151. The Island

Part 1 of a two-part series of the same name.

THE MOST ASTONISHING INSTANCE of metempsychosis, or the migration of souls, I have ever come across was as a student, while I was researching my doctoral dissertation. It was during the 1960s, when a rare spirit of liberalism had temporarily overtaken the Vatican. I was a young student at the Sorbonne, researching the history of the Inquisition. Without the faintest hope of success, I had requested access to the Vatican Secret Archives and, to my astonishment, it was granted unconditionally. One unremarkable morning, in the course of my research, I came across a suppressed work of metaphysical speculation from the late eighteenth century. Sadly, I didn't record it in my notes, and subsequent attempts to retrieve the book have proven fruitless. If I recall correctly, its cover was decorated with a curious version of the Masonic eye, in which the eye is half closed. Drawn by its cover, I picked up the book and set it on my lectern, opening it at random. On the page I opened it to was an engraving of a sailing ship, and beside it an anecdote relating a maritime incident that had occurred about a century or two earlier. The text, written in Italian, was quite self-consciously secondary, which is to say it was quite clearly the story of a story, and didn't purport to be the story itself. The story it related was set during the golden age of maritime exploration, perhaps in the form of a diary or ship's log or one of the accounts of exotic travels that were popular at the time, I can't recall precisely which. It is recounted by the first mate of a Portuguese ship sailing the Pacific on a voyage of discovery or global circumnavigation, or perhaps it is simply laden with spices, tea or tobacco. During a fierce tropical storm, the ship is beached on a previously uncharted tropical storm. After the storm, it becomes apparent the ship will require substantial repairs. A small reconnaissance party is sent out to survey the island. When it returns, it reports that the island is inhabited, but that the natives appear to be friendly. The first encounter with the islanders proves auspicious. The islanders make their visitors welcome. Water is fetched and food prepared and the crew drink and eat to their satisfaction. After the meal, the crew and the islanders gather in a circle around a fire and there is singing, dancing and - with the assistance of rum provided by the guests, as the islanders appear to have no alcohol of their own - carousing. In the course of the festivities, the narrator notices a disconcerting phenomenon: during the festivities, at certain times he begins to witness events from the point of view of a young woman who sits opposite him, to the right of the man who appears to be their chief. It happens involuntarily: his eyes meet the woman's eyes, she smiles at him and he smiles back, at which point he feels a kind of movement inside him, a brief darkness like a slow blink of the eyes, and then he is suddenly seeing the scene from what appears to be, after a few seconds of disorientation, the point of view of the woman with whom he has only just shared a smile. In fact, he can see himself on the other side of the fire, the same smile still on his lips. For a moment, he is in her body, the sensations he feels are her sensations, then the same feeling of an internal movement, a brief darkness, and he is back inside his own body, the woman opposite him looking at him, her smile breaking into a laugh. Soon enough, upon the captain's orders, the crew retreat to the camp they have set up beside their ship. They walk back to camp in a strange silence. Once out of earshot of the islanders they begin to talk among themselves: they have all experienced the same strange sensation as the narrator: they have all felt as if they have entered the body of one of the islanders for a brief period. The bosun, who is unanimously liked and respected by the crew, dismisses the incident as the effect of the islanders' drink or diet. Though they have no alcohol, he suggests they have developed their own kind of intoxicant that, like the natives of America, is unknown in Europe. The following morning, the crew is beset by the ill-effects of alcohol. That night, however, the islanders once again lead them to the site of the previous night's festivities, and the eating, drinking and carousing begin anew. The narrator describes a similar experience to that of the previous night, except now it is with a man who appears to be of about the same age: their eyes meet, a smile is exchanged and, with an indescribably internal movement, the narrator seems to enter into the body of the islander. The experience lasts only a moment or two before he once again finds himself in his own body. Once again, the captain orders the crew back to the boat, except this time three of the crew surreptitiously stay behind. The insubordination is only noted when the crew arrive back at camp. These three seamen return to camp several hours later in a state of delirium, only to find the captain waiting for them in a state of rage. An argument ensues, which is only resolved when the captain orders the three seamen be chained until the following morning, when they will be flogged for insubordination.