Friday 26 August 2016

The Coral Kosjenka

Sea stripes
Turquoise slices
 Pebbly froth
Flinty golds
Rhythmic diamonds
Across the bay

Unusually the stifling atmosphere of the scholarly London university library was dragging heavily on my torso making it hard to breathe. A gap in the persistent rain outside had sent shafts of weak sunlight through the windows, lighting up the dust drifting like protozoa through the heavy air. The reef of textbooks on antique corals with their many pearls of wisdom were for once failing to inspire me, and instead, were hemming in my imagination. It was like diving through murky harbour water; every sense was unnaturally and dangerously stifled. I was suffocating.

Sitting back suddenly caused my chair to creak ferociously in the oppressive silence, and I removed my glasses to rub my tired eyes. Rewinding my long unconsciously tousled hair, I reflected on a sudden uncharacteristic and potentially rash spontaneous thought.

An image of a sparking turquoise/aquamarine layered cove gleamed at me from one of the books. Light, love and fairy tales; my story needed the clarity of a bura wind. Southern sun to illuminate a novelist’s tired imagination, and to escape London’s immense darkness. Rather than living my art history research vicariously, I needed to immerse myself in the natural environment of my beloved Corallium rubrum. Fingering my ever-present antique coral brooch of the head of a fairy with flowing wild hair, my mind was made up. With this last reminder of my distant relatives, I would take a journey to my – and my brooch’s – ancestral home.

Travelling anywhere coastal in south-eastern Europe out of season presents a challenge worthy of Odysseus, and I’d arrived on the tiny island late at night, exhausted yet somehow triumphant. Silence blanketed the ancient harbour and its delicate lights sparkled in the cold air. The stone chapel on the water front was illuminated by the sodium glow, its tiny bell silhouetted cameo-like against the starry sky. I stood there briefly drinking in the scene, whilst waiting for my host to claim me.

Family connections in this world run deeper than any underground well, and my recent academic career had erected many devastating barriers between friends and family. I guiltily knew this visit was long overdue. I'd lost contact with my last remaining overseas family member decades previously, and I was apprehensive about tracking anyone down electronically. There was therefore no one I could message ahead of my arrival. Rightly or wrongly, my absorption in factual research meant I'd never thought about the realities of life here, and certainly never tried to imagine what sort of people I'd find. Face to face contact was the only way I could re-establish a relationship.

I was finally greeted by a gentle giant of a man, and as I later discovered, a fisherman and farmer of ancient family and good standing. We meandered the 100m or so from the harbour up to my apartment, whilst he laughed at the weight of my small yet quite heavy rucksack. Travelling light for me meant only a handful of tomes, rather than the usual library I carried around on my small frame. Upon arrival in a new place, my curiosity would have had me opening up every cupboard, examining everything, and setting up my instant study.

However when he shyly asked if I wanted to join him a drink, I felt it would have been rude to refuse. With a final wistful look at my books, and a frantic brushing my hair, I grabbed my handbag. We headed down the steep pebbly path towards the old mill restaurant - inevitably it had been a mill for olives not flour. It is romantically placed by the water, and to the sound of boats and water, we quietly conversed about the region's music, olive growing, and fishing industry. As I tentatively wondered how to start talking about coral, family, and my reasons for being here, it was not just my writer's anxiety making me shiver. The cool night was fast becoming uncomfortable. Even the other people getting merry nearby had just gone inside.

Sensing my awkwardness, and perhaps wanting to divert my thoughts towards something happier, he asked if I wanted something else to drink. We joined the noisy party in the smoky bar and it turned they were celebrating the return of a friend. The outcome was Bacchanalian and the true nature of the warm beating winter heart of the island exposed. Dancing, singing, mysteriously appearing wine, and at some point homemade bread and cheese was shared around. When we finally emerged from the convivial and now dry bar and headed back to our respective homes, I felt as if a weight had been partially been lifted from my mind, a baptism of familial fire water!


One of the great pleasures in art history is examining the ideas of people who lived long ago. Many of their beliefs and certainties have long since been discovered to be erroneous or part of a superstitious world which we don’t really recognise. Religion remains important for many people, but you’d be hard pressed to find a doctor that would prescribe a course of treatment for fever which included coral and saffron wrapped in a cat skin.
Coral intrigued the early modern mind because it was a strange case, seemingly not animal, vegetable nor mineral. A genuine puzzle to scholars, collectors and princes who were trying to make sense and bring order to a chaotic world. This valuable red coral from the Mediterranean and Adriatic featured in many artistic creations, from spoons, amulets, animal figurines, jewellery, caskets and so on. The Romans believed that hanging of coral branch necklaces around children’s necks would protect them from the evil eye and preserve their young teeth. This belief was repeated by various notable collators of the lore of gems during the sixteenth century, and writers waxed lyrical over its abilities to counteract poisons, protect crops from blight, caterpillars and locusts, as well as offering protection from tempests and robbers.
But I was fascinated by its romantic affiliations. Upon once seeing a specimen of the massive giant clam, Tridacna gigas I was transported to the Uffizi Gallery and Botticelli's Birth of Venus, which immediately came to life in front of me. William Shakespeare uses coral repeatedly as a simile to describe the colour of a beautiful woman’s lips. And given that coral and Venus are said to be astrally connected, it was a wonderful meeting of art, poetry, superstition, and mollusc.


My research on coral had taken me into many disciplines but this family history direction was where I felt most exposed and vulnerable. I lay there momentarily suspended between waking and sleeping assessing my mental and physical state. I decided that the only cure for rakija induced fuzziness was fried eggs and prsut on buttered toast, with lots of fresh orange juice. Wrapped up well against the vicious morning bura, I finally emerged blinking into the bright cold sunshine. Lacking coffee in my kitchen, I went in search of caffeine. It seemed that my host Neno had had the same idea and he immediately invited me to join him at his table.

