The Leader (3/3)
Thus the first day passed, and there followed more days with the same success. Nothing of very great importance happened, only trivial occurrences: they tumbled headfirst into a ditch, then into a ravine; they brushed against hedges and blackberry bushes; they stepped on bottles; several broke arms and legs; some suffered blows on the head. But all this torment was endured. A few old men were left lying dead on the road. “They would have died even if they had stayed at home, not to mention on the road!” the spokesmen said, encouraging the others to continue. A few smaller children, one to two years old, also perished. The parents stoically suppressed their heartaches because it was God’s will. “And the smaller the children, the less the grief. When they are younger the sorrow is less. God grant the parents never lose their children when they have reached the marrying age. If the children are so destined, it’s better that they die early. Then the sorrow is not so great!” the spokesmen consoled them again. Some wrapped cloths around their heads and put cold compresses on their bruises. Others carried their arms in slings. All were ragged and cut up. Their clothes hung in shreds, but they nevertheless pushed happily forward. All this would have been easier to bear if they had not been racked with hunger many times over. But they had to keep going.
One day, something more significant happened.
The leader was walking in front, surrounded by the bravest men in the group. (Two of them were missing, and no one knew where they were. It was the general opinion that they had betrayed their cause and fled. On one occasion the spokesman said something about their shameful treason. Only a few believed the two had died on the way, but they did not voice their opinion in order not to arouse the others.) The rest of the group was in line behind them. Suddenly there appeared an exceedingly large and deep, rocky gorge – a real abyss. The slope was so steep that they did not dare take a step forward. Even the bravest ones stopped short and looked at the leader. Frowning, absorbed in thoughts with his head down, he boldly stepped forward, tapping his cane in front, first to the right, then to the left, in his characteristic way. Many said it all made him seem still more dignified. He neither looked at anyone nor said anything. On his face there was no change of expression or trace of fear as he got nearer and nearer to the precipice. Even the very boldest men became pale as death, but no one dared warn the valiant, wise leader. Two more steps and he was at the edge. In morbid fear and with wide open eyes, they all trembled. The bravest men were just on the point of holding the leader back, even if it meant a breach of discipline, when he stepped once, twice, and plunged into the ravine. There arose bewilderment, wailing, screaming; fear got the upper hand. Some began to flee.
– Hold it, brothers! What’s the hurry? Is this the way you keep your word? We must follow this wise man because he knows what he’s doing. He would be insane to ruin himself. Forward, after him! This is the biggest and perhaps the last hazard, the last hurdle. Who knows? Maybe on the other side of this ravine we’ll find a magnificient, fertile land which God meant for us. Forward! Without sacrifice, we’ll get nowere! – such were the spokesman’s words of advice and he too took two steps forward, disappearing into the ravine. The bravest followed and then everyone else plunged in.
There was wailing, groaning, tumbling, moaning on the steep slope of this vast gorge. One would have sworn that no one would ever get out alive, much less unhurt and in one piece, but human life is tenacious. The leader was unusually lucky. He hung onto bushes as he fell so that he was not hurt. He managed to pull himself together and climb out. While wailing, moaning and weeping resounded below, he sat motionless, pensively silent. A few who were battered and angry began to curse him but he paid no heed. Those who luckily were able to hold of a bush or a tree while falling began trying strenuously to climb out. Some had cracked heads so that blood was gushing out of their faces. There was nobody in one piece except the leader. They all suddenly frowned at him and groaned in agony but he did not even lift his head. He was silent and assumed the reflective pose of a real sage!
Some time passed. The number of travelers was becoming smaller and smaller. Each day took its toll. Some left the group and turned back.
Of the large number that started, only about twenty remained. Their haggard, exhausted faces mirrored signs of despair, doubt, fatigue and hunger, but no one said as much as a word. They were as silent as their leader and kept plodding along. Even the spirited spokesman shook his head desperately. The road was difficult indeed.
Their numbers diminished daily until there were only ten. With despondent faces, they only groaned and complained instead of conversing.
They looked more like cripples than men. Some were on cruthces. Some held their arms in slings fastened around their necks. On their hands were numerous bandages and compresses. Even if they had wanted to make new sacrifices, they could not because there was almost no room on their bodies for any new wounds.
Even the strongest and bravest among them had already lost faith and hope but they still struggled farther; that is, they somehow hobbled along with great effort, complaining, racked with pain. What else could they do if they could not go back? So many sacrifices and now to abandon the journey?
Twilight descended. Limping along on crutches, they suddenly saw that the leader was not in front of them anymore. Another step and they all plunged into another ravine.
– Oh, my leg! Oh, my hand! – resounded the wailing and groaning. One weak voice even cursed the worthy leader but then became silent.
When the sun came up, there sat the leader, the same as on that day when he was chosen. There was not the least change in his appearance.
The spokesman climbed out of the ravine, followed by two others. Disfigured and bloody, they turned around to see how many were left, but they were the only ones. Deathly fear and hopelessness filled their hearts. The region was unknown, hilly, rocky – no paths anywhere. Two day before they had come upon a road but left it behind. The leader led them that way.
They thought about the many friends and relatives who had died on this fantastic trip. A sadness stronger than the pain in their crippled limbs overcame them. They had witnessed their own destruction with their own eyes.
The spokesman went up to the leader and began speaking with a tired, trembling voice full of pain, despair and bitterness.
– Where are we going now?
The leader was silent.
– Where are you taking us and where have you brought us? We placed ourselves and our families in your hands and we followed you, leaving behind our homes and our ancestors’ graves in hopes that we could save ourselves from ruin in that barren land. But you have ruined us in a worse way. There were two hundred families behind you and now look how many there are!
– You mean everyone is not here? – mumbled the leader without lifting his head.
– How can you ask such a question? Look up and see! Count how many of us are left on this unfortunate journey! Look at the shape we’re in! It would be better to have died than to be crippled like this.
– I can’t look at you!
– Why not?
– I’m blind.
A dead silence.
– Did you lose your sight during the journey?
– I was born blind!
The three hung their heads in despair.
The autumn wind blew sinisterly through the mountains and brought down the withered leaves. A fog hovered over the hills, and through the cold, misty air fluttered ravens’ wings. An ill-omened cawing resounded. The sun was concealed behind the clouds, which were rolling and hurrying along farther and farther.
The three looked at each other in utter horror.
– Where can we go now? – mumbled one gravely.
– We don’t know!
Source: Vučković, Tihomir (ed.), A Millenium of Serbian Literature, Centre of Emigrants of Serbia, Belgrade 1999, 127–135. Translated by W. M. Lineker.