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CHAPTER 25

Technica Curiosa



when father caspar said it was again Sunday, Roberto re­alized that more than a week had gone by since their first meeting. The Jesuit celebrated Mass, then addressed him with an air of decision. “I cannot wait until you have learned to swim,” he said.

Roberto replied that it was not his fault. Father Caspar conceded that it might not be his fault, but meanwhile the weather and the wild animals were ruining the Specula, which required daily care. Hence, ultima ratio, only one solution re­mained: he would go to the Island himself. When asked how he would do this, Caspar said he would try his fortune with the Aquatic Bell.

He explained that for a long time he had been pondering how to travel underwater. He had even thought of construct­ing a boat made of wood reinforced with iron, double-hulled like a box with a lid. The vessel would be seventy-two feet long, thirty-two feet high, eight feet wide, and heavy enough to descend below the surface. It would be operated by a pro­peller turned by two men inside, the way donkeys turn a mill-wheel. And to see where it was going, a tubospicillum would protrude, an eyeglass that through a play of interior mirrors would allow them to observe from within what was happening above, in the open air.

Why had he not built it? Because such is Nature—he said—for the humiliation of our inadequacy: there are ideas that on paper seem perfect, but then, put to the test of ex­perience, they prove imperfect, and no one knows the reason.

Father Caspar had, however, built the Aquatic Bell: “And the plebs ignorans, if one had said them a man can go to the bottom of Rhein and his clothing remain dry, and even swear­ing and holding his hand in a fire, they would have said it was a madness. But the proof of the experimentum has been made, and almost a century ago in the oppidum of Toleto in His-pania. So I go to the Island now with my Aquatic Bell, walking, as you see me now walk.”

He headed for the soda, which was an apparently inex­haustible store: besides the astronomical apparatus there was yet more to be found. Roberto was obliged to carry up on deck other bars and semicircles of metal and a voluminous package wrapped in a skin, which still smelled of its original, horned owner. In vain did he point out that if this was Sunday, the Lord’s Day, they should not be working. Father Caspar answered that this was not work, still less was it servile labor, but, rather, the exercise of an art, the noblest of all arts, and their efforts would be crowned by an increase in knowledge of the great Book of Nature. And therefore it was the same as meditating on the Sacred Scriptures, with which the Book of Nature is closely associated.

So Roberto set to work, spurred by Father Caspar, who intervened at the most delicate moments, when the metallic components had to be mounted through previously prepared grooves. Working for the whole morning, they thus assembled a cage shaped like the trunk of a cone, slightly taller than a man, in which three circles, the highest being of the smallest diameter, the central and the lowest ones progressively broader, all three of them held parallel by four inclined bars.

To the middle circle was attached a canvas harness into which a man could fit. A number of straps fastened around the shoulders and the chest held his groin steady, to prevent his sliding down. The same straps secured his shoulder blades and neck, to prevent his head from striking the upper circle.

While Roberto wondered what the use could be of this contraption, Father Caspar unwrapped the folded skin, which was revealed as the perfect case, or glove, or thimble of that metallic apparatus, over which it easily fit, fixed by some hooks on the inside so that once assembled, the apparatus could not be unsheathed. And the finished object was, in effect, a cone without a tip, open at the top and at the base—or, if you like, indeed, a kind of bell. On it, between the top and the middle circles, there was a little glass window. To the roof of the apparatus a sturdy ring had been attached.

At this point the bell was shifted towards the windlass and hooked to an arm that through a clever system of pulleys allowed it to be raised, lowered, lifted over the rail, hoisted aboard, or unloaded like any bale or case or package of cargo.

The windlass was a bit rusty after many days of disuse, but finally Roberto managed to operate it and raise the bell to half its height, so that its interior could be observed.

This bell now awaited only a passenger, who would step inside, fasten the straps, then dangle in the air like a clapper.

A man of any stature could enter it: he had only to adjust the harness, loosening or tightening buckles and knots. Now, once he was well fastened, the inhabitant of the bell could walk, carrying his little cockpit with him, and the straps kept the head at the level of the window, while the lower edge came more or less to his calf.

Now Roberto had only to imagine, the triumphant Father Caspar explained, what would happen when the windlass low­ered the bell into the sea.

“What happens is that the passenger drowns,” Roberto concluded, as anyone would have. And Father Caspar accused him of knowing very little about the “equilibrium of liquors.”

“You may possibly think that the Void exists somewhere, as those ornaments of the Synagogue of Satan may have told you when you in Paris spent all your time with them. But you will perhaps admit that in the bell there is not the Void but air. And when you have a bell full of air lowered into the water, the water does not enter. Either it, or air.”

