Black Night, Grey Falcon
1386, Kosovo Field, Kingdom of Serbia
Yes, and from Jerusalem, O from that holy place,
A great grey bird, a taloned falcon flew!
And in his beak he held a gentle swallow.
But wait! it's not a falcon, this gray bird,
It is a saint, Holy Saint Elijah:
And he bears with him no gentle swallow
But a letter from the Blessed Mother.
He brings it to the Tsar at Kosovo
And places it upon his trembling knees.
And thus the letter itself speaks to the Tsar:
'Lazar! Lazar! Tsar of noble family,
Which kingdom is it that you long for most?
Will you choose a heavenly crown today?
Or will you choose an earthly crown?
If you choose the earth then saddle horses,
Tighten girths- have your knights put on
Their swords and make a dawn attack against
The Turks: your enemy will be destroyed.
But if you choose the skies then build a church-
O, not of stone but out of silk and velvet-
Gather up your forces take the bread and wine,
For all shall perish, perish utterly,
And you, O Tsar, shall perish with them."
And when the Tsar has heard those holy words
He meditates, thinks every kind of thought:
"O, Dearest God, what shall I do, and how?
Shall I choose the earth? Shall I choose
The skies? And if I choose the kingdom,
If I choose an earthly kingdom now,
Earthly kingdoms are such passing things-
A heavenly kingdom, raging in the dark, endures eternally."
And Lazarus chose heaven, not the earth,
And tailored there a church at Kosovo-
O not of stone but out of silk and velvet-
And he summoned there the Patriarch of Serbia,
Summoned there the lordly twelve high bishops:
And he gathered up his forces, had them
Take with him the saving bread and wine.
As soon as Lazarus has given out
His orders, then across the level plain
Of Kosovo pour all the Turks.
1900, Kumrovec, Austro-Hungarian Empire
The young boy woke in his bed. All was silent save for the rustling of the leaves in the black void beyond the window. He sat up. The desire for sleep had left him. He had woken for a reason. But what was that reason? He got out of bed and tiptoed to the door whilst his brothers and sisters slept soundly all about him. He opened it and went out, out into the dark night. All was still.
Then he heard a sound. The sliver of moon in the sky lit up a bird flying through the night towards him. It was a falcon, a great grey falcon. And in its beak was a scroll tied by a red ribbon and sealed with wax.
The great bird landed at his feet and he took the scroll. He broke the seal and unrolled it. And the letter itself spoke to the boy: “Josip! Josip! Son of humble peasants, which kingdom is it that you long for most? Will you choose a heavenly crown today? Or will you choose an earthly crown?”
The boy stood in the dark night and thought. Which crown would he choose?
1980, Belgrade, Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia
He woke up sweating, alone in his room. For six nights in a row he had dreamt that dream, the dream of a vaguely-remembered event from his childhood, an event that he’d ceased to believe in years ago.
He looked at the clock by his bedside. 01:00. This was not fair, he was a sick man, he needed his rest. “Leave me be!” he whispered, almost noiselessly. But even as he uttered those words he knew that he would not be left alone, that the grey falcon would hound him nightly until he fulfilled his destiny. Wearily, he picked up the phone by his bedside.
“Miloš, I need to go to Ravanica now. Ready the presidential train. Give it priority on all routes. Order the monastery cleared and opened ready for my arrival. And all of this must remain secret, absolutely secret. Do you understand?”
“Yes sir, I understand you perfectly. I shall have the car waiting outside in five minutes.”
The train sped through the black Yugoslav night. The President sat by the window watching the world, his world, go by.
His world, yes, it was the world that he had created, formed, made concrete. Back then, when the flacon had first visited him, how different had this world been! Now he passed factories, housing for the poor, power plants, metalled roads, bridges, dams… a modern country. A modern country with modern people, educated, man and woman equal, no more veils covering the faces of the Muslim women, no more superstition dominating the lives of the others, no more hatred of Croat to Serb, Serb to Muslim, Muslim to Croat. Now all were Yugoslavs, a happy, united, prosperous people marching forward under one banner. His banner. That made it all worth it; worth the deaths of all those fearless comrades who fell fighting the fascists both internal and external. Times were hard then, nights in the open, crouching on mountainsides, days without food when even the flowers were looked on as a meal, the cold, the rain, the winter ice... But it was all worth it, all worth it indeed. The President stood up, felt a stab of pain from his failing leg, breathed in a lungful of the clean Yugoslav air and felt pride surge through all his veins.
The church was, as he had instructed it to be, empty and open. He stepped out of the unmarked car that had brought him from the station and walked inside. There, before the iconostasis shielding him from the Altar of God, he stopped, stood tall and said, “You’ve got the wrong man, Elijah! You got the wrong boy all those years before and you’ve got the wrong man now! I’m an atheist! I refuse to believe in all your superstition and hypocrisy! Besides, even back then I wasn’t even Orthodox; we Croats are Catholic remember! The Orthodox and the Catholics don’t even like each other you old fool!”
Silence, no answer. Had he expected one? Forcefully he strode up to the iconostasis and pushed open the door to the inner sanctum. There on the altar sat the falcon. The President smiled. “Tell me your message,” he commanded.
The falcon flapped its giant wings and immediately the President found himself in a different place, on the Field of Kosovo where the great monument marks the defeat of Tsar Lazar by the Turks. Around that monument was a sea of people and in front of them a man addressing those people, telling them that no one will ever dare beat them again, that the Serb nation shall rise once more. That man, the President recognised him, it was none other than Miloševi?, President of the Republic of Serbia.
