“And now to the famous Perastan legend of Nikola and Vesna,” the museum guide announced in her sing-songy Slavic accent, as a hush fell over the tiny crowd huddled together in awe of her captivating delivery. She was a storyteller and a talented one at that, and the tourists were like hungry hounds poised to feed on her next line.
“Two young lovers of just seventeen,” she continued, “strictly forbidden to wed, because Vesna was the daughter of the great Admiral Aleksandar, who did not believe a peasant artist boy was deserving of his precious kin.”
Her deep dark azure irises danced enchantedly around the whites of her eyes, while her hands gently wiped the air as she spoke. Her stage presence and antics were far more suited to matters of magic than history, and even I, who is rarely amused by anything remotely ancient, noticed myself entranced.
“So one night, Lady Vesna snuck out to be with her beloved Nikola, and they sat at the top of the clock tower, just over there, drinking wine and watching the moon.”
She pointed to the gritty, grey, and unfinished belltower that stood in infinite arousal of the sky, dominating the kilometre-long Medieval coastal town. From the museum doorway, we could see air-kissing women in uniformed straw hats and floral dresses, standing underneath, choreographing amorousness for Instagram. Momentarily distracted by the abundance of staged head tilts, hair flips and toe points, the tour guide’s narrative brought me back.
“But because the little town of Perast was such a small place, and the admiral so powerful and possessive, he had all of the townspeople tasked to monitor his beloved daughter’s every move. And when word of her whereabouts got back to him, Admiral Aleksandar personally stormed to the clocktower to get back his dear Vesna from the evil clutches of this bad influence and ruffian artist, Nikola.”
I chuckled at her affection for dramatic vocabulary and artful employment of emotive tone. She was a brilliant raconteur.
“When Admiral Aleksandar arrived at the very top of the clock tower after climbing all one hundred and fifty steps, he demanded Vesna to return to him at once. Lady Vesna refused and decided to jump to her death instead of being taken away from her dearest Nikola. Upon watching Vesna plummet to her tragic end, Nikola called out ‘I shall follow you in death, my love’, before he too, plunged to his demise.”
The uncharacteristically stunted couple from Munich exchanged exaggerated wide eyes and gritted teeth, before the tour guide advanced with a whisper.
“And according to Montenegrin folklore, it took poor Nikola and Vesna a hundred years to realise they were even dead, and it is said that their ghosts still roam the area today, notifying the newly deceased of the fate that took themselves one whole century to discover.”
A mixture of soft yet audible ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ escaped from the tour group, along with some nervous laughter and gasps. The French father and son with equally impressive Afro flat tops turned to each other with raised eyebrows, and the stocky Muscovite family of five scoffed and eye rolled en masse. I forced a polite smile, distracted by the goosebumps that had appeared on my skin. Body vibrating, I asked Milena for my cardigan.
“You’ll boil, Nina!” she hissed into my shoulder.
My left hand communicated my impatience with her sentiment.
“So I wish for none of you here in this room to ever cross paths with Nikola and Vesna,” the guide continued. “And how you will tell when you will see them, is by their very unique attributes,” she said as she motioned us all towards a worn sketch preserved behind glass.
“Nikola with a big ugly scar, and Vesna, with eyes like mirrors and two large heart shaped birthmarks beside her eyes.”
The tour guide’s forefingers pressed on her eye sockets as she executed the line, and Milena cast a smirk my way. She hated museums and she hated old stories, almost as much as she hated theatrics. I, who had been enjoying the show tremendously until now, felt unsettled by the unidentifiable emotion that had placed itself within me.
Through the glass cabinet, the portrait of Nikola and Vesna yellowed by the hands of time, stared back at me from the thick page it lived on, heavy and wrinkled as though it had been soaked and dried on many an occasion before it ever met with chalk. The two heart shaped birthmarks that sat at the corners of Vesna’s water puddle eyes made her look even more toy-like than she already was, with her soft small features and surprisingly modest nose.
Nikola’s illustration was a window into his self-concept. —Although he had drawn Vesna in elaborate detail, with intricate emphasis on the highlights of her face and shading to make her eyes glazed and alive, his own portrait consisted of mostly rushed and imprecise lines. The one area he had paid attention to, was the choker-like scar at his neck, which had been sketched with clarity and deliberation.
