The Cartographers Last Map

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Other  |  House: Booksie Classic
In the aftermath of the great fire of London an old man is dying with his trade. He is visited by a pure young girl who's life he can impact for better or worse.

Submitted: April 11, 2012

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Submitted: April 11, 2012

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The room was silent yet so full of noise. The scratching of a feeble hand bringing a quill across parchment was only interrupted by the occasional labored breath of the old man hunching over his work. In contrast was an occasional coo of the small girl sleeping in the corner with her back against the wall. He paid no mind to her and dare not send her out into the dark of the night.  It was an especially bad time with the smell of smoke in the air dancing around the Dutchmen hanging from the trees. The old man busied himself with his map which he seemed to be drawing from a distant memory till his eyes could no longer fight to remain open. He leaned back and fell asleep in his chair which is a skill among cartographers and calligraphers. To be able to drive till you could no longer and not fall onto your work was something his father was proud of. Such a skill was required for men of those trades especially when the press reared its head.

His small shop received less and less visitors and the last thing to visit was the black death. It had visited many of the houses on his block and they all bore a similar mark and many were still boarded up the occupants long perished. The city had seen its fair share of hardships with the plague and the fire and he cursed under his breath that he survived them both. The plague had taken his wife and son and the fire was a harsh reminder of their makeshift funeral. He remembers looking out at the glow in the sky and smelling the smoke.

He awoke with a stir as the dawns light crawled through a hole in his ceiling to fall on his face. For a moment he looked for the source in a groggy stupor. He worried that he would have to move his desk again lest the rain come in on his work a task which takes his old bones an entire day to perform. Once he realized he was safe for the time being he looked over to the corner where the girl was. There was no sign of her save the spot on the floor where no dust settled during her slumber.

The girl first visited him a fortnight earlier when she was hiding from her father as children often do. She stumbled upon the old man working diligently and she watched him for several hours and him never giving a sign of notice. She has come back several times since then often distraught over her father or bearing a slice of bread or an old apple which she left next to the old man. He never paid mind to her and always waited till she was gone to accept the offerings. She would have one sided conversation with the old man often waiting for a response but only getting the sound of him drawing or dipping his quill into the bottle of ink on the far corner of the desk. She would often complain about her father and over the loss of her mother in the same way as the cartographer’s wife.

Her father was a carpenter and his shop was lost in the fire so he had to take whatever work he could to get by. Hard time had fallen on him and after the loss of his own wife he fell into the bottle. His lectures came often and harshly on the girl but he loved her so and was determined to keep her from a life of shame and misfortune. Too many of her friends would be forced to brothels or worse places such was a fact of the times. But her father was a good man and if giving her a quality of life was the only thing he could do with his life it would be enough for him.

The parchment he was working on was almost as large as the desk and his long arms just barely reached the corners. His age and state of heart made the process long and arduous and some days he would have to settle for 2 or 3 lines before falling back to sleep. He had no visitors and rarely ate so he had a lot of time to do his work. But this map was special to him and every detail had to be perfect.  This map was for his own use and he planned to carry it as far as his legs would take him. He knew that the girl was going to be in trouble for being gone most the night and would be stuck at her father’s side for many days. He was working harder in the hopes that he could finish and set out before and if she returned.

She did indeed return with slightly moldy bread in hand and crept silently up to the old man’s house. It had been several days and she was constantly worried about him eating. She had a pure heart which is still something we rarely see. She didn’t like upsetting her father but she couldn’t leave this old man behind like the rest of the city did. As she approached the house she stopped at the corner and peeked around. The sight of her might have alarmed a passing citizen if anyone else dared that street. She waited and peered at the doorway to the old man’s house which was open as he often left it. But this time she could see another figure in the house wearing a long cloak and hood over his body which towered above anyone she had ever seen. The figure stood straight as a board except for its head tilted down at the old man. And she could hear faint whispers that trailed through the air like the musings of ghosts.

The figure slowly turned and walked out the door as the girl was frozen with fear and anticipation. The tower of a man walked by he paying no notice and she couldn’t work up the nerve to catch a glimpse of his face. Seconds, minutes, or hours could have gone by she couldn’t tell which but when she turned around there was no sign of the man. She scurried to the safety of the old man’s house and sat on his bed which had become her seat often since the old man hadn’t slept in it since his wife’s death.

