I pushed through the crowds in the marketplace. The dealers in the stalls left and right talked rapidly in their hush voices, dispensing their infinite varieties of pitch. They would be selling all kinds of things, I knew. But mostly maps. Maps printed on paper, maps scratched on tanned leather, maps engraved in bronze plates. Some of them rare uniques; others cheap mass wares. Either way, invariably they’d be overpriced. But that was not the reason I paid no attention.
I’ve always only used the maps of the dead. The living have an agenda; when they present their maps, inevitably they start deceiving you at some point. There was nothing to interest me here. I pressed on, impatient to get to calmer places.
Then suddenly I felt a light touch on my shoulder. I wouldn’t have expected anyone to even notice me, greedy as they all were to get their hands on some of the maps on offer. In fact, nobody so far had even looked at my face, which was lucky: there was still a considerable risk that I would be recognized. I turned.
It took a moment to connect what I saw with the once familiar appearance of the pianist. Without the white jacket and slickly combed hair, with his eyes darting around and a shake erupting through his body in irregular intervals, he couldn’t have been more different. Gone was the classy calm he used to represent, discreetly half-hidden away behind the Bechstein in its dark alcove, letting the notes gurgle along softly. This was a haunted shadow, hardly able to focus his eyes in my direction. But he clearly was desperate to speak with me.
His hoarse croaking was mostly drowned out by the map salesmen pitching their wares, but I still got the gist of what he was saying: he wanted me to come with him to that bookshop he knew. I didn’t exactly feel excited about this, but something convinced me. Perhaps it was the despair in his eyes, or the the energetic tugging with his hand, which had fiercely grasped my wrist. But mostly, it was probably just my own desire to get off the busy street that made me go along with him. I wasn’t yet aware, at that point in time, what a fateful choice this would turn out to be.
The bookstore didn’t sell books, of course. It must have done that, sometime past; otherwise, whence the name? But the sale of books had died down long since, and now they only sold maps, like everyone else.
As we entered, a creaking panel and the click of the door, falling shut behind us, must have announced us to the owner, who presently appeared, smirking and fixating me with a suspicious stare while he addressed the pianist.
“You’re back, then… I’m not surprised.”
“I need that map”, the pianist rasped. “You still have it, don’t you? You promised!”
“Of course, of course.”
The shop owner still hadn’t even looked at the pianist. He now turned round abruptly, and waved us both to follow him. He led the way through an arched door, half covered by a heavy curtain, into a smaller room. It had no windows; the only light came from a few candles. The walls were covered with bookcases and glass cabinets; where they were open or transparent, assorted maps were on display. In the center of the room, a large chart table took almost all of the space. It was empty, except for a flat, rectangular object placed dead center, and covered with a piece of heavy canvas.
We gathered around the table, and the shop owner took a moment to examine our faces, as if he wanted to ensure that we were serious. When he had satisfied himself of that, he gingerly took a corner of the canvas between two fingers, gave it another second for dramatic effect, and finally snatched the cloth away with a jerky tug.
“This”, he announced in his best salesman voice, “is the only of its kind ever found. It was digged from the tombs at an ancient cult site.”
The plate shimmered mysteriously in the warm candle light. The letters almost seemed to swim in the reflexes, waving vaguely along with the lazy movements of the flame. And as they did, their arrangement changed slightly, changing the meaning of the text, bringing emphasis to constantly differing aspects…
I had to pull my glance away from the entrancing pulse of color, light, and meaning. And although I knew that it would regret it, I still had to ask the question. “What is it?”
The shop owner sounded almost a little indignant: “Why, of course it is a map!”
“A map to the underworld”, the pianist said in a toneless voice.
“I’ve lost her…” The pianist gave off a deep sigh of regret. “It was all my own fault, of course. I’ve lost her, and now I can’t live with the pain.”
