Saturday, November 1, 2014

Episode 08 | Rats on arrival

It hurt a lot, Laurent. Not my flesh, as it burned. The canvases on flames. Most of the works I had painted during the École des Beaux-Arts. But I didn't cry over the ashes of that bonfire.

The next morning, boat loaded, we left the port as the sun rose. Watching the French coast slowly fade into the morning mist, it was hard to evaluate how much I was leaving behind. I had all my possessions with me. But it seemed that th years spent at the École were also staying behind. Years if memories dissolved in smoke, my works turned into a spiraling fume that had vanished during a single Parisian night.

Had known I would never return to Paris, I might have cried a little.

But I did not -- know nor cry.

It was my first time on a such a huge ship. My first international trip outside Europe, actually. I'd never thought of myself as a traveler, and quite unexpectedly I was crossing oceans to the other side of the world.

I had never seen the sea, either. From the Apennines to Paris, it had only been mainland. And unlike others, I had never longed for the ocean -- how could I, when I knew not what it was? When I was a child, Tarso had said once that the sea was simply much bigger than a lake. Enough so that we couldn't see the other margin. He didn't make it seem quite attractive, did he? Thus the ocean was not ranked among my dreams.

At first, the ocean seemed more like a huge obstacle, between me and my destination. A mountain boy like I was, riding the cargo ship corresponded to be standing on the peak of a mountain, and the sea all around were the distant plains I did not long to visit.

The novelty of the vessel's routine and the sensation of movement made me thoroughly happy for a few days. But as time went by, it started resembling a prison. I recalled Rilke's poem, the panther in the zoo cage, going round and round and round, going nowhere -- though I knew the ship was ever moving.

Ports went by. Places I only saw from the distance. Places I didn't know, not even their names, and that I would never visit. Nor wanted to. They were mere anticipation, a countdown.

My heart felt peaceful. Yet, if sometimes painful, when I recalled my parents had died in a shipwreck. But I wasn't afraid to find myself on board of a ship, for no matter how hurtful, those were the faded recollections of a little boy.

Nor did I suffer from the growing distance that separated me from the places I had known. Not the D'Allegro farm where all my ancestors had always lived in the Apennines, but that could no longer accommodate my dreams. Nor the nostalgic Paris of my years of studies, that had burned down in the patio of an abandoned factory. Those memories were all mild, and bland.

And I didn't feel any anxiety towards my destination -- the Île du Blanchomme was no more than an exotic name that did not correspond to any images in my mind. Blank.

I felt detached from everything. 

Days seemed incredibly long and plain, and at night I felt I was floating in a boundless emptiness. Stars shone in the sky mirroring the distant cities that blinked on the horizon. When they slowly moved before my eyes, I guessed they were other ships. If they blinked and disappeared, to again reappear, I had already figured out they were lighthouses. And night after night, there was nothing else to be seen.

During those weeks on the ship, I dropped my meditation practice. Everything seemed to meditate around me. Everything was silent, neutral, empty, vast, uncertain, signless. And to my contemplative nature, life itself had become a single, uninterrupted meditation session.

I did not paint, not once, on the ship. Nor felt any motivation for it, since that last canvas I had finished at the factory. It hadn't been a bad painting, not at all, and with it in my hands I had returned to the public hospital, and given it to the doctor to express my gratitude. For the treatment, the compassion, and the new shoes.

I didn't befriend the sailors, though a couple among them were Italians. I did not try, I did not want it. At the end of my journey awaited Armand -- my best friend, my only friend, and that sufficed. Even the captain seemed to understand and respect my silence and distance. After the first evening that I had been to his table, unable to make conversation, I was left alone. 

My small bed, the long and narrow corridors, the resounding metal stairs, the barren room for meals, the multitude of decks -- I could always find a silent spot to be on my own. I wandered listlessly around, while I drifted around my own essence, as the ship slowly and steadily moved towards my destination.

And my essence was that of the loner. 

But I never felt lonely.

