The first secretary would then call for the second secretary, who would send for the third secretary, who would order the first adjutant, who in turn would order the second adjutant, and so on all the way down to the cleaning-woman who, having no one to order about, would open the door a crack and call out through the slit, What do you want. The supplicant would state his business, or rather, he would ask for what he had come to ask for, then he would settle himself in a corner of the doorway, waiting for his petition to work its way up again, from person to person, until it reached the king. As the king would be very busy with his fawnings, his answer would always take time, and it was no small indication of his concern with the well-being and happiness of his people that he would then decide to ask the first secretary for confirmation of the request in writing. The first secretary would then, needless to say, pass on the message to the second secretary, who would pass it on to the third, and all the way down the line, until it reached the cleaning-woman again, who would issue a yes or a no according to the mood she was in.
However, in the case of the man who wanted a boat, things didn't happen quite like this. When the cleaning-woman asked him through the slit in the door, What do you want, instead of asking, as everyone did, for a title, a medal, or simply money, the man replied, I want to speak to the king. You know jolly well that the king can't come, he's at the fawning door, answered the woman. Well then, go and tell him that I shall not go away until he comes in person to find out what it is I want, retorted the man with finality, and he laid himself down along the threshold of the door, covering himself with a rug against the cold. He would have to be stepped over whenever people went in or out.
Now this created a problem, considering that, according to the protocol of the doors, only one supplicant could be dealt with at a time, which meant that as long as there was someone there waiting for an answer, no one else could get close and try to put forward his needs or his ambitions. It would appear at first that the person who had most to gain from this clause of the regulations was the king because, as he had fewer people bothering him with their complaints, he had more time and leisure to receive, consider and savour his fawnings. On second thoughts, however, the king was the loser, and very much so, because, when people realised that his answer was taking longer than was fair, public protest would greatly increase, and this, in turn, would have an immediate and adverse effect on the influx of fawnings. In this particular case, the outcome of his weighing what was to be gained against what was to be lost was that three days later the king, in royal person, went to the petitioning door to find out what it was that the mischief-maker, who had refused to convey his petition through the correct bureaucratic channels, wanted to ask for.
Open the door, said the king to the cleaning-woman, and she asked, All the way, or just a little. The king hesitated for a moment, for the truth was that he did not like to be exposed to the air of the streets very much. But then he thought it would be unseemly, apart from being unworthy of his grandeur, to speak to a subject through a slit as though he were afraid of him, especially with the cleaning-woman watching the exchange, as she would go off at once and say God knows what. Wide open, he ordered. When he heard the bolts being drawn, the man who wanted a boat stood up from the doorstep, rolled up his rug, and waited.
The unexpected arrival of the king (never had such a thing happened since he had been wearing a crown upon his head) caused tremendous surprise, not only amongst the aforementioned applicants, but also amongst the neighbours who, drawn by the sudden commotion, had appeared at their windows, in the houses on the other side of the street. The only person who was not unduly surprised was the man who had come to ask for a boat. He had guessed, and had been right in his estimation, that even if he did take three days the king was bound to be curious to see the face of someone who, with amazing audacity, had sent for him, with no explanation. Torn therefore between his irrepressible inquisitiveness and his dislike of seeing so many people gathered together, the king, somewhat rudely, asked the following three questions, What is it you want, Why didn't you say what you wanted straight away, and Do you think I have nothing better to do. But the man replied only to the first question. Give me a boat, he said.
The king was so shocked and taken aback that the cleaning-woman rushed a straw-seated chair over to him, the same chair that she herself sat on whenever she needed to work with a needle and thread since, besides cleaning, she was also responsible for little sewing jobs at the palace, such as darning the pages' socks. Sitting awkwardly because the straw- seated chair was much lower than his throne, the king was looking for the best position to put his legs in, either pulling them in or stretching them out to the sides, while the man who wanted a boat waited patiently for the next question. And what do you want a boat for, can you tell me, was what the king did ask once he had finally settled down in tolerable comfort on the cleaning-woman's chair. To go and look for the unknown island, replied the man. What unknown island, asked the king, trying to suppress a peal of laughter, as though he had a complete madman before him with a mania about sailing, and whom it might not be a good idea to vex straight away. The unknown island, the man repeated.
