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Fiction: Dark spaces on the map

A short story
Illustrations by Joan Wong
December 18, 2020

“To portray meaningful relationships for a complex, three-­dimensional world on a flat sheet of paper or a video screen, a map must distort reality ... [A] single map is but one of an indefinitely large number of maps that might be produced for the same situation or from the same data ...” 

Mark Monmonier, How to Lie with Maps 

In the future, the young tell your memories back to you, and you listen. If you try to tell them about a sunny day in spring when you were 15 they immediately look it up and say no, it was raining that day, not sunny. Remember? After a while you learn to be quiet and let them tell it. You can say, “What was my birthday like?” They type it in, and within seconds they have a report: When you were six your mother invited your two best friends for a little party in the kitchen. There was sabzi and roti and raspberry cake. You got a doll. Here is a picture of you holding it; here is a video of you opening the box. They are not conscious of the things they can’t see, or why those things matter. You remember that doll’s dress as green instead of blue, because when you were that age your mother had a green dress with the same kind of lace collar as the doll’s. She loved that dress and wore it often, and consequently you loved it as well. No, no, the doll’s dress was blue, they will tell you, and they are right, but they can’t feel what you feel, that little echo of your mother’s dress, that little echo of your love for your mother, attached to your doll. The way you carried that doll everywhere until it was gray, and the dress was rags—that, they can tell you about, but they never really understand why. 

It’s the same when they look back at men, which they do all the time, endlessly fascinated: men in the wild! They can watch your father hold you on his lap; they can even catch a whiff of his roast-beef-and-cigarettes smell, though they have never seen a real cigarette and the smell confuses them. But they can’t feel him, the incredible tenderness and patience of the way he taught you to make a proper cup of tea or drive a car, the strength of his body and the exhaustion of it after a long day of work. They say he seems like a good father, but to them it’s all academic. How many minutes per day he spent with you. How many books he read to you. How many decibels his voice rose when he was angry. None of the important stuff. 

There is so much information. Photographs, videos, receipts, social media posts, medical records, school transcripts, search histories. Quizzes to find out which character you most resemble from television shows that ended decades before any of them were born. Conversations stealthily recorded by smart speakers or electronic toys. And that’s before you add in the information that has nothing to do with you in particular: air quality reports, news articles, traffic camera footage, the Billboard Hot 100. All of it accumulated, filed, cross-­referenced, interwoven. And when they’re really desperate, when there are too many holes in the data, they go for recovered memories, though the difficulty and expense means they have to justify the need. But they justify as much as they can. They love to see how it all matches up, how your reported memories fit the data streams fit the neural harvest—or don’t. So often they don’t, and it’s always your brain that’s lacking, that’s incorrect. 

The girl who comes to talk with you is bright. Observant. Fatima is her name. You know she’d hate being called a “girl,” but at your age almost everyone seems like a child. You never had children, but now you’ve got her. 

You don’t entirely agree with the project she’s working on. It smacks too much of self-­satisfaction: a fact-finding mission to prop up the status quo, to prove in a brand-new, scientifically advanced way that men were intolerable, though of course the investigators tell themselves they are unbiased. But that same project brings her back to talk to you, again and again. Though you know Fatima thinks of you primarily as a case study, it’s no small thing to spend months sharing your life with someone, especially someone who listens as carefully as she does.

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When the two of you talk she smooths her headscarf back over her hair, presses her lips together for a brief moment, and then launches into an endless string of inquiries. She rarely dwells on the present for any longer than it takes to say how are you today? because what she really wants to know about is your past. She’s taken that whole “living history” thing very much to heart. You want to tell her that history dies as well as lives, that parts of it fade away every day, through the deaths of its makers, through forgetfulness and intentional obsolescence. That she can gather data like wildflowers, fill her skirts, and it will not change the fragility of history. 

Today she asks about Uncle Paxton, your father’s brother. About a time you and your mother and siblings went swimming with him at the public pool. Your father was supposed to come too, but he’d had to stop at the office first and had gotten stuck behind a traffic accident leaving downtown. 

“Yes,” says Fatima. “An overturned semi transporting chickens. I saw the news footage.”

“My mother was angry when he called to say he wouldn’t make it.”

“Did she say why she was angry?”

