Vukota Vlahovic said to his mother, “I am a grown man.”

But his mother just smiled. “You are a boy until you marry. Even then you will be my son.”

“God be with you,” she said, as he walked away without looking back.

His pouch filled with bread and cheese, Vukota Vlahovic went down Trmanje, watching the birds and the hares.

He descended to the Dead Man’s Vale and crossed the River of the Dead. Its pale blue waters almost touched his soles as he shuffled over the planks. He threw a pebble into the water, and the fish scrambled, their bellies silver.

Then he climbed, high, past Hazelhut, along the smaller Gorge. He could hear the River of the Dead gushing out of the mountain.

Twin white jets, twice as tall as a man, formed the river outright; Vukota crawled away from the Rim and rose, brushing away the pine needles and moss. He walked briskly, through an airy forest.

* * *

By noon, he reached the Grand Vale and lodged with his cousins, the Pizurice. He had to stuff himself once more, while his aunt said to him, “Watch out for the Niksici, they’ve been under the Turks too long. May God watch over you.” And she made the sign of the cross over him.

The next dawn he climbed out of the Vale, passed the Captain’s Lake and walked towards Nisa’s Marker. The plain, high in the mountains, was flat and yellow, deserted like a battlefield. Silence pressed upon him, as did the purple clouds and the opaque, purple water he was leaving.

* * *

In Niksic, King Nicholas cried to the assembled students, “We need men to bring literacy to Montenegro! Your duty will be as honorable as anyone’s in the army!”

Vukota looked at the other students, and their faces were also glum.

* * *

In 1912, the long columns of Rovcani crossed the White Mountain and reached the Lim. There, the Vasojevici joined them.

“Aye!” someone shouted and thousands threw their caps in the air, thundering, “Hurrah!” after the Serdar reviewed them.

With his scimitar, the Serdar pointed across the river and the men cheered and stomped towards the fords. Soon, their red vests choked the river, churned by shot and rifle fire. The Montenegrins scrambled up the other bank and raised a cloud of dust over the Turkish redoubts.

* * *

As the Highlanders advanced through Moslem villages, the boys eyed them with hatred, while veiled women hid in their houses.

“No looting,” the Brigadier said.

* * *

In a village near Pec, at the dusk of a long, dusty day, a company of Vasojevici were fired upon and six soldiers killed.

The Vasojevici made a search of the houses and flushed out two score disheveled Albanians.

Without much ado the Vasojevici Brigadier ordered them shot.

* * *

“The mace!” the Brigadier shouted, and volleys cut the Albanians down.

The cries of their kin, huddled behind a hill, sounded to Vukota like Montenegrin grieving. He could see many tribesmen pale, yet no one broke ranks.

The Brigadier then came upon the crowds of noncombatants and had them driven into Small River. The women held their babies high but the Brigadier ordered them dipped into the water. Steam rose above the river, and wisps of snow came with the norther.

“Father,” Mace roared to the priest, “I want you to baptize the heathen!”

The priest stood on the whitening bank, snow collecting on his hair and beard, and held his cross high. “In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, I welcome you all into the fold of the Holy Orthodox Church! Amen!”

“Amen!” cried the Montenegrins, Vukota among them. The soldiers wept and shivered just like the Shqipetars in the Sitnica.

* * *

“Out!” bellowed the Mace and the women ran shrieking out of the shallows and over the hill, where their dead lay. The wind was turning into a blizzard; barefoot women ululated and fell over their executed husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers.

“Move!” ordered the Mace, and the Montenegrins marched.

* * *

They took Djakovica by storm and met with the Serbians. The soldiers milled about the town and thronged the cafes. Vukota heard a Rovcanin sing.

All morning long,

Small River ran red and muddy.

Past noon.

It carried men and horses!

“Glory, glory to Serbdom!” shouted the soldiers in the cafe. They drank their brandy in strong, anxious gulps and began breaking the pitiable furniture, roaring with fury.

* * *

The gray columns of Serbians marched off to a military band, their ranks swinging in heavy step.

