Vinko Vrbanić was born in Novi Varoš, Croatia, in 1951. He spent his life working as labourer and fought as a soldier in the Croatian War of Independence 1991-95. Thereafter, he worked in construction and took up writing as a hobby in 2009. He wove imaginative and humorous narratives of the struggles and successes of rural folk during contentious times and amid ethnic turmoil. His works include novellas Furmani–Sokolov let [Carters–Flight of the Falcon] published in 2011 and full-length novel Glasovi u šumi [Voices in the Forest] published in 2012. His short story "Beograd" was selected for the final round in the Bells & Pomegranates Literary Competition 2018, and he won 1st prize for a short story "Cvija" at the Stjepan Kranjčić Literary Competition 2016.
About this particular story Vinko explains: "The sieges of Gvozdansko, Croatia and Alamo, U.S. tell the true stories of small bands of heroes who stood against massive armies to defend their homelands. They echo innate human devotion to the idea of fighting for freedom across the world. Alamo was designated U. S. World Heritage site by UNESCO in 2015. Gvozdansko deserves more research and the same level of respect and protection for its equal relevance. The Croatian landmark was the site of the pivotal 103-day Battle of Gvozdansko in 1578 against the Ottoman army. Among those who fought and died there were the common miners together with their families. "
Cannonballs pierced through the northern wind. The day will be frostbitten, desperate. I see white wisps of hair and a few braids under twisted cloth. Porcelain faces of children, women’s eyes asleep, lips white, men’s wrapped fists tightly clenched, eyebrows burnt. No neigh, nor bark. Did we really poison them all? All of them in the same hole, chasm, darkness, abyss, bottomless pit. Then wash our hands well. They died on their own terms, but they could have... What? I feel too ashamed to place a ducat and close their eyes. It doesn’t work that way. But, they could have... What? Any number of things. A-ha! In Koprivnica or Varaždin: mead, mulled wine, gingerbread hearts, and honey cookies, turn then, oh, most gracious advocate, your merciful eyes upon us (i) in the chapel. Let the song resound! Oh, yes, I would send Ramadan halvah with walnuts for Saint Nicholas Day. Teeth growing numb, the children love it, let them be happy. So was I. Good Lord, I really feel like eating honey cookies.
“Two loads of silver!” “How many?” “Two loads.” “People?” “Three-hundred and five.” “Light the candles, three-hundred and five, and bring a priest and some incense.” “Where from?” “Make it happen, give birth to it, conjure it up. Graves and crosses too. Stay quiet. Whisper.” “With what?” “Shovel, saw, stick and rope, figure it out, deal with it.”
As soon as the prior (ii) blessed the cauldron with a wonderful stew, the local elder Jozo entered the kitchen blowing into his hands and sat down at the dining table. Brother Peter, the monastery cook, brought one more plate and spoon, and placed them on the table so that we could eat hot stew with him.
Jozo told us that while placing traps for foxes and martens on the Požega Mountain, he met the hodja who was, as usual, wandering with his friends looking for a deer to shoot. The hodja said that the Martologs (iii) near the old town Ružica boasted how they had lit fires under the houses in Pletenica and Orahovica in the mood for robbery and looting, while the Turkish forces clashed with Nikola Zrinski in the battle around the Sulejman Bridge at Darda and Osijek.
The hodja added that the serdar (iv) entered Gvozdansko with an army at dawn in this winter so bitterly cold that eerie cracking of beech trees resonating through the region could be heard. People say that a tear dropped from the serdar’s eye down the side of his vicious face when he saw the frozen miners, women, and children wrapped in rags on the walls while still clutching flintlocks and swords in their hands. He issued an order straight away to the derbendžijas (v) to light three hundred and five candles in the chapel, to the carpenters to put together three hundred and five oak crosses, to the workers to dig three hundred and five graves in the hard frozen ground, to the messenger to quickly bring the priest from Zrin to say a prayer to the Lord for their poor souls, light the censor, and sprinkle those three hundred and five bodies with holy water so that they can rest in eternal peace.
Jozo’s throat tightened and he quickly grew quiet. In the heavy silence, we spent half an hour emptying the cauldron while dipping rye bread in hot stew and eating it. Then Jozo wiped his mouth with his sleeve, got up from the table, and in a low voice said: “They said who they were. Brothers, let us pray.”
i - Quote from a Marian prayer: Hail, Holly Queen
ii - Monastic superior
iii - Paramilitaries in the Ottoman Empire composed of Christian population
iv - High military rank in the Ottoman Empire
v - Military units looking after strategic places in the Ottoman Empire
Translated from the Croatian by Svjetlana Vrbanić and Mato Vrbanić.