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The Serraglio of Wonders

To survive the siege of Casale, where, as it turned out, he had not been reduced to eating rats, only to arrive on the Daphne, where perhaps the rats would eat him.... Timorously meditating on this nice contrast, Roberto was finally prepared to explore those places from which, the evening before, he had heard vague noises.

He decided to descend from the quarterdeck and, if all proved to be as it had been on the Amaryllis, he knew he would find a dozen cannons on the two sides, and the pallets or hammocks of the crew. From the helmsman’s room he reached the space below, divided by the tiller, which shifted with a slow creaking, and he should have been able to leave immediately by the door that opened into the lower deck. But, as if to gain familiarity with those deeper areas before facing his unknown enemy, he lowered himself further, through a trapdoor, into a space where on another ship there would have been more stores. Instead he found a room organized with great economy, paillasses for a dozen men. So the larger part of the crew slept down here, as if the rest of the space had been reserved for other functions. The pallets were all in perfect order. If there had been an epidemic, when the first men died, the survivors would surely have tidied up systematically. But, come to think of it, who could say whether all the sailors had died, or even any of them? And once again that thought failed to reassure him: a plague killing an entire crew is a natural event, sometimes providential, according to certain theologians; but an event that causes the crew to flee, leaving the ship in this state of unnatural order, might be far more worrisome.

Perhaps the explanation was to be found on the lower deck; he had to muster his courage. Roberto climbed back up and opened the door leading to the feared place.

He learned now the purpose of those vast gratings that perforated the main deck. Thanks to them, this lower deck had been transformed into a kind of nave, illuminated through the hatches by the full daylight that fell obliquely, intersecting the light that came from the gun-ports, colored by the reflec­tion, now ambered, of the cannons.

At first Roberto perceived only shafts of sunlight, in which infinite corpuscles could be observed swirling, and as he saw them, he could not help but recall (and how he indulges himself with this play of learned memories, to dazzle his Lady, rather than confine himself to bald narration) the words with which the Canon of Digne invited him to observe the cascades of light that spread through the darkness of a cathedral, stir­ring within themselves a multitude of monads, seeds, indis­soluble natures, drops of incense that exploded spontaneously, primordial atoms engaged in combat, battles, skirmishes by squadrons, amid numberless conjunctions and separations— obvious proof of the composition of this universe of ours, made of nothing but prime bodies teeming in the void.

Immediately thereafter, as if to confirm the fact that all creation is the work only of that dance of atoms, he had the impression of being in a garden, and he realized that from the moment he entered this place, he had been assailed by a host of odors, far stronger than those that had come to him earlier, from the shore.

A garden, an indoor orchard, is what the men from the Daphne had created in this space, to carry home flowers and plants from the islands they were exploring. The gratings al­lowed the sun, the winds, and the rains to keep the vegetation alive. Whether the vessel would have been able to preserve its sylvan booty through months of voyaging, or whether the first storm would have poisoned all with salt, Roberto could not say, but surely the mere fact that these plants were still alive indicated that the store, like the food, had been only recently collected.

Flowers, shrubs, saplings had been brought here with their roots and earth, and set in baskets and makeshift cases. But many of the containers had rotted; the earth had spilled out to create, from one container to the next, a layer of damp humus, where the shoots of some plants were already taking root. It was like being in an Eden sprouting from the very planks of the Daphne.

The light was not so strong as to trouble Roberto’s eyes, but strong enough to heighten the colors of the foliage and make the first flowers open. Roberto’s gaze rested on two leaves that had at first seemed like the tail of a crayfish, from which white jujubes blossomed, then on another pale-green leaf where a sort of half-flower was emerging from a clump of ivory lilies. A disgusting stench drew him to a yellow ear into which a little corncob seemed to have been thrust, while near it hung festoons of porcelain shells, snowy, pink-tipped, and from another bunch hung some trumpets or upturned bells with a faint odor of borage. He saw a lemon-colored flower which, as the days passed, would reveal to him its mutability, for it would turn apricot in the afternoon and a deep red at sunset, as others, saffron in the center, faded then to lilial white. He discovered some rough fruits that he would not have dared touch, if one of them, falling to the ground and splitting open in its ripeness, had not revealed a garnet interior. He ventured to taste others, and judged them more with the tongue that speaks than with the tongue that tastes, since he defines one as a bag of honey, manna congealed in the fertility of its stem, an emerald jewel brimming with tiny rubies. Now, reading between the lines, I would venture to suggest he had discovered something very like a fig.

