Dusan Mitana



Photo by Daniel Hevier

Signs

 
(an excerpt)
 

On August 29th, 1646, 120 years after the Battle of Mohács, peasant Juraj Mitana was born, and on the same day several hundred Turks invaded his village during a nighttime raid, which took even the night watchman by surprise. But as luck would have it, the local geese woke up, and unlike the night watchman in the church tower, they began to cackle from every courtyard. The unusual noise in the middle of the night woke up the villagers, who jumped out of their beds, and right they were. If it hadn’t been for the geese, whose cackling could be heard all the way to the remote houses on the outskirts of the village, the Mitanas would not have gotten away with so much as their lives. The embittered, disappointed Turks only managed to kill two residents of Lieskovec, a few of the emperor’s soldiers, and rape a couple of local women.

Juraj was born thanks his mother’s resourcefulness, who, fearing the Turks, had hidden in a bread oven. And so it happened that Juraj beheld the light of day in a dark oven filled with the smell of fresh bread, in the warm ashes, which did not burn him, though there must have been a few smoldering coals left, because a few days later his parents noticed that he had a burn mark in the shape of a crescent moon on his right forearm. Or was it a curved sword – a yataghan? According to the midwife who had pulled him and his mother out of the oven – despite his cries of protest – and cut the umbilical cord, his birthplace was a good sign: she said the family would never suffer scarcity, and always have plenty to eat. “You little ninny” the midwife said in soothing tones, “you should be laughing and thanking me for bringing you out of that dark prison into God’s light, and here you are crying. Don’t you worry, you’ll like it here with us.” Juraj stopped his protestations, and did what he thought sensible in the moment: he closed his eyes and fell fast asleep. He didn’t feel like thinking about whether his world would turn out to be a valley of tears or a paradise – perhaps sometimes it would be one, and sometimes the other.

Juraj’s father, Adam III, who lived in a remote house on the outskirts of Lieskovec, had long forgotten that he was a descendant of a German crusading knight, and he, who had the blood of the Catholic Brandenburgs, was teaching his children German by reading Luther’s bible to them. Throughout Juraj’s childhood and adolescence the situation in the Kingdom of Hungary was relatively stable. The Turks were doing their thing – pillaging towns, burning houses, raping Hungarian women, and abducting boys for reeducation.

On August 29th, 1666, when Juraj Mitana was twenty years old, he had a son, and he named him Luther, after Martin Luther. When Juraj realized that junior had inherited his birthmark on the right forearm in the shape of a crescent moon, or a yathagan, and later, as his wife was bathing the baby in a plum barrel she discovered a reddish brown mole in the shape of the gallows under his left shoulder blade, Juraj became uneasy. He scratched his beard, crushed a louse between his fingernails, and declared: “It’s a sign. Either he’ll be an executioner, or he’ll hang. May the Lord help us.”

“But which one?” his wife asked, “the Protestant or the Catholic one?”

“Then again, maybe he’ll never die,” Juraj mumbled under his breath. “Like that Ahasuerus.”

He vaguely recalled lessons from the Lutheran bible about King Ahasuerus and Esther, although he was confusing the biblical Ahasuerus with Ahasver – the Wandering Jew of medieval legend.

While the Hungarian Catholics, Calvinists, and Lutherans were beating the living daylights out of each other, the Turks carried on undisturbed: they murdered, pillaged, burned, and hacked everything in sight. Once in a while the Hungarian rulers would help them out, but that was neither here nor there. The Hungarians feared Germanization, the Slovaks feared Hungarization.

