in the days that followed it became clear that the Specula Melitensis could not be reached, because Father Wanderdrossel, like Roberto, was unable to swim. The longboat was still over there in the inlet, but it was as if it did not exist.
Now that he had a strong young man at his disposal, Father Caspar could have constructed a raft and made a big oar but, as he had explained, all the tools and materials were on the Island. Without an axe they could not chop down the masts or the yards, without hammers they could not unhinge the doors and nail them together.
But Father Caspar did not seem excessively troubled by his long isolation; indeed, he rejoiced, as he could once again enjoy the use of his cabin, the deck, and some instruments of study and observation.
Roberto still did not understand what Father Caspar Wanderdrossel was. A sage? That, certainly, or at least a scholar, a man curious about both natural and divine science. An eccentric? To be sure. At one moment he let fall that this ship had been fitted out not at the expense of the Society but with his private funds, or, rather, the money of his brother, a rich merchant as mad as he was; on another occasion he confided, complaining, that some of his fellow Jesuits had “stolen many fecondissime ideas” after pretending to reject them as mere scribbling. Which suggested that back in Rome those reverend fathers had not grieved at the departure of this sophistic character. Considering that he was sailing at his own expense and there was a good chance he might be lost along those perilous routes, they may have encouraged him in order to be rid of him.
The company Roberto had kept in Provence and in Paris had been such as to make him skeptical of the assertions of physics and natural philosophy that he heard the old man now make. But as we have seen, Roberto absorbed knowledge to which he was exposed as if he were a sponge, and was not distressed at believing in contradictory truths. Perhaps it was not that he lacked a taste for system; his was a choice.
In Paris the world had appeared to him a stage on which deceptions were depicted, for the spectator wanted to follow and admire a different story every evening, as if the usual things, even if miraculous, no longer enlightened anyone, and only the unusually uncertain or the certainly unusual were able still to stimulate. The ancients had affirmed that for any question a sole answer existed, whereas the great theater of Paris offered him the spectacle of a question to which the most varied replies could be given. Roberto decided to concede only half of his spirit to the things he believed (or believed he believed), keeping the other half open in case the contrary was true.
If such was the disposition of his mind, we can then understand why he was not motivated to deny even the least plausible of Father Caspar’s revelations. Of all the tales he had heard, the one told him by the Jesuit was surely the most uncommon. But why consider it false?
I challenge anyone to find himself abandoned on a deserted ship, between sea and sky in a vast space, and not be ready to dream that in his great misfortune he at least has had the good fortune to stumble into the heart of time.
Roberto could also amuse himself by offering many objections to those tales, but often he behaved like the disciples of Socrates, who seemed to implore their own defeat.
Besides, how could he reject the knowledge of a now paternal figure who had suddenly removed him from the condition of stunned castaway to that of a passenger on a ship someone knew and controlled? Whether it was the authority of his cassock or his office as original lord of that marine castle, Father Caspar represented to Roberto’s eyes Authority, and Roberto had learned enough of the ideas of his century to know that to authority you must bend, at least in appearance. If Roberto did begin to have doubts about his host, the latter immediately took him to explore the ship again and showed him instruments that had previously escaped his notice, allowing him to learn so many and such important things, that his trust was won.
For example, the Jesuit showed him some fishing rods and nets. The Daphne was anchored in teeming waters, and it was not a good idea to consume the provisions on board when it was possible to have fresh fish. Wearing every day his smoked eyeglasses, Roberto quickly learned to cast the nets and lower the line, and with no great effort he captured creatures of such size that more than once he risked being pulled overboard by the power of their jaws as they snatched the bait.
He laid them on deck, and Father Caspar seemed to know the nature of each and even its name. Whether he then named them according to their nature or christened them at his own whim, Roberto could not say.
While the fish in his hemisphere were gray or at most a bright silver, these appeared pale blue with cherry-colored fins, they had saffron beards or scarlet snouts. He caught an eel with two heads, one at either end of its body, but Father Caspar showed him that, on the contrary, the second head was actually a tail so decorated by nature that, in flicking it, the animal could frighten its enemies also from behind. Roberto captured a fish with a maculate belly, inky stripes on its back, all the colors of the rainbow circling the eye, a goat-like muzzle, but Father Caspar immediately made him throw it back into the sea, knowing (from other Jesuits’ accounts, or his own experience as a voyager, or seamen’s tales?) that it was more poisonous than the mortal boletus.
Of another fish—yellow eyes, tumid mouth, teeth like nails—Father Caspar said at once that it was a creature of Beelzebub. It should be left to suffocate on deck until death took it, then away with it, to whence it came. Did he declare this through acquired knowledge or was he judging by the thing’s appearance? In any case, all the fish Caspar considered edible proved to be excellent—and, indeed, of one he was able to specify that it was better boiled than baked.