Nonsense, said the king, there are no longer any unknown islands. Who told you, king, that there are no longer any unknown islands? They are all on the maps. Maps only show the known islands. And what is this unknown island that you want to go and look for? If I could tell you, then it would no longer be unknown. Who has told you about it, asked the king, more soberly now. No one. In that case, why do you insist on saying that it does exist? Simply because it is impossible that an unknown island should not exist. And you have come here to ask me for a boat. Yes, I came to ask you for a boat. And who are you, that I should give you one? And who are you not to give me one? I am the king of this realm, and all the boats in the kingdom belong to me. You probably belong more to them than they to you. What do you mean, asked the king, troubled. That you, without them, are nothing, and that they, without you, can always sail. Only on my orders, with my pilots and my sailors. I am not asking you for pilots or sailors, I am only asking you for a boat. And this unknown island, should you find it, would be for me? You, king, are only interested in known islands. I am also interested in unknown islands when they are no longer unknown. Maybe this one will not let itself be known. Then I shall not give you the boat. You will.
At these words, spoken with calm assurance, the applicants at the petitioning door, who, since the beginning of the conversation had been growing more and more impatient with each passing minute, and more because they wanted to be rid of him than to show kindred solidarity, decided to intervene in favour of the man who wanted a boat, shouting out, Give him the boat, give him the boat. The king opened his mouth to tell the cleaning-woman to call the palace guard to come and restore public order and enforce discipline, but just then the neighbouring women who had been watching from their windows joined the chorus with gusto, shouting out with the others, Give him the boat, give him the boat. Faced with such an unequivocal expression of popular opinion, and worried about what he had already missed at the fawning door, the king raised his right hand to demand silence and said, I will give you a boat, but you will have to gather the crew yourself, I need my sailors for the known islands.
The screaming cheers of the crowd smothered the thanks of the man who had come to ask for a boat and anyway, his lips could just as easily have mouthed, Thank you my lord, as, I'll manage. But what was clearly heard was the king's utterance, as follows, Go to the docks, and when you're there, ask for the harbour-master, tell him that I sent you, and that he is to give you the boat, take my calling card. The man who was to be given a boat read the calling card. Underneath the king's name it said King, and the following words he had written leaning on the cleaning-woman's shoulder, Give the bearer a boat, it does not need to be large, but should sail well and be safe, I do not want my conscience to be troubled should things go wrong. When the man raised his head, he might have been about to thank the king this time, but the king had already withdrawn, there was only the cleaning-woman watching him thoughtfully. The man stepped back from the threshold of the door, thus signalling that the other applicants could come forward. Needless to say the chaos was indescribable, everyone wanted to be first, but it was too bad, as luck would have it the door was already closed again.
Again the bronze knocker called for the cleaning-woman, but the cleaning- woman was not there, she had gone round and left with her mop and bucket through another door, the decisions door, which is seldom used though when it is, it is. This explains why the cleaning-woman had been deep in thought. It was that she had just then decided to follow the man when he left for the harbour to see to the boat. She had been thinking she'd had enough of scrubbing and cleaning palaces, that the time had come for her to change jobs, that her true vocation lay in cleaning and scrubbing boats, at least she would never run out of water at sea. Little did the man realise that, without yet having started to gather a crew, he was already being followed by the future overseer of his deck-scrubbing and other cleaning. This is indeed how destiny tends to behave. It is right behind us, it has already stretched out its hand to touch us on the shoulder, and still we declare, It's all over, it doesn't matter.
After quite a walk, the man reached the harbour, went to the docks and asked for the harbour-master. And while he was waiting for the man he started to wonder which one of the many boats that were there would be his. He already knew it would not be a large one, the king's calling card was quite clear on that point, so that ruled out passenger ships, cargo ships and warships. Neither would it be so small that it could not withstand the force of the winds and the rigours of the sea, the king had been adamant on this point too. It should sail well and be safe, those were his actual words, thus implicitly excluding rowing-boats, barges and launches, although these sail well and are safe, each suited to its particular purpose. But they had not been born to plough the seven seas, which is where unknown islands are to be found. A little way away from there, hidden behind some barrels, the cleaning-woman cast her eyes over the boats that were moored there. If I could chose, it
would be that one there, she thought. However, her opinion did not matter, she hadn't even been recruited yet, let's wait and see what the harbour-master will have to say. The harbour-master came. He read the calling card, looked at the man from top to toe, and asked the question that the king had forgotten to ask, Do you know how to sail, do you have a sailing licence, to which the man replied, I shall learn at sea. The harbour-master said, I would not advise you to do that, I am a captain, and I would not venture off in just any boat. Give me one that I can venture off in then, no, not one of those, I'd rather you gave me a boat that I can respect and that will come to respect me. You are talking like a sailor, but you are not a sailor. If I talk like one, I might as well be one.
