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The Stolen – An Extract

Prologue

Forest, Ukraine, 1943

The mist drifted up from the river into the forest. It crept like silence across the caravans clustered around a smouldering campfire, the painted wagons an oasis of colour against the dark lattice of the surrounding trees. In the small clearing the horses, corralled by a makeshift fence, waited, like ancient ghosts, for daybreak.

Curled up against her younger brother under the large goose-feather dunha spread beneath her family’s vurdon, Keja shifted uneasily then returned to her dreaming.
The soldiers slipped quietly through the trees, the greygreen uniforms and black helmets blending with the mosscovered branches. The muzzled dogs pulling on the end of short leashes, eager to hunt.

SS officer Ulrich Vosshoffner watched his men fan out noiselessly as they sighted the caravans. He was proud of them; they had understood the need for surprise. Under his command no Nazi lives would be wasted on the Untermensch.

The monk’s words echoed through his mind. When you set eyes upon this Madonna of the night your soul is lost and as a man you cannot sleep . . . They had seared themselves into his memory ever since he first read them in an eighteenth-century book, one of over a thousand his taskforce had plundered from the Pskov fortress. The gypsies have kept her hidden for so long she is now less than a rumour, but today I saw her for myself, in a camp of coppersmiths and my eyes are burned and my soul is ruined by the glistening of her strange metal. May the Good Lord save me from the Devil.

Until a week ago the only clue he had was the name of the Kalderash family the relic was said to belong to – Stiriovic. There had been false leads and raids that led to nothing. Then a priest involved with the local resistance broke under torture, giving up his comrades and information that a group of Kalderash gypsies known by the same name were hiding in the area. Yet every time Ulrich and his men arrived at the next possible location the gypsies had vanished. Until a farmer betrayed his neighbour, who he claimed had been sheltering the gypsies on his land.

It was the same farmer who had led the German officer through the undergrowth a few feet ahead, cap pulled low around his cauliflower ears, confident of his neighbour’s terrain. Ulrich had no illusions of loyalty; the peasant was motivated by greed, territory and xenophobia – three components of human psychology that always rose to the fore in wartime. So, despite being thankful for the lead, Ulrich intended to have him executed after the raid.

At a small rise the farmer had dropped to the ground, indicating that the soldiers should stay back. Ulrich joined
him, then looked through his binoculars. Beyond the thinning mist he could just make out the ring of caravans, and supine figures, children and men, still sleeping, the horses grazing peacefully. A frozen snapshot of tranquillity that Ulrich had the power to shatter with a wave of his hand. He was almost tumescent with excitement.

Just then a stallion caught wind of the dogs. Rearing, it whinnied nervously, eyes rolling back in fear. At the sound one of the men sat up. A caravan door swung open and a wizened old
woman, dressed in a long black skirt and beaded red blouse, her ears and neck hung with gold coin jewellery, peered blindly in Ulrich’s direction. For an uncanny moment he had the
uncomfortable sensation she was staring directly at him.

With a sharp sweep of his arm he gestured: Advance! Immediately a dozen of the dogs were released and the world became a cacophony of stomping feet and barking animals. The woman, shocked, ran stumbling through the campsite, waving her arms as gypsies leaped to their feet, some halfdressed, reaching for horsewhips, shovels, pitchforks, anything that could be used as a weapon. Ulrich smiled. Today he was a God.

Keja woke to screaming, running feet, and the sound of neighing horses. Numb with sleep she looked around her. At the far edge of the camp a wall of soldiers appeared to be marching on them, pulled by snarling Alsatians. Zeleno, her little brother, clung to her waist in fright. Grabbing him, she crawled between the upturned buckets and boxes; hiding behind one of the caravan’s large wooden wheels she peered through the struts, trying to make sense of the chaos. Gypsy men were everywhere: pulling up stakes, trying to control the panicking horses as they threw harnesses over them, several straddling the horses bare-backed. Two of the riders scrambled up the other side of the valley. Keja recognised her older brother Yojo from his bright yellow kerchief, and her cousin Zurka. A single gunshot rang out, and Zurka was jolted back and fell from his horse, a great red stain spreading out from the centre of his naked back.

