"When a society or a civilization perishes, one condition may always be found. They forgot where they came from. They lost sight of what brought them along." -- Carl Sandburg


I

    Djordje Shagich didn’t believe in miracles. He’d rise before dawn, sneak out of the sleeping quarters, and naked to the waist, dash barefoot through vineyards to the hills overlooking the Danube. As the bells from the nearby monasteries called monks to celebrate God’s glory, he’d climb the tallest oak, as high as the tree could bear. He’d gaze to the south across the Panonian plain where the Danube meets the first trace of the Balkan Mountains. In his mind’s eye he’d fly to Belgrade, and fight alongside the rebels against the Sultan’s armies, destroying the janissary force with his bare hands, thrusting a spear through the Sultan’s heart. With the echo of the last bell whispering through the hills, he’d run back to the school, wash at the town’s fountain outside the seminary’s gate, and return to the sleeping quarters. He’d take his icon of St. George from under his pillow, and sit on the floor, his back against the wall. He’d lay the icon in his lap and pray.
    It was May of 1813, and Djordje Shagich lived in the Orthodox Seminary in Carlowitz, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This little town on the Danube’s east bank was too serene for his taste, and like a grapevine awaiting spring, he looked toward the day he’d fight the Ottomans.
    Eight years earlier, at the time his brethren south of the river revolted against a four-hundred-year-long Ottoman occupation, his mother sent him from Budapest into the care of Archbishop Stratimirovich. He was barely nine. “Make me proud,” Mother said, and entrusted him with the icon that had belonged to his father. Before Mother’s whisper settled in his heart, a tall man in a black robe took him away. Now he wondered if the icon, his only possession, was his home. Five by three inches, it was made of oak unlike most other icons which were made of larch or linden. An iconographer’s steady hand guided by the Holy Spirit inscribed it, he was told. The icon depicted St. George killing a dragon with a spear.
    “Kill the dragon. With a spear. Soon you and I will join Karadjordje and the rebels . . . Dear Lord—”
    “There you are,” Toma hollered from the door. “Come on. We’ll be late for the exam.”
    Djordje put the icon in his shirt pocket, put on his shoes, and rushed out the door. From the tower overlooking the courtyard, the church bell announced a new school day. The sun was still behind the shrine’s dome, its rays reflecting off the curves of the restless bell, flirting with forest orchids in the garden alongside the courtyard’s stone wall.
    “Where were you this morning?” Djordje asked, leaping over the Archbishop’s orchids. The school building, a single-story brick house on the other side of the courtyard, never looked less inviting.
    “Up and about,” Toma replied. He looked distant.
    “What’s wrong?” Djordje asked.
    “Nothing,” Toma said.
   A year younger than Djordje, Toma came to the seminary from a village north of Carlowitz. On his thirteenth birthday, the Archbishop’s visiting niece had glanced at him in passing; he tried to impress her by wrestling the seminary’s only cow to the ground, and as punishment had to clean the cowshed for three months. School was hard work. Djordje and he spoke Slavonic, their mother-tongue, and Church Slavonic, the official language of the Church. Djordje also spoke Latin, Greek, French, German, English, Hungarian, Spanish; Italian and Portuguese came easily to a Latin speaker, Djordje would say, so they didn’t count. Djordje helped him with history and foreign tongues. He, in return, taught Djordje to swim and fight. Djordje was a terrible swimmer. He couldn’t help Djordje with swimming any more than he could help a stone block from the nearby quarry.
    He did beat me in a fight once, Toma grinned as he recalled strugling to recite the Lord’s Prayer in Greek while they wrestled. Djordje is a friend that a man trusts with his life, he throught. Turning him in was for his own good.
    As they were running into the school, Father Petar, their spiritual overseer, appeared in the doorframe.
    “Whoa, boys. What’s the rush?” the monk called out, wrapping the bottom of his black robe around his ankles, making sure it stayed out of their way. His elongated frame matched his fresco-like, angelic face that belied his fifty-seven years.
    “We have the final exam in Church Slavonic,” Toma said.
    “Toma, go ahead,” Father ordered.
    “Yes, Father.” Toma glanced at Djordje, apologetically, and went to class.
    Father put his arm around Djordje’s shoulders and guided him out into the courtyard. “I hear you’re planning to join the rebels,” said Father.
    “Huh. So much for a blood oath,” Djordje mumbled in Latin while examining a speck of dust on his polished shoes.
    “Remember who taught you Latin,” Father replied, and shaking his head in disapproval, nudged Djordje’s chin with his index finger. “The Archbishop has great plans for you. For God’s sake, don’t ruin your life.”
    “The dear Lord will take care of me.”
    “The Archbishop won’t let you leave.”
    “I wasn’t planning to ask him for permission.”
    “You should be ashamed of yourself. He took you in as if you were his own child, educated you, gave you a chance at a better life. Is this how you want to repay his kindness? What will your mother say?”
    “Mother doesn’t have to know.”
  “Oh, my dear child. How can you be so callous?” Father Petar knew Djordje like the morning litany.
    “I’m sorry.”
   “You’re sorry? You’re sorry? You know not what you’re saying, young man. War is a bloody business. People die.”
    “Everyone’s to die. It’s all out of our hands, anyhow.”
    For weeks Father Petar had watched Djordje and Toma follow a military regimen. Before school they ran for miles. After school they fenced with sticks, studying from a French book of exercises on the art. The Archbishop ordered them to stop practicing military skills and confiscated the book. They stopped for a day, and then practiced outside the seminary’s walls. This morning, Toma admitted that he was still planning to help Djordje cross the Danube, and Father Petar convinced the Archbishop to place Djordje under house arrest.
    “I’m to deliver a message to the Bishop of Belgrade,” Father said as they reached the Archbishop’s quarters.
    “Take me with you! I’ll help you tend to the sick and the wounded.”
    “Follow me.”
    “Where are we going?”           
    “This way.”
    They went down the steps, into the basement, and now stood in front of a heavy oak door, the entry to the detention room. Though Djordje had never put a foot in it, he had heard from some boys that spending a night in there was horrible. The room was cold and pitch black, with giant spiders and centipedes and a multitude of unnamed insects crawling around.
    “Father, what are we doing here?”
    “I need you to carry a bench out for me.”
    Father lifted the security bar, opened the door, and went in. Djordje followed. The room was dusty. Light seeped through an opening secured with an iron bar. A long bench lay along the wall under the opening. Djordje bent to lift the bench. The door slammed shut behind him.
    “Father, what are you doing?” Father Petar wasn’t in the room.
    “You’ll stay here until I return,” the monk replied, and secured the door. “A week, at most. Toma will bring you food and water twice a day. This is for your own good.”
    “You can’t stop me,” Djordje bawled, and banged his fists against the door.
    “Soon the Russians and the Austrians will enforce the peace treaty with the Turks. I can’t let you ruin your life.”
    “What if the Austrians and the Russian don’t come? What then?”
    “What makes you think they won’t come?” Father asked.
    “Have they ever come before?”
    What if he’s right, the monk wondered.
    “You can’t stop me,” Djordje yelled, and banged his foot against the door. “The Archbishop can’t stop me. As soon as I finish school, I’ll cross over.”
    “And do what?”
    “Join Karadjordje. Fight the Turks.”
    “Lose your head.”
    “Kill’em all.”
    “Oh, child. War is—”
    “I know what war is. I’m not a child. Let me out of here.”
    ...