“Oh Serbia!” sang a voice, above the creaking of leather and the clinking of canteens and scabbards.

The Serbians sang, until their thick battalions disappeared in the dusk.

* * *

The one-time Turkish barracks stank of urine, excrement, cadaver, and rats. But, the planks were scoured with boiling water and lye, the rats poisoned, the walls whitewashed with lime, and the floor smeared with carbolineum. First students came by Christmas, pallid with hunger.

“Good luck,” said the Brigadier to Vukota. “You’ll need it, upon this accursed Plain.”

* * *

“Oh Vukota,” sang the Montenegrins, “may the sun shine upon your house! Cheers to the newlyweds!”

“Go forth,” said the priest, “and repopulate this land!”

Vukota and his bride blushed and laughed, while the guests pulled their Gassers out of their sashes, and fired them in the air.

“Glory!” they shouted. They laughed and sang while the students settled down to suckling pig and cornbread.

* * *

Rain fell upon the town, miring the hovels and the few buildings the Turks had left behind. Cold wind howled from the mountains as Vukota and Catherine Vlahovic sat behind the windows of their house, watching the main street.

Then the sun came: fissures spread like lesions through the rich, dark earth outside Djakovica. A pall of dust hung over the town, glinting with straw and lint.

“Salaam, Schoolmaster, Sir!” said the Albanians to Vukota in the market.

* * *

When the Serbians came again in 1915, their columns were endless and each man was gray, beyond the color of his uniform. Lines of refugees and beasts spread across the plains, trudging through muck. The Shqipetars disappeared, as Djakovica heaved.

“We must take to the road ourselves,” said the Town Commandant to Vukota.

* * *

More refugees joined the retreat at Pec and the Montenegrins rode through the Rugovo Gorge, their rifles at ready. High above them, the jagged, gray ridges lay bare; no hawks, eagles, or osprey specked the sky.

Slate-like, Sitnica rolled thick and silent; loose stone plunked into its pools.

They came out of the Gorge into a blizzard, their horses slipping in the fresh snow.

* * *

At Mojkovac, the Serdar shouted to the mustered men, “King Nicholas has surrendered! Whoever wants to, can go home!”

The Highlanders, drawn up in uneven, frozen ranks above the plain, merely looked at him.

“With God’s help then, let us avenge our shame! Christ is Born!” cried the Serdar.

“Indeed He is Born!” shouted the Montenegrins and held up their long, Russian rifles.

* * *

Vukota watched the Austro-Hungarians advance through the drifts, shouting. Their skirmishers lay in the snow, then rose up again, as other lines of blue-clad soldiers took their place.

The Montenegrins waited in silence until the Brigadier commanded, “Knives only!” and unsheathed his yataghan.

Blue steel in hand, the Highlanders plunged upon the enemy.

* * *

Four years after the Battle of Mojkovac, gaunt from Hungarian captivity, Vukota stroked his son’s head.

The boy looked down, as did Vukota’s mother, and Catherine.

“Your sister’s gone,” said Vukota’s mother. “A Serb from Bosnia, an Austrian soldier, took her with him.”

Pulling out the large, blunt bullets, Vukota handed his Casser to Markan. “Were they married?” he said.

“Yes,” said the boy. “Otherwise, we would’ve starved.”

“Better that we did!” said Vukota’s mother.

* * *

“Nobody smiles like Vukota Vlahovic,” said the Highlanders.

Dressed in a dark suit, gold watch chain glinting from his waistcoat, Vukota strolled in the market, gently greeting the passersby.

“Oh Vukota,” cried a peasant, “can memories keep anyone, or anything alive?”

* * *

In the fall of 1919, a platoon of gendarmes of the new Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes rode into Kolasin, five of their horses draped with bundles.

With the rest of the townsmen, Vukota came to the market, keeping his distance from the mounted policemen. In the drizzle he could see blood trickle down the hem of a tent cloth. The dead gendarmes’ pewter sabers hung down their horses’ flanks.

The gendarmerie sergeant came up to Vukota, saluted, and said, “Sir, this will have to be reported to the Division in White Plains. If you have any kin in the mountains, better tell them now.”

