SPOTLIGHT | Possessed in Serbia

nymphWhen I lived in Serbia, there was nothing I hated more than going to Serbian villages. They were a symbol of boredom to a young city girl hungry for the exciting, different, sophisticated, skyscraper-and-concrete world outside of Serbia. But now that I have lived in the United States for ten years and traveled through half of the world, I remember those sleepy little nooks with nostalgia: lambs playing together and women in headscarves, steep rocky roads, white mountaintops, intoxicating tall grass meadows, and forests of fragrant plum trees.

These villages curiously became my inspiration through my main muse, my 83-year old grandmother Ruža, who keeps revealing to me their incredible wealth of myths, legends, superstitions and beliefs that challenge imagination.

It all began about five years ago, while I lived in Manhattan, when my father Branimir, over Skype, asked me one day: “Why don’t you write a book?”

Why don’t I? I asked myself. I have an M.A. in journalism and a B.A. in literature. I have published three books of poetry, wrote numerous articles in both English and Serbian, and earned a bunch of awards for my writing in Serbia. I could write a book, a good book. But what would I write about?

Then I remembered what a good friend of mine, former Washington Post film critic Desson Thomson, told me once over a cappuccino: “You should write a story only you could write.”

It was suddenly clear. My book had to be set in Serbia. It had to be immersed in ancient, rich, deep, hidden Serbian traditions and culture people here would enjoy reading about.

So, every time I would go to Serbia over the next five years (about two times a year), I would interview different people: my maternal grandparents Nadezda and Tomislav living in the southern Serbian village of Nozrina, their neighbors, my mother Mirjana, and most importantly, my paternal grandmother Ruža, who never knew she was being interviewed. (My voice recorder looks like a cell phone. Please don’t tell her.)

Ruža and I, after a long embrace, would chat in her invariably stuffy one-bedroom apartment in Niš. (The draft in Serbia is a killer.) I would always sit on her armchair, and she on her sofa, with a framed black and white 60-year old photo of my handsome, mustachioed, late grandfather Svetomir (Holy Peace) staring at us from the wall. I would then ask her to tell me stories about our family, her family, and people I never laid eyes on like her grandparents and great grandparents, aunts and uncles, in-laws, all from map-less southern Serbian villages.

At first she would say: “What can I tell you?” My grandmother is an introvert and doesn’t like to talk much, prefers to be alone with her TV game shows that she’s excellent at.

But I would smile and persist. “Tell me about your grandparents? What were their names? What did they do? How many children did they have? How long did they live? How did they die?”

And once she began reciting the family tree she remembered so well, I would ask: “What was she like? What was he like?”

Then she would inevitably remember to tell me some fascinating story, such as how her own mother wanted her dead when she was a one-year-old, how her uncle was shot in the stomach by his comrades, how her father hated priests and never went to church, how she caught her husband seducing another woman while she was pregnant with their second child, how she wanted to give up her third child but her mother-in-law wouldn’t allow it, how abortions in her time were performed by old women’s hands in cold, damp, moldy sheds.

I would listen to her stories in awe, trying to absorb as much as possible, thinking how radically different my life had been from my grandmother’s, even if separated only by a half a century.

Then, when I would come back to the States, I would go to my favorite café and start writing.

This is how The Nymphs came to life.

Last spring, I asked my grandmother about vampires, as rural Serbia is their birthplace. So I thought, who better than an 83-year old woman who grew up in a small village and survived two wars to tell me stories about vampires?

But my vampire quest didn’t lead anywhere. She didn’t know much or didn’t want to divulge beyond the fact that the villagers of Gorčinci (Little Mountains) believed in vampires and would tell you to stay away from the cemetery at night, so “a vampire wouldn’t get you.”

But then, without being prompted, she began telling me about the time my late grandfather Svetomir—a Partisan, Josip Broz Tito’s soldier, a Communist by default (everybody during Tito’s reign in the former Yugoslavia was a Communist or was sent to Goli Otok, the Naked Island or Yugoslav version of Alcatraz) —was possessed by Satan while visiting his aunt in the village of Blato (Mud).

