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An architect would not have aimed solely at precision and solidity -- but Herr Weissmann was an engineer. Beauty was not a concern for him, like functionality and practicality were. He believed firmly in universal laws and indestructible principles encompassing measures and ratios, and lived according to them. A very rational man, he had never envisioned his house occupied by artists, who he somehow feared and despised, and could not trust, in the understanding that their souls, made differently from his, were more inclined to chaos and unrule than his ever would -- and yet.
To fulfill his determination to retreat from the world, he built his suspended house for himself only, on a very simple plan. A bit damaged by time and weather, but very precise and clean, it could still be seen in one of the yellowing notebooks that had survived in a drawer of his table at the office. In an impressive act of exactitude, he had made a single, rather neat drawing, to then execute the house exactly like planed.
Holding a fountain pen of brown ink with a firm hand, he had traced a square within a square -- and the house, and the veranda around it, had been created. He subdivided the inner square into nine equally smaller squares, thus configuring the rooms. And that was it. To avoid doors and windows, he had opened the rooms directly onto the veranda, and the house resembled the cross on the Swiss flag. Because of that, Armand vented the possibility that the engineer might have been Swiss instead of German, as it was said. Having arrived in the region by the end of the forties, Herr Weissmann might have been a war criminal. A special detail in the house, a hidden room that I would discover only a couple of days later -- not shown in the plan --, indicated that he might have been a fugitive indeed. Where did he come from? How did he get to that part of the world? What was his first name, even? The journals that had also survived where rather philosophical, up to the point when he had started building the house -- then, they became mainly technical. Personal details and impressions had been deliberately left out, it seemed.
The only exception, contradicting his aversion to art, might have been the richly detailed drawing, central to the plan, which contrasted with the simplicity of the rest of its traces -- a compass rose, beautifully and carefully worked with watercolors. A different color had been picked from the spectrum for each of the eight cardinal points. Perhaps he had even started by drawing it, just to entertain himself? The squares might have been just guidelines to help him draw the compass -- but instead, out of necessity or inspiration, a house had been born. Who could tell? The center of the compass rose, where Herr Weissmann had drawn a proper rose, its many petals shaded in bright red, crimson and pink, sat at the exact center of the house. Each of the eight surrounding squares -- or rooms, when they had become three-dimensional spaces -- lay under one of the cardinal points.
Two of the rooms were bigger. The bathroom was a rectangle occupying the adjoining squares at the center and to the South, big enough to accommodate a power generator, the water pump system, the equipment for collecting rain and dew, plus a toilet, a bathtub, a sink and a mirror. The other larger room, taking the North and Northeast squares, was Herr Weissmann's own room, now occupied by Armand, with a double bed, a dresser, a mirror and a bench, all very simple and that might have been built by the engineer himself, too. Next to this, on the East square, pointing directly to the sunrise, was a smaller room with a single bed, a sofa and a shelf full of books, making it the library -- and the room I would occupy. The Southeast square was the living room, almost bare because it had suffered more intensely from the infrequent storms that would approach the island from that side. Except for one sofa and two chairs, that room was empty, since all the furniture had been greatly damaged. Armand learned from the natives that Herr Weissmann's body, in advanced decomposition, had been found laying in that room, and the workers had never entered it. A person dying on a Birth Island was not just considered taboo -- it was doom. At Southwest was the dining room, and next to it, on the West square, facing sunset, the kitchen. The last square, at Northwest, Herr Weissmann had turned into his office. There, Armand kept more books, stacks of boxes and the precious radio. He had been standing in that square, the office at Northwest, when I had phoned him from France.
To replace the walls erased from his drawing, the engineer had set wooden columns in a regular distance from one another, into which he could insert partitions whenever he wanted to close the rooms to the veranda. He had crafted himself those partitions from palm leaves, but the wind blew many of them away during the years of abandonment that followed his death, while the rest had simply moldered. Armand replaced them with colorful curtains, in geometric patterns typical from local tribes.
Wide enough to accommodate the retractile stair -- spacious enough, even, for a car to drive through it --, covered like the house itself, the veranda framed the house, guarded by an uneven guardrail built from driftwood, but otherwise completely open to the enveloping landscape. As we navigated it while Armand showed me each room, he opened the curtains, that had been fastened before he left to the Elder Sisters Islands to meet me. The sunlight immediately invaded and conquered the rooms, liberating them from the darkness in which they had slept for weeks, while the breeze, blowing through the rectangular openings that provided the ventilation, located in regular intervals at the bottom and top of all walls, took the curtains on magic carpets flights, instantly replacing the damp atmosphere with a pungent scent of salt and rotting guavas.
