The Climber's Choice (Part 1 of 3)

photograph courtesy of Douglas Cooper
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.

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