fantasy by Cat Rambo
When you looked in the book, Chicken Soup for the Soul Lost in Ennui, there it was, tucked between pages 22-23.
A slip of paper, translucent and fragile, covered with someone’s scrawl, as thin and crooked as insect legs. Fishing it out, the paper fluttering helpless between your fingers, you spread it out on the table before you. Forgotten, the book splays itself to the air, pages promising panaceas for the angst ridden.
You recognize it as a map, that much is true. But a map as drawn by M.C. Escher, tortured boundaries intersecting and re-intersecting in kaleidoscopic fragments, melancholy fractals.
The territories of the land are labeled: Self-Pity, Mischance, Indulgence, Unhappy Coincidence, Regret. An unnamed road runs through the middle, marked with a line of dashes, stars and circles showing the cities and towns.
A castle, drawn in patient detail to show the flags fluttering above its towers, bears the legend Doldrums. A blank space in the center has the inscription above it: Nowhere.
Your name has never been prominent on the list of venturesome souls, but something about this map, this elaborate concoction that someone must have put hours into tickles your fancy. The writing is so fine, so cramped, that you think of what the Chinese called the Forbidden Stitch, so tiny and careful that its habitual embroiders went blind. Surely whoever wrote all this must have felt their hand seizing up. What kind of mental disorder would create such compulsion?
The library is full of light and space, due to budget cuts that have led to fewer books. Librarians try to keep shelves partially empty because people are more likely to check books out when there are fewer of them – due to perception of looming word famine. The words on your map are like tiny ants on the page, broken with scarab shaped patterns, elaborate pictures render with careful crosshatch.
The paper is stiff and stubborn as you unfold it. You’re looking for one of those Xes that tells you where you are. But no matter how hard you scan the map, you can’t find yourself among all these emotions. What does it mean?
Your only choice is to pick a destination. Your hand wavers back and forth as you try to decide. It feels portentous, as though someone were watching over your shoulder, willing you to pick the right spot, worrying that you will choose incorrectly, condemn yourself to — what, precisely?
Perhaps someone else deserves this map more than you do. Are you the one who was really meant to receive it? Or should it have been someone like the man outside, picking through discarded cigarette butts, trying to salvage enough tobacco to roll his own? Or the woman on the subway, so tight and self-contained, so obviously wanting to be anywhere but in that jostle, clinging to the handrail and looking at nothing but the space in front of her?
Where is the cartographer? Have they fled to somewhere depicted on this map? Are they napping in Serenity, drinking tea in Nostalgia, fleeing monsters in Worry?
You know deep in your heart that discovering this is not enough. You’ve got to find the portal. Have you missed it already, somewhere in the cataracted lens in the past?
Was it a train station that slipped by, a Chicago bustle with a single gate leading elsewhere? Was it the door you didn’t go through on your 23rd birthday, marked with a brass 23, enticing, half-open, past a waterlily-laden world of blue and through a narrow hallway that vanished when you turned away?
You’ve always dreamed of it, the dusty wardrobe door swinging open to reveal a forest of furry coats. Just enough space to slip among them, going back and back until you stumbled into snow. A door at the top of a winding iron stairway, so rickety it might have been made from knitting needles, the smell of Paris spring in the air leading you forward, calling you back?
A book like this one, found on a shelf in abandoned archives, or among a pawn shop’s offerings? A strange stamp on a letter which, if taken to the right post office window, provides passport, lets you grab a handful of possessions and go, speeding to a horizon striped bright with unknown possibility?
Serendipity was your watchword when younger. Can it illuminate your way again, lead you to the distant shores scratched on this flimsy paper?
Maybe every library holds such a door. You’ve looked before, searched for the secret elevator button, looked in bathroom graffiti for the whispered watchword that would whistle a door open as you spoke, “Friend,” and entered.
You’ve lingered near meeting chambers, hoping to glimpse key-holders, lock-bearers, guardians of an ancient order of travelers that wander between worlds.
You used to think you saw your guide, a wild-eyed woman smiling at you from atop a bridge, beside the road, a bus stop bench as you sped past. She beckoned and you gestured helplessly, caught in traffic, caught in normality, pressing the stop button over and over again only to have the movie moment slide past.
You can resolve to venture, but it won’t lead you anywhere without the price of passage, you know. Still, when you come out into the sunlit street, you can’t help but watch the bus signs, looking for route 232323. It could come. It could come. All you have to do is be ready. Surely that’s enough.
Or will you always be pressing your face against cold, wavy glass, able to see what-could-bes wavering like fish in aquarium depths, flickering among coral as they’re coaxed by mermaid hands? Will this map lead you to be wakened or to be drowned?
copyright April 2011 by Cat Rambo
Cat Rambo is a science fiction and fantasy writer and editor who lives in the Pacific Northwest. Until recently, she served as co-editor of Fantasy Magazine. She has authored several books, including Eyes Like Smoke and Coal and Moonlight. Her short fiction publications are numerous, including pieces at Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Realms of Fantasy and Lightspeed. Cat blogs about writing at The World Remains Mysterious.