Mario Hezonja relaxed in his modest Manhattan apartment. The lights were dim and soft instrumental hip-hop was playing through his sound system: exactly what he needed to unwind after partying with his teammates well into the early morning. Reclined on his modern, minimalist sofa, he let the sounds of the music wash over him, soothing him to a point where he would be able to take the short trip to his bedroom and fall right to sleep.
At some point, the relaxing dimness of his surroundings lulled him into a kind of semi-sleep. The edges of his dreams intermingled with the fragments of reality being filtered through his senses. A pleasantly soft, but slightly heavy weight was pressing on top of him, creating a feeling of comfort and safety. It pulsated slowly like the tides of a vast ocean. Mario had felt this sensation twice before, and both times it had resulted in the composition of poetry that he hadn’t known himself to be capable of.
When he opened his eyes again, thinking that he might go to bed, he noticed a sort of reddish haze floating above him. It undulated in the still air of his apartment, and the speed of its undulations matched the sensation that was enveloping his body. He cleared his eyes, thinking that he was still seeing visions of his dreams in his half-asleep state. But when he was done rubbing his eyes, the mist near his ceiling was still there.
“Hello, Mario,” spoke a light, feminine voice that Mario noted with confusion was speaking in Croatian.
“Hello,” Mario replied, also in Croatian, feeling foolish that he was replying out loud to a voice that was obviously the product of his sleep-deprived mind. “Who are you?”
“We have met before,” the voice answered. “It was I who inspired you to write those poetic works after you played so well in your recent games.”
Mario furrowed his eyebrows. He had definitely felt at the time that his hand had been guided to write those poems, but to have confirmation of that fact was somewhat unsettling. He was not normally a superstitious person, so this kind of pseudo-religious experience was something that his rational mind wanted very much to reject. Again, he asked, “But who are you really?”
“I am Croatia,” the mysterious voice replied, and although the cloudlike floating mist above him was still there, the voice seemed to come from everywhere at once. “I am her people, I am her land, I am her culture.”
Upon hearing this, Mario thought back to his good games from the past week. During each of them, he had felt a presence with him as he scored points and passed to teammates, but he had dismissed is as just the natural sportsman’s high of playing well in front of a large crowd. He didn’t know what to say. “Thank you,” he finally whispered.
“You don’t need to thank me,” the essence of Croatia said. “The ability to play well was within you the entire time. I had no hand in unlocking that ability. I only wished to be present alongside you when that ability was finally realized.”
“Within me…” Mario murmured. There was something comforting in the fact that his strong play was his and his alone, but he also felt frustrated at his own inability to have played better earlier in his career.
“Do not worry about that, Mario,” the ethereal voice answered with a light laugh, somehow reading Mario’s thoughts directly. “The circumstances of your failure were outside your control. What matters is that, when those circumstances finally tilted in your favor, you were ready to seize the opportunity.”
Mario was feeling an overwhelming, and confusing, mixture of emotions. He couldn’t come up with a response as he felt tears form in his eyes.
The feminine voice continued speaking. “You have made your homeland proud, Mario. The Croat people watch your success with great joy. And now…I will rejoin you, for your soul and the soul of Croatia are destined to be as one.” Suddenly, the red-tinted haze coalesced into a ball and sped towards Mario’s chest. He instinctively braced himself against the couch as the ball of pure energy entered him.
Warmth spread through his limbs, and, despite the strangeness of what had just transpired, he felt a pervasive sense of calmness overtake him. It was there that he fell asleep, and his dreams were not of the anxieties of his day-to-day life, but of the grand landscapes and the loving people of his home. Croatia.