San Francisco |

The Excursion

by Georges-Olivier Chateaureynaud

edited by Kara Levy

We didn’t know who he was. We never do know much of what goes on. We’re too far away from it all. Be it fashion, progress, war, or people’s reputations, few things make their way out here. Everything is foreign to us, as though we take part only on an honorary basis in the human race. All we know is wind and rain and the sound of waves on the rocks. Our few visitors find it sad out here. They never stay. After the excursion, they hurry back quick as they can to civilization, to the sunny shallows, as though out here were the depths: the depths of what, God alone knows. _______ But they’re wrong. It’s not sad out here, well maybe just a bit, in an infinitely gentle way. You have to be born here, and not have known anything else. Then you’d understand, you’d see how it cradles and calms you, lulls you to sleep for life. Your eyes stay open, but you’re actually asleep, and all is well; nothing, almost nothing really reaches you, rain falls in a curtain of pearls between you and the world, the wind half drowns out the voices and cries. _______ I don’t know how we found out he was famous. He wasn’t the kind to brag. Maybe all he said was that he was in music, and that was enough to ring a bell; then we rummaged around in a closet and came up with an old magazine. A closet at the inn, no doubt, since it’s always visitors who bring the books and magazines. There’s no delivery service here. There isn’t even a post office. We entrust our letters to the pharmacist. He stocks up on remedies at the branch depot every two or three weeks. But we rarely write. Who would we write, and what would we say? As for letters to us… well, no one writes us either. You can’t make reservations in advance, not even for the excursion. You come and work something out on the spot with one of the fishermen… So most magazines are at the inn, where they’ve been forgotten or left behind. The innkeeper saves them. Sometimes, when we stop by to see her for this or that, she pulls them out of the closet and we flip through them together. How terrifying, how bewildering the tumultuous world they depict! Each time I’ve taken a peek I’ve thought back for days on the drugged athletes, corrupt congressmen, and two-timing princesses that haunt it, on the dictators, serial killers, and terrorists… and I think how lucky we are to live here, if only just, in the murmur of the wind and the light tap of rain on our roofs. _______ As for him, his music had made him famous: It existed like the wind or the rain, since he too was in the papers. We got a kick when we found out, for he was the first. Not our first visitor ever, of course, but the first to come bathed in the same aura of fame he enjoyed back beyond the curtain of pearls. The first to matter. You couldn’t tell from his face. Without the innkeeper’s magazine, how would we have guessed there was music in that head? Music of his very own, like a matchless scent? For we, too, sometimes sing songs or hymns. But it’s not the same. I’ve often thought I’d liked to have heard his music. Maybe I wouldn’t have liked it. In the big cities, crowds might flock to his concerts in the big cities, they might call him maestro, but can we tell beauty from its opposite? Do we know what we like? At any rate, I’m sorry never to have heard his work. If I really wanted… there are recordings, after all. All I’d have to do is get them through the pharmacist. I’d find someone to lend me a record player, or order one at the co-op… everything’s always very complicated, though never really out of reach. That’s the worst part. Nothing’s really out of reach, but nothing ever gets done. A pity… I’ll probably never hear his music. _______ He arrived one night on horseback. He dismounted, or fell off, more like; happens to all of them, after ten long hours in the saddle through dune, marsh, and peat bog. The innkeeper’s used to it. She serves them soup and puts them to bed. They sleep in the next day and when they make a showing at last, it’s to go down to the port, one hand on their aching backs. There they wait, nursing a mug of mulled wine, for the fishermen to return. It might not be their favorite, but the barman hasn’t much else to offer, so mulled wine it is. Between sips they watch us in the low, dark room. Their gazes dart about, lingering on one face, alighting on another, their nostrils flaring. Back home, in their well-lighted cafés and eateries, where everything is new, clean, smooth, and gleaming, it doesn’t smell of rain, tides, mulled wine, and mildew like it does here. The odors disorient them, doubtless even sicken them a bit. Then they study us with a curiosity tinged with worry. It’s true that we live in the nearness of myth, that since childhood the air we breathe has been as though suffused by it, so much so that visitors start imagining things. They tell themselves that what they’ve come in the middle of the journey of their lives (or for some, even later) to find, we’ve always known, which confers on us a certain… if not superiority, then uniqueness at least. But it’s not true. They have no reason to envy us. We and they are equally as helpless, as naked before it. What advantage will the fisherman who takes them out tomorrow have over them, once they settle on a price for the excursion? Well, he’ll know where he’s going. He’ll take them to edge of that mystery but they alone will brush up against it. On the way back to port they’ll no longer be the same; there’ll be something feverish in their eyes that wasn’t there before. The skipper’s gaze won’t have changed. _______ The maestro did what all the tourists do. He sat himself down in a corner of the bar and, after ordering, asked the barman, who said, “Of course, a number of fishermen take people out for a price. Just wait till the boats get back and I’ll point out a dependable soul.” The maestro seemed reassured: It was just like he’d been told it would be. So he nursed his mulled wine, setting his mug down and rubbing his hands together between sips. He waited a long time. He had many more mugs without losing patience. I’ve often said that in the bar at port you don’t feel the hours pass. The sands of time there are so flowing and fine-grained they never stick in the neck of the glass. _______ Only three or four sailors make the trip, due to low demand