Once upon a time there was a young boy who wanted to know everything there was to know in the whole wide world. He had the type of parents who taught him about polymaths and inspired his mind. He also had the type of parents who taught him that to know a thing you had to dissect it- draw it ought in perfect lines and assign labels in clean penmanship. To truly know a thing you had to do this each time to show patterns and consistency.
He was the sort of boy who wanted an eternal sort of knowledge, to understand the world. Now, he knew he could not open up the whole of the Earth- crack at its ribs and vacuum out the liquids to look at its stringy guts. Perhaps though, he could draw and label and paint all the same. He would not know the innards of everything, but he would know the outers.
His parents thought his ideas childish fancy, but as he grew older and did not lose them they simply learned to become happy with the idea that at least he did not set out to become one of those artists. So, when adulthood came he set out with his satchel and pencils and paper. He set out for the mountains, determined to find a way to properly draw their majesty- which he had only ever guessed at at a distance. He found out it was hard to breathe such air, and that his muscles were not used to such hardship. Still, he marched day by day, carefully eking out the miles with his ruler and pencil. He slept in caves and mapped those too. He already was noticing how the cycles of the seasons changed the snow, and knew he would have to come back in summer to see how the sun had melted the snow and freed the paths.
The sun rose a pale pink and he straightened his fingers from where they were furled inside his armpit. He collected his tools and set out. It had been three days since he had run out of food. She was so perfectly white he almost didn’t see her in the blinding light of the rising sun. Indeed he only realized she was along his path because he was drawing her as a snow drift and the placement moved even as he set it to paper. In the end she called to him.
“Traveller!” she cried, “where is it you’re going?”
“Nowhere,” he shivered.
She did not seem to understand. “I will take you to nowhere then. These paths are not safe.”
She approached and took his arm. Her eyes were glaciers unto themselves. He wanted to understand them in lines and depths and millimetres. She took him to her village and he dried his papers by the fire. She laughed at his drawing of her mountains. She showed him how to represent height and depth and brought him by donkey wearing warm furs into the peaks and valleys both. He stayed a year.
He told her when he left it was his duty, the reason for his life that called him. This was his task; to know. She knew that to map a thing was not to know it, that to dissect it was often to kill it. But she thought she knew him, and she knew she loved him, so she remained silent.
“I will return, to verify my findings” he said.
He left the mountains. He knew from his schoolings that mountains were a type of desert. A harsh wasteland, and he had much to show for it. A great desert could not be so hard. So he took off his furs and donned robes of white and soft sandals. The dunes moved even faster than the snowdrifts and each day he felt like he could only map an iteration of the world and not its whole expanse. He wanted to find the beneath the sand-dunes. Find the truth under the fluctuating mirage.
He asked the creatures of the desert who lived underground, the snakes and rodents: “What does the world look like beneath the sand?”
But they could only answer in smells and tastes and the jumps of fear when predators approached over-ground. Soon, he heard of the greatest predator of all: something that looked rather like him, or felt rather like him. All the animals feared it because it made deep wide pits in the desert and shook the earth with booming. And he followed their cries until he found what they feared. It was a salt mine, and he was not an animal, he could speak in words. When he spoke he asked the miners of the earth beneath the sand. They gave him shovels and drills and metal detectors and talked about tectonic plates.
He drew what he saw on their machines, but did not believe in his drawings. What he saw through their screens was a truth he could doubt. He could only be certain of his mind, his eyes, and these things fulfilled neither. Still, the machines let him under the tides of the sand and that seemed to be the only thing here that was worth drawing, worth checking for consistency. So he left the desert- vowing to return when either technology or his eyes were better, whichever happened first.
He had spent so long in a place devoid of water that he felt it was time to tackle the oceans. When he was younger they had seemed so vast, so onerous. But now? He had braved mountains, learned to use machines. With a boat and a capable captain he was sure there was nothing he would be unable to see. Water was just another texture, depth was simply depth. So he hired a captain and crew and a boat and set out. The lakes were easy. The waters were mostly placid, the tributaries small and the rock formations and shipwrecks beneath were clear either in sunlight or through the sound waves of the sonar. The oceans were not so.
First, he hired a submarine. Then, he befriended a whale. The whale talked to the giant squid on his behalf but even if the squid understood what he meant by his questions his reply was much the same as the desert animals’ had been. He talked only of the sensation of deep pressure on tentacles, how to see in shades of darkness and the food cycles of the creatures that lived in that sort of blackness. So he abandoned his quest to map the depths of the ocean, for he still refused to fill in the blanks with dragons or scientific speculation.
Nonetheless, he still had faith in his quest. The things he had seen and drawn and learned of still needed verification. So he set out on his second tour of the Earth. It went much the same as the first. He waited for technology to allow him to see the things he could not before. He saw the Sherpa girl again. Saw his age reflected in her eyes. He completed his second circle.
The snow and sand drifts had moved. The tides went up and down. He started his third cycle. It felt like his third lifetime. The snake’s babies did not remember hm. Nor did the miners’. Nor the whale’s. Only the Sherpa girl’s granddaughter knew him. She painted the sunsets on the snow and did not know why his drawings always had numbers in them. She showed him the constellations she loved and the different pictures between them. She told him five different stories about the same star and all its different names. He started trying to draw the sky. The sky was part of the world, and he wanted to know it just the same.
“Which one do I draw?” he asked, “which is the true tale?”
“Ask my granddaughter in a hundred years. She will have thought up better ones than mine.”
And so he left again, this time to draw the stars from every part of the world he had already been thrice over. He found a strange thing: the stars did not change the way the sand and sea did. His instruments were already as good as they could be for seeing far off surfaces. The fact that they were mere representations did not bother him for he knew he would never go there. He simply tracked their motions and drew them the way he saw them talked about by children and women he loved. People built rocket ships and hyper-drives. He had his pen and paper.