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The Expeditionsby Karl Iagnemma
The appointment was at ten o’clock on Lafayette Street, on the city’s west side, and Elisha stepped from his boardinghouse at six that morning into a gauzy gray mist. Draft horses slapped down the muddy street, hauling drays loaded with potatoes and cabbages. He strolled down the sidewalk to Jefferson Avenue, drank a mug of milk as he listened to a newsboy call out the morning’s headlines: White woman elopes with Negro servant to Windsor! Settlers burned alive in Shelby by savage Chippewas! He felt a familiar nervous chill at the city’s rush and clamor. The air smelled sweetly foul, like burning trash.
He walked down Jefferson to Woodward Avenue then up to the Military Square, where a group of men were unloading red lacquered trunks from a caravan of weather-worn buggies. A handbill tacked to a message board at the square’s entrance read:
traveling exhibition of fabulous beasts l. gasperi—animal trainer extraordinaire see camels from arabia—elephants from siam— llamas from the bolivian mountains admission fee: one dime
As Elisha watched, one of the men unlatched the door of a high-sided wagon and led a frail, shaggy camel by a rope knotted around its neck. The animal stepped gingerly, twisting its long neck to gaze at its surroundings. Elisha drew a notebook from his vest pocket and licked a stub of pencil, sketched the animal’s head and oddly humped back. The camel’s handler glanced over his shoulder and called, “Hey boyo, no free looks! Come back tonight, you want to see!”
Elisha started up Michigan Avenue into the Irish quarter and its cramped, hustling streets. At Sixth Street a group of women were singing choral tunes around a donation basket. He paused to watch them: two skinny, black-haired sopranos and a squat, sleepy-looking alto. The boy was sixteen years old and his thoughts were almost entirely of women: their hair, their powder smells, their fleeting glances on the sidewalk. Young women in shop windows and ladies in broughams and girls strolling arm in arm down the avenue. The alto cut her gaze to Elisha and he ducked away.
He hurried down Sixth Street toward the river, quickening his pace as he emerged at the wharf. He continued southward past a row of shanties until he came to a stagnant stretch of sedge and driftwood. Elisha pulled off his shoes and sat on a stone at the river’s edge, careful not to muddy his trousers. He leaned forward and rested his chin on his knees. From his position he could barely hear the hoofbeats on Woodbridge Avenue, but despite the quiet Elisha could not settle his nerves. Pond skaters tickled among the sedge, their passage visible as faint dimples in the river’s surface. A merganser coasted toward the boy then angled upriver. Elisha withdrew his notebook and sketched the scene, his thoughts slowing, the city’s noise fading to nothing. He worked long after the bell at St. Anne’s had tolled nine o’clock.
He rose feeling wonderfully calm. He started up Seventh until he reached Lafayette, then entered a shop with its window painted to read O. Chocron, Clothier. He purchased a five-cent collar from the frowning proprietor, then stood before a tall mirror and buttoned the collar beneath his chin, the stiff linen chafing his neck. His own figure in the glass annoyed him: the cowlicked hair, the high, pale forehead, the pockmarked cheeks without even a hint of beard. A frightened boy in a man’s clothes, certainly not a fellow to be reckoned with, certainly not one to be entrusted with an important task.
He exhaled deeply and attempted a fierce smile, and for a moment the boy in the mirror disappeared.
Thirty-one Lafayette Street was a two-story mansion with broad double doors and a columned porch, an orange-tiled roof topped by a cupola. Elisha stood at the street’s edge for some time. He had expected a surveyor’s cottage but this was far grander, the home of a judge or senator. At last he straightened his cuffs and set his hat square, then mounted the steps and tugged the bellpull.
A tall Negro girl in a white apron opened the door, glanced at the boy’s shoes and hat. “If you here about the expedition you haves to wait. Mr. Brush is busy just now.”
“Follow me.” She led him into a dim study and motioned toward a velvet wing chair. “Don’t you touch anything.”
He nodded again. His gaze followed the girl from the room.
Blue linen draperies filtered the morning light and lent the room a petrified quality. A carved walnut desk sat in the corner, covered with books and scrolled maps, a pair of brass rulers. Beside the desk stood an oak bookshelf filled with leather-bound volumes: sets of Shakespeare, Milton, Gibbon, the spines looking as though they’d never been creased. Bragging books, Elisha thought, for displaying instead of reading. The room smelled of soot and candlewax.
He rose and paced before the marble mantel: three pink conch shells sat beside a rosewood clock; beside the clock was a gleaming brass instrument with a jumble of thumbscrews and vanes and eyepieces projecting from a circular base. Beside the instrument stood an angled block draped with red silk, displaying four gold coins bearing a man’s profile in crude relief—Roman, Elisha figured, or Greek. He took up a coin and tilted it toward the window. The face was so worn that the only clear feature was the line of a mouth, which seemed to be etched in a wry smile.
Floorboards squeaked in the hallway and Elisha replaced the coin then perched on the wing chair. A man entered the room and the boy bolted upright.
He was younger than Elisha had expected, with long brown hair combed back from his temples, a clean-shaven jaw, watery blue eyes beneath a sharp brow. Mr. Silas A. Brush, surveyor and landlooker, hero of the Second War for Independence. The man’s hand, when Elisha shook it, was rough as a corn husk. Brush said, “Well! You look barely old enough to dress yourself.”
