Confident in our map, we lost ourselves in the twisting tunnels of the glacier. The blue of its mass was the blue of the sky, recalling to us the six-fingered shaman’s doggerel about shifting regimes of matter and space; although the ice gleamed with the unmistakable gleam of an object and not a distance, we exchanged badinage to the effect that the cold obstructions brushing our skulls, squeezing our shoulders, and slicking the soles of our boots were none other than the sky’s distance made substance.
A trackless sky, then, clear bright blue from north to south, near to far. And so we soon understood that when in the city the aged housebreaker had used the term “ice-blindness,” the blindness to which he had referred was less biological than mnemonic: there was no glare, but all surfaces looked the same, always. His map assured us of a gate admitting onto rich and unbeknownst cells, but where on the map had we got to? Our compass needles spun helplessly, the sun came from every direction at once, and the tunnels kept forking, corkscrewing, again forking. The berries we had taken from the corpse of the three-fingered harpist soured our bellies, and the dogs whined and cast their eyes back, behind us. We tied in with rope frozen stiffer each morning.
The archivist taught us to carve into the crust of the sky the topographic alphabet used by the spirits of certain trees, he said, to plot their leafing. As filled with ice as our heads became (as filled with heads as our ice became), we carried on in this practice, and in the end it was not the housebreaker’s map but our own signs left on the walls and the joinings of tunnels that led us to the hidden reaches. Here the stained and cold-cracked pitons of previous explorers, driven into the level floor and inconveniently omitted from vertical drops, seemed to confirm the hypothesis in the journal of the Lieutenant — that the glacier was rotating slowly in the gyre, so that surfaces now underfoot had at one time risen vertically.
Though we had reflected on the wisdom, learnt in darkened holds and flooded islands, that a wheel has neither beginning nor end, we had always supposed that this metaphor referred to the wheel’s rim, which is a circle. But there are other parts to a wheel; as we gave up wiping away the blood that welled from our chapped hands and instead rubbed it back into the skin for its moisture, we came to understand, perhaps through the simple scrupulousness of this very habit, that if the gyre was a wheel then the place we had reached was its hub — and from the hub the traveler on a wheel can turn to face a new direction imperceptibly, almost without motion. All of which is to say that, as usual, we had confused the end with the beginning.
From the top of a blind staircase carved in the ice, the ship’s boy returned with a mask or headgear, of a size that one of us might have worn but of a material black and puckered, obscure were it not for its unmistakable scent: a single peppercorn, grotesquely enlarged. The golem learned to make a tea of it, with bear butter and glacial ice, the heat of which left us feeling no less fragmentary, but, perhaps, less like ruins of ourselves and more like foundations.
That is a feeling, the captain told us, that comes of traveling vertically, which is to say convectively, in the style of a parcel of air blown in from the sea and warmed by the land. It is then that you apprehend the dizzying scope of articulation that movement affords — that is, that you come to see how a record of our disposition in space and time is sufficient to constitute a life.
As we trod the underfoot sky, clear now and straight in the eye of the gyre, the frozen sky above us rose up and away. Still it gleamed in the overhead distance with the gleam of an object, but we asked each other whether on some day its gleam would cease, and we would know by this token, scarcely distinguishable, that there was true space above us at last.
Watching carefully for this event, we became aware instead of a series of carved animal figures, a menagerie of ice unfurling above us as we walked. They were far off, but how far? Colossal, but — ? The captain readied powder and shot and took aim at the hump of a camel; his ball sank along a longer trajectory than any of us had guessed, and struck instead the mouth of a lion, and the carnassial that it dislodged took moments and longer moments falling through the empty interval before it shattered at the rim of a frozen whirlpool, shaking the sky under our feet, startling a rain of crystals from the sky around us, and rendering us for the time ice-deaf as well as ice-blind.
When we heard again, what we heard was the captain. “They are elsewhere now,” he was repeating; “they have passed on.” At his urging we repeated this mantra with him. We had understood at once that he meant not the tremendous menagerie, which kept pace with us in the sky above, but the monstrous-handed carvers.
What is the feeling experienced by the small? Or rather, since we all are smaller than something, what is the feeling experienced by the diminished? In camp I lay my head upon oilcloth, turning until my eyes were placed as near as possible to the ground beside the ankle of the archivist. I looked up his leg. Was this it? But the aperture of my eye was still the aperture of a man’s eye; I was a man owing not to the position of the eye but to the angle at which images poured into it. Contemplating this angle, I continued to lie on the oilcloth.
The captain warned us then against fatigue, the unconscionable fatigue of sailors. And instructing us to look more closely at the menagerie above, he began to name them: “giraffe dormouse dolphin egret baboon — but there is one creature we have not seen there, and shall not see, I think,” he said, “and that is the crocodile. For those who would carve such things as this must fail to recognize the crocodile.” We puffed our breath and looked outward, each imagining one thing or another. The captain produced from deep within his furs a leather pouch of tobacco and a small pipe of green crystal, and admonished us to mind our gear. “The sextant certainly, and the astrolabe,” he said, wreathing his head in sour white smoke, “and the palms of hands for grasping the wheel; but most of all that equipment by which you learn what hazards lie waiting in the shallows. Sailors like us, so long as our gear is in order, even the crocodile cannot deceive.” There was warmth in his greedy face now, the gold of equatorial suns, doubloons hidden in caverns moist under the roots of the rain forest. “Nor,” he added, “will the creature catch us up.”
And above (to your peril, said the Lieutenant’s journal) shone the first stars of evening.
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BRIAN CONN is the author of The Fixed Stars and a co-editor of Birkensnake, a journal of fiction.