Those names meant nothing to him, he could not read them, but he instinctively understood the shapes of cities, the paths of roads, the rise of mountains. At first he didn't even look at pictures, just the maps, and most often one page for weeks or even months. This was assumed to be by all around him to be proof that he was at best sleeping, at worst someone with an extraordinarily low I.Q.
The kids laughed, the teachers and his parents looked at him with the expression usually reserved for injured dogs, and he knew all of that. But it did not matter. What was important was where he went. And he could travel.
He would pick something, most often rivers, but sometimes the roads or a mountain ridge, and he would move along, finding the contours that the maps expressed, and imagining the places, the scenes, the histories and the people.
From the earliest he most liked the smallest places. He could never really understand
He moved from the battered old atlases of his school rooms to the World Book Encyclopedia his brothers and sisters used for homework. Pictures in the articles now merged with the map pages. He would carry a volume outside, and cross the yard to the little outcropping of stone that could hide and shelter him, and look for countries. Knowing no other way, he took the first book first and began:
His parents took this turn of events as proof of progress. "Nate! Nikolas is reading the encyclopedia! Now he'll do much better at school." But this elation proved short-lived. Nothing changed at school, and Nik never spoke nor wrote nor even drew pictures of anything from the worlds he passed through.
By high school he had learned to mix the maps and pictures with carefully deciphered captions and he gained more control. On spring and summer Saturday mornings he ventured out on his moped and wandered through garage sales, seeking unusual documentations of the earth's geography. The money he earned bagging groceries at the IGA went into the Atlas of European History (1922), Central Europe Today (1902), L'Indochine (in French), and a pile of thirty years' worth of maps from National Geographic. Now he went by boat the whole stretch of the Elbe in 1900, finding a momentary home in that break in the Sudeten Alps that is the "
Parents, teachers, special ed directors declared him lost. They started to push him out. He had a job, which was enough for them, enough for him. Maybe that was so. He had Kyza that season and with her he climbed the cliffs of these boundary mountains, and made love in alpine fields of wildflowers. They poured cold, white Bavarian wines into each other's mouths and laughed as the sun set behind them, sending its last sparkles into the river below. He wondered at this place. Wondered how long he might stay.
And still drifted through the Saturday yard sales, piling up choices for when it would be time to leave.