Something bled to death on the front step last night. When I leave this morning before dawn, I find a dark stain in the middle of the tread, oily black in the streetlamp’s sodium light. I bend down to touch it and bring my fingers close to my face. They are red with blood.
It must have been a bird. Last evening, when I sat at my drafting table, the dusty bush outside the window was filled with racketing sparrows. I glanced up for a moment to study them: twenty, thirty, nervously hopping from branch to branch. Small brown birds, like a handful of old pennies. I’d turned my attention back to my work when—thud! I looked up in time to see a feathered lozenge bounce from the window and fall to the ground. A tiny smear of feathers marked the precise plane on which the creature had learned that reflection is not reality.
I tapped my pencil on the paper, trying to remember the map I’d studied, surreptitiously, earlier in the day—the angles at which three streets met in a complex intersection. My penciled hash marks were almost invisible in the fading gray light, but I didn’t turn on the desk lamp; I didn’t want someone outside looking in, able to see me when I couldn’t see him.
Thud: another bird slammed into the window. Another bounce, another body, another feathered graffito tagged on the glass. The twilight must have played tricks, made the likeness in the window’s mirror seem more real than the open sky. Stupid birds.
Then I saw the shadow—the size of my forearm—high up in the tree across the street. A raptor, a hawk maybe. It never moved—didn’t even extend its leg to examine a talon—but the threat made the sparrows lose their minds. Fear drove them, one after another, into the glass. A whirl of tiny thuds. Pum! Pum! Pum! I drew a line along the hash marks on the gridded paper, my pencil biting the metal-edged ruler, and inked it as the night closed in. Why didn’t they just fly away home? Why is it so easy to lose one’s mind in the dark?
When the ink was dry, I slid the map into the shallow file drawer beneath the drafting table’s surface and turned the key in the ill-fitting lock. I unclasped the chain around my neck and threaded the key onto it. Last, I yanked a single hair from my head to use as a tell-tale, sticking it in place over the drawer with tiny crumbs of kneaded eraser.
This morning there’s no frenzy of feathers, no shreds of flesh or bone, but the coagulating blood must belong to one of the sparrows, torn apart by the hawk. I wipe my fingers on my pants and straighten up to examine the tree—no lurking bird—then look to the ends of the block. At one end, Jersey barricades crouch in the pre-dawn darkness. At the other is the guard station’s silhouette. Whoever they were—predator and prey—nothing remains but a stain on the step.
The aging bus charges up to the stop like a roan bull, head down, flanks scarred, tail pipe shuddering. I show my embossed papers and am grudgingly allowed to move to the front of the line of commuters. I put a limp dollar bill in the fare box, then shove my way toward the back to hang from a strap. Even this early in the day, the mineral tang of unwashed bodies and clothes makes my eyes water. As the bus lurches past the muni’s gate onto the highway, I concentrate on breathing out through my nose, in through my mouth.
Busted-up cars, other ancient buses, and dented three-wheeled delivery vans jam the road. We inch forward in the snarl of traffic, vehicles scraping against each other—metal on metal—in arrhythmic stop-and-start screeches. The guy behind me grinds his crotch into my ass, so I step down hard on his foot and he leaves me alone. Two drunks get into a fight, throwing feeble punches in the tight confines of their seat, until the driver stops the bus and makes them get off, right there on the restricted access. They plead with him, and he still puts them out. The other passengers’ eyes are hooded, but I can tell they’re pleased, happy to be rid of the whiny screech of the women’s voices. I push my way into one of their empty seats—a cloud of exhaled cheap liquor lingers—and watch them through the grimy window as they wobble, in the gray yellow dawn, over the trunks and hoods of barely moving cars. Eventually they climb onto the roof of a creeping long-haul truck and fall asleep. They’ll wake up someplace they won’t want to be.
Heat-blasted trash and skeletal late-model car chassis crowd the margin of the road right up to the base of the concrete noise barriers. Over time, the disabled cars have been stripped—not for parts, since their engines are useless—but for upholstery and metal and rubber. The carcasses have begun to look identical, like rain-softened lumps of clay.
