By EMMA PARK.
‘Two paradises ’twere in one
To live in Paradise alone.’
SINCE YOU ASK, Sir Swallow, we are a young island compared with our African and Asian cousins. They wrenched themselves out of the primeval chaos while the planet was still cooling. They were the original Pangaea club. In recent centuries, we grant you, the new global hegemons have assigned us to Africa for administrative purposes. But we Mauritians pride ourselves on our root and branch independence from all other land masses whatsoever. It may interest you to know that it was only eight million years ago, long after the extinction of those dinosaurs our cousins are still going on about, that, a few miles below the screw-pine you are perching on, we first broke free from our subterranean prison, and, in a burst of flame, tore up through the foaming waters and into the open air. Over time we crystallised into a crown of granite peaks. Plants gradually seeded themselves across our shoulders. Insects and birds followed. Over the millennia, our formerly sharp contours were sanded smooth by cyclones, hurricanes, monsoons, and Oceanus, our ancient foe.
For the first seventy-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-five centuries of our superterranean life, we were nameless. We had no need of names, or any language for that matter, beyond the inchoate hoots of the pink pigeon, the huffings and puffings of Didus, and our own dim ponderings. In those innocent times, the shadow of Development never darkened our slopes.
By Anno Domini 1507, we were, we felt, firmly established in our corner of the ocean. Our lagoons were, if modest in dimensions, as turquoise as any this side of the Antipodes. While our plant collection may not have been as spectacular as Madagascar’s, it was respectably diverse, with an abundance of ebony trees, bananas, and ferns, and augmented every now and then by the good offices of migrant fowl such as yourself. We had five unique species of palm tree, each with its distinctive stem: one moulded like a glass bottle, one swollen in the middle like a gourd, one yellow-veined, one with orange-tinted leaves and a delicately hooped trunk. The tallest, thinnest and most fragile was the Loneliest Palm –– of which, in the Grapefruit Garden, a solitary specimen survives. We cherish it as best we can, little doubting it will soon be lost to the homines and their pestilential entourage.
In the class of automobilia, or self-movers, we had vigilantly defended our borders against venomous arthropods and rapacious mammals. The pigeons that migrated here from the Nicobar Islands soon adapted to our tolerant climes, evolving an elegant costume of red bill, russet tail and pink claws. Our giant tortoises lived long, leisurely lives.
Both we and our brothers on Rodrigues experimented with a large flightless bird that would dispose of the mosquitoes, whose buzz we found rather irritating, while not being tempted to fly away and see the world. Starting with a pigeon, we produced the Didus ineptus, while Rodrigues came up with the Pezophaps solitaria.
It may be that our ‘silly-arsed’ bird, as the ill-mannered Dutch called it, was inferior in design, as in size, to the elusive but elegant Solitaire. Perhaps we should have given its beak less of an aquiline sneer. Perhaps it would have been prudent, based on what we had already heard was going on in Africa, to allow the females to bear more than one egg per annum. But we suspect that the Dutch, or the marauding Portuguese, named it in a fit of pique after finding its flesh tough and unpalatable; –– which was of course an entirely unfair basis for assessment, since we had designed it several millennia before the homines were first driven by a malign current onto our shores.
Nevertheless, you cannot deny that we came up with a fowl unique in ornithological history. Why else would those featherless bipeds have stocked their gift shops and kiosks with its reproachful likeness in wood, cloth, paper and plastic? Why else would they have perpetuated its fame in treatise and fairytale? Why else, finally, would they have adopted it as their heraldic beast, so that, even in these forgetful times, the name of Mauritius is synonymous with Dodo?
Would it be famous, you may ask, were it not extinct? But that, we contend, is irrelevant. Unless it was due to the sheer perversity of the homines, that after the Portuguese and Dutch had carelessly eliminated it, their officious successors from the British Isles should have resolved to dig up its bones from the marshes where they were resting quietly.
WE SAY NOTHING of the fate of our tortoises, who slipped down the throats of the Europeans without so much as a thank-you. We acknowledge, not without irritation, the latest efforts of the homines to introduce to us a different species of tortoise — supposedly a relative. These newcomers have taken up residence in our warm valleys, where they pass their sheltered years in pens of muddy grass, sand and water. With wrinkled toes dug firmly into the swill, and dolorous heads pushed up against their enclosures’ granite walls, they doze glumly, careless of the crowds of homines gaping down at them and flashing their metal sticks.
