ferrante had told Lilia, now ready to believe any falsehoods that might come from those beloved lips, a story almost true, except that in it he played the part of Roberto, and Roberto that of Ferrante; and he convinced her to sacrifice all the jewels in the casket she had brought with her to find the usurper and tear from him a document of capital importance to the fate of the Nation, which the other had torn from him, and with which, returning it, he could obtain the Cardinal’s pardon.
After fleeing the French shores, the Tweede. Daphne’s first port of call was Amsterdam. There Ferrante, double spy that he was, could find someone able to give him information of a ship named the Amaryllis. Whatever that information was, a few days later he was in London looking for someone else. And the man to whom he addressed himself could only have been a villain of his own stamp, ready to betray those for whom he was betraying others.
So Ferrante, having received from Lilia a diamond of great purity, was seen entering at night a pothouse where he was welcomed by a creature of dubious sex, perhaps a former eunuch of the Turks, with a glabrous face and a mouth so small you would have said he smiled only by moving his nose.
The room Ferrante stole into was frightful thanks to the smuts from a pile of bones burning in a smoldering fire. In one corner a naked corpse was hanging by its feet, secreting a nettle-colored liquid from its mouth into a copper basin.
The eunuch recognized Ferrante as a brother in crime. He heard the question, saw the diamond, and betrayed his masters. He led him into another room that looked like an apothecary’s shop, filled with jars of clay, glass, tin, copper. All contained substances that served to alter the aspect of their users: crones who wanted to appear young and beautiful, miscreants who sought to disguise their features. There were rouges, emollients, asphodel roots, tarragon bark, and a substance made with stag marrow and water of honeysuckle that refined the skin. He had pastes to turn the hair blond, a mixture of green ilex, rye, white horehound, soda niter, alum, and yarrow; or to change the complexion there were compounds of stallion, bear, camel, snake, rabbit, whale, mare, bittern, doe, wildcat, and otter. Also an oil for the face made of styrax, lemon, pine-nut, elm, lupin, vetch, and chickpea, and a shelf of bladders with which strumpets could seem virgins. For those who would ensnare a lover he had viper tongues, quail heads, asses’ brains, pilewort, badgers’ paws, stones from eagles’ nest, hearts shaped in tallow thick with broken needles, and other objects made of mud and lead most repugnant to the sight.
In the center of the room stood a table, and on it was a basin covered with a bloodied cloth, to which the eunuch pointed with a look of complicity. Ferrante did not understand, and his host assured him he had come to the right man. In fact, the eunuch was none other than he who had wounded Dr. Byrd’s dog and who, every day at the agreed time, dipping into vitriol water the cloth steeped in the animal’s blood, or holding the same cloth to the fire, had been transmitting to the Amaryllis the signals Byrd awaited.
The eunuch related everything about Byrd’s voyage and about the ports where he would surely have called. Ferrante, who truly knew little or nothing of the matter of longitudes, could not imagine that Mazarin had sent Roberto on that ship only to learn something that to him now seemed obvious, so he concluded that what Roberto was really meant to reveal to the Cardinal was the location of the Islands of Solomon.
He believed the Tweede Daphne swifter than the Amaryllis, he trusted his luck, he thought he would easily overtake Byrd’s ship, and, since it would have landed on the Islands, he could more easily surprise the crew ashore, exterminate them (Roberto included), and then dispose of that territory at his pleasure, as he would be its sole discoverer.
It was the eunuch who suggested to him the method of proceeding without mistaking his course: it would suffice to wound another dog, and every day act upon a sample of its blood, as the eunuch did for the Amaryllis dog, and Ferrante would receive the same daily messages that Byrd received.
“I will sail at once,” Ferrante said, and when the other reminded him that first a dog would have to be found, “I have a far better dog on board,” he exclaimed. He took the eunuch onto the ship, made sure that among the crew there was a barber expert in phlebotomy and other similar chores. “I, Captain,” declared one who had eluded a hundred nooses and a thousand fetters, “when we ran the seas, I cut off more arms and legs of comrades than I wounded enemies!”
