Deus ex machina. Biscarat appears suddenly behind Ferrante, who already has one foot on the bulwarks; the officer raises his arms and brings them down before Ferrante’s face, his chain making a noose at Ferrante’s throat. And shouting, “With me, to Hell at last!” Biscarat is seen—almost felt— giving such a tug at Ferrante’s neck that it breaks as the tongue
protrudes between those blasphemous lips and accompanies their final rage. Then the lifeless body of the executed man, falling, drags after it like a cloak the still-living body of his executioner, who, victorious, meets the warring waves with peace finally in his heart.
Roberto could not imagine Lilia’s feelings at that sight, and he hoped she had seen nothing. Since he could not remember what had happened to him after he was caught in the maelstrom, he could not imagine what now happened to Her.
The truth is, he was so fully occupied by the duty to send Ferrante to his proper punishment, resolving to follow his fate into the next world, that he left Lilia in the vast upheaval.
The lifeless body of Ferrante had meanwhile been cast up on a desert island. The sea was calm, like the water in a cup, and on the shore there was no surf. All was enveloped in a light haze, as happens when the sun has just disappeared and the night has not yet taken possession of the sky.
Immediately beyond the beach, with no trees or bushes to mark its end, a plain could be seen, totally mineral, where even what from the distance seemed cypresses proved to be leaden obelisks. On the horizon to the west rose a mountainous area, now dark to the view except for some flickering along the slopes, which gave the place the aspect of a cemetery. But above that height lay long black clouds, their bellies like dying coals, solid and compact in form, or like those cuttlefish bones seen in certain paintings or drawings, which if you look at them sideways freeze into the shape of skulls. Between the clouds and the mountain, the sky still had some tinges of yellow—and you would have thought it was the last aerial space touched by the dying sun if it were not for the impression that this last burst of sunset had never had a beginning and would never have an end.
Where the plain began to rise, Ferrante could make out a little band of men, and he moved towards them.
Men—or, in any case, human beings—they seemed from the distance, but as Ferrante reached them, he saw that if they had once been human, now they had become, or were on the way to becoming, exhibits for an anatomy theater. Which is how Roberto wanted them, because he recalled having visited one day one of those places where a group of physicians in dark clothes—with rubicund faces, little veins glowing on nostrils and cheeks, in pose like so many executioners—stood around a cadaver to expound from the outside what there was inside, and to reveal in the dead the secrets of the living. They removed the skin, incised the flesh, bared the bones, separated the bundles of nerves, untangled the knotted muscles, opened the organs of the senses, isolated all the membranes, undid all the cartilages, detached all the entrails. Having distinguished every fiber, opened every artery, probed every marrow, they displayed to their audience the vital workshop: Here, they said, is where the food is digested, here the blood cleansed, alimentation distributed here, here humors formed, here spirits tempered.... And someone next to Roberto observed in a whisper that after our terrestrial death, Nature would do much the same to us.
An anatomist-God had, in a different way, touched those inhabitants of the island, whom Ferrante was now seeing closer and closer.
The first was a body without skin, the ropes of muscle taut, the arms in a gesture of abandonment, the suffering face turned heavenwards, all skull and cheekbones. The hands of the second had flayed skin hanging from its fingertips, barely attached, like a glove, and the skin of the legs was rolled up to the knee like a supple boot.
On the next, first the skin, then the muscles had been so splayed that the whole body, especially the face, seemed an open book. As if to show skin, flesh, and bones at the same time, thrice human and thrice mortal. It seemed an insect, of which those tatters would have been the wings if there had been on that island a wind to stir them. But these wings did not move by any impulse of the air, stagnant in that twilight; they barely shifted at the movements of the body, akimbo.
Nearby, a skeleton was leaning on a spade, perhaps to dig its grave, its eyesockets peering at the sky, a grimace on the crooked arc of the teeth, the left hand held out as if to beg for compassion and a hearing. Another skeleton, bent forward, preferred the curved back of its spine, walking in jerks, bony hands over a lowered face.
One, whom Ferrante also saw only from behind, still had some cropped hair on its fleshless skull, like a cap pulled forcibly over it. The felt lining, pale and pink as a seashell, which sustained the fur, was formed by the cutis slit at the nape and turned inside out.
There were bodies from which almost everything had been removed, and they seemed sculptures of nerves alone; on the stumps of necks, now acephalous, they waved what once had clung to brains. The legs seemed a plait of withes.
