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The Fountain of Milk: From A Serbian Legend

ISSUE:  Summer 1977

In a time in which civilization was not as advanced as it is now, three brothers drew up a plan for a walled city. They named it the City of Skadar. It would have high, impregnable walls and would be massive, everlasting, and worth any cost. The three brothers lost no time. They got permission and funds from the ruling monarch. They recruited laborers from the fields. They employed several priests to interpret omens and propitiate the gods.

These three brothers, the architects and builders, were respected citizens. Two of them, the two called Vukasin and Ujesa, were like the men one meets every day. They worked for money and for the admiration of their fellows, They were decent, deliberate, willing to compromise. They had confidence in the value of life’s sane pleasures, its comforts. They both married practical women.

The third brother, however, though not stupid or unkind, was oblivious of money and manners. He refused to live by the rules of pleasing others. His name was Gojko, one whom many called Gojko of Bojana, his formal title. When the villagers spoke to him, often he did not reply; he seemed to be conversing with himself, his lips moving though he did not speak aloud. His mind was teeming and original. The few ideas of Vukasin and Ujesa were small, solid, uniform, and like quarried blocks of stone, only useful when placed in a larger design. The walled City of Skadar had been Gojko’s conception.

When it came time for Gojko to marry, he did not pick a village girl, though many had hoped to please him. He traveled beyond the mountains and brought back a woman who could not speak his language. She was pretty enough, with long flame-colored hair, but not really prettier than some of the prettiest of Bojana. Her name was euphonious but difficult to pronounce, so everyone called her merely the Bride of Gojko. There was hardly a happier man than the newly-wed Gojko. For a time he forgot his labors on Skadar. He left to Vukasin and Ujesa supervision of the felling of trees, the digging of trenches, the carting of loads of granite blocks, while he played like a child with his bride. Because she could not understand his language, nor could he manage more than a few words of hers, Gojko couldn’t tell her funny stories or jokes. He wanted to amuse her, for he loved her laughter. He took her to the riverside, undressed her in the privacy of the willows, and splashed her with water. The cold water on her bare skin made her laugh. He watched how her head tossed and her long throat tilted with merriment. When she stopped, a smile stayed on her lips, her eyes shone. He splashed her again and again. Many afternoons they held hands and walked through the fields of grasses, stopping to gather wild flowers. The villagers teased the couple. Said a village wit, “Oh, have you seen them at it, picking in the fields? We must remember to ask Gojko and his bride to help us at harvest season—that is, if by then they’re still in love!”

Eventually Gojko returned to work, yet when their life became a normal routine, the Bride made a fool of herself. She was so loath to give up her husband when he rose from the bed each morning that she dressed with him and followed him as he walked toward the high hill which was the site of Skadar. Along the road behind tall Gojko came his bride, picking her way around puddles, her long hair insufficiently combed. It was early. The birds were rising from the trees and settling on the fields. A mist hung low, snagged in the reeds along the river.”Go back!” Gojko called to her, “Go back!” But he smiled as he shouted, for he was pleased to be adored. He fought an urge to return to her as he might push against a headwind. The other men who walked beside him laughed, turning with him to look back at the woman.”She can’t get enough of you,” they said, grinning, sometimes gesturing obscenely under their cloaks. Finally the Bride would give up and stand alone in the road watching the men disappear. She stared at Gojko’s figure in the distance as it shrank and then vanished. She listened to the wind in the trees. She turned back.

In spite of her devotion, Gojko’s Bride was not a model wife. She spent her time unwisely. Though she would sweep the cottage floors till they were smooth, she often forgot to feed the goats. They broke loose and wandered. Her embroideries were beautiful, but all the while she sat and stitched, she would not be baking the bread. When Gojko returned, dust-covered and hungry, there was sometimes no supper, only the sleeve of one of his shirts heavily figured with designs. He enjoyed hearing his bride sing songs and recite poems in her language, but it troubled him that she had not mastered the art of conversation or even the simple numerals which would have helped her bargain at the market. Again and again she was tricked there and bought goods at outrageous prices.