That was true, Roberto admitted. And no matter how deep the sea was, a man could walk without any water entering, at least until the passenger, with his breathing, had not con­sumed all the air, transformed it into vapor (as you see when you breathe on a mirror) which, being less dense than water, would yield space to it—definitive proof, Father Caspar com­mented, exultant, that Nature has a horror of the Void. But with a bell of that size, the passenger could count on at least thirty minutes’ respiration, he calculated. The shore seemed very far away, if it were to be reached by swimming, but, walking, it would be a stroll, because almost at the halfway point between ship and shore lay the coral barrier—where the boat had not been able to follow a direct course but instead made a wider curve beyond the promontory. And in certain stretches the coral was at the water’s surface. If the expedition were begun in a period of reflux, the walking to be done underwater would be further reduced. It would suffice to reach that emergent land, and as soon as the occupant climbed up, even moving only one foot, the bell would again fill with fresh air.

But how could anyone walk on the sea bed, which must bristle with dangers, and how could he climb up on the bar­rier, which was composed of sharp stones and corals still sharper? And, further, how would the bell descend without capsizing in the water, or without being thrust up, for the same reasons that a diver returns to the surface?

With a shrewd smile Father Caspar said that Roberto had forgotten the most important objection: that the air-filled bell, pushed into the sea, would displace an amount of water equal to its mass, and this water would weigh far more than the body trying to penetrate it, to which therefore much opposing resistance would be offered. But in the bell there would also be many pounds of man, and, further, there were the metal buskins. And, with the look of someone who has thought of everything, he went and fetched from the inexhaustible soda a pair of boots with iron soles about five fingers thick, fastening at the knee. -The iron would serve as ballast, and would also protect the feet of the explorer. They would slow his progress but spare him those concerns for the rough terrain that as a rule enforce a cautious tread.

“But if you have to climb to the shore from the depths here, it will be uphill all the way!”

“You were not here when we dropped anchor! I the first sounding made. No depths! If the Daphne went a little more ahead, it would run aground!”

“But how can you support the bell, its weight all on your head?” Roberto asked. And Father Caspar reminded him that in the water he would not feel this weight, and Roberto would know this if he had ever tried to push a boat, or extract from a tub an iron ball with his hand: the effort all came after you had pulled it out, not while it was still immersed.

In the face of the old man’s stubbornness, Roberto tried to postpone the moment of his destruction. “But if the bell is lowered with the windlass,” he asked, “how do we unhook the cable afterwards? If we do not, the rope will hold you here, unable to move away from the ship.”

Caspar answered that once he was on the bottom, Roberto would know, because the rope would slacken; and at that point he was to cut it. Did he perhaps think Caspar would come back by the same means? Once on the Island, he would go and recover the boat, and with that he would come back, God willing.

But as soon as he was on shore, when he had freed himself from the straps, the bell—if another windlass did not keep it aloft—would slump to the ground, imprisoning him. “Do you want to spend the rest of your life on an island, trapped inside a bell?” And the old man replied that once he had freed him­self from those underpants, he had only to slash the hide with his knife, and he would emerge like Minerva from Jove’s head.

And what if, in the water, he encountered a big fish of some man-eating species? Father Caspar burst out laughing: surely the most ferocious of fish, encountering in its path a self-moving contraption capable of frightening even a human, would rapidly flee in bewilderment.

“In short,” Roberto concluded, sincerely concerned for his friend, “you are old and frail. If someone has to make this test, it will be me!” Father Caspar thanked him but explained that he, Roberto, had already given ample evidence of being a scatterbrain, and heaven only knows what a botch he would make of it. He, Caspar, already had some knowledge of that body of water and of the reef, and he had seen similar reefs elsewhere from a flatboat; this bell he had built himself and therefore knew its merits and defects; he had a good notion of hydrostatic physics and would know how to deal with un­foreseen circumstances; and, he added, as if presenting the ultimate argument in his favor, “after all, I have the faith, and you not.”

And Roberto understood that this was not by any means the last consideration: it was the first, and surely the most beautiful. Father Caspar Wanderdrossel believed in his Bell as he believed in his Specula, and he believed he had to use the Bell to reach the Specula, and he believed that everything he was doing was for the greater glory of God. And as faith can move mountains, it can surely overcome waters.

So there was nothing to be done but set the bell back on deck and prepare it for immersion. An operation that kept them busy till evening. To treat the hide in such a way that it was both impermeable to water and air-tight, they had to prepare a paste over a slow fire, mixing three pounds of wax, one pound of Venetian turpentine, and four ounces of another varnish used by carpenters. Then the hide had to absorb that substance; so it was left to sit until the next day. Finally, with another paste made of pitch and wax they had to caulk the edges of the window,- where the glass had already been fixed with mastic, then tarred.

