Short but resonant, repetitive sound of bells, tied around sheep necks echoed across the light green valley breaking the fog shedding over grapes, disturbing the silence that occupied the village in the past days. She tightened up the knot of her black head scarf and, after making sure sheep are not leaving the glade surrounded by vineyards and short, shrubby trees, she slightly leaned her head forward, closing her eyes, wondering how long has it been since she hasn’t heard church bells ringing, inviting people to the morning mass. How long has it been since she haven’t sat at the fireplace, with her whole family, while male were talking about fieldwork and female were knitting and discussing latest news in the village. How long has it been since her and her children haven’t slept in their beds but instead were spending nights in the barn, behind the fake wall, on the ground covered with hay. How long has it been since she haven’t heard her old neighbor’s laughter echoing around the endless vineyards, harvesting grapes, making inappropriate jokes with women helping him. Sheep bell rang again, leading her to think they are still close, so, without opening her eyes, she bent her head more, as in prayer, thinking how she can’t remember if there were any peaceful years they lived in, yet, they somehow lived through it and, she was certain, they will again. They must. She opened her eyes and started inviting sheep back, slowly walking towards them in heavy, rubber shoes, when sudden light blinded her and made her stop for a second, and, as soon as she started seeing clearly, she rested her eyes on the greenery around. Everyone seemed eager to occupy that little piece of Earth, in the name of this or that God, this or that rule, Ottomans, Bulgarians, Austro-Hungarians and now the Germans. For some reason, her and her family’s solely existence was problematic as such, because all she did wrong was having her ancestors born on this land and not willing to give it up that easily. Without further developing that thought, she suddenly became aware of sheep, not moving, starring at something behind her. The silence gnawed at the air, and before she got to turn back, high pitched sound broke the stillness, sending birds in the air, filling her head with warmth and in less than a second she found herself lying down. Blood started spilling over the ground slowly catching the edges of the blue sky with sheep, like white clouds, running into it, shrinking and then finally blending into the redness. Scarf fell over her eyes like a curtain falls over the window, creating a pleasant shadow and all she could hear were church bells, getting stronger and stronger, swaying on her sheep necks, filling the air, overpowering her executors’ laughter coming from the behind.
Zoran ran his finger over the crack on the ceiling of the barn, marking the place where the fake wall was built for the hiding place his grandma and cousins were using every time enemy was in the village. He still kept the scarf she worn on the day she was killed by few Nazi soldiers betting on who’ll hit her first. Zavier’s face started turning gray as I was translating the story to him and by the time I’ve finished talking I could tell, by his forehead getting tense and his eyes slightly watered, that he was, once again, fighting the urge of starting to hate Germans altogether for the crimes few sick individuals did in the past. I could see that his rage was again transformed and nested into a simple thought of “God doesn’t exist” followed with the “If he does, why would he let things like this happen then?”. I think this crosses his mind every time we visit any religious object, as a matter of fact, so he simply doesn’t go any further than seeing it as a sacred, big old building and I can’t blame him for it. We actually visited Manasija Monastery that same day, since it was our first stop on our road trip through Eastern Serbia, and got astonished by over 600 years old church and tall, stone fortification surrounding it. Although, I get the urge of questioning God’s existence rising in many occasions, I, in most situations, see churches and monasteries as so much more than places where one would unquestionably worship saints. This monastery, as many others, was damaged numerous times over the past centuries and survived, and as such is a testament to 6 centuries of turmoil and conquests, as well as it is a guardian of the cultural patterns of the region. Among other things, it was a first manuscript and translation school where first books in Cyrillic were written. Its founder, Stefan Lazarevic, was a prestigious military man and statesman since he won several battles against Ottomans and created the “Mining Code” with which he controlled the biggest mine in Balkans at the time and used each period of peace to strengthen Serbia politically, economically, culturally and militarily. He was also a knight and a poet, writing a poem “A homage to love” that carried the premises of the Renaissance already in 15th century. The power of the place lays, not in the altar where you can bow in the appreciation of the God and heavens, but in its solely existence, its resistance and sacrifice invested to save it for the next generations.
When I bend my head while entering the church, I do it to pay respect to the people’s idea of God, for a little man, enlightened, refusing to think of himself as of anyone with power in disposing of other people’s lives. I bow because of their little, but significant survival fights for their identities and freedom, for women freely shepherding in the fields and men harvesting their fruits, rather than to any magic force coming from the heavens. I do it for life and for simple state of being.
Zoran’s grandma didn’t doubt her faith while grabbing her last breath of air lying on the ground, she doubted people who thought they were Gods and decided her faith was groundless.
“The Lord hath made both
spring and summer,
As also the Psalmist sang,
And all their delights:
The birds their swift and joyous flight,
The hills their peaks,
The groves their length,
The fields their breadth,
The air its beauteous soft sounds,
And the soil its gifts
Of fragrant flowers and grass,
And for man’s being itself
its renewal and joy;
But who is worthy enough
to recount all this?
But all these
And other wondrous works of God,
Which even the sharpest mind
Love all surpasses
And no wonder is it
For God is love,
As said John, the son of thunder.”
A Homage to Love, Despot Stefan Lazarević