THE MAPSTICK AND THE UNDERGROUND WORLD
Illustration by Carlos Uribe
“You must be hungry,” Wendy told her. “The crows are ready to eat. And you need to wash! Some ointment for those scratches! And clean clothes!”
Wendy put the wheelbarrow and tools in a shallow cave hollowed out of the side of the ridge, and picked up a small burlap bag. Abby walked back to grab the mapstick and the briefcase. She glanced at the old woman, wondering if she had noticed.
“Yes, yes, of course I see it,” Wendy replied in her irritable voice. “We’ll discuss it at length, but right now I’ll just say it’s good news.” And then she gave a rare smile.
Abby smiled back, and followed her to a crvice between two massive boulders in the stony ridge. The opening was low to the ground, and even Wendy had to duck to enter. Abby carried the mapstick and briefcase in one hand, while keeping the other above her head to warn her of jutting stones in the ceiling of the tunnel. As the darkness covered them the head of the mapstick again became a tiny moon, and the blue glow made every detail of the tunnel come alive. The air currents told her of other passages branching off to the right and left. Her eyesight improved as they walked on, until she could see the details of the tunnel as if the earth and stones had a light of their own. A picture of a vast maze of tunnels began to form in her mind. She sensed where they were, and where the passages were going. A distant, dream-like muttering of voices disturbed her vision for a moment, and was gone. ‘Did I really hear that?’ Abby wondered. ‘And if I did, what was it? Where did it come from?’
The picture became complex beyond belief, including several layers of tunnels and caverns, rivers, and streams. Some were tiny, some inconceivably vast, and some full of precious things beyond Abby’s imagination. This map grew in her mind like a tree putting down roots and raising branches all in a few minutes. She no longer had any difficulty following Wendy. In fact she already knew the way, and had no need to follow anyone.
It felt as if only a few minutes had passed when they emerged into a large cavern. The sound of rushing water filled the damp stone hallway, now luminous with the silvery blue glow. They crossed the open space and entered a small passageway with steps carved from the rock. It curved upward to the right. Feeling cramped in the narrow tunnel, Abby sighed gratefully when Wendy pushed open a wide trap door over their heads. They stepped up into Wendy’s workshop.
Abby had seen it countless times, but had never been initiated into the mysteries of the old woman’s secret art. Looking about with her habitual curiosity, Abby realized once again that she had very little understanding of how Wendy created her plant medicines.
A short, very wide window was propped open, and extended horizontally along the back wall, letting the breeze and light of day into the room through a screen of thick vines. Above the window bundles of herbs hung from a rope running across the room like a clothesline. The second wall included shelves of books, and the third a dazzling display of masks, weavings, large diagrams, and maps. The fourth wall had a few shelves packed with containers of dried leaves, seeds, powdered herbs, and bark. And on the top shelf jars full of powder sparked in many colors, yellow, tan, deep red, and brown.
In the center of the room a squat black stove held a copper cauldron almost as large as the stove itself.
“You’ll need enough water to swim in,” Wendy said, and began to pump water from the sink through a rubber hose into the enormous copper pot. Then she turned dials on the stove to turn up a flame, and gathered soap, a towel, and clean clothes. Abby climbed a small stepladder and curled up in the cauldron. ‘Ahhh! I didn’t realize how cold I was. Ohhh!’ She washed, her body steaming in the cool air. After rinsing Wendy applied ointments to the cuts, bruises and scratches. And a few minutes later they were sitting in the front room near the wood burning stove. A few flames glittered through the metal door.
“We’re risking a little smoke for this special occasion,” said Wendy, putting another piece of wood on the fire. “I know I shouldn’t, but for your arrival I’m declaring a holiday.”
“You may not want to once you’ve heard my story,” returned Abby. “I have bad news.” She was staring at the fire with a tragic face.