Something to read in August: "Insula, Insulae", a novel by Irene Montano.
During this month of August we will share on our blog something for you to read in front of the sea: some extracts from the book “Racconti di Mare” (“Maritime Novels”), curated by Mauro Ferraresi and published by Persephone Edizioni, as well as stories sent to us by our friends of the Community, such as this one Irene Montano. We hope you will enjoy reading them all!
How much fascination can a single word generate?
Islands are impossible, wonderful places, fragments voluntarily detached from the mainland, with which they do not want to have anything to do anymore. Small empires, they persist proudly in the middle of seas and oceans, rulers of themselves. Each island lives according to its own rules, that all its inhabitants must respect, no use trying to sail away or land if the flux is against you, it matters not which important event may be awaiting for you on the mainland; if the island does not want to let you go, you will not leave. At pain of death.
Winters on islands have only one name: resistance. When holidaymakers return to their lives, those barren hells which are always the same, when the earth leaves for its long revolutionary trip farthest away from the Star, when the sea starts showing its evil side, then the islanders know it’s time to start resisting. You resist against everything, against the ravenous sea besieging the shore and knocking at the doors of houses, against the waves redesigning the geography of the cliffs, you already know the wind is going to spread damage, serious damage, and who knows how long it will take to fix everything up.
Above all, boredom. On the island everyone does what they can, but time is limp during winters, it is the time of introspection, of suspension, of prolonged scrutiny into one’s own personal abyss. It is hard to maintain rationality those night in January when the Libeccio wind seems to whisper murderous suggestions into one’s ears, almost as if willing you to think evil thoughts. Though heroes are always repaid at the end, those who do not surrender will understand dawn has returned because of the warm, rarefied air illuminating the emerald cove, because of the scent of the pines wafting through the newly sunbeaten trails, and the fisherman will no longer be afraid to go out at night with his fishing boat, knowing the stars will bless his endeavours once again.
Islands are strange places, mysterious shadows on the horizon, they can attract or reject you with unexpected violence. It is they who choose you, never the contrary. Everyone has their own magic island they must reach, but none of them is like mine. The island I’m talking about is the one the old men down the harbour know, it is possible that it is nothing more than a drunk fishermen’s tale, but it is a story which has always fascinated me since I was a kid, returning to my mind throughout the years like a childhood fairy tale of which you forgot the ending. It is a place which only appears during those nights when the moon mirrors itself, full, in the sea, creating a vivid silver sparkle on the surface of the water. The reflection of the moonlight increasingly narrows down as it nears the horizon, almost indicating a way, at the end of which the silhouette of an arcane island blackly stands out, on which nobody ever landed. Rather, from which nobody ever returned.
They say the island is a place of wisdom and power, where the answers to all the questions of the world are waiting. Once landed, anything may be asked, everything will have a precise, truthful, clear answer. You will then know what would have happened if you had accepted that desperate proposal to leave together, if you had forgiven that cheating lover, if you had followed your dream. You will know the truth about State secrets, unresolved murders, scientific discoveries, you will investigate the existence of gods, you will know the Beyond and all of its secrets. Truth will come at a high price however; the King will not just let anyone approach his island. You may not reach the island by rowing or flying, it would vanish as soon as you came close, the only way is to dive into the sea at night and follow, swimming, the moonlit pathway leading to its shores. In mysteries, though, nothing is as it seems, and the silver sparkle in the water directing you to the island is actually nothing but a myriad of tiny shiny fish reflecting the moonlight, theirs is the task of guiding those who are worthy by helping them swim along, and of forbidding entry to those with an evil soul. Those who are animated by evil intentions or are otherwise not worthy of the Truth will be devoured by the fish as soon as they touch water.
There’s another thing you should know before attempting this feat, even if you reach the island, it is impossible to return. The Truth is not for all, it may not be broadcast, there are secrets which have to remain such forever. The island is possibly a portal for the Beyond, of which nobody knows anything, it is unknown whether stepping beyond means death or entry into another world, or maybe both, the only certain thing is you will not be able to return.
Tonight is my night. I have waited many years to find the courage I never had, but tonight everything is different, it is the night of your birthday, you were born at 23:20 and today you turn 36 years old, a warm wind blows around whispering about you.
It’s a night in mid-June, one of those we used to love so much, with the scent of jasmine telling stories of secret gardens and journeys still to be planned, of imminent departures for unknown destinations. One of those nights when the sea is murmuring and burning in moonlight.
