by Sharon Telfer
The galleys wallow home, bellies low with other men’s gold. The sailors stagger to the brothels. The masters go first to banker, barber, court, then to the mapmaker.
On lookout, she spies them, stumbling over cobbles, ducking the jutting houses.
She whispers each name so her father can greet them. They sit heavily, still unsteady on the unmoving land. She brings soft cheese, cherries, peaches – whatever is ripe.
They spill their stories before the solid ground can make them fast. They tell of days when the sun never sets or never rises, birds that swim but cannot fly, great fish that sing, of smoking mountains, shrieking ice, forests where men become trees, one-footed men, dog-headed men, waves as high as cathedral bells, seas as still as death. They have sailed so far they have gazed at unfamiliar stars and wondered how they are to find their way back.
She replenishes the wine, sharpens quills. Their salty eyes, narrowed as horizons, navigate the billows of her dress, each swell and dip, seeking always somewhere to make landfall, claim dominion.
They go, at last, to wives or mistresses. She puts the shutters up and bars the door. Her father rubs his milky eyes, pushes away the notes he can no longer read, unrolls the vellum. The grid is ready, the compass rose points north.
She takes the quill. Her father puts his hand over hers. Together, they fix the stories they have heard. The feather swoops, charts the safe harbour, skirts the reef. This is where she will paint the puffing winds, here devouring monsters, there pattern those strange constellations. Beyond this line, nothing; the map waits.
The mapmakers work late in the closed room, conjuring from ink and skin new worlds neither will ever see.