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Authors: Andrea Barrett

Servants of the Map

BOOK: Servants of the Map
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Andrea Barrett


Servants of the Map

to his wife about the body found on a mountain that is numbered but still to be named: not about the bones, the shreds of tent, the fragile, browning skull. He says nothing about the diary wedged beneath the rock, or about how it felt to turn the rippled pages. Unlike himself, the surveyor thinks, the lost man traveled alone. Not attached to a branch, however small and insignificant, of the Grand Trigonometrical Survey of India. On this twig charged to complete the Kashmir Series, he is nothing. A leaf, an apricot, easily replaced; a Civil Junior Sub-Assistant in the Himalayan Service.

The surveyor, whose name is Max Vigne, reads through the diary before relinquishing it to his superiors. The handwriting trembled in the final pages, the entries growing shorter and more confused. Hailstorms, lightning storms, the loss of a little shaving mirror meant to send a
glinting signal from the summit to the admiring crowds below—after noting these, the lost man wrote:

I have been fasting. Several weeks—the soul detaches from the flesh. The ills of spirit and body are washed away and here on the roof of the world, in the abode of snow, one becomes greatly strengthened yet as fresh as a child.

Although Max pauses in wonder over these lines, he still doesn’t share them with his wife. Instead he writes:

April 13, 1863

Dear Clara—

I can hardly understand where I am myself, how shall I explain it to you? Try to imagine the whole chain of the Himalaya, as wide as England and four times its length. Then imagine our speck of a surveying party tucked in the northwest corner, where the Great Himalaya tangles into the Karakoram—or not quite there, but almost there. We are at the edge of the land called Baltistan, or Little Tibet: Ladakh and Greater Tibet lie to the east. And it is so much more astonishing than we imagined. The mountains I wrote to you about earlier, which we crossed to enter the Vale of Kashmir—everything I said about them was true, they dwarf the highest peaks I saw at home. But the land I am headed toward dwarfs in turn the range that lies behind me. Last Wednesday, after breakfast, the low clouds lifted and the sun came out. To the north a huge white mass remained, stretching clear across the horizon. I was worried about an approaching storm. Then I realized those improbable masses were mountains, shimmering and seeming to float over the plains below.

How I wish you could see this for yourself. I have had no mail from you since Srinagar, but messengers do reach us despite our frequent moves and I am hopeful. This morning I opened an envelope from the little trunk you
sent with me. Have any of my letters reached you yet? If they have, you will know how much your messages have cheered me. No one but you, my love, would have thought to do this. On the ship, then during our tedious journey across the plains to the Pir Panjal; and even more throughout the weeks of preparation and training in Srinagar, your words have been my great consolation. I wait like a child on Christmas Eve for the dates you have marked on each envelope to arrive: I obey you, you see; I have not cheated. Now that the surveying season has finally begun and we’re on the move, I treasure these even more. I wish I had thought to leave behind a similar gift for you. The letters I wrote you from Srinagar—I know the details about my work could not have been of much interest to you. But I mean to do better, now that we’re entering this astonishing range. If I share with you what I see, what I feel: will that be a kind of gift?

Yours marked to be opened today, the anniversary of that wonderful walk along the Ouse when I asked you to marry me and, against a background of spinning windmills and little boys searching for eels, you stood so sleek and beautiful and you said “yes”—it made me remember the feel of your hand in mine, it was like holding you. I am glad you plan to continue with your German. By now you must have opened the birthday gifts I left for you. Did you like the dictionary? And the necklace?

I should try to catch you up on our journeys of these last few weeks. From Srinagar we labored over the Gurais pass, still knee-deep in snow: my four fellow plane-tablers, the six Indian chainmen, a crowd of Kashmiri and Baiti porters, and Michaels, who has charge of us for the summer. Captain Montgomerie of the Bengal Engineers, head of the entire Kashmir Series, we have not seen since leaving Srinagar. I am told it is his habit to tour the mountains from April until October, inspecting the many small parties of triangulators and plane-tablers, of which we are only one. The complexities of the Survey’s organization are beyond explaining a confusion of military men and civilians, Scots and Irish and English; and then the assistants and porters, all races and castes. All I can tell you is that, although we civilians may rise in the ranks of the Survey, even the
most senior of us may never have charge of the military officers. And I am the most junior of all.

From the top of the pass I saw the mountain called Nanga Parbat, monstrous and beautiful, forty miles away. Then we were in the village of Gurais, where we gathered more provisions and porters to replace those returning to Srinagar. Over the Burzil pass and across the Deosai plateau—it is from here that I write to you, a grassy land populated by chattering rodents called marmots. The air is clear beyond clearness today and to the north rises that wall of snowy summits I first mistook for a cloud: the Karakoram range, which we are to map. Even this far away I can see the massive glaciers explored by Godfrey Vigne, to whom I am so tangentially related.

I wonder what he would have thought of me ending up here? Often people ask if I’m related to that famous man but I deny it; it would be wrong of me, even now that he’s dead, to claim such a distant connection. My eccentric, sometimes malicious supervisor, Michaels (an Irishman and former soldier of the Indian army), persists in calling me “Mr. Vaahn-ya,” in an atrocious French accent. This although I have reminded him repeatedly that ours is a good East Anglian family, even if we do have Huguenot ancestors, and that we say the name “Vine.”

