The days came and went, and the weeks and months, and despite the rigor of his studies, Blurtseau’s mind wandered. In a real sense, he felt he was being torn in two. On one hand was his life as a warrior, defending his homeland and rising against injustice, and on the other was his growing love for culture and the arts, and for simple things. He reveled in the rhymed worlds of Dante and Petrarch, and the playful mischief of Boccaccio, and his thoughts often turned to Echo and the wisdom of her island. But it was too early to give up the physical rapture that had honed his body into a flawless fighting machine, a machine that fought without forethought, spontaneously parrying with a perfect balance of give and take. Yet now, had his instincts been altered? His equilibrium become unbalanced? Was he incapable of action without thought, without considering consequences beyond borders? Was this the price he paid for the loss of ignorance? For the joys of compassion? And as for his future, what did it mean? Fame and fortune now seemed empty next to a life of art, or a life of shared simplicity. Becoming a Renaissance donkey was not turning him into a harmonious whole, as he had hoped and expected, but was tearing him to pieces as the parts of himself vied, one against the others, for preeminence and control. And then there was his irrepressible sentimentality, as he continued to long for distant days with Pableau, Josette, and Echo.
Blurtseau told Echo about his life before the island—his voyages, the battles he had fought, the perils he had overcome—but though she listened with enthusiasm, she could scarcely imagine the things he described, for they were all things she had never seen. Bloodshed, of which there was much in his stories, was unknown on the island, and though she had witnessed aging in other animals—the goats in particular—the only deaths she had seen were the result of natural cause, and it seemed to her no more troubling than a deep and dreamless sleep. As for the humans, who commanded so much attention in his stories, she had never seen one, and could only picture them as hyper-contentious goats walking upright. The towns and cities were unreservedly fantastic. She could not believe there were such things as streets and houses and palaces constructed from predetermined plans; a physical world built on the airy blueprints of imagination. She concluded that these magical creatures needed to do little more than imagine an object to make it appear, but she wondered why they chose to live in an artificial world rather than the real one that was already around them.
Blurtseau, for his part, found Echo’s innocence to be as unimaginable as his lack of it, and he began to understand that what he saw, even the simplest object on the island, bore little resemblance to what she saw. And the meanings that he understood when he used the words he used were not the meanings she understood when she heard them. But he was enchanted by her innocence, and longed to know what it was like to live in her world, and she was content to play Desdemona to his Othello, losing herself in his tales, imbibing adventure as if slaking her thirst at a secret and mysterious spring.
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.
“These chantillies are delicious!” said Blurtseau.
“Enjoy them while you can,” said Pableau, “they’re the last ones I’ll bake.”
“What?!” said Blurtseau.
“Yes,” said Zurrabela, “haven’t you heard? The British have taken Haiti and cut off the French sugar supply.”
“Can’t you get it somewhere else?” said Josette.
“I’m afraid not,” said Pableau, “90% of France’s sugar is imported from Saint Domingue, that is, Haiti, and the fraction that now remains is taken directly to Paris.”
“Quelle catastrophe!” cried Blurtseau.
“What can you do?” said Josette.
“Nothing,” said Zurrabela, “except discontinue pastries and bake only baguettes.”
“I’ve been thinking about your sugar problem,” said Claude, “and I have an idea.”
“Yes?” said Pableau.
“A friend of mine owns a fishing schooner, and he owes me a favor.”
“A favor?” said Zurrabela.
“Yes,” said Claude, “I saved his life in 1772, and he has agreed to lend me his boat for a short excursion.”
“An excursion?” said Blurtseau.
“Yes,” said Claude, “a sugar excursion.”
“What do you mean?” said Pableau.
“As you may know,” said Claude, “the British have been trying to befriend the Knights of Malta in order to gain an outpost in the Eastern Mediterranean, and they have been sending them shiploads of sugar and tea. The British ships depart from Gibraltar, skirt the North African coast, then cross to the coast of Italy, down to the Strait of Messina, and on to Malta. They sail within sight of land at all times, except when they cross from Africa to Italy, at which point they are momentarily vulnerable to a pirate attack.”
“A pirate attack?” said Josette.
“Arrrrgghhhh,” growled Blurtseau, “a pirate attack!”
“Arrrrgghhhh!” growled Pableau.
“Arrrrgghhhh!” growled Zurrabela.
“Arrrrgghhhh!” growled Claude, Josette, Blurtseau, Pableau and Zurrabela.
