Death and the Dervish (fragments)

by Meša Selimović

The night was moonlit, fragile and silky, tombstones on the walls glimmered with warm light, the smashed night chattered between the houses, young people anxiously moved around the alleys, one could hear giggling, and distant singing, and whispering, and it seemed that in this, St. George’s night, the whole town was shaking in fever. And all of a sudden, for no reason at all, I felt separated from all this. Inconspicuously, fear crawled into me, everything acquired strange dimensions, these were no longer familiar movements, nor familiar people, nor a familiar town. I had never seen them like this, I hadn’t known that the world could be distorted so much in a day, an hour, a moment, as if fairy blood had been stirred up and nothing could silence it anymore. I saw them in couples, heard them in couples, they were behind all the fences, all the gates, behind all the walls, they didn’t laugh like on the other days, nor look, nor talk, their voices are muffled, heavy, the scream breaks out like a thunder in this threatening storm, the air is soaked with sin, the night is full of it, tonight the witches will fly, giggling from the roofs wet from the Moon’s milk, and nobody will remain sane, the passion and rage will blaze up inside people, the madness and longing to destroy themselves, everyone, at the same time, and where can I go? I should pray, ask mercy from God for all the sinners, or a punishment, to bring them to their senses. Fury came over me, like a fever, like  a fit. Doesn’t anything we do help even a little bit? Is the word of God, that we teach, mute and made of clay, or are their ears deaf to it? Is the real faith in them so weak that it collapses like a house of cards under the heard of wild passions?

From behind the fences, I could hear the hot voices of girls preparing lovage and red eggs in copper cauldrons full of water, to wash themselves with at dawn, believing, like savages, in the sorcery of flowers and night.

Shame on you, I said to a wooden fence, aren’t you ashamed? Whose faith do you respect? To which devils are you giving yourselves?

It was futile to say or do anything that night, more uncanny than any other night. At midnight, these girls will go down to the watermills and swim, naked, in the foam dispersed by the big wheel, and the devils, who wake up and leave their dens at that hour, will be slapping their wet, moonlit thighs with their hairy paws.

Go home, I’m saying to the boys passing by. Tomorrow is St. George, the pagan saint of the faithless, not ours. Do not fall into sin.

And they don’t give a damn, and the whole town doesn’t give a damn, nobody can take this night away from them.

It is the old right to sin on St. George’s night. They are keeping it despite the faith, and against it, filthy in this twenty-four hours of fornicating smells of lovage and love, lovage with the sinful scent of women’s thighs. The sin is spilt into this conjunction of day and night, profusely, like from a huge barrel, from the closed wineskins of desire. The old, foreign time drags itself behind us, stronger than us, finding its way by the mutiny of flesh, which doesn’t last long, but is well remembered until the next mutiny. That way it never stops, everything else is but a delusion, everything that is between these primal victories of sin. And the worst thing is not the fornication itself, but the centuries-old lasting of alien evil, stronger than the true faith. What have we done, what have we achieved, what have we ruined, what have we built? Maybe we’re fighting a losing battle, struggling against the primal instincts, stronger than anything reason has to offer? Maybe all that we give in exchange for lush ancient debauchery is too dry and unattractive? What do we use to confront the allures of primordial summons? Will some wild ancestors conquer us, pull us back into their times? All I want is that my fears prove worse than the truth, but I fear that the eye of my disturbed soul sees more sharply than ones belonging to my brothers, to whom this world is closer than the other one. I do not accuse anyone, o God you know everything, be merciful to me, to them, to all the sinful people.

I remember that night, I remember it for the heat with which it choked me and for the emptiness with which someone else’s passion scraped me, so that everything else ceased to be. But God wanted that night to be different from all the other nights, so that in it everything was bound together, like at a long prepared meeting, everything that had been tearing my life asunder, to separate me from everything I used to be during the forty peaceful years.

I walked back towards the madrassah, miserable, dispirited, maybe the only sad man in the town that evening, tormented by the unrest of broken steps, stalking moonlight, fear brought to life without a reason, insecurity with which the world was filling me, as if I were walking among the houses set on fire. The calm, sleeping madrassah seemed like a longed-for shelter, whose thick walls would send me back to the silence that I needed and to the peace free from loathing. I will examine The Book and the prayer will soothe my trembling soul, which suffers more than God wants it to -  because the real believer mustn’t lapse into despair and despondence. And I, a sinner, had been so fainthearted that I had forgotten about the reason I found on the road, and I was trying to get it back by a conscious effort, so that my unrest would have something to cling on to. I wanted the sinewy pagan sin to be the only reason, so the others could remain hidden in the shadows.

I shouldn’t have been chasing witches around the alleys that night, I didn’t want other people’s sins, I wanted to distract my thoughts from my brother and from the temptation that was sent upon me, but all I managed to do was go back, uneasy and poisoned.

