Tor.com is pleased to reprint “Caligo Lane” by Ellen Klages. Originally published by Subterranean Press, the story is also found in Wicked Wonders, a collection available now from Tachyon Publications.
Franny Travers is a cartographer of exceptional ability. From her house high above the cascading hills of San Francisco, she creates maps that, when folded properly, can transform space. This is her gift. These temporary new alignments of the world open improbable passages, a last resort when politics or geography make escape impossible.
If you like this story, join Franny and her friends for more adventures on the borders of magic and science in Klages’ Passing Strange, available from Tor.com Publishing.
Even with the Golden Gate newly bridged and the ugly hulks of battleships lining the bay, San Francisco is well-suited to magic. It is not a geometric city, but full of hidden alleys and twisted lanes. Formed by hills and surrounded by water, its weather transforms its geography, a fog that erases landmarks, cloaking and enclosing as the rest of the world disappears.
That may be an illusion; most magic is. Maps of the city are replete with misdirection. Streets drawn as straight lines may in fact be stairs or a crumbling brick path, or they may dead end for a block or two, then reappear under another name.
Caligo Lane is one such street, most often reached by an accident that cannot be repeated.
In Barbary Coast bars, sailors awaiting orders to the Pacific hear rumors. Late at night, drunk on cheap gin and bravado, they try walking up Jones Street, so steep that shallow steps are cut into the middle of the concrete sidewalk. Near the crest of the hill, the lane may be on their right. Others stumble over to Taylor until they reach the wooden staircase that zigzags up a sheer wall. Caligo Lane is sometimes at the top ― unless the stairs have wound around to end at the foot of Jones Street again. A lovely view of the bay is a consolation.
When it does welcome visitors, Caligo Lane is a single block, near the crest of the Bohemian enclave known as Russian Hill. Houses crowd one edge of a mossy cobblestone path; they face a rock-walled tangle of ferns and eucalyptus, vines as thick as a man’s arm, moist earth overlaid with a pale scent of flowers.
Number 67 is in the middle, a tall, narrow house, built when the rest of the town was still brawling in the mud. It has bay windows and a copper-domed cupola, although the overhanging branches of a gnarled banyan tree make that difficult to see. The knocker on the heavy oak door is a Romani symbol, a small wheel wrought in polished brass.
Franny has lived here since the Great Fire. She is a cartographer by trade, a geometer of irregular surfaces. Her house is full of maps.
A small woman who favors dark slacks and loose tunics, she is one of the last of her line, a magus of exceptional abilities. Her hair is jet-black, cut in a blunt bob, bangs straight as rulers, a style that has not been in vogue for decades. She smokes odiferous cigarettes in a long jade-green holder.
The ground floor of number 67 is unremarkable. A small entryway, a hall leading to bedrooms and a bath. But on the right, stairs lead up to a single, large room, not as narrow as below. A comfortable couch and armchairs with their attendant tables surround intricate ancient rugs. A vast library table is strewn with open books, pens and calipers, and scrap paper covered in a jumble of numbers and notations.
Facing north, a wall of atelier windows, reminiscent of Paris, angles in to the ceiling. Seven wide panes span the width of the room, thin dividers painted the green of young spinach. Beyond the glass, ziggurats of stone walls and white houses cascade vertically down to the bay and Alcatraz and the blue-distant hills.
Visitors from more conventional places may feel dizzy and need to sit; it is unsettling to stand above a neighbor’s roof.
Bookshelves line two walls, floor-to-ceiling. Many titles are in unfamiliar alphabets. Tall art books, dense buckram treatises, mathematical apocrypha: swaths of cracked, crumbling leather spines with gilt letters too worn to decipher. Four flat cases hold maps, both ancient and modern, in a semblance of order.
Other maps are piled and folded, indexed or spread about willy-nilly. They are inked on scraps of parchment, cut from old textbooks, acquired at service stations with a fill-up of gas. They show Cape Abolesco and Dychmygol Bay and the edges of the Salajene Desert, none of which have ever been explored. On a cork wall, round-headed pins stud a large map of Europe. Franny moves them daily as the radio brings news of the unrelenting malignance of the war.
At the far end of the room, a circular staircase helixes up. Piles of books block easy access, less a barricade than an unrealized intent to reshelve and reorganize.
There will be much to do before the fog rolls in.
The stairs lead to the center of the cupola, an octagonal room with a hinged window at each windrose point. Beneath them is a sill wide enough to hold an open newspaper or atlas, a torus of horizontal surface that circles the room, the polished wood stained with ink, scarred in places by pins and tacks and straight-edged steel, scattered with treasured paperweights: worn stones from the banks of the Vistula, prisms, milleflora hemispheres of heavy Czech glass.
Even in a city of hills, the room has unobstructed views that allow Franny to work in any direction. A canvas chair on casters sits, for the moment, facing southwest. On the sill in front of it, a large square of Portuguese cork lies waiting.
