Story by M. B. Vujačić / Illustration by Roger Betka
Dear Mrs. Sullivan,
My name is Stefan Petrovich. We’ve never met, but you probably know I was Myra’s assistant during her trip to Eastern Serbia. Circumstances prevent me from traveling to the United States to meet you in person, which is why I’m addressing you with this letter. I hope to shed some light on what happened to your daughter and, in doing so, provide both of us with some closure. Much of what you’re about to read will seem incredible, insulting, or even outright insane. I ask only that you keep an open mind and that you do not judge me.
I was introduced to Myra via the internet, by a cousin of mine who lives in New York and is a friend of your daughter. Myra told me she was planning a trip to Serbia, and that she needed someone to drive her and serve as her translator. She was researching her next book – a historical drama centered around lapot – and she wanted to get a feel for the local culture. I was unemployed at the time, and she offered a hefty sum, so I agreed to help her.
Before I begin, let me explain what a lapot is, and why Myra found it so intriguing. Lapot was the ancient Balkanian practice of senicide, practiced mostly in Romania and Eastern Serbia. When a person grew too old and frail to work, and the food too sparse to be shared with those who couldn’t earn it themselves, their relatives would decide to “send them to a better place.” On the chosen day, the elderly person would be brought before the whole village and a loaf of corn bread would be placed on their head. The villagers would then speak the ritual words – It is not us who kill you, it is this bread – and then they’d brain the elderly person with an axe or a club.
Some historians argue lapot never really existed, that it was just a myth designed to teach children to respect the wisdom of their grandparents. Myra didn’t believe this, and neither did I. Stories of lapot are too widespread to have been created by a few confused anthropologists. Furthermore, senicide out of necessity isn’t unique to Slavic peoples. Elderly Nordics threw themselves, or were thrown, from a cliff. The Japanese carried old women into the mountains and left them there. The Inuits and the Eskimos left the sick and the frail and sometimes even the newborns at the mercy of snowstorms and wild animals. The Indians and the nomadic Gypsies allegedly do it to this day, poisoning their old people with coconut water or abandoning them by the road. Indeed, almost every culture in the world has, at some point, cut short the lives of their elderly because they’d become a financial burden to the family.
When I asked why she chose Serbia and not, for instance, Japan or India, Myra said she thought eighteenth century Serbia was a great setting for a drama. “A little exotic, you know, mysterious, but also kind of familiar in that Eastern European way,” is how she put it. Later, she admitted the morbid flashiness of lapot fascinated her. “When other peoples decided to off grandma,” she told me, “they did it where nobody could see. Lapot, on the other hand, was planned weeks in advance and everyone was invited. They had people coming over from nearby villages, like it was some sort of spectacle.”
Myra arrived in Belgrade on the twenty-fifth of October. Our destination was a place called Tevlia. Located in the wilderness of the Homolje mountains, it was a village so tiny and remote its denizens hadn’t heard of Hitler until years after his death. While lapot mostly disappeared during the nineteenth century, with a few isolated communities still practicing it in the wake of World War I, the Tevlians allegedly kept doing it well into the sixties, making it the only place in the world where she could still find men who had not only witnessed a lapot, but also taken part in it themselves.
We left Belgrade around eight in the morning and arrived at Tevlia at half past eleven at night. If not for the streetlights, the TV antennae, and the occasional car, the village would’ve looked like it belonged in the eighteenth century. Most buildings consisted of rough gray brick painted over with white chalk. The streets were either naked earth or naked earth paved with cobbles that looked like they’d been laid a hundred years ago. Everything smelled of fowl and cattle and damp grass. What few people we saw wore faded jeans and drab woolen sweaters.
We stayed at a hunting lodge at the outskirts of the village. Myra took one look at her room, and said: “Oh good, I don’t see any rats.” It made me chuckle. The wallpaper was so old it had turned yellow and peeled off in places, the floorboards creaking so much I worried they might cave in if I stepped on them too hard. The naked light bulb on the ceiling glowed with an eye-watering brightness that somehow still left half the room in shadow. Everything had a certain musty smell, like wet wood.
We had dinner, wished each other good night, and went to our respective rooms. I quickly fell asleep despite the lumpy mattress. I woke up two hours later, my skin clammy with perspiration, shaken by a nightmare in which my grandmother was murdered in a manner best left unrecorded. I sat in the bed, trying to push the hellish images from my mind, when I heard muffled voices. A dozen of them, at least. I went to the window and looked at the street below.