My ears perked up.

“Possessed? What do you mean possessed?” 

“Possessed. Satan possessed him. He was walking late at night through the village, and he lost his mind, he couldn’t find his aunt’s house until the morning, until the roosters sang.”

This is it, I thought. This is the story. Satan possessed a Communist, a man who didn’t believe in God. Brilliant.

I kept asking my grandmother more about this strange incident but she didn’t know much more. It was almost all my grandfather had told her at the time, some 50 years ago. She did mention that Satan’s goat jumped on some other villager’s horse-drawn cart and began talking to him. (When she said that, I wanted to get up and dance.)

When I went home that day, I asked my father if he knew the “possession” story. He said no, then laughed: “He (Svetomir) was a cunning, cunning man.” What this meant was that my father believed that his father lied to his mother. My father didn’t believe in anything supernatural, let alone talking goats and Satan stealing one’s mind.

My grandfather had a reputation of being a “lady’s man” in his prime, even after he got married and had children. My father thought that Svetomir lied to Ruža to hide the fact that he was with another woman. (I was possessed by demons. Sorry, honey. Always a good excuse.)

Plausible, I thought. Serbian men are infamous for being philanderers. (This is why I married an American.)

Either way, made-up or true, it was the basis for a great fiction story.

Let my readers wonder until the end if he (Svetomir) was really possessed or if he made the whole thing up to hide his infidelity. Take my grandmother and my father as a sample. She believed in the “possession,” while my father thought it was an elaborate lie, that my grandfather used my grandma’s superstitions to get out of a jam.

That’s the reason for the change in the point of view in the story, from first to third and back. I wanted my reader to feel like Svetomir, a bit lost, dizzy, disoriented, maybe caught in a whirlwind.

And while writing The Nymphs, it became clear to me that it had to be an atmospheric story, my reader had to be in the room with Svetomir, and smell the women’s hair, and candles, and slivovitz.

During my creative writing process, the dark-haired, dark-eyed woman from the story, the alleged “mistress,” had to evolve into more than a “floozy.” She had to become a Nymph, or a Vila, in the magical realism spirit of the story. Vilé were beautiful mythical creatures that saturated Serbian medieval literature. Why not transport them to the time just after World War II, when poor, hungry and wounded Serbs still needed something supernatural to believe in, besides what Communists were offering them. (That was, suffer for the greater good.)

And when it comes to the story’s location, I have actually never been to Blato, but I couldn’t imagine it looking much different than the three southern Serbian villages I have known well – Gorčinci, Veliki Drenovac (Big Tree), and Nozrina. So Blato was modeled on all three.

Everything else in the story is craftwork and imagination. I, of course, never met Svetomir’s aunt. There’s no son Joca, but I’m sure whoever seduced my grandfather (i.e. Stanoja) had to be at least part Nymph.

Through a long writing and editing process with my writing partner, Gimbiya Kettering and editor, Michael Walker, The Nymphs eventually surfaced and became the first chapter of my recently completed novel-in-stories, Golden-Grip Gun. The Gun is a multigenerational family saga that follows a cursed, mixed blood Yugoslav family (Petrovic) on a tumultuous journey from Serbian and Croatian villages in interwar Yugoslavia to Washington, DC, at the beginning of the 21st century.

Who would have thought that those villages that my parents used to have to drag me to in tears would become such an inspiration? But as a fiction writer, I am eternally grateful for inspiration no matter where it comes from. And as a token of gratitude for my unexpected and fertile muses, I chose Serbian Orthodox Christmas on January 7th as the date to send my novel to agents, for good luck. Hopefully, a Nymph will be around to help.


