Photo credit: Amadeusz Kazubowski-Houston

For the past three years, I have been conducting fieldwork in Poland to learn about the impact of transnational migrations on elderly Roma women’s experiences of ageing. One of my research participants has been an elderly Roma woman, Randia. Her children and grandchildren have all emigrated from Poland, and she has been left to fend for herself, amidst prejudice, marginalization and violence. Her entire life, she supported herself by fortune telling, but now she has gone blind from diabetes and lost her only significant means of subsistence. During my fieldwork, I became one of her primary caregivers.

One day Randia asked me: “Magda, you must write a fairy tale about us… because when you come here, it’s like a fairy tale… like magic… and when you leave, it’s all gone… but one day everything will end, because you won’t be coming here forever […] But you don’t write fairy tales, do you? You write learned books… but maybe you could try?”

This is my first attempt at a fairy tale for Randia:


by Magdalena Kazubowski-Houston

A long, long time ago, and far, far away, behind one big mountain and behind another big mountain, there lived a Very Tall Old Woman. She was so old that she remembered the world’s first earthquake and the world’s second earthquake. She was so tall that her head towered above one big mountain and above another big mountain. She lived in a village in a quite tall hut with her quite tall children and her quite tall grandchildren. The other villagers were very small, so small in fact that they never bothered to look the Very Tall Old Woman directly in her eyes. And the Very Tall Old Woman was tall, so tall in fact that she never bothered to look them directly in their eyes either. So the Very Tall Old Woman and the villagers never really saw one another. No one ever visited the Very Tall Old Woman because the villagers were suspicious of her unusual stature, and whispered to one another about the unusual size of her hut. And she also never had any guests over, as she would never want to frighten anyone.

The Very Tall Old Woman worked very hard to put food on the family table and coal in the family hearth. Late every night, she would quietly crawl out of bed, don her nightgown, and venture out into the mountains. She would climb up one big mountain and climb up another big mountain, and because she was so very tall, she would sweep past this star and past that star, gathering up their iridescence with her mighty eyes. Light would surge through her body and fill her up with such formidable warmth that with each surge she would grow a few inches taller, and her hair would grey a few strands greyer. In time, she would lower her head down, cup her palms to her eyes and wait… and wait… until a stream of stardust would cascade from her eyes into her palms. And so every night, the Very Tall Old Woman would return home with her gown pockets brimming with stardust.

The following day, on each and every day, as sun crested mountain peaks, she would go to the village square and sell stardust to the villagers for a few coins, a few pieces of bread, carrots, potatoes, or a basket of strawberries. But these were merely mechanical exchanges, as neither the Very Tall Old Woman nor the villagers would look each other in the eye. And never a word was uttered between them. These exchanges kept on, only because everyone wanted a sachet of stardust. It was not known what people used it for, as no one ever talked about it, and the Very Tall Old Woman never asked. But she did not care. She was happy that her stardust was coveted by all.

At the same time, in another part of the world, behind one big mountain and behind another big mountain, there lived a Very Short Young Girl. She was so young that she didn’t remember the last year’s earthquake and the previous year’s earthquake. She was so short that her head barely swept past the mountains’ moss groves. In fact, the Very Short Young Girl was as small as the people in the Very Tall Old Woman’s village. She was as small as them because she had come from them. She had been born in the same village where the Very Old Tall Woman lived, although the two had never met. But one day, the Very Short Young Girl had left her home and traveled far off to a different world. There she met people of all sizes and ages, even very short and old, and even very tall and young. She was content where she lived, but longed for home, so she travelled back behind one big mountain and behind another big mountain to visit kith and kin. And it was then that she chanced upon the Very Tall Old Woman, selling sachets of stardust in the old village square.

The Very Short Young Girl looked the Very Tall Old Woman directly in the eyes. And the Very Tall Old Woman looked the Very Short Young Girl directly in the eyes too. And from that day on, the Girl began visiting the Woman in her hut and the two became dear friends. Every year after, the Girl returned home to visit the Woman, learn her ways of life, and to help her with chores and errands. The Woman taught the Girl many things, but never invited her on stardust-gathering night trips. That was one secret she would not share.

The friendship between the Woman and the Girl continued for years on, until the day of the big earthquake, when the villagers, including the Woman’s children and grandchildren, were swallowed up whole. The Woman and the Girl were the only ones spared, the Woman towering high above crevice, and the Girl living afar. Yet the Woman did not escape the earthquake unscathed. Tectonic shards shot up from the ground and took sight from her eyes. Now blind, her life changed forever. No more climbing over one big mountain and over another big mountain. No more sweeping past the stars’ iridescence. No more gathering stardust. No more surges of warmth through her body. She spent most of her days sitting alone in her hut with her vacant eyes turned upward to sky.

But then, one day, she developed an intense itch in the gulley of her back. She scratched, but the more she scratched, the more it itched. And soon the itch grew into a bump, and that bump grew into a hump, so big in fact that she could barely move. It kept growing and growing until it broke through the roof of her hut. And it was then that she felt a strange tingling on her hump, and wrote to the Girl, asking her to come take a look. Posthaste came the Girl, examined the hump, and told the Woman of a tiny door at the tingly spot. Curious, the Woman asked the Girl to open it. A wave of familiar warmth rushed out through the door and enveloped the Woman, who grew a few inches taller and greyed a few strands greyer. Mesmerized, she asked the Girl to walk her through the door, but it was too small for her, and she was too old to crawl through it. So she sent the Girl on to enter alone.

The Girl was gone one long minute, and then another long minute, and then returned and told the Woman how the hump was filled with iridescence and warmth. And that off in the distance she could see two mountains shimmering like gold. The Woman asked the girl to climb up the one big mountain and climb up the other big mountain, and to sweep past the stars and then return back. So the Girl was gone for one long hour and another long hour while the Woman waited eagerly. But to her dismay, the Girl returned to report that she was too short to sweep past the stars. The Woman instructed her to try once again.

So the Girl went back to the top of one mountain and the top of another mountain, and stretched up on the tips of her toes, but again could not reach the stars. In grief she looked up at the stars, and let forth such a terrible cry that the hump of the Woman trembled and quaked. And from the firmament fell fast iridescence into the Girl’s upturned eyes. The light surged through her body, and filled her up with such formidable warmth that with each surge the Girl grew a few inches taller, and her hair greyed a few strands greyer. But the Woman kept trembling and quaking, and the Girl kept growing and greying.  When all was finally quiet, the Girl lowered her head down, cupped her palms to her eyes, and a stream of stardust cascaded from her eyes into her palms. She returned to the door with her pockets brimming with stardust, but the Girl had grown so tall, that she could no longer walk through the door; and the Girl had grown so old that she could no longer crawl through it. So she scooped the stardust out from one pocket, and out from another pocket, and passed it over to the Woman. But as the stardust crossed the threshold, the inside of the hump went dark and cold. And as soon as it touched the Woman’s hands, it coated them with hoarfrost, which surged through her body, and filled her up with such formidable cold that with each surge the Woman shrank a few inches smaller… and smaller… until she was gone.