The First Rule of Swimming

A Novel

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A woman must leave her island home to search for her missing sister — and confront the haunted history of her family.

Magdalena does not panic when she learns that her younger sister has disappeared. A free-spirit, Jadranka has always been prone to mysterious absences. But when weeks pass with no word, Magdalena leaves the isolated Croatian island where their family has always lived and sets off to New York to find her sister. Her search begins to unspool the dark history of their family, reaching back three generations to a country torn by war.

A haunting and sure-footed debut by an award-winning writer, The First Rule of Swimming explores the legacy of betrayal and loss in a place where beauty is fused inextricably with hardship, and where individuals are forced to make wrenching choices as they are swept up in the tides of history.


Stay. The sun in foreign skies

will not warm you as this one does.

Mouthfuls of bread are bitter there,

where you are alone and without your brothers.

—Aleksa Šantić


The letter was written in a girlish hand, the purple letters drifting across the sky blue background of the stationery. It had been folded twice, and at the bottom, beside the picture of a rainbow, the sender had written both the Croatian and American versions of her name—Katarina/Katherine—as if to make sure that her younger cousin would not confuse her with another. Or to demonstrate, from the very outset of their correspondence, the advantage of being two people instead of one.

Magdalena had never seen handwriting like her cousin's. In the island school, pupils were instructed to make their letters slant to the right, not fill the page like soap bubbles. There was something foreign about the rainbow stationery, as well, and the way it had been engraved with her cousin's American name and Pittsburgh address. Although Magdalena was only eight, she immediately distrusted the feminine loops, the tiny hearts that dotted every i and j.

The envelope, in a matching shade of blue, had appeared in their mailbox that morning, covered with foreign stamps. It had been clumsily opened and resealed, and a fingerprint too large for a ten-year-old girl's had been left in the yellow glue, prompting Magdalena's grandfather to set his mouth in a worried line.

"They'll open anything," she overheard him tell her grandmother. "Even a child's letter."

It was a surprise to learn that the envelope was addressed to her. Not to her grandparents, nor to her younger sister, Jadranka. It was addressed to Magdalena Babić of Rosmarina Island, and it was the first time that she had received any letter, let alone one from so far away.

I am your cousin! it proclaimed, even as Jadranka whined to be allowed to read it as well. Do you remember me?

In fact, Magdalena could recall nothing at all about the older girl with the light brown hair, the one who had cast her arm around Magdalena's shoulder in the photograph that sat in her grandmother's vitrine. Katarina's family had left when Magdalena was only two, a shadowy period that she tried hard to recall. But she was never sure if the faces she sometimes pictured were real or simply her imagination.

"You cried for days after she left," her grandmother told her.

You used to carry a little stuffed lamb, the letter informed her.

It was unsettling to be told these things. To have a virtual stranger remember her before she could remember herself, and she turned the letter over to her grandfather without a word.

He read it intently, like a man decoding a foreign alphabet, and when he looked up, his expression was bemused. "Six years of silence and all we hear about is cats," he told Magdalena in a tone approaching wonder. "But not a word about your uncle."

Marin Morić, his only son, had left the island with Katarina's family, and Magdalena imagined the four of them living together in America today.

But when Magdalena's grandfather explained that Katarina's mother was his younger sister—which made the letter writer his niece—Magdalena frowned. "Does that make Katarina my aunt?" she wanted to know, prompting a laugh from her grandfather, who saw that she was displeased by such generational superiority.

"No," he assured her. "More like your cousin once removed."

The family tree did not particularly interest Magdalena. "Why did they go away?" she demanded instead. It was a question that had not previously occurred to her.

His eyes dropped to the letter as if it contained the answer to her question. I am in the fourth grade, her cousin had written in stilted Croatian. We go to the Church of St. Nicholas. My parents own a tailoring shop.

It was only then that Magdalena heard her grandmother, furiously scrubbing something at the kitchen sink. Her grandfather, too, seemed to grow aware of the sound in that moment, and he looked past Magdalena to study his wife's hunched back. "They couldn't live here anymore," he answered shortly. "Especially your uncle."

Magdalena had not yet reached the age of fitting such puzzle pieces together, although she understood that her grandparents avoided certain people in the village—informers, her grandmother sometimes said in a venomous whisper. But she could not fathom why anybody would want to leave Rosmarina.

