Salve de Dios: Canary Islands–May 5, 2001
He hasn’t spoken since I got off the steamer this afternoon. To me, to anyone. Now it’s early evening. He’s sitting in his good chair in the front room, staring out the open window toward the sun. It is low, an inch above the Atlantic, glinting furiously.
It’s a house like any other on this island––small, three or four rooms enclosed in whitewashed stone, board shutters painted a hard boat green. I haven’t seen a house here that isn’t painted white with dark green shutters. Everything on this island seems to be made of stone. Outside the front door is a stone courtyard sheltered from the wind, an iron gate to hold in a dog, but I’ve seen no dog.
I’ll wait, I don’t mind. I’ve been waiting for a year. The woman tells me he knows I’m here. The woman, his cook, beckoned me into the house. She told him I was here. I saw him nod: he didn’t speak, didn’t turn his head. She didn’t ask my name.
Eventually, I sit on a wooden chair leaning against the wall of the kitchen, watching her cook tomatoes and potatoes. She is wizened, not tall, with a long, man’s face. She speaks to me in a loud choppy voice, as if she were angry at me. It is as if she had not spoken to an outsider for years. I don’t understand what she says.
Through the doorway I can see the back of his head. Out the window, the horizon beyond. The sea is high today, a strong blue-green with some chop to it. I saw three boats wallowing in at Teguise while I was walking up here. They were pitching badly, foaming along, but I could see they had managed to catch fish and were rolling home, flags blowing.
From the kitchen I can see into his room. Not a large room, it seems to have just been painted with thick, white paint––deep cuts through its stone walls for windows, two doors painted the same tough, dark green as the shutters. A bureau, a dining table, three chairs, all plain, all without paint, all cut from the same wood––ash––maybe from Spain. Few trees grow here, mostly olive and scrubs. The chairs have woven string seats of hemp, except the fourth chair, the good one he’s sitting in. That one has arms and a cushion. No pictures on the walls, not a framed photograph in sight. A man has aged in this room, I can feel his aging from the years of his exile. He still looks good. The remarkable head-bone, too large? Hair mostly gone, the clever eyes that someone once wrote “stared at you far too long.” They’re hardly seen now, defined by oriental hoods, webs of lines.
He wears Spanish shoes, canvas with rope soles, a white shapeless linen tunic and trousers. I am barely able to recognize him from a photograph I brought with me. In it, he is wearing a dinner jacket at a gala ball, standing halfway down a shining staircase. There is a beautifully gowned, dark-haired woman on his arm––Angelique, his wife.
Salvo De Dios is a Spanish Island maybe a hundred miles west of Africa, twenty-five miles long, pocked with a hundred craters of dead volcanoes. I have come here overnight on the steamer, Ave Maria, out of Cadiz, on its weekly tour of the islands, bringing mail and passengers, wine, lumber, cheese. There is still no airport here.
This is the terminus he must have brought her to years ago. This might have been the house they found when they came here.
The woman wakes me. I have dozed off, still seated on the wooden chair leaning against the kitchen wall. I smell cooking fish and wine and maybe garlic. She points. I move to the doorway to the other room waiting to be noticed.
Here I am, a man standing in a plain room––stone walls painted white, lit by the sun setting across the ocean. I have never been here before. I am facing a man I have been aware of most of my life. The sun is so bright behind him, I cannot see his features, only a black silhouette. He takes a sip of his drink. The sun through his glass is fool’s gold.
His voice has rusted, but it is friendly, low, unused. Maybe this is the first time he has spoken today. He is still looking away, out the window.
“Rum’s not as strong as it could be. You need to drink twice as much.”
He’s speaking to me about rum. I wet my lips, I want some.
“If you don’t like the rum here you must bring whiskey or French Marc from the mainland. This rum is up from Grand Canaria, honey rum, you can drink from the bottom. It’s so sweet you must crush a lime in it, if you have a lime. I can’t grow ‘em here, I’ve tried, they won’t take a hold. It’s this volcanic soil. It’s like gravel. This lime’s from Tenerife. Go ask the woman for a block of ice if you require it, but she’ll have to walk down the road to get it.”
