Frigyes Karinthy

Two Ships

Captain Christopher and Sinesius the alchemist sat together, on the eve of their departure, by the harbour which faced out on the Atlantic. Captain Christopher was a highly respected gentleman by now: the Queen had received him in audience, and the Treasury had entrusted him with money. He was a sensible, modern man, a friend to new ideas and full of enterprise, who aimed to make these new ideas come true, as far as possible. However, he was very fond of Sinesius, perhaps because of his oddity: but he smiled and called him an eccentric when his name cropped up among friends.

Nevertheless, Sinesius had disciples too: tousled and pale young men who listened with adoring eyes when he spoke of astrology and the Cabal. More recently, these studies had begun to pall: innovators who demanded clear and explicable theories were beginning to mock the Ptolemaists openly and violently. All of a sudden, Science had become a concrete and simple thing; it was expected to produce results, and quick results at that. A new country within reach, where the gold of the earth could be quarried cheaply and without responsibilities, was preferred today to that uncertain gold of tomorrow which the alchemists would make of coal and sand, as soon as they were favoured by heavenly constellations. Those who led fashion had suddenly found it comfortable and flattering to feel that the world was only a round ball—back and forth, up and down, it could be circumambulated, and thus, possessed. The platter reaching to infinity which only melts into the Crystal Spheres somewhere beyond the Infinite had shrunk suddenly to a small ivory ball which might fit a pocket—and there were some who were seriously thinking of pocketing it.

A small inn stood near the shore, with its windows overlooking the harbour where Captain Christopher’s splendid boat was riding at anchor. Captain Christopher and Sinesius sat by the window, still talking. Night was falling and they had arranged to sail at daybreak. The captain was teasing Sinesius.

“Well, stick to your bet, Sinesius. Four months from today we shall arrive in the Indies.”

Sinesius gazed into space. He believed it to be infinite. He raised his hand and pointed mysteriously towards the horizon.

“But not by going west...”

“Yes, to the west, how else but westward! We keep going west, always to the west—and suddenly we shall see the sun rise in the west. We shall go on and suddenly we shall find ourselves back home. Going out by the door we shall suddenly pop up at the back window. Thus the first shall become the last—going straight ahead until I shall be behind you, Sinesius.”

“There is an infinite Ocean out there,” Sinesius said quietly, bowing to the twilight sky.

“So it is. And past it, the Indians. And further on, there is Europe, and even further, there is Spain, and this very inn; then the Indies again, and again this inn. That's how it is, round and round—like a hall of mirrors which never ends, narrow as it is, Sinesius.”

“You must journey a thousand years, and then you come to the region of the winged men,” said Sinesius, obstinately. “Look hard at the horizon, Christopher. Look, Mercury has just emerged from the depth of the Crystal Sphere. That’s where the giants live, who motivate the spheres. Can’t you hear their music, from far away in the timeless past, from the desolate distance? I can hear it often, in the quiet of the night.”

And Sinesius began to whisper about the music of the spheres, the Crystal Sphere, and the winged men. He had wonderful tales of giants and dwarfs, of twin stars where everything shimmered green and purple, of the wet fire of the salamanders which touch the body and do not burn. A strange light flared in his eyes as he talked. He listed the wondrous metals which could be found only on Saturn, where men walked on air and women’s bodies were of a greenish-yellow mist. Captain Christopher slapped the table with his palm as he roared with laughter.

Then he grew angry. “Don’t you believe Regiomontanus, then? The world is only a ball.”

“How should my soul know all this, if it were not true?” cried the alchemist, raising his arms to Heaven so that the sleeves of his loose gown fell back to his shoulders. “The soul is born free.”

“But the body inhabits the Earth. This is our domain.”

“From the body emanates the soul, Captain Christopher. From the stars, music comes; from matter, strength. Matter is animated, it can make music, it can become energy if we, creatures with souls, wish it to do so. The body is of the earth, yes, the soul is of the body, and yet, the soul can reach to Heaven. Look at the stars, there on the horizon; where starlight shines in your eye, there you shall meet, there you achieve a divine union with your soul.”

