By Sébastien Doubinsky
Translated from French by the author
The island was much more visible now. Alessandro Salomonsen put his hand as a visor and scanned the horizon. Under the sun, the sea gradually slipped from blue to white and the outline of the land stood out as the silhouette of a large gray animal. He was not accustomed to breathe such pure air and he coughed. The boat rocked slightly.
Putting his hand to the pocket of his shirt, Salomonsen pulled out a pack of cigarettes without filter. As he was dying, he had decided to enjoy the pleasure of pure tobacco. He hadn’t bought a silver hip-flask to fill with brandy – but he had thought about it, for a last drink, after the final cigarette. His death, however, was going to be much less dramatic than a public performance and therefore didn’t deserve so many refinements. It was going to be trivial, announced, a little gray. Suffering probably would add a few colors – if he wasn’t sedated by morphine shots. His death … He shuddered. Despite his efforts, he still couldn’t get used to the word.
“Look, we see can it! Land-ho!”
Salomonsen discretely moved a little further along the railing. They disturbed the course of his thoughts and he wanted to hear the waves again, crashing flabbily against the flanks of the ferry.
He couldn’t stop, however, observing the group from the corner of his eye. A dozen men and women, mostly young, in summer outfits. Mainland tourists, he thought, nothing extraordinary. Their accent was that of the capital. One of the women reached out and pointed at something. The screams intensified and Salomonsen felt his own heart jump in his chest: three dolphins were leaping alongside the ship.
He smile soon turned into a grimace and he threw his cigarette over the railing. The piece of paper and glowing tobacco floated a few seconds in the wind, before disappearing in the blue paste of the merged sea and sky.
“A magnificent view, isn’t it?”
The man next to him leaning on the railing was young and well-built. Salomonsen thought he had a warm smile and found himself nodding to the intruder’s words.
“Are you going to Santo Domenico on holiday?”
Salomonsen shook his head.
“No, for work.”
The man looked at him, a little surprised.
“You’re with the movie too?”
It was Salomonsen’s turn to be perplexed.
“No, not at all. I’m sent by the administration.”
The man smiled again.
“Ah, OK… That explains why I hadn’t noticed you in the team.”
He held out his hand.
“Ricardo Rossi, chief lighting technician. My friends call me Rico. I’m part of the little group that you see there. We’re shooting a film on the island. In the Roman city.”
Salomonsen shook the man’s outstretched hand
“Alessandro Salomonsen, cadastral surveyor. Nice to meet you.”
Rossi offered him a cigarette. They smoked in silence, side by side, for a little while. A long hoot of the siren finally indicated that they would be arriving soon. Rossi killed his cigarette and apologized.
“I have to go and check the unloading. Maybe we’ll meet again. I heard that the city is rather small…”
Salomonsen nodded. He remembered what he had read in the guide before leaving: Santo Domenico, 12,000 inhabitants, the smallest of the Aeolian Islands.
A tiny maze.
Leaving the railing in his turn, he joined the flood of passengers. He had put his only suitcase in a locker on the ferry and played with the key in his pocket.
Salomonsen was the last to get off and he paused a moment to admire the view. Santo Domenico was a picturesque harbor, with its houses jammed against each other, as seeking protection from the wind. Most were painted white, but the yellow, pink or blue shutters added hints of pure joy here and there.
He lifted his suitcase and went down the footbridge.
The crowd of passengers blocked him and he waited patiently. Shouts and laughter burst around him. People shoved, caught each other, apologized. It was the summer holidays. Children sneaked between the grown-ups’ legs, huge suitcases banged against knees and the hum of the fishing boats’ engines going off to sea added to the general hubbub.
Salomonsen saw Rossi disappear with a small group in a van loaded with large trunks. It started with a bang, followed by a longshoreman who was carrying a projector wrapped in plastic. He ran after the car with loud cries, but without result. Annoyed, he contemplated the strange object he was carrying and shook his head.
The crowd cleared gradually and Salomonsen noticed a teenager who seemed to be waiting for someone with a name scribbled on a piece of cardboard. Getting closer, he could read “Mr. Salomonsenn.”
The boy’s appearance struck the surveyor. His very dark curly hair appeared blond in places. But the most surprising were his yellow-green eyes. He thought for a moment of a young goat. He introduced himself to the boy, who flashed with a big smile.
“I’m Stefano. My mother sent me… Well, I mean, your hotel, l’Albergo del Corsaro.”
The boy took his suitcase despite his protests and walked up a narrow street. Behind them, the siren of the ferry wailed one last time.
The streets smelled of salt. It had been years since Salomonsen had been near the ocean. His work in the capital took up all his time. It was not even an excuse – it was, unfortunately, the truth.
