we will not reconstruct the dialogue that followed over the next two days. For that matter, Roberto’s papers become more laconic from now on. His confidences to the Lady having perhaps fallen under alien eyes (he never had the courage to seek confirmation from his new companion), he stops writing altogether for many days, then records in a far more curt style what he learns and what happens.
So Roberto found himself facing Father Caspar Wander-drossel, e Soaetate lesu, oltm in Herbipolitano Francomae Gymnasia, postea in Collegia Romano Matheseos Professor, and, further, astronomer, and student of many other disciplines, at the General Curia of the Order. The Daphne, under a Dutch captain who had already ventured along those routes for the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, had left the Mediterranean shores many months earlier, circumnavigating Africa with the aim of arriving at the Islands of Solomon. Precisely as Dr. Byrd had proposed to do on the Amaryllis, except that the Amaryllis sought the Islands by sailing west to reach the east, whereas the Daphne had done the opposite; but it matters little, the Antipodes can be reached from either direction. On the Island (and Father Caspar motioned beyond the beach, beyond the trees), the Specula Melitensis was to be mounted. The nature of this Maltese Mirror was not clear, and Father Caspar, mentioning it, lowered his voice as if referring to a secret so famous that it was on the lips of the entire world.
To arrive here, the Daphne had taken its own good time. Everyone knows what it meant to navigate those seas in that period. After leaving the Moluccas, bound southeast for Porto Sancti Thomae in New Guinea, as it was necessary to call at the places where the Society of Jesus had its missions, the ship, driven by a storm, became lost in waters never before seen, arriving at an island inhabited by rats as big as boys, with very long tails and bags over their abdomen. Roberto had encountered a stuffed exemplar (indeed, Father Caspar reproached him for throwing away “a Wunder worth all Peru”).
They were, Father Caspar told him, friendly animals, who surrounded the seamen, holding out their little hands to beg for food, or actually tugging at the men’s clothes, but in the end they proved to be expert thieves and even stole hardtack from one sailor’s pocket.
If I may be allowed to interject, to support Father Caspar’s credibility, let me confirm that such an island exists, and cannot be mistaken for any other. Those pseudo-kangaroos are called Quokkas, and they live only there, on Rottenest Island, which the Dutch had then only recently discovered, calling it in fact the Island of Rats’ Nests. But as the island is off Perth, the Daphne must have reached the western coast of Australia. If we consider that she was therefore on the thirtieth parallel south, and west of the Moluccas, whereas she was supposed to have gone east, just a bit below the Equator, we would be obliged to say that the Daphne was off course.
But that was the least of it. The men of the Daphne must have seen a coast not far from that island, and they probably thought it was some other little island with some other rodent on it. They were in search of something quite different, and who knows what Father Caspar’s instruments were saying on board. Surely, the seamen were only a few oar strokes from that Terra Incognita et Australis that mankind had been dreaming of for centuries. What is hard to conceive—since the Daphne would finally reach (as we shall see) a latitude of seventeen degrees south—is how they managed to circumnavigate at least half of Australia without ever seeing it: either they sailed north and then passed between Australia and New Guinea, risking at every mile running aground on either one shore or the other; or else they sailed south, passing between Australia and New Zealand, seeing always open sea.
You would think I was narrating a romance, if Abel Tas-man, setting out from Batavia more or less during the months of our story, had not also arrived at a land that he called Van Diemen, which today we know as Tasmania; but since he, too, was seeking the Solomon Islands, he kept the southern shore of that land on his left, never imagining that beyond it lay a continent a hundred times greater, and he ended up southeast of New Zealand, flanked it to the northeast and, abandoning it, reached the Tongas. Thus he arrived by and large where the Daphne was, I believe, but there, too, he passed between the coral reefs and headed for New Guinea. Which meant caroming like a billiard ball, but it seems that for many years afterwards navigators were fated to arrive within a hair’s breadth of Australia and not see it.
So we can accept Father Caspar’s story as authentic. Often following the whims of the Trades, the Daphne ended up in storm after storm and would be badly mauled, so they would have to stop at some God-forsaken island without trees, just sand forming a ring around a little central lake. There they would patch up the ship, and this explained why there was no longer a supply of carpenter’s wood on board. Then they resumed navigating, and finally came to cast anchor in this bay. The captain sent a boat ashore with an advance guard, decided there were no inhabitants, but, just in case, he loaded and aimed his few cannon, then three operations—all fundamental—were set in motion.
First, the collection of water and provisions, which were by then almost exhausted; second, the capture of animals and uprooting of plants to take home to delight the naturalists of the Society; third, the felling of trees to provide a new supply of logs and planks, material against future misfortunes. The final operation was the installation, on a height of the Island, of the Specula Melitensis, and this proved the most laborious undertaking. From the hold they had to collect all the carpenter’s tools and the various pieces of the Specula, then carry them ashore. All this consumed much time, particularly because they could not unload directly in the bay: between the ship and the shore, almost at the surface of the water and with only a few, too-narrow gaps, there extended a barbican, a curtain wall, a terreplein, an Erdwall made entirely of coral—in short, what today would be called a coral reef. After many unfruitful attempts they discovered that they would have to round the cape to the south of the bay each time; beyond it there was an inlet that allowed them to land. “And that is why that boat abandoned by the sailors we cannot see nunc, although it is still behind there, heu me miserum!” As can be deduced from Roberto’s transcription, this Teuton had lived in Rome, speaking Latin with his brothers from a hundred countries, but he had had little practice in Italian.
