At the Edge of the Earth
by Brandon Patterson
followed by Q&A
“Cabot disappears from historical record following his departure from
England. Some baseless speculation claims him to be the victim of Spanish
pirates;equally baseless speculation attributes a fiscal failure of his
final voyage as the foundation for being dropped from the pages of history.”
Adm. Arthur Weston, The Last Voyage of John Cabot
All men are explorers. The body is but a vessel for the soul.
His crewmen—the lot of them English—call him “John Cabot,” as do his English patrons and supporters in England, who wait thousands of miles away and months in the past. It is preferable to hearing their tongues trip over “Giovanni Caboto.” On this, the sixty-third day of his voyage from Bristol, and his tenth day probing the inlets and coves of these foreign isles, he has turned his small flotilla of four ships north, to where the sea becomes ice.
The ships are stocked with provisions: the black fish that spawn and thrash for leagues of open sea, fowl and hoofed game from the island forests, and fresh water from rocky streams. They traded with the dark-skinned aboriginals for furs and smoked meats. Caboto’s scabbard is empty, the decorative espada ropera having been exchanged for help with recaulking the hulls of his ships with hasty oakum, and carving sounding poles to ward against sea ice.
They sail on the whim of errors. Just six years earlier, Columbus claimed to have reached Cipango and the fabled eastern shore. This conclusion came not from evidence of locale, but from erroneous plots on the circumference of the world. A host of factors—not the least of which was a misconversion of miles and leagues—led to Columbus underestimating the globe’s span.
Caboto took this error to the English throne as the basis for his own plan: where Columbus had sailed due west and been waylaid by unexpected land, Caboto would navigate the compressed northern longitudes, and so both bypass Columbus’s continent and make faster travel.
This is Caboto’s third voyage. The first was fruitless and ended in near-mutiny. On the second, they reached the northern isles he now watches from the sterncastle. They are not Cipango, as he had hoped, but an extension of the same wooded mass that beguiled Columbus. The route to the east—to the lands of the great Khan, to Cipango, to the true West Indies—lies further north.
An ensign tosses a broken bucket over the Matthew’s side and chants: “Eternal father, protect us from the waves, protect us from the wind, protect—” He stops as the bucket crosses the ship’s midline. He ropes in the bucket in and calls out, “Three knots.”
Beaufort, the ship’s Master, logs their speed and resets the geared chronometer, then moves a peg on the traverse board. They must do this every hour, for each call and plot tracks the ship’s course. Time magnifies errors, so they are regimented in their checks. At nightfall, Caboto will use a quadrant to check the plots against the stars.
“Were we traveling westward, our progress would be great,” Beaufort says. He is a thick man, full-bearded, and with hands like mitts. “True North won’t bewray Cipango.”
“Progress is not defined on one axis,” Caboto says.
“No sense of being a malapert intended, Captain Cabot.”
Caboto turns to the main deck. Two of his men, blanket-wrapped and hands knotted with cloth, mend the sails.
“No sense taken.”
The men sleep below decks, often gathered about the ship’s stove to steal its warmth. When on watch, they pace and stomp cold-numbed feet. There are no fish to be netted, so they eat the salted stores.
Beaufort inks their course on a paper map. They travel an arrow nearly as true as the pointer on a compass.
“We’ll see ice soon,” he says.
Night ends. If the sun were to do more than drift across the sky like a bright cloud, then Caboto could say that they travel thirty leagues every day.
During a brightest midnight hour, Caboto watches an ice floe cleave. Its heart is a color of blue he has never seen before.
Columbus’s forsaken land hovers to port, visible as a thin smear of gray. During fog or bad weather, it makes its presence known with every sounding.
Caboto puts to shore frequently, packing his landing parties in shifts on their single craft, and his companion vessels doing likewise. He tells his men they are to find food and water, though in truth the missions have no purpose but to give the sailors a reaffirming return to land.