The bus slowly pulls past five men—migrants probably—stumbling amid the debris. They’ve fashioned a wobbly ladder by lashing scraps of scavenged metal together, and they struggle to hold it up while a climber teeters to and fro, like a Chinese acrobat, trying to scale it to the top of the barrier. What will he do when he reaches the recurving concrete overhang designed to thwart exactly this kind of attempt? I picture the climber hanging upside down as the ladder bows back on itself, the men on the ground scrambling to keep it upright.
What are they after? Maybe they’ve heard a rumor of jobs and figure they can get off the road and into the City. They’ll be disappointed. Muni PD is better than that. The noise barrier has become the wall that separates the people with papers from those without, the citizens from migrants. You can travel through the City on the highway, but you can’t get off unless you have the documents to prove that you have a reason to be there.
Vehicles jostle their way up the exit, stop and go, stop and go. At the top of the ramp, a municipal notary examines the bus driver’s papers. The driver has the duty—and the liability—of vouching for the passengers, since he checked our papers when we got on. What would happen to him if one of us were undocumented or our papers were forged?
I tumble off the bus with the other municipal workers when it stops in front of City Hall.
While I wait in the sweet-smelling line—munis smell better than other people: we have jobs and paychecks and can afford apartments with reliable electricity and power—to go through the body scanner in City Hall’s aging rotunda, I study the classical flourishes of the vaulted ceiling. Let’s call it early-twentieth-century municipal architecture. Decades of cigar smoke have yellowed the creamy marble, but when this building was built it was the palace of the people, the physical manifestation of demos. A full city block, five stories tall, sheltering the clanking beehive of civic democracy. The mayor, councilmen, inspectors and engineers, clerks and sanitarians, and the documents that legitimated them: permits, deeds, licenses, birth and death certificates, plans, budgets, rosters, maps. The paper versions of the social contract, if you will.
Over time, that paper was replaced by digital versions, stored first on punch cards, then on floppy discs, then on hard drives, and then, in the beginning of this century, in the cloud. But all that digital stuff was erased two years ago. It started as a joke. One weekend, amateur hackers launched a series of uncoordinated attacks. The script kiddies, at least, had a sense of humor. “Shhhhhh!” notified all the public-library patrons in Tulsa that they had overdue fines of one million dollars each. “Az_Enyém_Pepperoni!” ordered pizzas for everyone in Budapest. “ClownFuk” permanently pasted a red nose on every facial image it accessed.
But what started as mischief quickly turned dangerous. “FourGone” deleted the number 4 wherever it appeared, with results that ranged from amusing—the national debt of Angola was erased when $4,440,001,100 became $1,100—to fatal, when a pilot’s navigation system reported the height of a hill as 91 meters instead of 491.
Most disastrously, “KnockKnockDingDong”—which switched ring tones to the sound of a caterwauling baby—capriciously exposed security vulnerabilities in cellular networks. When criminals and terrorists—from North Korea, Iran, South Carolina—realized that they could compound mischief with misery and misery with mayhem, they unleashed dozens of destructive viruses and worms with names like “CutYourTongueOut” and “TortureTime.” Their bots jumped from cell networks to the Internet, testing virtual backdoors a billion times a second. Successful intruders signaled to others, and the barbarian hordes poured in.
Within days, everything connected was infected—and erased. The world’s digital information—baby photos, first novel drafts, robotic manufacturing protocols, critical infrastructure kill switches—howled into the ether, a virtual sandstorm of silica bits. Software was irrevocably corrupted. Laptops, smartphones, modems, and server farms were infected, of course, but so were things we hadn’t thought or known about. Any car manufactured in the 21st century, water purification plants, thermostats. We call it the Wipe Out.
There’s a certain kind of person who takes advantage of chaos and certain kinds of people eager to be taken advantage of, willing to cede their souls in exchange for order and something to eat. The Mayor was the former kind of person, and the citizens of our City were the latter. In those chaotic first weeks, the Mayor—or rather the powerful City Councilman who became the Mayor, Richard O’Reilly—took control, imposed martial law, organized food depots and water trucks, and set up rudimentary communication networks.
