A still-stumbling calf lives a happy life in the high plateaus of La Mancha. After three weeks he is taken from his mother and slaughtered, then skinned by his owner, a grizzled herder who pushes three hundred head around the plains. The herder brings the meat to the butcher, carries the wet hide to a long, low barn at the edge of town, and then washes himself in the river.
There, at the barn, the calf ’s skin is soaked in lime, which makes it easy for the man with the coarse brush to remove its downy hair. The man, the town tanner, is short and wrinkled and wears thick leather gloves that go to his elbows. These offer protection from the splashes of acid that sometimes jump from the surface when he pulls skins out of their baths.
The calf ’s skin is rinsed, hooked at its corners, and stretched across a rack four ways. Then the tanner pricks more holes, strings more strings between skin and rack: eight, then sixteen radii stretch from the center to the edge, forming a damp drum. He runs a razor over the surface, peeling away imperfections.
Twice a day he checks the hide’s progress. When the strings begin to feel easy, and a flick to the skin’s center produces a note a step lower, he turns a series of hooks, making the surface go tight again. Each day, he inspects for bumps and thick spots and shaves more away with his blade. Next to this calfskin is another, and another, and a fourth, a line of racks that goes on for fifty paces. The tanner is proud of his enterprise, but not so proud as to be boastful: he understands he is making his livelihood from another’s passing.
Three days after the skin feels dry to the touch, it is truly dry, and at that point the tanner, a parchment maker now, removes it and lays it flat on a long, broad cutting board. He makes an incision down the center of the skin, where the spine had once ridged, halving it. He matches those pieces, back to back, and cuts again, removing the jagged edge that once led to skinny legs, round ankle knobs, and gray-black hooves. He squares the short edges, then repeats the process with a second skin. Four halves, three feet each, make twelve. He considers this, then splits one more hide, finishes its borders. With tiny stitches of tough, tan-colored thread, he sews the stack short edge to short edge and again, until he has a skin banner, eighteen feet.
The parchment, rolled into a tight wand, is carried from La Mancha to the sea by a trader who makes the trip in his wagon, once every two weeks. The trader brings leathers and salted beef to the coast, a bustling bowl of a seaport with cobblestone streets that tilt from sharp hills down toward the harbor. The horses he drives know the route by heart, and the trader will often sleep for stretches. The road between Requena and Chiva is particularly flat and smooth, a good place for resting.
At the seaport the trader sells the scroll to a sailing merchant whose shop sits far up the hill. The merchant has five more scrolls quite like this new offering, but he accepts it eagerly. The season is about to begin, and he is known to have the best parchments in the city. For the expeditions that matter, this fact will weigh more than his prices, which are high, and his distance from the harbor’s docks (relatively far) will not impede potential buyers. With any luck, his wares, improved by a master’s hand, will end up in the royal collection. Maybe the palace. Even if the merchant could not turn a profit on the roll, which he easily can, the honor of such a placement is worth many sacks of wine.
He pays the trader fifteen real, planning to sell it for twenty. The trader returns to the plateau with salted fish and oranges and twelve silver coins for the tanner.
That year, 1502, the air blowing in off the Mediterranean warms the city more quickly than usual. The captains in the seaport call the early spring auspicious. The sailors call it lucky, too, because February is hand-to-mouth for all but the winter’s most prudent, and few sailors practice such austerity. With the spring breeze, pages start eagerly up the steep, curving streets, gathering provisions for their capitanes.
Darting among the ready young men, a boy, no more than ten, climbs the hill. He pushes into the merchant’s store and hands the man a scrawled list. The merchant recognizes the script even before he sees the stamp of the mapmaker at the note’s close. The merchant assembles the inventory in a canvas sack. Two pots of indigo ink. One set of dry pigments, red and azure and saffron, a little glass bottle in which he will mix colors with water. Five quill tips, a brush, a mortar and pestle. All six parchment scrolls. The merchant shows the boy the list, and the boy looks for the merchant’s checkmarks, not the words beside each check. The merchant notes the expense in a broad ledger book and dispatches the boy with a nod.
The boy hurries back down the hill. At its base, the streets converge in a broad half circle. The flat edge of the plaza sides to the sea, and there a tangle of docks and rope reaches into the water. The boy scuttles up the plank of a hulking ship and runs across its deck, into the shadows of the cabin. He finds the door he needs, just to the left of the captain’s, and knocks until someone inside tells him to enter.