Juraj Mitana and all the other peasants fought the Muslim enemy for many years, until the time that three hundred and fifty heroic defenders were slain by Turkish curved swords at the ramparts of Trenčín Castle. After fending off the first wave of the attack, the District Administrator Ilešházy and the Mayor Szilvay gave the order for all but Trenčín natives to go defend their hometowns. Juraj Mitana headed home, hungry and in rags. Everywhere he turned he saw houses burned to the ground, corpses, and the despair and tears of the survivors who had managed to hide in cellars or holes high up in the mountains. In spite of these measures, many did not survive: specially trained hounds sniffed them out, and they couldn’t escape their fate. With anguish in his heart Juraj rushed toward the place where his little house used to stand. All that was left of it were charred ruins, with buzzards gnawing on the dead. With the last remnant of hope he searched for the bodies of his wife and son. He found his wife at the neighbor’s house, which the Turks hadn’t had time to burn down. She was healthy, and ripe as a sweet apricot. She was nursing a little girl of about two, whom he was seeing for the first time in his life. But when he learned that the Turks had captured and taken away his son Luther, Juraj’s knees gave way, he sank down, beat his head on the ground, and cried in despair: “God, if you’re up in heaven, how could you have allowed this horror?”

In a fit of jealousy he came to hate his wife and cursed her, because it was clear that the girl’s father must have been an accursed Turkish heathen. Thankfully though, he didn’t lose his mind completely, because he knew very well that his fellow citizens of the male gender had a habit of running from the Turks into nearby forests and thickets, leaving the women to defend Hungary and Slovakia with their own bodies – and so he let them live. His wife and someone else’s daughter! Many of his fellow peasants were surprised, they even mocked him, but after the things he had lived through in the war with the Turks, he felt as though he had begotten the girl himself, just not in person.

“God, how could you have…”

“Do not blaspheme, my son, do not blaspheme!” An old neighbor helped him get up, and said with empathy: “They took our Paľko as well. We pray for them and for their captors.”

And as the days passed, it seemed as though Juraj’s anger had died together with his soul: he spent his days sitting on the ground, staring into a corner.

“He’s gone round the bend,” the survivors in Lieskovec whispered.

One day the landlord came home with the news that in Trenčín men were being recruited into an army against the Turks who had occupied Nové Zámky and Komárno.

“I’ll go do my duty.” Peasant Mitana got up, and with glassy eyes staring off into the distance, he walked out the door.

“Go, my son, go, hack them, chop them, so they dare not come to our land again!” The landlord egged him on.

There is no better servant than one who serves out of conviction. Only he who is burning himself can set others on fire. Juraj was burning, a fire inside him had been burning him up for years; it had taken almost his entire soul. He longed to destroy those who had laid a hand on his son. He lived with his wife and little daughter in a hut he had constructed of mud and logs, and every night he punished his wife with multiple rounds of intercourse that went against all Christian rules, customs, and positions. All the female neighbors envied her when they heard her howls of rapture, and they came to despise their own husbands, who slowly but surely came to despise Juraj. Then one day they drank so much slivovica that their minds clouded over completely, and they swore to kill him, as soon as they could figure out how to do so without being discovered, because they wanted to kill, but they had no intention of paying for it.

Juraj left to fight the Turks and never found out that it had saved his life. He also did not find out the happy news that following his raids his wife got pregnant, gave birth to a son, and was overjoyed about how overjoyed Juraj would be when he came home from the endless war with the Turks and found out that in place of Luther, who had been abducted by the Turks, God had blessed him with a boy, Elias, who would carry on the Mitana line.

Juraj was among the bravest of soldiers. He roused his friends into battle. He didn’t care whether he’d be wounded; he wanted to die and join his beloved son Luther. He came to regret cursing his wife and the daughter who wasn’t his; he repented, forgave, and he longed for death. The more he longed for it, the more it eluded him. As if it were afraid to meet him face-to-face, even though it sowed seeds of violence and destruction all around. No one could say how many times he had called it, blaspheming, provoking: “Take me already, you harlot, how many times do I need to ask, let’s get it over with.” It would come, but only mumble: “It’s not your turn yet. Tough luck.”

One day the commander of Trenčín Castle invited him over: “Listen up, soldier Mitana. You have fought bravely, and lopped off the heads of those pagan dogs beautifully. I want to help you, I’ve heard about your fate. They need a man like you in Trenčín – a man with scars in his heart and bitterness in his soul. You’ll never go hungry, you’ll never know thirst. You’ll have bread and wine every day. The nobles will reward you for good work. They need an executioner’s assistant. It’s a job made for you. Will you take it?”

