Stars still shone, though dawn had already drawn the night into exile, when we approached the Île du Blanchomme.
I traveled for nine hours in silence, respecting my fellow passengers who had dozed into a peaceful sleep after an aromatic tea, like a password, or a bridge into dreams, had been passed around. Cinnamon, clover, cardamom -- trying to guess the spices had only made me more alert. Everyone else slept in touching abandonment, spread all across the deck of the boat turned into a rocking cradle. Leaning against one another, their clothes created a continuous row of vibrant colors and intricate patterns that marveled me. From the various tones of tanned skins, the shapes of shoes and sandals, to the highly elaborate earrings, necklaces, ankle and wrist bracelets in silver and gold adorning women, children and some younger men -- I entertained myself observing all.
Until I recalled my own melancholic arrival in Paris. Coming directly from the Apennines, probably looking funny in my rustic clothes that smelled to goats, I had attracted people's glances and stares that soon turned into amused smiles. Misplaced and ashamed, I had wandered for one hour in the corridors of the train station, trying to find the exit on my own. I kept returning to the same platforms over and over again, because the cacophony and frantic activity dumbfounded me. Like a baby taking the first steps, I had bumped into people and things, though I was carrying a single, perfectly manageable suitcase. I felt like a sad clown, newly arrived in town -- though entertaining Parisians in my zany confusion had never been my intention.
Leaving the boat's passengers to their intrinsic beauty, exotic to me only, I concentrated on the limitless landscape of sea and starry skies around me. The vessel creaked like its wood was on fire, as it rode the waves, and above us the sails flapped with greater fancy than my own ruined painting had, that very morning. Recalling the episode, I glanced at the corner of the boat where our belongings had been secured with rope -- in search of the new roll of canvas Armand had bought me in town. I smiled with gratitude at the renewed demonstration of his generosity -- and a sailor going by stared at me as if I had flashed a lighthouse at him, and smiling back, illuminated the night himself.
My dear ex-roommate had dozed into sleep, too, leaning against my shoulder. Unable to rest, I still closed my eyes every once in a while, and imperceptibly brushed my face against Armand's hair, content just to feel its softness. All about him spoke of a finer, gentler world that I had no access to -- unless in his presence. His familiar perfume caught me in its grip like only a daydream would -- comforting, it brought back the sophisticated Paris he had introduced me to. Remaining still even when we briefly stopped at other islands, in order not to disrupt his sleep, I caught brief glances of native villages over my shoulders. Fishing nets left to dry among torn branches of low trees, cauldrons boiling over bonfires, strings of naked lamps on the porches of wooden houses, an occasional donkey -- the simplest of lives flashed their surprises at me. Knowing none of those stops was our destination, since other people were embarking or disembarking, I did not worry about the journey. Armand had assured me it would be only the two of us on the Île.
His inner alarm woke him just in time to point me our island, delineated in silky black, set against a strip of silver sky rapidly giving into pale blue. In dismay, I calculated the tiny mass of land to be no wider than a hundred meters. Like tally marks made by a giant prisoner, palms were silhouetted against faraway clouds -- the horizontal scratch, telling the days, being a house. Since the distance kept me from distinguishing pillars from palms, the building seemed to float in the air, without a ground floor. When we were close enough and I was about to properly check the intriguing construction, the sun flooded and engulfed us in a golden current that melted and dissolved everything in sight. The house had simply taken flight in the sun rays, when we disembarked.
"This is all so beautiful!" Like a boy, I cheered excitedly at every form being revealed by the rising sun. Impossibly tall necks with a hundred wrinkles, palm trees reached to the sky, where their elegant leaves rustled in the breeze. Or were they coconuts trees, actually?, the farmer in me wanted to know. Fine sand shining so white, soft like sugar under my feet, seemed to free me from gravity, and I glided effortlessly in an outburst of curiosity. Rocks covered with barnacles, algae and mollusks of the strangest colors, had been shaped by invisible hands to stand like imposing landmarks on two opposite corners of the island. The intense fragrance of guavas ripening suddenly invaded my nostrils, while my eyes were assaulted by the several shades of blue that tinted the water.
"Armand!" I nearly shouted, sprinting towards the beach, leaving my friend behind on the small, precarious wharf to direct the unloading of our provisions. "I'm going into the sea to salute the sun, Armand! It is calling me! Do you hear it? Aren't you coming, too?" Waking to my shouts, the natives eyed me with interest, and for a while, impatiently, I held back my frenzy. But once the boat left and it was only the two of us on the Île du Blanchomme, I was again screaming. "I want to swim, Armand! Follow the golden corridor of the sun towards the horizon... Man, this is so gorgeous!" And without giving it a second thought, I stripped down to my underwear.
