reaching the edge of the reef, Roberto swam with his face submerged among those endless loggias, but he was unable to admire the animated rocks serenely because a Medusa had transformed him into inanimate stone. In his dream he had seen the looks Lilia bestowed on the usurper; and if in the dream those looks had enflamed him, now in waking memory they froze him.
Roberto wanted to regain possession of his Lilia; he swam, thrusting his face down as far as possible, as if that embrace with the sea could award him the prize that in his dream he had awarded Ferrante. It did not require a great effort, on the part of his spirit trained to form concepts, to imagine Lilia in every undulant cadence of that submerged park, to see her lips in every flower, where he would lose himself like a greedy bee. In transparent greenery he found again the veil that had covered her face on the first nights, and he stretched out his hand to raise that screen.
In this intoxication of his reason, he regretted that his eyes could not rove as freely as his heart wished, and among the corals he sought his beloved’s bracelet, her snood, the bangle that beguiled the lobe of her ear, the sumptuous necklaces that adorned her swan-like neck.
Lost in his search, he allowed himself at one point to be attracted by a jewel that appeared to him in a crevass; he removed his mask, arched his back, raised his legs vigorously, and forced himself towards the sea bed. The thrust was excessive, he tried to grasp the edge of a shelf; just before closing his fingers around a crusted rock, he seemed to see a fat and sleepy eye open. At that same instant he remembered Dr. Byrd had spoken to him of a Stone Fish that lurks among the coral caverns to surprise any living creature with the venom of its scales.
Too late. His hand had rested on the Thing and an intense pain shot through his arm to his shoulder. With a twist of his trunk he managed miraculously not to end up with his face and chest on top of the Monster, but to arrest his momentum he had to strike it with the mask. In the impact the mask shattered, but he had to let go of it anyway. Pressing his feet against the rock below, he pushed himself up to the surface while in the space of a few seconds he saw the Persona Vitrea sink out of sight.
His right hand and his entire forearm were swollen, his shoulder numb; he was afraid he might faint; he found the rope and with great effort gradually succeeded in pulling it, a little at a time, with one hand. He climbed the ladder, much as he had on the night of his arrival, not knowing how, and, as on that night, he slumped to the deck.
But now the sun was already high. His teeth chattering, Roberto recalled Dr. Byrd telling him that after an encounter with the Stone Fish most humans were doomed; a few did survive, but no one knew an antidote against that suffering. Though his eyes were clouded, he tried to examine the wound—it was no more than a scratch, but it must have been enough to allow the mortal substance to penetrate his veins. He lost consciousness.
When he woke, his fever was raging and he felt an intense thirst. He realized that on this edge of the ship, exposed to the elements, far from food and drink, he would not last long. He crawled below and reached the partition between the stores and the chicken pen. He drank greedily from a keg of water, but he felt his stomach contract. He fainted again, his face in his own vomit.
During a night racked by fierce dreams, he attributed his sufferings to Ferrante, whom he now confused with the Stone Fish. Why did Ferrante want to block his way to the Island and to the Dove? Was this why he had set out in pursuit of Roberto?
He could see himself lying there and looking at another self seated opposite him, beside a stove, dressed in a house robe, trying to decide if the hands he touched and the body he felt were his. He, who saw the other, felt his clothes on fire. Then, while the other was clothed, he was naked — but he no longer knew which of the two was awake and which asleep, and he thought that both were surely figures produced by his mind. No, not he, because he thought, and therefore he was.
The other (but which?) at a certain point stood up, but he had to be the Evil Genius who was transforming Roberto’s world into dream, for already he was no longer himself but Father Caspar. “You’ve come back!” Roberto murmured, holding out his arms. But the priest did not answer or move. He looked at him. It was surely Father Caspar, but as if the sea — giving him up — had cleansed and rejuvenated him. His beard was trimmed, his face plump and roseate like Padre Emanuele’s, his habit unwrinkled and neat. Then, still motionless, like an actor declaiming, and in impeccable language, a skilled orator, he said with a grim smile: “It is useless for you to defend yourself. Now the whole world has a single destination, and it is Hell.”