None of those flowers or those fruits was known to him; each seemed generated by the fancy of a painter who had wanted to violate the laws of nature and invent convincing absurdities, riven delights and sapid falsehoods: such as that corolla covered with a whitish fuzz that blossomed into a tuft of violet feathers, but no, it was a faded primrose that extruded an obscene appendage, or a mask that covered a hoary visage with goat’s beards. Who could have conceived this bush, its leaves dark green on one side, with wild red-yellow decora­tions, and the other side flaming, surrounded by other leaves of the most tender pea-green, of meaty consistency, conch-shaped to hold the water of the latest rain?

Overwhelmed by the spell of the place, Roberto did not reflect on the residue of rain that the leaves were holding, though it surely had not rained for at least three days. The perfumes that stunned him led him to consider any enchant­ment natural.

It seemed to him natural that a flaccid, drooping fruit should smell like a fermented cheese, and that a sort of pur­plish pomegranate with a hole at the bottom, when shaken, should give off a faint rattle as a seed danced about inside it, as if this were not a flower at all but a child’s toy; nor was he amazed by a cusp-shaped blossom, hard and round at the base. Roberto had never seen a weeping palm, like a willow, but he had one before him, its multiple roots forming a paw from which rose a trunk that ended in a single clump, while the fronds of that plaintive plant sagged, exhausted by their own floridness. He had not yet reached another bush that produced broad and pulpy leaves, stiffened by a central nerve that seemed of iron, ready to be used as dishes or trays, while nearby grew other leaves in the form of limp spoons.

Uncertain if he was wandering in a mechanical forest or in an earthly paradise hidden in the bowels of the earth, Ro­berto roamed in that Eden that provoked odorous deliriums.

Later, when he tells all this to the Lady, he speaks of rustic frenzies, gardens of caprice, Protean bowers, cedars (cedars?) mad with lovely fury... Or else he re-experiences it as a floating cavern rich in deceitful automata where, girded with horribly twisted cables, fanatic nasturtiums billow, wicked sto­lons of barbarous forest... He will write of the opium of the senses, a whirl of putrid elements that, precipitating into im­pure extracts, led him to the antipodes of reason.

At first he attributed to the song reaching him from the Island the impression of feathered voices audible among the flowers and plants: but suddenly his flesh crawled at the pas­sage of a bat that grazed his face, and immediately afterwards he had to duck to avoid a falcon that flung itself on its prey, felling it with a blow of its beak.

Moving farther into the lower deck, still hearing the dis­tant birds of the Island, and convinced he was hearing them through the openings of the hull, Roberto now realized those sounds were much closer. They could not come from shore: so other birds, and not far away, were singing, beyond the plants, towards the prow, in the direction of that storeroom from which he had heard noises the night before.

It seemed to him, as he proceeded, that the garden ended at the foot of a tall trunk that went through the upper deck, then he realized that he had arrived more or less at the center of the ship, where the mainmast rose from the very bottom of the keel. But by now artifice and nature were so confused that we can justify also our hero’s confusion. For, at that very point, his nostrils began to perceive a mixture of aromas, earthy molds, and animal stench, as if he were moving slowly from a flower garden to a sheepfold.

He was passing the trunk of the mainmast, heading for the prow, when he saw the aviary.

He could think of no other definition for that collection of wicker cages with solid boughs run through them to serve as perch, inhabited by flying creatures striving to discern that dawn of which they had only a beggared light, and to reply with distorted voices to the call of their similars singing in freedom on the Island. Set on the ground or hanging from the hatch of the deck above, the cages were arranged along this other nave like stalagmites and stalactites, creating another grotto of wonders, where the fluttering animals made their dwellings rock beneath the sun’s rays, in a glitter of hues, a flurry of rainbows.