Yojo paused, looking back, then turned and galloped beyond the trees. The camp abruptly fell silent before a huge wail sounded out from the women, some of whom had been rounded up. Keja tried not to scream with them. The dogs were close. She could smell their damp fur, their hot breath. She huddled against the wheel terrified, her hand clamped over four-year-old Zeleno’s mouth. They both watched the soldiers haul the remaining families from their caravans. Suddenly there was the sound of someone being dragged down the steps above her. Horrified, she watched as the commanding officer, a young man in control with his crisp uniform, with sharp, sudden orders, marched Arpad, her half-dressed father, over to the others.

‘You are the capo, non?’ the officer barked at him, his gun pointed at her father’s head.

Arpad looked him in the eye. ‘Yes, I am the Rom baro.’

Ulrich smiled and lifted his gun to her father’s temple. ‘Then you can tell me where the statuette is hidden, can’t you?’

‘What statuette?’ he replied, his voice steady.

Furious, Ulrich hit the gypsy’s head with the butt of his gun. Arpad staggered, but stayed on his feet, a streak of blood running down his temple.

Pressed against the wheel, Keja clutched the amulet she wore, the amulet her baba had given her.

Ulrich stood over her father, oblivious to her existence.

‘Don’t fool with me! Gypsies always have treasure!’

Arpad stared defiantly at the officer, refusing to say anything.

‘I will kill your wife and then your children one by one in front of you,’ the officer said coldly.

The leader remained silent.

Ulrich glanced back at the caravan, at a painted panel above the door of a Madonna figure set against a night sky. Around her head in an arc floated four symbols: a cross, a nail, a hand pointing up and another pointing down.

Madonna of the night.

He gestured to one of the soldiers, who climbed up the steps and prised open the panel with his bayonet. It splintered with a loud cracking noise as the soldier reached up and pulled the last of the wood free, revealing a recess in which was a small, ornate trunk. He brought it to Ulrich. It was padlocked with a heavy brass lock.

‘Open it!’ Ulrich demanded.

The gypsy didn’t move.

Calmly, Ulrich shot him in the head and Arpad’s body jerked back and thudded heavily on the ground.

Beneath the caravan, Keja turned her brother’s face away from the sight of her father staring blindly at them from the ground, blood welling from the large hole in his forehead. Standing among the huddled onlookers, her mother began screaming but was silenced by the butt of a rifle. Shaking with terror, the girl started mouthing a curse she had learned from her grandmother. It was the curse of all curses, the most terrible of all deaths to wish on a living soul: an invocation that condemned a man to die by the hand of his own child and for his soul to wander without rest for ever. A curse so secret and powerful that her baba had taken her out to the middle of a field, a place they could see was empty for miles around, before teaching it to her. Now Keja’s breath etched a cobweb spell against the chilly air, her determination a razor-sharp knife that she willed into the young officer’s body. She would kill this man with her baba’s curse – either now or later. She would avenge her father.

The curse slipped across the grass like an invisible snake to wind itself around the officer’s neck. Oblivious, Ulrich turned back to the chest and shot the lock off the trunk.

Inside, a large object covered with a woven cloth lay on top of a pile of old Ottoman gold coins, a gold necklace and earrings. He reached in and lifted it out, incredulous that at last he might have found the actual statuette, the weight and hidden shape of it painfully tantalising as his fingers, clumsy with excitement, unwrapped it.

The statuette was of a four-armed woman: in her top-left hand she held a golden cross, in her lower left what appeared to be a large iron nail; while with her top-right hand she held up a curved sword triumphantly as the lower right hand pointed down to hell. Wrought from a metal Ulrich had never seen before, its surface a glittery blue-grey, it was exactly as he had read, the expression on the statuette’s face both serene and disturbingly sinister. This was it, the prize he’d been tracking for months.

Peeling off his leather gloves, he ran his fingers across the statuette, fascinated. Immediately he felt an unpleasant tingling extending down his hands and wrists. He recoiled in surprise and looked up. Around the camp the mist had lifted and in the sunlight the metal sparkled and glinted, as if tiny diamonds lay buried in its curious surface. He carefully placed it back into the trunk, noticing several of the gypsies shielding their eyes as if looking upon the relic might be a sacrilege or harmful.

