“Who go to Grotta Azzura?” Shouts the Tour Captain in broken English to all those left on the boardwalk. “Pleeza, line here pleeza.” Abruptly he stops, then begins in Italian, “Quarto. Si’, si’, quarto. Gratzi, gratzi.” He points to the fourth boat towards the end of the dock while holding up four fingers as to compensate for his heavy accent and little English. “Ve lento, ve lento. Si’, si’, go slowly, slowly” he pleads, as his hands fly up in a halting motion. You. Si’ you. Hold …hold to rail. Gratzi, gratzi.” His head bobbles as he barks out orders in some chaotic English-Italian version of his own. Then as if in slow motion, he calmly turns and begins speaking in an undetectable dialect, maybe some combination of Italian and French, I wasn’t sure. But, the other tourists understood, as they began to scurry about and find their places on the little boats tied to the dock.
His gruff words and thick accent matched his looks, that of an old sea goat I thought. His brow was deeply creased, his eyes bright against his brown leathery skin weathered by the coastal zephyrs and long days working in the sun. The perfect boat Captain for the morning’s journey, how exciting.
“You, go boat tre.” He holds up three fingers to one of the voyagers, then signals to me saying, “You go to da’ last boat, the russo boat, mia boat. Si’, si’. Grazie.” He hands me a little recorder with the guided tour of the Blue Grotto in English. Briskly, with the anticipation of a giddy school girl I head to the end of the boardwalk where the russo or red boat was tethered. It was a small rickety boat with a sun-bleached red paint-chipped stripe running its length. I grab tightly on to the railing as the small boat shifted against the well worn tires lining the dock. Then ever so gingerly I step into the small wobbly craft, hanging on precariously, as I positioned myself to sit alone on the last empty bench. Others were already seated in pairs, clinging tightly to the sides as I stepped in.
He begins to count the passengers in each boat, tallying in his head as he as done a thousand times before. Patiently the small boats gently rock as waves push against their sides, trying to get in; laughing with sea spray at those up front as they get splashed with a salty sneeze.
“You! You uno? Si’, alone.” He motions to one lone tourist standing on the dock, maybe debating whether to join the excursion or not. “Si’, you. Attenda, attenda, one more seat in da’ back.” He motions quickly, his arms flailing the directions. “Uno comin’ tru to da’ russo boat.” His scratchy voice crackles again as one more adventurist tourist is added to our little group.
The boat rocks intensely, as I clumsily move to make room for one more to sit on the worn and splintered bench next to me. With six it was crowded. Interesting that I hadn’t noticed her before; before the Captain called her out as a single that was. Something she probably would have preferred for others not to know. I felt for her, like I do when I see someone dining in a fine restaurant alone. Here we were on the Romantic Island of Capri, along the idyllic Italian coast, soon to be entering into the mouth of the Blue Grotto, with its magical blue hues dancing on the water, something that should be shared with another, but she was alone. Spellbound by her ethereal beauty, my eyes were drawn to her as she entered our small domain. She moved with angelic grace, not at all affected by the rocking of the boat, or holding on to anything, just gently stepping over the other voyagers as they whispered in various languages seemingly unaware of her presence.
How did I miss seeing her in the crowd, I mused. She was really rather stunning; her long hair glistened like polished black coral. It cascaded down her shoulders in waves, like the sea as it gently rolls on to the beach. She was tall, very bronzed and… quite leggy. You couldn’t help notice her long legs, as they peaked thru the thin shimmering blue veil of her skirt flapping in the breeze. Her look was so different from mine; myself plain and simple, my porcelain skin and light hair in contrast to her dark, mysterious beauty, but I felt a kindred connection to her.
“Here,” I said. “There’s room next to me.” I made space for her on my right. I was also traveling alone but by choice so it was different, I always told myself. She moved towards me and nodded in appreciation as she sat down to share the bench. Interesting I thought; no purse, no shoes, no camera, no backpack.
Just then, our Captain, taking his place at the helm, takes one last count, “uno, due, tre, quarto, cinque. Bene!” The little boat jerked, then came under the Captain’s complete control as oars dipped two by two into the beautiful Italian Sea.
“Hello, my name’s Renne,” I whispered to my new bench chum. She turned towards me, but with a blank stare, as if looking straight thru me with her eyes swimming in the color of the sea. She then nodded again.