An introvert, I rejoiced in isolation. Reclusive. Intentionally, spiritually -- I felt seclusion was as much my destination as my destiny, both my faith and fate.

As usual, I felt more peaceful than happy -- and that seemed perfectly fine to me.

There was a storm, I vomited. The food was too spicy, I had diarrhea. Someone stole the book I was reading, I chose another one from a shelf on the corridor. The major obstacle was that one of the ports of call had been on strike, and the ship could not unload.

I arrived at the Elder Sisters Islands some three weeks later than appointed with my friend Armand. I was not surprised when he was not there at the port waiting for me, late in the evening. Laying my bundle of art stuff and the small backpack in a neat pile on the floor, I looked around.

The port was empty. No other ships had called in that day. The Port Authorities, the food stands, the shops, everything nearby was closed. The few passersby with whom I could communicate were very nice, but not very helpful.l -- only a couple could speak decent French.

No one had ever heard of the Île du Blanchomme. At my question, they regarded me as a madman. I checked again Armand's letter, even showed it to the natives, pointlessly. The Île du Blanchomme was unknown to all.

And I guess my thorn clothes were not helping me either in giving a good impression to the local people. They were all so tidy, using beautiful and colorful costumes like I had never seen before. They did not run away from me, but they regarded me in disbelief. Like I must have regarded them myself, and the landscape. The island was a mass of darkness enveloped by the silvery ocean. I had never seen anything so flat in my life. There was not even a hill on the island, as far as I could see. The mountain boy I had been was completely dumbfounded that the highest point could be the cranes in the port. 

I had not thought of a plan B. Actually, I had not thought of anything referring to my destination.

My friend Armand was the only plan. And he was nowhere to be seen.

That evening, emotional exhaustion knocked me down. I had dragged my bundle of belongings to a corner of the port, where I devised some picnic tables under the moonlight. I thought I could rearrange them, putting one on top of another, to create a shelter.  I had already made up my mind -- I was going to again sleep rough, and save the last francs for a meal. That if francs were locally accepted... Frustrated, I succumbed to prostration -- the tables were bolted to the floor. I then chose the one farthest from the trash, fearing that the tropical rats I saw roaming suspiciously around, big like cats, would bite me in my sleep, as if I were some kind of exotic food. I did not fear that the natives, who seemed to be a peaceful and welcoming people, would rob me, but I still made a pillow of my backpack, where I kept my last francs. 

After weeks under the oceanic skies, my starry canopy for that night left me unmoved. Five minutes of immobility, I had to unroll one of the painted canvases I had brought with me, to serve as a blanket. I took the one closest to me on the bench, too sleepy to consider I might be ruining it. I just longed for the oblivion of dreams that would take me away from the joke of feeling cold during my first tropical night.


My body covered with sea mist, feeling hungry and miserably cold from the wind blowing, I opened my eyes to the sunrise. Nearby, something was flapping, and I awoke thinking tropical vultures had arrived to devour me. 

Immediately, I recalled having used one of the paintings to cover myself. I tilted my head in the direction of the sound, to see the canvas flapping against a light pole. My heart skipped a beat, while I jumped and ran after it, the moment a whiff sent it flying. It was one of those I had painted at the factory, depicting the peeling paint of a formerly blue wall, a tiny plant growing out of a crack. The canvas was moister than I was, and wet on the top quadrant, probably from having lied in one of the several rain pools around the picnic tables. Scratched and ripped from the barbed wire hanging around the pole, that had at least prevented it from flying farther away, its damage was irreversible. Unless I cut it into a smaller canvas to save some of it.

Closing my eyes to everything around me, I still felt the wet canvas in my shaky hands. Bringing it to my chest, I could not avoid the tears. Abundant as they were, I cried silently. My head bent down, I confess that I expected my sincere tears to somehow restore my painting.

I was beginning to understand I had made a huge mistake.

Anything could have happened to Armand, I pondered. He might as well have been dead. I had crossed oceans, I had changed continents, and the only reference I had was this awkwardly named island that no one had ever heard of.

