Post Road Magazine #19

A Penny and a Nickel

Brenna M. Casey

The colors at the ends of the earth are brighter. As you creep toward the coast, he paints faint yellows to look like goldenrod, faded pinks become rose and the green watermarks of the map blur into mossy solids as they near the edges of the land. Parchment paper saturates with pigment, is roped by bold and blackened coastlines.

You can see the spaces—blurry and striated—where Abraham Ortelius lifted his hand and feathered his brush over the thin, tight warps and wefts of the canvas, where he brought it down again, layering coats of watery paint to lead to the sea.

His maps were, at first, a necessity—a lanky ten-year-old trying to fill the spaces left by a father's recent death, and the empty stomachs of his sisters. Walking the streets of sixteenth century Antwerp, where the roofs of brick buildings led to the sky like staircases, and the masts of the circuiting Portuguese caravels drifted by on the Scheldt, he culled rolls of white paper from publishers and book dealers. The navigational charts and maps he printed upon these sheaves were crudely hewn, products of quickly carved woodcuts, soaked in black ink and stamped on paper.

I see him as a teenager, holed up in a corner room of his family home, spreading these long, thin pieces of vellum across a slanted surface, a makeshift drafting table. He smothers them with smelly animal pastes and sticks them to canvas he has rolled out beneath. It is then, when they are reinforced against the buckling, the pulpy pitfall of water colors, that Ortelius begins to paint.

He starts with only the slightest blot of his brush onto the map, and washes over the continents with a transparent glaze. He adds more color as he gets closer to the sea, making the land opaque, muddied and flush. There are stripes of chalky sediments pooled in the valleys between mountains and the land before the waves; fantastical sea creatures and wooden ships in the faded blue waters beyond.

Ortelius published what is often regarded as the first atlas in 1570. He called it, prophetically, The Theater of the Worlds. His book contained seventy copper engravings on fifty-three large, double folio pages—massive, unwieldy pieces of paper folded into and onto one another. The ninety-nine referenced maps included a dictionary full of the language of cartography, ancient and modern names of mountains, hills, promontories, woods, islands, harbors—Bederina, Bedesis, Bedir, Bedriacum, Begialis. Abraham Ortelius proffered to the world a carefully researched and redrawn rendering of its own parameters.

"Do you know what your shirt says?" I asked a third-grader who had just been frozen in a game of Stuck in the Mud on a dusty field in the north of Quito.

He looked down at the yellow outline of a crooked peninsula covering his belly and the words written below. The shirt, I knew, had been given to him in a batch of clothes distributed to the families at the center where I volunteered as a teacher.

"Pan-caaake-eh!" he declared.

I pretended to frown. "Not pancake," I said. "Cape Cod." "Caaap-eh Cot?"

"It's a place on the East Coast of the United States," I said. "I lived there for a while."

He nodded obediently while motioning for a classmate, a girl named

Paloma, to crawl through his legs and free him from immobility.

"Maybe you'll go there someday," I thought of saying, but then thought better of it. Before I could come up with something about the beaches there, or the way the hydrangeas turn deep shades of blue and pink from the minerals in the soil, the little girl scrambled quickly through his legs and they had moved on to other sessile comrades.

Paloma excelled at releasing her classmates from their stagnancy. "Paloma the Liberator!" yelled my teaching partner, Brian, as she crawled under the isosceles triangles made by the children's legs and the ground, her long black hair and the soles of her chunky, heeled shoes trailing behind her.

"Paloma the Liberator!" yelled the children as if she were Simón

Bolívar or Che.

Paloma would get caught, finally, because of the attention these outbursts brought upon her. Still grinning so that we could see the small brown circles where cavities were eating away the soft yellowed enamel of her teeth, she would have to stand still, stuck as she watched her team slow, and then accept defeat.