“Omnibus rimis diligenter repletis,” Father Caspar said, and spent the night in prayer. At dawn they examined the bell, the straps, the hooks. The Jesuit waited for the right moment, when the reflux could best be exploited and the sun was high enough to illuminate the sea before him, casting all shadows behind his back. Then the two men embraced.

Father Caspar repeated that it would be an enjoyable en­terprise in which he would see amazing things such as not even Adam or Noah had known, and his one fear was of committing the sin of Pride—proud as he was of being the first man to descend into the sea’s depths. “However,” he added, “this is also a proof of mortification: if Our Lord on the water walked, I will walk under, suitable path for sinners.”

Then the bell had to be raised, with Father Caspar fastened inside it, testing the device to guarantee that he was able to move comfortably.

For a few minutes Roberto observed the spectacle of a huge snail—no, a puffball, an ambulant agaric—advancing with slow and awkward steps, often stopping and half-turning when the Jesuit wanted to look to the left or right. More than a progress, that walking hood appeared to perform a gavotte, a bourree, which the absence of music made even clumsier.

Finally Father Caspar seemed satisfied with his rehearsal and, in a voice that sounded as if it came from his boots, he said he was ready to set out.

He moved to the windlass; Roberto hooked him up and began turning it, making sure, when the bell was raised, that the feet swayed freely and the old man could not slip down or up. Father Caspar clanked and re-echoed that all was well, but they should hurry: “These buskins are pulling my legs and are about to tear them from my belly. Hurry! Put me in the wasser!”

Roberto shouted a few words of encouragement and slowly lowered the vehicle with its human engine. No easy matter, because he had to perform by himself the task of many sailors. That descent thus seemed eternal to him, as if the sea sank gradually as he multiplied his efforts. But finally he heard a noise from the water, realized the strain was diminishing, and after a few moments (which to him seemed years) he felt the windlass now spinning idly. The bell had touched bottom. He severed the rope, then rushed to the bulwark to look down. And saw nothing.

Of Father Caspar and the bell there was not a sign.

What a brain, that Jesuit, Roberto said to himself with wonder. He has done it! Imagine, down in that water there is a Jesuit walking, and no one would guess. The valleys of all the oceans could be populated with Jesuits, and no one would know!

Then he shifted to more practical thoughts. That Father Caspar was down below was invisibly evident. But that he would come up again was not yet sure.

It seemed to Roberto that the water was stirring. The day had been chosen precisely because it was calm; but, as they were carrying out the final preparations, a wind sprang up which out here merely ruffled the surface a little, but at the shore it created a play of waves that at the submerged reefs covild jeopardize Father Caspar’s arrival.

Towards the northern point, where an almost perpendic­ular wall rose, Roberto could glimpse gusts of spume that slapped the rock, scattered in the air like so many little white nuns. It was surely the effect of waves hitting a series of in­visible rock formations, but from the ship it seemed as if a serpent from the abyss were exhaling flames of crystal.

The beach, however, was calmer, the swell was only at the halfway point, and for Roberto that was a good sign: it indi­cated the place where the reef protruded from the water and marked the border beyond which Father Caspar would no longer be in peril.

Where was the old man now? If he had started walking the moment he touched bottom, by now he should be ... But how much time had elapsed? Roberto had lost all sense of the passing moments, which he had been counting for an eternity, and thus he tended to underestimate the result, and was convinced that the old man had barely descended, was still below the keel, trying to orient himself. But then a sudden fear seized him: that the rope, twisting as it descended, had made the bell execute a half-turn, and that now, unwitting, Father Caspar found himself with the vizor facing west and was heading for the open sea.

Then Roberto told himself that anyone heading for the open sea would realize he was descending rather than climb­ing, and would change course. But what if at that point there was a little rise westwards, and climbing it, he believed he was going east? Still the sun’s reflections would indicate the direc­tion in which the planet was moving.... But could the sun be seen in the deep? Did its rays penetrate, as through a stained-glass window, in compact strips, or were they dispersed in a refraction of drops, so that the inhabitants of the abyss saw the light as a directionless gleam?

No, he told himself then: The old man understands clearly where he must go, perhaps he is already halfway between the ship and the reef, or, rather, he is already at the reef, perhaps he is about to climb it with his thick iron shoes, and at any moment I will see him....

