As defense against the sewer, the Cartographer remembered her mother. Instead of the stench of the Gray City’s waste, she instead smelled her Mother’s kitchen, where she worked wonders with their meager rations of bean-curd, spices cobbled together from a variety of sources, and herbs pulled from A secret garden hidden in a nook on the roof of their tenement. Hunching through the curved ceilings, the dark, damp passages, she instead saw her Mother standing at the stove, humming as she made magic from a molehill. Instead of the cold sewage and dreck they tramped through, instead of the mysterious living things that bumped and scratched against their legs in the darkness, she felt her Mother’s gentle hands combing the tangles out of her hair. Instead of the chittering of said creatures, she heard her Mother’s soft voice, singing songs that were meant to be forgotten. The Cartographer remembered her Mother, and the dark, gray city faded away, and instead she remembered colors she had yet to see, the art she had yet to make.
But she would, yes she would. That was a promise she made, and a promise she intended to keep.
The next passage revealed itself to her, their path of egress reflected from her mind onto the page she read in the flashlight’s dying, flickering glow. Their shadows danced along the slime that hugged the walls, giving the impression they were hunted by monsters who took form only in darkness. The Cartographer felt their fears fanning, their spirits flagging and, though it was not her art, began to sing. It began as a murmur, a quiet sound of hope, but one by one the others joined in, adding their own wordless harmonies, and together they chased away the cold. The air trembled with the improvised song’s power. In the dark, the young women stood a little straighter, and held their heads a little higher.
Soon, they heard it: the wind. They felt a gentle breeze. They smelled the fresh air that cut through the stench of the sewer like dish-soap through grease. They sang louder and louder as they drew closer to freedom. Then they saw it, light shining at the other end of a pipe just high and wide enough for them to crawl through one at a time, like newborns emerging into the world.
They made their way toward freedom, on their hands and knees, led like always by the youngest, the Cartographer. Creeping away from the bondage of soul of mind and of body that the Gray City wrought, she thought again of her Mother. Of her words that fateful morning. Of the last time they spoke before she disappeared, when the Cartographer was an even younger girl than she was now.
Her mother had combed her hair that day, while silently weeping. Normally her movements were deft, her touch gentle, and she rarely ripped through any tangles or knots. On this morning, however, she was clearly distracted, and the ritual hurt more than usual. The Cartographer suffered this in silence, not wanting to add to her Mother’s burden, knowing she would share it if it became too great to bear.
After she finished, her mother spun her around so they sat facing each other in the small apartment. It was one room with a kitchenette and dining area encompassing one half, the other containing two small fold-down beds and a cubicle for bathing a privacy. For the two of them, it was normally enough, but that morning, for the first time, the Cartographer felt its smallness. Her mother sighed, looking around the room, like she might find the words she needed carved on the walls.
“Listen closely, Child,” she began. “And remember well what I say. Maybe it won’t make sense now, but… someday…”
She trailed off, tears dripping down her cheeks.
“Mom? What’s wrong?”
The older woman sniffed, drying her tears with the sleeve of the light orange shirt she wore, with blue, interlocking diamonds woven around the hem in a shimmering thread.
“This world, sweetie. This world is-” She stopped, again looking for the right words. “They want us to forget.”
“Art, my child, art.”
The young woman, no more than seven, wrinkled her nose at the unfamiliar word.
“A-rt,” She sounded it out.
“Art?” She said again, making it a question. It was a word she had never heard before, and yet…
“How to explain…? There is beauty in this world. So much beauty. And anguish, and loss and grief overflowing. And—it all needs to make itself known. It screams to be heard. Those screams make their way here-“
She pointed at her own head.
She pointed to her heart.
“We used to freely express those feelings it inspired. We became conduits for the world’s art. But-” At this she glanced out the window, as if searching for… something. “-such expression is a forbidden thing. So many are asleep. So many die with the art they were destined to create unexpressed. Their stories are not told. Their songs unsung.”
Her mother absently stroked The Cartographer’s head as she spoke.
“At first, I didn’t want to burden you. It is so dangerous, this spark inside. But no, the greater tragedy would be that you had a flame and it remained unflamed.”
She kneeled down to better look her daughter in the eyes.
“Promise me. Promise me when that voice within you speaks, and your art is revealed. Promise me you’ll listen.”
Still not fully understanding, the Cartographer nodded, her bright brown eyes wide-open.
“I promise Mom. I do.”
When she came back from school that day, there were men and women dressed in black waiting at the door. They took her away, neighbors turning their banks at the sound of her screams. All they said, when she demanded to see her Mom, was that ‘there is nothing left to see’.
That conversation was the last time she saw her Mother, the last time they spoke. The Cartographer mused, if she still lived, perhaps she languished in a prison hidden beneath the very sewers they fled through. She swore, not for the first time, that when she was strong enough, when enough people work to the songs singing inside them, she would return and find her.
One by one, the woman left the pipe, and stood in the fog. Above the mist the sun shone so brightly, it pierced the murk. They squinted into a new world they could not see. The Cartographer looked down at her map, which, as always, drew her a path through terra incognita. And she set off, beckoning with a wave for the others to follow.
“I’ll come back for you. Soon.” The Cartographer thought to herself. “This, Mom, I swear.”
And, still singing, with tears of her own now streaming down her cheeks. The young, brown skinned girl, with a head of tight curls, led the women away from the artless city, deeper, deeper into the fog.