Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Columber

Full Birth Moon

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The Colomber
Dino Buzzati, translated by Lawrence Venuti

     When Stefano Roi was twelve years old, he asked his father, a sea captain and the owner of a fine sailing ship, to take him on board as his birthday gift. 
     “When I grow up,” the boy said, “I want to go to sea with you. And I shall command ships even more beautiful and bigger than yours.”
     “God bless you, my son,” the father answered. And since his vessel had to leave that very day, he took the boy with him.
     It was a splendid sunny day, and the sea was calm. Stefano, who had never been on a ship, happily wandered around on deck, admiring the complicated maneuvers of the sails. He asked the sailors about this and that, and they gladly explained everything to him. 
    When the boy had gone astern, he stopped, his curiosity aroused, to observe something that intermittently rose to the surface at a distance of two to three hundred meters, in line with the ship’s wake.
     Although the ship was indeed moving fast, carried by a great quarter wind, that thing always maintained the same distance. And though the boy did not make out what it was, there was some indefinable air about it, which attracted him intensely.
     No longer seeing Stefano on deck, the father came down from the bridge, after having shouted his name in vain, and went to look for him.
     “Stefano, what are you doing there, standing so still?” the captain asked his son, finally perceiving him on the stern as he stared at the waves.
     “Papa, come here and see.”
     The father came, and he too looked in the direction indicated by the boy, but he could not see anything.
     “There’s a dark thing that rises in the wake every so often,” Stefano said, “and it follows behind us.”
     “Despite my forty years,” said the father, “I believe I still have good eyesight. But I see absolutely nothing.”
     And the boy insisted, the father went to get a telescope, and he scrutinized the surface of the sea, in line with the wake. Stefano saw him turn pale.
     “What is it? Why do you make that face?”
     “Oh, I wish I had never listened to you,” the captain exclaimed. “Now I’m worried about
you. What you see rising from the water and following us is not some object. That is a colomber. It’s the fish that sailors fear above all others, in every sea in the world. It is a
tremendous mysterious shark, more clever than man. For reasons that perhaps no one will ever know, it chooses its victim, and when it has chosen, it pursues him for years and years, for his entire life, until it has succeeded in devouring him. And the strange this is this: No one can see the colomber except the victim himself and his blood relations.”
     “It’s not a story?”
     “No. I have never seen it. But from descriptions I have heard many times, I immediately
recognized it. That bison like muzzle, that mouth continually opening an closing, those terrible teeth. Stefano, there’s no doubt, the colomber has ominously chosen you, and as long as you go to sea, it will give you no peace. Listen to me: We are going back to land now, immediately; you will go ashore and never leave it again, not for any reason whatsoever. You must promise me you won’t. Seafaring is not for you, my son. You must resign yourself. After all, you will be able to make your fortune on land too.”
     Having said this, he immediate reversed his course, reentered the port, and on the pretext of a sudden illness, he put his son ashore. Then he left again without him.
     Deeply troubled, the boy remained on the shore until the last tip of the masts sank behind the horizon. Beyond the pier that bounded the port, the seas was completely deserted. But looking carefully, Stefano could perceive a small black point which intermittently surfaced on the water: it was “his” colomber, slowly moving back and forth, obstinately waiting for him.

     From then on, with every expedient the boy was dissuaded from his desire to go to sea. His father sent him to study at an inland city, hundreds of kilometers away. And for some time, distracted by his new surroundings, Stefano no longer thought about the sea monster. Still, he returned home for summer vacations, and the first thing he did, as soon as he had some free time, was hurry to the end of the pier for a kind of verification, although he fundamentally considered it unnecessary. After so many years, even supposing that all the stories his father told him were true, the colomber had certainly given up its siege.
     But Stefano stood there, astonished, his heart pounding. At a distance of two to three hundred meters from the pier, in the open sea, the sinister fish was moving back and forth, slowly, raising its muzzle from the water every now and then and turning toward land, as it anxiously watched for whether Stefano was coming at last.
     So the idea of that hostile creature waiting for him day and night became a secret obsession for Stefano. And even in the distant city it cropped up to wake him with worry in the middle of the night. He was safe, of course; hundreds of kilometers separated him from the colomber. And yet he knew that beyond the mountains, beyond the forests and the plains, the shark was waiting for him. He might have moved even to the most remote continent, and still the would have appeared in the mirror of the nearest sea, with the inexorable obstinacy of a fatal instrument.
     Stefano, who was a serious and eager boy, profitably continued his studies, and as soon as he was a man, he found a dignified and well-paying position at a store in the inland city. Meanwhile, his father died through illness, his magnificent ship was sold by his widow, and his son found himself the heir to a modest fortune. Work, friends, diversions, first love affairs- Stefano’s life was not well under way, but the thought of the colomber nonetheless tormented him like a mirage that was fatal and fascinating at the same time; and as the days passed, rather than disappear, it seemed to become more insistent.
     Great are the satisfactions of an industrious, well-to-do, and quiet life, but greater still is the attraction of the abyss. Stefano was hardly twenty-two years old when, having said goodbye to his inland friends and resigned from his job, he returned to his native city and told his mother of his firm intention to follow his father’s trade. The woman, to whom Stefano had never mentioned the mysterious shark, joyfully welcomed his decision. To have her son abandon the sea for the city had always seemed to her, in her heart, a betrayal of the family’s tradition.
     Stefano began to sail, giving proof of his sea-worthiness, his resistance to fatigue, and his
intrepid spirit. He sailed and sailed, and in the wake of his ship, day and night, in good weather and in storms, the colomber trudged along. He knew that this was his curse and his penalty, and precisely for this reason, perhaps, he did not find the strength to sever himself from it. And no one on board, except him, perceived the monster.
     “Don’t you see anything over there?” he asked his companions from time to time, pointing at the wake.
     “No, we don’t see anything at all. Why?”
     “I don’t know. It seemed to me…”
     “You didn’t see a colomber, by any chance, did you?” the sailors asked, laughing and
touching wood.
     “Why are you laughing? Why are you touching wood?”
     “Because the colomber is an animal that spares no one. And if it has begun to follow this
ship, it means that one of us is doomed.”
     But Stefano did not slacken. The uninterrupted threat that followed on his heels seemed in fact to strengthen his will, his passion for the sea, his courage in times of strife and danger.
When he felt that he was master of his trade, he used his modest patrimony to acquire a small steam freighter with a partner; then he became the sole proprietor of it, and thanks to a series of successful shipments, he could subsequently buy a true merchantman, setting out with always more-ambitious aims. But the successes, and the millions, were unable to remove that continual torment from his soul; nor did he ever try, on the other hand, to sell the ship and retire to undertake different enterprises on land.
     To sail and sail was his only thought. Just as soon as he set foot on land in some port after a long journey, the impatience to depart again immediately pricked him. He knew that outside the colomber was waiting for him and that the colomber was synonymous with ruin. With nothingness. An indomitable impulse dragged him without rest, from one ocean to another. 

