A Balkan Folktale
Short Story | Duration: 9 Minutes 24 Seconds
I have the distinct pleasure to present the first story from Daniel W. Davison, who I consider to be a fantastic writer and friend, on The Storyletter Substack. I’m so very excited to have him join me. I hope to continue to work with Daniel in order to bring more of his rich and thought-provoking stories to all of you wonderful readers. Please welcome him in the comments. Enjoy ‘A Balkan Folktale’ by Daniel W. Davison! ~ WM
The Storyletter Presents:
A Balkan Folktale by Daniel W. Davison
Some say the outlines of a man’s torso and face were latent in the rock long before they were refined, hewn, sharpened and made distinct. None knew if it had been the Greeks, Macedonians, Romans or Bulgars who had sculpted this atlantid—the name that antiquarians gave to such relics. Its craftsmanship was impeccable yet unsettling. The figure stood hunched beneath the weight of an out-jutting rock at the base of an abandoned castle in a nameless grove on the Serbian March. The face was contorted in agony. The space behind the figure formed a single uninterrupted subduction into the rock—smooth and cavernous, capacious enough in former times to store wheat and spelt, when the castle had been defended by a palisade.
On a late afternoon in the last quarter of the 14th century of the Christian calendar, a shepherd boy entered the clearing beneath the castle’s ruins with a flock of sheep and three dogs. The day was almost spent. He drove the sheep into the space behind the atlantid. The dogs positioned themselves to barricade and prevent the flock from straying. The air was parched and hot. The boy sat on a boulder under the atlantid. When he looked up, he saw wet tears fall from the atlantid’s eyes, but that had to be a trick of light. There was no moisture in the air. The shepherd was far too weary to ponder upon such things. He stretched out onto one side and the sheep, the dogs, and the boy all drifted off to sleep.
In a dream the shepherd saw the atlantid, and heard it cry out, “Have I no friend in this world? If I had but one person who loved me as a brother, who trusted me as a friend, I could shake off this burden, walk as a man in his company. I would repay him with undying devotion.”
The shepherd boy who had lived a life of loneliness, an orphan and outcast, woke and said, “I would love to have a brother. I would trust you as a friend.”
At that moment, the atlantid stepped down from where he had stood, and a thin, jagged column where his spine had been was all that remained to support the rocky overhang. The atlantid was true to his word. The shepherd boy was happy to have been blessed with a brother and sincere friend. The atlantid persuaded the shepherd to sell his sheep, and together they would travel far and wide. The boy did this. His earnings were scant, but the thrill of the new adventure more than compensated for his loss. His dogs, too, loved his new friend.
The atlantid trained the boy; and the boy’s muscles grew strong. He practiced with a wooden sword and became adept at swordplay, although he did not yet possess a sword of his own. That would have been an extravagance beyond either of their means. The shepherd boy grew to be a man. His brother, the atlantid, stroked his cheek one evening. “You will soon be bearded,” he remarked. And they laughed.
They later came across a village where a sorcerer had cast an enchantment which killed all of the firstborn males. They struck a deal with the local blacksmith and he forged the boy a sword. They slew the sorcerer, beheading him, and were regarded as heroes. Thus having acquired a weapon, they went on to slay robbers and other more evil men.
Sometimes the young man’s love for his brother was so deep that he would spontaneously embrace the atlantid, especially if his friend’s features grew wan or when his eyes clouded over in sadness. The atlantid had no name; the young man simply called him “my brother” and “my friend”.
The two acquired a reputation and were welcomed as valiants into the court of Prince Lazar. When the Turks advanced on Serbia in 1389, the two fought against the fearsome troops of the House of Osman. They were separated in the battle. And, as the dust settled over The Field of Crows, with the dead and dying heaped in piles, the atlantid made his way through the fog and carnage, wide-eyed and apprehensive. He found the young man, unconscious but alive and he muttered a solemn prayer of thanksgiving. He scooped up his young brother, placed him tenderly over his shoulder, and carried him through the grey-dun gloom.
The young man woke. He was astonished to see that he lay in the exact location where he had met his friend so many years ago. The overhanging rock was still there, as was the jagged support where the atlantid had once stood. The atlantid sat beside his friend.
“You are alive,” he said and smiled.
“Yes, brother,” the young man said and sat up.
“I feared you’d been slain.”
“No. I was hit on the head and all went black.”
“I’ve brought you here, where we met ten years ago this day.”
“I recognize it. I remember.”
“Is your love for me as a brother and friend as strong as it was so long ago?”
“Even stronger,” the young man said.
