excerpt 1

(pages 14-18)

The people broke out into cheers over the mayor’s inspiring speech.  Only the funeral director resented it.  He put the tape measure in his pocket and strode across the crowd and cloistered himself in his house.  The rest of the people raised Ptolemy Protractor in their arms and carried him throughout the alleyways of the town to the central square, where they tied a towel to the neck; and, despite his objections, they made him eat one by one all of the maps, with the mountains, the cities, and the towns.  It is actually alleged that they also prepared a salad to go with his meal.  Afterwards they smudged his face with soot, they put red underwear on his head, and after passing a mandolin over his head like a collar, they tied him up upside down on the scabbiest jackass in the town and sent him off.

Afterwards, after a long, shameful trip in the foothills and mountains, the unlucky cartographer finally arrived in the capital and presented himself immediately to the Upper Council of the Grand Cartography Society – a member of which in those years was also the erudite Al Ball Ibn Masoud El Turni.  He showed the elders his smudged face, the red underwear that he was still wearing on his head, and the broken mandolin as well. He narrated to them where the maps he had artistically made with such effort had wound up, and then complained that the salad that the citizens of Frogburg had given him was completely unsalted.  The elders listened attentively to whatever he said and, without saying a word, and entered the forbidden room.

They remained there for three days and three nights.  Outside, in the grand hall, hundreds of cartographers had assembled, awaiting the decision in anguish.

On the fourth day, around late afternoon, the door to the forbidden room opened and the members of the council came out quietly and sat down in their elevated chairs.  Everyone held their breaths.  Had a pin dropped on the floor at that moment, it would have been heard – not to mention the screams of the person who would have stepped on it.  The president of the council stood up, and with a trembling voice filled with emotion, began to speak.

“My venerable colleagues,” he said.  “Revenge is a dish which is eaten cold, unlike a map, whether eaten hot or cold, is equally unappetizing.  We cartographers, the tireless servants of the loftiest science, take a solemn oath and say that the town called Frogburg from today on is wiped off the map!   Should any cartographer dare to include the town on a map, in a writing, or on a  globe, he will be erased from the membership rolls of the Cartographic Society, and his work shall be put to the bonfire,  and its ashes shall be scattered to the four corners of the world.  Even the simple mention of Frogburg or of elements of its name shall henceforth be considered the highest insult towards our profession; and the violator, whoever it might be, shall have to face punishment by immediate slapping.”

At this point one of the elders approached haltingly, with as much strength as he had left after nearly a century of indefatigable map-making, gave a loud slap on the left cheek of the president.  The latter bowed his head slightly – a sign that he accepted the punishment and continued:

“The barbarians of Frogb… of the city in question…”

The elder made a motion to get up, but sat down, disappointed that the president didn’t repeat himself.

“…but also their descendants will pay for the uncharacteristic behavior that they showed to one of the working members of our guild – Mr. Protractor, take off at last that red thing from your head!  We’ve all seen it already!”

The decision was taken with satisfaction.   Only the distinguished El Turni didn’t seem to share in the common delight.  His face remained darkened and his lips flared as if they were trying to hold back a tear that had welled up inside him.  He raised his arm however higher than the others around him and swore loudly that as long as he lived, he would faithfully honor the sacred decision.  Afterwards, he went down to his workshop, tied a rope to the beam that penetrates the two poles of his giant globe, placed the noose around his neck and…good-bye, wise El Turni.  That’s where they found him, motionless, swinging between Iceland and Greenland, with a note pinned onto his robe.

“I’m committing suicide,” said the note in Arabic, “because my work is condemned to remain half-finished.  I give blessings and curses together, respect my last wish.  Hide, bury my globe, so that no human eye ever faces the chimera to which poor Ball El Turni, son of Masoud, devoted all of his life.  P.S.  As for my turban I leave it to Ibrahim my cat.

The cartographers honored El Turni’s last wish, and his globe was brought at night to the cellars of the Grand Cartography Museum, where it is hidden to this day.  As far as the oath they took about Frogburg, not only did they keep it as long as they lived, they also took steps to ensure that future generations of cartographers would honor it.  And so, if someone stands outside of the building of the Upper School of Cartography, on graduation day, when oaths are taken, you can be certain that you will hear repeated out loud the three supreme cannons of cartography.

A)  North always points up.  B)  South always points down.  C.  Frogburg – and here slapping showers down – doesn’t point anywhere.

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