He went on in a loud voice, as if speaking from the pulpit of a church: “Yes, Hell, of which you know little, you and all those who along with you are proceeding with light foot and mad spirit! Did you believe that in Hell you would find swords, daggers, wheels, razors, streams of sulphur, potions of molten lead, frozen waters, cauldrons and grates, saws and clubs, awls to gouge out eyes, pincers to pull teeth, combs to rip open flanks, chains to pound the bones, animals that gnaw, hooks that pull, thongs that choke, racks, crosses, goads, and axes? No! Those are merciless torments, true, but such as the human mind can still conceive, as we have also conceived bronze bulls, seats of iron, and sharpened reeds to push under fingernails.... You hoped Hell was a reef made up of Stone Fish. No, the torments of Hell are something different, because they are born not from our finite mind but from the infinite mind ot a wrathful and vindictive God, forced to display His fury and show that as His mercy was great in absolution, no less great is His justice in punishment! They must be such torments that in them we can see the gulf between our impotence and His omnipotence!”
“In this world,” that messenger of penance continued, “you are used to seeing that for every ill a remedy is found, that there is no wound without its balm, no venom without its theriac. But you must not think it is the same in Hell. Burns there, it is true, are highly troublesome, but there is no liniment that soothes them; thirst sears, but there is no water to slake it; hunger is rabid, but no food allays it; unendurable is the shame, but no cover can cover it. If there were at least death to put an end to such woe, death, death... But this is the worst, for there you can never hope for a deliverance, even one as grievous as your own extermination! You will seek death in all its forms, you will seek death and never be fortunate enough to find it. Death! Death, where art thou, you will shout constantly, but what demon would be merciful and offer it to you? And you will understand that down there the suffering never ends!”
The old man paused, extended his arms, his hands turned towards Heaven, as he muttered in a whisper, as if to confide a tremendous secret that should never go beyond that nave. “Suffering that never ends? Does that mean we shall suffer until a little goldfinch, drinking one drop every year, succeeds in draining all the world’s seas? No, longer. In saecula. Shall we suffer until a plant louse, taking one bite every year, has devoured every forest? No, longer. In saecula. Will we suffer, then, until an ant, taking one step every year, has circled the entire earth? No, longer. In saecula. And if all this Universe were desert and once every century a single grain were taken from it, would we perhaps end our suffering when the Universe was empty? Not even then. In saecula. Assume that a damned soul, after millions of centuries, can shed only two tears, will we then continue suffering until his weeping has sufficed to form a flood greater than that which in ancient times destroyed the human race? Come now, enough of this, we are not children! If you want me to say it, then: In saecula, in saecula must the damned suffer, in saecula, which means centuries without number, without end, without measure.”
Now Father Caspar’s face seemed that of the Carmelite at La Griva. He raised his eyes as if to find in Heaven a sole hope of mercy. “But what of God,” he said with the voice of a penitent worthy of compassion, “yes, what of God? Does He not suffer at the sight of our sufferings? Will He not feel a pang of concern, in the end will He not reveal Himself, so we can be consoled at least by His weeping? Alas, ye innocent!
God, unfortunately, will show Himself, but you still cannot imagine how! When we raise our eyes, we will see that He (must I say it?) ... we will see that He, having become for us a Nero, not in injustice but in severity, will not console us or succor us or sympathize with us, but, rather, He will laugh with inconceivable delight! Imagine what ravings must then seize us! We burn—we will say—and God laughs? We burn, and God laughs? Oh, most cruel God! Why do You not torture us with Your thunderbolts, rather than insult us with Your laughter? Redouble, merciless One, our flames, but do not rejoice in them! Ah, Your laughter for us is more bitter than our tears! Ah, Your joy to us is more grievous than our woes! Why does our Hell not have chasms where we can flee the countenance of a God that laughs? Too long have we been deceived by those who told us that our punishment would be the sight of the face of a scornful God. A laughing God, we should have been told, a laughing God.... Rather than see and hear that laughter we would have the mountains collapse on our heads, or the earth disappear beneath our feet; but no, in our misfortune we shall see what pains us, and be blind and deaf to everything except to what we wish to be blind and deaf!”
