The Climber's Choice (Part 2 of 3)

photograph courtesy of Douglas Cooper
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.

Click here to read the conclusion of The Climber’s Choice

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