An Explorer’s Cartography of Already Settled Lands

One can’t set a course without a map. A ship’s navigator seeks to map a world already inhabited in order to find a space for their ship’s passengers to settle. In doing so, they find their course altered as the world and their place in it changes.



The blunt-nosed vessel—called Cradle of Destiny, then Sacrifice’s Wake and, lastly, Ship—cut three long passages across the dark sea.

The captain who’d launched the vessel had a showman’s flair. The next captain had been more realistic. The third, less comforted by metaphor, loved mission-words: bow and hull, sanctuary and shore, ship.

When Ship’s hull finally ground rock into dirt, bow and stern shrieking, then collapsing with a hiss, the third captain emerged from between the craft’s sharp edges to kiss the ground. With great ceremony and a connoisseur’s care, they sampled the dirt on their lips and tasted the air. They found both life-sustaining, within expected parameters. But their ears twitched and their eyes, bright as the lights of the dark sea and purpose-sharp, widened at a grinding noise, one a motor might make, and a pale glow just over the horizon. “Shit.”

At the captain’s curse, the navigator—the third to serve as such—unfolded from the ship. “What alarms you?”

The ship compressed its remains into the shoreline’s shadows. The patches its crew had made to the hull creased and creaked in nonstandard ways.

“Three generations sailed the dark to reach this shore,” the captain said. The words of their landing speech came quickly to their lips and altered there. “With each jump, captain replaced captain. Each navigator trained the next. All with one goal: landfall. Passengers sleep, trusting us to carry them to safety. Our ancestors trusted us to complete the journey, and their ancestors too—those who first saw the spectra of pure air and crisp water beckoning—who never boarded the ship. No signals warned us away, no signs of settlement. Now this.” They lifted a long-fingered hand to gesture at the distant glow.

“When the first navigator selected our course of jumps and stops, we had no such signs, it’s true. It is also true things change,” the last navigator replied. They thought of the waves’ impact on a shoreline over generations, of tiny alterations a vessel makes on its journey over a dark sea. Of the course set for them long ago and its single purpose: begin again, here.

They hadn’t deviated.

“Changes or no, a captain is still such outside a ship,” the captain said. “Your task is accomplished, mine only half begun. We have no fuel for a return, we can’t go on. We’ll make this place safe for us.” The captain began to unfurl the ship’s guns.

The navigator held up a hand. The shoreline breeze caught the fine fabric of their sleeve and lifted it to reveal to the moonlight their smooth, speckled skin. “Safe for us may be safe for no one else. Give me time to survey the world, to find its maps. I’ll learn what its people know, and what they don’t. I’ll discover spaces that fit us and will be hidden to them.”

A course shift, but only a small one.

After pacing the shore until the stones ceased to crunch beneath their feet, the captain agreed. They folded into Ship’s shadow to await the navigator’s return. The navigator walked away, long legs growing shorter, shining clothes shading to the dull colors of the region’s dusty hills. When the navigator looked back, Ship seemed just another rock on the shore of the landing site, and the dark sea they’d crossed was spangled with stars.

Purpose and destiny; deviation and change. They’d known only one task: get there. Now there had become here. And here belonged to others. The navigator chose a direction, but no set course.

They opened a journal entry and prepared to chart the boundaries of here.


The Shadow Maps

In the region closest to the dark sea, there is a forest, and in that forest there are people who wait among the trees on moonlit nights until shadows grow long and dark. Using bags, steel nets, and the light of torches, they drive these shadows into traps and so gather them in quantity. Over the next waning moon, they distill the shadows into the darkest of inks. Those inks are most prized by the region’s mapmakers, who spend lifetimes studying previous maps, and planning how to draw their own. When the moon fades to a sliver, and enough ink has been gathered, and a skilled mapmaker is on their deathbed (this last has been known to be rushed), brush and ink are placed in the mapmaker’s unsteady hands and they are taken to the region’s tallest tower. Their attendants make them as comfortable as possible in the tower and leave the room for ten days. When they return, the mapmaker is gone, but in their death throes, they’ve etched a new shadow map across the walls and floor and ceiling of the tower.

None of the existing shadow maps distinguish hill or river, city or town. Each tells the region where it will find its darkest hours and brightest moments. They are carefully studied until they begin to fade, sometimes years after they were created.