She was about to ask more on the matter when he put up his hand, telling her more gruffly than was his custom, "Take your sister outside to play."


At her grandparents' encouragement, she wrote back to her cousin. She told her about the island school, how she and Jadranka went swimming when the weather was warm. She told her about their dog—the way Roki churned her legs in sleep as if she were running—and playing in the abandoned houses beneath the Peak. She knew that Katarina's father had also been a fisherman, and so she asked what kind of boat he had in America.

For Valentine's Day, Katarina sent her response on a construction paper heart. This envelope, too, had been opened and resealed, and her grandfather turned it over in his weathered hands. A pink heart had been glued to a larger red heart, and he carefully peeled the two apart. But his face fell when he found nothing inside. "I thought there might be something else," he told her with a sheepish smile.

The idea of a secret message intrigued Magdalena, and she studied the two hearts, attempting to decipher a pattern in the dried glue. There were two dots and a curve, but these merely formed a smiling face.

"Why doesn't my uncle write to us?" she demanded.

"Writing would just cause trouble," her grandfather told her. "It's different with your cousin because she's a child."

Magdalena did not understand the nature of this trouble, and in truth, her uncle was just another photograph to her. A one-dimensional young man, he stood on the top shelf of her grandmother's vitrine. Since her correspondence with Katarina, even her American cousin had taken on more life than that smiling man. Katarina's favorite color was purple and she rode a silver bike, but Magdalena's uncle remained as remote and unknowable as the faces that appeared on postal stamps.

Still, it seemed strange for her cousin not to mention him. "Maybe he's a tailor like Katarina's father," Magdalena suggested.

Her grandfather blinked hard at this. "Perhaps," he told her.

For several days Magdalena considered the matter, deciding finally that it was unfair for her American cousin to have both her own father as well as Magdalena's uncle. "My uncle should come back for a visit," she suggested hopefully. Her mother, after all, worked in Split but came back to the island once or twice a year.

"No," her grandfather told her. "There's nothing left for him here."

Magdalena was stung by this observation, but she forgot it with his next words: "Your mother considered taking you and going with them. But she decided against it in the end."

This news shocked Magdalena, and for an instant she allowed herself to imagine a world without Rosmarina, without the fruit from her fig trees or the fish from her shallows. The island was as much a part of her as her name or her straight, black hair, but she pictured herself living in Pittsburgh and riding a silver bike like Katarina. The last detail had made her envious, an emotion that now seemed traitorous. "I'm glad," she told him so forcefully that he smiled.

"I'm glad, too," he told her, although there was something strange about the way he said this.


The next day he told Magdalena to buy two postcards in the harbor, from one of the tourist stands along the riva. "Pick nice pictures," he told her. "But make sure that the postcards are exactly the same size."

She chose a picture of the Devil's Stones and another of an old woman tending her goats. The woman's face was so wrinkled that the lines appeared like cuts in her face, but the wiry goats reminded Magdalena of the stuffed lamb her cousin had mentioned, a toy that Jadranka had inherited and would not relinquish, although it had lost both eyes.

Her grandfather studied the postcards and finally handed the goats to Magdalena. "Write a message to your cousin," he told her, touching the top of her head with his hand. "Tell her about the last time we went fishing."

She was happy with this idea. But when she finished describing the way her grandfather had let her navigate all the way back to Rosmarina, she looked up to find that he was writing his own message on the second postcard. In light, penciled strokes, he filled the entire card, and only after he read through his words did he look up.

"We'll send our own secret message," he said.

He found some glue in a kitchen drawer, dotted the substance around the edges of his postcard, and placed his granddaughter's neatly on top.

For a moment Magdalena was disappointed that the goats had been covered up, but then she realized that it was not the picture her grandfather wanted to hide, but his message. "How will they know?" she asked.

"They'll know," he told her. He tested the edge with his fingernail and seemed satisfied when the two cards stayed together. "Let's just hope that nobody else does."

Magdalena did not know who these letter openers were. They read other people's mail before sending it along, days or weeks later, and did not bother to cover up evidence of their trespass: a coffee ring or underlined word had been known to decorate the letter inside. She understood that her grandparents found such behavior shameful but that they saw no point in going to the police.

