Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Glacier Festival

Once again, I have missed the Moler Festival on Mount Moler. It was yesterday. I'm starting to doubt I'll ever get to it. I attempted to reach Mount Moler by kilopede last year, of course, but you know how well that worked.

It was worth missing it, though, to be in Milldacken for the Glacier Festival.

The Spring thaw arrives, as regular as clockwork (like everything in Milldacken), exactly three days after the river starts rising again. The first trickle arrived yesterday morning. The cryo-geologists and spelunkers that have been roaming the caverns under the ice all Winter noticed first, of course, and were packed and gone by sunrise.

That was the signal for the Festival.

The Glacier Festival is held in Milldacken every year, on the day the river starts coming back. This day is called the Eve of the Thaw. Anyone who points out that the actual eve of the thaw is two days later, or that a glacier and a frozen river are entirely different things, is immediately pelted with snowballs. It's a tradition.

Of course, the result of this tradition is that half the children in town spend the day running through the streets yelling, "it isn't a glacier, it isn't a glacier!" at the top of their lungs, at which the rest have no choice but to drop whatever they're doing and begin a snowball fight. It's a tradition, after all. No one expects to get much done on the Eve of the Thaw.

The Festival itself began at noon. Everyone went down into the tunnels in the frozen river, where the sunlight was blue and bubbles were trapped in the walls like insects in amber. This was the first time many of the children had been allowed into the tunnels. They ran around like mad, slipping or skating over the floor and exploring the spaces and strange sculptures carved by the river months before. Some brought ice skates; some didn't bother; some just fell down all the time and didn't seem to mind. One small mammal girl (mostly giant weasel, I think, but with six legs instead of four) practically flew through the tunnels, using only her paws, and slid nearly to the ceiling on tight curves.

Milldacken's family of salamander farmers had gone over the tunnels early that morning; they'd melted and refrozen the floor, making the uneven surface thick and smooth enough for skating, and blocked off all the dangerous and labyrinthine parts of the caverns with newly frozen ice. Several of the more artistic ones had made sculptures of their own. A salamander with enough training can focus its heat into a thin stream, which carves ice like a butter knife, or absorb heat quickly enough to freeze poured water before it hits the floor. No one can make ice sculptures like a salamander trainer. Overnight, the caverns had sprouted trees with crystal blossoms and snowball fruit, transparent animals sleeping inside bubbles in the walls, a full-sized model of the Train's engine, an ice palace with waterfall walls, a dragon made of ocean waves, a peacock with a tail full of prisms, and probably many more that I never found. They shone like diamonds in the frozen sunlight.

Eventually, everyone gathered in the largest cave to watch the sunset, which turned the ice deceptively warm shades of pink and gold and made me feel like I was inside a frozen peach. Nearly everyone there was a mammal or avian; the town's cold-blooded residents, for the most part, won't wake up for another month or two. There were a few reptiles and a spindle beetle in the caverns, but they were so tightly wrapped up that they looked more like pillows than people. They had salamanders or arctic rats stuffed in their pockets for warmth. Three large mounds of ice had been frozen onto the floor; people gradually piled wood on these, and I eventually realized that they were for bonfires.

While they were doing that, the children had the annual standing-in-the-water contest. This is an old tradition, dating all the way back to the nomadic clockmakers who founded Milldacken (and Jiligamant, though the clockwork there has mostly stayed small). The contest is simple: everyone puts a foot (or several feet) in whatever water is flowing through the caverns, mostly snowmelt from upriver, and whoever stays in the longest wins. There hasn't been a contest for adults for the last few generations. Apparently, in the last one, eight of the town's most stubborn men stayed in the water all night until it froze solid, after which their feet had to be thawed out with buckets of hot coals carefully (or not-so-carefully) placed by their extremely displeased wives. (This was before Milldacken was big enough to have a salamander farm.) The only ones allowed to compete now are the children, who will get out when their feet go numb (or, failing that, when their parents say so) and don't notice that the water is kept above frostbite temperature with the surreptitious use of salamanders. The winner this year was a small child with more fur than a mop; he or she (no one could tell) had to stand in the middle of the stream so the others could be sure that whatever paws were under all that fur really were in the water. The prize was a clockwork toy day bat with blue spots, which promptly disappeared into the winner's fur and stayed there for the rest of the evening.

Once the bonfires had gotten started, it was time for the feast. Everyone in the town crowded around the fires, armed with pointed sticks, and toasted whatever they happened to feel like toasting. (For the standing-in-the-water contestants, this included their toes.) For the most part, the carnivores brought sausages and fish, the herbivores squash and zucchini; Milldackeners eat more of those than anything else. I saw a lot of marshmallows being toasted too, though, as well as a plumpkin, a loaf of bread, an alarmingly large sump squid (they really do live everywhere), a dried apple, one or two cupcakes, a clump of spaghetti, and a brick. Hooks had been screwed into the ice above the largest bonfire. From them, the farmers from upriver hung spits and roasted a whole thugroffler (for the carnivores) and a 260-pound pinstripe squash (for the herbivores). The smell of all that food cooking at once was indescribable. I'm not even going to try. I've never felt so lucky to be an omnivore.

It took a while, but everyone eventually finished eating. Most of us stayed and sat around the bonfires, warm and stuffed. Many fell asleep. While everyone waited, the candle-lighters walked through the rest of the caverns, lighting every one of the hundreds of candles scattered through the ice. They became visible as the bonfires gradually died down. It was completely dark when we all got up and walked away from the ashes, parents carrying their children, all of us singing an old hymn of thanks for the Winter and the Spring, the mountains and the river. The Milldacken version has an extra verse praying for a safe thaw. The candles shone through the ice in every direction, making the tunnel walls glow flame-orange and ice-blue, shining like a kaleidoscope filled with a million stars.

Two days from now, the river will thaw, and every last trace of the Festival will be washed away. Where the caverns are now, there will be only water. They're starting to fill up already.

I went to bed last night feeling as if I'd just woken up from a dream. In two days, the only evidence to the contrary will be a few traces of bonfire ash and a little windup bat.

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