laški, a municipality placed in an eponymous valley, is located in Lika, the mountain region of Croatia. Though barely inhabited today, Plaški Valley has been settled since time immemorial: Greeks, Romans, Avars, Croats, Serbs, Italians, Austrians, Hungarians, Ottomans, Germans, and the list goes on.
Yet strangely, only the Slavic people ever truly left their mark here, and it's in the stories and legends, mostly passed orally, which makes it rather hard to tell apart truth and myth in these tales.
he story dates back to the time that not even my grandmother, who is currently 80 years old can remember. Might as well be 100 years ago.
It speaks of a young woman named Sonja that lived in a village known as Janja Gora. She was unmarried, which was strange for a woman in a healthy age of 30. Her aging parents begged her to marry, but she wouldn’t have it. Indeed, there were many men that asked her hand, but she never consented. When asked why, she would merely reply:
“There is place for but one other person in my life other than my kin.”
Years went by, and she refused to marry; but one day, when her parents were at their twilight, she brought them strange news: she was bearing a child.
It is as if these word brought a dash of life in her parents. But along with life, came the doubt: their daughter was unmarried still, and she refused all suitors, and even those that only had… less permanent wishes. When questioned, all the men in the village admitted that they were never with her.
So who was the father?
Months passed, and the day came. And on that day, life met death; for as her child breathed in its first breath, so did Sonja breathe out her last. She only lived long enough to name her child.
And so Vanja came to this world, living a life that bloomed from shady, grim roots.
The child was entrusted to its aunt, a woman named Sanja, that was the only person both willing and capable to take care of it. Its grandparents died soon after, stricken with age and grief over the loss of their beloved daughter.
The child found a good home with its aunt and uncle, who wanted a child themselves for a long time, but could never conceive it. There was but one problem: the child refused to eat. Sanja had no milk of her own, and the babe refused milk from sheep, mares, goats, and cows.
It seemed it was only a matter of time before the child left the world it has just entered to join its mother.
One night, Sanja was sitting near the fire, pondering on what to do next and how to save her sister’s baby from death, when she heard footsteps.
She just dismissed them as those of her husband, probably just taking a tankard of water, and decided to retire for the night.
But an unpleasant surprise was there to greet her when she entered her bedchamber: a made bed, without a slightest wrinkle on white sheets.
Realization hit her: her husband was away tonight, celebrating a wedding in a nearby village. She has forgotten all about it.
But then… to whom did the steps belong?
Her senses awakened from shock, she heard them again: soft, barefoot steps, too light to be her husband’s (even if he was there), creaking on the floorboards… of the child’s nursery!
She rushed to the nursery, as if the winds carried her, fearful of elves and boogeymen that would desire to steal the child and take it away into the night. But some shred of common sense that managed to survive the blind rush of panic told her to wait. To listen. She stopped before the nursery’s door, She held her breath, listening, and heard a sound of soft, rhythmical humming. It sounded like a lullaby.
Her every instinct told her to open the door, and yet something stopped her from doing it. Fear? Maybe. Or maybe it was a strange sense of security and warmth that surrounded her as the voice continued to hum. Her eyelids slowly dropped. She fell asleep in front of the door.
Next morning, she was awakened by her husband. He looked surprisingly well and decent for someone that just arrived from revelry. He was bewildered as to why did she sleep on the floor. She was just as confused: what was he talking about? She only fell asleep there because the humming was so soothing...
She jumped to her feet as she remembered what happened last night. Followed by the bewildered eyes of her husband, she flung open the doors to the child’s nursery, only to stop in the utter confusion herself: the child was sleeping, seemingly fed and quite happy.
Sanja told her husband what she heard last night. He became concerned. They both did; they did not know what took place, but it was clearly not of this world.
They summoned the elders of the village to seek counsel. Of course, as soon as the elders were summoned, the rest of the village came along. It was always interesting to listen to the elders give out advices and judgement.
Sanja told them what she heard; the footsteps, the humming, and how soothing the humming was.
The elders remained silent for quite some time, exchanging meaningful glances. Then they started whispering to each other. The entire time, Sanja felt like she was sitting on needles. Finally, Soka, the eldest of them all spoke.
“Sanja,” she said. “we have all agreed that this evening we shall come to your house with a priest.” Sanja was barely comforted by this, but she agreed, fearful for the life of her sister’s child.
That night, the elders came to Sanja’s humble abode, accompanied by the village priest, a large, jovial man with thick brown beard. Sanja brought the slumbering child into the nursery and closed the door.
And they waited. And waited. No sound came from the nursery, save for the barely audible breathing of the sleeping child. Midnight came and passed. The dawn would crack soon.
The sky was turning grey. The elders were already asleep. Sanja was just about to sink into dreams, when she felt a hand grasp her shoulder and snapped back to reality. It was the priest.
The humming could now be heard, as clear as if it was next to her.
The priest awakened the elders, and they were all now staring at the gate, almost as if waiting for something to happen.
Nothing happened. The humming simply continued.
Sanja could feel herself slipping into dreams again. The voice was almost hypnotic. She felt no worry in this world. She saw the elders: they were also on the brink of vigilance.
But the priest, a man tempered by years of ascetic life, could not be so easily broken. He stood tall, produced a small censer with frankincense, lit it, and spoke:
“Slava Otcu i Sinu i Svjatomu Duhu; i ninje i prisno i vo vjek i vjekov. Amin.”
His voice was silent but strong, and the child awoke, crying. From the other side of the door, they heard soft shushing. Gradually, the child ceased its wailing.
The priest tried again.
“Upovanije moje Otec, pribježišče moje Sin, pokrov moj Duh Svjatij; Trojice svjataja, slava tebje!”
The child did not even awaken this time. The voice behind the door giggled.
All present were horrified. Never have they heard of an impure spirit or a being of darkness that would not retreat when confronted with words of prayer. With little options left, the priest did something that was simultaneously sensible and foolish: he opened the door to the child’s nursery. Just as the first rays of the rising sun illuminated it.
Inside, a tall, ghastly pale person lowered a child into the crib. As the hinges on the door creaked, she swiftly lifted her glare to the people in the adjacent room.
It was Sonja, paler than she ever was in her life, dressed in the same pure white gown she was buried in. She regarded the present ones with wide, frightened eyes, just as the ray of sun struck her.
She started to evaporate, silently, yet rapidly.
Throwing all caution aside, Sanja rushed in to hug her deceased sister. But as she embraced her, the specter dissolved into turquoise vapour.
She did not appear next night.
Or ever again.
The events after that are all but forgotten: the story of how a mother transcended grave to save the life of her only child spread across the village like the wildfire. Little Vanja grew up, and later left the village, never to return. Sanja and her husband managed to conceive a child years latter, and both died in the ripe old age.
Some say that as Sanja laid on her death bed, she silenced the people around her. When asked why, she only whispered:
“The lot of you are too loud. I can’t hear anything from you.”After that she smiled, like a child listening to a lullaby, and closed her eyes.
Written by Helel ben Shahaar