The Paklen

15 Jan

It was unheard of for a young archeologist to have the reputation that Ivo Bakic made for himself in 1929.

The recent graduate of the University of Zagreb had come to the Dalmatian city of Split in 1928, eager to carry out excavations throughout this Croatian region of Yugoslavia. The center for his work was to be the Museum of Archeological Monuments. The director of that institution, Dr. Toma Todic, was to act as the supervisor of his project.

Todic, with his dark black hair and eyes, was a giant compared to the short, light-complected Ivo. He invited the younger man into his museum office so they could discuss his summer plans of exploration.

Once both were seated, the director asked the question of greatest interest to him.

“What is it you hope to find on Biokovo Mountain, Dr. Bakic?”

The new archeologist grinned warmly. “The possibilities are many, sir. Artifacts of the ancient Illyrians could be unearthed there, or those of the Romans. Then, we also have the pagan Slavic tribes that came down the Neretva valley and established their feudal state in that area. There were later periods of Turkish and Venetian domination on the coast of Middle Dalmatia that have left articles in the ground.

“Yes, I believe that there are many varieties of relics to be found up on Biokovo with persistence and effort.”

The director considered for a time, studying the unlined face and bright hazel eyes of the young scholar.

“Good luck to you, my son. I have a feeling that you are going to make some interesting discoveries on this field expedition of yours.”

Ivo drove himself in his second-hand Mercedes along the narrow, winding coastal road that ran south of Split. The clean, pure blue of the Adriatic waters and the cloudless sky seemed oddly reflected onto the tall green pines growing along the mountain cliffs and peaks. He passed the gorge of the Cetina River at the town of Omis, remembering that medieval pirates had raided the ships of Venice and Byzantium from their lair here. This section of the Dalmatian coast had for centuries been known by the name of Pangania, a token of its heathen past.

The day passed by almost unconsciously for him. By late in the afternoon, the final leg of his journey brought him into Makarska, a small town located on a mountain-sheltered bay.

Inland rose the dark bluish-green majesty of the long chain of Biokovo Mountain. It had recently been proclaimed a national nature park and preserve by King Alexander in distant Beograd. This was a prize possession of the Croatian people, now under the rule of a Serbian dynasty.

Ivo found lodging in the town at once, then went out to find the home of an amateur archeologist he had been in correspondence with for over a year.

The dedicated explorer of the locality was an old widower and retired fisherman named Miho Kanic. He had nursed a lifetime passion for the antiquities of his corner of Croatian Dalmatia. The tall, thin digger led his visitor back to the kitchen of his tiny house with joy and gusto. He poured himself and Ivo a cup of plum brandy, wishing him good health.

“What do you think, my friend” quietly inquired Ivo. “Are there promising sites for me to dig into up on Biokovo Mountain?”

The old man’s sea blue eyes glowed with youthful enthusiasm. His internal spirit seemed to be aflame.

“There have always been a multitude of possible rich finds to make there,” muttered Miho. “The only question is to decide which location will pay off the best in results.”

Kanic rose, went to a cupboard, and returned with a loaf of bread, some goat cheese, and a kitchen knife.

“I was thinking in bed last night,” resumed Miho,” and I ask myself where did we get the name of our land, Dalmatia? Can you tell me that, my learned friend?”

“One of the Illyrian tribes of ancient times was called the Dalmata. Our Slavic ancestors conquered and assimilated all those peoples, but that specific tribal name stuck and survived to our own time. That is why our coastal region remains Dalmatia. Didn’t you know that, Miho?”

The latter began to laugh. “Of course I did. But I wanted to point out to you the overwhelming influence upon all of us of ancient Illyria and its native population. Some scholars believe that the remnants of that people now inhabit what we call Albania.”

“That is a possibility, but it is only scholarly speculation so far,” coolly said Ivo, his voice evenly modulated.

“I believe that I have uncovered the site of an ancient Illyrian village high on Biokovo,” declared the former fisherman with pride. “It has never been excavated or thoroughly searched. But I have come across coins that convince me of the need to hunt further.”

“To dig about?” asked Ivo.

“With your assistance, of course,” smiled Miho.