     Until one day, Stefano suddenly realized that he had grown old, very old; and no one around him could explain why, rich as he was, he did not finally leave the cursed life of the sea. He was old, and bitterly unhappy, because his entire existence had been spent in that mad flight across the seas, to escape his enemy. But the temptation of the abyss had always been greater for him than the joys of a prosperous and quiet life.
     One evening, while his magnificent ship was anchored offshore at the port where he was born, he felt close to death. He then called his second officer, in whom he had great trust, and ordered him not to oppose what he was about to do. The other man promised, on his honor.
     Having gotten this assurance, Stefano revealed to the second officer the story of the colomber that had continued to pursue him uselessly for nearly fifty years. The officer listened to him, frightened.
     “It has escorted me from one end of the world to the other,” Stefano said, “with a faithfulness that not even the noblest friend could have shown. Now I am about to die. The colomber too will be terribly old and weary by now. I cannot betray it.”
     Having said this, he took his leave of the crew, ordered a small boat to be lowered into the sea, and boarded it, after he made them give him a harpoon.
     “Now I am going to meet it,” he announced. “It isn’t right to disappoint it. But I shall
struggle, with all my might.”

     With a few weary strokes of the oars, he drew away from the side of the ship. Officers and
sailors saw him disappear down below, on the placid sea, shrouded in the nocturnal shadows. In the sky was a crescent moon.
     He did not have to work very hard. Suddenly the colomber’s horrible snout emerged at the side of the boat.
     “Here I am with you, finally,” Stefano said. “Now it’s just the two of us.” And gathering his
remaining strength, he raised the harpoon to strike.
     “Uh,” the colomber groaned, imploringly, “what a long journey it’s taken to find you. I too
am wasted with fatigue. How much you made me swim. And you kept on fleeing. You never
understood at all.”
     “What?” asked Stefano, with the point of his harpoon over the colomber’s heart.
     “I have not pursued you around the world to devour you, as you thought. I was charged by the King of the Sea only to deliver this to you.”
     And the shark stuck out its tongue, offering the old captain a small phosphorescent
sphere. Stefano picked it up and examined it. It was a pearl of unusual size. And he recognized it as the famous Perla del Mare, which brought luck, power, love, and peace of mind to whoever possessed it. But now it was too late.
     “Alas!” said the captain, shaking his head sadly. “How wrong it all is. I managed to
condemn myself, and I have ruined your life.”
     “Goodbye, poor man,” answered the colomber. And it sank into the black waters forever.
     Two month later, pushed by an undertow, a small boat came alongside an abrupt reef. It was sighted by several fisherman, who drew near, curious. In the boat, still seated, was a sunbleached skeleton: between the little bones of its fingers it grasped a small round stone.
     The colomber is a huge fish, frightening to behold and extremely rare. Depending on the sea and the people who live by its shores, the fish is also called the kolombrey, kahloubrha, kalonga, kalu-balu, chalunggra. Naturalists strangely ignore it. Some even maintain that is does not exist.

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I first read this story in the journal Parabola: Myth and the Quest for Meaning. I found their May 1983 edition in a library and the story sang when  I read it. I found it a number of places online (like here, here and here). The images are Gustav Dore prints done in 1876 to illustrate Coleridge's epic The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. I found them at this site, where you can purchase them, if you are into that sort of thing. I clearly don't own any of these pieces of art, and am clearly not making any money off reposting them here.

I will post more about my thoughts on this story soon. I promise. 

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** This winter was tough and I got messed up in my calendar. I wrote this thinking it was the Milk Moon but it was really the Birth Moon. Since the post itself is more about the the new year of 2012, I just changed the tags and labels. For more on my thoughts about this, see this post. **
Full Birth Moon 2008: Outer Darkness and Inner Hope

Full Birth Moon 2009: New Year! and A Story for the Birth Moon (these posts are dated 2010, but are for the year that took place mostly in 2009)

 Full Birth Moon 2010: The Dark of the Dark.

1 comment:

Ria said...

It's a wonderful story. Thanks for publishing it, it has a great significance to me.