The runway at St. Dymphna is a circle, the preferred orbit of angels, but not well-suited to sublunar aircraft. Our stewardess assures us, however, that air traffic controllers on the island of St. Dymphna are legendary geometers, and fully ordained priests. Very few planes fall prey to centrifugal disaster. And, miraculously, ours is not one of them.
Our luggage has yet to emerge from the wall. My date, a cryptic woman, stares soulfully into my eyes, and tells me not to look up. She explains only later that she is sparing me the sight of a fat tarantula squatting alert in the eaves. "Tarantula" is a euphemism. The spider is not really a tarantula. It is one of those indigenous twelve-pound arachnids known by the locals as "dog-catchers." This is not poetic license: these spiders do enjoy the occasional dog. The canine population is famously arachnophobic.
As am I. My date is wise. She knows that were I to become aware of this bloated beast, eyeing me eightfold from a strategic position precisely above my head, my eyes would roll back into their sockets and stay there, like ostrich heads, for life.
A completely unnecessary siren causes all but the spider to jump (thank God), and our carousel judders into motion. The luggage marches mournfully through the rubber-hung breach in the wall.
Already I am prepared to loathe this torpid, ominous isle, whose praises I shall of course sing with great hyperbole in the pages of this magazine. Readers pay good money at the newsstand to sit in the congregation, and I, the mendacious cantor, never disappoint.
A canticle for St. Dymphna. Good Christ. Who named this bloody island, and why? The Book of Saints I consulted as part of my research explained -- through a slip in grammar, I suspect -- that St. Dymphna is invoked against mental illness, family, and psychiatrists. Oh, and princesses -- if you want to ward off one of those, you call on this useful holy woman. I'm not making this up.
A supremely confident girl of perhaps seven has climbed onto the carousel. She is stepping over the luggage, with high joyous steps, as the bags pass abashed beneath her. A princess, clearly. She will not last long.
I have chosen to review the island of St. Dymphna because it remains, as they say in the trade (among other rancid cliches), "undiscovered." No such place, of course. I suspect it has been visited by numerous travel writers, all of whom were eaten by dog-catchers before they could file their observations. Perhaps I shall discover a colleague strung up in a web between creaking flora.
Yes, it is my nature to hate a place upon arrival; but it is my job to convert this loathing, over the course of two weeks, into a recommendation.
"Lucia," say I to my tragicomic date, "do we really want to stay at a hotel called 'The Crawling Devil?'"
"But of course. Wouldn't have it any other way. I think it should be an international chain of roadside motels: 'The Crawling Devil, your Home Away from Happiness.'"
"Nice, but theologically inaccurate. The demon shuffling on all fours is a joyful motif. St. Dymphna put the Devil on a chain for you, in her wisdom: it signifies the medieval triumph of Truth over Psychoanalysis."
Immediately, Lucia withdraws into her nautiloid shell of pain, and I am mortified. "God. I'm sorry..."
"No, no... don't censor yourself. Be you, sweetheart: radical insensitivity cheers me up. No, really -- I mean it. I'm not fragile, Elliot, but I'll sure get that way if you start treating me like a pickled egg."
"Pickled eggs bounce -- fragility is something else. But you're kind."
En route to The Crawling Devil we pass beneath a colossal bronze Dymphna, one of her great virgin feet planted on the left side of the road and the other on the right. The problem of genital occlusion -- a theoretical issue often discussed by classicists when pondering the Colossus at Rhodes -- has been solved with ingenuity, if not taste: the devil who cowers at her left heel has been collared by a thick chain which passes between the saint's legs, thus preserving her chaste dignity. We ponder this.
I cannot recommend the limo service from the airport. A decommissioned military vehicle, it still retains the faint odor of burning flesh, from when -- our driver proudly informs us -- a flaming, eyeless head was lobbed into the gun turret.
