The Cartographer’s Daughters Part I
by Rachel Creager Ireland
When Rachel’s sister Melora read about Rachel’s book, she wondered if one of the characters were based on herself. We’ll let you guess which one she was hoping for. Sadly, Melora doesn’t appear in any form in Post Rock Limestone Caryatids. But the question inspired Rachel to write a dream she’d had once, which was about Melora, and she thinks she’s pleased with it. (Though one never knows with Rachel, she’s likely to changer her mind tomorrow).
This story is too long for a reasonable post, so we’re going to serialize it. For part II, click here.
The Cartographer’s Daughters
The best time of day to walk was twilight. Wearing all black, I could blend in with the elongate forms of the trees, stark against the snow in the bareness of winter. No colors could deceive me. There were only black, white, and the velvety indigo blue of twilit shadows. I felt safest in the woods. I could readily see any person who might be present to watch me. The constant flux of weather and the wide openness rendered it impossible that there could be hidden surveillance, not everywhere I could possibly go, and I varied my path daily. I walked as much as possible out of sight lines from the stately residence, which rose out of the woods like a tasteful monument to civilization.
Not that I did anything that could call attention to myself; I never did. But I carried a basket on my arm, for useful herbs, edibles, small treasures that might present themselves, whose nature I would not know until I saw them. I prudently carried water and perhaps a biscuit or some dried fruit, though I knew the woods well and could never be lost there.
My father was a cartographer, but the earth was my home, and I had no need of maps.
As I walked, I was always listening. I heard the crunch of snow under my feet. I heard the chip chip of juncos, and patting of little wings on snow and air. I heard the occasional plot of a bit of snow falling from a twig to the white-blanketed earth. If I froze, stilling even my breath, I could hear between the thumps of my heartbeat the scritch of a mouse below the snow, or the flick of a dreaming squirrel’s tail in a hollow tree.
On this day I heard a new sound. Or rather a sound not heard in these woods for many years, but one I could almost remember having heard once. It was rhythmic, and emanating from deep away from the residence, in the low spot by the stream at its widest, just before it runs into the river. The sound was too rhythmic to be natural, and, like a hawk surveying his territory, I was compelled to investigate.
The woods were denser here, and I didn’t often come close to the water. But I followed the chunking sound, which grew louder as I pushed saplings out of my face and stepped over the sharp, dead stems of hemlock. I knew by now that someone was working wood, here, in the remote, far from any settlement. Finally I saw her. It was my sister.
She was standing atop a large drifted log, wielding an adze, her long cloak pushed back over her shoulders out of the way. I could see her breath puff out in time to the swinging of the tool.
At the sound of my thrashing through the underbrush, she looked up, smiled, and hopped lightly off the log, laying the adze carefully against it. Her booted feet stepped through icy mud as she met me in an embrace.
“I knew you’d find me here.”
“You shouldn’t be here. You’re in danger.”
She pulled back and looked at my face. Her smile flickered and faded, but her eyes remained bright. “It can’t be helped. I’ll work as fast as I can, then move on. I know how to lie low.”
I grimaced reprovingly. “I can hear you half a mile away.”
“Should I burn it out instead? The smoke would be visible for miles. Besides, who’s in a half-mile range, who would notice?”
She had a point. Our father certainly wouldn’t take notice of a far-off noise, if he were to leave the house. More likely he’d be in his study with the maps, oblivious to his enemy so close, on his own property. The only other person within a dozen miles was the housekeeper, Mrs. Horton, and she was so deaf, wild coyotes could howl by her bed and she’d sleep undisturbed.
“It would be faster to make a kayak,” I said.
“I don’t have skins for it, and a tarp wouldn’t be durable enough. I’m going to be on water for a while. It’ll have to be a dugout. I guessed there would be a log around here, after those floods last spring, and fortunately, I was right.”
So wherever she’d been, she’d been following the weather. Where we were standing would have been underwater last spring, and this log had washed down then. I’d known about it, stranded after the water went down, though I hadn’t expected any particular use to come of it, not for humans, at least. But it had been waiting here for her all these months.
“It’s been so long since . . .” I couldn’t finish.
“Yes. But things will change. That’s what I’m doing this for.”
I knew not to ask her to tell me more. It could only increase the danger for both of us. “How can I help you?”
She nodded. “You can bring me some food. Of course I can fend for myself, but the less I have to stop to forage or hunt, the safer I’ll be. Foods that can be transported, that won’t spoil, that don’t need cooking.”
“Surely I could do more for you than that?”
She hesitated. “Yes. There’s one other thing. I need to get into the house.”
I froze. My heart even stopped beating. “There must be another way.” And then it beat again. “Whatever you need, let me bring it to you here.”
“It would be neither feasible nor safe. What I need is for you to find a way to unlock the French doors to Father’s study. I’ll come in late in the night.”
“But–” She knew all the objections. I wasn’t allowed in his study. He would notice anything amiss. He spent most of his waking hours there. If she were caught, what it would mean for her, for both of us– she knew all the objections, yet still she asked. The need was that great. “Yes. I’ll find a way.”
“But tonight I must rest. I’ll continue my work here tomorrow, and come tomorrow night after midnight.”
For the first time I noticed the hollows around her eyes, or was it only the shadows deepening around us?
“Yes. I’ll come tomorrow.”
We embraced again, longer this time. I clung to her like a child, feeling the strength of her heartbeat against my own, wanting it to sustain me as it had in the past.