“Praemissa: the soul derives from the earth,” continued Sinesius, “abscissa minor: the soul reaches to Heaven. Abscissa major: ergo, the Earth reaches to Heaven. It meets Heaven out there, where I can hear the music of the aerial beings. If I understood their music, I could search for knowledge under their guidance; I could change to air, I could float on the wind. One day, I shall succeed. One day, I shall understand the music of the Spheres.”

“The same wicked nonsense was spoken by those who imprisoned the great Regiomontanus. They threw it at him that the Earth reaches to Heaven and the Earth is fixed, and they imprisoned him.”

Sinesius turned towards the twilight, and did not reply. Captain Christopher, like many hot-blooded men, grew angry again and demanded an answer.

“Well, say it out loud, dare to pronounce it openly that you think they were right, that you approve those who imprisoned the great Regiomontanus.”

Slowly Sinesius turned back to the Captain. “It was he who imprisoned us all,” he said darkly.

“Who did? Regiomontanus?” Christopher was shocked.

“Yes. He knew it himself that he had committed a great sin against us. When he was forced to confess, he did not dare to admit to his judges his villainous, infidel belief. The stake was blazing away in the background. Oh, let it burn! its smoke reaches to Heaven; his words reached only the ears of men. He felt that he had done wrong; he bent his head and he confessed his sin to his spiritual lords. And when they so generously released him, he stopped at the prison gate, amidst the rabble, and he wickedly, traitorously flung them a bone, ‘Eppur si muove’. And so we are still beggars, prisoners in our dungeon.”

“Would you have let him burn, would you have left the great man to languish in the dungeon?” Captain Christopher was genuinely horrified.

“I would. One man would have died in the depths of a dungeon; but they let him out, and he has locked us all into a prison. You believed him when he proclaimed that it’s just a little ball, with ants crawling on it, rolling around in space. You believed his assertion, that it’s so far and no further. You believed that it is the same everywhere: everywhere the same dun walls surround us, and within these walls, behind locked gates, bread and water, the bare supper of prisoners, and nothing more. Now, you would circle the earth, you would circle your walls to show everyone: we come back again to our prison benches, and all our fellow convicts loiter beneath similar walls, equally wretched everywhere. You would set out from here in order to come back here, even if you keep going forward. You would set out into the blue, into the infinite,” and Sinesius pointed towards the horizon, “and you say, that’s where the Indies are, bread follows water—miserable Indians, sweating in the dust of the earth. You will go to the far corners of the world, and there, too, you will shut your heavy gates on my imagination. You stand here on the ocean’s shore, and you no longer want it to be an ocean leading into the blessed distance where the eternal planets welcome us to eternal life; you want it to be a cheap mirror which lies to us about infinity, unable to reflect anything except our sad, same faces, with youth and its infinite longings greying and fading slowly... We go forward in your mirror and yet we can only arrive back to our own selves...”

“Well, if that's how you see it, why are you coming with me?” Captain Christopher mocked him.

“Because I do not believe you, Columbus. To the west, there is only the west... the west reaching into infinity. In the west, there are the vast waters, and the re-embodied, kindly spirits of the Greek philosophers. To the west, the Ignis Fatuus burns on, and an unknown music plays. One day we shall understand, in a thousand year’s time, when the Comet returns, when we can stay young for a thousand years so that we can sail for a thousand years, forward, always forward, across the waters where our galleon could sail for six thousand years and still go on discovering new worlds... winged men... women of green mist... To the east, there are hot lands, and lascivious blackamoors. The end of the world is to the east. From the west, you cannot go east.”

“Well, Sinesius,” said Captain Christopher, holding out his hand, “let’s bet on it. If in four months from today you do not sight dry land with your own eyes, I shall give you... what should I give you? I shall give you that large pinnace which we are taking with us.”

“I accept the bet, Christopher,” said Sinesius darkly. “With the pinnace, I can leave your ship, and set out alone for the West. . .”

And, once again, he turned towards the sea. It had grown dark, and a mist had fallen. The sinking sun disappeared in the mist, and the thin line which separated the sky from the water had also disappeared.