Marija Stajic is a Serbo-Croatian-American writer, journalist, linguist, and the author of three books of poetry. She has a BA in linguistics and literature from the University of Nis (Serbia), and an MA in international journalism from American University. She studied short story writing at the George Washington University and the Writer’s Center, in Bethesda, Maryland and playwriting at HB Studios in New York City. She is a recipient of the 2013 Undiscovered Voices Fellowship of The Writer’s Center, in Bethesda, MD. Her work has been published in The New Yorker, Gargoyle, VLP Magazine, Lunch Ticket, Epiphany Magazine, Writing Disorder, Orion Headless, Gloom Cupboard, Imitation Fruit, Inertia, Thick Jam, Circa, Yuan Yang, Burning Word, The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, and Defying Gravity, a collection of short stories. 


The Nymphs

His shirt unbuttoned, a few buttons missing. He touched the nick on his face, by the mole. The burned blood was gone, gone, healed.

Suddenly, he realized, he didn’t know where he was.

His head didn’t quite sit right, it was spinning, sweat dripping down his face. He was wiping it off his forehead, shaking his hand. All the houses looked the same, just black drawings on light black canvases. The dogs still howled, the howling seemed closer, more vicious, hungry. He shivered, sped up, stumbled on a rock, swore, then began running, stumbling, running. He seemed to be running in circles, swallowed by some kind of a whirlwind, the same stars above him wherever he ran, the moon always in the same corner of the village. The same rocks tripped him over and over. The dogs, the wolves, the wolverines closed on him. He panted, stopped, bent over his knees, tried to catch his breath. The air was sticky, hard to inhale, impossible to exhale. He still had no recollection of what happened in that dark-eyed woman’s house. The time had somehow stopped. “They stopped it,” he said. “The nymphs, Vilé.”


Svetomir stumbled on an unpaved village road. It was sometime between one and two in the morning. Even if he had a watch, he wouldn’t be able to see it. The only light was coming from the sky.

He was in his aunt’s village, Blato, a small, flat nook in southern Serbia with no street lamps, where people went to bed right after the chickens, where anyone could jump over the wooden fences that looked as if they were made by children.

He had left his wife and two children in the city of Nis and gone to visit his aunt with his youngest, Joca. The aunt has written, asked him to call on her. He hadn’t seen her in a year and she lived only 30 minutes away by train, or 45 by horse drawn carriage. He wasn’t planning on bringing the boy with him but his wife insisted.

Then he met this dark-eyed woman in front of the village’s only store Zadruga, where his aunt sent him to buy yeast so she could make bread. And the dark-eyed woman invited him to a party that same evening, with her girlfriends, all tall like poplar trees, their dark hair like manes all the way to the smalls of their backs, waving in the wind, all dressed in white, all five of them giggling in the background while his palms sweated. They didn’t seem to care that he had a boy with him.

Svetomir looked down at his five-year old Joca, pulling onto his pants. Then he looked back at the women, smiling at him, looking at him with those doe eyes. What would the harm be, he thought. He would have a rakija or two, with new friends, and go back to his aunt’s early. If he was married with children, it didn’t mean he was in prison.

Around eight in the evening, he put his white short sleeve shirt on, and his new shoes. He shaved carefully but still nicked his face below the big mole to the right of his chin. He rubbed some rakija and pressed a handkerchief on it until it clotted. Then he oiled his dark hair and combed it straight back in long sweeps. Spilled a few drops of his cologne into his palms and slapped his face three times.

His wife was blonde, so blonde and freckly. And paper-skinned. These girls were whole-blooded, strong and dark. Like Vilé, Slavic nymphs he read about in school, the intoxicating women who made people lose their minds, both men and women. But somehow the stories he heard and read talked mostly about men. Enchanted, mindless men.

“Tata, where are you going?” Joca appeared by the door as he was about to step out. Svetomir looked at Joca’s blue eyes, blue like his wife’s.

“Tata’s going for a walk,” he said.

“I want to go for a walk too,” Joca said.

