It has been almost seventy years since our train ride across the American prairies to Los
Angeles, and not one day has passed that I do not marvel at one happenstance of that
journey, or the other, depending on the rotation of life’s prism.
Then the year was 1918, and I was but a girl of thirteen. I had been slumbering within
the refuge of my mother’s lap, retracing past memories in the wildernesses of my dream
psyche, its reveries tossing me from tragedy to triumph, and then back again. My
paranormal trance ushered forth people I had known, appearing and disappearing into
mists to be replaced by another, and then another.
Abruptly, the hazy curtains once again parted, to reveal two roaring lions, which came
almost upon me. Fortunately, I retained my wits and was crafty in my fleeing, but try
as I would; I was not able to elude them. To end this frustration, I woke my Self up,
but even awake, the lions’ roaring did not stop. That the lions had the strength to
develop into reality from my dreams puzzled and impressed me. However, as I wakened
even more, I recalled, it was, in fact, the other way around. The lions from our reality had
had the strength to penetrate my dreams by the magnificence of their roaring. I yawned
myself even more awake and rubbed my eyes.
“Perhaps it is time to go visit our lions to ease their loneliness,” I said smart-alecky,
audacious with my mother’s proximity. Grandmother Lena harrumphed at me dispar-
agingly before replying in Romani, our language.
“Angelina, well, well. It is time you woke after such an expanse of time. Your poor
mother’s arm has gone dead as a chunk of wood we cut for our fires.”
“Mother, please,” my mother chided her, “you know Angelica will always be as a bird
against my body. And I, too, have needed the solace of my daughter’s touch at such a
time,” she said, smiling the greatness of her love to me. My heart reassured, I enclosed
her within a beam of my happiness, before being interrupted once again by
deep-throated rumblings of wild cats.
Now, seemingly, the very windows of the train were rattling. Helplessly, we sat in a
breathless silence, listening: my mother, the new owner of those two stolen lions;
Grandmother Lena, a renowned Gypsy sorceress; and me.
Not so for the other passengers; their confused babble escalated into bedlam. One
woman collapsed in a faint. Her traveling companion rushed to revive her, fanning her
face with a newspaper.
“Elizabeth, Elizabeth, my dear.” There was no response. “Sweet Jesus!” He looked
around with exasperation. “Where is that damned conductor?” A man stood, clutching a
long barreled pistol.
“I’ll go fetch him. And mark my words, Mister, if I see any wild beasts, I’ll shoot ‘em
dead between the eyes.”
I looked to Grandmother Lena and Mother to see if they were going to stop him, but they
just continued to stare straight ahead, as though none of this was of any concern to
them. This is, and always has been the way of the Rom when among the gadje, the
non-gypsies. For myself, I had never been successful in adopting this attitude -- mainly
because I did not respect it. I will always choose to fight, which is not the way of the Rom.
Rather than confront, the Rom choose to leave, quietly and often within nightfall’s darkness.
“Put your face into its composure,” Grandmother Lena hissed her warning to me. “You
make us look guilty.”
I knew her meaning well since the gadje always attributed any crime committed to
gypsies. So I too stared straight ahead even though in this situation I doubted it would do
us any good. After all, at the start of our fleeing to the west, I had already deduced that we
were on the ‘lam’, stealing father’s two lions, and so were probably responsible for them
and their consequences. My heart pounded beats of dread at the prospect of being forced
off the train in the middle of nowhere with two wild cats. I snuck a look at the swooned
woman, hoping she might have revived, but her white face was frozen as if made of wax.
And unfortunately, our lions, Chieftain and Princess, had not ceased any in their violent
At the Negro conductor’s arrival, a woman in a bonnet clawed at his arm, her voice
“The truth, sir, are there wild animals loose?”
“Certainly not, Ma’am,” the conductor responded before announcing in a louder, more
official voice. “Ladies and gentlemen, I want to assure you all that we are quite safe. Now
where is the woman who has fainted?”
“She’s over here,” said the man still trying to revive her.
