The Brothered

3 Nov

The custom of blood brothers has ancient roots in the Balkans, but the most unusual, arcane variety existed in the southeastern Serbian region inhabited by Shopi mountaineers. This upland zone witnessed “the brothered” as practitioners of folk healing. It was in the small hamlet of Zaplanje that two young men, Slavko Jovic and Milan Tanchev, had a surprising experience in the early nineteenth century when the area was till part of the Ottoman Empire. What they accomplished on their own left a deep impression on the population of the Shopluk highland.

Tall and skeleton thin, Slavko tended to be the dominant member of the twosome. His skin was extremely pale, his hair and small beard solidly black, his large eyes bluish and milky. Milan was much shorter, yet a lot heavier. He had no beard yet, but dark brown eyes and hair.

Sons of neighboring shepherds who has been compelled to turn to farming as their second occupation, the two youths had all through childhood taken to each other as future blood brothers. The father of Slavko, Pavle Jovic, took the role of guide and supervisor of the “brothering” of the lads.

First came the age-old ceremony of the exchange of blood.

Pavle, a muscular giant with thick white hair and beard, accompanied the pair to an abandoned, straw-covered mountain cottage once owned by his grandfather before moving lower to Zaplanje.

Here, facing the seventeen-year old youths, he drew out his long, thin, but sharp working knife.

“As I draw blood out of the thumb of each of you,” said the father in a grave, doomlike tone, “the other comrade shall take hold of the hand and drink the red liquid as it flows forth. Even a small amount will be enough to seal the tie between the two of you for the life of both.”

Pavle took the right hand of his son. The latter stared intently at the movement of the metal knife as it pierced his thumb. Seeing a sudden spurt of blood upward, then down onto his trembling hand, he saw the head of Milan bend down and take a small sip of it. The action was over quickly, as soon as the head of Tanchev was again upright once more.

Next, Pavle Jovic carried out the same pattern of cutting on the right thumb of Milan. The blood came forth faster, in greater quantity than the first time. As Slavko lowered his head and drew a drink of this blood, Milan looked away to the side as if about to faint at the temporary wound.

The cut to Slavko had already clotted itself, and that of his friend soon followed it in healing.

Both the young men turned to Pavle, who now was smiling broadly at them.

“The two of you are now brothered, and will be so to each other for all time.

“Now, let us return down to Zaplanje. Our women will have prepared roast pig and cabbage sarma for us to eat and enjoy. We shall celebrate what we have accomplished today. But remember that in the days to come as brothered ones you will carry the duty of helping your neighbors who suffer severe illness and pain.”

In heightened daze, the two brothered ones followed Pavle to the cottage of the Jovic family. Both of the families were waiting there for the three who had fulfilled the ceremony.

The celebration of the brothering by the two families was a supremely joyous occasion. Generous quantities of food and drink were contributed by both households. The mothers of the pair of youths, a sister of Slavko and two of Milan’s did the cooking and the serving. An older Tanchev brother, his wife and daughter, attended the festivity at the Jovic cottage.

At the finish, the guests ate pita rolls filled with pumpkin and squash, the tikvenik of Zaplanje.

All of a sudden, Pavle Jovic rose to his feet and announced a decision he had reached.

“Precious guests and dear ones,

“I have something of interest to tell all of you.

“As we all know, the custom and requirement of brothering by blood makes it the duty of those so brothered to apply their special relationship to the task of healing the ill when the opportunity to do that arises. T therefore propose that our two sons turn to helping cure the terrible condition of our neighbor, Pejche Kostic. He has suffered several debilitating strokes in recent days. No medicine at all has helped him. His condition worsens.

“I nominate our unfortunate friend, the elderly Pejche, to be the special recipient of their curing efforts. The brothered ones must be tested. It will be my own responsibility to train and prepare them for the cemetery ritual that must be carried out for Pejche. I therefore offer the grave that holds my own departed father as the site to be used for the ceremony.

“Let us begin as soon as we can, so that poor Pejche can receive the benefit. Our two lads will then become confirmed as active, genuine blood brothers according to ancient tradition.”

