Bill Capossere

The Map Museum

Arkitekturfantasi by Gabriel Engels

The Map Museum is a lonely place. Footfalls echo. Lights remain off for months at a time. Dust piles in soft gray and white coverlets, as if perpetual winter reigned inside, covering the floor in whispers of snow.

Few seek the Museum and those who do cannot find it. Tourist agents have not heard of it or, if they have, do not speak of it. Guidebooks do not list it, maps and charts do not show it, satellites do not photograph it. Those who have been there cannot find their way back, though most do not try and will attempt to discourage those who search it out.

One cannot find the Museum of Maps on any maps, charts, or any other register because one does not find the Museum of Maps; the Museum finds you.

It may be that as you lie in bed, staring at the ceiling above you, painting it with all the possible trackways of your life, the Museum will enter the room on the moist summer air, and in the sweat that forms and pools on your skin will be writ directions for those who can see and read before they evaporate in the still heat.

Or maybe those same wavy lines will appear in your wife’s tired eyes, routes branching out red like highways marked on a roadmap, leading you there then there then there, all the geography you need in her stare.

It’s possible, of course, that the Museum has already found you. Has already left behind its myriad signs. The folds and wrinkles of your mother’s aging face. The scattered hair that tufted the scalp of your newly-born son. The furrows of his sleeping brow. The swirl of your father’s ashes in the air. The pattern their soft silver touch left on your palm.

Markers all that would have led you to this dark and dusty hall. Through the entranceway, past the single attendant, no tickets taken, no floor schematics handed out, no audio tours.  No guides.

They say it is impossible to become lost in the Museum, and thus there is no need for the usual accoutrements. How this is accomplished varies from story to story. Some say at the entrance you will find a transparent three-dimensional model of the building, small enough to hold in your palm, with a tiny simulacrum of yourself that moves as you do through its interior. Some describe the Museum as completely transparent—the entire building, so you need only look through the walls, ceilings, or floors to determine your position.  Still others argue the entire Museum is a hologram, one that you step into and whose views change from room to room so that you cannot ever be lost because you never actually move.

In fact, you can tell those who have never been to the Museum by the complexity of the tales they tell:  strange architectures, futuristic technologies, trained animals that padded alongside or swooped before them.

The reality is much simpler. One does not get lost in the Museum of Maps because there is but one way to go. The Museum’s single narrow hallway, so tight you must slide sideways through it, too tight even to turn around in, arrows you perpetually forward. Eschewing branching corridors, stairs, or doors, other rooms, it lacks any distraction that could confuse the museumgoer. Including exhibits themselves, save one.

You will have to seek elsewhere for the world’s oldest maps—Babylonian cuneiform scratched onto clay tablets or Turkish wall paintings depicting flowering volcanoes blooming over stacked houses. Elsewhere for ornately decorated globes the size of wrecking balls or ancient roadmaps tracing Roman routes. Elsewhere to pore over faded parchment whose seas are stamped with serpents or dragons. Elsewhere to find a fanciful path through Utopia, Lilliput, Wonderland or Middle Earth.

There is but one map in the Map Museum and it begins immediately on the wall you’re forced to face as you enter the Museum proper, squeezing past the attendant into that constricted space. “You are here,” the map begins. Like any map in a mall or a town’s tourist office.  How you arrived here, the already-traveled highways and byways of your life, is not the map’s concern. It will not illustrate for you your already-chosen course through a web of paths, color-coded and explained in a legend at the bottom corner: red for decisions made for love, green for decisions made for fear, bold lines for happiness, thinner lines for less satisfying times. This is not where you can retrace your travels back to familiar territories, not where you can identify wrong turns made, crumbling and rutted routes that should have been avoided. This is not the map that will show you how you found yourself here, in your life, as you are. “You are here,” the map begins, and then shows you where you are going.

Just as with the stories of how the Museum keeps its guests from getting lost, you can tell the true visitors by the way they do not speak of what they saw there, beyond that phrase, “You are here” and the single line that led away from it. You can tell by how they do not describe the look of the map they saw on the wall, its illustrations and symbols. They do not say to what scale it was drawn, whether or not one could run a hand along it to feel the topography of their life to come—where it dipped, where it rose–, will not speak of how long it took to walk its length and what they saw at its close, at the place where all roads end. You can tell the true visitors to the Map Museum by the silence they keep. And by the haunted look in their eyes of those who know always exactly where they are.


About the writer:
Bill Capossere’s fiction and non-fiction have appeared in multiple anthologies and journals, including Man in the Moon, Short Takes, In Short, Colorado Review and AQR. His work has garnered several Pushcart Prize nominations and been listed in the Notable Essays sections of Best American Essays. Previous stories in this Museum cycle have appeared in Rosebud, Cezanne’s Carrot, Chautaqua, and the anthology Short Takes.Capossere currently live in Rochester, New York.

Image: Architectural Fantasy by Gabriel Engels (1592-1654). Oil on canvas. 70.9 x 82.8 cm. By 1654. Public domain.