There have been few places I have ever lived where I could not hear trains from my window. When we lived in Houston in a hot, sticky house subdivided and set on a perfect square lawn, there was a train track that ran the crest of a little man-made hill behind the tall wooden fence that marked the edge and perfect symmetry of our yard. My sister and I would sneak out behind the boundaries of the privacy fence, armed with a cloth bag of pennies to put on the rails. After each coin was placed on the head of the rails, we would lie on our bellies in the valley underneath the dusty mound until a train, filled with cattle or oil, came by sending a shower of bent and broken copper into the air. When it had passed, we would scramble around to gather up all the pieces.

I arrived in Ecuador in 2003 to find this place, this center, by chance—a handful of Catholic missionary administrators sent by their religious orders to fulfill solitary and singular causes, and a hired staff offering classes at odd hours for the city's population of shoe-polishing, newspaper-hawking, gum-selling child laborers who had no choice in sacrificing their daytime hours for the few coins that would keep their families afloat.

"Venga, venga no mas," yelled men and boys hanging by one arm from the approaching bus when I boarded for work, encouraging people to ride to the poorest neighborhood in the city like it was some sought after vacation destination. The children would greet me when I stepped off onto the sidewalk: "Gringa! Gringita!"

The facility was full-service, offering not only elementary, high school, and vocational classes, but a food program, daily mass, and sinks and showers for the families who had no central source of water in the shacks where they lived on the outskirts of an elongated urban sprawl.

The center was successful in its own way—placing students in jobs they had been trained for on campus and filtering families in to see a resident doctor. The staff and a handful of volunteers were chiseling out some narrow solutions, compelling students and families to come to mass as a prerequisite to the daily lunch program, educating girls and holding mandatory meetings where members of the religious community or the teaching staff pontificated about the value of brushing teeth and the ills of domestic abuse. It seemed hopeful at times, but never stopped the trail of bruises that ran down the backs of my students as they hung smiling, shirts billowing, from a rusted set of orange monkey bars.


"Holaaa," said Brian one morning, turning his voice nasal to imitate the earnest and unpracticed tourists we sometimes met in the old colonial downtown. He was leading the children out of the two-story, openair school building and into the yard. Brian had just graduated from college and had signed up for a year at the center.

Brian and I spent a lot of time that fall taking pulls from dirty brown bottles of Pilsner beer, sitting on the roof of the center, trying to figure out how to get Donmaris to do her homework and when to approach Tanya's mother about the bruises we had seen on her back while she was hanging from the monkey bars. We came up with strategies, but little recourse. Service here had become disenchanting, disappointing in our inability to change a social and economic system, in the realization that we contributing to the unrelenting momentum of that system.

I fell in stride beside him and he gave me the run down for gym class in English. "Garon's been mouthing off already. Tommy and Paloma are out. Estefania is complaining of a stomachache." Estefania was a chronic bellyacher, especially on days when we were playing male-dominated soccer.

"Stretches!" I yelled out when we arrived at the field and the kids fanned out in front of us.

"Right over left," Brian instructed in Spanish, bending down in front of the group to touch his toes. I walked between the lines of kids, tapping right feet with my fingertips and whispering encouragements. This was our routine.

"All right, who's seen Paloma?" Brian asked, while straightening up and switching legs. The students often defied the center's rules about work in the afternoons during class time. Paloma hadn't been in all week.

"She's dead," said Garon, a cheeky little boy.

"Garon!" Brian yelled. A few of the other kids snickered. Brian and

Garon had an ongoing feud.

"She is," Garon muttered under his breath. "Everybody up. To the tree!"

This was Brian's standard reprimand. There were some groans as the children pulled themselves upright and sprinted to the lone tree on the far corner of the field. When they returned, emphatically panting, Brian continued his bad-cop line of interrogation. "Okay," he said. "Let's try this again: anybody seen Paloma downtown? We know she's not sick."

"No, she's dead." It seemed meaner now. "To the tree!" Brian yelled.

