The following is my first playthrough of A Visit to San Sibilia, lightly edited.
This is an account of the Brooding Cartographer and her time in the city.
To seek San Sibilia is to be destined to never find it. For years I sought in vain. It was only when I gave up searching, gave up everything I cared about, that it found me.
It began as another night out with Raoul and his “artist” friends, and a night ride in the canals of Venice. We crossed under a bridge. For a moment, we were in utter darkness, no sound but the water against the boat. I came out the other side alone, to dock on a decidedly different shore.
I keep thinking about the old map-maker. How he would frown and grumble when I went on about San Sibilia.
“A stupid story,” he would say, “for children with no sense in their heads. If I had known what a stupid girl you were, you’d not be bound to prentice.”
Nevermind it was his stories that first piqued my interest, or rather the look in his eyes when he told them. He had lost a lover there, but his eyes shone brighter when he named that city than when he spoke the name of the man he had loved. The old man had come there by shipwreck and plied the sailor’s trade for a time, before he took to map-making.
I’d have words for the old man now, if he weren’t dead in the ground.
I managed to find a place over a tavern, the sort of place where sailors on leave and locals congregate in equal measure. Hardly a stick of furniture, but the proprietor, Paolo, was willing to let me stay for free. In exchange, I’m to make him some maps of distant cities to liven up his walls. I told him I can’t draw London or Seoul in perfect detail from memory, but he says none of his patrons are likely to know the difference.
I can’t afford to be picky. I have nothing but my clothes, and those have seen better days.
There is a plaza just down the street from the Drowned Mermaid. Sometimes the merchants set up their stalls and carpets. Sometimes philosophers orate. Sometimes there are plays or performances. Today there was a juggler.
At first I thought him just a man out for a stroll, but he suddenly threw a ball high into the air, and kept producing them from some hidden pocket while keeping the rest afloat. In moments, he had eight or nine of them aloft, each with its own unique swirls of color.
When the juggler saw me, he gave a wink and smiled, and in that moment he looked familiar, though I could not think of where or when I might have met him.
One of the balls slipped from his grasp and bounced across the uneven cobbles toward me. I picked it up and found it a mesmerizing swirl of green, white and blue. It was a globe, somehow fashioned to move like clouds over land and sea.
It is fascinating. I find it hard to take my eyes away from it, even now.
When I looked up, the juggler had gone.
I have been making maps again. It is a deeply engrossing activity, as it had always been for me before the old man died. But I also find myself near-overwhelmed by a manic energy.
Paolo found me an old fountain pen and a set of inks. In turn, I am providing him with his maps: neighborhoods in Paris and London, docks in Hong Kong and Shanghai. I hardly sleep anymore, but my pen has never been more precise.
A scarred old man saw us hanging the maps behind the bar.
He said, “If you like maps, deary, you should visit the Museum on the Blue Boulevard.”
He drew his own crude map on a scrap of paper to guide me. He seemed pleased with himself, but I sensed that Paolo was irritated.
The scrap guided me to a little limestone building only a few blocks away, fronted with weather-stained doric columns and tattered flags. Within, I found a dozen rooms, walls and even ceilings covered with maps of all sizes. Some were of places I recognized, while others were unlabeled, or marked with languages I did not understan. I wandered, fascinated, looking for an attendant, but the place was deserted.
When I returned to the tavern, Paolo waved me over, stone-faced.
“You have to go,” he said. “I need the room.”
I asked him if I had done something wrong. He shrugged and gestured to the wall. “Our business is concluded.”
He let me keep the leather case with pen and inks. Later, inside, I found a yellowed envelope of pastel bank notes.
The money from Paolo was enough for a room at the Greenway Hotel, a hulking establishment full of tarnished chandeliers, cracked plaster scrollwork and threadbare velvet cushions. It is so named because of the green lawn across the street, hedged by wild rows of untrimmed trees.
I took a stroll, and found in a back corner of the park a sizable pile of rubble, and a shockingly ancient man puttering around it. He had a long, scraggly beard and wispy moustache, and even his eyebrows hung down, seemingly determined to hide his eyes from view.
“What is this place?” I asked him.
“It was once the ruin of an old temple,” he said, “but it was a bit too ruined. When the rainy season last swept through, the whole thing finally collapsed on itself.”
“And what are you doing?”
“Cleanup,” he said. “I’m the groundskeeper.”
I spent the afternoon helping him. I worried he’d break himself, he was so scant. It felt good to do some proper labor.
The hotel basement is used from time to time as a theater. If the hotel itself is genially shabby, the theater space is downright dank. Still, it put me in mind of some of my bohemian friends.
