Island of the Nightingales
Cover illustration by Hono Lulu. $15 Canada — $13 U.S.A. ISBN 1-55071-022-2
Chapter: Island of the Nightingales
I escaped to the island. I ran away from the confusion, the murkiness, of my life to the simplicity of sun and sea.
Or so I told myself. It was the thing to do then - in the early 1970s - you left home, you escaped, to find or lose yourself. My friends backpacked across Europe; they travelled the overland route to Afghanistan or did drugs on a beach in Goa. They joined cults in Oregon or communes in the Kootenay valley. I claimed my search led me to Lussino, the long thin island parallel to the Dalmatian coast that was once the favourite resort of the Hapsburgs and the biggest island in the Adriatic - until the Romans dug a channel that divided it into two. I suggested that my arrival on those rocky shores sprang from some mysterious but inspired impulse while, actually, Lussino was my mother's hometown. The Lanzas had lived there for four centuries before they were exiled: picked up by a raging wind and blown across the world, to Australia and Canada, to America and Italy.
I was sent to Lussino, sent to stay with my great aunt. My parents thought a dose of village life would fortify me, like the bitter herbal tonic I took in the winter. Besides, it was a family tradition. Whenever a member of the younger generation had a problem, he or she was packed off not to a counsellor, but to another branch of the clan. A first cousin, who took up with an older man, was sent from Brisbane to an aunt in Queens. A second cousin in Long Island, who flunked first year university, was sent to my parents and the University of Calgary.
"You'll be able to get some perspective," my father said.
"See things clearly," said my mother. They were both hoping I would make up my mind. Papa wanted me to decide on a job, a career, a direction to my life. Mamma wanted me to choose between the two men I had been seeing.
"They are both crazy about you," she said, the way she had many times before - with pique and amazement.
Each morning I insisted on walking alone, telling my aunts that it helped me to think. I took the trail through the goat-scarred fields or the winding path through the orchards of fig trees or the paved way that ran over the cliffs bordering the sea. I was self-consciously playing the role of the runaway, alone, brooding, a contemporary version of the Victorian heroine: standing alone at the end of the pier, gazing enigmatically out to sea.
I did try to think. I had finished my Bachelor of Arts that spring and had automatically registered at graduate school. "As if that is going to get you anywhere," said my father. I contemplated law school and a teaching certificate. I imagined myself as a freelance writer in Toronto or a book editor in New York. I also tried to make a rational choice between Tony and Darryl. Was Darryl masterful or bossy? Was Tony loving or simply sappy? My pro and con lists for each man wavered and merged.
Besides, I was easily distracted by a view, a scent, the juxtaposition of red roofs, or a cluster of lemon trees. Like its two names, one Italian (Lussingrande) and one Croatian (Veli Losinj), the place was both unfamiliar and familiar to me. I had visited the island only once - when I was five. The distractions were new, unremembered. I couldn't read the signs; Yugoslavia used the Cyrillic alphabet. I knew no Croatian: the language sounded impenetrable. I could grasp not even one word.
But I was raised amid images of Lussino: postcards on the fridge, a blown-up photo of the piazza by the phone, a map of Dalmatia in my bedroom, and a painting of my mother's childhood home and garden over the fireplace. And I knew what those images represented to my mother: an eden of grapes and oranges, palms and figs; all that had been left behind, all that had been lost when the Lanzas were cast out after World War II by a punitive god or a so-called peace treaty. "You have no idea what it was like,' she would say to me. "You are a lucky, lucky girl. Two suitcases, that's all I could take with me. Two miserable, battered suitcases."
For years, I had no patience with my mother's lamentations or her nostalgia. The old country, I would sneer, or point to a picture and say: a mediocre scene, nothing special. Now that I was on the island, I was more sympathetic. And if I didn't recognize the specifics of the place, I knew the idea of it.
I walked and my thoughts of jobs and men scattered. I walked and walked and lost my self-consciousness. I forgot the role I had given myself to play. I became dazed by the intensity of the midday heat, dazed by the sharp smell of the pine trees, dazed by the too bright sea.
Usually in the main piazza of the village there were a few hippies sprawled on the steps of the church, a mix of Italian and German tourists sitting at the two outdoor cafes that faced each other across the piazza, a sprinkling of locals - the men fixing their fishing nets in the quay, the women on their daily (and often futile) shopping expeditions. But that day, my third day of walking, when I reached the piazza, it swarmed with people, the majority of whom seemed to be young, well-dressed, and relaxed. I had to cross the piazza to reach the street of the Osteria where I had lunch, so I took a deep breath - crowds always frighten me - and began threading my way around the chattering hives. I had just registered that the language being spoken was French when I heard a loud whoop coming from somewhere to my right. Turning, I found a curly-haired young man, dressed in wrinkled linen slacks and a shirt, staring at me. He began to whoop again, bouncing his palm off his thick lips. I turned back quickly, before I could be implicated, but in front of me there was another one, whooping. I tried going left, around him, but a third man blocked the way. I took one step back, then another. A casual withdrawal, I thought, an inconspicuous retreat. But on my next step, my foot came down not on cobblestones but on another foot. Two hands grabbed me around the waist, then began to move down, over my hips. I twirled, my arms flailing. The man let go but did not stand back. He stood close: his hand alternately covering and exposing a stretched mouth, large yellowish teeth, and a dark tongue.