There were others with abdomens opened, where saffron intestines throbbed, sad gluttons stuffed with ill-digested tripes. Where once penises had been, now peeled and reduced to pegs, only dried-up testicles swayed.
Ferrante saw some who were now only veins and arteries, the mobile laboratory of an alchemist, pipes and tubes in perpetual motion distilling the bloodless blood, wan fireflies in the light of an absent sun.
The bodies stood in great and painful silence. In some the signs could be seen of a very slow transformation that from statues of flesh was reducing them to statues of fibers.
The last of them, excoriated like a Saint Bartholomew, held up in his right hand his still-bleeding skin limp as an unused cape. It was possible yet to recognize a face there, with the holes of the eyes and nostrils and the cavern of the mouth, which seemed the ultimate melting of a wax mask, dripping, exposed to sudden heat.
And that man (or, rather, the toothless and deformed mouth of his skin) spoke to Ferrante.
“Ill-come,” he said to him, “to the Land of the Dead, which we call Insula Vesalia. Soon you, too, will follow our fate, but you must not believe that we all pass with the rapidity granted by the grave. According to our punishment, each of us is led to a stage of disintegration all his own, as if to allow us to savor extinction, which for each of us would be the greatest joy. Oh what bliss, to imagine ourselves as brains that would turn to pulp at a bare touch, fats liquefying! But no. As you see us, we have come, each, to his present state without being aware of it, through imperceptible mutation during which every fiber of our being has been worn away in the course of thousands of thousands of thousands of years. And no one knows the extreme point to which it is decreed he must decay, so that those you see over there, reduced to mere bones, still hope to be able to die a little, and perhaps they have spent millennia in that expectation; others, like me, have been in this form since we no longer know when—because in this always imminent night we have lost all sense of time’s passage—and yet I hope that I have been granted a very slow annihilation. Thus each of us yearns for a decomposition that—as well we know—will never be total; we wish that for us Eternity has not yet begun, yet we fear that we have been in it ever since our remote arrival on this shore. Living, we believed Hell was the place of eternal despair, because so they told us. Alas, no, for it is the place of undying hope, which makes each day worse than the one before, as this thirst, which is kept alive in us, is never slaked. Having always a glimmer of body, and every body tending to growth or to death, we never cease hoping—and thus did our Judge condemn us to suffer in saecula.”
Ferrante asked: “But what is it that you hope for?” “You might as well ask what you will hope for yourself.... You will hope that a wisp of wind, a slightest swell of the tide, the arrival of a single hungry leech, can return us, atom by atom, to the great Void of the Universe, where we would again somehow participate in the cycle of life. But here the air does not stir, the sea remains motionless, we feel neither heat nor cold, we know neither dawn nor sunset, and this earth, more dead than we, generates no animal life. O worms that death once promised us! O beloved little worms, mothers of our spirit that could still be reborn! Sucking our bile, you would spatter us mercifully with the milk of innocence! Biting us, you would heal the bites of our sins; cradling us with your spells of death, you would give us new life, because for us the grave is as good as the maternal womb.... But none of this will happen. We know it, and yet our body forgets it at every instant.”
“And God—?” Ferrante asked. “Does God laugh?” “No, alas,” the excoriated man replied, “because even humiliation would exalt us. How beautiful it would be if we could see at least a laughing God come to taunt us! What distraction, the spectacle of the Lord who from His throne, among His saints, makes sport of us. We would have the sight of another’s joy, as cheering as the sight of another’s frown. No, here no one is outraged, no one laughs, no one shows himself. God is not here. Here there is only hope without goal.”
“My God, a curse on all saints,” Ferrante wanted to shout, in his villainy. “If I am damned, I must have the right to enact the spectacle of my fury.” But his body was spent, and the voice that came from his bosom faint. He could not even curse. “You see,” the skinned man said to him, his mouth unable to smile, “your punishment has already begun. Not even hatred is permitted anymore. This island is the one place in the Universe where pain is not allowed, where a listless hope cannot be distinguished from a bottomless boredom.”
Roberto went on constructing Ferrante’s end as he lay on the deck naked, for he had stripped himself for his imitation of a stone; and in the meanwhile the sun burned his face, chest, and legs, restoring to him the feverish warmth that had only recently left him. Now prepared to confuse not only his fiction with reality but also the heat of his spirit with that of his body, he felt once more ablaze with love. And Lilia? What had happened to Lilia while Ferrante’s cadaver sought out the isle of the dead?
