Friday, November 21, 2008


One of the first places the Train stopped in October was Golgoolian, the huge and grimy city on the edge of the Great Shwamp. Nothing ever seems to stay clean there. The mist that comes off of the Shwamp oozes through the city, thick and brown, and leaves a coating of mud behind it. Smoke from chimneys goes up, curls back down again, and stains the buildings black. The whole city seems to attract dirt. The locals blame the wind.

Like Rampastula, Golgoolian is built on top of layers of itself. Each building in the city has two or three more underneath it. The mud has oozed in to fill the old rooms underground. Archaeologists have excavated some of them, digging as fast as they can while the ground sweats and sags in around them. The deepest ones they've found were little more than stone huts. Arrowheads fill the mud like fossilized fish.

Apart from the occasional archaeologist or basement spelunker, Golgoolian's underground is a blank to the people on the surface. No one goes down there. If they do, they don't talk about it. Three-quarters of the city is underground, and no one really knows what's in it. Every fantasy author in the Railway Regions has at least mentioned Golgoolian's underground; some of them seem to use it in every book they write.

Most of Golgoolian is stable now - the only buildings that still sink are the new ones at the edges and an unlucky few in the middle. No one knows why, but there are some buildings that won't stop sinking no matter how much architecture piles up underneath them. The Corkscrew Tower has at least fifty floors, probably more than that. Five of them are above ground. In the centuries since its foundations were laid, the building has never stopped or slowed its steady descent into the earth. The Earl of Mangrel and his family (one of many noble families in Golgoolian) abandon each floor when it starts to fill up with water and mushrooms, which happens about once every five years, and build another one on top to replace it. The tower tilts slightly every year. No floor is quite parallel with the one beneath it, hence the tower's name. It twists its way down into the ground like a segmented corkscrew of stone. It's anyone's guess how deep it goes.

The Corkscrew Tower is just one of many buildings that never solidified. Golgoolian is full of sinkhole gardens, little patches of ground which seem perfectly solid but eat anything built on top of them. Some are only fifteen feet wide. Buildings next to them have stood steady and even for decades; put a rock two feet from the foundations, though, and it will be swallowed up in a few years. Nothing stays in the sinkhole gardens but small plants. Even trees are too heavy. The gardens are little half-wild patches of solid bog in the middle of the city. They're filled with flowers; marsh-lilies raise their speckled blossoms above bluets and violets, crinkleweeds and moss of every kind. Crumpet creeper sprouts at the edges of the gardens, climbing the neighboring buildings and spreading its crusty orange flowers across walls and rooftops. Pitcher plants and whip-vines nibble at the legions of small flying things that spread from the Shwamp in the Summer. Venus flytraps lurk in the shade. Toads join them, one and only one in each garden. They don't multiply to fill the larger gardens; they just grow. The largest toad in Golgoolian is rumored to be the size of a cow.

Every sinkhole garden in the city once had something built on it. Most of them had several. In Golgoolian, if you give up after your first three houses sink, you're considered lacking in patience. It takes a long time to prove the existence of a sinkhole.

Even so, if it were any other building, the Mangrels would have given up on the Corkscrew Tower decades ago. Each floor only lasts about twenty years before it submerges and goes rotten. The tower has to be constantly rebuilt. It has cost the family a small fortune. They keep it, though, because it has made them a large fortune.

Purple pligma mushrooms will grow anywhere where there's more water than sunlight. They pop up in basements, caves, swamps, and places where it's just been cloudy for a week. Candy-stripe pligmas - a great delicacy in the Railway Regions - are pickier. As far as I know, they've only been found in four places in all of Hamjamser. The Corkscrew Tower is their favorite.

No one is actually allowed into the Corkscrew Tower except for the Mangrels, their servants, and a small army of pligma farmers. All I've seen are photographs of the inside. The mushrooms cover the floor of every underground room in forests of little red-and-white caps. It's like a garden of peppermints or tiny striped umbrellas. Half the candy-stripe mushrooms in Hamjamser come from the Corkscrew Tower, picked and packaged in its damp basements. The Mangrel family lives in the five floors above the ground. They've lived comfortably for generations by selling one small crate of mushrooms per week. All the basements of the tower used to be the elegant upper floors, so the dripping underground rooms are lined with floral wallpaper and carved molding. The water dripping down the walls gradually eats away at paint and varnish, eroding wood and revealing the bricks underneath, but it's obvious that the gray, dripping, fungus-coated rooms were once quite lovely. Large pieces of them still are. After all, there's no sense in letting a nice room go entirely to waste. When a floor sinks underground, its windows are removed and used in the construction of the next top floor. The holes are replaced with watertight seals. Any molding and paneling that can be pried off of the walls is used upstairs. The top floor is always a patchwork of new material and pieces of architecture from six floors down; a few murals and painted ceilings have been moved over a dozen times. The art of detachable architecture is thought to have begun with the Earls of Mangrel.

Below ground, the pligma farmers tend and pick the mushrooms from metal walkways bolted into the stone walls of the tower. Most of the old floors are still there; they're where the pligmas grow. After all these years under the soggy ground, though, the wood is about as solid as old cheese. Anyone who stepped on it would go straight to the bottom of the tower (wherever that is). Water seeps in constantly through the walls. There are holes punched in every floor for the tangles of ancient, corroded pipes that keep the rooms from filling up. Mushrooms grow from the rusty valves. Mud, water, and stranger things are pumped up from the bowels of the tower and dumped into the Shwamp. Children sit by the end of the pipe and try to catch the things that come out of it. No one bothers getting pets from outside the city. The more enthusiastic children have rows of jars and fishbowls in their bedrooms, full of strange creatures from below the ground, aquatic centipedes and spider-frogs and axolotls and amphibious eels and a hundred other things no one's bothered to name. This is the Great Shwamp, after all. Aquatic strangeness is just part of life.

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Blogger linda said...

makes me very thankful to live in a dry unsinking house and one that does not like to sink, grow mushrooms that are purple and slimy things that can crawl around....

nigel, wherever is this coming from?

I might be worried about you...

3:30 AM  
Blogger MLight said...

I love the art of detachable architecture!

4:25 PM  
Blogger Nigel Tangelo said...

MLight - detachable architecture is fascinating. There are whole houses in Rampastula that can be taken apart and reassembled somewhere else, hanging villages in the Great Shwamp that are raised on pulleys during the flood season, wealthy merchants in Bannarbangle who give each other rooms as presents... And all because someone built a tower in the Shwamp.

Linda - having lived in a hotel room in Cormilack that grew all manner of slimy things and flooded instead of sinking, I quite agree with you. It's only interesting for the first few days.

As for the rest... It comes from, well, wherever it is. Everything's out there somewhere. I just seem to be unusually prone to stumbling across it. (I certainly hope you don't think I've been making any of this up...)

12:51 AM  

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