"You remember the shipwreck in Punaouilo, don't you, Laurent?" Since Carlo had just introduced my mother in his narrative, the question came as a shock. How often would we shift between the Île du Blanchomme and Punaouilo? There seemed to be no subjective boundaries between the two islands for my father -- though, in fact, there was no practical division between the Indian and the Pacific Oceans.
Yet, I was surprised at that new diversion from Carlo. After twenty years, I had forgotten his digressive way of talking and even thinking, somewhat oriental, full of subtleties, continually surprising, often leaving me dazzled and breathless.
And a bit annoyed, too, in my teens... or maybe pretty much. But then, after he had left, and at my father's painful absence, a long time gone by, I would arrive at considering it an unimportant detail, as it actually had become part of the longing I felt for him.
"Of course!" I answered expectantly, and waited, patiently.
What about my mother in this, I thought? Because the shipwreck was a program for just the two of us, my father and I -- never had we been there with Catherine. Carlo had just started talking about her, her arrival on the Île du Blanchomme, a story that had always been hidden from me, and suddenly he threw in a memory that excluded her in all... Was it a tactic to make me empathize with him? All those recollections about the lovely moments we had spent together, when Catherine had gone to France...
"I thought so..." Carlo continued, smiling. "You had a fascination for that sea ruin. The first time you saw it... you were three... or four years old? We were returning from somewhere, in the evening..." I could have smiled at his inaccuracy, but I was too intrigued and almost apprehensive at the course of our conversation. How inexact would it be? "And driving along Passage Beach you suddenly shouted from the back seat of my bike... "Daddy, a 'monter'!" And we stopped so that you could take a good look at the monster..."
It took you a while to understand what a shipwreck should be. And when you finally did, you seemed to be so heartbroken! You asked why didn't anyone like the boat, and why it had been abandoned. You wondered who lived there, in the middle of the sea... When I said no one, you replied "Not even the fish nor the birds like this boat?" And that seemed to make you immensely sad. "When I'm rich," you said, in one of our visits to Passage Beach, "I'll fix this boat to live on it..."
I told you what I knew about that boat of Asian origin, and its sinking that had had such tragic consequences for Punaouilo in the past. It seems that the entire crew had been ill for many weeks, and they may have been even a little demented... What this grave, terminal disease was, no one ever found it out. It is said that Passage Beach, in the past, with riptides, effectively disappeared and gave passage to the boats. And so they had tried it that night, rather unskillfully, and ran aground.
The crew members that had not yet died from the disease, jumped into the water and swam to the shore. While they were aided by the people of Punaouilo, other natives on canoes headed for the boat to rescue the rest of the crew. Apparently, there had been no one else alive aboard, and I think that, even when faced with the dead bodies on the ship, the natives did not understand that they were threatened by a serious and highly contagious disease. The natives had no knowledge of foreign diseases, and how deadly they were. They even brought to land the groceries and useful objects that they could rescue, not aware that they were contaminated... And thus the population of the island was also infected, the disease spreading more rapidly and being more fatal among the natives...
Maybe, Laurent, I was not very skillful in telling you such a gruesome story of disaster and death in the night time, and on the site of the tragedy. You were only a young boy, not even going to school, yet... What impact did it have on you? I felt goose bumps myself, thinking about the desolating consequences of that accident. The few natives to survive were those who had left the island without taking anything that was not their canoes... no food, no objects, not even clothes. Everything was contaminated, and Punaouilo ended up deserted, a cemetery in the open for many decades, having become taboo. Until the European settlers arrived and occupied it, promoting the return of the natives, at least one generation later.
The day following your discovery, you wanted to return to the site. And upon seeing clearly that it was a boat broken in two, you said it was silly to have called it a 'monter'. And you asked me to take you there so many times since, during the day, night, afternoon, was it early or late... We were there in all seasons and all years in a row, from that first time. I could not so well grasp your fascination, and how it aroused your imagination, but we'd always go there, whenever you asked me.
Do you remember that many times we would just stand there, in silence, watching the wreck? You trembled with excitement, at each wave that pounded against the old hull, making the whole ship creak, or every time a bird landed on the old and still upright mast, seeming that it would be tore apart at last... By then, the wood of the boat had already become like rock, virtually indestructible, and yet you seemed to fear for its fate.
"I don't remember that..." I was intrigued. My father seemed to have more impressions of those visits than I myself, perhaps because he was an adult then, and able to watch me and still observe the landscape. While I had been concentrated solely on the wreck, or my impressions of it, and probably lost in my own imagination. "...But I think it was on that beach that you taught me how to swim..."
"Exactly! That's the beach." Carlo beamed at my remark.
And suddenly, I understood my father's present situation. He should also have had his expectations regarding our reunion. The gap of silence and lack of communication had been the same for him and for me -- twenty years. And like me, his heart should be swollen and aching with painful hopes, fearing how much I had forgotten about him, or how much I liked him... loved him?... yet. It was like a dance of re-mating, and each shared memory was a victory... for him, for me, for us!
And that emotional choreography seemed to be what Carlo was really interested in, and not exactly the story he was telling me. Nor the fancy, upscale Lounge were we were, nor the spectacle of the city bellow us, where arrays of light were being turned on.
"I had never seen you afraid of anything, like you were upon learning how to swim, Laurent." At that, Carlo smiled softly, and I think he had also had in mind how, overcoming my fear, I'd later become a juvenile swimming champion, in France. He had still been present for my first victories. "At first, I thought you were more afraid of entering the ocean near the ghostly boat than of the sea itself. You asked me several times if dead people were still dwelling there... But it was not fear, it was curiosity that inspired you. And then, it was with the promise that we would visit the boat that I could make you get past the shallow water..."
"Come, my son. Trust me. I will not let go of your hand..."
"Come, my dear. Come with your father, Laurent."