I was surrounded, blocked on each side. They were making a dreadful noise with their mock cries, drawing the attention, I was sure, of the whole piazza. They moved their upper bodies forward and back rhythmically. I was not going to let them see my agitation. I stood still, imprisoned but unflinching at the centre of that tight circle of Europeans acting out their fantasy of an Indian war dance. With me as the captured maiden.
I was not going to scream.
I focussed on my feet, on the film of red dust clinging to the white sandal straps, dimming my pale toes. But at the edge of my vision I saw their sandalled feet, shuffling and stamping.
I would not scream. No. I looked up, past the shoulders of the savages to the terrace of the cafe. I fixed my sight on a woman sitting at one of the tables. It was amazing how clearly, how distinctly, I could see her. The savages were a blur before me. All my focus was on that woman. She was beautiful with waist-length black hair, a golden tan and high cheekbones; she was beautiful despite her aura of discontent. A man, fine-featured with dark hair and mustache, was sitting beside her. His whole body was angled towards her, and one of his hands encircled her wrist, hanging on. I knew that sort of manacling; it was all too familiar: the struggle for possession through containment.
I stared; the woman stared back. Then, shrugging slightly, she cupped her hands around her mouth. She seemed to be calling out to the savages. They were still dancing, still yelling. She stood up and leaned over the railing. I thought I heard a faint trace of her shout insinuating its way through the din. She was gesturing now. She caught the attention of the thick lipped one. He stopped his dance. He waved and smiled at her. The circle was finally falling away. Several of my jailers were war dancing through the crowd, in search, I suspected, of more satisfying prey. The thick-lipped one, who seemed to be the leader, was mounting the steps of the cafe, obeying her signs and joining her. I was free.
"The French are crazy," was my Great-Aunt Giuditta's comment when that evening I told her and Aunt Marta what had happened. My great-aunt sat in her cool, high-ceilinged kitchen, in her big, hard armchair, her old face still handsome, still imperious.
"Well, I wondered. The last time I passed Barba Miro on the quay he announced that they were arriving in two more days. I asked who they were, and he just kept repeating, 'Crazy, all of them.' He didn't say anything else. I asked several times. He just stroked his mustache the way he does. Now I know. My knees are still shaky."
"Of course, Miro finds most everyone unbalanced." The combination of Giuditta's sudden, almost mischievous smile and the gesture with which she refastened a falling lock of her thick, white hair acted as a crack in her age, exposing the younger self underneath. "You should hear him on the 'returned,' you know those from the village who emigrated to America then came back in retirement. He says none of them returned right in the head. He says their malady has two sources: they've been bitten by the money bug, and they've gone strange from overwork."
We laughed together. "Well, I suppose one thing leads to the other. You lose everything. You find yourself in another place, another world. Money seems like the solution to many things. You want, you need, more and more money. So you overwork. You go ... strange. Anyway, it is true that in North America there's a different attitude. Shops, for example, don't usually close whenever the staff get bored."
Aunt Marta, who lived in Venezia and (like me) was on holiday in Lussino, joined the conversation. "Even in Italy, we aren't that bad. Supply and demand. I think it's just the laziness of the people here. They don't know how to work properly. Of course, with Marxism what can you expect? And three quarters of the time they've sold the few things they have to sell a couple of minutes after opening. If Tito really..."
I spoke quickly to avert an argument. "I figured out why they picked on me." (To Aunt Giuditta, in spite of all she had lost, Tito was a hero.)
"Barbarians, communists, addicts..." The lines on Marta' face gave her a permanently affronted expression.
"Marta, think. You constantly complain about the difficulties of your life as a chambermaid: dependent on tips, cleaning up the messes of the dirty rich. You complain about how much bread and meat and medicine cost in Venezia. Yet you are so quick to condemn our government here."
"At the last election, I was frightened. They said that if the communists got in they would burn down all the churches.""They said?" Giuditta shook her head. "What do they know? Really..."
From my dress pocket, I pulled out a headband, black with green embroidery. "I was wearing this and I suppose..."
"What did you expect? Thoughtless one. And with braids yet. You should be more careful. You don't think; you're in this perpetual daze." Marta was clearing off the table, scrubbing the marble with short, sharp motions.
