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

ELLE (Australia) - - Contents -

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

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