The bride of Gojko shaped her bread into loaves that were rounder than they should have been. Her cheeses were a dark yellow and too firmly textured. She seemed never to have seen cow’s milk or to have heard of butter. And she had no sense of fashion. Months after she had settled in, she still wore the heavy red and black skirts that were prized in her native village, not the simple blue of Bojana women. Her aprons were smaller and had no deep pockets. She often forgot to wear the cap that had been a wedding present from her mother-in-law, but went about bareheaded, a scandalous thing to do, or folded a simple shawl over her hair. When they married, Gojko had given his bride six bracelets, three rings, a brooch, and a chain. All gold. These were the customary emblems of wealth, to be worn on very special occasions and otherwise to be kept in a box with the silver cups. Yet one afternoon the Bride of Gojko wore all of her jewelry to the well. The women who were gathered at the well’s rim could not at first believe what they saw: gold flashing in the sun on an ordinary day. They tittered and stood aside as this stranger among them in her wide skirts dipped and filled her bucket, then set it down, knelt beside it, and waited for its water to calm and flatten so she could gaze at her ornaments in its mirror. Who had ever heard of such shameless vanity?

Other than lending herself as the topic of many conversations, the Bride’s only contribution to village life was a strange implement, a nutcracker. It was something almost no one there had ever seen. Citizens of Bojana traditionally used mortars and pestles to crack nuts as best they could, picking the meat of the nuts out of the pulverized shells. The Bride of Gojko’s brass nutcracker split the nutshells evenly when the right pressure of the hand was applied. A resounding crack— and there was a nut, still whole and easily eaten! The Bride was generous with her possession but insisted on keeping it in her cottage, not lending it. Children and adults stopped by with bags of unshelled nuts, gesturing to the Bride, who, smiling, would lead them inside. She plied these guests with tea brewed to bitterness and with oddly spiced cakes. She shelled the nuts for them and waved away their offers to help or repay her. For a while, this nutcracker brought her visitors. But the blacksmith’s wife made a sketch of the curiosity and took the design to her husband, so that within a few months every prosperous household in the village had an iron nutcracker. Then there was rarely ever a guest at Gojko’s cottage.

The Bride did not complain or become embittered. Because the people of Bojana, their ways and their language, were strange to her, she was not surprised, She had had friends in her own village, as well as several sisters and a devoted mother, whom she missed. Often during the day’s housework she would stand outside her cottage if it were fair weather, or beside a window if it were raining, looking down the road in the direction of Skadar, then across at the range of mountains (sometimes hidden in mist) which separated her from her first home. She chose the tallest, strongest tree by the road to represent her husband; she named the mountains with the names of her mother, her sisters, and her friends. The Bride often glanced at the husbandly tree and at the mountains that resembled women in wide skirts seated in comfortable rows. I am not alone, she told herself. And sometimes she watched the goats in their enclosure, making of them, of their business and patience, an example for herself. They stood on their fine, pointed feet and nibbled grass industriously. They waved their leaf-shaped ears and shook their tails, seeming to think of nothing but what was before them. The enviable goats. Occasionally, one of them would raise its head, chewing its mouthful, and look at her with its round, clear-colored eyes as if to welcome her.

One of the poorer women of the village, a widow who had no money for an iron nutcracker, continued to bring nuts to the extraordinary foreign bride. She sat in Gojko’s cottage beside the hearth. This widow had a curiosity that passed for friendliness. She was interested to see for herself what was unusual, and she liked to know what was happening in other women’s homes. The afternoon sun was slanting in a bright belt through one window. The seated Bride, shelling nuts in her lap, was intent on her task and silent. The quiet was broken only by the periodic snap of the nutshells and by a faint bleating of goats, The widow watched the young woman placidly, and from time to time she let her eyes wander to things in the room: the ornate embroideries, the improperly cleaned crocks, the unused and dusty churn, the dried wild-flowers set in a jug, the huge carved chest in which the possessions of the Bride had been packed and brought over the mountains. All at once Gojko’s Bride froze motionless and sat up straight. She tilted her head exactly as a dog might, upon hearing sounds of its master. Then she leapt from her chair—the nutcracker, nutmeats, and shells scattering on the floor—and ran out of the cottage. She had heard the horn which signalled the end of the day’s work at Skadar. The widow’s hearing was no longer sharp enough to pick up such a distant sound; and besides, the widow had no reason to listen for the men coming home. She was very alarmed by the Bride’s behavior. Not stopping to gather the nuts, she hurried outside and ran to the cluster of cottages that contained her own. From that day on she began to spread a rumor, embroidering it as elaborately as ever the Bride stitched shirtsleeves, telling any villager who would listen that the woman who had come from beyond the mountains had gone stark mad, had risen up at the summons of a silent voice, and had run to do a demon’s bidding.