The island of St. Dymphna remains loyal to 12th-century ordnance, and the War of Subjugation was fought with crossbows and catapults against the enemy's tanks. This in emulation of the Polish Cavalry, who enjoy a cult-like status here, where tender virgins routinely go up against muscular demons.
The War of Subjugation was lost in spectacular fashion, of course. St. Dymphna was only granted independence from Belgium a couple of years later, in the general world-wide frenzy towards decolonization. (This magnanimous trend came first to those islands whose produce is worthless.)
Surprisingly, The Crawling Devil is not half bad. We discover quickly, however, that travelers must accustom themselves to the oddities of this island. The staff here, for instance, are mostly psychotic, and while they are generally polite and helpful, they tend to howl in their sleep. Our room is within acoustic reach of the staff dormitory. We find it more pleasant to close our windows at night.
Thank God the air conditioning is effective. Porous bags containing huge chunks of ice hang in a circle round the bed, raining cold droplets into a trough as the near-boulders melt. It only requires one barefoot encounter with this moat to fully impress upon the tourist the necessity of leaping, literally, out of bed.
Lucia and I share a king-sized mattress, but we do not have what are delicately called "relations." Lucia, in fact, is likely never to touch a man again. I would have brought her with me as an act of charity, even if I didn't adore her company.
Dymphnasian cuisine is not uninteresting, by way of another euphemism. The seahorse steak should be ordered well-boiled, and is nice with butter. Avoid the mink.
This last is "shink," really, a celebrated hybrid of sheep and mink, initially bred to supply plus-sized pelts to the fur trade. With the growing global distaste for once-living stoles, however, shink farmers have been forced to redefine and repurpose their herds. There is no question of abandoning the species, as it was horribly expensive to engineer, and has become an island mascot. For a time there was an effort to spin wool from these animals, who retain sheep-like qualities, but the stuff proved too fragile and slippery to knit.
And so shink has found its way onto the menu. We soon discover, however, that the locals will not touch it --except for the untouchable caste, who will touch anything out of sympathy and desperation. Shink, with its rodentine flavor, is fobbed off on visitors and exported to less civilized countries.
Of course, since Lucia is hyper-intelligent and once-ambitious, she has an eating disorder. But so do most of the island's residents, and the waiters treat her with astonishing sensitivity. Within days, in fact, Lucia's anorexia is fully in remission, and her bulimia tamed. I begin to develop affection, almost, for this bastard island.
Dymphnasians have dubbed themselves "Shinks," by the way. This in defiant memory of the enemy who -- during the great War of Subjugation -- called them "Chinks." It is an old strategy: neutralizing a derogatory term by taking proud possession of it.
The majority of Dymphnasians were Chinese Jews, before the arrival of the Chasidim. Religious law (and bigotry) were finally relaxed to permit intermarriage, and a new generation of islanders bears the Sino-Caucasian features found often in Mongolia, and increasingly on the runways in Milan. Delicate cheekbones and full blossoming lips give angelic shape to sun-colored skin. The women are tall, and the men quite short, a result of the local tendency to breastfeed girls but not boys -- a custom whose origins remain mysterious. Equally mysterious is the very un-Jewish name of St. Dymphna, and the ferocious cult of this saint nation-wide.
It is no longer an Orthodox Jewish population -- witness the taste for seahorse, and the Saint's medallion worn beneath the tallith -- but many ancient rites are honored. When boys are initiated as warriors they recite a Torah portion, for instance, in fluent Hebrew -- even though the rest of the ceremony is conducted in Yiddish-tainted Mandarin. English is universally spoken, with an accent from Crown Heights.
It is all very confusing. Furthermore, my date is black, although she can pass for Italian. Alone among her female friends she has never been harassed in Rome. I am always practicing my Italian on Lucia, who of course does not speak a word. In St. Dymphna she has the upper hand, however, since she had once, on a whim, taken a course in Yiddish. She will kibbitz with the locals, and delight in excluding me.