The mapmaker, not ancient but older than those scurrying on the docks, sits at a desk. The boy’s master does not change his position when the boy enters and begins to unpack the goods. Once all is in order, bottles set in their proper drawers, the boy stands next to the door and waits to be sent on his next errand. This will be lunch. At noon the boy fetches two tortillas and crusty pan from a café on the far side of the plaza. The boy and the mapmaker eat on the deck, watching the bustle of bees below. “It is warm today,” the master says. The boy nods and chews his roll. He has been in boats, but this will be his first sail in which home disappears from view. He knows that after they move around the edge of Iberia and into the ocean, all the land will disappear. When they see land again, if they do, it will be somewhere new, and that will be important. His father, who makes rope and never sails so far that home disappears, has told him that. He has also told his son not to be scared, but the boy is.
By the next morning the crew have finished their errands, returned from last trysts and home-cooked meals, and are ready to set sail. And sail they do: down the coast, through the strait, then west, toward Madeira. It will be another three weeks’ sail past the Azores, the captain says, until the mapmaker’s services will be needed. The mapmaker thinks the captain’s estimate correct, but once a day, in the morning when the sun is still at his back, he steps onto the deck in his broad-rimmed hat and watches the western horizon. Seeing nothing but blue, he retreats to his cabin, where he passes the rest of the day reading books about plants and animals and God.
For the first five days past Portugal, the boy is scared and seasick, but on the sixth morning he feels better and begins to spend his mornings sitting calmly on the floor of their room, near the spot where he sleeps on a thin pallet, waiting for the hour to fetch their next meal. With few other diversions available, he looks at the smudged pictures in the sailors’ discarded pamphlets or plays with a set of dog-eared cards. Though they share the unease of spending so much time with someone they do not know well, the boy and his master are comfortable, physically. The room is the second-best cabin on the ship, after the captain’s.
The master has received such favorable accommodation because he is the best mapmaker in all of Castile. He was with Columbus ten years before and accompanied that famed captain on two of his subsequent explorations of the islands and the Central American coast. This history, and his exquisite draftsmanship, make him an indispensable asset to the Spanish crown.
They pass the Azores, a half-dozen specks on the horizon. These islands, the mapmaker knows, do not need to be drawn. They are east of the fiftieth meridian, Portugal’s to document and conquer. He was not at Tordesillas, but he heard many things about the fierce negotiations that rent the world into two equal parts, Spanish and Portuguese. El Portugués, eager for his expertise, have approached him with many generous offers, but he refuses their advances: he is loyal to the Spanish crown, to Ferdinand and Isabella.
He knows it is his job, and the captain’s, and the job of every man on this ship, to prove the Spanish land superior, to honor their patria with glory. The mapmaker is proud of his country, of the accomplishments of the decade, but also fearful of failure. His brother, five years his junior and a boot maker in Valencia, has married a Jewess, whose family converted shortly before the 1492 edict. Her adopted religion is not protection enough; only through the mapmaker’s steady success have she and her parents and the mapmaker’s trio of ringletted nieces remained safe through many years of fierce pronouncements. His kinship is another kind of marker on their door, not the blood of a lamb but something just as strong. He does not blame his brother for love, because theirs is true and deep, but he does wish a morning could once again open without that hand on his shoulder, pressing heavily, close to his neck.
Forty-two days into their voyage, the spotter sees land. The captain consults his charts, blue sweeps of concentric circles overlaid with stars. He believes it, correctly, to be their new territory, a stretch of southern South America that begins somewhat below the Portuguese jut of Brazil. The sails are cut, and the captain summons the mapmaker, who emerges from his room blinking in the bright light of midday. He dons his hat, a felt top with a stiffly starched wide brim, and ties it under his chin. His face relaxes in its shadow, and his eyes begin to assess the new horizon. Behind him, his determined apprentice lugs a heavy wooden easel. The drawing surface is slanted, with a rolling drum mounted to one edge. Parchment is looped around the drum, and the man stretches the skin across the table, smoothing it with his palm. The boy disappears and returns with the man’s inks and quills, spreading them across a second, small folding table whose surface is carved with bottle-sized divots, which prevent ink spills in the ocean’s sway.