Such a rumor might have caught hold of the village imagination and might have caused great trouble for the Bride of Gojko, but she was spared the label and fate of a witch by a circumstance that is often a woman’s salvation, as well as her burden and joy. It was discovered that Gojko’s Bride was pregnant. At the moment that this rumor caught up with the first, it cancelled all the widow’s wicked speculations. Even though the widow began to suggest this could be a demon’s child, the villagers shook their heads and spread the tidings with smiles. There was a pleasant symmetry in the revelation. The first of the walls of Skadar was rising in a dim silhouette behind the trees, even as week by week the figure of the architect’s wife enlarged. One of the village wits had devised this comparison and it was repeated until everybody got tired of laughing. Then the wit said, “Let them build the wall double its original height and she might bear twins!”

As the Bride of Gojko realized her condition, she became more docile. For one thing, made awkward by her new shape, she did not follow her husband, as he set off for work, quite as quickly or as far along the road. She walked heavily and carefully, planting her feet firmly on the stony places, and she turned back while her cottage was still in sight. Some afternoons the Bride slept for a long while, and when she finally arrived at the market, almost all the fresh things would be gone, the best bargains sold. She stood near the barrows of fly-spotted fruits, the jars of spoiling cow’s milk, and the tables of soiled bolts of cloth, a lone figure, forlorn but smiling to herself as if nothing mattered but the bulge where she rested her hand. It was then that the village attitude changed. When the Bride of Gojko came to the market another day, though she was so late the sun had begun to cast long shadows over the road, she found even among the poorest merchandise items that were just what she wanted at a price that was less than usual. The fact was that the merchants were saving back parts of their stock for her. There was hardly one of them who did not bring out for her a fat chicken that had been kept hidden, or add one more egg to the few she wanted, or lower the price of honey or a box of figs.

By now the Bride was learning to speak the native tongue. She had advanced from just a few single words to sentences, As she spoke, she elongated vowels and mispronounced certain combinations of letters no matter how hard she tried. Yet instead of laughing in her face, the villagers tolerated this amusing confusion of their language. Men and women, and especially children, began to mimic the Bride in an affectionate way. Several words actually came to be spoken as she spoke them, with a cooing or lisping sound. Consciously, the villagers began to learn and use what they wished of the Bride’s strange vocabulary, not only her word for nutcracker, which they had thanklessly appropriated earlier, but also her words for her cheese and her tea and her spiced cakes, and the names she had given certain flowers. The Bride taught some of the older children a song from her village and soon there wasn’t a child in Bojana who couldn’t sing it, remembering all its verses.

At about this time, someone stole the Bride’s nutcracker. It was not unfriendliness that prompted the theft, but its opposite. An adolescent boy had fallen in love with the Bride of Gojko. Instead of her, he would have to make do with some thing that had belonged to her, something she owned. This morose, passionate thief placed the nutcracker in a hollow tree in the woods and masked its shining with leaves. There he went almost every day, as if he were visiting a shrine, to pull back the leaves and blink at the brass till he wept.

This transformation of village feeling continued. Eventually the Bride of Gojko was promoted to being called the Wife of Gojko. Her time to deliver approached. Her sisters-in-law, the wives of Vukasin and Ujesa, came to her cottage and spent long hours with her. Before, of course, they had been much too busy with their children and their household affairs. Now they brought presents and gave advice. They exclaimed over the lovely baby clothes she had made.

“Oh,” said Vukasin’s wife, “this will make him a prince!” as she held up a tiny velvet gown, its hem stitched with vermilion thread, a color rarely seen in the village.

“Or a princess fit to rule us,” said the wife of Ujesa. In her hands was a delicate cap frilled with lace. On either side of it had been embroidered colorful birds, each bird holding a ribbon in its bill. The ribbons were of real satin, meant to tie under a baby’s chin.