Vukota shook the sergeant’s hand and slowly walked home.

* * *

Mountain guns rumbled across the wooden bridge over the Tara. The infantry creaked in solid gray columns, bayonets on their rifles, their mustaches drooping wet.

Rovca villages were razed, young and old beaten, and some of the men shot.

Vukota sat in his room, silent.

Then he dressed himself in his dark suit, put on his dark hat, stuck the Gasser in his belt and went to the Town Hall.

“Please accept my resignation,” he said to the Town Commandant. “You can have the medals too; and this!” From under his jacket, Vukota took out a large, slightly bent photograph, of rows of Montenegrins staring into the camera. “In Memory of the Great Popular Assembly of 1918,” the calligraphed caption read. “To All the Delegates Who Voted for the Union of All Serbs, to the Greater Glory of God!”

“You shall have your pension,” the Commandant said, after a while. “Do you think my hopes were lesser than yours?”

“To hell with the pension,” said Vukota and walked out.

* * *

Then came the Uprising in 1941.

“Joy to you, Vukota son of Mirko,” Risto Toskov said. “A finer Montenegrin than Markan seldom mounted a charger!”

Vukota smiled at his neighbor, and tweaked his rich, long, silver mustache.

Outside the Radovic cafe, the Highlanders thronged the market, shouting and singing, brandishing their weapons. A large, dark circle of townspeople and peasants danced the oro. Inside the ring, a man and a woman leapt high, their arms spread.

* * *

The young man’s eyes shone, as did his face, the girl smiled.

The young man cried out like an eagle and the girl showed her teeth.

Bedraggled Italian bersaglieri were herded by, while the crowd jeered at them. The flies in the Radovic cafe buzzed, but no one could hear that.

* * *

“To hell with you,” Risto Toskov said to a Communist soldier, “I am going home and nobody’s ever stopped me on my way!”

“Comrade Commander,” shouted the patrolman, “some people here won’t show respect. Shall I shoot?!”

“You will shoot your mother!” screamed Risto Toskov.

“I know this man,” Vukota said to the Commander. “He’s an honest Serb. Let him go!”

“Yes Sir,” said the Commander and saluted. “But order must be kept! Your son’s orders, Sir!”

* * *

“To talk of order is insulting, after all that idiocy and commotion,” said Risto Toskov to Vukota.

“They’re young,” said Vukota. “Give them time.”

* * *

Two weeks later the Italians came back, bringing the Shqipetars along. Their army, and the war cries of Shqipetars, could be heard long before the trucks drove into Kolasin.

In the market, lined up under the old Montenegrin flag, the bemedaled veterans of Djakovica, Scutari, and Mojkovac watched the Blackshirts.

Ljubo Minic, the leader of the townsmen, said to the Italian Colonel, “The Communists are our only enemy.”

“But, our blood has been shed!” said the Blackshirt. His gray eyes went over the mustered veterans. “Not even Queen Helen can condone rebellion!”

Looking him in the eye, Minic said, “Colonel, the guilty shall be punished. Long live the House of Savoy!” and he snapped the Roman salute.

In the meanwhile, Vukota and other refugees climbed the trail to Trmanje.

* * *

Not long after, Communists came to Rovca: Markan Vlahovic and Vujica Sobajic, both commissars.

“Dad,” Markan said, “we need help in organizing Rovca.”

Vukota looked at his eldest son, hard, noting the crisscrossed leather belts and the pistol in his holster. “Don’t you think,” he said, “you should wait until the war is over, before deciding who’s to rule?”

“Uncle Vukota,” said Sobajic, trying to smile, “we need all the help we can get.”

“Then, don’t drive away those who would aid you!” shouted Vukota.

* * *

“Your father may be a coward and cur, Sobajic, not us!” spoke a man in a forester’s uniform, white-faced. “Go and spread your gospel in Whitepaul, where your brains were addled!”

Because the assembled Rovcani laughed, the commissars were spared.

