T he morning air is still crisp and clean, and Aster stands at the doorway breathing it in, when a little boy — son of the baker, who manages to pop up everywhere and in every place, maybe he has a twin or triplet — thrusts an envelope into her hand. She looks down at it, looks back up at the boy, but he has already run off down the street.

The Mapmaker

That is all the text written on the envelope; it is a confident hand, with a touch of artistry — there is a long flourish after the r. Aster turns the envelope over: The red wax seal is imprinted with a picture of a lion and a snake. She returns to the house and places it carefully on Papa’s desk. Then she unrolls her parchment and looks impassively at the sketches she has drawn.

The light is dim and she picks up the parchment and walks outside into the courtyard. She sits down on the old wooden bench, tilts the parchment toward the sun, and looks closely at the outline of the rivers.

She hears the rustle of a long skirt, the slight click of wooden soles. She looks up. Clara.

“What are you working on?” Clara asks.

Aster pats the bench, and Clara sits down beside her.

“I am practicing,” she says, carefully enunciating the words so that Clara can understand them. She points to the parchment. “See this grid.”

Clara nods.

“With this, I plot the cities on the map.”

Clara reaches out and runs her finger over the parchment. It is a familiar action: Aster did this too; parchment has a softness that is almost warmth.

“Let us say that there is a three-day journey between two cities. Say…” She thinks quickly. She cannot use the example that she has been working on: the distance between Beersheba and Jerusalem; it would not be wise. “Say there is a three-day journey between Barcelona and—” She thinks for a minute.

“Toledo,” Clara offers.

“No, that would take two weeks, surely. Toledo is in the center of Spain. Barcelona is northwest. Maybe a two-day journey from the border of France.”

Clara nods.

“So then, here is the question: How far does one person walk in a day? Or if he is in a carriage, how fast is a horse’s gallop? How long can the horse go until he needs to rest?” She waves at the books on the shelf. “Travelers’ accounts. I must skim through them, and find any information about these journeys.”

Clara’s forehead creases. “But what if the traveler is a drunkard? What if he drives from inn to inn, until his head is wine-sopped? How to know if the two days’ travel includes hour after hour in roadside taverns?”

Aster throws back her head and laughs. “I do not know, Clara.” She waves her hand over the parchment. “I do not know at all.” She thinks for a moment. “You are right. We rely on travelers’ tales, and of course we compare them from one to the other, but who is to tell what is true, and what is false?”  (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 567)