Now equipped, the master begins to chart the edge of the world: the high cliffs, the low beaches, the near points and far bays of their new land. The mapmaker’s is a peculiar method of charting: rather than relying on heaven-sent projections, which are favored by the more pious illustrators of Europe and the Near East, he takes a linear approach, drawing one landmark after another after another along the world’s horizontal plane. He calls his the derrotero method, after the Spanish for itinerary, and it is exactly that, a plotting of points in space, experienced one after another, after another.
He draws north to south—he is left handed—turning the drum for more blank space. The boy, standing to his right, is responsible for holding the new landscape aloft as it dries, and as the mapmaker continues to draw, the boy backs farther and farther across the ship’s deck, until he is close to the captain’s wheel. The master reaches the end of his scope and calls for the captain to continue down the coast. The sails are raised, the bow lurches, and they turn south, cutting a path down the grooves of the waves. Through this motion he keeps drawing, inch by inch, until all eighteen feet are spent.
Later, back in his cabin, the master elaborates his blue-black horizon line with bits of color. A blue that starts deep next to the shore fades into a cerulean mist as it spreads across the smooth, tan surface. This indicates water. Landed aspects of the map welcome other embellishments: sandstone bluffs get a blush of red, a seaside forest shoots up jade from the navy line of the water’s edge. The final step is the labeling, and for this the mapmaker sends the boy to fetch the captain. Cursive script marks the landmarks known, of which there are few, and together the men name those yet unknown, titling them after major and minor royalty. The captain convinces his colleague to name a trio of small hills after his wife, Beatriz.
The next day, fifty miles south, the process is repeated with another stretch of landscape. They continue this dance until three hundred miles of coast have been documented. Then the ship goes ashore. After a few days of surveying and hunting, the crew return to the vessel and depart. They experienced only a handful of tentative, sometimes startled, interactions with the natives. It is another sort of man, in a few years’ time, who will make it his mission to conquer these strangers.
On the return voyage the boy practices drawing derroteros. He uses empty sacks of millet as his scrolls, which he unstitches to make them twice as long, and his ink is a muddy mix of coal ash and water. He is unsteady in the choppy open water, and his maps are marked with errant strokes and thumbprints, but he is proud of his progress. To practice labeling the master gives the boy broken quills, discarded tips that spill out splotches and catch on the slightest surface disturbance. The boy copies the names of places from his master’s maps by shape, not by letter, drawing them onto his playing cards until each is black with mistakes. Nothing the boy can do reaches the nuanced capitals, the impeccably looping vowels and crisp consonants of his master.
One day, a week back toward Europe, the master watches the boy struggle to copy onto the eight of hearts the word Juan, taken from a peninsula newly named for Juan de Montoyo, a cousin of the king. The master closes his book and looks at the boy. “It is time you learned to read,” he says. They spend the next week working over the alphabet, then small words and simple sentences. By the time they pass Cadiz, the boy is taking slow dictation for his master. Juan is, coincidentally, the boy’s own name.
Why the derrotero? The master has his reasons. For one, the author requires no compass, no astrolabe: only a steady hand and determined eye, a smooth surface on which to make his marks. And these marks he believes much better, more accurate than the overwrought edges and guesswork blobs that fill his contemporaries’ top-down projections. So little is known; all those maps can manage are vast spills of blue and fussy edges to shapes that go on forever or end far too quickly. A derrotero map allows a certain precision, even when facing the unknown. There is a comforting efficiency to it, the reassurance of looking from here to there with instant understanding.
Such pragmatism is helpful for sailors, and the mapmaker believes this accessibility to be more valuable than any other aim. Let others, in drafting rooms back in Europe, draw the maps that buttress religion at the expense of navigation. In comfortable cities men can draw clouds parting along the borders of their sheets; in these places angelitos with their downy wings can hold up banners to proclaim the uneven edges of the New World. But the mapmaker’s are working documents, and the men who will use them, the men who sail to places seen just this once, by his eyes and Juan’s eyes and the eyes of the captain and crew upon their ship, do not need to flatter God. They need to fool Him into returning them home.
