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The Portent

by Bertil Falk

(On board the s/s Mykono, which has just sailed from Gothenburg for the Atlantic Ocean to make the crossing to America. Gunwale by the footlights. A small table on deck. Some folding deck chairs. On the gunwale, a lifebuoy with the name of the vessel. HE stands on the deck.)

HE (with a sigh): Well! Sufficient for the ticket, and some money left over as well. (With feeling) Hell! (gives something on the deck a kick) Leaving banana peels like that! Somebody might slip!

RIMBAUD (in from left): My dear sir, please!

HE: Well, look who’s here! Mister Riiiiiiimbauuuuuud. Have you been eavesdropping?

RIMBAUD: I heard someone speaking. What did you say?

HE: I was complaining. How are you otherwise?

RIMBAUD: I am just a superannuated circus performer.

HE: Among other things, yes. Well, that is some kind of life as well. Were you... ? A juggler perhaps? No, hardly you! (laughing) No?

RIMBAUD: No, hardly! You see... the daughter of the circus manager...

HE (interrupting): Yes, I can vividly imagine. You were a stableman and forgot that the elephant was not tethered when she performed her star turn, up there in the trapeze. The colossus roared, tearing off a tent-pole with its trunk. She was lying there, crushed in bloody spasms in the gallery, dying an unnatural death.

RIMBAUD: The elephant?

HE (irritated): No, the daughter of the manager of course! (shakes his head, to himself) The elephant! By God!

RIMBAUD: You are nevertheless wrong. I was a clown.

HE: A horrible profession, I imagine. Is there anything more ridiculous, anything more tragic than a human being? If so, would it be a clown?

RIMBAUD: Probably! But tell me. What did you actually think when you walked down to this black vessel just before it sailed? They were at work, loading the last circus animals when you arrived. Yes, I certainly saw you, but did you really know the destination?

HE: Don’t make a fool of yourself. What would I do with a destination? I have relatives on the other side. That’s the whole explanation. But what about you? What did you think when you abandoned a promising career?

RIMBAUD: It was my contempt. I can assure you that I was not only a precocious madman.

HE: When I observe you carefully, I find some human traits. I must admit that. True, true.

RIMBAUD: It’s not only that. To be a clown, a poet, a drug dealer, a leather trader or a slaver or just anything is such a goddamned life, you see.

HE: You mean that it should be humans who have lived that much more?

RIMBAUD: I don’t mean anything, but a gentleman who has raised crime to the state of a divine axiom, is said to exist.

HE: A compatriot of yours, monsieur!

RIMBAUD: He is said to consider the lack of morality to be the highest form of morality.

HE: Or highest potency. Yes, what you are saying is quite correct. And thus we see morality from a new angle.

RIMBAUD: But what the heck is moral in reality?

HE (thoughtful): Moral, yes! What can it be?

RIMBAUD (slinging his arms about): It can be just about anything.

HE: Good poetry can be bad lyrics.

RIMBAUD: And maybe the lyrics I call crap can be good.

HE: Morality can very well be immorality.

RIMBAUD: That’s contemporary dogmatics.

HE: To be true, I came aboard this boat in order to get away from all supposedly radical morality and all reactionary dogmatics.

RIMBAUD: You did right there, for here it’s pleasant and fresh, all this sea air buttered on this slice of deck by the blades of the winds.

HE: Yes, there was a strong wind a while ago, a fresh breeze.

RIMBAUD: In this neighborhood, the Titanic collided with an iceberg.

HE: Do you think that we are running a risk as well?

RIMBAUD: There’s always some threat to cling to.

HE: Actually, ominous clouds loom large on the horizon.

RIMBAUD: You’re right.

HE: But strictly speaking. How was it? Did you suffer from some crisis?

RIMBAUD: No, not exactly. I was simply too young in those days.

HE: And now you are an authority.

RIMBAUD: Yes, they are crazy.

HE: Canonized. Accepted.

RIMBAUD: Yes, yes, I know all that. Of the moment today, reactionary tomorrow!

HE: Or never! You’ve done a great work at any rate.

RIMBAUD: What is that glowing thing in the sky? Look! Do you see?

HE: Mark my words! Isn’t it... oh yes, I’ll be buggered if it’s not the comet!

RIMBAUD (disappointed): Is that so? Such a meteor.

HE: (eagerly): Yes, but look! The glowing tail, you know. Can’t you see it? Looks like the fire from the jaws of a Chinese dragon.

RIMBAUD: Or a Japanese volcano. Once, I saw an eruption ...

HE: Did you? Really? Vesuvius?

RIMBAUD: No, an old hag. I had just written one of my masterpieces, and... well, it doesn’t really matter. Anyhow, she got damned furious.

HE: Did she spit fire?

