Miloš K. Ilić
A HERDER DROVE his cows past your house and dust rose from the ground. It stood up like a wall of yellow mud – stifling; filling up each tiny bit of both of you – becoming the air itself, and no longer a part of the village street.
You and your father paused at the door of your house. As if you needed time to get used to the choking motes of soil. As if you did not already sleep on it, did not eat or drink or talk it. It engrossed you now, as if it was something neither of you had seen before.
The dust settled. Your eyes followed the outline of the wood, which, after a hundred steps turned into a thick forest, cut through by a well-trodden path for lumberjacks. Above the forest the day skies were already merging with the evening skies, and the entire vault of heaven was ablaze in ginger flames.
Father started towards the forest without a word. He had already told you that he had a surprise for you, and that was enough for you to follow in his footsteps. Each of his surprises meant an introduction into a new part of manhood: the first weapon, first hunt, first woman you greedily devoured… You were wondering what he would teach you this time.
You followed the trail long enough for the day to shrink to just a faint tiny cloud – a line of blood in the middle of the skies. Father strode through shrubs and past trees as if he had walked here time and again. In the dark, with the moon only grinning faintly, it was difficult for you to follow. You ran, lest you become lost in the night.
You wanted to ask your father where you were going and how much longer it would take. It crossed your mind that you should ask whether he had perhaps left at home the charms to protect you from forest spirits. But for fear that the surprise was just that – the dark and the forest – you kept quiet.
At last, through tightly embracing trunks of tall pine trees, you glimpsed the flickering of torches. No voice reached you. The only things filling the murk were the clinking of metal and dull sounds of wood hitting against wood. You were afraid – and kept silent.
Soon you reached a small clearing, with the soldiers whose torches you saw, and whose armour you heard. And how relieved you felt that those were no demons or ghosts, but ordinary people. Ordinary like you and your father. Made of flesh sticking to white bones. Ordinary people.
You could not see, through the dark, how many they were. You could only begin to make them out. Several soldiers were holding torches and standing beside the pile of chopped up wood and sticks. From the pile arose a ladder, made in haste from wood collected from the forest around the clearing. A dozen people from your village crowded close together, as if they were cold. But the night was very pleasant – cool, but not icy – and smelled of pinewood and rain.
A bony figure in black walked around, holding a cross in one hand and a book in the other, chanting in a language you did not understand, casting his eyes to the sky every now and then, as if he wished for the heavens to take him.
A white horse strutted between the soldiers and your people from the village. A soldier in full body armour swayed comfortably on its backside. A helmet bobbed on his head, threatening to fall down at any minute.
All of this you absorbed very quickly. Most of the time you stared at your father, hoping for a word of explanation, or at least a look! But the old man was still, silent, gazing at the ladder, which stuck up like a tongue thrust towards the stars.
All of a sudden the soldier on horseback raised his right hand and shouted an unintelligible command. From behind the pile of wood and branches two more soldiers appeared, carrying a brown sack between them. They approached the ladder and tossed the sack down at its base. They took ropes from their belts and tied the sack to the ladder. You saw that something moved in the sack. That the sack had limbs, a body and head. That it was not a sack. The solders tied up small white arms with protruding red veins; tied up small bony legs wobbling brokenly. They also tied up the top of the sack: a sooty circle, all crushed and speckled with blood, like the corpse of a cat beneath the cart wheels.
It did not take soldiers long to tie up that scrap of a man, and soon they stood in line next to their fellows. The man in black approached the tied man, chanted, and then crouched near the soldiers. At a new command from the horseman, the soldiers with torches went to the sack and put their torches to the logs and branches beneath the feet of the sack. They cringed, flinching as if the slow flame that barely flickered would burn them. And yet the sputtering flames and a rare coil of grey smoke soon turned into a blasting fire with black ramparts, engulfing the entire clearing. The sack howled and went on howling – forever – until the fire consumed the whole of the sack and turned the entire ladder and every branch and twig beneath it into a glowing black heap.
Where was that rain?
By the end, the sack was a lump of coal; bending and twisting, shrivelling before you, in the flames that towered above, threatening to consume all of you.
The soldiers were standing and staring into the fire. The one on horseback took off his helmet, wiped his forehead and licked his lips, blinking. He ordered everybody to leave. The group from your village wobbled towards the forest. Father and you were just a step behind them.
Father spoke for the first time since he told you that morning that he had a surprise for you, saying: ‘That was death.’
Translated from the Serbian by Branislava Jurašin
© Copyright 2011 Milos K Ilić