The wind was blowing from the island of Palos.

The course of the Santa Maria was set westward, its mizzen full before the wind. At six o’clock in the evening on the eleventh of October, Captain Christopher and Sinesius the alchemist were standing on the ship’s prow, near the rail, where a huge carved metal arm suspended a green lantern above the water. The complicated rigging fluttered in the twilight, the hawsers creaked and the timbers groaned below.

For weeks now Captain Christopher had been faking his entries in the ship’s log, for secretly, its tremors still hidden, the dread image of Panic was stealing into the hearts of his crew, and growing more grim every day. For four months now they had been crossing the vast grey carpet of the Ocean, westward, ever westward, while the water met again with mysterious and relentless smoothness behind the blunt stern. The captain had been promising big money and high appointments as soon as they should reach the eastern shores of Asia. That’s all very well, but who had ever been there before them? No one. Westwards from the Portuguese shores only infinity fluttered between earth and sky; only these new men talked of the earth as being round, where you couldn’t get lost, but would only get back to where you started. That’s how the new men talked, but dark-eyed Sinesius and his two pale, young disciples knew a different Cabal.

The mate had overheard their talk at night, below decks. They were grinding powders with a mortal and pestle and a green flame flared up which made the skin translucent and the skull visible. At the same time, Saint Elm’s fire flickered around the masthead. The mate had also overheard some of the talk between Sinesius and Captain Christopher; he did not understand much of it, but even the little he understood was enough to spoil his sleep.

When they had first set out, Captain Christopher was cheery and talkative and Sinesius was darkly silent. Now it seemed as if they had exchanged roles. Sinesius had sat on a coiled rope, smiling mysteriously to himself for some days now; and it was he who spoke to the Captain.

“At daybreak, in four hours, our bet will be up, Captain. Then I shall have Niña, the pinnace; I shall take her, Captain Christopher.”

“At daybreak we shall sight land from the masthead, Sinesius,” said Christopher confidently. “That was our bet. If not, the pinnace is yours.”

“You still don’t understand...” whispered Sinesius. His lips trembled and he grew pale, “can't you see, even now, that you were wrong? At home, your calculations were clear and simple, just as Regiomontanus and the other fools had decreed... westward, ever westward... and Asia... But we have been sailing into nothing for four months now. Aha, Christopher! Look, can’t you see, the colour of the sea is changing from green to blue and from blue to grey again? Can't you see up there, as I have foretold, can’t you see the dry fire, which feeds the salamanders?”

Indeed, a bluish flare sparkled at the top of the mast. Columbus gave a light shudder.

“You are crazy, Sinesius. You are still dreaming of the Crystal Spheres,” was all he said aloud.

Sinesius sat thinking for some time. Then, quietly as if he was talking to himself, he began to explore his own thoughts.

“You want gold, Christopher; you can never understand me. I know you, Christopher. You are held to be an inspired and public- spirited man at Court, for you promised them that you would reach Asia through the west. But I know what you want: you want new lands and vast riches, you want to be called Viceroy, you want glory, success, praise. It was for this that you have denied the salamanders and the women of the silver air, and the divine music of the Spheres, which is my quest... For these, and not because you believe Regiomontanus, who wanted to imprison our infinite Imagination. You showed me your sealed orders, back on the isle of Palos, your promises from the King: ships, and an admiral’s rank, as soon as the siege of Granada is raised. This is what you want, Christopher, and all this rabble you brought along. Gold, new lands; the quicker and the nearer, the better. We’ve only been coming for four months, and your men are getting restless. . .”

He bent closer to the captain’s ear:

“And what would happen,” he whispered, “if a year passed... or two... or three... or even longer... and your ship would sail on before the wind, and never make a landfall. . .”

“By mid-October, we shall reach the Indies, or some island... You are mad, Sinesius.”

His words were lost in the wind. The barren, dizzy emptiness gaped far ahead of them in the night. The stars were terribly, terribly far away.

“I have been at work below decks," continued Sinesius, "you know that I have been seeking the elixir of youth, Christopher. . .”