Like a sleepwalker, I slowly walked until the end of the wharf. Were it a road, I would have started my way back to Europe at once. But there was the sea. If it had seemed an obstacle seen from the heights of the magnificent ship, at the port it became my instant enemy.It stank to burnt oil and dead fish. Debris floated aimlessly around, speaking of losses and endings. Not exactly menacing, the sea seemed to turn its back on me, uncaring. Would I have to cross it again? Would Monsieur de Montbelle be a household name as good in the tropics, as to put me on a ship back to Italy, free of fare?

Otherwise, I would need to find work. The palms and other lush trees I saw around me announced my agricultural past wouldn't be of much use in an estranged natural environment. The natives wouldn't have sheep I could herd, would they? Could they need wall painters? The food stands on the other side of the street had been painted with bright colors -- a decade ago, at least. Was it lack of skilled hands, or did they testify an insistent carelessness about things decaying?

I sat heavily on the wet wooden boards,taking off my sandals, once I did not want to risk losing them, and let my feet dangle above the dirty water. A green bottle floated by, but it did not seem to carry any message. At least, not for me. And I finally asked myself -- Was I lost? Because I certainly was alone in a foreign land, with very little money and a bundle of things to drag around -- namely, my small backpack, the easel and a dozen rolled paintings -- one less, already. There should have been a roll of blank canvas, too, but I had forgotten it on the train.

I felt stupid. Either I had been expecting too much from life, or trying too hard to change my destiny. Weren't my best bets to simply continue the peasantry that had been my family history for centuries? The unrealistic dreams of becoming a professional painter had only led me thus far to an abandoned factory and next, to the hospital. All in Paris, but still... Finally, I found myself stranded on a foreign port.

"Carlo... Mon ami!"

I turned to distinguish Armand, gorgeously tanned, his beautiful blonde hair grown, calmly walking in my direction on the pier, like a king who owned everything around. And maybe he -- or his father -- really did. I was so deliriously happy to see my best friend that, barefoot like I was, I dashed towards him. To my eyes, his smile shone brighter than the tropical sun. 

"Buongiorno! Bienvenue..." We spoke our own dialect, that mixed French and Italian. "I'm so happy that you are here, mate!" Armand's affection overflowed through his words and warm embrace. His posture was so elegant, and naturally imposing, that I was always surprised to find out that he was actually shorter than me. In every other sense, he was taller, broader, bigger, better. "I've missed you so much, mon cher Carlo! I thought I was arriving early to meet you. When did you get here? I was informed your ship would call in today at 7 AM."

"I guess the ship was three weeks late... but twelve hours early! Ha-ha!" Now that Armand was before me, my desperation had immediately ceased, and I felt like making jokes.

"Where did you spend the night, mate?" He took off his sunglasses, and eyed me from from head to toe. His green eyes sparkled against the frame of his tanned face. As usual, he was impeccably shaved. "You look like a wreck, literally. Was it this night?" He glanced at the table were my backpack and the damaged canvas did look like an improvised bed. "Or life on the ship was that terrible?" Armand inquired, between amused and worried.

"Don't worry, Armand. The ship was fine. And last night was nothing compared to how I have been living."  I smiled, and shrugged, dismissing the memories of the toughest moments. "I'm so happy to be here, fratello mio!" Further down the docks, several small power boats and sailboats were engaged in a frantic activity. Between arrivals of fish-boats and departures of passengers' vessels, the island had suddenly become livelier. "When are we going to the Île du Blanchomme?" I pronounced it carefully, "Am I saying its name right? No one has ever heard of it, not even the locals!" My fears pacified, I was nevertheless intrigued.

Armand smiled mysteriously. "I guess they all know it by another name. Luckily, the boat that heads that direction leaves tonight. If you had arrived tomorrow morning, we would have to wait another week for the next boat! But then--"

"You mean..." In my confusion, I had unintentionally interrupted him. "There is only one boat a week going to your place?" I was still trying to figure out the situation I had gotten myself into. Maybe it was from having slept rough on my first tropical night, or having dropped meditation for so long, or feeling emotive at reuniting with my best friend, but I couldn't think quite clearly.