“You should be in bed. Teta’s going to tuck you in. I won’t be long,” he said and pet him on his curly, silky hair. The boy didn’t look anything like him, Svetomir often thought. The other two did, but not the youngest. If he weren’t keeping his wife on a short leash, he would have wondered if Joca were his.

“Don’t be late, Tomé,” his aunt said, in her cotton nightgown so long it grazed the floor but with ends still crispy white. She pulled the boy by his shoulders and closed the door behind Svetomir.

The dogs barked.

Night fell on the small village just like a spider’s web, it enveloped it completely, it shut everything down as if it had a hand on one big light switch, and turned everything off, all the lights, all the sounds and all the eyes, except for the dogs. The dogs or wolves, Svetomir wasn’t sure. He sped up.

The dark-eyed woman’s house had three lit candles in each window and was easy to recognize. Just as the dark-eyed woman explained. Except Svetomir didn’t remember exactly what she explained, nor if she ever said her name.


They were singing, he could hear from the outside, the thinly-woven female voices brought up from the healthy chests and throats by strong homemade rakijas, he imagined.

He stepped slowly onto the stairs. One, two, three, he counted, and was there, by the door.

The dark-haired woman opened it. He didn’t even knock.

“Come in,” she said, and extended her long lean arm clad in white silk, honey around her lips, flowers in her hair, blooming, still blooming as if feeding on her hair. The room was lit with candles only, fluttering in the draft. These women weren’t afraid of the draft. The whole house was drafty, every window and door opened. The dangerous kind of draft, the one, Serbs believed, that could make you sick or deaf or could shut your eyes.

The dark-eyed-and-haired women danced in a circle in the living room on a Turkish carpet, a dance Svetomir had only seen in books about the Far East, sheiks and their concubines, the belly dancers. The women’s hairs interwoven, like tapestries. He could see deep down their eyes, dark, as dark as the ocean at night, he could see himself, but a different Svetomir, the one before the wife and children, before the war, the one with a mustache and a full set of hair, muscles on both arms instead of scars. He smiled in their eyes. And he caught himself smiling on that wooden chair, on that mud floor, next to a candle smelling of fresh cut roses.

The room also smelled of church incense and rakija, plum rakija, old sljivovica so potent it could raise the dead. They danced and played an accordion. All dressed in white long dresses, slightly transparent.

“Drink this,” said the dark-eyed woman he met in front of Zadruga, handing him a kocanjce, a miniature one-person bottle of a copper-colored drink.

Svetomir forgot how to speak. He couldn’t even ask what it was, that copper liquid, he couldn’t say NE even if he wanted to. But he didn’t. He shot it, and she laughed and sat in his lap, whispering something in his ear.


I’m on my knees, they hurt, stones underneath them. I’m slowly getting up, pushing myself up again holding on to those same stones, rocks, pebbles, whatever they are, smelling of horse manure and dog piss. I brush my hands against each other, as if to clean them. They hurt. I must have fallen on them before. Why is it that I can’t see anything? Did the draft, promaja, shut my eyes?

I was here just an hour ago. Or was it last night? I can’t remember. Where am I anyway? It looks familiar. Those howls sound familiar too. What if the wolves are too hungry, what if all the sheep tonight are safely tucked in their wooden and barbed stalls? What if there are no more animals to feed on? And I think I used to have a gun hanging from my belt, but there’s emptiness there now.

I got used to wolf cries in the war, but I was never alone. We slept in the forests, on the rocks, but we had to. Now I think I have a bed with clean, starched linen waiting for me, just don’t know where. There are no bullets lighting up the sky, just stars, the same old ones with no secrets to tell, no paths to enlighten.

Where am I? Where am I going? These rocks look familiar. There’s some blood on them.

Why can’t I remember my own damn name?


“I have a secret to tell you,” she said, sitting in his lap. He couldn’t open his mouth. His tongue was glued. But it was sweet, sweet like honey. The sweetness crawled under his tongue into his mouth, nose and brain.

