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.

I wait.

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.

Judges’ Com­ments

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.