"Depending on the weather conditions, there is no boat at all!" Armand laughed. He was playing with his sunglasses, swaying it at the tip of his fingers, and that familiar gesture took me back to the Parisian boulevards for a moment. "But we are lucky!" He had continued, "We can spend the day in town, maybe do some shopping if you need anything... Do you need anything, Carlo? I took advantage of the days I waited for you to buy enough food for the next months, so that we don't need to come back here, any time soon. Or, at least, you won't have to. Where are your things? Is... that--" In dismay, he indicated with his chin my derelict pile, that more than one stray dog had already inspected, "all?"

"Apart from that--" I used his same tone of doubt, "I don't have anything, Armand. Just the small backpack, my easel and a dozen rolled canvases. And my painting supplies. The captain said wise travelers always travel light. I've taken his advice earnestly. Don't I look wise to you?" I winked, trying to look smart, but feeling rather foolish.

"Mate, you look like a bum!" Armand said, jokingly, and then he changed to a rather worried tone. "Are you serious? Don't you have any clothes other than these?"

"No I don't, Armand." I answered without hesitation, and it sounded quite defensive. Armand wasn't specially well dressed himself either, his leisure outfit looking simpler than anything I had ever seen him wearing before. But his princely manners and natural elegance would have turned rags into fashion, and anything and everything he dressed adorned his discreet beauty. "Is it a problem for the Île du Blanchomme?" Again, I pronounced it very carefully. It was hard to believe that a place unknown to all did exist somewhere over that ocean. And it was my destination. "I was hoping it would be barefoot elegance style..."

"Ha-ha, you're funny, Carlo." Armand stared at me, pensively. "It will be as you wish. Let's go into town, and if you think there's anything you like or need, just let me know. You are my guest on this part of the world!"

After so many months confined to the factory, where the only plants were weeds breaching the concrete and mold growing on the walls, the tropics seemed to give me a blast. Shamelessly colorful, flowers displayed sensuous forms and were strikingly perfumed, attracting insects that shone like gems and were chased by fancy birds I had never before heard nor seen. Flocks of gaudy parrots flew along the streets screaming at one another and competing for the best spots on trees, while dogs just yawned under the shades of leafy flamboyants. Singing on their way to school, children neatly dressed in uniforms waved at my friend and me, as street vendors warmed their voices in a commercial litany and, offering shells necklaces and hand-painted cloths, beckoned us. An incidental yet precious orchestration filled the clear air, as windows banging open and the sound of frying oil was dotted by the fine bells of bicycles lazily zigzagging and the trill of an occasional hummingbird. My nostrils dilated, seduced equally by bakeries and the fragrant frangipani -- to again contract, repulsed by the deadly smell of agonizing fish, caught and brought in that very morning. The sight of a basket full of them, wiggling and gasping for air, brought tears to my eyes. I sensed that all which seemed exotic to me was perfectly routine for everybody else -- even for Armand. The total absence of mountains or even cliffs where my heart could seek refuge made me more alert, and before the vast horizons where sea and sky blended in blue, my sense of perspective seemed distorted. For the first four or five hours I tripped repeatedly, unable to calculate the distances, under a white light that seemed to annihilate them.

During that whole day we spent in town, from morning until sunset, Armand introduced me to the local food and costumes. Men and women wore eyeliners equally, and their eyes were openings onto parallel universes. Both genres decorated their ears with flowers, too, so that vases were redundant and could be spotted nowhere. For the first time in my life, I tried seafood. Sizzling shrimps were brought to us on a hot tile, and they were tender like nothing I had tasted before. Fresh and fragrant oysters were so sensual to the palate that I blushed and felt embarrassed, as I slurped them.