Is Lucia beautiful? Certainly she was before the Fall. (But then we all were, weren't we.) Now she is achingly thin, and her teeth are bad from a particularly vengeful spell of bulimia. Still, I find her attractive -- a stupid word, really, and inadequate -- and this is hugely enhanced by her peculiar sense of humor (already witnessed), which is predicated generally on puns and bad metaphors and the kind of pointed mischief that makes you want to spank her. (I have never done this, and now it is too late.)
Lucia graduated from Harvard, a very un-Lucian university. Any one of her erudite classmates would have made an adept ambassador to the most suspicious nation on earth; Lucia, had she been posted to Norway, would soon have had that country at war with America. No, even in college Lucia had a truly weird and not very useful soul. On the other hand, her classmates, with their virtuosic common sense, always seemed a touch fraudulent when they insisted upon becoming sculptors, sex workers or film critics.
My friend would probably have been happier at Yale or McGill, among batty choreographers and hyperlexic theorists, but Harvard was her mountain, since it was so manifestly there.
As a travel writer I have become acutely sensitive to race and class, mostly as a result of my former editor's constant efforts to deracinate my articles (much as she had done to herself, through an expensive nose job). This superior blonde was admired less for her editorial wisdom than for her astonishing lips, which bore an uncanny resemblance to those of a famous actress. Few were aware that she had the personality of a young George Wallace.
My new editor, by the time you read this, will have approved my cultural meanderings. It is impossible to understand St. Dymphna without considering the unique genetic makeup of the populace. The tiny population of Hindus, for instance, is of particular interest: an extended, in-bred family of dissident untouchables, who emigrated to the island in hopes of erasing their former position in society. No such luck, as I have pointed out. They have been relegated to the status of shink-eaters.
After a couple of nights in the pension, slowly recovering from our descent onto the runway, we pack our knapsacks and head out into the rainforest. Hiking is the chief touristic activity on this island, where so little is horizontal. The Dymphnasians are helpful should you get lost. To be precise: the sane ones are. St. Dymphna has an unusual ratio of mentally ill to mentally healthy; the feeble and tortured from all of the neighboring islands (and some from much farther away) are sent to St. Dymphna for the country's unique approach to therapy.
This special technique is to eschew therapy altogether. The mentally ill are fully integrated into the population, and citizenship seems to accomplish what no amount of couchwork or shock can obtain: a degree of happiness, or at least of humanity.
Hence, when lost on a hike, it is best to plumb the sanity of a local before asking directions. All are eager and helpful, but only some can direct you in a manner consonant with reality.
We are climbing to another hotel, The Severed Benefactor. It sits high atop Mount Gerbernus, the third and least exalted of St. Dymphna's famed peaks. You can climb Gerbernus as often as you like; the other mountains permit only one ascent, and you must choose between the two.
The Severed Benefactor is a hotel without walls. Your private sleeping pavilion has only enough structure to support a roof, and to cordon off the toilet. Privacy is maintained, however, through distance, and via fierce posses of feral cats. Each group of cats has attached itself to a particular pavilion, and quickly recognizes the guest assigned to it; should anyone else approach in the night, the screeching and wailing are prodigious (and issue equally from both cat and guest).
At night the giant moths are free to flutter through your hotel room, and if you are lucky you can witness an interspecial dance: the bats and the moths are on friendly terms, and have developed a symbiotic samba which aids neither and is hence a refutation of evolution.
Lucia, after an evening filled with grinding misery -- these are to be expected, I know well in advance -- falls asleep, only to waken ten hours later with a huge moon-colored moth perched on her nose, each soft wing extended to touch lightly upon an eyelid. She is filled with inexplicable joy all the way through lunch.
I have decided that St. Dymphna is not a villainous island after all. No, it has its virtues. I mean this in the sense of spa water having "virtues" -- St. Dymphna, I am beginning to think, can heal what cannot be healed.