He doesn’t wait for my answer. Maybe he’s trying to make me feel at ease but it’s not working. I’m as nervous as I was when I walked in the door two hours ago.
“The word for ice is hielo.”
He pushes himself up and goes to the window; there is no pane of glass in the opening and there never was. You close the shutters to keep the weather out. The sun is setting flamboyantly. The ocean has joined it. He swirls the rum in the thick tumbler. Its glass has gone white from use. He tips the tumbler toward the sun, toasts it, “Gracias, por un otro dia.” He’s thanking it for another day. He seems to be taking a private moment with the sun. He drinks, then he says, staring the sun down, “Fuck you, Señor.” He sits in his chair.
I haven’t moved from the doorway. I’d kill for a drink of that rum. The woman bends close to him. He listens, nods. She carries a chair from the wall and puts it at the table. She sets another place. A large spoon, fork and knife clatter onto the table, another heavy glass, another white napkin. There will be two for dinner tonight. She beckons me. I am to sit down to supper with him. Finally, he pours three or four ounces of Ron Miel rum into my tumbler. He nods. I reach forward and pick it up. At last. I sip then drink. It is unlike any drink I’ve ever tasted. It is perfect, full, strong, and somehow beneficial.
“The woman is cooking mero. She tells me there’s enough for two. She must like you.”
How could anyone tell? He sips. I finish my drink. He nods to the bottle. I pour myself another few ounces.
I am standing in front of him.
“Smell it? I love that smell! That’s a fish you don’t know. You can catch it over there, right off Punto Negro, even on windy days, and if the woman can get it, she’ll cook it for me once-a-week the same way, a recipe from the 1600’s, with the garlic we grow here, cut into slices and spread over it. Green olive oil from the few local groves. It’s an old recipe. Mero’s tough as an old catfish. There’s something to it. It doesn’t melt in your mouth. Nothing ought to melt in your mouth except butter. But she can’t always get mero. She brought tomates and cebollas today––that’s three plants that do well here, besides cactus and potatoes and grapes. They get their growing done at night, when the land stores water. Volcanic soil. Grainy. So. We’ll have tomatoes, potatoes, onions with olive oil. Everything you’ll eat here comes from near this house, land or sea. And a bottle of wine that’s rich as port from the Benedictine Monastery up the road.”
I am still standing in front of him holding my glass. The room is filled with cooking, its crude smells, elegant, experienced odors, powerful arrangements of aged recipes, fiery smells coming from the other room, the hot room. He changes chairs and sits at the table.
“Sit,” he says.
The woman enters carrying an oval china platter, the mero split wide-open like a book, cooked honey brown, dark garlic and small leaves clinging to it. The fish is ringed with potatoes wrinkled as prunes, crystallized flecks of sea salt on them and tiny tomatoes blackened by olive oil. I didn’t realize I was hungry. She brings a lantern over and puts it on the table.
She speaks to me loudly. Everything she says is too loud, as if we were standing upwind. It is all she can do.
“I can’t understand what she’s saying,” I say.
“No one can. They speak a wild Spanish here, it sounds like they’re chopping wood doesn’t it? She’s probably telling you that she grows these potatoes and tomatoes herself.”
He presents her to me, “La Señora Natti.” She glares at me and smiles, she has dog teeth.
“Gracias, Señora,” I half rise and nod.
“You’re well brought up,” he says to me. But he hasn’t asked my name or introduced himself. I can understand why it is of no interest to him. We take up our silver; slowly he begins eating. He savors the tastes prolonging the small ecstasy.
The wine from the Monastery is good, I feel it surge through me with the rum, it is thick and black, there is a fiery cat’s eye in it, a ruby ghost. I am too excited to eat, I watch him. He eats with his head down, using his fork and his fingers, like a child.
Somebody has finally found him.
