Courtesy Wikimedia Commons: 1823, Darton and Gardner Comparative chart of world mountains and rivers
Suriya never planned on becoming a mapmaker. Her heart was set on architecture, creating place from wood and stone, glass and metals. It wasn’t only the imagining of an entire construction, it’s becoming an enlivened entity with breath made of those who dwelt within and without. Though as she held that in her central mind the idea astonished her. No, it was the work of it: conception of design, the measurements and rejection or acceptance of materials, every alteration to the plan. The blood heat of all that went on inside her thinking and being. The anticipation like fear that thrilled as the building was to be created.
She dreamed of this inside the small grey cinder block house she shared with most of her family. It was a humble box lost among all the others built to withstand the winds and weather draped and dropped on their village, Milliad. She watched other, older Makers construct and erect the places she improved upon in her designing mind. Nearly cried out for a place among them. And tended to the work she was given and needs she perceived.
Except her father’s needs. Zel was a Traveler, and since it was an honor to be a trading man they endured his absence. But it was also inconvenient when a man had a wife and six children–to leave them to their own devices could be dangerous, as well. But they made do. Her mother, Aya, worked the water line from dawn to dusk, muscular arms hefting urns and pots in a sliding rhythm and managing the line when others grew slack. Her body’s sways and twists unleashed song; she was paid extra for it. Suriya’s older brother, Torn, corralled his siblings, getting them to the Community Classroom and collecting rocks to trade with the Stone Master for food passes. He yearned to one day leave as had their father, to see the world. To be free of the drudgery.
Torn charged Suriya with keeping track of their father’s voyages. Father drew them rough diagrams in the earth, acting as if it made little difference to them if he went north or east, south or west. But Torn was hungry for details and his sister knew how to capture them. Suriya could draw with such precision that at fourteen she already was being given jobs by the community, documenting people’s faces and possessions. Torn convinced their mother that she would bring more security and prestige to the family if she followed that path. Maybe they would even be allowed to move. Mapmaking would be useful to all. She should be apprenticed to Mapmaker Master Joss, who’d asked for her already.
Suriya went off to find and sign on with him, not unhappily. If she drew more she might gain skill for architectural blueprints, in time. She would also be out of the house. She would not carry water or pick rocks.
Joss was pleased to have her and the Tribune was relieved to have a new apprentice such as she. In very little time she caught on to the latitudinal and longitudinal manner of all Place, the bodies of earth and water, the divergence of many skies from endless horizon. She knew about the three moons and both fixed and unfixed stars from her father’s tales. She grasped directions, spacial orientation and markers before they were uttered. The Mapmaker Master found she had such a talent that he stood behind her watching over her tidy head with its small red scarf, following every line and mark with barely hidden awe. He gave her more complex measurements of various Travelers’ distances and topographical information and let her go to it. Joss encouraged her but gave faint, often no praise. He would know more as time went by. He would consult with the Tribune if needed but he suspected the truth and knew all would be revealed fully: Suriya could become Grand Mistress of Maps. But the longer she was not informed and not officially chosen, the better for Joss and the Tribune. He had separate work to get out of her first.
Suriya took home a pouch of small multi-colored orbs each week to exchange for household goods. Over time it came to mean more than she expected. Her mother was proud of her daughter’s fine skill and contribution and told her more than once. But Aya was well aware of her daughter’s passion for creating beautiful structures. She waited to see if Suriya would stay of her own accord. It was likely this child would bring something more than acclaim to their family but she didn’t yet know what. How much she might damage, how much illuminate. It frightened Aya but she kept the feeling wrapped up tight, tucked far away. Her husband expected her to work and live without probing for more than could be yet answered. It was safer that way.
Her son, Torn, on the other hand, always sought more despite the wisdom of patience. He fingered the smooth glass orbs and thought how much he would rather see a key to the gates and the route where his father roamed, for starters. Then he went to the trading place to obtain what was needed for his mother, wondering over the possibility of a life free of rocks and orbs and grains for the bread they ate to sustain them another day.
