurt that kid and I’ll kick your ass!” Terri shouted after her.
“Now, now, that’s the liquor talking Terri,” Rosie patted her back. “That woman will have you arrested if you touch her. I got a better idea.”
“We’ll all watch out for little Noel,” Ruth piped up. “Ira and I live the closest to the Bridgers. I can hear almost everything that goes on in there if I open my living room window and listen in.”
“My thoughts exactly!” Rosie smiled at Ruth.
“Hey, you really came out of the closet!” exclaimed Lois.
“Well, that woman reminds me of a Nazi!” Ruth frowned. “It’s time to take a stand!”
“In safety there is numbers.” Maureen nodded vigorously.
“Right,” said Rosie, “and my place is directly across the courtyard. If the lines aren’t filled, I can see them coming and going.”
“And now that I gotta find me a job,” offered Terri, “I’ll be moving in and out of the Projects a lot. I can do a lot of eavesdropping myself. Maybe I’ll run into the bitch a few times and scare the shit outta her.”
“No, no, Terri” Madya shook her head, “Rosie’s right. You gonna get in trouble if you hit that woman. Maybe she’s got herself a gun. I got me plenty. No, we all keep an eye on that house. You can snoop around when you come in and out, but the best person to watch little Noel, is my Roxy.”
As they walked away from the Bridger bungalow, Madya explained to the women that Roxy had the gift. Even as a small child, she had her old grandmother’s gift of knowing, which she explained, was much greater than mere psychic powers. Many times, now, without knowing what it was, she had pointed in the direction of the Bridger place, mute for lack of words for her limited four-year-old vocabulary…. Now, the Gypsy woman declared with an element of drama, she understood that Roxy knew that poor Noel was in trouble.
“You don’t have the gift?” Rosie asked, as they stood amongst the bellowing sheets.
“No, I can read cards and tea leaves, but not that,” Madya said sadly. ”But I can interpret much of her feelings. One time she was carrying on something fierce, and by trial and error, using a piece of chalk and blackboard, I figured out that her uncle Roman was having a heart attack.”
“Did you save him?” Terri asked bluntly.
“No,” she confessed, “Roman, who lives in New York, died that very night.”
“Oh dear,” Maureen held her face.
“Well, Madya,” Rosie was filled with purpose, “what now?”
“How about some tea,” the Gypsy’s stony expression broke into a smile that beguiled them all.
“Sure!” Rosie, Maureen and Ruth all seemed to say at once.
“You got any coffee,” Terri made a face.
As they followed Madya to her project, they wondered what they would find in her shadowy house. It was common, though incorrect, knowledge that Madya practiced the black arts. Ruth believed she was a witch. When they entered her house, however, they were surprised to find paintings of Mary, Jesus, and several Roman Catholic saints on the walls. The strange odors they expected to find in her spooky apartment wafted in the air, and yet there were prayer-hand bookends on each side of a large bible sitting on a circular table and religious objects sitting in various corners of the main room.
“Let me make you my special tea,” she cackled. “I have something to show you.”
“Don’t be adding any of your medicinal roots,” Terri replied half-seriously.
“What does she want to show us?” Ruth muttered nervously. “Her cauldron?”
“I don’t think Madya’s a witch.” Lois patted her wrist. “She’s just strange.”
“I’m impressed with her religious stuff,” said Rosie, gazing around the room. “Look at all those statues and that big bible. She’s got more pictures of Mary and Jesus than me.”
When Madya returned from the tiny kitchen that was found in all of the project bungalows, Roxy was assisting her with a tray of cups, as her mother carried a large teapot into the room. After setting the pot down on a small table, she waited for Roxy to set the cups and saucers before her guests, and then poured every one a cup of tea. After dismissing Roxy with a pat on her head, she sat down in a large, high-backed chair befitting a matriarch, and motioned with a nod for everyone to take a sip.
“What is this?” Terri made a face. “It tastes weird.”