We were sitting in the old café, and he hadn’t even touched his drink. It didn’t really matter, for I had ordered it mostly to avoid suspicion. Bad enough that someone might recognize me, and report the sighting; even worse, the pianist’s appearance was striking, to say the least. His hair was in disarray, the eyes dull. Shoulders hunched forward, he seemed completely apathetic, except in those short outbursts of speech, when he suddenly became uncomfortably intense. He was in the middle of one of them now.
“You see, there is only one way to get her back. I must go … down there. And for that, I need this map that we have seen.”
“You really think you can get her back?”
“It’s the only way I can imagine to go on.”
“But how do you even know the map can get you there?”
“I just know. Maps don’t lie.”
Maps don’t lie. It’s true, the maps themselves have nothing to do with people’s agendas. That’s because they are not intended for others: whoever draws a map — if they really want it to lead somewhere —, they make it for themselves.
But the only maps you can trust are those of the dead: maps made, and used by, those who never gave them away, all the way until their last breath. I’ve always been wary of maps that come from the living. The living have an agenda; when they are selling something, trying to convince you that their map is the one that’s truthful and reliable, the lies begin. The lies are in what people say, not in what the map shows.
“Perhaps. So you’re going to buy it?”
“Already have.” He darted around with his eyes, presumably to make sure that nobody was listening in. If that was the intention, however, it failed miserably. Eyes from other tables started fixating on him. Completely oblivious to that, he now inconsequentially flung the lid of his messenger bag open, and produced the tablet we had seen in the shop.
The beautiful thing immediately captured my full attention, just as it had before.
“There’s just one problem”, the pianist went on.
“And what’s that?”
“I cannot read it.”
Of course. It was clear now why he had dragged me into all this.
“You have to help me. Please! I know you are the only person in town who still has knowledge of all the old languages and scripts.”
He leaned back.
“Don’t worry. I’m not asking you to come with me. I only need a translation. Once I know the directions, I’ll go there alone.”
I hesitated. But my resistance was without conviction. Truth be told, I felt an irresistible attraction to this golden tablet. I couldn’t lift my gaze from the smooth surface with the elegant letters running in neat columns. Finally, I nodded my agreement, and reached for the map.
The gold, with irritating contrast to the warm glow it was sending off, felt cool to the touch. I examined the script, and recognized an archaic dialect, one that I had encountered in my studies from time to time. It presented no particular difficulties, I thought. I tried to keep my voice down, in spite of the excitement, when I began the translation.
It all seemed conventional enough. Just as one would expect from an ancient Totenpass, there was a stereotypical description of a landscape: dried-out riverbed, steep cliffs on either side, a dead tree that had turned to stone.
The pianist had listened with rapt attention, his eyes getting wider and wider. Perhaps it was advisable to put things in perspective…
“It’s a description of the underworld, no doubt envisaged by some prophet or mystic. There were many versions of these, back then. They’re supposed to help the souls of the dead to orientate themselves when they get down there…”, I started to explain, in my best scholarly tone.
But the pianist, astonishingly, shook his head.
“No, no. This is a real place.”
“I’ve been there. It’s a real place. It looks exactly like that description pictures it. Must have looked so for ages.”
“Are you sure?”
“Very. It’s a remote place, up in the mountains, a steep hike of about two days into deserted rocky fields. Hardly anyone ever goes there, I suppose. But I remember it well. I’ve seen it on one of my trips a few years ago.”
I took a deep breath. This could hardly be anything but the delusions of a desperate soul. But what could I really say in response?
“Well then”, I went on, “the verses then explain in detail how to find some hidden downwards steps that would lead directly into the precipice.”
“I knew it!” He almost jumped up from his seat. Every pair of eyes in the café, and those of a good number of passers-by, were now watching suspiciously. “And then, what?”
“Nothing. That’s where it ends.”
“Are you sure?” He sunk back, disappointed. “There’s nothing else?”
“Nothing. The last line says: Climb down those steps, then read again.”
“That’s what it says. It sounds strange, I know. But I’m pretty sure of the translation.”