He couldn’t move his arms. They flapped by the chair like broken branches. Both the one with war wounds, and the healthy one, suddenly, no difference.

She whispered something in his ear, it sounded like a foreign language and a bird song at the same time. She whispered for a long time but it seemed like a second to him.

Then she got up and asked him to follow her, bending her index finger, her eyes glistening like a cat’s. Her dress swirled around her legs, and he saw her dark flesh shining. His legs worked and he got up and followed her into the hallway, away from the accordion and the other girls dancing, away from the candles and the draft and the smell of brandy. It was getting darker and darker as she dove deeper into that hallway, but he knew the way. He didn’t stumble, he didn’t hit himself on any furniture. He only saw the ends of her dress.

She led him into a room with a low wooden ceiling and an iron leg bed with white linen. It smelled of blood, someone’s blood. He could only hope it was animal blood since he still couldn’t speak or move his arms. But he wasn’t afraid.

She sat on the bed, her bare feet waving white as a bone, and asked him over. He could see her white teeth in the dark. Her dress untied itself, the white satin ribbons fell by the bed. Her bellybutton was filled with slivovitz too, her nipples shone as dipped in honey.

The wolves and dogs quieted down.

As he was walking toward her, like a marionette, the stars brightened, then suddenly drowned. A rooster sang loudly and his Vila screamed.


Time has no meaning for me anymore, or places. Everything looks the same, feels the same, sounds the same and I still don’t know where I am. I know I’m supposed to find a house, but I’m not able to and I can’t explain why. Left, right, it’s all the same to me. I end up in the same spot no matter where I step. And all the windows are shut and there are no candles in them. I can’t even cross thresholds. As if something is holding my shoulders back, as if there’s an invisible fence.

This village must be an enchanted circle, like in one of those fairy tales my great grandparents told while I laughed at them and mocked them. Mocked their piousness, their ignorance, their illiteracy.  “Don’t walk close to the cemetery,” they said, “late at night, or a Vampir could get you, bite you, make you one yourself, never alive or dead, drag you into his hole in the ground.” Or the story about that man who had a baby goat jump on his horse drawn cart and when he pet her he said: “baby goat, baby goat, who do you belong to?” Then the baby goat pet him and said: “baby goat, baby goat who do you belong to?” They said he screamed, and his hair, instantly, turned white.

I heard the elders in my village, Veliki Drenovac, tell these tales and warn me of the strange things beyond what they could understand or control, but I was a Partisan, I was Tito’s man in the war, I was a Communist, and I didn’t believe in God or Satan. Or Vampires and the Satan Goats. Or Vilé.

And now I’m circling this dirty, rocky road for hours, unable to find the house I practically grew up in.

My mind doesn’t feel like my own anymore and I am not drunk. I had drunk more, way more than this evening, in that dark-eyed woman’s house, and I had always, always been able to find my way home. Did she put some kind of spell on me, that dark-eyed Vila? But why? I wish I could remember what she whispered, why she took me to that room, why she disappeared, dispersed into the morning with the first roosters.

I was no more than a toy in her dark hands, Turkish dark, not Gypsy dark, and whole-blooded like a mustang.

What happened in that house? What? I can’t remember, still. Fragments only. I am hitting my head with my hands, I’m shaking it, shaking it hard. Nothing. I want to hit it with a rock. But when I grab one, I hear a song in my ears.


“I have a secret to tell you,” she whispered into Svetomir’s ear glued to the bed frame. His shirt was unbuttoned, his feet bare, his pants unbuckled. He suddenly felt fear, fear in his bones, fear unknown to him until now, beyond the fear or captivity, illness or death.  The dark-haired woman swiped her hair over his chest as if it were a wheat broom and she was cleaning it. He could feel her thighs burning, searing into his flesh, as if she lit them on invisible fire. His arms felt as if constantly chewed by insects. His tongue was limp, but she seemed to be reading his mind.

