I had an awful dream. I do not wonder so much at the dream itself, but I wonder how I could find the courage to dream about awful things, when I am a quiet and respectable citizen myself, an obedient child of our dear, afflicted mother Serbia, just like all her other children. Of course, you know, if I were an exception in anything, it would be different, but no, my dear friend, I do exactly the same as everybody else, and as to being careful in everything, nobody can quite match me there. Once I saw a shiny button of a policeman’s uniform lying in the street, and I stared at its magic glow, almost on the point of passing by, full of sweet reminiscences, when suddenly, my hand began to tremble and sprang to a salute; my head bowed to the earth of itself, and my mouth spread into that lovely smile which we all wear when greeting our superiors.
— Noble blood runs in my veins — that’s what it is! — This is what I thought at that moment and I looked with disdain at the passing brute who carelessly stepped on the button.
— A brute! — I said bitterly, and spat, and then quietly walked on, consoled by the thought that such brutes are few; and I was particularly glad that God had given me a refined heart and the noble, chivalrous blood of our ancestors.
Well, you can see now what a wonderful man I am, not at all different from other respectable citizens, and you will no doubt wonder how such awful and foolish things could occur in my dreams.
Nothing unusual happened to me that day. I had a good dinner and afterwards sat picking my teeth at leisure; sipping my wine, and then, having made such a courageous and conscientious use of my rights as a citizen, I went to bed and took a book with me in order to go to sleep more quickly.
The book soon slipped from my hands, having, of course, gratified my desire and, all my duties done, I fell asleep as innocent as a lamb.
All at once I found myself on a narrow, muddy road leading through mountains. A cold, black night. The wind howls among barren branches and cuts like a razor whenever it touches naked skin. The sky black, dumb, and threatening, and snow, like dust, blowing into one’s eyes and beating against one’s face. Not a living soul anywhere. I hurry on and every now and then slip on the muddy road to the left, to the right. I totter and fall and finally lose my way, I wander on — God knows where — and it is not a short, ordinary night, but as long as a century, and I walk on all the time without knowing where.
So I walked on for very many years and came somewhere, far, far away from my native country to an unknown part of the world, to a strange land which probably nobody knows of and which, I am sure, can be seen only in dreams.
Roaming about the land I came to a big town where many people lived. In the large market-place there was a huge crowd, a terrible noise going on, enough to burst one’s ear-drum. I put up at an inn facing the market-place and asked the landlord why so many people had gathered together…
— We are quiet and respectable people, — he began his story, — we are loyal and obedient to the Mayor.
— The Mayor is not your supreme authority, is he? — I asked, interrupting him.
— The Mayor rules here and he is our supreme authority; the police come next.
— Why are you laughing? … Didn’t you know? … Where do you come from?
I told him how I had lost my way, and that I came from a distant land—Serbia.
— I’ve heard about that famous country! — whispered the landlord to himself, looking at me with respect, and then he spoke aloud:
— That is our way, — he went on, — the Mayor rules here with his policemen.
— What are your policemen like?
— Well, there are different kinds of policemen—they vary, according to their rank. There are the more distinguished and the less distinguished… We are, you know, quiet and respectable people, but all kinds of tramps come from the neighbourhood, they corrupt us and teach us evil things. To distinguish each of our citizens from other people the Mayor gave an order yesterday that all our citizens should go to the Town Hall, where each of us will have his forehead stamped. This is why so many people have got together: in order to take counsel what to do.
I shuddered and thought that I should run away from this strange land as quickly as I could, because I, although a Serb, was not used to such a display of the spirit of chivalry, and I was a little uneasy about it!
The landlord laughed benevolently, tapped me on the shoulder, and said proudly:
— Ah, stranger, is this enough to frighten you? No wonder, you have to go a long way to find courage like ours!
— And what do you mean to do? — I asked timidly.
— What a question! You will see how brave we are. You have to go a long way to find courage like ours, I tell you. You have travelled far and wide and seen the world, but I am sure you have never seen greater heroes than we are. Let us go there together. I must hurry.
We were just about to go when we heard, in front of the door, the crack of a whip.
I peeped out: there was a sight to behold—a man with a shining, three-horned cap on his head, dressed in a gaudy suit, was riding on the back of another man in very rich clothes of common, civilian cut. He stopped in front of the inn and the rider got down.
The landlord went out, bowed to the ground, and the man in the gaudy suit went into the inn to a specially decorated table. The one in the civilian clothes stayed in front of the inn and waited. The landlord bowed low to him as well.
— What’s all this about? — I asked the landlord, deeply puzzled.
