By Tea Bajraktarevic
On the eve of civil war, a professor meets a mysterious stranger at a Balkan crossroads. First prize winner in the English Department’s 2005 Edward W. Moses Creative Writing Competition.
Self rule is the greatest ambition of any occupied nation. With the fall of Turkish rule in Yugoslavia after two years of war, it finally looked like a possibility. But without a cohesive national identity, ethnicity becomes the thing that we hold close to ward off the night.
“How extremely odd,” the Serb said, and pulled his mustache twice to get the chill out.
Professor Ognen Vukovic stood at the crossroads of Brejevina and Stukica one evening in October, contemplating the shrine of the Virgin on the other side of the road, his mouth full of dried apricots. Someone, probably some passing gypsy, had draped a wolf-skin over the arms of the cross above the shrine. The teeth gnawed weightlessly at the damp wooden board, and one yellow glass eye had popped out and now dangled away from the socket.
The tradition was supposedly a commonplace one, but he had never seen it in practice. The gypsies were a most superstitious people, and, besides being eternally suspected of child theft and village hexes, they were renowned for littering the roads they traveled most often with wards to keep the devil at bay. A wolf-skin thus hung was intended to reinforce the protective powers of the Virgin. It fascinated him, this convergence of Christian and pagan ritual, though he shuddered at seeing it for the first time when he was so far from home.
The shrine stood draped in a canopy of wet foliage on the opposite side of the highway, or what the Slovenians called a highway because it was unpaved and wound like an enormous serpent across the slope before disappearing in the dark gullet of the forest. The sun had set some twenty minutes beforehand, and he felt crushed by the dusk, by the swiftness with which it had come upon him, alone in the middle of God-knew-where. Vukovic pulled his coat higher, and watched a vaporous fog crawl down the mountainside.
He did not know when the Brejevina coach would arrive to take him across the border, but he had come here early and he knew that the river, swollen with the winter rains, would delay the carriage. He had no money to take the train, and was twenty miles from the nearest station besides. So he stood in the hush of the satin forest and waited.
Rain had fallen all night, and the gravel path crackled wetly under his boots. He stood in a small alcove of trees where the two roads met, in full view of the shrine at all times, because even he, educated though he was, grew uncomfortable in the Slovenian deeps, where meeting a fox on the road was considered an ill omen one had to guard against by spitting on the ground and turning in place seven times to ward off the devil.
Mr. Vukovic longed for something familiar, and as he stood there he thought he could still smell the warm bread and cheese with which he had been hospitably stuffed at the miller’s house where he’d spent the night. The miller and his wife, a pair of marvelously plump Slovenians, had offered him lodging when he happened upon their hut some five miles up the road the previous evening. You could always count on such people to uphold the epitome of hosting — they did not have much, but what they had they shared with a proud fervor that would have shamed the wealthiest of men.
The miller had refrained from questions concerning his guest’s nationality — a rare thing these days, particularly in the more remote parts of the Balkans. Instead, he had sat across the flour-dusted wooden table, his round belly pressing up against the edge, and become more and more intoxicated as the night wore on. He had interesting ghost stories to tell about the nearby villages: most told of the moral punishments visited upon inconstant wives by their late husbands, who returned from the grave in horse-drawn carriages to exact their revenge. The miller’s wife scoffed at the tales as she served the bread and white cheese, brushing her husband’s large, greedy hands away with her apron. They had been welcome company on this last leg of his journey.
Vukovic wished now, as he looked at the shrine across the road, that he had not listened to so many of their tales, and cursed himself for sleeping so late as to miss all the coaches to Brejevina save this last one. He thought about going back up the road as the sun set, and spending another night in their home, but they had less than he did, and he did not wish to impose. Besides, he disliked the notion of being caught in the woods after nightfall.
The professor looked to his left, then to his right. It was impossible to see very far down the road because of the wall of trees on either side. He felt strangled by the forest, confined to a single clearing, waiting for the invisible coach. It was growing quite dark now, and he looked on the blessed face of the Virgin, in whom he did not believe, to give himself comfort but the damned wolf above her head stared at him with that one, mangled eye and his mustache twitched uncontrollably under its gaze.
Twin torches framed the statue of the Virgin. He felt around his pockets for his matchbook, feeling empty because he had no cigarettes to go with it. He looked up and down the causeway again, then bolted across to light the fires.