Roberto smelled the sour odor of the chicken feed in the gaps of the planks, and from outside came the mewing of the sea birds, which he had mistaken for the laughter of God.
“But why Hell for me?” he asked. “And why for all? Was it not to keep it only for a few that Christ redeemed us?”
Father Caspar laughed like the God of the damned. “Why, when did He redeem you? On what planet, in what universe do you think you are living now?”
He took Roberto’s hand, raising him violently from where he lay, and dragged him through the maze of the Daphne as the sick man felt a gnawing at his intestine, and it was as if his head housed only foliot clocks. Clocks, he thought: time, death....
Caspar dragged him into a room he had never discovered, its walls white; there Roberto saw a closed catafalque with a circular eye on one side. Before the eye, on a grooved runner, was inserted a little wooden strip fitted with several eyes, all the same size, framing pieces of opaque glass. As the strip was moved along the groove, the eyes could be aligned serially with the eye of the box. Roberto recalled having once seen in Provence a smaller version of this machine that, it was said, could bring light to life thanks to shadows.
Father Caspar opened the side of the box, allowing a glimpse of a great lamp on a tripod; on the side opposite the spout the lamp had, not a handle, but a round, specially curved mirror. When the lamp’s wick was lit, the mirror projected the luminous rays into a pipe, a short spyglass whose terminal lens was that external eye. From here (as soon as Caspar had closed the box again) the rays passed through the glass of the strip, broadening in a cone and casting on the wall some colored images, which to Roberto seemed truly alive, so vivid and precise were they.
The first figure represented a man with a demon’s face chained to a rock in the midst of the sea, lashed by the waves. Roberto could not tear his eyes from that apparition, he blended it with those that followed (as Father Caspar caused them to appear, sliding the strip of wood) and composed them all—dream within dream—without distinguishing what was being said to him from what he was seeing.
A ship was approaching the rock, and he recognized it as the Tweede Daphne; from it Ferrante descended, now freeing the chained man. All was clear. In the course of his voyaging, Ferrante had found Judas—as the legend assures us he was to be found—imprisoned upon the open sea, to expiate his betrayal.
“Thank you,” Judas said to Ferrante—but to Roberto the voice surely came from the lips of Caspar. “From the time I was bound here until the ninth hour today I have hoped to be able yet to atone for my sin... I thank you, brother....”
“You have been here only a day, or even less?” Ferrante said. “But your sin was committed in the thirty-third year after the birth of Our Lord, and therefore one thousand six hundred and ten years ago....”
“Ah, simple mind,” Judas replied, “it is surely one thousand six hundred and ten of your years since I was set on this rock, but it is not yet and never will be one day for me. You do not know that, entering the sea that surrounds this island of mine, you penetrated another world that flows alongside and within yours, and here the sun moves around the earth like a tortoise whose every step is slower than the one before. So in this my world, at the beginning my day lasted two of yours, and then three, and so on, more and more, until now, after one thousand six hundred and ten of your years, I am still and always at the ninth hour. And soon time will be even slower, and then slower still, and I will live always at the ninth hour of the year thirty-three after that night in Bethlehem....”
“But why?” Ferrante asked.
“Why, because God has willed that my punishment consist in living always on Good Friday, to celebrate always and every day the Passion of the man I betrayed. The first day of my suffering, when for other human beings sunset approached, and then night, and then the dawn of Saturday, for me only an atom of an atom of a minute of the ninth hour of that Friday had gone by. As the course of my sun began to move even more slowly, for the rest of you Christ was rising from the dead, but I was still barely a step from that hour. And now, when centuries and centuries have passed for you, I am still only a crumb of time from that instant...”
“But still this sun of yours moves, and the day will come, even if after ten thousand years and more, when you will enter your Saturday.”
“Yes, and then it will be worse. I will have left my Purgatory to enter my Hell. My grief at the death I caused will not cease, but I will have lost the possibility, which still remains to me, of making what happened not happen.”