A crowd of maybe forty people walked in a loose procession, their eyes blank, their arms hanging at their sides. The four men up front carried an open litter. They were tall and armed with axes and clubs, and their heads were wrapped in cloth, covering their features. The man in the litter wore all white. His feet were bare and his hands rested on his knees, and he looked thin and fragile. He sat ramrod-straight, like someone who had nothing left to lose except his composure. As the procession passed the streetlight in front of the lodge, I saw his gray hair and lined face. He looked old enough to be my grandfather. His expression was stone, but his eyes were terrified. He was on the verge of crying.
I didn’t bother dressing or waking Myra. I put my shoes on and rushed out of the room. I ran into the street… And stopped. For a long time I just stood there, looking left and right like I’d become lost. There was no old man, no litter, no procession. The night was deathly silent, the single streetlight struggling to keep the shadows at bay. Even the crickets had gone quiet.
Sleep didn’t come for a long time after that. The walls in my room felt colder somehow, and the mustiness in the air had grown heavy. I caught a certain smell, too. At first I thought it was just what old houses smelled like, but after a while it got so strong I began wondering if something had died under the floorboards.
Then I heard breathing. It started out quiet and slow, but soon became throatier, asthmatic. I didn’t know if it came from the hallway or the room next to mine, but it made me hug my knees to my chest and clamp my hands over my mouth. The door rattled as if struck by a gust of wind. The breathing became louder. It was inside the room.
I grabbed my smartphone, turned on the flashlight, and shone it at the door. My scream died in my throat.
A man stood by my bed. His face was gaunt, his skin crumpled like old paper. His clothes hung from his body like rags from a scarecrow. They were completely white, except where they were spattered with red. An awful head wound, fatal for sure, had disfigured the left side of his face. His one remaining eye was full of blood. He spoke a single word – Flee – then repeated it three, four, five times. He sounded sad, so very sad. He was repeating it for the sixth time when he abruptly fell through the floor as if a trapdoor had opened beneath him.
I sat in my bed for the rest of that night, clutching my smartphone and waiting for the sun to come up. I blamed my hallucinations on everything from anxiety to exhaustion to bad food to all those things combined. More than anything, I wanted to believe I was sane. And I was, I know that now. But at the time, I was sick with fear, which is why I didn’t mention it to Myra. To this day, I can’t stop wondering if things might’ve turned out different if I had.
We spent the next morning and the better part of the day in Tevlia. Myra took hundreds of photos of the village and its surroundings. Not that there was much to see. The place was a backwater, the nearby landscape comprised of mountains and hills covered in muddy earth and half-dead grass. And rocks. Lots and lots of rocks.
The locals didn’t like talking about lapot. At best, they gave us vague anecdotes about the lapots of neighbors or distant relatives. At worst, they crossed themselves and walked away, calling us things too rude to translate here. Some younger people were less reserved, especially after Myra had me tell them their names would appear in the acknowledgments when her book came out.
Lapot in Tevlia differed from other lapots. For unknown reasons, it always occurred between the twenty-fifth of October and the first of November. On the dawn of the designated day, a group of men known as the Repachs would come into the village with a litter balanced on their shoulders. The elderly person would sit in the litter, and then the Repachs would carry them up into the mountains, to a place called Crvenbrdo, which meant red hill in Serbian. Afterward, they’d put the body back into the litter and take it to be buried at the Bavan, which was either a cave or a tomb high in the mountains, nobody knew for sure.
Myra saw huge storytelling potential in all this. She wanted to visit both Crvenbrdo and the Bavan. It took us a while, but we found a man willing to not only serve as our guide, but also to tell us about his grandmother’s lapot, which he claimed to had witnessed as a boy. He was sixty-something, with a deeply lined face and a week-old stubble, and his name was Momir. His price? Fifty euros.
Half an hour after we set out, Myra looked at me and said: “This is the longest short drive of my life.” I couldn’t help but agree. The “road” to Crvenbrdo was a dirt path barely wide enough for a single car. Jagged rocks lay everywhere, most of them looking capable of ripping a tire. I had to stay in second gear, getting out to clear the road whenever a rock seemed too large to drive over.
The path ended with still over a kilometer to go. We left the car and walked the rest of the way. By then the shadows had deepened and the sky had taken on an orange hue, making the terrain even harder to navigate. Everywhere I looked, I saw rocks, bigger rocks, and mud. Weeds, low grass, and patches of moss covered the earth. What few trees I saw were old and twisted.
