The Western Isles mark the outermost bounds of human knowledge. East of their sands I have scanned the world from the wings of experience and found it wanting. Westward lies the sea, and beyond that, some say the world’s edge, others the Islands of the Blessed. But I have different expectations. I am a counter of things: I have numbered the hairs on a man’s shin, the blades of grass in a prince’s lawn, the endless combinations of the clouds – everything can be reduced to figures, and the sum of my calculations I proclaim forthwith: all is vanity. But being of an optimistic cast of mind I am offering life one last chance to prove me wrong before I dispense with it altogether. Here is my plan.
They say there is a pot of gold at the foot of the rainbow; but I am concerned with greater riches. Every day for untold ages a sun has dropped behind the horizon, sometimes as a great gold coin, sometimes a ruby or a diamond. The accumulated treasure beyond the world’s end could buy heaven and earth a thousand times over. But material wealth means nothing to me; the purpose of my journey is different. I mean to travel to that heap of suns and engage in one last dazzling feat of arithmetic, counting them by hundreds and thousands, with the help of my faithful tally stick, until I have found out what I wish to know: the value of existence, the total sum of days and weeks and years, and whether it is worth it, after all. If yes, then I shall fill my leather bag and return to the world to take up a position worthy of my venture: a warrior-king, an archpriest or a prophet. If no – then I shall let the suns consume me, content to vanish from the face of the earth and be forgotten, like my nameless forefathers before the days of tally sticks and coins.
Of all the petty human race the Western Islanders are the pettiest. Thirty-three – no more – have gathered on the beach to see me off, all ignorant of my vision. The white-bearded Headman leans on his decrepit wife among a gaggle of elders. Children hop in and out of my boat where she rests on the greyish sands. They have stocked her with rations enough to last me many weeks, although the dullest eye can see that the horizon is only five hours’ journey distant, and when I have arrived at my destination I do not expect to need corporeal nourishment.
The boatbuilder hangs between his crutches scrutinizing his handiwork, head sunk between his shoulders. The other onlookers are shepherds and fishermen with weather-blackened faces, rosy island girls, hags swathed in shawls with eyes as dull as rocks among the heather. A little way off the village cow crops the bitter sea-grass. A bird bobs on a nearby rock, making the noise of two pebbles clicking together in a schoolboy’s pocket. I long to throw off these barren regions and attain the vivid country of my dreams, where objects stand forth each from each in bold shapes and brilliant colours, all obedient to the eternal laws of geometry. These farewells have been protracted beyond endurance.
The Headman creaks a blessing, good wishes scutter from the elders like stones dislodged by my boots. The boatbuilder, who has grown familiar with me through our shared concern with his craft, nods his crushed head between his props.
‘Aye, aye,’ he whines through splintered teeth. ‘There’s wonders abroad on the bottomless deep. I’ve heard tell of savages ten feet tall with skin black as ebony from head to toe. I’ve heard of pygmies two feet high with bones in their noses who blow poison through tubes and devour little children. There’s tales of the anthropopagi whose heads sprout from their chests, whose eyes can pierce the blackest smoke and whose ears can hear the fall of a grain of salt in another room. There’s talk of the leviathan with stones and trees rooted in his back; of monstrous maneating birds and mermaids with breasts of ice. Aye, aye, we builders of boats might as well mould vessels of butter on bonfires as wear our bones to dust carving the seagull’s flight into hard wood that’ll rot at last among the crabs and oysters.’
Before he has half done I have set my shoulder to the boat’s stern and given her a mighty heave. Shepherds and children rush forward to help drag her to the water and shove her out beyond the breakers. Ripples chop against the hull. In these ungainly regions everything is always knocking against everything else! I shall arrange things better when I return from looking on the order of the suns.
The first real swell snatches at the boat’s ribs. I swing myself on board making the vessel lurch. Pebbles grate beneath the keel; for a moment I fear that the next surge will nudge me ignominiously back to shore. But the shepherds give me a final thrust and the ocean sucks me in.
Looking back I see the people gesticulating wildly, but their voices are already lost on the breeze. Could they not have raised a concerted shout, a song perhaps to cheer me on my way? Disgusted by their inadequacy I stumble forward to curl myself in the foresheets, fixing my attention on the brightness in the west. Waves open their glutinous mouths beneath the belly of the boat and I slither down their tongues, bubbles seething to left and right. An eddy and a swirl, then my face is pointing skywards between fleshy walls of water, a pallid lump of firmament clasped between their writhing lips. To my horror the waves are resolving themselves into human shapes, lifting and dropping on every side. Did I not, then, leave humanity gesticulating on the beach? The boat rushes to meet the clouds, which resemble the flabby buttocks of old men; but it has left part of my stomach stranded on the sea-bed.
Enough of frail mortality! My spirit can break free of this fleshly prison whenever it likes – leaving a safety cable anchored in my skull – and speed ahead of this coracle in the wake of the sinking sun. Only a few short hours and I will have reached the land where golden orbs form patterns on the pavement of eternity, where the houses are pillared with sunbeams and roofed with the crystal of the spheres. If only this boat would settle into a steady rhythm! The sea rises and falls, the boat rises and falls, even the clouds toss like seaweed at low tide. My paltry frame has no conception of its destiny. All at once earth, sea and sky dissolve into a single stream that gushes through my body. The boat swoops westwards on the wings of fate, while I crouch retching over the prow.
