He whispered words like "trigonometrical" and "triangulation" against her throat, at the pulse below her ear. With the back of his fingers he skimmed the long declension of her throat, traced the line of her collarbone where it slipped beneath her blouse.
"Everest was measured from a horizon away." He traced the curvature of the earth along the concave of her stomach. Pushed her back onto the blue carpet, unearthed her.
"They crept from hill to hill, building towers and measuring the angle of peaks on the horizon. A fraction of a degree could make all the difference." He pressed on top of her, tilted her hips, and pulled her to him.
The atlas ripped under her, the paper stuck to her wet skin.
After a few minutes, Ruth rolled onto her side, curved her body around his, and tucked her head under his chin. She could smell herself on him.
"There were three problems with the measurements. Corrections to be made, all by mathematics. The curvature of the earth, the refraction of the light through the thinner air and colder temperatures. And the weight of the mountain."
The air was cooling now on her naked skin. After a moment, Ruth began to shiver despite still being slick with sweat. She pulled herself up, sat facing him, hugged her knees to her chest. She couldn't believe how happy she felt, how proud, that George had been chosen. The scent of him rose off her skin. "The weight of the mountain?" she asked.
The light was thinning in the room, etching the two of them in dusk- blue lines. George stood, strode to the window, and gazed out toward the towers of Charterhouse while Ruth shrugged into the jacket he had thrown aside. He shut the window tight and came back, kneeled in front of her. He tugged at the lapels of his jacket, drawing it tight around her shoulders.
"It's so massive it affects the gravity around it. They used theodolites to survey her, but the pull of the mountain threw the measurements off. Can you imagine anything so powerful, Ruth? This mountain has a presence. Everest knew it when he planned to measure herand he didn't even go near her, never even saw her." Closing her eyes, Ruth leaned against his shoulder and pictured the jagged skyline of the mountain.
" Twenty-nine thousand feet." A whispered invocation. A prayer.
She imagined his letters arriving from the Himalaya, herself curled up by the fi re to read them. She thought about his returning home to her, victorious. Her face split into another smile, her cheeks aching from it. She couldn't help it. The happiness she felt for him swept through her. She tried not to think that being apart only seemed romantic when you were together.
"How do they know?" she asked. "How do they know how tall it is if no one's been there?"
He reached out again and Ruth stretched out her hand to meet his. She would take his hand, pull him to his feet, lead him up the stairs to their bedroom. But he brushed past her to touch the waiting emptiness of the map.
A little while longer, then, she thought. She would wait while he planned for and dreamed about the mountain, the future. "How do they know?" she asked again. "Maybe it isn't even the tallest."
"It has to be," he said, his fingers lingering on the map. "It has to be."
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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