“Sir, did you see any beasts,” the bonneted woman asked the armed man sent to fetch
the conductor. A crowd of people pressed forward to hear the response.
“I wish I had. They’d be dead by now,” the man said, taking aim with his pistol at the
The conductor was now at the fainted woman’s side. “If you will prop her up, here is a
small amount of brandy. It might help to revive her.” The conductor stood aside while
the two men gently moved the woman up, putting the brandy against her lips. The
“Elizabeth! Oh, thank you, God! Then you are all right?”
“No, I am frightened to death by that roaring. Please have whatever it is removed.”
“Boy, you heard the lady! I want those wild beasts taken off this train at once!” The
conductor shook his head, before replying.
“I don’t believe that can be done, sir, seeing that the lions are cargo.”
“So you admit there are lions on this train,” Robert spat out.
“Robert, perhaps if I try,” Elizabeth commanded, putting her hand on his arm to
quiet him. She turned to the conductor, altering her voice to a softened pleading.
“Sir, surely it is within your power to alleviate my suffering. And I believe…I have
to believe you have the capability to understand suffering, though you are a…” The
woman hesitated a beat, before stuttering out the next words, entangled within her
contempt, “a negra.” I watched the conductor’s smooth face as it swayed, struck
askew by her hatred. He took a moment in his reply.
“What is it that you would propose that I do, Ma’am?”
“Well, remove them at once, of course. Surely, any decent person would.”
“Ma’am, unfortunately that is not within my power. The lions have paid their passage
the same as you,” the conductor said with some resolution. “And again, I assure you, they
are safely locked up in the baggage car.”
Here was something rarely encountered: a stranger actually attempting to assist us, and I
interrupted my pretense of non-concern to regard him more thoroughly through the sides
of my eyes. A mob was rapidly forming as passengers from other cars jammed into our car.
For such a confrontation, the conductor was quite nondescript and not very large.
“I wanna know who owns those lions,” said a man, his voice laced with threat, as he
glared in our direction.
“Sir, to my knowledge, the lion owners are not on board this train,” said the conductor
His eyes never shifted toward us, but I could see the passengers already suspected who
was guilty of ownership. Their accusing eyes found us, and measured us - three
dark-skinned gypsy women, clad in beads and coins and layers of colorful fabric. We were
unlike them, which was enough; their hatred circled us like smoke. I could feel the
passengers' breaths on the hairs of my neck: hot, short pants of self-righteousness as
Chieftain and Princess continued their long roars of protest. I had felt the force of such
emotion another time in my life; it was when our whole gypsy klan had been slaughtered.
I gripped Mother’s hand tightly.
“Boy, seemingly you do not understand our dilemma here,” Robert snarled. The
taunting menace in his voice sent chills inside me. “We are on a speeding train with
rampaging lions, thirsty for human blood.”
“What shall we do,” another male voice prompted.
“Take over the damn train if we have to,” replied Robert.
“Yeah, there are more of us than there are of him,” said a new male voice. As they
began detecting the power inherent to a mob, I could see the conductor’s bravado shrink.
I continued to stare ahead, my heart withering.
“That’s right! We’ll just take his keys and throw the beasts off the train ourselves,”
“Hold his arms,” ordered Robert. The men closest to the conductor grabbed him
“Don’t move if you value your life,” the man with the pistol warned the conductor,
“Gentlemen, gentlemen, please,” interrupted a genteel voice from a man in a derby
hat. The car quieted some. “I am an attorney of law,” he continued, “and I cannot and I
will not support lawless behavior. Especially in my presence.”
“There is no law out here in the prairie,” Robert insisted.
“The law is everywhere and in fact, gentlemen, in this case, I would have to offer the
absent lion owners not only my testimony, but my expertise. And I assure you I am
quite proficient at my work.”
