Bianka did try to remember Gottfrid’s instructions, but her mind was flitter-fluttering with the urgency of saving Matyas, the excitement of her newly reclaimed freedom, and the distraction of flowering scents, creature’s songs, and the obstacles she must jump, shimmy, and climb.
Bianka thought, ‘What an adventure I am on! It will make a glorious retelling.’
And she began piecing together bits of verse, thinking up rhymes, and inventing a tune. When she stopped to think, she realized she could not remember all the details Sage Gottfrid relayed to her.
Bianka poked around the brush and moss, trying to recall what she was looking for. Was it a vine with leaves tasting like a cherry? Or was it that they tasted like wine, and looked sort of hairy? Or did they taste of brine, the yellow of a canary?
Finally, Bianka chose the budding leaves of a winding vine and decided to taste a few just to be certain. They definitely did not taste of cherries or wine. Possibly brine, though she had never tried the stuff.
She tried to say ‘uck,’ but found she could not! She opened her mouth wide to shout in alarm, but could no more manage that than fly. She tried to screech, plead, whine, and question what in the World Tree was happening to her! But not a whisper emerged from her throat.
Bianka stumbled through the forest, silent tears streaming. After a time, she realized she had lost her way. Frantic, she ran wild and bleary-eyed until she tripped onto a narrow path and nearly collided with a horse-drawing a carriage.
Bianka tried to call up to the driver to ask for a ride, but her lips moved silently. The driver was theatrically singing a ballad –quite out of tune– and did not even notice her. Bianka flailed her arms like a madwoman. Still, he did not look down. Bianka was no longer able to keep pace with the horse, and the carriage wheel nearly crushed her! She leaped out of the way at the last moment and, losing her balance, she fell kerplop in a puddle of mud.
Night had come like a winged demon and the sounds of the forest swallowed her up. Rustling, hooting, and whipping wind. A storm rumbled to life. Thunder boomed a deafening roar, and lightning cracked the sky.
Soaked to the skin and deadly exhausted, Bianka remained crumpled on the muddy ground, a slop of rags in the road.
As she lay there, a handful of gypsies came trouncing by, returning to their camp for the night. Spotting her, they scooped her up and took her back to their tent where they heated her with blankets before a roaring fire.
They were goodly folk; every time Bianka tried to speak they patted her on the back sympathetically. The wrinkled fortune teller, Madam Bolglarka, read Bianka’s palm, Jaakko spun a yarn about a tricksy goblin who fooled Ördög, the devil himself, and then the troupe sang folk songs late into the night.
Bianka could hear the creaks in Madam Bolglarka’s voice and the rise and fall of intensity in Jaakko’s tale. She listened to every voice in the droning gypsy harmony, the wailing of the violin, the chingering of the tambourine, and thrumping guitar strings as together they drove the tempo faster and faster until they all collapsed into laughter.
Bianka thought, ‘Laughter sounds like tinkling bells and rumbly old drums. I never realized.’
When they all went to bed, Bianka lay sadly, wondering if Matyas would survive the night, when she heard a ‘pip, squeaker, peep.’ Rolling onto her knees, she saw a dormouse with enormous ears, struggling to lift the hem of the tent.
Bianka would have yelped, maybe even called for a big strong gypsy man to clunk the furry fellow over the head, but it wouldn’t have done any good, so she just watched with her toes safely tucked in her blanket.
The dormouse stared back at her with bulging, wide eyes, his ears twitch, twitchering. Once he decided Bianka wasn’t going to eat him, he went back to hefting the canvas above his tiny head.
Out of the cold, wet night scuttled three little brown micelings, whose tails sagged with water. The baby mice, huddled around their papa trying to get warm. Bianka listened to their little whimpering squeaks a while. Biting her lip, she uncoiled the scarf the gypsies had given her and made them a teeny nest. Over the top of it, she crumbled half a nut roll she was saving for later.
Thrilled, the dormice scampered in and stuffed their wee faces until they pooched out like a squirrel’s cheeks.
Bianka smiled. Holding tight to the now very soggy package, she fell asleep to the sound of thunder rolling in the distance and the mice purring —or snoring—all happy and warm in their bed.