When the Specula had been set up, Father Caspar began making his observations, which proceeded successfully for almost two months. What was the crew doing meanwhile? They were idling, and discipline on board was breaking down. The captain had taken on many kegs of aqua vitae, which were supposed to be used only as a restorative during storms, and then with great parsimony, or else to serve for barter with the natives; but instead, flouting all orders, the crew started bringing the kegs up on deck, and everyone drank to excess, including the captain. Father Caspar was working, the others were living like brutes, and from the Specula he could hear their lewd singing.
One day Father Caspar was working alone at the Specula. It was very hot, so he removed his cassock (thus, the good Jesuit said with shame, sinning against modesty, which God could now forgive since He had punished him promptly!), and an insect stung him on the chest. At first he felt only a little jab, but when he was ferried back on board that evening, he was attacked by a high fever. He told no one of what had happened to him, then in the night his ears rang and his head was heavy, so the captain unbuttoned the cassock, and what did he see? A pustule, such as wasps can cause, or even mosquitoes of great dimensions. But immediately that swelling became in the officer’s eyes a carbunculus, an anthrax, a nigricant pimple—in short, a bubo, a most evident symptom of the pestis, quae diatur bubonica, as was immediately noted in the log.
Panic spread through the ship. It was futile for Father Caspar to tell about the insect: plague victims always lied so as not to be segregated; this was well known. Futile for him to assure them that he knew the plague well, and this was not plague for many reasons. The crew was almost ready to cast him overboard, to avert contagion.
Father Caspar tried to explain that during the great pestilence that struck Milan and Northern Italy a dozen years before, he had been sent, with some of his brothers, to lend a hand in the lazarettoes, and to study the phenomenon closely.
And therefore he knew a great deal about that contagious lues. There are diseases that affect only individuals and in different places and times, like the Sudor Anglicus, others peculiar to a sole region, like the Dysenteria Melitensis or the Elephantiasis Aegyptia, and still others that, like the plague, strike over a long period all the inhabitants of many regions. Now, the plague is announced by sun spots, eclipses, comets, the appearance of subterranean animals emerging from their lairs, plants that wither because of mephitis: and none of these signs had appeared on board or on land, or in the sky or on the sea.
Secondly, the plague is certainly produced by fetid air that rises from swamps, from the decomposition of many cadavers during war, also by invasions of locusts that drown in swarms in the sea and are then washed up on shore. Contagion is caused, in fact, by those exhalations, which enter the mouth and the lungs, and through the vena cava reach the heart. But in the course of navigation, apart from the stink of the food and the water, which in any case causes scurvy and not plague, the sailors had suffered no malefic exhalation, indeed they had breathed pure air and the most healthful winds.
The captain argued that traces of such exhalations stick to clothing and to many other objects, and perhaps on board there was something that had retained the contagion at length and then transmitted it. And he remembered the story of the books.
Father Caspar had brought with him some good books on navigation, such as I’Arte de navegar of Medina, the Typhis Batavus of Snellius, and the De rebus oceanicis et orbe now decades tres of Peter Martyr, and one day he told the captain he had acquired them for a trifle, and in Milan: after the plague, on the walls along the canals, the entire library of a gentleman prematurely deceased had been put out for sale. And this was the Jesuit’s little private collection, which he carried with him even at sea.
For the captain it was obvious that the books, having belonged to a plague victim, were agents of infection. The plague is transmitted, as everyone knows, through venenific unguents, and he had read of people who died by wetting a finger with saliva as they leafed through works whose pages had in fact been smeared with a poison.
Father Caspar employed all his powers of persuasion: no, in Milan he had studied the blood of the diseased with a very new invention, a technasma that was called an occhialino or microscope, and in that blood he had seen some vermiculi floating, and they are precisely the elements of that contaftium ani-matum and are generated by vis naturalis from all rot and then are transmitted, propagatores exiflui, through the sudoriferous pores or the mouth, or sometimes even the ear. But this pul-lulation is a living thing, and needs blood for nourishment, it cannot survive twelve or more years amid the dead fibers of paper.
The captain would not listen to reason, and the small but lovely library of Father Caspar had finally been carried off on the tide. But that was not all: though Father Caspar was quick to say that the plague could be transmitted by dogs and flies but, to his knowledge, surely not by rats, the entire crew nevertheless fell to hunting rats, shooting in every direction, risking breaches in the hold. And finally, as Father Caspar’s fever continued the next day, and his bubo showed no sign of going away, the captain came to a decision: they would all go to the Island and there wait until the priest either died or was healed, and the ship would be purified of every malignant flux and influx.
No sooner said than done. Everyone on the ship boarded the longboat laden with weapons and tools. And since it was foreseen that between the priest’s death and the time when the ship would be purified two or three months might have to pass, they had decided to build huts on land, and everything that could make the Daphne a manufactory was towed to shore.
Not to mention most of the butts of aqua vitae.
“However, they did not do a good thing,” Caspar remarked bitterly, grieved by the punishment that Heaven had wreaked on them for having abandoned him like a lost soul.