The passengers glared at us, the foreigners, trying to understand how people such as
us had the power to alter their lives. I willed Chieftain and Princess to just be quiet,
but I knew it was not to be. It is certainly a futility to try to shush a lion. I wondered if
they were excited about going to California, or perhaps they were protesting the leaving
of my father and the other lions at the Circus of Cairo. In any case, the train continued to
lurch with their wildness; the woman, Elizabeth, gave a soft sound before fainting once
“That does it! Boy, perhaps you would be so kind as to tell us when the next train to
California is scheduled?” Robert’s voice hissed with such malevolence, a tremble rose
in the conductor’s hand as he consulted his timetable and his pocket watch.
“The next train will arrive in about an hour and a half.”
“So in a little over an hour, we can all ride on a civilized train,” the lawyer reasoned.
“Certainly this compromise is worth the wait.”
“What say you, ladies and gentlemen? Will you join us,” Robert rallied.
It was clear no one was going to stay on a train with wild lions, and at the next stop, the
passengers fled the train in hasty droves. But they did so noisily, expressing their rage as
they pounded and stomped down the aisles, gathering their possessions. Their protest
clunked down the metal steps to the platform, their bodies and faces twisted with a most
violent indignation at their circumstances.
My spinning fears rapidly churned into paranoia. The evacuated passengers would
eagerly report, to anyone who would listen, the story of hungry lions owned by strange,
dark foreigners on their train bound for California. The story might even be reported in
the newspapers, and then Father would be able to find out where we had gone with his
lions. Until this time, to my knowledge, Mother had never before in her life stood up to
my father. In retaliation for his humiliation, Father might call the police and have all of
us dragged away to jail -- or back to the Circus of Cairo. I didn't know which would be
worse. I did know, just like the other passengers, I hated the lions’ existence. As the
train shuffled out of the station, it now seemed to be completely empty. In our car,
everyone was gone except for us.
I saw Grandmother Lena reach for her Tarot Cards, but I was too immersed in the
jumble of my own thoughts to mutter my usual insults regarding her superstitions.
Reverently, she opened the special pouch carefully stitched into all of her clothes to
ensure that her Tarot cards would always remain quite close to her heart. On this
occasion, she spoke aloud both to declare her duties of stewardship toward the Tarot,
as well as to remind the Tarot of its obligation to her as its guardian. She also took the
opportunity to remind me of what she considered to be my destiny.
“Angelica, I inherited this Tarot from my mother, your Great-grandmother Portia.
She told me the Tarot would always divulge the wisdom of the universe to me, if
never neglected. It will become your duty, when I pass the cards to you, that they
stay always either in your hands or close to your heart. Only then will they speak their
knowledge -- of what was true, what is true and what is truly going to be.”
I rolled my eyes at Mother, but unfortunately, she had reverted to her usual place of
acquiescence; her eyes beseeched me to be quiet. I angrily sucked my cheeks in, biting
down harshly with my teeth to try to keep my silence. Otherwise, I knew, of their own
accord, bitter words of contention would come tumbling out of my mouth to be known.
Grandmother Lena’s patience waited for both of us to join her; she studied Mother, then
me to her satisfaction before gazing out at the sky. As if on cue, a crescent of moon rose
above the horizon. I willed my thoughts not to align with theirs, but I had spent too many
years as my grandmother's granddaughter and my mother's daughter to be successful.
Though we regarded the slightest sliver of that silver light with silence, I knew we shared
the same knowing: a new moon always announced cosmic beginnings.
“So this night, then, is to be our beginning,” Grandmother Lena whispered in a dramatic
tremor. Because of the significance of this omen, Grandmother Lena shuffled and then
reshuffled the Tarot deck many times before spreading the cards of our fate on the seat
across from us.
Slowly, slowly, she painstakingly put down the seven auspicious cards from right to left.
But she did not stop there, and I groaned inwardly as she put down seven more and then
yet another seven. Apparently Grandmother Lena had decided she would not be content
to examine just our future; additionally, she was going to study our past, as well as our
present. This was going to be an eternity of useless information, I petulantly declared to
myself, gritting my teeth again to stay silent. But I knew my eyes said plenty.