Vukovic felt odd leaving his post because he’d stood there for over an hour, watching the woods grow dark. He inexplicably felt that if he did not hurry, he would turn around and find that something terrible had taken his place. Being alone in the forest, he decided as he snapped the matches against the booklet in his shaking fingers, produced a kind of nervous condition he would much rather do without.
He got the torches started after about two minutes — there was still enough hay and cloth in the bundles at the top of the pole for him to discard the grass he had picked, which was wet anyway. Then he turned around and, finding his small station by the marker-boulder across the road empty, he ran back over, panting in the cold sweat the effort produced.
Here he was, looking at another dead wolf.
The torches had thrown the clearing into a blinding yellow light, which he suffered for a few moments in silent awe. It appeared to him that the Virgin was illuminated from all sides by a golden glow that was entirely independent of anything earthly, until his eyes adjusted and he was able to behold his doing more clearly. He was sure the initial effect was intended to seem that way.
The wolf-pelt looked even more grotesque in this light. The skinning had been done poorly, and the underside of the mouth, which rested agape over the top of the cross, lacked the oiled patches he saw dotting the turned-out belly and hindquarters. Vukovic had seen many stuffed wolves — they were kept on display at the university museum in Belgrade. He didn’t think he’d ever seen a living specimen, and he was oddly saddened that the trip to Slovenia had not provided such a simple pleasure. Here he was, looking at another dead wolf.
As he stood there, his hands buried in his pockets, his thumb pressing down on an apricot that had strayed out of the bag, he heard a sound he did not expect to hear. At first he hoped it was the rattling of carriage wheels in the distance, but as it grew louder, he realized it was the sound of footsteps.
Ognen Vukovic did not frighten easily — he had fought for many months under Serbian commanders in the Balkan Wars that had liberated the southern Slavs from the Ottomans in 1912, and, ten years later, he still considered himself a military man. He could not help feeling, however, a slight chill at the approaching sound, and he looked about, aided only by the torches surrounding the Virgin, to see if he could locate its source.
The footsteps seemed to echo all around him in the throat of the forest, but as they became steadier and more distinct, he knew that the person, whoever it may be, was walking from the right, and Vukovic peered through the darkness, trying hard to look as nonchalant as possible.
He realized, then, that the footsteps belonged to a man who was walking his way. It was a rather luminous man, for he seemed to be perpetually bathed in moonlight, and Vukovic wondered if the moon was out tonight at all, and, if it was not, whether he should perhaps throw the Brejevina coach to the dickens and run back in the direction of the miller’s hut.
Then he realized the moonlight was not moonlight at all, but rather a reflection of the Virgin’s torches upon the man’s spectacles, and he stepped on his own foot twice to reprimand himself for having been such a fool.
The man kept a steady pace as he walked toward the clearing where Vukovic stood. He was a short man of odd proportions: compact, stocky, but rearing out of his boots as if he were a giant. He wore a long black coat, which was buttoned up to where his chin jutted sharply over the collar. His head was nestled under an enormously becoming hat with a single purple feather that somehow streamlined his entire shape. His boots reverberated against the gravel as if it were a metal sheet, and he walked with an ease entirely incongruent to a man walking alone in the forest at this time of night, a cane swinging in his left hand.
He had slung a bulging sack over his shoulder, and as he came toward Vukovic, he appeared to be humming an old folksong about going home. Vukovic shifted uncomfortably, for he was always conscious of his appearance, and he felt slightly cheated in having entertained the thought that his own coat and hat would do for such a back-road journey as this. Apparently, no matter where you went, some deuce would always be a better dresser.
The man reached the boulder and stopped, looking from left to right as if he expected the coach to come tearing around the corner merely on account of his arrival. Then he put down the sack and said, “Good evening.”
He tried to further examine his frosty companion from the corner of his eye, because the round glasses, which reflected the Virgin’s light in small infernos, fascinated him.
“Good evening,” Vukovic replied, and took off his hat politely. The stranger did not respond with any such grace, and the professor put his bowler back on so as not to feel like an idiot.
Vukovic tried to draw himself further into his coat, because with the stranger there he could no longer stamp about to keep warm as he had previously done. He tried to further examine his frosty companion from the corner of his eye, because the round glasses, which reflected the Virgin’s light in small infernos, fascinated him. He had always wanted to be the type of man who wore glasses — or, at least, could afford to.