The harbour-master read the king's calling card again, then he asked, Can you tell me what you want the boat for. To go and look for the unknown island. There are no longer any unknown islands. The king told me the same thing. All he knows about islands, he has learnt from me. It's strange that you, being a man of the sea, should say such a thing, that there are no longer any unknown islands, I am a man of the land, and I am not unaware of the fact that all islands are unknown until we land on them. But if I understood correctly you are going off to look for one where no one has ever landed. I will find out when I get there. If you get there. Yes, sometimes one can be shipwrecked on the way, but, if this happened to me, you could write in the annals of the harbour that this was as far as I got. Do you mean to say that when it comes to getting there, one always gets there. You wouldn't be who you are if you didn't know this already.
The harbour-master said, I am going to give you a vessel to suit your needs. The man said, Which one? It is a boat with lots of experience, from back when everyone was looking for unknown islands. Which one? It even found some, I believe. Which one? That one.
As soon as the cleaning-woman realised where the harbour-master was pointing, she ran out from behind the barrels and shouted, That's my boat, that's my boat. She must be forgiven for her extraordinary and seemingly inappropriate claims of ownership, but that was the boat she had liked, that's all. It looks like a caravel, said the man. More or less, the harbour-master explained, it was a caravel to start with, then it underwent repairs and adaptations that changed it a little. But it is still a caravel. Yes, on the whole it has kept its old looks. And it has masts and sails. When you go looking for unknown islands, this is the best sort of boat.
The cleaning-woman couldn't hold back. As for me, I do not want any other. Who are you, asked the man. Don't you remember me? Not at all. I am the cleaning-woman. What do you mean? From the king's palace. The one who opened the petitioning door? None other. And why are you not at the king's palace cleaning and opening doors? Because the doors that I really wanted have already been opened and because from today onwards I am only going to clean boats. So you have made up your mind to come with me to look for the unknown island? I left the palace through the decisions door. In that case, go to the caravel, see what it is like, after all this time it must need a thorough cleaning, and mind the seagulls, they are not to be trusted. Don't you want to come with me and get to know your boat inside? You said it was yours. I'm sorry, it was only because I liked it. Liking is probably the best way of having, having must be the worst way of liking.
The harbour-master interrupted the conversation. I have to hand the keys over to the owner of the boat, either to one or to the other, make up your minds, it's all the same to me. Do boats have keys, asked the man. Not to go into them, they don't, but there are cupboards and lockers, and the captain's desk with the logbook. She can take over everything, I am going to find a crew, said the man, and he walked away.
The cleaning-woman went to the harbour-master's office to collect the keys, then she boarded the boat. Two things came in useful there, the mop from the palace and the warning about the seagulls. She was still crossing the gangplank that connected the bulwarks to the quay when the cursed birds attacked her furiously, screeching, with wide-opened beaks, as though they wanted to devour her there and then. They did not know who they were dealing with. The cleaning-woman put down her bucket, dropped the keys down her cleavage, stood firmly on the gangplank, and, brandishing her mop like a sword in the olden days, she disbanded the murderous flock. It was only when she got into the boat that she understood the seagulls' fury. There were nests everywhere, many of them abandoned, others containing eggs, and a few holding chicks with gaping beaks, waiting for food. Well, she said, a boat that is going to look for the unknown island cannot look like this, as though it were some kind of chicken-coop. She threw the empty nests into the sea, and as for the others she left them alone, to wait and see. Then she rolled up her sleeves and started scrubbing the deck. When she had finished this strenuous task she opened the sail-lockers and carried out a detailed examination of the state of the seams. They had not gone to sea for so long, had not borne the wholesome tugging of the wind. The sails are the muscles of the boat, you only have to see how they swell when they strain, but, and the same thing happens with muscles, if you do not use them regularly they weaken, grow flabby, and lose their nerve. And the seams are the nerves of the sails, thought the cleaning-woman, delighted to be learning the art of seamanship so quickly. She found some hems that had come apart, but she merely marked them, seeing that this work could not be done with the needle and thread with which she used to darn the pages' socks before, in fact, just yesterday.
