The man who wasn't afraid
Author's note: The source for this short story is a woman that was born and raised in a small village in Dubrovačko primorje. After asking about some of the folklore customs, she reported that this story was told to her and her siblings, around the fireplace, when they were children, some sixty years ago. After further investigation, I discovered that similar version already existed and that is part of the American folklore. The American version was transferred into written text by the American folklorist Alvin Schwartz in his book Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark. It is interesting to discover that these tales traveled over long distances with our ancestors who migrated in search for a better future, but also returned, missing their homeland.
The man who wasn't afraid
Like many nights before, after long working days, the family gathered around the warm and cosy fireplace to spend a couple of evening hours together before going to bed. This was the time before electricity, so a good story or two kept the children entertained. A random visitor, a neighbour or a friend would sometimes honour the household with their presence, adding their share of interesting tales and anecdotes to intensify the atmosphere. More than once, the stories morphed into those of a more otherworldly nature, so the adults, carried away by their imagination, often reported about ghosts and wraiths, witches and fairies and other magical creatures that lurked behind some neglected corners of the village or on the local churchyard or in any other place whatsoever. The children listened with curiosity and excitement, all the while peeking over their shoulders to check whether something would move in the dark of the room.
On this particular evening, it was Niko, their cousin and neighbour from several houses away that paid them a visit. Somewhere, in the middle of the conversation, after several spooky tales, someone stated in a low-pitched voice:
"Who in their right mind would dare to go in the dead of night to the cemetery to light a candle..."
That was just a rhetorical question, so it was surprising to hear Niko's firm voice stating with arrogance:
"These are all old wives' tales! There are no such things as ghosts or monsters. It's nothing but superstition! I will go! I'll show you there's nothing to be afraid of!"
The old grandma said wisely:
"Don't be foolish Niko, my dear boy, that wouldn't be smart!"
"No, I will do it! I'll go straightaway to our cemetery and I will light a candle on our grave!"
After what seemed like an eternity of family's warnings and efforts to talk him out of it, stubborn Niko, already annoyed, took his knife out of its holder and added:
"To prove I did it, I will stab my knife into the grave and tomorrow you will find it there in the ground." Just as he said it, he quickly stepped out of the house and headed towards the cemetery.
The night was dark. Only a weak light coming from the crescent moon illuminated the pathway. Somehow, the time passed slowly, even though Niko hurried to reach his destination. The hooting of the owl somewhere in the trees warned him along the way to return to the safety of his home. As the shadows of the dark danced around on the bushes and fields, Niko's heart pounded faster and faster. In one moment, he thought he heard a laughter that sounded somewhat demonic, but he reckoned it was his mind playing tricks on him. All of the sudden, his task became a burden to him. His thoughts grew heavier and his legs started to fail him, but his pride got the better of him. He couldn't just give up and go home, so he advanced, thinking to himself he will just get over with his intention as quickly as possible.
Finally, the sight of the small church appeared before him. The pale crosses decorated the yard. At first, they seemed like bones standing out from the blackness of the night. Niko summoned up all the courage that he still possessed and walked over to the family's grave. His hands trembled as he tried to find matches in his pockets to light the candle. Then he kneeled down onto the earthly grave while murmuring to himself 'Please, forgive me, Lord', took his knife out and struck it forcefully into the soil below him. When he tried to get to his feet, some supernatural force grabbed his coat and wouldn't let go. He instantly felt a great pain in his chest as the image of a decaying, skeletal hand protruding from the ground and holding him down, went through his mind. He lost his breath, all the while trying to get away from the deadly grip. In the next moment, Niko fell down unconscious, like a rag doll.
Tomorrow morning, Niko's relatives came to the churchyard to see what had happened the night before, so they found his ice stiff body lying there. When they turned him around, they saw he had pierced his knife through the rim of the coat and pinned himself to the ground. The man who wasn't afraid was literally scared to death.