Part of her forthcoming book THE HOPE OF FLOATING HAS CARRIED US THIS FAR (Coffee House Press, 2015), Quintan Ana Wikswo’s THE CARTOGRAPHER’S KHOROVOD is a suite of photographs and a short story. On a broad, stained table in the back, she drew maps in perfect ink on spotless paper, and their confidence felt ominous. She insisted she merely held the pen, even as her skinny, steady hand marked the lines of what had been and what was, what could be and what might and what will never change. In the streets of the old city on the last day of December, a spy searches for the brothel whose secret purpose is a headquarters for the underground: double agents, assassins, provocateurs, strategists and tacticians who schemed with sympathizers to the west and to the east. Thus begins the tale of an insurrectionist love affair between the spy and the brothel owner, a cartographer who designs maps for the resistance. In the daytime, questions. In the nighttime, questions. Some from others, most from myself. What did you do that brought you here. And whom shall you betray.
For several years in San Francisco, I managed a small and dilapidated cabaret in a derelict old storefront. It was in Chinatown, and I had painted the door and its metal bars a bright pink. In the daytime, I was a ghostwriter of memoirs for Holocaust survivors. In the evenings, artists would come to perform poetry for each other on a small stage barely visible from the street. Soon, there were knocks at the door at all hours – I would peer outside and see a cluster of old men whispering excitedly amongst themselves. In the morning as I walked the streets, the women would turn their backs on me with disgust, calling me a name in Chinese that I didn’t recognize. My reputation grew, and as the months passed more men arrived, and more women would turn their backs. It was only after I moved away that I learned that in China, a pink was the traditional color for brothel doors.
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.
THE CARTOGRAPHER’S KHOVOROD is supported by the Corporation of Yaddo.