Bianka woke to the warbling of sparrows and sizzling of sausage. Wanting to show gratitude to the gypsy’s, she went straight out to gather firewood. As she was collecting, a muffled weeping prickled her ears. Following the sound, Bianka discovered a gypsy girl crying into her apron at the foot an ancient hawthorn. Kneeling by her side, Bianka looked with inquiring sympathy at the girl, whose name was Zselyke.
Zselyke told Bianka the last town they traveled through mobbed them in the night, shouting that the gypsies had stolen and used dark magic. The villagers branded Zselyke’s cheek, shaved several of the woman’s heads, enslaved some of the men, and forbade them ever to return, all in the name of revenge.
Bianka saw the swollen burn on Zselyke’s cheek. She tended it carefully, while the girl told her that the gypsies had only taken what the villagers didn’t need, and their magic was only grey, certainly not black!
Bianka thought the town-people’s actions far worse than some harmless filching and semi-questionable magic. She petted and soothed Zselyke, listening to the many woes of the gypsy people.
In the end, Zselyke admitted she no longer wanted a wandering life but wished to settle into a proper home. Bianka kissed Zselyke’s sore cheek, wishing desperately to offer her a place to live with her and her father, as long as Zselyke should want.
Bianka knew she wouldn’t be able to say a word of it, but she tried anyway. And would you believe it? The words came out as smooth as gloss. After her initial surprise, Zselyke was elated and accepted Bianka’s offer on the spot.
As Zselyke packed her few belongings, Bianka told her all about Matyas and how she had come into the forest in search of an herb that would save him.
Hearing of Matyas’s kindness, Zselyke was eager to help, knowing precisely what plant Sage Gottfrid needed.
After bidding her gypsy family farewell, Zselyke led Bianka to a grove filled with the herb. They picked a great bunch and together raced to the Gottfrid’s cottage.
Bursting through his door, they found Matyas clinging to life by slippery strands. Gottfrid made the elixir in two beats of a bat’s wing —which coincidentally called for two bats’ wings. Bianka and Zselyke aided Gottfrid in nursing Matyas, hoping for recovery with nervous anticipation. And bless the Creator! In two days, he awoke as bright as a beaver and strong as an ox.
Bianka begged Matyas’s pardon for forgetting her instructions and nearly costing him his life. She insisted on replacing his stolen pears. Matyas waved this off, forgiving her instantly. His selflessness impressed Zselyke so much she gave him a kiss, which was more valuable to Matyas than ten thousand pear carts.
Taking Gottfrid’s leave, the three friends traveled the last stretch in order to deliver the weather-worn, brown-paper parcel.
When Bianka led them to Madam Zorka’s home, Matyas exclaimed, ‘Why, this is the house of the good witch!’
Scratching their heads, Bianka knocked on her door. The long, white-haired Madam Zorka answered, and Bianka proffered the packet, pleased to succeed in her mission at last.
But the white lady said, ‘I do not believe this is meant for me,’ and she opened the door wide to reveal Bianka’s father!
‘Why, have you sent me here, Papa? When you have come yourself?’
Madam Zorka patted Bianka, led them all inside, and served them hot kávé. Papa only smiled a warm sort of smile and nodded for Bianka to open the parcel. Confused, she undid the string and unwrapped the brown paper. Inside were two carved animals, which Bianka recognized at once as her father’s craftsmanship.
One was an otter with a tag that read ‘stillness to see’ and the other, a dormouse with enormous ears, whose tag said ‘ears to listen.’ Bianka stared at them in wonder, and for a moment she became very cross.
Her Papa hugged her and said, ‘It was not for the parcel I sent you, my daughter. It was for the journey.’
Bianka looked at her friends who sat with eyes sparkling, sipping their kávé. She thought of purple storms and sweet pears, chittering forest creatures and wailing gypsy songs, a stranger’s kindness and a people’s plight.
Bianka thought a long time.
She decided she did not wish to go back to being the flittery girl she was before and miss the world around her. That did not mean she could not sing or dance anymore. It only meant she could also see and listen.
That night, as they feasted on goulash and plum dumplings, Bianka promised to do just that.