Julian K. Jarboe
About the Writer
Julian K. Jarboe is a sound designer and writer living in Boston. Their fiction can be found in Wyvern Lit, UNBUILD Walls Literary Journal, The Collection: Short Fiction from the Transgender Vanguard, and others listed on their website. They're currently writing a text adventure game about abstract expressionism for Choice of Games LLC. They tweet @KelseyJarboe.
Martin Behaim wakes in the humid belly of his own caravel, naked and bound at the limbs. It's dark as death and twice as cold. His nostrils singe with rat shit, rotten salt pork, and another, sour smell. Then he places it. Bile, his own, in a drying puddle around his body.
Someone opens the hatch and lowers the ladder. The light from the deck above is soft, the square portal seems precious to him now, some lovely intangible scrap saved to caress for comfort, for mending invisible damages. He watches one polished boot, then another-- weren't those his captain's?-- descend into the room, until the Barbary pirate queen looms over him. She is in range to spit or piss on him. In her right hand is a lantern. She brings her left hand up to its light, and he sees she holds his globe.
It was exquisite, for its single year of relevance. The globe, the "earth apple": an illustrated, illuminated, annotated map of the entire then-known world. Not just a scale arrangement of places but their exports, their opportunities. It was once a priceless work of art and economy, until Christopher Columbus returned to Spain in fourteen ninety-three and ruined everything. After that, nobody wanted a map without the “new worlds," even one with a thorough index of precious ore mines across the near east, the home addresses of wealthy merchants with unmarried daughters, a beginners guide to hungry ghosts and tundra witches.
Ugly, mediocre Columbus. With his stupid hat. Behaim discovered much more important things than the other end of the ocean. But Europe didn't understand. Europe was eager to disown its ignorant past and put on airs, wag their flags all over the place. Behaim's career as a sailor, an inventor, and a patron of fine and accurate things became, at once, a footnote.
They were simply not at all prepared to handle certain knowledge. For this, he had kept the finest of his discoveries secret, but most since sold to charter the caravel, to pay for his bread and his beer. Each private oasis cultivated, irrigated, mined, refined, and exhausted for a cut in his name at the central bank.
Except for one. That he was still alive at all told him that the Barbary queen suspected this.
She taps a finger on the the globe near the western coasts of Africa.
"You know this place, you call Saint Brendan’s Isle," she says. "And you will lead me to it."
"It's not real," he croaks. "It's a myth, just an old folk story."
"It’s on your jewel map,” she says. She speaks barely above a whisper. She does not need to imitate the bellow of men to make them fear her, to make them listen, she only needs to look them in the eye. “Not real? Do not waste my time."
Martin Behaim shuts his eyes and shakes his head. She cannot stare him down, she cannot play tricks with her light at him, consult his life's work while she mocks him.
"You can look, right where it's drawn," he says. "You won't find it there."
Which is true, of course, because Saint Brendan's Isle drifts where it pleases, pays no mind to the trade winds, follows the migrations of sea monsters.
Every secret of the whole ocean washes up on its black sand beaches. Every lost treasure can be found among the pebbles of the shore, beside the bodies of slaves, of pilgrims and pioneers, of explorers and the women and men who followed the call of a Siren or tried to love a Selkie. They're all there, bones blanching in whatever sun Saint Brendan's Isle chooses to drift beneath. There's a bestiary unlike anywhere else, creatures that should have drowned in the great flood, and every manner of vegetation. A hot spring, at the base of the volcanic heart of the island, bubbles with clay while taro and pineapple and pumpkin and corn and saffron and cocoa grow wild.
Martin Behaim knows how to find it and when he dies, he decides, no one will. He keeps his eyes firmly closed. She will have to gouge them out to make him look at her.
He hears the soft clunk of the globe drop against the wood below him, roll into the sea water and vomit that toss against his body and beneath the pirate's boots.
"I have a message in a bottle for you," she says.
She squats besides him and pinches his nose. He braces himself for her knife, for her to cut off his nose and then his ears, maybe his tongue. But she simply holds it shut until he's forced to gasp open-mouthed, and it’s then he feels the thin glass neck of a bottle smash against his teeth and some repulsive tincture burn its way down his throat.
Now he opens his eyes and sees only the other end of his fear. Time expands, and contracts, and even the darkness seems to spin. Fragments of thoughts move through him, images and sounds, forgotten as soon as they occur. He is floating in a liquid. He is speaking. No, burning. No, he is being held by someone with six arms.
Finally he wakes and places one sensation after another, forms an earnest attempt at linear thought, and glances around. The darkness has changed. He smells the open air.
He is lying in a row boat beneath the stars of the Southern Hemisphere. There are no oars, and the boat slowly turns like a windmill on the still waters beneath him. Must be some cove or lagoon, so he listens for animal calls to place the region, but there’s no sound beyond his labored breathing.
It is the clearest night sky he's ever seen. There are constellations he doesn’t recognize. Every star is like a sunrise. Maybe they are planets, he thinks, maybe he is witnessing the clockwork of the heavens. Maybe he is at the very center of heaven right now, the beautiful nested eggs of ether surrounding the earth.
There's something gritty in the boat with him, coating the whole belly of the vessel. He runs his fingers through it. He still has all of his fingers, thank God, and they comb what must be sand. It's fine and ash-soft, volcanic sand, from the black beaches of Saint Brendan's Isle. The Barbary pirate queen has given him a little part of it to keep.