If until that day he had never heard birds really sing, nei­ther could Roberto say he had ever seen birds, at least not in such guises, so many that he asked himself if they were in their natural state or if an artist’s hand had painted them and decorated them for some pantomime, or to feign an army on parade, each foot-soldier and horseman cloaked in his own standard.

An embarrassed Adam, he could give no names to these creatures, except the names of birds of his own hemisphere: That one is a heron, he said to himself, that a crane, a quail.... But it was like calling a goose a swan.

Here prelates with broad cardinal’s trains and beaks shaped like alembics spread grass-colored wings, swelling a rosy throat and revealing an azure breast, chanting in almost human sound; there multiple squads performed in great tourney, ven­turing assaults on the depressed domes that circumscribed their arena, among dove-gray flashes and red and yellow thrusts, like oriflammes that a squire threw and caught. Grouchy light cavalry, with long nervous legs in a cramped space, neighed indignantly cra-cra-cra, at times hesitating on one foot and peering around suspiciously, shaking the tufts on their elongated heads... Only in one cage, built to his mea­sure, a great captain in a bluish cloak, his jerkin as vermilion as his eye and a cornflower plume on his helmet, emitted a dove’s lament. In a small coop nearby, three foot-soldiers re­mained on the ground, without wings, little skipping clumps of muddied wool, mouse-muzzles moustached at the root of long curved beaks equipped with nostrils the little monsters used to sniff as they pecked the worms encountered in their path... In a cage that wound like a narrow alley, a small stork with carrot legs, aquamarine breast, black wings, and flushed beak moved hesitantly, followed by its offspring in In­dian file and, as its path ended, it croaked with vexation, first stubbornly trying to break what seemed to it a tangle of withes, then stepping back, reversing direction, with its young bewil­dered, not knowing whether to go forward or backward.

Roberto was divided between excitement at his discovery, pity for the prisoners, and the desire to release them and see his cathedral invaded by those heralds of an airy army, to save them from the siege to which the Daphne, besieged in her turn by the others, their similars outside, had constrained them. He imagined they were hungry, and saw that in the cages there were only crumbs of food, and the dishes and bowls that should have contained water were empty. But not far off he found sacks of grain and shreds of dried fish, prepared by those who meant to take this booty to Europe, for a ship does not go into the seas of the opposite south without bringing back to the courts or academies evidence of those worlds.

Proceeding further, he found also a pen made of planks with a dozen animals scratching inside it, belonging, he de­cided, to the poultry species, even though at home he had never seen any with such plumage. They too seemed hungry, but the hens had laid (and were glorifying the event like their sisters all over the world) six eggs.

Roberto seized one immediately, pierced it with the tip of his knife, and sucked it as he had done as a child. Then he placed the others inside his shirt and, to compensate the fe­cund mothers and fathers who were staring at him with great outrage, shaking their wattles, he distributed water and food; and he then did the same, cage by cage, wondering by what providence he had landed on the Daphne just as the animals were about to starve. In fact, by now he had been on the ship two nights, so someone had tended the aviaries the day before his arrival at the latest. He felt like a guest who arrives at a feast, tardy, to be sure, but while the last of the other guests are just leaving and the tables have not yet been cleared.

For that matter, he said to himself, it is an established fact that someone was here earlier and now is here no longer. Whether it was one day or ten days before my arrival, my fate remains unchanged, or, at most, it becomes more of a mock­ery: being shipwrecked a day earlier, I could have joined the sailors of the Daphne, wherever they have gone. Or perhaps not, I could have died with them, if they are dead. He heaved a sigh (at least it had nothing to do with rats) and concluded that he had at his disposal also some chickens. He reconsidered his thought of freeing the bipeds of nobler lineage and decided that if his exile were to last long, they might even prove edible.

The hidalgos before Casale were beautiful and varicolored, too, and yet we fired on them, and if the siege had lasted, we would even have eaten them. Anyone who soldiered in the Thirty Years’ War (that is what I call it, but those alive at the time did not call it that, and perhaps they did not even understand that it was one long war in the course of which, every now and then, somebody signed a peace treaty) learned how to harden his heart.

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