Stars still shone, though dawn had already drawn the night into exile, when we approached the Île du Blanchomme.
I traveled for nine hours in silence, respecting my fellow passengers who had dozed into a peaceful sleep after an aromatic tea, like a password, or a bridge into dreams, had been passed around in neat, small metallic glasses that resembled table bells. Cinnamon, clover, cardamom -- trying to guess the spices had only made me more alert. Everyone else slept in touching abandonment, spread all across the deck of the boat turned into a rocking cradle. Leaning against one another, their clothes created a continuous row of vibrant colors and intricate patterns that marveled me. From the various tones of tanned skins, the shapes of shoes and sandals, to the highly elaborate earrings, necklaces, ankle and wrist bracelets in silver and gold adorning women, children and some younger men -- I entertained myself observing all.
Until I recalled my own melancholic arrival in Paris. Coming directly from the Apennines, probably looking funny in my rustic clothes that smelled to goats, I had attracted people's glances and stares that soon turned into amused, condescending smiles. Too ashamed to even dare try my rudimentary French, I had wandered for one hour in the corridors of the train station, trying to find the exit on my own. I kept returning to the same platforms over and over again, because the cacophony and frantic activity dumbfounded me. Like a baby taking the first steps, I had bumped into people and things, though I was carrying a single, perfectly manageable suitcase, tied with string, since its clasps were broken. I had taken it without Tarso's consent. Having belonged to my deceased grandmother, it reminisced of ancestry. No wonder I felt like a sad clown, newly arrived in town -- though entertaining Parisian commuters in my zany confusion had never been my intention.
Leaving the boat's passengers to their intrinsic beauty, exotic to me only, I concentrated on the limitless landscape of sea and starry skies around. The vessel creaked like its wood was on fire, as it rode the waves, and above us the sails flapped with greater fancy than my own ruined painting had, that very morning. Recalling the episode, I glanced at the corner of the boat where our belongings had been secured with rope -- in search of the new roll of canvas Armand had bought me in town. I smiled with gratitude at that renewed demonstration of his generosity -- and a sailor going by stared at me as if I had flashed a lighthouse at him, and smiling back, he illuminated the night himself.
My dear ex-roommate had dozed into sleep, too, leaning against my shoulder. Unable to rest, I still closed my eyes every once in a while, and imperceptibly brushed my face against Armand's hair, content just to feel its softness. All about him spoke of a finer, gentler world that I had no access to -- unless in his presence. His familiar perfume caught me in its grip like only a daydream would -- comforting, it brought back the sophisticated Paris he had introduced me to. Remaining still even when we briefly stopped at other islands, in order not to disrupt his sleep, I tried glancing over my shoulder. Native villages were presented to me, naive and unadorned like in my own first sketches, when I was a boy. Fishing nets left to dry among torn branches of low trees, cauldrons boiling over blazing bonfires, strings of naked lamps on the porches of wooden houses, encircled by moths and bugs, the hissing, blind flight of bats, an occasional donkey's bray -- the simplest of lives flashed their surprises at me. Knowing none of those stops was our destination, since other people were embarking or disembarking, I did not worry about the journey. Armand had assured me it would be only the two of us on the Île.
The whole night through, I heard harrowing cries. Guessing it must be a native baby, suffering greatly from some incurable disease, I prayed for him.Until, emerging from behind the billowing sails, their white fully illuminated by the moonlight, a small flock of seagulls dotted the dark sky. Their number varied magically, bewildering me -- until I discovered how one or two or three of them would every now and then land on top of the boat, rest, and take flight again. They continued to play hide and seek, giving me something to watch other than Armand's peaceful sleep.
YOU ARE READING
The Last CanvasSpiritual
A starving Italian painter flees Paris in the winter of 1974. His destination -- a tiny private island lost in the Indian Ocean. His destiny -- a soul-crushing love triangle with a French nobleman and a haughty Parisian intellectual. His fate -- inv...