With pleasure, Armand watched me feasting. "Enjoy it all, mon cher ami!" He would repeat,"We won't have any of that on the Île. Nor those, too"  He indicated the colorful crowd of passersby. "There won't really be anyone else on the island. Are you ready for the solitary life of a lost tropical island?" He patted me on the leg, and laughed, knowing I enjoyed solitude as much as he did. He urged me to try all fresh fruits from the market, since very few grew on the Île du Blanchomme. If I did not burst from drinking papaya juice with coconut water, and trying generous slices of ananas and other fruits I never learned the names of, it's only because I was again healthy, and in my early twenties. That afternoon, for dessert I must have eaten half a dozen mangoes. Ripened under the sun, they were as sweet as Armand's comforting presence.

Bittersweet, actually. 

There was an unexpected and sad, tragic note to our reunion. We had been walking on the wild side of the island, where the sea and the wind were rougher. Trees grew intricately bent and twisted, and rocks had been impossibly sculpted by centuries of waves crashing against them. The sounds of nature were so intense that we walked arm in arm, like we often had in the streets of Paris, speaking directly into the other's nearest ear.

"We'll sail tonight to the Île, mon cher Carlo." Armand hesitated, and his mouth twisted downward, indicating sadness. "But I have to be back here in a week, with the next boat. I'm leaving to France. My mother is seriously ill. I should have gone already, but I was waiting for your arrival, and I prayed..." He gulped, "to honor my appointment with life. That means you, my dear friend." His voice caught. "And the other one, too... With death." Armand's lips trembled. "I hope I can honor both."

I was taken aghast, and halted our march along the rugged coast. The ground shook as waves crashed in thunders, giving rise to curtains of spray that sometimes gently enveloped us. "I'm sorry to hear about your mother, Armand." I had to wait until a series of waves exploded, which allowed me time to take in another setback.  "I'm sorry for being late... And... I don't know what to say..." I gulped. Armand was so polite. But after years of friendship I had learned to read his intentions behind his tactful words -- and he was politely dismissing me. "I hadn't planned leaving so soon..." I had to be honest. I was disconcerted with that change of plans from my friend. Had I traveled so far and weeks long to spend just a single week on his island? "I don't think I have anywhere else to go..." And I knew I was finally lost.

Armand raised his left hand slightly, indicating he wanted to take the word. It was a very polite gesture, if still meant to interrupt me, and I immediately silenced. In Paris, that gesture coming from him had often avoided embarrassing situations I was about to get myself into. And recognizing his princely superiority, I had learned to better obey him.

"Why are you talking about leaving, Carlo?" Making sure he was going to be heard, he pressed his mouth almost directly against my head, and when he spoke, his tongue was almost licking my ear. His breath smelled like mine to the unsettling sensuality of oysters, and for a moment I did not know what to expect. "You have just arrived!" I sensed his lips curving into a smile. "I'm sorry to tell you these news so soon. But I pondered you ought to know." He was so close that the smell of his perfume, or was it his deodorant, was stronger than the salt in the water that washed over us. "I'm telling you just so we can really enjoy our short time together!" He squeezed my waist, as to reassure me of his intentions, that I had misunderstood. "And when I leave, I thought you could stay and run the house on your own until I come back." He paused, and meanwhile I felt his warm breath penetrating my ear. More than sensuous, it was peaceful, and I calmed down. "But we can discuss this later on." He grabbed my arm, urging me. "Let's get back to the port!" The distant sound of a siren was heard in between the waves. "Our boat should leave soon." And like when, in Paris, we had been late for a movie session, we ran -- boys chasing after the fading rainbow.

Armand raised his left hand slightly, indicating he wanted to take the word. It was a very polite gesture, if it still meant to interrupt me, and I immediately silenced. In Paris, that gesture from my friend had often avoided embarrassing situations I was about to get myself into. And recognizing his princely superiority, I had learned to better obey him.

"Why are you talking about leaving, Carlo? You have just arrived! I'm sorry to tell you these news so soon, but I pondered you ought to know. So that we can really enjoy our short time together! And when I leave, I thought you could stay and run the house on your own until I come back. But we can discuss this later on. Let's get back to the port, our boat should leave soon."

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