The Cartographer’s Khorovod


by Quintan Ana Wikswo


In the mornings, I take my sons out into the field to teach them the prints of winter prey. We smell the air and it smells of her – it reeks of the consequence of her. Sweat gathering in the hollows of my arms and back and chest, a sharp, sour scent of a sacrifice I long to make. I teach my sons to recognize the marks of wolf, gull, musk ox, owl. Hers are not here because I chose otherwise. But for a moment, I think of showing the boys how to identify her print in the snow: toes like the points of knives. Sole of her foot like the flat of an eyeless fish, steam rising from the mark as though a pot of tea is emptied into a gutter.


This is where I think I’ve already said all there is to say. The cracked yellow teapot in her hands, leaking its dark brew into the gutter, steam ascending into the matted tangle of her hair, streaks of black on her face from eye to eye, two thin shoulders cold as bone, a long pale face with a slash of mouth, pointed teeth, a cadaverous hand tipping the pot of tea into the gutter to release the steam into her face, a thin dress inadequate against her narrow hips shivering in the winter alley. A lock of hair dripping behind her ear and she reached to tuck it back again with a half-blue claw and looks up at me, plunging my way forward through Chinatown, and sees me for who and what I am and says: come in.

And I did. A safe house. The glow of red coals in her fire.

It was rumored that she had let my hand fall upon her breast, that she had let drop her knife, that she was revising her most unpromising maps, that we read to one another by candlelight from childhood legends of troll and fairy, that we threw wild mushrooms in the soup, that I allowed her to comb my hair and braid the strands around her neck, that we twined together as close as wires in a fence between what was and what is yet to be.

Three weeks passed, and I drew water for her teakettle and emptied it into her open mouth. Four weeks passed, and ours was a house of love songs, a house of pores, a house of rapturous follicle, a house of rosewater, gunpowder, secretions and saliva. Ours were the secrets of specimens, of lost worlds, of cartography and longing. We had kindled and gained strength. We were united.

It was rumored that I had entered, and that I never left.