Hmmm, thought Blurtso, what shall I write? Maybe a story? Maybe a tale? Maybe an epic tale, one of adventure and intrigue? Yes, an epic tale with a tragic hero… a brave and chivalrous donkey, a Renaissance donkey who sails the seas in search of fortune and fame… Hmmm, I’d better find a good opening line… yes… an opening line that makes it impossible not to read on… an irresistible line… yes, an irresistible line… Hmmm, thought Blurtso, thinking long and hard what to write… I’ve got it!…
“Blurtseau Lundif, the Renaissance donkey, thought long and hard what to write… but what words to address the King? What words indeed, from the pen of a renegade donkey exiled from happiness and home. Exiled, from the sight and embrace of the one who holds his heart, the purest of pure, the sweetest of sweet, the tender and ravishing Blurtsoiselle…”
“Qu’est-ce qu’on doit faire?!” shouted the cook, breaking into the galley. “Voilà qu’y viene le tempest!!”
“What shall we do?!” snapped Blurtseau, rising from the écrivan. “We shall do as always! We shall turn and face the storm!” No sooner had Blurtseau capped the inkwell and stored his pen than he heard the first wave crash on the foredeck.
“Mon Capitaine!” cried the First Mate. “Nous avons besoin de vous!”
The chaos and confusion ceased the moment the crew spied the tip of Blurtseau’s nose, and by the time his ears and eyes came on deck the sailors were in line and standing at attention. Blurtseau paused for a moment in the hurricane gale, staring into the eyes of his terrified crew, then he walked slowly and steadily to the prow where he turned and cried with a voice louder than the storm, “To your posts and ride out the wind!”
What a great day, said Blurtso. Yes, said Pablo, as good as it gets. What shall we do now? said Bonny. I don’t know, said Pablo. How about a story? said Bonny. Yes, said Blurtso, a story! Very well, said Pablo, I’ve been reading a novel titled, The Adventures of Captain Harvey, perhaps I could read a chapter out loud? What’s it about? said Bonny. It’s about a character, said Pablo, called Captain Harvey, who has the ability to take on the personality of whomever or whatever he encounters. Like a chameleon? said Blurtso. Yes, said Pablo, just like a chameleon. Now, in the chapter I will read Captain Harvey has arrived at a village in the mountains north of Rome, and he has been taken in by a middle-aged couple, Elio and Agnese, and their adopted servant girl, Fiammetta. Go on! said Bonny. Yes, said Blurtso, go on! Alright, said Pablo, it begins like this…
“While the days were dedicated to caring for the animals, bringing wood and water, and preparing meals, the nights were passed in front of the fire, as the four residents and whatever neighbors happened to stop in would settle down to talk. Early on, the conversation would focus on what work had been done that day, and what remained for tomorrow, and then it would turn to the latest report of rumors. At some point, Elio would excuse himself to join his friends at the bar. On this night, Agnese scolded him, ”
“Good company?” said Elio. “Fiammetta says nothing, and you and Harvey go on like old women!”
“Well!” said Agnese. “If you ever said something… Why don’t you tell a story? You used to tell such fine ones. I’m sure Harvey would enjoy one.”
As Elio paused to consider which story he might tell, a stream of protagonists, antagonists, climaxes and anticlimaxes rushed through his head, but before he could choose one, Harvey began for him:
“Filomena was fifteen years old,” said the captain, “when her grandmother told her, ‘If you want your child to be a boy, you must sleep on your right side and have your midwife use water in which a murderer has washed his hands…’”
Elio was relieved, for he was too tired to make something up, and he liked having stories told him, because then it was real and not just remembering, so he put a log on the fire and sat back down in his place.
The story Harvey told, though taken directly from Elio’s memory, was not as Elio remembered it, for just as the log began to crackle and whine in the fire, it altered the captain’s tale until the listeners could hear the cracking of a whip, or the cries of a forsaken child, or the moans of an impassioned lover. What our hero told, in fact, was the history of the life of the log, of its stored energies released into the arms of the air. The listeners were enthralled. Even the romantic encounters, which surprised them with their attention to detail, were done with such delicacy that Agnese could not be offended, and Fiammetta moved into the light.
The group would listen, apprehensively at first, wondering if he would improvise or tell a stock tale from one of their memories. If it was early, he would spin the yarn leisurely, amplifying here and interpolating there, always going on in a steady, gentle voice, except when he impersonated a man or woman in the throes of passion or a demon in a fit of rage. Then he would pause, anticipating with his silence the pleasure certain to come, and as the fire began to wane the pauses would become shorter and less frequent, and he would bring the story to an end, reuniting lost lovers or reconciling the hero to his fate, and leaving the group with a feeling at once of fulfillment and loss.
Each story was different, taking its theme from the nature of the wood. There were stories of those who reached the happy end they had sought, or those who obtained what they desired or regained what they had lost, or those for whom love had an unhappy ending, or those who won happiness after grief and misfortune. And there were the stock tales of the tricks played by men upon women, or women upon men, or men upon men and women upon women, and each was born of the same fiery source. It was not long before Harvey began to look at everyone he met in terms of the fire. What kind of flame was Elio? Was his wood slow and deep, or superficial and smoldering at the edges? What was Agnese? What was Fiammetta? What was he…?