Just before dark I glimpse the tip of the island’s highest peak as it drops below the horizon. In a fit of facetiousness I compare its disappearance to that of the sun, and wonder whether there might not equally be a mound of islands lying below the eastern edge of the world like a pile of dung, bearing witness to the folly of creation as the suns bear witness to its glory. The sky spins round my head, spray soaks me to the marrow, boreal winds dash in from every side to spear me, as if the finny folk in these parts have turned harpoonist. I have seen men fish in my time, but never before fish men. I shall have one tale to tell, at least, if I return! Another convulsion jars the boat from stem to stern; but whether it was the sea or my body that caused it I cannot say.
Hours later, the sickness at last releases me. The invisible waves tumble on through the night. Wedged between lobster-pots and a water-butt at the bottom of the boat I wonder how far I have come, how much farther I have to go. Do I dare consume some of my rations? At the thought, something stirs in the place where my stomach once was, and I hastily turn my mind to my approaching transfiguration. Within hours I shall have looked on the greatest hoard of them all and either been scorched to cinders or begun my ascent to immortality. Men who were once my equals will become the lowest order of creation by virtue of their very likeness to my image. The earth shall split open at my footfall, planets fling themselves down in homage. Death shall swing from my belt. Words shall issue from my mouth as flames.
I cannot pinpoint the exact moment at which the prospect of what I shall become stops being attractive. I know only that I have suddenly started to yearn in the darkness for little fires. Peat fires in hearths blackened by the smoke of generations; the flicker of light in the glaze of a simple pot; flakes of flame flashing in the eyes of a family huddled round a blaze at dead of winter. One among their number tells a story: the tale of the great house that lies below the horizon, pillared with sunbeams, roofed with the crystal of the spheres. Shadows shift on the walls as the tale unfolds, and in each heart there is a little bonfire that whispers and dances in response to the speaker’s words. So that no matter how far the mind may stray, whether to the fever-ridden plains of the anthropopagi or to the glass forests of the Arctic alive with a million rainbow hues beneath the Aurora Borealis, there is always a gentle warmth to greet its return, an answering warmth that flares up when the roofs of the tumbledown homestead hove into view.
What welcome can I expect on my return from the sunny country? Will the boatbuilder glance up from shaping the prow of a smack? Will the Headman hobble down to the dunes leaning on his ancient consort and kiss my cheeks with withered lips, as once he did when I blessed his hovel? But this is frailty, wanderer. On your return there will be no more need of welcomes. Spray drenches me, the boat leaps like a hooked fish, and I am awash with sentiment. I should be ashamed of myself. Am I not more than human? Have I not stretched forth my hand to grasp the celestial orb and drawn myself up alongside it in lonely splendour? Yet here I float on the flood, yearning for a flame, a match, a candle. Surely the boat is spinning in circles, an apt emblem for my frailty.
The sky is light again, the sea no different. But look – as I am shrugged on the shoulder of a wave above the sea’s concupiscent rolling – surely that is land I glimpse rising like dawn from the disorder! In my astonishment I loose my grip on the gunwale and sprawl face downwards in the bilges: for stability in this chaos is a greater miracle than a city of golden spheres! When I top the next wave I find myself closer. In desperation I thrust my hand over the side and paddle till my fingers lose all feeling. At the next crest – heaven be praised! I can almost distinguish rock from heather!
How far have I floated? What land is this? Visions spring unbidden from my memory: of the land where rivers run uphill, where the lotus blooms tended by nymphs of unspeakable beauty with ambergris and jasper in their hair. Visions of bejewelled chimeras, unicorns, golden fruit and the armoured basilisk, the cockatrice, the corkendrill and the solitary firebird. The firebird, hatched from the sun! To this I am transformed as I shrug off the darkness. My nostrils snort the wind in quest of some spicy fragrance. My clothes glow with a tropical warmth, encrusted with salt like coral. All it needs is for the sky to turn a deeper blue and I shall know myself to have entered the odoriferous Indian ocean or the balmy waters off the coasts of Afric. As I have not done since childhood, I raise my feeble voice in a squawk of thanks to the powers that drove me hither over the turbulence.
It seems only moments before I am approaching the shore. I have studied it carefully from a distance to make sure it is no leviathan. The skyline is surely too ragged, the shape too irregular for a fish, however monstrous. A savage climate it seems, scourged by hurricanes, beaten by the tide. A land peopled with primitives who will submit without question to the behest of a golden voyager borne in on the ceaseless surf. And I will be their generous lord: for I no longer despise humanity. My heart leaps in my breast, for here, as if at my summons, a band of natives troops down from behind a promontory to congregate on the dunes. Broken shreds of noise stream past on the wind.
And what a band it is! Giants ten feet tall with skin black as ebony, pygmies no more than two feet high who leap about as if eager for human flesh. One creature appears to be swathed from head to foot in white hair; another is an anthropopagus whose face sprouts from his chest and whose legs spring from his shoulders. Ruddy sirens hang like seagulls above the sands, attended by spirits draped in lichen. And what shaggy beast is this that prowls the middle distance? Surely it is the fabulous cameleopard that stalks the African bush? Legs trembling, I stand erect in my ship to salute the fruitful alien soil. Ever closer skims the boat. My heart soars in my breast.
The keel grates on pebbles, water chops against the hull. Giants and pygmies rush into the shallows sending showers of spray about their knees. They seize the gunwales, cheering and shouting, and draw me up onto the sand. My love for these bright beings is beyond endurance.
Somewhere nearby, an angel spins on a stone, making the noise of two pebbles clicking together in a schoolboy’s pocket.