As for the other lockers, she saw at once that they were empty. She did not mind at all that the gunpowder locker was bare apart from a little black dust on the bottom, which at first looked to her more like rats' droppings. Indeed there is no written law, at least as far as a cleaning- woman can know, saying that looking for an unknown island necessarily means going to war. But she was most annoyed by the total lack of provisions in the food lockers, not on account of herself, as she was more than used to the meagreness of the palace table, but because of the man to whom this boat had been given. The sun will set soon, she said to herself, and he will turn up saying he's hungry, which is what all men say the minute they get home, as though only they have stomachs and only they need to fill them. And if he brings back sailors for the crew, then I don't know how we'll manage, as they eat like horses, she said.
She needn't have worried so much. The sun had just disappeared into the ocean when the man who had a boat appeared at the end of the quay. He was carrying a parcel, but he was alone and crestfallen. The cleaning- woman went to wait for him by the gangway, but before she could open her mouth to find out how the rest of his day had gone, he said, Don't worry, I have brought food for both of us. And the sailors, she asked. As you can see, no one came. But did they at least promise to come, she asked again. They told me there were no more unknown islands, and that, even if there were, they wouldn't drag themselves away from the comforts of home and the good life they have on board passenger ships to set off on ocean-bound adventures, searching for the impossible, as though we were still in the days when the sea was obscure. And what did you tell them? That the sea is always obscure. And didn't you tell them about the unknown island? How could I talk to them about an unknown island, if I do not know one? But you are sure it exists. As sure as I am that the sea is obscure. Right now, looking from here, the sea the colour of jade and the sky like a burning fire, I cannot see anything obscure about it. It's just an illusion, even islands sometimes seem to float above the waters. What are you going to do, if you have no crew? I don't know yet. We could stay and live here, I could offer to clean the boats that come to berth, and you must surely have a trade, a job, a profession, as they say nowadays. I do, I did and I shall do if need be, but I want to find the unknown island, I want to know who I am when I am on it. Don't you know? If you do not get out of yourself, you will never find out who you are.
When he had nothing to do, the cleaning-woman said, the king's philosopher would come and sit next to me and watch me darning the pages' socks, and sometimes he would say that every man is an island, but as that was nothing to do with me, me being a woman, I paid no attention. What do you think, that you must leave the island to see the island, that we cannot see ourselves unless we ourselves leave. Unless we leave ourselves, you mean. It is not the same thing.
The fire in the sky was dying down, the water suddenly turned purple, and now not even the cleaning-woman could doubt that the sea can indeed be obscure, at least at certain times. The man said, Let's leave philosophy to the king's philosopher, that's what he is paid for, we'll eat now. But the woman did not agree. First, you have to see your boat, you only know it from the outside. What did you think of it? Some of the hems on the sails are in need of reinforcement. Did you go down to the hold, was it leaking? There is a little water at the bottom, mixed with ballast, but it seems that's the way it should be, it's good for the boat. How did you learn these things? Just like that. Just like what? Like you, when you told the harbour-master that you would learn to sail while at sea. We are not yet at sea. But we're already on the water. I always thought that in sailing there were only two real masters, one the sea, the other the boat. And the sky, you are forgetting the sky. Yes, of course, the sky. The winds, the clouds, the sky, Yes, the sky.