Juraj Mitana didn’t think long. He nodded. Then he presented himself to the master executioner in Trenčín.

The place where the executions took place was right under the ramparts of the castle of Matthew III Csák of Trenčín. The condemned were hanged, beheaded, caned, broken on a wheel, quartered, and witches were burned – he was learning the art of torture.

When the old executioner died, Juraj Mitana became his successor. And he got an assistant – from the Prešov area. The underground prison became his workplace. Its thick walls concealed the screams and moans of the tortured.

Torture became his daily craft. He always had a terrible headache before torturing someone. But afterwards the tension dissipated, and he felt very tired.

He didn’t talk to anyone and didn’t go anywhere. He only answered when the nobles asked him something. Every night he stared into a mirror. He talked to the man facing him – a strange face looked back at him: bloodshot eyes, hair like straw, deep wrinkles – he hated him.

Several years passed, and the Turkish army was back to pillaging, burning, and killing everything that came under its sword. A company of about fifty Turks made it all the way to Trenčín. The defenders repelled the attack and captured several Turks. The town’s commander decided that as a warning they would execute ten Turks, starting with their leader.

The execution was to take place immediately, by beheading.

The leader was a young man, almost a boy, and the executioner Juraj Mitana hesitated. He had seen and caused much human suffering, he had seen a lot of blood spilled, but all of a sudden he felt sorry for the youth. Still, he had to do his duty. After all, who had felt sorry for his wife, who had been raped, or for his son Luther? And yet, he hesitated. He asked his assistant to do the job instead of him. The assistant refused, so Juraj swung the sword.

The head fell into the basket.

When the assistant was carrying the young man’s body to the pile of other headless bodies, he noticed the brand of a Janissary under the left arm.

“He was a Janissary,” he said.

“What? A Janissary?”

Juraj had a bad feeling, something was wrong.

“Take off his clothes!” he ordered the assistant, although he couldn’t put his finger on what worried him. On the young man’s right forearm they found a birthmark in the shape of a crescent moon, and under his left shoulder blade a mole in the shape of the gallows. Juraj screamed in despair, fell to his knees, and in tears he kissed his executed son.

From then on he didn’t talk to anyone and didn’t go anywhere. He only answered when the nobles asked him something. Every night he stared into a mirror. He talked to the man facing him – a strange face looked back at him: bloodshot eyes, hair like straw, deep wrinkles – he hated him.

I must kill him, he decided one night, and he threw a noose over the gallows.
 
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DUŠAN MITANA (1946 – 2019) studied television and film writing at the Academy of Performing Arts in Bratislava, but he left the university when his thesis advisor was removed in the wake of the political changes after 1968. Mitana then worked for two of the most prominent literary journals in Slovakia, Mladá tvorba and Romboid, and from 1975 on he was a freelance writer. In 1989 he became one of the founding members of the Slovak chapter of PEN. His works, which include more than a dozen books of prose, two collections of poetry, and several scripts, span a period of more than forty years and have been translated and published in more than twenty countries. His last book, Nezvestný (Missing, 2019), of which this piece is an excerpt, has been published posthumously.
 
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MAGDALENA MULLEK is an independent literary translator and scholar. She holds a PhD in Slavic Languages and Literatures from Indiana University. Her published translations include The Dedalus Book of Slovak Literature (Dedalus Books, 2015), Into the Spotlight: New Writing from Slovakia (Three String Books, 2017), the children’s book The Escape by Marek Vadas (BRaK, 2018), and the upcoming novel It Happened on the First of September (or Some Other Time) by Pavol Rankov (Three String Books, 2020). Her current project is a book of short stories by Dušan Mitana. Magdalena lives with her husband and their daughter in Orlando, Florida; Puerto Vallarta, Mexico; and Poprad, Slovakia.
 
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