The Mapmaker’s Boy

Christina Soontornvat

Anyone walking down Feltwhip Road early that morning would have noticed the light in the shop window. The clouds were heavy with water scooped up from the sea, and they threatened to dump it all at once onto the dark streets of Graves. Even so, the golden flicker of that lone candle in the window might make someone stop and linger for a moment. They would peer through the rippling glass, see the blurred figure hunched over his drafting table and think, There’s the Mapmaker again, hard at work charting the Great Unknown. And it’s only ten to seven! Then they would shake their head at this industrious soul before hurrying off to beat the rain.

They’d never guess that the blurry figure they saw was only a boy. This boy was not the Mapmaker and he was not charting the Great Unknown. In fact, he wasn’t supposed to be there at all.

Thomas Ledger pressed his hands on the edge of his drafting table and leaned back to inspect his work. His eyes traveled back and forth between his map and the original hanging above him on the wall. He’d already checked it a dozen times, but he wanted to make sure he hadn’t drooled on it when he fell asleep. He rubbed his eyes and smiled. This time it was perfect. Each tiny bump and divot in the coastline was identical. It couldn’t be better if he’d traced it on vellum.

Tom arched his back and stretched his stiff neck side to side. He glanced at the clock on the mantle. Tripe! Ten to seven already! He hopped off his stool. That meant he only had nine minutes and fifty seconds to make it look like he hadn’t just spent the night there.

Tom tidied up his drafting table: pens back into their boxes, lids onto ink jars, blotting paper neatly stacked. He licked his fingers and pinched the candlewick so it wouldn’t smoke. Next, he rolled up the blanket on the floor and tucked it back in its hiding place behind the bookshelf, then hurried to the front of the shop and pulled on his boots and jacket. As he smoothed the wrinkles out of his trousers, he saw how cold and damp it was outside. I’d best look cold and damp, too, he thought.

He knelt down beside the door, pressing his cheek up to the shop window. With his face against the glass, he looked at the shops on the other side of the cobblestone road, still waiting for owners to trudge in and open for business. Tom wished he could have Feltwhip all to himself for just one more hour. With no one else around, he felt like the guardian of that tidy, stone-paved kingdom.

He switched cheeks and looked up at the arc of painted letters on the window. The “G” in Master Cartographer was peeling slightly. He’d probably have to repaint that later. His cheek numb, he stepped away from the window and unlatched the front door. Then he pulled his shop key out of his pocket, turned his back to the door and waited. As the clock began to chime, the door behind him clicked open. Without looking, Tom knew who it was. The Master Cartographer was never late.

“Ah, Thomas, you’ve beat me again!” puffed Horace Earnshaw.

“Only just, sir,” said Tom as he wheeled around, keys in hand.

Earnshaw struggled to take off his hat and scarf without dropping his armload of papers. His face was wet and rosy from the walk in and he sniffled a little. “Chilly morning, isn’t it?”

“It is, sir,” said Tom, rubbing his own red cheeks and pretending to shiver. He took the papers, then helped the old man out of his coat and hung it by the door.

Earnshaw wiped the fog off his spectacles and walked to his desk, his belly leading the way. “Lights, Tom, lights! I can’t see a blasted thing.”

“Yes, sir,” said Tom, already busy turning up the lamps.

“Blast this weather, it’s supposed to be May, not March.” Earnshaw reached into his snug waistcoat and pulled out his pocket watch. The polished gold case gleamed like it made its own light. “If the sun doesn’t come out soon, I’ll go blind and you’ll ruin your eyes before your thirteenth birthday.”

Tom nodded, but he actually loved the shop best on gloomy days. The drearier it got outside, the more the lamplight danced off the surfaces of Earnshaw’s surveying equipment and the glass frames of his maps. So many maps! They covered the walls, floor to ceiling. Even though he’d worked for Earnshaw for over a year, Tom still hadn’t had a chance to study them all. During his thirty years as surveyor for the Royal Navy, Earnshaw had sailed all over the known world, charting more of it than anyone else in Ossian. He specialized in intricate maps of treacherous coastlines. Tom had once heard someone say of Earnshaw, “That man would draw the pebbles on the beach if he had a pen fine enough.”

Earnshaw settled into his desk chair and began winding his watch. Tom knew that soon the old man would dive into his work and wouldn’t want to be interrupted. If Tom was going to say anything he had to do it now.

He cleared his throat and nodded toward his drafting table. “I finished copying the chart of Holloman’s Harbor yesterday, sir. Perhaps you could take a look. When you’ve got a minute, I mean.”

Earnshaw put his watch back in his pocket and met Tom at his table. He inspected the chart, chin down, lower lip out while Tom rocked back and forth on his heels. Earnshaw couldn’t fail to be impressed this time. Surely he would see Tom could handle a more challenging task. Tom wondered what it might be. Maybe Earnshaw would finally teach him how to use the level or one of his other surveyor’s tools.