"You can go on, mon cher Carlo." Armand replied, calmly taking a seat on an old lounge chair under the shade of a compact group of young palms. Smiling, he watched me intently, as I hastily undressed. "It is gorgeous... Indeed." He said, nodding, and undoing his ponytail, to smoothly wave his hair in the breeze. "Enjoy it! But don't go too far. Beware of the tricky currents around the island. They are rather dangerous. That's just one of the reasons no one ever wanted to live here. I'll explain it to you, later. Now go on," As he tied his hair again, he motioned me towards the sea, "I'll be watching you. I'll be your life guard, ha-ha." His laugh became yawning, as he stretched his arms. "I think I need to take a nap. It wasn't easy sleeping in town. I guess I've grown accustomed to the incredible silence on this island."
While Armand reclined the chair, I jumped into the water.
The sea. At first, it had been an obstacle that the cargo ship had majestically overcome. At the port on the Elder Sisters Islands, it had become a detestable, stinky enemy. I had almost forgotten about its existence on the boat that brought us to the Île, because it constituted only the road to our destination, far less interesting than the people sharing the journey. But once it enveloped my body with equanimous solicitude, I understood to have found the essential poetry of the sea. Feeling its complete and unlimited embrace, I gave in. It could mercilessly kill, like Géricault had taught me, or give birth to Venus, as Botticelli had demonstrated. Swimming in the Indian Ocean that morning, I met my very personal sea. The salty, warm water splashing across my chest seemed to reach my heart directly. It murmured of seduction, addictions, surrender. And I knew the goat had become a fish, indeed.
Miracles do happen.
"So how was it, mon cher Carlo?" Armand asked, emerging from his dreams as I emerged onto the beach, close to the lounge chairs. The restoring nap under the sun had slightly reddened his cheeks, making his smile look fresher, and brighter. If I was in the position of a Venus risen from the sea, it was Armand who had the necessary delicate beauty to play her -- especially with his blond hair grown long.
"Call me 'Renato', from now on..." I replied. "In Latin, it means 'born again'... That's exactly how I'm feeling!" Throwing the head back and stretching my arms, as to be crucified for feeling too intense a pleasure, I declared emphatically, "Armand... this is the most beautiful place I've ever been on Earth! I cannot ever thank you enough for having invited me here! How did you even find this place?! And you said you've bought it! Mate, it is all so amazing!"
I was elated, in contrast to my ex-roommate, who serenely observed me as I danced and jumped on the beach -- not because I wanted to dry myself, but because I could not refrain my excitement. I was aware he eyed me from head to toe, as if he had never seen me before. Which, well, in a way was true. I was being noisier and more expansive than usual -- and he had never seen me bared down to my white underwear, either. Worn, loose, and wet, it revealed far more than decency would allow.
"Well, actually I haven't bought it." Armand started to explain, once I calmed down. I had let myself fall backwards onto the sand. My friend startled, but then he left the chair and we lay on the beach side by side, contemplating the horizon. "No one may own this island. But I now have the permission to live on it. And this island has no name, indeed. It was first called Île du Blanchomme by some bureaucrat of the Colonial Government, due to the only person to ever live here before, a German engineer named Herr Weissmann. He built this house." I glanced over my shoulder. Inventively constructed with the natural resources that could be found on the islands, thus looking camouflaged but still dominating the scenery, the dwelling sat at the center of the palms grove. I could not discern any windows nor doors. Some colorful curtains hinted where the rooms seemingly opened onto a continuous veranda that encircled the house. Standing taller than most trees, suspended some five meters above the floor, I still hadn't figured out how such a floating fortress was reached, since no stair seemed to connect it to the ground. "He was quite ingenious," Armand added, "and developed ways of having energy and water on this tiny island. But once Herr Weissmann died... Natural causes, it seems, but locals like to believe otherwise..."
Wondering how to continue, Armand paused, and I took the chance to again glance around. Before us, the sea spread like a magnificent tapestry of inlaid gems that continually shifted their positions, submerging and emerging, emerging and submerging with the currents. Liquid diamonds gleamed on the shore and gradually turned into ethereal aquamarines, their blue growing successively darker and sharper, escalating from topaz to sapphires, until near the horizon the water became pure light and merged with the sky. Stretching my arm, I touched the crystalline water. It was still hard to believe that I was there, on the Île du Blanchomme, in the Indian Ocean.