RIMBAUD: Like a dragon, that hag.

HE: And that’s why you didn’t suffer from any crisis?

RIMBAUD: It has nothing to do with that.

THE CAPTAIN: (enters): Hoist the lantern! Two men at the wheel.

HE: A wheel on a modern transatlantic liner?

THE CAPTAIN: Yes, there’ll be a storm tonight.

RIMBAUD: I guess the sign in the sky is an omen?

THE CAPTAIN: In a way. Yes, I think you can say that.

HE: Why do people emigrate, after all? You should know that, captain.

THE CAPTAIN: If they don’t embezzle, there’s something else the matter with them. That’s all I know.

HE: And how would you classify me?

THE CAPTAIN: (inspecting): Well, no doubt you could have been embezzling.

HE: And how can you see that?

THE CAPTAIN: Your eyes are so friendly.

RIMBAUD: But he’s outspoken and disagreeable.

THE CAPTAIN: Can that be trusted?

HE: Not at all. It is true that I have not embezzled, and for the time being I’ve no plans to do that, but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t do it. I’ve never embezzled but spent most of my life wasting a lot of time.

THE CAPTAIN: Well, I would call that a kind of embezzlement, I would even say gross embezzlement.

RIMBAUD: Strangely enough, it’s windless right now. I don’t feel the slightest breeze.

HE: They use to talk about the lull before the storm in the country we just left.

THE CAPTAIN: You’re right, you’re absolutely right, monsieur Rimbaud. It’s damned calm.

RIMBAUD: Has it something to do with the appearance of the comet?

HE: Hardly or probably!?!?!?!?

RIMBAUD: I always wanted to see some remarkable celestial sign. A mock sun, northern lights... but now that I have a ringside seat with the sky as a ring and a fantastic artist in the sawdust, I’m standing here wasting words in an irrelevant conversation.

HE: When the great moment happens, then you’re always busy with something else, something totally irrelevant.

THE CAPTAIN: Do you notice that it’s getting lighter. And it gets lighter and lighter. Well, what do you know? That comet, that comet!

HE: It’s actually midday at midnight. How can we sleep?

RIMBAUD: There’ll be no sleep.

HE (yawning): But I’m sleepy.

RIMBAUD: Go to bed.

THE CAPTAIN: (walks away): Haul the lantern! One man at the wheel! (disappears)

RIMBAUD: I don’t want to miss this night for anything in the world.

HE: You’re right. How about a game of Japanese whist here on deck?

RIMBAUD: I’d be delighted, delighted! We have a table here.

HE: It’s too small. We need a bigger one. I saw one in steerage a few hours ago.

RIMBAUD: Let’s fetch it. (They disappear.)

MADAME (in from left): The ocean seems to be empty and abandoned. Indeed, that burning monster is reflected in it. (sneezes) I think that I’ve caught a cold. You over there. Yes, you, you. Come over here for a moment.

STEWARD (enters from the right): Madame!

MADAME: Would you please go down to my cabin and fetch me some hankies.

STEWARD: Oui, Madame!

MADAME: They’re very easy to recognize and they are in the middle drawer. You’ll find them.

STEWARD: I sure will, Madame. (intends to withdraw)

MADAME: Wait a minute. There’s more. There is a pack of cards on the bedside table. Please fetch that as well. That is all. Now, now, hurry up!

(STEWARD disappears.)

(RIMBAUD and HE return with a table.)

HE: Here’s a good spot.

RIMBAUD: Look, the sky is really stylish right now.

HE: That’s for sure. It’s been a long time since a comet appeared in this hemisphere.

RIMBAUD: Where are the deck chairs? (looks about) There they are. (They unfold two chairs.)

HE (discovers MADAME.): Who is this?

RIMBAUD: Who? Aha! This is a famous claivoyant,

HE: You know her?

RIMBAUD: No, but I’ve heard about her.

HE: Well, let’s sit down and...

RIMBAUD: Oh, hell!

HE: Was ist los?

RIMBAUD: A good question. We’ve forgotten the most important thing.

HE: Yes, of course. The deck of cards! We’ve forgotten the deck of cards!

MADAME: Excusez-moi, but...

RIMBAUD: Of course, Madame. What can we do for you?

MADAME: Nothing, but perhaps I can do something for you. After all, maybe you could unfold a chair for me?

RIMBAUD: I shall be delighted, Madame. (unfolds a deck chair, MADAME sits down.)

MADAME: I heard that you gentleman don’t have a pack of cards.

RIMBAUD: That’s right.

HE: We thought of everything, except the most important thing.

RIMBAUD: Exactly. When playing Japanese whist, what you need above all is a deck of cards. (STEWARD returns.)