“Mm-hm, yes…very good,” Earnshaw mumbled. He straightened and clapped a hand on Tom’s shoulder. “Very tolerable work. I should think one more copy will do it!”

Tom dropped his head. He had copied Earnshaw’s map of this port seven times now. Tom had never set foot outside of Graves, much less been on a boat, but he was pretty sure he could sail that harbor blindfolded.

“Yes, sir.” Without meaning to, Tom let the words out with a sigh.

Earnshaw eyed him over his glasses, one bushy gray eyebrow pinched down. “Tom, I hope you don’t think copying is beneath you.”

“Oh no, sir, not at all. I just – ”

“Holloman’s is a tricky harbor, full of rocks and sand bars. Suppose you left off some detail in your haste to do work that better satisfies your vanity? And suppose a ship went down because of it? Would you want that on your conscience?”

Tom chewed his lip. As Earnshaw’s shop boy, he knew he was lucky to do anything more than sweep the floor and keep the fire going. Getting to copy maps was a privilege and he had no right to complain. But Tom also knew he was too good to just make copies. He reckoned that no one in Graves could tell the difference between one of Earnshaw’s maps and his own. When would the old mapper realize he was ready for more?

Earnshaw took off his spectacles and rubbed one hand over his balding head. His black eyes always looked so small without glasses. Tom wondered if Earnshaw was about to yell at him. Or worse, call him ungrateful and tell him to go back to sweeping. But when the old man put his glasses back on, he didn’t look angry, just very tired.

“Perhaps this morning we are both in need of a little inspiration,” Earnshaw said softly. “Come along, I’ve been meaning to show you something.”

Tom followed Earnshaw back to his desk, relieved not to be in trouble. Perhaps the old man would show him the mapmaking tools after all. Earnshaw’s knees creaked and popped as he knelt down in front of a large wooden trunk behind his desk. Tom leaned as close as he could without blocking the lamplight. He knew the surveying equipment wasn’t kept in there. Because of his cleaning duties, Tom had seen the inside of every chest and cabinet in the shop. But this trunk was always kept locked.

Earnshaw’s keys jingled softly as he pulled them out of his pocket. “You know I prefer not to rely on maps made by others.”

“No need, sir,” said Tom. “Yours are the very best.”

Earnshaw chuckled. “I see I’ve taught you well!” The trunk lid creaked as he opened it. “These maps are different. I like to bring them out from time to time to remind myself why I do things the way I do them.”

Earnshaw carefully lifted out a stack of curling papers, their edges brown and cracked. “I keep them in the trunk because I can’t risk them fading, not even in this poor excuse for sunlight.”

“Amazing,” whispered Tom as Earnshaw laid the papers on his desk.

The first map in the stack showed the Isles of Ossian drawn in red and gold. Tom guessed the map must be very old from the funny way the counties and towns were spelled. Castles marked the more important cities; Graves was depicted as a walled fortress by the sea. Scaly dragons poked their crested heads among the islands along the northern coast.

“I’ve never seen a map like this before,” said Tom, his finger hovering over one of the sea monsters. “Why don’t people draw maps with decorations like this anymore?”

“It’s not just decoration,” said Earnshaw. “Whoever made this map likely believed dragons prowled the coast. Treacherous rocks, treacherous monsters. All the same to the ancient sailor.”

Earnshaw slid the map to the side. The next one looked more recent than the first. It centered on the continent of Ansibar, with Malay and the islands of the Orient trailing off the edge of the map to the east. A web of thin black lines swooped along Ansibar’s western coast and dipped far below the Cape of Lost Faith before ending in the Orientale Sea. Tom had learned enough about navigation to know these lines were the trade winds.

“Lying little trickster,” said Earnshaw.

Tom caught his breath. “I – I beg your pardon, sir?”

“The mapper who made this. It’s a complete fabrication!”

“Oh,” said Tom, relaxing. “How so, Mister Earnshaw?”

“The Madrigals were the first to sail ‘round the tip of Ansibar and reach the riches of the East. Their maps of the trade winds were state secrets. Someone had the idea to leak these false charts to enemy nations. Imagine how many ships must have been lost at sea, following what they thought were the right maps. I can’t understand how a person could lie like that, can you?”

Tom shifted on his feet. “Can I see the others?”

The old man leafed through the rest of the pile: yellowed maps of now-known places, but with different names and borders. Earnshaw could read Latin and Deutsch and he translated some of the names for Tom. Going through this collection was like having a geography, history, and language lesson all at once. Or so Tom imagined. He had stopped going to school years ago and his lessons had never been much more than reading and punishments.

They made their way to the bottom of the pile and the very last map. This one had been drawn on a small piece of washed silk instead of paper. When Earnshaw held it in his hand, the edges barely covered his palm.

“Ah, my brother’s map,” he whispered, holding the silk out to Tom.

