Tell me the story of Everest," she said, a fervent smile sweeping across her face, creasing the corners of her eyes. "Tell me about this mountain that's stealing you away from me."
George and Ruth sat on the drawing room floor, laughing and tipsy, dinner growing cold on the table in the next room. Ruth was cross-legged opposite him, her gray skirt pulled tight across her knees. She picked up the single sheet of thick ivory paper from her lap and reread the invitation from the newly formed Mount Everest Committee again. "My husband, the world-famous explorer." Ruth held up her glass of wine and he reached out with his own, the crystal ringing in the lamplit room. She was fairly bursting with happiness.
"I like the sound of that," George said, and let himself imagine what it would be like to have people thinking about him, talking about him. The opportunities that success on Everest would bring. "I might be able to leave teaching, maybe even write full time. We could travel," he said. "Have our own adventures."
Handing him the invitation, Ruth rose unsteadily to her feet and gulped at her wine. He scanned the words again hope that you'll join the Everest reconnaissance, pursuit of the final Pole, for the honour of King and Countryas she crossed the room to the bookcase. Stretching up on her bare feet, she reached for the atlas on the top shelf before turning to pad back to him. "Show me," she said, sitting back down beside him. Her hair had come loose from where it had been pinned up and haloed her in the dim light. She pushed it off her brow with the back of her hand.
He laid out The Times Atlas of the World on the floor, on the blue Turkish rug with its woven colors of water and sky, ice and snow. When he found the proper map, George took Ruth's hand and with her finger drew a line around Europe, the path of a ship past France, around capes and narrow islands and the ruins of the Greeks. Through the canal that split the desert in two and past the land of Lawrence's Arabs. Their hands described reckless adventure, sailing over longitudes and latitudes, past Here there be monsters and the arched backs of sea serpents painted on the blue of the Indian Ocean, and into the port of Bombay. George drew lines across the plains of India, around bazaars and villages, landscapes of tea and Hindu cows, into the curved spine of the Himalaya with its foothills and plateaus.
"It's blank," Ruth exclaimed when their hands reached the spot where Everest should be; there was only a series of names no relief, no lines of ridges or elevations. Just words floating in an empty space, waiting to be claimed by him.
"No one has mapped her yet. That's what we're going to do, Ruth reconnoiter her, bring back the shape of her." He stroked his fingers across the map, as if he could explore the range through the pages, feeling for the relief of peaks. "These are the highest mountains on earth." There was an awe in his voice that he wanted her to share. He recited names and caressed the page before moving from the map to navigate her skin beneath the folds of her skirt. "West to east imagine them. Cho Uyo, Gyanchungkang, Everest, Makalu, Kangchenjunga." They were like spices on his tongue, on hers, tingling.
In a cloud of lavender soap and cloves for the toothache she had complained of earlier, Ruth pressed against him, promised curries for dinner. "You'll have to write me about everything. Every detail so it will be almost like I am with you." There was a thread unraveling at her collar, marking a line on her pale throat.
"You will be with me," he said. "Every step of the way."
"Everest," she said, "sounds like a foreigner."
He took her hands again and traced the lines of her palms, like horizons. "She was named for George Everest. He was the surveyor general of India, but he died before he ever saw her. From malaria, after blindness, paralysis, and wild bouts of insanity. He was a bully apparentlydrove his men mad. He set out to force some order on the world with his maps. He started at the bottom and swept his survey up the whole arc of India."
Reprinted by arrangement with Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Above All Things by Tanis Rideout. Copyright © 2013 by Tanis Rideout.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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