When you were here there were still fireflies and the garden glimmered with sparkles around us, we would sit on the bench in the courtyard to observe the night, ‘what shape does the Southern Cross have?’ You always wanted me to talk about my trip to South America, ‘It has a beautiful shape it is a beacon in the night, I promise we will go together and you will see it with your own eyes.’ It was during one of those nights that I told you about the island, you were fascinated and it was difficult to convince you to return home, your mad curiosity had been so piqued that you were immediately fascinated by the story as you always were with intangible things, you wanted to see its profile at all costs but the moon was not there at that time.
How many other times we spent the last few hours of the evening daydreaming about that island I do not know, I could not even say how many times you offered to try diving for it, ‘Don’t even talk about it’, I would say, ‘it’s just an old fisherman’s tale, how can you really believe in it?’ But you really did, you really believed in many things, that’s why I liked you so much. You could see subtle worlds that nobody else could guess, like a cat looking at an empty spot which actually contains everything. That night everything was ready, yes, I was finally taking you to see the Southern Cross! The plane for Argentina was waiting for us at dawn and our bulging backpacks looked like alert sentinels guarding the doorstep, a nice full moon was giving us her best wishes for the trip and we were so excited we could scarcely believe it was happening. ‘Did you see where I put my passport, darling? I wouldn’t want to forget the most important thing’, ‘I don’t know, maybe it’s on your nightstand’ you replied. ‘When you come back to the garden please bring me a glass of wine!’
The passport was indeed on the nightstand and before coming back to you I paused for a second in the kitchen, to fetch your glass of wine, ‘We need a good bottle’, I thought, and I opened a Chablis grand cru, because you love white wines, ‘But some music is missing’, so I started playing “Strangers in the Night” on the record player, the right song for a summer evening. All of that must have taken barely five minutes, just a blink, but when I returned to the garden you were no longer there. The bench was there, the easel on which you were painting was there, the basil and lemons were there, the moon high over the sea was there, but not you. ‘Strange’, I thought, our garden was small, our flat even more so, and it was impossible that I had missed you coming in the house, so I knocked on the bathroom door and looked among the bushes, as you loved to hide and surprise me, but I did not find you.
At least for half an hour I thought it was a joke, then I went on the street looking for you, I rang the neighbours, even went down to the beach, but you seemed to have vanished in thin air. Increasingly shocked, i started thinking you had left me suddenly, maybe after thinking about it for a long time without knowing how to tell me, maybe you had left with a lover for Argentina and it was him waiting for you at the airport, but what about the backpack then? Your documents? Everything was in the right place, nothing was missing. I found the car keys and started driving like a madman towards Rome airport, I would wait for you at the gate to convince you to leave him, whoever he was he could not just wreck our dream. A lady with a bright voice called your name out at least five times on the loudspeaker but you never showed up, ‘Sir the plane is about to depart you must board immediately’, so I renounced the flight y adios Cruz del Sur.
The police heard many times what I could remember of the last moment I saw you, I told them that in that last photograph of my memory you were lying on the garden bench, your blonde hair tightly bound, waiting barefoot for your glass of wine with dreamy eyes. I think I know by memory every single blade of glass in that tiny garden, I must have patrolled it more than a thousand times trying to understand where you might have gone, after all it was impossible that you had scaled the wall and jumped from the railing, the cliffs were underneath, but the divers never found anything.
That cursed bench-easel-lemon tree triangle was driving me insane, they were the only witnesses present at the time within that restricted perimeter and they would not yield their secret. Only the moon maybe knew what had happened in that garden, but even though I implored her every night, she never told me either. I never truly came back from that, I stopped studying, I abandoned everything, it seemed to me that life had become a meaningless enigma. I decided to become a fisherman because I could not sleep at night anyhow, so at least I could be productive with my insomnia.
That’s how one of those balmy nights in July, some years later, I glimpsed from the fishing boat a dark silhouette, stark and silent; the island had re-emerged under the moonlight. Remembering that story completely took over my mind and I experienced an unstoppable rush of memories: you and me in the garden, that night in June, the stars…the story about the island. I don’t know how, but a concept as absurd as it was clear started surfacing in my mind: if there was a place in the world where I could discover were you had gone, it was precisely that island. There, I would learn what had happened to you, in an unmistakeable and truthful way, and maybe I would have found you, or maybe not, but at least I would put to end something which had tormented me for years.
Various years have passed from the moment I first formulated that thought until tonight, and I must admit that I never found the courage to attempt the feat, but I can wait no longer. What if nothing will happen when I dive in? I will just find myself like a stupid midnight swimmer in the water. But what if the legend of the fish is true? What if they devour me? What if instead, they take me to the island? In that case I already know I will not be able to return, but I will bow to the King and he will tell me what happened to you, and I will finally find peace. In any world you might have gotten lost in, I will join you soon.
Happy birthday my love, tonight I’m coming back to you.