"In Edmonton, headbands are considered too 1960s, but they don't merit a second look. Besides I had a reason for wearing it. It was the first gift given to me by someone I wanted to think about." My aunts thought I had been sent to the island by my parents to recover from a broken heart. Not wanting to explain the actual situation, I gave them portions, snippets of the truth to keep them happy and forestall prying. "Since it encircled my mind, so to speak... I thought... never mind. It didn't work anyway." Aunt Marta and Aunt Giuditta exchanged meaningful glances. "And now, I can only see it as an affectation. They've ruined it." I stood up, walked across the kitchen and dropped the headband into the garbage. I saw a flash of Daryl sending me one of his quizzical how-could-you looks. Give it a rest, I said to him in my head.
"You see why we're so protective." Aunt Marta grabbed my arm as I crossed back to my chair. "Listen to me. There are dangers here too. Just because it's small..."
"Oh, for heaven's sake, Zia." We had argued the previous night. "Not again."
Yesterday afternoon at the beach, I had met two local girls: Clara and Sandra. I was walking along the edge of the water, and they were spread out on towels on the sand. "Teresa," they called, "Teresa Pomoronzola," using the Lanza nickname. I glanced back at Marta, who was half out of her deck chair. She was frowning and gesturing for me to come back. As I hesitated, the two girls jumped up. One was short with dark curls, the other tall, bottle-blond hair and brown skin. Both wore faded, untrendy swimsuits.
"You're the Canadian one," said the shorter one.
"Your mother married the engineer from Bolzano," said the blonde.
"Not Bolzano - Bologna," said the other.
"How on earth? Ah, village hotline."
They introduced themselves. The brunette was Clara, the blonde Sandra. I waved back at Marta and, without a second thought, joined them. I had no trouble understanding them; they spoke to me in Istro-Veneto, the old language of the island that I had heard since birth. Chatting, we walked towards the hut that was the beach bar.
"Let me offer you a coca-cola," said Clara.
"Cigarette?" said Sandra, pulling a slim, sky-blue package labelled Opatija from her bag.
In minutes, we were arrayed on a bench, laughing, drinking coke and smoking. "You must come out with us some evenings," said Clara.
I was feeling slightly nauseated and dizzy from the unfamiliar tobacco after weeks of abstinence. "Umm..." I said.
"Away from the old women," said Sandra. "Before you turn into one of them."
They were part of a group that met on the beach in the evening to barbecue over an open fire. Or to party in one of the ruined houses. Later they visited the discos in Mali Losinj. "Dancing?" I said. "Count me in. Definitely." In Edmonton, neither Daryl nor Tony liked to dance, and I was deprived.
The aunts immediately overreacted. They insisted I could not possibly go alone. The clubs did not open until midnight, and how could I walk home from the bigger town in the middle of the night? "There are no lamps, no illumination on the road between Mali and here. You could meet who knows who in the dark and then what would you do?" Giuditta said. "The island is overrun with foreigners, strangers."
"Germans, Serbs, French," Marta said. "Any one of them could be a rapist or a murderer."
"We don't know them," Aunt Giuditta said. "And at night, when everyone is sleeping, or should be sleeping, at night in the dark... well, who knows?"
"I don't intend to go alone," I said. "I'm going with Sandra, Sandra Baricevich. I told you I met her at the Rovenska beach. She isn't from away. So I don't see the problem." (Not mentioning that Clara had told me that she wasn't allowed to the clubs.)
"Oh, that one," Aunt Giuditta said. "Everyone knows about her. If you began to be seen with her, everyone would jump to the wrong conclusions about you." "I don't give a fig about what people think." Aunt Giuditta's parchment-white skin managed to turn one shade whiter. "I don't suppose that you do, but, Teresa, you are my niece."
"Fine, daughter of my niece. The point is that what you do reflects on me. You are not anonymous here." She was holding herself tall in the armchair. "I do have a position in this town."
I had been angry at both my aunts last night, and now - as Giuditta again reminded me of my responsibilities to the Lanza name and to her, a woman who was respected, looked up to - I was swept up again by a tumultuous wave. I wished I could expose them to the freedom, the casualness, of the undergraduate life I had been leading in Edmonton. If only I could show them my world where drug-taking and premarital sex were taken for granted, then they would see how silly their protectiveness was. "I'm not a little girl," I said. "I'm a woman of the world."
Marta snorted; Giuditta cackled. "A woman of the world, excuse me." One had lived thirty more years than I, the other sixty. From the perspective of those years, they viewed me as naive and ignorant of life. It was not a question of license versus puritanism. My great aunt had achieved her preeminent position as grande dame of the island not through her family (respectable enough) nor through her marriage (again a "good" match) but through her judicious choice of lovers. Her husband was a barba, a sea captain, a job involving long stretches away from home and later a permanent absence due to that sailor's disease: syphilis. Her lovers were bachelors or widowers and always grateful. All through her middle years she grew richer; her lovers died one by one, always leaving an unexpected legacy. She amassed jewellery, antiques, old masters, houses and pieces of land all over the island. In her old age, as she had gathered, so she lost. "Like vultures they came and picked me clean," she would say of the families of her lovers, of her own relatives and of the communist officials. "Times have been difficult."