The new world gives way to ice. Flippered dogs live on the frozen sea; they take refuge from pursuit by sliding into the water. His men have killed several of the creatures for food and fur. Also hunting the dogs are great bears, white as the ice itself, save for black dots of eye and nose. At the end of every expedition, the landing parties carve blocks of ice to replenish their cisterns. This crew will not thirst as long as the seas are frozen.
His men row out to pods of whales in the manner of the Basque fishers. With a spear made of a gaffe bound to a split oar, they take a whale and butcher it for fat and meat. Oil is made from the blubber for the warming pots strung belowdecks like lanterns. From the whale’s mouth protrudes a great tusk; it strikes Caboto as so strange that it saddens him to watch the beast die.
There is another peculiar scene, this time among his crews. When the ships have moored against the floes and sunk sounding poles between the ice and their hulls, his sailors cluster on the main decks for prayers and vigils. Each day brings more worship.
Beaufort calls Caboto from the pages of his journal. “Captain, they’ve turned leeward. The others—they’re making a full about.”
From the main deck he sees the other three ships of his expedition tacking from starboard to port until they point southward. He looks to his bundled men on deck: all are gathered at the rails.
“Is there any rumor of dissent here?”
“No,” Beaufort answers. “And I abide to keep it as such.”
He hands watch to Beaufort and returns to his quarters. In his ward, he writes of the development. As he notes the situation, he is struck by the oddness of cubicolo—‘bedroom’ in his native tongue—as it appears on the page. He watches the black ripples in his ink well, and imagines a terrestrial bed that sways on undulating land, one that, like the Matthew, invites sleep in a land without night.
It is also strange to think that his flotilla has been reduced to a lone vessel without interference of gale, leviathan, or maelstrom. Surely his captains entered a pact when they were last moored on the ice, or perhaps arranged one while still in port, an agreement to turn about when they reached a certain latitude.
Caboto should have anticipated their betrayal. More than the elements or any scourge of the unknown, a crew is an expedition’s greatest hazard. He knew his fear-knotted men would be the voyage’s greatest obstacle. He remembers them in their circles of prayer, carved crosses clutched as if their talismanic powers leaked when squeezed.
What do they think of Caboto? Is he Eve, rushing the Matthew headlong towards a reckoning with the Tree of Knowledge? Crewmen are so quick to forget the greed that tempts them aboard these voyages in the first place, the promise of treasure or holds packed with exotic spice. Caboto did not force them aboard at knifepoint, though they may think as much during fearful moments.
During the good moments, they have no thought beyond simple profit. They have no realization that exploration is a Promethean task, and if the Matthew is to be split upon the ice, or trapped in frozen stasis, then the sacrifice will be for the betterment of mankind. If it is to succeed, then it will be for the sake of enlightenment, not for the pecuniary pursuits of those involved, be it the grandest king or the most meager dockhand. And Caboto’s voyage will succeed, as every day opens new discoveries, and there is no knowledge that will not benefit man, and no push for knowledge that will not inspire the efforts of others. The common sailor—weak-minded and fearful—will never understand this.
Rather than finish the entry, he scripts a rough poem in his adopted tongue:
On caravels, on ribbed triremes, on boats
made dragon prowed, you sail on rolling swells
of aspiration, spreading ink’ed paths
across the kraken’s meres, the serpent’s caves.
Chimera’s shadowed lands revealed, the white
of empty map inscribed, enlightened, named—
you sound and mark, you chart star-speckled skies,
your guides the turning compass rose and fate.
Row out and plot the Nile’s soft lotus bloom.
Row out betwixt Calpe’s clashing walls of stone.
Row out and strike clear paths through ice’d isles.
Row out for spice-filled junks at harbor’s curve.
Row out and build gray forts on Moorish sands.
Row out from ships at berth on newest shore.
Row out beyond the edge of earth and sky.
Row out on seas too small for man’s ambition.
The knocking and shouting that wakes Caboto hails from men other than Beaufort.