Downstairs, on this clear, sunny afternoon, Franny sits at the library table, a postcard from her homeland resting beside her teacup. She recognizes the handwriting; the postmark is obscured by the ink of stamps and redirections. Not even the mailman can reliably find her house.
She glances at the card one more time. The delayed delivery makes her work even more urgent. She opens a ledger, leafing past pages with notes on scale and symbol, diagrams and patterns, and arcane jottings, turning to a blank sheet. She looks again at the postcard, blue-inked numbers its only message:
50°-02’-09” N 19°-10’-42” E
Plotting this single journey will take weeks of her time, years from her life. But she must. She glances at the pin-studded map. When geography or politics makes travel or escape impossible, she is the last resort. Each life saved is a mitzvah.
Franny flexes her fingers, and begins. Each phase has its own timing and order; the calculations alone are byzantine. Using her largest atlas she locates the general vicinity of the coordinates, near the small village of Oświecim. It takes her all night to uncover a chart detailed enough to show the topography with precision. She walks her calipers from point to point like a two-legged spider as she computes the progressions that will lead to the final map.
For days she smokes and mutters as she measures, plotting points and rhumb lines that expand and shrink with the proportions of the landscape. The map must be drawn to the scale of the journey. She feels the weight of time passing, but cannot allow haste, sleeping only when her hands begin to shake, the numbers illegible. Again and again she manipulates her slide rule, scribbles numbers on a pad, and traces shapes onto translucent vellum, transferring the necessary information until at last she has a draft that accurately depicts both entrance and egress.
She grinds her inks and pigments ― lampblack and rare earths mixed with a few drops of her own blood — and trims a sheet of white linen paper to a large square. For a week, the house is silent save for the whisper of tiny sable brushes and the scritch of pens with thin steel nibs.
When she has finished and the colors are dry, she carries the map upstairs and lays it on the cork. Using a round-headed steel pin, she breaches the paper’s integrity twice: a single, precise hole at the village, another at Caligo Lane. She transfers the positions onto gridded tissue, and pulls the map free, weighting its corners so that it lies flat on the varnished sill.
She has done what she can. She allows herself a full night’s rest.
In the morning she makes a pot of tea and toast with jam, then clears the library table, moving her map-making tools to one side, and opens a black leather case that contains a flat, pale knife made of bone, and a portfolio with dozens of squares of bright paper. She looks around the room. What form must this one take?
Scattered among the dark-spined tomes are small angular paper figurines. Some are geometric shapes; others resemble birds and animals, basilisks and chimeras. Decades before he was exiled to Manzanar, a Japanese calligrapher and amateur conjuror taught her the ancient art of ori-kami, yet unknown in this country.
The secret of ori-kami is that a single sheet of paper can be folded in a nearly infinite variety of patterns, each resulting in a different transformation of the available space. Given any two points, it is possible to fold a line that connects them. A map is a menu of possible paths. When Franny folds one of her own making, instead of plain paper, she creates a new alignment of the world, opening improbable passages from one place to another.
Once, when she was young and in a temper, she crumpled one into a ball and threw it across the room, muttering curses. A man in Norway found himself in an unnamed desert, confused and over-dressed. His journey did not end well.
The Japanese army might call this art ori-chizu, “map folding,” but fortunately they are unaware of its power.
Franny knows a thousand ori-kami patterns. Finding the correct orientation for the task requires a skilled eye and geometric precision. She chalks the position of the map’s two holes onto smaller squares, folding and creasing sharply with her bone knife, turning flat paper into a cup, a box, a many-winged figure. She notes the alignment, discards one pattern, begins again. A map is a visual narrative; it is not only the folds but their sequence that will define its purpose.
The form this one wishes to take is a fortune teller. American children call it a snapdragon, or a cootie-catcher. It is a simple pattern: the square folded in half vertically, then horizontally, and again on the diagonals. The corners fold into the center, the piece is flipped, the corners folded in again. The paper’s two surfaces become many, no longer a flat plane, nor a solid object. A dimension in between.
When she creases the last fold, Franny inserts the index finger and thumb of each hand into the pockets she has created, pushes inward, then moves her fingers apart, as if opening and closing the mouth of an angular bird. Her hands rock outward; the bird’s mouth opens now to the right and left. She rocks again, revealing and concealing each tiny hole in turn.
Franny nods and sets it aside. The second phase is finished. Now the waiting begins. She reads and smokes and paces and tidies. The weather is one element she cannot control.
Four days. Five. She moves the pins on the map, crosses off squares on her calendar, bites her nails to the quick until finally one afternoon she feels the fog coming in. The air cools and grows moist as it is saturated with the sea. The light softens, the world stills and quiets. She calms herself for the ritual ahead, sitting on the couch with a cup of smoky tea, listening to the muffled clang of the Hyde Street cable car a few blocks away, watching as the distant hills dissolve into watercolors, fade into hazy outlines, disappear.
The horizon lowers, then approaches, blurring, then slowly obliterating the view outside her window. The edge of the world grows closer. When the nearest neighbors’ house is no more than an indistinct fuzz of muted color, she climbs the spiral stairs.
