A vanishing point, said Bonny, can create a sense of nostalgia.
Doo dee doo dee doo, sang Blurtso, skipping across campus.
Ananta, katanta, paranta…
Pardon me, said the professor, what did you say? I don’t know, said Blurtso. You said “ananta katanta paranta,” where did you learn that? It’s just something I say, said Blurtso. It’s from the 23rd book of Homer’s Illiad, said the professor. Really? said Blurtso. Yes, said the professor, from the scene where the donkeys and mules are being driven into the hills to gather firewood. Loosely translated it means, “upalong, downalong, sidealong,” and is famous for the way the Greek syllables—ananta, katanta, paranta—simulate the clippety clop of the animals’ hooves. Wow, said Blurtso, my hooves speak Greek!
At this point we meet a British sea captain named Alecs of York, and an elephant named Arlan de Borneo. An elephant? said Harlan. Yes, said Blurtso.
As he returned to his post, Arlan considered the life he had led and the peril that lay in the offing. Dr. Arlan de Borneo had run a successful medical practice in Dover until the unlucky day he botched a routine tonsillectomy on the town constable, rendering him aphonic for life. As a result his practice faltered, and he was forced to seek employment at sea. The ships sailing under Captain Alecs of York had a long-standing reputation for being the most casualty-ridden in the fleet, and as a result the captain struggled to find physicians for his ship.
With no other options, Arlan accepted a post on the Manhattan, but because of his inordinate size and the limited crew that could subsequently be housed, he was obliged to perform the duties of a dozen men. Fortunately, it was a charge he was able to fulfill, for he could effortlessly clasp a line and pull with the force of twenty hands, and could labor for days without sleep. Although he was, by nature, a gentle soul, it was clear that if he were ever roused to anger, he would wreak more havoc than a regiment of Her Majesty’s finest.
Aboard the Manhattan he was given the store room at the stern of the middle deck in which to sleep, but as he rarely slept, the space soon became a game room in which he and Captain Alecs passed slow hours in contests of two-king chess. The contests pleased and frustrated Lord Alecs, for he had never encountered a player whose skill rivaled his own, and though he won more than he lost, it seemed that luck played an inordinate role in his victories. Arlan enjoyed the matches as well, though for different reasons. It had only taken him a few games to unmask his Captain’s strategy, a strategy based on aggression, in which Alecs was willing to sacrifice any number of pieces if the maneuver brought an element of surprise and led to the rapid and dazzling defeat of his opponent. Once Arlan understood this, he was never surprised again, and from then on he was forced to lose matches on purpose to keep the tally leaning in the Captain’s favor. The same aggressive maneuvers, Arlan understood, might be equally effective at sea, but only if Lord Alecs was unknown to the enemy. An astute commander who had engaged him before, and survived his first attacks, could redirect the aggression back to its source, and so, as the reputation of Lord Alecs and his tactics became better and better known, his career moved more swiftly to its end.
With all this in mind, Dr. Arlan de Borneo was not the least surprised when the Manhattan sailed directly past L’Isle d’If and straight toward the mouth of the Marseilles harbor, where it attacked the first ship it encountered, hoping to capture a crew member who would know the whereabouts of Blurtseau Lundif.
“Aaarrgghh!!!” growled Alecs. “Sixteen sheets to the wind!!!
Into the devil’s kiln!!”
At this point in the novel, said Blurtso, Blurtseau Lundif and his friends have intercepted the British sugar ship and are fleeing for their lives…
Claude did as directed, with the British sloop behind, until pursuer and pursued were lost from sight beneath the watery peaks. Blurtseau, who could no longer see the enemy ship, turned to descend the rigging, but before he could, a wall of water struck the schooner, causing the hull to rock and roll, and throwing our hero—as if he had been pitched from a catapult—into the frothing jaw of the sea. His companions watched in horror as he soared, head over hooves, describing a perfect parabola across the moonlit sky.
“Blurtseau!” called Pableau.
“Blurtseau!” called Josette.
“Blurtseau!” called Claude. But their comrade could not hear, or if he could, he could not reply, and the rudderless ship, steered now by the storm, drew quickly away, leaving our hero bobbing like a cork on the writhing water.
“We must turn and find him!” cried Pableau.
“Turn whither?” said Claude.
“Blurtseau is an excellent swimmer,” said Pableau. “I’m sure he’s secured a plank, or piece of driftwood, and is paddling for calmer seas. If we circle, describing a broader and broader circumference, we’ll cross him with our bow.”
“Yes,” said Claude, “when the storm has settled.”
And so they waited, tossed and turned in the belly of the gale, until the sky cleared. By dawn the British frigate, carried east with the careening clouds, was no longer to be seen, and the Zurrabelle was free to begin her search.
They sailed for fourteen days and fourteen nights, each day broadening the scope of their search, and each day encountering only sea. On the morning of the fifteenth day Pableau, perched on the foremast, thought he had spied his lost friend, but he was soon dismayed when closer inspection revealed a dark-grey dolphin. Josette, who had been holding up bravely, burst into tears, and Claude drew slowly and solemnly upon his pipe.
Everywhere you go, said Blurtso, people are talking about the economic crisis. Do you think we should be worried? Worried about what? said Harlan. About our university, said Blurtso. How are we going to continue offering the services we’ve promised? What services? said Harlan. Our world-renowned classes, said Blurtso. The classes are free, said Harlan. What about our books? said Blurtso. The books are from the library, said Harlan. What about our Thursday evening pumpkin pies? said Blurtso. The pumpkins are from Pablo’s garden, said Harlan, in fact, everything in our university is absolutely free. It’s hard to believe, said Blurtso, what we’re doing isn’t against the law.