Twenty-nine days later
Milena and I had been crouched on our knees in Kraljev Park for the last fifteen minutes, trying unsuccessfully to gain the attention of a smokey stray cat, when a man of paper coloured complexion hidden under a heavy metal t-shirt, chest length hair and a red wool scarf, came striding our way. His cheekbones and jawline appeared excavated, and his estrangement from tranquility was evident from his rabid canine eyes.
“Excuse me,” he began, as he stood over us, his occupancy of the space notably unaffecting, despite his burning gaze. “Do you have a euro for some wine?”
We both shook our heads.
Instead of departing, his eyes spent an uncomfortable duration at my face, as though he was interpreting an ancient text engraved on my skin.
“Are…you…sure,” he spoke softly, and with a downward inflection.
Conceding with a smirk and slow bow, he retreated to a bench just beyond the water fountain, where a female whose tiny face was being thieved by sunglasses waited. It seemed she had witnessed the entire interaction unfold, and although her eyes were obscured, I sensed she was looking right at me. The man communicated something to her left ear, causing her lips to curl, attention still fixed my way.
He had only sat with her for a few moments, before an octogenarian aided with a walking stick entered his field of vision about fifty metres away, impelling him to leap to his feet and charge towards her. I watched on as he arrived at her side almost instantaneously, before leaning in very close, as though delivering an important message.
We had been enjoying Kraljev’s trees for about two hours before I noticed the mountains had begun to blush and the air, chill. As we progressed onto the path to cross the bridge for home, my attention was snatched by a couple travelling at an unusually hurried pace, a marked mismatch to anyone else around.
“They got their wine after all,” I said to Milena, who looked up just in time to observe the man who had asked us for money, taking a long large swig of something tall and predominantly concealed by packaging.
“Imagine being the parents of that girl,” Milena tut-tutted disdainfully in response. “Having your daughter hanging out with a junkie begging for euros in parks.”
Having been foolishly optimistic that our scuba diving near-miss at Perast a month ago would make Milena a better person, I found myself irritated by her comment.
“Do you get a strange vibe from them?” I enquired, resolving to shelve my dissatisfaction with her for a later date.
“Loser vibe?” Milena mouthed sarcastically.
I ignored her. Something in the wind was beckoning me into their sphere.
My sight accompanied them forging resolutely through the park, sip by sip, guzzle by guzzle. And just before they began to disappear into the dusk, the man turned his head to meet with my gaze, and produced a knowing smile.
We sat at Perast’s prized Conte Restoran as we had every week this summer, listening to the Adriatic Sea lapping at our table’s edge.
The day was powder grey.
The mountains looked like someone had used an eraser on them, the watercolour clouds sagged, and droplets of rain were making perfect circles on the thick black ink sea.
As we sipped our champagne and chewed our calamari, a kayak arrived, and a waiter dressed in crisp white emerged out of nowhere holding takeaway coffee. Bending down, torso hovering above the water, he handed the woman in the kayak the cup. Minutes later, another one appeared a distance away, and I searched for the waiter, ready again with more refreshment, but this time no one was there.
As the vessel neared, I noticed it was not like the kayaks I had seen before. In fact, it wasn’t a kayak at all. It was a tiny vintage rowboat. Dark wooded and rotted, with furry oars eaten away by time and tide. The boat stopped directly at our table, and that’s when I recognised the occupants.
Their clothes told me they hadn’t been home since we encountered them yesterday. Red scarf and all.
With that same knowing smirk he had issued me in the capital, he eyed me like he knew my dreams. The girl in the sunglasses sat behind, and being so much closer this time, I was able to peruse the format of her face. Pretty in that classical, old world way, she possessed the features valued in a time long ago, before exoticness became the standard of beauty.
“Do you have a euro for some wine?” asked the man.
“I don’t carry cash,” Milena announced unapologetically.
“A free spirit indeed,” he replied this time.
Brow furrowed, my mind busily searched for a match for the girl’s unshakably resonating visage. As they rowed away slowly, I could feel them watching me for the longest time.
When I saw they were safely out of earshot, I interrogated Milena without breath.
“What are the odds of the same people from the park yesterday, over a hundred and twenty kilometres away, being in exactly the same place as us today, again, asking us for wine money, again?”
“Happens,” she replied, bored.
