1. New World
As a girl she draws worlds in her own image. Tattoos maps like the mothwing parchment is her skin, like the lines and borders are meridians of bone, azimuths of hair, zenith eyes. She cannot name it, this marrow deep pulse, this continental drift that leads her to sketch, to knit her scattered plates together in some volcanic shuffle, the healing of bone under her surface.
The mapmaker’s mother works from the floor with her sometimes, writing church hymns, setting lyrics to tunes that are not her own, scratching out straight-backed letters, an expedition of words traveling nowhere, discovering nothing. She traces her finger over the mapmaker’s sketches, says they are lovely, but absently, her voice a hummingbird searching for a sturdier space to land. The mapmaker feels that she has a chapel of a mother, meek and still and full of others.
Her father arrives, reaches for her drawings. Angles them, peers behind. This must be the Holy Land, he proclaims, all pulpit voice, which resounds as though from the prow of a ship.
Her mother follows in his wake and says, maybe this is Australia.
She considers what it would mean to translate her map and whether she even could.
It’s not a map if nobody can read it. Her father snatches the pen.
He boxes off a corner of the page.
This line, make it a continent border. And this, country.
Until they are clawmarks in a soft underbelly. Until she feels them under her skin, lacerating the heart of her.
I knew what they meant, she says.
Her father laughs.
She looks at the map with its shipwreck letters. She lifts the pen, tries once more to render herself into an earth, jetties of her limbs into coasts, scars into landmarks; she tries but now her lines scab over remnants, indents of her father’s marks, imprints that cannot be erased.
In high school art the mapmaker devours travelogues and the journals of explorers and centuries-old maps. The boy who sits across from her has evergreen eyes and sometimes compliments her work; when he speaks her face pools with a volcanic heat, a magma she cannot control.
She sketches the endless ocean, her body folded like a fist over plains of the Midwest, sheets of Antarctic ice, the voids of the world, so she can fill them with dragons. Whenever she finds spaces that swirl with sawgrass or snow or jawbone waves, she places a dragon there, roaring or howling or snarling, protecting something she cannot name or draw.
She looks to the boy sitting across the table, who stops his own drawing of a pear-shaped dog and says, those dragons are pretty sweet. His smile is a mountain range splayed with the lights of sunrise. Sometimes they laugh about something a classmate has said and they always warm her, these interactions, before he spins to his friends.
That night she draws a new map, thinks of the boy with the lopsided smile, who looks at her as if he understands, as if he could plot her across charts and pages without effort.
The next day in art class, heart pounding tidal forces against the pinkness of her skin, the mapmaker smiles and hands the boy her creation.
The mapmaker’s gut pitches and yaws and the dragons glare.
It’s nothing, she says. Just, you said you liked the dragons.
Oh, he says. I guess that’s cool.
The mapmaker cannot quite get it out, the description she has in her mind, of how the dragons, ferocious and angry, exist to protect something unexplored and unnamed, something that has not yet formed. So she tells him the old mapmakers used dragons to mark unknown territories, places they did not understand.
He blinks. Okay.
When she sees him stuff the map in his bag and whisper shut up to his friend her eyes scald and she wishes she could throw away the jetsam of her skin and her body, could sail away light and unencumbered.
She draws more dragons that night, so many they seem to multiply across wildernesses and seas. Monsters with features like her own—flash of angry eye, cheekbone become spiked tail. With scales shaped like her fingernails. Mouths clustered with glacial jagged teeth.
After college she plots geological survey data on maps.
She tells her boss she loves this, translating the world into a readable text, an intimate conversation.
He laughs. Jesus. Translating is for languages.
For her first project she is to spool lines, colors, elevations and depths. She is to provide core information for a drilling firm, to find areas of weakness and strength, presence and absence. She asks the man at the next cubicle if he has any paper and he holds up a yellow legal pad.
Good paper, I mean.
His voice is a calving glacier. You an artist?
She finds the paper in a supply closet under a crusty rubber glove and a chalky sponge. It is coarse, faded bile yellow, swarmed with water stains.
The pencil sags into the page and smudges at her touch, but the landscape, the lines, can still hold some of her, can still twist and loop in ways she herself moves or thinks or feels. She contains spreads of information in water stains, their marks leeching through each page.
She reveals the map to her boss when he asks how the project is going.
He rubs his eyes. Christ, he almost shouts.
I always draw first.
He takes the pen from his pocket, slashes away entire quadrants. You’re supposed to use the software first. And last. And always. He glowers over the cubicle wall at the man and says, you’re her project manager. You let her waste time like this?
