In many ways we were the perfect pair. Months of backpacking through Eastern Europe had honed our skills of cohabitation. Determined to avoid the cliched Eurail pass and hostel route, we had spent days on rickety trains throughout Romania and mastered the art of falling asleep on each other—Pen’s head on my shoulder, then my cheek resting on her head—even to the point of automatically swapping positions each hour. Sure, there had been the occasional disagreements, usually about what to eat and when, and I had sulked through the endless churches that Penny seemed to like, and she had put up with my need to photograph every crumbling wall and fading advertisement we passed. But by the time we arrived in Pag, we felt like we knew each other through and through, as best friends should.
On that first afternoon we decided to hike to the other side of the island. It was a sweltering, hot day and as we climbed over the farmers’ fences and across the rocky paddocks all we could think about was the promise of a cool swim at the island’s edge. Eventually we got there and scrambled down the cliff to a small deserted beach, if you could call the sandless metre or so of crushed pebbles that lay between the cliff face and the sea, a beach. The sea was a brilliant blue and we wasted no time stripping our clothes off and running into the water. At first the coolness was an instant relief and we swam out farther and farther from the shore. But something was not quite right. There seemed to be dark shadows underneath us and although we joked about sharks and creatures of the deep, we knew that were no such things in these parts. The water was very cold and despite the heat we were shivering; we could not stop looking down, trying to see what lay beneath. Both of us felt an uncontrollable and unexplainable rising panic. It was as if the shadows were trying to grab at our feet. We treaded water, drawing our limbs up as close to the surface as possible. It was silent. There seemed to be no birds, no life to speak of. Then, without speaking to each other, we swam as fast as we could back to the shore, chucked on our clothes and left. After all the effort of that long hot walk, I think we had only lasted five minutes or so in the water.
The walk back was strange too, eerie even. The fields were windswept and barren with shrub-covered rocks and the occasional squashed pine tree. We didn’t speak, didn’t say a word about what had happened. Just put one foot steadily in front of the other. I felt like it was all I could do to keep from running and knew Penny felt it too. Our paces quickened. Every twig broken, every patch of dirt that made a faint sound where our flip-flops scuffled, sounded ominous and both of us were guilty of looking over our shoulders. We were in the fields of a beautiful Croatian island, yet the whole experience felt like we were stuck in a bad schlock thriller and we were just waiting to be ambushed by…well we weren’t quite sure what. There certainly weren’t any animals around, not even a lone sheep or buzzing insect.
Needless to say, the sense of relief when we finally reached the road and a car drove past was immense. And despite the heat of the afternoon sun, we started sprinting and ran full out until we finally reached the local taverna and downed shots of travica, the local herb brandy, in quick succession, grateful for the distraction of the World Cup playing on an old boxed television and the foreign chatter that surrounded us. After doing so much traveling together, like typical backpackers, we were used to debriefing our day in the tavernas, commenting on the highlights and lowlights and planning for the next day. But neither of us spoke a word about our strange experience and I think we both pushed it to the back of our minds until the fishing trip a few days later.
We had decided to join a group of elderly Czech women, a roguish Croatian fisherman, Sergio, and his young son, Anton, on an all-day fishing cruise around the islands. We spent the day sunbaking on the boat, drinking travica and diving off at random moments to refresh ourselves in the marginally cooler water. The old ladies who spoke no English would smile and chatter. From time to time they would abandon their sunbaking and gracefully lower themselves in and swim away from the boat with a slow-reaching breaststroke. But little Anton followed Pen and me wherever we went, jumping on the boat and off. He clambered up our shoulders and played pantomime charades with us. Was he five-, six-, or eight-years old? And yes, we understood the snapping arm motion—he was like “crocode-el.” Over the course of the day, Sergio told us various tales of his adventures at sea, some historic facts about the island, and a few lamentable tales about his nagging wife at home.
It was after lunch when the old Czech ladies were snoozing across the bow and I was sitting at the back of the boat letting my hand drift in the water when I felt an uncontrollable shiver. I instantly withdrew my hand and looked at Penny. She knew it too. We were there again. We were at the same cliff and our boat was hovering above that same area where the lurking shadows had threatened us. Sergio clocked us through a beady eye.
“Look overboard and tell me what you see.” We leaned over and from the higher vantage point we could see that what had seemed like lots of moving shadows was in fact one dark long object.
“That’s the Lasinia. World War II warship, sunk in 1944.” Pen and I moved towards the water as Sergio’s voice came from behind us. “It was the locals that had to dive and retrieve the bodies. And three of our men were lost trying to save them. My great uncle was one of them, which no one understood. He was an excellent diver.”
“We were here yesterday,” said Penny. I noticed her right hand was tremoring along the guardrail, but then she was often one to jiggle her knee constantly and lately it had been driving me crazy. Sergio leaned his whiskered face between us, smelling of sweat and tobacco. “I hope you didn’t swim. Every one is too scared to swim or fish here—they say it’s cursed.” I felt the guardrail vibrate under Penny’s grip.
“Oh please. We went for a swim. It was fine,” I said and went to the other side of the boat. The sea was so calm the boat was not even rocking. All around us the smaller islands around Pag rose up out of the water, all salt-bleached and cratered like a moonscape. It was so still I could have taken a picture and turned it upside down and you wouldn’t have known the right way up.
There was a sudden splash followed by high-pitched screaming. Anton had jumped into the water and was paddling around to the front of the boat, waving at Penny who was yelling somewhat intelligibly, “Get out get out get out! Get out get out get out get out!” The snoozing Czechs jumped up and went to her but I ran to the bow with Sergio. Anton was duck diving and somersaulting. The long shadow looked like it was shifting beneath him and I imagined seaweedy arms rising up and encircling his ankles. Sergio was beckoning to Anton to come back on the boat but I wasn’t ready. I couldn’t stop looking for arms, fins and floating skeletons, guiltily wanting them to take little Anton under. Perhaps. Maybe. It was that same feeling that I got when I stood somewhere high and thought momentarily about jumping off. Penny was whimpering now and the noise was scratching at the inside of my skin. “Shut the fuck up!” I yelled at her and she stopped immediately.
Anton climbed back on the boat and Sergio and the Czech ladies surrounded Penny. “See, he okay,” Sergio reassured Penny. “My boy, he like a fish. He okay.” Sergio pushed Anton forward who slapped his hands together and said “Crocode-el.”
“C’mon Pen. You’re alright, yeah?” I walked over and gave her what should have been a comforting touch but came out like a small shove on the arm. She looked past me and nodded and then accepted a shot of travica from a motherly Czech who was pulling back her hair softly and sat down next to her. I noticed Penny pressing her right hand down on her knee, but it was still wobbling away.
Sergio shrugged and started up the boat and we were soon on our way. Penny stayed at the back with the ladies, I stood beside Sergio, and little Anton was back up on the bow, chin resting on the railing, swinging his feet in the salt spray. “I thought you said no one swam there,” I said. Sergio looked towards the horizon, one hand was on the wheel and the other was rolling a cigarette. I leaned in closer, “I thought you said no one swam there. That it was cursed.” Sergio turned, lit his cigarette and looked at me square. “No one. Except my boy. He isn’t afraid of anything.” I looked back towards the bow but Anton wasn’t there and I knew without looking and from the sounds of his giggles and Penny’s laughter that he was back there with her and they were both unafraid.
The Australian Literature Review