The Miller and the Vodenjak

1 Oct

Lazar Ilic feared for the future of his grain mill.

Its business was the grinding of flour for nearby villages about Dushanovo on the Southern Morava River. His grandfather had built the facility of stone in the early 19th century, when that region of Serbia was under Turkish rule. The enterprise had thrived under his father. But now, in the first decade of the 20th century, that prosperity had disappeared for Lazar.

The cultivators of Dushanovo and the neighboring villages came to his mill less and less. Growing fear enveloped the inhabitants of the entire region along the river. His friend, Stanko Petric, described the situation to Lazar in his small inn near the mill.

“Our villagers are a superstitious lot. They are terrified by what has happened this summer. Three children, of various ages, have drowned in the river. How it happened no one can say. But all they talk about is the danger that lurks under the water for the young and everybody else. The people, both young and old, both men and women, seem under a spell. Fewer men come to my inn any more, but I hear their worried conversations about their dread of being drowned by some kind of vodenjak hiding in the water.”

“They see the drownings as indicating the presence of a water demon?” Lazar asked him, his large hazel eyes widening.

“Their belief is that the vodenjak has always been the enemy of all mills that rely upon the streams and the Morava. They have heard from their parents and grandparents that the monster being has in the past destroyed several grain mills like the one that you own. That is their fear, that your place is a dangerous place doomed to be ruined by the vodenjak who is murdering the young. No one can argue with them or convince them they are mistaken.”

“How is the evil demon supposed to destroy my water mill?” inquired Lazar.

Stanko lowered his voice. “Most of them say by flooding it, but a few hold that he will burn down its wooden frame somehow. Everyone thinks that the power of a vodenjak is too great for any human being to oppose. They fear to make the infernal creature angry by bringing their wheat or corn to you for grinding, Lazar.”

The latter looked to one side and made a grimace of disgust. “No superstition is going to stop me from continuing my work at the mill,” he said, gritting his teeth with stubborn determination.

Lazar was on the verge of going to be in the section of the mill where he made his home, when he heard a loud knocking at the outer door facing the river.

When he reached and opened it, he was surprised to find there a tall, skeleton-like man drenched with water from head to foot. His face appeared unusually troubled and ugly. The stranger not from Dushanovo began to speak in a low, desperate tone. His dialect sounded like a distant one.

“My friend, I am in terrible condition because I nearly lost my life and drowned in the Southern Morava that drives the mill that I see from outside. The water flowed into my inner organs, and my lungs are still flooded with water. Will you let me rest inside and recover my strength and equilibrium? I will forever be in your debt if you do so.” He suddenly stopped and started to cough a number of times, at last calming down and restoring some degree of balance and self-control.

“Pardon me, please,” he continued. “I am unable to talk much longer, I fear. My condition is painful and debilitating. What am I to do? I chose to knock at your door and beg for shelter and protection from the river at night. My hope is that you will show me mercy and allow me to recover control of my body here in this mill. I promise not to cause any harm or loss, and to leave as soon as that becomes at all practical.”

“How did you happen to fall into the waters of our river?” inquired Lazar.

“It is now dark and I lost my way. The sides are slippery and uneven. My fall seems to have happened in only a second or two. My mind was elsewhere and I was unaware of how uncertain was my hold on the land. I am puzzled how it came to happen. The experience in the water was a frightening one for me.”

The miller made a rapid decision. “Come in and rest. I have an old extra mattress that you can lie on.”

The man whose clothes were dripping wet entered. Lazar led him to a corner of the large room and pointed to a mattress resting along the wall. “You can sleep here tonight. We can talk about your future course in the morning.”

Lazar went to the small chamber he used as his bedroom. I now have an unexpected guest, he said to himself.

“My name is Zoran Savic,” said the man from elsewhere the next morning. “I am greatly beholden to you for what you have done. Sleep has done wonders for me. I am ready to face all the world now. My clothes are much drier than they were when I came to you. I will be forever beholden to you for your kindness. Do not be concerned, I intend to make it up and repay you.”

“First, though, you must eat to get back your strength,” said the miller. “I some bread and porridge ready. Will you share it with me?”

As the two sat down at a small table and fell on the food, neither said anything for a considerable time. Only when both of them were finished did Zoran begin to explain himself.

“I tramped here from a long distance away. My home is far away, in an area of Serbia that you probably do not know or have heard mentioned. There is no land for me to work at home. I have roamed to many places hunting for a way to feed myself. There is nothing I would not be willing to do for the bread that I need to keep myself alive.”