You work hard not to smile. Fatima thinks her questions are subtle, but you always know right away when she’s sniffing around for something specific. She’s obviously been perusing the information she’s gathered about this particular day. The videos of you and your uncle, the trace of fear on your face when he stands near you. In emails and social media, the greater frequency of negatively connoted words when you wrote about him, the lack of likes and hearts on his posts. Now she’s trying to gently prod you to put whatever she’s assembled into context. 

You shrug. You know what she’s looking for. She thinks if she asks you just the right question you’ll say My uncle touched me once or My dad told her Paxton was a little sick in the head. She can see, in the data, the little signs pointing
that direction. 

But you won’t say anything negative about him, because there’s nothing concrete to say. He never did anything bad to anyone, that you can verify. It wouldn’t be fair to say what you do remember: That there was a chill that came off him. You looked at him and just knew there was something wrong somewhere, like a broken bone beneath unbroken skin. Your mother knew it; your father too. They never left you or your siblings alone with him. There’s nothing in the record to condemn him, but there’s a lot that was never said where Uncle Paxton was concerned. 

“My mother bought us all ice cream,” you say now. “She always said the ice cream at the pool was too expensive, but that day we all got our own and she didn’t complain once.”

Fatima nods, makes a note in your file. She smiles her tight little smile of longing—never enough information to sate this one—and moves on to another line of questioning. 

In spite of all the hours spent talking, there are some things you don’t tell Fatima about. The night that changed your life, for instance, which started out with something painfully mundane: you wanted to break up with your boyfriend. You were 22, and in six years you’d be living in a whole different world, a world without boyfriends, but of course you didn’t know that then. If Fatima were to sift through your data channels leading up to that night, she’d understand that the breakup was a long time coming. January’s data: two tickets for a trip to the skating rink; a cabin at a state park and an accompanying grocery bill for salmon and chocolate and six bottles of red wine; a photo of a giant cat made out of snow, wearing his gloves and your scarf. March: dinner at a perfectly nice chain restaurant; grocery store roses; a copy of a book he thought you’d like, though you didn’t. June: nothing but a record of a video queue crammed with action flicks, and a case of light beer. By late August, you were done. You just hadn’t told him yet. 

The night was humid, hot, rich with the threat of storms, but you went out anyway. There was a huge park a few blocks from your house, built around a series of wooded ravines and gullies that flattened themselves into picnic grounds in the lower elevations, the grass full of fireflies at dusk. You left your phone at home, in part because you didn’t want to risk it getting wet if it did rain, but more because you didn’t want to be reachable. You didn’t want your boyfriend calling you in the middle of your rumination; you didn’t want to talk to your parents or siblings or even your friends. You just wanted to think. And as it turned out, you’d have plenty to
think about. 

Fatima is a graduate student. At first you wished you’d been assigned someone with a little more cachet. But you quickly realized the logic behind it. No one but a student could devote the amount of time to you that she does. Or the interest. Even you don’t find yourself as interesting as she seems to, but you know it’s not really about you at all. 

When the men were sent away, their stories went with them—their poems and movies, their symphonies, their paintings. Then came a half-century where the bookstores and theaters had nothing but l’art de la femme, and old-­timers like you swapped drives full of contraband hip-hop and novels with the corners worn off. But then, eventually, the restrictions eased. And this new generation, Fatima’s generation, is savvy enough to realize that the last women who actually remember the Common Era are almost gone, that if she and her colleagues want to know what it was really like, separate from all the propaganda, they’d better act quickly.  

Practically, this means you never know when she’ll show up at your care home. It’s going on 10 p.m. when you see her reflection appear behind you in the sitting-room mirror. She looks sad, lacking her usual vivacious edge. Her headscarf is rumpled. You turn and call a hello. 

“Everything all right?” you ask. 

She nods, says it’s just stress, pressure from her senior researcher to get better results so they don’t lose their grant. She sits down beside you and swipes her thumb across her communication cuff, shoots you a little taste of what she’s feeling in that casual way young people do, as though it’s never crossed their minds that you might not want to experience their emotions, even for a moment. Your feel a faint twinge as your own cuff, synched with hers, releases neurochemicals into the artery at your wrist, and a momentary wave of Fatima’s anxiety and exhaustion passes through you. You look at your comm cuff with annoyance but say, “Is there anything I can do to help?” 