So this is the real artefact, he observed, trying to conceal his excitement.

As he knelt to close the lid of the trunk, he heard a faint whimper from beneath the caravan. He peered under it.
Staring back at him was a young girl, about twelve years old and she was astonishingly beautiful. It was then that he decided she alone would live.

 

Chapter One

Küsnacht, near Zürich, Switzerland, 1982

It was starting again, the vision a leviathan rising from the depths of fear – inevitable, unstoppable, paralysing, and always the same. But before Liliane could wake herself she
was pulled into the vortex, into the last minutes of her mother’s life.

The staccato of the pine trees as they flashed past, the weight of the snow beneath the skis, the feel of the wind rushing by her – the stark silence of the vision as petrifying as the inevitability of her mother’s death. One tree, two trees, three trees, she counted, the dread a huge lump in her chest; by tree six if Liliane could scream she would, but she couldn’t – she was trapped in her mother’s body, in a frozen memory that had lived on inside her own consciousness. Tree seven was now in sight, and in that moment it began, as it always began, a shockwave, from the left face of the mountain as if the very air were shuddering. Liliane, looking through her mother’s eyes, turned towards the great bank of snow that had peeled away and was now descending the mountain, a slow, powdery ripple of horrifying beauty. The terror, both her mother’s and her own, rushed through her before her mother’s body was knocked into a suffocating blackness that grew heavier and heavier until she could breathe no longer—

Liliane woke bolt upright in her bed, the shadowy walls of the bedroom pulling into focus as she gasped for breath – her posters of The Clash, the pouting David Bowie, the side table with the pots of make-up and vinyl records scattered over it, the turntable, the electric guitar leaning up against the wall, prosaic in polished wood and metal struts: normal life, immediately anchoring in its banality. But as she finally relaxed back against the pillow something glinting on the carpet caught the moonlight. She looked over. Her mother’s body lay twisted on the floor, her limbs broken and tangled with her skis. At the sight Liliane found herself screaming.

In seconds lamplight flooded the room. Matthias, a tall, angular man in his late thirties, stood blinking in the brightness, his large hands dangling awkwardly by his sides, Liliane’s hair a veil as she rocked herself in the bed.

‘Liliane, it’s me, Papa,’ he ventured softly, hating the way these trances of hers transformed her into something alien, a creature he couldn’t reach. He waited awkwardly for permission to comfort her, the hesitancy of a father confronted with his adolescent daughter’s fragility. She looked so vulnerable, her narrow shoulders shaking, her eyes staring up at him, still unseeing. Then risking rejection, Matthias moved to the bed to pull her into an embrace. Her painfully thin body, initially resistant, folded against him.

‘Was it the same?’ he whispered.

She nodded. She’d never been able to tell him the truth about what she experienced during these episodes – how, sitting in a playground in Zürich, she’d found herself swept into the mind of her mother dying on the mountain four years ago, and how those few petrifying minutes then came back again and again, woven into the visions she’d always had, even as a small child. Instead she shut down, nestling her face into his chest like she used to.

‘Imaginary phantoms, they can’t hurt you.’ He tried, and failed, to sound as if he believed it himself.

‘If they can’t hurt me, why can’t I control them?’

Uncertain of the answer, Matthias couldn’t return her gaze. Hiding the shame he felt at his own inadequacy, he got up to switch off the lights.

‘Go back to sleep, it’s not even five.’

He waited until she’d settled back down into the blankets then shut the door behind him. Overcome, he leaned against the corridor wall, face in his hands.

The year before, Liliane had been arrested for possession of a couple of grams of heroin. Because of the family’s contacts she’d been released with a warning. She’d told her father drugs were the only way of blocking her ‘visions’ and since then Matthias had been playing a dangerous guessing game about whether his fifteen-year-old daughter had started taking heroin again, helpless as she wrestled with the hallucinogenic episodes that would suddenly absent her completely from the world.

