20 December 2016

Last Known Sighting

Over the many winters of his life, the mapmaker Bradán could not recall vellum as old as that which lay before him. Rougher than the newer leaves, but thick and sturdy. The tiktiktik of dividers scratching upon its surface a metronome to his thoughts, struggling mightily to contain them. He laid down the worn brass instrument to pinch the bridge of his nose with ink-darkened fingers. The momentary relief of pressure gave pause for him to consider just what were his thoughts.

Looking out the window to the sea, his mind turned to the days of youth spent fishing along the shore. Bluefish and striped bass were the prizes, he recalled. But it was the silversides and menhaden the prizes chased. His thoughts, Bradán concluded, were silversides thrashing their way through the shallows in a frantic attempt to escape the maws behind them. Silver sparks jetting through a fuliginous night in which they will not be caught until exhausted and bereft of juice.

The sea rolled on, breakers of teal and jade painting the sand to dissolve into foam. Bradán turned his attention back to his drawing table. The parchment lay stretched out before him. It was incomplete, inescapable. Most of the mapmaker's work began with a photograph, sometimes more than one. Photographs gave the mapmaker the fixed point he required to set an axis for the world, a maypole about which his imaginings danced in the light of the sun. As it would appear to a casual visitor to the shop, this project was no different.

Bradán knew otherwise. Photographs carry with them invisible burdens, transparent gravities known only to the select few who had anything to do with the making of the picture. The lines he had set down on vellum only hinted at the density of their genesis, a slightly grainy black-and-white image perched on a tiny easel at the head of the table. The photograph curved space and time. He marveled that it did not crash through the desk under the weight of subject.

The subject gave him pause. He looked closely at the intersections, the circles, the tangents he placed so far. No matter how thick the lines to his eye they seemed feeble in light of that which they sought to locate. Too thick and they would blot out the page. Too thin and the heart would not be able to trace them back to the source. It was a conundrum Bradán faced often in his work. Decades of experience, drawing arcs and origin points, had endowed him with a near supernatural ability to parse lines and weights. Pilgrims made their way to his door based on his reputation to locate the lost or undiscovered.

A different day, a different problem. He knew this. Never before had he encountered such a riddle, a temporal-spatial quandary of such depth and intensity. He had heard of such things. More than one tale of complexities had he heard from the two masters responsible for bringing him into the brotherhood of De Animabus Cartographers, mapmakers of the souls. Master Gerrit had been old when the mapmaker entered his care as a youth, and had related twice the creation of maps so difficult they had whitened the beard upon his face. When Gerrit died, Master Kwan took over. Kwan was younger, inclined to impatience and silence. But even he held the marks on him of a map so harrowing it was a wonder the master had survived.

Bradán leaned back in his chair. He adjusted the wooden blind at the window to allow more light to stream across the table. The map was beginning to take form, but what? Where was it going? He feared it might be his encounter with myth, the infernal Map of the Night used to frighten weak-minded and superstitious mapmakers in training. Bradán had never known what to make of such tales, but he could tell his masters had heard the same things in their apprentice days. He was not sure that they did not believe the stories themselves. Unknowns were very much part and parcel of their existence.

He hefted a compass while absentmindedly twirling the adjustment wheel. His instincts knew when to stop. Abruptly he leaned in over the parchment to place a series of overlapping circles. Five in number, some tangents included, he felt the rightness of placement and the anxiety engendered by the maddening occlusion that sometimes befell his inner sight. His hand reached out for a parallel rule and a old nickel-silver quill pen. Lines flowed onto the vellum, deft and true. Gone were the ink smears of his journeyman days, the wavering lines, the skips. Bradán slipped into the trance so familiar and necessary to his work.

The map fleshed itself out. Hours passed. The north light changed subtly, something he only noticed when he paused long enough to sip uisce beatha carefully from a stoneware cup. His late lunch consisted of smoked herring and brown bread studded with currants. He barely noticed the smoky sting of whiskey and the sweetness of the fruit. He sensed the map was nearing completion. Perhaps by nightfall he could lay down his instruments.

The sea and the sky had other ideas. While he had been slaving away over the map, a storm had moved in. Wind whipped the sea into a bedlam of froth in violent parley with the sky as to who would dominate the shore. Gale force winds pounded the stone walls of the cottage, rattling the windows with threats to smash the glass. Bradán awoke from his trance to hurriedly close the shutters all around. The gloom prompted him to light up the four hurricane lamps he possessed, bulbous brass bellies cast in the shape of pineapples topped with seeded glass chimneys. Rain fell hard as liquid cannonballs hitting the roof. Bradán made his way back to the desk.

Standing before the desk in the pale gold light of the lamps, the truth of the matter became clear to the mapmaker. The map was huge as these maps went. It covered nearly the entire surface of the desk. Rich golds, blues, and crimsons held their own against the deep black boundary lines, the points, the listing planes. Beautiful, he thought, but incomplete. A chill settled into the pit of his belly as the knowledge of what the map lacked sank in. Chill turned to fear that it was possible this map would never be complete. It might never lead its patrons to what they sought, and it would be Bradán's burden to bear.

He stood still as the tempest ravaged the cottage. Staring at the map, he realized the answer might be found through a deeper look into the photograph that inspired it. He reached up to bring picture closer to the light and his tired eyes. Cool fingers entwined themselves around his heart. The pressure brought wetness to his eyes that blurred the photo further. He choked on a plug of grief.

The child in the picture was a mere infant, a girl-child swaddled in a patterned blanket that proclaimed her lineage to the world. She lay in a reed basket, the handle of which was partly visible in the upper left of the photo. The hand of the mother could be seen in part gripping the twisted stands of wicker. The girl's head was turned away, her profile in semi-sharp relief in the light of day. On her head was a few wisps of hair visible as little tufts. Bradán thought she looked like one of the sparrows that flitted amongst the hedges flanking his cottage.

A sparrow she may have been he thought, one of the little fallen ones spoken of by Matthew in his Gospel. Bradán found himself reciting the passage, "Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father's will," the words sounding harsh like wet rust in the chill of the cottage air. His voice nearly failed him towards the end of the passage, throat closing on grief and helplessness.

The girl had passed suddenly, no warning. Her parents had laid her down to sleep in that basket while they tended to some chores around their own little cottage. The scent of buttermilk had been heavy on the mother's hands as she had tearfully, tenderly given the photograph to Bradán. The parents implored him to make his map, to find her soul. The burden of ignorance imposed by the Universe on her passing was excruciating for them to bear. The photograph was the only relic they possessed.

The truth as he knew it was that he did not know if he could finish the map. He did not know if the lines, the inks, and the precision of his man-made instruments could ever truly know what God knows. Bradán did not have to power to track every little sparrow fallen, an imperfect being charged with comforting those reeling from loss. The photograph was the last known sighting of their precious vessel, and he would chart a path to the soul of that sparrow, or lose himself in the process.

Bradán took up the dividers and a pen, cool metal heavier than they looked. The storm raged on while he hunched over the vellum. Somewhere over the water he find her. The map would be complete or he would dissolve into it. His hands moved, the ink soaked in. Dawn was hours away.

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"Let your laws come undone
Don't suffer your crimes
Let the love in your heart take control..."

-'The Hair Song', by Black Mountain

Tell me what is in your heart...