I've never been what you'd call pretty. The Rom are revered for their beauty, but my looks are as accursed as my parentage. My half-sister, Lía, is the daughter of the caravan leader, tall and graceful as the willow trees near the river we camp by, following the sun. Her fine hair is raven black, her eyes large and brown as a fawn's. The soft roundness of Rom women is evident in her curves and heart shaped face. I've often seen the men watching her dance in the firelight, nights, when they're drinking, devouring her with hungry animal eyes, though they dare not touch her. Dafíd would hardly stand for another man fondling his wife.
Sometimes I wonder what it would be like, having a man look at me like that. Something in their gaze terrifies me, and yet I want them to look at me that way, chuckling into their wine. It will never happen. I'm not beautiful like Lía. My hair flies in wild tangles and waves, black sullied with red and brown, the legacy of my unknown father. His mark is on all my features, giving me eyes that shift from green to gray to blue, the brown of Rom blood leaving ugly yellow smudges across them. Instead of having gypsy grace, I'm fat and stumbling. Small wonder my mother left the man who fathered me, great clumsy oaf. She did me no favours by coming back to the caravan, though.
It was obvious at my birth that I was a bastard daughter of the chief's wife. Why, if my mother was going to cheat on Carlós, did she choose a foreign man? Lía says her father loved our mother, and could have forgiven much if she had stayed among our people. But she went with the first strange-blooded townsman who offered her silver trinkets to dance for him and sleep with him, and time found her slinking back to tribe and husband, large with child, after discovering her foreigner in bed with another woman. Even then she might have been forgiven, but she died in the birthing of me. Carlós has hated me ever since. The evidence of his love's unfaithfulness, a freakish mix of Rom and foreign blood, the cause of his love's death, all in one fatal bundle. Lía took it upon herself to be my mother, raising and loving me much as other girls tended their dolls. Lucky for me she did. Carlós loves her as he hates me. She is the epitome of gypsy beauty, reminding him of our mother.
Dafíd began courting Lía when she was my age. I was only three or four years old at the time, so Dafíd has been my big brother for almost as long as I can remember. Nobody else wanted anything to do with me, at least not in front of Carlós, so it fell to Lía and Dafíd to teach me everything.
Dafíd is an artist with his knife. He can throw it and hit any target, still or moving, from any distance. He can use the small blade to skin and clean rabbits and fish or create marvelous animals of wood with equal dexterity. I loved watching his hands flicker in the lantern light as he told me stories of strange horses with long horns growing from their heads where the forelock should be, unicorns, or bizarre lion-eagle creatures, gryffins. By the time Lía would shoo me off to bed when the women began to dance and the men to dribble wine down their chins, Dafíd would have created a new miniature masterpiece. Lía's needle flashed through bright fabrics, sewing the flowing skirts favored for dancing by Rom women. Both would be sold in the towns we camped near or traded to other Rom caravans. Dafíd's favorite carving was a tiny unicorn, rearing up on hind legs, mane and tail flying as if in the wind. Its amber coloured wood glowed smoothly in the sun. Dafíd called her Ember. He said she looked like the first foal he'd trained himself, traded to another caravan for a wagon of his own when Carlós finally allowed him to marry Lía when I was five or six. He used to tuck Ember into my hand on nights after Carlós had been especially bad, screaming at me and striking me.
Lía and Dafíd brought me to the new wagon with them, saying I was too young to sleep in the open with the foals and chickens alone, and afraid to leave me in Carlós' wagon. We lived that way for several years. Dafíd began teaching me to carve creatures of my own. Lía taught me the Rom dances that attract the townsmen to our caravan at night. Soon I would be a woman and join in those dances. The men would never single me out, but another twirling, colourful skirt would balance the dances more fully. Lía also convinced the old soothsayer woman that I was ideal fortune telling material. Even if I didn't succeed among the dancers, I would have a way to bring wealth to the caravan. Even Carlós would stop beating me if I earned enough. I learned how to bilk drunken townsmen out of the contents of their pockets and money belts, but something about the whole thing seemed wrong to me.
I was far too clumsy to dance, I wouldn't tell fortunes. I could make poultices and salves and things to heal almost any illness or wound, but any Rom knows those tricks of woodcraft and no townsperson would come to a gypsy doctor. I had no talent or gift to offer my tribe.