With a device not uncommon among Poets when they are incapable of restraining their impatience and no longer observe the unities of time and place, Roberto leaped over some events to find Lilia again some days later, clinging to that plank as it drifted over a now-calm sea glittering in the sun—and she approached (and this, Dear Reader, you never would have dared predict) the eastern shore of the Island of Solomon, that is to say, the side opposite the one off which the Daphne rode at anchor.
There, as Roberto had learned from Father Caspar, the beaches were less friendly than those to the west. The plank, by now too fragile to withstand an impact, shattered against a rock. Lilia woke and clung to that rock as the fragments of her raft were lost among the currents.
Now she was there, on a rock that could barely house her, as a stretch of water—but for her it was an ocean—separated her from the shore. Shaken by the typhoon, wasted by hunger, tormented even more by thirst, she could not drag herself from the rock to the sand, beyond which, her vision blurred, she discerned the colors of vegetable forms.
But the rock was searing beneath her tender thigh and, hardly breathing, instead of cooling her inner blaze, she drew the burning air into herself.
She hoped that not far away darting little streams would spring from shady cliffs, yet these dreams did not appease but, rather, exacerbated her thirst. She wanted to ask help of Heaven, but as her dry tongue cleaved to her palate, her voice could utter only abbreviated sighs.
As time passed, the scourge of the wind scratched her with a raptor’s claws, and she feared not so much dying as living until the work of the elements had disfigured her, making her an object of revulsion, no longer one of love.
If she could have reached a brook, a trickle of living water, and put her lips to it, she would have seen her eyes, once two bright stars that promised life, now two frightful eclipses, and that countenance, where jesting cupids once made their home, now the horrid dwelling-place of abhorrence. If she could have actually reached a pond, her eyes would have poured out, in pity for her own state, more drops than her lips would have taken from it.
This at least is what Roberto made Lilia think. But it irritated him. He was irritated that, close to death, she should be in anguish over her own beauty, as Romances often would have it, but his irritation was more with himself, who could not look squarely, without mental hyperboles, at the face of his dying love.
How would Lilia be, really, in that extremity? How would she appear if stripped of that dress of death woven from words?
After the sufferings of her long voyage and the wreck, her hair would be straw streaked with white; her bosom would surely have lost its lilies, her face would be furrowed by time. Wrinkled, now, her throat and breast.
No, to celebrate her fading was another way of entrusting himself to the poetic machine of Padre Emanuele.... Roberto wanted to see Lilia as she truly was. Her head thrown back, her eyes staring and, narrowed by suffering, appearing to be too distant from the bridge of her nose, now sharpened; and those same eyes were weighed down with bags, the corners marked by a fan of little wrinkles, prints left by a sparrow on the sand. Nostrils slightly dilated, one more fleshy than the other. The mouth chapped, of amethyst color, two arcs at the sides, and the upper lip, a bit protruding, raised to display two little teeth no longer of ivory. The skin of the face gently sagging, two limp folds under the chin, detracting from the line of the neck...
And yet this withered fruit was a prize he would not have bartered for all the angels of Heaven. He loved her also like this, nor could he know if she had been different when he first loved her, wanting her as she was then, behind the curtain of her black veil, that distant evening.
He had allowed himself to be misled during his time as a castaway, wanting her to be harmonious, like the system of the spheres; but now they had also told him (and he had not dared confess this, too, to Father Caspar) that perhaps the planets did not pursue their journey along the perfect line of a circle but instead in a strabismic turn around the sun.
If beauty is clear, love is mysterious: he discovered that he loved not only the spring but all the seasons of his beloved; she was even more desirable in her autumnal decline. He had always loved her for what she was and could have been, and only in this sense is love a giving of the self, without anticipation of return.
He had allowed himself to be dazed by his wave-pounding exile, seeking always another self—dreadful in Ferrante, excellent in Lilia, through whose glory he had wanted to make himself glorious. But, to love Lilia meant to want her as he himself was, both of them sentenced to the travail of time. Until now he had used her beauty to foster the soiling of his mind. He had made her speak, putting into her mouth the words he wanted, words with which he was nevertheless discontent. Now he wanted her near, to love her suffering beauty, her wan voluptuousness, her bruised grace, her thin nakedness, to caress all eagerly, listening to her words, her own, not the ones he had lent her.
He had to have her, dispossessing himself of himself.
But it was too late to pay proper homage to his sick idol.
On the other side of the Island, in Lilia’s veins, liquefied, flowed Death.