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Authors: Alessandro Baricco

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BOOK: Ocean Sea
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Langlais tried to make him see reason. As a corpse he was not worth a penny, why throw away a fortune like that?

“I didn’t ask you what you thought about it. I asked you for a yes or a no. Make haste.”

A maniac. This one was a maniac. Langlais realized he had no choice.

“As you wish,” he said, and looked down at the chessboard. It was not long before he realized that the bandit’s madness was of a brutally astute variety. Not only had he taken
the white pieces—it would have been foolish to expect the contrary—but the man was playing with a second queen neatly ensconced in place of the king’s bishop. A curious
variation.

“A king,” explained the bandit, indicating himself, “and two queens,” he added mockingly, indicating the two women, beautiful indeed, who were seated beside him. This
pleasantry unleashed unrestrained laughter and wholehearted yells of approval among the onlookers. Less amused, Langlais lowered his gaze, thinking that he was about to die in the stupidest manner
possible.

The bandit’s first move brought with it the return of absolute silence. King’s pawn forward two squares. It was Langlais’s turn. He hesitated for a few moments. It was as if he
were waiting for something, but he did not know what it was. He understood only when, within his head, he heard a voice pronounce with magnificent calm, “Knight to the file of the
king’s bishop.”

This time he did not look around. He knew that voice. And he knew that it was not there. God knows how, but it was coming from far away. He took the knight and placed it in front of the
king’s bishop’s pawn.

By the sixth move he was one piece up. On the eighth, he castled. By the eleventh he was the master of the middle board. Two moves later he sacrificed a bishop, which allowed him to take the
first of the opposing queens in the next move. He trapped the second with a combination that—and he realized this—he would never have been capable of without the precise guidance of
that absurd voice. As the resistance of the white pieces gradually crumbled, he sensed that the bandit’s ferocious rage and bewilderment were growing. It got to the point where he was afraid
to win. But the voice granted him no respite.

On the twenty-third move, the bandit virtually handed him a castle, following an error that was so obvious it seemed a surrender. Without thinking, Langlais was about to take advantage of this
when the voice suggested peremptorily, “Watch out for the king, admiral.”

Watch out for the king? Langlais stopped himself. The white king was sitting in an absolutely innocuous position, behind the remains of a hastily contrived castling move. Watch out for what? He
stared at the chessboard without understanding.

“Watch out for the king.”

The voice fell silent.

Everything fell silent.

A few moments.

Then Langlais understood. It was like a flash that crossed his mind a moment before the bandit produced a knife from nowhere and rapidly sought his heart with the blade. Langlais was faster. He
blocked his arm, managed to wrest the knife from him, and, following through the movement he had begun, slashed the bandit’s throat wide open.

The bandit crashed to the ground. Horrified, the two women ran away. All the others seemed petrified by amazement. Langlais kept calm. With a gesture that afterwards he would not have hesitated
to judge uselessly solemn, he took the white king and tipped it over on the chessboard. Then he got up, clutching the knife tightly in his fist, and moved quickly away from the chessboard. Nobody
moved. He mounted the first horse he came across. He cast a final glance at that strange scene out of popular theater and fled. As often happens in life’s crucial moments, he found himself
capable of a sole, absolutely insignificant thought: it was the first time—the first—that he had won with the black pieces.

W
HEN HE GOT BACK
to his palace, he found Adams stretched out in bed, unconscious and in the grip of a brain fever. The doctors did not know what to do.
He said, “Do nothing. Nothing.”

Four days later, Adams came to. There was Langlais, at his bedside. They looked at each other. Adams closed his eyes again. And Langlais said, in a low voice, “I owe you my
life.”


One
life,” said Adams. Then he reopened his eyes and stared Langlais straight in the eye. It was not the look of a gardener, that glance. It was the look of an animal
stalking its prey.

“My life means nothing to me. It is another life I want.”

What that meant, Langlais was to understand much later, when it was too late to avoid hearing it.

A
MOTIONLESS GARDENER
, standing before an admiral’s desk. Books and papers everywhere. But orderly. Orderly. And candelabras, carpets, the
fragrance of leather, somber pictures, blackish curtains, maps, weapons, coins, portraits. Silverware. The admiral proffered a leaf of paper to the gardener and said,

“The Almayer Inn. A place by the sea, near Quartel.”

“Is she there?”

“Yes.”

The gardener folded the sheet of paper, put it in his pocket, and said, “I shall leave this evening.”

The admiral lowered his gaze and, as he did so, heard the other’s voice pronounce the word “Good-bye.”

The gardener went toward the door. The admiral, without even looking at him, murmured, “And afterwards? What will happen afterwards?”

The gardener halted. “Nothing anymore.”

And he went out.

The admiral said nothing.

. . .
AS
L
ANGLAIS WAS LETTING
his mind escape along the route of a ship that had flown away, literally, in the waters of
Malagar, and Adams was considering stopping in front of a rose of Borneo to observe an insect that was laboring to climb up one of its petals until the moment came when it gave up and flew away, in
this sense similar to the ship that had obeyed the same instinct when sailing off Malagar, both of them comrades in their implicit refutation of the real and in the choice of that aerial flight,
and united, in that instant, by their being images that had simultaneously alighted on the retina and the memory of two men whom nothing could have separated anymore and for whom those two flights,
of the insect and the sailing ship, embodied their mutual dismay at the bitter taste of the end and the disconcerting discovery of how silent destiny is, when, suddenly, it explodes.

CHAPTER 8

O
N THE FIRST FLOOR
of the Almayer Inn, in a room that gave onto the hills, Elisewin was struggling with the night.
Motionless, under the covers, she was waiting to discover which would be the first to come, sleep or fear.