"They already know, Lena," her grandfather had tried to explain.

He warned her not to mention the postcards to anybody else, and she understood that it had something to do with politics, just like her cousin's departure from the island and the reason her uncle could not come back. Just like the neighbor whose son had been sentenced to hard labor because some anonymous snitch overheard him complaining to tourists on the beach about the way things were. But she did not stop to wonder if there would be any consequences to their secret message, even when her grandfather returned white-lipped from the port one evening.

"I hear your American niece rides a silver bicycle," a man he did not recognize had told him at a newspaper kiosk on the riva.

But he did not think that they had discovered the secret message. "If they had, we'd know it," she heard him tell her grandmother.

Magdalena knew that they had all been questioned following her uncle's escape: her grandfather, her grandmother. The police had kept her mother for several nights.

"What did they ask her?" she wanted to know when she learned this detail.

But her grandfather claimed that her mother never spoke about it.


Months went by without a response from Katarina. When summer came, her grandfather told her glumly, "Best not to get our hopes up, Lena. It's possible that they just threw the postcard away."

Magdalena knew that he did not mean her cousin's family. She imagined the missive, carefully glued to conceal its true purpose, in a trash can somewhere. But she could not truly see it covered with cigarette ashes or somebody's half-eaten lunch, and so each time she ended by imagining it flying across the Atlantic Ocean, an arrow fired with such expert precision that it was certain to find its mark in America.

She saw her mother infrequently, awkward occasions that were like visits from a stranger, and her own father had drowned at the age of twenty-seven. And so she plunged down the only avenue of fantasy that was available to her. She imagined her uncle prying the postcards apart, and how he would see her grandfather's message and devise an equally ingenious method of response. All that summer Magdalena pictured what this might be: words written in invisible ink, a coded message, perhaps something as simple as a picture. She had asked Katarina to include a photograph in her next letter, and she imagined that it would show the two of them, perhaps riding bicycles together. She pushed back jealousy at this thought.

She knew that her uncle had fished often with her father, and that he had been her own godfather. She had seen the family photographs to prove it: Marin smiling in his suit, herself a tiny baby. She daydreamed about his return to the island, despite her grandfather's warning. Perhaps just for a visit, bringing American chocolates, going fishing with them and taking them for walks along the riva, the same way that some of her schoolmates' fathers did. She spent long moments studying the photograph in her grandmother's vitrine, and with time her uncle's face took on the dimensions of an actual, living person. She imagined that his skin was still the same nut brown, his arms as wiry as the ones that had pulled fishing nets from Rosmarina's waters.

She longed to ask her mother about him. But Ana Babić arrived for her weeklong visit to the island in an even worse mood than usual. "Look at those fingernails," she muttered within moments of disembarking from the ferry, grabbing one of Magdalena's hands, so that her daughter merely counted the hours until her departure again.

All that summer, when she was not fishing with her grandfather, Magdalena prowled the deserted hamlets below the Peak. The houses there had stood empty for years. The first waves of emigration had taken place before her grandfather's birth, and the descendants of the houses' former inhabitants had their own lives as storekeepers or secretaries in faraway places like Canada and Chile. But although her grandfather cautioned her periodically about crumbling walls and falling roof tiles, she moved among the ruins like a cat.

Hardly anyone lived beneath the Peak anymore, and Magdalena liked the loneliness of those stone houses. They were ideal for games of hide-and-seek, and she often took along Jadranka, who was four years younger. She liked to stand on the stone porches and look out towards the sea as Jadranka played behind her.

Her grandfather had once shown her the house where his own mother had been born, the stark stone building with its caved-in roof and the small carob tree that had sprouted between two slabs of stone. She liked running her hand across the hewn limestone, the occasional carving or Latin inscription like some magical braille.

Luka Morić often pined for the island of his youth, when more of the houses had been occupied and every plot of arable land provided an abundance of fruit and olives. But his granddaughter had no way of imagining it; the houses had been empty for as long as she could remember them, and besides, she liked the way the wind made strange moaning sounds in their rooms.