Proud, she sat in her black dress and white Venetian lace collar, proud, her wrinkled and veined hands sparkling with rings. I wanted to call her hypocrite, but the gulf was too great.
Besides, when the anger ebbed away, I was left with admiration. She did command respect, and everyone, even the newcomers, bobbed their heads or doffed their caps to her. And this despite her refusing to learn Serbo-Croatian. She spoke in Istro-Veneto or Italian through all the years when both were forbidden. She flaunted her Italianness when Italian ethnics were branded as traitors, when they were imprisoned, exiled or taken to the pits and shot. She must have played and used the rules of her society with such subtlety. Whereas I, in the era of free love, seemed to manage all the wrong moves. How many times last winter had a friend taken me aside to say, "You must decide. It has gone on long enough" or "It's got to be one or the other." I was drowning in disapproval.
Aunt Marta laid out the supper: local goat cheese, fresh rolls, a salad of sliced tomatoes. Aunt Giuditta passed me her lavender handkerchief. I wiped away my stray tears. "Go to the beach," she said. "But no Mali, no discos. And be home at a decent hour ...Now, if Marino were here. We wouldn't worry with Marino." She took back the handkerchief and tucked it up one of her sleeves. "He'd take you dancing." Difficult for me to imagine since I thought of him as still four years old, still the round-faced, pouting cherub of my memory and the family photograph album. "You were so cute together, you two."
"I remember. He was afraid of the water. I loved to push him in and listen to him scream."
So, after supper, I joined Sandra, Clara and about twenty others on the Rovenska beach. There was a firepit and fish grilling on a makeshift pyramid of stones and a guy with a guitar, a sickle moon, a breeze, and bottles of country red wine. To the majority, who were locals, Clara introduced me as Teresa Pomoronzola or as Signora Lanza's niece, and they shook my hand, welcome, kissed my cheeks, welcome, welcome, and twice hugged me. My identity for the six young men who weren't Lussignani was Teresa, Kanagin, while they were introduced as from Belgrade or Bosnia or Montenegro. We exchanged nods. Mikki, the guy with the guitar, ran his fingers from back to front through his hair so that it hung in his eyes. He held his guitar out and slightly to the side. He hit three ascending chords.
"Love, love, love," he sang, sounding as if he were a Liver-puddlian. "All you need is love."
"He's a Serb," Sandra said. "He's crazy."
"Crazy can be good. I like him very much. Matto dobra, we say here, dobra means good in Croatian."
They all sang along, striking poses, miming microphones. Even I joined in when Mikki started "I Can't Get No Satisfaction."
"And I try and I try," the boys howled. I can't get no," the girls leaned together.
"You like?" said one of the smiling visitors in English.
"Dobra," I said, "dobrissima." The best - our arms linked, our faces shining in the firelight, singing song after song in ragged harmony.
The next morning, Marta, a couple of her Italian friends, and I hired Barba Miro and his boat to take us out past the deserted Hapsburg villas, past the isolated bays where the French were camping, out into the open sea to Iluvik and then Svet Petar. It was on the latter island, San Pietro as it was once called, that I again saw the woman with the long, dark hair, the one who saved me from the war dance in the piazza. San Pietro was a century behind Lussino; the women still carried jars to the well for water, the rosemary grew wild, and the only noise was the sounds of man, his animals and the ever-present cries of the fist-sized crickets. So far from Edmonton where so much of the time I was distanced from the earth, shut in my car, my highrise apartment, even my down parkas and four-lined boots.
Marta and I walked, visited the square, the decaying church, the ruins of an eleventh century Benedictine monastery and some distant cousins. By two in the afternoon, we were sitting at one of the two long tables on a small, vine-trellised terrace jutting out into the bright sea. The sunlight flickered on the white linen tablecloth, the freshly caught scampi in tomato and onion sauce, and the carafes of cold, dry white wine. They arrived in a sailboat, the dark-haired woman and the two men, anchoring casually on the edge of the terrace. The thick-lipped young man jumped off first. He addressed the proprietress in French-accented Italian. "You remember our order?" The dark woman paused on the deck to tie a black sarong over her string bikini, then let herself be helped onto the terrace by the other moustached young man.
They sat at the other table, quite close to me. The proprietress hovered over them in a way she had not with us. The waiter brought the wine and bread immediately, and they had finished a bottle and ordered another before I finished my scampi. They spoke French too quickly for me to understand much of what they were saying. But I could see that the dark lady was clever. She sat in the middle and divided her gaze, smiles, and words equally. She turned to one, then the other, frequently so that neither had a chance to grow bored or think of anything else.
