. . . of sitting around the table and talking of voyages to faraway lands and strange events,—of how it all is, and how it may be, and how it always is, and, then again, infrequently; of secret plots and signs, of flights and shots and lines, of lovely ladies and sailing laddies, of snails and demons, of deaths and endeavors, of mermaids and cats, of weather and dread, of comical people, of cannons a little, of miracle prizes and map exercises.
1 Voyages are always precipitated by significant events. It was my custom to nail a sign to a tree where I asked forgiveness from anyone I wronged and forgave anyone who caused me pain. The "Wolf-fish," my sister-ship, was nothing but a tub which had lost all its former glory in the course of its forgettable existence. I could only count on my own abilities, and all the bigger and better boats of our little town saluted me out of sheer amusement as I bobbed cozily in coastal waters, about to venture into the open seas.
2 "These people shamelessly undermine lawful commerce in the entire area. While on shore, they usually gather in the tavern 'Sucking-pig.' Landscapes of the local coastline hang on the walls, along with scenes from old times, pictures of ships and famous pirates. With them was an old woman who could still remember the times of the Inquisition. She possessed a remarkable sense for people."
3 "When I finally saw the great man, he had a very troubled expression. He was strolling about his yard surrounded by items hanging on clotheslines which I first mistook for clean laundry. But, as I came closer, I realized that they were papers hung up to dry. It turns out there was a fire in his cabinet, fortunately a small one, and many papers got wet during the extinguishing."
4 "Once we were transporting turtles… Yes, live turtles for soup."
"Of course. The dead ones go bad. To avoid mixing them up, we named them after the customers. We painted on their shells: 'Mr. So-and-so' or 'Mrs. So-and-so.' Sometimes, you know, we had to write down in our ship log: 'Mr. So-and-so died.'"
"Did the customers get angry afterwards?"
"Well, what are you supposed to do if they died. In general we took special care not to let namesakes of royal lineage die. Sailors are superstitious, so we thought their death would bring bad luck."
5 "They say there is an uninhabited region on the equator where the heat is so intense that it prohibits existence. Old maps of the place sometimes depict the devil's hand emerging out of water."
"Yes, that's right. Crews of cowards demand to stop sailing and want to go back as soon as they approach this place. They think that another moment and the ship will reach latitudes where water comes to a boil from the heat of the sun."
"Does water actually boil?"
"I've never seen it. But there is a large number of whirlpools—that could have been the source of the legend. However, it's a well-known fact that human skin turns black in these parts, and it's impossible to hide from this sun. Even under clothing the body still gets exposed, because the rays of that sun are so thirsty that they can penetrate the weave of fabric."
"But what about gold, Marjana? The gold that is formed from the heat of the tropical sun?"
"I don't know, dear. But it's a certain fact that the souls of white crew members experience something like a blackening in those latitudes, and everyone becomes meaner and coarser than usual. Who knows, perhaps that sun extracts that gold out of them… And it accumulates somewhere, in those parts . . . "
"Yes, that's possible."
6 "Their captain invited me to have a drink with him for luck, but I refused."
"In the glass I saw a reflection of a man who was not within eyeshot at the moment."
"Did you conceal this from the captain?"
"On the contrary, I told him."
"Do you know the man who was reflected in your glass?"
"Yes, I do. As soon as the captain found out his name, he silently went to his cabin."
"What kind of wine was it?"
"There is an island, Satanases, that is completely black. Only grapes grow there. The wine is sweet, but tastes like ash and iodine, so one wants to drink it with salt. This wine helps in war."
7 "Their vessel, 'Antonia-Katerina,' is lazy afloat. It was not difficult for us to catch up with them."
"Afterwards they took another ship and let this 'Antonia' go."
"Yes, I heard about it."
"Well, have you encountered them again?"
"Could their new ship be so much better than yours that you can't even meet them?"
"Me, I don't believe it. However, this is quite possible."
8 "The smoked chicken wasn't fresh and smelled like a dingy dishcloth. It was consumed by a woman with a protruding belly who was a beauty in her youth. She was sorry to throw the chicken away, so she tried to eat at least a part of it. She didn't let the children taste this meat, and refused their suggestions to have some fresh food, which was available in abundance."
