THE MAPMAKER’S DAUGHTER comes out three weeks from today. In celebration, here’s another excerpt:
We are not the only traveler to Lisbon that summer. Nearing the city we hear rumors of people dying of plague in cities to the north, and on the outskirts of Setúbal, we see columns of people leaving the city. “Don’t go in,” they tell us. A man points to the haze on the skyline behind the city. “They’re burning corpses. The cemeteries can’t keep up with the dead.”
I toss that night on a straw mattress in the sweltering attic of an inn, whose windows are sealed tight to keep out the disease. The rats scurrying across the roof sound as big as squirrels, and the droppings on the floor make my heart pound at the thought that they have a way of getting in. The vision of their yellow teeth, beady eyes, and wormlike tails is so unnerving that I sleep the rest of the night in a chair with my feet curled up so they can’t run across my toes.
By the next nightfall we have found only a deserted farmhouse, where we devour a bottle of wine, part of a round of cheese, and dry sausages we find in the larder. The next day we leave a few coins to reassure ourselves that the owners must be briefly away rather than lying dead somewhere of the plague.
East of the fishing villages at the mouth of the Tagus River, we see a family huddled by the side of the road. The woman is slumped in her husband’s arms, while next to them a small girl holds a crying baby. The man’s shirt has been torn away, revealing horrible black swellings on his neck and back. His eyes are haunted and wracked with pain. His wife turns to me, and I see a bloody froth escape from between her pale lips.
Our guards cry out in horror and send their horses at a gallop. I call out after them to stop. How can we leave children there, with their parents dying? My father’s expression is a mix of revulsion, fear, and grief. He makes a cutting motion across his throat and gestures to me to follow as he gallops away behind the guards.
He is right, I know. Taking the children with us will not save them, and I can’t comfort them without dooming all of us. Still, I see the little girl’s terrified eyes and hear the baby’s wails for hours.