David Mitchell

The Cloud Atlas

To Lucy

Would that I had

had such a map

No morphine: no use, the doctor said.

The boy would die within the hour, and morphine was in short supply. He was saving it for the soldiers-for American soldiers, he added, checking the wall clock, then his watch, then me. It was four o'clock, 1600 hours Alaskan War Time, on July 6, 1945, a mere thirty-four days before fighting in Japan officially ended. The boy was Japanese.

When I was a boy, I was told a writer should date his age from the day he started writing. I can't remember why I was told this; I just remember that I liked it enough to repeat it over the years to those who might benefit from the wisdom. To anyone. To people like my drill sergeant.

He had a quick reply: a soldier should date his age from the day he started killing.

If that's so, I was even younger than the world took me for back then. An eighteen-year-old sergeant, I'd been in the army for ten months, waging a secret war, from Alaska, for six. I'd trained in bomb disposal. I'd learned to speak some Yup'ik, I'd fallen in love with a woman who talked with touch, I'd shot a bar glass out of my captain's hand.

And now, in that tiny room, in a mission infirmary just inland from the Bering Sea, the weather cool and wet, I was sitting at the side of a boy who was dying.

I was AWOL.

And for the first time since putting on a uniform, I was crying.

At eleven, the boy died. At midnight, I turned three days old.



That's hardly enough to distinguish me around here, of course. I've heard it said that a percentage of Alaska 's population is always fleeing something-the authorities, spouses, children, civilization. By comparison, I have it easy. It's just a couple of old priests hunting me, and I know them both. I could take them if it came to that, and it won't.

I'll be honest up front. They're coming after me for the most mundane of reasons. The only thing slightly extraordinary is that they're coming at all. For a while, I thought they would just forget about me, and that I'd be able to live out my days like most fugitives here: not entirely free from want, but free from those who want you. But no, first one sent a letter and then the other: these initial letters just suggestions, of course. Then a second round, with a request. And the third round, with an order. Come home.

Now, I served in the army. I know what it means to disobey an order, even a bishop's, and yet I did.

Let them come.

They say they will. This Friday, two days from today. My superiors (the bishop himself, they'd have me believe, and his right-hand man) are flying all the way out here to my lonely home in the bush to haul me in for the crime of-believe it or not- growing old. Apparently you can't be seventy-three and live in southwestern Alaska, though this fact seems lost on a good portion of the population here in Bethel. But no, it's been decided. It's time I came in, returned stateside, or, as those here say, Outside. When I've asked what I'm to do in retirement, they've said, Rest, write-almost sixty years in the bush, what stories you must have!

A younger man will replace me, I'm told, but who are they kidding? Silver-haired fifty somethings count as young priests these days. And the fact is, fifty may be too old-if the silverhair being moved here is from, say, Phoenix. Me, I grew into this environment. I came during the war, left for seminary, and returned to stay. I've had fifty-six years to get acclimated, and the hardest part of that acclimation came when I was young and could take it. Show me the golftanned, fifty-year-old suburban priest who will survive transplantation here-I don't care how carefully he parcels out his multivitamins.

There is a bit of mystery to their pursuing me. There's another Catholic missionary I know who lives up north on the banks of the Yukon, in much rougher conditions than the relatively civilized frontier life here in Bethel (which includes electricity, a hospital, even alcohol-though only by mail). This Yukon priest, he's eighty. Maybe ninety. No one's coming for him. And his parishioners don't even like him, at least not as much as mine do me.

It's why I didn't answer any of the letters I received. One, I've aged into a fine contrarian, but more important, I wanted these men to come tell me face-to-face that I needed to retire. That way, when they said, It's because you're getting old, I could study their eyes and see what the other reason, the real reason, is.

I have an idea.

It's not about the man I killed, or the boy I didn't save. It's not even about the woman I loved.

But the shaman-

Well. Yes. This all might have something to do with him.

* * *

THE LOWER PART of Ronnie's leg was not torn off by wolves, though that's what he tells most people. And if someone got to see it, which almost no one ever does, that person might come away thinking he was telling the truth. His right leg ends just above the ankle in a tight red scar, the exact size, shape, and color of angrily pursed lips. The skin around it, smoother than silk from all the creams and ointments medical staff insist he use, colors with the weather and hosts storms of its own: clouds of bruises-red, blue, and purple-

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