“The Cartographer” by Vincent Pendergast

“The Cartographer” by Vincent Pendergast

The palms of Georgie’s hands are maps of lands that don’t exist, with splotchy salmon-pink seas and white-dot archipelagos and terraced hillsides in jungle valleys. He holds them close to the flickering lamp to add depth—topography—and wonders at the savage customs hidden there.

From outside his walls come the slam of doors and muffled crying, hobnailed boots on bare floors, the running of water. In here there is only the ticking of the watch—”Yours now, Georgie”—on the sideboard, beside his books strapped up. In the fireplace the coals are cold on the grate, his shoes standing neatly before it with their heavy creases polished to a shine. He turns his hand over to make a fist, bones and sinews pushing up like mountain ranges. The healing scars across his knuckles are the earth riven open, giving a peek at the hidden structure holding up the world. When he flexes his fingers they ache of earthquakes. He turns his hand again, drawn back to lands strange and inviting, and imagines.

* * *

George leans over maps weighted down with ashtrays and draftsman’s instruments. A fan turns lazily overhead, French doors open to a verandah where awnings flap in the hot pre-monsoon winds. He circles the table like the stalking tiger, striking with compass and sharpened brass scribe. Where the career soldiers and well-heeled administrators fail he conquers, cutting through forests and deserts for hundreds of miles following precisely plotted longitudes and latitudes. Sweat beads on his brow, the clack of typewriters through thin partition walls music to his dance. Rivers and tribal borders are no barrier; he cleaves the hearts of nations at 1:250,000 scale and binds their remnants to distant rail junctions, and he will not stop until there is order.

The scribe slips and scores the soft heel of his palm. He snatches it back, cursing. A trickle of blood patters on canvas, black ink swimming in the red as names recently impressed on the landscape are subsumed. George steps away, wrapping his hand with a pocket square. At the open doors he lights one of the cheap local cigarettes, shielding it from the breeze. He drags in its sweet blend of tobacco and herbs, holds it deep. The air stinks of slash-and-burn and cooking fires and cow shit. The city hums like cicada song. Here is crossroads of empires long forgotten, their epitaph the vine-choked stones in the hills, the legacies of kings and prophets eroded away under the gentle caress of a hundred generations of peasants wishing for luck.

George pulls out a watch. It is a simple steel railwayman’s timepiece, its only value in the silver chain it hangs from. He taps it, listening to its steady stick, and thinks. Of the map, where ink and blood mingle. He stubs out the cigarette and strides back inside.

* * *

The dome of the map room is overlaid with papier-mâché in gold and sky blue. Its tall windows let in the late afternoon light, stretching his shadow across the lacquered ocean beds and continents of a world laid out in polar projection, meridians radiating from a pack-ice hub like the spokes of a wheel. He crosses whole countries in a few steps, his gleaming two-tone Oxfords echoing sharply. The half-thousand archivists hunched under emerald-green lamps are gone, the wrought-iron stacks heavy with the knowledge of civilizations taken down. He long ago stopped caring about the marks men leave on the landscape, or the beliefs that drive them. Even this elaborate projection is a folly; the true map is as bound to him as the atoms of his being.

Minister. Wizard. George. They are names discarded like ash tapped from his pipe. What need does he have of them when it is his blood that floods the Nile in summer, his breath that brings an Arctic storm? And yet lately he feels as if he is held together by resin and wire. To raise mountains he must drain seas, to make the arid steppe bloom he turns the delta to salt. He forms the world again and yet again until the clay stretches thin and crumbles through his fingers as dust, it is only his will that keeps it whole. He is tired.

He keeps a hand in his waistcoat, touching an ancient watch. It does not tick, its workings fossilized. There was once an inscription inside the cover but it has worn smooth under his fingers and he no longer remembers what it said.

There is structure beneath, he has come to suspect, depths to the hidden foundations, and that is what he must learn to control.

This canvas is just too small.

* * *

He is afraid.

He is the raging heart of galaxies. His fingers are nebulae, his irises swim with comets. He cups his hands to catch elemental energies like water from a bore pump. They swirl in eddies, a billion embers flaring, chasing colors and snuffing out in the time it takes him to draw breath. And all of it just the rearranging of things, like building and dashing sandcastles before the tide.

Real power lies elsewhere, and he is helpless in the face of it.

Always it was there, in the cracks, and the cracks are bigger than the whole. What drifts between just filaments stretched over eternity, like spider’s silk on the wind, and even now he feels the bonds that bind it all weakening. The bonds that bind himself. He hears the echo of his insignificance in the rhythmic pulse of dead suns, and he can’t block it out.

He builds a box.

He builds it from time folded over itself, and even that he isn’t sure will hold. He hides it away as best he can inside a frozen cinder that was a world. Its walls are cracked plaster and peeling wallpaper, it has no doors or windows, its fireplace no chimney; no light to escape, no sound to intrude. Into it he places a sideboard with cracked veneer, books, a lamp. A pair of hand-me-down shoes. A bed to climb into and pull the blanket to his chin as he closes the box.

In the quiet Georgie holds his watch to feel its tick. By flickering light he looks at his hands, the patterns there like faraway lands, and imagines.

Vincent Pendergast is a beekeeper from the Riverina region of New South Wales, Australia. He lives in a small village, in an old red brick cottage, with three dogs and entirely too many books.