Bargains, Covenants, and Promises
ERMINTRUDE HAD HEARD THAT when you drown, your whole life passes in front of your eyes.
In fact it’s when you don’t drown that this happens, as life races back from the start to get to the last known living moment. Mostly it’s a blur, but every life has its important moments that get more and more colorful the longer they are remembered.
In hers, one of them was about the map. Every life should have a map.
The map. Oh yes, the map. She’d found it in the big atlas in the library one wet winter afternoon. In a week she could have drawn it from memory.
And the name of it was the Great Southern Pelagic Ocean.
It was half a world of blue sea, but it was stitched together with seams of little marks, tiny dots that her father had called island chains. There were hundreds and thousands of islands and a lot of them were just about big enough for a coconut tree, he’d said. There had to be one coconut tree on every tiny island, by law, so that if someone was shipwrecked, then at least he’d have some shade to sit in.[!The lonesome palm (Cocos nucifera solitaria) is common over most of the Pelagic, and is unusual in that an adult tree secretes a poison in its root that is deadly only to other palms. Because of this it is not unusual to find only one such palm on the smaller islands and a thousand cartoons are, therefore, botanically correct.!] He drew a picture of her sitting in the shade of a coconut tree, with her white dress and her parasol, but he quickly added, on the penciled horizon, a ship coming to rescue her.
Much later on, she was able to read the names of the groups of islands: The Bank Holiday Monday Islands, All Souls Island, The Rogation Sunday Islands, The Mothering Sunday Islands, The Hogmanay Islands… it seemed that the Great Southern Pelagic Ocean had been navigated not with a compass and a sextant but with a calendar.
father had said that if you knew where to look, you could find Mrs. Ethel J. Bundy’s Birthday Island, and loaned her a large magnifying glass. She spent long Sunday afternoons lying on her stomach, minutely examining every necklace of dots, and concluded that Mrs. Ethel J. Bundy’s Birthday Island was a Father Joke, i. e., not very funny but sort of lovable in its silliness. But now, thanks to him, she knew the island chains of the Great Southern Pelagic Ocean by heart.
She had wanted, there and then, to live on an island that was lost at sea, and so small that you weren’t sure if it was an island or just that a fly had done its business on the page.
But that wasn’t all. There was a map of the stars at the back of the atlas. For her next birthday she’d asked for a telescope. Her mother had been alive then, and had suggested a pony, but her father had laughed and bought her a beautiful telescope, saying: “Of course she should watch the stars! Any girl who cannot identify the constellation of Orion just isn’t paying attention!” And when she started asking him complicated questions, he took her along to lectures at the Royal Society, where it turned out that a nine-year-old girl who had blond hair and knew what the precession of the equinoxes was could ask hugely bearded famous scientists anything she liked. Who’d want a pony when you could have the whole universe? It was far more interesting and you didn’t have to muck it out once a week.
“Well, that was a good day,” said her father when they were coming back from one meeting.
“Yes, Papa. I think Dr.