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The Archipelago

Five hundred miles from the mainland, obscured by the curve of the earth, the islands of a nameless archipelago dot a patch of blue tarpaulin sea. Barren, old, crumbling, the islands are the only defined points on a watery plain that is as vacant and forlorn as sky. Cargo ships chugging across the sea leave wakes of foam, and the wakes crisscross like pick-up sticks, but purposeless currents dissolve these lines. Jet trails across the sky repeat this behavior, the perfect lines, the breaking apart. Clouds of fish drift below, clouds of rain above. Sheens of oil. A stray, melting iceberg from the south. A fishing net torn loose. Nothing holds fast. Not even the islands of the archipelago. They are old and chalky, and they are crumbling into the sea; most have eroded to fewer than a hundred yards wide; the lowest ones are submerged during storms. Someday, the islands of the archipelago will wash away.

The best navigational charts put the number of islands at about 200. The shorelines are sheer cliffs, jagged and white as bergs, crowded with puffins, cormorants, and gulls. Every island lies within sight of several others, and no island is separated from another by more than two hops. On a map, if you pinned down segments of string linking the islands, you would describe a network more entwined than the strands of a spider web. But understand this: if you tried to pull the string into a knot, gently, the tangled connections would amount to nothing more than a simple loop. It would be as if the archipelago were not even there.

A long time ago, a people settled the archipelago. Where they originated, why they abandoned their old lives, and where they thought they were going, are not known, but at some time they boarded rafts, drifted across the sea, and washed up on the islands. The people dwelled in caves they carved into the mealy cliffs. Here began a harsh, new way of life. There was no way to leave.

Tourists, mariners, archeologists, and relic hunters have explored the caves and found simple gear for fishing: sinewy nets, fishtraps, crab cages. The caves have yielded ivory knitting needles and spinning bobbins, and even a simple loom strung across four ribs of a bow whale. Evidently, the people gathered flax from a red flower that grows on the rocky humps of the islands, and from this flax they made a variety of fine, strong, scarlet ropes. Samples have been found of twine and string, woven cord, braided ropes, and several gauges of spun thread. The walls of the caves display faded, peeling frescoes, and the frescoes depict men casting fishing lines, women braiding children’s hair, instructions for tying dozens of knots, and children swinging from a rope over blue water turned milky from the dissolving cliffs.

The layout of each cave is a marvel, a maze, as intricate as an island can stand without caving in. Maybe in the early days the caves were simple, but to make space for the growing population, they grew more complex: additional wall space for frescoes, twists and turns to confuse intruders. Of course, a resident would have found the passages familiar and comforting; each cave simplifies to a loop. Keep your hand on the left wall as you walk, and trace the frescoes with your fingertips. Do not let go. You will trace the entire cave and return to your starting place.

A few expertly lashed rafts have been found, although there are no trees on the islands. You have to assume that the people kept the best rafts from their flotilla and salvaged boards from the rafts that were no longer serviceable. The frescoes do not show it, but you can imagine the people traveling locally on these rafts, island to island, sharing technology, food, and stories, stitching back and forth like guppies in an aquarium. Of course, the islands in the center of the archipelago would have seen the most traffic, and their frescoes depict people grown fat from puffin eggs, lounging in the sun at the mouth of their caves, lacing string designs between their fat fingers. The people on the peripheral islands may have lived in hunger and desperation and fought among themselves for puffin meat. The frescoes show nothing like that, but of course there would have been no dignity in recording those things.

As much as anyone can determine from the evidence, the people of the archipelago lived meager, primitive lives. Their rafts were flimsy, their fishing gear simple. No weapons, no kitchen utensils (not even a cookfire), no religious artifacts, and no toys have been found. One fresco depicts a storyteller delighting a group of children with a loop of string laced around his fingers in the outline of a seabird—like cat’s cradle—but that is all. Only in the making of rope and the tying of knots did the people show any ingenuity. The people appear to have had an advanced understanding of knots. You can infer from the frescoes that knots were their central, organizing device. A midwife ties a knot around an umbilical cord. Children learn a new knot, a new braid, and a new rope trick every year. A set of knots for boys, a set of knots for girls. A priest binds two wrists together during a wedding. A family tugs at a loaf of braided bread. A criminal dangles from a hangman’s noose. A crowd lashes rocks to a dead man and heaves his body from a cliff.