MADAME: Here comes salvation. (to STEWARD) Give the cards to these gentlemen, please. (STEWARD hands over the pack of cards to RIMBAUD) Thank you, thank you. (STEWARD hands over the handkerchiefs to MADAME) Thank you, thank you,

RIMBAUD: Everything is peace and quiet tonight, n’est-ce pas? My friend and I (gestures towards HE) have admired the beautiful outlook towards the night sky. We are lucky to be on the open sea at an occasion like this, or what do you think?

MADAME: Have you seen how that egoist looks at itself in the water? I think that comet is a real rascal.

RIMBAUD (laughing): Yes, why not?

HE: You think so, Madame. Neither I nor Rimbaud have thought something like that. But... yes, why not?

MADAME: You should not pay attention to what I’m saying. I’m just talking without thinking twice. But were you going to play whist?

RIMBAUD: Japanese whist, Madame.

MADAME (with a deprecating gesture): By no means let me disturb you.

(HE and RIMBAUD sit down and deal the cards.)

MADAME (looks away, gets to her feet as if she has caught sight of something): Have you seen. Over there, by the gunwale! (laughs) Well, I never! What do you know!

HE: Wow! He seems to be drunk, very much so.

MADAME: He should take care, lest he fall.

HE: Now he’s turning in our direction. Have you seen his eyes?

MADAME: They look like grapes.

HE: They are grapes. Believe me. This man is a sailor who has grown up at the bottom of the sea among voices and algae.

MADAME: How poetic of you to say that. How absurdly funny! (sits down) Now he’s disappeared over there. (HE and RIMBAUD begin playing cards) He looked as if he was born to drown, or what do you say?

RIMBAUD: Anyone who drowns in this ocean will just become glass rings on a dead calm surface.

HE (to MADAME): If anything happens, he has himself to blame. (to RIMBAUD) You won that game. I see you’ll be the winner. I’m mostly unlucky at cards.

RIMBAUD: Surfaces and their tensions express yearning, which becomes thirst to us. Whose turn is it now?

HE: It’s your turn.

RIMBAUD: The three of Spades. How do you like that?

HE: That was well done. I reply by playing a heart.

RIMBAUD: That was good. Let me see. Yes, it was excellent!

HE: I understand you have a sequence of Spades. But see what I have! It means at least something for me.

RIMBAUD: The Ace. You should not have shown it. It’s as well that I draw it out from you straight away and then it’s your turn. Here is five.

MADAME: Ugh! I think it’s cold out here.

HE: Well, it’s illuminated, but it’s not warm.

MADAME (gets to her feet): It may sound ridiculous, but take care. Don’t go too close to the gunwale.

HE: You think there’ll be a storm?

MADAME (looking across the gunwale): You may fall overboard pretty easily.

HE: I can’t swim, and the sea here is as if it was made to walk on. Like a parquet floor.

MADAME: It may seem so, but don’t go too close. You could get entangled in the rail. It could put itself like a snare around your neck and you could be hanging alongside the vessel and keep banging in the light breeze like an old, worn-out wooden fender.

RIMBAUD: Madame, it’s dead calm!

MADAME: Dead calm? Don’t you feel? There was a thin puff of air that just now gently strikes the cheek. One of you is born to die hanging.

HE: The threatening clouds do really draw nearer.

RIMBAUD: Soon it will be night again.

THE CAPTAIN (‘s voice): Hoist the lantern! Hoist the lantern! And two men at the wheel!

HE: Isn’t this a strange transatlantic liner? I’ve never heard of captains in our day behaving like that.

MADAME: Perhaps not. (yawns) No, ugh. It’s cold and I’m getting tired and must look after my li’l nasal catarrh. But don’t be afraid. I think that at least we three will arrive safely. (The comet vanishes into clouds, total darkness, only the silhouettes of the three are seen). I say. The wind is increasing more and more. (A strong squall washes the cards overboard).

RIMBAUD: There goes our whist.

HE: My luck that it blew away. You would have won.

MADAME: It’s time for me to retire anyhow. You can give me the deck of cards tomorrow. Good night, gentlemen! (Disappears to the left. The two men get to their feet.)

RIMBAUD (walks to the gunwale): See how agitated the sea is.

HE (walks to the gunwale): Heavy as lead and gray foam as if wallowing in a fight. (looks to the side where they’ve seen the drunken man; cries out) Look! (a scream is heard).

RIMBAUD: He fell! Who was it?

HE: The boozer who should have avoided getting too close to the gunwale.

RIMBAUD: So he went too near?

HE: Well, then, we don’t have to be afraid tonight. And the one who was born to hang, monsieur Rimbaud. Who was that?

RIMBAUD: It was you!

HE: Perfectly right! It was me!


Copyright © 2008 by Bertil Falk

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