Descending into the hold, Ferrante chained Biscarat to two stakes crossed obliquely and, grasping a knife, deeply cut the captain’s hip. As Biscarat moaned, the eunuch collected the dripping blood with a cloth he had put in a bucket. Then he explained to the barber how he should keep the wound open for all the duration of the voyage, not allowing the wounded man to die but also not allowing the wound to heal.
After this latest crime, Ferrante ordered the men to set sail for the Islands of Solomon.
Having written this chapter, Roberto felt disgust and weariness, himself crushed by the labor of so many evil deeds.
He no longer wanted to imagine the sequel, and instead he wrote an invocation to Nature, praying that—as a mother, wishing to make her baby sleep in his cradle, draws a cloth over it and covers him in his own little night—she draws deep night over the planet. He prayed that Night, stealing everything from his view, bid his eyes close; that, together with darkness, silence come; and that—as at the rise of the sun, lions, bears, and wolves (to whom, as to thieves and assassins, daylight is hateful) run to hide in caves where they find refuge and safety—as the sun withdrew beyond the west, all the din and the tumult of his thoughts retire. That, once the light was dead, the spirits that the light revived in him would be stunned, and mute repose would reign.
When he blew out the lamp, his hands were illuminated only by a lunar ray entering from outside. A fog rose from his stomach to his brain and, falling on his eyelids, closed them so that his spirit could no longer peer out and see any distracting object. And not only did his eyes and ears sleep, but also his hands and feet—everything save the heart, which never rests.
Does the soul also sleep during such repose? Alas, no. It remains wakeful, only it withdraws behind a curtain and becomes theater: then phantom zanies come on stage and perform a comedy, but such as a company of drunken or mad actors might play, so travestied seem the characters, so strange the dress and lewd the attitudes, so inappropriate the situations, so outrageous the speech.
As when you cut a centipede into several parts, and the separated sections run off blindly, because except for the first, which comprises the head, the others cannot see; and each, like a healthy roach, goes off on the five or six legs left him, carrying away that piece of soul that is his. Similarly, in dreams, from the stem of a flower you see a crane’s neck sprout, ending in a baboon’s head with four snail’s horns that spit fire, or you see blossoming from an old man’s chin a peacock’s tail as beard; another man’s arms look like twisted vines, and his eyes are lights glowing in a conch shell, and his nose is a reed-pipe.
Roberto, who was sleeping, thus dreamed Ferrante’s voyage as it continued; only he was dreaming it as a dream.
A revelatory dream, I would say. It almost seems that Roberto, after his meditations on infinite worlds, no longer wanted to imagine a plot unfolding in the Land of Romances but, rather, a real story in a real land, a land he also inhabited, except that—as the Island lay in the simple past—his story could take place in a not distant future, which could satisfy his desire for a space less confined than that to which his shipwreck had sentenced him.
If he had begun the story by presenting a generic Ferrante, an lago, his rancor conceived for an offense never suffered, a Ferrante who now, unable to bear the sight of the Other at Lilia’s side, was taking his place, then—daring to recognize his darkest thoughts—Roberto would have admitted openly that Ferrante was himself.
Now Roberto was persuaded that the world could be experienced from infinite parallaxes; before, he had set himself up as an indiscreet eye to study Ferrante’s actions in the Land of Romances, or in a past that had also been his own. (That past had barely touched him, touched him without his realizing it, as it was determining his present.) Roberto was now becoming the eye of Ferrante, for in the company of his adversary he wanted to enjoy the events that fate held in store.
So now the vessel proceeded across the liquid meadows, and the pirates were docile. Watching over the voyage of the two lovers, the buccaneers confined themselves to discovering marine monsters and, before arriving on the American shores, they sighted a Triton. As for the part visible out of the water, the creature had a human form, except that the arms were short in proportion to the body: the hands were big, the hair gray and thick, and it had a beard down to its stomach. Its eyes were large, its skin rough. As they approached it, it seemed submissive and moved towards the net. But as soon as it felt the men drawing it to the boat, and even before it could reveal itself below the navel, showing whether or not it had a fish’s tail, it ripped the net with one blow and vanished. Later it was seen taking the sun on a rock, but still hiding the lower part of its body. Looking at the ship, it waved its arms as if applauding.
After entering the Pacific Ocean, they arrived at an island where the lions were black and the hens clad in wool, where the trees flowered only at night, the fish had wings and the birds scales, stones floated and wood sank, butterflies shone in the dark, and water was intoxicating like wine.