I too am a victim of the Fall, by the way, but I recover quickly from these things, since I am quietly weak in faith to begin with. Lucia believed, with all of her being, and when our Tutor was unmasked she was emptied of all happiness and almost of self. I call him "The Tutor" only out of habit, just as I refer to him as "Doctor," even though he taught only misery and practiced the opposite of healthcare.
Little to do at The Severed Benefactor apart from feed the great snakes, who have a habit of stretching across the dirt road, coyly, until you offer up a shink. Smaller than the Reticulated Python, the Dymphnasian Boa is nevertheless an impressive reptile: it rarely grows longer than twenty-five feet, but it has an unusually large head, which gives it character. After seventy years or so, a tamed Dymphnasian Boa can begin to recognize its master. For this reason they are much valued as pets.
Lucia finds a particularly friendly boa, which does not seem to mind when she sits in a lotus position on its broad flat pate. When the sun shifts and threatens to burn her face, the boa lifts her carefully into the air, without breaking her meditation, and lowers its head back down beneath a shady leaf.
The chef at the Severed Benefactor is a Rastafarian, the only member of this sect on the island. He was lured here from Jamaica, where he was the captain of a prestigious cooking team; they had placed second at the Culinary Special Olympics. Roger Levite's signature dish is fresh skate, with a thick butter sauce laced on the surface in a skilful caricature of the diner being served. A feat of some virtuosity, given that Chef Levite is a blind vegetarian.
My skate bears a delightful exaggeration of my shoulder-length blonde hair. Roger Levite has expanded upon this to render a glorious Texan bouffant, and I consume my image, now the face of a gold-digging cheerleader. Lucia's lovely limpid eyes, preternaturally large to begin with, are magnified to give the impression of a soft, intelligent lemur.
The great Roger Levite serves the skate himself, and as we enjoy his masterwork, he offers a detailed Life of St. Dymphna, whom he is making efforts to elevate to the official Rastafarian pantheon.
"She was a great woman, mon. A true Israelite. Her father was an unbeliever, a chieftain, and her mother was a beautiful queen. But the queen was killed, you know; she died and he was weeping and wailing and they could not give him consolation."
The skate, itself a text, or at least a hieroglyph, is enhanced by this running narrative. A fine fish, skate, and the Dymphnasian variant is particularly flavorful.
"No, he was a man given over to damnation, and he had nothing to pray to, nothing to make it better. His daughter, though, she grew to be a woman, and every day she looked more and more like her mother that was killed. So that this pagan, he began to desire her. And he set about to marry her, make Dymphna his wife: this girl who honored her father and mother, and who had yes been baptized in secret. And it was hard.
"Yes mon, it was hard."
The flat fish -- it is a fish, skate, closely related to the shark -- comes with a side dish of Dymphnasian greens. These are fiddleheads, mostly -- Stainers, Amatis and Del Gesus -- lightly drizzled with a clear broth of nutmeg and "stealth," which we later discover is a small gekko-like amphibian.
"And you know, much as she honors her father -- she's a good woman -- it cannot be. It is wrong."
Lucia is weeping. She puts her skate aside, and averts her eyes. I take her hand, and my forearm accidentally smears what is left of my portrait. "Lu..."
"So a priest, her friend Gerbernus, a great man, hides her away, and takes her across the sea, away from Ireland, and they live in a small cave in the kingdom of Belgium, far away from her father, the pagan strongman, who has no consolation.
"And he comes after her; he crosses the sea with his army of unbelievers..."
Lucia can no longer bear this story, and she excuses herself through tears. Roger Levite, with his unseeing eyes, perceives her suffering.
"You have a broken woman, mon. A woman with no happiness. She has to open her heart to St. Dymphna, who understands and has healing."