It is my first memory from the house, as I stood on the veranda at the Northeast corner, in front of Armand's room where he had gone in to change.
Looking South, and West, I saw two rows of a dozen curtains undulating in the breeze. As they flapped, specks of dust sparkled flying through beams of sun. One curtain down the veranda ascended as high as to touch the ceiling, and then, loosing momentum, in a gracious arch fell back against the wood column that sustained it, with a lash. Sometimes, the tips of palms leaves would be sucked by gushes of wind inside the veranda, to kiss the stretched curtains. But there was no rhythm to that choreography, as the choreographer roamed freely through and about the house, and each curtain seemed to surf its own wave with a very personal style. Right before me, starting a steady ascent coming from Armand's room, a curtain lifted itself in the air. I watched a cloud of tribal patterns in yellow, red and purple stretch towards me, like a giant tongue or a snake, until it touched my left arm. Shy in its caress, it retreated and descended to my thigh, to suddenly gain the space over my head, in a curve stretching to my other shoulder, where it flapped a little, until the wind sucked it back into the room. That moment, I felt like the house was welcoming me. Set against the blocks of morning sun drawing squares and triangles on the old boards of the floor, having the blue sea and sky in the background, the curtains seemed to dance that stunning aerial ballet in an homage to freedom and gaiety like I had never seen before. And that was already Armand's soul quest for beauty interfering with the stiffness of the original house -- made of rough but light cotton, the curtains incorporated the sun and the wind, adding movement and color to the building like Herr Weissmann's partitions never had.
In the stronger contrast that light and shadows played in the tropics, the lesson taught by Impressionists -- that shadows had shades of colors --, seemed to be no longer valid. Standing in the blinding sun, my glasses in the pocket of my shirt that I had left by the beach, the far end of the room where Armand changed his clothes seemed immersed in pitch black darkness. His tanned skin having blended with the shadows, only his hair indicated where he was, a strange cascade of gold that shone like a meteor crossing the night. Like paper lanterns suddenly catching fire inside a cave, his tan line flashed white and equally floated in the air for a minute or so, as naked, he fumbled through the dresser -- and I had to start wondering how would it be to share a house without doors, not even at the bathroom.
Next, Armand emerged wearing tennis shorts only. They were impossibly bright red, a color I had never seen him wear before. I finally relaxed, inferring I could go in my underwear for the rest of the day, too. The clear thump of his barefoot steps on the wooden boards of the veranda, as he led me to the kitchen on West, reminded me that he had always worn old-fashioned velvety slippers in the apartment we had shared in Paris. The town suddenly seemed to belong to a lost civilization.
Not until late afternoon did Armand and I finish lunch. We had a lot to talk about and catch up for the months gone by, since we had last seen each other, after we had graduated from the École. He was the one doing most of the talking, while I listened not just politely, but with eager interest. And I was the one doing most of the eating, so that my mouth was busy and full, too. I was starving from swimming, and compelled to scrape my plate and the bowl with vegetarian pasta Armand had cooked so well.
Having acquired two tables and four chairs from a restaurant that was closing down at the Elder Sisters Islands, Armand had recreated a bistrot atmosphere that was so familiar and dear to us. Not that we would frequent them, since I never had the money for such, but they everywhere in the Parisian neighborhood where we lived. Despite the sea being just a few steps downstairs, and though Armand was not talking about an exhibition or a play but instead of long journeys on trains or trucks to the remotest villages in Asia, his voice did muffle the gentle breaking of wavelets, its cadence immersing us in the timeless and motionless bubble of seclusion where our friendship happened.
"But now I want to invite you to go to the movies..." He smiled secretively, standing up and offering me his hand, that still smelled from the aromatic spices he had used in cooking, his fingers colored from a dark red powder he had called Tandoori masala. "Let's go back to the beach, mon cher Carlo!"
"Movie... what movie?" An invitation that was so familiar sounded odd. Going to the Cinematéque Française had been one of our best loved activities during the École... How many hours had we spent watching movies, and how many more discussing them? But on that forsaken island?
"You'll see." Armand smiled, as he took me by the arm and led me towards the stairs. "Can you close your eyes until I tell you to open them again? Do you trust me?" He asked, gently swiping his hand across my face, in a caress closing my eyelids.