The stranger rummaged in his pocket and brought out a cigarette, lit it, and resumed his silent examination of the shrine across the road. Tendrils of gray smoke seeped into the air like cracks across a frosted lake, and Vukovic wondered when he had last been able to afford a cigarette.
“Would you care for one?” the stranger asked, without looking at him.
Vukovic thought to refuse, but did not wish to be rude. “Thank you kindly,” he said, and the stranger lit another between his own lips and passed it to him.
“Thank you,” the professor said, tipping his hat again. And then, because he felt obliged to somehow continue the encounter beyond a shared smoke, he observed: “It is rather cold tonight.”
The stranger flicked the ashen tip of his cigarette. “It is.”
“I do not believe it has been this cold for a very long time,” Vukovic continued.
“I am accustomed to a somewhat warmer climate.” The stranger continued to smoke at a fantastic rate. When the cigarette had been reduced to a smoldering stump, he dropped it on the gravel and extinguished it with the heel of his boot.
Vukovic, still puffing awkwardly on his own cigarette, shifted weight from foot to foot. The smoke was making him delightfully dizzy, and he could feel himself getting warmer by the minute. He was beginning to care less about the stranger, who stood several feet away with his hands in his pockets, blowing warm air from his nostrils.
Then the stranger said, “Is that wolf-skin?”
“I believe so,” the professor replied, and looked over to where the dilapidated pelt hung above the Virgin’s headdress. He suddenly found it extremely comical, and wanted to laugh, but he stopped himself on account of his companion. He did not know the man’s religious persuasion. If the stranger was a good Christian, laughter could easily offend him; if he was a Bosnian Muslim, it would indulge him, which was ten times worse.
The stranger saved him from any such predicament. He put down his cane against the boulder, and crossed the road to the shrine with a gait so matter-of-fact that Vukovic concluded he must not belong to any religion at all. He stopped just below the cross and looked up at the beast suspended there, then growled at it, his face set in an amused sneer.
Vukovic let the cigarette burn down as he stared at the spectacle before him. The stranger reached over the holy mother and her cross, and in one swift motion that seemed entirely unimpeded by the constriction of his coat, he yanked the wolf-skin down. He stood on the mossy ground by the Virgin’s side, staring into the cockeyed face of the wolf, then turned back to where Vukovic stood.
“What is the use of this?” he asked.
“I believe it is a superstition,” Vukovic replied. The cigarette ash burned his fingers and he threw down the remnants, batting his hand against his coat.
“And what does the superstition do?”
“I have read somewhere it contributes to protection against evil.”
“Truly.” The stranger rolled up the pelt over his arm, and made his way back with the damp clump of fur. Vukovic heard a soft clink on the gravel and realized, with a sickening feeling, that it was the stray glass eye, which had slipped out of its mooring in the pelt’s socket. Upon reaching the other side of the road, the stranger crushed the skin between his gloved hands and threw it with tremendous force into the bushes behind the clearing, where it shuddered through the foliage and fell into darkness. “What a ridiculous waste.”
Vukovic sniffed loudly and shifted in the cradle of his coat. He did not know what the stranger meant, but he felt a sudden discomfort with the wolf-pelt gone. He had grown accustomed to its mangled shape in the firelight. Without it, the cross looked bare.
Unperturbed, the stranger took up his place by the boulder again and wordlessly lit another cigarette. Vukovic hoped he would be offered one, but his silent companion stared straight ahead, evidently admiring the improvement he had made on the shrine.
The clearing grew very quiet. Vukovic wondered what was in the stranger’s sack, which rested against the boulder, its neck knotted tight. He wondered what would happen if he suddenly seized the stranger’s cane and beat him over the head with it, only to steal his sack and find it full of money. Or perhaps cigarettes.
Vukovic felt chilled by the silence, and tried to think of some way he could fill it. He reached into his pocket where the bag of dry apricots curled under his touch, and held out his offering. The stranger looked at him through the round rims of his spectacles, and the professor felt his face grow red under such precise scrutiny.
His companion reached in and selected two fat apricots.
“What is your name, friend?” the stranger asked.
“Ognen Vukovic,” the professor reached out a hand. The stranger’s grip was warm. Vukovic wished he had gloves himself.
