It may have been ironic that the tall, dark harpooner had escaped his own death twice, that while his beloved friend drifted to safety in the shelter of his own coffin, he himself found refuge in the coffin of the captain, which had somehow emerged intact from the wreckage, that he had drifted through the swells and storms of the ocean without finding his friend, drifting northward and then westward, always northward and westward, without a sign of the whale or the sign of another living soul. And thus the spearman of the seas drifted in the coffin. The initial struggle with the whale as it pulled everyone down, the long voyage leading up to the ghosted encounter, the terror of struggling for breath and for the open sky, these were but distant flashes in his memory now. The whaler lay in the coffin, listening to the lapping water, staring at a wash of stars that he did not recognize and inhaling an oceanic scent that was both familiar and foreign. As he drifted, he did what he had long been pondering—he offered his life up to the holy one of the other whalers, the holy one who had been speared. Dreams of his pale, crucified body drifted in and out of the harpooner’s mind. Like the prophet of the old parable, the harpooner had been swallowed by the gigantic whale, swallowed and then spat out to find the drifting coffin—it was a resurrection and a second birth. A morning finally arrived, as the strange stars faded, and the coffin washed up on the shores of an island that could have been his own many thousands of days or years ago. To his surprise, he was greeted by the tattooed natives. Like the whalers, they were a polyglot ensemble, but dressed in black sarongs printed with white fish bones, various accurately drawn whales or pale, tropical flowers, such as the incomparable plumeria. They wore tattered monkey jackets and other coats of indescribable fabric. Their skin was pale, copper, mocha, golden, but always printed with dark blue tattoos—some interlaced like the woodwork of the whalers, some sketched out like scrimshaw, some more familiar to him from his own islands. Some wore spectacles; others wore helmets of metal and glass, the visors of which resembled ships’ portholes. They lived in makeshift longhouses that were nothing less than overturned ship hulls or shipwrecks patched up with tar and driftwood. Among the natives, the whaler was treated with respect. It was almost paradise—a veritable blending of the life of the whalers and the life of the islanders, of the faraway west and the endless south. The manner of living was good, but the locals were poor sailors and would not build boats or rafts to venture out. While scavenging shipwrecks and often feeding off the survivors, the colony had degenerated into a darkness of mind. Every now and then, the elders would punish one man with ritual whippings—the man who read. He was tall, like the whaler, refused to eat human meat, and collected books which had escaped the waves and bonfires. He was accused of lying for reading and speaking about a time when surgeons could cut into the human body and repair various organs, or for speaking of the mystical truths in tales of fishermen and shepherds who heard the voice of the divine in the desert or at sea, or for being able to predict an eclipse, for praying to one abstraction that none of the natives could name or recall, for drawing pictures of tools and machines that could only be the figments of the most demonic imagination. One day, the elders took the whaler aside and said that they were losing patience with the reader. Perhaps there were some good things in those books—if only the reader understood that they were myths and not realities. Once the reader realized that there was no world beyond the island and the sea, he would see reason again. The whaler smoked silently, saying little, lost in doubts and the depths of his own fading memories and the endless roar of the waves. One day, the elders lost their patience indeed. The whaler was roused by his assigned wife, who whispered that the reader was to be hanged. By the time the whaler got to the beach, it was too late. They had hung the reader from an old, half-buried mast and its crosstrees and were spearing his ribs with old harpoons, opening up his flesh. It was then that the whaler believed once again.
In the land of lakes far to the north, a young man with silver hair sat down on the sand by the blue water and wept. What ails you? a raven inquired. My life divorced my life, and I am their abandoned orphan, said the man. I do not even know my name. Long ships full of shadows sailed to that shore and carried away the orphan to a another, distant shore, where they hung him from an ash tree with rope. The man hung there and looked out on the sea. Sometime later, the raven arrived. What ails you? the raven asked. I am a hanged man, a cursed man, said the orphan. My life divorced my life and abandoned me to the elements. I do not remember my name. The raven ate one of his eyes. You are Time, said the black bird. And then it flew off into a deep sky of ancient snows.
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.
The moon voyages began some two thousand years ago. The first to land on its soft surface became embroiled in a war of cloud centaurs, vegetable humanoids and canines made of acorns. Another traveled there to discover all the lost things that earth missed, such as bottled brains and parasols. There were reports of travelers who discovered perfect civilizations in its metallic craters or unusual ways to view an eclipse in the extreme cold. Some later found canals and rivers without ships or navigators, but these tales only lasted for four hundred years before being buried in absolute unbelief. Later, the moon had a short-lived career as a stage actor or character in a bloody tragedy and then as a kind of mobile saltwater dairy farm. Some years ago, the moon voyages yielded only great speeches and haunting footprints. It was otherwise desolate, utterly desolate. The moon is still silent. And watching. One can only imagine what secrets burn deep within the stars.