Where did I go wrong? It has to be my fault, Matthias’s guilt pounded in his head. But guilty of what? Liliane had always been an odd child, marooned in her own imagination. However, since his wife’s death she’d withdrawn even further. Matthias had buried his own sorrow in work and he couldn’t help feeling he’d made a fatal mistake not trying harder to help Liliane with her own grieving. With a sigh he stepped away from the wall then re-entered his study to continue the letter he’d begun earlier.

. . . Marie, I’m frightened I’m failing her . . . Liliane’s
visions seem to be getting worse, but she won’t tell me
what they are actually of. Yet when I try to talk to our
daughter about it she accuses me of trying to rationalise
the irrational. I remember you saying that to me once.
Am I really that detached when it comes to my
emotions? Liliane’s so different from me but I think
we share the same brittle vulnerability. She has my
wary way of approaching a subject and turning it round
and round before passing verdict, yet she’s got your
spontaneous humour. But I can’t think when I last saw
her laugh . . . She’s stopped playing the violin and has
taken up electric guitar. Punk music, horrible and
discordant, fills the whole house when she’s practising.
And now she hates my own playing. It is as if she’s
become ashamed of me. I don’t understand any of
it . . .

Matthias glanced over ruefully at the flute resting on the music stand in the corner of the study. He daren’t pick it up so early in the morning. Music was his way of sorting the chaos of a world he often didn’t understand into pristine patterns that would fill the air and float about his head like iridescent butterflies. Once he played to his wife; now he played alone furtively.

There was one refrain he liked to play over and over. A dozen notes melded together to make the beginning of a poignant melody. He couldn’t even remember where he had heard it. It certainly didn’t exist in any of his scored music, and yet he had the feeling he hadn’t invented the tune, but that somehow it was embedded in his memory. It had haunted him as long as he could remember.

He glanced back down at the page. Even in death his wife would not miss the progress of their only child growing up. The letters themselves were a conduit to an imaginary world in which Marie continued to live, and their lives spun on as before, untouched by tragedy. After finishing them, Matthias would burn each page as if reducing the paper to carbon was the alchemy of sending them into that invented afterlife. A pointless ritual, he knew, but he kept writing anyhow.

The thirty-eight-year-old physicist had woken an hour earlier wrestling with the atomic structure of another alloy. He’d lain there with a half-formed equation of elements dancing lke cartoon characters on a music score, tantalisingly just out of reach. After a while he’d given up and come to the desk to write the letter. It had been four in the morning. Time does not flow evenly, he observed with a small ironic smile, but stutters forward, like life, like entropy. As if in answer, outside a lone bird started a thin, doubtful piping. Perhaps he too is uncertain dawn will come, Matthias thought to himself, yawning.

Beyond the jagged sentinels of the fir trees, the lights of Küsnacht had begun to switch on, one pinprick of yellow after another. Matthias stretched his exhausted muscles, then glanced over at the clock. Five . . . The lonely hour, the chasing-mortality-away hour, his wife used to call it, her attempt to excuse her habit of waking and pushing her warm body into his – a prelude to making love whether he wanted to or not. Covering his eyes with his hand, he tried to press his spinning brain back into an equilibrium, away from memories. It didn’t work; the void Marie had left was always there no matter how many times he tried to fold his mind over it. When she’d died so suddenly, the epiphany he’d experienced – that he had never been truly vulnerable with her – had been one of his greatest regrets. Her death had made him realise that it had always been a fear of loss that held him back. But he’d lost her anyway and now he was in real danger of losing his daughter.

 

Every clock behind the heavy plate glass read the same: five o’clock. Gadjé time. The non-gypsy world was divided up into digits and scribbles Yojo didn’t understand, and didn’t care to. In his world it was seasons, the moon and the rising and falling sun that marked the hours and the years. He looked across at the elegant brass plaque set discreetly to the side of the large oak door. It was simple: a square divided into triangles. To anybody else it was merely a company logo, a cleverly devised symbol that suggested antiquity and a trustworthy quality that was beyond price. To Yojo it suggested something else entirely. He glanced down the cobbled lane. He had chosen the ghost hour, when the Niederdorf would be empty, to come to the small, exclusive showroom. When he’d walked down Bahnhofstrasse, one of the most exclusive shopping malls on the planet, it had been absolutely silent except for a single pealing church bell; even so, Yojo was nervous as he turned into the lanes of the medieval town.