Another thought: In reality, before today no one has ever been on the bottom of the sea. How do I know that down there, beyond a few ells’ depth, you do not enter an absolute blackness inhabited only by creatures whose eyes emanate a vague glow.... And who says that on the bottom of the sea one can still have any sense of direction? Perhaps he is moving in circles and will retrace always the same path, until the air in his chest has been transformed into moisture, which invites its friend, water, into the bell....

Roberto reproached himself for not having brought at least an hourglass up on deck: how much time had gone by? Per­haps already more than a half-hour, too long, alas, and it was he who felt he was suffocating. Then he took a deep breath, was reborn, and he believed this proved that only a very few instants had passed and Father Caspar was still enjoying the purest air.

But if the old man had set off obliquely, it was useless for Roberto to look straight ahead, as if the Jesuit were to emerge along the trajectory of an arquebus ball. He could have made many deviations, seeking the best access to the reef. Had he not said, while they were assembling the Bell, that it was a stroke of luck that the windlass stood precisely where it did? Ten paces to the north the false curtain abruptly formed a steep flank, against which the boat had once struck, while directly in front of the windlass there was a passage through which the boat had passed, running aground a bit farther on, where the rocks of the natural breakwater rose gradually.

Or, erring in direction, perhaps he had found himself fac­ing a wall and was following it southwards, looking for the passage. Or perhaps he was following it to the north. Roberto had to keep his eye on the whole shore, from one extremity to the other; perhaps Caspar would emerge down there, crowned with sea-ivy.... Roberto turned his head to the farther end of the bay, then back, fearing that while he was looking to the left, he might miss the Jesuit already emerging on the right. And yet at that distance it was easy to identify a man quickly, let alone a leather bell dripping water in the sun like a copper ladle just washed....

Fish! Perhaps in those waters there was a cannibal fish, not at all frightened by the bell, and it had already devoured the old man whole. No, if there was such a fish, it would live between the ship and the beginning of the coral reef, not beyond, and Roberto would have glimpsed its dark shadow. But perhaps the explorer had already arrived at the reef, and animal or mineral spikes had pierced the bell, releasing what little air it still contained....

Another thought: How do I know that the air in the bell has really sufficed for all this time? Caspar had said it would, but he had already been led astray by his confidence that his basin would work. In the final analysis, dear old Caspar had proved to be a raving eccentric, and perhaps that whole story of the waters of the Flood, and the meridian, and the Island of Solomon was a pack of tall tales. And besides, even if he was right as far as the Island was concerned, he could have been wrong in his calculation of the quantity of air a man needs. And how do I know that all those oils, those essences, really did seal every crevice? Perhaps at this moment the interior of the bell looks like one of those grottoes where water spurts from every corner; perhaps the whole bell sweats like a sponge; is it not true that our own skin is a sieve of pores imperceptible and yet there, since our sweat filters through them? And if this happens with a man’s skin, can it not happen also with the hide of an ox? Or do oxen not sweat? And when it rains, does an ox feel wet inside as well?

Roberto wrung his hands and cursed his haste. It was self-evident: here he was, believing hours had passed, and instead only a few pulse-beats had gone by. He told himself he had no reason to fear; the brave old man had many more reasons to do so. Perhaps Roberto should support Caspar’s progress with prayer, or at least with fond hope and good cheer.

Besides, he said to himself, I have imagined too many pos­sibilities for tragedy, and it is only proper to melancholies to generate specters that reality is unable to imitate. Father Caspar knows the hydrostatic laws, has already sounded this sea, has studied the Flood also through the fossils found in all seas. I must be calm, I must comprehend that the time passed is slight, and I must wait.

He realized that he had grown to love the man who had been the Intruder, and he was already weeping at the mere thought that harm might have befallen him. Now, old man, he murmured, return, come back to life, be reborn by God, and we will kill the fattest hen. Surely you will not abandon your Specula Melitensis to its fate?

And suddenly he was aware that he could no longer make out the rocks near the shore, a sign that the water had begun to rise; and the sun, which earlier he had seen without having to raise his head, was now truly over him. So from the mo­ment of the bell’s disappearance, not minutes but hours had passed.

He had to repeat this truth to himself aloud to make it credible. He had counted as seconds what had been minutes, he had convinced himself that in his bosom he carried a crazed clock, precipitately ticking, whereas that clock had slowed its pace. For Heaven knows how long, telling himself that Father Caspar had just descended, he had been awaiting a creature who had been without air for some time. For Heaven knows how long he had been awaiting a body lying lifeless somewhere in that expanse.