A Map of Braids

Beyond the shadowed woods lies a city where each morning, men and women braid their lovers’ hair, and their lovers do the same for them. The braids spell out hopes and dreams, whispered plans, unforgivable betrayals—a map of one soul trying to relate to another. The bearers of these maps cannot see their paths and twists, but they know the tugs and pulls of their making. They attempt to live according to the wishes of those who braided their hair, until that moment when they unbraid the tresses and fall asleep.


The Salt Maps and the Blood Maps

The salt maps of the people who live by the brackish river are carved into the cliff walls, a history of people who hunger for the taste of the long-forgotten sea. Each layer of the map digs the river’s embankment deeper. The river, which once ran smoothly from the mountains to the sea, now crashes and falls from a great height and runs along the map’s edge until it disappears underground.

At one layer, less than a third of the way down, the salt maps run pink. There, a people to the east of the brackish river had ventured near and carved their own maps on the skins of their neighbors. But they’d found the water sour and left, and those few who had hidden within the carved salt walls of their history began to emerge again, and dig the river deeper, and wider still.


A Flock Map

The citizens of the wide prairie beyond the river follow bird maps, scattering and turning when the wind is right, and pacing in one long thin line when it isn’t. They are a lean people, and carry with them only what they need, including long spyglasses with which to spot birds they could not otherwise see, and grain to plant behind them, on the paths of the birds, for the generations that will come later.

Each generation walks the prairie, which is bounded on the other side by a mountain too steep for following the birds. When the birds return, the next generation walks back the way their parents came, with a few deviations. The prairie is criss-crossed with their migrations.


The navigator returned to the rock-shaped vessel and waited. When the captain unfolded themselves from the shadows, the navigator gave their report.

“These maps show how people live, not where they don’t,” the captain complained, angry at having been woken. “We have a singular mission, one path. This knowledge does not help us. You must look deeper.”

“I will return again with more,” the navigator agreed. Their clothing was torn and they looked as lean as the people they’d observed crossing the valley.


For a long time, the navigator did not speak with anyone. Their voice began to rust. They swallowed nutrients, but no sound passed their lips or their ears. For a long time, the navigator thought only of their search for a space in which to hide, between the maps of the world.


The Thief’s Map

At one end of a valley rose a wall and within the wall, two gates, and beyond the gates lay a city.

The walls spoke. A somber voice chronicled the city’s gossip night and day: who had—the navigator discerned after listening for some time—become wealthy; who had lost everything. “To M. Santi, a gain of a thousand chits, while M. Farbo has lost all but ten chits.”

After the navigator had listened for a time, a child appeared at the gate. The child was disheveled and plain, but possessed a degree of flair. “I beseech you.” The child grasped the navigator’s shirt and begged for chits.

“I have nothing to give.” The navigator signaled regret as best they could with their hands, which had grown dark with travel.

Straightening, the child said, “Then I shall give you one of mine,” and pulled a pale metal square with a maze etched on it from a pocket. “But do not tell anyone else, as they’ll steal it from you. That is our main recreation and industry, both.”

The wall chimed and the somber voice began a new broadcast, this time listing the location of each safe in the city, with a careful description of contents.

“How do you live this way?” the navigator asked, looking at the slim piece of metal in their palm.

“We were once afraid of our treasures being stolen,” the child said proudly. “Now we are no longer afraid, as we help make it happen. If you are afraid of losing that chit, I will gladly take it back from you.” The child held up the metal so that it gleamed in the sun, and the navigator discovered their hands held only air.


The Sand Maps

Beyond the valley and the thieves’ city existed a village of young travelers and old artists. The travelers went forth in the morning and walked in all directions. By noon they returned, and whispered what they’d seen to the older artisans, and the artisans depicted the lands everyone had discovered in their walking, a map of images arranged like a wheel around the village. The navigator took careful notes of the places they had been and those they had not yet seen. Then the evening wind blew it all away.

The navigator watched the artists and travelers repeat this for days, and found that no two sandscapes ever recurred. Finally they approached one of the artists. “Why a new map of the same place each day?”

“Because it is a different day,” the artist replied.


The navigator returned to the shoreline and woke the captain.

“These are maps of sand and sky, city and plains throughout the land. Maps of sound and earth, light and shadow,” the captain complained.

