The Yellow Smok

19 Jul

“Why are you so interested in the varieties of snakes that we have here around Shar Mountain?” asked Vojdan, the literature teacher. “Why is that so important for you to know? How would such knowledge be of any possible use to you, Marushke?”

Mara Kondova considered herself a professional journalist for Nova Makedonija, the most important and prestigious daily newspaper in the capital, Skopje.

“It is a subject that promises to have a lot of interest for our reading public,” answered the short, thin young woman who had finished her university education only three years before. “I myself have always had a fascination with the snakes native to our country. Is it so odd or unusual to possess such a lively curiosity about our reptiles?”

Vojdan stared at her circular, shiny face. “I hope you realize what strange creatures have become the focus of your attention, Mara,” he said with a sigh.

Shar, the highest mountain in the Macedonian Republic, occupied the northwestern corner of the country, where it bordered Kosovo and Albania. In summer, when Vojdan Drinski motored into the region with Mara the correspondent, the area had turned into an ocean of grass, the largest pasture center in all of Europe. The number of skiers vacationing there was at a low point.

Vojdan and Mara had reservations at a hotel in Mavrovo, the town beside the mountain lake around which extended Mavrovo National Park. The pair planned to spend a week of vacation hiking about and absorbing the natural panorama of the highland with its pine and beech. This will provide both of us an opportunity to decide how much further we wish to take our close personal relationship, the two of them agreed.

“This trip will be a kind of test run for how we feel about our future,” Mara told Vojdan as the two climbed into his car for the journey into the western mountains around Mavrovo. She gazed at him with an emotional, liquid look in her raven eyes.

Neither talked much as they motored toward their destination, as if wishing to let the other absorb the solemn beauty of what surrounded them on all sides.

“Let’s stop and take a walk,” proposed Vojdan at the wheel. “We can see a lot of what these forests and mountains have always contained.”

The two soon took a stroll along the side of the narrow road, the car pulled into a small, barren inlet area.

All of a sudden, they came to a holt, both spying a short old man dressed in outworn, local clothing. On his head was a pyramid-like woolen shepherd’s cap that might have been the kind worn in this region a hundred years ago.

The stranger stopped. Looking with curiosity at the vacationers, he began to question both of them.

“You must be from one of the towns, not from around here. Is that what you are, outsiders who came to see our lake and the great park around it?”

“Yes, we drove here from Skopje,” replied Mara, studying the little local man. “Are you a person who resides around Mavrovo and the lake?”

“My name is Gogo and I live in old Galichnik,” he mumbled. “Not too many of us are left in the community today. Most people have died or moved away.”

“Your hamlet is one with a rich, glorious history,” said Vojdan. “It would interest us a lot to visit and see what it is today.”

“Perhaps Gogo would be willing to act as our guide to Galichnik,” announced Mara with evident enthusiasm. “I am certain he knows everything important about that mountain community.”

“Almost every family is now gone,” moaned the old man. “But I am willing to lead you there and show the two of you about.

“Do you have good shoes for climbing? The mountain is very steep and exhausting, especially for city dwellers like you two.” He stared at Mara, causing her to grow self-conscious about how he was focusing so intently.

“Can you be at our hotel early tomorrow, in the morning?” asked Vojdan.

Arrangements were arrived at quickly and Gogo soon departed, continuing his strenuous walk on the mountain path.

The threesome set off from the Mavrovo hotel, making the four-kilometer walk upward toward Galachnik.

“The air is so clear and pure,” remarked Mara as they took a rest on the path.

“It is no wonder that the mountain is named Bistra,” the old man told here. “We know how healthy it is to breath the air of this mountain. There are a lot of very aged people who live among us here.”

“If we are rested, we can continue onward,” suggested Vojdan.

The two visitors followed their guide along the narrow, steep path, but in a short time the unforeseen happened. It was Mara, walking in the middle of their file, who lost her footing, began to stumble, then fell to the ground.

Vojdan rushed from the rear, Gogo turned around upon hearing a noise and came down from the front.

“I think I twisted my left ankle,” said the young woman.

“We will get you up and help you make it to my house above us,” promised Gogo.

Vojdan lifted from the right and the old man from the left. She succeeded in rising to her feet, the two males providing her support.

At a slow pace, the three renewed their climb to Galichnik, the injured Mara in the middle.

Gogo, a widower who lived alone, had room for his two guests to stay till Mara was well enough to make her way back to Mavrovo and their hotel.