As our Captain began to row his familiar journey to the Grotto, I began my own journey and turned on my recorded English tour guide. A perfectly educated voice began the audio tour. First he described the precarious narrow entrance of the Grotto and how the Captain would tell us to lie down as flat as possible so we could safely enter thru the small chamber. The voice then described the many myths and legends that have entwined around the Grotto for centuries. “For some it’s believed that Sirens of the Sea would appear and lead sailors astray with their singing only to drown them in the Grottos, to be theirs forever. Many believe they haunt the Grottos still today, as mystical shadows dance on the water’s surface.” The voice was crisp, the English perfect and the story mystifying.
The short boat ride to the Grotto was beautiful; the ocean was as smooth as jeweler’s topaz. As the Captain rowed, the oars dipped cutting across the waves, time and time again, until finally his movements slowed. Abruptly, the chatter fell silent in the boat. The Grotto was looming in front us. Postcard photos and travel guides could not have prepared me for this moment I thought. I turned to my bench chum and quietly squealed, “Isn’t this exciting?” Once again, she turned and nodded, but this time her gaze remained focused on me for a minute or so. Her eyes like blue lagoons, deep and watery. Perhaps she didn’t speak English. I didn’t know, I didn’t care. Her eyes spoke volumes and were full of the same wonder and excitement, I knew I felt.
Suddenly I remembered that I hadn’t taken any photos. I had to do it now before we entered the dark Grotto. Once we entered there wouldn’t be enough light. I scurried, rummaging through my bag, quickly getting my camera out. Without focusing I squeezed off a photo here and there, then turned to my bench chum just in time to squeeze another one before entering the Grotto’s low and narrow entrance. She grabbed my hand, I dropped my camera. Suddenly the Captain hollers “Lie down!” Then repeated it in Italian. Just in front of us was the craggy rock exterior dipping down to the sea, outlining the cavern’s entrance, amazingly only a few feet wide in all dimensions.
I quickly put my head down. My bench mate was still holding on tight to my hand. I was amazed that she was frightened, or was she exhilarated with anticipation? Turning to her, just as we entered the Grotto, she looked neither frightened nor excited. Then her warm hand turned cold, almost clammy. Unexpectedly her hand broke away from mine. Suddenly the small tunnel entrance became engulfed in total darkness, my eyes couldn’t adjust quickly enough, I couldn’t see her next to me, not even her outline. Where I had felt her warmth before, I now felt a chill. I put my arm out to her, but only to feel something cold or wet, I wasn’t sure.
Light slowly filtered in behind us. The boat was now all the way into the Grotto. My eyes began to adjust. I quickly sat upright as an immense splash of water hit the side of our little boat, drenching me. I quickly turned to my right and slid across the bench looking into the water, only to see what looked like a large fin sliding into the depths. Had a huge fish suddenly jumped from the waters drenching us all? What had I seen? I wasn’t sure. I realized that I was sitting where my bench mate was before. But she was gone. Had she had slipped overboard, as some do, to swim the Grotto? The seat was but a puddle of water.
Frantically, I looked from side to side, looking to every passenger for her. She wasn’t in the boat. I scanned the water in the Grotto, trying to look past the fantastical blue hues that made for distracting shadows. “Captain, she’s gone!” I hollered again, “Captain, the lady next to me is gone.”
“Contrito, lady. No Engliza. No lady gone,” replied the Captain in his broken English.
“Yes, the lady next to me is gone!” I turned to the other passengers; all staring blankly, trance-like, into the watery depths. “Where’s the lady that was next to me?” I pleaded with the passengers on the next bench, “The tall beautiful lady.” I slowly reiterated.
“Contrito lady, no lady gone,” came the Captain’s second reply.
I became silent; I needed to think this out. I saw her, I held her hand, I knew I had. She wasn’t a figment of my imagination. I concentrated, thinking back on the morning and when I first saw her. My head began to swim, I was confused.
“We go now,” shouted the Captain.
“We can’t leave.” I pleaded. Suddenly, I notice the other boats had turned to exist the Grotto. “Where’s the lady? Look, she’s gone.” This time I demanded, “Let’s count. Yes, let’s count. One, two, three, four, five. There are only five passengers now, not six,” I declared in full command of my faculties as I pointed to each passenger.
Just then, the Captain leans into me, exceedingly close and in the very same crisp perfect English as the recorded tour guide, very firmly says, “You mean the Mermaid? Well yes, she’s gone. But, then Mermaids don’t exist, do they?”
The Captain grinned and leaned back, then ever so gently dipped his oars into the beautiful water; the beautiful waters of the Grotto; haunted by sirens, mysterious shadows and hues of blue.