The impotent federal government, already barely able to respond to a hurricane, let alone worldwide annihilation of the social order, tried to stagger back on its skinny hairless legs and told local governments they were on their own.
The Mayor built a barrier, constructed of immobilized junk from the “Internet of Things”—cars, washing machines, flat-screen TVs—around The City’s perimeter. He seized City funds to hire armies of “notaries” to staff checkpoints. Whether the barrier actually keeps people out isn’t clear, but that probably isn’t even the point. It’s a way to mark his territory, to piss on the suburbs and tell them to keep out. Communities all around the world did the same thing. Keep “them” out and “us” in: we have only enough for ourselves.
The feds estimated that the Internet rebuild would take five years. We’re halfway there, and things are almost back to normal. Normal, that is, for a weird and tired version of the 1980s. The Daily News once again puts out a daily print run, under the watchful eye of the Mayor’s censors. Cathode-ray-tube televisions air shows recorded on video: Cheers and Magnum P.I. We pay with cash—dirty ten-dollar bills—for bruised apples and oranges, iceberg lettuce and limp green beans. Thousands of bicycle messengers zip along the City’s streets. When you’re in a hurry to contact someone, you can hail a bike guy and give him a written note and an address. What’s up? Get drinks after work? I’m going to be late. Cycle media instead of social media.
City Hall has again become the repository for paper, and for the army of low-level patronage workers—like me—who process it. The Mayor controls the paper. The Mayor controls the jobs. The Mayor controls the City.
The analog body-scanning equipment in the lobby of City Hall wheezes and whirrs and lets me through. I lean over to open my bag for the pimply muni notary, so that he can inspect my breasts, check out the tattoo that traverses them instead of the contents of my bag. I watch as he hungrily flicks his tongue over his teeth and looks up at me, and I look right back at him, an invitation. Who knows when he might be useful?
Only two elevators in the bank of twelve work, and even then they only go as far as the third floor. I wait my turn in front of Clementine’s, and when the gate rattles open I smile at her and she salutes me, two fingers at her brow, then turns her attention to the brass controls. We don’t talk because the elevator car is full. It jolts and rasps its way to the third floor, and I take the stairs up to five.
When I unlock the heavy glass office door and push it open, I’m assaulted by the sweet, rotten smell of old paper, like a vaseful of dead chrysanthemums. I toggle the switch, and the lights flutter on in a spasmodic wave of pendant fluorescence. The swinging gate in the wooden rail that once separated the public from the employees—only me now—clacks closed behind me. I climb two steps to my desk and face the door like a judge: when I’m seated, my eye level is slightly higher than the eye level of the petitioner standing in front of me. I sit down on my wooden swivel chair, stow my bag under the counter, put my wax-paper-wrapped sandwich on the blotter—and another day begins.
I sharpen three pencils and straighten a pile of blank document cards. Time passes. I resharpen the pencils, sort the document cards so that they alternate face up, face down, face up, fan them across the blotter, then gather them back up. More time passes. I doodle, blackening all of the o’s on the top card, then connect the o’s with a spiraling line, then draw daisies in the corners. I put that card in the out box and start on another one.
From my perch, I look past my glass doors—labeled, in ragged gold letters,
—across the yellowed marble corridor and through the glass door labeled “Bureau of Building Permits” on the other side of the hall. Sonyeo sits at her elevated desk, staring across at me. I stare back at her, and we play chicken, seeing who will crack first. She does—I make an expression like a fish gasping for air, and she laughs. She mouths “Hi, Mae,” and I mouth “Hi, Sonyeo.” She mouths “Lunch?” and I mouth “Sushi,” and she mouths “Noon?” and I mouth “Loading dock,” and she mouths “Okay,” and I make a face like a fish again, and again she laughs.
Then I go back to work, blackening the o’s on the document card, connecting them with a line that meanders like the drunks wobbling across the lumpy landscape of cars.
“I am so bored, Mae. No one has filed for a building permit for four months. I’m going crazy. I’m going to quit.”