The sound of the sea could be heard, like a continuous landslide, the incessant thunder of a storm that was the child of some unknown sky. It never stopped. It did not know weariness. Or
mercy.

If you look at it, you don’t notice how much noise it makes. But in the dark . . . All that infinity becomes only clamor, a wall of sound, a blind, tormenting howl. You cannot switch off
the sea, when it burns in the night.

Elisewin felt a bubble of emptiness burst in her head. She knew well that secret explosion, that invisible, unspeakable anguish. But knowing it was useless. Useless. The insidious, slinking
malaise—an obscene stepfather—was about to take her. It was come to take back its own.

It was not so much that cold that filtered through from inside her, and not even her wildly beating heart, or the cold sweat all over, or the trembling of her hands. The worst thing was that
feeling of disappearing, of losing touch with one’s mind, of being only vague panic and starts of fear. Thoughts like scraps of rebellion—shivers—her face set in a grimace, trying
to keep her eyes closed—trying not to look at the dark, a horror with no escape. A war.

Elisewin managed to think of the door that, a few yards from her, connected her room with that of Father Pluche. A few yards. She had to make it. Now she would get up and without opening her
eyes she would find it, and then all that was needed was Father Pluche’s voice, even if it was only his voice, and it would all be over—all she had to do was get up from there, find the
strength to take a few steps, cross the room, open the door—get up, slip out from under the covers, slip along the wall—get up, stand up, take those few steps—get up, keep the
eyes closed, find that door, open it—get up, try to breathe, and then get away from the bed—get up, don’t die—get up from there—get up. How horrible. How horrible.

It was not a few yards. It was miles, it was an eternity: the same distance that separated her from her real room, and her things, and her father, and her own place.

Everything was far away. Everything was lost.

Such wars cannot be won. And Elisewin surrendered.

As if dying, she opened her eyes.

She did not understand immediately.

She had not expected it.

The room was lit. A tiny light. But everywhere. Warm.

She turned. On a seat beside the bed was Dira, with a big book open on her knees, and a candle holder in her hand. The candle was burning. A little flame, in the dark that was no more.

Elisewin lay still, her head raised up a little from the pillow, looking. She seemed to be elsewhere, that little girl, and yet she was there. Her eyes fixed on those pages, her feet that did
not even reach the floor and swung slowly back and forth: shoes on a swing, attached to two legs and a little skirt.

Elisewin let her head fall back on the pillow. She saw the candle flame smoking motionless. And the room around her slept sweetly. She felt tired, a wonderful tiredness. She just had time to
think

“You can’t hear the sea anymore.”

Then she closed her eyes. And she fell asleep.

In the morning she found the candle holder, solitary, standing on the seat. The candle still burning. As if none of it had been consumed. As if it had kept vigil over a night only an instant
long. An invisible flame against the great light that was bringing the new day through the window and into the room.

Elisewin got up. She blew out the candle. From all over arrived the strange music of a tireless musician. A huge sound. A spectacle.

The sea had returned.

P
LASSON AND
B
ARTLEBOOM
went out together, that morning. Each with his own instruments: easel, paints, and brushes for Plasson,
notebooks and various measuring devices for Bartleboom. You would have said that they had just cleared out a mad inventor’s attic. One was wearing a fisherman’s jacket and waders, and
the other a set of professorial tails, a woolen hat on his head, and gloves without fingers, such as pianists use. Perhaps the inventor was not the only madman around there.

In reality, Plasson and Bartleboom did not even know each other. Their paths had crossed only a few times, in the corridors of the inn, or in the dining room. They would probably never have
ended up there, on the beach, walking together toward their respective places of work, had Ann Deverià not decided it would be that way.

“It’s amazing. If someone were to put you two together, he would obtain a single perfect lunatic. According to me, God is still up there, with the great puzzle under his nose,
wondering what happened to those two pieces that fitted so well together.”

“What’s a puzzle?” asked Bartleboom at the same moment Plasson inquired, “What’s a puzzle?”

The next morning they were walking on the seashore, each with his own instruments, but together, toward the paradoxical duties that constituted their daily labors.

Plasson had made money in the preceding years, by becoming the capital’s best-loved portrait artist. You could say that in all the city there was no family genuinely greedy for money that
did not have a Plasson in the house. Portraits, let it be well understood, only portraits. Landowners, sickly wives, bloated children, wrinkled great-aunts, rubicund industrialists, marriageable
young ladies, ministers, priests, operatic prima donnas, military men, poetesses, violinists, academics, kept women, bankers, infant prodigies: from the walls of the capital’s most genteel
residences peeked, suitably framed, hundreds of astonished faces, inevitably ennobled by what in the salons was known as “the Plasson touch”: a curious stylistic characteristic
otherwise expressible in the skill, genuinely singular, with which the esteemed painter could bestow a glint of intelligence upon any gaze, no matter how bovine. “No matter how bovine”
was the specification that was usually employed in the salons.

Plasson could have carried on like that for years. The faces of the rich are never-ending. But, out of the blue, one day he decided to drop everything. And to leave. A very precise idea,
secretly nursed for years, carried him off.

To make a portrait of the sea.

He sold everything he possessed, abandoned his studio, and left for a journey that, as far he knew, might never end. There were thousands of miles of coastline, around the world. It was going to
be no small matter, finding the right place.

When gossipmongers asked him the reason for that unusual desertion, he made no mention of the question of the sea. So they wanted to know what lay behind the retirement of the greatest master of
the sublime art of portraiture. His response was a laconic phrase that subsequently lent itself unceasingly to a wide variety of interpretations:

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