Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder




    In a fantasy novel called Earth Magic that Cory and I wrote, one of the characters is convinced that a bridge must exist just over the hill because the map in his hand shows a bridge there.  He says, "By my map there is a bridge, and I believe my map."
    All that he may actually discover is the ruins of a former bridge, but it's sufficient to satisfy him.  He declares, "That is bridge enough for me. My map was right."
    My brother once told me that he thought this was really a description of our father.

    Dad was a university department chairman and professor of wood technology.  He was a relentlessly literal-minded and rational man who believed in always following maps, and who trusted the maps he followed far more than the world they represented.
    If a song was called folk music, then he held the reasonable expectation that it was first sung spontaneously by a bunch of anonymous people in some day long past.  The likes of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan had to be imposters.  And it was his given opinion that nobody should write a story and permit it to be labeled science fiction who didn't possess at least a Ph.D. in advanced science, so you could be sure that he really knew what he was talking about.
    If neither the world nor I always managed to live up to standards like these -- and it was apparent that at times we didn't -- nonetheless, how things properly ought to be was clear to him.  The word or the map or the book came first.  The sometimes untidy way that things can actually be was the departure from truth.
    Even so, there was a point in his life when my father turned his back on everything he'd loved and relied upon most, and proceeded into the unknown with no map to guide him.  And unaccountable things found a way of happening to him then which contrived to carry him away from one world and toward another.
    The pivotal event may have been meeting Ahmed again.  In his memoirs, my father -- who didn't usually acknowledge the existence of the marvelous -- would call it "the most incredible incident of my life."

    Dad was born in the first year of the Twentieth Century in the city of Voronezh in Russia, one-third of the way from Moscow to the eastern tip of the Black Sea.  He was the thirteenth and final child of a family of provincial aristocrats.
    As it was told to him, there were two brothers named Panshin at the court of Peter the Great who had refused to cut the beards and abandon the special clothing which identified them as boyars.  In consequence, they were banished.
    They traveled beyond the fringes of the northern forest to Voronezh in the black soil region, which was as far north as the rivers that flowed to the Black Sea were navigable.  The elder brother became a property owner in the growing city, and the younger brother a shipbuilder.  The story as it was handed down within the family was that one day he set off for America in one of the ships he built and was never heard of again.

    As a boy, my father's favorite time of year was summer. When school had let out for the season, the children of the family would leave Voronezh in troika-drawn carriages for Mihailovka, the principal Panshin country estate.
    Mihailovka was a working farm.  There were cows and pigs and chickens, fields of ripening grain and sunflowers, and great fruit orchards split by a broad avenue of linden trees and bounded by alleys of white birch, with cross-alleys lined with rowan, maple and oak.  Every week a wagon, or in winter a sleigh, would bring produce from the estate to the family in the city -- eggs and poultry, butter and cottage cheese, fresh vegetables and fruit in season, mushrooms and root vegetables, jams and preserves.
    But the real business of the place was the raising and training of racing horses, and the provision of horses under contract to the army of the Tsar.  There were thirty stables at Mihailovka.  My grandfather's prized Orloff trotters were kept there, and for a period of several years, until it managed to wear out its welcome, a camel, too.  A round indoor horse arena was located where two wings of stables met at a right angle.  And there was also an adjacent track.
    The manor house had been built as the country home of my grandfather's grandfather, who first acquired the estate near the end of the eighteenth century together with two villages of serfs.  It was a large comfortable split-level place with five bedrooms, a room for formal occasions, a family room and a library full of books.
    Dad's parents and their guests stayed there whenever they came out from the city.  At those times, life would become more restricted and closely regulated.
    There was a second house, as well, more sparely furnished and painted red.  This contained another eight bedrooms built to accommodate the overflow of children.  But my father looked on it as just a place to eat and sleep.
    For him, Mihailovka was a boy's paradise with a million things to do.
    There was a playground for the children.  Or else you might play croquet or a game of gorodki.  You could poke your nose into the office or the farm kitchen, the smithy or the machine shop.  And it was always possible to hang around the stable foreman, illiterate yet horse-wise, who had once been my grandfather's childhood playmate.  Or you might listen as the coachman told his stories, always familiar but always a little different, about Tsar Ivan and his foolish son, or the Tsarevna Natalya and how she was turned into a frog.
    It was also the kind of place where someone with parents who were proper and demanding, and who had a dozen older brothers and sisters to evade, could lose himself and never be missed.  Between the houses and the orchard there was a park full of ancient trees with a myriad snaking paths and hidden benches.  One trail found its way to a hilltop where a circular shelter of glass had been built.  My father thought of that as his special private place.  It was possible for him to sit there for hours just dreaming, watching the herds of horses in the meadow below.

     But what my father enjoyed most at Mihailovka were the nights he spent riding guard around the boundary of the estate with Ahmed.
    Ahmed was a Moslem -- a Cherkess from a village in the northern part of the Caucasus.  He was a tall wiry catlike man who'd spent a life in the saddle.  He wore a karakul cap on his head and a silver-ornamented dagger in his belt.  Across the breast of his tunic there were loops for rifle shells, and he carried a short-handled whip called a nagaika.
    Local people looked on him with suspicion.  He was an infidel, a dangerous and unpredictable man.  Some thought that he had supernatural powers and could cast evil spells.  There was even talk that he'd been seen in the act of changing into the form of some strange wild beast.
    Old peasant women would cross themselves when they laid eyes on Ahmed and hurry away.  But there were also said to be girls in the adjacent villages with babies that didn't look Russian.
    If my father was shy of him at the outset, he overcame his wariness.  Ahmed didn't act all that weird around the estate.  For a wild man of the mountains, he seemed more gentle and patient than not.  And he was even willing to allow a curious boy to accompany him when he rode on his rounds.
    They would set off as night was falling, never following the same route or schedule so they couldn't be anticipated.  If there was no moonlight, then Dad would have to rely on the horse to find its way.
    The estate became another world after dark.  My father would recall the sensuous feel of the summer air as they rode, and the sound the grain made as it rustled in the breeze.  Most of all, he would remember the song of the nightingales.
    During the night they would pause at the fire of the herdsmen watching the horses in the meadow and share their kettle of porridge or eat potatoes that had been baking in the coals.  Then they'd resume riding the perimeter until daybreak.
    My father only witnessed Ahmed act violently once.  One night they stumbled across the hidden campfire of a horse thief.  The man spotted Dad first and launched an attack upon him, and Ahmed came to the boy's aid.
    He struck the intruder a blow with his nagaika and knocked him down.  And then, when he continued to show his intent to fight, hit him again.  That was all it took.
    More unsettling were those occasions when he would sing sad, savage songs that sent shivers down my father's spine.  Ahmed didn't like interruption while he was singing.  At other times, he would tell stories about his past life.
    Dad said: "Once he told me about his family, his chieftain father and his beautiful younger sister who was stolen by a young man from another village, and how he and his father had avenged the family honor by killing not only the young brave but his entire family."
    He wondered if that was why Ahmed was there so far from where he belonged.


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