It turned out Crvenbrdo was neither red, nor a hill. It was a stony clearing lying in the shadow of a large crag. It was completely barren, with gray lifeless soil and a tall boulder standing like an obelisk at its center. Etched symbols, made shallow and indistinct by the passage of time, covered the surface of the boulder. They didn’t look like Cyrillic letters or, for that matter, any letters I could identify. When we asked Momir about them, he said nobody knew what the etchings meant or who’d put them there.
We spent half an hour on that clearing, listening as Momir told us how his grandmother was taken to Crvenbrdo and beaten to death by her eldest son, his uncle. She apparently refused to subject herself to lapot, and had to be bound, gagged, and forced into the litter by the Repachs. I thought this strange. People chosen to die in a lapot normally accepted their fate and went to it willingly, seeing it as a way to help their families and to send their own souls into the afterlife.
Momir also showed us the Bavan. Or, rather, he pointed at it. It stood on top of the crag overlooking Crvenbrdo. At first, I couldn’t see anything. Then I noticed a part of a stone wall, barely visible behind an outcropping. Momir claimed the only way to get up there was by climbing. I told him that made no sense, that no one could lug a corpse up that incline, but he was adamant. In his words, the only men who’d ever been up there were the Repachs.
As Myra strolled around the boulder, taking photos, we saw a house in the hills below, just a kilometer or two from where we stood. Light shone in one of its windows. I asked Momir about it, but he seemed reluctant to answer. When I pressed him, he told us that was the home of the Repachs. They lived there with a woman named Mokosha, who was either their mother or their master or both.
It was sunset, getting dark, but Myra insisted we go talk to them right away. Momir was mortified. He refused to come with us, telling me the Repachs were killers and that Mokosha was a witch. I must admit he scared me a little. I found myself asking Myra if maybe we should leave it for another day. “Oh give me a break,” she said. “If they exist, these Repachs are just a bunch of old men now. Worst case scenario, they’re going to tell us to get off their lawn.”
The sky had taken on the color of a plum by the time we reached the house. Its fence was old and rotten, its garden overgrown with flax and St. James Wort. The house itself resembled a block of naked stone, gray and crumbling, its roof a mishmash of corrugated planks, cracked in places. It seemed centuries old, and so did the dust and the dirt on its windows. Light came from a single window, soft and flickery. Candles, I thought, wondering if they had an outhouse in the back or if they used chamberpots.
Myra approached the door and knocked. Immediately, I heard movement inside. The door swung open with a creak, revealing darkness within. Four men rushed out. They wore rags, their heads and arms wrapped in strips of cloth. They were the same four men I’d seen the previous night, carrying a terrified old man through the streets of Tevlia, and they stank like something that had crawled out of the grave and then died again.
The foremost of them gave me the hardest shove I’ve ever received. It sent me flying into the garden, leaving a bruise that’s still there to this day, a big yellow splotch on my chest. He then picked me up and threw me over the fence like I weighed nothing. When I could breathe again, I saw Myra kneeling nearby, her clothes caked with mud and crushed flax, holding her head in her hands. She told me later one of them had grabbed a fistful of her hair and dragged her to the fence before flinging her over it.
As I staggered to my feet, I looked at the house and saw the four men disappear into the darkness inside, shutting the door behind them. My head spun and my vision swam with tears, but I’m sure I glimpsed a woman in the window. She watched us, her features blurred by the filthy glass and the weak candlelight. I wiped my eyes to clear them, but she’d turned away already, heading back to whatever it was she’d been doing before we disturbed her.
It took us almost an hour to get back to Crvenbrdo, and it was the worst hour of my life. Perhaps it was the shock, or the pain in my chest, or the creeping fear that they might come after us, but I soon started seeing things. Old men and women dressed in white, their bodies mangled, their withered faces frozen in agony, appeared at the corners of my vision. They grabbed at thin air, straining to reach me. Others tried to speak or shout or scream, but no sound came out. When I looked directly at them, they weren’t there.
Myra didn’t see them. Her face glistened with perspiration, her hair stuck to her forehead. She kept promising to “sic the cops on those fucking inbreds,” too wound up in her fury to notice my distress.
Momir waited for us by the car. He looked relieved to see us. When I told him what had happened and described the four men who had assaulted us, he crossed himself and said: “Repachs.”
It was almost midnight by the time we returned to the lodge. By then, I was so high-strung I saw pallid old people in every shadow and every doorway. Myra told me she intended to go to the Bavan tomorrow, and I just nodded, barely hearing her. What if I have schizophrenia? I thought. Or a brain tumor? Trying to sleep only made it worse. Twice I managed to doze off, only to wake up covered in sweat, plagued by the feeling that I was being watched.
