“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 enchantingly 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 traveling 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.