For no sooner had they arrived than they promptly went and killed some animals in the woods, then lighted great fires that evening on the beach, and caroused for three days and three nights.
Probably the fires attracted the attention of the savages. Even if the Island itself was uninhabited, in that archipelago there lived men black as Africans, who must have been good navigators. One morning Father Caspar saw about ten pirogues arrive from nowhere, beyond the great island to the west, heading for the bay. They were boats hollowed from logs like those of the Indians of the New World, but double: one contained the crew and the other glided over the water like a sled.
Father Caspar first feared they would make for the Daphne, but they seemed to want to avoid it and instead turned towards the little inlet where the sailors had gone ashore. He tried shouting, to warn the men on the Island, but they were in a drunken stupor. In short, the sailors found the savages suddenly upon them, bursting from the trees.
The sailors sprang to their feet; the savages immediately displayed their bellicose intentions, but none of the crew could think clearly, still less remember where they had left their weapons. Only the captain stepped forward and felled one of the attackers with a pistol shot. On hearing the report and seeing their comrade fall dead though no other human had touched him, the natives made signs of submission, and one of them approached the captain, holding out a necklace taken from around his own neck. The captain bowed, then was obviously seeking some object to give in exchange, and he turned to ask something of his men.
In doing so, he exposed his back to the natives.
Father Wanderdrossel thought that the natives, even before the shot, had been immediately awed by the bearing of the captain, a Batavian giant with a blond beard and blue eyes, features that they probably attributed to the gods. But as soon as they saw his back (since it is clear that those savage peoples do not believe a divinity has a back), the native leader, club in hand, promptly attacked him and bashed in his head, and the captain fell prone, moving no more. The black men attacked the sailors, who, unable to defend themselves, were massacred.
A horrible banquet ensued, and continued three days. Father Caspar, in his illness, followed all of it through his spyglass, impotent. The crew became so much butcher’s meat: Caspar saw the men first stripped (with shrieks of joy, the savages divided clothes and objects), then dismembered, then cooked, and finally chewed with great calm, between gulps of a steaming beverage and some songs that to anyone would have seemed innocent, if they had not accompanied that ghastly kermess.
Then the natives, sated, began pointing at the ship. Probably they did not associate it with the presence of the sailors: majestic as it was with masts and sails, incomparably different from their canoes, they had not thought it the work of man. According to Father Caspar (who felt he understood the mentality of idolaters throughout the world, for the Jesuit travelers, returning to Rome, would give accounts of them), they believed it an animal, and the fact that it had remained neutral while they indulged in their anthropophagic rites strengthened this conviction. For that matter even Magellan—Father Caspar insisted—had told how certain aborigines believed that ships, having come flying from the sky, were the natural mothers of the longboats, which they nursed allowing them to hang from their sides, then weaned them by flinging them into the air.
But now someone probably suggested that if this animal was meek and its flesh as tasty as the sailors’, it was worth seizing. And they headed for the Daphne. At which point the peaceful Jesuit, to keep them at a distance (his Order imposed that he live ad majorem Dei gloriam and not die for the satisfaction of some pagan cujus Deus venter est), lit the fuse of a cannon already loaded, and turned it towards the Island, and fired a ball. With a great roar, while the Daphne’s flank was haloed with smoke as if the animal were snorting with wrath, the ball fell amid the pirogues, overturning two of them.
The portent was eloquent. The savages went back to the Island, vanishing into the woods, and they emerged a little later with wreaths of flowers and leaves which they cast on the water, making gestures of reverence before they vanished beyond the western island. They had paid what they considered a sufficient tribute to the great irritated animal, and surely they would never be seen again on these shores: they had decided that the area belonged to a peevish and vindictive creature.
This was the story of Father Caspar Wanderdrossel. For at least a week, before Roberto’s arrival, he had felt ill again, but thanks to some preparations of his own making (“Spiritus, Olea, Flores, und andere dergleichen Vegetabilische, Animal-ische, und Mineralische Medicamenten”), he had already begun to enjoy his convalescence, when one night he heard footsteps on the deck.
From that moment, out of fear, he fell ill again, abandoned his room and took refuge in that cubbyhole, taking with him his medicines and a pistol, not knowing whether or not it was loaded. And from there he emerged only to seek food and water. At first he stole the eggs for nourishment, then he confined himself to consuming the fruit. He became convinced that the Intruder (in Father Caspar’s account the Intruder was naturally Roberto) was a man of learning, curious about the ship and its contents, and he began to wonder if this man might not be, rather than just a castaway, the agent of some heretical country that wanted the secrets of the Specula Mel-itensis. This is why the good father had taken to behaving in such a childish fashion, intending to drive Roberto to abandon that vessel infested with demons.
Then it was Roberto’s turn to tell his story, and not knowing how far Caspar had read in his writings, he dwelt in detail on his mission and his voyage on the Amaryllis. The narration took place while, at the end of that first day, they boiled a cock and opened the last of the captain’s bottles. Father Caspar had to recover his strength and make new blood, and they celebrated what now seemed to each a return to the human community.
“Ridiculoso!” Father Caspar commented after hearing the incredible story of Dr. Byrd. “Such bestialitas have I never heard. Why did they do to him that harm? Of the longitude mysterium I thought to have heard all, but never that it could be sought by using the unfluentum amarium\ If that was possible, a Jesuit would have invented. This has no connection with longitudes, I will explain you how good I do my work, and you will see it is different....”
