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CHAPTER 18




Unheard-of Curiosities


if the daphne, like the Amaryllis, had been sent out to seek the Punto Fijo, then the Intruder was dangerous. By now Ro­berto knew of the relentless struggle among the nations of Europe to gain that secret. He had to prepare himself carefully and play his cards with skill. Obviously the Intruder had acted at night first, then had come out into the open during the day, when Roberto remained awake in his cabin. Should he now revise his plans, giving the impression of sleeping in the daytime and staying awake at night? Why? The other would simply alter his strategy. No, Roberto should instead be un­predictable, make the other unsure, pretend to be asleep when he was awake and awake while he was asleep....

He had to try to imagine what the other thought he thought, or what the other thought he thought the other thought he thought.... Thus far the Intruder had been his shadow; now Roberto would become the shadow of the In­truder, learn to follow the trail of the man walking behind his. But that reciprocal ambush could not continue to infinity, one man scrambling up a ladder while the other descended the opposite side, one in the hold while the other was active on deck, one rushing below while the other was perhaps climbing up the flank of the ship.

Any sensible person would have immediately decided to proceed in the exploration of the rest of the ship, but we must bear in mind that Roberto was not sensible. He had succumbed again to aqua vitae, and had convinced himself he was doing so to gain strength. For a man in whom love had always inspired delay, that nepenthe could not inspire decision. So he moved slowly, believing himself a thunderbolt. He thought he was making a leap, when he crawled. Especially since he still did not dare go out during the day, and he felt strong at night. But at night he drank, and dragged his feet. Which was what his enemy wanted, he told himself in the morning. And to muster courage, he clung to the keg.

In any case, towards the evening of the fifth day, he de­cided to venture into that part of the hold that he still had not visited, below the hatchway of the storeroom. He realized that on the Daphne all space had been exploited to the utmost, and between the second deck and the hold partitions and false bottoms had been installed, in order to create closets reached by rickety ladders. He first entered the hawser locker, stum­bling over coils of ropes of every kind, soaked in salt water. Then he descended still farther and found himself in the se-cunda carina, among chests and cases of various description.

He found more food and more barrels of fresh water. He should have rejoiced, and he did, but only because he could now carry on his hunt forever, with the pleasure of delaying it. Which is the pleasure of fear.

Behind the kegs of water he found four others of aqua vitae. He climbed back to the larder and once more examined the kegs there. All contained water, a sign that the keg of aqua vitae he had found the day before had been carried up from below deliberately, to tempt him.

Rather than worry about ambush, he went back down into the hold, brought up another keg of liquor, and drank some.

Then he returned below, we can imagine in what condi­tion; but he stopped, catching the rotten smell of bilge. He could go no lower.

So he went aft, towards the poop, but his lamp was failing and he stumbled on something, realized he was moving through the ballast, at the very point where on the Amaryllis Dr. Byrd had devised the cabin for the dog. But here in the hold, among puddles of water and scraps of stored food, he discovered the print of a foot.

He was now so sure an Intruder was on board that his first thought was this: Finally he had proof he was not drunk. Which is, after all, the proof drunks constantly seek. In any case, the evidence was incontrovertible, clear as day, if that is the appropriate phrase to describe his progress between the darkness and the glimmer of his lantern. Convinced now that the Intruder existed, Roberto did not think that in all this coming and going he could have left the print himself. He climbed up again, determined to fight.

It was sunset. It was the first sunset he had seen, after five days of nights, twilights, and dawns. A few black clouds, almost parallel, flanked the more distant island, condensing along the peak, from whence they diminished into arrows aimed south­wards. The shore stood dark against the sea now the color of pale ink, while the rest of the sky was a wan and weary cam­omile, as if the sun were not behind the scene, celebrating his sacrifice, but, rather, dozing off slowly while asking sky and sea to accompany his repose with a murmur.

Roberto, on the contrary, experienced a return of the fighting spirit. He decided to confound the enemy. He went to the clock room and carried as many clocks as he could up on deck, arranging them like the pins in a game of billiards, one by the mainmast, three on the quarterdeck, one against the capstan, still others around the foremast, and one at each hatch and port, so that anyone trying to pass in the dark would trip.

