You have never seen someone die like this.
You have never seen someone smile this much.
She reaches for her visitors—the cousins, the preacher, the nephews and nieces, your mom and stepdad, your brother and sister-in-law, friends, your husband, and you. Three days before she dies, you climb on the bed and tell her to scoot over. She laughs. Two days later is the last day she can talk. All she says is “I love you, I love you, I love you.”
Your boundaries disintegrate—hard edges wisped into only water and ache.
The morning before the evening she dies, you sit in her wheelchair, pondering the softness of the seat, and whether or not you should get an egg crate cushion for the chair where you spend most of your hours trying to make sense of the world, selecting your traits to be drawn, preserved, and shaded. A brown-headed physical therapist climbs in bed with her because when she could still talk, she told you to rub her back and you did it in silence, trying to memorize the knots between her shoulders and the color of her hair, the way it curled, even then. The therapist is gentle when folding the blankets back to examine her feet and exercise her legs. A few days ago she jerked her feet away, said it tickled. Today, she only winces as the therapist bends and straightens, bends and straightens. Her toes have started to look purplish. You know what it means. Hospice nurses always check their patients’ feet. You have learned to do the same. You notice her feet are your feet and draw your knees to your chest and roll backward at the sight of the tears in the therapist’s eyes.
You rub her hair and tell her it’s okay. You tell her to think about the Ferris Wheel at Myrtle Beach, of making sandcastles, of the taste of tomato sandwiches, the time she made your brother eat pinto beans and he barfed, the day he made you drink buttermilk and you spit it all over her living room, how she used to wash your hair in the kitchen sink and how you’d unspool all the cotton she used to wrap around her clients’ gray heads when she dripped perm chemicals on curlers. You tell her she taught you to be strong, not to take no shit off nobody, to work hard and love hard and take care of the ones you can.
The mole in between her eyes, low on her forehead, is the mole on your temple and the other on your cheek. Her hands are yours, your mother’s, your brother’s—long fingers, wide palms, scarred from years of labor, but tenacious and defensive. You kiss her cheeks and tell her “all the kisses in the world,” again and again until you have to leave. A few hours later, you will open the door and walk away from her. It will be the hardest thing you’ve ever done.
You won’t be capable of writing anything for the funeral.
You stand on a chair at her kitchen counter. She lets you make your own biscuit. You are small and scared about what is happening to your mother at home, confused about where your dad is and why he’s so angry, but patting the dough and cutting it into a circle is a comfort. You love being almost her height and making things. You love tasting and salting and helping her slice cucumbers and the small cups of coffee she lets you drink as long as you promise not to tell your mama. She makes you feel like you will make it to grown.
When you’re a teenager, she will stay with you when your mom travels for work. When you can’t sleep and your chest hurts and nothing makes sense and you feel fear all over your body like fire ants, she will hand you nerve pills and rub your hair until you breathe steadier. There are few words between you in these moments. You get sleepy and walk back across the hall to your own bedroom because half-grown women don’t sleep in the same beds as their mamas or grandmamas. You will listen to the all-night jazz jam as you finally drift off when the sky has already started to gray.
One day, when you are close to middle age and long married, but still childless, you are awake in the night, curled up with a storm of grief. You will only want her to comfort you after she’s gone. You will try to remind yourself of stardust and the fluidity of boundaries. You will write her into everything as you always have.
Welcome to The Cartography Issue.
We start our journey in Middle-Earth with Berit Ellingsen’s essay “Meet me at the fountain in Caras Galadhon” because “This is not about refusing to see the world clearly, but enhancing what’s already there.”
Robert Wyatt Dunn’s novel excerpt “A Map Of Kex’s Face” is an inquiry into the nature of cartography and whether or not one can or should apply it to faces.
William James’s poem, “When We Was Tourists” wanders the spaces of the unfamiliar and unexpected encounters with joy and humanity.
In “Portal,” George Ovitt reaches into the murky lines between present and past, and the ghosts we carry.
“Barb’s Healing Hands” by Edward Harkness explores the familiar terrain of longing for relief and connection.
Nate Pillman’s “Hernia” gives us a helpless son watching his father perform the Sisyphean task of climbing through the trunk of his Volkswagen every morning after the doors stop working.
In “St. Barbara, Locked Away,” Sara Biggs Chaney captures the torment and acceptance of the martyr at her confinement.
“Black” by Robert Parrott is a heart song for exploration. Life and death and antimatter. What world is this? What universe? Space or sea or self or love or God, it is all exploration.
In Sara C. Thomason’s flash story, “Diving,” the narrator, while diving for oysters, says, “I feel ancient, but that’s the point.” We are maps of our ancestors, of survival, and as such, “We are searching for a silken pebble, something hopeful—our fists snapped around a parasite.”
At times, our journeys bring us back to fraught places, angry places, to tragedy and fields of hatred. In Paul Thelen’s story, “Where We Are,” he offers the reader a glimpse into the sickening space of hegemony and the flickers of necessary and righteous acts against it.
“Sears Building Triptych” by Sandra Gail Lambert is an elegy for spaces and youth and people in Atlanta lost to the ether of time: “Maybe she saw me staring. Maybe she understood. Whoever she was, I thank her for standing queer on the street.”
Aiden Thomas’s “Dirt” examines a haunting event in her grandfather’s life—the slim barrier between life and death, skin and worms.
In “Wantland” by Camelia Caton-Garcia, a young couple abandons one life for another while traveling a rain-soaked world—a world not unlike Noah’s as he prepares for the flood.
Kalisha Buckhanon’s “What Billie and Phyllis Sang About” is the story of a young woman who follows the promise of a man up the road from Mississippi to Harlem but finds herself jilted and, somehow, “in a manic daze” of caring for two elderly sisters.
“Lake Luzern” by Philip Bowne tells the story of a young man dumped by his long-distance lover on the day they are supposed to reunite in Switzerland. In the midst of his heartbreak, he finds himself helping a farmer deliver a calf.
Olivia Wolfgang-Smith’s “Endurance” takes us back to 1927, when flight was still relatively new and competition and daring were everything. “It was a strange time to be a pilot. We’d been useless since the war ended—no heroics left, and no passenger airlines to fly for like they had in Europe.”
We close The Cartography Issue with “The House in the Pines” by Steve Karas. The lush atmosphere will transfix you as you move along the overgrown path toward one man’s understanding of his deceased parents.
Photo: G Laury