“Now tell me,” Roberto asked, “were you hunting for the Islands of Solomon or did you want to solve the mystery of longitudes?”
“Why, both, is it not? You find the Islands of Solomon and you have learned where is the hundred-eightieth meridian,
you find the hundred-eightieth meridian and you know where are the Islands of Solomon!”
“But why must those islands lie on that meridian?”
“Ach mein Gott, the Lord forgive I take His Most Holy Name in vain. In primis, after Solomon the Temple had constructed, he made a great fleet, as the Book of Kings says, and this fleet arrives at the Island of Ophir, from where they bring him—how do you say?—quadrigenti und viginti...”
“Four hundred twenty.”
“Four hundred twenty talents of gold, a very big richness: the Bible says very little to say very much, as if pars pro toto. And no land near Israel had such big riches, quod significat that the fleet to ultimate edge of the world had gone. Here.”
“But why here?”
“Because here is the meridian one hundred eighty which is exactlich the one that divides the earth in two, and on the other side is the first meridian: you count one, two, three, for three hundred sixty degrees of meridian, and if you are at one hundred eighty, here it is midnight and in that first meridian, noon. Verstanden? You guess now why the Islands of Solomon are so named? Solomon dixit: Cut baby in two. Solomon dixit: Cut Earth in two.”
“I understand, if we are on the one-hundred-eightieth meridian, we are at the Solomon Islands. But how do you know we are actually on the one-hundred-eightieth meridian?”
“Why, the Specula Melitensis, nichtwahr? If all my previous evidence is not enough to prove the one-hundred-eightieth meridian passes just there, the Specula also proved it.” He dragged Roberto onto the deck, pointing to the bay. “You see that promontorium north there, where big trees stand with big paws walking on the water? Et hora you see the other promontorium south? You draw a line between the two prom-ontoria, you see the line passes between here and the shore, a bit more apud the shore than apud the ship.... See the line, I mean a geistige line that you see with eyes of imagination? Gut, that line is the line of the meridian!”
The next day Father Caspar, who never lost track of time, informed Roberto it was Sunday. He celebrated Mass in his lodging, consecrating a crumb of one of the few hosts he had left. Then he resumed his lesson, first there, among globes and maps, then on deck. When Roberto remonstrated, unable to tolerate the full light of day, the priest from one of his cupboards produced a pair of spectacles, but with smoked lenses, which he had once used to explore profitably the mouth of a volcano. Roberto began to see the world in softer colors, finally very pleasant, and he began gradually to be reconciled to the severity of daylight.
To clarify what follows I must provide a gloss, for if I do not, I will not know where I am either. Father Caspar was convinced that the Daphne lay between the sixteenth and seventeenth degrees of latitude south and at one hundred eighty longitude. As far as latitude is concerned, we can trust him completely. But let us imagine he had also got the longitude right. From Roberto’s confused notes it seems Father Caspar calculates precisely three hundred sixty degrees from the Isla de Hierro, eighteen degrees west of Greenwich, as tradition had required since the days of Ptolemy. Therefore if he considered that he was at the one-hundred-eightieth meridian, it meant that in reality he was at the one-hundred-sixty-second east (from Greenwich). Now the Solomons lie comfortably around the one-hundred-sixtieth east, but from five to twelve degrees latitude south. Therefore the Daphne would have been too low, west of the New Hebrides, in a zone where only some coral reefs appear, those that would later become the Recifs d’Entrecasteaux.
Could Father Caspar have calculated from another meridian? Certainly. As Coronelli, at the end of that century, was to say in his Libra dei Globi, the first meridian was established by “Eratosthenes at the Pillars of Hercules, by Martin of Tyr at the Isles of the Blest, and Ptolemy in his Geography accepted the same opinion, but in his Books of Astronomy he transferred it to Alexandria in Egypt. Among the moderns, Ishmael Abulfeda marks it at Cadiz, Alfonso at Toledo, Pigafetta and Herrera the same, Copernicus sets it at Fruemburg, Reinhold at Monte Reale or Koenigsberg, Longomontanus at Copenhagen, Lansbergis at Goes, Riccioli at Bologna, and the atlases of lansonius and Bleau at Monte Pico. To continue the order of my Geography in this Globe I have set the Prime Meridian at the westernmost point of the Island of Iron, also to follow the decree of Louis XIII, who with the Council of Geography in 1634 fixed it at that same place.”
But if Father Caspar had decided to ignore the decree of Louis XIII and had established his first meridian, say, at Bologna, then the Daphne would have been anchored more or less between Samoa and Tahiti. The natives there, however, do not have dark skin like those he says he saw.
For what reason should the tradition of the Isla de Hierro be accepted? We must start with the assumption that Father Caspar speaks of the Prime Meridian as of a fixed line established by divine decree from the days of the Creation. Where would God have considered it natural to have the line run? Through that place of uncertain location, surely Oriental, that was the Garden of Eden? Through ultima Thule? Jerusalem? No one so far had dared make a theological decision, and rightly: God does not reason as men do. Adam, for example, appeared on the earth after the sun was already there, and the moon, day and night, and hence the meridians.