Dressed in work clothes, the pair left for the lower slopes of the mountain as a fiery crimson dawn came to the mountain beneath the peak named St, Jure. They carried picks, shovels, and large sacks to hold whatever they were lucky enough to discover and unearth. Miho led his partner to a meadow covered with pink and red geraniums. Here they dug holes for several hours, but without positive results.

In the middle of the warming morning they moved to a higher elevation where Miho had earlier in the year found Roman coins buried. Noon arrived without any success at this second location. The two men took time to eat a light lunch they had brought along with them. Miho recommended that they climb a little higher, to a field that had once been the pasture of an ancient village no longer inhabited, where all the cottages and barns had disintegrated and disappeared. “There may be more important articles in the ground up here,” said the old man when they had arrived at this third site.

They dug trial holes in silence, laboring silently in the midday heat of early summer. It was about an hour after they started that Ivo came upon a large bronze plate. He grew excited as he showed it to Ivo. “This is pre-Roman,” he said with glee. “It goes back to the time of the Illyrians.”

With soaring enthusiasm, continued working with their shovels. It was Ivo who next uncovered a small piece of metal, less than fifteen centimeters from side to side, with strange symbols engraved on it.

What was this? wondered the archeologist. He gazed in wonder at the birdlike image on the bronze surface. It was a human face of horrid ugliness, one full of fright and terror. He showed it to Miho.

“That has to be Illyric,” opined the local native. “I have never seen anything like it before. Is it supposed to be some demon from the underworld? Who can say? It was made as horrible as possible.”

Ivo stared intently at his companion. “Let us quit for now and take what we have back to Makarska. I want to make a concentrated study of this unholy face. There may be a lot to learn from pondering about the visual details.”

Miho agreed, so the pair prepared to take their finds down from the mountain. They now had something that might be of archeological interest.

Back in the town by late afternoon, Ivo placed his bronze plate on a table and looked at it for half an hour, trying to pierce whatever mystery it held.

The hypnotic monster’s eyes, large and swollen, appeared to be afflicted with an uncanny strabismus. They were not at all focused on the same outside point, but diverged as if looking at different scenes.

With fat, thick lips, the mouth of the creature was slightly opened. Teeth that were dark were barely visible to him. There was something beastly about the fanglike incisors exposed, as if they were unsuitable for any simple, ordinary purpose.

The more that Ivo took in this ancient visage, the more he noticed the disharmony of the different parts.

Exploding locks of wild hair flowed out from the edges of the oval face. What had this image seen that had caused it to become terrified and then terrifying in itself?

There had to be some profound mystery involved in what I am now seeing, thought Ivo Bakic with an eerie recognition of how he was being affected by the unearthly, hellish face on the plate.

“I take this to be a fiend,” announced Miho once the find was stored in the trunk of Ivo’s automobile. “The demonic, unnatural creature is what our ancestors called a paklen, an inhabitant of the hell beneath our world. That is what the first Slavs who came here would have called that face.”

Ivo shook hands good-bye with the older man who had helped him, then climbed into the driver’s seat of the vehicle.

“The museum director in Split, Dr. Todic, must examine this at once,” he said thoughtfully. “I will write to you as soon as a definitive identification is reached, my friend.”

Miho waved good-bye as the Mercedes slowly made its way out of Makarska.

On the journey back to Split, Ivo imagined the unusual face on the screen of his mind’s eye. What was there so fascinating and mesmerizing about this countenance from the distant past? He could not erase the impressed imprint from his nerves or his brain, that was for certain.

As he passed along the coast, kilometer after kilometer, the picture in his mind grew stronger and more permanent. There appeared to be no escape or exit from it for Ivo.

The paklen has captured hold of me! he warned himself.

Toma Todic gazed with trancelike eyes at the bronze plate on the examination table in the museum work room. Only after a considerable while did he make any comment on what he had seen.

“This is extraordinary,” he declared, turning to Ivo with a faint glow in his dark eyes. “There is nothing similar to your discovery anywhere in Dalmatia. It will draw great attention to us here in Split.”

“I wonder if accurate dating of this plate will ever become possible, sir,” muttered Ivo.

Todic then uttered words as if out of a soupy fog of some sort.

