The captain watched the mutinous black ship fade on the pale blue horizon. They had left him on a small, lush, volcanic island with a boat, a gun, and several crates that amounted to a few months of provisions. It was a benevolent, generous mutiny; he fervently prayed that none of the mutineers would hang. Now he had nothing but time on his hands, time to spend as he pleased. The excitement was terrifying. It was like vertigo. On the first day, he wept with gratitude. On the second day, he wept for all the past days when he could not weep. On the third day, he wept for sorrow. On the fourth, for all the days he was alone and all that he was not alone. On the fifth, he wept for everything ephemeral and eternal. On the sixth, he wept for beauty and joy. The morning of the seventh day was clear and calm; the captain lit a cigar and went for a long walk on the beach.
** I wrote this for Umberto Eco (1932-2016), who passed away this week. I loved his books from the time I was thirteen. Since the day he passed, I have been reading The Island of the Day Before. I am thankful for his great literary and philosophical gifts to the world. May he rest in peace.
The oars licked and splashed, dove and turned, churning the green sea as the clouds raced for dry islands of rare clouds and birds. The amphorae and the grain stores shifted with the motion of the waves and beating drum. The mute slaves rowed as the captain whipped them, speaking of glory and empire. After the shipwreck, one of the few slaves to break free headed through the surf towards the shore where the other slaves awaited, exhausted but thankful that no soldiers had survived to cut them down in the fury of the surf lest they escape. The one slave walked through the shallows and saw an officer lying in the sand, bleeding and on the verge of death. The slave lifted him up and carried him on his back. What is this? the old centurion asked. The glory of the empire, laughed the slave, staring straight ahead, grateful for the brightness of the endless blue sky spreading like an ink stain over the dark world.
A man lived on a wine-black argo. In the early, rosy-fingered morning, it was beached on a wooden shore covered with scraps of paper, papyri, and the kinds of things children leave behind. Once awake, he would survey the lonely shores that stretched to cloud-white walls, knowing he had just missed the linen softness of a woman moving around in the dark or the excited whispers of children. Alone, he cleaned the beach and ate his bread and then departed for the galaxies of amber and green aegises, the thousand gray death ships making their cyclical odysseys through the underworld, and labyrinths of stone and glass where he waged war against the electric humming and shape-shifting of minotaurs. There were ringing bellerophons, raging typhons, hydras to pay off, medusas, ajaxes, sirens, harpies, furies, bacchae, and all manner of other creatures. Only late at night, as the icy stars rose high, would he voyage back among the gray death ships to the silent shores where a bottle of wine and his blessed argo awaited the exhausted body. The man who knew not whether he was helot or hero, twisted and turned on his boat of pitch-black leather and wood. After a drink or two, he set sail into his own night, wondering if he would catch a glimpse of somnus or thanatos, who were more like shadows than shades. Rowing far out, he expected to see charons in their black vessels ghosted with whispers. It would be a miracle if a hitherto unknown, lissome eos came to join him in his wine-dark argo to share her word hoard of secrets and coded caresses. It would be better if he circumnavigated the ocean of twenty-four winds and captured either the somnus or the thanatos to drink of their hidden amber and ambrosia. The only things he really feared were the eternal charybdis, the eternal cronos, and the endless silence of life.
One leap at a time, one more dash against the road and the countryside, one more run around a curve and he would escape. One more stroke, one more lunge through the dark water, one more kick forward towards the surface and he would find safety. The burning ship lit up the horizon and revealed the closeness of the sea; the burning ship poured its dark amber light into the fathomless sea to light the way to the surface and the beach. The runner sprinted barefoot across the sand towards the rocks and the flames. The swimmer staggered out of the waves and welcomed the warmth that blew off the crackling hull. In the twilight of flames and shadows the runner and swimmer found each other and embraced, their bodies shaking with terror and relief. They spoke in whispers and gasps of how they longed for wings to become like the white birds who were taking off from the sands to fly to the stars. In the early morning, they sat down in the sand to have a breakfast, some bread, fish and wine, their souls still trembling in the wind blowing through the smoking ship.