“I think it’s delicious,” Maureen said, after doctoring it up with cream and sugar.
Unruffled Madya replied, “It’s sassafras tea. Terri doesn’t like it, but Maureen has turned it into a European espresso. Rosie, Lois, Ruth, and I are drinking it straight up like good whiskey”
“What were you going to show us?” Terri came straight to the point.
“Oh yes,” Madya replied, setting down her cup. “Roxy,” she called blithely, “bring me Alba’s kit.”
“Alba’s kit?” muttered Ruth. “I don’t like the sound of that.”
“Hush!” Rosie placed a finger before her lips.
In barely a moment, Roxy trudged into the room carrying a brightly colored box.
“My-my,” Lois said with a grin, “that box is almost as big as you.”
“This is isn’t witchy stuff?” Terri blurted, as she sat it down on the table. “Those look like devil signs to me!”
“They’re not witches symbols nor signs of Satan,” Madya reassured her, lifting off the lid. “I’m a Christian woman, who respects the old religion for its benefits to mankind. This box and its contents were given to me by Alba, a matriarch of the Romani people.”
“Who’re the Romani?” Rosie tilted her head quizzically. “That sounds like Italian.”
“It’s the ancient name of my people,” explained Madya. “It means simply ‘man.’ There are Gypsies almost everywhere in Europe and the United States. I never liked the word Gypsy. I looked it up once. European people thought our ancestors came from Egypt because of their dark skin, but the truth is we came from India in the sixth century. After hundreds of years we’re almost everywhere, even in Australia and New Zeeland. I’m happy being called an American like you Rosie.”
“So, whose this person, Alba?” Lois asked bluntly. “I’ve never met anyone around here with that name.”
“No, you wouldn’t,” Madya smiled at her. “She is more traditional than Roxy and me. Her people live in the wagons you see in the vacant lot near the bridge.”
“Oh, you mean them squatters,” Terri snickered. “I heard they were a bunch of cutthroats and thieves.”
“Once,” Madya paused to lecture Terri, “everyone was a nomad—people wandering around and looking for game to feed their families. Gradually they squatted in various places and settled down. Many of my fellow Romani have not settled down yet. Some of them might be cutthroats and thieves but so are other Americans.”
“Yeah, Terri,” Rosie glared at her. “Many Italians, my people, are mobsters. That don’t mean I’m one.”
“Let’s get on with it.” Maureen motioned impatiently. “What’s in the box?”
Madya looked around the group and prefaced her statement: “That poor little boy won’t survive those people. What I have here will protect him the rest of his life.”
“So, show us already.” Ruth threw up her hands.
“Have you heard of the Gypsy rose?” she asked, presenting ajar.
They studied the rose floating in the jar. It looked like any ordinary red rose.
“That looks like one of them flowers in front of Noel’s bungalow,” observed Maureen.
“Precisely,” Madya said, reaching in to extract the rose. “It belongs to the person, whom I must curse.”
“And how do you do that?” Lois cocked an eyebrow.
“The water in which I immersed the rose is sacred, blessed by Alba—a Romani seer, who used Christianity mixed with the old religion to help her people—”
“Wait a minute,” Ruth raised her hand. “I don’t like the sound of this.”
“Me neither,” exclaimed Maureen.
“Madya,” Rosie shook her head in dismay, “we’re god-fearing women. This sounds like black magic. How you gonna perform this curse?”
“Listen,” Madya snapped, rolling her eyes. “Get it through your thick skulls. I’m not a witch. Did you see all my pictures and my bible? I can quote scripture if you wish.”
“Hah!” Terri snorted. “That don’t mean nothin. I don’t know any scripture, but I know witchcraft when I hear it.”
“Yeah,” agreed Maureen. “It sounds like witchcraft to me?”
“Let-me-finish!” Madya cried succinctly. “Open your Judeo-Christian minds! The curse will not harm anyone, only put them on the right path. I would never use Alba’s potion to kill or maim. I’ll use it just to wake them up.”