I would follow Lucia as she seeks the comforting rainforest, but it is my sworn duty to sample and report on the dessert. Here Chef Levite has concocted a flambe of indigenous green bananas, arrayed upon a latticework of spun cane sugar. As the flame melts the hardened sugar, the small bananas settle into a pool of cream in the bowl below, which extinguishes the blue fire and is flavored with the bananas' marinade of warmed rum.
I cannot recommend the Benefactor feverishly enough; this restaurant alone is reason enough to plan your holiday around a visit to St. Dymphna, and more than compensates for the oddities of the locals and the fauna.
Also, the chef makes for a great confessor. I explain Lucia to him, as best I can; she's not remotely explicable. I tell Roger Levite about Doctor Sordini, that man with the ridiculous name.
The Doctor, our great Tutor, was trained as a psychiatrist. As that occupation turned increasingly towards chemical therapy, however, he became an apostate, and devoted himself to his own fantastical blend of talking cures.
In retrospect, the latest and most effective tartuffery is practiced by psychologists and creative writing teachers. They have an advantage over the faux religious -- they have modern credibility. Religious liars have become quaint.
Chef Levite, who I worry may be offended by this, in fact heartily agrees.
As the Doctor's cures proved more and more seductive, especially to seekers like Lucia (she was an unwitting Cabalist, really, a woman who sought salvation in subtext), his practice began to take on the shape of the standard-issue personality cult.
I too was drawn in, I'm ashamed to say. Many wonder how the educated can fall in with this sort of man, but the strange fact was that his followers were almost exclusively quite brilliant. These days, to know that you do not know is not enough. It does not make you Socrates. It makes you insecure.
Doctor Sordini (we were later to discover that he was not in fact Italian), predictably succumbed to his own temptation, and began to seduce, literally, his awe-struck children. One by one. It is an old story, of course. Many of his followers would later come to loathe themselves, after the Tutor's ordinary humanity was so brutally revealed.
I did not suffer much. I was never in fact homosexually inclined, so I had never fallen in love with him in that way; the sex act, for me, had simply been an interesting extension of the sacred rites.
For Lucia it was a psychic disaster. She had been a virgin.
Chef Levite -- strange how everybody on this island, whether Jewish or Rastafarian, has some connection to the priesthood -- nods with satisfaction. My story is as good as his story. These bananas really are spectacular.
It is only through pure chance that neither Lucia nor I were infected; many of the Doctor's followers contracted his disease, and some died before he did. For Lucia, this simply added guilt to guilt -- she had been saved, only to be damned. We had gone together to get the results of our blood tests, and it was like climbing the scaffold. I alone stepped down again; Lucia never did.
I settle the account for dinner, signing the meal to our room. In general I find monetary transactions on St. Dymphna effortless and discreet. The Dymphnasians have an efficient system of island-wide finance, a combination of electronic money transfer and medieval barter, and it is so unobtrusive that tourists find themselves giving almost no thought to this aspect of their vacation. Prices in St. Dymphna are reasonable. Tips are discouraged.
I find Lucia curled up in the moon-drenched dark with her snake -- a dangerous form of comfort, given that the Dymphnasian Boa, like all boas, favors constriction. But this one seems to have developed a fondness for her (unusual, since they have known each other for much less than seventy years), and I choose not to be worried.
I explain to Lucia, hoping it will cheer her up, that St. Dymphna, at the end of the story, manages to preserve her chastity (if not her life); and that Gerbernus, although beheaded, remains faithful to the last. I cannot determine whether she finds this warming.
The snake has heard this story before, and falls asleep, bored. Lucia and I begin the trek back to our pavilion. We take a different route, for the sake of variety, and find ourselves at the swinging gate to the herb garden. After his internship in Berkeley, Chef Levite became determined to cook only with local ingredients, and he is particularly proud of his homegrown herbs. The garden is tended -- or perhaps merely attended -- by a teenaged boy, who sits now, rocking, before two small parabolic lingams of earth. One is barren, held together only by dead tendrils; the other is fabulously chlorophyllic: a green phosphorescent ghost in the moonlight.