The faint drone of a machine made him swing round; a mechanised street cleaner was slowly making its way down the In Gassen. The driver would be wondering what a gypsy was doing right outside one of the most exclusive watch companies in Switzerland. No, he wouldn’t wonder – he would think him a thief. Yojo knew it. He’d lived his whole life trying to stay invisible; sometimes he’d succeeded, but not always. Instinctively, the Kalderash slipped an olive- skinned hand, hardened by decades working gold and copper, into a jacket pocket to touch the amulet his sister Keja had given him. It wasn’t there. Blessed with second sight, she hadn’t wanted him to go, but for once he knew he had to ignore her warnings. Without the amulet he felt particularly vulnerable.

Ever since he’d visited the records office two days before, he’d had the uncanny impression his shadow had another shadow skipping just behind, breathing behind his breath. He knew this fear. He knew it from the time of the gadjé war: the war that had pulled his people into her black mouth, seven hundred thousand of them – seven hundred thousand souls now without a voice.

‘If my time has come, I cannot fight it, it is written,’ he whispered in Romanes. The sentence hung in the light of the setting moon then vanished with his courage. Easy to talk, hard to act – Yojo tried to stop his old heart from beating like that of a frightened stallion. I am here for her, he told himself; she belongs to my people; my father was murdered protecting her.

Yojo looked back down the street. The cleaning machine had come closer, the driver obscure behind a cloudy shield of plastic, the brushes whirling madly against the cobblestones.
He reached up to the panel beside the entrance and traced the logo with his fingers. He knew the clue to finding her lay somewhere inside this building, but where? In the past, present and future. The answer seemed to be spun from the very air itself, as if She, the Goddess, had answered him, as if Time itself had begun to collide with Memory.

A wise gypsy would run now, but he didn’t want to be wise, he wanted to be brave. He’d waited too many years. But the heavy door with its many locks was impenetrable. He needed another way of getting in, a trickster’s way. Just then he heard a slight sound and, before he had a chance to turn, the bullet went cleanly through the side of his head. He fell heavily, the yellow kerchief stained with blood, one arm stretching out, the tattooed number on the inside of his wrist clearly visible.

The cleaning machine came to a halt and the assassin disembarked casually, whistling as he strolled to the body. He knelt and carefully laced a raven’s wing between the middle finger and the forefinger of the dead gypsy’s left hand. After a few minutes the machine disappeared round a corner. The assassin didn’t even bother to accelerate.

 

By the time Matthias turned off the Rämistrasse and into the quiet backstreets it was seven o’clock and the sky was the dull metallic grey of a winter dawn. Looking forward to losing himself in his research and escaping Liliane’s troubles, he parked his battered Citroën outside the nineteenth-century building that housed the laboratory he’d set up ten years earlier.

Sanctuary, he thought. One would never guess the classic bourgeois Swiss building with red-tiled turrets and large windows contained a research facility and this anonymity was exactly what Matthias wanted, even though setting up the laboratory with its expensive equipment had forced him to become dependent on financing from the family’s company.
It was a dependency he loathed, knowing it gave his father control.

Matthias had staffed the facility with the brightest physics graduates he could find and in ten years the Kronos Laboratory had discovered six alloys that were superconductive at higher and higher temperatures – a superconductive material at room temperature being the ultimate goal. And despite being the heir apparent to one of the most successful watch dynasties in Zürich, Matthias was determined to be the first in the world to break through the temperature barrier.

Only two days to go to the big pitch, he reminded himself as he grabbed his briefcase. The laboratory was to give a press conference – part of a fundraising campaign the physicist had embarked upon to underwrite the next round of research and begin to free himself financially from his father.
It was essential he demonstrated to potential backers that he was on the brink of discovering a superconductor at room temperature – a discovery that would immortalise him as well as free the world from a dependence on carbon-based fuels. As one of the leading scientists in the field he knew it wasn’t far from becoming a reality.