The gathering ended with soaring hope, with the task of the two brothered ones spelled out.

On a steep, high hill that overlooked Zaplanje, lay the local graveyard next to the ruins of what was once a stone church from the Middle Ages of Serbia’s feudal glory.

Slavko and Milan carried the ends of a litter that held the haggard, diseased body of the old man named Pejche. The latter seemed barely conscious of what was happening to him. Did he have any idea where they were carrying him?

Pavle Jovic led the procession up the path, into the cemetery grounds overgrown with wild, blackish grass. He halted before a small, weathered gravestone and pointed to the inscription on it.

“Here is my father,” he solemnly said,”and your grandfather, Slavko.”

The two young men moved their load up to the stone, lowering Pejche slowly, carefully onto the plot where the deceased ancestor rested.

Once the litter was securely placed on the grass, Pavle spoke to the two brothered ones, facing them from the right side of the marking stone.

“Our neighbor has long been caught in a trap of sickness and pain. He survives in terrible weakness. Illness has robbed him of all his strength. His only hope is what can be done for him by young blood brothers such as the two of you.”

Pavle suddenly reached down to his wide belt and removed a metal chain hanging on it.

“With this bukagija, his body will now be raised up from the grave it lies on, and the ills and troubles of his body will fall and sink into the soil of death that lies below us. Each of the brothered ones will in turn take hold of this chain and thus liberate the body of Pejche from the hell it is now suffering.”

He leaned over to his right and handed the bukagija to his son, Slavko.

The latter kneeled down, placing the chain under the nearly sleeping body on the litter. Slavko then repeated three times the formula his father had taught him.

“The illness is now a slave in this grave.”

Each time, the words came out slower and softer.

When he had finished, Slavko removed with great care the chain from under the body of the elder and handed it to Milan on the opposite side of the litter.

It was then the turn of the Tanchev son to free Pejche for good from the heavy burden of the sickness that was plaguing him.

Milan now ran the chain under the body on the grave plot.

“The illness is now a slave in this grave,” pronounced the youth once, twice, and a third time. His voice sounded more nervous, less confident than that of his blood brother who had acted first.

As Milan removed the chain from under the old man’s body, Pavle Jovic came forward to take it from him. “Very well done,” he said in a whisper to his two young companions.

The folk ritual completed, Pavle led the small procession carrying Pejche back to Zaplanje.

Exhausted as never before in his life, Slavko decided to go to bed immediately after dusk fell.

He slept in deep slumber for hours, until his mind began to experience a vivid, lifelike dream that repeated what had happened in the cemetery the previous day.

A bright, sharp vision came from out of his recent memory. He and his blood brother stood beside the man who was receiving the extraordinary treatment. First he, then Milan recited the sentence taught them by Pavle Jovic. Both young men felt the intimate significance of what they were carrying out in the graveyard.

Slavko sensed something new and different though, a force he had not been aware of in the course of their first expedition to the place. A strange sort of non-material wave flowed through his mind and thoughts. He realized that its source had to be the semi-conscious subject of their efforts, Pejche Kostic.

The message coming into his dream was giving Slavko a command: do not break the chain that binds the two of us, do not turn away from what I direct you to do.

All at once, the blood brother awakened and raised his head from his sleeping pallet.

Sweat was pouring over his brow and temple.

What did this dream vision mean? Slavko wondered. He was unable to forget or suppress what he had seen or heard.

Early next morning, Slavko walked to the Tanchev cottage and called his blood brother to come out.

“I want you to listen to what I dreamed while I was asleep,” he began, narrating in detail all that he had witnessed in sleep that night.

The brown eyes of Milan dilated with nervous surprise. “That was the vision that you had? It is an amazing one. I am astounded because what you just described to me is exactly the same as what went through my own mind last night. How is that possible? Why would both of us have the same repetition of the ritual we completed presented to us? I cannot solve such a complicated puzzle on my own, not at all. It is a riddle beyond my ability to solve or answer, my friend.”

The brothered pair gazed inquiringly at each other.

All of a sudden, a possible way forward occurred to the troubled mind of Slavko Jovic.