Initiating Roberto into the mysteries of that Solomonic sea, the Jesuit also became more precise in vouchsafing information about the Island, which the Daphne, on arriving, had circumnavigated completely. Towards the east the Island had some little beaches, but they were too exposed to the winds. Immediately after the southern promontory, where the crew had landed with the boat, there was a calm bay, but the water there was too shallow to moor the Daphne. This point, where the ship now lay, was the most suitable: closer to the Island, they would run aground, and farther away, they would find themselves right in a very strong current that ran through the channel between the two islands from southwest to northeast. It was easy to illustrate this to Roberto: Father Caspar asked him to throw the carcass of Beelzebub’s fish with all his strength into the sea to the west, and the corpse of the monster, while it could be seen floating, was violently yanked away by an invisible stream.
Caspar and the seamen had explored the Island, if not entirely, enough to allow them to decide that one hill, chosen as site of the Specula, was the best to command with the eye all that land, vast as the city of Rome.
In the interior there was a waterfall, and splendid vegetation which included not only coconuts and bananas but also some trees with star-shaped trunks, the tips of the star as sharp as blades.
As for the animals—some of which Roberto had seen on the lower deck—the Island was a paradise of birds, and there were even flying foxes. The crew had sighted pigs in the underbrush but had not been able to capture them. There were serpents, but none had proved venomous or fierce, while the varieties of lizards were innumerable.
But the richest fauna were found along the coral barbican. Turtles, crabs, and oysters of every shape, difficult to compare with those found in our seas, big as baskets, as pots, as serving platters, often difficult to open, but once opened, revealing quantities of white flesh, soft and fat; and they were genuine delicacies. Unfortunately they could not be brought on board ship: once out of the water, they immediately spoiled in the sun’s heat.
They had seen none of the great ferocious animals in which other Asian countries are so rich, no elephants or tigers or crocodiles. Or, for that matter, anything that resembled an ox, a bull, a horse, or a dog. It appeared that in this land every form of life had been conceived not by an architect or a sculptor but by a jeweller: the birds were colored crystal, the woodland animals were delicate, the fish flat and almost transparent.
It had not seemed to Father Caspar or to the captain or the sailors that in those waters there were Dog Fish, easily recognized even from a distance thanks to that fin keen as an axe. And yet in those seas they are found everywhere. The idea that there were no sharks around the Island was, in my opinion, an illusion of that inspired explorer. But perhaps what he argued was true, namely that, as slightly to the west there was a great current, those animals preferred to dwell there, where they were sure of finding more plentiful sustenance. However it may have been, it is well for the story that follows that neither Caspar nor Roberto feared the presence of sharks, otherwise they would not have had the heart to go down into the water, and I would have no tale to tell.
As Roberto listened, he became more and more captivated by the distant Island; he tried to imagine its shape, its color, the movement of the creatures Father Caspar described. And the corals? What were these corals, which he knew only as jewels that according to poets had the color of a beautiful woman’s lips?
Regarding corals Father Caspar remained speechless; he merely raised his eyes to Heaven with an expression of bliss. The corals of which Roberto spoke were dead corals, like the virtue of the courtesans for whom libertines employed that trite simile. On the reef, too, there were dead corals, and it was they that wounded anyone touching them. But they were nothing compared to living corals, which were—how to describe them?—submarine flowers, anemone, hyacinth, ranunculus, gilli-flowers—no, that gave no idea—they were a festival of galls, curls, berries, bowls, burrs, shoots, hearts, twigs—nO) no, they were something else: mobile, colorful as Armida’s vale, and they imitated all the vegetables of field, garden, wood, from cucumber to mushroom, even the frilled cabbage....
He had seen them elsewhere, thanks to an instrument constructed by a fellow Jesuit (and after some rummaging in his chest, he produced the instrument): it was a kind of leather mask with a great glass eyepiece, the upper orifice edged and reinforced; thanks to a pair of strings it could be bound at the nape, making the mask adhere to the face from brow to chin. In a flat-bottomed boat, which would not run aground on submerged sandbars, he had been able to lower his face until it was in the water, allowing him to see the bottom—whereas if he had immersed his bare head, there would have been only stinging of the eyes and he would have seen nothing.
Caspar thought that the device—which he called a Per-spicillum, Eyeglass, or Persona Vitrea (a mask that does not hide but, rather, reveals)—could be worn also by someone who knew how to swim among rocks. Sooner or later, the water did penetrate to the inside, but for a little while, holding your breath, you could continue observing. After which, the swimmer would have to emerge, empty the receptacle, and begin again.
“If you to schwimm would learn, you could these things see down there,” Caspar said to Roberto. And Roberto, mocking him, replied, “If I schwumm, my chest would a keg become!” And yet he reproached himself for his inability to go down there.