I looked across at the pianist’s face. “Read again…” He repeated it in a disbelieving voice. “Read again…” Almost as if following his appeal, I turned back to the tablet once more. And then something remarkable happened.
Just when I had completed reading the entire text, silently, from beginning to the end, the letters blurred, and behind them, very dimly, a second set of verses began to appear. I stared at them, fascinated, as they seemed to gain in definition. They shifted more and more into focus, until they finally had supplanted the original text. The golden tablet had flipped a page. I saw another chapter.
But much as I tried, I wasn’t able to actually read the letters! They felt familiar enough, and I was certain that they were in the same script and language as before. Yet in a mysterious way, they just managed to evade becoming intelligible. After several attempts, I gave up.
When I explained to the pianist, he gave me a piercing look.
“I’m afraid I have to ask an even bigger favor of you, then.”
I understood at once what he meant.
“You think that this second set of verses…”
“… will only reveal itself once we’re there, in the actual place.”
I balked at the very idea. “You mean, you want me to come with you, and translate the later parts… along the way… down to the underworld… ?”
At this moment, the crowds parted, and a cohort of policemen came across the street, walking straight towards the cafe. They couldn’t have seen us yet, but we must have been informed on, unsurprisingly enough.
I took a split-second decision, then and there. “All right, let’s go. And quickly!”, I snapped at the pianist, grabbed his arm, gathered the tablet from the table, and pulled him away, just moments before the whistles started loudly in the street behind us.
Once we reached the end point, it all felt just like a blur in our memories.
We had found the very spot in the mountains, several days of lonely hiking after we left the last human settlements behind us. The pianist had been right: the scenery was exactly as the verses on the tablet had pictured it. On investigation, even the secret path was found: it started in a back corner, half-hidden behind weathered rocks, and wound down steeply, hugging the walls of the crevice closely. Deep down, at the very bottom, it suddenly ended in the middle of a rubble of dead woods and what might have been the bones of a traveller who had fallen to death there ages past.
We were prepared for that — for the pianist had been right again: when we consulted the golden map, there at the seeming dead end, the text behind the text showed itself again, and this time it was readable. To my great astonishment, I was now able to decipher and translate it without any trouble, and sure enough, it directed us to a virtually invisible cleft between the rocks. It was half filled-up with crushed rock and dust, but when we squeezed through, we found ourselves in a narrow corridor, just as the tablet had predicted, and from here the path went down, further and further away from the last glimmers of daylight.
The Totenpass itself now began to glow with a beautiful red-golden color, and the ancient letters remained easily readable even when, a few days later, our last torches had expired. It truly had turned out a truthful guide; it was, after all, a map of the dead. Behind the second set of lines there was another, and behind that, another — each leading us forward and downward, becoming visible once we had crossed a certain threshold. All in all, there were seven inscriptions. As we went deeper, we lost track of time; and in the darkness, any sense of distance and direction dissolved. It all just became a blur.
It was a blur for another reason, too. We had just stumbled down, in pitch-black darkness, what must be a fairly wide, gravely path of volcanic ash or something: dusty, harsh, difficult to tread. It had opened into a gigantic cave, suffused with some faint glimmer of light, just enough so that we could see each other as unclear shapes. Looking back, we could vaguely make out the rock formations that lined the path on which we had arrived. The plane was bounded both to the left and right by massive, quiet bodies of water, subterranean streams, black and deep. The one on the left was slightly closer to where we stood, and it seemed to be fed from a curious black spring in the distance, whose gurgling sound we imagined we could almost hear. Everything about this place was diffuse, nothing seemed to have any substance.
Moreover, we were no longer alone. Countless vague shadow figures floated around us: barely perceptible, just clouds of a darker shade than the surrounding darkness — but clearly human in shape. Whenever one of them, on its seemingly directionless drift, happened to come close, we could feel a diffuse chill creeping up. They made no sounds, and none of their movements implied that they had so much as even noticed us. But they converged around us in a faintly menacing way.