“You mean Noel’s parents?” Lois eyed her with suspicion.
“Yes, of course,” she nodded. “Can I please finish?”
“I don’t believe any of this?” Terri looked at her friends. “You really believe this shit?”
“Yeah,” Maureen bobbed her head, “I heard about these people. They got fortunetellers and palm readers. Why not witches.”
“For the last time,” Madya exploded, “I’m not a witch!”
“Come on girls,” chided Rosie, “give her a chance. Madya’s just trying to help.”
After a moment of silence, the Gypsy woman took a petal from the rose and, pulling out a vial, which seemed to materialize out of thin air, placed the petal inside. During this procedure, the five women grew fascinated much as onlookers watching a snake charmer of practitioner of the black arts. Blowing on the vial, she shook it vigorously, and consecrated it with an ancient Gypsy blessing. The words she spoke were mumbled. When Terri tried to interrupt in order to ask her what she was saying, Rosie elbowed her in the ribs.
“It’s Romani,” Madya explained. “To complete the spell, I’ll need my crystal ball.”
“Dear God,” Ruth groaned, “I want no part of this.”
Ruth started to rise but found herself drawn to the conclusion of the spell. Terri, who tried to make fun of Madya’s actions, giggled hysterically, while Maureen, Lois, and Rosie seemed frozen in their chairs. Roxy, apparently signaled by Madya, appeared again carrying the crystal ball, which she sat down reverently before her mother. What followed transformed even the skeptic Terri into a believer. Almost immediately, as Madya moved her hands over the crystal, an image appeared in the glass: Noel sitting alone on the floor, sucking his thumb, a lost expression on his tear-stained face. That fateful moment, perfectly timed for her purposes, Noel’s father returned earlier than normal from his job at the Railroad. A pipe protruded from his scowling face as he entered the bungalow. A voice in the background, was shouting, “I can’t potty train him. He’s not like Aaron. That time Aaron dropped him must’ve addled his brain.”
“I’ll potty-train him,” his father swore. “A few good swats are what he needs!”
“Those bastards!” shrieked Terri. “Give’em hell, Madya.”
Pausing to pour the vial on the crystal ball, Madya mumbled more Romani, and lapsed briefly into English. “Kalbeliya, protector of children, with the Christian god’s blessing, send a curse for his tormentors. The next time his parents attempt to beat him, they will be stricken. The offending hand will burn like fire. The offending voice will grow mute. The offending eyes with feel as if dust had been thrown in their face.”
With wide, unblinking eyes, they watched as Madya, poured more rose water onto the crystal ball and mumbled more unintelligible words. The women sensed that Madya was practicing the old Gypsy religion but said nothing until she finished her chant. After a moment of silence, in which, Madya prayed mutely, they erupted into chatter.
“That-that’s fantastic,” Terri sputtered. “How’d you do it? Was it a trick? How’d you get those little people inside that globe?
“That wasn’t no trick,” Rosie murmured in awe. “That was magic. Those magicians, palm-readers, and fortune-tellers we saw in the circus last summer were all fakes. They use slight of hand and trickery, but Madya has great power!”
“Yes,” Maureen nodded, “if she’s not a witch, she’s a wizard.”
“I wish I could see it happen,” muttered Lois. “Just for a few moments, I’d like to be a fly on their wall.”
“Why do we have to wait?” Ruth posed the question. “Give’em hell now!”
Gazing into her crystal ball, Madya cackled with glee, “Say no more, my friends. Gather around—behold!”
As if to demonstrate all three parts of the Gypsy curse upon Noel’s parents, his mother reached down to rap his head as she often did, and immediately recoiled.
“Owe!” she howled. “Must be static electricity.”