“Rovca are not the Vasojevici, Whitepaul, or the Plains of Kolasin!” shouted the forester. “Not even the Turks came here! We don’t want Dagos defiling our huts and pastures, for your love of Stalin!”

* * *

Two hundred Communist Grahovljani and Niksici came down upon Trmanje over the top of the Foggy Mountain. Rovcani were caught as they slept, and herded out of the stone huts, their women wailing.

“You, stand aside,” said the commander of the Niksici to Vukota. “The rest of you sonsofbitches,” he cried, “shall suffer for treason!”

“We have turned upon no one, and we’ve done you no harm!” cried a peasant.

“But we’ll do harm unto you,” shouted the commander.

Their hands tied behind their backs, with the telephone wire the Niksici had brought, the Rovcani walked as if not awake.

“By God,” shouted one of the condemned men, “Rovcani were never slaughtered thus! Brothers, let us cool ourselves in the Moraca!” He and four others ran surefooted up the craggy rim, and plunged headlong into the Canyon. They smashed against the walls before they tumbled, like great, dark sacks, into the river below.

The women cried even louder as all the tied men were shot, the Niksici watching from the above.

* * *

In Upper Moraca, Sava the Mace said to the Communists, “You’re a senseless brood of whelps. In your furor and foolishness you will destroy this land!”

When his executioners came, the Mace met them with a rifle and killed eleven. The rest shot him and burned his house down. Slipping down the narrow, icy path which led to his house on a crag, his relatives carried the blackened corpse to Lindenvale. There, Mace was buried as he was, in his Montenegrin regalia.

Then, on Christmas Eve of 1942, a butcher’s apprentice led a detail, and over a hundred bound “people’s enemies,” into Tara’s Grove.

Laughing and singing, celebrating the bloodless liberation of Kolasin, his comrades in the high school above heard and saw nothing.

* * *

When the Chetniks took Kolasin, two weeks later, the bodies of the victims were dug out of their shallow, snow-covered graves and photographed. The men’s skulls had been smashed in, their chests ripped open, the girls’ and women’s flesh cut away. After the grisliest corpses were shown to the people in the market, a Chetnik went into the Grove and knocked down the sign on a poplar. “Curs’ Graveyard” it had read, before it was chopped into pieces, and burnt.

* * *

In the spring, Stevo Minic from Riverside sent word to Vukota to come for a parley.

“Dad, don’t go, it’s a trap,” said Danilo Vlahovic.

Vukota smiled at his son. “I have never done anything to be ashamed of,” he said, and swung his rifle over his shoulder.

“Damn each day a Minic was born,” said Danilo, and went with his father. They walked down the snowy trail in silence. The woods glistened with icicles and wet bark showed dark.

* * *

At Riverside, green among the white mountains, the Minici disarmed the two Vlahovici.

“Why did you come to sully my honor?” said Stevo Minic. “You had a choice, if I did not.”

Vukota looked at him. “I pity you for your relatives,” he said, and smiled.

“Whatever mine may be,” said Minic, “yours have no name. Take them away!”

* * *

The snow at Kings Ridge was wet, deep, and treacherous, so the Minici untied their captives’ hands, and poked them upwards with their rifles.

* * *

“You, your family, and your likes, have brought misfortune upon all of us,” said Ljubo Minic to Vukota in the courtroom. “I pronounce you guilty of sedition, and treason, and sentence you both to death by the firing squad!”

“Damn you!” cried Danilo and held up his manacled hands. Two guards caught him underarm and pulled him out of the crowded courtroom.

“You,” said Vukota to Minic, “shall be judged for conniving with the Dagos; though you should be shot just for what you are!”

“To hell with you, Vlahovic,” said a man from the audience. “Curs’ Graveyard’s a tall order for anyone to match!”

Vukota looked at him, his eyes still, his mustache unsmiling.

* * *

In the ramshackle Kolasin prison, Vukota received his cousin Panto Vlahovic.

“You’ve got to escape,” whispered Panto to Vukota, while the Chetnik guard slouched by the door. “Friday night the guards will not be watchful—nobody but that dog Ljubo Minic wants to see an elder shot. Take this,” said Panto loudly and handed Vukota a bundle.