I woke up for the third time around three in the morning. I lay in the dark, listening to the sound of my own respiration, when I realized I wasn’t the only one breathing in that room. It was the same slow, asthmatic wheeze I’d heard the previous night, moments before the old man with the mutilated face appeared before me.
I switched on the lights and went out into the hallway. Barefoot, clad only in shirt and underwear, I kept knocking on Myra’s door until she woke up and let me in. I made myself act composed as I sat on her bed and told her I thought one of my ribs might’ve cracked when the Repach pushed me. When she told me I would’ve been in a lot more pain if that was the case, I changed my story to a sudden death in the family, then when she saw through that too, I changed it again to something equally inane, like a teenager throwing out feeble excuses in hopes that one might stick.
I was launching into another weak lie, when Myra said: “Stef, shut up. Stop worrying. All we’re going to do is climb a bit and take some photos. It’ll be fine.” She went on to tell me she understood my worry, that she too had been terrified after the Repachs manhandled us. But they were just some hillbillies who wanted us off their property. If they wanted to hurt us – really hurt us – they would’ve done it when they had the chance.
I should’ve told her the truth then. That I’d started hallucinating and that a part of me – a very deep, instinctive part – believed they weren’t hallucinations at all. That in one of these hallucinations I’d seen the Repachs and that they looked same as they did in person, even though I’d never heard of them before today. That going back to Crvenbrdo might be the worst thing we could possibly do. I should’ve told her all that, but I couldn’t. I was too scared of what would happen to me if I did. And so, like a coward, I looked at my feet and said: “Yeah, you’re right.”
Myra followed me to the door, wished me good night, and told me not to worry. I never saw her again.
Back in my room, the walls felt cold as ice and the stench of decay once again crept in through the floorboards. I couldn’t bring myself to turn off the light, so I sat on the bed and prayed for the dawn, too afraid to close my eyes for fear that something might appear in front of me while I wasn’t looking. I must’ve sat like that for a full hour before I heard breathing again and realized I couldn’t take it any more.
I packed my stuff, got in my car, and drove until Myra, Tevlia, the Repachs, and the Homolje mountains weren’t even a speck in the rear-view mirror. By the time the sun came up, I was a third of the way to Belgrade and so tired my head drooped on my neck. I pulled over on the side of the road and slept peacefully for the first time since starting on this trip. Myra called me a dozen times that day, but I didn’t pick up. I was too ashamed. I texted her later, apologizing profusely and assuring her I’d return the money she gave me. She never replied.
The day after I abandoned her, Myra met Nenad and Marko, two English-speaking men from Tevlia who agreed to drive her to Crvenbrdo. They remained in their car, a mile or so from Crvenbrdo and the Bavan, while she walked the rest of the way. She told them she’d be back in three hours, at most. That was around noon. When darkness fell and she still hadn’t returned, they decided to inform the authorities.
They found her the next day, when a policeman climbed up to the Bavan and looked inside “an unidentified old ruin” there. Her body lay among the remains of at least sixty other people. All of them had perished from severe head wounds, most likely inflicted with an axe or a hammer. The bones of another forty people murdered in the same way were discovered inside or buried around the Repachs house.
Or rather, what was left of it. Sometime during the night of Myra’s disappearance, the entire building had burned to the ground, its occupants gone. There was a manhunt but, as you’re well aware, the Repachs and the woman I’d seen at their window are still at large.
Autopsies would confirm that many of the uncovered skeletons were centuries old. These were the remains of elderly people killed in the lapots, the ones the Repachs had supposedly buried. At least thirty of the bodies belonged to various hunters, hitchhikers, and fishermen who’d gone missing in the Homolje mountains during the past fifty years. This made the Repachs and their mother-mistress Mokosha the most prolific serial killers in Serbia’s history.
Unfortunately, the details I’ve uncovered during my own research into the history of Tevlia and the circumstances surrounding Myra’s death suggest the truth is even more sinister than that. Most of what I’m about to tell you comes from classified police reports, a testimony of a detective who worked the case, and my own conversations with the families of Nenad and Marko, the two men who drove your daughter to Crvenbrdo. I originally intended to speak to them in person, but they’d both perished less than a month after Myra, felled within a week of each other by freak aneurysms.