When the high priest held a stalk of ripe wheat in the wind and saw it break in the direction of Gojko’s cottage, the Wife of Gojko, grown very large, was confined. This meant that she could no longer go to market or walk the streets. She could no longer appear at the village well. It was even forbidden that she should milk the goats. By this time, had she not been befriended, she would have risked excommunication and stoning just by tending to the details of life, But the villagers had decided to lend their protection. Vukasin’s wife told her eldest son to fetch the water and milk Gojko’s goats. Ujesa’s wife sent her most practical daughter to market with an extra basket. The two sisters-in-law themselves continued their regular visits, taking turns.

Long afternoons were spent sitting by the hearth. From time to time, the Wife of Gojko rose to stretch her legs and walk slowly about the room, bracing one hand on her back, Though she had rolled cloth into pillows for her chair, she was rarely comfortable. It was difficult to sit or stand for long. She would have liked to lie down, but she felt it would be impolite to do so in the presence of either sister-in-law,

Vukasin’s wife was tall and brittle, like a tree with insufficient leaves. She dressed herself well.

“I haven’t much,” she said, pointing to her chest. Then she leaned over to Gojko’s Wife in a conspiratorial way.”Look,” she said, pulling at the bodice. Inside, the cloth had been stitched into ridges and puffed with lace, “A woman’s hands take up where the gods leave off,” she said. And because this was a very daring thing to say, almost a blasphemy, the two women burst into sly laughter and held each other’s arms.

Vukasin’s wife loved to talk about romances in the village and about her children. After she had finished assessing the various marriages and infidelities of the moment, she talked of the accomplishments of her sons and the beauties of her daughters. As she grew to trust Gojko’s Wife more and more, she confessed that one of the unfaithful husbands was Vukasin himself and she complained of her children’s lazy habits and rudeness. All the while the two women stitched, Gojko’s Wife was embroidering a cloth for Vukasin’s table. Vukasin’s wife had spread across her lap the beginnings of a blue dress, perfectly fitted, that would replace her friend’s red and black skirts.

On the days that Vukasin’s wife did not sit in the chair by the hearth, Ujesa’s wife could be found there. She had fat, pointed fingers and an exceptional soprano voice. With the Wife of Gojko, she sang duets, all the popular and traditional songs of Bojana. The Wife of Gojko had learned these songs quickly, capturing a tune by heart the moment it passed her ear. Yet she taught none of her own songs, for Ujesa’s wife, unlike the village children, was not interested.”No, no,” Ujesa’s wife shook her head. Her face was as round and sweet as a fruit.”I don’t want to learn birdsong!” That is how it sounded to her; the Wife of Gojko’s warbling was the mournful gibberish of birds.”I couldn’t possibly learn that.” Then Ujesa’s wife would laugh and launch into another familiar air, her voice rising happily on the chorus. All the while the two women busied their hands with cooking. They snapped beans, or peeled potatoes, or kneaded dough. Ujesa’s wife hated needlecraft but loved food. Her face was at its happiest whenever she blew on a spoonful, then tasted what was cooking in the pot.

The Wife of Gojko was pleased by the courtesy of the villagers and particularly by the attentions of her sisters-in-law. She admired those two well-adapted women and vowed to try to be more like them. Her happiness would have been unwavering had she been able to relieve Gojko of some of his labor and worry. He was such an energetic man! Though he might fall asleep as he sat on a stool to remove his boots after coming home, he would soon leap awake with an idea and a renewed urge to work. He built a cradle, working in the evenings by candlelight. It was elegant in every detail. Its corners met in intricately fluted dove tailed joints, its rockers were as curved and slender as new moons, and its wood had been sanded and polished to a remarkable sheen. To his wife, Gojko gave similar care. Each night before they went to bed, he washed her feet, for she could no longer bend to reach them. In bed he stroked her in the darkness, murmuring to her, letting his hand rise and fall over the curve of her belly again and again, her sculptor. That now he could no longer enclose her comfortably in his arms did not seem to bother him.

Finally one night it happened. Gojko could be seen running to the center of the village, and as he ran everyone knew why. The news spread more quickly than his footsteps. Three priests, dressed in their dark cloaks, black and swift, hurried to the cottage, one to stand at the door and one to stand at either window. They would make sure that no evil spirits, drawn by the cries of a laboring woman, would gather at the bedside to snatch the child. Then down the street of the village scurried two caped figures, the wives of Vukasin and Ujesa. Joining them at the crossroads was the bent, fragile crone who was known as the best midwife, whose hands had drawn forth into the world the most live sons. These three made their way to the cottage. The priest at the door peered beneath the loose cloaks of the women and said words that would frighten any demons; then he stepped back to allow the women to pass into the dimly-lit room.

