Naga The Tanner 



    Naga crawled along the tunnel on all fours, a flashlight in front, a bag tied to his ankle dragging behind. The tunnel floor was polished to an obsidian glaze by the passing of many hands and knees. A small trickle of cloudy water ran down the center.  Dressed in black, he looked like some sort of grotesque creeping beetle, his face dark, eyes shining with greed.


    “There must be no God,” he whispered to himself.  “Otherwise he would strike me down – smash my bones into dust and toss the remains into the wind.  I shake my fist in his face for not granting me a male heir.” He then came to a small stone door, the same color of the rock walls. Opening the entrance just a crack, he made sure no one was there. He rose into the larger space, sat down heavily on a rock, lit a cigarette, and put his head in his hands.


    Naga Negulescu was a minor gypsy king, but knew little about his tumultuous ancestry.   Didn’t know his family originally came from Egypt, with dark eyes and hair, then wandered into northwestern India – but never establishing a homeland.  Their reputation through the ages was one of traveling entertainers, fortune-tellers, horse traders, and cunning tinkers, but always with the curse that they were criminals – a socially degraded order.  Others believed they were much worse – kidnappers, child abusers, and murderers.  They were evicted from India around 1100 AD, migrated to the west, and began their never-ending wandering. 




    There they were taken as slaves, murdered, deported, marked by the cutting off of an ear, flogged and sterilized. In the 1500’s many countries passed extermination laws. Great Britain one of the most harsh. The edict was:  “Whoever kills a gypsy shall not be guilty of murder.” In 1685 all Portuguese gypsies were deported to Brazil.  During WWII somewhere around 455,000 men, woman and children were killed by the Germans – often on sight by the SS Einsatzgruppen (death squads).  Stalin sent tens of thousands to Siberia to die, or had them shot.  And still they survived, moving from one place to another as unwanted wanderers, the stepchildren of the earth.


    Naga’s own recent heritage went back 160 years when his great grandfather (a tanner) was driven from St. Petersburg, eventually driving his Vardo (living wagon) 1700 miles south to southern Romania.  Unlike others of his clan, he stopped and settled his family in a box canyon surrounded by a four thousand foot un-named mountain – a home but not a homeland – though the Negulescu’s claimed Romanian heritage and citizenship within a few years.  The settlement was just above Magureni, a little town in the center of the southern Carpathian mountains.


    The Carpathian’s are a range of mountains forming an arc roughly 932 miles across Central and Eastern Europe. They provide the habitat for the largest European populations of bison, chamois, brown bears, wolves, wild boars and big cats – and if you believe some of the tales – werewolves and vampires from the Transylvania region.  The Carpathian’s also have abundant thermal and mineral springs – many people claim these waters have health-giving properties.  The area where Naga’s grandfather stopped had many such springs.  

    The Germans sent waves of Einsatzgrupplen searching through the remote countryside, but no one in Magureni said anything about their gypsy neighbors, even though Romania was an Axis partner.  The Negulescu’s hid in the mountain caves and tunnels when danger was near.

    Two miles north of town was the community that Naga’s grandfather had established.  This little hamlet, Negulescu, contained both blood relatives and extended family, all whom kept to themselves. The family members raised livestock, grew fruits and vegetables, hunted in the forest, shopped in town, and paid their taxes.


    Most importantly the family purchased animal skins, tanned them, and sold the finest leather in the world.  Four times a year, they displayed their very best in a one-hundred-twenty-year-old stone barn.  Buyers and brokers from all over the world came to bid on bundles of leather, buttery soft, almost warm to the touch – some brought prices higher per ounce than gold – all transactions were in dollars or precious metals.

    There was one small building different from the others, open only to the most prominent bidders.  The leather there was like silk, thin, but without blemish, and malleable to any shape. Some was of an off-white that almost glowed – but the pieces of this extraordinary leather were always small – some with just a tinge of color.  The Negulescu clan would never reveal the process used to make their fine leather and were completely silent about the most expensive, called the Silken.