“The visit’s over,” said the guard.

“Say hello to Catherine,” said Vukota to his cousin. “I fear I’ve done her wrong.” With cuffed hands he stroked his long white mustache and smiled.

* * *

In his cell, Vukota opened the food parcel and laid out the bread, the cheese, and the mutton upon the white cloth they were wrapped in.

“Let us feast,” he said to the other inmates.

“Friday’s the night to make a break for it,” he said to his son. “We shall stuff some paper into the lock and push the door open after the evening count. There’s supposed to be no one in the corridor.

“You shall climb through the attic hatch, knock out the wooden shingles, and slide down the roof into the snow. It’s five hours over the mountain to Mojkovac, where Markan and our men are.”

“Do you mean you are not coming along?” said Danilo.

“Vukota Vlahovic was never afraid of Chetniks,” said his father, and put his hand on Danilo’s shoulder. “But, you must go—I have no grandsons.”

Gently, Vukota smiled under his mustache and stroked it. His son stared at the white cloth, saying nothing.

* * *

“Crawl in shame for what your people have done,” the Chetnik sergeant said.

Vukota looked at him with clear, brown eyes, and slowly made the round of both the markets on his hands and knees.

When he was back at the jail, a sheep’s bell was tied around his neck.

“For the old ram of a young flock,” cried a guard.

A tall, dark onlooker suddenly stiffened and shouted, “F— any man to tie a bell around a tribesman’s neck!” He pushed a charge into the chamber of his Mauser and stood bristling in the middle of the street. Others fell away from him, silent.

Slowly, one of the guards untied the bell and held it, limply.

“If you want to shoot a Vlahovic,” cried the Rovcanin, “shoot him like a man, no matter what anyone did!”

* * *

The guards marched Vukota Vlahovic across the swirling Pig River, past the Army barracks and to the Field of Birch. There he was shot and two men were posted by his grave.

* * *

During the night. Panto and Milutin Vlahovic disarmed the guards, and carried the body to their village, where it was buried until 1945.

* * *

In the summer of 1946, Markan stood with his mother among the graves of his three brothers and father. The sun shone upon the white tombstones and the young poplars of the cemetery. The trees rustled in the breeze, swaying gently; birds sang and bumblebees glistened in the sunlight.

Trim in his UDBA colonel’s uniform, dark, clean shaven, Markan looked around the Birch. He moved his shiny black boot, slightly, and watched the crushed grass.

Soundlessly, Catherine cried, as she did when she thought no one was looking.

* * *

“I’d cut you to pieces,” said Markan to the Chetnik who had tied the bell around his father’s neck. “But, I don’t want my son to spit on me.”

The Chetnik looked past Markan, through the open window, towards the blue hills of Lindenvale. He raised his tied, puffed-up hands, and wiped his mustache with the back of his hand.

His mustache gleamed and bristled, like the fur of a black wolf.

* * *

Still the Chetnik was shot, for someone else signed his execution.

* * *

Long after the war, Veso Vlahovic would wake up shouting in the night, his face and hands clammy. The family thought he had TB, but the checks revealed nothing.

Then Veso started drinking, and was pensioned off as a veteran.

Thirty years later, in 1983, he said to Vojin Vlahovic, “In ’45, we captured some Boskovici, and one of them was just fifteen years old. He cried, and begged us to spare him but Mico opened him up with a Schmeisser. ‘Take this for Vukota Vlahovic,'” Mico shouted.

“But the remaining Boskovic said, ‘The boy was away when Vukota was shot.’

“‘What do I care,’ Mico shouted, and shot the Boskovic with a single bullet in the gut. ‘You never wept over us!’

“What am I to do?” said Veso to his nephew.

But Vukota Vlahovic’s grandson could tell him nothing. Montenegrin by choice, unproven by ordeal, he listened and pondered. He poured his uncle some brandy and they got slowly drunk. In the gloom of Veso’s hut they sat and stared into the fire, and Veso’s eyes were bright as when he was a child, and the war had just begun.