Mapa de Aquél

Will Dowd

Labra un arduo cristal: el infinito
Mapa de Aquél que es todas Sus estrellas.

—Jorge Louis Borges, “Spinoza”

I’m striding through Times Square, hoodie and headphones on, trying my best to look like a native New Yorker and not the fresh-off-the-bus tourist that I am, when a man with a microphone grabs me by the elbow and drags me in front of a camera and gestures to a map of the world. 

The map is blank. All the countries are clearly delineated but unlabeled.

“Can you point to Africa?” the man says with a smirk, sticking the microphone in my face.

I figure they must be filming a segment for a late-night TV show, no doubt a compilation of American tourists—not exactly renowned for their geographical expertise—nervously laughing as they mix up China and Mexico. 

“It’s right here,” I say wearily, reaching out to prod the African continent. As I do so, I am sucked headfirst into an invisible portal and transported instantly to the precise spot that I touched on the map. 

I sprawl onto hot sand. Shielding the sun from my eyes, I look up and see the Sphinx towering over me, looking like it’s about to pounce on me.

This must be part of the bit, I decide. The late-night show wants us to solve the riddle of the Sphinx (What goes on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs in the evening?). They must have cameras hidden somewhere, perhaps mounted on one of the Sphinx’s limestone paws. I can imagine the studio audience laughing as hapless tourists blubber foolish guesses. 

“It’s man,” I say out loud. “The answer is man.” 

I expect to be whisked back to Times Square, but nothing happens. 

A camel trots by. Two tourists (sunburned faces, straw hats) are riding on its back. The man is fiddling with the camel’s reins while the woman squints at a paper map. We all cover our eyes as a loose funnel of sand sweeps across the desert. In the whirl of wind, the woman’s map is ripped from her hands. It blows waywardly and whips toward my face. The tip of my nose makes first contact, nuzzling somewhere in the pale blue expanse of the Mediterranean Sea. 

Which is where I find myself a moment later, treading water. And then I’m being lifted into a net of cold squirming fish, no longer drowning in seawater but in a crush of slimy scales and sharp fins. The crew leaps aside when they see a human spill onto the deck along with their catch. I rise slowly to my feet, coughing up salt water, and ask to speak to the Captain.

By now, I’ve figured out the game. The late-night show teleports hapless tourists across the globe and times them as they struggle to get back. Why does it take them so long if all they have to do is find a map and touch the right spot? Because the dumb tourists can’t locate the peninsula of Manhattan—let alone Times Square, the place where they were just standing. How pathetic, right? The TV audiences must love it.

“I know this is gonna sound weird,” I tell the Captain in the wheelhouse. “But I’m in the middle of this game show thing and I need access to a map.”

“I’ve heard weirder,” the Captain says and points to the cabin wall. A yellowed piece of paper is tacked there. It’s a hand-drawn map, pulled from a bottle the crew found bobbing in the ocean who knows how many years ago. I study the crude drawing. I can make out an archipelago with an X drawn desperately over one of the islands. It could be anywhere really.

“This isn’t going to work,” I start to say, but a swell rocks the boat and I put out a hand to steady myself and instantly I am on the shore of a desert island. Sitting beside me on the beach is a crumbling skeleton, its bleached arms hugging its patellae, a leather satchel caught in its ribcage. It faces the ocean, seemingly waiting for the ship that never came. 

When I grab the skeleton’s femur, the whole thing topples over. I dig the femur into the sand and start to draw a huge map of the world. I’m racing against the rising tide. White foam is already sweeping away my Antarctica. 

When a crab pinches my heel, I yelp with pain and fall backward, my splayed-out fingers landing in South America.

Suddenly, I’m standing on a street corner. The rain is torrential. Café workers are dragging chairs and tables under colorful awnings, while scooters and buses spray water over the curb, washing the sand from my legs. 

A pedestrian is running past under a withering umbrella. I ask them, in my rusty high school Spanish, where I am.

I am in Buenos Aires. Though in this blinding rain, I might as well be anywhere. 

I hear horns honking. An elderly man is flailing in the middle of the road, waving a cane around. I rush over to him and ask if he needs help.

“Isn’t this fantástico?” he cries. 

I realize he’s not flailing but dancing. Dancing in the rain. He throws back his bald head, his toothless mouth open wide to the sky. “Taste it,” he tells me. “Taste the rain.” 

I let some fall on my tongue. “Wine,” I say, surprised. “It tastes like red wine.” 

With relish, he explains that every fifty years or so a perfectly-angled storm sweeps over the mountain vineyards, picking grapes as it goes. These grapes are carried for miles inside the soaring thunder clouds, crushed by the air pressure—he grips my hands and squeezes surprisingly hard to demonstrate—and then, smote by lightning, they ferment into a delicious, smoky wine. 

The old man slips off his cobbled shoes and starts to stamp his bare feet on the wet pavement. “I used to crush grapes in a barrel,” he says, “when I was un chico. Just like this,” he laughs, stamping and splashing. “Just like this.” 

Before long, he’s out of breath. He leans on my shoulder as he slips his shoes back on. “That’s what life does to you,” he sighs philosophically. “It crushes you. Crushes you and then—” he gestures proudly to himself “—you become wine.” 

Slightly inebriated from the rain, he drags me to see his shop. It’s a cozy curio shop with exotic rugs rolled up and stacked along the walls and old books piled in dim corners, sleeping on top of each other. 

I ask the old man if he has any maps. “This is very old,” he says, as he spreads one out on a table. “It was created a century after Cortez arrived.” I stretch my arm over the map’s ancient parchment. 

“Goodbye,” I say. The old man is taken aback but recovers quickly and, with a gentlemanly bow, says, “Adiós.” 

I touch a small peninsula labeled New Amsterdam.

I am back in Times Square. The late-night show mercenary takes one look at me—bleeding, soaked, stinking of fish—and doubles over with theatrical laughter. I wait for it to subside. 

“You are something else,” he finally gets out. “I didn’t ask you to point to Africa. I asked you if you could point to Africa. It was a simple yes or no question and you failed.” 

I stalk away, my face burning red.

Will Dowd is a writer and artist based outside Boston. His first collection of essays, Areas of Fog, was named a Massachusetts Book Awards Nonfiction “Must Read.” He is a regular editorial cartoonist for The Boston Globe. His writing and artwork have appeared in The Washington Post, NPR, Writer’s Digest, and elsewhere. He is the recipient of a Massachusetts Cultural Council Grant, a WPR Creative Grant from Harvard University, and the St. Botolph Club Foundation Emerging Artist Award. He currently serves as an editor for Post Road Magazine. He earned a Master’s of Science from MIT and an M.F.A. from New York University. More information is available at, and follow Will on X at @watershipdowd.

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

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