“I am Djavilic,” he said, and did not offer his first name. The professor did not ask for it. “It is always interesting to me,” the stranger continued, “To see what kind of people are traveling these days. Although I must confess, it has been a long time since I’ve been in these parts.”
“No, I cannot remember the last time I was in Slovenia.”
“What do you do?”
“I am a professor of history,” Vukovic said. “At the Belgrade University.”
“Ah,” Djavilic said, with a smile. “A most thrilling subject. Are the Balkans your area of specialty?”
“Only because I have lived here for so long.” Vukovic felt the nervousness in his own laugh. “But otherwise, I teach mostly Classics.”
“And are you going home to Belgrade?” Djavilic did not volunteer his own occupation. Vukovic suspected, however, that he probably had none. He looked like the kind of man who had inherited both wealth and taste, and whose future assured a comfortable indulgence of both for the rest of his life.
He had no accent, his speech was crisp and clear and entirely unidentifiable.
“Yes,” Vukovic said. “I took a brief holiday to visit my sister in Ljubljana. She has just been married.”
“Your people are Slovenian?” the stranger asked, chewing an apricot.
“No, but my sister met a Slovenian fellow at the University,” the professor explained. “Are you waiting for the Brejevina coach?”
“Who are your people, then?”
“I am a Serb.” The professor drew himself up. “Born and bred in Belgrade. My father was a Serb, and his father before him.”
“And your mother?”
“She is half Croat,” the professor replied. Then he thought the conversation had gone far enough in the interest of his personal life. “What about you, friend?”
“I am from nowhere in particular,” the stranger replied, and reached into the bag, which Vukovic had kept open in his palm, for another apricot. “I am from all over the place.”
Vukovic wondered if the man was a Jew. “It is hard to know these days,” he said, stating the usual conclusion. The stranger did not have the lilt of the southwestern Bosnian Muslims; and he lacked the Croatian drawl. He had no accent, his speech was crisp and clear and entirely unidentifiable. Vukovic thought he might be a very, very talented Hungarian, but then decided that he seemed too pleasant.
“You must be very pleased with the order of things,” Djavilic said.
The professor stiffened. The new order. Everywhere he went, it was assumed he must be pleased with the new order. “How do you mean, sir?” he said.
“It is merely a remark,” the stranger said.
“I do not doubt the nature of your question, my good man,” the professor said. “But I don’t understand it, either.”
The stranger looked at him again, his eyes fixed. Around them, the woods were still, and Vukovic wondered uncomfortably when the Brejevina coach would arrive. He had been so preoccupied with his companion that he had entirely forgotten his purpose for standing out here in the cold darkness.
“Well.” Djavilic stroked the purple plume of his hat between two long, gloved fingers. “There are no more Turks. Germans. Italians. Only a king, a Balkan king, who happens to be a Serb.”
“Well?” Vukovic grew impatient. The stranger was turning out to be disappointingly predictable.
“I am just curious to hear your perspective,” Djavilic said. “Especially since I already know you’ve recently been to Slovenia. It does not appear that the crown is the solution to all your problems.”
“It will become so,” Vukovic told him.
“You can meet those people elsewhere,” the stranger said. “We are all headed to the same place.”
“Perhaps,” the stranger said. “But I do not think so. Look, my friend. You’ve no gloves — you’ve no cigarettes. You are alone in the woods at night, and why? Because you’ve no money for a train ticket. That is what this peace has brought you, three hours at a coach-stop in the middle of nowhere on a winter’s night.”
Vukovic’s throat caught tightly, and he thought of his sister in Ljubljana, and the fat miller and his wife. “It has bought me the opportunity to cross this border, and meet with people whose company I enjoy,” he said, and then realized he’d made it sound as though he was referring to Djavilic himself. Vukovic did not know how to retrace his words without insulting him.
“You can meet those people elsewhere,” the stranger said. “We are all headed to the same place.” Leisurely, he kicked the sack by the boulder. Something inside resounded dully. He was smoking another cigarette now, and the gray tufts billowed around his face, obscuring his glasses.
Vukovic wished the coach would come. He suddenly felt very tired, as if he had been arguing with this indistinguishable man for a long time. He was cold, and he felt very far from home.
“There will always be someone to fight,” the stranger said. “And ultimately, this is a good thing to realize.” He took a long, slow drag, his hat fixed low over his forehead. “It is not necessarily the Turks, or the Germans. Tomorrow, it will be your own brother because he is on the wrong side of the Danube.”
