It does feel like the work gets harder every day. He had thought that after a few years, after a few millennia, he would be able to scoot through tasks, scoot like a worm through dirt. He thought that way at the beginning, when the work still celestial. The Cartographer of the Universe lives in the basement of his brother’s house; he pays for his cable and does his own laundry. He has begun to wonder if his job is worth the time and energy.
“So quit,” his brother says. His brother, Miles, has a toddler and an infant. Miles is tired all the time, and his wife Fran is tired all the time, and so the Cartographer does not like to complain when he goes upstairs for Sunday brunch. Brunch, last week, was strawberries, bagel pizzas, and seltzer.
The pencils are expensive, too, and are getting more expensive. He tried to chart zodiacal light in a cheaper, more durable graphite, but the mist was too fine. The cashier at Art4Less told him it wouldn’t work.
“The last guy went with the Temper 9,” the cashier said.
He should have listened. The Cartographer gave the graphite to Miles’ almost-three year old, who tried to stab his sister with it. Fran, eyes perpetually closed, interceded with the agility of a cartoon ninja. “No stabbing,” she murmured.
He had wanted to be a sculptor. He did a BFA at a good school. He interned at gallery. He sold a few of his own pieces, and had a show in a parking garage in Astoria. He had thought, maybe I can do this! Beauty, truth, truth, beauty. Urns! Lascaux . . . etcetera.
The Cartographer marks the trajectories of starlight bouncing through the Magellanic Clouds’s dust. He charts them—off a fraction of a degree—and starts over again. He washes out his coffee mug and walks back to his desk. He measures the depths of deltas in the dry basins on twinned planets. When he looks up, the planets have been absorbed into the black mouth of M15. He rubs his jaw. He takes a shower and shaves. “Hey, good-looking,” he says to himself in the mirror.
Some days start well. His back doesn’t hurt, and he’s never really appreciated that little bend of that galaxy before, and it reminds him of a song, which he hums. He bends over his desk, serious and calm, and when the star is born he is there is map it. His map ponders the birth in its heart. The Cartographer leans back and stretches his arms and feels good. Good job, he thinks.
But as he stretches the muscles of his neck, everything is different again. The universe grows and changes faster than he can set his pen to the map. Above and below, the universe rolls and crashes. He can never draw fencelines in the same universe twice.
On Tuesday nights he babysits so that Fran and Miles can shower, go to dinner and Rite-Aid. He and the almost-three year old play on the floor: do a puzzle, build blocks, and do some coloring. They do not complete the puzzle; they destroy the towers. Big Bird is green and purple and black. This takes two hours. Every so often the baby makes a noise and the Cartographer carries her around the living room, bobbing up and down. His back hurts. He lies on the floor and watches the ceiling fan. The almost-three year old climbs on top of him and stares into his face. He tickles the almost-three year old, who laughs. The Cartographer laughs and, hearing laughter, the baby laughs. When Fran comes home, she steps over the mess and says, “Okay! Time for bed. No baths tonight.” Everyone is happy.
Wednesdays are busy days. He fills out his timesheet online and, when it is sent back, calls the office and argues for his overtime. He tries to keep up. His bedroom is filled with scrolls of infinitely wide paper, the loops and legends of the topography of the universe. On the inside of his middle finger, where he holds his Temper 9, he has grown a callus like a golfball.
Upstairs, in the living room, the naked almost-three year old climbs up on the couch and stands beside his dad. “Hi Papa!” he says, and Miles kisses his kid on the belly.
Downstairs, the Cartographer is drawing, labeling, measuring, furiously. Around him and the house and the family, the stars die and suck inward and Miles and Fran and baby and toddler are forced to clasp their hands together as the sheaves of the map are pulled up around them and they are caught inside a paper boat map of the universe.
“You need to tell him to take it easy,” Fran murmurs to Miles. She takes her naked kid and puts socks on him. “Cold floors!” she says.
Downstairs, the Cartographer rests his pencil and flexes his wrist. He squints at a cluster of light in the distance, past the violaceous streaks of blue comets, left of the gasping black holes, two squidges further than the whizzing pink planets spinning themselves dense: three staid yellow stars in a row like ducks.
“Shit,” he says. It is not right. It is close, but it is not right. It is very, very, very rarely right. It is so rarely right that it has become not even exciting when it is right.
“So quit,” his brother says to him upstairs. Miles is looking at his hairline in a mirror.
“I should,” the cartographer sighs. His back hurts. The almost-three year old is dancing to a Youtube video: Bert and Ernie singing a song about tooth-brushing. Fran, from the bedroom, is singing the song. The universe is very big. The universe is very small.
He begins to sketch the wake of two supermassive black holes, light years apart, dancing in galaxy 3L 95.
Zana Previti was born and raised in New England. She earned her MFA in fiction from the University of California, Irvine and is currently pursuing her MFA in poetry from the University of Idaho, where she won the 2014 Academy of American Poets Prize and the Banks Award in Poetry. She was a 2014 Tin House Summer Conference Scholar, where she studied with Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum. Her short fiction has been published in The New England Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Los Angeles Review, RHINO Poetry, and elsewhere. Her poetry will be forthcoming in Poetry International and Ninth Letter.