He rouses from beneath piled blankets and carries them as a cape to his cabin door. Sweat hangs in the crevices of his skin and drips across his brow, both declarations that he will likely die of fever if his crew doesn’t kill him first. He thinks of his robe sword, long since traded to painted natives. It would be worthless against a ship’s compliment, and still he wishes for it.
“Captain,” the voices call, “Captain Cabot, come.”
He opens the door to find his crew standing in a gaggle about his door, their faces without hint of malice.
“Where’s Beaufort?” Caboto asks.
“Upon the main mast,” one says.
“The ice,” another answers, “the ice has disappeared.”
Caboto realizes his fever is not illness, but a flush of warmth that has overtaken sea and sky. He sloughs the blankets and adjusts to the sight of flat water devoid of ice in all points, save sternward.
The northern passage he had hoped to find is now meaningless, a concise route now made circuitous in the face of an immense discovery. He and all other sailors of the north had assumed the globe to be capped in ice, which prevented an expedition from crossing the transverse of the northern hemisphere directly: sailors such as Caboto had to sail the fringes of the ice. But with a polar cap not encumbered by floes, any vessel navigating the initial freeze could sail northward a short distance to the other side of the world.
Beaufort lowers himself from their highest mast, the handles of a windlass spinning in his grip.
“I’ll right our course to follow the floes,” he calls as he untangles himself from a vest of ropes.
“Keep us steady,” Caboto says.
Beaufort’s eyebrows pinch. “We’ll land on Muscovite soil,” he says. “Land of the Khan himself, perhaps.”
He dreams that the Matthew sails to the corniced edge of the world and is carried over into the star-pricked blackness of the celestial beyond. The heavens open like the mouth of a whale.
The dream startles him awake. He lies still and lets his mind move with the waves beneath him, and so rocks himself to sleep.
The world changes shortly after Caboto leaves the ice behind. He glances sternward and sees frozen peaks still visible behind him, an odd sight, as he had expected the floes to dip below the horizon. Using the mathematics of triangles, he realizes the ice should have disappeared from view long before. There is no worthy analog—for a sailor, watching the seas straighten themselves over a course of days would be akin to something as fantastic as a man noticing the gradual migration of mountains across a continent’s interior.
Horizon is the product of a curved globe. For long centuries the seaman has known that the world is a sphere, even though his landlocked counterparts might never know otherwise. It is evident from watching landmarks subside when leaving port, or high-masted ships sink beneath the waves with increasing distance.
The loss of horizon is the loss of curvature. At first, he thought the world might be more of a bulging disc—like a ball of dough slapped against a table—than perfect sphere, though he soon realized that explorers to southern lands had well-mapped distances that would not form to an earth flattened on its bottom.
His second thought was that the earth was still a sphere, save for its northern span, which was a flat plane, as if someone had snipped off the globe’s top with shears. The idea bothers him until he maps the hypothesis. He takes a round wooden buoy and paints upon it the continents. He traces the Matthew’s northerly route from Columbus’s land to the Russian shore, and measures the distance with string. Then he cuts off the northern hemisphere with a saw, as if he were cleanly slicing off the top of a woodland berry and thus removing its stem and vestigial leaves. He replots his ship’s course, measures, and shows his work to Beaufort.
“We’ll halve our leagues traveled,” he tells the ship’s Master. “We’ll not travel over the hill of the earth, but speed along as if we have tunneled through it.”
Caboto reads Archimedes’ The Sand Reckoner from the sterncastle:
The perimeter of the earth is three hundred myriad stadia and no greater, though some have tried to show, as you know, that this length is thirty myriad stadia. But I, surpassing this number and setting the size of the earth as being ten times that determined by my predecessors, suppose that its perimeter is three hundred myriad stadia and not greater.
A treatise on how much sand it would take to fill the universe. Archimedes estimated the world as larger than anyone before him had supposed. He created a new numbering system using nested powers of ten. He used every hypothesis and tool available to him. And still he fell far short of appreciating the world’s truth.