From a light in a window to the right of the front door Matthias could see that Jannick Lund, his Danish assistant, must have worked all night. He’d known Lund, ten years his junior, was competitive when he hired him, but he’d underestimated the Dane’s hubris and impatience. Jannick felt success wasn’t earned as much as fought for and at first this had served Matthias’s methodology and the two scientists complemented each other. But Jannick had grown tired of the methodical and endless retesting of potential superconductors, a job allotted to the underlings of the laboratory. He was ambitious and was keen to break away from Matthias’s ideas and try out his own. Ironically, his ambition had been the reason why Matthias hired him in the first place, but lately Matthias had sensed resentment from the younger scientist.

The doctor, a Romanian in his late thirties, pumped the rubber band wrapped around Keja’s arm and read her blood pressure. Latcos, her son, watched anxiously; it hadn’t been easy to persuade the doctor to visit the small ghetto of twenty or so homes that had housed the Kalderash family and its extended relatives in the tiny suburb of Timisoara since the Communist regime. But the doctor, who’d had a Rom grandfather, finally came after Latcos told him who his mother was – Keja the poetess – a gypsy whose songs had touched even the gadjé world.

Latcos stood just behind him, worrying that the doctor might inadvertently violate the strict hygiene beliefs of marime. The doctor himself was considered unclean – it was testimony to the intensity of Keja’s illness that Latcos had brought him into the house at all. A slim, handsome man of twenty-eight, Latcos peered out from under his black hat, his light green eyes startling against his dark skin, his four-year-old son Zarka peeping up at the doctor. Keja had fought against the visit – herbs and amulets had always been enough, but since Yojo’s disappearance her defences had crumbled. Her brother was lost, she’d known first thing that morning when a wave of light shot through her, when she’d felt the moment his soul left the earth. She was sure he was dead, but no word had reached the family yet. Distraught, Keja had blamed herself. She should never have given Yojo the name, summoned from those terrible memories she’d kept buried for so many decades. But her brother had reminded her of the stories of the miracles, of how the holy relic could cure as well as destroy, and so, in a moment of weakness, she’d given him the first signpost to a path that could either destroy or enrich the family.
The doctor began packing up his equipment, avoiding her gaze, as if he had a secret to hide, as if her death might be an obscenity.
Shutting him out, she closed her eyes and drifted away from the constant gnawing at her abdomen, taking herself back to a camp they had once made in the time after the dark years, when she was happy, when her Rom were still travelling and she was with her husband and Latcos was barely walking.

The doctor watched his patient’s face. Although she was just over fifty, the gypsy poetess looked like an emaciated seventy-year-old. Sighing, he gestured to the son that they should talk outside.

‘Your mother is holding on through sheer will, but given the agony she’s in, it might be better for her to let go now,’ the doctor said quietly. ‘All her symptoms point to a cancer that has spread through her body. I could arrange for her to be taken to a hospice—’

‘My mother would wish to die among her people.’

The doctor nodded solemnly. ‘I understand.’ He reached into his bag and pulled out a small package, a syringe wrapped in cloth. He held it out almost shyly. ‘Morphine, for when the pain gets unbearable. My wife’s father is a member of the Communist Party – I can get most things but you know how much I risked by coming out here.’

‘Thank you,’ the young man mumbled stiffly, but the doctor didn’t let him finish.

‘It is out of respect; your mother was a great poet.  only wish she was not suffering so.’
Wasted muscles strained under the paper-thin skin as Keja pulled herself up to a sitting position and gestured for her son to draw closer. Latcos stood, as he had as a small child, at the end of his mother’s bed, trying to hide his fear, his confusion at seeing such a strong force of nature felled in this way. Even Zarka fell silent, sensing the solemn occasion.

‘I know I’m dying,’ Keja began, in her story-teller voice, as if she had already begun to see herself in the third person, as a character she had begun to look at, rather than inhabit, ‘and, in truth, I would die now if I could, except I can’t give up my spirit until I find my firstborn.’

Shocked, Latcos stepped forward, convinced he must have misheard; he’d always assumed he had been her only child – to Keja’s great shame there had been no more pregnancies after him. This had made him the capo of his family, the eldest and only son of the eldest son – there could be no usurper.

‘But dej—’ he began, assuming Keja had lost her mind with the pain. Instead, with a jerk of a painfully thin wrist she halted him.

