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 to year 1941, and speaks of two brothers, the older one, Đorđe, who was 17, and younger Stefan, who was 15, who lived as farmers in Kunić, the small village in the western part of the valley. The brothers lived together, but alone, having no other brothers or sisters, and their parents taken by the illness.
It was summer, and the wheat was to be reaped. The brothers, along with the rest of the village went to the fields with their scythes and sickles. The reaping lasted surprisingly long, due to the vast expanse of the field, and what was started at nine o'clock wasn't done by sunset. The only thing left was to prepare the threshing grounds: wide, shallow holes filled with layers of smooth clay left to dry and harden, where the wheat would be threshed and the grain collected. The unwritten rule of the village was, even though everyone partook in the sowing and reaping as one, each household would build and work their own threshing ground.
The brothers had little time to waste, so they descended to the river that was fed from the Well, to gather clay. They brought with them a large handcart, and in a matter of minutes, filled it to the brim with raw, sticky clay. The sun was low on the horizon, and they had to hurry home.
As they strode home, Đorđe noticed a strange man sitting on a boulder by the path: despite the heat that lingered long after the Sun was gone, he was wrapped in a long cloak, whose colour has long since washed, leaving it sickly grey. Underneath, he wore a dirty white shirt and ragged dark trousers, accompanied with pair of worn-out opanci, a common attire for fieldworkers then. But alongside the cloak, the unusual thing was a large brown hat, with a brim that cast a shadow on his face. The brothers thought that mayhap he was a traveler, weary from walking, or simply eager for some company. They stopped near him, and took off their hats.
“Hail, kinsman,” cried Stefan, with a wide smile on his face.
The man did not answer, or even lift his head, but the brothers were now able to see a bit under the shadow over his face: he had a long, but well-kept grey beard with a silver hair here and there, a wide, slightly curved nose, and dark, wrinkled skin.
“What is it, old man,” asked Đorđe, slightly concerned. Was the man deaf?
Instead of response, he sighed deeply, and whispered:
“Oh, woe unto thee, poor brothers: never shall you thresh the wheat on that ground.”
The brothers shivered deeply from the familiarity in the voice, and when the stranger finally lifted his bright blue eyes to theirs, they were washed over with chilling wave of terror, for the man was their neighbour Mirko: the one that used to play with them when they were but children, the one that took them fishing and carved them flutes from hazelnut branches, the one that was there for them when their parents died.
And the one that they watched being lowered into the ground four winters ago, after a tree fell on him in the woods.
Mirko’s weary gaze snapped towards Stefan, who stumbled backwards, tripped on a handle of a handcart and fell with a shout. Đorđe immediately jumped to his aid, and got him on his feet, but in that brief moment, Mirko disappeared, leaving nothing behind but a feeling of dread. The brothers grabbed a handcart and rushed home at a speed that even the winds would envy. As soon as they were home, they locked themselves in. Stefan spent nearly the entire night with a cross in his hands, half whispering, half whimpering prayers to all the saints that he could remember, while Đorđe sat at the table with a rifle in one hand and a bottle of rakija in another. It took them long to fall into an uneasy sleep.
In the morning, neither of brothers was too eager to leave their house, but their work had to be done. So they took the cart with the clay and a pair of shovels, and dragged it to the place in the field where their threshing ground was to be. They dug out the hole, and lined it with layers of clay, but the whole time, the ominous words of their late neighbour echoed in their ears:
“Never shall you thresh the wheat on that ground.”
The threshing ground was completed soon, but the clay needed time to properly dry and harden; it would be at least a week until they could actually use it for threshing. The brothers fell asleep easier that night, dismissing their ghastly encounter as a trick of a tired mind.
The following morning, a commotion came into the village, carried by a young courier from the militia: apparently, the battle against Wehrmacht was not in the favour of Yugoslavian Partisans, and anyone able to hold a rifle was invited to join the cause of liberation. Both Stefan and Đorđe were persuaded by the courier to join the resistance, and left the village to become Partisans.
And they never came back.
Stefan and Đorđe Milković both lost their lives in the autumn of 1941 during the First Enemy Offensive in Republic of Užice, far away from home. They were identified by one of the survivors from their village, and subsequently returned there. The villagers mourned them, and buried them in a local cemetery, next to their parents and Mirko, none the wiser of the grim prophecy that came from grave, and was fulfilled by an unknown German soldier lost to the history.
The place where they built the threshing ground is today inaccessible, completely overgrown by thick vegetation.
Written by Helel ben Shahaar