He doesn’t ask me why I came looking for him, or what I intend to do with what I know. Or how I was able to do it when no one else could. Maybe he’s tired, maybe he’s through caring. He has accepted my presence. He might even respect what I’ve done, who knows? He must realize how difficult it was for me, but he doesn’t seem to care how I did it. I’m not sure why he has chosen to trust me. But the honor doesn’t escape me.
He breaks the silence. He asks where I am staying. I tell him the family name of a house on the road, half a mile down the hill, between his house and the water. He pours me another glass of wine. I eat. The fish is succulent.
Out the window, the island is black now, the sea is gone. There are no lights on the north end of Salve de Dios. He says it is because there is no electricity. We eat well. The food is gone, all of it. Our plates are clean. When the woman has cleared the table and closed the door to the kitchen, when we have finished the bottle of Ron Miel rum and the wine, he asks without surprise how I did it.
“It took a while,” I say. He stares at me too long.
I tell him about the sketch book that he left behind at the Eisenstein Institute after his escape. Does he remember a sketch book?
He shakes his head. His breakdown had been complete, severe.
I describe it––a black book, four by six inches, full of pencil sketches––the only work of his that still remains. For years it has been in the permanent collection of the Whitney. No one ever understood them. One small sketch especially fascinated me, an abstraction. I kept coming back to it. Then I knew. By chance I discovered that it was a sketch of a chain of islands––map of the Canaries.
For the first time, he smiles. His teeth are gray.
“You were guessing.”
“No I wasn’t.”
“The hell you weren’t.”
I bring out a photocopy the size of a post card. He smooths it out on the table under the lantern. “It’s true,” he says. He is amazed.
“I never knew we were coming here.”
I ask him if anyone here realizes who he is.
“No one. They’ve never known that. They were suspicious of something about me for years. There was gossip. The Spanish need mystery and they can be a grueling people. Anyhow, I contribute to the Benedictine Monastery here.”
He nods to the north and taps the empty bottle with his fork. “There’s no one else left to give a damn, not around here. About who I was or wasn’t.” Then, each word pronounced, still surprised, he adds, “Some on the island actually thought I killed her.”
“Savoia,” he says quickly. “That was the name she wanted me to call her. It was her middle name.”
The silence nags me again. After a while, he asks if I would want to look at one of his journals. He asks it very simply, as if I might refuse. Would I like to take a journal book back to my room tonight and try to read it before I fall asleep? It might amuse me, he says, smiling grayly. Oh, yes. I catch my breath, I never imagined the existence of diaries.
He strikes a match on the stone floor and lights a lamp and leads into a small room off the kitchen. Under a table is a metal trunk with square corners, two latches. The trunk is black. Wherever the paint has chipped away, the metal is rusted. On the lid is painted “S. LASKER” with a fat brush in white paint. Rust has stuck the lid shut. With a table knife he pries it open. A waft of stale air fills the space around us. Inside are several journals of different sizes and shapes, each labeled, inscribed in ink––months and years. Each is tied shut with a random piece of string. They are all similar, cheaply bound books of various colors, surrounded by small black nuggets of volcanic gravel which, he explains, absorb moisture.
“Choose one,” he says.
I do. I choose the earliest, written the month he escaped from the Eisenstein Psychiatric Institute. I lift it out. It is the thickest of the lot, maybe a hundred pages.
“I haven’t looked at these since I wrote ‘em,” he explains.
The book is worn. I untie the string. The paper binding is shot and it opens stiffly, releasing a pleasant staleness. Glancing inside, I can see the handwriting is fine, small, an artist’s hand, the words written quickly, maybe in various degrees of emotion––fear, happiness, pain. The words are slightly smeared. The pages might once have been damp and the book closed a long time ago. At the top of the first page is written “72 John Jay Street,” the address of the rooming house on the lower East side of Manhattan where he hid for two-and-a-half weeks in a fifth floor room.
I carry it back to my room down the hill, down the unpaved road in the dark, hurrying. I slip on the volcanic gravel. I undress and crawl into bed. My bed is too small but I don’t mind; it is chilly tonight and I will ask for a blanket tomorrow. I light two candles.