The navigator took a deep breath, tasted salt on the air. “I found no empty places to conceal ourselves, save on the shoreline before the dark sea. And we are here already.”

“Then we’ll wait,” the captain said. “For maps fade and alter with time. Sleep. When we wake, this place will be different still.”

But the navigator stepped back, comfortable in their stronger legs and dusty clothes. “I wish to observe these changes as they happen, rather than walking the traces they leave behind.”

Another small deviation. Perhaps larger than the first.

“Very well,” the captain said, but shook their head. “You will be different too when we wake. Perhaps unknowable.”

The navigator did not reply, for there was nothing to argue. With the captain inside, Ship folded itself to the size of a rock. The kind a small child might find and skip three times into the sea.


The captain tended Ship’s sleeping passengers. Settled in for the long wait. Dreamed of fair winds, clean beginnings. Purpose and destiny. Mused on alternate fuels, with no success.

The navigator walked the landscape and watched cities change around them. They removed captain and Ship from their thoughts so they might better see what was before them. They kept walking.


The Map of Kisses Down the Curve of One’s Neck

Now the navigator called themselves historian, though they still made maps to help them understand. They became he or she when it suited; they remained they. The historian learned local patterns of conversation to better be part of those moments when things changed. Sometimes that went right, sometimes very wrong. Sometimes they made unexpected connections, wordless ones.

The historian found themselves in the back of a coat closet in the walled city of thieves, having everything unbuttoned too fast. They discovered themselves unfolding around and climbing over and being too honest with colorful symbols at awkward moments. This was more than uncomfortable.

This was a gross deviation. The captain wouldn’t have borne it for a moment.

The historian learned where the people of this land lived, in between the spaces that they occupied. They learned how fragile people were, in those spaces.

They drew lines between the places where they’d broken, or had been broken, they showed these to anyone who came close. See: this is a map of my mistakes.

These lines were good defense for generations.

In the city of thieves; on the wide prairie of birds that had become a launching place for gliders, then loud winged planes, then rockets that had frightened the birds away; in the salt and blood caverns by the river; the historian paged through people and held up the map of errors when some drew too close. The historian watched the changes and wrote them down.

Until, over supper in the city of sand and images, you studied the map of errors and folded it into angles that fit into your hand, then pitched it away one-two-three skips into a well. And you traced a new set of lines with your lips down the historian’s neck, tasting the metal there, and the salt, the sand, and the memories.


The Map of High-Pitched Laughter and Low Whispers

You were not, when the navigator first landed on the ship that folded up into shadow.

You weren’t when the navigator chose to stay.

It took lifetimes for your laughter to make a pattern on the historian’s cheeks.

And only days more for your whispered stories to form legends that bound them and pulled them along behind you.


The historian’s journal settled deep and unused in a pocket in a jacket at the back of a coat closet. The part of the historian that was still a navigator felt the tug of duty. They wanted to report to someone, to have orders clarified. But the historian looked to the future, as the cities of plain, shore, light, and water inched closer together.


Through their dreams, the captain heard sharp sounds that faded. Inspection revealed several berths rusted and broken. “Shit.” They struggled to contain the ship’s passengers, before a few tumbled free. Knocked the captain aside. A passenger’s shadow receded into the landscape. Others wandered.

“They won’t last,” the captain hoped. They breathed slowly, conserving their energy. “The navigator will return,” they thought. “We’ll stay here, safe,” they whispered. But no one heard the pulse of their words on the shore.


The historian had forgotten their past, that one dark rock on the shore, the shadows it threw.


A Map of Shouting

Things the historian did not have a map for: The ways in which lovers could know each other so deeply, they could sense where to step, and where not to. The ways that silence felt comfortable, a wide sunlit street, until you turned onto a path of forgotten things, or an alley of what one wished to hear that was never said.

Sometimes there was shouting, which, on a map, would blotch well-known roads red and orange with hazards marked “you” and “always” and “never” and finally blot out whole blocks of quiet moments with a hot white glow that was hard to look at the next day.