Grandmother Lena ignored my ill humor, and with great gravity she nodded once before
closing her eyes. This was something she always did before beginning her reading of the
Tarot. It was not only an acknowledgment of the rightness in and of all occurrences in
existence, but her knowledge of this rightness, as well as her surrender to it. The nod was
her assent to comply with whatever destiny the Tarot would reveal to her that night. But
her nod plunged me into a chasm of anguish. I tried to ward off the memories spilling out
of my heart, but there was no escaping them.
It had been four years ago, beside a stream where our Rom klan camped, when
Grandmother Lena had also searched for direction in her Tarot cards. It had been an
evening when our family was happy together, a rarity. I remembered how jauntily
Mother had danced with her shawl to flirt with my father. That time, the Tarot reading
had all been for naught. My eyes narrowed with their pain of remembrance, still so fresh
after so many years.
If the Tarot was so perfect in its relating of the future, why had it not told her that our
gypsy klan was in mortal danger? Why had the Tarot not directed us all to flee before
the gadje massacre had begun, which would end the lives of so many I had loved?
I steeled my Self to not trust any story my grandmother was about to tell us. But it did
not matter that my mind was dusted with distrust; Grandmother Lena had begun to speak
in Romani from that world she alone as a shuvani witch could inhabit, and began the story
she knew would become our lives. I decided to avoid her eyes by looking down at the
Tarot spread. And as I did so, I could feel the radiance of the Tarot resonate within my
being. Gently, ever so gently, the richly tinted cards from ageless antiquities smoothed
the jaggedness of my distrust toward a reluctant attentiveness.
“Ava, this is mostly about you and so it must be about us, also. Look.” Grandmother
Lena pointed to the first card in the row of cards closest to us, the row designating our
past. “’Four cups’,” she indicated its importance with her whisper.
“My secret number,” said my mother with wonder.
“This is how I know this Tarot is about you, daughter. Yes it is your number, but
when it is in the suit of ‘Cups’ the Tarot speaks of disappointment in love.” Grandmother
Lena paused. “Well, we know enough about all of that and so it is not necessary to tarry
with the tale.
“Ava, here is your second sign of lovelessness, the ‘Lovers Card’, standing on its head,
upside down. And then to ensure that you know, here is your third sign - where three
swords stab without mercy the heart. Yes, the Tarot has decreed that your marriage is
completely over. But we also know that already, do we not? You yourself stole your
husband’s lions and then stole away not only yourself from the Circus of Cairo, but
ourselves as well.”
I began to wonder if my grandmother was utilizing tricks to conjure up such perfect
cards to describe my mother’s flight from my father. Grandmother Lena never made a
secret of any of her emotions, much less her dislike of my father, her daughter’s
husband. But I knew also that if Grandmother Lena had wanted to direct my mother away
from my father, the time for this Tarot reading would have been before she left him, not
after. So perhaps Grandmother Lena was innocent, after all. The attachment of the word,
‘innocent’, to such a force as my grandmother made me smirk.
Grandmother Lena’s hand was lovingly caressing the next card, the Tarot’s eleventh card,
‘Justice’ before she continued. “Daughter, ‘Justice’ is the card reigning over your past and
your decision. Did I not tell you this was a very good reading? It upholds all of the actions
you have chosen.” Grandmother Lena could not keep her lips from smacking together with
their delight. “And so it is foretold there will be justice for you, Ava.” My mother nodded
quietly so as to not disturb the tears that rested in her eyes.
“However, you shall not be allowed to see it.” Grandmother Lena pointed to the ‘Two
Swords’ card. “This one is a scolding card. It says that you have not been facing your
problems, Ava. Of course we know that also because we are now somewhere else in the
world, on this train, running away.” Grandmother Lena paused, to regard her daughter’s
face, to see if she had gone too far. Apparently not, because she continued. “Ava, the Tarot
says we are just where we should be.” At that, I sighed loudly and unhappily. “Next to
‘Justice’ is ‘The Hanged Man’. Ava, your daughter looks so sour. Angelica, this is not our
doom. Nor even the doom of your father.”