Reaching down as if to test her hypothesis, she received another jolt that caused her to scream angrily down at the boy, but as she opened her mouth, her voice caught in his throat. In fact, when she tried to speak again, she felt a burning in her throat, as if she was stricken with laryngitis. As the five women watched in amazement, Noel’s mother rubbed her eyes, which smarted after the evil look she gave her son.
In the background, behind his gyrating wife, his father was screaming, “What’s wrong? Have you gone crazy? What happened to your voice? Why’re you rubbing your eyes?”
Experimentally it appeared, Noel’s father reached down to touch him and received a slight jolt. Withdrawing his hand quickly, he backed away in fear. That moment, as the little boy stood up, and cracked a beguiling smile, he seemed to stare out of orb at his audience. While the mother ran into the bathroom to rinse her eyes, Noel’s father looked down at him with newfound respect.
“You really did it, Madya,” Rosie declared light-headedly. “You put a spell on them. It really worked!”
“Ho, ho” crowed Terri, “those sons-of-bitches will think twice before they mess with Noel!”
“But it’s not natural,” cried Ruth, “it’s not religious. She did that with magic, not prayer.”
“Madya!” Maureen shook her arm. “Will this follow Noel the rest of his life or will it only happen in his childhood? This is an important detail. Please answer.”
Madya remained silent. For several moments the five women chattered amongst themselves. As Madya sat in her high-backed chair looking down at her orb, however, the crystal ball clouded and returned to its translucent state. Lois touched it reverently, as if it was a sacred thing. Roxy ran back into the room now. “It’ll do no good,” she held out her hands pleadingly. “The orb is empty now. My mother must rest.”
Maureen, Rosie, Terri, Lois, and Ruth left the bungalow, united in their concern for Noel, but fearful of what they had unleashed.
“You call her what you want to,” Ruth muttered faintly, “but that woman’s a witch!”
“Yeah.” Terri nodded dreamily. “That ain’t no lie.”
“No,” Rosie replied thoughtfully, “she said she wasn’t it. Maybe she’s a wizard, like Merlin. Witches are evil.
“Yeah,” Lois agreed hesitantly, “… Madya’s got Noel’s best interest at heart.”
“The question is,” Maureen exhaled uneasily, “ ‘how long will the spell last?’ and ‘will little Noel zap his playmates someday?’ What about when he grows up and zaps a co-worker or his wife?”
By now the children had returned home from school, hungry and out of sorts. Because Lois, Maureen, and Ruth’s husbands were coming home from work at this hour, the women returned home to be with their families. Terri returned home to an empty house and unfinished fifth of gin; except for her friendship with her neighbors her future seemed bleak. With Alphonso at work, Rosie fixed her children supper, and then, when her children were in bed, slipped out of her bungalow and made her way, flashlight in hand, to the Bridger house. Standing there a moment, she listened carefully for several moments, and then, hearing only quiet murmurs, retraced her steps, satisfied that Madya’s curse had worked.
In the weeks and months ahead, a bond of camaraderie, they would share their experience in Madya’s house. Though, after the war, their families would move away to distant towns, they would remain lifelong friends. For the rest of his life, the elixir of the Gypsy Rose would protect Noel against his parents; this they didn’t doubt. What had concerned them after Maureen brought it up, was how Noel might use the curse. Madya had given him great power. Even now, after only a few days of seeing their reactions after each hostile look or word, Noel grew in this knowledge. As he grew older, he would experiment by breaking one of his mother's favorite ceramics or shattering one of his father’s pipes, delighting at the sight of them blinking or trying to speak. No longer did they trifle with him physically, except to cater to his needs. Eventually, the hard, mean words and harsh looks vanished completely and were replaced by honeyed tones, circumspect looks, and a gentle, caring touch. If a playmate mistreated him, he would never do it again. Bullies and teases shunned him, and he became the protector of the meek. If a teacher scolded him, his punishment came swiftly as it did for anyone else bringing on his ire. All it took was a mean word or look, and God help anyone who touched him in anger. They would instantly suffer the Gypsy’s curse!