Fatima smiles. When it comes to you, she is hampered by a mix of fondness and condescension. She finds your old-fashioned affectations sweet, but more than that she craves what you have, the information you have carried in your body for so many decades. She is grateful to you for preserving it, but she doesn’t really believe you understand its worth in any important way. Better to give her that data, let her handle it. Well, you’d have been no better in your own youth, wouldn’t have believed a 107-year-old woman had anything useful to say. Wouldn’t have thought of yourself as anything other than impossibly old.

You ask her to walk with you, and she nods, gives you her hand as you rise to your feet. Once you reach the kitchen you ask her to make you a sandwich, tell her to make one for herself while she’s at it, and then you sit back and wait while she pokes through cupboards, gathering bread and mayonnaise and mushroom patties, stacking and slicing it all. She hands you a plate. 

 “My dad used to make sandwiches for me in the middle of the night,” you say. “He’d sneak downstairs to make one for himself, but I’d always find him. He said everything tastes better after midnight.”

Whenever you say “dad” she silently repeats the word to herself, trying to get the feel of it in her mouth. You’re not sure she even knows she does it. “Did he cook?” says Fatima. You can already imagine the bulleted lists forming in her mind: C.E. division of domestic labor. Kinship structure. Popular recipes of the Common Era

“He did. He was a good cook. My mother cooked too, but she didn’t really enjoy it.”

She files this information away, and you can see her relax, just a little. She feels her time here has been useful, warranted. 

“So, what is going on with your research?” you ask. 

Fatima sighs. Her field is very new, this combination of biochemistry and cultural anthropology. Neural harvesting has come around at just the right time to make all kinds of leaps possible, filling in gaps in ways they hadn’t imagined. But there are plenty who still think it’s a waste of time, even heretical. Why should we care about back then? We already know how bad it was; what value can there be in asking more questions?

“The technology’s developing so quickly, but we don’t have the funding to keep up. We’re finding that we can access things the Memory Holder doesn’t remember consciously at all. Conversations from when you were a baby, that you’d never have understood at the time. Action in the background while you were engaged in something else. The quality’s not great, but the amount of data is much more than
we’d anticipated.”

“Why would you want to do that?”

She looks up, bewildered. “Think of the possibilities! It’s a whole other generation back. Information about your parents, maybe even your grandparents.”

You take another bite of your sandwich. “Is that what you call me, in your reports? ‘The Memory Holder’?” You picture yourself cradling your memories against your chest like soft, gray balls of yarn. 

“It’s what we call all the subjects.”

You nod your head, thinking of them, all these other old women scattered across the country. You were 28 when the Common Era ended. An adult, to be sure, but those who spent the most time in that period, who belonged more to that world than this one, are already dead. So Fatima and the rest will work with what they’ve got: you, and others like you. They’ll try to extrapolate and glue back together the history the previous generation so gleefully smashed. They are like archaeologists, whisking away the dust from pottery fragments with their soft little brushes. Pieces will be missing. The seams will show. But they’ll have something, some museum idea of what it was like, and they’ll pretend it’s definitive. As if history could ever be that clear.   

The what-ifs of that night used to haunt you. What if you’d taken your phone? What if you’d stuck to the sidewalks around your building, stayed within range of the shining blue light of technology—what then? But now you see it differently. Now that night is something they cannot wrest from you. It pleases you to have even one important memory that they don’t know about. They could neurally extract it, if they could compel you to think about it, but for the moment there’s still an art to the science of memory-mining. Someday, you’re certain, they’ll be able to scan your entire life in the time it takes you to blink, but right now if they don’t know that there’s anything to extract—if they don’t know what to look for—they can’t find it. 

Once you entered the park, you hadn’t been very careful about where you were going. Your daytime familiarity with the place—picnics, sunbathing, Frisbee with your housemate and her dog—had inculcated a false sense of security. It seemed that all the trails wound down to the same soccer field eventually. And there was something enticing about the darkness, too, the depth of the shadows, occasional spears of moonlight lancing down between the leaves. You chose a trail little bigger than a deer path, followed its whims, thinking and thinking about what seemed important then, the boyfriend. You knew how to say “I think we should break up,” but he was sure to ask why, and why was harder to answer, at least if you didn’t want to hurt him. And you didn’t. Part of it, you knew, was tied up in the whole stale life you’d built with him: packing into the same crowded bars every weekend with the same friends you’d had since your first year of college, working retail while half-heartedly applying for brand manager positions and prodding him to do the same. All of that seemed somehow much more fixable if you were single, or with someone else. 

