The messenger notices the absence of the message only after he emerges from the southerly slopes of the Westerwald. Kneeling over the water, he stops drinking and stares at his horse, standing next to him on the river bank. Attached to the saddle hangs the satchel, now dangling askew, mouth of the bag stretched wide open like a scream, the entire contents exposed—no, not the entire contents.
The messenger springs to his feet and tears the bag from the horse's back. He reaches into the satchel, his fingers clawing at the leather insides: the side pockets, the scratchy bottom, the hidden pouch secured with a mother-of-pearl button. Nothing. Scanning the ground, the bushes, the muddy bank, the man drops to his knees and crawls like an animal, searching. But the messenger knows, without a doubt, that the missive is gone.
He fastens the satchel back onto the horse but leaves the clasp open. Why should I close it, he wonders. What is important, is gone.
He backtracks northwards, through the Westerwald, following the furious pace of the river for sixteen hours, past the city of Koblenz.
This man is the highest paid messenger in the country. His employer likes him well enough—the messenger feels he should be happy about this. This route, however, the only route he ever takes, has become tiresome, tedious. What he really wants to do is to learn to read and write. He wants to know what it is that he carries on his person each time he mounts his horse. Back and forth, north, south, conveying all those messages from important men to important men.
But he also often wonders where he would end up if he were to ride past his intended destination, curious where this path could take him. He likes to ponder the longest distance between two points. But not today. Today he knows the answer. Many people have told him that the world is round. But he disagrees. His world, he is certain, is one straight line.
The messenger travels hundreds of miles north-south-north in a matter of two days. Along the way, he asks villagers if they have seen a small leather pouch? A letter? A letter in a pouch? A sealed missive with the initials J.P. imprinted in red wax, the insignia of a hawk with talons half the length of its body?
No, the villagers say, no.
The messenger offers them silver coins.
But the reward fails to prompt their memories.
In the middle of the Westerwald he sleeps.
It snows in the night and if he had slept longer, he would have been covered in white. The message, he knows, is entirely out of his reach now and he imagines it buried under sheets of snow or trapped inside a layer of ice, frozen and forgotten, waiting until spring to be discovered, to tell its own tale, an entirely different version altogether.
Yes, he says to himself, ashamed. Knowing the missive will never be found, not by him, the highest paid messenger mounts his horse with a resigned sigh, a pain deep inside his chest. He grabs the reins tight, turns his animal to the east, and rides.
But the messenger was wrong.
The message had been found after all. He had dropped it in a tavern north of Koblenz. On the seat he always occupied during his regular visits—well, that had been where the barmaid who fancied him discovered it. Later, when he had returned, desperate and searching, flushed in the face from riding with little rest, the girl had been off on an errand.
Wishing desperately to know of its contents without anyone in the city witnessing her crime, she took the pouch to the gypsies at the edge of the city, to one of the elders who could read.
The gypsy woman handed it back to her, shaking her head firmly, and said, burn it.
Burn it? But why?
You don't want to know why.
I most certainly do. That's what I paid you for.
All right then. The woman sighed and then coughed on the message. This, she said, is a death warrant.
The girl shook her head. I don't understand.
Nor do I, the woman said, rolling her eyes. But that's what it says. The death warrant is intended for an entire town, which one, I don't know. Your messenger's employer sends orders to his men. To sack the place. Don't ask why. I don't know that either. Things are that way.
The two women stare at each other for a moment.
Well, the girl asks, what happens if the town isn't sacked?
Then the town isn't sacked, the woman replies. The old lady folds the note and hands it back to the girl. Want a pastry?
The messenger rides east without informing his employer, who would no doubt never employ him again, rides east for three days until he reaches Nuremberg, the city where he will spend the rest of his life, where he will learn to read. The first word he ever writes is here. His second is meridian. He cannot think of a complete sentence to form with these words, even if he knew how to write more of them.
With his strong talent for direction and measurement, he will become an apprentice to a man who knows numbers and the sea, and together they will construct one of the world's finest terrestrial globes. From parchment wrapped around a wooden sphere, the world will be transformed.
Years later, the messenger is continually drawn back to that orb, his first one, his earth apple, created with his own hands. Only occasionally does he trace his fingers down the dark curve of the parchment south along the Rhine: Cologne, Bonn, Koblenz, Mainz, his fingers moving vertically, up, down, up again. But more often he concentrates farther west, much farther. The earth here, on this sphere, is incomplete, which saddens him because this exemplar is his first, his favorite. Here, there are entire continents missing, significant landmasses that have been discovered since he had crafted this exquisite object. Where land should be depicted, lies instead a vast hypothetical ocean, a monstrous gaping hole of water and ignorance and absence of imagination. But what he does not know is, today, just to the left of where he points his chin, directly below his thumb that is calloused from years of riding, lies a town set against a gentle hiccup in the late spring landscape, a town that, on this cloudless and bustling market day, shouldn't really be there.
A. A. Srinivasan is a writer and translator based in Los Angeles and Hamburg. Her work has appeared (or is forthcoming) in Triquarterly, The Chicago Review, Connu, Grist: The Journal for Writers and a Pushcart Prize anthology. She holds a PhD in literature and creative writing from the University of Southern California.