For the first time, Christopher was unable to smile at this. That night, there, on that unknown sea where no man had come before, these words did not sound as amusing as they did in the little Spanish inn. He forced his mouth into a sneer, but he could feel himself growing pale.

“Until now, Christopher, we had lacked the dry fire. But now we have it. Look, how it flickers on the mast... In the night, I stole below decks with a few tongues of that flame, and I could feel it course in my veins, thick and cold... This is a fire we do not understand. But I am sure I am right, Captain Christopher. It will be dawn in an hour, and I shall have my little boat... and then I shall leave the Santa Maria. Yáñez and Paracelsus, my pupils, will come with me. We sat up together in the night, Christopher; we saw the salamanders.”

Columbus forced a laugh. “And tell me, Sinesius... what, after all, do you think you'll do? Where will you go with that worn-out little boat if by any chance... if...”

“Yesterday, it was still a worn-out old boat,” whispered Sinesius.

“And today?”

“Are you so sure, are you quite sure, Captain, that now, this very minute, we still have water beneath us?”

The captain looked at him in dismay. He opened his mouth to reply, but his voice failed him. The alchemist continued his hot whispering in his ear:

“We all three saw the salamander, creature of air and fire... And then suddenly it changed its shape. A greenish light flared up, and we saw a naked woman in the cold flame, as she fluttered up into the air. We turned to look at her... the aerial creature ran along the deck, slid down the prow of the ship and stepped on the water. She ran along on the water, westward. A pale wake of light followed her. We watched as she grew smaller in the vast distance, shrinking to the size of a star, but we could still see her receding from us. And then, she rose higher, but the light in her wake showed that she was still running on the water; so it must be the water which rises, out there in the distance... Then we still looked, thinking still to see her, but there where she shrank to a small point of fire, the red rose of Saturn glittered alone... Look!"”

He started the Captain with a sharp nudge.

“Look! Saturn! That’s where she disappeared, within half an hour, even though Trismegistos had written that a ship must sail for two thousand years to reach that far.”

“What then?” whispered the captain. He was feeling distinctly unwell.

“Two thousand years! But what does it matter, if we have the elixir of youth, what are two thousand years to me? For six hundred years we sail on, living on elixir, nothing else... in six hundred years, the water gets thinner, towards the infinite waters of the Ocean... Our ship will rise; shiny, cold mists will be swirling under us, the earth far below; our ship will rise twenty thousand feet, its sail lying on air like a cloud... and from below it will appear as a cloud.”

The voice of the alchemist trembled, like the wind. The sails shuddered overhead.

“And then, we shall float further on the water which has turned to air. Winged men will be diving around us ... making their fruits from gold... Another four hundred years, and we shall reach the Crystal Spheres.”

“To the west there is only the west, Christopher... the infinite Ocean, which embraces the sky... the sky, where the music of the Spheres plays for us... You were the victim of a terrible mistake, Christopher, and now this mistake is discovered. You believed that you could take over the world if you imprisoned the free flight of the soul and proved that there is no way of reaching the sky from this earth. You brought water and bread for one year, though you set out on the road to Infinity, to Eternity. You will suffer for it, for you have no means of crossing the boundaries to the lands of the Gods. Look, Christopher: the horizon is gone. Saturn no longer shines in the sky... it glitters there under the water. Can’t you feel it? The ship has stopped rolling, we are no longer on water, we are floating in thin, light air... Look, the sails are like clouds. Can you feel us glide along? Can you hear, can you hear the music? From far, far out there... the music of the Spheres...”

The Captain’s heart missed a beat. His ears were ringing, the blood seemed to freeze in his veins. From a terrible distance, he could hear the ice-cold strains of an unknown music.

And then, the horizon began to grow paler in the west.

Christopher didn’t even notice that he had dug his nails into the alchemist’s arm. He hung on like a shipwrecked man; he felt he would faint.

The alchemist stood up, triumphant; he spread his arms and his lips opened, to speak again. But before he could speak, a sharp screech of a call cut through the air like a flash of lightning.

“Land ahoy!”

