Gypsy gold does not chink and glitter. It gleams in the sun and neighs in the dark. Saying of the Gladdagh Gypsies of Galway.
The day started out like any other ordinary day in the life of Mihai Mihalic; there was nothing to indicate that this would be the last time he would ever see his mother. It was the fall of 1906 in Soljani, Croatia, and Mihai was a typical 16 year old; he had stayed up late the night before, and was in a rush to get to work that morning. His mother Judita had to shake him awake twice before he arose from his mattress of straw. Mihai quickly dressed, lifting his pillow to find his socks where he had placed them the night before, and then sat down to eat the breakfast his mother had laid out for him.
After wolfing down the hearty plate of halusky, Mihai stood up and walked to the door as his mother handed him his lunch consisting of two chunks of dark bread spread thick with svarky, and a ceramic jug of fresh sour sheep’s milk. Mihai tucked the bread in his pocket, kissed his mother on each cheek and said “dovidenia”, just as he did every day; it never crossed his mind that this was to be for the last time.
Mihai headed out to the horse barn: his job was to look after the family’s horses. He fed and watered them and then led them down the dirt road a couple of kilometers away to an open meadow. A small wooden fence bordered the family’s pasture, and the horses roamed freely and leisurely in the tall green grass.
Mihai sat down and leaned against a tree, happy to be in the shade. The day was unusually hot for this time of year, and the heat soon made him drowsy. Not a cloud could be seen in the bright blue sky, and the only sounds he heard were the occasional neighing from the horses, the melodic song from a couple of nearby larks, and the buzzing of bees and flies. He took a long drink of cold sour sheep’s milk from his ceramic jug, waved away the flies, reached into his pocket and took a bite of the bread and svarky. His eyelids were heavy with sleep, and the last thing he remembered seeing was the swishing of tails on the horses that stood near him as they swatted the pesky black flies that buzzed around them.
His breathing became shallower, and soon Mihai was fast asleep, as soundly as most 16 year olds seem to be able to sleep: a thunder storm would have had a hard time waking him. He began dreaming about a conversation he had had with his Uncle Paul.
Paul had worked in the Soljany bakery in town, and whenever Mihai went to pay him a visit (and eat a kifle or two), Paul would tell him about all the opportunities in America and how easy it was to become rich there. The economy was tough in Croatia at the time, and many young people were leaving to find work elsewhere, especially in the United States. Mihai was dreaming that he was going too.
In his dream, he heard the sound of squeaky carriage wheels, and he imagined that he had packed a few belongings into a horse drawn carriage and was settling into it, about to be driven to the station, where he would take a train to the port of Fiume and would then board a ship and embark on the adventure of a lifetime.
It was the sound of loud laughter that jolted him awake. He stumbled to his feet and stared in disbelief as a caravan of gypsies took off down the dirt road, each of his horses mounted or in tow. The last of the gypsies looked back and laughed at him again, giddy with pride at how easily they had stolen from him.
Mihai ran after them as fast as he could, but they easily outran him. Mihai slowed to a walk, devastated. How could he face his family, having lost their prized horses to gypsies? The horses were his responsibility, and he had been repeatedly warned about the danger of the gypsies. He could not face his mother or father with such a disgrace: he could not go home.
As darkness began to fall, he continued to walk along the dirt road, unsure where he was headed. All he knew for sure was that he was not going home. He reached into his pocket and ate the remainder of the svarky and bread his mother had given him, afraid this would be his last meal for a while. Mihai was penniless and now homeless, and as the sun set off to his right and the evening brought the cool fall weather, he also became cold and hungry. He pulled up his collar around his ears, held his arms in tight against his body, stuffed his hands in his pocket, and trudged along dejectedly.
NOTE: Mihai Mihalik is Pauline’s first cousin. The next story about him – The Land of Opportunity and Freedom