‘Stop! You must listen. Soon I will have no words left and  must tell you about how I survived, how in 1945 I managed to walk out of Buchenwald.’ She paused, taking a breath reedy, whistling. ‘I was twelve when he took me. For two years our people had been running, careful to make ourselves part of the forest, but we were betrayed. They came early, while the horses were still out in the field, two trucks full of soldiers, some of them not much older than me . . .’ She faltered, the panic of that moment, the barking of dogs, the sound of her mother screaming, filling her head. Latcos leaned forward.

‘You don’t have to tell this; it is Past. We are Now. We exist. Nothing else is important.’

His words echoed behind her remembering, but she couldn’t be torn away from the camp.

‘They killed your grandparents, your uncles and your aunts, and they stole our gold and our heirloom. They took her too. Of our Rom, only your uncle Yojo got away, to be captured later . . . your grandfather was shot trying to protect the heirloom that had been in our family as long as time. My other brothers and sisters, even Zeleno, who was only four, all perished – but I survived, at a price much worse than my honour or my soul. There was an SS officer, the one who organised the raid, who stole the heirloom . . .’

Dej, this is not for me to hear!’ Latcos protested, lurching away.

‘You must hear, you must know the truth. He saw me and chose me to be his woman.’ Her statement hung, burning like light. Latcos, flushed with shame, looked to the ground; he wanted to silence his mother, to run and yet she kept talking.

‘I begged him, kill me, anything but not this, but he locked me up for himself. He was careful; there were no knives, not rope, just smooth walls, nothing, not even enough cloth aroundmy body to hang myself with. Many nights I would lie there, wishing for death, for an escape for my spirit; in some ways I was dead already. Instead I became with child. I was thirteen.’

‘No, no, Mother, stop! You brought shame to the family – manaj lazav, manaj khanci – without honour you are nothing! Better you killed yourself!’

Keja clutched at her son’s hand. ‘You think I didn’t try? But there was no way! Then, when the baby was born, when he was still lying between my legs in the dirt, the three Fates, the Vuršutarja came to me, and I could hear the three sisters arguing. One spoke of his bad fate, of the difficulties the child would face, how he would grow up among strangers, the loneliness he would feel but not understand; the second disagreed, speaking of the child’s greatness, of how he would reveal secrets the whole world would benefit from; then the third said that if the child was allowed to live he would live many years and would bring barvalimos and baxt – wealth and luck to the whole familiya. Then the baby cried and looked up to me with those eyes the colour of the forest. So I weakened. It was three months before he was taken from me. He had a birthmark like yours on his shoulder, and I managed to give him a Rom baptism in running water and left an amulet, the same as you wear, around his neck, before they took him.’

Outside an old car rumbled past, but Keja was back in the tiny cell of a room, one bed, one chair, a wooden cross on the wall, and the baby reaching up toward her with one blind fist, the new-birth scent of him still clenching around her heart.

‘Not even your own father knew this. A few weeks after they took the child I was taken to Buchenwald. I never saw the Nazi officer again.’

‘Is he still living, dej?’

‘I feel that he is. This child – he is mine.’ She dropped back against the pillow, exhausted. ‘I will not let go until my conscience is clear.’

Latcos lurched forward. ‘This is not a child! This is vermin! He has nothing but bad blood; he is worse than gadjé – he belongs nowhere except with the people who took him. You must see this!’

Keja watched his outrage, the sharpness of her pain imprisoning her like a tower, from where she looked down at him.
‘Son, I am phuri dej. You forget who I am – you forget I am a curse-maker as well as a mule-vi – one who has reached into the world of the dead.’ Her anger gave strength to her voice, then, seeing his shocked face, she reached out and took his hand into her own.

‘Listen, Latcos, when Uncle Yojo left it was our holy relic he was looking for; he thought she would cure me. Now something terrible has happened. I know it in my bones. You must find Yojo and find your half-brother. The woman who took my baby was called Katerina Wattenstein . . .’ She pulled Latcos towards her across the bed with a desperate strength so that he was forced to look into her eyes, all of her power gathering in her gaze.

‘On your life, Latcos, swear you will take me to my firstborn?’

Holding his gaze steady, he replied, ‘I swear.’