On a second island they saw a palace built of rotting wood, painted with colors that offended the eye. They entered and found themselves in a hall lined with raven’s feathers. In every wall there were niches where instead of stone busts they saw homunculi with emaciated faces, who by an accident of Nature had been born without legs.
On a filthy throne sat the King, who with a wave of his hand initiated a concert of hammers, drills that screeched against stone slabs, and knives that squeaked on porcelain plates. At the noise six men appeared, all skin and bones, abominable in their distorted gaze.
Opposite them appeared some women, the fattest imaginable: bowing to their companions, they began a dance that underlined their deformity and awkwardness. Then six brutes burst in, looking as if all had been born of one womb, their noses and mouths so big, and backs so gibbous, that they seemed not so much creatures as lies of Nature.
After the dance our travelers, having heard not one word uttered and assuming that on this island a language was spoken different from their own, tried asking questions with gestures, that universal language in which one can communicate also with Savages. But the man replied in a language that resembled, rather, the Lost Language of Birds, made of trills and whistles, and they understood it as if it were their native tongue. They learned that whereas in every other place beauty was prized, in this palace only the hideous was appreciated. And this was what they should expect if they continued their voyage to lands where what is normally above lies below.
Resuming the journey, they reached a third island, which seemed deserted, and Ferrante, alone with Lilia, ventured into the interior. As they advanced, they heard a voice that counseled them to flee: this was the Island of Invisible Men. At that very instant there were many natives around the couple, pointing at the two visitors who shamelessly exposed themselves to the gaze of others. For these people, in fact, being looked upon, one became the victim of another’s gaze and lost his own nature, transformed into the opposite of himself.
On a fourth island they found a man with hollow eyes, a thin voice, his face all a single wrinkle, but with fresh colors. His beard and hair were like cotton wool, his body so palsied that when he turned, he had to make a complete revolution. He said he was three hundred and forty years old, and in that time he had renewed his youth three times, having drunk the water from the Fount of Youth, which rose in that very land, prolonging life but not beyond three hundred forty years— hence in a short while he would die. The old man warned the travelers not to seek the fountain: living there, becoming first the double then the triple of oneself was a source of great afflictions, and in the end one no longer knew who one was. And worse: living the same sorrows three times was a suffering, but it was a suffering to relive even the same joys. The joy of life is born from feeling, whether it be joy or grief, always of short duration, and woe to those who know they will enjoy eternal bliss.
But the Antipodal World was beautiful in its variety, and, sailing another thousand miles, they reached a fifth island, which was only a pullulation of ponds. Each inhabitant spent his life on his knees at a pond, contemplating himself, believing that one who is not seen is as if nonexistent, and if they were to look awav, ceasing to see themselves in the water, they would die.
They landed then at a sixth island, still farther to the west, where all the natives talked among themselves incessantly, one telling another what he would like the other to be and do, and vice versa. Those islanders, in fact, could live only if they were narrated; if a transgressor told unpleasant stories about others, forcing them to enact the events, the others would cease telling anything about him, and he would die.
But their concern was to invent for each individual a different story: if they all had the same story, they would not be able to tell one another apart, because each is what his experiences have created. That is why they had constructed a great wheel which they called Cynosura Lucensis. Erected in the village square, it was made up of six concentric circles that revolved separately. The first was divided into twenty-four slots or windows, the second into thirty-six, the third into forty-eight, the fifth into seventy-two, the sixth into eighty-four. In the various slots, according to a system that Lilia and Ferrante could not grasp in so short a time, were written actions (such as come, go, die), passions (such as hate, love, indifference), then manners (good or ill), sorrow or happiness, and places and times (at home or next month).
Spinning the wheels created stories like “He went yesterday to his home and met his enemy who was suffering, and helped him,” or else “He saw an animal with seven heads and killed it.” The inhabitants declared that with this machine they could write or think seven hundred twenty-two million different stories, and there were enough to give meaning to the lives of each of them for centuries to come. This pleased Roberto, because he would be able to build a wheel of this sort and go on thinking up stories even if he were to remain on the Daphne for ten thousand years.