“My father knows a lot about these questions,” he declared with a subtle smile. “Let us explain what both of us dreamed to him. I believe he will be able to throw light on this puzzling identity of what each of us experienced when sleeping last evening.”

Pavle Jovic was busy taking care of the sheep in his sheltered fold when his son and Milan appeared there unexpectedly.

“We have to talk with you, father,” began Slavko.

As he described what had happened while he slept, the eyes of the older man grew large and sharp.

The moment his son finished, Milan picked up and continued with a picture of his own vision. He swiftly completed his own version of the shared dream.

Both youths stared at Pavle, waiting for him to tell them something to clarify what they each had experienced.

The father only spoke after a period of deep, difficult thinking about what he should say to the two blood brothers.

“I did not foresee such a development,” slowly explained Pavle. “For many generations, nothing like this has happened. You see, there has arisen a special channel, an invisible link between the two of you. Nothing similar has existed in these mountains for many centuries.

“There is now a connection between your two minds due to the presence of something new and unexpected, that no one could have predicted.

“Our ancestors would have called this new factor an invisible ogledalo.”

The two young men stared as if dumbfounded at their advisor, the one who had led them in becoming brothered individuals, forever united.

Slavko asked his father the question tormenting both youths.

“What does that mean? What kind of mirror do you refer to, father?”

Pavle looked away from the pair, as if his answer was somewhere in the distance.

“There can be no doubt but that the existence of a pair of brothered men increases their chances of being able to send and receive thought between them. Their thinking becomes so tied together that almost anything in either mind can be transmitted or taken by the other brother. But in order to achieve that condition, a connecting person is needed as a sort of intermediate. That will most often happen to be the particular individual whom the two blood brothers have succeeded in curing of a major illness through the purification ceremony over a grave.

“That is what I believe has taken place in this instance between the two of you.”

Slavko, thinking fast and reaching a conclusion, voiced it immediately.

“Then, our ogledalo that was the mirror of thought happened to be no one else but Pejche Kostic,” he asserted in a loud, confident tone. “His was the mind that linked our dreams together.”

Pavle gave a vigorous nod of agreement.

What next? wondered both Slavko and Milan.

Pejche Kostic became like one reborn and energized. A new sparkle came into his eyes. He walked faster and straighter, with a spring to his step.

The ceremony at the cemetery had dispelled his physical pain and illness. All of Zaplanje perceived the effects of the intervention by the brothered pair. An ailing old man enjoyed expanded stamina and appeared to have had his health restored.

It was at night that the role and function of psychic ogedalo came to operate.

Whenever one of the blood brothers had a dream, it was shared with the other one. The mind of either young man could be the source of what both of them now saw and imagined.

At certain times, Milan had the dreams of  Slavko. Other nights, the positions were reversed. Whenever anything occurred, it was repeated within the other. So, whatever the subconscious of the one conceived of, the other would likewise have present within himself.

There were no longer any secrets at all between Slavko and Milan.

Pejche did not appear, at first, to matter. He served as an uninvolved mirror who passively passed along thoughts between the brothered twosome.

In the weeks that followed, Milan shared the bad dreams that disturbed the sleep of hid blood brother. On other nights, Milan would experience the terrors of nightmares originating with Slavko.

Both of them became highly disturbed at what was happening to them when they dreamed.

“What shall we do now?” Milan asked one day as winter approached from the north.

“Let us go and see Pejche himself,” said Slavko to the person he was blood brother with. “The solution for us may lie with him. We have to find out the truth about this condition.”

The tiny cottage of Pejche was one of the most decrepit in the region. The two visitors found the old man taking care of his sheep in the shed beside his home. A look of surprise came over his face as soon as he caught sight of the brothered ones.

“We came to see you because of our concern about your well-being,” explained Slavko. “How is your health now, may I inquire?”

Pejche furrowed his brow in heavy thought.

“What can I say? At first, there was a better feeling in me. But now I am worried and troubled. How can I describe what is happening? My nights have become horrible.”

Both youths felt an anticipatory shock at what they feared was coming.

Slavko was bold enough to ask the question that arose in both the blood bothers.