Tom wondered what he meant. Earnshaw only had sisters, both dead. Tom took the map and held it under the desk lamp.  A wrinkled coastline bisected the silk, dividing it into land at the top, sea at the bottom. A chain of five islands curved away from the mainland, toward the map’s lower right-hand corner. There were no words on it at all, save for one: Presagio, written in small, looping script in the middle of the sea. As he marveled at the detailed coastline, intricate as a piece of lacework, Tom understood why Earnshaw had called the mapmaker his brother.

“How did you come by this, Mister Earnshaw?”

Earnshaw recounted his tale of wandering through the markets on Sowston Street, perusing the stalls of fake old maps just for a laugh. When he saw this scrap he immediately knew it didn’t belong with the other sham souvenirs.

“Cost me five shillings. The woman I bought it from tried to sell me one of her “more elegant” pieces. She said this one was drawn like chicken scratch!” Earnshaw laughed and the corners of his eyes crinkled up. He pointed to the shore with an ink-stained finger. The mapmaker had used short, angular strokes to draw the coastline. “What she didn’t know is that those “scratches” indicate the mapper was looking back and forth between the map and his readings.” Earnshaw mimed holding a sighting scope in one hand, a pen in the other. “He would take a measurement, then mark that distance on the map, take another measurement, and so on. It’s not until a mapper gets back home that he redraws his coastlines in a smooth, elegant way.”

“I’ve never heard of a map drawn on cloth before,” said Tom.

“Keeps it from being damaged at sea,” said Earnshaw. “You can fold it and it won’t crease.” He pointed to the island chain. “It’s a wonder the mapper discovered this place at all. See the way the islands curve away from the continent as they grow in size? A ship might follow their curve, thinking they lead toward the mainland, when really it’s in the other direction. And this river is strange as well.”

The map showed a mountain range near the coast. A wide river started up in the mountains. It snaked south between the peaks, then suddenly turned into a thin trickle before dumping into the ocean.

“You expect rivers to grow in volume as they head toward the sea, not the other way around,” said Earnshaw. “It’s very curious.”

“Maybe the mapper didn’t know what the river really looked like,” offered Tom. “Maybe he made it up.”

“Ah, that’s where you’re wrong. You see, a man who would make a map like this would rather leave it blank than make something up.” Earnshaw turned to Tom and peered at him over his spectacles again. “Anyone can draw a bit of coast and call it a map. A good mapper sees things with his eyes only. He records what is actually there, not what he wants to see.”

Tom looked down at the silk map again. “I wonder where it was made.”

“That, my lad, is the question.” The old man stood up and walked to the far wall of his shop, where his most recently completed maps hung.

“Cannot be here in the North,” said Earnshaw, passing over Ossian and its neighboring continents, almost black from being filled in with features discovered centuries ago. “Not Amazonia,” he said, referring to the well-explored coastline of that tropical world. “I once thought it could be the West, you know, perhaps a map of the Colonies…” Earnshaw’s longest journey was to the Western Colonies. He knew their features as well as his own. “But no, it can’t be there either.” Earnshaw stood for a while staring at the wall, lost in his thoughts.

Tom stole one last look at the tiny chart before setting it carefully on top of the others on the desk. “Who do you think made this, Mister Earnshaw?”

“I don’t think I’ll ever know. But I can tell you one thing.” Earnshaw turned to Tom and touched his finger to his nose. “He started out making copies.”

Before Tom could say anything, they heard a knock at the front door.

Earnshaw checked his pocket watch. “That will be the post,” he said as he moved the stack of old maps back to their trunk. “Quickly, Tom, I’m expecting something rather important.”

Tom opened the shop door and the post boy handed him a large square envelope. Tom turned the letter over as he shut the door behind him.

“Here Mister Earnshaw,” he said, handing it over. “It’s from the Geographical Society!”

Earnshaw sliced the envelope open with his letter knife. Tom watched his face as he read the letter to himself. Earnshaw didn’t come from a highborn family, which was almost a requirement to be a member of the Ossian Geographical Society. But the admirals respected him and sometimes asked for his input on cartographical matters. Earnshaw’s eyes scanned the letter hurriedly. When he finished, deep wrinkles spread over his forehead.

“What do they say, sir?” asked Tom.

Earnshaw looked up from the letter, his face still wrinkled in thought. “What’s that? Oh, nothing much. Just an invitation to one of their frilly luncheons, that’s all.” He smiled and pointed to Tom‘s work table. “It’s time we both got to work.”

Tom sat down on his stool and pulled out a fresh sheet of charting paper. Before he started on yet another copy of Holloman’s, he looked at Earnshaw again. The old man drummed his fingers on his desk and stared at the square envelope lying in front of him. Whatever it was, Tom knew that letter was no luncheon invitation.

Earnshaw might be the Master Mapmaker, but lying was Tom’s domain.

Gorgeously imagined, gracefully plotted, and confidently realized, The Mapmaker’s Boy promises a great deal of reading pleasure. I knew I was in good hands from the first line to the last.
—Rebecca Stead, 2013 Katherine Paterson Prize Judge

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