Stephen Berer
the Eternal Jew's biographer

The Eternal Jew’s Tale, #125, Maps

Detail of the Catalan Atlas, 1375, produced by Abraham Cresques; image modified by the author; obtained from Wikimedia Commons, in the public domain.
Detail of the Catalan Atlas, 1375, produced by Abraham Cresques; image modified by the author; obtained from Wikimedia Commons, in the public domain.
In this episode the Eternal Jew learns a new trade.

The Eternal Jew’s Tale
Eighteenth Era, Part 4, ~1425 C.E., Genoa

Me, I kept a full account of the way from Prague to Venice, with sketches, notes, and maps of streets, buildings, landmarks, plants, any notable topologies, and arrows showin’ the sun’s path. I had no doubt, Italian traders would find these sheets a resource that’s worth some trade.
Come out of the alps to San Michele al Tagliamento like leaves blowin’ in an autumn gale, right past Venice and thru the hills and almost into the briny drink down on Genoa’s bustlin’ docks. They were piled with furs and barrels of salt and piteous, weepin’ slaves in chains. One of these galleys, if we pays the price, will surely take us to Valencia.
I set about tryin’ to hawk my maps, but I quickly seen I missed my chance; probably should have sold them back inland —
“I sail boats; I don’t drive carts.”
or “If I can’t sail there, I don’t go.”
or “That’s the kind of troublesome scheme Venetians like, not us Genovese; a ducat of work and a denar of pay.”
or “Prague? Is that some kind of fish?”
or “I ain’t got no use for Jews.”
Finally someone takes a peek at my folio of sketches and maps.
“Come with me. I know a man….”
We push our way thru the teeming quay, sailor and servant, porter and thief, til we cross a plank onto a ship; the smell of the sea and tar and men; and climb a ladder under decks, dark as a tomb; sailors’ snores; a sewery bilge and oil smoke; and into a cabin the size of a grave, lit from above by a hatch in the deck.
There’s a man pourin’ over crinkled maps. When he seen us he quickly stands and salutes,
“Captain, what brung you unner decks?”
“Meet my navigator, Daniyel. But for him I’d ever be lost, peering out on the chartless sea, beneath those ciphers hung in the sky.”
And he gives him a hearty whack on the back.
“I met this hawker trying to sell third rate maps all scratched up with notes, and silly sketches of buildings and trees. He tried to sell this scheiss to me. I think, maybe you can set him straight.”
“Show me,”
he growls, and sits back down.
I hand him my folio, ready to take abuse expandin’ the captain’s line. Instead, he quietly murmurs ‘shalom.’
He brings us home to his wife and kids in a fine apartment high on the hill lookin’ down on the harbor and docks. Hardly time to exchange hellos, and there’s Batkol spreadin’ salve on the crusty eyes of a wisp of a boy. Farro and carrots and a fish stew is fillin’ the air with heavenly smells, and makin’ my stomach gurgle and yip.
After birkat* he takes me outside. We climb a long steep stair to the heights. The sun’s still a hand above the sea as he unlocks an iron-clad warehouse door, then locks and bolts it once we’re inside. Now he rolls up a shutter high on the wall. Light pours in, and such marvels revealed. Compasses, quadrants, astrolabes, cross-staffs, calipers, piles of maps, sketches, notebooks, cartloads of books, draftin’ tables, triangles, squares, a sphere in a cradle that turns on a pin, and maps drawn on it — he calls it a globe. This, a model of God’s own earth! Never seen nothin’ like it before. It’s probably forbid by pope and king.
* blessings after meals
What angelmen created all this? Such tools as only a magus could use; mysterious, precise, and elegant made for them that would sail their swift black ships to seek out battle with Leviathan or with all the world’s navies, come what may.
But he didn’t bring me for a treasure show. Before I knew what I was lookin’ at, he lifts up a book and declares to me,
“Torah and Prophets be complete and done, but here in my hand new books been writ; maps, halakhahs* to decipher the ways thru these lower worlds, and who can say, but from here to the upper worlds, just one step. And just like in days of old, its Jews that brung down the knowin’ and prepared the maps to walk this Sinai wilderness. And where’s the New Jerusalem? Majorca! That’s where the Temple stands! That’s where the greatest map-makers live.
* Hebrew: Jewish law; literally:‘the way to go’
“You say you want to return to Spain? No you don’t. That’s the new Canaan; vicious kings and evil priests. And soon the Lor will send down plagues, and us, enslaved, will flee from there. No, you mustn’t go back to Spain.
“Stay with me. I seen your work, your steady hand, your critical eye; your mind for detail most of all. You have talent; patience too. Stay in Genoa here with me. I’ll teach you all my map-makin’ skills, and with a folio of new-made charts, we’ll pilgrimage to the holy land, up to Majorca, a beauteous isle, and make our fortune, and make our names. What say ye? Will you stay?”
Like the king’s gendarmes be poundin’ on your door late at night, you tremble and sweat as you slowly open your door for them. But then to hear the king seeks your advice…
Stunned I be to hear him perpose such work to me. I says not a word, thinkin’ my little folio of maps be a childish project in Daniyel’s eyes; I was intendin’ to scrape them parchments clean to use for something worthier. And as for Spain, an equal shock. My heart were already in the west, full of nostalgia for them bygone days, with little regard for the rumors and news that a new pharaoh had arisen there. And as for Genoa, a migratin’ bird don’t look for no nest; it *just leans on the wind as it takes him away, sayin’ ‘that’s where I wanted to go today*…’
*-* Jefferson Airplane, Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil
Well, all them thoughts lay in my brain like a heap of straw in a donkey’s stall, so alls I murmurs is,
“I don’t know. So, tell me what these tools here be.”
As the sun sets he locks up his place and we climb back down them dizzyin’ steps in the dizzy disarray of my haystack of thoughts.
Sunrise. Batkol and me long awake discussin’ Genoa, Majorca, Spain. Batkol been doubting for some time now that we would find Spain a welcoming land. Nor Moorish Africa is better than that. So the prospects of a temporary stay right here relieves her gusty and worrisome doubts and gives us some slack to assess the winds. It tears me some to let go of the past, but before Daniyel’s children are runnin’ about, we decide to learn us a new trade, makin’ maps in Daniyel’s shop.
So I be bent to a draftin’ desk, pourin’ thru maps, crumpled and crude, and sketches of shorelines, villages, and cliffs, and scrawled notes by men who can’t spell, nor can they draw; often produced while their galley is battered and shuddering in storms, sheets spattered in salt spray and ink. From such-like scraps I try to compile an accurate map for the navy to use to navigate thru some Greek isles.
Meanwhile, Batkol’s on her own. Leavin’ such chaos and madness to me, she discovers that herbs and cures from extracts, infusions, oils and salves be well-developed in Liguria’s hills.
In the next episode Batkol sets out on her own adventure.
About the Author
I am a writer, educator, artist, and artisan. My poetry is devoted to composing long narrative poems that explore the clash between the real and the ideal, in the lives of historical figures and people I have known. Some of the titles of my books are: The Song uv Elmallahz Kumming A Pilgimmage tu Jerusalem The Pardaes Dokkumen The Atternen Juez Talen You can listen to podcasts of my Eternal Jew posts on my personal blog, Textures and Shadows, which can be found on my website, or directly, at: I live just outside Washington, DC with my bashert, and we have two remarkable sons. Those three light my life.
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