You realized, eventually, that you’d been walking for a long time, that the soccer field was nowhere in sight, that you weren’t sure where you were. The forest was dense here, the trail overgrown, and you were about to reach reflexively for the phone you didn’t have, to shed some light on the path, when you first heard the crying. 

The sound got louder, then quieter again, before it burst into sudden clarity. A woman, not far off, her sobs underpinned by lower voices. A moment later you saw the beams of flashlights coming toward you, and without even thinking about it stepped silently off the path, into a welter of tangled bushes, and crouched to the ground. Peeking between leaves you could see a man gripping the arm of a crying woman, another man trailing close behind, complaining about the steepness of the trail. Now and then the man who held the woman’s arm would tell her to shut up, or drag her forward, or say something quietly to his friend. The three of them were only 50 feet away, then 20, and then the second man swung his flashlight so that it caught the woman’s face. You could see her blackening eye, her lip swollen and split clear down to the tooth, a glaze of blood on her chin dripping onto her chest. The desperation in the way she cast her eyes about, as though looking for escape. In the second that the light brushed across her face she squeezed her eyes shut against the glare, and you did too, a moment later, though the light hadn’t touched you. You didn’t open them again. You imagined your eyes shining in the light of the flashlight beams, giving you away. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” the woman said, and the second man said, “Probably going to be a lot sorrier pretty soon.” 

I should do something, you thought, but you shrank down even further into your own body and prayed, because how could they not see you already, how could they help but see you? Except, of course, that they didn’t even know to look for you. And then the crying got quieter, and the voices faded away into silence, and you finally unwound yourself. You stepped back onto the path and almost collapsed on your cramped legs, limped forward 10 feet and found that your path joined with another small trail, the one they had taken. You stood there for a moment, in a dark space on the map, thinking of the woman and her terrified eyes. 

You knew the fastest way home was up, the way the men and the woman had gone, but you went downhill, turning onto one branch of the path and then another, always seeking the steepest route downward until at last you emerged from the trees, and there was the soccer field. From there you knew the way, could exit the park and go by lighted streets instead of up the main trail, the extra hour it would cost you worth every minute. You walked home on concrete, your body shuddering at every sound in the night. 

When you got to your apartment, your housemate was asleep. You went straight to your room, unplugged your phone from the charger. You planned to dial 911. But what would you say? I saw a woman and two men, none of whom I could identify, in a place I couldn’t find again. I don’t know where they went. It was hours ago. She was injured. No, I don’t know how she got injured. No, I didn’t witness any crime. She just looked scared. You thought that if you really wanted to try to help you would have had to do it in the moment, back in the woods, when the light flashed across her face—though that, too, seemed impossible, because what could you have done? And so you put the phone back down, and brushed your teeth, and went to bed. In the morning you made a cup of coffee and called your boyfriend and said, “I think we should break up.” 

You sit in an armchair, pretending to play with your comm cuff while actually you are watching Fatima and her girlfriend talking outside the sliding glass doors to the home. Or perhaps “talking” is the wrong word. They say very little, mostly shooting each other bursts of emotion from their cuffs, which you can then see play across their faces. They are both flushed, angry, leaning toward tears. You think about how much it used to mean for someone to understand you, to know your feelings from the way your eyes crinkled or your smile turned down at the corner. How the desirability of some things lies in their elusiveness. 

Eventually the girlfriend leaves and Fatima comes inside to start today’s interview session, wiping the sweat from her face and rubbing her eyes. 

“Tough day?” you ask. 

She sighs. “I think I might need to break up with my girlfriend.”

It is the most personal thing she has ever shared with you, and you place a hand on her shoulder. “Maybe she just needs a little space. Have you ever tried talking without the cuffs?” 

Immediately, she’s retreated again, her mouth wry, her eyes clinical. “Oh, that’s a thought,” she says, but you hear what she means: your way of thinking about the world is outmoded. This is advice from another century, laughable in its obsolescence. The way you’d have responded if your grandmother had suggested you make up with your boyfriend by baking him a pie. How could you ever want less information? Surely inadequate information is the cause of all the world’s ills? Well, maybe she’s right. And since when are you such a fan of talking, anyway?

You never told your housemate about the woman in the woods. You didn’t tell anyone. You read the local paper every day, looking for reports of missing persons, murders, assaults. It seemed that what you’d witnessed must have left a mark somewhere. But if it did, in the world outside your head, you couldn’t find it. 