“You do not know that not far from here runs the antipodal meridian. Beyond that line, both in your world and in mine, lies the day before. If I, now freed, could cross that line, I would be in my Holy Thursday, for this scapular that you see on my back is the bond that requires my sun to accompany me like my shadow, and guarantee that wherever I go, all time has the duration of mine. I could then reach Jerusalem, traveling through a very long Thursday, and I could arrive there before the completion of my wickedness. And I would save my Master from His fate.”
“But,” Ferrante objected, “if you prevent the Passion, then there will never be the Redemption, and the world will still be stained by original sin.”
“Aii!” Judas shouted, crying. “I was thinking only of myself! But what must I do then? If I continue to let myself act as I acted, I remain damned. If I amend my error, I confound the plan of God and will be punished by damnation. Was it then written from the beginning that I was damned to be damned?”
The procession of images went dark at the weeping of Judas, as the oil of the lamp was consumed. Father Caspar was speaking again, in a voice Roberto no longer recognized as his.
The scant light now came from a fissure in the wall and illuminated only half of the priest’s face, distorting the line of his nose and making the color of his beard uncertain, very white on one side and very dark on the other. The eyes were both hollows, because the one exposed to the light seemed also in shadow. Roberto realized only then that it was covered by a black patch.
“And it is at that point,” he said now, this man who was surely the Abbe de Morn, “it is at that moment that your brother conceives the masterstroke of his Genius. If he makes the journey Judas has suggested, he can prevent the Passion from taking place, and thus prevent Redemption from being granted us. No Redemption, all men victims of the same original sin, all doomed to Hell, your brother a sinner—but a sinner like all humankind, and therefore justified.”
“But how could he, how can he, how did he?” Roberto asked.
“Oh”—the abbe smiled with horrid glee—”it required very little. It sufficed only to deceive the Almighty as well, who is incapable of conceiving every travesty of the truth. It sufficed to kill Judas, as I promptly did on that rock, put on his scapular, send my ship ahead to the opposite shore of the Island, arrive here in disguise to prevent your learning the correct rules of swimming so you could never precede me over there, then force you to construct with me the aquatic bell to enable me to reach the Island.” And as he spoke, he slowly removed his habit, appearing in pirate garb, then equally slowly he removed the beard, rid himself of the wig, and Roberto thought he was seeing himself in a mirror.
“Ferrante!” he cried.
“In person, my dear brother. I, who—as you were struggling like a dog or a frog—found my ship again on the far side of the Island, and sailed through my long Thursday to-
wards Jerusalem, found the other Judas on the verge of betraying, hanged him from a fig tree, preventing him from handing over the Son of Man to the Sons of Darkness, entered the Garden of Olives with my men and abducted Our Lord, stealing Him from Calvary! And now you, I, all of us are living in a world that has never been redeemed!”
“But Christ? Where is Christ now?”
“Do you then not know that the ancient texts already said there are doves the color of flame because the Lord, before being crucified, wore a scarlet tunic? Have you not yet understood? For one thousand six hundred and ten years Christ has been prisoner on the Island, whence He tries to escape in the form of an Orange Dove, but is unable to abandon that place, where next to the Specula Melitensis I have left Judas’s scapular, and where it is therefore forever the same day. Now all I have to do is kill you, and live free in a world where remorse is banned, Hell is certain for all, and where one day I shall be crowned the new Lucifer!” And he drew a dirk, took a step towards Roberto to commit his final crime.
“No!” Roberto shouted. “I will not allow it! I will kill you and free Christ. I can still wield my sword, and it was to me, not to you, that my father taught his secrets!”
“I have had only one father, one mother: your festered mind,” Ferrante said with a sad smile. “You taught me only to hate. Do you think you have given me a great gift, giving me life so that in your Land of Romances I could embody Suspicion? As long as you are alive, thinking for me what I must think, I will never cease to despise myself. So whether you kill me or I kill you, the end is the same. En garde!”
“Forgive me, my brother,” Roberto cried. “Yes, let us fight. It is fitting that one of us die.”