For a moment they stood, motionless. Captain Christopher was the first to recover: he let go of the alchemist and a tremendous shout burst from his lungs, like one waking from the terror of a nightmare.

“Land” he shouted, pushing the alchemist away, unable to control his frantic excitement. He rushed below decks, then up to the bridge. To the west, a sickly, pale yellow light glimmered—yellow light, and a narrow, hair-breadth stripe of grey.

“Look,” he panted, and he shook the alchemist. “Sinesius, look! The West Indies! We had set out from the west, and we have reached the east! We’ve done it! I knew it, fool that I was, I knew it, but the darkness had made me stupid... but I was right all the time!”

He laughed and jumped about like a child.

“Well, Sinesius, look at it then—do you see the land? I won our bet! It is daybreak.”

“I can’t see anything.”

“What? You can’t see it?”

“I can’t see it, and I don’t want to,” said Sinesius coldly, and his voice held some of the pride of the impoverished aristocrat whose servant had won a lottery. “And I have won our bet; you staked the pinnace, if we did not sight land by daybreak. Make the boat ready, Captain Christopher, and let my pupils be called. Then, go on towards that dirty, grey ribbon which you believe to be land. I shall take the pinnace on to the west.”

The Santa Maria had disappeared beyond the horizon, and Sinesius and his two disciples, Yáñez and Paracelsus, sat on the bowsprit of their boat, staring at the swirling sails. Their pinnace was heading northwest; along their western horizon, a pale, whitish band came and went with the rising tide: the New World, as sighted by Columbus a few hours earlier from the bridge of the Santa Maria.

Sinesius shrugged, and he spread his burning, dark glance over the young men like a magic tent.

“Do you regret leaving him and coming with me?” he asked at last, sadly.

The disciples were silent.

“Don't be afraid,” he told them. “His New World was unworthy of us. We could not have tolerated it if they had been proved right, the prison-warders. Land, and land again—how foolish. They will call it the New World, I suppose: but I can tell you that they will not find anything new there. They will find gold in the earth, and red-skinned men who are none the less just like themselves. They will get to know their tongues, and busy little ships will set out from European shores to take possession of the new lands. The German positivists, the astronomers and the physicists will rub their hands in glee: behold, theory has turned into science, the earth is a hard little ball and we are tiny worms, born to eat dust and to turn into dust; man is nothing but a body.

“I don't want any of it; they can have it. I’ve left them. I give them their New World and their whole World which is small, round, enclosed... I still believe my masters: Aristotle, happy in his wisdom, who spoke of the women of air; I believe John the Evangelist, who saw the Heavens open up and who saw the Lamb of the seven antlers; I believe Albertus Magnus and Hermes Trismegistos—and I believe in the Infinite, which has no bounds, just like the Imagination, which had created it.”

The disciples were silent.

“You haven't forgotten?” Sinesius asked humbly, begging them almost. “You haven’t forgotten the nights in Stuttgart? Or have you forgotten the green crucible, and the greenish-blue glitter of the Magisterium? Don't you believe me? Don't you believe that we shall reach the Crystal Sphere?”

It was growing darker. At the top of the sail, the fire of Saint Elm flared up once again.

“Here is the elixir,” said Sinesius, holding aloft the phial. “Do not envy Columbus and his sailors; they are on their way to die, in the dust of their New World. Quicksands await them, the dreary alternation of night and day until their last night and last day should come. Our way takes us across the Ocean. For six more months we shall sail, and drink daily the elixir of the Wise. And then, we shall hear the music more clearly; and then, the sun shall rise, for the last time, never to set again; there shall be no more twilight, Paracelsus!

“And while we are still young, and with our bodies immortal as well as our souls, we shall continue our way across the Ocean of the sky, until the Outer Regions shall open before us; and then, in another six hundred years, until the Crystal Spheres shall open up too. We shall hold converse with the Winged Creatures, we shall learn their language, the music of the Spheres, which expresses the deepest truths in notes of music... and then, if you wish, Paracelsus, we shall turn back again; we shall reach the isle of Palos, and from there, we shall sail into Lisbon harbour... And as we are now in the fourteenth hundred and ninety second year of Our Lord, it will then be two thousand and ninety, in our reckoning. We shall find a changed world, as you might imagine...