Gojko’s wife lay on the bed, Occasionally she cried out and said things in her own language which no one could understand. The three women held her in their arms to soothe her. They wiped her brow of sweat. When she shrieked for Gojko, they tried to explain to her that he was where he should be, at the temple with the priests, pouring the sacred wine and saying the prayers. The Wife of Gojko, had she opened her eyes, might have been afraid, for the forms of the women bending over her were magnified in their shadows cast high on the wall. Indeed three demons, gigantic dark figures, seemed to be at work by her raised knees. The Wife of Gojko did not see them. She kept her eyes closed, She clenched and pressed with all her muscles until there was nothing left of her but her body, its necessity and its pain. And finally its deliverance.

The baby was held up at once, wet and shining in the candlelight. As soon as it was seen to be a boy, the priests came in, stooping as they entered by the low door. They confirmed this was a son by pronouncing his name: Jovo. The priest who had searched the women’s cloaks now drew from beneath his own a soft cloth. With this he ceremonially wiped the child. Another priest stood beside him holding a flask of oil. The third priest had taken the snipped cord in his hands and was fashioning it into that sort of bracelet thought by them all to be a charm against disease.

Vukasin’s wife hugged her exhausted, pale sister-in-law. “You’re the mother of a son,” she said close in her ear.”Can you hear me? You’re a mother now.” Then Vukasin’s wife began to chant the woman’s song of rejoicing, joined by Ujesa’s wife, who had already taken the gold jewelry from its box. By the time the midwife had wrapped the child and placed it beside its mother, Boko’s Wife was wearing the three rings and the six bracelets. The brooch had been pinned to her pillow. Around her neck was the long chain and it looped just by her breast where the child nuzzled, clasping and unclasping its hands. Outdoors was the sound of fierce bleating. The priests had left and one of them was taking an unweaned goat kid from its mother. The kid would be sacrificed in thanksgiving by the new father, who was already waiting by the altar with a sword. All the way down the road the piteous cries of the little goat announced the news to the village. A son had been born, and Gojko had good reason to be grateful to the gods.

The infant Jovo thrived. Though his development was not really exceptional, it inspired the awe of miracles in his mother. The Wife of Gojko saved her son’s first fingernail parings, tied them in a piece of silk, and wore them as an amulet around her neck. She was so embarrassed by the strength of her feelings that she avoided speaking of Jovo directly unless someone inquired. Even then, she refused to join in praise of his expressive eyes, his stout limbs, or his round cheeks. Finally the wife Vukasin said to her, “Is it natural for a mother to be modest on the subject of her child? I should think you’d be more proud of your little one.”

“I do not speak of him,” said the Wife of Gojko, “for the same reason I do not stare at the sun. If I were to look at the sun too long, I could see nothing else.”

“Leave Jovo with me,” said Ujesa’s wife. “Get out for a while and refresh yourself. Go down to the river and bathe, go buy a new cap at the market, go walk to the site of Skadar and look at the walls.”

The Wife of Gojko shook her head, reached for the cradle, and with a touch of her hand set it gently in motion.”Thank you,” she said, “but I needn’t go away. Everything at last is here.”

Gojko’s work, in contrast, was not going well. At first it was a matter of delays. Workers at the quarry cut stones the wrong size. There had to be adjustments in the design. Then there was a brief drought, the river shrank, and the rafts that carried the stones were being stopped at sandbars. Finally the rains broke the drought, but the water released on a dry earth created new problems. The oxen drawing the loaded sleds sank up to their knees in mud. Work slowed. Work stopped altogether when water flooded the foundation pits to a certain level.

All these troubles were the usual grievances of any great scheme. The priests consulted the formations of birds flying and the contents of the stomachs of fish beached on the riverbanks. The signs they read led them to solutions, A sacrifice of a ram brought the rain. The subsequent sacrifice of a ewe halted the downpour. But then something terrible and unforeseen occurred. Part of a wall collapsed. This happened at night. No one was injured, for the immense slab fell down an embankment and crushed only trees. Citizens of the villages beyond Bojana came to see the destroyed wall. Indeed it looked as if ten demons had put their shoulders to the masonry and pushed.