“This has to be a symbolic representation from the Illyrian period of the history of Dalmatia. We do not know when it was that the tribes of that nation first settled on the coast. Most modern scholars identify these people as Indo-European Aryans of some kind, but that is only speculation. We know that in later centuries the Illyrians were influenced by the Greek colonies established out on the Adriatic islands. An ages-long process of their assimilation to other nations began, reaching its finale with the coming of the Romans, and later our Slavic ancestors.

“I can only conclude that this mysterious face is authentically Illyrian, without any admixture of outside influence. There appears to be nothing Roman or Slavic in the details of its features. What we have here is an original product of the Illyrian culture of ancient times.”

“Can we determine how it was used and interpreted, sir?” asked Ivo.

The director gave him a sternly serious look. “That remains for us to try to find out,” he said with a frown.

The first night incident occurred at a spot of historical importance in the Palace of Emperor Diocletian, the primary Roman site in Split.

The dark shadows of midnight engulfed the colonnaded square called the Peristyle. Diocletian, a native of Dalmatia, had built this monumental complex as his personal refuge in which to retire from the burdens of office. An octagonal mausoleum that was meant to hold his sarcophagus had become the Cathedral of St. Puje for the Slavic population. A lone watchman lurked at the entrance, not aware of impending danger to his life.

Two powerful hands reached out from the shadows and seized the old man about the throat. He gasped and attempted to resist, but his limited strength was soon spent and exhausted. The victim of attack saw nothing and had no knowledge of what brought sudden death to him. In a dark flash, the killing was over, the lifeless body lying on the stones of the mausoleum-church.

There had been no time or chance for the old inhabitant of Split to see who or what was doing this to him. His suffocation was performed with irresistible power, almost unworldly. Breathing ended for him in a moment.

A little before the dawn, it was a priest who discovered the corpse.

The frightened man ran to the police station to report the evil act that had defiled the ancient refuge.

In a few hours, most of Split knew of this unprecedented crime.

Walking toward the museum’s entrance that morning, Ivo was astounded to see Miho Kanic standing there in front, waiting for him. The pair greeted and embraced each other.

“I am surprised to see you here in the city,” joyfully exclaimed the archeologist.

The face of the older man appeared to stiffen. “We have to talk,” he hesitantly muttered. “Can you and I go somewhere private?”

“I use a room in the museum,” said Ivo, leading the other into the building.

Miho appeared to be holding back with fear and hesitation.

“Is that where you keep the bronze plate that you found?” he asked in a whisper.

“No,” answered Bakic. “It lies in a secure storage chamber in the rear work room, along with other ancient relics.”

The newcomer breathed a sigh of satisfaction and relief, as if having escaped something that haunted his mind and thought.

Only when the two of them were seated and the door closed did he unburden himself and reveal why he had traveled to Split.

“I have had extremely disturbing dreams since the bronze plate was discovered,” he declared in a low, guarded tone. “The face of that paklen is still in my mind. I often see it before me, even in the sunny light of day. Why should that be? What spirit of the past resides in that awful image and is able to affect and dominate my thinking in such an uncanny way?”

Ivo studied the rugged face of the one who had helped him so much in his field expedition. He now realized what it was that had changed the man so profoundly.

All of a sudden, the door to the room opened. The two looked up to see the director standing there with an indecipherable expression on his face.

“Something terrible happened last night in the city, I have just learned,” announced Toma Todic.

He went on to relate the little he knew about the murder of the old watchman. “We will have to be take steps to be more careful in all that we do from now on here in the museum.”

A heavy silence prevailed for several seconds. Then, Ivo thought to introduce the visitor to the one who was in charge of the institution.

Todic offered his hand to Miho. “So, you are the one who helped find the valuable plate.”

Unsmiling, Kanic merely nodded his head yes.

After the director had left, Miho excused himself, telling Ivo where he was staying and asking to meet him that evening at a shoreline café.

All through the day, the mind of Ivo Bakic kept returning to the conundrum enveloping the plate with the paklen on it. Did it somehow cause the strange mood of unrest that he saw in Miho? Why did only evil seem to emanate out of the piece of metal? He repeatedly returned in his thoughts to the murder in the mausoleum-cathedral.

Ivo sensed a rising uneasiness within himself.

He set aside his work and went to the back of the museum to have a look at the bronze plate he had uncovered. His surprise was great to find Toma Todic there, bending over the same object that he had placed on a work table.

“Excuse me, sir. I didn’t know you were in here,” apologized the younger man.

