March Slice of Life No. 24
She was the littlest one, just four and a half years old. She had black curly hair that framed her face with ringlets. Her skin was smooth with olive tones, tanned and rosy from outdoor play. She still had some of her toddler chubbiness. It hadn’t been that long since they had come from America where, though they were poor, they had always had plenty to eat
Now Amelia and her mother, sister, and brother waited for their father –who had returned to America– to earn enough money for their passage on a ship back home. And while they waited, they lived with her mother’s family.
It was late afternoon, and the sun was casting long shadows on the road where Amelia and a group of village children walked. Just at the edge of the village they came to a bridge that crossed a small stream with wide, flat banks. Rarely did the water cover the wide, flat banks. On those banks was a camp—wagons and tents, horses and dogs, people by campfires. The air was filled with the smell of smoke, meat roasting, and voices.
Gathered in a group on the bridge, some of the children with Amelia called out to the people on the river bank. Amelia didn’t know what they were saying. She hadn’t learned much German in the few weeks since she’d arrived. But she knew, from their faces, from their voices, from their gestures, that whatever they were saying, it was not kind.
A man near a campfire stood up, turned toward the bridge and took a step. The children who had been taunting, screamed and began to run. In the scramble to flee, little Amelia stood still and looked at the man again. He looked at her.
They ran fast for a while and when no one followed, they fell to the ground trying to catch their breath. Someone started talking about the people in the camp on the riverbed. How they were evil. How they would buy children. One said they stole people’s things. Another said they sometimes stole children when their parents wouldn’t sell them. Then they all swore not to let their parents know they had been on the bridge by the gypsy camp.
The next afternoon, when Amelia was playing outside her great-uncle’s house, she saw a man approaching — the man from the riverbank. Her heart started pounding. And like a streak of lightning, she ran into the house, and hid herself under the bed in the room where she and her mother, sister, and brother slept. She could hardly breathe. She listened, watching shadows on the bedroom floor. She heard men’s voices but could not tell what they were saying. She heard someone walking, but the footsteps went away from her. There were more voices. One sounded like her mother’s. Then there was silence. She waited, scared to come out, afraid someone might sell her to the gypsy man.
Never again, as long as the gypsies camped on the riverbed, did she run free in the village with the other children. Never again did she cross the bridge at the edge of the village. Never again did she play outside by herself.
Before the year had passed, Amelia was standing on the deck of a ship in New York Harbor, looking at the Statue of Liberty. Beside her were her sister and brother and mother holding her new baby brother. They could hardly contain their excitement. This was America. They were home. They would soon be with their father again.
Many years later, my grandmother told my mother that on that day long ago in the old country, the gypsy man who came to their house had asked to buy her.