“You may take the mattress in my inner room,” the mountaineer told Mara. He then turned to Vojdan and informed him that they could share the main chamber of the house. “I have thick woolen blankets and they will provide adequate bedding for both of us,” said the old man.

After sharing a small late meal of bread and kashkaval sheep cheese, the three turned in after watching the sun set in the Albanian west.

All of them fell asleep quickly, Mara continuing to feel minor pain in her left leg and along that side.

Was she awake or asleep when the vision occurred to her?

There was to be a measure of uncertainty in the memory of Mara about her true state at that time.

What she saw was a dull yellow, and she at once took it to be some form of serpent. Her study and training provided her mind a rich vocabulary pertaining to the snakes in Macedonia, yet it was difficult for her to make any immediate identification.

She had seen many museum samples in Skopje and many living creatures out in the field, but never anything as smooth or slimy as this one.

What is it I am seeing? her unconscious mind was able to ask itself. Even in a coma, she tried to find the proper name for this variety of snake.

Names familiar to her occurred, as if she was making a scientific determination while not at all awake.

The idea of a poisonous otrovnica entered her sleeping thought activity. No, the thing might be considered some type of viper, but it that not resemble anything that bit to kill and injure.

But there was a hint of danger and enmity about its shape and how it moved ever closer to her.

She reviewed her ideas and images of the sharka, the lutica, and the osojnica of Macedonia.

A parade of adders and vipers pulsed through her unconscious memory of past study and field expeditions.

The names of the dzhitka, the zhdrepka, and the poskok passed through her deep neurons and dendrites.

On went her indeterminate confusion over what was sliding ever nearer to her.

What did it aim to do? Was it intending to cause harm and injury?

The tension grew with each mini-second of the experience.

Is this only a dream, or is something malicious and fatal about to happen?

The answer struck her from out of the blue. That had to be what it was.

A smok, a yellow one.

But then the sleeping, dreaming mind of Mara literally blanked out, as if it completely failed to function, as if it no longer in any sense existed. As if it had never really had anything substantive to it.

The dream was over and gone.

In less than an hour, dawn arrived and Mara again awoke. What she had seen had captured and occupied most of her newly conscious thoughts.

“I had a terrible, frightening nightmare during the night,” she informed both Vojdan and their host, Gogo, as the three ate a shepherd’s breakfast of dark bread and homemade cheese on a small porch overlooking the valley below Galichnik.

“What did you experience or see?” asked her traveling companion and lover.

“It was some sort of snake,” Mara answered with a visible shudder. “It was hard for me to identify it, but I thought I was dreaming of what is called a yellow mountain smok in the books about Macedonian snakes.

“The reptile was crawling toward me and created an emotion of overpowering fear. I didn’t know at all what to do to escape from the threat it appeared to pose. But then it seemed to vanish in an instant. Or else the dream came to an abrupt, sudden end. I don’t know what it means, and I eventually woke up when the sunlight came into the room.

“Does such a vision have any kind of significance?” she asked both of the men listening to what she said.

Gogo, whose face seemed to have blanched, was first to make a reply.

“You must not alarm yourself over what you may have seen,” he told her in a calm, level tone. “There are many different snakes here in the mountains, and you say that you have studied many kinds of reptiles that live in our country. Perhaps some of what you learned has popped up without your intending it to. Who can say?

“It is perhaps best if you try to forget about this as quickly as possible. I believe that would be best, because you appear to have been frightened and alarmed by what you dreamed.”

“Yes, I agree,” said Vojdan. “Do not preserve any memory of what may have come into your mind during the night.”

The males stared at Mara, who kept her lips unmoving and her voice silent.

“Shall we climb down to Mavrovo some time today, or should we wait a day in order to have you in stronger condition for that strenuous effort?” inquired Vojdan of his vacation companion.

Mara considered several seconds, then answered.

“It will be better if we leave here tomorrow,” she said. “I can use several hours of full rest, and that will make it easier for me.”

“Yes, we can let your body recover,” declared her lover.

While Mara took a nap inside the house during the afternoon, the other two sat outside and talked. Vojden grew fascinated by the strange, unusual tone of what the old man was saying.

“I have witnessed a flood of changes in Galichnik and this mountain named Bistra from my earliest days here. A few trips to Tetovo and Gostivar, but for the most part I have stayed put here at home.

“I am a hard-shelled Mijak, as people call us mountaineers of this region. We are unique characters, hardy and independent, but taught by our ancestors to help anyone in severe need.

