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.
On the next day everyone who had the courage to go on a long journey assembled. More than two hundred families came to the appointed place. Only a few remained at home to look after the old homesite.
It was indeed sad to look at this mass of miserable people whom bitter misfortune had forced to forsake the land in which they were born and in which lay the graves of their ancestors. Their faces were haggard, worn-out and sunburned. The suffering of many long laborious years showed its effect on them and conveyed a picture of misery and bitter despair. But in this very instant there was seen the first glimmer of hope – mixed with homesickness to be sure. A tear flowed down the wrinkled face of many an old man who sighed desperately and shook his head with an air of evil foreboding. He would rather remain for some time so that he too could die among these rocks instead of looking for a better homeland. Many of women lamented loudly and bade farewell to their dead loved ones whose graves they were leaving.
The men were trying to put up a brave front and were shouting, – Well, do you want to keep on starving in this damned land and living in these shacks? – Actually they would have liked the best of all to take the whole cursed region with them with them if it had been possible.
There was the usual noise and shouting as in every mass of people. Both men and women were restless. The children were shrieking in cradles on their mothers’ backs. Even the livestock were a bit uneasy. There were not too many cattle, a calf here and there and then a lean, shaggy hack with a large head and fat legs on which they were loading old rugs, bags and even two sacks over the pack saddle, so that the poor animal swayed under the weight. Yet it managed to stay up and neigh from time to time. Others were loading donkeys; the children were pulling at dogs on leashes. Talking, shouting, cursing, wailing, crying, barking, neighing – all abounded. Even a jackass brayed a few times. But the leader did not utter a word, as if the whole affair were none of his business. A real wise man!
He just sat pensively and silently, with his head down. Now and then he spat; that was all. But on account of his strange behavior, his popularity grew so much that all would have gone through fire and water, as they say, for him. The following conversations could be heard:
– We should be happy to have found such a man. Had we gone ahead without him, God forbid! We would have perished. He has real intelligence, I tell you! He’s silent. He hasn’t sait a word yet! – said one while looking at the leader with respect and pride.
– What should he say? Whoever talks a lot doesn’t think very much. A smart man, that’s for sure! He only ponders and says nothing, – added another, and he too looked at the leader with awe.
– It’s not easy to lead so many people! He has to collect his thoughts because he’s got a big job on his hands, – said the first again.
The time came to get started. They waited awhile, however, to see if anyone else would change his mind and come with them, but since no one came, they could not linger any longer.
– Shouldn’t we get going? – they asked the leader.
He got up without saying a word.
The most courageous men immediately grouped around him to be at hand in case of danger or an emergency.
The leader, frowning, his head down, took a few steps, swinging his cane in front of himself in a dignified fashion. The gathering moved along behind him and shouted several times, “Long live our leader!” He took a few more steps and bumped into the fence in front of the village hall. There, naturally, he stopped; so the group stopped too. The leader then stepped back a bit and rapped his cane on the fence several times.
– What do you want us to do? – they asked.
He said nothing.
– What should we do? Tear the fence down! That’s what we’re to do! Don’t you see that he’s shown us with his cane what to do? – shouted those who stood around the leader.
– There is the gate! There is the gate! – screamed the children and pointed at the gate which stood opposite them.
– Hush, quiet, children!
– God help us, what’s going on? – a few women crossed themselves.
– Not a word! He knows what to do. Tear the fence down!
In an instant the fence was down as if it had never been there.
They went past the fence.
Scarcely had they gone a hundred steps when the leader ran into a large thorn bush and stopped. With great difficulty he managed to pull himself out and then began tapping his cane in all directions. No one budged.
– And what’s the matter now? – shouted those in the rear.
– Cut the thorn bush down! – cried the ones standing around the leader.
– There’s the road, behing the thorn bushes! There it is! – screamed the children and even many people in the back.
– There’s the road! There’s the road! – jeered those around the leader, mimicking angrily. – And how can we blind men know where he’s leading us? Everyone can’t give orders. The leader knows the best and most direct route. Cut down the thorn bush!
They plunged in to clear the way.
– Ouch, – cried someone who was stuck in the hand by a thorn and someone else whose face was struck by a blackberry branch.
– Brothers, you can’t have something for nothing. You have to strain yourselves a bit to succeed, – answered the bravest in the group.
They broke through the bush after much effort and moved forward.
After wandering along a little further, they came upon a buch of logs. These, too, were thrown to the side. Then they continued.
Very little ground was covered on the first day because they had to overcome several, similar obstacles. And all this on little food because some had brought only dried bread and a little cheese while others had only some bread to satisfy their hunger. Some had nothing at all. Fortunately it was summertime so that they found a fruit tree here and there.
Thus, although on the first day only a small stretch lay behind them, they felt very tired. No great dangers turned up and there were no accidents either. Naturally in such a large undertaking the following events must be considered trifles: a thorn stuck one woman’s left eye, which she covered with a damp cloth; one child bawled and limped into a log; an old man tripped over a blackberry bush and sprained his ankle; after ground onion was put on it, the man bravely endured the pain and, leaning on his cane, limped forward valiantly behind the leader. (To be sure, several said that the old man was lying about the ankle, that he was only pretending because he was eager to go back.) Soon, there were only a few who did not have a thorn in their arm or a scratched face. The men endured it all heroically while the women cursed the very hour they departed and the children cried, naturally, because they did not understand all this toil and pain would be richly rewarded.
Much to everyone’s happiness and joy, nothing at all happened to the leader. Frankly, if we are to tell the truth, he was very much protected, but still, the man was simply lucky. At the first night’s campsite everyone prayed and thanked God that the day’s journey was successful and that nothing, not even the slightest misfortune, had befallen the leader. Then one of the bravest men began to speak. His face had been scratched by a blackberry bush, but he simply paid no attention to it.
– Brothers, – he began. – One day’s journey lies successfully behind us, thank God. The road is not easy, but we’ve got to stick it out because we all know that this difficult road will lead us to happiness. May almighty God protect our leader from any harm so that he may continue to lead us successfully.
– Tomorrow I’ll lose my other eye if things go like today! – one of the women uttered angrily.
– Ouch, my leg! – the old man cried, encouraged by the woman’s remark.
The children kept on whining and crying, and the mothers had a hard time silencing them so that the spokesman could be heard.
– Yes, you’ll lose your other eye, – he burst out in anger, – and may you lose both! It’s no big misfortune for one woman to lose her eyes for such a great cause. For shame! Don’t you ever think about the well-being of your children? Let’s half of us perish in this endeavor! What difference does it make? What’s one eye? Of what use are your eyes when there’s someone who’s looking for us and leading us to happiness? Should we abandon our undertaking merely on account of your eye and the old man’s leg?
– He’s lying! The old man’s lying! He’s only pretending so he can go back, – resounded voices from all sides.
– Brothers, whoever doesn’t want to go any farther, – said the spokesman again, – let him go back instead of complaining and stirring up the rest of us. As far as I’m concerned, I am going to follow this wise leader as long as there’s anything left in me!
– We’ll all follow! We’ll all follow him as long as we live!
The leader was silent.
Everyone began looking at him and whispering:
– He’s absorbed in his thoughts!
– A wise man!
– Look at his forehead!
– And always frowning!
– He’s brave! That’s seen in everything about him.
– You can say that again! Fence, logs, briars – he plows through it all. He somberly taps his cane, saying nothing, and you must guess what he has in mind.