Listen to this story, narrated by Victor Ramos:
The Romani shantytown was an ocean of sodium-gold light lapping the outskirts of Beograd. Some called it Deponia, others Cardboard City, but most preferred not to mention it at all. Life coursed through the dirt roads between the piling shacks while a new metropolis loomed in the clouds, out of earshot of song, wail, or prayer.
Factories were too heavy for Beograd’s new twin in the sky. Not to weigh it down, the men from above planted the factories’ concrete roots on the ground below instead, flattening a Romani neighborhood for each. The industrial buildings popped up square and windowless but were soon submerged in the ever-growing tide of flapping tents, then ensnared in their web of string lights.
Inside the concrete cubes, it was business as usual. Neograd was in need of mechanical men and Beograd was in need of putting the Roma to work.
Robotic legs dangled from hooks along the production line, hanging by the hip flexors, ball gears clicking in their ankles as the Roma craftsmen tinkered with their joints. The legs swayed, halt-and-go, halt-and-go, an infinite procession of domestic servants in the making, while the Roma sat still and hummed their melodies of home, a place long-vanquished and forgotten.
A home is where I am not beaten, the Romani lyric goes.
At the ends of their shifts, the Roma would pour forth from the blocks to the sound of ringing bells and shouting supervisors, and they would not think twice of the sterile green and beige of the factory walls. They navigated the serpentine paths between vibrant shacks, ducking under clotheslines and vividly patterned tapestries along the convoluted route imposed by the architecture of desperation.
For the gaggle of children who would clutch at their returning parents’ trousers, nothing was more exciting than to see a pocket overturned and a bauble cast at their feet, one week a twitching mechanical finger and the next an eyeball polished like a marble. They’d raise the cracked lens at the sky and watch the new city’s neon refract into a million rainbows.
Oh, if God had wanted to hear my words, the workers sang, my children would be happiest in the world.
Fewer and fewer trinkets made their way out once the Neogradian managers imposed mandatory showers, citing sanitary concerns for the product. Cold water pinpricked tanned Romani skin at the beginning and end of each day. Water-slick and cramped, they held their chins high and sang until the tiles resonated with the echoes of bawdy melodies and laughter. The supervisors would yell warnings, forehead veins throbbing, their voices lost in the cacophony.
As the robots came together limb by limb, the Roma consulted among themselves on the conundrum of the mechanical hands. For any self-respecting Rom, a lady’s hands could not go unkissed at farewell. Being unable to agree on the gender of the automatons, they decided to impart kisses on the back of their hands to err on the side of caution. As the engineers attached pair after pair of hands to the forearms of hanging robots, they lovingly pressed their lips against the artificial fingers and caressed the backs of metal knuckles with their cheeks before sending the unit down the production line, singing to the next that would come along.
Are we really to blame, for being so destitute? I have no one. Not even to look at me. My feet are bare. And about my stomach, don’t ask.
Sometimes a Rom would ask for leave from work to be wed. The weddings were an intergenerational effort: the ingredients for the meals were vetted and obtained by the eldest women, who walked the entire length of the Romani slum despite aching hips to return with a basketful of spices; the wedding dress and suit were sewn by the youngest, whose eyes were sharp and whose fingers shook the least; and the rakija was distilled by the uncles and fathers until it was numbing like nostalgia and cutting like heartbreak.
The one Rom would ask for permission, but the entire family would quiver at home, hands held, praying that their efforts would not be in vain, that they could send the couple off with a sliver of life’s dignity and joy.
The factory supervisors would smile while signing the papers, baring their teeth like bloodthirsty street hounds, asking if they’ve heard the old joke:
What is the cake for at a Gypsy wedding?
To keep the flies off the bride.
Having conjured the hardware innards of the automatons, the Roma were then tasked with installing the behavioral programming on the motherboards inside the plastic skulls. All the mathematics of obedience, the code of duty and belonging, transmitted through a single cable in the ear.
Someone had brought in a string instrument. They hummed all together.
May all the world die, but You, God, live! Do this for me. Just think twice when you build the world anew.
Sometimes a Rom would perish by the hand of malfunctioning equipment. A poorly-maintained shelf would collapse with crushing weight or an improperly installed crane would spear the ground, and then wails would erupt all at once. Bodies would pile urgently around the scene like a shoal of frightened fish. At the smell of blood, the supervisors would part the mass like prowling sharks. They would shout and snap and send the workers home until, on their return, the very last scattered cog had been bagged and disinfected, and the linoleum had been scrubbed of streaks of viscera and blood.
If the Rom was lucky, the suffering would be short. But the Roma are not known for their luck.
For a Gypsy, you don’t even go to jail, the Balkan saying goes.
Up, up above in the lobbies and halls of Neograd, from where the ground seemed always veiled by clouds and dimmed by atmosphere, the robotic servants took their first steps. They buzzed and clicked and whirred about their daily duties in silence, never bowing their heads, never rounding their shoulders.
At night, when they retreated to their nooks to rest, it was said that a particularly quiet passerby might catch them shivering, humming long-lost lullabies to themselves:
Prohasar man opre pirende. Sa muro djiben semas opre chengende.
(Bury me standing. All my life I’ve been on my knees.)