The master’s maps of Uruguay are too valuable to risk another transoceanic voyage. Instead they are sent under royal watch to Segovia and the stone monolith of El Alcázar, where a trio of diligent scribes copy them again and again. A fair number of their duplicates are distributed to the crown’s fleet. The originals are made available for scholars and the king’s confidantes, and over the following years, a slow but steady stream arrive at the palace to unfurl the maps down the library’s long tables. In the intervals between visits, the scrolls, tied with bows of fine silk, red with gold thread, are filed in a cabinet of slim, squared drawers. This cabinet resides in the innermost chamber of the collection, accessible only to the royal librarian, the king, and the king’s sons.
A decade passes, and with it La Reina. In 1517, the mapmaker retires, his weakened knees no longer able to stabilize against the toss of the sea. Juan, now married to a handsome woman and approaching his fourth decade, makes his first and second voyages alone, trips back to the coast where his master taught him to see the world. He strives to continue the tradition of the derrotero, and his work is beautiful. It is also increasingly irrelevant, as discovery now ventures into the interior of these new lands.
Between voyages Juan calls on his aging master, who has retired to a small seaside village two hours’ ride north of the bowl-shaped seaport. It is at that address the mapmaker receives an invitation, a thick, gold-leafed envelope delivered by a soldier on a fine horse. He has been summoned to the palace to see the map room and all his works therein, and then have dinner with the king. The master waits for Juan’s next visit and asks for the younger man to join him on the journey. The two men cry briefly, out of pride and relief and sadness that soon they will reach the end of something meaningful, then begin to make arrangements for travel to Segovia.
They, in their tiny caravan of a cart and two horses, must pass through La Mancha to reach the castle. When they do, they ride within fifteen miles of the town where the map’s journey began, the plain where a young calf on unsteady legs first opened its eyes.
Within the turreted castle an aged librarian shows them the map room, the square cabinets and their precious wares. They meet the scribes, three generations of cloistered men, whose eyes beam with appreciation. After their tour, Juan and the mapmaker join a banquet for a great number of servants of the crown, and the two sit at a table at the far end of the hall, a long way from the king. Their dining companions are a number of aged generals from the Battle of Granada, men with heavy medals on their chests and ear trumpets next to their spoons. None of the commanders have heard of Montevideo.
At the meal’s conclusion the two retire to an inn in the town. In the morning, they turn back to the Mediterranean. After three days’ ride toward the morning sun, Juan deposits his master at the man’s front door. The mapmaker passes away some months later, while Juan is somewhere near the tip of South America.
Soon all the coastlines, even those on the western coasts of the New World, have been discovered. Exploration moves to the interior. Juan, now with a daughter of his own, is reluctant to change but knows he must adapt. He returns to the merchant’s shop where he once ran his master’s errands. It is now run by the merchant’s son, and Juan asks the man for five broad sheets of vellum, near as tall as they are wide.
With these, he starts drawing in a new way, variations on those projections that his master had so loathed. He transposes his observations into the blocky shapes of continents, coloring territories with washes of pinks and greens. He cuts into the landscape with little triangles for mountains and y’s for valleys, dots for European settlements and x’s for indigenous ones. The only lines he draws now are rivers, as they curve through the land and toward the ocean that waits beyond the map’s edge. He cannot plot these rivers by observation but does so by calculation, a complicated geometry that makes him feel disingenuous.
Works by Juan and other mapmakers, more sophisticated projections drawn on subsequent, less perilous expeditions, steadily fill the king’s collection. The royal collection itself moves from Segovia to an austere block of a castle in El Escorial. At times of such heady growth, innovations of the recent past are often overlooked, and the head librarian, already two positions beyond the man who welcomed the derroteros into the collection, sees no need to transport the master’s works from Segovia. For the new library he orders no small square cabinets at all, just the broad, flat files required for more contemporary projections.
It is only the kindness of an aged scribe, who remembers the old master and his young assistant from when he himself was young, that saves the scrolls from destruction. The scribe assumes the mapmaker dead but posts the young assistant, his address only his name, Juan, his title, assistant mapmaker, and the name of the coastal town from which he hailed. That is enough, and the letter finds Juan, now himself retired. Juan writes back promptly and with grateful delivery instructions.