“I know that,” I snuffed.
“Then what does ‘The Hanged Man’ card signify, if you know everything.” I knew
Grandmother Lena was asking this question to allow me to speak only about what it was
that she wished me to speak about, and thus keep my voice off of her business of the Tarot
interpretation. I sighed again. I hated to admit I knew what I did. But it was true I did
know much about the cards. Who could help it with fortunetellers all around me since I
was a baby? Certainly one would have to have leaves stuck in one’s ears at all times not
to hear and know.
“’The Hanged Man’ means we must reverse our opinions of the world, for one.”
“This is right. And what is this tree here on the card?”
“It is the ‘Tree of Life’,” I answered. “It symbolizes our possibilities.” Grandmother
Lena nodded with her pleasure.
“How are we to attain our possibilities?”
“By listening carefully to the dreams from our higher self, and then surrendering to that
path’s direction.” I had to admit, I was happy to see the surprise on Grandmother Lena’s
“Listen to her, Ava.”
“I certainly am, Mother,” said my mother. “You have taught your granddaughter well.”
“Seemingly so.” Grandmother Lena’s voice was swelled with pride. “Angelica, in spite
of yourself, you may someday become a great shuvani for the Rom, your people. I have
always proclaimed this to be true. Do not forget, you bear the sign, the mark of the
crescent upon you. Perhaps…well, we shall leave that until another time.” Grandmother
pointed to direct our attention back to the last card in the row of our past life.
“Look! Look at us here. The ‘Three Cups’.” On the card, three women danced with joy,
their cups raised toward the sky. “Is this not us,” Grandmother Lena asked. “Are we not
three women then?” Her pause allowed my prolonged regard of the card, and hope
soothed my heart. Mother gave me a brief hug.
“Let us never forget we have stolen away together, we three, and together we shall
drink of all that granted to us by the world’s Creator. We are being told we can never doubt
His vigor, or His love for us. Not for one hour. Now for the examination of our present.”
I could not help myself. “But, Grandmother Lena, where are the lions,” I asked with
sweetness in my voice to mask my malice toward the Tarot.
“Look. They are everywhere. Open your eyes, Angelica and you will be able to see
them very truly.” She pointed to the various cards not yet read. “Here they are, and here.
Look again here.”
“Surely they are,” agreed Mother happily. “And remember always, it was I who stole my
husband’s lions.” Mother’s mischief erupted into trills of delight; she was still greatly
amused by her own audacity.
“Yes, you did indeed. Now, as I said before I was interrupted by Angelica’s idle
question, it is time to examine the Tarot’s interpretation of our present.” Grandmother
Lena said nothing as she took her time to regard the middle row of cards. Finally she
“Our present is being ruled by the ‘Death’ card. Worry not; this does not mean we
will die, but we shall be transformed. Again, a great sign for you, daughter; it
celebrates your strength.” Grandmother Lena nodded triumphantly to my mother. “Here
is the sea once again; it is here as many times as the lions.” Grandmother Lena’s perplexity
said more to me than her words -- it seemed the ocean was going to be a big part of our
“The first card is ‘Nine Swords’ to say that this time is for wisdom and the seeking of
happiness.” Grandmother Lena took Mother’s face in both of her hands, and held it
there while she spoke into her eyes. “The Tarot proclaims it is your time, my child. The
Tarot states that you have suffered enough.” I averted my eyes -- I did not need to watch
them to feel the love radiating from Grandmother Lena’s heart for her daughter. She
continued, “and at last, here is ‘The Chariot’ card to bear us away. And look, here are two
lions for you, Angelica.
"Again the sea is here, but why not? Are we not going to California and is California not
against the sea?” Grandmother Lena closed her eyes as she contemplated the cards’
meaning. “We are being advised to meet the sea.” Her eyes opened wide with her
knowledge. “With lions!”
Excerpted from "Lions and Gondolas (Destiny's Consent)" by Laura Shepard Townsend. Copyright © 0 by Laura Shepard Townsend. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.