"This island never had a name, since no one ever inhabited it. But it did have a function for the natives in the past." Armand had a sweet, dreamy way of speaking, and his deep, silky voice, along with a precise pronunciation, made listening to him an addictive pleasure. "This was a 'Portal Island', as they called it. According to native traditions, women were not allowed to give birth on the major islands. They had to come here to deliver. The belief was that the baby had to be born around sunrise and towards its direction, so that the infant would be incarnated by a fine soul. Just as much as the old and the sick were not allowed to die at home, and taken to another Portal Island to pass away. And if they died before sunset, it was believed they were going to be reborn in a better condition. What natives did not want was the transit of dying souls, and those to be incarnated, to unsettle the living ones. That's why they separated the islands they inhabited from the Portal Islands, and sent the dying and the pregnant women with their aides to distinct directions."
"Alors, this is one 'Birth Island' we are now on, Carlo." Armand's glance met my eyes, and he was content to see me entranced by his narration. "Even though, occasionally, a baby or a mother or both must have died here, I guess. Herr Weissmann was given the rights to build and to live here because the Colonial Government did not want these native habits to perpetuate. They wanted women delivering their babies safely at the hospital, and registering them under the law. That was quite a while ago, and now the island is considered to be sacred, or taboo, by the natives." Laying on his stomach, Armand had been drawing something on the sand. An architectural sketch was my guess. Tracing a perfectly straight line, he united two different points and then said "It wasn't easy to find a boat who would bring me here for the first time... And it was even harder to find workers to rebuild the house, that had been completely abandoned after Herr Weissmann's death."
"Natives believe the island is still full of spirits waiting to be born, and dread coming here. Because these souls shall never reincarnate, at least not on this island anymore, they find themselves trapped here. They should suffer an awful lot, because of their lack of destiny, without any perspective of change... for eternity!" Armand erased his drawing, and started a new one with a triangle. "According to local legends, that should explain the strong and dangerous currents around the Île du Blanchomme, to be found nowhere else in the region. The tormented, wandering spirits cannot leave this tiny piece of land and are constantly encircling it, in a frenzied agony... But it is also thought that the currents keep them from fleeing and haunting elsewhere. It's like... with their torments, and the more they fight against them, they are creating their own chains to this prison." My eyes wandered around, trying to guess how that beautiful island, except for being so small, could resemble a prison. "That's also why no couples should be allowed to live on this island. Because, if a baby was conceived or born here, it would certainly bear one of these tortured souls. And no one wants that, of course. But it is alright for a single man... or two single men... to live here, ha-ha!" Armand turned over and sat, facing the ocean.
He had taken the shirt off, and his chest was covered with grains of sand that stick to his smooth skin and the blond hair, gleaming under the sun. It should have been natural, but I was embarrassed at seeing my friend bare-chested, for the first time in all the years we had known one another. I knew he was fit -- it just came as a surprise that he was also muscled, since he had never liked sports. An aristocrat, he had always had everything he wanted delivered to him, at the reach of his hand. But while I owed my swollen muscles -- that had survived hunger and a sedentary lifestyle in Paris -- to years of laboring hard on the farm, Armand's were exact and elegant like a ballet dancer's. Having become an adept of yoga in India was the explanation for his superb shape, as I would later learn.
"C'est formidable, Armand!" I exclaimed, at the end of his juicy narration. As I sat, I realized my whole body was covered with fine sand. Unlike my friend, I had sweated so much. The dark hair on my legs and thighs, on my stomach, chest and arms -- from coal black it had turned snow white. "So this island is populated with spirits. Even this beach is crowded, right now... We just don't see them, ha-ha!"
Armand laughed along. "Of course, I don't believe in any of this! As much as it creates a true torture chamber in the spiritual realm, it also creates a secluded paradise for us, keeping the natives away... And that's what really matters to me!" Armand smiled and faced the ascending sun, closing his eyes for a few seconds. "The hardest thing yet was to arrange a boat to come here and deliver supplies weekly. This is an untouchable island, after all. But money does wonders everywhere, even here!" He smiled secretively. "And since the workers have fled... they said they were being chased away by the spirits... I did not try to find anyone else." Armand sighed. "But doing it all on my own is quite hard, and boring, and that's when I thought... Who better than you to help me? My dear mate and best friend! And I'm so happy you are here, mon cher Carlo! I want to share my plans for the house with you. I'm thinking of maybe even turning it into a small guesthouse." He gently patted his own body, to take the sand away. "Aren't you hungry yet?"