“Are you seeing nightmare scenes while you are asleep?” he asked with trepidation. “Are you being terrorized by horrible shapes and forms that cause enormous fear and pain for you?”

The two visitors waited nervously while the old man formulated his reply.

“The truth is a strange combination of opposites. My body is less troubled now, because what we did in the graveyard freed me of the old sickness that inflicted me. Yes, I feel many years younger in my bones and inside organs. But because of my new dreams, my thoughts are always torturous ones. I have painful headaches and my nerves are as if on fire.

“What has happened to me? I can provide myself no explanation, none at all.”

He looked at Slavko, then at Milan, waiting hopefully for an answer. It was the Jovic son who started to speak in a confused, stumbling manner.

“There can be no doubt that whenever people perform a curing ritual like what we had in the cemetery several months ago there can occur unforeseen, unintended consequences. It appears that such was what resulted from our activities for the sake of recovering your health. But you are not the only person who is at present suffering because of what happened. No, my blood brother and I, as well, have had unexpectedly frightening dreams and nightmares. That is why we two have come to see you today. We are trying to find out what can be done to remedy the evil effects of what otherwise turned out to be so beneficial.”

The face of Pejche Kostic turned dark red as he began to rant at the two young men.

“What do you want me to do? I am the one who was carried to the grave and had to lie here while the chain was placed under me and words were pronounced by the two of you. Do you think it was easy to have that done to me? Remember this: I never had such horrid dreams before. All that strikes and attacks me at night is something new. Why is this so? What makes my dreams so terrible? I am unable to explain what is making that happen. None of it is understandable. If it is not possible for me to help myself out of darkness, how can I assist anyone else?

“No, leave me to wrestle with my troubles and difficulties. I assure you that I cannot do anything about any matter beyond myself alone.

“Please, go away at once.”

With that dismissal, the angry ogledalo of the blood brothers turned about and stalked away.

The youths faced each other with confusion on their faces.

Both of them realized that the man they had helped would do nothing for them.

The situation called for unlimited patience on their part.

Slavko and Milan conversed several times each day about the painful visions that they shared while asleep. The character of what each saw grew ever worse.

“We are falling into an endless, bottomless well that is becoming darker,” said Milan one frosty winter morning. “Is there any hope whatever left for us?”

The tall one smiled stoically. “There is no one who can help us now. At least we have learned a cruel lesson, have we not?”

Milan made no reply, but waited for his blood brother to leave for home.

Slavko took his leave and headed back to the Jovic cottage. His mood was one of inner emptiness, as it had become for a considerable time since the rite in the cemetery. He did not notice that his father was coming out of the front door, toward himself.

The son halted as soon as he caught sight of Pavle Jovic.

“I have to tell you what has occurred,” began the latter, standing close to his son and gazing at him intently. “It is something that no one could have predicted, no one.”

Slavko gaped with his mouth open, waiting to learn what impelled his father to act with this urgency.

“He is gone,” announced Pavle. “Pejche is no longer in his cottage. He lived there alone for years. No wife, no children. No close relatives at all. The poor soul had become nearly a hermit. His long illness isolated him almost completely.

“We used the ancient method of cure on him and it helped him considerably, but then he fell into terrible, unhappy fear of some sort. None of his neighbors were able to understand what made old Pejche so downcast after all that we did for the strange fellow.

“But now he has disappeared and has not returned home. It is a riddle, a mystery.”

Slavko felt his brain spinning like a wheel.

“Milan and I have tried to talk with him, but he was troubled by nightmares and threatening visions. We were unable to do anything with Pejche at all.”

Pavle Jovic stared with unmoving, unwinking eyes at his son.

“Because Pejche has become a ogledalo of the mind, it is probable that role became too much for him. He lost his balance and could no longer remain here in Zaplanje. I doubt that any of us will see him again.”

“He will die, then,” groaned Slavko. “The mountains are merciless this season of the year.”

He followed his father into the cottage, realizing that there would no longer be the dreams being reflected back-and-forth from blood brother to blood brother.

The old ogledalo would no longer be nearby, troubling their sleep.

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