there is a light that never goes out
Stricken with grief after the death of her fiancé, Shannon Leone Fowler fled alone to the farthest reaches of the world to confront the past and finally move forward
Grief-stricken after the death of her fiancé, this writer found solace where she least expected it.
My fiancé, Sean, was killed by a box jellyfish in Thailand. It was 2002; I was 28 and he was only 25. We’d been engaged for 10 days. Sean was holding me in the warm, waistdeep water off Haad Rin Nok beach and we were kissing when he was stung. He died, minutes later, collapsed onto the wet sand.
After his funeral in Melbourne, I ran away. All of my friends were getting married, buying houses, having babies. My life had become a story no-one wanted to hear. This is how, three months later, I found myself eating steak tartare alone in Dracula’s home in Transylvania.
“All of my friends were getting married, buying houses, having babies. My life had become a story no-one wanted to hear”
The restaurant was in a blocky yellow house on a cobblestone street in the heart of medieval Sighişoara. Vlad The Impaler was born upstairs in 1431. The son of Vlad Dracul, he became the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s title character hundreds of years later. In 2002, I was the only customer; most Romanians couldn’t afford to eat out. I ordered the tartare, supposedly Vlad’s favourite dish, and an Ursus Pils beer, and as I ate – the bite of capers against soft meat and rich egg yolk – I wrote in my journal.
First, as always, I wrote about Sean. His story, my story, our story. How much I physically ached missing sharing a tube of toothpaste, a bar of soap, a newspaper or a bottle of Yarra Valley wine with him. I wrote that we should be living together now, in a tiny flat in Carlton North, having dinner at Bluetrain and drinks with mates at Cherry. And that I couldn’t sleep at night until I’d figured out all the different ways he might have lived – if we’d gone to Vietnam instead of Thailand, if we’d hopped into the shower instead of the ocean that afternoon, if I’d screamed for help louder, run for help faster, or if only I’d been the one who’d been stung.
I pushed my empty plate aside and took another long, bitter gulp of beer. Next, I wrote down everything I’d just heard of The Impaler – tales from my Lonely Planet; from what little had been written in English at the red-spired Castelul Bran, or Dracula’s Castle; from the few other backpackers I’d met in Braşov.
I wrote about how Vlad’s favourite method of execution was done in such a way to avoid vital organs so the victim continued to live, impaled for two more days. How he hardly ever dined on his tartare without an impaled Turk writhing in front of him. How when he first began his reign, he invited all the poor – the destitute, disabled, homeless and prostitutes – to a huge supper at a church. Then he locked them inside and burnt the building to the ground. The owner of the hostel where I was staying in Sighişoara told me that in 1462, the 150,000-strong Ottoman Army came to capture Vlad. The army were closing in, and thought at first they were walking through a forest. Only to look up and see thousands of heads and bodies of men, women and children on stakes.
Madonna’s “Vogue” came on over the restaurant stereo. The catchy pop song felt incongruous among the dark red tapestries and heavy oak furniture styled from the 15th century. It also felt out of place among Vlad’s stories. The stories here, the ones told in Eastern Europe, were so much darker and more honest than the ones I’d grown up with. Tales of The Impaler had survived for more than 500 years. No-one had tried to give them the Disney treatment by slapping on a commercial Hollywood happy ending. I’d been surprised to find no-one selling souvenirs in Transylvania, no plastic fangs or cheap black T-shirts. Dracula’s Castle hadn’t even sold postcards.
I’d returned from Dracula’s Castle back to the hostel in Braşov and the stories there bouncing around the co-ed dorm room. Young male backpackers from Australia, Ireland and Canada trying to outdo one another with their tales of international girlfriends, crazy countries visited, dangers narrowly avoided in faraway foreign places. But their stories were funny, not tragic. I knew Sean’s death was the wrong kind of story to tell them. But pretending he hadn’t lived felt just as wrong.