The atlantid helped his friend rise, picked him up with both hands, and placed the young man’s back against the jagged column of rock. The young man felt his spine turn as cold as ice. His hands flew up, and he felt the weight of the overhang press down on him. The young man’s face contorted in agony, and now he stood holding up the rock at the base of the abandoned castle. His flesh turned grey, became stone. But he could still see and hear everything around him.
“My curse was that I would uphold the rock until one trusted and befriended me. And if his love for me remained unshaken for twice five years, then at the end of that term, my brother would take my place.”
The young man felt tears roll down his stony cheeks.
“I’m not proud of what I’ve done—of what I had to do,” the atlantid said. “I hope you will find a new friend, a new brother one day.” And then the man turned, covered his face in shame and departed.
The image of a man’s torso and face was anathema to the ‘ulema, the pious Muslim jurists and theologians who accompanied the Ottoman conquerors into the region. They ordered the atlantid demolished.
In the first decade of the 20th century, a Serbian shepherd unearthed the atlantid’s head. He placed it among the other rocks in the wall around his sheepfold. Once, as he sat with his friends, and when his tongue had been loosed by the Rakia he drank, the man told his listeners the story of the head in the wall.
“I tell you, even when it’s dry out the eyes seem to shed tears. And I swear to you, that it speaks to me in dreams.” His friends laughed. One quoted scripture, “Surely the stone will cry out from the wall and the rafter will answer it from the framework.”
“No, but it’s true.” the Serb said. “A young man came to me in my dream. He said he was the head in the wall. He said that he, too, had been a shepherd. He asked me if I would be his friend, if I would be his brother. He said that he would love me and would prove his love to me.”
As he told this story his friends, many just as drunk as he, grunted and snorted, but did not laugh. The people of the Balkans are known for their superstitious nature. “Did you befriend him?” one man asked.
“Of course not,” the Serb said. “I haven’t befriended him. I never will. My wife finds it scary and thinks I should get rid of the head, but it’s not bothering me. When the young man comes to me in my sleep, I simply clap my hands to my ears and walk out of the dream. And then I get up out of bed.”
That was the version that I heard from a Serbian physician in Chicago. I’m a collector of Balkan folktales and legends. I was born in the former state of Yugoslavia—a country which itself was a kind of fiction.
One winter afternoon, in an unheated shop in Kosovo, an ancient Albanian grocer in a skullcap had a different account of the weeping atlantid. He told me that it was his grandfather who found the atlantid’s head and put it in the sheepfold wall.
“And it was my grandfather who was haunted by the young shepherd in his dreams who sought his friendship. My father and grandfather were Muslim Bektashis, Sufis, if you will. My grandfather did not fear such dreams. He knew such things were of the jinn. My grandfather pitied it, but knew that a curse lay upon it. ‘I will not befriend you,’ he told the dream creature. ‘But you may join me when I tend my flock. You may walk with me along the slopes, and I will talk with you. You may sit with me at sunrise and sundown, and together we will pray to the Almighty and praise His Name. But I will not be your friend. And I will never trust you.’”
“The dream creature agreed. I was told that my grandmother often wondered why her husband spoke to the air, sometimes rebuking it, sometimes nodding to it solemnly. She didn’t know that a jinn walked, spoke and prayed with him. But my father and I knew. This jinn was grateful and my grandfather believes it found peace. Over time, the rain smoothed the graven features of the face in the sheepfold wall. And then, one day, the face vanished, and all that remained was a smooth stone.”
The Albanian looked down at a stone propping open the door to the storage room at the back of the shop. “My grandfather no longer spoke to the air after that, which relieved my grandmother. But she used to say that he never seemed quite the same afterwards. He was just... different.”
The phone rang. The grocer took the call. I was mildly surprised to hear him switch from Albanian to fluent German. A supplier I supposed. I noticed, too, that in the display window there were small, cheap plaster figurines covered in dust: one was a shepherd with a crook, the rest were dogs and sheep. They were souvenirs. A woman entered the shop. She asked for cough drops. He told her he had none. I opened the door to leave. The woman went to the refrigerator to get a locally-bottled drink.
I looked at him one more time. I remember feeling ill at ease. He was certainly old, but his eyes were young. People say that a lot, but when they say it, they mean that despite the person’s age, their eyes seem bright and gay. But this man’s eye’s seemed literally to be the eyes of a young man. They brimmed with tears. He looked despondently at me as I departed: such a lonely, lonely man. A man who yearned for nothing more than a friend—who longed for the intimacy and love that only a brother could give.