The solution therefore had to be found not in terms of History but, rather, of Sacred Astronomy. It was necessary to make the dictates of the Bible coincide with what knowledge we had of the celestial laws. Now, according to Genesis, in the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. But these waters could not be those we know, which God separates only on the second day, dividing the waters that are above the firmament (from which we still receive rain) from those below, namely rivers and seas.
Which means that the first result of Creation was First Matter, without form or dimensions, qualities, properties, tendencies, lacking movement and repose, raw primordial chaos, hyle, which was yet neither light nor darkness. It was an undigested mass where the four elements were still mingled, as well as cold and hot, dry and wet, churning magma that exploded in glowing drops like a pot of beans, like a diarrhoeic belly, a clogged pipe, a stagnant pond where circles of water appear and disappear through the emersion and immersion of blind larvae. It was such that the heretics deduced that this matter, so resistant to every creative impulse, was at least as eternal as God.
But even so, a divine fiat was necessary if from it and in it and on it the alternating process of light and darkness was to be imposed, day and night. This light (and that day) which is mentioned in the second stage of Creation was not yet the light we know, that of the stars and of the two great luminaries, which were not created until the fourth day. This was creative light, divine energy in the pure state, like the ignition of a keg of powder, which at first is black granules compressed into an opaque mass, and then all of a sudden it is an expansion of flames, a concentrate of lightning that spreads to its own extreme confine, beyond which, in contraposition, darkness is created (even if the explosion occurs at day). It is as if from a held breath, from a coal reddening through an inner respiration, from that goldene Quelle des Universums was born a scale of luminous excellences gradually descending towards the most irreparable of imperfections; as if the creative afflatus came from the infinite and concentrated luminous power of the Divinity, so searing that it seems to us dark night, down through the relative perfection of the Cherubim and the Seraphim, through the Thrones and the Dominions, to the lowest waste where the worm crawls and the insensible stone survives at the very border of the Void. “And this was the Offenbarung gottlicher Mayestat!”
And if, on the third day, grasses and trees and meadows are already born, it is because the Bible does not yet speak of the landscape that cheers our sight, but of a dark vegetative power, the couplings of seed, the stir of suffering and twisted roots that seek the sun, which, however, on the third day has not yet appeared.
Life arrives on the fourth day, when the moon and sun and stars are created to give light to the earth and to separate day from night, as we understand them when we calculate the course of time. It is on this day that the circle of the heavens is arranged, from the Primum Mobile and the fixed stars to the moon, with the earth in the center, a hard gem barely lighted by the rays of the luminaries, and around it a garland of precious stones.
The sun and the moon, establishing our day and our night, were the first and unsurpassed model of all future clocks, which, monkeys of the firmament, mark human time on the Zodiac’s face, a time that has nothing to do with cosmic time: it has a direction, an anxious respiration composed of yesterday, today, and tomorrow, and not the calm breathing of Eternity.
We will stop then at this fourth day, Father Caspar said.
God creates the sun, and when the sun is created—and not before, naturally—it begins to move. Well, at the moment when the sun begins its course never to stop again, in that Blitz, in that flash before it takes its first step, it is directly above a precise line that vertically divides the earth in two.
“And the Prime Meridian is that on which it is suddenly noon,” Roberto commented, believing he had understood everything.
“Nein!” his teacher reproached him. “You think God is dumb like you? How can He make the first day of Creation at noon begin? Do you perhaps begin, in beginning des Heyls, the Creation with an aborted day, a Leibesfrucht, a foetus of a day with only twelve hours?”
No, certainly not. On the Prime Meridian the course of the sun would have to begin by the light of the stars, when it was midnight plus a scrap, and before that there was Non-Time. On that meridian began, at night, the first day of Creation.
Roberto objected that if on that meridian it was night, an aborted day would have to begin somewhere else, where the sun appeared suddenly, without it or anything else having been before, only dark chaos, without time. Father Caspar said that the Holy Book does not tell us the sun appeared suddenly as if by magic, and that he was not displeased to think (as all logic, natural and divine, demanded) that God had created the sun, causing it to proceed in the sky, through the first hours, like an unignited star, that would bit by bit come alight like green wood touched by the first spark from a flint. The wood at first barely smolders and then, as the puffing encourages it, it begins to crackle and finally agrees to a lively, blazing fire. Was it not beautiful to imagine the Father of the Universe blowing on that still-green ball, urging it to celebrate its victory twelve hours after the birth of Time, right here on the Antipodal Meridian where they stood at this moment?
They still had to define what the Prime Meridian was. And Father Caspar admitted that the Isla de Hierro was still the best candidate, as—Roberto had already learned this from Dr. Byrd—there the compass-needle makes no deviation, and the meridian line passes through the point very close to the Pole where the iron mountains are at their highest. Surely a sign of stability.
So then, to sum up, if we agree that Father Caspar had set out from that meridian and moreover found the correct longitude, we still have to admit that while carefully tracing the course as navigator, he had failed as a geographer: the Daphne was not at our Solomon Islands but somewhere west of the New Hebrides, and that was that. However, I must reluctantly tell a story that, as we shall see, has to take place on the one-hundred-eightieth meridian, otherwise it loses all its flavor, while I accept that on the contrary it actually takes place God only knows how many degrees away, in one direction or the other.
