Ema Božičević was born in Ogulin on 18th February 1879 and she died in Zagreb on 1st December 1942.
Her maiden name was Krajnović, in 1903 she married a mathematics professor named Juraj Božičević, who also came from the surroundings of Ogulin. They lived in Dubrovnik, Split and Zagreb.
The Collected Works of Ema Božičević was published by the Chair of the Chakavian Assembly of Modrus in 2018.
It includes the novel Alemka and two collections of stories for young people: Čarobni svijet (Magical World) and U carstvu ispunjenih želja (In the Empire of Fulfilled Wishes).
One of the stories is Vještica (The Witch) which we have translated here for the first time into English.
Ema Božičević – The Witch
Deep in the forest, there was a little, old house. It was all black from age and overgrown with moss and fungus. Nettles and thorns had grown around the house all the way to the roof. Yet from the chimney black and broken a thick, sombre smoke always drifted. At the door, there sat a black cat with green eyes and it caught the snakes that were slithering around the house. Around it at night wolves howled and owls hooted.
This house belonged to a witch.
This witch was an old, ugly and evil crone. During the day, she brewed spells and mixed a fat that was called “not for wood nor for stone.” This meant whoever anointed themselves with this fat would be able to fly and neither wood nor stone would bother them. However, this fat was only for witches. They would gather in that house, anoint themselves with that fat, climb onto brooms and through the chimney ride off to the top of the hill where they would have their meetings.
In the surrounding area, the people knew about the old witch and her house in the forest. And anyone who had to pass through the forest preferred to go the long round, just so as not to go near the witch’s house. Because it brought bad luck to anyone who came across it. And yet there were people who, during the night, had to pass by that way, and they would see the witches in the black smoke as they rode on brooms one after another. They would see them spread like a flock of large black birds on the top of the hill from where they would scatter misfortune over the people. Because on that hill they conferred and decided whom they would make unhappy, whom they would send illness to and whose cattle they would smother. And when they had dished out enough evil to the people, a dance would ensue. There was dancing and shouting, it was a nightmare to hear. And if anyone alive heard that racket then they would shudder from fear.
One evening a group of young men met in a nearby village and they began to tell all kinds of stories, and eventually one of them started a conversation about the old witch.
“I’ve heard”, he said, “that around the new moon there is some big meeting to which all the witches of the world must go to. And then, so they say, there are masses of them and only on that day do they accept new witches into their clan.”
“Oh, if I could just see that!” the youngest man shouted.
This chap, called Zlorad, was brave but also a big joker. We would make jokes, wherever he could. He was always happy when he made somebody angry.
“So”, he said, “I’ll try and get in amongst the witches.”
“Just try”, his friends began to laugh and joke, “you too will go and join the witches.”
And even though they mocked and joked, he nevertheless decided to go amongst the witches. And whatever he set his mind on, he had to do, even if it cost him his life.
Some time passed from then until the night came and with it came the new moon. Zlorad spoke no more about the witches, and his friends too forgot that conversation.
When night fell, Zlorad put on his mother’s old, torn dress, wrapped his head in hemp and a clean, black scarf. He smeared his face with coal and mud, put on big, worn-out shoes, picked up a stick and set off into the forest.
As he got close to the witch’s house, he began to walk hesitantly and cough. He approached the door and was just about to knock when the black cat with the bright, green eyes hissed at him and wanted to jump at his face.
Zlorad waved his stick at hit the cat, but the stick flew through the air and did not touch it.
Then the old witch appeared at the door and shouted: “Who is it?”
Zlorad changed his voice and hissed like an old woman: “I am an old mistress, old woman. I have come to you to join your clan.”
“Oh, come in dear friend!” said the witch.
“If you are right for us, we will accept you, if not, then you must die so that you do not tell the world about what you have seen.”
Zlorad climbed the rickety, old stairs into the house.
A fire was burning in the centre of the house, but this fire was not like others, it was green. Around the fire, there were only pots. Bats were hanging on the wall and in the rafters, and in the corners were the nests of owls and crows.
Many witches had already gathered in the house and they were all ugly and looked more like black birds than people.
Zlorad’s heart began to beat heavily from fear. Oh, how glad he would be if he could escape! However, so many eyes were staring at him that he felt like he was being stabbed with knives.
And then the witch told him to sit down. He sat uncomfortably on a little bench and began coughing like an old woman. Everything was calm and there was apprehension in the air. The witch asks Zlorad: “Have you ever in your life, old woman or friend, done anything good?”
“No, never”, replied Zlorad coughing.
“That’s good,” said the witch. “And have you ever done anything bad to anyone?”
“Yes, I have!” replied Zlorad, “Wherever I could, wherever I was, in the village, there were disputes, fighting and wickedness.”
“Oh, that’s very good!” the old witch exclaimed. “We need people like you. You will be our pride and joy. That’s right! I won’t ask you anything more, I already see that there is a place for you amongst us.”