    Part of the reason the Negulescu leather was so prime was that they only took spotless skins.  If there was any blemish, then the hide was rejected.  Most of their suppliers came from Eastern Europe, a tight knit group of livestock people who guaranteed that all of their skins were from animals who had been skinned while they were still warm, and the blood not congealed. 


    As Naga supported his head in his hands at the tunnel entrance, he thought about the tanning process that had been used in his family for generations. Tanning was a complicated and messy process – the end result was to have magnificent texture, color, and grain.  The first step was to brine the hides in salt water to avoid putrefaction, then remove the flesh and fat by soaking in an aqueous solution of lye and water that resulted in rawhide.   The rawhide was soaked in water for up to two days, and then treated with milk of lime cyanide.  Unhairing was then done with sodium sulfide using a dull knife (known as scudding) and a sharp fleshing knife for any tissue still attached.  The hide was then pickled in huge barrels with a solution of salt and sulfuric acid to further soften the leather.  Naga always carried his sharp fleshing knife.

    But the long kept secret to the finished quality of all the Negulescu leather was a gold-colored mineral stream that ran through the back of their property.  Just before the leather went through its final curing phase, it was soaked in a large pool for 36 hours, giving it a glow like no other – full grained, bridled, not one imperfection.  However there was a smaller pool, with different minerals, at the end of the hidden tunnel where Naga had been dragging his bag.


    It was there that Naga brought forth very small amounts of leather beyond anyone else’s capability.  It was subject of conversation year after year, and there were always rumors about the origin of the the Silken.  Naga, of course, knew the answer, but would never reveal any knowledge.  He was the only one who tanned the Silken skins.  Those skins were procured by his agent, who was from the area just south of Brusteri, a little town in the Transylvania mountains. In finishing the Silken, Nag did all of the processing himself by at the end of his hidden tunnel, never revealing exactly how he handled the skins or where they came from, even to his family members.  Nag was a lover of money, and when any opportunity was presented, he locked on like a miser.


    Naga was also called Nag, or Naga the Dark.  It wasn’t just the beautiful walnut color of his skin, still unspotted and unwrinkled. But he had a dour malevolent countenance –– the kind of man that little children instinctively shied away from.  A hooked nose with a raven’s hard eyes – his hair still full, black and coarse, long sharp fingernails – his lips thin and dark, and turned down at the corners – there was something about him that made a person’s skin crawl – something unholy or vile.

    In the past generations there had always been a son who took over the business upon reaching the age of 50.  But finally this order was about to come

    to a halt.  This was the reason why Naga held his head in his hands.  He had married his first wife at 16, but she was barren.  He banished her and took another at 22 – her two offspring were stillborn and she went the way of the first.  His third wife was 25 when he was fifty and bore him a beautiful daughter.  But then no more and he sent her away.  He did not want to pass the torch down to one of his extended family, many of whom were eager to take on the patriarchal role as head of the Negulescu clan.

    As his daughter Tatiana approached fifty, Nag finally had to admit to himself that he would have no other choice but to ordain her to lead the clan, 

    although there was no such thing as a gypsy woman leader.  She was married, had two children, both boys, which bore upon his decision.  Against his will she went to college, with a degree in business from Ocicius University in Constata, but loved living in the mountains near her family – she was in charge of marketing the Negulescu products outside the quarterly auctions, but had nothing to do with the tanning operations  “If the leadership had to skip a generation so be it” thought Nag.  Tatiana had grown up in the business and knew most aspects – but not about the Silken.

    He made her swear an oath that what she was about to learn would never be revealed to anyone except her own first-born son.  She swore, but didn’t think much about it; she wanted to shrug off the old ways and modernize the business and lifestyle.  She was sick of seeing children of fourteen forced into arranged marriages with their cousins, the evil eye curses, and the blood feuds.

