New Short Story "Cartography"
One of my favorite parts of traveling is a rather non eco-friendly one, I'm afraid (although I always do recycle or have someone else reuse them)--I absolutely love using paper maps to navigate through a city's streets. While I'm not quite the younger "Ellie" in the story, the reasons for loving maps are pretty much all mine. This short story was inspired by my recent trip to Philadelphia, where I used maps a great deal. Hope you enjoy!
There was something inherently appealing about a fastidiously mistreated map, worn and crinkled around the edges, with concierge circles in Sharpie marker around the must-see sights. Perhaps it was the way a map folded back neatly into place, like an accordion opening and collapsing, to satisfy one’s most orderly instincts; or perhaps it was the simple joy of owning something, leaving your mark on it in the most primal way (that was, with a marker of course).
What few understood about the way Ellie looked at maps was that she harbored a very secret dream of being a cartographer. For all she knew there were no real cartographers any more, or if there were, they were strange government scientists who worked on a very technical level, like her uncle did. She guessed that maybe computers did all the work of plotting maps out now. Now that there were Garmins and Google Maps and Mapquest, who needed someone to draft a map on paper?
Ellie’s ideal cartographer was a romantic one who appeared in the occasional storybook: a bearded sage in flowing robes who sat in a pencil-sketched tower, looking out pensively over the world, pen hovering over a scroll—about to draw it in perfect, beautiful 2D. This was what a cartographer was to Ellie. It was not a programmer and it was certainly not a Google car with a camera on top. If this was what cartography was in the “real world” (this nasty place her mother and father often referred to) she would do horticulture instead. She had just learned how to say the word “horticulture” and was very proud of it. She also had forgotten exactly what it meant.
Though Ellie was not entirely sure that it was realistic to be a cartographer, she knew that it was entirely realistic to use a paper map. Paper maps, despite their consistently small-font street names, were reliably openable and closeable, unlike her mother’s bedraggled GPS. She took pleasure in being her family’s savior, proudly opening up the map when the GPS failed, and navigating them back to the hotel. She often opened up the map just to double-check a route, simply for the pleasure of standing authoritatively in the middle of the street and saying, “Yes, that’s right” with a grave nod.
Just as she opened up the map for what would perhaps be another “Yes, that’s right” moment, her reverie was interrupted by an “Ellie! Hurry up!” moment thanks to her mom. Ellie looked up to see her mother standing ahead, waving rapidly as Ellie stared into the map.
“I was just—” Ellie said, half in protest, half in anticipation of saying something meaningful, but stopped short. She realized that her mother and her little brother would probably not understand (or care) why she looked at the map so deeply, held its edges so tenderly, in that moment.
A map, thought Ellie, was a beautiful orderly representation of her mother and father’s “real world.” A world that was disorderly and littered and loud and smelly and small, a world that was sometimes violent, a world where GPS devices stopped without warning and emitted loud beeps in noisy streets. A map, on the other hand, was a perfect world on a page.
For all its disreputable ties (in small print fonts on clean white lines) to the contrasting greyish gum-ridden sidewalks under Ellie’s feet, a map was still a land of someone’s dreams—a picture of a long ago someone’s half realistic, half idealistic imagination as to what the “real world” ought to be.