The maps arrive in a set of dusty boxes. Juan’s grandson, eager at the delivery and its raised royal seal, insists on unpacking it immediately. Juan cuts the twine off the packages and lifts each lid. With fat, giddy fingers the boy draws a scroll from the pile, unties its now-faded bow. He hands one edge to his grandfather before setting off across the room, determined to see how far it will stretch. To a child so small, the map is impossibly long; it spans from the hallway, past the windows and the chairs of the drawing room, through the doorway, all the way to the dining room table. The grandfather and son drape the curling sheaf across that table and withdraw another. One atop another, until all three boxes are empty.
Juan considers the pile. That world is still new, but he knows it is different now, now that blood has been shed and empires are growing past the pink smudges of cliffs and green stands of forests. After two days, during which time his wife accommodates the loss of her dining table by serving supper in the kitchen, the boy has not tired of looking at the maps, nor does Juan want to forget their import. So like children dressing a Las Fallas float, Juan and the boy hang the long maps around the house. Edge to edge, floor to ceiling, the lines cover the walls until the shapes of the New World wrap them round.
Later, when Juan’s wife and daughter come home from the market, their chests go tight. Not at the heavy consequence of such exploration, nor at the sheer physical presence of so many claims, but at remembering their own intimate fear, the one that gripped them each time he sailed, that they might never see this man again. But between the insistence of the old man and the young child, both of whom could turn cantankerous, the maps take semipermanent station on the walls.
Over the months, then years, the maps become worn—the lower ones bear handprints of niños and the scuff of shoes, while patches of those in the kitchen go transparent with a sheen of grease spitting from the stove. On those against the eastern wall, opposite the west windows, the sepia lines fade to light gray and brown, and the coastal forests, painted in an unstable emerald-colored ink, disappear completely. With age Juan’s mind slips until he forgets about recent history, about maps with no water at all, and he only sees the dancing lines that began his life. This brings him joy.
When Juan dies, his wife asks her son-in-law to remove the derroteros, to put them somewhere out of sight. The walls are returned to their original plaster. She had them painted a rose color shortly before the maps’ arrival that, through ten years of being covered, has hardly faded at all. She hangs a small painting of the trinity above the head of the dining room table and prays at each meal for mercy on her husband’s soul.
Juan’s grandson, now a teen and a few years from his own voyage into life, insists on keeping the maps close to him. And so after they are rolled once again, tied now with twine, and placed in a set of new boxes, they are deposited at the foot of his bed. From the bed these boxes slowly migrate, sliding toward, and then into, the closet. Within a few years they are wholly out of sight, hidden under woolen blankets and too-small jackets.
One day, wearing a new coat tailored to fit his broadened shoulders, the grandson leaves for Madrid. He has an appointment as apprentice to the finest court painter in all the land. In his apprenticeship he quickly establishes himself as a ready pupil, then as an exemplary student. His fast mastery of the human form, and his easy anticipation of the baroque, makes the famous court painter, once so confident, a nervous man. Seeing the threat of young talent approach, the painter secures the boy an appointment to the court of a duke in a far-off province, south almost to Málaga. This particular duke, made rich by gold mines in Argentina, is known through noble circles for his pomposity and free spirit. The still-green boy does not yet know this reputation; he knows nothing beyond a point on a map and that in his letters the duke makes many promises: of lucrative commissions, that the boy and his family will receive comfortable accommodation, that he will become a great painter.
Upon arriving and finding the duke’s word to be true on the first points, if not the third, the boy writes to his family to meet him there. As he is the only son of Juan’s only daughter, his grandmother, mother, and father—a mason with a decent ethic but no true drive—readily pack the contents of their house into three large wagons. They leave the largest furniture to be sold with the house, as the boy promises all will be in place in their new home. That home sits within the duke’s compound, which is itself the expansion of an opulent Moorish castle captured in 1492.
The palace, redolent with brightly colored tiles and narrow, streaming fountains, is rich beyond their wildest dreams. So is their life; the boy spends his days in the company of courtesans and rich conquistadors, his grand paintings acclaimed by all who see them. Across the plaza his family quietly accepts the comforts of his new station; while they refuse the duke’s servants, they accept access to his butcher and use his library when they find it unoccupied.
Once their new routines are established, the boy rarely appears in his family’s quarters, arriving only for Sunday dinner, and often late for that. But his place is always set, his bed made and waiting for his weary head. The family hears a rumor that he has sired a child with one of the duchess’s handmaidens, but he mentions nothing of it at their Sunday meals.
