A Map to the End of the World
It is winter, and I sit at my table with a thick sheaf of yellowed papers, held together with a wide black ribbon. The papers smell of must and long seasons lost in attics. Staring dead ahead at nothing at all, thinking of Ashe, I worry at the knot.
Snow blanketed the ground when I first met Ashe, too. It was early spring, which in these latitudes meant that it was still winter, no matter what the calendar might say.
He was a withered grey man, a stoop-shouldered creature who had lived through two world wars and was hoping to be asleep underground before the next rolled around. He wore narrow wire-rimmed spectacles and a black wool greatcoat against the chill of the world.
We first met in a small coffee shop. He had made his shuffling way to the door, supported on a cane, and I, entering, noticed that he’d left his gloves behind on the table. “Sir,” I called, feeling foolish. “Sir, your gloves—”
He turned and looked at me, his gaze blank and uncomprehending. I crossed to his table, picked up the black wool gloves, and waggled them at him.
“Ah,” he said. “My gloves.”
He insisted on paying for my coffee, and we chatted about this and that—weather, politics, hockey. Nothing of any great consequence, yet at the same time every word was of grave import.
He was testing me, and I didn’t know it. Sometimes I wish I’d failed.
On the table, the map is unfolded. I must be careful. The paper is brittle and oh so very old.
His cane was a gentleman’s weapon easily a century old, a simple cylinder of dark wood that concealed a narrow rapier of tarnished steel. He showed it to me one day in early autumn, in his apartment. It seems to me now that that day was when I first truly knew him, apprehended and understood him in full, as he handed the sword to me. I took it in my hands with careful reverence. There were roses and thornbushes engraved in the blade.
“Quite illegal,” he said. “But what dare they do to an old man?”
Behind him, dust motes danced in the sunbeams of his living room.
Notations crisscross the map, chickenscratch scribblings in fading ink. Some are in Ashe’s handwriting, which I have come to know well. Most are in other hands, other languages, other ciphers. He gave me a key with the map, a roll of parchment covered in what the untrained eye dismisses as gibberish. To the trained eye, however, it is a Rosetta stone, without which the map is useless.
The day he first showed me the map, it was high summer, a muggy, sweltering day deep in July. His small apartment was hot and humid. Age had pushed winter’s cold deep into his bones, and not even summer’s merciless sun could dispell the chill. As a concession to my youth, he’d set up a small tabletop fan.
The map was no less brittle that day than it is now. He unfurled it on his table, smoothed it delicately with one bony hand, and said, “This is it. What I’ve told you about. This is the map.”
I couldn’t make heads or tails, in those days, of the writings on the map. I said, “Where are we?” I was more than half joking; the map looked nothing at all like a real map, a map of, say, the streets of Marrakesh. It looked like a confusion of spidery handwriting.
He stabbed down with a knobby, arthritic finger: “We are here.”
I am not married, though I once was. That is a story I do not feel comfortable in telling, so let it suffice that I once was married, and now am not. I am not suited to this monastic life; it is not by my choice that I am alone on this winter’s night, as one year fades and another rises into view. I have known the taste of womanly companionship, and there is much I would give to have it again. But Ashe chose me, the map chose me, and so: I am a monk.
That first night, the twentieth of July, a thunderstorm rolled through town, bearing brief respite from the heat. I sat out on my deck with a cold bottle of beer in my hand, watching the lightning flicker and snap, listening to the rumble and crash of the thunder, letting the rain soak me till I was shivering.
The power went out that night in Ashe’s downtown apartment. The next time I saw the map, there was a fresh line of ink, spelling out those words that weren’t words.
My television is on, in another room. I cannot see it but I can hear it, and that will suffice.
My friends, the few that I have, are at a party across town. They will be drunk by now, deeply drunk, and there will be chips and dip, beer and wine, and the pop of champagne corks as the clock chimes twelve. I wish I could be there, but I can’t.
Maybe next year.
I hope not.
We were in the coffee shop where we’d first met when he told me.
“You are the one,” he said. “The one who will carry it on.”
“Carry what on?”
“The map,” he said. “You’re the only person on Earth besides me that has seen the map.”
“I’ve been watching you since you were six. That day we met? It was no accident that I left my gloves behind. I know you, inside and out. Better, maybe, than you know yourself.”
“You’re losing me,” I said.
“No I’m not. You understand me perfectly. You just don’t want to understand me.” He sipped his coffee.
On the television, Dick Clark is introducing a band named Frigid Monks. I have heard of them, heard one of their songs on the radio. The song they play is unfamiliar, the new single, as the singer says, off their album.
The last time I saw Ashe was in his apartment. He was planning a trip to Barbados. He was always planning trips he would never be able to take. Brochures littered the table, four-colour reproductions of white beaches and crystalline water and nubile sun-browned women in bikinis.
“Going on a trip?” I said.
He laughed from the kitchen. “Yeah,” he said. “One-way trip into the future.”
The kettle whistled, and we had tea.
The map is a map not of space but of time. It was created centuries ago by a monk whom many now consider to have been mad. There are precious few people in the world—generally only one or two alive at any one time—that know that his predictions have, so far, all come true.
The map predicts the fall of civilization, and marks out checkpoints along the way. Some are major events, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall, noted in Ashe’s narrow cursive. Others are small, such as the power failure in a small city on the windswept Canadian prairie a decade ago.
But none of them are fixed in time. The events are all described, but not a one of them has a date beside it. So the keeper of the map must be alert, and mark down the dates and details of each event on the ancient parchment.
We have a map to the future, a grim and grey future, but we have no scale, no legend. We know what will happen, but not when.
And so I sit at my dining-room table, all alone on New Year’s Eve, and wait for the next marker. I wait for Dick Clark to stumble on the words to Auld Lang Syne, and hope he doesn’t.
The next time I went to Ashe’s apartment, he was gone. The map was on the table, rolled tight and bound in black ribbon. His sword cane lay neatly beside it.
He was dead, I knew. He would never leave it like this.
That voice, braided in amongst all the other singing voices, falter and stumbles: “—we’ll take a, ah, kindness yet, for auld lang syne—”
My blood runs cold. I pick up my pen and, gut knotting in terror, write on the map.
We are one step closer, I know, to the end.
Sometimes I imagine Ashe, in bright orange swimming trunks, lounging on that brochure-perfect beach, his bones finally warm under the tropical sun.
It makes me feel better.
Oddly enough, first place in the Adult Fiction category was by far the easiest for the three of us to choose. Patrick Johanneson’s “A Map to the End of the World” was on all of our shortlists and when Bruce, who was the first to go through his short list, mentioned the story, both Nancy and I jumped in saying “oh yes, that was a great story!”
Most short stories tend to be about small moments or ideas — there’s nothing wrong with this. It suits the genre. But “A Map to the End of the World” is one of those unusual short stories that is about a big idea. That’s a difficult thing to do. The story could easily be expanded into a novel, though it works beautifully as a piece of short fiction. It’s well-written, of course, but part of its magic is that, as you read it, you really have no idea where it’s going. And when you come to the end of it, you feel as though you’ve experienced a tiny sliver of a much larger world. Just enough to tantalize. All in all, it reminded me of some of Ray Bradbury’s finer offerings.