It took less than a quarter of an hour for them to finish their tour, one cannot go for long walks on a caravel, even when it has been transformed. She's beautiful, said the man, but if I cannot find a big enough crew to man her, I shall have to tell the king that I no longer want the boat. You give up at the first setback? The first setback was having to wait three days for the king, and I didn't give up. If you cannot find any sailors who want to come, the two of us will manage. You're insane, two people on their own couldn't sail a boat like this, I would always have to be at the helm, and as for you, well there's no point even trying to explain it to you, it's madness. We'll see, right now we must eat. They climbed up onto the quarterdeck, the man still complaining about what he considered madness. The cleaning-woman opened the food basket she had brought with her, a loaf of bread, some hard goat's cheese, olives, a bottle of wine. The moon was already rising over the sea, the shadows of the yard-arm and the main mast came to lie at their feet. She's truly beautiful, our caravel, said the woman, and she at once corrected herself, your caravel, yours. I fear the boat will not be mine for much longer. It is yours, the king gave it to you. I asked him for it so that I could look for an unknown island. But these things cannot be done on the spur of the moment, they take time, my grandfather used to say that whoever goes to sea has to get ready on land, and he wasn't even a sailor. Without a crew we cannot sail. So you said. And the boat needs to be supplied with the thousands of things required on a journey such as this, when we don't even know where it will lead us to. Of course, and then we'll have to wait for the right time of year, and leave when the tide is right, and people will come to wish us bon voyage. You're making fun of me. I would never make fun of someone who made me leave through the decisions' door. I'm sorry. And I shall not go back through it again, whatever happens. The cleaning-woman's face was completely bathed in moonlight. She's beautiful, she is truly beautiful, thought the man. As for the woman, she didn't think anything, she must have thought it all out during those three days, when she opened the door a crack every now and then to see if that man was still out there, waiting.
There was not a crumb of bread or cheese left over, nor a drop of wine. The olive stones had been thrown into the sea, the floor was as clean as when the cleaning-woman gave it its last scrubbing. The foghorn of a passenger ship that was going out to sea let off a mighty roar, probably sounding just like the leviathan did, and the woman said, When it is our turn, we shall make less noise. Although they were inside the docks, the water rippled a little as the passenger ship went by, and the man said, But we shall sway much more. They both laughed, then they were quiet. After a while one of them suggested that they had better go to bed, Though it's not as if I am tired, and the other agreed, Nor me. Then they were quiet again, the moon went on rising, and at one point the woman said, There are bunk beds below. The man said, Yes, and that's when they stood up and went below deck. There the woman said, See you in the morning, I'm going this way, and the man replied, And I'll go this way, see you in the morning. They didn't say port or starboard, probably because they were still novices at sea. The woman turned back. She took two pieces of candle from her apron pocket. I nearly forgot, she said, I found them when I was cleaning, but what I don't have are any matches. I do, said the man.
She held the candles, one in each hand. He lit a match. Then, sheltering the flame under his curled fingers, he took it with the utmost care over to the old candlewicks, the flame caught, the light grew as slowly as the moonlight, and bathed the cleaning-woman's face. No need to say what the man was thinking, She's beautiful, but what she was thinking does need to be said, You can tell he only has eyes for the unknown island. This is how people make mistakes about what certain looks mean, especially at first.
She gave him a candle, and said, See you in the morning, sleep well. He wanted to say the same thing in a different way. Sweet dreams, was what he did say. When he was down below, lying on his bunk, he thought of other things he might have said, things that would have been more amusing and, most of all, more meaningful, such as could be expected from a man when he is alone with a woman. He was wondering if she was already asleep, if she had taken a long time to fall asleep, when he found himself looking for her and he couldn't find her anywhere, they were both lost on a huge boat. A dream is a crafty magician. It changes the proportions of things as well as distances, it separates people when they are together, it brings them together when they hardly see each other, the woman was asleep just a few yards away and he didn't know how to reach her, yet it is so easy to go from port to starboard.
He had wished her sweet dreams, but he was the one who spent the whole night dreaming. He dreamt that his caravel was out at sea, with its three triangular sails billowing magnificently, cutting across the waves, while he manned the helm and the crew rested in the shade. He couldn't understand how the sailors could be there, when in town, back on land, they had refused to set sail with him to go and search for the unknown island. They probably regretted the scornful disdain they had shown him. He saw animals all over the deck, chickens, ducks, rabbits, all the usual domestic livestock, pecking at grains of corn or nibbling at cabbage leaves that a sailor was throwing them. He couldn't remember when he had brought them on board, but it was quite natural that they should be there. Just imagine that the unknown island should turn out to be, as had happened so often in the past, a desert island, it was best to play it safe, we all know that to open the door of a rabbit hutch and grab a rabbit by the ears has always been much easier than chasing it up hill and down dale. From the depth of the hold, there arose a chorus of horses whinnying, oxen lowing, donkeys braying, the voices of the noble beasts needed for heavy work, and how did they get here, how can they be on a caravel where there is hardly enough space for the human crew. Suddenly the wind veered, the mainsail rippled and flapped, and from behind it appeared what couldn't be seen before, a gathering of women. Even without counting they could be estimated to number as many as the sailors, and they were busying themselves with womanly things, the time had not yet come to busy themselves with anything else.