She asked about the figure incessantly until the old man finally caved and gave her an answer to keep her quiet for a while. He told her the cloaked man was a Frenchman hiding his face lest he be tied up like the Dutchmen and that he had to refuse him his services as a cartographer. She wanted to know why he wouldn’t work for the man but figured she would pass out before she got an answer which would mean another stern lecture from her father. She left the old man his bread and with a smile ran back home as quickly as she could.

This relationship continued for several months as the girl would bring him food twice a week and complain about her problems. Her father had been finding work helping the town rebuilds, but without his own tools it was just barely enough to survive. He had started taking an interest in a barmaid to the anguish of his daughter.  She talked about her mother and neighbors she lost and about the fire and the madness it burned into people. The old man simple nodded and went about his work slowly become one with his quill and wooden chair.

One day as the girl prattled on the old man cleared his throat. She immediately paused and waited for him to say something but instead he pushed his chair back and put down his quill. He tried to stand but wearily turned in his seat to face her. He looked at her and in a low and somber tone asked her a single question.

“What is your name little girl?”

She was flustered and couldn’t immediately respond. Had she not introduced herself all those months ago? She stumbled with words and mumbles before letting out a meek, “Hester sir.”

He smile and pointed at the floor board near his bed and said with a nod “Could you do me a favor and give me a tug on that floor board.” She did as directed and pulled on several wrong ones before he guided her to the one that was loose and came up with a tug of her fragile arms. Underneath she found a small wood box sealed with nails on the ground nestled between two boards of the foundation. She picked it up and brought it to the old man who simply waved his hand in protest as she went to hand him the box.

“You said your father is a carpenter right?” he said getting a nod out of the girl, “Well take this to him he should be able to open it tell him it is a gift and belongs to him now.”

Hester gave the old man a queer look and gave the box a gentle shake to gather a hint to the contents to no avail. After minor bits of protesting she realized the old man was set in his ways and would not have it any other way. He only added that the box was supposed to be for his son who didn’t need it now. After saying that he simply turned to look at his map and didn’t say another word. She took a peek at the map for a moment and tried to see what it was of. It looked like carefully placed scribbles and was unlike anything she had ever seen before. The entire bottom of the map was lined with carefully drawn flames and the words “Here be lions“ but she noticed the man staring at a blank box in the bottom right of the map.

After a few seconds the man began to stir to shoo the girl out the door but she ran at the first sign of movement from the old man. She ran right out the door not even noticing the large figure standing off to the side of the entrance. When she brought the box to her father he was not happy to hear she had visited the old cartographer again. He placed the box under his bed and quickly set about to ignore it. Hester refused to let him sleep that night and he eventually was forced to find a broken hammer he had taken from work to open the box.

Inside he found a layer of cotton which he removed to find a massive pile of guineas. Easily enough money to but sixteen of ever tool he ever heard of and he sat the mouth agape at what he was looking at. He quickly grabbed his daughter by the hand and stormed over to the old man’s house to confront him about the gift. As they reached the block before the last she noticed the large Frenchman from that time ago walking towards them. His cloak was long and his head hung low so no part of him was visible and this time he wasn’t alone. At his side was a young man in his prime a few years younger than her father perhaps carrying was seemed to be a rolled up map. For a brief moment the young man looked Hester in the eyes and she froze in her tracks. The eyes were familiar to her and filled with the pain and wisdom of one who has lived far past the expectance of their life. Her father tugged at her hand and told her to stop wasting time. It was almost like he couldn’t see the figures she stared at as they walked past her.

When the walked in the doorway the old man sat in his chair with his eyes closed. He looked like he had fallen asleep again but uncharacteristically his hand was frozen on the paper still holding his quill. Hester’s father tried to rouse the old man and fell silent as he and his daughter momentarily looked at the map in unison. His hand was stuck at the end of a single word scribbled in the box in the lower corner that remained previously empty. Her father knew his style of cartography and that that box was something he saved for when a map would be used to reach a destination. The father took a step back and held his daughter as tear welled up in their eyes. The old man had passed finally finishing his map and left them the means to live a life as happy as could be in those times. But it wasn’t the loss of someone who helped him or the joy of the solution to his problems that brought tears to the man’s eyes. It was the single word etched with the old cartographer’s dying stroke of his quill.

“Heaven.”


© Copyright 2020 Dominick May. All rights reserved.

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