What did Roberto want? To die, to set Ferrante free by making him die? Prevent Ferrante from preventing the
Redemption? We will never know, for he did not know the answer himself. But this is the way of dreams.
They climbed up on deck. Roberto hunted for his weapon and found it reduced (as we will recall) to a stump; but he shouted that God would give him strength, and a good swordsman can fight even with a broken blade.
The two brothers confronted each other for the first time, to begin their last conflict.
The heavens were ready to abet the fratricide. A reddish cloud suddenly cast between ship and sky a bloody shadow as if, up above, they had slaughtered the Horses of the Sun. A great concert of thunder and lightning erupted, followed by a downpour, and sky and sea deafened the duellers, dazzling their vision, striking their hands with icy water.
But the two darted here and there among the thunderbolts that rained around them, attacking each other with blows and side cuts, suddenly falling back, clutching a hawser, almost flying to avoid a thrust, hurling abuse, cadencing every attack with a cry, among the equal cries of the wind howling around them.
On that slippery deck Roberto was fighting so that Christ could be nailed to the Cross, and he invoked divine aid; Per-rante, to prevent Christ’s suffering, invoked the names of all the devils.
Called to assist him was Astaroth, as the Intruder (now intruding also into the plans of Providence) offered himself involuntarily to the coup de la mouette. Or perhaps this is what he wished, to conclude that dream that had neither beginning nor end.
Roberto pretended to fall, the other rushed to finish him off; Roberto, leaning on his right hand, thrust the broken sword at his opponent’s chest. He did not spring up with the agility of Saint-Savin, but Ferrante at this point had accumulated too much impetus and could not avoid being stuck, or, rather, impaling himself at his sternum on the stump of the blade. Roberto choked on the blood that poured from the mouth of his enemy, in death.
He tasted blood in his mouth, and probably in his delirium he had bitten his tongue. Now he was swimming in that blood, which spread from the ship to the Island; he did not want to advance for fear of the Stone Fish, but he had completed only the first part of his mission, Christ was waiting on the Island to shed His blood, and Roberto was now His sole Messiah.
What was he doing now in his dream? With Ferrante’s dirk he had begun tearing a sail into long strips, which he then knotted together with the help of ropes. On the lower deck he had captured, using thongs, the hardiest of the cranes or storks or whatever they might be, and he was now binding them by their legs, as coursers, to that flying carpet of his.
With his aerial ship he rose in flight towards the now attainable land. Under the Specula Melitensis he found the scapular and destroyed it. Having restored space to time, he saw descending upon him the Dove, which finally, ecstatic, he saw in all its glory. But it was natural—or, rather, supernatural— that the bird now should appear to him not orange but white. Yet it could not be a dove, for the dove is not suited to represent the Second Person of the Trinity; it was perhaps a Pious Pelican, as the Son must be. Roberto could not clearly see what bird was offered him as sweet topsail for that winged vessel.
He only knew that he was flying upwards, and images followed one another as the mad phantoms would have it. They were now navigating in the direction of all the innumerable and infinite worlds, to every planet, to every star, so that on each, as if in a single moment, the Redemption would be achieved.
The first planet they reached was the pure moon, on a night illuminated by the earth’s midday. And the earth hung on the line of the horizon, an enormous looming boundless polenta of cornmeal still cooking in the sky and almost falling upon him, gurgling with fevered and feverish fevery ferocity in boiling boils on the boil, plop ploppity plop. The fact is that when you have the fever, you become polenta, and the lights you see all come from the boiling of your head. And there on the moon, with the Dove...
We will not have looked for coherence and verisimilitude, I trust, in all I have narrated thus far, because we have been describing the nightmare of a man poisoned by a Stone Fish. But what I am preparing to narrate surpasses all our expectations. The mind or the heart of Roberto, or in any case his vis imaginativa, was ordering a sacrilegious metamorphosis: on the moon he now saw himself not with the Lord but with the Lady, Lilia finally recovered from Ferrante. Roberto, by the lakes of Selene, was receiving what his brother had stolen from him among the ponds of the island of fountains. He kissed her face with his eyes, contemplated her with his mouth, sucked, bit again and again, and the enamoured tongues jested, jousting.