The director straightened up and gave Ivo a blank look before any explanation. “I was searching for a certain resemblance to something else. I thought that this face contained a familiar element that I couldn’t put a name to.”

“What did the horrible face resemble, may I ask?”

Todic looked down at the bronze plate. “My thinking has been centered on the walleyes, the severe strabismus of those eyes. Where have I seen something similar? I asked myself that again and again. Then it suddenly came to me. On the surviving figures of the Illyrian snake cult. The statues and pictures of the divine snakes had the same strange cast of the eyes.”

“Is that a meaningful key to interpreting the face, sir?” inquired Ivo.

“I want you to help me work on that angle,” said the director. “Look through all our sources and references for significant similarities to other aspects of the cultic snakes along with the reptilian eyes. That will be your primary task for now.”

Ivo was able to find connections to snake cults among a dozen or so ancient Illyrian tribes: the Taulantii, Perrhalbi, Enchelees, Autarienses, Dardani, Partheni, Dassaretii, Darsii, Scordisci, and the Triballi. But the tribe that particularly aroused his interest with their cult of the snake was that of the Liburni who had inhabited the central area of Dalmatia around modern Split. They had been a nautical people, recorded by Roman writers as the main pirates of the Adriatic. Their Roman enemies had named their light, fast bireme ships after them: the liburnicas.

The snake was a divine guardian of home and hearth for this tribe. Legend had it that Cadmus and Harmonia, parents of Illyricus who had given birth to the Illyrian tribes, had been turned into serpents for their conflict with other gods. As a matriarchal culture and society, the Liburni found it easy to elevate what they termed the snake to a primary position of importance for their well-being. The creature they termed the ababis was to be honored, worshiped, but also feared for its power and significance in their lives.

The face on the bronze plate was that of a snake-man, concluded Ivo. It was what the Slavic invaders of the sixth century A.D. called a paklen.

Ivo, waiting a long time for his friend, watched the sun sink into the Adriatic. Where was Miho? he wondered, looking out from the front of the seaside café where the two had an appointment to meet.

Should I go to his hotel to find him? the archeologist asked himself.

No, that will not be necessary. Miho will probably come to the museum again tomorrow. That will be the opportunity to tell him what I have found out about the plate. Ivo decided to pay his bill and depart for his flat. He was tired from his hours at the museum and decided he would turn in early.

Night descended and darkness occupied more and more of the narrow streets and close alleys of Split. A lazy emptiness took hold of the city founded by Diocletian, the native son. Less and less outdoor movement could be seen.

The colonnaded square named the Peristyle appeared vacant and quiet. In its middle stood an impressive statue completed only that year, 1929. It was the renowned sculptor, Ivan Mestrovic, who had created this tribute to Bishop Grgur Ninski, the ninth century champion of the Croatian language and Glagolithic script against Latin domination.

Near this giant shape of rock moved a small female figure.

What was she doing on the Peristyle on a moonless night? She could not have given a rational answer if anyone had bothered to ask her.

Was this only a shortcut to somewhere else?

Two hands, concealed and unseen, suddenly grabbed hold of her from behind.

She gave a short gurgle of alarm, then turned silent and inert. What could anyone do when being choked and strangled?

The evil figure responsible for her death disappeared as quickly as it had appeared.

Into the rhythms of the night faded the hollow steps of the perpetrator, an adept whose skill was growing.

Fear and panic seized hold of the population of Split the next day.

A murdered body had been found, that of a young unmarried woman, at the foot of the new statue of the great bishop. The city’s police were at a loss for answers. Was there a madman at large at night, a compulsive strangler?

Ivo was informed of the stunning news by the secretary of the director as he came in. She spoke to him in a raised voice of alarm. Who dared venture out at night from now on? the woman asked.

“Has the director come in yet?” Bakic managed to inquire.

“Yes. He went back to the workshop to inspect the collected finds,” she nervously informed him. “He seemed anxious to check up on something.”

Ivo went directly to the small room he was using as an office. There was no business he had with the director that could be considered urgent. He had no desire to discuss with him the murder of the previous evening. His hope and expectation was that the disappeared Miho would soon make an appearance here and explain why he had not come to the café to meet with him.

In fact, that is precisely what occurred in less than a quarter of an hour. The man from Makarska swiftly entered his office with a troubled expression on his face.