“Columbus and his followers will have changed the face of the earth. Scientists will have come, measuring the surface of the small globe which is their world; every man and small-minded calculation will justify them. And those who measure the Earth will have taken possession of it... Everyone will submit to them, for a thousand years; to that clear-cut, popular science which believes only what the eye can see and the ear can hear.

“For a thousand years, Paracelsus, the Eye and the Ear will have become their idols. They will believe in them just as the ancient Persians and Assyrians had believed in their magic stones. Only we know that all idols are false, because God, the Meaning of All, cannot be grasped. But they will believe their gross, palpable science, flattering to the rabble, and they shall have built palaces for its worship in the Old World, as well as in the New... and machines, too. By the time we return, we shall find machines which beat the air with their wings and fly around the earth and spread the glory of those charlatan doctors; minor miracles, which those midget saviours have wrought.

“And then, in two thousand and ninety Anno Domini, when everyone believes in their stale knowledge and only a few mystics still harbour a secret, tremulous hope—then we shall reappear. Joy and wonder shall greet our coming, our new knowledge. We shall bring the tidings: brothers, we have discovered the true New World, over there, beyond the curtain... Columbus and his men will have faded to dust long since by then. This small Earth was their discovery, old and barren and filled with ruins, where Imagination has been imprisoned and the Mind has withered, and to this barren world we shall bring our message: Brothers! in the north-west, above the oceans, we found a path, our ship could hardly pass through its narrows, but it is a path leading into Space, and to the region of the Winged Spirits; and we have told the Spirits that there is a path by which they, too, can reach the Earth! They will be here soon, on wings of light, and we can go to their lands, where gold is not yellow and hard, like the stuff Columbus brought back, but liquid like a flame, and when you have drunk this liquid gold, you will forget the haunting oppression of Death; Death shall pass from you, like an evil nightmare, and you will awake smiling...”

The alchemist bent forward: his disciples turned their eyes silently towards the west, where the Santa Maria had disappeared. Not even the tip of a sail was visible now. An immeasurable pain gripped the hearts of the young men. The alchemist went on.

“It is growing dark. Paracelsus, my son, take hold of the rudder. The stars are trembling in the sky: Mercury has just risen, he is swaying gently above the water. Can’t you feel it? We are rising. The Ocean is gliding away from us, it swells imperceptibly all the time. Listen quietly, listen with your soul... We have reached unknown seas. Listen to my words in silence, let joy take possession of your soul: you will not even notice when I no longer speak to you in words, but sounds only, sounds of music you shall understand better than words. Yes, the words are disappearing from my speech; you still hear one or two, the others are fading, rising, running into one long melody, and from the infinite distance, a strange, icy choir accompanies this melody ... Now, bend over the bulwarks carefully, and look down ... The floor of the Ocean is alight.”

The disciples bent over the water in their enchantment—and there, in the immense distance of the depths, a pale light was dawning. Very, very far down, a large city lay half-hidden in blue mists, under the vast layers of water. Tiny turrets and ramparts edged its outer walls, and bright-coloured domes topped its many towers. Above the city, giant shapes flashed about in brilliant streaks: from above, they seemed small, and fish-like, but they were the same size as the houses below. Some had the shape of dragons, others were like the ichtyosaur whose bones are preserved by the Faculty at Halle.

At the outskirts of the city there was a high hill, and on the hill, a green fire was burning, and in its green flames a snake-like female form was writhing naked, just as they had seen her the night before, in the dark cabin of the Santa Maria.


SOURCE: Karinthy, Frigyes. “Two Ships” (Két hajó), translated by Mari Kuttna, in Grave and Gay: Selections from His Work, selected by István Kerékgyárto, afterword by Károly Szalay, binding and jacket by István Bányai, 2nd ed., (Budapest: Corvina Press, 1973), pp. 129-143.


Frigyes Karinthy, Humorist and Thinker” by Miklós Vajda

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