Nico Walks to the End of the World
Many will advise against this place.
A few will say seek it.
- Notes of a Traveller
(Written in small, elegant characters on the back of a crisp map.)
Nico tried to be alert to other travelers along the muddy road—a basic rule of the road—but he was tired. Ten years ago, at forty, he could have covered a few more leagues. This route had been his father’s—a meandering run through towns needing pots mended or new spoons. Maybe a different path would have found better results for the odd bits he peddled. He was no tinker, but the route was what he knew, and he walked it by long memory.
The three men walking ahead were close enough for him to hear their conversation, if they were having one. They were not. Nico’s soft, woven creel full of wrapped glass trinkets thudded against his back, and the straps cut against the skin under his arms. He was hungry. Budens was just a few more leagues. His muddied boots trundled against the road and he was glad that it had at least stopped raining. The Atlantic’s criminal winds and relentless waves battered this coast on two sides. Rain was a possibility on any day, though it rarely lasted more than an hour or two.
He was looking at his boots and noticed another pair of boots facing his. He stopped and looked up into the stubby face of one of the men who had been walking ahead.
“Purse, mendigo,” the man said. He was the smallest of the three and wore a long, mud-stained brown coat. He held a dagger in his right hand. The other two wore the same and also held daggers. There was no one on the road behind him; no one ahead. No houses for another league.
Nico lifted the leather pouch from his belt and handed it to the thief.
“Pretty light, mendigo. Where’s the rest?”
“My creel’s full, so my purse is empty.”
“What’s in it?”
“Glass figurines and a book.”
Something hard struck his head, and everything fell black and muddy.
Light and sense returned slowly. It was nearly dark, and he was not alone. Nico leaned against a stone wall. Had he crawled there? His hair was wet against his head. He rubbed through it and his hand came away stained with rain-diluted blood. Where was his creel? A man dressed in odd black clothes—a short coat with thin stripes of gold thread and matching trousers—bent over something. The man’s shoes were once a shiny black, but were now stained with mud. He collected something, placing whatever he found into a basket—Nico’s creel.
“Ah, finally awake, my friend.” the stranger said, turning to Nico. The stranger wore shiny, mirrored spectacles that hooked behind his ears. “Most of these are fine. Only a few busted. Now, what you need, is a new map.”
The man placed the last of the scattered figurines into the creel. “Thank you,” Nico said. He felt the lump on his head and feared this man might be working with the others.
“Not at all. I must have found you just after the damned thieves clocked you.”
“Here you go.” He handed the covered creel to Nico. A few broken pieces of glass remained embedded in the muddy road. “How far do you have left to go?”
Nico saw himself reflected in the small oval mirrors of the man’s spectacles. “Not far.”
“I’m a bit of a peddler too. At least, until I sell this last map.” He pulled a folded parchment from inside his coat and held it out to Nico.
“A map of what?”
“A wealthy port city less than half a day’s journey from here.”
“I’ve been there. I know my way without a map.”
The man shook the map at him. “I doubt you’ve been to the End of the World. And you have to get there soon, no later than tomorrow night, or the map will be worthless. Sooner would be even better.”
Nico took and unfolded the map. It lacked detail outside a circle, but inside lay a depiction of a small city and harbor. The familiar trading towns of Almedina, Burgau, Figueira, and Vila da Luz were sketched at the edges, but just beyond Rocha Negra, east of Vila da Luz, was the start of a road he’d never heard of—the Goresetch. The Goresetch led into the circle and city. The mapmaker had marked the city’s name in strange characters he couldn’t read. The End of the World, the stranger called it. Who named a city Fim do Mundo? Similar characters filled the back of the map—from the orient? Elegant-looking thin lines, but written at different times and with different quills. The writer had used every available space, as if it were their only paper. He handed the map back.
The man put his right hand in a pocket at the side of his pants. He continued offering the map with his left. “Two coins and you put me out of business. A city like that would flock to art such as your glass. They’d love it. There’s a kind of magic at the End of the World.”
Nico looked at his creel. He’d sold nothing in five days. Maybe a new route, a new city, was what he needed. “But I was just robbed.”
“Dude, you haven’t reached your age peddling without knowing how to preserve a few coins.”
There was no question he wanted the map, and the stranger had guessed right. Nico pulled off his left boot and shook out two dull and worn dinheiro. He replaced his boot. The man handed him the map for the coins.
“Pleasure doing business, and safe travels. Don’t let anyone else jump you.” The man turned toward Almedina. “Don’t forget, be at the End of the World before tomorrow ends,” he said, waving a finger over his head.