All the men who’ve explored these mountains—what a secret, isolated world this is! A kind of archipelago, sparsely populated, visited now and again by passing strangers; each hidden valley an island unto itself, inhabited by small groups of people wildly distinct from each other—it is as if, at home, a day’s journey in one direction brought us to Germany, another’s to Africa. As if, in the distance between the fens and the moors, there were twenty separate kingdoms. I have more to tell you, so much more, but it is late and I must sleep.

What doesn’t he tell Clara? So much, so much. The constant discomforts of the body, the hardships of the daily climbs, the exhaustion, the
loneliness: he won’t reveal the things that would worry her. He restrains himself, a constant battle; the battle itself another thing he doesn’t write about. He hasn’t said a word about the way his fellow surveyors tease him. His youth, his chunky, short-legged frame and terribly white skin; the mop of bright yellow hair on his head and the paucity of it elsewhere: although he keeps up with the best of them, and is often the last to tire, he is ashamed each time they strip their clothes to bathe in a freezing stream or a glacial tarn. His British companions are tall and hairy, browning in the sun; the Indians and Kashmiris and Baltis smoother and slighter but dark; he alone looks like a figure made from snow. The skin peels off his nose until he bleeds. When he extends his hat brim with strips of bark, in an effort to fend off the burning rays, Michaels asks him why he doesn’t simply use a parasol.

Michaels himself is thickly pelted, fleshy and sweaty, strong-smelling and apparently impervious to the sun. They have all grown beards, shaving is impossible; only Max’s is blond and sparse. He gets teased for this and sometimes, more cruelly, for the golden curls around his genitals. Not since he was fourteen, when he first left school and began his apprenticeship on the railway survey, has he been so mocked. Then he had his older brother, Laurence, to protect him. But here he is on his own.

The men are amused not only by his looks, but by his box of books and by the pretty, brass-bound trunk that holds Clara’s precious gift to him: a long series of letters, some written by her and others begged from their family and friends. The first is dated the week after he left home, the last more than a year hence; all are marked to be opened on certain dates and anniversaries. Who but Clara would have thought of this? Who else would have had the imagination to project herself into the future, sensing what he might feel like a week, a month, a year from leaving home and writing what might comfort him then?

His companions have not been so lucky. Some are single; others married
but to wives they seem not to miss or perhaps are even relieved to have left behind. A Yorkshireman named Wyatt stole one of Clara’s missives from Max’s camp stool, where he’d left it while fetching a cup of tea. “Listen to this,” Wyatt said: laughing, holding the letter above Max’s head and reading aloud to the entire party. “Max, you must wear your woolly vest, you know how cold you get.” Now the men ask tauntingly, every day, what he’s read from the trunk. He comforts himself by believing that they’re jealous.

A more reliable comfort is his box of books. In it, beyond the mathematical and cartographical texts he needs for his work, are three other gifts. With money she’d saved from the household accounts, Clara bought him a copy of Joseph Hooker’s
Himalayan Journals.
This Max cherishes for the thought behind it, never correcting her misapprehension that Sikkim, where Hooker traveled in 1848, is only a stone’s throw from where Max is traveling now. At home, with a map, he might have put his left thumb on the Karakoram range and his right, many inches away to the east, on the lands that Hooker explored: both almost equally far from England, yet still far apart themselves. Clara might have smiled—despite her interest in Max’s work, geography sometimes eludes her—but that last evening passed in such a flurry that all he managed to do was to thank her. For his brother Laurence, who gave him a copy of Charles Darwin’s
Origin of Species,
he’d had only the same hurried thanks. On the flyleaf, Laurence had written: “New ideas, for your new life. Think of me as you read this; I will be reading my own copy in your absence and we can write to each other about what we learn.”

Repeatedly Max has tried to keep up his end of this joint endeavor, only to be frustrated by the book’s difficulty. For now he has set it aside in favor of a more unexpectedly useful gift. Clara’s brother, far away in the city of New York, works as an assistant librarian and sometimes sends extra copies of the books he receives to catalog. “Not of much interest to me,” he wrote to Max, forwarding Asa Gray’s
Lessons in Botany and Vegetable
“But I know you and Clara like to garden, and to look at flowers in the woods—and I thought perhaps you would enjoy this.”

At first, finding his companions uncongenial, Max read out of boredom and loneliness. Later Gray’s manual captured him. The drawings at the back, the ferns and grasses and seedpods and spore capsules: how lovely these are! As familiar as his mother’s eyes; as distant as the fossilized ferns recently found in the Arctic. As a boy he’d had a passion for botany: a charmed few years of learning plants and their names before the shock of his mother’s death, his father’s long decline, the necessity of going out, so young, to earn a living and help care for his family. Now he has a family of his own. Work of his own, as well, which he is proud of. But the illustrations draw him back to a time when the differences between a hawkweed and a dandelion could fascinate him for hours.

BOOK: Servants of the Map
6.29Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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