She stands before each window, starting in the east. The world outside the cupola is gone; there are no distances. Where there had once been landmarks ― hillsides and buildings and signs ― there is only a soft wall, as if she stands inside a great gray pearl.
San Francisco is a different city when the clouds come to earth. Shapes swirl in the diffused cones of street lamps, creating shadows inside the fog itself. Not flat, but three-dimensional, both solid and insubstantial.
When all the space in the world is contained within the tangible white darkness of the fog, Franny cranks open the northeast window and gently hangs the newly painted map on the wall of the sky. She murmurs archaic syllables no longer understood outside that room, and the paper clings to the damp blankness.
The map is a tabula rasa, ready for instruction.
The fog enters through the disruption of the pinholes.
The paper’s fibers swell as they draw in its moisture.
They draw in the distance it has replaced.
They draw in the dimensions of its shadows.
Franny dares not smoke. She paces. Transferring the world to a map is both magic and art, and like any science, the timing must be precise. She has pulled a paper away too soon, before its fibers are fully saturated, rendering it useless. She has let another hang so long that the fog began to retreat again; that one fell to earth as the neighbors reappeared.
She watches and listens, her face to the open window. At the first whisper of drier air, she peels this map off the sky, gently easing one damp corner away with a light, deft touch. There can be no rips or tears, only the two perfect holes.
Paper fibers swell when they are wet, making room for the fog and all it has enveloped. When the fibers dry, they shrink back, locking that in. Now the map itself contains space. She murmurs again, ancient sounds that bind with intent, and lays the map onto the sill to dry. The varnish is her own recipe; it neither absorbs nor contaminates.
Franny closes the window and sleeps until dawn. When she wakes, she is still weary, but busies herself with ordinary chores, reads a magazine, listens to Roosevelt on the radio. The map must dry completely. By late afternoon she is ravenous. She walks down the hill into North Beach, the Italian section, and dines at Lupo’s, where she drinks raw red wine and devours one of their flat tomato pies. Late on the third night, when at last the foghorn lows out over the water, she climbs the spiral stairs.
She stands over the map, murmuring now in a language not used for conversation, and takes a deep breath. When she is as calm as a still pond, she lights a candle and sits in her canvas chair. She begins the final sequence, folding the map in half, aligning the edges, precise as a surgeon, burnishing the sharp creases with her pale bone knife. The first fold is the most important. If it is off, even by the tiniest of fractions, all is lost.
Franny breathes, using the knife to move that flow through her fingers into the paper. Kinesis. The action of a fold can never be unmade. It fractures the fibers of the paper, leaving a scar the paper cannot forget, a line traversing three dimensions. She folds the map again on the diagonal, aligning and creasing, turning and folding until she holds a larger version of the angular bird’s beak.
When the fog has dissolved the world and the cupola is cocooned, Franny inserts her fingers into the folded map. She flexes her hands, revealing one of the tiny holes, and opens the portal.
Now she stands, hands and body rigid, watching from the open window high above Caligo Lane. She sees nothing; soon sounds echo beneath the banyan tree. Shuffling footsteps, a whispered voice.
Motionless, Franny holds her hands open. She looks down. Beneath the street lamp stands an emaciated woman, head shorn, clad in a shapeless mattress-ticking smock, frightened and bewildered.
“Elzbieta?” Franny calls down.
The woman looks up, shakes her head.
Three more women step into view.
Beyond them, through a shimmer that pierces the fog, Franny sees other faces. More than she anticipated. Half a dozen women appear, and Franny feels the paper begin to soften, grow limp. There are too many. She hears distant shots, a scream, and watches as a mass of panicked women surge against the portal. She struggles to maintain the shape; the linen fibers disintegrate around the holes. Three women tumble through, and Franny can hold it open no longer. She flexes her trembling hands and reveals the other hole, closing the gate.
After a minute, she calls down in their language. “Jestes teraz bezpieczna.” You are safe now. She reverses the ori-kami pattern, unfolding and flattening. This work goes quickly. A fold has two possibilities, an unfolding only one.
The women stand and shiver. A few clutch hands.
Franny stares at the place where the shimmer had been. She sees her reflection in the darkened glass, sees tears streak down a face now lined with the topography of age.
“Znasz moją siostrę?” she asks, her voice breaking. Have you seen my sister? She touches the corner of the depleted map to the candle’s flame. “Elzbieta?”
A woman shrugs. “Tak wiele.” She holds out her hands. So many. The others shrug, shake their heads.
Franny sags against the window and blows the ash into the night air. “Idź,” she whispers. Go.
The women watch the ash fall through the cone of street light. Finally one nods and links her arm with another. They begin to walk now, their thin cardboard shoes shuffling across the cobbles.
Slowly, the others follow. One by one they turn the corner onto Jones Street, step down the shallow concrete steps, and vanish into the fog.
“Caligo Lane” © Ellen Klages, 2015
Reprinted from Wicked Wonders.