And then I saw her. For that, curiously, there wasn’t any light needed. I was aware of her presence: the depth of her eyes, the poise of her sublime figure, the infinite nuances in her features were all clearly visible to me, irrespective of the dark. At the same time, it was as if I could feel her questioning thoughts, searching my soul. It was an extraordinary experience. I knew no other response: I sank down to my knees and bowed deeply, until my head was touching the stony ground.
The pianist, it seemed, had not been granted the same vision as I had; or perhaps he was just of a more sceptical disposition. Either way, he blatantly resisted — which was strange, for wasn’t he finally encountering whom he had come to search?
He didn’t appear to think so. “If this is the Queen…”, he called out into the black emptiness, as if addressing the entire cavernous space at once, “… then where is the ruler? Where is Ha-…?”
“The King is invisible”, I interrupted hastily. With only the briefest of side glances, I caught a glimmer of approval in the eyes of the queen. “And it is wise not to speak of him, or use his name, in these surroundings.”
The pianist looked still sceptical, but the serious note in my voice seemed to have make an effect; he changed tack and launched into his petition now.
If anything, this was even worse. I felt embarrassed by his whining. And it was unlikely that the rulers of the underworld would consider making an exception for him: he offered nothing in return, not even to sing their praise. Yet, incredibly, after an insufferable portion of all that, a tremor waved through the entire cave, and a new shadow appeared directly in front of us. When the pianist saw the newcomer, he let out an excited scream and a whimper of gratitude.
The shadow at which the pianist was staring looked too me exactly like all the other shadows around: slow-moving patches barely defined in shape, just slightly darker and more dense than the dusk that filled up the space. But to him, this clearly was the familiar figure of his lost lover. He stood there, motionless and silent, tears flowing down his face.
“We will permit her to accompany you on your way back to the upper world.”
It was the Queen who had spoken. Her voice flooded the cave with golden timbre. It seemed to resonate, not echo-like, but rather as if a stream of honey was flowing about and dripping back luxuriously. I longed to drink it all up, even though none of it was actually addressed to me.
“But listen, and bear this in mind: you must not turn back your gaze. Not once. If you do, she will leave you at once and turn back.” The pianist nodded his head energetically in agreement. He never took his eyes off the shade for a single instant, however. He still stood motionless.
“Go now. Move!” The Queen commanded, and as if he just had woken up from a trance, the pianist abruptly turned around and started upwards on the path on which we had arrived.
Just when he began to fade out of view and merge into the black fogs, she called out once again.
The voice, curiously, seemed to come from another corner entirely. I had some trouble locating the exact point; the sound had changed into a silvery bubbling. Then I saw her, standing close to the black spring, holding a high-necked flask at arms length into the cascade. It must have caught only a few drops; but the Queen seemed satisfied. With a flicker of her hand, she made the flask vanish. It re-appeared momentarily, hanging down on a strap around the pianist’s shoulder.
“Drink this on your way up, when you get thirsty. And now — leave!” There was no disobeying her; the tone had once again morphed, piercing the halls of the underworld with a metallic thrust. Just heartbeats later, the pianist was gone.
I found myself face to face again with the Queen. There was no question, really, of seeing; but her presence was unmistakable, right in front of me. Even before she started talking again, I could feel a benign atmosphere spreading now. And then her words began to flow, in golden musical notes this time.
“We are pleased that you have found your way here. It is very rare for someone to be so knowledgeable in the styles and languages of maps — and to also have the courage to face the depths and darkness. Only a select few have ever found here.”
“But what about him?” I gestured towards the direction where my late travel companion had disappeared.
“The pianist? Oh no! That is just something we arranged. He merely follows directions, which he once heard in an ancient song, and then forgot. He always blindly follows, and then conveniently forgets. And that is how it should be, for he must live those lines in the song, so that it appears to have truth — and will be sung again.”
“In an eternally repeating cycle.”
She almost imperceptibly inclined her head.
“You will stay with us forever, will you?”