What could have happened? Everything, everything he had thought—and perhaps everything his misadventured fear had caused to happen, he the bearer of ill fortune. The hydrostatic principles of Father Caspar could be illusory, perhaps the water in a bell does indeed enter from below, especially if the person inside kicks the air outside, and what did Roberto truly know of the equilibrium of liquids? Or perhaps the impact had been too abrupt and the bell had overturned. Or Father Caspar had tripped halfway there. Or had lost his direction. Or his heart, septuagenarian or more, unequal to his enthusiasm, had failed. And finally, who says that at such depth the weight of the water of the sea cannot crush leather as it might squeeze a lemon or hull a pod?

But if he was dead, should his corpse not rise to the sur­face? No, he was anchored by his iron boots, from which his poor legs would be freed only when the conjoint action of the waters and the host of greedy little fish had reduced him to a skeleton....


Then Roberto had a dazzling thought. What was all this mental jabber about? Why, Father Caspar himself had said it in so many words: the Island Roberto saw before him was not the island of today but that of yesterday. Beyond that meridian it was the day before! Could he expect to see now on that beach, where it was yesterday, a person who had descended

into the water today? Surely not. The old man had immersed himself in the early morning of this Monday, but if on the ship it was Monday, on that Island it was still Sunday, and therefore he would not be able to see his friend emerge until the morning of its tomorrow, when on the Island it would be, at last, Monday....

I must wait till tomorrow, he said to himself. Then, how­ever, he added: But Father Caspar cannot wait a day, he has not enough air! And, further, while it is I who must wait a day, he simply re-entered Sunday as soon as he crossed the line of the meridian. My God, then the Island I see is Sunday’s, and if he arrived there on Sunday, I should see him already! No, I have it all wrong. The Island I see is today’s, it is im­possible I should see the past as in a magic crystal. It is there, on the Island—and only there—that it is yesterday. But if I see the Island of today, I should see him, who in the Island’s yesterday is already there, and is enjoying a second Sunday... And then, whether he arrived yesterday or today, he should have left the disemboweled bell on the beach, and I cannot see it. But he could have also carried it with him into the woods. When? Yesterday. So: let us assume that what I see is the Island of Sunday. I must wait for tomorrow to see him arriving there on Monday....

We could say that Roberto had definitively lost his mind, and with very good reason: no matter how he calculated, the figures would not add up. The paradoxes of time can indeed unhinge us. So it was normal for him not to know what to do; and he ended up doing what anyone, first victim of his own hope, would have done: before succumbing to despair, he prepared to wait for the coming day.

How he did it is hard to reconstruct. Pacing back and forth on deck, not touching food, talking to himself, to Father Cas­par, to the stars and perhaps having recourse once more to aqua vitae. The fact is that we find him the next day—as the night fades and the sky takes on color, and then after sunrise—more and more tense while the hours pass, greatly agitated between eleven and noon, beside himself between noon and sunset, until he has to accept reality—and, this time, without any doubt. Yesterday, surely yesterday, Father Caspar lowered himself into the austral ocean and neither yes­terday nor today did he subsequently emerge. And since all the wonder of the antipodal meridian is played out between yesterday and tomorrow, and not between yesterday and the day after tomorrow, or tomorrow and the day before yester­day, it was now certain: from that sea Father Caspar would never again come forth.

With mathematical, indeed, cosmographical and astronom­ical certitude, his poor friend was lost. Nor could anyone have said where the body was. In some unidentified place down below. Perhaps beneath the surface there were violent currents, and the body by now was out in the open sea. Or perhaps not, perhaps beneath the Daphne lay a trough, a chasm, the bell had settled there, and from it the old man had been unable to climb up and had expended his scant breath, in­creasingly watery, in cries for help.

Perhaps, to escape, he had unfastened his bonds, the bell still full of air, and made a leap upwards, but its iron part had arrested that first impulse and held it at half-depth, no know­ing where. Father Caspar had tried to free himself from his boots but had failed. Now in this strait, rooted in rock, his lifeless body swayed like seaweed.

And while Roberto was thinking these things, the Tuesday sun was now behind his back, the moment of Father Caspar Wanderdrossel’s death growing ever more remote.

The sunset created a jaundiced sky behind the dark green of the Island, and a Stygian sea. Roberto understood that Na­ture was mourning with him and, as sometimes happens to one orphaned of someone dear, little by little he no longer wept for the misfortune of that person but for his own re­newed solitude.

For a very few days he had escaped that solitude. Father Caspar had become for him friend, father, brother, family, and home. Now he realized that he was again companionless, a hermit. This time forever.

Still, in that disheartenment another illusion was forming. Roberto now was sure that the only escape from his reclusion was to be found not in unbridgeable Space but in Time.

Now he truly had to learn to swim and reach the Island. Not so much to discover some trace of Father Caspar lost in the folds of the past, but to arrest the horrid advance of his own tomorrow.




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