The show I saw didn’t suit me. It was a too-dark stage and a vague story about occult rituals and the summoning of foul demons. I suspect the obelisk they used for their set was a piece of that ruined temple, hauled over from the park.
The groundskeeper and I strolled along the river today, although “stroll” is perhaps too generous for his doddering. I told him about my idea for a rock garden in the park, and he said it sounded like a fine idea.
As soon as I returned to my room, I began to draw up plans.
The hotel lobby is used as an art gallery, and there was apparently a show going on today when I went down. Nothing but paintings of sailboats.
I tried to shove through the crowd, but I managed to ram myself head-first into a rather exceptionally muscled young man. Not the sort I would normally be interested in, but when he spoke in apology, his voice caught hold of me.
His name is Siegfried, and I found myself roaming the gallery with him and even explaining my plans for the park. He immediately offered to help move the stones.
We made plans to meet again tomorrow.
I received a letter today from the governor of the city’s parks. The groundskeeper is dead. How they knew of me or my address, I do not know. Even more perplexing, I was offered the old man’s position. The pay is a pittance, but it comes with a permanent room at the hotel. And I must admit, now that my project is underway, I would be loath to give it up.
I will post my acceptance in the morning.
They’ve sent tools! I am now the proud owner of a rake, shovel, two sizes of hammer, and a wheelbarrow. Siegfried and I work during the day, and he takes me to a new café every evening. There is no end to the secret corners and back alleys of the city, and it seems that every one has some hole in the wall where you can get a coffee or a bite.
Soon, our space in the park will be cleared. Then we will begin building.
I went to the bookstore today, looking for maps of the city. When I asked the shopkeeper, he seemed incapable of understanding. I’m afraid I may have no choice but to map the city myself.
A package came today. An old, heavy tome wrapped in brown paper. It is filled with maps of San Sibilia. There was no note with it, but who else knows of my work? It must be the parks governor. A patron I have never met nor spoken to.
The book is perplexing. The maps are from different time periods, in wildly different styles, apparently drawn by different hands. They often disagree with one another, and one or two appear to be completely fabricated.
Yet the biggest shock was the last page. It is blank, except for the faded stamp of the man who compiled it.
It bears the old map-maker’s stamp. My master, long past.
How could one of his books come to be here? How could he have made this book and never told me?
Now they’ve taken it all away from me! The governor sent a letter relieving me of my position, my tools, my park. Our rock garden, our living map, has come so far. We’ve measured out many of the roads, but the buildings are so much work. Siegfried managed a fantastic likeness of the Greenway Hotel as the centerpiece, with nothing but a hammer and a chisel and an old piece of temple stonework.
The governor claims I have “stolen illicit materials from the city archives.” What could it possibly be but the old map-maker’s book? If it belongs to anyone, it ought to be mine.
It makes no difference. They cannot stop me from finishing my work.
The old man must have compiled the book when he was here, in San Sibilia.
Why did he hate it when I dreamed of the city? What happened to him here?
The one time he sounded honest about it, he was deep in his drink. He said the city existed beyond any maps. He said everyone leaves San Sibilia eventually, and whatever the city gives you of itself, it takes back before you go. It took his lover from him, and I suppose he never forgave it for that.
We were so close. Our garden, our tiny city among the rocks. We had nearly filled it to the edges of the map.
This morning, my threadbare sheets had become fine silk. The once worn carpets were thick and soft. The room was no longer faded.
I went down to the dining room, and ate the finest breakfast I have ever had. The silver is spotless; the china, pristine. My fellow bohemians and shabby travelers are all gone, replaced by ladies with jewels and corsets, and men with kid gloves and pocket watches. The hotel is in its prime again, and only I am out of place.
Siegfried is gone. The book is gone. The park is gone. It is now stately rows of graves. In the far corner, lording over this city of the dead, is a single grand mausoleum.
I walked the perimeter of neatly trimmed trees. Did the names on the graves match the names of the city? Thoroughfares and boulevards, markets and mansions? Or did I imagine it?
In any case I came upon a pair of graves, and the names were ones I recognized. One was Gustav the map-maker, my old master. Beside it, one named Paolo.
He was right. San Sibilia only loans out happiness, purpose, love. Now it has taken them back.
It is time for me to go. If I am lucky, perhaps, I will return some day and live out what time I have left in this city that has made me love it, and then spurned my love and turned me away.
It is sunset, and my little boat follows the slow currents of the canal. In the shadows beneath one of these bridges I will find that black portal that brought me here, and I will return to the place I came from.
There is one thing I take with me, if the city wills it: a ball that swirls with white cloud, green land, and blue seas.