Caboto is the first to see the wall. He stands at the bow, peering northward, when a great ridge of blue, painted at the far end of the sea, makes itself visible. It appears so suddenly that his men mistake it for an illusion, though their captain is the first to realize that blue sky, white sun, and blue sea had earlier colluded to make the wall difficult to catch with the naked eye.
The wall is the sea itself, bent upward like a frozen wave, climbing uphill in protest of all physical law.
“Your buoy doesn’t comfort this,” Beaufort says as Caboto approaches his post at the traverse board.
“No, it doesn’t,” Caboto says.
There is no explanation—either in the realm of science or of spirit. Before him is an ocean that has risen up to heights greater than any mountain, and in its specter nervous men fumble across the decks.
Caboto strides to the main mast and orders the ship’s boy to ring a gathering bell. His meager crew gathers about him.
“We make a show of hands,” he says. “From that show we enter accompt. We’ve seen not dragons, nor mermen. No water spouts or tempests. We’ve seen a world unfurl like a rose’s petals, and the knowledge we’ve gained is more fearsome than any beast of fable. So now I give a choice of further voyage or a homebound journey. A show of hands then, for a continued journey.”
He raises his arm. “A show of hands.”
Beaufort lifts his. The men follow.
In less than a week, the Matthew climbs upward, perpendicular to the ocean below. As a boy, Caboto watched a spider walk up a wall. Now, he pilots an entire ship that does much the same on a sheet of water. Clouds loom ahead like hills at the end of a path.
The pull of the earth has changed to accommodate the wall. Or perhaps the wall accommodates the earth’s pull. Caboto has determined as much with a set of experiments.
“We’ve seen no fowl,” Beaufort said as they began their upward journey, a comment that prompted Caboto to wonder how birds would adjust to the strange rules of the wall and the greater ocean. He realized that if a flock of gulls were to approach the wall, their flight would at some point be turned into noseward freefall.
As there are no birds to experiment for him, Caboto tests the bounds of this strange patch of sea. A bit of broken planking tossed over the side falls into the water wall and bobs alongside the Matthew, rather than tumbling miles downward to the North Sea. When he climbs the Matthew’s highest mast and flings another piece up and away from the boat, it sails on a path that is ninety degrees to the wall, as it seemingly should. But then, if he has thrown it hard enough, when the piece should fall back to Caboto it instead lingers briefly in the air, before dropping many leagues to the known sea below.
The sounding line scrapes bottom. The water gradually shallows, pacing its way up the line’s knots and deeps.
A hundred fathoms.
“Bring lamps to the bow,” Caboto orders, though the weak beams offer little aid through the mist of clouds.
From that point there is no sleep—the ship’s entire compliment mills about the fogged deck. The sails are pinned to slow their progress and still the ocean’s bottom rises to meet the Matthew’s keel.
“Fifteen fathoms,” rings through the shroud.
The cloud mass’s thickness is unrelenting, though now the proximity of the sun has filled the mist with hazy light. Caboto feels as if he is lying on his back in a meadow, with the sun’s glare illuminating even through his closed eyes. With the light has come an odor—the smell of bound books, more than could be imagined, wet as if interred in a damp cellar. The smell of the new land, perhaps, or of strange, ocean-borne vegetation.
“Drop anchor,” Beaufort calls. “Prepare the boat.”
Caboto steps to his side. “I’ll make landfall alone.”
“Can’t see where it earns the risk, Captain.”
“My mind is set. Bring me a lantern and set the chronometer—turn homeward if I haven’t returned in twelve hours.”
Beaufort claps his arm once, then breaks to order his men. Even in the haloed fog, they move with precision. The crew has proven him wrong—they are true explorers. Caboto is proud of them, from Master to cabin boy, though the singular moment ahead—the setting of his foot onto a land more foreign than could be imagined—that moment will be his.