Then he wound the mechanical ones (not considering that in so doing he made them audible to the enemy he wished to surprise) and turned over the hourglasses. He gazed at the deck covered with machines of Time, proud of their noise, sure that it would overwhelm the Other and retard his progress.

Having set out those innocuous snares, he was their first victim. As night fell over a calm sea, he went from one to another of those metal mosquitoes, to listen to their buzz of lifeless essence, to watch those drops of eternity suffer one by one, and fear those terminal termites toothless but gluttonous (these are the very words he wrote), those cogged wheels that shredded the day into bits of instants and consumed life in a music of death.

He remembered some words of Padre Emanuele: “What a jocund Spectacle it would be if through a Crystal at the Breast the motions of the Heart could be seen like the movement of a Clock!” He followed by starlight the slow rosary of those grains of sand muttered by a glass, and he philosophized on those little bundles of moments, those successive anatomies of time, those fissures through which the hours trickled in a fine line.

The cadence of passing time carried a presage of his own demise, which was nearing, one movement after another. He looked close with his myopic eye to decipher that puzzle of fugues, with trepid trope he transformed a water machine into a fluid coffin, and in the end he inveighed against those char­latan astrologers capable of heralding to him only the hours that had passed.

And who knows what else he would have written if he had not felt the need to abandon his poetic mirabilia, as before he had abandoned his chronometric mirabilia—and not of his own volition but because, having in his veins more liquor than ichor, he had allowed that tick-tock gradually to become a toxical lullaby.
On the morning of the sixth day, wakened by the last machines still gasping, he saw among the clocks, all of them shifted, two little cranes scratching (were they cranes?). Pecking nervously, the birds upset and shattered one of the most beau­tiful of the hourglasses.

The Intruder, not in the least frightened (and why should he be, knowing perfectly well who was on board?), playing absurd trick for absurd trick, had freed the two animals from below. To create havoc on my ship—Roberto was in tears— to show he is more powerful than I...

But why those cranes, he wondered, accustomed to seeing every event as a sign and every sign as a Device. What did he intend them to mean? Roberto tried to recall the symbolic meaning of cranes, what he remembered from Picinelli or Va-leriano, but he could find no answer. Now we know very well that there was neither a purpose nor a concept in that Ser-raglio of Stupefactions: the Intruder was now losing his mind as Roberto had. But Roberto could not know this, and he tried to read sense into something that was no more than a petulant scrawl.

I will catch you! I will catch you, damn you! he cried. And, still sleepy, he seized his sword and flung himself once more towards the hold, falling down the ladders and ending in a still unexplored area, among piles of fagots and newly hewn logs. But, falling, he struck the logs and, rolling with them, found himself with his face on a grating, again breathing the foul stink of the bilge. And at eye-level he saw scorpions crawling.

It was likely that, along with the wood, some insects also had been stored in the hold, and I am not sure they were actually scorpions, but that is how Roberto saw them—intro­duced by the Intruder, naturally, so that they would poison him. To escape this danger, Roberto began to scramble up the ladder; but, running on those moving logs, he remained where he was, or, rather, he lost his balance and had to cling to the rungs. Finally he climbed up and discovered a cut on his arm.

No doubt he had wounded himself with his own sword. Instead of thinking of the wound, he went back to the wood­pile and searched breathlessly among the logs for his weapon, which was stained with blood. He carried it to the aftercastle and poured aqua vitae on the blade. But finding no improve­ment, he abjured all the principles of his science and poured the liquor directly on his arm. He invoked some saints with excessive familiarity, ran outside where a great downpour was beginning, at which the cranes flew off and vanished. The downpour brought him to; he became worried about his clocks, ran here and there to carry them to shelter. He caught his foot in a hatchway, sprained it, hopped back inside on one leg, crane-like, undressed and—his response to all these mean­ingless events—set to writing while the rain first grew heavier, then abated. Some hours of sunshine returned, and finally night fell.

And it is good for us that he did write, for we are thus able to learn what happened to him on the Amaryllis and what he discovered in the course of that voyage.




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