She speaks before she can stop the words. I just did it. Nobody let me.
It won’t happen again, says the man, standing, moving toward the mapmaker like he is shielding her from some assault. I’ll explain to her.
When the boss stalks away, the man leans over and apologizes.
I understand, Project Manager. She turns on her computer, screen throwing glares and shapes without form into her own reflection, distorting everything.
Working with the program is painful, each click a sharkbite. The apexes and vertices mismatch, the lines are harsh and deep, too visible, devouring the area she maps. The dots become ticks, draining the pools of empty space until all is grid and block. She fears what her boss will growl; to her, the contours stray off track and the coordinates strand too far apart. She sighs often and when she is silent her Project Manager calls, everything okay, in a singsong that becomes sharp, knuckles on a frozen window, rapping into her concentration.
When she hands the map to her boss he nods. See? Good work, hon.
She says nothing to her boss and nothing to the man who eyes her all the way back to her desk, where she reworks her original, the one sketched by hand. She cannot erase the toxic black streaks. She tries to sketch dragons but they are sandy, eroded shapes without definition or spine.
4. Failed Expeditions
The man in the next cubicle calls himself a cartographer, a linear, sterile word she laughs at. They eat at foreign restaurants where the air is spice and clamor. In bookstores he points out places he’s been, glancing at her until she grins or remarks. Sometimes they speak the same words at the same time and it is like tracing landscapes on a snowy blank page.
He watches her draw, watches the maps blossom, marvels at her elegance. He says one morning, I told my parents about your maps. My dad would love for you to draw the town where they met. For their anniversary. His eyes mercury, melting.
She smiles and says she’ll think about it. But with a sense of loss, as though a knot has come undone.
The mapmaker charts him in her mind, his tropics and doldrums, delineations of spine and limb she surveys with her lips, tongue, fingers. He becomes the projection by which she plots her life; she triangulates her day and her night, tracking herself by the times he tugs her like he is a tide and the mountain of him in her thoughts and the time he says, don’t you think that lipstick is too bright?
He asks her one night, would you have been an explorer? You know, way back?
She pictures her father and mother, how one of them is always the discoverer and the other the discovered. Absolutely, she responds. First woman to the North Pole.
I hate the cold.
Explorers always needed someone to write them encouraging letters from home.
Why not go somewhere we both like.
She shakes her head at the sputter creeping under his voice, the sinewy tendon of indignation. I’ve always wanted to travel by sled.
You’d leave me.
I’d find Franklin’s frozen corpse and bring you back his hand.
His tone withers. I don’t have a girlfriend so I can be lonely.
She throws up her hands and turns on the television. He props his feet on the coffee table and crosses his arms and the room is cold.
Soon she finds herself ignoring these questions or lying when she answers so his body stays a rainforest next to her, his arms riverbend close. She fears her answers to his hypotheticals will drive her from him, will open uncertain new wilds.
She tries to feel him as an astrolabe, guiding her home, because she fears she is a passage marked for someone else’s exploration. Her maps are breathless, failed expeditions, closed routes and cairnless peaks and savage empty corridors from which no woman returns.
She aches to exorcise them, these haunted journeys, so she picks up her pen, begins to map a sense of something lost, a land long left behind.
When she tells him it is for his parents, he stands behind her, suggests this estuary or this island or this cape.
She cannot help but wonder if her magnetic north has shifted. They feel the same way about movies and books except when they don’t and he jokes that she is wrong and tells her why. They both want to travel and they both speak of work, family, but he tells her things she already knows like he is afraid she has forgotten him, like these thoughts are frostbitten corpses she has left behind.
In her sketch there are no streets but neurons. There are no harbors but hands. Everything spirals out like a fingerprint.
I don’t want to tell you what to do, he offers in the quiet.
She blinks. The world is made of meandering lines.
How about something less abstract. Don’t get emotional. It’s just a thought.
She flaps open her sketchpad, parchment rough against fingerpads. In her mind a churn of waves and ice. He is always present in her maps now, they all are, cliffs like her father’s words and oceans of her mother’s silence and of course him, always slightly caustic, always burning away routes that lead elsewhere.
Please, he says. I just want it to be good.
This time she sketches boundless continents untethered by one another. Tundra and oceans and plains bleed across the startled wideness of the page and the mapmaker continues to fill these expanses with butterflied tracks and spiraling journeys and blooming expeditions because she knows the depths and breadths of the world are no longer empty, can never be empty again.