As for the homines themselves, to begin with we thought that this new species of vertebrate might help us to while away a few centuries of evolutionary torpor. We were flattered by the ingenuity with which they named us, from that legendary day when the Arabs first spied us in the distance and recorded a new Western Isle in their logbooks. We preened ourselves when the Portuguese inscribed us on their Map of the World as the Isle of Swans. We almost forgave the Dutch their gluttony when they named us after Maurits, Prince of the Orange. We were charmed when the ambitious Bourbons rechristened us the Isle of France. We were, we confess, rather disappointed that the British, who snatched us away from Napoleon in 1810, merely reverted to the Dutch name. A singular lack of imagination on their part, which was to accord well with their pedantic approach to administration, and tedious insistence that everything be translated into English, just when we had learnt to parler français. Little surprise that they granted us independence a mere century and a half later.
But it is now the Anthropocene, and we are starting to feel uncomfortable. Over one million of the homines reside on us, and nearly the same number again are carried in and out each year on their flying ships. After all, weren’t we supposed to be a desert island, id est, deserted? We were not designed, we maintain, as a beach resort for continentals. We were not designed at all.
But that is typical of the race of sapiens (we use that word with the irony it deserves): they refuse to focus their not insubstantial faculties on the world at hand, and instead fixate on some fantasy version of it in their minds. When things do not turn out the way they imagined, their instinct is to tear everything down and start again, or to sit around for days telling stories of what might have been, while munching on the corpses of other animals.
This thing they call Development, for instance. In its unholy name, they pile concrete and asphalt high on our aching backs. They swarm across our beaches and leave waste everywhere. The choking rivers spit out plastic when it rains. They have cleared our hills of their forests and planted endless fields of sugar cane, whose dry serrated leaves rattle in the wind. Welcome to paradise, they say.
In our experience, species like this do not last. When they have run out of things to Develop, they will soon abandon ship. Mark our words, Sir Swallow. When they have killed all the coral, there will be nothing left to swim for. The ocean will wash away their white sands and whiter hotels. Then those who leave will not return, and those who stay will die out when a cyclone comes and there are no trees to soften the blasts of the wind, no soil to resist the shock of the rain. Weeds will break up the highways, and crabs will colonise the beach huts.
As for us, we will cling on to our atoll, bare, crumbling, senescent, but strong enough to keep our heads above water for a few more million years at least — until the cold fingers of Ocean finally penetrate our deepest fissures and pull us down into darkness.
2. Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre.
A traveller’s tale.
Port Louis, 8th November, 1770
My dear Duval,
If man ever colonises the moon, he will find it to be nothing more than a staging post on a journey to other, better worlds. The Île de France is likewise but a stepping stone between Europe and the Indies, or between a man’s failures and his fortune. No one who comes here plans to stay for more than a few years; even the plantation owners dream of retiring to the village of their birth.
Tomorrow I sail for France. The cart comes for my belongings at dawn. We are to be conveyed by schooner to the roadstead at nine o’clock, on the high tide, where the Indien awaits us. In four months, if Providence allows it, we will step onto the shores of Brittany.
This afternoon, I walked along the quay and through the rutted streets of Port Louis for the last time. The warm wind was sweeping across the harbour, lifting the waves like a silken sheet over the grey sea. As it breathed through the town, the bitter taste of salt mingled in my mouth and nose with the acrid odour of refuse piled up in front of the shabby wooden houses.
By now I recognised most of the townsfolk by sight – the government officials, the planters, the slaves from Malabar and Madagascar, the free black women who keep the brothels – and had no desire to speak to any of them. For almost a year now, I have been living quietly, keeping my distance.
At the end of the main road, where it peters out beyond the newly built church, a rough track runs down towards the sea and out northeastwards. In a few leagues, it comes to the Domaine des Pamplemousses, the estate of M. Poivre, my esteemed friend. He has recently planted a botanical garden there; but I avoid it, out of respect for Mme Poivre, who has hinted that my presence would not be welcome. I will say no more — except that there are very few women on this island, and those that do venture here soon lose their feminine sense of sympathy in our sordid climate.
I turned instead to the right and picked my way over a rocky path up the hillside and between dry, stooping palms and rattling banana plants to a small clearing of yellow grass. It is here that I have built a cottage for myself. I leased the plot from the governor, assuring him that it was equally hostile to crops and habitation — fit only for stray goats and shrieking bands of monkeys.