Nico tucked the map into his coat and headed home, wondering if he had been robbed twice.
Before dawn, Nico swallowed the last chunk of stale bread with a swill of flat, watery ale. Lura stood with her arms crossed in her worn gray house smock and stained gray wimple. The cottage smelled stale. Even the fresh bread tasted stale, but he hadn’t married Lura for her cooking. Her basketweaving was little better than her food, and while they sold, it was never enough. Their thirty years together had faded in his mind. What had drawn them together? Why had they stayed together? Had she been beautiful, wealthy? Certainly not wealthy, and he had never been handsome. However they found each other, they had become comfortable. She drew him home, always. The cure for his wanderlust, however temporary.
That’s what a lifelong love turned into—comfort. There was something more, too, something he couldn’t quite remember. It happened more often lately. Last week, he had forgotten for several panicked moments which fork in the road to take outside Burgau. He wasn’t old enough to lose so much memory. He felt no different at fifty than he had at thirty.
He rose from the table and lifted the creel over his back.
“Where will you find people longing for glass baubles today?” Lura asked, smiling.
“At the End of the World.”
“Well, if you find the end of the world be careful not to fall off and leave me widowed. Whatever would I do without your vast income?”
Let her joke. He had determined upon waking that he had not been robbed a second time but given an opportunity. The map sat in his pocket like a promise.
She leaned toward him, and he remembered. She had been and still was beautiful. Her lush brown hair was giving in to silver, and her sparkling eyes were set with fine smile wrinkles. She had chosen him—plucked him away from his father like a child adopting a puppy. He gave her a peck on the lips, and she smiled. “Return to me.”
He left their tiny home made of wood and thatch and surrounded by carob trees and wheat fields. The eastern sky was still dark, but ribbons of purple rippled above the horizon. Hearth smoke filled the air and his breath was visible. The muddy road out of Budens was rutted with cart tracks and footprints. He had to pass through Burgau and Almedina, then Vila da Luz, then down the league-long stretch of the Goresetch Finger, and finally to the End of the World.
“I should be there by evening,” he told the sky. “Well before the end of the day.”
The padded glass ornaments in his creel thudded against each other as he walked. The creel was heavy. He carried every glass bauble in his inventory, making more room by leaving behind his new book, Don Quixote. If he sold the lot for anything near the price he expected, he could live for a year without making another trip. A year spent with Lura, reading and watching her weave baskets if the wanderlust didn’t grab him.
Burgau came into view just as the sun emerged through the trees. A small fishing community with a large beach, Burgau was full of practical people but afflicted with sea salt. It hung in the air and stung the nose, a fine, pale crust that clung to anything that didn’t move. Just a few hours’ walk lay between Budens and Burgau, but less than a handful of people from either town ever visited the other. They were born, lived, and died without ever leaving their village. Budens was home and Lura, but he couldn’t stay for more than a week at a time. The pull of the road drew him away on adventures of commerce. When he was young, even if he sold his wares at cost, it felt like a success, especially if there was a book among the things he carried in return. The journey was its own payment.
Yet that form of payment no longer satisfied. There had to be some small profit. The glass baubles were a brilliant idea, but they had not sold quickly—nor at all. Farmers and fishers were not interested. Decoration was for those who appreciated art and beauty for its own sake. A more cosmopolitan place, like an actual port city, would appreciate art and have the money for it.
He stopped at a tavern for a drink and some bread with a little crottin of cheese, neither of which was stale. He left one of his two remaining dinheiros on the counter.
The tavern keep snatched the coin. “Still selling glass statuetta?”
Nico nodded. “Has someone asked for me?”
“No, just wondering if you gave them up.”
“I have to sell them. I can’t eat them.”
“True enough. Where to this time?”
“The End of the World.”
The tavern keep stopped wiping the counter. “Now, there’s a town strange as sunless mornings.”
“You’ve heard of it? Strange how?”
“Man dressed all in black with mirrored glass over his eyes stopped in here last night; said he was from the End of the World. I thought he was being secretive, but he started talking. Told me he just couldn’t take the life there. Said he came from the future, but fell into the End of the World. He gave up trying to leave and tried to fit in. Never had enough chips or something, so he gave up living there. Said this wasn’t the road home, but it was better than the End of the World.”
“Imagine you’re correct.”
Nico finished his ale and left. If the man was so eager to leave, was it a place he wanted to visit?
Yes. It was a place he’d never been.