He rocks back and forth from the waist, and we take this first for a form of seated davening; but it soon becomes clear that this is neurotic locomotion, probably unwitting. As we approach, his face takes on the contours of a Mongoloid, and Lucia's of unbounded pity.
He begins to speak, rapidly and without turning to face us, and it becomes clear that he is not Mongoloid -- simply Mongolian. He is far, far from intellectually handicapped. Nevertheless, something is wrong. He is precocious, yes, but this is no ordinary pedant.
"You can understand large things only by looking at small things first. This is an axiom. Yes. A principle. Examine these small mountains, and consider the large mountains, and you will see what I mean. The Breasts of St. Dymphna; I'm sure you've heard the appellation; this is what they are called, universally, although you will not find this name on any map. I take that back -- that is not precisely correct: I have five maps on which they are labeled thus, but I would not consider these maps in any way rigorous, much less canonical.
"The formations look like breasts, of course. Again, this is not precise, in that rotational symmetry about a central axis is not typical of the human breast; so it is important to emphasize the word "like" -- we have here a simile. And the analogy can be extended by way of function: the mountains give comfort; they take you from childhood into something else; they inspire longing, and lust; they are mysterious.
He stops for a moment, and even his rocking ceases. He frowns as he stares at the small mountains. I reconsider the word "lingam." The boy touches the green, carefully moving one stem, which I gather he deems out of place.
"The Breasts of St. Dymphna. All are permitted to climb these mountains, and it is not difficult. A child can accomplish it with ease. This is important, of course: that breasts be accessible to children. It is not really a traditional climb, with all that would entail -- rappelling, etc. -- it is a walk. Yes: you can make the ascent with the unaided human foot. And the oxygen is acceptable at the top. If you faint -- and many do -- it is not a consequence of the atmosphere. I hope some day to have all of the details regarding the air's composition, the precise mixture of oxygen, helium, carbon dioxide, etc., but I do not yet have the data."
He pauses, and frowns.
"I have never done it. I have never climbed one of these mountains. The ascent will change you, and I do not wish to change; I am happy here. I have my own mountains. Look at them. This one is the mountain I climb. No. That is not precise. I dream about climbing it. And that one is the one that I cannot climb, because it would be wrong. You must choose. Greed will bring despair. You can only climb one of them, or St. Dymphna will turn her back. On you. She will put you on a chain."
This strikes me as a touch harsh, but I guess we've been warned. Also, maybe it's just a nice cautionary metaphor. I can't imagine a greedy citizen on a chain -- or a whole group of greedy citizens chained -- it wouldn't be decent, somehow. I wonder if the mentally ill are exempt from this punishment. For that matter, I wonder if anyone remains mentally ill after they come down.
"Now the important thing is to understand what you achieve by climbing these mountains. This is a difficult thing to understand. And you have to examine principles first. It is not what you have assumed your whole life. You are inclined to believe -- even if you believe in nothing -- that Love and Salvation are the same thing. Or that they come together, at any rate; that they overlap. If you think about it, this is what you believe. How can you have one without the other? We desire both, and this appears to be the same desire. So. This is what you believe, if you give it any thought whatsoever. But this is wrong."
I have a sense that this boy never talks about anything else. The rapid, concentrated explanation: it is automatic, like the rocking back and forth. Perhaps this is Asperger's -- my favorite Syndrome, even though I've never witnessed a case quite this florid.
"You have to choose your own Breast of St. Dymphna, and it is a choice between Love and Salvation. When you have chosen, and have climbed, you will receive what your mountain has to offer, but you will never receive what the other purveys. They are both good, her Breasts, but in different ways. The decision is important. Do not make this decision on the basis of relative difficulty: the mountains are within 75.56 feet of each other in height; the difference is negligible.