People shook their heads, discouraged and frightened. Children were forbidden to climb to the site. A contingent of workers quit, saying Skadar was cursed. Every night, Vukasin, Ujesa, and Gojko stayed awake talking, sometimes carrying torches up the hill and pacing out new plans in the darkness. For a week the priests congregated and sat in conference. Then they invited a high priest from the court to advise them. The king’s priest rode into town, a red-robed figure whose horse had bells on its bridle. The slight, bony man had poor posture and sat stooped in the sacred chair. He spoke hoarsely. He told them it was a matter of sacrifices. Obviously the priests of Bojana had not been willing to offer their best. How could they then expect the best from the gods? How could a great city be built without a great price being paid? The demons had merely destroyed a fool’s bargain. As he said this, everyone was silent. When he had finished, everyone nodded. The high priest of Bojana addressed the king’s priest, asking politely what should be sacrificed. The answer was:

“Who builds this city must please cruel gods.” That was all the red-robed figure would tell them. No more. Then he rose from the chair, shuffled out of the temple, and rode away jingling, the bells on his horse making a breezy clamor.

There was very little for Bojana’s high priest to do other than retire and fast. An ordeal would bring clear instructions. So the high priest shut himself away, and this made Vukasin and Ujesa feel that perhaps the entire project should be abandoned. A fasting high priest always meant trouble. Whatever idea emerged from the malnourished lips would be a command hard to follow. But Gojko reassured his brothers. Surely the city of Skadar, which had claimed so much pain and effort already, was worth one more sacrifice. Suppose he were asked to give all his goats to be slaughtered? He, Gojko, was ready. Suppose his cottage and all its goods, even the spinning wheel that had been their mother’s, were consigned to burning? He, Gojko, would set it alight himself. And suppose the gold and the silver that were his wealth were required? “That too,” he said, his voice sharp in the air where they stood outside together.”Down to my last ring.” He held up the ringed fingers of his hands, “Are you with me?” Vukasin and Ujesa laughed and pledged themselves. Their brother’s undimmed courage and the bright weather made them optimistic.

When the high priest quit his fast and emerged from solitude, he sat in the sacred chair, a thinner man and paler. He called before him the three builders and ordered shut the chamber door. The four were alone. Vukasin raised one hand to his neck and massaged the muscles as he stood there. He looked cramped and unhappy. Ujesa stared down at his boots as if something very appalling were happening to them. Only Gojko looked the priest in the eye and seemed ready to hear what he would say. The high priest told them that the gods favored Skadar and wished to honor the ambition of the builders, allowing them to create a city more impressive than had ever been seen. However, in return, the gods demanded a human sacrifice.

Vukasin blanched and stopped rubbing his neck, Ujesa felt all his breath fall out of his chest. Even Gojko registered his feelings by shifting his gaze.

“None of you is required to die,” said the priest, watching them closely.”We will choose the victim from your wives.”

At once Gojko volunteered his own life. His voice shook somewhat, but his decision was firm. His brothers turned to look at him with deep admiration.

The priest smiled. “I knew, Gojko, that you might offer such a thing, but the gods have been specific. You would not be acceptable. It must be a woman, and she must be enclosed alive behind the stones. A wall must be built around her body. Terrible, of course, but this sacrifice of a wife will be sufficient. Thereafter the walled city will rise and prosper.”

The three brothers retired to a corner to confer privately. “We must give up the plan,” said Gojko, very disheartened. He agreed with their original misgivings and knew the construction could not proceed. However, to Gojko’s surprise, Vukasin and Ujesa were not of his opinion at all. Skadar should not be abandoned, they said. Though neither of them was willing to sacrifice a wife, neither of them believed his wife would be the one.”My wife is such a devoted mother,” thought Vukasin, “that surely the gods will let her live to bear more children.” And Ujesa thought, “The gods would never take my wife. She is too scatterbrained and talkative to be worthy of a solemn rite.” Gojko, on the other hand, did not believe much in gods at all. He was sure that what was most necessary to gods were priests to reveal their wishes, not sacrifices to please them. Gojko weighed in his mind the chances of a fair contest between the three wives. The risk to his own was great. The thought of losing her overwhelmed him. Then he was ashamed, for hadn’t both his brothers been willing to risk wives they loved? Why not he? Was he less courageous? He thought of his wife’s beauty, of her delight in their home and child, then thought of the cold stones and mud of the hill. What right had he? But what the priest had said, Gojko firmly believed: if Skadar were finished, it would be greater than any other city and be a permanent memorial to whoever died that it might be built.”Besides,” thought Gojko, “I have always been luckier than my brothers.”

