There were no clouds in the night sky, but no stars either. Arthur stood on the penthouse balcony, his thoughts slow but vast. Below him, cars crawled in intricate traceries, and buildings glittered, bright and hard. He wondered if the stars, like gods whose worshippers had turned toward brighter idols, would one day simply vanish into myth.
In the apartment behind him, Janet slept. He closed his eyes and saw her, bronze skin warm against the black silk sheets, breathing slowly. He remembered the faint apricot smell of her breath. He looked up again; he missed the stars. Then, chilled by the autumn wind, he stepped back inside, back into the mapmaker’s cathedral. A few steps down the hallway, past the bedroom and he emerged into the great rotunda. Here the walls leapt up, smooth and white, cut at regular intervals by arched windows twice his height. The dome above was pierced by an intricate stained glass band of Arabic design. Mounted on the walls in ornate frames were Janet’s unsold works.
Janet made maps. Maps that fused the fanciful sea serpents and dragons of medieval cartography with the accuracy of the Swiss Landeskarte. Maps that were as much art as science, and maps that were, it seemed, very much in demand. She was a master of color and line, her creations transcending the earthly materials that made them; like a sudden vivid memory, they commanded attention.
Six maps shone from the walls, lit by museum quality spotlights dimmed for the evening, but never extinguished. The west African town of Ife, at the height of its pre-European glory, the northwest quadrant of modern day Samarkand, the high white peaks of the Tien Shan, eastern slopes pinked with dawn, the ancient Near and Middle east, covered by Alexander’s sprawling empire, a detailed topography of Mt. Katadhin and an unnamed group of islands in a wide dark sea. Sketches for her latest work, the northeast coast of Sumatra and the Malacca Strait, covered the drafting table set up near one of the windows.
The package lay open on the marble-topped island in the kitchen. As Arthur brushed by it in the dark, its dry smell stopped him. He looked down at it. Indistinct in the half darkness, the scroll was an enigma. It had arrived Friday afternoon, accompanied by a note that Janet said was from her uncle, but that she wouldn’t let him read. They’d unrolled the scroll partway. Arthur recognized the script as ancient Greek, but couldn’t read it. He’d grown tremendously excited, and had as much as begged Janet to let him bring the scroll in to work on Monday. Somewhat to his surprise, she’d refused, saying only that her uncle had given her the scroll for safekeeping, and that she didn’t want it leaving the apartment.
As he picked up the scroll to examine it again, he noticed one of the handles was loose. He flicked on the light over the island, and looked more closely. He twisted the handle to tighten it back up again and heard the faint rustle of paper. Curious, he twisted the handle the other way. A few turns and it was free of the wooden spindle. Stuck on the end of the spindle with a bit of red wax was a folded piece of paper, or as Arthur realized when he plucked it free, more accurately, papyrus.
Unfolded, it looked for all the world like a business card. About the size of his palm, it had a black border, and several lines of text of various sizes. The script was the same as that on the scroll.
Arthur looked at the clock over the stove. 2:54am. Too late to wake her, he thought. He tucked the odd little card into the pocket of his robe, making a mental note to show it to Janet in the morning. Suddenly tired, his drink of water forgotten, he headed back to the bedroom.
When Arthur awoke, he was alone in the bed. A note on the refrigerator told him Janet had “Gone out for supplies. Back by three. Love you.” He never could understand why she didn’t just have the pigments and papers delivered; she certainly could afford to tip the delivery boy. He’d asked her once, but hadn’t really gotten a straight answer. She’d tossed him some glib remark along the lines of “the only way to make sure a thing is done right is to do it yourself,” but that didn’t really sound like her.
With the prospect of a Sunday mostly to himself, Arthur wandered towards a window thinking how to spend the day. He thrust his hands into his robe, and discovered the bit of papyrus again. Drawing it into the light, a thought struck him, and he rushed to dress.
* * *
Arthur burst into the rotunda. Janet was bent over her worktable, the scroll unrolled on the floor beside her.
“Did you see this, Janet?”, Arthur laughed, shaking the small slip of papyrus at her. “Your uncle apparently had an account at the Library of Alexandria.” Janet’s eye’s widened, but she made no reply. “I had a couple of friends of mine in the Archaeology dept. look at it -”
“I wish you’d told me you’d found that.” Janet’s voice was hard, and very quiet.
Arthur stopped. “Hey, I thought you’d be pleased. Another piece of the puzzle. I even -”
“My uncle’s message was meant for me, Arthur. Not you, or your curious friends.”
“I am sorry. I didn’t think you’d be upset.” He shrugged. “I wasn’t hiding this silly thing from you if that’s what you think. You were asleep when I found it, and gone by the time I woke up this morning. And look, here it is, unharmed by its trip through the city.” He held the card out to her, and after a moment, her eyes softened, and she took it.
“I’m not really mad.” she said. “I knew something was missing from the package, and now I know what it was.” She held her arms open. “Apology accepted.”
Monday dawned grey and cold, the smell of coming winter in the air. After a quiet breakfast, during which the two of them exchaged perhaps two sentences, Arthur left for work. As the elevator doors closed, he caught a last glimpse of Janet mixing paints in front of a window, surest of getting the color she wanted in the natural light.
The morning went by quickly, a flash of lecture and meetings. When he stepped back into the office after lunch, the red light on his phone was lit. The second message was from Janet.
“Arthur,” her voice was slow and soft, “Arthur, I have to go. I don’t know when I’ll be back, or even if I’ll ever see you again. You can’t ask me why, and I can’t tell you.” She paused, and Arthur heard only the background hiss of electronics. “Stay in the apartment if you wish; it’s yours now. I wish I could give you more than that…I loved you, Arthur. Goodbye.”
Arthur surprised several colleagues as he bolted out of his office, down the hall and across campus.
The elevator doors opened into soft light and silence. The rotunda was empty, and the scroll was gone. One of the great windows was half open; the air was cold. “Janet?” Arthur called. “Janet, where are you?” Looking around, he noticed that the map of Sumatra no longer lay on Janet’s work table. He ran to see what was there in its place.
There was sand on the drafting table, a fine coat rippled like a sea of marching dunes. And in the center of this sea, another map, its edges blurred. He looked at the map; it gleamed like a clockwork jewel. Precise lines of ink built minature cities, and delicate shades of rose and tan explained the desert’s rise and fall. The Nile shone silver bright. Evening light touched the tops of the dunes and filled the tiny city streets with gold. He bent closer, and dizzingly, the desert rushed up to meet him.
For an instant he was suspended over an oasis; he smelled the dry desert wind, the smoke of cooking fires and heard the cries and bells of camels tethered to the palms. To the north, the whitewashed mud and brick of a city blossomed brilliantly beneath the violet sky. He drew a breath and the spell broke. A gust of wind blew the sand from the table and spilled it, a dry freshet, into copper whorls on the black stone floor.