“I know you,” she said. “I heard of you,” she said, sliding her long-nailed index finger over his frozen lips, then licking it, sucking it. “I know your wife too.”

“I’m Stanoja’s daughter, “ she said, burying his face in her hair, her claws into his chest. He screamed inside his head, nothing was coming out of his throat, as if his vocal cords were stolen.

Then he noticed something, someone outside, looking through the window, through the white muslin curtain. A small creature, colorless, familiar. Then, it was gone.


Svetomir was suddenly so tired. His shirt was still unbuttoned, but he wasn’t cold. He felt air coming through his new shoes, somewhere, some new hole. His pants were loose around his waist. He must have lost his belt.

He finally decided to sit down, give up, let the morning come and maybe a man would come by and help him. He couldn’t even remember his aunt’s name, or his own address in Nis.

He was sitting on a rock by the side of the road, his hands in his hair, his head bowed, tears in his eyes, when the roosters sang again. They sang and sang, loudly, the same tune, repeatedly. The sky slowly lit and wiped the stars and moon. The dogs stopped barking. The wolves were long asleep, probably hungry.

“Ruza!” Svetomir lifted his head and called out to his wife. Silence but roosters. He got up, buttoned up his shirt, cleaned his pants back and front with his hands as much as he could, and smoothed his oily dark hair. Then he ran toward his aunt’s house, just around the corner.

He carefully opened the front yard iron gate that still screeched, and then walked to the front door, as quiet as a cat stalking a mouse. He turned a key carefully, like a thief, and slid his body through the crack in the door. As he floated into his room, like a ghost, his aunt appeared, with green plastic curlers in her hair, held by some kind of a net. She put her hands on her face and almost screamed.

“What happened to you, Tomé?!”

He turned around, his face suddenly flushed with blood. He pulled together the button-less parts of his shirt, and stood there, as if buried in the ground, speechless and motionless once again, like a guilty child.

“Teta, forgive me, a fool, but I don’t know, I can’t remember,” he said, then looked down at the Turkish carpet, at his scuffed shoes. “Joca?”

“He’s sleeping. I know what happened. You were possessed, weren’t you? By Satan, weren’t you?”

He lifted his gaze, his eyes wide.

“Teta, you know I don’t believe in such things,” he said, gazing at her hair. She looked like an alien creature, with wires and green bulbs interwoven in a circular shape around her head.

“But they believe in you,” she said. “Tomé, Tomé! I told you not to stay out late. Nothing good happens here after midnight. Go to bed, we’ll all go to church when you wake up,” she said and went back into her bedroom.

“Teta!” he yelled out. She poked her hairdo-to-be through the door. “What should I tell Joca?”

She snorted. “Where did It get you?” What were you doing? What shape did it take?”

He scratched his head, still oily from the hair pomade. “Just taking a walk, you know, through the village. Then, I don’t remember. I don’t remember anything, I swear.”

“Uh huh,” she said. “Then tell him the truth. You went for a walk and got lost. Satan took your mind. You’re not the first or the last person that happened to in this village. You’re lucky it actually lasted only one night. Next time, stay away from howling nights or dark-haired, dark-eyed women.” She pushed her head back through the door, into her bedroom. A green curler hit the door, came loose and fell to the ground, rolling toward Svetomir. He picked it up, and removed a long, shiny dark hair from it.


Marija Stajic is a Serbo-Croatian-American writer, journalist, linguist, and the author of three books of poetry. She has a BA in linguistics and literature from the University of Nis (Serbia), and an MA in international journalism from American University. She studied short story writing at the George Washington University and the Writer’s Center, in Bethesda, Maryland and playwriting at HB Studios in New York City. Her work has been published in The New Yorker, Gargoyle, VLP Magazine, Lunch Ticket, Epiphany Magazine, Writing Disorder, Orion Headless, Gloom Cupboard, Imitation Fruit, Inertia, Thick Jam, Circa, Yuan Yang, Burning Word, and Defying Gravity, a collection of short stories.