I will venture, then, a hypothesis that I defy any reader to challenge. Father Caspar had erred to such an extent that he found himself, unwittingly, on our hundred-and-eightieth meridian, I mean the one we calculate from Greenwich, the last place on earth he would have thought of, because it lay in the country of schismatic antipapists.
In which case the Daphne would be at the Fiji Islands (where the natives are, in fact, very dark-skinned), at the very spot where today our one-hundred-eightieth meridian passes, namely, at the island of Taveuni.
It works, more or less. The outline of Taveuni shows a volcanic chain like the large island Roberto saw to his west. Except that Father Caspar had told Roberto that the fatal meridian passed just in front of the bay of his Island. Now, if we find ourselves with the meridian to the east, we see Taveuni to the east, not to the west; and if to the west we see an island apparently corresponding to Roberto’s description, then we surely have to the east some smaller island (my choice would be Qamea), but then the meridian would pass behind anyone looking at the Island of our story.
The truth is that with the data Roberto gives us, it is not possible to determine where the Daphne fetched up. Furthermore all those little islands are like the Japanese for the Europeans, and vice versa: they all look the same. But still I wanted to make a try. One day I would like to retrace Roberto’s voyage, searching for signs of him. But my geography is one thing, and his history is another.
Our sole consolation is that all these quibbles are absolutely insignificant from the point of view of our tentative romance. What Father Wanderdrossel says to Roberto is that they are on the one-hundred-eightieth meridian, which is the antipode of the Antipodes, and there on the one-hundred-eightieth meridian we find not our Solomon Islands but his Island of Solomon. What does it matter, finally, whether it is there or not? If nothing more, this will be the story of two men who believe they are there, not of two who are there; and if you would listen to stories—this is dogma among the more liberal—you must suspend disbelief.
So: the Daphne was facing the one-hundred-eightieth meridian, just at the Solomon Islands, and our Island was— among the Islands of Solomon—the most Solomonic, as my verdict is Solomonic, cutting through the problem once and for all.
“So?” Roberto asked at the end of the explanation. “Do you truly believe you will find on that Island all the riches of which Mendana spoke?”
“Those are Liigen der spanischen Monarchy! We are facing the greatest prodigium of all human and sacred history, which you still can nicht understand! In Paris you looked at the ladies and followed the ratio studiorum of the Epicureans instead of reflecting on the great miracles of this our Universum, may the Sanctissimum Nomen of our Creator fiat semper praised!”
As it happened, the reasons Father Caspar had set sail bore no resemblance to the larcenous designs of the various navigators of other countries. Everything stemmed from the monumental work that he was writing, a treatise destined to remain more perennial than bronze, on the Great Flood.
A true man of the Church, he intended to prove that the Bible had not lied; but, also a man of science, he wanted to make the Sacred Text agree with the results of the research of his own time. And to this end he had collected fossils, explored the lands of the Orient to discover something on the peak of Mount Ararat, and made very careful calculations of the putative dimensions of the Ark, such as to allow it to contain so many animals (and, mind you, seven pairs of the clean ones), and at the same time to have the correct proportion between the exposed part and the submerged part so the ship would not sink under all that weight or be swamped by waves, which during the Flood cannot have been negligible ripples.
He made a sketch to show Roberto the cross-section of the Ark, like an enormous square building of six storeys, the birds at the top, to receive the sun’s light, the mammals in pens that could house not only kittens but also elephants, and the reptiles in a kind of bilge, where the amphibians could also find living space in the water. No room for the Giants, and so that species became extinct. Finally, Noah did not have the problem of fish, the only creatures that had nothing to fear from the Flood.
Still, studying the Flood, Father Caspar had come up against a physicus-hydrodynamicus problem, apparently insoluble. God, the Bible tells us, causes rain to fall on the earth for forty days and forty nights, and the waters rise above the land until they cover even the highest mountains, and indeed they are arrested at fifteen cubits above the highest of the mountains, and the waters cover the earth thus for one hundred and fifty days. All well and good.
“But have you tried ever the rain to collect? It rains all one day, and you cover the little bottom of a barrel. And if it rains one whole week, you scarcely fill the barrel! So imagine then an ungeheuere Regen, so hard you cannot stay from the house in it, and all that rain pours on your poor head, a rain worse than the hurricane of your shipwreck... In forty days ist das unmoglich, not possible, to fill all the earth above the highest mountains!”
“You mean to say the Bible lied?”
“Nein! Certainly not! But I must demonstrate where God all that water found, for it is not possible He made it fall from the sky! That is not enough!”
“So, dumm bin ich nicht, not stupid! Vater Caspar has thought what no other human being before now had thought ever. In primis, he read well the Bible, which says, ja, that God opened all the cataracts of Heaven, but also had erupt all the Quellen, the Fontes Abyssy Magnae, all the fountains of the gross abyss. Genesis sieben elf. After the Flood ended was, He has the fountains of the deep closed. Genesis acht zwei! What are these fountains of the deep?”
“What are they?”
“They are the waters that in the deepest depths of the sea are found! God took not only the rain but also the waters of the deepest oceans and poured them on the earth! And He took them here because, if the highest mountains of the earth are around the first meridian, between Jerusalem and Isla de Hierro, certainly the marine abysses the most deep must be here, on the antimeridian, for reasons of symmetry.”
