Sunday, July 06, 2008

Noise and the Train, at Last

The Train arrived in Milldacken just last month. It was the first time I'd seen it this year. I usually spend the Winter in the Railway Regions, snugly ensconced in one of the smaller compartments on its not-quite-countable cars. I suppose I spent most of the Winter in the Railway Regions this year, too, but it wasn't quite so comfortable. Oh well. It was fun anyway.

This was, apparently, the first time the Train had been in Milldacken in several months. No one ever really knows where it's going to end up next - not even the Engineer. It's possible that some Wayfinders do, but they rarely tell anyone. Wayfinders are rare. They learn quickly not to advertise their abilities unless they want to be mobbed by eager customers.

I must admit, it was a relief to get out of Milldacken. I love it there, but it's nice to be able to hear again. Milldacken gets (impossibly) even noisier after the thaw. It started with the weather; the Spring lured everyone out with warm weather and butterflies, then turned on the hail. That was accompanied by the occasional late clump of ice smashing its way down from upstream.

Once the ice was done, sometime in early May, the migrations started. The loudest animals in the Railway Regions all pass through Milldacken in Spring. First to come were the spore-fish, which throw themselves over the falls and explode in midair. The pieces (eggs, spores, whatever you want to call them - a spore-fish's cells are identical, like a sponge) blow for miles in every direction before they reach the ground. People in Bannarbangle find tiny fish in their birdbaths and can't imagine how they got there.

After the spore-fish came the forfilated goolhowlers - big, ungainly birds, like purple flamingos - who sit on rooftops and whoop like a dozen drunk two-headed carpenters dropping sledgehammers on their toes. They apparently find this unspeakably romantic. In another month, their eggs will hatch, and their chicks will start trying out their own lungs in choruses of insatiable squawking. I won't be in Milldacken to hear them.

The goolhowlers were followed by the smacking turtles, the trumpeter elk, and the screaming day bats (relatives of the ordinary day bats in the Great Shwamp, but without the shyness and the famous cerulean fur. They don't come out of hibernation until it's good and warm. Most of them scream during the day, but there are half a dozen insomniacs who make sure no one sleeps at night either). The cicadas and cliff lions started their own courtship shrieking last week.

Under all this, of course, the city itself makes more noise than anything. The mills, loosed from the ice, rumble day and night until it feels like the air is going to crack. The bands in Milldacken - and there are a surprising number of them, possibly driven by the desire to be louder than their surroundings - tend to play in basements. Most of the noise is (relatively) muffled there. All the songs have the same rhythm. There is only one rhythm in Milldacken.

The Milldackeners communicate largely by sign language after April, unless they're loud enough to be heard over everything else. A surprising number of Hamjamser's most famous opera stars have come from Milldacken.

When the Train pulled up to the station, it was packed with people from Milldacken - not to mention all the nearby settlements too small to have a station - eagerly waiting to get on. There wasn't room in the station for anyone who wasn't getting on or off the Train; the rest of the townspeople crowded onto the terraces above the station tower and were promptly swamped in billows of white steam from the giant salamander steam engine. They didn't seem to care. I don't particularly care for crowds, so I waited on the roof with an aristocratic squirrel, her footmice, and a family of (non-screaming) bats. (They didn't seem to care for crowds either. The squirrel said she was allergic to them. She kept sneezing into a handkerchief the size of a postage stamp.) We came down quietly and got onto the Train once the platforms had cleared a bit.

Milldacken's Train station wasn't originally supposed to be one. The track happens to run along the face of the cliff below Milldacken, supported on thick iron beams driven into the stone. You can look up from the Train and see cliff lions staring at you from the ruins. (They prowl through the empty rooms on sucker-toed paws and hunt bats with their tongues, like frogs.) The tower was originally built just to raise the track from one stable of section of cliff to another - stone that's had tunnels carved in it can't support the weight of the entire Train, even if anyone was stupid enough to try to blow holes in the ruins, so there's only so much cliff that can hold track. The rails originally just went up in an open corkscrew there, wide enough for the Train to spiral around the outside. Milldacken was just a small village with three mills at that point. When it got bigger and wanted to build a station, the track-screw seemed like the perfect place for it. They just built it up through the middle. The foundations are a masterpiece of buttresses and cantilevering, cleverly concealing the fact that the station is built on more or less nothing at all. The tower is seven stories high and one room wide, really little more than a stack of boarding platforms connected by a large spiral staircase. It's built of tough, lightweight cheesestone imported from Tetravania; that's probably the only reason it stands at all. It's impossible to get anything that looks much like a block out of cheesestone, because of the bubbles, so the whole tower has a jigsaw-puzzle look to it. Nothing is square. It sways back and forth slightly in the wind. When the Train is wrapped around it, one car outside each floor, the sounds of grating stone and strained metal are nearly deafening. It sounds like the whole thing should collapse at any moment. Milldacken's engineers go over the whole thing every month, though, and if they say something isn't going to fall apart, it isn't going to fall apart.

Besides, it obviously hasn't yet.

The people on the Train are the same as ever. I didn't look around much - it was early in the evening, so all the Milldackeners piled on just as the other passengers were going to dinner, and all was chaos and noise inside. I just let myself be shoved along until I was swept into an unoccupied compartment. I did see the family of purple lizards that seem to live on the Train, though - I swear, there are more of them every year - and I could hear Lady Mallory, the Engineer, yelling something from the depths of the engine. The reptilian photographer and his stepdaughter, the professional risker, were tucked away in a quiet corner. I think I caught a glimpse of Trenchcoat Guy over the heads of the crowd.

I was joined soon after that by a traveling botanist with a suitcase full of collapsible umbrella-plants. He spent half an hour taking them out and unfolding them in the compartment - apparently, he plans to stay here for a while. He might have actually said as much; he kept up a constant running commentary in some rapid language composed mostly of the letter X. I couldn't understand a word. It's like a waterproof jungle in here. The light from the salamander lanterns* is green and leaf-dappled - I feel like I'm writing this in a moving forest. The wheels are rumbling under the floor. I don't know where we are now. I can look out the window and see mountains silhouetted against the stars; with all the leaves plastered against the glass, it feels like I'm looking in from outside.

It's good to be back on the Train. I've missed this place.

*The Train is home to several hundred salamanders that power the engine and more or less everything else; they sun themselves on the roof, their scales turned pitch-black to absorb sunlight, when they're not working. They get there and back through glass tubes on the walls and provide just enough light to read by at night.

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