Somehow our joint sore heads bonded us, and with new found ease I told him what Iittle I knew of my heritage. Fascinated he had exclaimed and immediately offered to track down people who would be excited to meet me. Although I had briefly mentioned my obsession with coral, I had not yet felt willing to share my personal talisman with a stranger, no matter how friendly they were. But ever helpful he had also had some thoughts about the region's link with coral fishing, and with the normal matter of fact tone used here, explained that families working in traditional industries for centuries had moved on to more prosperous livings on the mainland. The long silence following this sad statement spoke volumes about the depths of this man's love for his environment but it also awoke a thought. Suddenly he suggested we meet one of the island's oldest inhabitants for a chat.
There was no time like the present. Waving bills for our coffees at one of the guys from the previous evening, we strolled to his place and hopped on his shiny black scooter. He started it and we bolted off straight ahead, leaving behind the quiet seaside village. We flew like the wind with me clinging on to him and we entered mountainous expanse of a hibernating island interior. I thoroughly enjoyed my lightning ride, my once tired eyes streaming with tears from the cold. We turned off suddenly, and with a lunge which made me grasp him harder, we headed up a dirt track which seemed to end only in wild rosemary and abandoned, overgrown olive groves. Finally, we reached into a tiny hamlet of red tiled cottages, smoke pouring out of every chimney. We pulled up outside, and into the silence after the engine had stopped, a dog barked welcomingly.
The middle aged lady who came to the door was swift to let us in out of the bitter cold, and greeted Neno happily, looking curiously at me. We were welcomed into her large kitchen space where the loud and youthful branch of the family was partaking of some sturdy meat and vegetable broth. Not to mention last season's red wine. Upon hearing my reason for this surprise visit, we were introduced to the venerable old lady knitting in relative peace by the fire. She turned to me and gestured that I should sit on her footstool, her delicate hands, fragile with age and work never stopping their busy-ness. With a quiet and confidence instilled in me by her calm dignity, I pulled aside my many layers and carefully unfastened my precious brooch.
She carefully set aside her fine handiwork and took the jewel in her hands, the sheen of her skin echoing that of the warm pink coral; the vitality of both still apparent, despite their ages. In the firelight, fingering the piece thoughtfully with measured concentration, she started to recite a fairy tale. With no hesitation, no stammer, it was as if she were reading from a book. Entranced, the entire family fell silent as she started the story of Reygoch.
Then she threw down another pearl, and a tiny lantern grew in her hand, bright as if it were lit with gold. The darkness crept back deeper into the earth, and the light shone far through the underground passages. Kosjenka/Curlylocks was delighted with her lantern because it showed up all the marvels which had been swallowed by the earth in days of old. In one place lordly castles fretted with gold and framed in red marble. In another heavy scimitars studded with gems and precious stones. In a third she saw treasures, golden dishes, and silver goblets full of gold ducats.
As for Reygoch, he sat down to rest not far off. She played about, looked and admired, and at last caught sight of a slender little ivory staff propped up against a mighty pillar. But it was that staff which kept the pillar standing. After reaching out and moving it, the subterranean passages re-echoed with a terrible noise. The pillar trembled and swayed, closing up and blocking up the path between Reygoch and Kosjenka/Curlylocks. They could neither see nor hear one another, nor could they reach one another...
There was the poor little fairy Kosjenka/Curlylocks caught in the bowels of the earth! Buried alive in that vast grave. Because she was so proud, she thought there was no help for it, and I must die. So she lay down and prepared for death. For a while Reygoch didn't move and sat in the dark. He started to make his way back home, but after a while he turned like the wind and flew back to the landslide. He arrived just in time, and in a little while he had burrowed a big hole, so he could see Kosjenka/Curlylocks lying there, her little lantern glowing as feebly as the tiniest glow-worm. He took her gently in his giant hands, and at last she opened her eyes.
She jumped to her feet, and they cried for pure joy. Reygoch's tears were as big as pears, and her's as tiny as millet seed, but except for size they were both the same sort; and from that moment these two were mightily fond of one another.
As she came to the end of this tale of unlikely friendships, hidden treasure, discovery and loss, curiosity, and happy endings, her spell-binding voice died away and I could see tears of happiness coursing down her cheeks. Respectful murmurs of appreciation of her narration sighed around the room and the atmosphere shifted to one of expectation. We knew that something special was happening. She indicated that a wooden casket be lifted down from a dark shelf in the corner alcove. Though it was high above our seated heads, Neno reached up effortlessly, setting it gently on her workbox. With her nod of assent, he drew off its protective white linen cover, and she handed him a small key so he could open the lid. As he did so his gaze caught mine, and I knew that even with such a brief acquaintance, there was a special bond between us.
Her family had long abandoned their kitchen table to gather around us, and although they were familiar with what was in the box, they were curious to see my coral. When they saw what I had brought, loud gasps gave way to a hubbub of animated conversation. I was suddenly embraced, my hands clasped by young and old, and cries of emotion shook the warm hearted room. I gasped when I saw what was within; like Kosjenka or the English named Curlylocks of the fairy tale calmly waiting her fate, the exact mirror of my own piece gazed out at me waiting for me to discover her. The four pieces of diamond foliage twinkled and shined out just like the seed pearl lamp. 
Those dark days of winter fighting with my imagination had finally given way to ancient stories begging to be retold. Like jewellery awakening from their coffin-like caskets under sudden illumination, or branches of salty coral in the workshop undergoing metamorphoses from sea creature to protective adornment... In the home of my rediscovered family, I found the greatest treasure of them all.

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