Two Maps That Both Want the Same Thing

A map of errors, laid over another map that also contained errors, could, in the right light, reveal truths and a way forward. You showed the historian this. The historian showed you the map of braids, and the city that it once encompassed. Showed you, too, the other maps. You didn’t want to see those. Said you knew your path, the historian’s too. You measured and cut so all the maps fit together. You laughed and forgot, and teased and remembered, and you grew so big you defined the entire world.


A third deviation.

The historian forgot to want instructions, forgot the ship, the captain. They forgot everything about themselves except what it felt like to walk with you down a street and look at the winter maps the trees made against the sky.


A Map of Impossible

This map you made together, this impossible map, did not fold in any of the right ways. It screamed and cried and shat and ate and the only ways the historian knew it was a map were the veins and cells that connected the three of you.

“It’s not possible,” the historian said. “We’re from different shores.” They recalled the rock on the shore for the first moment in a long time and shivered.

You held up the map of the possible. “Maybe not so different after all.”


The historian walked the widening path of a single moment, immersed in you while history rushed past. The historian took no notes.

And then, and then

because loss and gain ebb and flow through all histories, the future pushed in, like a meteor pushes on the atmosphere and does not break apart. Pushed past the moment, into coat closets and sitting rooms, and swept the historian and you up with it.

What darkness blotted, what shouts rang the night, you saw, you heard.

No longer historian, they ran when you did, they feared what you feared. They ached when you ached. They sought refuge in villages and valleys, among abandoned towers.

Among the frightened people, the historian saw familiar faces from their journeys. “We are lost, we cannot last.”

No one was different now: all shared the same hunger for safety and a place to hide.

They wandered lost together until one day they remembered who they were, where they’d come from. “I know a place to go,” they said. “I will share it with you.”

Once more navigator, they set out, neither leading nor following.


A Map of Small Empty Spaces

Villagers walked with the navigator through smoke-filled valleys and dry riverbeds. A few had been taller once, their clothes shone still. Few spoke. They wove carefully between the small fires, the riots. A dotted line of escape. The navigator grew taller, with clothes less dusty and worn. It became easy to follow them at night or through smoke. Through the sharp, crowded, loud places where lights once mapped a city, through valleys of salt and blood.

Shadows attacked. The navigator ran instead of fighting, for who could fight the future. Found small spaces empty of noise and danger. Their village’s passage made a map of havens and shelters, then swept those up behind them and left no trace.


The Plague Map

The dark shore still too far, and the navigator unceasing carried those that could be carried while others made a map of the fallen. The moving village contracted. Marked waypoints with speedily built cairns. There was a place for you on the map. The navigator walked away from it, carrying your child, their child, and the rest of the village.  The village carried the navigator too, when the navigator stumbled. The village grew big enough to carry everyone remaining through the shadows and away.


A Momentary Lack of Maps

Sounds of unseeing passage through sorrow, through change.


A Map of Edges and Loss

Beyond the city whose towers filled with shadow maps and no living mapmakers, the dirt whispered dry curses while the navigator ran. Their arms filled, their feet struck heavy on the baked soil.  The navigator felt themselves slowing, finally, after many cities and many histories, winding down, while the child grew slow and sure.

When they stumbled, the child helped steady them.

They tried not to think of where they were going, where they’d been. They drew maps as stories for the future to read. They put one foot in front of the other and sang quietly to the impossible child at their side, which was not a map, but a choice, a chance, a charge and a shift.


At the dark shore’s edge, the navigator stopped, remembering long-ago instructions. “We’ve returned,” they said. Ship did not unfold from beneath pieces of fallen space. The navigator found the captain, lying in the waves, eyes staring back to where they’d sailed.

“We can’t leave.” The captain breathed two long, painful passages and one short. Then three more. “We should not have come, shouldn’t linger; our ancestors thought . . .”

“We made many small mistakes along the way. And some large ones,” the navigator said.

“A new course,” the captain whispered. Their breathing stopped. Their destiny ran out.

The navigator marked the captain’s place. Then stood and looked at their child, and at the already settled land. They thought of you. Missed you. They were alone, and no longer alone; the dirt and salt traced patterns on their cheeks. They touched those places where the ground creased their skin.

“A map of beginnings.”

They waited while the child grew taller and tossed stones by the dark shore.


“An Explorer’s Cartography of Already Settled Lands” copyright © 2020 by Fran Wilde
Art copyright © 2020 by Cinyee Chiu


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