    She was taken into an entryway that was at the back of the main soaking room, closed off by a small iron door – only Nag had the key – which she

    had never seen before.  Inside were ancient implements of a tannery, but they hid a stone door that led to a tunnel.  She had to crawl on her 

    hands and knees.  Finally they got to a malodorous small spring that bubbled up at the back of a small cave.  It was present only for a few yards, formed a pool, and then dived back into the earth.   “Acids and minerals in this spring soften the Silken hides and bring all of the qualities of the finest leather to the surface. My beautiful walnut skin is still clear at seventy-five because I come here once a week and bathe.”  “But where do the Silken skins come from?” asked Tatiana.

    “The Silken is made from human skin.”  “What!  You can’t be serious,” said Tatiana in terror.  “Yes I am, there is no law against tanning human skin.”  “Father, 

    where do you procure these skins?”  “Our family has long had an arrangement with some of the undertakers in this region, and they have contracts 

    with others in Europe and Russia.  The undertakers sell the skins to our agent.  Some money goes to the families of the deceased.  They are glad to 

    have it.  Like I said, there is no law against tanning the skins, but we are the only ones who do it,” he said proudly.

    “But why deal in human skins?”  “Because there is no leather that has the particular look and feel.”  “What about the very finest, almost

     white, some pieces with a pink glow that bring more than gold, where are those from?”  Nag looked over at her, his black eyes tightening, fake tears beading at the edges.  “Those are from very young children who have died.  There are not many in a year, we are lucky to have ten skins. They are bought from families whose children have not reached their first year.  These are the poorest of the poor and we do them a great service by buying the bodies of

    their dead children.  We pay very high amounts to procure their skins.”  “What do you do with the bodies?” Tatiana asked.  “We give them a proper 

    burial in a cemetery closest to where they were acquired.  I only do this to help the poor.”  Naga thought to himself, “And I do it to keep my fortune 

    growing and growing.”  “They come from small villages.  It is very difficult to get the skins we need.  There is always more demand than we can supply. Can you continue this most profitable part of our business?”  She nodded, but thought to herself, “Never.”

    Tatiana was not a fool and from then on she watched her father very closely.  A month later he acted very nervous one afternoon.  He said it was his

    stomach but she was suspicious.  She crept out after him – it was 11:00 PM and he was easy to follow since he was sure no one would be out on

    the Negulescu land at this hour.  In forty-five minutes he was at a place where the trail indented the mountain wall.  She could see the glow of his

    cigarette when he sat down.  In a half hour someone came from the opposite direction, carrying a duffel in his right hand.  There was a greeting and   

    then Tatiana could hear the rasp of talk between the two men – then the rustle of money.  Naga took the bag and started back, not realizing that he came
    within twenty-five feet of his daughter.


    She trailed him, watching as he put the bag into a locked iron shed, looking around as he did so.  Then he went to bed.  But Tatiana had a key.  She waited an hour, then opened the door, turned her flashlight on, and looked in the bag.  She couldn’t figure it out; the skins had already had the hair removed, and were very supple. Then as she laid them out, trying to understand what animal they had come from, she realized that these were human skins, ones her father would make into the Silken.   Most skins were small enough to be those of babies.

    Tatiana did not trust her father, but had no way to know if his explanation of where the human skins came from was true or not.  She would stop this

    practice in human pelts just as soon as she had control.  A week later she asked her father, “Can we not stop this practice, do we need the money that 

     badly?”  “Yes, we could, but remember I also look at it as a service to the poor.  We make no profit on the skin’s of the babies, making sure that all monies go to the parents.”  He looked Tatiana right in her eyes to see if she had bought his lie.

    Within two weeks Tatiana agreed to continue the family line as the Neglusecu matriarch and started to learn the Silken process.  She began to be introduced to the men that her father had dealt with over his 75 years.  Most seemed to be honest businessmen who understood the leather trade, but showed their dislike in dealing with a woman.  The last was a small man, dark like her father, with close-set eyes, a sharp nose and a mistrustful face.  “This is Draco, one of my oldest friends – he is the agent who supplies most of the hides that are made into the Silken.”  The man nodded and raised his head.  Tatiana thought there was a strange  gleam in his eyes as he met her gaze – almost a look of madness.  He explained again what her father had told her – almost as if it was rehearsed.  Then Nag and Draco went off together.

