“The Cartographer” By Bill Shafer

It started the night you showed me the bruises on your ribs. We were sitting on top of some elementary school, neither you nor I had ever gone to, when you lifted up your shirt. Oh, how it looked: bronze skin stretched so taut against the xylophone of your ribcage, and all those marks, plot points drawn by such an angry cartographer. That’s what you called her: The Cartographer. You were so eloquent when you spoke.

“Oh, my God,” I said. “Who did this?”

You let your shirt fall back down to your waist, ashamed and insecure.

“Your father?” I asked. “Your sister?”

You said nothing.

“Your mother?”

Tears surfaced in the corners of your eyes. The crooks of your lips twitched as if you were trying to hold back a great laugh. Everything in you wanted to let go, but you fought it because you were raised to be a man.

I held you, squeezed you so tight that whatever was choking your emotions must have dislodged because you began to cry. But you didn’t just cry, you wept, it was how I imagined you sounded at birth, taken away from the only good place you had ever known.

“I’m so caught up,” you said.

Because I was not sure what you meant I stayed silent and rubbed your back, which I imagined was plotted out just like your side. I wanted to kill your mother, your cartographer. What right did she have to hurt you like this? Every mother marks her son, this is true, but she must not mark them with the colors of anger, for he will inspect these earnings and believe that he is deserving of such. A boy is a fragile thing, every mother knows this. A man rejects the fragility of his youth because he is composed and driven by the denial of his own weaknesses, every mother knows this too.

Maybe it’s that I have always been soft at heart, or that our lives were meant to unfold in the way that they did; whatever the reason, I fell in love with you. And I wish I would have told you that very night, but I was scared and I’m not sure why.

Weeks later, we were walking along the main road, heading home from school, when you said, “what would you do if I died?”

“I don’t want to think about that,” I said.

“What if it happened?”

“It won’t happen, so we don’t have to think about it.”

You opened your mouth to say something but thought better about it and said nothing else.

The next day, the last day that I ever saw you, we were sitting at lunch. Neither of us were even entertaining the idea of looking at our government’s version of what lunch is supposed to be, let alone planning on eating it anytime soon. But it was okay because after school we had made plans to order the largest pizza they had at Pizza Hut and split it right down the middle; maybe even add a side of those dry breadsticks they serve there.

“Hey,” a voice said to the right of us. The voice belonged to a young man, one of those cocky guys who thinks that they have the whole world figured out, and it just so happens that they are at the center of it all. It is always easy to tell a person’s demeanor by how they initiate conversations with strangers. This young man did not seem the least bit reserved in regard to speaking with us, he probably thought that we knew him because everybody is supposed to know him.

“What?” I said.

“I’m not talking to you, bitch,” he said.

The young man turned his head toward you. I wanted to hit him, but I stopped myself because another fight on my record would be expulsion.

“Yeah?” you said.

“I hear your mama beats you up at home.”

The words struck you as if the young man had physically thrown them.

“She beat you up too?” the young man asked. He pointed a finger in my direction.

I stood up, my hands already curled into fists and slugged him in the hinge of his jaw. The hit was solid, and the young man recoiled, a hand covering the whole left side of his face. I could tell the blow had not done as much damage as I had wanted, but it had been enough to make him feel embarrassed. For fear of giving me another chance at his face, the young man walked away from our table, muttering something about ragheads.

When I sat back down, the only trace left of you was your untouched lunch. At the time I thought you had just skipped school to lay low for a while. I went through my classes as if nothing was out of the ordinary. At the end of the day I called your phone, you didn’t answer—which didn’t surprise me because you hardly ever had it near you. I left you a voicemail telling you to call me back whenever you wanted and that nobody even remembered what had happened at lunch.

That night, my mother came into my room while I was doing the homework for pre-calculus. She said that there was a police officer on the phone and he wanted to speak with me.


“Yes, er, is this Hallah Ayoub?” the officer asked.

“Yes. What’s this about?”

He told me that you were on your way to the emergency room, that you were badly hurt and they believed it was because you had tried to commit suicide. He told me that they had found a letter by your bedside and that it was addressed to me.

The letter contained two sentences, both at the top of the page. You left all that blank space underneath those two lines. Had you planned on writing more down? Surely your life has amounted up to more than just a two-sentence summary. Or was it that you were trying to tell me these two statements were the only things you ever knew?

You wrote: “I’m sorry.”

“I’m so tangled up.

The night you entered the hospital was the same night you would die, leaving me with this riddle that became a ghost which followed me everywhere. It took a decade, but I got there; one’s intuition is only as great as their worst heartbreak.

I used to think losing you was the worst thing to happen to me, but there was still so much I did not understand about what had happened. I had been mad at your mother, yes, but anger is a very unrefined emotion and needs very little, if any, justification to occur.

I knew nothing until last night, that is, when my son called to me from the dark, drawing me out of my dreams with “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy.” I went to him and held him until he stopped crying, and I learned what it really means to be a mother, which is to realize that you alone have the power to either save or destroy your children. Is there anything more heartbreaking? Then again, is there anything more beautiful?

Amir, I cannot save you, I have accepted this, but I can still save my son.

I will tell him these two things always: “I forgive you.”

“You are free.”

To forgive is to love, and to be loved is to be free. Thank you for teaching me this,



Bill grew up in Detroit but now works and lives in Pittsburgh, PA. Bill is a clerk for the postal service and has a novella that will be published in December through Running Wild Press.

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