She got so far with fantasies of her uncle's arrival that she prepared a place for him on the Peak. The house she chose was her favorite. Its roof was still intact, and although the second floor had collapsed, it had a tiny balcony above the front door, a rare flourish in a section of the island where structures were built for durability. Its positioning made it impervious to the worst winds, and even on days when a bura blew—when climbing the hill was difficult and their grandfather believed she and Jadranka were playing with other village children—the house offered shelter.

They began by carrying out the rubble, each day adding to a growing pile. She improvised a broom by tying together several branches from the carob tree and, once, tried to light a fire in the hearth, but smoke poured into the room, forcing them outside until the small pile of tinder extinguished itself.

"The chimney must be blocked," she told Jadranka, feeling foolish.

Their grandparents were preoccupied that summer. The country's president had died two years before, and the island, like everywhere else, had been gripped by uncertainty. Their grandfather watched the news obsessively each night and pored over issues of Free Dalmatia as if they, too, carried some coded message about the future.

Although their grandmother chided them when they returned with torn and dirty clothing, their hair filled with grit from the crumbling house, she rarely asked where they had been. Once a week, she placed them side by side in a hot bath, rubbing their scalps with her strong fingers, toweling them dry afterwards with such vigor that it made their ears ring.

"Why are you and Dida sad?" Jadranka asked her once in the middle of these maneuvers, prompting the older woman to hug both girls, soaking wet, to her chest.

"We're not sad," she told them, lifting the younger girl onto the bath towel. "We're just old, your grandfather and me. And we've been disappointed by the world before."


Magdalena did not understand the nature of that disappointment, nor whether those words had anything to do with their uncle, or Comrade Tito, whom her grandmother regarded with distaste, but also a certain grudging respect. Or with something else entirely. But towards the end of the summer, a familiar blue envelope appeared in their postbox.

Dear Magdalena, her cousin had written. I am sorry that it has ben so long since my last letter. I liked the postcards of Rosmarina, especially the woman with the goats.

Magdalena felt her heart lurch, remembering that it had been covered by the postcard of the Devil's Stones.

You asked about my cat, Marvin. I have sad news. He wandered off some time ago, and he has never come home since. We don't know what happened to him, whether a car got him or if he found another home. It's been a long time now.

Magdalena stared at these words over her grandfather's shoulder.

"I thought her cat's name was Lola," she said.

But she realized her mistake when her grandfather bent forward over the table like a man in physical pain: there was no cat named Marvin. Only an uncle who had disappeared somewhere down the rabbit hole of America.

A small white rectangle had fallen out of the envelope onto the kitchen table, and she picked it up to find a picture of her grinning cousin. Light brown hair was feathered back from a heart-shaped face, and she wore braces, but her eyes were small and hard. Piggy eyes, Magdalena decided suddenly, hating this cousin who had lost her uncle.

She ran from the house, not even waiting for her sister, who was playing in the courtyard and called after her. She ran so that her sandals slapped the street with whiplike sounds, and did not stop even when she reached the dirt road that ascended the Peak. The town fell away behind her, and she had the sensation, for a moment, that she was flying, her feet nothing but motion and dust. Evening was falling, and somewhere far below her a man called out a name that was not hers, nor her sister's. The sound made her run faster, upward through the fallow olive groves to where the abandoned houses sat upon the hill.

Part I

Chapter 1

Although it had been over sixty years since the occupation—and more than four thousand miles separated her from Rosmarina—Nona Vinka was convinced that the reprisal would take place that afternoon. A few unlucky souls would be rounded up in the village and taken to the Devil's Stones, just beyond Rosmarina's harbor. The distant crack of gunshots would break the hushed silence of the riva, and then those same rowboats would return without their cargo, the oarsmen unable to meet the eyes of the few who waited there. This was why she had ordered her American grandson to hide beneath her bed.

She sat above him, so tiny that the mattress did not sag beneath her weight and her feet barely touched the floor. She was crocheting something, a cream-colored length that grew steadily in her hands as Jadranka observed her from the doorway. On the television across the room, a woman with very white teeth was advertising something: a bar of American soap, perhaps, or breakfast cereal. But there was no sound, and the set seemed to function solely as a source of light. Its flickering caught the darting of the crochet hook as it passed in and out of the wool.

At six, Christopher was still willing to humor his grandmother in a way his older sister, Tabitha, would not. He had wedged himself obligingly beneath the bed and grinned at Jadranka from between Nona Vinka's slippered feet.