In the night’s lonely depth and width as the others slept, Suriya perched on the flat top of the rough roof, the part before it slanted downward. She pulled from her loose garment rough paper sheaves and a drawing charcoal, then drew the route she believed their father had taken this time.
Though without costly rich dyes to aid her, she knew in her mind what colored her sketches: black-blue and violet mountains, rust brown and grey for shorelines, wide expanses of flat land that had no color except for flecks of orange and green. The sweetness of red inside white for blossoms. The moist greeness of hollows where the animals roamed. There was no sound she could hear about her as there was none in the maps. The vivid silence was music to her and it reverberated within her, a cushioned thunder of great wings moving in soft air. She glimpsed feet running along steep, barren hillsides and then they were gone. Suriya drew until her hand cramped, stiffened, until night was frayed at the edges with tiny licks of light. Then she descended the ladder and crawled into her window and then into the loft’s bed swing. And slept deeply and briefly.
But even when the map appeared to succeed with its beauty, each intuitively discovered byway declared remarkable by an astonished Joss, Suriya could not tell if he was pleased. He seemed disconcerted, even dismayed in his stern, closed way.
“I think I’ve gotten very close to Father,” she told Torn as they washed after first meal. “In true fact, it is more that Father has gotten to me and my work.”
Torn took no care in keeping the water off the floor and her garment and he splashed his face another time. “You don’t want me to know, I’m sure. You’ve already figured out I want to leave, find and go with him. Then you’ll be stuck here with the others.”
Suriya dried her face on the tail of her frock. “It’s not that easy to go. It will take a miracle to get out of the gate until you are twenty years and even then, you have to be invited for a purpose as we know. No one does something without a purpose. That is our way.”
He roughed up his ebony black hair so it stuck out in small barbs. “That is your fate, not mine.”
“I didn’t say that–we can choose our own final fate once we’re called forth by the Tribune or the Highest Power. It may require sacrifice but… oh, why must you be contrary?” She drank from the cup of her palm then flung droplets at him.
Torn batted her away and she batted him back; it seemed like play until he gave her a small shove.
“You mean like Joss and soon the Tribune have called you forth- -and yet you have chosen well enough, have you?”
She stood with feet apart and hands on hips, then let out a rush of air and shook her head. She brought her smooth strong hands together, one cupping the other before her chest. “Please don’t joke. Drawing chose me. The images chose me. You have always known that….You are not the same brother, Torn, as you were before Father was gone so much.”
Torn knit together his tanned, lined brow as he looked into her, then away. “I’m not a child anymore, that is all, well past your age. And soon you won’t be so childish, either. There are things you can’t imagine yet because your mind can’t hold them as real. They are too big– and bitter and simple. Not tender or complex like your sweet strange dreams, your mad fantasies.” He cackled as if he’d made a joke but she felt it as a sting.
“Come to the roof tonight,” she said, “and we’ll see what is and what isn’t.”
Torn considered her standing there, her hands now gathering her skirt. She could be so earnest and what did that even count in Milliad? He’d often asked her this. But her eyes had become luminous over the passing of time. Their color–dark blue with gold around the edges–startled him again as she refused to break her gaze from his. Her hair had fallen out of her scarf, unruly and thick, hence the scarf until she gave in and cut it chin length like the older girls. But her still, steeply planed face was inscrutable. They had once been told they favored one another. Torn didn’t know so much about her, anymore, he realized and she didn’t likely know about him.
Or did she? A chill twitched his shoulders as she smiled lightly, something more beneath its easiness.
“Help me with the children, it’s late,” he told her. “I’ll see you tonight.”
Together they rounded up the four young ones. The little ones had their pieces of fruit and bread and their woven bags. They pulled on soft-soled shoes. The six of them walked to the Community Classrooms, their older brother and sister so good to see when they looked back, then whispered among themselves. This was different, surprising, all of them leaving twelve footprints in the dusty paths, the wind hovering over them and then whisking away their tittering voices.