Apparently, Nenad and Marko didn’t simply run for help when they realized Myra wasn’t coming back. No, they got out of the car and went looking for her. They’d almost reached Crvenbrdo when they heard a woman scream and saw the obelisk-like boulder glowing with a cold green light. As they hurried to her aid, they saw five figures standing before the boulder. One of them was a tall, lanky woman. She sang in a language they’d never heard before, her hair writhing and flailing seemingly on its own. Darkness shrouded her features, yet both Nenad and Marko swore they could sense her gaze. They said it felt like death.
Then the other figures turned to look at them. Immediately, three of them charged down from Crvenbrdo. Marko and Nenad saw their wrapped faces and the axes in their hands, and ran. Marko later said the Repachs chased them all the way to their car, running in utter silence, surefooted despite the rocky terrain and the lack of light.
There were more details that never made it to the public. The “unidentified old ruin” on the Bavan contained more than just corpses. Its walls were covered with the same etchings as the ones on Crvenbrdo’s boulder, there was a stone altar in the center of the room, and looming over it was a statue of a woman whose body was made of animal parts. I saw police photos of it and, while I didn’t think much of it at the time, the memory of its long wolf tongue and the udders hanging from its chest haunts me to this day.
Not that anyone can boast of seeing this statue first-hand anymore. Of the fifteen policemen, detectives, firemen, and forensic technicians who investigated the Bavan and the wreckage of the Repachs house, only four are alive today. The rest perished in freak accidents, sudden illnesses, or seemingly random suicides. Of the four remaining, two suffered nervous breakdowns, one’s in a coma after a botched suicide attempt, and the detective I spoke to is dying of prostate cancer.
The newspapers reported that your daughter died on the Bavan, but further investigation proved this wasn’t the case. A copious amount of blood that matched her blood type was found on Crvenbrdo. They also found a loaf of corn bread buried at the foot of the boulder. The bread, too, was drenched with the same blood. It looks like she died in some weird reenactment of a lapot, but I think what happened there – what had been happening in Tevlia for at least two centuries – was far more abhorrent than even a lapot could be.
You see, the name Mokosha is derived from Mokosh, the goddess of earth and fertility worshiped by ancient Slavs. However, there is another, older version of Mokosh. In this one, she’s the patron deity of ugliness, torment, and black magic, and the women who worship her are known as mokoshas, which is a synonym for a witch. Whether this is the original version of this goddess, or propaganda fabricated by Christian historians, is unknown.
What we do know is that Mokosh was traditionally worshiped sometime between the twenty-fifth of October and the first of November, which just so happens to be the time during which the Tevlians traditionally practiced their lapots. The people who’d gone missing in the Homolje mountains during the last half a century and whose remains were found on the Bavan had all disappeared around the same time of the year. Myra herself died on Crvenbrdo on twenty-sixth of October.
Like Mokosha, the term Repach is an ancient Slavic word. It signifies a mythical human-like creature possessed of a prehensile tail and the strength of ten men. Now, I do not claim the Repachs were supernatural beings. They certainly didn’t have any tails that I could see. What I’m saying is that, though I weighed about ninety kilos at the time, a single Repach had no trouble picking me up and flinging me over a high fence.
That brings me to the last thing I wanted to tell you. As I write this, it’s the twenty-third of October, almost a year after your daughter’s death… And I’m being called back.
The tall woman with long unkempt hair, the one I’ve seen at the window of the Repachs house, she speaks to me in my dreams. She looks like she’s in her forties, but I know she’s much, much older than that. I’ve been trying to ignore her for weeks, but my resolve has faltered lately. Last night, I caught myself packing my bag without being aware of it, and the day before that I drove to the gas station and had them fill up the tank, and never even wondered why until it was already done. Worse, I find myself wanting to go back.
At the beginning of this letter, I told you I wished to give us both some closure. I know now that was a lie. I hoped that putting everything on paper would make me see – truly see – the bigger picture and thus break me free of her spell. But it didn’t. Sometime while typing this, I’ve put on my shoes and placed my car keys on the table next to the keyboard, and I have absolutely no memory of doing this.
Why did Mokosha and the Repachs take so many lives, all in the same location, at the same time each year, in the same ritualistic manner? Why, when the police questioned the people of Tevlia, did they have nothing to say except that Mokosha and the Repachs have pretty much always been there? I don’t know. I can’t know. But I think I’ll find out.
God help me, I think I’ll find out real soon.
Next week we’ll have “One for the Road” at a bar with a unique bartender. Dale Phillips gives us a story about a man seeking unusual services. The savvy bartender sizes up the guy quickly and a different sort of deal is struck. This story actually tugs on the heartstrings, believe it or not. You’ll have to read it to find out why.