"Is it fascists or communists this time?" Jadranka asked him, noting that the older woman did not look up at these English words.

"Fascists," he told her, although he appeared uncertain. In recent months, his grandmother had regressed into a dialect so thick that he needed his adult cousin to translate. Nonetheless, he understood the insistence of her hands, the way she lifted the coverlet and motioned him into that hiding place, her voice entreating him to be silent.

Nona Vinka had lived in America since 1977. By all accounts, she used to speak English, something even Christopher's sister remembered. "Da veels on da bus go rount and rount," Tabitha would sometimes sing, but the blank expression on the older woman's face made it clear that she never understood this joke.

Jadranka wondered if the English words were simply gone, or trapped beneath sludge so thick that they only sometimes made it to the surface. "Apples," the older woman had surprised them all by saying last week, then proceeded to laugh uproariously at this word. But when Jadranka cut up an apple, removing the skin so that it did not get stuck in Nona Vinka's dentures, she merely looked perplexed.

She spent most of her time conversing with her dead sisters, unable to grasp that she and Luka were the last of their siblings to remain. And when Jadranka tried to explain that even her grandfather had suffered a stroke the year before, the older woman only nodded sagely. "Have you seen my brother?" she asked a moment later. "It's getting dark."

But while Luka lay insensate on Rosmarina, Nona Vinka had become an adroit time traveler. In one moment she was off to tend the goats, and in the next UDBA assassins were lying in wait for her husband in the bushes outside their house.

It always took Jadranka a moment to catch on to her role; sometimes she was one of Vinka's sisters, sometimes a childhood friend from the island. It was easier to play along, even as she was observed by those sharp, black eyes but never really seen.

But today it was clear that the older woman was more terrified than nostalgic, that she had averted her eyes from the figure lurking in the doorway. And so Jadranka walked slowly into the bedroom and sat beside her on the bed. "What are you making?" she asked softly in the island's dialect.

The crochet hook stopped in midair. "It's for the baby," Vinka said, holding up the rectangular length for Jadranka's inspection.

For this anonymous baby, she crocheted day and night. Blankets, booties, caps: she turned out more woolens than a factory, garments that filled brown paper bags and which her daughter donated to charity.

Jadranka knew nothing about crocheting—had not been patient enough to learn something as simple as sewing on a button, though her grandmother had attempted to teach her several times—but she admired her great-aunt's even stitching aloud. "That's very pretty," she told her.

The hook began to move again, and Jadranka watched it go in, then out. Beneath the bed, Christopher was so quiet that Jadranka suspected he had fallen asleep. She thought that she could feel his even breath on her ankles.

After a moment of silence, Nona Vinka shifted beside her on the bed. "Are they gone?" she whispered, her eyes once again avoiding the doorway.

Jadranka studied that empty space. "They left hours ago," she assured her.


Jadranka had arrived in New York in January, when the weather was so raw that her cousin immediately took her shopping for a new winter coat.

"I have a coat," Jadranka protested.

But Katarina only looked skeptically at the three-year-old peacoat Jadranka had brought with her. "That will let the wind go right through you," she said, browsing the coat racks in Saks Fifth Avenue. "And the stuff they make over there is shitty quality."

She selected a down-filled coat that reached past Jadranka's knees, then tied the belt so tightly that it forced the breath from her lungs. When she turned Jadranka to face the store's mirror, the reflection's red hair was startling against the charcoal color of the coat. "You're not on a small island anymore," Katarina told her softly, resting her chin on the younger woman's shoulder.

Jadranka was tempted to point out that she had bought the peacoat in Italy and that winters were cold even on Adriatic islands, but she had already realized that it was useless. In Katarina's mind they were all trapped in amber on Rosmarina, a place she knew as much from her parents' descriptions as from a single childhood trip in 1984.

The cousins had not seen each other in more than twenty years, although they continued to exchange letters. Jadranka and Magdalena had taken turns answering this older American cousin whose details of slumber parties and ice-skating classes were as remote to them as life on Mars.

Last year, it was that distant correspondent who boldly suggested that Jadranka come to America. It will be good for everyone involved, Katarina had written, their exchange of letters having outlasted communism.

On Sale
May 28, 2013
Page Count
337 pages