cartography

A Simple Matter of Cartography

by David Schuller

A lie had been spread through the king’s court that his dominion was much smaller than previously believed. Such falsehoods were grounds for capital punishment, but the threat of hanging did little to quiet the courtiers. Court, once noted as the “most quiet and authoritative of all gatherings” by the king’s historians, dissolved into whispers and tittering behind cupped hands. Rumor had it that even the peasants were staging plays depicting an absentminded king who, under the direction of his vindictive court, starved to death in his own keep after going astray on course to the dining room. Something had to be done. The solution, the king realized, was a simple matter of cartography.
The king called a counsel to remap his dominion. The top minds and most eccentric thinkers gathered in the throne room to argue their interpretation of the world and the king’s place in it. Cartographers, their arms cradling parchment, elbowed past one other in a contest of academic leapfrog. The astronomers, nervous as ever, warned others to be careful around their impossibly fragile orreries. Map after map was presented to the king. Orientations were flipped, rotated, and angled as each cartographer tried to outshine the last. Globes spun in front of the throne as their celestial bodies revolved on brass arms. Maps of stars and carefully traced constellations carpeted the hall while their navigators traced burnished tools across their surface, predicting great conjunctions hardly any in the court could understand. Priests, eager to stake their metaphysical claim in the mind of the king, condemned the learned men as heretics and the court erupted in fiery debate for three days.
On the morning of the fourth day, the king rose from his chair. He blew, irritated with the academics in his employ. “My kingdom has no limits. To suggest otherwise is treason against my divine authority.” The court fell silent. “I will send a messenger in each cardinal direction. They will carry a tablet inscribed with my edict reminding the denizens of these lands that they are under my reign.” The court mumbled. Scribes scratched the minutes and the cartographers and priests and philosophers bowed their heads. “If the messengers return,” the king continued, “then you will know the limits of my reign. Until then,” the king said, “Do not assume otherwise.” That evening, four messengers exited the palace while the courtiers, thirsty with rumor, thumbed the corks from their inkwells.
The northern messenger found his journey welcoming. Each village greeted him with warmth and celebration, delighted to learn they were under the administration of the king. As a sign of fealty, they struck songs, poured drinks, and all danced around fires as the sun and moon wheeled across the sky. Holy men blessed the messenger, wishing him luck on his journey through the drylands ahead. But the messenger, eager to take inventory of the gifts bestowed upon him, paid them only the slightest courtesy. The messenger soon became rich with gratitude. So much so one might mistake him for a noble. Or even royalty.
So it was the northern messenger entered the drylands gift-heavy with trinkets and dyed cloth. He grinned under the load of his bloated, glinting pack, and fantasized about what feasts the arid dwellers would heap upon him. Four days passed without the messenger encountering a single village. On the morning of the fifth, he began to worry. Life seemed absent on the salted plains and, in a desperate bid, the messenger quickened his pace. But the man’s legs spasmed and he collapsed under his awkward load of gifts. And there on the desert floor, crushed by the weight of the people’s gratitude, the northern messenger succumbed to his thirst.
In the passing days the sun bleached and dried his body. Clouds began to gather in the west and the dark blanket of a coming storm rolled eastward. A heavy rain the likes of which the drylands rarely see, descended and washed the flesh and trinkets from the messenger’s bones. Nature, it is said, will always attune itself over man’s greed. So it was in the puddle beneath the man’s ribs, thousands upon thousands of brine shrimp hatched in the blue-black night. And there, under the bone-cage of the messenger, they swirled, bright and innumerable, mirroring the stars above.
The eastern messenger found little to like on his path. The villagers were disinterested in the king’s edict and their chieftains made the messenger polish rice to earn his food and keep. After weeks of wielding the pestle, the messenger’s arms ached and, ungrateful of his royal charge, he cast aside the king’s tablet and traveled east out of spite, curious to see if these ambivalent lands would ever end. He found his destination in a sea of grass, a vast prairie that ran the gentle curve of the land. From his limited knowledge, the messenger assumed these plains held no cities, no towns, nor people. This assumption made the band of hunters who crossed his path all the more startling.
The hunting party wore animal skins tethered over their arms and legs, with little else covering their bodies. They dragged behind them wooden sleds with the quartered remains of some shaggy beast they had slain with their spears and arrows. The two parties stared at each other, the hunters perplexed by the messenger’s clothing and the messenger struck dumb by the hunters’ nudity. But before the eastern messenger could recall his mission and babble the king’s edict, the sky broke.
Above them, the heavens funneled toward the earth in a dark shower of ice. The young hunters fled. The experienced hunters dragged the messenger to the ground, shouting at him in a language he did not understand. The oldest among the hunting party reclined on a knoll. The old hunters fished from their meager trappings tobacco pipes and, secure in their knowledge of land and gods, lit them in spite of the swirling wind. The eastern messenger saw the old hunters hold their pipes toward the sundered heavens in a show of good faith. The messenger recalled an adage from his childhood: Respect begets loyalty, loyalty begets faith. With that, they ascended. The hunters, along with the messenger, were plucked from the earth by the cyclone. And there, lifted to the boundaries of heaven, they swam forever in the thin, weightless air until they expired, their windswept bodies never again touching the ground.
The western messenger did not meet a single village until he reached the end of his journey. He climbed mountains and navigated canyons, avoided earthquakes and mudslides, hunted and fished and gathered roots and seeds to feed himself. He nearly died of thirst on three separate occasions, only to save himself by drilling shallow wells with little more than straw and reeds. He tamed a fox that taught him how to steal bird eggs. He even learned the dance of the upland grouse so he could coax the poultry into his snares. He carried with him the air and visage of every animal he crossed, becoming attuned to living among those dry pine trees. Had the messenger been a less dutiful man, he would have proclaimed himself king of nothing and reigned over those alpine lands until the end of his days.