Inside, well, that was different. You thought about her every day. But the external data is deceptive. The data shows that you ate less for the next two months. That you didn’t leave the house as much as you usually did. That you listened to your music a bit louder, played the same sad songs again and again. But the data also shows, of course, that you’d just broken up with your boyfriend. If you hadn’t seemed too enamored of him before the breakup, well, perhaps you’d just miscalculated your feelings. The data floats around a blacked-out space in the shape of a woman with a split mouth dripping blood. 

dark spaces spot illo

If it happened now, of course, the comm cuff would be onto you. Even if by some miracle you were not recorded, even if no one had spoken a word through the whole encounter, Fatima would still be looking at your records and saying, “Something went wrong here. Why so much cortisol and adrenaline? Why the climb in heart rate? Something must have happened—tell me what.” She’d hack it out of you like an unpolished diamond. 

But back then no one did. You didn’t offer up the information. You wanted to sit with your grief and shame. In the silence, your guilt at having done nothing grew into a determination to do something. You quit retail and got a job at a women’s shelter, even though it meant working night shifts and giving up your weekends spent drinking in clubs. A few years later you’d be the manager, but at first you worked intake and sat at a desk at the entrance. Every day, women walked through the door who looked as though they were ready to disappear. Who did not expect anyone to care about what happened to them. 

If you’d learned the name of that woman in the park, if you’d talked about her, maybe you’d have gotten over it. Maybe, when the Common Era was ending, you’d have tried harder to find a way to leave, have headed for some other country where things were going to remain more or less the same, a country full of boyfriends and brothers and fathers and men in the dark with flashlights. But you didn’t. Instead, the weight of that patch of darkness shaped your life in a way light and truth never could. 

Three weeks later, Fatima sits across the table from you, hunched over a mug of coffee. She has broken up with her girlfriend, but aside from this decline in posture she seems to be handling it just fine. She has been interviewing you for an hour, focusing on your time in high school, your interactions with male teachers. You’re bored with the line of questioning, bored with this strange dance the two of you do. You’ve been thinking a lot about what you’d like to say, independent of her questions. 

You interrupt her latest inquiry to ask, “Can we talk somewhere else?”

Fatima blinks. You never interrupt her. You are, for the most part, a very polite old lady. 

“Is that chair not comfortable?”

“Come with me. And leave your comm here.”

“What now?” she says, laughing. You fumble with the clasp on your own comm cuff, slide the cuff loose and set it on the table. You tap the space beside it. 

“I’m not supposed to,” she says. “I need it to record our conversation.” 

“I insist.” You can see her doing the calculations. Hers is a face that calculates nakedly. She feels as though you’ve asked her to walk with her eyes closed; the request is strange but not inherently suspicious. “I want to tell you something. Something I’ve wanted to talk about.
In private.”

Her condescending side slips in. You see her relax a little. You are just guarding your secrets. You are just being a little dramatic about it. Old people and their obsession with secrecy, vestigial limb of a world where secrets still existed. She can indulge you, this once.

She unlocks the comm, slides it from her arm, sets it on the table with clear reluctance. The two cuffs look oddly intimate, sitting side by side. 

You take her hand and lead her down the hallway. You’ve given a great deal of thought to where this conversation could take place. The conservatory is just off the east wing, or will be, when it’s completed. For the moment it’s just a big glass room filled with wicker furniture covered in drop cloths, empty stone planters, and flagstone pathways. Not a plant in sight. Or a camera. Those things will be added in a few weeks. You sit on a shrouded sofa and gesture grandly for Fatima to sit beside you. She does, trying to hide her amusement. You lean toward her. 

“There’s a story I’ve been wanting to tell you. About, you know. Back then.”

She’s instantly alert, the indulgent smile still on her face but barely covering her desire to know. 

“I haven’t told it to anyone. Not even when it happened. But I don’t want it included in the literature or your official reports. It would have to be off the record.”

Fatima frowns. If she agrees to this, she’s ethically bound to follow through; she can’t use any data, any stories, without your permission, which until now you’ve granted easily. 

You know you’re using her youth to her disadvantage here. She can see the immediate drawbacks, but you’re baiting her, dangling a bit of knowledge like a lure. This girl who has devoted her life to uncovering secrets but has never had one of her own—she can’t help herself. Of course she can’t. Even as she promises not to tell, she assures herself that the knowing will be enough. 

And you hope it will be. Knowing without telling, and everything that can come from it. You hope to teach her that.

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