Energy and purpose drove Nico away from Burgau and over tree-lined hills and vineyards toward Vila da Luz, fueled by the feeling he was running out of time. He stopped in the empty road under a warming, early season sun to study the map. The writing on the back had been done at different times and with different inks, like notes. Why had he never heard of the End of the World, or even of the Goresetch road? He knew many distant towns and cities, had traveled to several, but heard nothing about a place called the End of the World. He would have remembered a name like that. Wouldn’t he? A kind of magic, the man had said. Also, if he didn’t reach the town today, the map would be useless. Why would that be? Must have been a sales trick, pressuring him into acting before it was too late by creating a false limitation. He was familiar with those tactics, though he didn’t use them himself. The map was probably a copy among hundreds. And probably already worthless. The city, despite its name, would be no different from any other.
He didn’t believe in magic, but he had experienced wonder. It’s what drove his wanderlust. He’d seen a man with six fingers and mountains so tall they blocked the sun half the day. He once visited the grand city of Lisboa, guarded by men in glimmering steel who were mounted on the finest horses; the city was dense, with people stuffed into every street like fish in a basket. And there was the stoic cathedral Santa Maria Maior de Lisboa, which had remained proudly upright and whole through earthquakes that had crumbled its neighbors. Miracle to some, but a wonder to him. He believed in wonders, and they beckoned him to the road. He collected wonders. So many he knew he’d forgotten some. Books, too, were collections. Collections of memories recalled by the reader, but they were someone else’s memories, or no one’s if fiction. The failures of his memory crawled at the back of his mind, stalking with the stealth of time lurking in the shadows. What happened when you lost the connection to your memories? Smells could reconnect them, sometimes a touch. But were the rest just gone forever, like a breath?
He folded the map and returned it to his pocket. He needed to hurry. It would be late when he arrived at the End of the World, and the limitation felt true.
The Goresetch was hardpacked and dusty. In the twilight, Nico couldn’t see the dust, but it tasted stale and clogged his nose. A current-driven breeze blew from the south across the Goresetch, warm and humid. Beneath the wind, there was a hint of smoke. That familiar scent of hearth and civilization mingled with the dust. He was close now, but he took another rest and pulled a glass figure from the top of his creel: a mule, like the one his father had used to carry tin pots and tools. He never cared to learn the tinker trade, but he loved that dutiful mule. He had fed and watered it as if it were his pet. He’d named him Viajante—wanderer. Loading creel baskets over Viajante’s back early in the morning, before sunrise, was a promise of a trip out of Budens. With few days at home for friends, Viajante, or Via as he grew to call him, was his closest friend. Viajante never complained about the distance or the weight on his back. It was through their travels he had met Lura. His father tinkered for her mother. That year was a warm, lavender memory. It returned, seeped into his mind like heat returning to frostbitten fingers. He put the glass mule in his pocket.
Nico walked another hour in full darkness, stopping several times to listen and search for lights. Nothing. Only the flapping of bat wings at twilight had made a sound. The seabirds were quiet in their roosts. His legs ached and his back was stiff, the weight of the glass in the creel bending him forward. The night was moonless, but that wasn’t right. It should have been a quarter moon. There must have been clouds he couldn’t quite see, though there were stars. He drifted to one side of the road, then the other, unable to see the way forward. Only the softer edge of grass on the edges outlined where the road passed. The sound of the road behind changed. It was quieter and felt more isolated. The air smelled different. Gone was the scent of sandy pines replaced by the smell of the open sea. Was it too late? Was the limitation real? Was the map?
A warm, yellow light poked a finger toward the road. Drawing closer, he saw more lights and the shadowed outlines of buildings. Voices drifted from behind dimly lit windows. There was laughter, some harsh words, and a few delighted squeals. He exhaled long, unaware he had been holding his breath.
A half dozen masted ships swayed as black silhouettes against the blacker sky. A harbor city in the truest sense. Hope lightened his step. A few people walked along the docks under the light of the ships’ lanterns, and at the far end of a quay a red light glowed at the top of a stone structure. A warning light.
A friendlier light, and some hearty laughter, spilled from a particular inn and tavern. The Scale and Tentacle called to him with its welcoming glow and cheerful sound, like a familiar haunt. There was a crowd inside, the room brightly lit. His arrival drew no attention. His stomach rumbled. There was a seat and a small table in the back, and he set his creel down and sat. A wooden menu, handwritten in charcoal, was extensive and looked delicious: roast lamb, pork tenderloin, buttered sole. Expensive items. Could one dinheiro buy a meal and shelter for the night?