But at the same time, Father Caspar was adding, “On the Island there was the Flame Dove.”
“Flame Dove? What is that?” Roberto asked, and the eagerness in his question seems to us excessive. As if the Island for some time had promised him an obscure emblem, which only now had become radiant.
Father Caspar explained how hard it was to describe the beauty of this bird: you had to see it before you could talk about it. The very day of his arrival, he had glimpsed it through his spyglass. From a distance it was like seeing a fiery sphere of gold, or of gilded fire, which from the top of the tallest tree shot up towards the sky. Once he was on land, he wanted to learn more, and he taught the sailors to identify it.
It was quite a long ambush until they came to understand in which trees the bird lived. It emitted a very special sound, a sort of tock-tock, such as we can make by striking the tongue against the palate. Caspar found that if he imitated this call with his mouth or fingers, the bird would respond and, once in a while, let itself be descried as it flew from one bough to another.
Caspar returned several times, to lie in wait, but with a glass, and at least once he saw the bird clearly, almost immobile: the head was a dark olive color—no, perhaps an asparagus green, like the feet—and the beak, the color of lucern, extended like a mask to frame the eye, which was like a kernel of maize, the pupil a glistening black. It had a short bib, gold like its wingtips; but the body from breast to tail, where the feathers were fine as a woman’s hair, was—what?—red? No, that was the wrong word....
Ruddy, ruby, rubescent, rubedinous, rubent, rubefacient, Roberto suggested. Nein, nein, Father Caspar became irritated. Roberto went on: like a strawberry, a geranium, a raspberry, a cherry, a radish; like holly berries, the belly of a thrush, the wing of a redwing, the tail of a redstart, the breast of a robin... No, no, no, Father Caspar insisted, struggling with his own and other languages to find the proper words. Judging by the synthesis Roberto makes later—and it is hard to tell whether the vehemence is more in the informant or in the informed —it must have been the festive color of a Seville orange, it was a winged sun, in other words; when seen against the white sky it was as if the dawn had flung a pomegranate on the snow. And when it catapulted into the sun, it was more dazzling than a cherub!
That orange-colored bird, Father Caspar said, could live only on the Island of Solomon, because it was in the Song of that great king that a dove was spoken of, rising like the dawn, bright as the sun, terribilis ut castrorum acies ordinata. It had, as another psalm says, wings covered with silver and feathers with glints of gold.
Along with this animal, Caspar had seen another almost its equal, except that its feathers were not orange but greenish, and from the way the two were normally seen paired on the same branch, they must have been male and female. That they were doves was obvious from their shape and frequently heard cry. Which of the two was the male was hard to say; in any case Caspar had ordered the sailors not to kill them.
Roberto asked how many doves there could be on the Island. All Father Caspar knew was that each time he had seen only one orange ball dart towards the clouds, and only one couple among the high fronds: so on the Island there might be just two doves, and just one orange-colored. A supposition that made Roberto crave that rare beauty—which, if it was now awaiting him, had always been awaiting him since the day before.
For that matter, if Roberto chose, Caspar said, he could remain for hours and hours at the spyglass and see it also from the ship. Provided he removed those smoked spectacles. When Roberto replied that his eyes did not allow him to, Caspar made some scornful remarks about that milksop’s ailment, and prescribed the liquids with which he had treated his bubo (Spiritus, Olea, Flores).
It is not clear whether or not Roberto tried them, or if he gradually trained himself to look without the glasses, first at dawn and sunset and then in broad day, and we cannot say if he was still wearing them when, as we shall see, he tried to learn to swim; but the fact is that from this moment on his
eyes are no longer mentioned to justify any sort of flight or absence. So we may assume that gradually, perhaps through the therapeutic action of that balmy air or that sea water, Roberto was cured of a complaint that, real or imagined, had turned him into a lycanthrope for more than ten months (unless the reader chooses to insinuate that because from now on I need him on deck full-time, and finding no contradiction among his papers, I am freeing him from all illness, with authorial arrogance).
But perhaps Roberto wanted to be healed, at all costs, in order to see the dove. And he would have flung himself on the bulwarks and spent the day peering at the trees, if he had not been distracted by another unresolved question.
Having ended his description of the Island and its riches, Father Caspar remarked that all these delights could be found nowhere save on the antipodal meridian. Roberto then asked: “Reverend Father, you told me that the Specula Melitensis confirmed that you are on the antipodal meridian, and I believe it. Still, you did not stop and set up the Specula on every island you encountered on your voyage, but only on this one. So somehow, before the Specula told you, you must already have been sure you would find the longitude you were seeking!”
“You think very right. If I here were come without knowing here was here, I could not know I was here.... Now I explain you. Since I knew that the Specula was the only correct instrument to arrive where to try out the Specula, I had to use falsch methods. Und so I did.”