A compass should point North. That’s how they’re built. That’s what they’re supposed to do. This one doesn’t, though. I’m standing here with this lump of metal in my hand. It snaps and bites. And it points, but not North.
The shopkeeper who sold it to me had cackled as soon as the door jingled the bells. He was curled over like a question mark, and his paper bark skin rasped.
“I have what you’re looking for,” he said. His voice sounded like his skin.
“How do you know what that is?”
“You have a Roman coin? It has a capricorn on one side, and the face of a bearded crowned man on the other.”
His laughter ricocheted inside my head. He shuffled around the counter and disappeared through a door. A moment later he came back with a overcooked and stained box in his hand. He placed it near the cash register. “That’ll be 150.”
I peeled the lid off and peered inside. The tarnished dented casing of an old, obsidian-faced compass stared back at me. “Is this a joke?” But I had picked it up. My nerve endings crackled, and the needle spun and spun. The whole thing heated in my hand.
“150. And you best start moving before that thing burns you.”
I spread the cash over the glass, and drifted out the door. As soon as I had crossed back over the threshold and returned to the haze of smog, the screaming of sirens and people and vehicles, the needle slowed. The compass cooled in my hand and the needle came to a stop.
The rules of the compass are simple. Go where it points. And keep going and going. It lets you know when it’s displeased. And you can never let it go. It is your shepherd.
Ice sheets have a language. They are white and cerulean. They breathe and cry. The floor of a redwood forest is dense with ferns, and fallen tree bodies. Roman ruins are shells, pilfered of most things of value except for the very fact they exist. That commodity has to be enjoyed in situ. Volcanoes gush ash, stone, lava or gas. Crabs scuttle sideways. And when a landscape ends, it can be abrupt, defined by an edge and spilling into forever.
I only know these things because of the compass, and the places it commands me to go. And now I’m here, standing on a street that’s been empty for decades. Cracks break the asphalt into chunks. Skeletons are hanging in broken windows of stores, which once sold ducks and dumplings.
Up the street it compels me. I go. I can only see the steep slope, and the empty shops. There is no wind here. No birds or crickets. No cockroaches.
The top of the road is the end of what’s left of the city. Bridges, two-story row homes, Victorians, and skyscrapers rest in a jagged pile. The needle whirls again and points me into the mess. I go. It is a maze of beams, splintered wood, fractured pipes, and shards of glass. Fire lances the underbelly of some of the old neighborhoods, and smoke dances soulfully.
Finally, I am standing on the bare wooden floor of a living room. The house lists toward the grey sea, and there is a chair by the window and a figure in it.
The compass has stopped.
It’s not telling me what to do any more, but I drift toward the chair. The mummified woman stares out the window across the inlet at a house not unlike this one. There is a hole in her chest, waiting.
“I think this is yours,” I whisper, and place the compass in the desiccated wound. I’m almost out of the door when I hear her sigh.
“Thank you,” she says.