“Yes, but the waters of all the seas of the globe are not enough to cover the mountains, otherwise they would always be covered. And if God emptied the waters of the sea onto the earth, He would cover the earth but He would drain the sea, and the sea would become a great empty hole, and Noah fall into it with all of his Ark.”
“You say correct. And more: if God take all the water of Terra Incognita and poured that on Terra Cognita, without this water in this hemisphere the earth all change its Zentrum Cravitatis and overturn everything, and perhaps leap into the sky like a ball which you give a kick to it.”
“So then you try to think what you do if you are God.”
Roberto was caught up in the game. “If I am God,” he said, forgetting to use the subjunctive mood as the God of the Italians commands, “I create new water.”
“You yes, but God no. God can ex nihilo water create, but where to put it after the Flood?”
“Then God, from the beginning of time, had put aside a great reserve supply of water beneath the deep, hidden in the center of the earth, and He brought it out on that occasion, just for forty days, as if it were spouting from the volcanoes. Surely this is what the Bible means when we read that He opened the fountains of the deep.”
“You think? But from volcanoes comes fire. All the zen-trum of the earth, the heart of Mundus Subterraneus, is a gross mass of fire! If in the zentrum is fire, there water cannot also be! If water would be there, volcanoes would be fountains,” he concluded.
Roberto refused to give up. “Then, if I am God, I take the water from another world, since worlds are infinite, and I pour it on the earth.”
“You have in Paris heard those atheists who of infinite worlds talk. But God has only one world made, and that is enough for His glory. No, think better, if you do not infinite worlds have, and you have not time to make them specially for the Flood and then throw them into the Void again, what do you do?”
“I honestly do not know.”
“Because you have mens parva.”
“I may, indeed.”
“Yes, very parva. Now you think. If God could the water take that was yesterday on all the earth and pour it today, and tomorrow take all that was yesterday and it is already the double, and pour it day after tomorrow, and so on ad infini-tum, perhaps comes the day when He all this sphere of ours can fill, to cover all the mountains, nicht?”
“Ja! In forty days he fills the earth with forty times the water found in the seas, and if you make forty times the depth of the seas, you surely cover the mountains: the deep is as much or far more deep than the mountains high are.”
“But where did God find yesterday’s water, when yesterday was already past?”
“Why, here! Now listen. Think you are on the Prime Meridian. Can you imagine that?”
“Yes, I can.”
“Now think that here it is noon, and let us say noon on Holy Thursday. What time is it in Jerusalem?”
“After all that I have learned about the course of the sun and about the meridians, I would say that in Jerusalem the sun would already have passed the meridian some time ago, so it would be late afternoon. I understand where you are leading me. Very well: at the Prime Meridian it is noon, on the one-hundred-eightieth meridian it is midnight, for the sun passed already twelve hours before.”
“Gut. Then here is midnight, thus end of Holy Thursday. What happens here immediately after?”
“The first hour of Good Friday begins.”
“And not on the Prime Meridian?”
“No, over there it will still be the afternoon of that Thursday.”
“Wunderbar. Therefore here it is already Friday and there it is still Thursday, no? But when there it has Friday become, here is already Saturday and the Lord is resurrect here when there still dead, nichtwahr?”
“Yes, all right, but I don’t understand—”
“Now you will understand. Where here is midnight and one minute, a minuscule part of one minute, you say that here is already Friday?”
“Yes, of course.”
“But think if at the same moment you would not be here on the ship but on that island you see, east of the line of the meridian. Perhaps you say there it already Friday is?”
“No, it is still Thursday. It is midnight less one minute, less one second, but Thursday.”
“Gut! At the same moment here is Friday and there, Thursday!”
“Certainly, and—” A thought suddenly arrested Roberto. “And that’s not all! You make me realize that if at that same instant I were on the line of the meridian, it would be midnight on the dot, but if I looked to the west, I would see the midnight of Friday and if I looked to the east, I would see the midnight of Thursday. Holy God!”
“You do not say God, bitte.”
“Forgive me, Father, but this is something miraculous.”
“Und so in the face of a miracle you do not the name of God in vain take! Say Holywood, if you like. But the great miracle is that there is no miracle! All was foreseen ab initio. If the sun to circle the earth takes twenty-four hours, to west of the one-hundred-eightieth meridian begins a new day, and east we have still the day before. Midnight of Friday here on the ship is midnight of Thursday on the island. You know what to the sailors of Magellan happened when they finished their voyage around the world, as Peter Martyr tells? They came back and thought it was a day earlier and instead it was a day later, and they believed God had punished them by taking from them a day, because they had not every Friday holy fasting observed. On the contrary, it was very natural: they had traveled from east to west. If from America towards Asia you sail, you lose one day; if in the opposite direction you sail, you gain a day: this is why the Daphne followed the route of Asia, and your stupid ship the way of America. You are now a day younger than me. Is that not to laugh?”
“But I would be a day younger only if I went to the Island,” Roberto said.
“This was my little jocus. But to me is no matter if you are younger or older. To me matters that at this point of the earth there is a line that on this side is the day after and on that side the day before. And not only at midnight but also at seven, at ten, every hour! God then took from this abysso the water of yesterday (that you see there) and emptied it on the world of today, and the next day the same, and so on! Sine miraculo, naturaliter! God had arranged Nature like to a great Horologium! It is as if a Horologium does not show the twelve hours, but the twenty-four. In this Horologium moves the hand or arrow towards the twenty-four, and to the right of the twenty-four it was yesterday, and to the left, today.”