and the very real danger, even if you take all the necessary precautions. But it’s not just that. Those who used to go but don’t anymore will tell you it’s too hard. Before the spectacle of utmost pleasure and utmost pain, you must carry on, never quite knowing what has caused it. “It’s cruel,” they say, “it’s filthy. You can’t stomach it for long. It’s not about the money.” Those who keep making the trip rarely speak a word. As they grow inured to their singular trade, they say less and less about it. When they’re too old to go out to sea, their silence betrays them; you can pick them out as they while away afternoons, even entire evenings, at the bar, mute, back hunched, pensively rubbing their hands before a mug of wine gone cold. _______ At last, the barman indicated someone with a jerk of his head. The maestro rose and timidly approached the skipper. It was Esmeraldo. I was there, at my usual spot, and watched the scene from afar. It went on for too long. I was struck by the sight of a maestro used to having the world at his feet speaking humbly as a beggar, and at length, to an uneducated fisherman whose hands were chapped by the sea. It wasn’t a complicated transaction. All the trawlers asked about the same price. They came to an agreement at last. The maestro hadn’t gotten a raw deal. Esmeraldo wasn’t the most taciturn of the ones who went. He still spoke willingly when spoken to, and sometimes even laughed! In pointing him out as someone dependable, the barman was merely cleaving to popular opinion. But in light of what happened next, it’s clear Esmeraldo wasn’t adequately hardened to the task, hadn’t cut himself off enough from the world, sealed himself in silence and indifference. To ply this trade, it’s best to let yourself go beast-dumb. That’s why they no longer speak, why words must be torn from them. For them, silence is essential. They know it protects them, out there and back here. It’s clear now that the lengthy conversation between Esmeraldo and the maestro the night before they left was too much. Anyway, they shook on it, and arranged to meet early the next morning at the port. The maestro walked out, tottering slightly from the mulled wine. _______ Esmeraldo never confessed exactly what happened out there the next day. We pieced it together from his trailing sentences, his sighs and shrugs and muddled denials, and also that conversation of theirs. Not its content, which we would never know, but the simple fact that it had lasted much longer than needed. The only sure thing was that Esmeraldo was at fault. Nothing like this had ever happened before. The boat might have capsized, and no one survived, but this couldn’t have transpired had the skipper been aware of his responsibilities—had he kept watch over his client, protected the man from himself. No need to be a psychic to see that the maestro wouldn’t settle for the same excursion as everyone else: a few seconds of rapture and torment, writhing like a worm against the ropes lashing you to the mast before the skipper plugged your ears again with wax like in his own and you returned to port, broken, radiant, initiated. The maestro wanted more. Much more. That was why they’d stayed and talked so long that night at the bar. The maestro had negotiated, insisted, even begged maybe, and Esmeraldo had given in. The next day they’d hugged the shore too closely, and lingered too long in those perilous waters. _______ So the maestro, too, was to blame in the matter. Why had he come here, anyway? What had he wanted to confirm? We would’ve had to know where he was at in life to tell. It’s said artists are like temperamental machines that work fine for a while and then suddenly stop, for obscure reasons. Too much fame, not enough, too much love, not enough… What keeps them going? What fuel? What fire? No one knows. That flame can gutter out, go astray, grow lost. In some people it seems to last their whole lives, and still be burning strong, when one day something else goes missing, or breaks down: a single organ, or an entire body pushed too hard. With others it burns and blazes and suddenly stops, the tank is empty, the boiler snuffed out, and there they remain, alive but from then on inert and sterile. Had the maestro broken down? What led us to believe he’d been driven more by worry than curiosity was that he clearly hadn’t told anyone where he was going. Otherwise someone would have come looking for him by now. _______ Someone still might soon, for when a man like that disappears, it doesn’t go unnoticed. They must have been looking for him. Someday they’ll pick up his trail and follow it here. Then a helicopter streaming rain will drop from the sky to land on the field where our children play. Its arrival will sound the death knell for our way of life, and for what we are, in our way, the last to preserve. At a rare town council meeting, or what passed for one, no one cherished any illusions on the matter. If we just let things continue, we’d soon see a helicopter full of detectives, worried friends and family, and journalists brandishing cameras: Our way of life would be blown to smithereens. All of it. For the world beyond the curtain of rain, which had until now been more or less unaware of our existence, neither respects or really tolerates any other world. It is a jealous world. What it names, it kills. Its people claim or hope for the opposite, but the truth is bleak and simple: Their cameras despoil all they gaze upon, and destroy all they depict. When the reporters learn where Esmeraldo took the maestro, nothing will stop them from going and filming it from a helicopter. And they’ll come back unharmed with their freight of dead images, for the noise of their rotors will drown out the song that turned our illustrious visitor into the village idiot of sorts that he has since become. _______ In order to keep these things from happening, we decided to wipe out all traces of the maestro’s brief trip here, as a child might a chalk line from a blackboard with one swipe of a sponge. His path never brought him to us. Esmeraldo and I have been appointed by the council to see him back to his own kind. We’ve prepared a sign for him with his name on it, and we will hang it round his neck before abandoning him in the middle of a big city, blowing dumbly into a comb, as he has done unceasingly since his return from the sirens’ isle.