"The essence of this choice cannot be explained in a single conversation. To be precise, it cannot be explained through conversation. The choice reveals its own definition. Eternal Love, or eternal Salvation. We think we know what these mean, and we think -- as I have said -- that they are the same. This is not the case. We do not know, and they are not. You will achieve Love, boundless Love, Love which has no limit, neither in time nor extension; or you will receive Salvation -- you are forgiven, and this too is absolute, synchronically and diachronically, without restriction. Both are, in every respect that matters, infinite. But if you desire both you will never be fulfilled. And if you climb both mountains you will end up with nothing. Ever. Nothing forever. You have to choose..."
Once again the boy stops, and his rocking ceases. He is silent now. He concentrates on the green mound. I can see now that it is a complex arrangement of stems, a sort of primitive Ikebana, except alive. I guess this makes it more like Bonsai. It is not in the least Japanese, however, from what I understand of that aesthetic -- it is far too complex. I imagine it is a green mirror of his wild but focused mind. I can imagine him sitting here for decades, growing old with his vegetal ward.
This, however, is not what he can imagine. This grows apparent in his face. As he contemplates this living thing, he withdraws inside himself -- it is uncannily similar to what I have seen Lucia do.
And he turns to the barren mound. He contemplates this one, for a long, silent period. He sighs, as if here he has come to rest. It appears as if he has finished, for the moment, saying what he intends to say.
We glance at each other. It is time to go. Before we leave, Lucia touches him on the head and he flinches, beginning again to rock.
"I climbed them both," he says.
The terrible moonlight guides us back to our pavilion. We say nothing to each other. Lucia's face is ghastly in this changed light; mine is too, I expect. What was pity has become something so much deeper, unfathomable, something which stares into you as you stare into it.
I curl into a fetal position, and fall asleep immediately. But I wake in the middle of the night to see Lucia, sitting naked on the edge of her bed. She does not see me. She is rocking back and forth, like the boy in the garden, and her arms are crossed, one hand on each breast. I close my eyes, despite my desperate desire to gaze at her. I am not sure I sleep after this apparition, although I am never sure whether I have in fact slept.
It is with great sadness that we depart the Severed Benefactor. We are to spend our final night in Eels, the capital, which is some hours drive from the base of Mt. Gerbernus. For our last meal, Chef Levite prepares a breakfast of great beauty, a peerless breakfast, perhaps the finest breakfast ever broken. Jungerberries are mixed in with a muesli of peculiar ingredients, which include, I suspect, the nuts we witnessed last night quivering in pendulous anticipation from bowed stems. This is simply the first in an array of exquisite plates: cormorant's eggs, smoked seahorse, shink's milk whipped into a cream and served on scones still warm from the oven. The ovens, Roger Levite informs us, have remained warm since long before the War of Subjugation; even when the Eternal Flame was sadly extinguished briefly by Hurricane Wotan, the clay oven was kept alive by a heroic sous-chef, who himself did not survive the Great Tidal Wave.
Chef Levite touches Lucia on the head as we depart, and she flinches, but then smiles. We hike down through the wet forest, Lucia walking ahead to shoo away the dog-catchers. At the end of our descent we are met by the aromatic limousine. We have a different driver this time, a friendly Chasid, who points out the sights as we drive the increasingly civilized road to Eels. We pass beneath the first of the great parabolic mountains, and he explains that this Breast of St. Dymphna -- a name invoked with no apparent sacrilege -- is called "The Left One." Elaborating upon what we have learned from the boy in the garden, he explains that The Left One is associated with cold Salvation: the lonely wisdom of the hermit. Those who choose this mountain shed their complicated past, to emerge quite new and shiny in the crisp psychic air. Not a bad choice, he muses.
The second Breast is called "The Other One." With talmudic precision, he echoes what the boy has told us. He explains how this peak, although one might suppose it to share theological attributes with The Left One, is in fact separate in every way. This deviates from traditional medieval theory. Yes, the boy was correct: the mountain offers the gift of eternal Love, but somehow this brand of Love is entirely removed from Salvation. In fact, it seems to preclude Salvation: you don't get to feel good, strangely, if you choose The Other One.