"I confess I am." I replied, realizing the story about the island was over. "But I'm also hot, and I'd like to go for another swim." I was afraid I was smelling bad, too, as I watched streams of sweat opening copious channels on the sand that covered my muscles.
"Okay, enjoy it then! I shall start cooking lunch." Armand stood up, and the remaining sand fell off him in a golden rain that the gentle breeze blew away. "Like I said before, watch out for the currents. They are tricky. Very dangerous indeed. That is no legend!"
"Don't worry, Armand, I will." I said, walking backwards towards the water. "I'm not going far this time. And then I'll help you with lunch. In a moment." Again, opening my arms, I threw my head back and smiling, fell backwards into the water.
Once it captured me, I knew I had lied to Armand -- I just wanted to stay in the water for the rest of the day.
From the sea, it became clear how the palm trees, growing slower where it was windier, and more rapidly once sheltered in the grove, composed a gentle green arch stretching like a bridge over the island. There were few other tree types, and I was assuming they were the bananas and guavas I had smelled in the air upon arrival, though I had never seen those before. Compact groups of rocks, no taller than three meters, stood on the two extreme of the island, indicating where the bow and the stern should be in that implausible, immovable vessel. Still, I couldn't guess which was which, and risk pointing whether the Île moved forward or backwards in the ocean. Or even in time, propelled by the tormented souls forever chained to a Birth Island that had been officially declared dead.
Just because its natural materials blended with the environment, the house's ugly solidity was rendered gentle. Egotist and self-centered in its bunker like aspect, somewhat aggressive due to the lack of visible windows and doors, the construction still seemed to redeemingly float in the air. Below and around, only small bushes would grow in its shade, accentuating the impression of an impossible ascension against the laws of gravity, as if it were a boxy balloon.
I tried to spot any evidence of the wandering spirits that were believed to encircle the island. In contrast to the immobility of the house, trunks and leaves of the palms agitated themselves in the idiom of the winds. The radiance of the sun declaimed of colors and shadows depending on his presence to exist -- and posed a threat in which all would be any time annihilated in an ethereal white light that permeated the scenery like a fog. Boulders and sand paired to emanate a discourse on the impermanence of all things. Even the subtle boundaries of the Île permanently dissolved, in the of thrusts and pounds of the assaulting ocean. Enveloping my body, I could feel an army of warm hands with cold fingers, as the currents now and then tried to grip me and carry me farther from the shore -- as if the lost souls had sunk and were trying to drown me, too, pulling me down by the feet.
And unless those were the spirits -- the spirit of creation in all things, natural and artificial, grown and constructed, seen or imagined, manifesting in movement -- I could discern no others. But I did discern Armand going busily about on the beach, bringing provisions and even my easel, from the wharf to the shaded space beneath the house. Exercise would help him keep his shape, I pondered, but I knew I had to help him. My friend was storing the boxes in the small woodshed built underneath the house -- or so I thought it was. Having swam half way around the Île, running and jumping on the sand that had grown too hot as to burn the soles of my feet, I approached it from the opposite direction of which we had arrived, and realized it was a stair. The space under it had been closed to create a shack, and was thus used for temporary storage, Armand informed me.
"I don't ever leave food here. But today, we can bring it upstairs later." He explained, closing the door. "Not just because it would be easy for animals to reach it. To be honest, I haven't seen many on the Île. And I guess crabs wouldn't be interested in chickpeas..." Armand laughed. "Tidal waves." He said, suddenly serious. "This is the reason why Herr Weissmann built a suspended house."
I was not sure what he meant by tidal waves, but that was not why I followed Armand upstairs in dismay. The flight of steps that doubled as a shed would only reach halfway to the house. It was more like a platform lacking a diving board, pointless once there was only sand all around it. Two or three meters above us, the massive wooden square that constituted the floor of the house seemed impenetrable. Plumbing ran to one of the corners of the construction, down along a pillar and then into the soil, indicating the house was livable -- but still, I could see no entrance. About to make a silly joke on having to fly, I felt Armand gently grab my arm.
"This is the limit." He warned, pointing to a step that had been painted red, where we halted. "And this is where you secure the ropes. Or untie them, like now." He slowly undid the knots of the ropes tied to both rails, in a particular order that I would learn later. Immediately, an almost silent and very elaborate scheme of pulleys started working. Light broke from above us, as a retractile stair descended from the floor of the house. It landed smoothly on top of the shed, and stood open like the inviting tongue of a gaping mouth. Eager as I was to be swallowed by it, I followed Armand upstairs and into Herr Weissmann's ingenious house.