9 "There once was a country named Kroraina or Kroran, but one could not access it by sea. Which meant that this country was too mysterious to exist for a long time. But they have, however, a lake which changes its location every three years, so it's impossible to map it. The lake is big but boats do not venture there because the water saturates any boat in minutes no matter how well it was caulked. The water is undrinkable as well and a person must learn to drink horse blood to escape from dying of thirst there. Parts of this country are called Chalmadana, Nina, and Sacha. On their coins they depict a two-humped camel or a horse. Letters in those parts are written on axe-shaped wooden tablets which are called kilamudra and likhitaka. Two tablets are tied with a rope which is then sealed. This way the letter is on the inside and an address on the outside."
10 "And when we meet, what am I to do with him if he is an enemy?"
"Such people are no one's enemies but their own. However, he is an ill-fated doctor. As the saying goes, the drinking-horn always dangles on his chest. And when drunk, he hates everybody. So beware of asking for his help under all circumstances. On other occasions it's best to treat him in a regular, polite way."
11 "After an Italian custom, she sent her beloved some pubic hair. It was especially stunning to have blood on the hair. That's how the woman did it."
"What are the emotions of a man who receives such a gift?"
"He is to feel honored, I suppose, but I doubt that a man can manage this with sincerity. But when one speaks of such tokens, there's no need for any sincerity."
12 "Once I saw a captured wild man."
"Right here at home. I don't sail to distant lands like you."
"There is nothing surprising in the fact that you saw him here. Wild men are ubiquitous. Occasionally, one can capture a wild man even in the open sea."
13 "Once we had a devil on the ship. In the nearest port we asked a priest to come aboard. He had a hard time climbing onboard and announced that before proceeding with the exorcism, a sermon must be delivered, with the entire crew present. I gathered the crew, and he applied himself to the task. Tears were honey to this priest, so they occasionally poured down his cheeks. After an hour's sermon the very devil he was exorcising appeared in front of us. The devil swore the priest was a popinjay, had a blasphemous pee on the deck, and disappeared forever. The crew got so mad at the holy father for this, that I had to defend him from their rage. He hurried into the boat, sobbing his eyes out, looking completely happy."
14 "In this town they name the banks, not the rivers, so the banks of the same river usually have different names."
"Strangers must have to get accustomed to this."
"Yes, it takes a while."
15 "He loved looking in somebody else's mirrors."
"Is there something evil in this?"
"I don't think so, nor do I mind lending a mirror."
"Then what do you think is wrong about this?"
"No, everything's all right… Everything's all right as usual."
16 "The chieftains of this tribe grow unbelievably long nails. It seems impossible that somebody could have a bearable life with such an adornment. But the nails make a huge impression on the tribe. They think that if someone misbehaves, a chieftain will cut the heavens open with his nails, and then there will be no more day or night, only eternal cold and darkness."
"In those latitudes they may want to dream of cooler weather."
"And what good would that do? They practically live outdoors. As to the great heat, it doesn't frighten them, though it occasionally inflicts damage. Once I saw a man with a sack of meat come back to the village. Because of the scorching sun, only meat fibers remained in the sack, the fat melted and dripped down the man's back."
17 "She remembered the days spent in this academy. According to her, they walked around in nothing but skirts in the summer, with bare breasts, and each of them was occupied with her own task."
"And what was her task, then?"
"She deciphered ancient papers on salving in the archive."
18 "The English call a tough captain a 'sundowner' which means an 'observer of sunsets,' or 'the one who sees off the sun' or, simply, the night owl. Though the same name is given to a glass of wine consumed at sunset."
"Are you tough?"
19 "The preparation of rice powder takes only four days, and there is nothing complicated or expensive about it. But I couldn't give in to the whims of this dame and in our circumstance too."
"Why did she need the powder?"
"Because, you see, she ran out of the supplies she brought with her."
20 When I visited Juana, she was examining a magnificent copy of the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum atlas by Abraham Ortelius. I unguardedly expressed my admiration, and the beautiful recluse took it into her head to give me these pages. I protested. And she said: "Sister Marjana, all of us here are beyond the edge of the world. Time has an unusual flow here. And why should we be in perpetual motion and inevitably turn into dust."
21 "Have you seen any foreign rulers?"
"Yes, a multitude."
"Do they differ from ours?"
"Yes, quite a bit."
"What are the differences, then?"
"It is well known that foreign rulers are recognized by the way they eat a watermelon."
"And how do they do it?"
"I've never had a chance to observe."
Copyright Ekaterina Taratuta. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2008 by Anna Barker. All rights reserved.