Sonyeo and I sit side by side with our backs against the wall, in the slit of sun that reaches the loading dock at noon. I stretch, and my tattoo flexes around my right leg from my thigh to my foot. We share my lunch and a cigarette. I lied. I don’t have sushi, I have a Spam sandwich. Who has fresh tuna anymore?
I met Sonyeo a year ago at Aagloe, an abandoned shopping mall. A lot of people, myself included, didn’t realize that extravagant capitalism depended on digital supply chains. Crocheted crop tops, Urban Decay eyeliner, Grado headphones, all of it stitched, mixed, assembled, and shipped by computerized robot arms—stilled by the Wipe Out. The crap that would have filled these stores sits now in off-loaded shipping containers stacked ten high in some dormant tropical port, degrading in the heat.
With nothing on the shelves, the mall’s stores are closed, papered over. A few kiosks sell small Westinghouse and Sunbeam appliances scavenged from grandmothers’ kitchens. And the atrium has been repurposed as an analog funhouse. Electro-mechanical arcade games, a bar, a miniature golf course. Loud music, live bands, circus performers. Out-of-work techies and digital-data business analysts plug quarters into pinball machines, trash-talk each other over skeeball, and drink the day into night. Aagloe’s multi-colored raucousness is an antidote to the grim compression of life in the Wipe Out.
The night I met Sonyeo, a DJ was spinning ’80s rock from a boom-box cassette player connected to vintage Boston Acoustic speakers. “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns N’ Roses told me that “it gets worse here every day.” Sonyeo danced by herself, and at first I thought she was stoned. She seemed so isolated, as though she were dancing inside an iridescent soap bubble. But that’s just how she is when she dances: detached and alone. I was there scouting for recruits; she sat down at my table.
“People blame me for the Wipe Out, you know? Because I’m Korean? But I was born in Skokie and raised here, in the City. Thank God the Mayor’s keeping me safe.” She rolled her eyes, and I recognized then that she might be a good Resister: she had the right amount of cynicism. Cutter, the head of the Resistance—it’s always got a capital R when he says it—must have thought so too, because after he interviewed her he invited her to join. He used his connections to get her the job at City Hall. Cutter says that half the people at City Hall are in the Resistance—you just don’t know which half.
“Sonyeo,” I explain patiently, “you’re not going to quit. You get water, you get power most of the time, and you get the Search & Rescue guys.”
Muni Search & Rescue is the only group now that wants Sonyeo’s bureau’s archived building plans. Buildings collapse far more often than they did before the Wipe Out. No one knows why. The population of the city is less than half what it was. The official word is that the abandoned buildings are deteriorating because of burst pipes and leaking roofs, but it’s rumored that the Mayor has them blown up to keep undocumented people from squatting in them.
When a building collapses, Muni S&R needs to know how to search it. A century-old masonry building with horsehair plaster falls down in a different way from a modern building made of metal 2x4s and sheetrock. So the S&R team has to figure out: where are the pockets of safe space likely to be? is there a full basement or just a partial? can they cut through a beam to get at someone who’s trapped, or will that bring the rest of the building down on them?
At first, there was something about not really caring if you live or die that made the S&R guys fucking irresistible to Sonyeo. She hooked up with one after another. But once they’ve risked their lives just this side of one too many times, when they’ve had enough of crawling like worms through structural voids, listening to the debris shifting above them—the creak of broken girders slipping and settling—they transfer from Search & Rescue to Streets & Sanitation, or Senior Services, or the Municipal Library. And when Sonyeo realized that, suddenly they weren’t so interesting to her anymore.
Once, when I asked her why she stopped seeing one, she said, “He tasted different after he was afraid.” I wondered what fear tastes like.
As if she were reading my mind, Sonyeo said, “Aluminum foil.”
“They tasted like chewing on aluminum foil.”
“And you could taste that, taste fear?”
She shrugged. Sonyeo never explains herself.
Now she asks, her voice overly serious, “Are you going to the cell meeting tonight?”
“Yes.” I wish Sonyeo weren’t. I’m sorry I recruited her. She doesn’t have what it takes. I thought she’d be fun, and she is fun, but when it comes to our work she stands out like a sore thumb. She’s too earnest. Too innocent. She actually thinks we’ll make a difference. “You don’t need to go.”