“But how could the earth of yesterday remain steady in the sky, if there was no more water in this hemisphere? Did it not lose its Centrum Gravitatis?”
“You think with the humana conceptione of time. For us homines exists yesterday no more, and tomorrow not yet. Tempus Dei, quod dicitur Aevum, is very different.”
Roberto reasoned that if God removed the water of yesterday and placed it in today, the earth of yesterday might undergo a succussation thanks to that damned center of gravity, but to human beings this should not matter: in their yesterday the succussation had not taken place; it had happened instead in a yesterday of God, who clearly knew how to handle different times and different stories, as a Narrator who writes several novels, all with the same characters, but making different things befall them from story to story. As if there had been a Chanson de Roland in which Roland died under a pine, and another in which he became king of France at the death of Charles, using Ganelon’s hide as a carpet. A thought which, as we shall see, was to accompany Roberto for a long while, convincing him not only that the worlds can be infinite in space but also parallel in time. But he did not want to speak of this with Father Caspar, who already considered profoundly heretical the idea of many worlds, and there was no telling what the good Jesuit would have said of this idea of Roberto’s. He therefore confined himself to asking what God did to shift all that water from yesterday to today.
“The eruptione of underwater volcanoes, natiirlich! You conceive? They blow hot winds, and what happens when a pan of milk is heated? The milk swells, rises, overflows the pan, spreads over the stove! But at that time it was not milk sed boiling aqua! Gross catastrophe!”
“And how did God take all that water away after the forty days?”
“If it did not rain anymore, there was sun et nunc aqua evaporated little by little. The Bible says one hundred fifty days it took. If you wash and dry your shirt in one day, you can dry the earth in one hundred fifty. And besides, much water into enormous subterranean lakes flowed, which now lie zwischen the surface and the zentral fire.”
“You have almost convinced me,” Roberto said, who cared less about how that water had been moved than about the fact of being so close to yesterday. “But by arriving here what have you demonstrated that you could not have demonstrated before through the light of reason?”
“I leave the light of reason to the old theologia. Today scientia wants proof through experientia. And the experientia is that I am here. Then before I arrived here I took many soundings, and I know how deep the sea down here is.”
Father Caspar abandoned his geo-astronomical explanation and launched into the description of the Flood. He spoke now his erudite Latin, gesticulating as if to evoke the various phenomena, celestial and infernal, as he paced the deck. While he strode, the sky above the bay was clouding over, announcing a storm of the sort that arrives, all of a sudden, only in the sea of the Tropics. Now, all the fountains of the deep and the cataracts of the sky having opened, what horrendum et for-midandum spectaculum was offered to Noah and his family!
People took refuge first on the roofs, but their houses were swept away by the currents that arrived from the Antipodes with the force of the divine wind which had raised and driven them. Men and women climbed into the trees, but these were uprooted like weeds; they could see still the crowns of the most ancient oaks, and they clung to them, but the winds shook them with such rage that none could maintain their grip. Now in the waters that covered valleys and mountains swollen corpses could be seen floating, on which the remaining birds tried to perch, terrified, as if on some ghastly nest, but soon they lost even this last refuge, and they also succumbed, exhausted, to the tempest, their wings limp. “Oh horrenda justitiae divinae spectacula,” Father Caspar exulted, and this was nothing—he guaranteed—compared to what it will be given us to see on the day when Christ returns to judge the quick and the dead.
And to the great din of nature responded the animals of the Ark, the howls of the wind were echoed by the wolves, to the roar of thunder the lion made counterpoint, at the shudder of lightning bolts the elephants trumpeted, the dogs barked on hearing the voice of their dying kin, the sheep wept at the crying of the children, the crows cawed at the cawing of the rain on the roof of the Ark, the cows lowed at the lowing of the waves, and all the creatures of earth and air with their calamitous whimpering or mewing took part in the mourning of the planet.
But it was on that occasion, Father Caspar assured Roberto, that Noah and his family rediscovered the language Adam had spoken in Eden, which his sons had forgotten after the Fall, and which the descendants of Noah would almost all lose on the day of the great confusion of Babel, except the heirs of Gomer, who carried it into the forests of the north, where the German people faithfully preserved it. Only the German language—the obsessed Father Caspar now shouted in his native tongue—”redet mit der Zunge, donnert mit dem Him-mel, blitzet mit den schnellen Wolken,” or, as he inventively continued, mixing the harsh sounds of different idioms, only German speaks the tongue of Nature, “blitzes with the Clouds, brumms with the Stag, gruntzes with the Schweine, zlides with the Eel, miaus with the Katz, schnatters with the Gan-dern, quackers with the Dux, klukken with the hen, clappers with the Schwan, kraka with the Ravfen, schwirrs with the
Hirundin!” And in the end he was hoarse from his babelizing, and Roberto was convinced that the true language of Adam, rediscovered with the Flood, flourished only in the lands of the Holy Roman Emperor.
Dripping sweat, the priest concluded his evocation. The sky, as if frightened by the consequences of every flood, had held back its storm, like a sneeze that seems almost ready to explode but then is restrained with a grunt.