It is the same lavishness that the duke enjoys that leads to a small peasant uprising, a terrifying night of pitchforks and harsh protest at the walls of the compound. The castle is torched, and while it is made largely of fireproof stone and tile, the roof collapses, taking the lives of three handmaidens who did not have the wits about them to hide under the stone arches of doorways. The interiors of many rooms are burned, including those of the boy’s family. The duke is murdered in the mayhem; his court quickly disbands to safer, smaller country homes or the anonymity of the city. As for the painter’s family, their throats hurt from the smoke, but they are otherwise unharmed.
A small bribe secures a carriage from the duke’s stable, and the painter’s family quickly gather their things. The painter pries his favorite canvases, a pair of portraits of the duchess’s young daughters, from their stretchers, rolling them into a tight tube. Under the charred remains of velvet drapery, the young painter retrieves the maps, boxes tumbled with ash but otherwise unharmed. His family, still dazed and coughing, meet in the carriage, and they exit through the compound’s back gate.
They drive north, and north some more, until they reach Cuenca, a small medieval town built into the curved lip of a steep, stone hill. The painter, speaking nothing of his three years with the spoiled duke, establishes a small storefront practice, making modest wedding portraits and small devotional scenes. He learns to feign surprise when hints of the baroque slip into his canvases, acting as if the quick flashes of ornate splendor are as much a shock to him as to the sitter.
As his local reputation grows, so do his paintings. He finds a wife in the town; a young, pious woman of whom his parents approve. She is soon pregnant with their first child. When the church commissions a series of a dozen murals for its sanctuary, he moves out of his storefront studio and into the country, a stone house that is not big but will be comfortable for his growing family. It has a stone barn, large and well lit, that can serve as his studio.
In moving their possessions, his wife finds the boxes of maps. She is uncertain of their meaning but loves the rhythm of their lines, and she asks to hang one, the stretch of coast north of Montevideo, at the foot of their bed. He agrees, and she watches it each day as her belly grows. With their second child, she hangs another scroll below the first; in her third pregnancy a third is retrieved from the box. Her next quickening, the fourth child in five years, is difficult; in a high fever she is nearly taken from them. She sleeps for a week, dreaming of the uneven line of the derrotero horizon. In her dream she feels the contours as a quivering, one that grows until she is shaking like an earthquake. The land slips away from under her, and she falls, falls into the blue-black ocean. When she wakes all four banners are gone, away to somewhere she does not ask, and she is glad that they have disappeared. The child from this last, difficult pregnancy is a small, beautiful girl.
After this trauma the box of maps is again stored in an out-of-the-way place, forgotten as the family does other things. Only one son of the three inherits his father’s keen eye for oils; he continues the tradition of draftsmanship from his father’s quiet baroque into his own style of mannerism. Like his father, a masterful line defines his work, grounding composition and driving color.
The other children, his siblings, use the windfall of their father’s success, whose fame has traveled all the way to Madrid, to begin buying property from adjacent landowners. They start an olive orchard. In eight years the trees bear their first fruit, and over the next decades, they slowly mature into a stand of gnarled trunks and fat green berries.
In time their orchard empire grows, so much so that the first, modest stone house becomes a small anteroom flanked by large wings, which contain a drawing room for fifty and a dining room to match. Children, cousins, and kin build a vast network of stone homes across the countryside, peak-roofed interruptions to the otherwise even rows of ash-gray trees. Within three generations the family is commissioning chapels and breeding horses, throwing grand parties that draw landowners from as far away as Zaragoza.
The memory of Juan and of the mapmaker who taught him everything fades to stories only mentioned once or twice a year, and then only as witty anecdotes in the context of conversations about the current state of the colonies. In 1810, the last of the family’s lineage of illustrators, a young man with a steady line, is sent to Madrid for a church commission. There he catches a fever and dies before any more than the cartoon, chalked on the church’s ceiling, is complete.
Just as the dawn of coal-powered industry begins to pink the sky, an unwise investment in cattle-driven machinery causes the family to lose its fortune. They sell the estate and most of the possessions therein. Family portraits, of and by their relations, are sold to galleries in Madrid, which are eager for the work. The furniture goes to antique dealers near Plaza del Sol, and the boxes of maps are sold, as part of a lot that contains the contents of the entire library, to a bookseller just off Parque Retiro.