The cottage has a single room for eating, sleeping and studying. There is a pallet bed in the corner, stuffed with dry grasses. By the window, a desk and chair of cinnamon wood, unstable now on their warped legs, the knots in their surfaces standing out, calloused with age. Against the wall, a cupboard for my clothes, and next to it the chest that I brought from France, in which are stored my remaining possessions: a heap of books bound in tattered cloth, navigational charts in much the same condition, my guns, and a sketch of my dog Favori, who travelled with me. My boy, whom I have named Duval in your honour, prepares my meals in his hut a few yards away. He is of strong build, and his bright black eyes suggest intelligence, but he speaks no French.
IT IS HERE, at this desk, that I have sat nearly every day, looking up at the bare hilltops behind the town and the mossy peak of Le Pouce. Thousands of moths hover in the smoky air around the candle flame, their wings whirring softly, and now and then one of them catches alight and falls like a glowing ember onto the desk. Along the corner of the wall above my head, a gecko darts silently, its translucent body disappearing into the shadows. Over the mud floor I hear the click-click-click of cockroaches and the shuffling of rats as they compete for crumbs from my supper. Glass is an imported luxury that I cannot afford, and so my window is simply a large opening in the wall, which I barricade with planks during the storms. As I write, the soft evening rain blows through and smudges the ink on my papers. Everything here is always either too moist or too dry.
It is two years and eight months since I left Lorient on the Marquis de Castries, a trading vessel bound for Bengal. Standing on the quarter deck, wrapped in oilskins, I watched the murky coast of Brittany swallowed up in the rain as we rolled slowly out into the Bay of Biscay.
We arrived on the Île de France after four months and twelve days at sea, without having once touched land. We arrived scorbutic, mad with thirst, our masts broken in tempests off the Cape. We had lost eleven men on the voyage; the remainder of us were too sick to leave the ship until we had spent a day resting in the harbour.
I came here to start afresh. I had tried St Petersburg, Warsaw, Berlin, but had somehow always remained an outsider. I hoped that on this island, which my country had only held for fifty years, my commission as a captain in the King’s Engineers would give me the opportunity I needed to make a name for myself. I would, I imagined, lead the construction of the island’s defences, become a trusted adviser to the governor, and perhaps, in the course of time, be made governor myself. Instead, I was sent to work as a mason on civilian projects of little interest and less significance: repairing the church roof after a storm; drawing up plans for a bakery; irrigating a tea plantation.
Outside, a final glimmer of daylight catches the polished black shells of snails the size of my fist, moving softly over the coarse grass. I do not know how it was that I was unable to find favour with the governor, the engineers, or the people –– but I was never able to adapt my manners to theirs. Port Louis has not provided me with the elevated society I have found even in the smaller European cities. Its inhabitants are dirty, ill-dressed, unlettered, and have as their only topic of conversation the arrival of the next ship, the profits that might be made from it, and when they will have enough money to leave.
Last year, a new governor arrived with a new corps of engineers, who refused to recognise my commission. I therefore jettisoned the idea of making my fortune, and instead made the study of nature, which had formerly been my pastime, my profession. I devoted myself to observing, recording, and analysing the curious plants and animals I have found here. The method of the scientist is not to inhale the soul of a flower through his nostrils, but to examine, draw, dissect, categorise — patiently to coax out its secrets, its exact co-ordinates on the great map of the universe. Man is a subject that everyone understands, or thinks he understands; but we are still almost entirely ignorant about the myriad other species with which Providence has filled the earth. I have accumulated a treasury of observations and discoveries, which I hope to publish when – if – I arrive back in France.
A few months ago, to broaden my researches, I decided to embark on a tour of the island. I set off from Port Louis in the northwest and proceeded in an anticlockwise direction, taking nothing with me except my dog, my guns, and my notebooks. Duval and Côte, one of the King’s slaves, carried my water, rice, hammock, cooking utensils, bottles of wine, and other provisions. A donkey, as I have often observed, carries twice the load of a slave; but such a beast would have been impractical in the mountains of the south and the rocky gorges along the Rivière Noire.