Only then did Roberto, whose fever was perhaps abating, come to, but remaining fond of what he had experienced, as happens after a dream departs, leaving not only the spirit affected but also the body.
He did not know whether to weep with happiness at his regained love, or to weep with remorse for having turned— thanks to the fever, which ignores the Laws of Genre—his Sacred Epic into a Libertine Comedy.
That moment, he told himself, will truly gain me Hell, for I am surely no better than Judas or Ferrante—indeed, I am only Ferrante and till now I have simply exploited his wickedness in order to dream of doing what my cowardice has always kept me from doing.
Perhaps I shall not be called to answer for my sin, because it is not I who sinned, but the Stone Fish that made me dream in its own way. However, if I have arrived at such mindlessness, it must be a sign that I am truly about to die. I had to wait for the Stone Fish to make me think of death, whereas this thought should be the first duty of every good Christian.
Why have I never thought of death, and of the wrath of a laughing God? Because I was following the teachings of my philosophers, for whom death is a natural necessity and God is He who into the disorder of atoms introduced the Law that composes them in the harmony of the Cosmos. Could such a God, master of geometry, produce the disorder of Hell, even if out of justice, and could He laugh at the subverting of every subversion?
No, God does not laugh, Roberto said to himself. He bows to the Law that He Himself willed, the Law that wills the body to decay, as mine is surely decaying in this decadence. And Roberto saw the worms near his mouth, but they were not an effect of his delirium; amid the filth of the hens, they had formed through spontaneous generation, descendants of that excrement.
He then gave welcome to those heralds of decomposition, for he understood that this confounding of himself with viscid matter was to be experienced as the end of all suffering, in harmony with the will of Nature and of Heaven that administers it.
I have only a little while to wait, he murmured, as in a prayer. In the space of not many days my body, now still well composed, will change color and become wan as a bean, then blacken from head to foot and be sheathed in a dark heat. Then tumefaction will begin, and on that bloat a fetid mold will generate. Nor will it be long before the belly begins exploding here and splitting there, releasing rottenness, and here a wormy half-eye will be seen swaying, there a shred of lip. In this mud then a quantity of little flies will be born and other tiny animals that cluster in my blood, and they will consume me bit by bit. One part of these creatures will rise from my bosom, another will drip like mucus from the nostrils; others, drawn by my putrescence, will enter and leave the mouth, and the most sated will gurgle in the throat.... And all this while the Daphne little by little becomes the realm of the birds, and germs arriving from the Island cause animalesque vegetables to grow here, whose roots, now digging into the bilge, will be nourished by my secretions. Finally, when my whole corporeal fabric has been reduced to pure skeleton, in the course of the months and the years—or perhaps the millennia—that armature will also slowly become a powder of atoms on which the living will walk, not understanding that the whole globe of the earth, its seas, its deserts, its forests, and its valleys, is nothing but a living cemetery.
There is nothing more conducive to healing than an Exercise in Happy Death, the rehearsal of which reassures us. So the Carmelite had once said to him, and so it was, for now Roberto felt hunger and thirst. Weaker than when he dreamed of the fighting on the deck, but less so than when he lay by the hens, he found the strength to suck an egg. The liquid that trickled down his throat was good. And even better was the milk of a nut that he opened in the larder. After all that meditating over his dead body, now, to heal it, he incorporated into his body the healthy bodies to which Nature gives life every day.
This is why, except for some admonitions from the Carmelite, at La Griva no one had taught him to think of death. During family conversation, almost always at dinner and at supper (after Roberto had returned from one of his explorations of the ancient house, and had perhaps lingered in a great shadowy room redolent of apples set on the floor to ripen), the talk was only of the goodness of the melons, the reaping of the wheat, and the expectations for the vintage.
