As Ana and I made our way towards the fish market, I still had not heard the news that downed airforce pilot Scott O’Grady had been rescued in Bosnia just before dawn. The rush of wind as the helicopter had shaken me from sleep in the rented house in the mountainside village of Solin, overlooking Split’s harbor below. UN and NATO helicopters, running through the wide pass into Bosnia were common, but as low and stealthy as this was, it was something altogether different. I ran out into the rocky backyard, staring into the black night, past the ramshackle summer kitchen at the back of the yard, and a scattering of unassuming house beyond.
Ana was celebrating. It had been better than 7 months since our wedding in Sarajevo the previous October, and little more than a month since Ana, her mother and baby brother fled the city amid a rare cease-fire. Waiting for the bus beside ancient Roman ruins, beneath a warm cerulean sky, Ana held tight to me, both of us weighing the full injustice of being deprived of so much time over a tortuously long winter.
It was 15 minutes into the city, and only a short walk from the bus station to the fish market, safely cradled within the mossy walls of Diocletian’s 4th century palace. Interesting that the mismatched architecture haphazardly described the shifting of influence and power as Rome faded and medieval Venice rose to regional prominence. Stabbing high above the old town, the Romanesque bell tower if St. Duje was preeminent and golden in the midday sun. A steady breeze, funneled and strengthened in Splits narrow passages and alleys, tasted of the sea.
It wasn’t difficult to find the fish market. For a few hours each day it was a fever of wild and chaotic energy, pure theater that came up like a storm. Ana held tight to my hand, threading her way into the melee, with me in tow like a little boy. And I was, thoroughly awed and swept away by this spectacle.
There are moments in which the mind swoons, struggling to take in far more than it can handle at once. This was one of those moments. I laughed at this ad hoc street theater, fully taken by all of it, not wanting a single detail to escape notice. I strained to absorb all of it, every detail, amazed at the breadth and scope of a world in which I had lived so long without knowing something so incredible existed all along, like a thread of truth and wonder in the world.
Pale marble walls dripped from the humidity inherent in the market, adding to the air the flavor of damp stone, to fresh fish, dripping sea water and blood, and a hint of sulfur from an ancient nearby spa. Mangy dogs and scrawny cats stole from beneath tables, chased by a blind kick from fish mongers shouting to customers, shaking their catch to the shuffling and jostling buyers crowded among the heavy stone tables. The din rose in a low chorus, punctuated by the rattle of simple scales and metal pans.
Not particularly a fan of fish, at least as a food, I was awed by the sheer array filling the tables before me. Eel, shrimp of all sizes, mussels, squid, octopus, sardines and a hundred other species from the mundane to the exotic. Everyday, for centuries the Split market has exhibited this spectacle, erupting each morning like those manic Adriatic storms, the Bura, which seem to erupt from the ether without warning, and disappear just the same.
Ana found me again, safely setting a plastic sack of mussels into her canvas shopping bag, and smiling as if she’d just won the lottery, gushing endlessly about those glorious years vacationing on the Dalmatian coast before the war. When we returned a short time later, it was as if I’d imagined the whole thing. Not a soul remained. The stone walls, the tables and dangling metal scales had been washed clean. The theater was over, at least for the day and I felt a little sad for its passing.
But the world is like that. It is all fleeting moments, clinging to threads woven among the centuries and among our lives. these are the things that help us return to ourselves, which shape the scope of life and measure the years, far beyond war, the politics of the day, and uncountable catastrophes. Those things fade. The pattern and necessity of daily life always returns, guided by those unending and unstoppable threads, like Split’s Fish Market.