After travelling for several days through thick forests, I came to an open bay in the south where the Rivière Noire flows out to the lagoon, pouring its ochre mud onto the lap of the sand. There was no way to ford it further upstream. So I climbed onto Duval’s back – he is over six feet tall – and he carried me through the shallows, going barefoot as the blacks are wont. He picked his way confidently towards the middle of the bay, but when we had reached a place where the current was stronger, he swayed under its force, and coming down hard on his left foot, cried out in pain. I was afraid that I might be precipitated into the water –– I cannot swim. I clutched his head, which was smooth and shining in the sun, and encouraged him by voice and gestures to hold fast and make for the shore. He gritted his teeth and continued; I could feel the sinews on his temples bulging. When we came up onto the sand, he almost threw me off, and immediately lay down, clutching his heel. I washed and bandaged it as best I could, but he refused to carry his share of the provisions any further that day. Côte was able to fit some in to his panniers; the rest we left for the local gods, or the monkeys.
We continued walking along the southern coast, past the Bel Ombre estate. In this region, the coconut palms grow right down to the water. The yellow sand stretches from one headland to the next, and below it the lagoon stretches out for half a mile to the chalk-white line of surf that marks the boundary where the reef ends and the deep sea begins. I saw brilliantly coloured fish, and coral, green, yellow, blue and scarlet. I had Côte wade out and break off some samples for my collection. In the late afternoon, we came upon a colony of tortoises nesting on the beach. I shot two, and Côte roasted them over the fire. Duval discovered a clutch of eggs in the sand, which he boiled.
I walked for many miles without seeing another European. My feet were blistered and bloody; my scalp and arms were burnt and peeling in the heat. My legs were swollen with bites and scratches, and stung with salt. The sound of the waves breaking over the reef was toneless, insensate, menacing. At Port Louis, ships crossed the horizon every week or more, even when they did not put into harbour. But here, facing south, we did not once see a sail. So much ocean; such an expanse of the world hostile to human life. I felt vertiginous, as though I were drifting on a raft, unable to control its movements, back and forth at the whim of current and wind and wave — drifting endlessly on the endless sea, until I died. It was then, I think, that I resolved to cut my losses and return to France.
Soon, I will be on board the Indien. Already, the landscape behind the dark hills is fading from my memory. But I cannot yet imagine arriving in France; both the beginning and end of my journey are equally unreal. All I can think of is the sea, the creaking of the ship’s timbers, and the necessity of throwing the dice once more.
Favori disappeared a few weeks ago. I fear he may have been eaten by one of the townspeople, who are wholly lacking in moral virtue. I have given Duval his freedom, and sold my land to a plantation owner. I expect he will pull down this cottage and let his goats pasture here, or simply allow it to fall into disrepair, until it once again becomes part of the forest. The white ants that eat timber will build their towers of dust on its foundations. Before long nothing will be left of me, except, perhaps, the traces of the motto I have inscribed on the lintel: et serves animae dimidium meae, ‘May you preserve half of my soul’. Perhaps one day a traveller will find it, and understand that there once lived in this clearing a man of some culture, if little means.
This is my European disease, to wake up at night, tormented by the fear that I have not done enough, have not spent my time wisely — that the places where I have lived have remained and will always remain indifferent to me. I cannot bear the thought that my existence will have left no more of an impression on the path of history than a moth’s wing. Even though, if I had proper humility, I should remember how many people there are in the world, even on this distant island, and accept that there is little enough reason why I of all of them should be remembered.
I began this letter by trying to tell you something, but I realise as I write that I have forgotten who you are and how to talk to you, and I do not even know whether I will understand what I meant, when I read it back to myself after my return. Words run through my head to my hand, and from my hand to my pen, which scratches ink across the page; that is all.
EVEN WHEN I was beginning this letter, I felt as though I was no longer in the place where I wrote it, and now that I am back in Paris, after so many weeks at sea, I feel scarcely more present in this garret high above the streets than I did in my cottage on the edge of Port Louis.
I woke up one night and, for a moment there in the dark, I thought I was still on board the ship, tossing up and down in a wooden cell. There was nothing fixed, nothing to cling on to, and at any moment the water would come thundering in and overwhelm us.
But then I drew back the curtain, and the black slated rooftops were shining in the moonlight. And I lit a candle, and wrote these words to you, my friend, which one day, perchance, you will discover, who knows when. For now, I am not ready for society, and I will not send this, or try to call on you. I am not what I boasted I would become, and I cannot look you in the eye and say, this is what is left. I have brought back nothing from the southern ocean except my notes and drawings, which may interest a few students of nature –– and perhaps the germ of a story.