As well, samples of knotted rope have been found that are too elaborate to have any practical use, and even suggest advanced mathematical reasoning. The ropes were left in a garbage pile—fish bones, shells, frayed nets—as though the makers did not consider the knots to be worth anything. And it is true: such sophisticated ropework had no application to these people’s simple lives. It begs the question, still unanswered: what did the people who left those knots value? What did they not throw away?

Of all the relics that people have found, perhaps the most remarkable are the talking ropes. With scores of knots at their disposal, these people had the makings of an alphabet, the knots functioning like letters of print. Such ropes have been found in some of the caves. The longer ropes may record sagas, the shorter ones proverbs, lists, or data. A rope, dragged across your palm, reads like Braille. Snapped like a lariat, it releases a prayer. Before they knew what they had, a few relic hunters untied some of the ropes, abrogating their stories. Of course, no one can break the code, for it is not alphabetic, but contextual, nuanced. A bowline could stand for strength, a figure-eight knot for a matrix, a square knot for healing. Put those three in order, and so on. That’s not enough for a story, but maybe an experienced teller could weave a tale from it. It befalls you only to imagine what these people might have said as they wandered their caves, clambered to the brushy slopes above, cast fishing lines into the sea, and combed, braided, knitted, wove, spun, tied.

On one island, where the cave had collapsed, an archeologist unearthed an especially long talking-rope. From the type of knots, he determined that it had been tied by a teenage boy, and from a kind of periodicity in the patterns, he surmised that it might have been a diary. A lot of speculation has grown around what this boy might have recorded. Maybe one day, the boy practiced a rope trick to impress a girl; another day, he went fishing; or he worried about the tall waves lapping at the entrance to his family’s cave; he was hungry and his parents boarded a raft to beg food from another island, but never returned. The final twenty or so knots are looser than the others. Towards the end, they are slack. The last several feet are blank.

Anyone is free to speculate about these things.

The islands being so steep and bare, the people’s fascination with knots is not surprising. Knots held things in place, kept supplies from blowing away, kept children from falling over a cliff. Maybe that is what knots symbolized: security, purchase, a hold on reality. On the other hand, maybe the people felt tied to this place unwillingly, bound to this barren, crumbling archipelago, despairing of ever getting away. Maybe the knots were a tether, a leash, a curse.

What happened to these people? How did the culture end? A collapse of the fishery? A storm? A war? A diaspora doomed to fail? There are a thousand theories, but the key, usually ignored, may be a single knot. The frescoes on several of the walls depict a ball of rope, writhing, hopelessly tangled, with a hundred little elbow joints bending this way and that in the mesh. Loose strands protrude in all directions, and at the end of each strand, a small brown hand reaches. The knot’s meaning is unclear. It also appears in fishing tackle, in the braids of children’s hair, at the tips of lariats, and in fanciful string designs you could lace through your fingers. It could symbolize unity, community, trust, strength, sustenance, pleasure, the circle of life. In this people’s language of knots, maybe they spelled the name of God right there in their hands. Why, then, this: with a little coaxing, kneading, and prying, the sacred knot undoes itself. Easy. Let it slip from your fingers, and you are left with an empty loop, the unpronounceable truth.

Here is what some researchers believe. Once per year, a good climber tied a long rope to his waist and spidered across the cliffs. Playing out the rope, the people measured the dwindling circumference of their crumbling island homes. A knot in the rope marked the annual erosion. Every year, as the rope shortened, the people saw what was happening, and they decided to leave before the islands completely dissolved. They undid everything they had done there. They weren’t tied to this place at all.

They crowded onto the last of their rafts, lashed their few possessions, and floated away. Maybe a few rafts made it to the edges of the archipelago, caught the ocean current, and broke free. Who knows where those people ended up? The rest of the rafts drifted from island to island, powerless to escape the narrow straits, the confining waters, the net of islands. A raft would squeeze between two islands toward a promising gap of blue sea, but another chalky bluff would loom in its path. Again and again, the currents guided the rafts teasingly to the edge of the archipelago, then back to the familiar center. The routes of the rafts intertwined in a knot, increasingly and desperately tangled. Eventually the people depleted their supplies and accepted whatever island the waves marooned their raft upon. They would never leave.

The tangled, sacred knot took its final, perfect, bewildering form.