Flight

Julio Cortázar (1914–84) influenced a generation of writers from Argentina to Mexico. "The Island at Noon" is published in the collection All Fires the Fire (Marion Boyars Modern Classics)

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The island at noon

The first time he saw the island, Marini was politely leaning over the seats on the left, adjusting a plastic table before setting a lunch tray down. The passenger had looked at him several times as he came and went with magazines or glasses of whisky; Marini lingered while he adjusted the table, wondering, bored, if it was worth responding to the passenger's insistent look, one American woman out of many, when in the blue oval of the window appeared the coast of the island, the golden strip of the beach, the hills that rose toward the desolate plateau. Correcting the faulty position of the bottle of beer, Marini smiled to the passenger. "The Greek islands," he said. "Oh yes, Greece," the American woman answered with false interest. A bell rang briefly, and the steward straightened up, without removing the professional smile from his thin lips. He began attending to a Syrian couple, who ordered tomato juice, but in the tail of the plane he gave himself a few seconds to look down again; the island was small and solitary, and the Aegean Sea surrounded it with an intense blue that exalted the curl of a dazzling and kind of petrified white, which down below could be foam breaking against reefs and coves. Marini saw that the deserted beaches ran north and west; the rest was the mountain which fell straight into the sea. A rocky and deserted island, although the lead-grey spot near the northern beach could be a house, perhaps a group of primitive houses. He started opening the can of juice, and when he had straightened up the island had vanished from the window; only the sea was left, an endless green horizon. He looked at his wristwatch without knowing why; it was exactly noon.

Marini liked being assigned to the Rome–Tehran line. The flight was less gloomy than on the northern lines, and the girls seemed happy to go to the Orient or to get to know Italy. Four days later, when he was helping a little boy who had lost his spoon and was pointing downheartedly at his dessert plate, he again discovered the edge of the island. There was a difference of eight minutes, but when he leaned over to a window in the tail he had no doubts; the island had an unmistakable shape, like a turtle whose claws were barely out of the water. He looked at it until they called for him, this time sure that the lead-grey spot was a group of houses; he managed to make out the lines of some cultivated fields that extended to the beach. During the stop at Beirut he looked at the stewardess's atlas and wondered if the island wasn't Horos. The radio operator, an indifferent Frenchman, was surprised at his interest. "All those islands look alike. I've been doing this route for two years, and I don't care a fig about them. Yes, show it to me next time." It wasn't Horos, but Xiros, one of the many islands on the fringe of the tourist circuits. "It won't last five years," the stewardess said to him while they had a drink in Rome. "Hurry up if you're thinking of going, the hordes will be there any moment now. Genghis Cook is watching." But Marini kept thinking about the island, looking at it when he remembered or if there was a window near, almost always shrugging his shoulders in the end. None of it made any sense – flying three times a week at noon over Xiros was as unreal as dreaming three times a week that he was flying over Xiros. Everything was falsified in the futile and recurrent vision; except, perhaps, the desire to repeat it, the consulting of the wristwatch before noon, the brief, pricking contact with the dazzling white band at the edge of an almost black blue, and the houses where the fishermen would barely lift their eyes to follow the passage of that other unreality.

Continues in issue 19. Order now.

Translated by Suzanne Jill Levine

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