The priest instructed the three men to go at once to the building site, there to remain and wait while messengers delivered messages simultaneously to the wives. Each of the three women would be informed her husband had been delayed at his work but was hungry. Then each wife would be told to bring supper to the hill and to be quick. Whichever wife obeyed most promptly would be the wife to die,

This method of selection cast all three husbands into gloom. Vukasin was aware that his wife had the longest legs and the greatest impatience; only the fact that she hated to cook and was reluctant to obey him would save her. Ujesa realized that his wife was the only one of the three who would have a meal already prepared, for her constant efforts at the hearthfire kept her household well supplied, Only the fact that she was plump and slow-moving, that she detested running and climbing, might save her. Gojko knew his wife would wrap the baby in a shawl, grab a stale loaf and a cheese, and rush down the road to Skadar as she had done so many times before. If only little Jovo, who fussed at mealtimes and hated to don warm clothes, would misbehave, he might save his mother. What happened was this: Vukasin slipped money to an urchin who went with word to Vukasin’s cottage just one step ahead of the messenger. Ujesa cornered a novitiate priest who owed him a favor and by this man sent a speedy warning home. Vukasin and Ujesa trusted gods as they trusted their wives—that is, not so far as to make fools of themselves. Only Gojko, not believing in gods at all but trusting his brothers, had been tricked.

It was twilight, and the air was soft and purple on the hill. At the site of Skadar the brothers and several priests were waiting. All about them were the signs of great labor momentarily halted: everywhere were woodstacks, buckets, ladders, rope slings, myriad tools. The stone-hauling sleds were drawn to one side of the roadway that was studded with peeled logs. The sled harnesses lay on the ground in confusions of leather straps and chains. At the end of the largest wall, the one out of which the section of stonework had fallen, there was a pen where oxen moved about on tethers. Further down the slope were the horse corrals, the numerous tents, the orange cooking fires which smoked and shone.

Vukasin, Ujesa, and Gojko did not speak. They sat on stone blocks, or rose and paced aimlessly. The priests kept to themselves, speaking in low voices from time to time and always watching the road that snaked up the hillside. Then toward them along its incline came a woman. At first she was just a scrap of color, shape, and motion in the half-light. Finally they saw it was Gojko’s wife, who had brought with her the baby and some bread, but in her haste had forgotten to bring the cheese. When she reached her husband she was out of breath but smiling. He covered his face with his arms and was led away.

It is said that when they stood her in the circle of stones, Gojko’s wife begged to be spared. The priests refused. When the wall had reached the height of her knees, she cried out that her parents would ransom her. But no, they said, it made no difference. By the time the wall was as high as her waist, Gojko’s wife was calm. She said to them, “If you will not spare me, at least grant me two requests.”

Everyone hushed and stood listening.

“First,” she said, “leave a chink in this wall at the level of my breasts so I may nurse my son.”

The crowd stirred,

“Second, leave a chink in this wall at the level of my eyes so I may watch my son grow to manhood.”

The priests decided to grant these wishes. The wife said nothing more, nor did she weep at the very last, but watched the men’s hands busy in front of her and looked beyond them to the hillside trees newly budded and bending. As her world diminished, she listened to its sounds becoming more distinct—the steady clank and scrape of mason’s tools, and the noises of the workmen murmuring orders, breathing heavily, grunting as they lifted stones higher and higher into place. Finally she was left with only a sliver of her sight and a crack where her child could feed.

This is the rest of the legend: Jovo drank milk from the wall for a year. Furthermore, after Jovo was weaned, even long after he was grown, the milk continued to flow. It became a fountain of milk that nourished orphaned children and the babies of those women whose breasts were dry. Of course the City of Skadar suffered no more reversals. It was the great fortress which, though it did not last forever, lasted for a very long time.


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