I suppose this makes sense, finally. I remember my college chaplain pointing out to me -- a revelation, given my romantic high school notions -- that love is not supposed to be pleasant. He described it, in fact, in terms of ancient Chinese torture devices, some of them really quite unpleasant. Still, he insisted -- despite my perilous position at the edge of suicide -- that it would be a mistake not to give it a try. He ventured that what I was experiencing was only a painful simulacrum of the real thing, but a good choice nevertheless. In short, he approved of my despair. This, I suspect, saved my life.
We ask our driver which of the mountains he chose to climb. He raises an eyebrow. "In St. Dymphna, you do not ask that question." He does not answer, of course. But for a few silent minutes he smiles enigmatically, lost in thought. And then he begins to hum a cheerful tune.
We are approaching the faux medieval walls which separate Eels from the farmland below. Our vehicle -- funny this theme, decapitation -- climbs the snaking road to the Main Gate. (There are other gates, known as "The Other Gates.") This grand, gothic passage through the wall passes beneath a magnificent bas-relief of St. Dymphna, one leg touching the earth to either side of the opening. The portcullis, if it can be called that, is a single sharp door of rusted iron: a guillotine. It descends from the nexus of these limbs. We ponder this.
Eels itself would take an entire book to describe, and we do not spend enough time here to get a deep sense of the place. It is important, however, to mention the famous university. This place of learning was a place of ill repute as well -- it was where Americans who had not been admitted to medical schools on their home soil went to achieve a dubious, possibly second-rate education. Of course, this reputation has now changed: the handful of Yankees who have returned with degrees from Dymphna U. have proved astonishingly capable doctors, especially in the field of mental health, where they eschew therapy. A team of educational researchers from Johns Hopkins have recently taken up residence in Eels, to study the classroom techniques pioneered at this faculty.
The airport is some distance from Eels. We are woken early by the psychotic bellboy, who mistakes Lucia for one of our bags, and has to be corrected before carrying her downstairs.
In the lobby, as we wait for our fragrant limousine, Lucia seems preoccupied. She is staring out the glass door, frowning, and rocking almost imperceptibly. I sense it would not be kind to interrupt her thoughts. As the military transport pulls up in front of the hotel, she turns to me and announces, quietly, "Elliot, I'm sorry... I'm not going with you." I find that I am not the least surprised. I also find that I am stricken.
There is no question, however, of staying on St. Dymphna with Lu. I have a story to file, and in less than a week I am on my way to Santa Formica in the Old Hebrides, to write up a much-hyped boutique hotel -- The Amniotic -- which has just opened to mixed reviews. I will let you know, friends, whether these ambivalent reports are justified.
The ride to the airport is grim. We are making our way back in the direction of the tall mountains; the airport lies between them. My new driver is silent, I suspect, at the best of times; but were he inclined to chat, my expression would certainly deter him. As I stare out the window, I realize that I am already nostalgic. Strange, this -- retrospect is usually a prerequisite for this brand of melancholy. I shall miss The Crawling Devil, The Severed Benefactor, Chef Levite and his bananas.
In the airport, I am too preoccupied with my sadness to look out for dog-catchers in the eaves, but they too leave me alone, no doubt for the same reasons the driver did. The flight is delayed -- rumors of the pilot's suicide -- and I spend the night asleep on a moonlit bench.
A new craft arrives at noon the next day. The Blessing of the Airplane is brief, and we soon board. I do not fear the runway this time -- departure seems less perilous than descent; and anyway, I am not really thinking about my own condition. Unspeakable the pain. The windows, fogged by the humidity, clear as we rise.
I stare at the humped peaks as my plane spirals upward between them, but I am too far away to make out a lone climber, and I suspect I shall never know which of the two mountains my secret and only love has graced with her decision.