When they returned this time a few of the girls were crying. "What's wrong Belen?" said Brian, speaking to one sweet little sweatsuit-clad girl with pigtails. "You don't like Garon making you run?"

"No," she whined. She was a good student and tried hard.

Brian cocked his head slightly to the right, and his voice was softer now. "What's wrong?"

Belen sniffled.

Brian and I exchanged a look; I headed off to the principal's office.


"Yeah," the principal said matter-of-factly. "It was in El Comercio two days ago. We spoke with the family this morning. I'm sorry we didn't have a chance to talk to you. Apparently she was selling candy downtown and a man befriended her." A staff member for some three decades, she showed no emotion here. "He bought her chifles and sandwiches and a new pair of shoes. He started giving her rides home. Met the parents and everything. They encouraged it!" She laughed, a little desperately, I thought. "These people just think of what they're getting out of it."

"When she finally disappeared, the parents called the police and gave them this guy's name. When they brought him in, he told them where he had buried her by the Riobamba train tracks, after he raped and murdered her."

When I turned to go, the principal, stopped me. As I looked at her, piles of paperwork framing her seated, corpulent shape, she asked, "Do you know what her mother said when she came in this morning?"

I shook my head.

"That she had never had a new pair of shoes before."


During high school in the Mohawk Valley, my friends and I would build bonfires in the shadows of railroad bridges. Beer-blitzed and barefoot we would climb slimy gray and black rocks, bound together with crumbling cement. We would sit, legs dangling, over the Hudson or the Mohawk or, sometimes, in the places where those two rivers met. We would wait quietly, watching for stray logs and spare tires floating on the reflective bits of stars and black in the water below. The iron tracks would begin to shake and lights would splash and splay off us. We would see a train, hear its insistent whistle, jump off the loud, vibrating bridges, and swim ashore to the bonfire.

One of our friends prided himself on being the straightest jumper and the strongest swimmer. He would race to the riverbank and stand bare-chested and sopping while the rest of us pulled ourselves, sputtering and gasping, toward the flame. "Jingle in my pocket, a quarter and a dime. A penny and a nickel make me jingle all the time!" he would shout. Another uncontested victory.

We rolled our eyes at him, stepped gingerly into his footprints to avoid the rocky parts of the soil, and moved back to the coolers. We would find out in the late evenings of those summers that this was a song his mother used to sing to him as a boy, and so we knew, when they found him slumped dead in the corner of his parent's garage during our senior year of high school, why he had a picture of his friends in hand, and a precisely parsed pocket full of change.


Matthew Paris began making expansive maps from the confines of St. Alban's monastery in the thirteenth century. He cut long strips of parchment and drew on coastlines and walking paths with milky black inks, before rolling them up and sending them off with the pilgrims— long files of travelers walking in sandals and with staffs, carrying the elongated papers like ribbons dragging behind them in the wind.

Paris's drawings were rudimentary, not the illuminated texts with gold leafing and embellished letters that we think of as the outcome of medieval, monastic vocation. Instead, there are crooked strokes, coastlines that plunge mysteriously off the edge of his page, landmarks leaning slightly to the right or left of center.

His linear maps were products of faith and formation; Paris spent a whole lifetime within the rectangle of the monastery's walls. He grafted tales from passing travelers, traced the borders drawn in books, meditated with his cloistered brethren about the spiritual journey to Jerusalem, compiled long lists of place names—Berwick, Hertfordshire, Strasburg, Pontremoli, Apulia, Benghazi, Mansura, Jerusalem—to string together a journey that was not his own. Paris never saw these places along the road to the Terra Sancta, only led others to them.

His road is muddled. Marked always by two parallel lines and a single distance, the word "journee"—a day's travel—moving across the thin scrolls from city to abbey, town to hallowed ground. There are appendages, cuts of rounded vellum, and skinnier strips sewn on to complicate and expand shorelines and the walls of castles. Scribbled Gospel passages abound. There are legends and mismatched compass roses set inches and feet apart from one another. Geography is confused, but the purpose of these paper ribbons is clear. The journey, of the crusaders, the pilgrims, the spiritual expeditionists, is not really geographical after all.