He does not look up to his crew gathered around the main rail as he is lowered into the water. As soon as he has unknotted the pulley lines, he seats himself and rows. He rows until his back and arms ache. He thinks of his ensign’s sounding call—Eternal Father, full of grace—and imagines God watching him.
He rests and continues. He fights through the fire in his arms and back, and the pinched skin of his palms that will blister.
The bow furrows up a meager wake of sand and comes to rest against a cragged face of pale rock that slopes up from the shore. The ridge stretches to either side of him, infinite from his vantage.
Caboto steps into the water and walks to the edge of the earth. It is as if he stands on a splintered wall in which its top is made of two angles that terminate in a ragged point. The first angle is the slope of water the Matthew scaled and the slight beach beyond. Now Caboto stands at the summit and looks down at the second angle, made of the same chalky rock, sloping away for miles and fissured with canyons. He sees no way to go forward: the crevices rival any river in their depth and breadth, and their jagged surfaces splinter like smashed films of glass.
Above, the clouds recede: the sun looms larger than the most swollen harvest moon. The scent of books is so heavy that his lungs seem to fill with it. He takes a deep breath and looks about once more, and only then does Caboto see the desk.
It is the horizon beyond his ledge—a field of polished brown, larger than any ocean, larger than the sky itself. The oak surface is dotted with implements: rulers, angles, a saucer into which the Indies could be dropped like crystals of sugar. He sees a compass, as visible to him as a constellation in the night sky, its pivot point and quill set so widely apart that one could rest in France, the other on the Moorish coast. A half-finished map of the English Channel lies beneath it, crossed with red and black lines of distance and direction.
Skyward, the sun is encased in glass and metal. Further out are bookshelves fit for a god. Below, the edge he stands on reveals itself not as rock, but as the curled edge of a sheet of paper, and he realizes that he is so small as to be less than a dust mote on this paper, and that his world—the globe entire—rests in summation on a cartographer’s drawing sheet, and beneath him is the slightly curled edge of that sheet magnified to a terrific scale.
His world, now rendered as common and insignificant as a boat lost on the great surface of the sea. He thinks of laughing, crying, and screaming. He thinks all these, layered and intertwined, bursting in his mind, but does nothing.
Caboto sits where the sand and water fade into parchment. Waves smack the shore with halfhearted applause. He looks to where the Matthew should be anchored. In the kingdoms of Europe, men talk of a world orbited by the sun and the stars, and of a benevolent God crafting honeyed realms for believers. They speak with certainty.
After a moment, he stands and takes his skiff by its mooring line, and drags the boat up the beach. He pulls for two steps and rests. Another step or so, and rests. He turns his feet sideways for a better grip in the sand. Sweat rolls into his eyes—he wipes them with the back of his hand, and addresses the lamp above him with a glance.
The slow progression ends at a fissure. Caboto steps behind the boat and shoves. The keel grinds against the rocky thrust of paper before pitching forward. The boat tumbles. Planks and oarlocks crack like bones as it drops into the void.
He sits and waits for his breath to calm. He has two days of water. It will last him long enough to witness his creator’s drawing of a new world.
Brandon Patterson’s recent fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Confrontation, A cappella Zoo, Knee-Jerk, and The Evansville Review.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: I had stuck in my mind (for a few years, I think) the idea/image of a carrack sailing north to the border of an immense map. Caboto and the details came later with research and writing.
Q: What writers do you consider to be your primary influences?
A: My mama raised me on Hemingway and Conrad, but I don’t think a bit of it wore off.
Q: What’s your ideal place to write?
A: Some fantastical place that’s quiet, comfortable, and has enough internet access for relevant research, but not so much as to inspire distraction.
Q: Who plays you in the movie?
A: James Spader during the White Palace/Crash era.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m getting ready to hammer At the Edge of the Earth and a few other stories into what I hope will be a semi-cohesive collection.