Charting the World in a Single Short Story

By Alvesgaspar Wikimedia Commons

I don’t care that the earth’s shadow eclipses the moon, said the Admiral. I have seen terrific irregularity with mine own eyes, and have been forced to the sensible conclusion that this earth is not round as some wrongly insist, but the shape of a pear or violin.

A thousand years before the Admiral made his daring proclamation and charted his course on this violin-shaped earth, people thought it was flat like a discus. Until the Greek Cartographer spoke out, claiming it was round like an orange. He’d drawn standard aesthetic divisions on his planisphere, a flattened version of his rounded earth. The first set of lines he called “latitude.” But his finest moment, his greatest act of self-control, had been to leave parts of his map blank. The Cartographer was later forgotten, his map lost like dreams that are lost upon waking, lingering only as faint unglimpsable residues. Seafarers, with no reliable guide by which to brave the open Ocean, paddled and were wind-scooted along the landlocked, salted waters. For navigation, they dead reckoned and used wind roses—radiating lines of sixteen focal points, ornate foliations that indicated air currents but varied according to the size and dimensions of the map, so that no two maps, even of one place, were ever alike. The Cartographer was eventually remembered, but by then the forgetting had been sustained so long that no one could read Greek. The epic after the Cartographer’s planisphere reigned and before it reigned again—forgotten and then discovered but unreadable—was known as the Great Interruption. It lasted one thousand years.

-From Rachel Kushner’s story “The Great Exception,” one of three short stories in the slim volume The Strange Case of Rachel K published by New Directions. In her introduction, Kushner writes that the story was the result of reading an “an enormous book on the history of so-called civilization, a work of seductive details (the Peruvians believed the world was a box with a ridged top, the Egyptians that it was an egg)…”

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