Suriya had had trouble at the Mapmaker Workshop and it followed her all the way home. It seemed Joss had wanted her to diverge from what made she’d drawn. He’d directed her to follow his mechanical compass as she worked on the paper flattened out on the work bench. Instinct told her he was wrong but how could she disagree? There were other Mapmakers who worked swiftly, quietly, but he was a Mapmaker Master held in great regard. She was young, had been there far less time than anyone else. But he had not disagreed with her renderings until this time.
Zel’s current trail was not as important now, Joss had told her, as were her findings of obscure passages, whether taken by others or none other yet. Could she see the off-shooting trails amid forests? The danger and mystery of distant mountains beckoning or did they recede from her mind? Could she feel where lesser rivers and tiny creeks turned or sudden rapids became impassable? And what about the towns they should record and visit or avoid? The hamlets that, like Milliad, meant something only to the inhabitants and thus, not to them at this time. He needed to find prosperous settlements that yielded greater profits. Zel was one among many and he had such irksome principles.
Joss knew how Suriya’s gift manifested by now: she made the maps come alive, each rendered from her interior visionary views, her sensations and sightings of place and energy. He didn’t know how it worked, only what it could likely do for them all; he’d have her proficiency honed into a power he could net and wield, too, one day. If she trusted him. But when she got too close to her father’s footsteps he urged her elsewhere. Joss had his own mission in that room with her, one that would be essential to Milliad’s growth, more so for his status and security. But he knew he had to be watchful of all Suriya’s mapmaking skills could reveal lest he miss an important cue leading to those grander days.
Suriya walked home with a brisk pace, her hand trailing a stick in the dirt. The intrepid shadows at end of day greeted and cooled her as she blinked them out of her sight. They slowly melted into the golden hour. She needed to talk to Torn tonight, to unburden herself, to share with him her secret work. Was it even possible to speak the truth in this place where people said so little? Even then it was often obscured, layered in meanings. It was the Milliad way, born of harsh weather and tightly knit families and work that held them apart more than brought them together. The mill town kept people fed but also kept them exhausted in the vast fields and ancient large mill, quick to find privacy to rest, bodies limp, minds emptied. The Tribune wanted them to give their all to the community, not so to others. They were spokes of a wheel, yes, and those spokes did not touch but strengthened the wheel of Milliad.
The night fell upon Suriya without hesitation, twilight brief and darkness blurring the perplexing ways and means of humans while other creatures lay down and just slept.
“I can hear you, Torn. You think you’re so stealthy but your body resists the wind and gives you away.”
He unfolded himself at ladder’s top and came round to the flat spot near center, before the gradual slope of roof increased.
“A more sly four-legged I am not; I have to move as keeps me well alive.” He sat beside her. “Ah, too long since I have been up here.”
“I’ve always wanted to anchor a bench here,” she said. “The roof top is just a flattened length of stucco where we might even set up a small table. If we put a rail around it even the younger ones could join us–”
“That’s the point, right? This is not a children’s area; they belong inside until they’re old enough to climb safely.”
She shook her head and rolled her eyes. Her hair billowed out of the scarf as wind gusted; she held tightly her drawn-up knees. “Milliad’s ways, separating and dividing people except at school where we had to sit crunched side by side all day long in the stifling heat. I want to make more community spaces!”
She glanced at him but he was looking out over their village and beyond. The horizon brightened to opalescent then went black, crowded with starry bodies taking their places. He pulled his shoulders up high and let them drop, then leaned back on his hands.
“Out there….” Torn murmured, chin jutting toward the gate.
“…is what you hope to find…but also what you don’t want. Not all would be so wonderful. Father clarified that when Mother wanted to follow him, all of us like vagabonds.”
“No matter all that now. I know how to make my passage. I’m leaving soon. Don’t ask me how or when.”
Suriya felt a knot yank tight in her chest. “You can’t wait until you’re of age? Then just walk out safely?”