Armand guided me down the stair, and across the sand, cool under the house and very warm once we left the shadow of the building. I abandoned myself to my other senses, that I usually reputed as less important for a painter, surrendering to my friend's hands, guidance and proximity. "One more minute, we are almost there." He murmured. Armand was walking slowly, zigzagging through the bushes, so that I could easily keep the pace and not feel intimidate by walking blinded on an unknown island.
"This is it, mon cher Carlo." Armand whispered, as we stopped. "I hope you'll enjoy it."
I gasped as I opened my eyes. A couple minutes had passed since I had closed them, but now everything was ravishingly illuminated by the golden setting sun. The orange sphere was on its route to touch the far away horizon, and either reluctant or enjoying itself, the sun made a very slow descent. Time, I had already noticed, had a different pace on the island. And I sensed one of the reasons was the miraculous light, infinitely beautiful and spiritual, that not only engulfed all things, but penetrating their core, transmuted matter into soul.
"Armand, do you want to swim towards the sun?" Mesmerized, I did not turn to look at my friend, as I invited him. "I think I have to! Like I saluted him this morning, I want now to say farewell..."
Armand mumbled. "Actually, I had something else in mind." He hesitated. We were standing right at the shore, and the water teased our toes. "You know, it's not just a single movie. It's more like a film festival on this island." He was smiling, probably recalling the Cannes Festival editions he had been an habitué to, since his teenage years. "I'll wait for you here, then. Don't be long, okay?"
"Okay." What else could I say? I was not sure I had understood the film festival part, but I did not want to contradict my friend. "It'll be just a minute!" Though I actually planned to stay in the sea until the sun disappeared, sunk in the water.
"Grazie, Dio." I had started praying once inside the water, taking in the grandiose, transcendental scenery of the Indian Ocean that surrounded me. The water and the currents were gentler than in the morning -- perhaps, I had just begun to befriend them. They seemed to have direct access to my bones and blood, as if my muscles and flesh were a thinner membrane than I believed. "Thank you, Universe. Thank you, Life." I sensed I was swimming through life itself, immersed in its origin, progressing on a golden path that led me not just towards the horizon -- but into a brighter future. "Whatever name or form you take, thank you for keeping me alive until this moment." I then said it loud, though not enough that Armand could hear me, but as if Someone else was listening to me. "Thank you. Grazie."
Just then, I heard Armand shouting from the beach. "Carlo! The other session is about to begin! Please come!"
Armand almost dragged me out of the water, and urged me to run to the other side of the island -- which meant no more than a hundred meters away. He indicated the lounge chairs with a bow, like the classiest usher would, and took his place next to me. And that was it? Had I been hijacked to stare into the empty horizon? As I silently sat there with my friend, our backs turned to the most beautiful sunset I had ever witnessed, I have to confess I was greatly disappointed. Why sit on a chair, as if we were back in a Parisian park, when I could celebrate my first sunset on the Île du Blanchomme swimming in the Indian Ocean?
My best friend was certainly committed to being the best host, and so I should try to be the best guest. But staring at an empty sky seemed pointless to me, while a spectacle took place behind us. The first stars blinked, okay. I had seen them from the cargo ship. The sky displayed shades of blue I could not reproduce myself. Okay, that was a lesson I could learn. Unless it was another meditation technique Armand was trying to teach me...
Then, I saw it.
An enormous full moon rose slowly over the ocean. The silvery sphere, like a heavily loaded balloon slowly detaching itself from Earth, left an oscillating triangular path of crystal bright crests over the ocean, stretching from the horizon to the shore where it reached the feet of our lounge. I was paralyzed, oddly holding tight onto the arms of the chair, as if gravity was leaving the planet, too, with the departing moon. I felt my heart swell, and tears came to my eyes.
I shouldn't have doubted my friend.
If there was one other person that, like me, cherished his privacy, it was Armand de Montbelle. That was the base for our getting along so well -- we understood each other's need to recharge in solitude. As roommates in Paris, we had respected each other's seclusion like it were an indisputable religious belief.
It was thus such an unique privilege to have been invited to his private hideaway. Because he was princely, enormously polite, he had himself found me an excuse to be there -- that he needed my help "to refurbish the place". But I knew it wasn't true. He could have brought the workers he wanted from Europe; he did not have to depend on the locals -- or me -- for his well being.
"You don't have to, mon cher Carlo!" He held me tight, and I thought, all over the years, that only his hug had felt like home. "I cannot express my happiness in this moment, either." He looked me straight in the eyes. Opening his mouth to say something else, after a moment of hesitation he just shook his head, as if having changed his mind. He smiled and said, "And the day is not over, yet. The night has just begun. Can I introduce you to the nightlife on the Île du Blanchomme?" He laughed. I had never accompanied him on his nightly excursions in Paris, with the excuse that farm life in the Apennines had accustomed me to turn in early. Armand knew very well it was again a question of money that kept me home bounded, and since he could not pay for me more than he already did, we had left it to that.