“Sit down, Miho. You look as if you’re winded. I suppose you have heard the awful news of what happened last night.”

“Yes,” said the old man, sitting down. “But first let me apologize for what I did. It was not at all intentional. I somehow fell sound asleep and did not awaken until long past midnight. What an embarrassment for me! Please, I beg you to excuse my unforeseeable absence due to slumbering when I should not have been doing so.”

“Do not think twice of it,” Ivo assured him. “How do you feel this morning, though?”

“Much better. But I have been thinking deeply about these demonic murders. Could it be that the bronze plate with the paklen on it has had a malevolent influence upon Split once it was brought here to the museum?”

Ivo leaned his head forward. “I have been reading what we have available here about ancient Illyrian mythology and legends, especially the cult of snakes that was so strongly held to and believed in. It became clear to me and the director, Toma Todic, that the face on the bronze plate is in actuality that of a snakelike man. Perhaps this person was a familiar servant of a snake with special powers. He was tied to a reptile creature that was considered sacred, and protected and obeyed its will.”

Miho looked as if struck by lightning, his mouth remaining open, his eyes far away somewhere. He suddenly bolted to his feet.

“I must try to get some rest,” he said. “We will see each other again soon, my friend.”

Ivo worked all that day on an article he planned to send to a scholarly journal in Beograd on his finding on the field trip. Miho did not return to the museum. It was not until late in the afternoon that the director appeared to talk with his young subordinate.

“You know of the attack that happened last night in the Peristyle?”

Ivo nodded that he did. “The secretary informed me of the event when I came to work this morning. Mr. Kanic came from Makarska and visited me. He blames the bronze plate and the evil it carries for the murders that the city has seen.”

“That is absurd,” reacted the director with unconcealed emotion. “The man is allowing superstition to control his thought. We have to ignore such madness.”

In a stormy mood, Todic hurried out of the office, causing Ivo to sigh.

The Palace, the Cathedral, and the streets of central Split saw patrols of the police and civilian volunteers early that evening. Fear of a third murder was the unspoken thought in each and every mind.

Ivo could not have explained to himself why he remained in his museum office after the director and all the staff had left. He read, wrote, and at times meditated on the recent events.

It was while in one of these states of mental abstraction that he thought that he heard a faint noise. His attention awakened and focused. Ivo had to conclude that the sound came from the rear work room, where the plate was.

He rose to his feet and went toward the work room with forceful speed.

What could it be? What was happening back there?

The door was wide open, indicating that someone had entered and was inside.

Light from the ceiling lamp illuminated the part of the room where the bronze plate was stored.

There was a person standing there, the familiar figure of Miho Kanic.

“What are you doing here?” demanded the young archeologist.

“I am taking the plate so that I can throw it into the Adriatic. Do you think I cannot see what you have done and will continue to carry out unless I act to stop you?”

Ivo lunged forward, attempting to grab hold of the old man. But Miho was quick enough to dodge him and retreat toward the back wall of the chamber.

Now advancing slowly, Bakic kept the other within an inescapable corner. He seemed to be in a condition of heightened nervous tension and arousal.

Closer and closer moved the archeologist to the one who had assisted him in making his find.

All of a sudden, the door opened and a third person entered the room.

Ivo turned his head about to catch sight of Toma Todic standing there with a small pistol in his hand.

“Everything is clear to me now,” shouted the director. “Somehow, finding this relic from ancient times has unhinged your mind and set off a train of criminal actions. Unconsciously, you have come back here to destroy the bronze plate you believe to have taken possession of your mind and soul.”

With a cry of desperation, Ivo threw himself in the direction of Todic.

But before he reached him, the weapon discharged as if without any intent on the part of the shooter.

Knowing what his fate had to be, Ivo fell like a sack onto the floor.

While Toma Todic looked on as if in a trance, Miho came forward out of the corner.

“The paklen had to find a human domicile once we took it out of the ground. The wonder is that it chose this young man with a bright future ahead for him. It preferred Ivo to an old body such as mine. The paklen controlled him only at night, but Ivo was never conscious of it in any way. This was an evil form of possession like there was ages ago.”

“We had better summon the police,” muttered Todic as he put the pistol in his coat pocket and headed out of the room.

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