Lazar did some fast thinking and replied. “Things are very bad in this area and I doubt that anyone would hire an extra helper of any sort. But I did think of something just now. I have some major repairs that must be made on my waterwheel and flour bin. Do you know how to complete work on wood and on stone? I can only provide you bread and the food that I myself eat. Are you willing to assist me with the things that must be done to keep my mill in operation?”

“Certainly,” replied Zoran with sudden, surprising enthusiasm. “I would be most happy to assist you however I can.”

“Good,” said Lazar with a grin. “We can start on the wheel this morning.”

The miller, tired from a day of hard work, was amazed at the strength and stamina of his new assistant. “I want to make a visit to our local tavern and see the owner, a friend of mine. Would you like to come with me, Zoran?” he asked the unexhausted stranger.

“No, thank you,” said the other. “I wish to rest and fall asleep early.”

Lazar, before too long, was relating to Stanko the story of how he had acquired a strong helper who worked hard for him at the river mill.

“This fellow is a wonder, able to do an incredible amount of labor without ever taking a rest,” he told the inn-keeper.

A thoughtful silence followed before Stanko expressed what worried him.

“You should have been more careful when you accepted someone you do not really know, Lazar. This is a highly dangerous time all along the Morava. Look at the number of unexplained drownings. What if the man you have at the mill is a disguised vodenjak? Legend says that those monsters have the ability to turn themselves into a normal-looking human person, and nobody can ever tell the difference. They can change their appearance completely and imitate a real man, someone that they then actually become, as if by magic.

“Then they do whatever they want, and no one is able to hunt them down. A vodenjak can murder people and never be caught.

“Watch this man who came to you covered with water from the river, my friend,” warned Stanko, his face a frightened mask covered with sudden wrinkles.

Lazar departed for his mill seen after hearing the serious warning, a little bit alarmed at what he had done in sheltering and hiring the one who called himself Zoran. Should I believe in such ancient stories? he wondered.

When he returned to his mill, the owner was surprised and perplexed. Where was the man called Zoran Savic? He looked in every room, on all sides of the water wheel and the grindstones, but could find no trace of the strange figure he had hired to work for him. Was something wrong? he asked himself.

Lazar lay down on his mattress in his personal sleeping chamber pondering the mysterious disappearance of his assistant. He fell into a deep slumber, attempting to escape the cares of his daily business worries.

Was it real or only something he was dreaming? The miller was at first uncertain. But in a few seconds, that question was suddenly forgotten.

A shining blue light at the entrance to his bedroom moved toward Lazar, who slowly lifted his head and shoulders. As the brightness came closer to him, it formed a definable figure that was tangible.

Could it be what it seemed? A tall, naked old man whose body was covered with blue hair with a tint of green to it. Where there should have been hands, webbed paws were visible. There was what looked like river muck spattered in lumps over the long torso.

The eyes of the horrible creature burned like red-hot coals, with a hypnotic cast to them.

All at once, it became clear to Lazar who and what he was looking at.

This was the one he had sheltered and hired, who had claimed his name was Zoran Savic. That was a lie, for now he understood that the stranger was an actual vodenjak who had acquired the form and identity of some victim that had died.

What was it that Stanko had told him that evening?

Serbian legend taught that a vodenjak could transform itself into the appearance of a man whom it has killed. That was how the water demon disguised itself after drowning three children in the Morava River.

And now the monstrous being approaches. Will it take my name and make itself into an imitation of me?

Lazar, all of a sudden, lost the ability to perceive or think.

Not having seen his old friend for several days, Stanko the inn-keeper decided to make a visit to the flour mill next to the river.

Knocking on the door for a time, he got no answer. Then a voice came to him from beyond the closed barrier.

“Who is it out there? Why are you rapping so loudly? What is it you want?”

“Lazar, how are you? This is your friend, Stanko. I haven’t seen you for several days and I wondered whether you were well. Is anything wrong? How are you feeling?”

“I am perfectly all right. There is nothing wrong with me. What ever made you think that there was? I am working very hard replacing and repairing parts of the mill. There is a lot that still has to be finished. I’m sorry that I have no time to talk right now. Can you come back tomorrow, or the day after that? I am just too busy at the moment and have to get back to what I was doing.”

“Why don’t you visit the inn tonight?” said Stanko. “We could have a long talk. Is your helper, the one named Zoran, helping you with all that you still have to finish?”

“That fellow isn’t here anymore. All of a sudden, he said he couldn’t stay and had to be somewhere else. He insisted that he had to leave the mill.”

“It sounds like he was an odd sort of fellow,” said the visitor.

Lazar said nothing in reply.

“Until we see each other,” said the inn-owner as he turned and departed.

The miller did not go to see Stanko as he had promised to.

It was a month later that his drowned body was discovered floating in the Southern Morava River.

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