“We, the Mijaci, can be good in our actions, but there is always the chance of selfishness and evil feelings. That is the other, the opposite side of our character up here in the highland.”

Gogo leaned his head forward and spoke in slow sentences.

“There has always existed a certain kind of monstrous being in our forests. It sneaks about on the ground, hiding itself under the grass and behind the leaves.

“It is a special snake and its skin is a deadly yellow color.

“We know this demonic creature as a variety of smok. Not all of this type are the evil beings, only a very small numbers are so.

“But the yellow smok that I speak of fastens itself upon a single human being, a man or a woman. that person will never escape from its smok. The snake will follow that person wherever he or she may go.

“There is nowhere to hide. The yellow smoke follows the path of its mastering individual. And that man or woman becomes obsessed and enchanted by its smok.

“The pair come to love each other. A mysterious devotion grows up between them. They are unable to separate. Their thoughts and their wills become connected and intertwined.

“They will never separate, not until the human person dies. Then, the magical smok must find for itself a new person to devote itself to.”

Gog fell silent, leaving Vojdan confused and lost.

What is the old man trying to tell me with his story about the yellow smok? wondered the visitor from Skopje.

That night, Mara fell asleep with enormous difficulty. Even when slumber came, it was disturbed and uneasy. The vision of the previous night seemed to be haunting her memory. Would the ominous yellow smok make a return?

While she was in the phase of deep, thorough sleep, Mara all at once awakened.

Was it genuine, or did she only dream she was waking up?

Her eyes, piercing through the dark, caught sight of something shining with a ghastly light near where she lay on a raised bed mattress. Was it what she suspected that it was? Had the yellow smok returned to where she had first seen it?

Mara watched the slinking reptile as it moved ever closer to herself.

Did the snake intend to harm her? Would it bite and injure if allowed?

It became evident after a short time where the creature was headed: her head.

What was about to happen? she asked herself.

No answer formed before she lost track of her thoughts and fell, inert and nearly mindless.

Mara awoke later than the two men, well after the sun had risen and lit up the sky over the mountain.

The three ate breakfast quickly, because the climb down to Mavrovo stood before them.

Gogo surprised his two visitors by what he now told them.

“Forgive me, but I do not feel well at all. It would be very tiring and onerous to make the walk down to the bottom of Bistra Mountain in the situation that I now feel in my legs, in fact over my entire body.

“The two of you shall have to descend down to your hotel on your own, without me. I beg your forgiveness, but I must not strain myself this morning.”

Vojdan made an immediate reply to this.

“We understand, and we realize that we must return by ourselves. That would be best, considering your painful condition, Gogo.” He turned his head and faced Mara. “You see that we have to go down by ourselves. Let us start out at once. We will say goodbye to our friend who was such a friendly host to us, and make our way back to where we started from.

“Let us get our things together and prepare to start our trek down, Mara.”

The pair shook hands with the old mountaineer and soon made their departure before the summer day reached its peak of warmth and light.

When they reached Skopje a little past noon, Vojdan dropped off his companion at her apartment near the University, then drove a short distance to his own flat.

Mara felt uneasy and at lose ends. She sensed that something momentous had happened to her, but could not describe or define it with any accuracy.

Fidgeting and becoming impatient, she decided to try to rest in her own, familiar bed. But that failed, because no sleep or real rest seemed possible.

Mara decided to read a little, looking up snakes native to Shar and Bistra Mountains in her manuals of Macedonian reptiles.

She could find little beyond dry, unhelpful biological facts, but nothing about the life style or behavior of this particular species of snake.

The time slipped by unawares, so that it was almost evening when she put aside her books and went out for a quick dinner at a neighborhood café.

Upon her return home, Vojdan called to ask how she was feeling and what she had been doing.

“Nothing at all except reading a little bit,” she reported. “I have to attempt to return to my everyday routine tomorrow. My vacation ends in three days and then its back to work at the Natural Museum for me. I’ll have to go back to the way that I used to live my life.”

“I can’t forget what Gogo told us about the yellow smok that appeared in your dream,” he noted. “My fear is that what he said may have frightened you, Mara.”

“There is no fear of any sort inside me,” she boasted. “No kind of snake holds any terror for me, because I have come to know them very closely.

“We have to learn how to live with the snakes around us in Macedonia. There can be no alternative to that.”

All of a sudden, Mara realized that she was going to see the yellow smok that night and on every subsequent night as well.

It had become intimately connected to her and her dreams and would be present for the rest of her life.

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