“I’m sixteen years old, sir.”
Brush squinted at Elisha as if measuring the truth of his claim. He was wearing a black frock coat over a black satin waistcoat, a stiff black cravat. Pinned to the man’s lapel was a pear-shaped sapphire. Like a minister with a wealthy wife, Elisha thought. The stone was the precise hue of Brush’s eyes.
“I trust you’re not aiming to join a storybook adventure. I will disappoint you by saying the expedition won’t be any such thing.”
“Plenty of hard slogs through swamps, suppers of hog and hominy if we’re lucky, beds of pine boughs and creation’s finest dirt. Mosquitoes as big as walnuts. No whiskey or pussy for a hundred miles.”
“Yes sir. I know, sir.”
“You’ll be ridden as hard as a borrowed mule. You’ll lie down tired and wake up exhausted.”
“Yes sir, I know. I’m not expecting any comfort.”
The statement seemed to amuse Mr. Brush. “Then explain me this, young pup: why do you want to join the expedition?”
Because I’m flat busted, Elisha thought to joke, but paused when he noticed the sternness beneath Brush’s grin. So instead he told the man the truth: about the creek behind his father’s house in Newell, a narrow sandy trickle alive with limpets and water boatmen and fat darners, waxwings and wrens and prairie warblers, goldenrod and lilac and willow. As a boy he’d spent his days at the creek’s edge, capturing minnows in his cupped palms to study their glassy scales, their wispy fins, their blank eyes. Other days he sat motionless for hours, until a swallowtail fluttered down to a puddle of sugar water at his feet. He loved the secret beauty of it all, the details that revealed themselves only after long inspection. The creek appeared simple but in fact was as intricate as a symphony. Elisha told Mr. Brush about the first specimen he’d collected, a gnarled brown shell that looked like a nub of tobacco; its odd shape made it seem like a hoax by God on unsuspecting scientists. He told Mr. Brush about the empty shelves in his boyhood bedroom, his desire to see them filled with examples of every species in the world.
When he finished speaking Mr. Brush offered a false smile. “Ambitious goal, wouldn’t you say? The last man to collect every species was Noah.”
“I don’t expect to succeed, sir. Seems a worthy aim, though.”
“It is not a worthy aim. It is a dream. I have no use for moon-eyed dreamers on this expedition.” Brush’s expression softened slightly. “Life is a practical endeavor, my boy.”
“I understand that, indeed I do.” Elisha paused. “I can shoot and handle an axe. I’ve read Say’s and Nuttall’s books a dozen times each. I can identify common trees and birds and the primary rocks, some minerals and gemstones—that sapphire on your lapel, for instance. I can tote as much as a packhorse.”
The man chuckled, then rose with a sigh. He unscrolled a map on the desk and motioned Elisha over: Michigan’s mittenish form divided by neat square survey lines, and above it the upper country, a hollow white sketch save for points labeled Fort Brady and Sault Ste. Marie at the eastern tip, a few rivers winding vaguely inland from the northern shore.
“A portion of the northern peninsula was recently gained by treaty from the savages, and our legislature is keen to learn what it holds. The land is rich in timber—that much is known. I assume you’ve heard reports of copper and silver and gold?”
“Well! We shall not be searching for copper or silver or gold. You do not build railroad tracks and locomotives and cannons from copper or silver or gold. You build them from iron. You see, my boy, fortunes are built from gold. But nations are built from iron.”
Brush’s tone reminded Elisha of an old schoolmaster, a rheumy pedant named Wilkerson. All responses to the man’s questions were incorrect. He’d been fond of wielding a hickory switch on the class’s younger boys.
“The expedition’s secondary purpose is somewhat nebulous. The land office has attached Professor George Tiffin to the expedition. Professor Tiffin has theories about the savages—some notion about their artifacts, how they might explain the mystery of their origins. I suspect he is a moon-eyed dreamer.”
Elisha nodded but said nothing.
“We shall depart from Sault Ste. Marie and canoe to the Chocolate River, here, then return on foot through the interior. We will measure topographical features, examine geological evidence, count timber—none of your minnow and butterfly nonsense. The journey will last twelve weeks. The wage is ten dollars per week, paid upon departure. You say you can shoot?”
“Shot a smoothbore flintlock since I was a boy. I can knock a hole in a watermelon at a hundred yards.”
“A useful skill, should we be menaced by watermelons. You can handle an axe?”
Despite himself Elisha grinned. “I worked two winters in a lumber camp near Manchester—I believe we cut half the pine timber in New Hampshire. So I’m right friendly with both axe and saw.”
“Are you a praying Christian?”
His grin froze. The true answer was clearly the wrong one. He said, “My father is a minister.”
Mr. Brush grunted. He turned to the mantel, and as he did the breath emptied from Elisha’s lungs. He had somehow disappointed the man. Now Brush would thank Elisha for his time, send him away with a stiff handshake. And then back to his boardinghouse room on Orleans Street, with its greasy window and fly-speckled shade, its smell of rotten fish. The boy wiped sweat from his brow.
From the Hardcover edition.Copyright © 2008 by Karl Iagnemma
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