The Map is Not the Territory
Susan Maxwell

The Map is not the Territory

Susan Maxwell
To the very rim of the horizon, the world was made of pearls and smoke. The clouds were white as the concealing snow, but low, down to the rooftops; and here and there furrows of dark – earth, black brambles and hoof-churned snow – broke the planes of the confection that the world had become. There was snow on the roof of the studio, and it spangled wetly in the misty light.
Daisy was dressed for work, in heavy cotton-jean overalls, loose enough for several woollen layers beneath, and topped off by a bizarre scarf inexpertly knitted for her by her mother, but bright and gloriously warm. Crossing the snow required exaggerated steps. Ribbons of dead – or at least badly swooning – grass straggled across the surface of the snow, and here and there birds and bushes had dropped berries that glittered in the icy sparkle. Daisy stopped in her tracks and almost laughed aloud; the scene was ridiculously picture-postcard. Even the silence was sugar-coated.
A crow’s voice rasped and the snow creaked beneath Daisy’s boots as she turned. The bird was perched on the ridge of the house. It looked about, and then called again, thrusting its beak forward in the effort. It took a few steps along the ridge, then settled its wings. After a few moments it flew away, and disappeared into the elm trees at the garden boundary.
During the last three days she had ‘torn up the day’, as she called it. She had lunged from activity to activity – culling her portfolio, going through her box of inks and checking each one for volume versus depth of crust around the screw-top – and in her mind she splintered the day and promised herself, or some ill-defined part of herself, that she would settle down once this particular fragment was complete. Then she sat for an hour or more as the remnants of the day fluttered about her like confetti and time went by untouched. She was immobilised, not just by the loss of that day, and the day before, but by all the other days that she had spent in this chaotic state. Activity multiplied and surged about like fractals emerging on a Petri dish, productivity remained a sullen and unresponsive spot in the centre, all those days behind and all those days before her, for the rest of her life. She felt the grave close about her.
Today she knew that what she had been doing, in fact, had been three days of brewing.
Daisy was an apprentice bookbinder. Her final year of training was a marathon of written exams, presentations, demonstrations and production of a portfolio. Her final task was to create an artefact from materials that someone else had created in their lifetime. The name was chosen from a hat, and she gazed blankly at the slip of paper:
Mr. Robin O’Sanassa: Cartographer. His letters, drawings, sketches etc. are in the Mythogeography Collection, Municipal Archives.
The bones and flesh of the book she found by hunting through antique bookshops for inspiration, and through flea-markets for materials. She had envisioned a soft cover, velvety, a counterpoint to the technical drawings and the angular handwriting of the surveyor whose papers and sketches she was binding together, but she found perfection in a blackish-rose leather stamped in gold with a pattern of curlicues, leaves and straight lines, like an over-regulated hedgerow.
The table she worked at was a thick slab of a beech tree, planed flat but with the ghosts of branches knotted along its length. It was a palimpsest; twice a year she scraped it down, scrubbed it off and slicked a layer of pale varnish over it, but past spillages, gouges and burns persisted. The edges were crowded with tins and wooden boxes whose hastily-packed contents – strings of beads, protractors, nibs – held the lids aloft, with drifts of silk and strips of duck cloth, with the well-thumbed books of illustration and sketches that Daisy kept about her for inspiration. The work table itself was reminiscent of those paintings that are in themselves great lists of objects: of every species of fish glistening upon the slab, of every type of flower, of every variation on the tools of civilization found cluttering up a rich man’s house. The table was an allegory of the rapture that had now passed.
One of her closest friends, another apprentice, was an archivist, and Daisy recalled that he had visibly blanched when she told him her plan for her project; his ivory-pale skin turned whiter, like porcelain, because he thought she meant to use the original letters in her artefact. She wondered briefly whether, if she had, he would have ever spoken to her again. It had never been her plan to use the original letters, even if she had had permission. Daisy had spent a week with the collection, choosing the letters that were both clear and attractive, postcards, the sketches of monuments and graveyards, the sketches of O’Sanassa’s contemporaries, now long, long dead. She made her selection, and the archivists tenderly bore away the originals to gleaming machines that clanked and hummed industriously, but which did not harm the documents they copied. The archivists returned, casually shovelling the reproductions into envelopes while Daisy hopped from foot to foot in a welter of anxiety in case there was the slightest tear, or bend, in her precious material.
The skeleton of the book had been built up slowly. She used pencil and paper as the net in which to capture her fugitive first ideas. Inevitably she worried about the meaning of association. She was alternately reassured and discouraged by seeing echoes of what had gone before. Is it derivative or in a certain tradition? Has she created something breathtaking? Or breathtakingly banal? Even accepting that without the banal there is no extraordinary, each assignment brought the fresh fears that she would merely embrace the former. Never mind. It will be what it will be. Creation is a series of choices; this thought surprised her.
On some days, buying paper was an event, not a necessity: Saturday had been one such day. Though she knew that the painted printing blocks had produced many twins to the flawless patterned rectangles that sprang from their wrapping and slithered across the table, each sheet seemed to her to be exclusive. It was not the page that was unique – what was it? The potential, perhaps. The papers had been released into the wild, and were in their natural habitat, unlike the habitat of any other page from the same block. Only her workroom had that combination of contents, of memories and signs, that would transform these particular pages. The paper she had chosen to cover the end-boards was ashy-green with thin dark lines, oddly suggestive of meaning, like a reticulated leaf.