So I decided to travel deeper into Transylvania to be on my own, to be somewhere no-one spoke my language. The train had gone up and over the Făgăraş Mountains, past dark knotted woodlands, row upon row of skeletal plum trees under a stony-grey sky and gaunt men in shabby fur hats driving horse-drawn carriages. But when I arrived, the only hostel in town was also hosting a handful of young, dreadlocked Americans who were volunteering at a local orphanage. The following night, they invited me out to dinner for “tochitură Ardelenească”, or Transylvanian goulash.
The plates arrived piled high with polenta, pork, bacon, chicken livers, sausages, mushrooms, capsicums, onions and a fried egg. It was far below freezing outside, and the steaming flavours of salt, smoke, garlic and game
“The stilted conversation I had with the kids was the most genuine one I’d had in a long time. They tried harder to communicate with me than anyone I’d met from home”
were delicious. As we ate, the others laughed and talked about Hare Krishnas, The Anarchist Cookbook and Grateful Dead shows. But they avoided the desperately sad stories that had brought them all here; not once did they talk about the orphans.
After dinner, they dragged me back to a lethal punch party at the hostel. We were seated around a table, pink liquid sloshing in red plastic cups, when one of them asked about the locket around my neck. Engraved with Sean’s initials and with a photo inside of him, laughing in the front yard of my parents’ house. I tried to change the subject, but they persisted. So I told them about Sean. “Man, that sucks.” “I had no freakin’ idea jellyfish could kill you.” “Everything happens for a reason.” “You gotta look for that silver lining.” And just like that, they had their Disney ending. Then the Waterfall drinking game started and they all chugged their punch, before slamming down their cups and grinning at each other with fluorescent pink moustaches. Prince’s “Kiss” came on the stereo, someone turned up the music and everyone leapt up to dance.
I forced down the heat and pain rising into my throat and stood to leave. But a girl grabbed me and hugged me as she danced. She swung her hips, twisted at the waist and bounced from one foot to the other. I stood with my arms pinned to my sides. One of her braids hit me in the face, and my eyes started to water. Until at last, I was able to pull away.
The next day, I signed Sean’s name in the hostel’s guestbook and took a train to Bucharest. I’d only just pulled out my journal when four dirty young boys jostled their way into my carriage, lugging a cracked boombox and smoking and staring. It was a Monday morning and surely they should have been in school. Instead, they turned down the Romanian rap crackling from the speakers and settled in, their short frames slouching in dingy oversized T-shirts, thin arms thrown over the backs of the plastic seats or around the shoulders of the boy next to them. We had almost nothing in common. I didn’t expect them to even want to talk to me.
“Ţigară?” The tallest boy pulled a crooked cigarette from behind his ear and extended it in my direction.
I shook my head. “No fumo,” I tried in Spanish. The boys looked at each other, wrinkling their noses and laughing. They took turns introducing themselves, placing a hand on their chest and speaking slowly: Titus, Cezar, Constantin and Horatiu. Then they took it in turns to repeat my name, even more slowly.
I only understood three words from the rest of what they said: “munte” (the boys flattened their hands, fingers together in a peak), “telefonul” (pinkie and thumb outstretched to their ear) and “numărul” (punching buttons into their palm). Yet the stilted conversation I had with these kids felt as if it was the most comfortable and genuine one I’d had in a long time. They tried harder to communicate with me than anyone I’d met from home. As the train rolled past the shantytowns outside – children sleeping in cardboard boxes, packs of emaciated stray dogs, and piles and piles of garbage – I began to think I could read their stories on their faces, and I wondered if they could read mine.
There are times when there’s no reason, and places where there’s no silver lining. Most of the world doesn’t have the kind of luck or choices Westerners are born with. Travelling through Eastern Europe that winter of 2002 changed the shape of things I thought I’d known: life and death, chance and opportunity, the arbitrary natures of fate and fairness. And four kids on a train in Transylvania made me realise that it’s a privilege that we’re so bad at unhappy endings.
Traveling With Ghosts: A Memoir Of Love And Loss by Shannon Leone Fowler ($32.99, W&N) is out now
HAPPIER TIMES Shannon and Sean in China in 2002 – the year he would lose his life