    Later that evening, after the two had much to drink, they were talking, heads bent together, fingers involuntarily curling.  “How are you doing obtaining bodies right after burial?” asked Nag.  “Not so good, families tend to come back to the graves many times during the first few weeks, and as you know, after three days the skin starts to deteriorate.  We have watchers everywhere, but two diggers were caught and killed by local people.  I think we should stop stealing corpses for awhile.”

    Hmm,” said Nag. “What about the fine infant skins you brought me last time? You mentioned some of the skins may have come from children who didn’t

    die from illness?” said Nag.  “Yes, it’s true.  I did not propose it, but two very poor families who had an unwanted new child were more than glad to turn 

    over the body immediately after the child had been smothered.  I never ask for them to do this, but I did not refuse.  It’s more and more difficult to get 

    the remains of babies, this will give us another source, do you agree?” said Draco.  “Yes,” Nag nodded, “It’s someone else’s choice to do this thing, It is nothing to do with us.  Make sure the skin is removed before the body is cold if at all possible,” he cautioned, “And let it be known that we are buyers of such skins.”  One other opportunity,” said Draco. “There was one man from a remote area who wanted to know if I would be interested in an unborn child taken from its mother’s womb.  I said I would have to think about it – I wanted to see what you thought.”“I shall have to think about that myself,” said Nag.  I wouldn’t undertake it unless the finished Silken would sell for over one hundred thousand dollars.” But he involuntarily rubbed his hands, grinned with delight, and hugged himself with anticipation.  

    Outside the old building, listening at a space where a chink of mud had fallen out, Tatiana sank to the ground.  This could not be her father; surely he would never contemplate what she had just heard – he was mean, even cruel, and not to be trusted, but surely he would never consider taking part in the murder of children.  She lay still for 15 minutes, stunned by the conversation.  Then she stumbled back to her own bed sick within her heart.

    The next morning, she decided to confront her father.   “Answer me one question.  Would you and Draco pay for parents to take the lives of babies to

    get their skin?” She told him she had heard him talking to Draco in the old shed and was sure what she had heard.  “You are mistaken,” said her father,  “We were only talking about children who died of natural causes right after birth.  We would never go beyond that.  Draco’s muttering were misunderstood, you can talk to him yourself today.”  Then he thought to himself, “Having Tatiana take over the business will never work.  I must do what I must do.”  At the same moment, Tatiana had the same thought, “I must do what I must do.”

    Two days later, Naga told Tatiana that he was ready to show her additional processes done in the Silken chamber.  She readily agreed and when they got

    to the stone door, Naga said, “Go before me, I will slow you down.”  But Tatiana replied, “No father, you go first, take your time.  And so they crawled 

    through the tunnel, dimly lit by their flashlights.  As Naga entered the Silken Chamber he reached down for his large fleshing knife, but a blow from the  

    darkness struck him first.

    Two days later a nephew had a question for Naga.  Tatiana explained that he had gone to Russia for a month -– to see if he could find any

    relatives of the old Negulescu family – to trace his ancestry.  The cousin knitted his eyebrows in a quizzical expression, but then just shrugged his shoulders.  After awhile the family members quit asking about Nag, assuming he was still in Russia.

    A month later the quarterly showing of the Nagulescu leather commenced.  There was only one Silken skin, quite large, that was of the finest walnut hue – it brought $32,000 – the last of the Silken ever to be sold.

    Joseph Ollivier




    Author’s Note:  The Romanian government estimates their gypsy population to be somewhere in the neighborhood of 623,000, and the worldwide population at around ten million.  No one really knows for sure, since census analysis has shown that gypsies don’t give their real names for fear of discrimination – or if they have settled in with the predominant population, they have adopted that ethnicity for protection.  I was in Russia in 1983 – there were no gypsies anywhere.  In 2000 when I went back, they were everywhere, begging, selling, groups trying to get your attention for pickpocketing.   

    The demand for human leather is worldwide and generally is not regulated or restricted.

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