What is it to travel? Only to dream, and to move while dreaming. Outside Europe, the earth is desolate, but there are so many stars. I have never seen the moon so high, so far away.
WHAT DO I see one night, as I am scavenging through sea wrack for piscine remains? A pair of two-foots sitting on a log. As though they were the only animals on the beach.
The sun had crawled into its burrow in the Deep Sea. Water and sky were as dark as dead leaves. A few of the Little Nippers scuttled softly in the shallows. Our fragile cousins. They dwell in wormholes that bubble when a wave comes in. Here and there a lizard darted by, its claws scratching fine lines across the sand. We tolerate them as long as they keep their distance. Our ancestors had colonised these shores long before theirs were carried here in a cyclone from Africalia. As they claim.
The tide was out. The long strand sloped down into the water, its surface kicked about, as usual at the day’s end, by the smaller two-foots. They are always trying to dig their holes here. Without basic construction skills. Before the sun returned, the sea would come in and smooth them all down to its own shape. But for the time being it was most inconvenient to have to wend one’s way over peaks and troughs thrown up everywhere higgledy-piggledy.
The other two-foots had done the decent thing and returned to their lairs. Erected on the earth behind the beach. Around them they had planted hooded eyes on long shiny stalks, which cast a pool of yellow light on the sand. Half in the light and half in shadow was a log made of that slippery dead matter they leave lying around everywhere. Chewy but inedible. The pair sat on it in silence. Looking at the big white shells they go fishing in during the day, now resting quietly on the water. Their starry eyes extinguished.
Out there, the world had disappeared. As it does every night. Except when the moon is round and the clouds have flown away. On those nights, the ocean is strewn with silver cobwebs and laps at the shore of the constellations. The sky turns grey as the water rises to meet it. The moon floats like a water-lily.
We arrived on this island soon after it poked its head out of the Deep Sea. We spend our days on the river bank, hunting insects, minnows, and smaller crustaceans. Where the fresh water flows into the salt. Clipping the fronds of palm leaves with our pincers. Withdrawing into our burrows every time one of the two-foots comes along. They are usually placid creatures, but we have learnt not to take risks, with them or any of the four-foots that run after them. We have all had relatives who were eaten.
In my own clan we pride ourselves, from an early age, on having thoraces larger than a gull’s egg. In maturity, mine has opened out like a splendid clam shell. The same moist pink as the clay we live in. Out of the top protrude two long thin stems with eyes at the end. Black. Flexible. Underneath, eight feet and two claws, bristling with hooks like cactus thorns. Equally dexterous in soil and sea. Not like the two-foots with their ungainly shuffle. Their oversized heads nodding like the nuts that fall from the coconut palm now and then and dispatch one of our number. Hairy.
Africalia is a second island beyond the Deep Sea, say the lizards. Much bigger than this one, with as many palm trees as there are stars. And monsters more terrible than the two-foots. With teeth and jaws that will crush you in one bite.
Personally, I do not believe it. Those lizards and their tales. In fact, they crawled out of the ocean like the rest of us, many generations ago.
But what about the two-foots, they say. They fly in and out on those thundering grey birds. Whither, whence, if not Africalia? But who is to say the birds are not simply hunting for food. Out there in the open sky.
Moreover, according to our garrulous neighbours the pink pigeons, the two-foots first arrived here, not long after they did, on floating islands made of trees. Which they would naturally have crawled onto out of the ocean.
Unless it was the moon they came down from one evening many tides ago. Them and their pestilential entourage. Carried here in their shells. That at least would account for their uncouth behaviour.
The pigeons say there were once birds that could not fly living on this island. But the two-foots ate them.
All in all I had no desire to run into their species on a peaceful evening when I had my own survival to attend to.
I almost scurried off the moment I saw them, but it occurred to me they might have left some food under the log. So I edged closer. Claw by claw. Keeping to the shadows. But then the female saw me. At first she was curious and stuck her head out. As if I had appeared for her delectation. But when I came forward and raised my pincers, she jumped back with a cry like a startled strawtail, and the male reared up threateningly. So I sidled slowly away. Minding my own business and with every right to be there.
Emma Park’s writings have appeared in Apollo, The Spectator, ArtDependence, The Classical Review, and elsewhere. Her first play, Boat People, was performed in Pentameters Theatre, Hampstead, in 2018. She occasionally tweets @DrEmmaPark.