"Ha-ha, after this superb film festival I'm thrilled about the nightlife..." With everything seemingly free, I could finally accompany him, couldn't I? "But not tonight, Armand. All I really need now is a bed."
"Are you serious, mate?" He was disappointed, and not just out of politeness like it had been in Paris, when he took my excuses for what they were -- necessary measures to ensure my survival --, but yet felt like manifesting he would miss my company. He raised his eyebrows, his lower lip drawn in a sulky pout -- and I guessed to be glancing at the spoiled child Armand might have been. "Then I'll show you the lodging options!" He laughed, and shrugged, denoting I was not so much a lost case.
Dragging me by the arm, he challenged me to race back to the house. Trying to beat the other, we deliriously jumped over bushes and weed, their contours barely visible against the white sand, faintly illuminated by the distant light of the moon, and I only lost when my worn underwear finally slipped past my thighs, and I fell on my knees.
Looking relaxed in a way I had never witnessed before, Armand too was wearing his red shorts only, and I thought I had never seen him so bare. His body still displayed a few patches of sand, mainly on his chest and between his thighs, where he was furrier. But he did not seem to care nor feel 'dirty' -- something unthinkable when we lived in Paris, where he had been always impeccably dressed.
"Sure, this is a good enough bed! You have no idea where I have been sleeping lately, Armand."
"Yeah, you keep telling me that." Armand frowned, and motioned me into the room. "But I haven't heard a word said today about your life since we parted at the École. And by now you know most of the stories from my tour in Asia. What are you hiding from me, Carlo?"
"That's why I keep saying you are the generous and kind part of our friendship!" I replied in earnest, and smiled sincerely. "But I'm gonna tell you all about it tomorrow, I promise, Armand." Tilting his head and raising his eyebrow, he didn't seem to believe me. Or was it a new display of my hairy buttocks what was not to be believed? "Seriously, I have nothing to hide from you." I said, hiding my flesh, though. "I've never had. No one else knows as much about my life as you do, mon cher. You know that. We've always been completely honest to one another. I had never actually trusted anyone before I met you... And I still don't trust anyone but you, Armand!" For the flash of a moment, the image of my grandfather, who had raised me, crossed my mind. I let it sink back into unconsciousness, farther than the Apennines, where I had left him. "Now, do you mind if I get into bed?" I patted the white linens.
"Please! But are you sure you don't want to share the double bed with me, Carlo?" Armand approached the bed, where he had laid fresh sheets, to check that everything was still alright after the weeks he had been gone. "Like in the old days of the École, when we shared the bed on the coldest nights to be warmer..."
"Warmer? Here?" As my friend brushed past me, I marveled at how he still smelled fresh, while I was salty and smoked after a whole day exposed to the sun and sea. The prince and the peasant, I thought again. "Are you serious, Armand?!"
"No, that's not what I mean. It's exactly the opposite. I mean, we won't be warmer. It will be cooler..." Armand seemed unusually confused. "The master bedroom, where I've been sleeping, is much more ventilated than this one."
"I'll be fine, Armand." I wanted to take my underwear off, that was uncomfortably full of sand inside, but I was embarrassed to do so in Armand's presence. And I was too dirty to get under the sheets. "Thank you so much for your hospitality."
"You're welcome, Carlo. It's really my pleasure!" Armand sat on the sofa facing the bed. He took a deep breath before suggesting "I see your skin is getting red, mate. Do you want me to apply some lotion on you? It was given to me by natives... prepared with coconut oil... powerful stuff."
"Never mind, Armand. It will have turned into... a nice suntan... tomorrow..." It was impolite to yawn, but I could not help it, while stretching on the mattress. "It's always been... like this. I have the skin of a peasant... remember?" My eyes blinked insistently, until I finally closed them. "I spent my childhood and... teenage years... working on the fields... and the sun... in the mountains... Oh, I'm... so tired..." But unlike the hard work in the farm, I was surrendering to a delicious wave of exhaustion. "Thank you... for being there... mon cher..."
And I had fallen asleep.
Author's note: having been imported from a former version of the story, some of the comments below are dated previous to this post. Once the plot has not been altered, just the pagination, I am keeping them since they are very dear and precious to me.