“It will take some time,” Vukovic said. “We are not accustomed to being our own people.”
“For the moment, I am just passing through,” the dark stranger said. “But I suspect I shall be in these parts more and more often as time goes by.”
“You will grow so accustomed to it, my dear professor, that you will whittle yourselves down into people that do not even exist. Your mother — she is half Croat. But still, you are a Serb. Why? Merely because that is what you have chosen to call yourself.”
“And who are you to make such judgments?” Vukovic asked loudly.
“For the moment, I am just passing through,” the dark stranger said. “But I suspect I shall be in these parts more and more often as time goes by.” He stamped out his cigarette and dusted his hands against his sides. “My coach will be here soon.”
“The coach to Brejevina?” Vukovic looked around.
“No,” the stranger said. “My coach.”
Vukovic frowned and adjusted his hat. The stranger was becoming more and more difficult to understand. He wanted to ask him where he was going, what other coach would be coming here this late.
The trees behind them rustled, and Vukovic, startled, stepped back into the road as a rumbling growl sounded from the darkness of the brush. The stranger turned in place, apparently undisturbed.
A shadowy form leapt from the cover of the forest, and trotted out to the road until it stood in the half-light of the torches. Vukovic cried out in fear as he looked upon it, and cowered back to the boulder and the form of the stranger, which seemed, suddenly, to have become much larger. Vukovic recognized the thing in the road, as it stopped to sniff the gravel, and then looked up with its one good, yellow eye, its shape thick and black against the stretch of highway behind it. The professor grew dreadfully cold.
Lowering its large, pointed head, the wolf snarled at the two men in the alcove, the thick fur on its back rising like bulrush in a high wind. Vukovic crossed himself twice. The stranger laughed, and said: “Restrain yourself, friend. We have no use for such ministrations here.” He hefted the sack and, with a wide swing, tossed it out to where the wolf stood frothing. As the heap landed, the neck of the sack spilled open and something rolled out, something large and heavy that bounced across the gravel and landed at the beast’s feet.
The animal lowered its head and sniffed at the offering, and Vukovic thought he would swoon as he heard it begin to crunch, heard the soft, splattering give of whatever flesh had been served to it. Djavilic looked at him, unreadable behind his glasses and hat.
And suddenly over the noise of the cursed animal’s repast, Vukovic heard something else — the rumble of wheels and the sigh of horses, the impenetrable weight of a carriage against the gray road and the thick night. He turned to look, to greet the driver, and saw it rounding the bend, a black coach and six, guided by an invisible face behind an even darker cloak.
The carriage stopped in the middle of the road, and the light of the Virgin beyond it died. Vukovic shuddered. The wolf continued its feast, its black nuzzle buried in the warm heat of the sack.
“My friend, our ways must part here,” the stranger said, as he took up his cane and dusted himself off. He gravel crackled under his feet as he walked to the coach. When he reached it, he stopped. “Unless, of course, you care to join me.”
The mettlesome horses blew icy breath and stamped around the wolf, which fed frenziedly, snarling. The professor was very cold. Djavilic grabbed the doorpost of the carriage and hoisted himself inside.
“There will be no coach to Brejevina tonight, friend,” he said. “Only the forest and the terrible darkness.”
Vukovic felt ill, and looked up at the black coach, into which the stranger had disappeared.
He thought about the Virgin, somewhere behind the coach, her light gone. He thought about the prayers he had been told to say to her when he had been a very small boy. Please save us, he had said. Save us all. He couldn’t remember what he had meant when he’d said it — he had never been told what to think. He thought of his mother, who was a Croat.
“Come,” the stranger’s voice said, and it was the warmest voice the professor had ever heard. He thought about his sister, and the miller and his wife, and about how gray the Danube would be in December. And how red. And how deep.
The wolf stood in the road, its yellow eye fixed intently on him, on his bowler hat, his apricots, on the things that were his, that belonged to him. And as it continued to gaze, he reached for the carriage door and climbed in.
About the Author
Tea Bajraktarevic is a senior majoring in Creative Writing and Art History. Her interests include fiction and literature, and she is the founder and choreographer of USC’s newest ballroom troupe, Break On 2: Latin Fusion. She is secretly most excited when her monthly National Geographic subscription arrives in the mail.