Roberto remembered how his mother taught him he could live happily and peacefully if he would employ to advantage all the good things that La Griva gave him: “And it would be well for you not to forget to provide yourself with salted meat of the ox, the sheep, or the ram, and of calf and pig, for they keep for some time and are of great use. Cut the pieces of meat not very big, put them in a pot with much salt over them, leave them for one week, then hang them from the beams in the kitchen so they can dry in the smoke, and do this in crisp, cold weather, with the westerly winds, after Martinmas, for the meat will then last as long as you wish. In September come the little birds, and lambs for the whole winter, not to mention the capons, the old hens, the ducks, and such like. Do not scorn even the ass if it breaks a leg, for they produce little round sausages that you afterwards score with a knife and set to fry, and they are a dish for a lord. And in Lent, let there always be mushrooms, soups, nuts, grapes, apples, and all God’s bounty. And also for Lent turnips must be kept ready, and herbs that, floured and cooked in oil, are better than a lamprey; and you will make sweet Lenten dumplings, with a paste of oil, flour, rose-water, saffron, and sugar, with a drop of Malmsey, cut in rounds like old window panes, filled with grated bread, apples, cloves, and crushed walnuts, which, with a pinch of salt you will set in the oven and cook, and you will eat better than any prior. After Easter come the kids, asparagus, pigeons.... Later the ricotta arrives and the fresh cheese. But you must also know how to make use of peas and boiled beans floured and fried, which are excellent ornaments for the table.... This, my son, if you live as our elders lived, will be a life of bliss, far from all travail...”
No, at La Griva there was no talk of death, judgement, Hell, or Paradise. Death, for Roberto, had appeared at Ca-sale, and it had been in Provence and in Paris that he had been led to ponder it, amid virtuous discourse and carefree discourse.
I shall surely die, he said to himself, if not now thanks to the Stone Fish, in any case later, since it is clear that from this ship I shall never wander, now that I have lost—with the Persona Vitrea—also the means of approaching the barrier safely. What illusion was I harboring? I would die, perhaps later, even if I had not arrived on this wreck. I entered life knowing that the Law requires us to leave it. As Saint-Savin said, we play our role, some long, some not so long, and then we leave the stage. I have seen others go before me, others will see me go, and they will give the same performance for their successors.
For that matter, how long was the time when I did not exist, and for how long in the future will I not be? I occupy a very small space in the abyss of the years. This little interval does not succeed in distinguishing me from the nothingness into which I shall go. I came into the world only to swell the ranks. My part was so small that even if I had remained in the wings, everyone would still have declared the play perfect. It is like a storm at sea: some drown immediately, others are dashed against the rocks, still others are cast up on an abandoned ship, but not for long, not even they. Life goes out, on its own, like a candle that has consumed its substance. And we should be accustomed to it, because, like a candle, we have been shedding atoms since the moment we were lit.
It is no great wisdom to know these things, Roberto told himself. We should know them from the moment we are born. But usually we reflect always and only on the death of others. Ah yes, we all have strength enough to bear others’ ills. Then the moment comes when we think of death because the illness is our own, and we realize it is impossible to stare directly at the sun and at death. Unless we have had good teachers.
I did. Someone said to me that truly few know death. As a rule it is tolerated through stupidity or habit, not through resolve. We die because we cannot do otherwise. Only the philosopher can think of death as a duty, to be performed willingly and without fear. As long as we are here, death is not here, and when death comes, we have gone. Why would I have spent so much time conversing about philosophy if now I were not capable of making my death the masterwork of my life?
His strength was returning. He thanked his mother, whose memory had led him to abandon thoughts of the end. She could not do otherwise, she who had given him the beginning.
He set to thinking about his birth, of which he knew far less than of his death. He told himself that thinking of origins is proper to the philosopher. It is easy for the philosopher to justify death: that we must plunge into obscurity is one of the clearest things in the world. What obsesses the philosopher is not the naturalness of the end, it is the mystery of the beginning. We can lack interest in the eternity that will follow us, but we cannot elude the anguished question of which eternity preceded us: the eternity of matter or the eternity of God?
This was why he had been cast up on the Daphne, Roberto concluded. Because only in that restful hermitage would he have had the leisure to reflect on the one question that frees us from every apprehension about not being and consigns us to the wonder of being.