Umberto Eco: Baudolino

Our wee vacation to Maine was an exceptional escape from work for a week, but it was also supposed to be a relief from the constant interruptions of my imaginary friends and family. So I found it relaxing simply to sit still on a marble bench near the lighthouse at Port Clyde and stare at the ocean beating itself upon the rocks. Some days, the water nearly seemed to caress the shore as it curled its waves around the stones.

On this particular day, I sat on the bench hypnotized by the rhythms and wondered whether the ocean was trying to punish itself for something.

"Ayuh. When you've claimed as many souls as she has, you feel some regrets," said the man who materialized behind me. His appearance was so sudden I nearly dropped my bag of curry puffs.

"Regrets?" I stammered.

"Aye," he said as he sat down beside me on the bench. He was kitted out in weatherproof getup: a dull yellow vinylized hat covered his ears; a slick coat with a double row of buttons draped to his shins; and his feet were planted in solid rubber boots. He plugged a pipe into his prodigious gray beard and stared icily at the sea.

After waiting for a few moments for him to elaborate, I returned to my bag of curry puffs. He accepted one without comment, or rather: he held his comments close for a few more minutes.

"You see this bench we're perched upon?" he asked, finally. I nodded, but he went silent again. It occurred to me that his sentences were like small islands separated by gulfs of silence. (I later decided that we were both being pretentious.) As a proud member of the "get-to-it" generation, I was a little irritated by being cast adrift like this. If he had something to say, he should just spit it out! But it takes me some time to generate the energy to display that level of rudeness, so before I could start yelling, but not before I had started squirming, he was able to go on.

"It's the headstone of my dear brother Eli." I jumped up immediately. Sure enough, carved into the face were words of memory for Eli Nauzer.

"Sorry, I didn't mean --" I started, but he put up his hand.

"Nah, nah," he said. "We thought that a bench in the safety of the light would be more appropriate than some never-visited gravestone. We meant for people to sit. Sit." He brushed his hand at the spot I had recently vacated. I tried to sit, but found I no longer wanted to sit. I wanted to pace.

"The sea?" I prompted when his hand snaked out to the bag of curry puffs.

"Ayuh. The sea took my dear brother, lad," he said around bites. His beard shifted as he brushed crumbs away, then he pointed out to sea. "'twas a miserable night. The swells were like small mountains, the troughs like Death Valley. Eli was potting lobsters, you see, because the season would end at midnight and he had mouths to feed --"

But he was interrupted by my shout of "Your beard shifted!" I pulled at his beard and it came free in my hand. His eyes went wide beneath bushy eyebrows. I recognized those eyes. Instead of fighting, he reached for another curry puff.

It was my imaginary friend Bertie.

"What are you doing here? And what in the name of all that is holy and just are you doing in that costume?"

"I find it helps the tourists accept the stories a little better," he said calmly.

"The tourists appreciate a psycho masquerading as the Gorton fisherman?"

"People trust the Gorton fisherman," he replied. I simply cried out and rotated three times. Why do these people follow me around? He pulled a book from inside his raincoat. It was Baudolino, by Umberto Eco. "I was reading this book --"

"When did you start reading?" I interrupted, a little rudely.

"We all read," he said. "I was really impressed with the way that Baudolino is able to thrive through the judicious use of ..." He trailed off.

"Lies," I suggested.

"... fictional narrative," he said. "He was able to survive and advance by telling people stories."

"He certainly was able to get himself fed using story," I said, snatching the bag from his hands. "But it all fell apart in the end, don't you think?"

"Oh, I don't know," said Bertie. "He had trouble because he started to believe his own stories, sure. But that is easily avoided."

"How?" I asked.

"Oh, it takes discipline. You must constantly question the world around you, but most of all, you must think."

"So, if I think hard enough, I can see through the fictions?" I asked.

"Ye--" he started, but he could not finish before he disappeared. Satisfied, I sat down on the bench and picked at my bag of curry puffs. The sea was calming.

But when I looked into the bag, it was empty. I crumpled it up and headed for the car. I hoped it would still be there.

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