Tuesday, November 25, 2008


Ayagolla is a small fishing village on top of a small mesa. It's farther away from the water than any other land within two miles. The valley around Ayagolla is deep, edged by cliffs on every side, as if a section of the Railway Regions just sank three hundred feet straight down. Most of the valley floor is a lake.

The villagers have carved dozens of steep, precarious staircases into the wrinkled cliff sides of the mesa; at the bottom, where the cliffs rise straight out of the water, are the docks and the little boats that the Ayagollans use for ordinary fishing. They row occasionally to the little shacks and cabins on the valley's other islands, or to the outer staircases that lead to the rest of the Railway Regions.

The Train, on the other hand, can only get to Ayagolla by bridge.

The Bridge of Golla is built on two rods of hypersteel. They were laid across the valley a long time ago - far too long for anyone to remember, possibly by the Hill Builders themselves - and their ends were driven deep into the face of the rock. No one really knows exactly how long they are. One end of the bridge is attached to the mesa, the other to the top of the valley's outer cliffs. For hundreds of years, the two rods - each over two miles long and roughly the thickness of a pencil - simply had wooden boards laid across them. People could walk to Ayagolla, three hundred feet above the water. The boards had a tendency to rot in the damp air, though, and people kept getting blown off the bridge by the high-altitude wind, so most preferred to take a boat. No one objected when the Train began running and the bridge was turned into a a railroad bridge. Instead of wood, the two hypersteel rods were connected by bars of iron, and tracks were laid on top of them.

It's rather unnerving to cross the bridge. It's less than a foot thick. Nothing supports it except the two pencil-thin rods of hypersteel; from the middle of the bridge, with the cliffs far away, it looks like just a thin strip of metal hanging in the air. Underneath the steady beat of the Train, you can hear the bridge humming, the deep ringing sound made by the metal that does not bend. A piece of hypersteel doesn't just vibrate in one part. If the middle is vibrating, so are both ends and everything in between. The Ayagollans can hear the Train coming long before they can see it.

Ayagolla was originally built by fishermen, who cast their lines over the cliffs to catch the glider-eels that swim through the air over the lake. It's part of their migration route. The river that flows through the lake has carved a deep canyon into the cliffs on either side; the eels weave their way from one opening to the other, avoiding the waterfalls that spill over the edges. They float high above the surface. They swim with the same languid rippling motion used by aquatic eels; their fins are as large as wings and covered in shimmering rainbow patterns. Each eel has four long whiskers, far longer than its body, which it keeps trailing in the water at all times. If an eel's whiskers leave the water, it falls. No one has figured out why. Aeroicthyologists have spent their entire lives trying to discover the secret to glider-eel flight.

The villagers don't really care how glider-eels fly. They just catch them. When the first schools of eels start drifting through the valley, all other fishing stops. The villagers get out their poles, thick bamboo rods strung with rope and baited with apples (a favorite of the eels, for some reason). You need a strong pole to catch a glider-eel. Young eels are no larger than a garter snake, but the adults can reach the size of a tiger shark. The eels are completely weightless until their whiskers have left the water; after that, though, it sometimes takes two fishermen to reel in a large one. They anchor themselves in the fishing-holes scattered over the top of the mesa. Over the years, depressions in the stone fill with small grains of sand, which are blown around in circles by the wind and expand the holes a fraction of an inch every year. Some of the oldest and largest ones have had houses built on top of them and become root cellars. Each eel-fisher picks a hole and stays in it until their eel has reached the top of the mesa; mature glider-eels are large and strong, perfectly capable of pulling a loose fisherman over the edge.

The Ayagollans rarely catch more than ten eels each year. They salt or pickle the spongey meat to eat until the next migration. They sell the whiskers, which are quite popular among experimental aviators. The sky-sails used on some airships, which appear to be constantly filled with a wind blowing from below - like parachutes that never fall - are actually ordinary ship's sails with glider-eel whiskers woven into them. The owners of sky-sail ships keep large supplies of water on board so that the sails don't dry out.

The Train is going to stay at Ayagolla overnight and move on tomorrow afternoon. I hear there's a smokestack in the middle of the town, which I plan to go see tomorrow morning. I've never seen a smokestack up close before.

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