I never had that kind of control. I managed by keeping my men separated, a wall of lies between them. Of course, both Tony and Daryl knew. How could they not in the small university community? But the lies were part of the rules of the relationship. I was supposed to pretend each man was the only one. A friend, who did not understand the rules, told me once that he had challenged Daryl with "she lies to you all the time. You know that." But, to his chagrin, Daryl's only response was a smile. For each one was convinced that eventually he would win. Over those four years there were times we met, the three of us: for long moments at parties, in a class, walking between buildings on campus. I would grow remote with fear, pulling my hand free from whomever was holding on to me, acting as if I had never met either of them before.
Once we smoked dope together. I was inhaling deeply, glad of an excuse to withdraw. They were sitting on either side of me, exchanging polite dope chatter with the others. They looked casual, unconcerned, but I could sense that, underneath, neither of them was relaxed. From one side I could feel Tony's will pushing. From the other, just as strongly, Daryl was demanding. I stared at my black-stockinged thigh, avoiding those eyes that waited for my response, waited for my weakness. Until slowly the stocking began to unravel. As if someone was holding a lighted match to my leg. The skin cracked open, bubbled up black, exposing the pink, wet inner flesh.
When I looked again at the French trio, the men were absorbed in one of those stubborn male exchanges, talking of power politics and Foucault, the significance of which, like so much of that summer, I was not to understand for years. She was silent, looking down, her black satin hair curtaining her face. Finally she lifted her head and looked across the tables straight at me. Her opaque eyes were exhausted.
In the late afternoon Miro dropped us off at Rovenska, claiming the main piazza would be too crowded by that time of day. I was tired from my late night and too much sun and sea. Slowly, I made my way up the path of slippery stones that led to the village. Marta was speculating on how much money one of our cousins on San Pietro received each month from her son in Seattle. "What did you think of the new bathroom? Those tiles. When they still have to haul water..." Halfway up the hill, she was out of breath, though still talking, and we paused. A tall man stood at the top, blocking out the setting sun and staring down. Then, as I started walking up again, he started down. When we reached each other, we both stood still, looking. The sky wheeled around me. My legs threatened to buckle.
"But what's happening?" My aunt's voice sounded impossibly far away. I saw only his blue eyes, so bright they seemed neon lit. "Do you know this young man?" I couldn't move, but inwardly I was all motion. "Teresa, this is silly. Are you going to introduce me? Teresa?"
"I have been waiting. I thought I had missed you." He spoke Italian precisely, with a slight Slavic accent.
I finally managed to turn to Marta. "This is Marino, Zia, don't you recognize him?"
"Marino! So many years! You've grown."
"Two metres, at least."
He took my bag, and we fell into step together. "I thought you were in Maribor studying for exams."
"I was." Later, on the way to Mali and a dancing club, he added, "But something drew me home." And still later, as we danced in the garden of the club, once the villa of the mistress of the Archduke Franz Joseph. "I waited and waited and I didn't know what I was waiting for. Then on the wharf I saw a girl with two long red braids, and I knew."
Marino spoke to me not in Istrio-Veneto but in the Italian of books and university courses. Both of us had to think before we spoke, and this gave our words a formal tone, a polish.
That night I replayed those words, replayed each expression on his face, in his eyes, replayed the touch of his hand on the curve of my back, the feel of his tall, broad shouldered body against mine.
In the morning I was in considerable pain. Scattered over my arms and legs were eruptions, perfect white circles blown up with fluid.
"Rest. You are exhausted. No sun. No sea. For a few days. Your skin is too delicate for our island." The doctor was over eighty and nearly blind but still full of the authority of Viennese studies and practice.
"But why hasn't it happened before?"
"The irritation has to build to an intolerable point. Then your body reacts." She burst the balloons with a razor, sprinkled the skin with antibiotic powder and wrapped my arms and legs in bandages.
For the next five days, I was mostly confined to Aunt Giuditta's walled garden. I sat on an old armchair in the shade of the fig tree, my feet on an embroidered stool. Each day Marino would lay on my lap a new gift: a plate of sweet cakes, a bouquet of wild flowers, a record of local love songs, a book of poems. We talked of that summer we had played together as children. I remembered his fear of water and my fearlessness. He remembered my tears and a straw boater I wore everywhere. He produced a picture of both of us in a canoe. He was paddling. He had another picture of him kissing me on the cheek. "You smelt of flowers," he said. "And you still do."
One afternoon, Clara came. "Fancy meeting you here," she said to Marino with a smug smile. And after he left, she laughed and put her hand on mine. "So our golden boy is human after all." She explained that Sandra had not come, because she had always had a crush on Marino. "She thinks it's damn unfair. But he always held himself a bit above the rest of us. I wasn't surprised."