Stefano walked about twenty meters ahead of him, dragging his big suitcase. Salomonsen felt a little guilty, but he told himself that after all, it was the boy who had insisted on taking his luggage. He remembered all the heavy bags he had gallantly carried for a few pretty girls met on the platform of a train or a metro station when he himself was a teenager … He had a nostalgic smile and looked for his cigarettes.
A beautiful brunette in her late thirties or early forties greeted him at the front desk and opened the register. Stefano was now sitting in one of four big chairs in the hotel’s lobby, the suitcase at his feet. His forehead was covered with sweat and large halos decorated the armpits of his T-shirt. The midday heat swelled through the open door.
Recalling the wacky spelling he had read on the Stefano’s sign, he spelled it out for her.
“Ah yes … The administration is sending you, yes? Room thirteen. You’re not superstitious, I hope?”
Salomonsen shook his head, but he thought the number was eerily well chosen.
The room was small, clean and comfortable. Salomonsen hoisted his suitcase on the bed and looked at his new surroundings. A rustic cabinet stood against the wall, a little table was installed under the window and the bedside table was decorated with a lamp adorned with a cardboard lampshade. The bathroom consisted of a shower, a toilet and a functional sink.
“Perfect!” he commented happily.
He opened the window and the joyful shouts of the city spilled inside the little room.
“Stefano can show you around the city, if you want,” the hotel owner offered when Salomonsen came down the stairs again. “It’s the holidays and he has plenty of time on his hands.”
The surveyor nodded. The boy got up from the chair where he sat and motioned to Salomonsen to follow him. The woman flashed a smile as he walked out the door. It was a friendly smile, but he wondered what she meant by that.
Stefano walked very quickly and Salomonsen had sometimes difficulties following. Several times he found the boy waiting for him at the top of a street, smiling as if he had pity on the “poor old man.” After the fifth time, Salomonsen felt like saying: “I’m only forty-three years old, dammit! I’m not an old man!” But he remembered immediately that he was going to die soon and that it wasn’t particularly a sign of youthfulness.
They visited the old harbor, the fourteenth-century cathedral with its seventeenth century rood screen, the old city, the cloister and finally the local folk art museum. When they came out of it, Salomonsen was feeling pretty tired and he proposed to Stefano to sit at the terrace of a café. Once installed, Salomonsen ordered a beer for himself and Stefano chose a lemonade.
“You want a cigarette?” he asked the boy.
“They are unfiltered, just so you know.”
“I don’t care. Tobacco is tobacco.”
Handing him the package, Salomonsen suddenly realized that the boy’s eyes fascinated him. They had something exceptionally beautiful and attractive.
Here I am, thinking like that old Aschenbach in ‘Death in Venice’, he told himself, fanning with one hand the smoke that bothered him.
“What are you here for, exactly?” Stefano asked, while a waitress put down the glasses in front of them.
Salomonsen stretched and cracked his knuckles. He hesitated to tell the truth, for he knew that the project of the administration was not very popular on the island. On the other hand, everyone would know soon, so he preferred to be honest.
“I have come to do some measurements. I am a surveyor. The administration has, uh, this project, you know… How old are you, by the way? Sixteen, seventeen?”
“Nineteen. But everybody thinks I’m younger. Later, I’ll take that as a compliment, I guess.”
The surveyor smiled back.
“The government wants to build an observatory near the old volcano and I have to take measures of the ground.”
“Near The “Old Man?””
Salomonsen raised an eyebrow
“The “Old Man”?”
“It’s the nickname of the volcano here. Isn’t it a little dangerous to build something there?”
Salomonsen looked at his half empty glass.
“In theory, no. It has been inactive for nearly 1000 years. The geologists and seismologists of the ministry have given the green light. What’s more, it’s a few miles away. And frankly, that’s not my problem. I’ve come to measure, that’s all. What can happen after that…”
He shrugged, suddenly feeling like King Louis the Fifteenth of France.
Après moi, le deluge.
Sébastien Doubinsky is a bilingual French writer, born in Paris in 1963. An established writer in France, Sébastien Doubinsky has published a series of novels, covering different genres, from classical literature to crime fiction, as well as a few poetry collections. His novels, The Babylonian Trilogy (Goodbye Babylon in the US), The Song of Synth and Absinth have been published in the UK and the US. Three of his poetry collections, Mothballs, Spontaneous Combustions, and Zen And The Art of Poetry Maintenance have been published in the UK. He currently lives in Aarhus, Denmark, with his wife and his two children, where he teaches French literature, culture and history.
Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Sébastien Doubinsky’s novel ‘Le livre muet’, originally published by éditions du Cherche-Midi in 2007. The English translation has been published here with kind permission from the author.