Then he was taken up, held in the talons of the great bird, upwards and upwards, until he could see the entire land. And what he saw caused tears to flow from his eyes. He saw Yugoslavs killing Yugoslavs, the flags of Slovenia and Croatia being raised as independent nations; he saw the Chetniks and the Ustaše rise again, burning women and children alive in locked houses, the innocent thrown off the bridge at Višegrad to their deaths in the waters below, shooting thousands in cold blood at Srebrenica. He saw the city of Sarajevo surrounded by tanks and guns, pounded year after year by artillery, her people shot as they sought food and water; he saw explosions on the walls of Dubrovnik, he saw the graceful bridge at Mostar crash into the river; he saw the Albanians on Kosovo flee from their houses, form endless caravans of horse and cart, streaming over the borders; he saw the West that he had courted and that had lauded him pound Belgrade, Niš and Priština from the air, foreign soldiers marching across Yugoslav territory, tanks at Tetovo, troops from every nation in Europe guarding churches and mosques; he saw new flags for new countries – Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia – even tiny Montenegro splits and the whole of his beloved Yugoslavia lies in ruins, divided, destroyed, seething with hatred, covered with mile after mile of pristine white gravestones…
Then he was back in the church again. There he saw only the altar and the man stood beside it, the bearded prophet of yore, Elijah himself.
The prophet spoke: “Eighty years ago you were offered a choice. Six hundred years ago another was offered the same choice. He chose a heavenly crown. He built this monastery and forsook all earthly gain on the Field of Kosovo. He is in Heaven now for the Holy Mother fulfils her promises. You however, chose differently to Lazar. You chose the earthly crown, temporal glory over that of Heaven, and the Holy Mother of God heard your choice. Against all the odds you gained your earthly kingdom and for thirty-five years you have ruled over it as absolutely as any king. You brought unity and peace to your people, you brought material prosperity. But you forgot Josip that temporal kingdoms do not endure. When you die and your body crumbles in the earth, so too shall your realm. Lazar reigns still in glory, but your rule Josip is but dust and ashes.
Silence filled the church. The President, so brave, so strong, so omnipotent, stood before the altar a man stripped of his glory, a man powerless in the face of destiny whilst before him the prophet shone. They stared at one another with intensity as if their souls were engaged in a mortal duel, the President’s last battle, his laboured breath being the only sound.
Then he speaks, quietly yet forcefully. “What happens next?” he asks.
The prophet does not reply, he merely stares, his eyes full of anger.
“I ask you again old man, what happens next?”
Still silence, those eyes enraged, bristling with hatred.
A loud laugh fills the church, a booming, joyous, victorious laugh, a laugh from the heart. The President throws his arms open wide and cries to the heavens, “What happens next? What happens next I ask you? What’s next? What’s next? What’s next old man? What’s next you purveyor of tricks and fancies? What’s next you provider of visions? What’s next you portent of doom? They say you slew four hundred prophets of Asherah on Mount Carmel, well if that is so then tell me now, why oh why can you not complete the simple task of showing me what comes next?!” His voice is loud and thunderous, it fills that ancient chamber causing the walls to shudder with its might.
Still Elijah remains silent.
“You cannot show me because what will happen proves that I chose correctly! You can only peddle doom and destruction but I peddle something else! So what if they fought, if they now fly a dozen flags, do you think that means that you have won? Not at all old man, for the truth is quite the opposite! Their bombs cannot destroy all the roads and bridges that I built, they shall remain. New countries shall arise from the ashes of the old, but they shall still all be the product of my rule. You see old man, you cannot undo education, you cannot undo knowledge, you cannot undo progress! The Muslims shall not put on their veils again, nor the Orthodox don black; the Chetniks may have won this battle, but their war is lost; the king shall not return and their old ways shall die as surely as the evil fascism of the Ustaše shall fade also. My weapons are schools, roads, industry, freedom and they have defeated your world of superstition already!”
Elijah says nothing, he merely stares, but he is smaller now and paler. Outside the morning sun is beginning to send its rays through the tiny windows and the darkness of the church is pierced. “Lazar still rules in his heavenly kingdom you say? Well, let him rule there say I! If Heaven is full of the likes of you, then I want no part of it! Lazar’s selfishness brought six hundred years of misery onto his people, my choice has brought them only joy. Be gone old man; go back to your Jerusalem where they shall always be hatred and misery aplenty!”
He is alone, Elijah has gone. All that remains is a grey feather. The president picks it up, strokes it and smiles. Then he turns and strides out towards the morning light.
2010, Belgrade, Republic of Serbia
The following day Josip Bronz Tito, President of the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia was rushed to hospital. He had been ill for some time and had serious problems with his right leg. He died several days later of gangrene. When I, his most trusted attendant, went through the clothes that he’d been wearing that night before he went into hospital, I found in the jacket pocket a grey feather and a note written in shaky handwriting saying ‘Kill M’. At the time I was scared, fearing that ‘M’ could be me, for I was party to his great secret. Now however, thirty years on, after all the horrors of Bosnia and Kosovo, I realise who he had really meant.
Written on the Sarajevo to Mostar train, Bosnia and Herzegovina,
7th June, 2011
Copyright © 2011, Matthew E. Pointon
© Copyright 2016 Matthew E Pointon. All rights reserved.