"How did you know? We've only gone out once."
Clara shook her curly head. "In the village, we know everything."
I did not tell Marino what she had said. I sensed he would not be pleased that we were the subject of gossip. Besides, we had so much else to say to each other. We talked for hours and hours. We talked of growing up in Canada and Yugoslavia, of our favourite books, of religion and Marxism and the sexual revolution. "In everything we are the same," Marino would say. I would agree, although it was obvious how very different we were. I would agree, because it was an easy way of expressing our intense kinship, our instant attraction.
He spoke of the problems for him of going to university in Slovenia. "I have to learn a different language. And then I am not at home as I would have been in Zagreb." In secondary school, he had begun training to be a sea captain at the Academy in Mali Losinj. When he realized that that path was not for him - I could have told you that, I said - he was not able to get into the university he wanted.
"They hate us," he said. "The Slovenians hate the Croatians. You can't imagine, coming from Canada as you do, how difficult it can be for me."
For the first time, I felt a twinge of irritation. I was sure Marino was over dramatizing the situation. "I can imagine. Canada is not paradise. We have our regional problems. After all, we have Quebec. Many of its citizens want to separate from Canada. We have had our acts of terrorism: bombs, kidnappings."
"In Yugoslavia, we are divided from top to bottom, Slovenians, Croats, Serbs, Moslems, Montenegrans: each one hates the other. After Tito dies," he paused, "it is going to be chaos."
I was sceptical though thrilled by the seriousness of his tone. Conscious that my Aunt periodically checked on us from her window and that other curious faces stared down from the surrounding houses, I focussed on his large, strong hands, his solid wrists, the golden hairs on his brown arms.
I had never known such desire before. This, I thought as I sat in my Aunt's garden, this is beyond compare.
"What are your intentions for that young man?" Aunt Giuditta asked when I announced that, bandages removed, my first expedition would be a walk with Marino to the semi-ruined Austrian promenade.
"I thought you asked the man that." "I don't need to ask Marino anything. I can recognize courtship when I see it." She refastened her hair, her still firm chin thrust farther out than usual.
"Oh Zia, these days ..." I was absentmindedly fiddling with my own hair, weaving purple flowers from the latest bouquet into my braids.
"In my day, of course, it was different. More substantial. More hothouse flowers and diamond earrings. But what can you expect now? I remember one colonel from Vienna; we met at a ball at that villa up ..."
"I hope you don't intend to go out like that." This came from Marta who set before me my morning coffee in a delicate china cup decorated with the black Hapsburg eagle. Her sallow face more pursed than usual, she turned to Giuditta. "She's always sticking flowers in her hair or wearing some odd thing. Then she comes home complaining about how they acted in the piazza. She gives no thought to..."
"And if he was courting me... what would be wrong... we've been..."
"... What people will think..."
Giuditta's exclamation "Marta" and my "Zia" were simultaneous. Giuditta pulled herself up to full height. "Will you stop fussing. Sit down and keep quiet. How many times have I told you to let me handle these things? As I was saying about the colonel, he began with sweet cakes too ..."
"And I asked what would be wrong if he was courting me?"
Marta dropped noisily into a hard, wooden chair in the corner. "His mother came to talk to us." "She was visiting me to see how I was," I said. "She's very worried."
"Why? Oh Zia, you know what it's like with mothers when they have one son. She has to let go sometime."
Giuditta shook her head. "She says he's supposed to be at the university studying for his final exams." "He has been studying."
"But how well is he concentrating? This is important. To the whole village. He's the first boy to go to university in years... You don't know what it was like here after everyone left. A deserted village. Then people came from the mainland, Serbs, Dalmatians. Slowly, so slowly, Veli Losinj came to life again. So it matters. We've had a few lawyers, one or two doctors, certainly, but a scientist! And Marino is Marino. First of all, he is my heir, the little that I have left. And he is the last of the Lanzas, the last of the Stuperichs. The last still here. Everyone has an interest in his success." "And I?"
"You are a tourist."
"But you're always saying I can't act like an outsider." "True, because you aren't. You're not one of the anonymous hordes, camping in the hills and sunning nude in the bays. No. But this is just a vacation for you. You will leave. Eventually perhaps you will return for your old aunt and for more sea and sun. But for Marino it is more serious. No, wait, listen to what I am saying. He cannot go and then return." "What do you mean?" I felt a tremor of anxiety. "It is not allowed. If he leaves, it will be considered a political decision. Like crossing the Berlin Wall. There can be no coming back."
"You're blowing everything out of proportion." (Thinking that everyone in this place had a tendency to overdramatize.) "I am trying to teach you proportion."