But the messenger continued on with the king’s edict secured firmly in his bag. He descended a mountain face of porous lava stone, dropping at an alarming angle toward a warm sea with powder white sands. On those sands, he met the first humans he had seen since leaving the king’s palace. Two families, armed and divided, warred over the marriage scandal of one royal refusing to marry the other. The messenger, seeing his time for duty, retrieved the king’s tablet.
The western messenger shouted the forces down and issued the king’s proclamation. The two sides parted. Before them, the messenger looked a ragged beast, a barbarian who spoke in the language of animals and spirits. And as the now-bearded messenger finished barking his edict, a long silence followed, punctuated by the soft whistle of a lone javelin. The messenger watched the spear arc high above both parties and strike him square in the heart, pinning his body to the white sands. The warring parties, having a moment to collect themselves, made the marriage arrangements immediately. It was above the burial mound of the eastern messenger that the royals were wed. The once-disagreeable parties joined their families, concluding that sometimes timing is more important than duty.
But of all the messengers, the southern traveler suffered most of all. Almost immediately upon leaving the palace, she was beleaguered by sickness and venom. In the southern forests, she was bitten by every kind of snake, stung by every ant, and even besieged in her camp by monkeys throwing fruit and stones from the canopy. She was robbed by bandits, stripped nude by conmen, poisoned by local officials who offered her shelter in their warm huts. She was beaten, tarred, driven from every land with little more on her person than the king’s tablet. She was called witch, thief, corrupter of children. Whatever malevolent forces existed in the world, the villagers saw her as such. But the southern messenger never despaired.
She continued from one village to the next, through forest and river land, issuing the proclamation to any who passed with humility and grace. It wasn’t until she reached the southern tip of the world did she stop. Before her rested an icy shore, cold waters whipped to a foam by freezing winds. She shivered on the polished stones of the beach until travelers happened upon her. The messenger attempted to issue the king’s edict, but she could not force words through her chattering teeth. The travelers, also naked save for the wool draped over their shoulders, covered the messenger in the manner to which they were accustomed. She asked them how she could continue south. The travelers, glancing at the water, said she could not, unless she could walk on the bottom of the sea.
With that, the travelers left and the messenger turned her attention to the water. Upon regarding the sea, a great cliff of ice shattered, rocking from the shore and sliding into the ocean with a grinding hiss. She watched in awe as the ice sailed in a manner she thought impossible and the berg, warmed by the faint sun, wept as it drove through the cold waters toward the horizon. Seeing that lone ice traveler, the messenger knew more lands must lie beyond. Lands of snow, perhaps, or maybe even a more welcoming shore. Somewhere warm, where the people greeted officials with kindness and unconditional love and fealty. As she sat perched on those polished rocks, contemplating what fantasies might lay beyond the curve of the sea, the cold winds eventually turned the messenger into stone.
As time passed the tiny creatures of the sea would clamor over the stones in an annual visit to the messenger. They wore their finest pearled shells out of respect and as they gathered, they regarded the woman in silent contemplation. Only once was this silence broken. An old hermit crab in a cracked conch shook his eye stalks. “It’s a shame,” he said, “to see such loyalty paralyzed by optimism.” The other crustaceans said nothing, knowing the old crab was right. With that, they each laid a jagged claw on the messenger and returned to the bottom of the sea.
After years with no word from the messengers, the king ordered the royal cartographers to strike the borders from his maps, for he was sure the messengers were still traveling and bringing more subjugates into his fold. A feast was prepared. A pork was quartered with each limb pointing in the cardinal directions, one for each traveler. The pig’s head rested at the center with a citrus crown of lime shoots and stewed lemon leaves. The royal chefs wrenched the pig’s mouth into a smile so it would regard the king with joy, grateful to be resting soon in his venerated belly. Five days of celebration were called in honor of the four messengers and their king, their names forever chiseled into the palace walls.
The knowledgeable among the court debated the messengers’ return. Perhaps they would fall off the edge of the world. Or, if some calculations were correct, maybe they would circumnavigate the cosmos and enter the palace from the opposite direction they left. If that were the case, others argued, would they not meet their diametric messenger? Maybe there was a fifth direction, a minority argued, a towing path barely considered expect for those few insufferable thinkers.
As the philosophers argued, the king retired to his chambers, content in the blanket of his reign. That night, he dreamt himself a god. In his dream, the king swallowed creation. He devoured the land and supped the seas. He wheedled ideas straight from his subjects’ minds and bit hard on their bones. He plucked the stars from their celestial branches and thought they tasted suspiciously like cherries. He popped the sun into his mouth and swallowed it, pit and all. And in his stomach, the warmth of the universe radiated. He dreamt that in his consumption, a new world sprouted forth directly from his seed and the king spilled himself across the void not only re-creating this world, but creating another and another until his body waned and shriveled for no more creation rested on his holy bones. In the chambers below, the tipsy philosophers came to a consensus that truth has little bearing on happiness. With that, the king shifted in his ignorant sleep. His belly swung heavily with the weight of creation, the warm burden of rule sagging in his gut like a stone.

About the Author

David Schuller

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David Schuller is a writer and poet living in Washington, DC. Hailing from the Pacific Northwest, David studied creative writing at Eastern Washington University before venturing east, trading one Washington for another.