episode 08 | Rats on arrival

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It hurt a lot, Laurent. Not my flesh, as it burned. The canvases on flames. Most of the works I had painted during the École des Beaux-Arts. But I didn't cry over the ashes of that bonfire.

The next morning, boat loaded, we left the port as the sun rose. Watching the French coast slowly fade into the morning mist, it was hard to evaluate how much I was leaving behind. I had all my possessions with me. But it seemed that th years spent at the École were also staying behind. Years if memories dissolved in smoke, my works turned into a spiraling fume that had vanished during a single Parisian night.

Had known I would never return to Paris, I might have cried a little.

But I did not -- know nor cry.

It was my first time on a such a huge ship. My first international trip outside Europe, actually. I'd never thought of myself as a traveler, and quite unexpectedly I was crossing oceans to the other side of the world.

I had never seen the sea, either. From the Apennines to Paris, it had only been mainland. And unlike others, I had never longed for the ocean -- how could I, when I knew not what it was? When I was a child, Tarso had said once that the sea was simply much bigger than a lake. Enough so that we couldn't see the other margin. He didn't make it seem quite attractive, did he? Thus the ocean was not ranked among my dreams.

At first, the ocean seemed more like a huge obstacle, between me and my destination. A mountain boy like I was, riding the cargo ship corresponded to be standing on the peak of a mountain, and the sea all around were the distant plains I did not long to visit.

The novelty of the vessel's routine and the sensation of movement made me thoroughly happy for a few days. But as time went by, it started resembling a prison. I recalled Rilke's poem, the panther in the zoo cage, going round and round and round, going nowhere -- though I knew the ship was ever moving.

Ports went by. Places I only saw from the distance. Places I didn't know, not even their names, and that I would never visit. Nor wanted to. They were mere anticipation, a countdown.

My heart felt peaceful. Yet, if sometimes painful, when I recalled my parents had died in a shipwreck. But I wasn't afraid to find myself on board of a ship, for no matter how hurtful, those were the faded recollections of a little boy.

Nor did I suffer from the growing distance that separated me from the places I had known. Not the D'Allegro farm where all my ancestors had always lived in the Apennines, but that could no longer accommodate my dreams. Nor the nostalgic Paris of my years of studies, that had burned down in the patio of an abandoned factory. Those memories were all mild, and bland.

And I didn't feel any anxiety towards my destination -- the Île du Blanchomme was no more than an exotic name that did not correspond to any images in my mind. Blank.

I felt detached from everything. 

Days seemed incredibly long and plain, and at night I felt I was floating in a boundless emptiness. Stars shone in the sky mirroring the distant cities that blinked on the horizon. When they slowly moved before my eyes, I guessed they were other ships. If they blinked and disappeared, to again reappear, I had already figured out they were lighthouses. And night after night, there was nothing else to be seen.

During those weeks on the ship, I dropped my meditation practice. Everything seemed to meditate around me. Everything was silent, neutral, empty, vast, uncertain, signless. And to my contemplative nature, life itself had become a single, uninterrupted meditation session.

I did not paint, not once, on the ship. Nor felt any motivation for it, since that last canvas I had finished at the factory. It hadn't been a bad painting, not at all, and with it in my hands I had returned to the public hospital, and given it to the doctor to express my gratitude. For the treatment, the compassion, and the new shoes.

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