Now all the witches began to stretch out their hands to him, and these hands were ugly, thin with long nails, and all the blood drained out of him from that handshaking. Then the old witch took out a large pot full of that “not for wood nor for stone” fat from one corner and placed it in front of the witches. They quickly reached out for that fat and began rubbing it on themselves.
Then the witch told Zlorad: “Here, granny, take this fat and smear yourself with it because without it you won’t be able to fly off with us.”
And Zlorad began to smear himself with it like all the other witches.
Now the witch gives each one a small pot and a broom, on which they will ride. And she gives Zlorad a broom.
Then all the witches gather in a circle and begin to mutter something and finally begin to rise one after another and go through the chimney.
The old witch eventually took flight, grabbed Zlorad by the hand and said: “C’mon granny, let me take you for your first ride until you get used to it.”
And Zlorad flew off with the witch, and behind them were the owls and crows.
Oh, and what a scary flight it was! Zlorad thought he might die from fright. He clenched his eyes shut so as not to see the horror.
Who knows how long they flew like that when all of a sudden they stopped. Zlorad opened his eyes and was astonished: what a force of black witches had gathered!
“Now we are on the hill”, uttered the old witch, “where we have always met. Look carefully at what we are going to do because from today you too will be a witch.”
Zlorad nodded and sat on the grass, just as all the others did.
They sat around in a circle and in the middle, they lit a fire. The old witch sat next to the fire and arranged the pots around it. The owls and crows sat around her. The old witch began to speak: “Here are the pots! Sickness is inside! Who needs it?”
“Me!” shouted one of them and stepped forward. “I want the illness to go to one village. The people are good and hardworking, and that angers me, so let it make them disappear.”
“That’s good”, answered the old witch, “here it is!”
Then she takes another pot and says: “In this pot is strife. Who needs it?”
“Me!” answered one of them and stepped forward. “In my village, there are five houses and the relatives have never argued. That makes me mad! I want them to be poisoned for days with this argument.”
“That’s good”, said the old witch, “here it is!”
Then she takes a third pot and utters: “In this post is a plague for cattle.” Who needs it?”
“I do!”, shouted one of them and stepped forward. “In my village, there is one owner of beautiful cows, oxen and many other animals, and everything is going well for him. That makes me angry and I want them all to die.”
“That’s good”, says the old witch, “here it is!”
Pot after pot was given out by the old witch until she had handed out all of them, and in each one there was either evil or misfortune.
Then she takes the last pot and says: “This pot is the most valuable. In it is disaster. Who needs it?”
“Me!”, Zlorad, who from wonder and fear had just come to his senses, finally shouted out and he stepped forward. “Give it to me!” The whole of my village is good, hardworking and pious. That drives me mad, so let the whole village go to ruin.”
“That’s right!” the witch shouts with delight seeing that there is so much evil in the group. “Here you go, sprinkle it over the village and it will disappear!”
Then they all jumped to their feet, threw wood on the fire and gathered in a circle. The owls and crows began to hoot and croak, and a circle dance began. Oh! How they leapt and sang!
Now Zlorad joined in and he began to shout: “C’mon! Now, friends, I will lead the dance!”
And he spun the dance around and they began to leap so that the whole hill shook.
Then Zlorad widened the circle all the way to the next hill, then it hits, jumps over hills and valleys, over bushes and thickets. The dance was terrible and all the witches collapsed from exhaustion. Nevertheless, they rejoiced because they had such a crazy friend.
Suddenly a rooster was heard as it cock-a-doodle-doed from one village. The witches quickly grabbed their brooms and flew off in all directions. Zlorad flew off last with the old witch, and behind them were the owls and crows.
When they came to the witch’s house, she said: “Now go back home! Do the job that I have given you in eight days and then we will meet again.”
Zlorad thanked her and hissed like an old woman “Goodbye!” and left. In the village the next day, they asked Zlorad where he had been the night before, if he had gone to the meeting.
However, he kept quiet and said nothing.
When the eighth day came and all the young people gathered for a meeting, Zlorad came and said: “The witches will gather in the forest at midnight tonight. Who wants to come with me to watch this wonder?”
But they all kept quiet, everyone was frightened.
Eventually, one person said: “I’ll go!”
When the others heard this, they all decided to go.
They waited in the village until midnight, and then they headed off to the forest. They walked quietly, silently, so that they wouldn’t be heard.
When they had dragged themselves to the witch’s house, through a small dirty window they saw a lot of black hay.
Then Zlorad whispered: “They have already gathered, now it’s time for them to die.”
Then he opened the pot that he had carried with him in which the plague was and poured out what was inside it around the house: “Die, dark witches, die from what you intended for others!”
At that moment the earth shook and opened up, and the house, from which the green flame belched, fell into the earth. And this is how the witch disappeared from here.
Copyright to this translation © Martin Mayhew