So, Below

Jeremy Packert Burke

Fed up with the distortions of the Mercator, the Transverse Mercator, the Mollwide and Bonne, the Tobler Hyperelliptical and Kavrayskiy VII projections, an enterprising mapmaker created a map that covered the entire world, to show the world as it was. After decades spent mapping every point of the Earth, mapping again, pulping biomes to make the paper, etc., the mapmaker hit “Print” and the map spooled out of his celestial printer, mummifying the Earth in its colorful scroll. From space, Earth looked almost the same, if a little creamier, a little more crumpled.

Some people took angrily to the streets. –What’s the big idea? people in New York demanded of the sky. But Greg was fond of the change. The paper of the map was thin, and the sunlight that filtered through took on a sepial, old movie quality, with ghostly images of the city visible from the ground like a message written in lemon juice. –It feels so Japanese, you know? one woman on the street felt compelled to tell Greg. –Just really spiritual, in its way.

Fortunately the Map–for it took on proper noun, mononymic status, like God, Staples, or Chef–was suspended high enough that the water cycle and kite-flying we almost unaffected, and so life continued much as it had. Some jagged tips of mountain poked through the paper, but these gaps, like holes in the ozone, were avoided.

Greg sometimes saw children release balloons, which rose and bumped against the paper shell of the map, tiny, delightful, bouncing dots. Perhaps inspired by these, an enclave of angry astronomers took to the skies in hot air balloons, carrying large pairs of scissors, and attempted to cut a patch of Map away. But their scissors were unable to find purchase against the expensive paper, and soon their arms got tired. They returned to their offices, to their tenure-track jobs at notable universities, opened bottles of scotch, put on Leonard Cohen records, and wept quietly as one.

Everyone else, really, liked the Map. People now had two homes–one on the ground and its mirror, its faint, two-dimensional echo in the sky. They looked skyward in moments of trouble, or longing for the past, as if they could see the motion of their lives on its surface, could work through their problems from their distance; or, as if the pasts they longed for were frozen, happily drawn to stillness against the sky. In either case, the divorce rate dropped fifteen percent.

Greg sold printers on the Lower East Side. People lined up around the block to buy them, now. —Paper, man, said one customer, is like God’s skin.

Cults developed: Flat Earth truthers had a field day (–How can it cover the Earth if paper is flat and the Earth isn’t?); some thought the Map was a chrysalid shell, that we would all evolve to a higher plane of existence. Many book and television deals emerged out of these theories.

New observation decks opened at One World Trade Center and the Empire State Building, to admire the paper sky, to look up instead of down. Tourists, pilgrims, and locals waited for hours to get close enough to see their futures or pasts, whatever they might divine. Greg met Matilda at the Empire State Building. She had set a dozen expensive A4 sheets, folded into airplanes, whizzing around the deck, curving in dramatic, impossible ways. Greg caught one. They got dinner. –My dream, she told Greg, –is to fold the Map into an airplane and fly it to Brazil.

Greg had no comparable dreams to share. –Your arms would probably get tired, he said, –folding it.

Matilda worked in a bookstore. –Sales have shot up, she said. –People are eager to get their hands on anything paper. Books, posters, wrapping paper. We started selling blank reams of it, even. People want anything that reminds them of the Map, that lets them feel closer to it.

–Paperliness is close to Godliness, Greg said, parroting his boss, Ollie.

Matilda’s mother died later that year, and when home for the funeral she frequently found herself staring up at the faint image of her childhood home, imagining an echo of her mother–faint, two-dimensional, ghostly–wandering through it. She knew the Map was no paradise–it was just a map. But she was comforted to remember that, when the Map was drawn, her mother’s life had been drawn into it. Back in New York, she cried into Greg’s pillows.

Eventually, Greg and Matilda got married in Central Park, shaded by a lovely green swath of Map. Their two daughters were raised under their family’s colorful plot of sky, familiar as a favorite rug. Greg was always able to explain the color of the sky to them, something his father had never been able to. The summers were cooler, the winters warmer. Everyone was happy.

But eventually the novelty wore off, and the sun bleached all the color out of the Map. Most of the cults drifted apart, only getting together once in a while to shoot the shit and worship the Map. Divorce rates climbed; Greg and Matilda split up.

When there was no color left, when only faint outlines of lives lived years ago remained, the government passed a resolution to cut the damn thing down. They sent an army of vengeful astronomers up the mountains with garden shears, kitchen scissors, sharp knives, and lasers to tear it apart. The blue sky came back in ragged, patchwork squares over the year, astronomers cackling wildly, high above the Earth.

Opinion was, again, divided. Printers lined the sidewalks on garbage days, the robot refuse of human disillusionment. Many people bought and sold square scraps of Map, leftovers of a disappearing era, like pieces of the Berlin Wall in the nineties.

Chroma, her younger daughter, called Matilda from her dorm room upstate, where the sky was already clear. –I can’t believe the blue of it all, Mother, she said. –It’s like someone shining a flashlight in your eyes all the time! Matilda smiled and explained what sunglasses were; her daughters had never needed them before.

Matilda still worked at the bookstore. On her way home that day she bought an AUTHENTIC MAP-PIECE OWN A PIECE OF HISTORY!!! from a stand in Union Square. When she got home she folded it into an airplane, the simplest, most familiar shape she knew, carefully creasing the edges with the nail of her left thumb. Standing on the fire escape, she looked up at the enormous, tattered blueness over her, marred slightly by the white edge of retreating Map, and tossed her plane into the air. It would not make it to Brazil, she knew. But it was nice, all the same, just watching it twirl below her in the invisible wind.

JEREMY PACKERT BURKE once studied math and once read 120 Goosebumps books and now lives in New York, or Boston, or nowhere at all, depending on when this is read. He has previously had fiction in Reservoir and decomP, and writes only garbage jokes on Twitter @jempburke.