Many and bizarre were the discoveries of lands that Roberto himself would have liked to discover. But at a certain point in his dreaming he wanted a less populous place for the two lovers, so that they could bask in their love.
Thus he had them arrive at a seventh and most lovely beach, enhanced by a little wood standing at the shore of the sea. They crossed it and found themselves in a royal garden where, along a shady allee among lawns decorated with beds of flowers, many fountains played.
But Roberto, as if the pair were seeking a more private refuge and he new sufferings, caused them to reach a flowering arch, beyond which they stepped into a little vale where reeds of some marshy cane rustled in a breeze that scattered in the air a mixture of perfumes. And from a little pool, down glistening steps, a line of water bubbled as pure as a string of pearls.
He wanted—and I feel his staging followed all the rules —the thick shade of an oak to encourage the lovers at their feast, and he further added gay plane trees, humble arbutus, prickly junipers, fragile tamarisks, and supple limes garlanding a lawn illuminated like an Oriental tapestry. With what would Nature, the painter of the world, have adorned it? Violets and narcissus.
He left the two to their abandon, while a limp poppy raised from heavy oblivion its drowsy head to drink in those dewy sighs. But then he preferred that, humiliated by such beauty, it flush with shame and self-contempt. As he, Roberto, did; and we can only say it served him right.
To avoid seeing further what he would so have liked himself to be seen doing, Roberto then rose with his morphetic omniscience to overlook the entire island, where now the fountains commented on the amorous miracle of which they wished to be patrons.
There were little columns, ampoules, phials from which a single jet spurted—or many, from many little spouts—and others had at their summit a kind of ark from whose windows a flow descended, forming as it fell a doubly weeping willow. One, a single cylindrical stem, generated at its head many smaller, similar cylinders facing in various directions, as if it were a casemate or fortress or ship of the line armed with cannon—an artillery of water.
Some were plumed, or maned, or bearded, in as many varieties as the stars of the Magi in Nativities, whose tails their jets imitated. On one stood the statue of a boy holding an umbrella in his left hand, its ribs ending in as many jets; while in his right the child held his tiny member and mingled in a stoup his urine with the waters coming from the dome above him.
In another, on a capital lay a tailed fish that seemed to have just swallowed Jonah, and it expelled water from its mouth as well as from two holes opening above its eyes. And astride it was a cupid armed with a trident. A fountain in the form of a flower supported, with its central jet, a ball; while another was a tree, whose many blooms, each one, made a sphere spin, and it seemed so many planets were moving one around the other in the globe of the water. There were fountains where the very petals of the flower were of water, pouring from a continuous slit bordering a wheel set on a column.
Replacing air with water, organ pipes emitted not sounds but liquefied breaths, and others were like candelabra, water enacting fire, where flames burning in the center of the column cast lights on the foam rising on all sides.
Another seemed a peacock, crested, with a broad tail opened, for which the sky supplied the colors. Not to mention fountains that looked like stands to support a wig and were adorned with flowing locks. In one, a sunflower opened in a single dew. Another had the face of the sun itself, finely sculpted, with a series of nozzles around its circumference, so that the celestial body emitted not rays but coolness.
On one a cylinder rotated, ejaculating water from a series of spiral furrows. There were fountains with the mouths of lions or tigers, with gryphon’s maw and serpent’s tongue, and one was a female weeping from her eyes and her teats. And for the rest it was all a vomiting of fauns, a purling of winged creatures, a whispering of swans, a showering from Nile elephants’ trunks, a spilling of alabaster vessels, an emptying of cornucopias.
Visions that for Roberto—on closer study—were a fall from the frying-pan into the fire.
Meanwhile in the vale the now-sated lovers had only to
reach out and accept from a leafy vine the gift of its treasures, and a fig, as if wishing to weep tenderly over the spied-on union, distilled tears of honey, while on an almond tree bejewelled with blossoms lamented the Orange Dove....
Then Roberto woke, soaked with sweat.
“What?” he said to himself reproachfully. “I succumbed to the temptation to live through Ferrante, and now I realize that it is Ferrante who has lived through me, that as I was moping, he was truly experiencing what I permitted him to experience!”
To cool his anger, and to have visions that—these, at least—were denied Ferrante, he again set out early in the morning, rope around his loins and Persona Vitrea on his face, towards his world of coral.