— Well, the one who went into the inn is a policeman of high rank, and this man is one of our most distinguished citizens, very rich, and a great patriot, — whispered the landlord.
— But why does he let the other one ride on his back?
The landlord shook his head at me and we stepped aside. He gave me a scornful smile and said:
— We consider it a great honour which is seldom deserved! — He told me a great many things besides, but I was so excited that I could not make them out. But I heard quite clearly what he said at the end: — It is a service to one’s country which all nations have still not learned to appreciate!
We came to the meeting and the election of the chairman was already in progress.
The first group put up a man called Kolb, if I remember the name rightly, as its candidate for the chair; the second group wanted Talb, and the third had its own candidate.
There was frightful confusion; each group wanted to push its own man.
— I think that we don’t have a better man than Kolb for the chair of such an important meeting, — said a voice from the first group, — because we all know so well his virtues as a citizen and his great courage. I do not think there is anybody among us here who can boast of having been ridden so frequently by the really important people…
— Who are you to talk about it, — shrieked somebody from the second group. — You have never been ridden on by a junior police clerk!
— We know what your virtues are, — cried somebody from the third group. — You could never suffer a single blow of the whip without howling!
— Let us get this straight, brothers! — began Kolb. — It is true that eminent people were riding on my back as early as ten years ago; they whipped me and I never gave a cry, but it may well be that there are more deserving ones among us. There are perhaps younger better ones.
— No, no, — cried his supporters.
— We don’t want to hear about out-of-date honours! It’s ten years since Kolb was ridden on, — shouted the voices from the second group.
— Young blood is taking over, let old dogs chew old bones, — called some from the third group.
Suddenly there was no more noise; people moved back, left and right, to clear a path and I saw a young man of about thirty. As he approached, all heads bowed low.
— Who is this? — I whispered to my landlord.
— He is the popular leader. A young man, but very promising. In his early days he could boast of having carried the Mayor on his back three times. He is more popular than anybody else.
— They will perhaps elect him? — I inquired.
— That is more than certain, because as for all the other candidates — they are all older, time has overtaken them, whereas the Mayor rode for a little while on his back yesterday.
— What is his name?
They gave him a place of honour.
— I think, — Kolb’s voice broke the silence, — that we cannot find a better man for this position than Kleard. He is young, but none of us older ones is his equal.
— Hear, hear! … Long live Kleard! … — all the voices roared.
Kolb and Talb took him to the chairman’s place. Everybody made a deep bow, and there was utter silence.
— Thank you, brothers, for your high regard and this honour you have so unanimously bestowed upon me. Your hopes, which rest with me now, are too flattering. It is not easy to steer the ship of the nation’s wishes through such momentous days, but I will do everything in my power to justify your trust, to represent honestly your opinion, and to deserve your high regard for me. Thank you, my brothers, for electing me.
— Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah! — voters thundered from all sides.
— And now, brothers, I hope you will allow me to say a few words about this important event. It is not easy to suffer such pains, such torments as are in store for us; it is not easy to have one’s forehead branded with hot iron. Indeed, no — they are pains which not all men can endure. Let the cowards tremble, let them blench with fear, but we must not forget for a moment that we are sons of brave ancestors, that noble blood runs in our veins, the heroic blood of our grandfathers, the great knights who used to die without batting an eyelid for freedom and for the good of us all, their progeny. Our suffering is slight, if you but think of their suffering — shall we behave like members of a degenerate and cowardly breed now that we are living better than ever before? Each true patriot, everyone who does not want to put our nation to shame before all the world, will bear the pain like a man and a hero.
— Hear! Hear! Long live Kleard!
There were several fervent speakers after Kleard; they encouraged the frightened people and repeated more or less what Kleard had said.
Then a pale weary old man, with a wrinkled face, his hair and beard as white as snow, asked to speak. His knees were shaking with age, his hands trembling, his back bent. His voice quavered, his eyes were bright with tears.
— Children, — he began, with tears rolling down his white, wrinkled cheeks and falling on his white beard, — I am miserable and I shall die soon, but it seems to me that you had better not allow such shame to come to you. I am a hundred years old, and I have lived all my life without that! … Why should the stamp of slavery be impressed on my white and weary head now ? …
— Down with that old rascal! — cried the chairman.
— Down with him! — others shouted.
— The old coward!
— Instead of encouraging the young, he is frightening everybody!
— He should be ashamed of his grey hairs! He has lived long enough, and he can still be scared — we who are young are more courageous…
— Down with the coward!
— Throw him out!
— Down with him!
An angry crowd of brave, young patriots rushed on the old man and began to push, pull, and kick him in their rage.
They finally let him go because of his age — otherwise they would have stoned him alive.