On other nights, I often used to stand in the moonlight by the river, yielding to the silent splashing of the memories and blurry wishes, knowing it wasn’t dangerous then, with my being filled with clear peace that didn’t threaten with tempests. But when I even suspected an omen of turmoil, I squeezed myself between the four walls of my room, forcing myself into taking the familiar, solid path of common prayers. There is something intimate, even protective in them, like in the old family possessions that become harmless parts of ourselves, which are recognized and accepted as comforts, which soothe and benumb the dangerous thought that sometimes gains strength within us despite our will. We believe them without thinking, putting our weakness under the protection of their primal strength, dwindling our human worries and nightmares through the habit of weighing them on eternal scales, and thus, putting them into an unequal position, we reduce them to ephemeral proportions.

I couldn’t stay in the garden that night, I needed to separate myself, to forget, and everything there was imposing itself as a challenge. The freezing moonlight had the odor of sulfur, the scent of the flowers was too heavy, irritating, they should all be plucked out, smashed under feet, leaving just a barren field, without marks, reminding of nothing, just a naked human thought, with no images, smells, unconnected to things around us, and the river should be dammed to cease its mocking murmur, and the birds should be strangled in the treetops and under the eaves because of their meaningless twitter, and ruined should all the watermills be under which the naked girls are swimming, blocked the alleys, nailed the gates, silencing life by force, to stop the blossoming evil.

Bring me to my senses, O God.

Never before had I thought of people and life with such an absurd rage. I was scared. Where did that wish, that nothing should exist any more, come from?


I had known unrests and uproars within myself even before that night, but these would come and go, like a temporary lack of consciousness, like an inexplicable spite directed to the order inside myself. These were short tumbles that left no trace. But that night it seemed as if the total bewilderment had come upon me, that all the connections were broken inside me, and that I was no longer what I used to be. I saw one of my possible selves, a possibility that could be devastating, if it lasted.

The first thing I felt was fear, still distant but profound, inevitable, as a certainty that I would pay for that moment. God will punish me with the torment of conscience, and I will not have to wait long for it to begin. Maybe this very night, maybe just now.

But nothing happened. I stood in the same spot, my heels dug into the sandy garden path, shattered and tired, still warm from the fire that had blazed up inside me. Forgive me, O God, I kept whispering automatically, without taking part in it, unable to think of a prayer that could help me at that very moment.

I moved away from that spot, as if wishing to run away, and leaned onto a fence by the river.

I felt as if there wasn’t a single thought in me, as if all my senses were numb from a stroke. But, oddly enough, I was aware of everything, more sensitive and susceptible to everything that was surrounding me. The ear could catch the tinkling sounds of the night, clear and purified, as if they were echoing, bouncing off the glass. I could discern every single sound and yet they all flowed into the joint humming of water, birds, light wind, distant lost voices, and the quiet buzzing of the night that lazily bends under the strikes of the invisible wings. And none of this bothered me nor upset me, I wanted there to be more such voices, hums, buzzing, fluttering, more everything, outside me. Maybe I was hearing so clearly in order not to listen to myself.

It was probably the only time in my life that voices and hums, light and shapes, emerged as what they were, as a sound, a murmur, a smell, a shape, a sign and declaration of things outside myself, for I was listening and watching, separated, uninvolved, without either sorrow or mirth, neither ruining nor improving. They were living alone, without my partaking, unchanged by my feelings. And so independent was I, true, unassimilated into my thought about them, like a foreign, unrecognized thing, something that goes on, that happens past everything, vain and futile. I switched out, and I was disconnected, separated from everything around me, and the world was filled with ghosts, alive but indifferent. And I was free and impenetrable.

The sky was emptied and barren, neither a threat nor a consolation: I looked at this sky, changed and twisted and broken in the water, a close reflection instead of the mysterious infinity. I saw the shiny pebbles in the clear water, like the bellies of the fish sleeping or dead on the shallow bottom, hidden and motionless like my thoughts, but the thoughts will come to the surface, they won't stay at the bottom of myself. So let them, let them stand up when they come into life, when I will be able to accept them as a meaning that is not just a hunch. At the moment they are calm, resting, and maybe my senses are feasting leisurely in the lee, but I don’t know how long they will last like this, mine and liberated. Oddly enough, the senses are pure and innocent when I’m not burdening them with the violence of thoughts and wishes, they were setting me free and pushing me back into peace, into some distant time that may have never even existed, its beauty doesn’t let me believe in its former existence, although the memory carries it. The best thing would be to do the impossible, to get back into that dream, into the incomprehensible childhood, into the protected bliss of a warm and dark primal spring. I did not feel the sadness and madness of such longing, which is not a wish, because it is as unrealizable as the thought. It drifted inside myself as a muffled light, turned somewhere backwards, towards the impossible, towards the nonexistence. And the river was flowing backwards, the tiny wrinkles of water plated with moonlight’s silver were not flowing away, and again the river was flowing towards its source, the white-bellied stone fish appeared at the surface, and again the river was flowing towards its source.

That was the moment when I realized that it is my thought reawakening, starting to transform what I hear and see into pain, into memories, into unfulfilled wishes. The drained sponge of my brain started to soak.

The time of the separation was short.

Translated by Lazar Pascanovic