“Where is the meeting?”
“At a bar at the corner of Noyes and 31st. The subway stop has been renamed—it’s called Mercator now. Seven stops beyond Central.”
She squeezes her eyes shut, trying to remember the new name. “Mercator. Okay. What time does the party start?” We use parties and raves for cover.
“Maybe ten, maybe midnight. These guys aren’t very organized.” I pause. “You don’t need to come.” I feel as if I’m taking advantage of a child.
“Will Cutter be there?” Cutter has replaced the S&R guys as Sonyeo’s object of desire.
“I don’t know. What does Cutter taste like?”
“Strawberries,” she says tentatively, searching my face for…what? Disapproval? I don’t disapprove, but I worry that she’s in over her head. I’m jealous that she’s involved with him, but I also don’t trust him.
After lunch, Ottoman, Clementine’s brother, brings a map into the office—a folding road map confiscated from a driver. Ottoman is the first visitor to the office in weeks; most maps have already been seized. We sign the chain-of-custody form, and he salutes, two fingers to his brow, and then he’s gone.
Maps are a special category of municipal document. The Mayor has outlawed them because they document a City that no longer exists and awaken memories of the time before the Wipe Out, a sweeter time when people traveled freely from place to place and the future was full of promise. Or maybe he doesn’t make those distinctions, identify those nuances. Maybe, for the Mayor, nuance itself is dangerous.
We all overwrite our landscapes with meanings known only to us. The grid of streets: horizontal, x and y. Trees, statues, buildings, sky: vertical, z. That house is where Lindy, my best friend in kindergarten, lived. That’s the store where Marta bought me my first umbrella—a red one—when we were on our way home from school and it started to rain. This is the ward my father represented on the City Council.
To the first three dimensions, another is added: time, t. Time’s stutter-step annotates the map of x, y, z. Signs, façades, even streets come and go. If I, in giving directions to a stranger, say, “Turn left at the house that used to be Lindy’s,” he is justifiably baffled, but that landmark will always be part of my mental map. The umbrella store makes way for a mini-mart. The sapling that Marta planted on my seventh birthday now shades an entire backyard.
One more dimension—p, people. My mental maps aren’t just representations of time and space. They are peopled. A new family moves into Lindy’s house. My father dies. I come home one day to find that Marta has vanished.
Everyone connects vast networks of x, y, z, t, p to create maps known only to them. As we move through landscapes, we “touch” what’s known to us countless times each day, the way we touch our faces—for auto-positioning, for reassurance. This house, this intersection, this neighborhood. My map tells my story.
A map captures the cartographer’s understanding of the universe, her insecurities, her ideology. Every map requires choices: obvious choices like scale and orientation, and less obvious ones like what to put in and what to leave out. A map, like a story, is just one representation of the truth.
After a series of cyberattacks unplugs the web, a tyrannical Mayor controls a city by disrupting the landscape—building walls, changing street names, demolishing buildings—and confiscating maps. When you need to control people, you control their stories. He makes the known less known, forcing the citizens to rely on his version of the truth.
Mae, a cartographer, lives a double life. By day she works for the Mayor, cataloging the maps he has confiscated. By night she is a member of the Resistance, dedicated to preserving maps and, with them, citizens’ stories. Resistance artists tattoo the maps on Mae, and she becomes a mobile archive. When Sonyeo, another double agent, turns up dead, Mae blames herself, but as she investigates Sonyeo’s death, she realizes that her knowledge—and her body—places her in peril.
I wrote The Mapmaker’s Body to explore tyranny, the meaning we attach to our environments and our bodies, and mapmaking.
Rebecca Wurtz was a runner-up in the 2015 Texas Observer Short Story Contest (“Hands Moving Through Hair”), and she won the 2016 Hummingbird Prize for “Xuefei and his Heart.” In 2017, she was a finalist for the Chicago Tribune Algren Prize with “Water like Air.” In addition to writing fiction, she is an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health.
Embark, Issue 7, January 2019