They all pledged themselves to be brave tomorrow and to show themselves worthy of the honour and the glory of their nation.
People went away from the meeting in excellent order. As were parting they said:
— Tomorrow we shall see who is who!
— We’ll sort out the boasters tomorrow!
— The time has come for the worthy to distinguish themselves from the unworthy, so that every rascal will not be will not be able to boast a brave heart!
I went back to the inn.
— Have you seen what we are made of? — my landlord asked me proudly.
— Indeed I have, — I answered automatically, feeling that my strength had deserted me and that my head was buzzing with strange impressions.
On that very day I read in their newspaper a leading article which ran as follows:
— Citizens, it is time to stop the vain boasting and swaggering amongst us; it is time to stop esteeming the empty words which we use in profusion in order to display our imaginary virtues and deserts. The time has come, citizens, to put our words to the test and to show who is really worthy and who is not! But we believe that there will be no shameful cowards among us who will have to be brought by force to the appointed branding place. Each one of us who feels in his veins a drop of the noble blood of our ancestors will struggle to be among the first to bear the pain and anguish, proudly and quietly, for this is holy pain, it is a sacrifice for the good of our country and for the welfare of us all. Forward, citizens, for tomorrow is the day of the noble test! …
My landlord went to bed that day straight after the meeting in order to get as early as possible to the appointed place the next day. Many had, however, gone straight to the Town Hall to be as near as possible to the head of the queue.
The next day I also went to the Town Hall. Everybody was there — young and old, male and female. Some mothers brought their little babies in their arms so that they could be branded with the stamp of slavery, that is to say of honour, and so obtain greater right to high positions in the civil service.
There was pushing and swearing (in that they are rather like us Serbs, and I was somehow glad of it), and everybody strove to be the first at the door. Some were even taking others by the throat.
Stamps were branded by a special civil servant in a white, formal suit who was mildly reproaching the people:
— Don’t hum, for God’s sake, everybody’s turn will come — you are not animals, I suppose we can manage without shoving.
The branding began. One cried out, another only groaned, but nobody was able to bear it without a sound as long as I was there.
I could not bear to watch this torture for long, so I went back to the inn, but some of them were already there, eating and drinking.
— That is over! — said one of them.
— Well, we didn’t really scream, but Talb was braying like a donkey! … — I said another.
— You see what your Talb is like, and you wanted to have him as the chairman of the meeting yesterday.
— Ah, you never can tell!
— They talked, groaning with pain and writhing, but trying to hide it from one another, for each was ashamed of being thought a coward.
Kleard disgraced himself, because he groaned, and a man named Lear was a hero because he asked to have two stamps impressed on his forehead and never gave a sound of pain. All the town was talking with the greatest respect only about him.
Some people ran away, but they were despised by everybody.
After a few days the one with two stamps on his forehead walked about with head held high, with dignity and self-esteem, full of glory and pride, and wherever he went, everybody bowed and doffed his hat to salute the hero of the day.
Men, women, and children ran after him in the street to see the nation’s greatest man. Wherever he went, whisper inspired by awe followed him: ‘Lear, Lear! … That’s him! … That is the hero who did not howl, who did not give a sound while two stamps were impressed on his forehead!’ He was in the headlines of the newspapers, praised and glorified.
And he had deserved the love of the people.
All over the place I listen to such praise, and I begin to feel the old, noble Serbian blood running in my veins, Our ancestors were heroes, they died impaled on stakes for freedom; we also have our heroic past and our Kosovo. I thrill with national pride and vanity, eager to show how brave my breed is and to rush to the Town Hall and shout:
— Why do you praise your Lear? … You have never seen true heroes! Come and see for yourself what noble Serbian blood is like! Brand ten stamps upon my head, not only two!
The civil servant in the white suit brought his stamp near my forehead, and I started… I woke up from my dream.
I rubbed my forehead in fear and crossed myself, wondering at the strange things that appear in dreams.
— I almost overshadowed the glory of their Lear, — I thought and, satisfied, turned over, and I was somehow sorry that my dream had not come to its end.
Source: Yugoslav Short Stories, Oxford University Press, London 1966. (Translated by Svetozar Koljević)
Last year, when we were preparing for the publication of this story on our website, we contacted our esteemed academician Mr Svetozar Koljević to ask if he would give us the rights to publish his translation. In a short and cordial phone conversation, Mr Koljević expressed his agreement and support, saying that “it is a great step for our little Radoje”. Recently, we learned with a great deal of sorrow that Mr Koljević had passed away, at the age of 85, after a long and fruitful academic career spanning over 50 years. We publish this work in his honour. May his memory be eternal! Editors.