We grew more devious. We told Aunt Giuditta we were spending the evening with the group, and we did begin with them on the beach or in a cafe, but when we told them we were going home, our time began. In the wild abandoned garden of a hospital, once a villa. Beneath a flowering magnolia. Skinny dipping in the phosphorescent bay. Each time, beneath a sky of stars.
Marino knew my dark lady, "Journalist. She has been here several summers. Usually she arrives with one; then he leaves on the hydrofoil. On the foil's return, the other one arrives. Amazing timing."
"Sounds familiar," I mumbled in English.
"This is the first time I have seen her with both."
The sea of the island, beneath the superficial brightness, is glass clear, both exposing marine secrets and creating illusions of shallowness. Every second day Marino transported fresh water and food in his uncle's motorboat to where most of the French were camping. I sat in the stern, protected by caftan and sun hat and entranced by the clarity of the depths and my sea-eyed boatsman.
At the bay I usually stayed in the boat. I was still nervous of the French group. Marino, instead, seemed at ease with the tanned throng, exchanging witticisms in French. We were just about to start back, when the thick-lipped young man appeared on the edge of the clearing. He wound his way through the tents, through all the people on the beach. "Will you give me a ride to the village?"
The dark lady was a couple of minutes behind him. Marino was pulling the string to the engine when I saw her running, obviously trying to catch up. She hailed us from the edge of the pier, the gold bangles clattering down her brown arm.
"This is getting crowded," Marino muttered. The young man stared at the horizon, his lips drawn up in a pout. She settled beside him, opposite me, murmuring to him in a low voice. She was desperate to dissipate his anger. Tentatively she stroked his arm, laid her head on his shoulder, offered smiles to his averted face. Her voice, above the motor, was childlike, cute. My stomach twisted. Gradually he turned to her, softening under her caresses. I looked away.
How many times? Especially after one of those accidental meetings or other such rule infractions. Except for me the scene was not set in a boat or on a blue-blue sea but in a car with windows so thickly iced over that I had no idea where we were. I would talk and talk. He would stare intently out the small, scraped patch of window. And I would feel more and more enveloped by the cold and white. Never again.
"I don't understand," was Marino's comment when I tried to explain it.
"She was humiliating herself. I felt humiliated watching her."
"I don't see why. After all we can presume he had a reason to be angry. He was the humiliated one. She should choose and such situations would not arise."
"Choose. It's not so easy. It is two halves of a circle."
"Inside her heart, she must prefer..."
I stopped him with a kiss. And I drank him up, clear, bright and blue.
Marino returned to the mainland to take his exams. I would be leaving soon for London and the charter back to Edmonton. We had grown tense from the lack of time.
I imagined two possible futures. In the first, without any pressure on my part, Marino joined me in Edmonton. One day, out of the blue, he would phone and say: "It's done. I am coming." And then, he would be there at the airport. He would be by my side. Darryl, Tony, all my friends would be surprised, even shocked. "He's the one," I would announce, "my better half." Marino and I would have to move, say to Toronto, so that we could both find fulfilling and high paying work. But the core of the fantasy was the two of us together and happy in Canada.
The other possibility was harder to envision. Who would I have been if my mother never left Lussino? If I had been born and raised there? I saw myself more confident, more courageous: a T.V. newscaster in Trieste, a reporter in Zagreb. We would be dissidents, of course, intellectuals with a city apartment and a summer house on the island. The house Giuditta used to own - why not - on the promontory overlooking the sea, the house with spacious rooms, leather-bound books, oriental carpets, and large Chinese vases.
"It would be tough," I told Marino, "learning another alphabet, as well as another language." I heard my mother's voice. You have no idea.
"It can be done. Some concentrated study. And you would find work, teaching English say."
"Couldn't you come to visit me? Just a visit?"
"It is not so easy," Marino said.
You have no idea.
I pushed away the thought of my mother and the nostalgia that hung like a stone around her neck. "That's it exactly. In Canada, things are easy. We're free. You could have a good future there."
Marino placed a kiss in the centre of my palm. "I don't know. There is my mother."
But the next evening he said: "A new country, a new freedom, a real future and you. Lusinga, lusinga."
After Marino left for his exams, as I waited for his return, the word lusinga hissed in my ear, lay on my lips, crouched at the root of my tongue and imprinted on my eyelids. I was sure I knew the meaning of lusingare he intended. Canada enticed him. I enchanted and seduced him.
Aunt Marta and I were crossing the piazza on our return from the post office when I sparked off French hilarity again. I was engrossed in a letter from Tony. I could feel his will rising from the carefully printed words. "No matter what you say, if you were here and I could put my head on your little round belly . . ." It was the thick-lipped one again. He pulled off my large sun hat and perched it at an angle on his dark curls. Immediately a tiny blonde girl stretched up and claimed the hat. I looked over at the woman who was sitting, as I knew she would be, on the terrace. But she was listening to the other one, her face in her hands, and she paid no attention. I couldn't wait until they stopped. The hat was being passed hand to hand. I grabbed my aunt, who was yelling indignantly, and pulled her away. "Let them have it."