"Such maps require us to distance ourselves," says Michael Gaudio, the cartography scholar, "from modern mapping practices with their

'transparent' schematizations of objective space, so that we can recognize this cartography for what it is—not a primitive version of our own but a positive form of organizing space in a world in which signs are not tied to their referents and meanings are never final."

As the last edges of the maps are unfurled, the pilgrim arrives at Jerusalem, a city discovered only by arduous foot travel or through the imagined space of monastic access. The city's walls are square, apocalyptic. Switching for the first time from the vernacular of old French to the pedantic Latin, moving from the margins to the spaces within the Holy City's walled boundaries, Paris writes, "the most dignified of all cities, because there in his death the Lord added to it; because it is in the middle of the World; because it was the first dwelling-place." The end of the journey is a sojourn.


I am seven and in a bunk bed. My sister is nestled in below me, and my grandmother stands at my side. We are saying prayers. "God bless Mom," I say first. "God bless Gram," chimes in my sister from below. "God bless Aunt Gen," I sanctify my great aunt. "God bless—," my sister starts, but is interrupted by a shrill cry of a train whistle beyond the creek in the backyard.

"Must be lots of moisture in the air tonight." My grandmother, her green veins puffed and her skin wrinkled, blesses us with a knowledge that lies beyond her back door.

I remember thinking then, at the moment of the whistle, and still sometimes now, that there should be a flash of orange copper and I should rise with an empty cloth bag in hand to begin picking up the pieces.

*

The funeral monument of Abraham Ortelius was erected shortly after his death in June of 1598. In the middle of the broad stone was an engraved portrait of Ortelius, his name carved beneath the bust and below that still, an emblem of the geographer—a globe wrapped with a ribbon bearing this humanist device: "I scorn and adorn with mind and hand." His biographers, who produced a book of mourning dedicated to the Great Illuminator in the years after his death, tell us that he often quoted this phrase, meaning: My mind stands above daily strife and religious tribulations in the world, and I beautify the world by depicting it with my hand.

The monument stood for almost 200 years, and then suddenly, at the order of municipal power, it was toppled and destroyed.


When I returned to the field, there was a soccer game in progress and children kicked up the dust as they ran for the ball. Garon, I noticed, was leaning up against the wall of an adjacent building. A la pared—our makeshift version of timeout.

David looked stricken when I told him, clumsily, about Paloma, our lost liberator.

He stood staring for a moment before looking to the space where the eight-year-old boy leaned pouting against the brick wall.

"Garon!" David yelled. "You were right."

And then, just to me, "They're always right."

To be fair, to pay his debt to the thirty or so children taking no notice on the field, he took off at a sprint for the tree.


The map is straightened, rolled out, and pored over. Below the Holy Land, in the water beneath the final boundaries, huddled close to the body of the map-holding pilgrim, floats a small ship carrying a contemplative monk, his cowl dirtied from the dust of the road. Paris sketches himself looking toward Jerusalem, a home promised, and one he would only access through the thin, inadequate pages of his own maps. It is there that he has led the faithful, and there he abides.


I sit down with a palette of water color paints squeezed from silver tubes and begin washing in the margins of continents and creeks, the peninsulas and the promontories. The walls to the abbey, the elbowed coastline of Cape Cod and my grandmother's back door have all been flung open wide so that we can see the train, not just hear it in the humid night. The Holy Land can be found next to the railroad tracks that lead out of the valley and up precarious, sandy switchbacks into the opaque mountains. Stagnant, stuck children grow up to be the color of bright pink and purple flowers from the copper pages buried under the soil, their minerals infused through the soles of children's shiny sneakers. Landmarks, referents are crooked, fluid in their asymmetry Pockets full of change are useless here, for no one has any debts to pay The pilgrims are all wearing new shoes. a.-.


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