“There’s only so much time, sister. So many days I hate it here, the rules and cunning, the work designations and extra demands on families, the obedience to Tribunal methods. It is not a place to find more or better; everything is regulated, set to ancient law that needs amending. ”
“But what can you accomplish by running off?”
“I don’t know yet. It’s waiting to speak to me but I can almost hear the wisdom rising. I tell you this because you will find a way to understand…and you’ll forget to share it with others, am I right?”
She tapped his hand three times, their childhood signal of loyalty.
“Now what was it you wanted to tell me? Or are we to sit and gaze at the sky until we become stuporous?”
She turned sideways and placed her hands on his shoulders. “I know where father is going, brother.”
Torn grabbed her forearms and shook her a little.”You found him? How?”
Suriya reached into the middle pocket of her garment and pulled out four maps, then stopped his hands from snatching them.
“Because, Torn, I make the maps he follows.”
Torn released her and leaned back involuntarily, put his hand to his lips and gazed at her hard.
“I start out drawing what comes to my mind’s visual expanse. I feel directed in part by his thinking but that isn’t all.”
She said this as if she was explaining the way water erodes a riverbank, a thing common and expected.
“He directs you…?” Torn said, feeling scared but uncertain why.
“I just know where he wants to go, so I show him how to get there. I draw the maps for him here”–she held out the maps–“and he holds it in his mind while I work and finally when I’m done. And on he goes.”
Torn made a light snickering sound. “…and on he goes… Then how did he get places before, without your help?”
“He didn’t need my help then. Now he does. The Tribune and Joss have other plans; he has to be safe. He realizes I know things.”
Suriya turned away as he read her maps. She could hear the first moon rising, the second preparing to join it, or perhaps it was night birds lifting off from a faraway branch with a swoop. She wished she could stand up, leap out to follow, whatever the delicate ruffles of sound were. She wanted to do something unexpected, even to herself.
“These are amazing, Suriya, so detailed and beautifully made. And you believe he is headed this way?” Torn pointed to the upper edge of the second map.
“Yes. Tomorrow he crosses over a forgotten mountain here,” she said and moved her finger along lines she’d trailed in charcoal.
Her brother put his face close to the map to better see it in the deepening dark. He traced the way of her finger and let out a deep tremulous breath.
She smiled at him, knuckled his spiky hair. “They’re yours to keep. I have them in my memory. I figured you’d want them when you leave, which I suppose is quite soon. It seems the bitter, simple realities you’d mentioned revolve about people being greedy and selfish too often. They–Joss, the Tribune–want our father to bring back all he can forcibly take. But he isn’t that man. He’s a fine, hearty Traveler, a good trader, but fair and just. He knows much about many things and will not aggrieve others if he can avoid it…I so miss him. Now you will go…”
“Suriya, I can’t fathom that you’re giving me these powerful tools. Your work to help Father. You know I was to leave in three days time…? And now I will know where to go. Will you and I know each other’s ways, too? I don’t want us to get lost in all this change.”
She only nodded. Looked out into the tree branches that swayed against the elegant palette of nighttime, the stars winking at them as if they knew, too, their stories. At the rows and rows of pale squat homes lined up below, the people all ensconced inside their neat little house-prisons.
“I want to build such new places of worship, places of play, places of eating and talking and laughing. I want Mother to bring her dance and songs, bring us to our feet as she did when she was young. I want more happiness, Torn, and peace for Milliad. I ask you and Father to come back and help us. But for now you have been called, brother, so you must go.”
“Thank you, Suriya… from my soul. We will return home and we’ll find ways to make all kinds of changes.” Torn softly kissed her cheek, then left to further prepare.
Suriya stood tall, raised her arms into the enveloping darkness, then unknotted a small red scarf from her dark hair. It unfurled then floated away as wind blew the wavy strands from her gleaming blue-gold eyes envisioning even now the journey she’d soon map for her brother as well as their father. For perhaps their whole family. For where there would be new pathways there was need of the first lines made in dirt or on paper, of light to be cast ahead and a way to find and be found.