The books bear the names of their publishers and printers and can thus easily be assessed. However, the maps stymie the bookseller. He writes a friend, an expert on colonial cartography at the state university, to inspect the lot.
The summoned professor, a mustachioed man with thick glasses, guesses them to be of some import, based on their early date and a smattering of faded royal stamps. But he cannot identify the maker. Rather, he can easily read the signature marking each scroll, Velazquez, but there is no reference to a Velazquez in the royal archival record before 1599. It was in that year the famous painter was born.
With this incomplete pedigree, the bookseller is at an impasse. He attempts but cannot convince the government to purchase the historical documents. Their condition, fair to poor with smudging, faded ink, and stains, will likely keep them from succeeding on the private market.
The two men are discussing whether to make a second, lower offer to their contact at the national library, when a rich foreign man, tall with a trim goatee, walks into the store. He wears a three-piece suit and smart overcoat and tilts his head toward the men’s conversation for a moment before they turn to notice him. One of the maps, half unrolled across the bookseller’s desk, catches the visitor’s eye, and he steps forward, gaze locked on the dancing line. The Spaniards pause. “¿Si, señor?”
“¿Habla ingles?” he asks in choppy Spanish. The men nod, and the visitor switches to American-accented English. “What are these?”
The professor briefly explains the derrotero method of mapmaking and admits their unknown provenance but impressive date. The man pulls at the scroll, unfurling another few feet of coastline from below a stack of notes.
“Is this the only one?”
“We have twenty-five. Some are better than others.”
The man, a collector who himself is not an industrialist but the son of a great and savage businessman, pays the bookseller, leaves the address of a lavish hotel on Paseo del Prado, and departs. A large, sturdy box arrives at the hotel the next day,70 sealed with stamps for the customs agent. The box of maps, along with a freight of twenty paintings, three sculptures, and thirteen-hundred painted ceramic tiles, travel by steamer back to New York.
Who buys such a lot, tens of thousands of dollars’ worth? The purchaser was young once, and when he was young, fell in love with a beautiful Spanish boy. It was his first grand tour of the Continent, and the love, also a first, fleeting. The collector, now graying through middle age, has become unforgivably devoted to mementos of the boy and his country. The boy may be lost, but these maps, these paintings and carvings and tiles are something the collector can possess, things he can save.
Upon returning to New York, the collector purchases an empty mansion in Washington Heights and plans to install his new collection there. The stone mansion, neoclassical in style, previously belonged to another factory magnate and still bears that family’s name. This does not bother the man, who has made a point of embracing humility in his life, if it allows for other victories, intimacies, or moments of joy.
Besides, his attention is not on the carved pediment facing the street, but inside, where a transformation is underway. Brightly colored azulejos are installed along the walls. The floor is replaced with terracotta tile, in the style of a Spanish courtyard. Stone archways, taken from a half-gone church in the north, are installed in place of previously right-angled doorways. The collector installs major paintings in the main hall, which is only slightly smaller than a skating rink, and thick stone tomb covers, carved into the likenesses of dukes and duchesses and archbishops, crowd the adjacent room.
The collector then transforms the former living quarters into a library. For this sequence of rooms, he orders wall-to-wall bookshelves but also specifies a set of twenty-foot-long cases, waist high, with velvet lining and glass lids.
It is in these cases that the mapmaker’s scrolls are fully unfurled, for the first time in centuries. And it is here, in a breezy corner of Washington Heights, that the map that stretches from the Point of Juan de Montoyo to Montevideo is truly loved, for a fourth and final time.
Emily Nemens is a writer and illustrator living in Baton Rouge where she studies fiction in Louisiana State University’s MFA program and holds the 2011-13 graduate assistantship at the Southern Review. Her first collection, Scrub (Shady Lane Press), was shortlisted for an Ippy (short story collection category), and she was a finalist in Esquire’s Short Short Fiction Contest. As an illustrator, she has collaborated with Harvey Pekar and been featured in Watercolor Artist magazine and the Huffington Post. Before moving to the South, she studied art in Madrid and worked at the Metropolitan
Museum of Art.
“The Derrotero Method” appears in our Autumn 2013 issue.