In their travels, the wanderers encountered a sunlit, dry planet of scattered clouds, snowy mountains of stone and rolling plains of golden grass and scattered trees. There were soft seas that washed the semi-arid deserts and steppes. It looked like a good planet to cultivate. One day, as they walked through a plain, explosions of dirt and smoke fatally dismembered several comrades. The rest of the crossing continued uneventfully until they came to the coastal mountains where it began to rain what could only be described as bombs coming out of both clouds and blue sky. After a deluge of phosphorus fire, naptha, and other deafening fireworks burning the ground and leaving black, smoking craters, the land had rest for another thousand days. The wanderers came to discover that these unpredictable mines and bombs were organic, though inanimate, and really no different than weather. The silence was not friendly, though sometimes preferable. It is difficult to safely study an explosion one cannot define or test. In time, there was only one wanderer left intact, a lone shadow walking slowly and thoughtfully over the strange landscape.
The captain strode through the surf demanding damage reports, his bald head glistening in the purple twilight, his black leather coat dripping pearls. The dark waters roared and receded, flung their fury on the sand and retreated again. A marine biologist came running down from a dune where he had been manning a radio and telescope and ordered the captain off the shore. Mad and soaked through his skin, the captain demanded a damage report. This is a protected beach, the scientist screamed. Time is coming, the captain said quietly, glancing out at the darkling horizon. And you are not ready. Get off the beach, the scientist screamed. You are ruining our experiment! The captain laughed through the tears filling his big blue eyes. My good friend, he sighed, there will be no more tests or papers! A cloud of witnesses has spoken! 57 skeletons float in the green deep. Henceforth you will only publish damage reports! Damage reports! Time is coming. And you have no clue as to what time is! The moon rose square, hollow, and pale.
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.
A galaxy of blood oranges burst all around them, planets and stars glowing with the same sensual twilight. It was an unexpected development, a surprise of physics and mathematics. The smoking paralus crashed into the surface of a planet covered in silver streams and expansive horse chestnut trees. It was forever autumn here. The surviving paraloi disembarked. Several of them gifted in rhetoric gave speeches on the correct course of action. They voted and decided to explore, forage, salvage and scavenge before the next meeting. After voting, the paraloi sang the paean and set off into the woods to gather and eat the horse chestnuts. The horse chestnuts were shiny and delicious. Besides being narcotic, they enabled the paraloi to calculate and meditate at hitherto unknown speeds. Before long, they had measured the circumference of the planet, established its rotation and revolutions, counted all the blood oranges in the night sky, and discovered their lack of food security. Moreover, they began to experience symptoms of poisoning, for horse chestnuts are toxic elsewhere as they are here. Although some were content to eat other things, the majority consumed the horse chestnuts. They met again to vote on the next steps of their adventure. There were long speeches. They voted to conquer the planet, enforce their hegemony over the trees, find a way to return home, make the voyage home, and build trade routes for transporting and selling the horse chestnuts. Once again, they sang the paean and set off to implement their schemes. One would often see one of the paraloi, covered in sick and still cramming raw or cooked chestnuts into his mouth, his eyes lost to faraway dreams or investigations. Others leaned against trees, coughing blood from their lungs and weeping. They invariably lost weight. At another meeting, one of the speakers announced that he was the first wanax of the planet. All native aliens–if any were discovered–and paraloi would be subject to him and pay tributes of horse chestnuts and other materials. The wanax had already selected some paraloi to form a bodyguard. All voted in favour, sang the paean, and entered into a new life of tending trees, gathering and processing horse chestnuts, serving their brutal wanax and waiting for their next narcosis that would alleviate the symptoms of poison and withdrawal. Most were slowly starving to death or succumbing to the toxicity. None were able to think of repairing the paralus and returning home. Runaways left the horse chestnut forests behind to dwell in the gray mountains. Their bodies slowly healed. Desertion meant that they were no longer citizens or paraloi, no longer entitled to speak, vote or sing the paean with the other paraloi. In silence, they ate colorless things from the mountains. Sometimes, a runaway would recall the symptoms of toxicity and shudder, but would still miss the taste, texture and golden pulp of the horse chestnuts with their fragrant narcosis. Some would briefly return to the woods to steal a handful of treats, but would see that the horse chestnuts were really quite colorless, tasteless and dysphoric. Straightaway, they would be running back to the silence and the peace beyond the trees.The mountains were gray and empty. The blood oranges were far, far away.