When she was a young child, a favourite book had been a suitably simple illustrated book about books. A note – nothing more than a comment under a picture – told her how sometimes bookbinders used old manuscripts in the covers of new books, and thus accidentally preserved musical scores or scraps of poetry or letters. Between the thick board of the cover and the end-paper, Daisy had inserted a fragment torn from her adolescent diary, and a love-letter she had never sent. These would remain buried unless the book was dismantled.
Years ago she went through a phase of being self-conscious about handling her materials and equipment. This she thought of as a kind of puberty; she had passed from the unreflective assumptions of absolute similarity to an over-awareness of difference and of threat and out the other side, to a sense of shared existence. Daisy had thought over this process again while she stitched her pages together; so fundamental an activity that her fingers had developed their own razor-sharp memory, with the result that Daisy’s busy mind could drift, soothed by the scratchy softness of the paper and the familiar, hollow sound of the thread scraping through the folds. What had overpowered her in the middle years of her training, she thought, was that the material objects she saw every day became monuments to potential, before they become equipment. They had a threatening aspect. She felt that if a decisive move was not made, a form of weird physics would take over. Something would emerge from the chaos of these stem-cells of imagination, the maelstrom of possibilities would, inevitably, find a path to coherence. What she had feared really, she thought now, was that order would emerge from disorder without any reference to the artist, the reflective party, the gaze, the interpreter.
Now she wondered if it was really a matter of controlling material or of negotiating with it. Accounts of alchemical experiments mentioned the nerve-wringing moment when the ingredients began to coalesce and either curdled and died at the bottom of the alembic, or filled the globe with vitality. Her book sparkled in her hands.
She had predicted how this morning would go, and she had been wrong. She took from a bag a piece of green glass, about the size of the palm of her hand, and with its ornate setting it filled the rectangle she had left free on the cover of the volume. The setting was moulded into plump curlicues that had a kinship, residual but visible, with the symmetrical curls and swoops on the leather. The glass was emerald green and skilfully cut to look like the jewel itself, the setting was a dark gold that should have been in harmony with the flashes of gold in the cover. Exactly as she had envisioned, Daisy took the embellishment out of its bag, and tilted the volume against a wooden bar. The sun was making heavy weather of breaking through the clouds but the day lightened in its icy way and the glass in her hand twinkled. She put in onto the cover of the book, and straightened it against the edge of a set-square, then took away her hands and left the book, with its final jewel, lying in the snowy light.
It was completely wrong.
So confident had she been that the gem was the finishing touch that Daisy could not quite believe what she was seeing. She looked at it and looked away. She looked back at the rosy gold of the leather, and then at the gem. She tried to find the aesthetic harmony between the decorations, and she failed. Daisy got up and walked around the studio and sat down again, looking at the volume she had created. Any moment now, the elements would harmonize.
Years ago Daisy had gone out in the evening to check on the livestock and she had found a piglet crushed to death by its inattentive mother. She had felt the same refusal to believe – she could somehow save it, somehow reverse what part of her brain treacherously accepted to be true. She felt the same pressure to change reality now – she had counted on this addition, she had nothing left if this failed her. But there it sat, uncooperative and failing.
Daisy got up, pressing her fingers to her eyebrows, her eyes darting from side to side as her thoughts darted about trying to find the escape route. She had to present the portfolio the next day. The cover had been designed with this shape and colour in mind. If she left the gem out, there was an unaccountable gap in her creation and she could see the judges trying to work out what statement she was making by leaving the void. If she left it in, it sat on the cover of her book like a fractious dog making an unnecessary racket to get attention. Daisy did what she always did when she was trying to avoid panic: she started creating a mess. It’s not a mess, her father used to say, it is participative materiality.
Box after box, jar after jar, drawer after drawer. Strewn across the table, slipping onto the floor, stacked in her chair. Paper and stone, blades and photographs, cloth and small skulls, tumbling across the shelves and into the wrong containers. Books thumped on the floor and bottles of glass beads rang against each other, metal jangled and tin boxes rattled, vomiting out their contents, pencils and tubes and buttons gushing onto the table, pigment and paper flowers and miniatures spilling onto the floor. Daisy filled her kettle. Surely a cup of tea might help even this catastrophe. She put the kettle on the tiny hot-plate and lit the flame underneath and as she did she knocked over her mug. It was a favourite, one of her fetishes for when she was working, and her hand shot out . But the mug hit the side of a shelf and bounced forwards so she crashed in pursuit, caught it, and knocked over two boxes and a stack of books.
Her worst curse dried on her lips; the contents of one box slithered and bounced about the floor and left a large metal pendant and a postage stamp marooned under the table. The pendant was of brass, tarnished now and dull, a miniature compass with some rather unlikely additional needles and bands. The postage stamp was in shades of red and green and its tiny alphabet was elegant but unknown to her. It was hooked by one of the decorative teeth in the rim of the compass. Daisy put down her mug, and squatted to contemplate the conjunction. With one hand, she sought out her volume, and laid it on the floor. All her tension was abruptly gone. She felt tired. Using a sheet of printing paper, she scooped up the compass and the stamp.
By the time the book was finished, the winter evening had drawn in and the clouds were low and smoky. In the twilight, the snow that covered the garden looked dim and grizzled, as dark in the shadows as amethysts or oak-trees. Such warmth as there had been in the afternoon sun had caused some more of the black hedgerow and the chestnut-brown earth to be revealed and a crow was digging rhythmically for food in the exposed soil. There was silence, apart from the susurration of Daisy wading through the snow, and darkness apart from the torch in her hand.

 

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