Aunt Giuditta was waiting for us at her door. "What have you done to that poor boy?"
"Who? Marino? He isn't even here."
"Oh, he's here. Stopped in a while ago looking for you. He travelled all night to get back. He nearly fainted on the kitchen floor. He hadn't eaten anything. I ordered him home."
"I must go."
"No. He has to rest. After all, he just wrote those exams. Then the trip. What his mother said when she saw him I do not know. All white he was: pale. And dirty."
"O.K. I'll wait a bit."
"You better sit down and listen to Zia Giuditta,' Marta ordered, shoving me towards a chair.
Giuditta sat in a composed manner, her beringed hands crossed, her chin in the air. "This is becoming more and more serious... Now listen to me, child; you must think of Marino's mother. He is an only child, and she is widowed."
"I know that."
"But do you realize her position if he left the country? Especially before he did his military service?"
You have no idea, my mother said. Exile.
"You two have been acting as if you're out of your heads," Marta commented from her usual position at the sink.
"I understand." Giuditta's faded eyes met mine. "I do. But Marta's right. You must be rational about this. You must think."
I controlled myself for a couple of hours. But then I was off down the slippery path to Rovenska. Not wanting to deal with his mother, I didn't go to the door but stood under the balcony of his room and called up. He had brought me a carved wooden bird from Rijeka. "A nightingale to remember me and the island."
"I won't need a reminder," I said. So you have made up your mind, I thought.
"Some say that the name Lussino came from usignuolo, the nightingale."
We walked to the old promenade, he eagerly telling me of his odyssey - his hitchhiking and walk cross country. "Through these woods. Miles and miles. There were enormous cobwebs stretched out across the path in some places." But only vaguely did I take in what he was saying. His physical presence and the beating waves distracted me. Usually the promenade was silent and dark, but that night loud laughter and screeching interrupted us. Looking out through the stone arch that had once been a window, we saw a group of people in evening dress. From the way their lamps weaved about, we guessed they were drunk.
"I forgot," Marino whispered in my ear. "Today's Bastille Day." One of the women, standing on the edge of a rock, her black beaded dress glittering in the moonlight, stretched, arched and dove into the sea. Laughing, a few of the others threw themselves in.
"They're crazy. The sea's rough, lots of whitecaps." "Crazy. Nothing deters them. Look," he pointed out to sea. "There's a sailboat out there."
"My trio, no doubt. Drunk like the rest on slivovic." "How do you know?" "I can imagine."
The bottle being passed, their wills pushing, pushing for her weakness. Until not the strongest, who knew how to wait, but the most desperate took her down below to force pleasure upon her. To prove that he could, under the nose of the other. To plant, in revenge, yet another seed of humiliation.
Marino wanted to go into the hills to one of the abandoned houses, in an attempt to escape the ever increasing wind, but I wouldn't leave the sea. Lightning ripped the horizon, illuminating the pounding waves and his serious face. We wedged ourselves into a ledge on the cliff bordering the sea path. "I saw your face before me the whole time I was away." I answered with kisses lit by the approaching storm.
Marino was with me and in me. But it was not enough. I wanted more and more, an end of longing, a sense of arrival, a sailing home. I held him, and he was unholdable, a wind, a wave. We were together yet already the yearning was choking me.
But she rebelled, my dark lady. It was the patient one who went below, and she and the thick-lipped one remained above, screaming back and forth at each other as they tried to turn the boat towards land. Her anger, so suddenly loosened, beat against her conscious mind. He was bent, adjusting the sheet lines to reduce the sails while she stood at the tiller steering. Her anger, like the waves battering the rocks. "More to the right," he lifted his head to deliver the order. Without thought, her hand pulled left.
The boom swung across, catching him as he began to straighten. She watched him fall. She screamed for help. The sea engulfed so quickly. She screamed to the other below.
Back in Edmonton, in one of my mother's history books, I read that some thought that the name Lussino came from lusinga, to enchant, for that was what the island did: enchant each and every one. But when I looked up lusinga in Zingarelli's Italian dictionary it was defined as not only to enchant, but also to delude, to flatter, to deceive, from the German word lausinga, a lie. My return to the island did help me to escape what I needed to escape. It served. Yet, when I remember Lussino, I feel both enchanted and deceived.
The day after the storm, the body was sighted, and Marino was called to retrieve it. I wanted to go with him. "I'll sit quietly in the boat. I just want to watch you dive." But he refused. I sat on the rock from where the woman in the evening dress had jumped and watched Marino's boat until it was just a black dot on the bright sea.
This page compliments of Caterina Edwards-LoVerso
Sunday, December 05, 2004; Last updated: Thursday, November 08, 2007