“They feel so familiar,” I continued. “I…can’t explain it.”
“I can. We saw them yesterday,” Milena retorted matter-of-factly and with great disinterest.
“No,” I insisted, “even yesterday they felt familiar.”
“They’re just typical Montenegrin faces Nina,” Milena reasoned, “you see them everywhere.”
We finished our meal in silence, as I continued seeking to place their acquaintance in my mind. Too preoccupied, I couldn’t taste the meal.
The rain had stopped, and muscular men muddied by the Balkan summer sun and sporting citrus coloured board shorts, lined the thoroughfare offering tourists taxi boats to Our Lady of the Rocks.
“Ay-land bow-t,” they called out in thick Montenegrin accents. We climbed into a white dingy with one, who forgot to charge us at the end.
Once on the island, we sat cross-legged at the lighthouse, staring out in awe of the majesty of Kotor Bay. —Well, I did. Milena utilised the time to profanely condemn the boatman for not making conversation during the four hundred metre trip. That’s another thing I told myself I’d bring up on a separate occasion: her lack of ability to enjoy the moment. The list was building.
My discontentment was intercepted by a voice from behind.
“Do you have a euro for some wine?”
Swiveling around in unison, we found the same strange couple standing above us. I began fumbling through the back pocket of my denim shorts to find some, in the hope he’d finally go away.
He turned to his female companion and smiled.
“And here I thought we would need to play this game for much longer.”
Despite considering his comment largely inappropriate, I had already committed to the exchange, and couldn’t renege now. As I placed the three euros into his outstretched hand, the temperature of his palm surprised me.
“Come with us back to the shore,” he urged. “There’s something I want to show you.”
“We have to wait for the taxi boat to return,” I explained.
“Ours is just here,” he said in a pitch that was high, eyes now glistening and almost ethereal, as he pointed at the decaying oak vessel we’d seen them in at the restaurant.
“That wasn’t there before,” I thought outloud.
“Wasn’t it?” he replied, ushering us towards it with body language that made anything but acquiescence impossible.
Milena narrowed her eyes. “We won’t all fit,” was her contribution, hands on hips.
“We will,” he assured.
After clambering aboard, my right hand squeezed at Milena’s left, as we sat facing the two. And with an astonishing effortlessness, he began gliding the boat across the charcoal sea.
“Better is the poor man who walks in his integrity than one who is perverse in his lips, and is a fool,” the man said as he began to remove the scarf that had been glued to his neck. The girl nodded in agreement and slowly raised her sunglasses to rest at the top of her head.
Unencumbered by the barrier of her shades for the very first time, I saw her eyes. Celestial and blue, with birthmarks on the corners of each that looked as if somebody had drawn on two love-hearts with a felt tip pen.
“What happened?” Milena interrupted the little world of the girl I’d fallen into, and that’s when I noticed the man’s disfigurement. Spanning all the way around his neck.
A loud hot wind flailed in my ears.
Absent of words, he continued rowing.
As we grew closer to the shore I could see people congregated at our favourite diving spot. I recognised some of them. The old man from the kiosk we buy soft drinks from was there, shaking his head as he laid down a large pastel wreath. The curly haired woman whose Jack Russel we always pat was there too, farewelling a single rose into the water. And the busker we share our cigarettes with was there as well, placing a packet of our preferred brand gently onto the rock. Even the priest who greets us when we pass by his house was there, crossing his chest and saying a prayer.
“Who died here?” I asked in a whisper.
Wearing that knowing smile, Nikola replied.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR:
Although this story is set in real locations, the folklore tale at the beginning and the subsequent story are purely fictional, inspired by the magical summer I spent in Perast, Montenegro.
Miya Yamanouchi is a writer in South Eastern Europe. Her journalistic work can be found at Balkan Insight and The Sarajevo Times where she has reported on post-conflict issues including landmines, mine victims, transitional justice and ethnic tensions. In August 2020, Miya took her first ever creative writing class at university where she discovered a love for writing fiction and poetry. Since then her poetic work has been published in Poets and War, Poetry Atlas and is forthcoming at Weasel Press, while her micro fiction stories can be found at Friday Flash Fiction, 50-Word Stories and is forthcoming in 101 Words. ‘A Tale From The Black Ink Sea’ is her first ever short story, and was originally published in Drunken Pen Writing.