Of course this can only be a dream, in real life no one has ever travelled like this. The helmsman's eyes are searching for the cleaning-woman and don't see her. Maybe she is in the starboard bunk, having a rest after scrubbing the deck, he thought, but it was a deceptive thought, because well he knew, although again he didn't know how, that at the last minute she hadn't wanted to come, that she had jumped on to the quay, saying from there, Good-bye, good-bye, as you only have eyes for the unknown island, I'm leaving. And it isn't true. Even now his eyes are searching for her and cannot find her.
Just then the sky clouded over and it started to rain, and after the rain innumerable plants began sprouting from the rows of bags of earth lined up along the bulwark, not because there might not be enough soil on the unknown island, but because, this way, time could be saved, on the day we all get there all we'd have to do is transplant the fruit trees, sow the grains of the small harvest that will ripen here, and decorate the flower-beds with the flowers that will burst forth from these buds. The helmsman asks the sailors who are resting on the deck if they can see any uninhabited island, and they reply that they can see neither one kind nor the other, but they are thinking of disembarking at the first inhabited land they come across, as long as there is a harbour in which to anchor, an inn in which to drink and a bed in which to frolic. Because this is unbearable, all these people together in one place. And what about the unknown island, asked the helmsman. The unknown island is something that does not exist, it is no more than an idea in your head, the king's geographers have looked at the maps and stated that islands awaiting discovery are a thing of the past. You ought to have stayed in town instead of coming and interfering with my sailing. We were looking for a better place to live and decided to take advantage of your trip. You are not sailors? We never have been. I shall never be able to navigate this boat on my own. You should have thought of that before asking the king for it, the sea doesn't teach you how to sail.
Then the helmsman sighted land in the distance. He wanted to sail past it, to pretend that it was the mirage of another land, an image that had arrived through space from the other side of the world. But the men who had never been sailors clamoured, saying that this was exactly where they wanted to disembark. This island is on the map, they shouted, we shall kill you if you do not take us there. Then, of its own accord, the caravel turned its bow towards land, entered the harbour and came to rest alongside the quay.
You may go, said the helmsman. At once they streamed ashore, first the women, then the men. But they did not leave alone, they took with them the ducks, the rabbits and the chickens. They took the oxen, the donkeys and the horses. Even the seagulls, one after the other, flew off and left the boat carrying their little chicks in their beaks, a feat that they had never performed before, though there is always a first time. The helmsman watched the rout in silence. He did nothing to hold back those who were abandoning him. At least they had left him with the trees, the wheat and the flowers, with the creepers winding round the masts and hanging from the gunwale like festoons. Because of the stampede on the way out, the sacks of earth had ripped and spilled so much that the deck looked like a field that had been ploughed and sown, all it would take was a little more rain for this to be a good year for the crops.
Since the beginning of the journey to the unknown island, the helmsman hasn't been seen to eat. It must be because he is dreaming, only dreaming, and if in his dream he should feel like a piece of bread or an apple, it would be an imaginary meal, nothing more. The roots of the trees are already reaching into the timbers. Soon these hoisted sails will no longer be required. All the wind will have to do is to blow through the tree- tops and guide the caravel towards her destiny. She is a floating forest that sails and sways over the waves, a forest in which, who knows how, birds have started to sing. They must have been hidden somewhere and have suddenly decided to come out into the light, probably because the harvest is ripe and ready for reaping. The man locked the wheel and went down to the field holding a scythe, and it was when he had cut the first stems that he saw a shadow next to his shadow. He woke up clinging onto the cleaning-woman, and she onto him, their bodies as one, their bunks as one, and there was no knowing whether this bunk was the port or the starboard one. Then, as soon as the sun had risen, the man and the woman went to the prow of the boat to paint, in white letters on either side, the name that still had to be given to the caravel. At the midday hour, the Unknown Island went off to sea with the tide, looking for itself.
Translated by Christine RobinsonReuse content