Saturday, November 08, 2008

Quests, Clutter, and Freshly Picked Umbrellas

I spent most of today wandering through the Vanister Museum. Most of the passengers on the Train did the same thing, flooding through the entrance hall under the coldly bespectacled eye of Miss Corverly, who runs the Museum with a claw of steel and a mind like a dictionary. (She's rumored to have a dungeon full of badly behaved visitors underneath the Museum, but no one's ever found it.) There must have been nearly a hundred people in the Museum today. Beyond the entrance hall, I saw exactly three of them. It's a large place.

One of the other visitors today was Professor Flanderdrack, who claims to have incontrovertible evidence that the fabled Omnipresent Telescope is hidden in the Vanister Museum. As far as most people know, it was lost forever when Parrafan Loofra, the great aeronautical otter, crashed his airship in Gira Gira. Professor Flanderdrack disagrees. There is a clear and unbroken trail, he says, for those who know how to follow it, and it leads directly to Henrijohn Ignitius Creemer. (Everything Mister Creemer owned, of course, is now in the Vanister Museum. There is an entire room devoted to the contents of his bathroom. His nose-hair-clipper collection, I am told, was quite impressive.) Professor Flanderdrack intends to find the Telescope before the Train leaves Vanister. He seems quite confident. I don't know how he's planning to find one thing (not even a very large thing, according to legend) in the towering archival chaos of the Museum; he hinted at plans and methods, navigational strategies and clues in historical records, but refused to go into detail. I gave up eventually and simply wished him luck.

Most of the rooms I found today were in the Gormless Wing,* judging by the lavender bricks and the fact that most of the rooms' names began with Q. The first few were full of statues of geese. They grew in size as I went - the first room had silver ganders the size of midges and barnacle geese carved out of barnacles, while the last one had room for only a single statue, a reptilian-looking thing carved from a giant palm-tree crystal. The card next to it said that it had been found in a ruin in the Golden Desert, and that the creature it portrayed was widely believed to be extinct. That probably comes as a relief to the Desert-dwellers.

I wandered through rooms full of upholstered armchairs and speckled glassware, galleries of steam- and hamster-powered pipe organs, halls of paintings by legends like Tina Tharschryman and complete unknowns like Thoggerell T. HeFeffenaff, whoever he was. There were collections of thimbles, ear trumpets, mechanical antlers, dried gourds, oracular typewriters (all frauds, of course), fishbowls, tentacle socks, silverware, left-handed scissors, ceremonial spatulae, enameled fish, doorknobs previously inhabited by gremlins, teacups, coffeepots, stringed instruments from miniature feefelos to a six-handed garobassum. A broom closet was sealed behind glass, with a sign explaining that it contained Mister Creemer's collection of antique air. Two Museum visitors were debating the meaning of a copy of the Recursive Sonnet (which shows up all over Hamjamser, carved and written on everything from temple walls to handkerchiefs, and seems to have no purpose except to make people debate its meaning. This one was on a chunk of bluestone from a granary in the Blue Desert). One room was full of clocks shaped like the moon, which someone had recently wound. The ticking of mismatched clockwork was nearly deafening. (Tick tockle tick plink tackatacka PING, tick tockle tick plink tackatacka PING...) They were not all running at the same speed. I think some of them may have been using the Phelodean Interval instead of the standard second.

I've been to the Vanister Museum almost twenty times now. With the exception of the entrance hall, I don't think I've ever found the same room twice.

When I got back to the station, I found Flishel selling his umbrellas. He had set up a little stall on the platform (where he got it, I have no idea - maybe it was in his suitcase) and had umbrella leaves in all sizes standing in neat rows. He'd stuck a few unfolded ones on the top of the stall, where they stood like enormous flowers.

He's been painting the leaves for the last few days. The paint smells faintly of hazelnuts. The green has gradually disappeared under lovely abstract patterns, swirls and speckles and hexagons, like easter eggs or soap-bubble rainbows or Karkafelian tilework. I wasn't sure why - as the leaves were still on the plant, I couldn't imagine it was healthy for them. Watching customers eagerly open and close the fresh umbrellas, I understood. He's been planning to sell them all along.

Normally, umbrella leaves aren't unusually strong - they're stiffer than other leaves, certainly, but nowhere near as strong as the waxed cloth used for most umbrellas. They tear easily. Once they die and dry out, they stop being completely waterproof, and they eventually rot and fall apart. They are leaves, after all.

The paint must do something to the leaves to strengthen them - and preserve them as well, I assume. Several of the customers weren't any gentler with them than with normal umbrellas. They folded and unfolded them roughly, dropped a few on the ground, and tapped at the taut surfaces with claws that would have gone straight through an ordinary umbrella leaf. The umbrellas were not harmed in the slightest.

For a minute or two, I simply stood and stared at the bright little stall. The umbrella stems were tipped with the little wooden things that Flishel has been carving since August: shoes, seashells, fruit and little animals of all kinds - even a small model of the Train engine. Flishel put each customer's favorite handle on their favorite umbrella before selling it to them.

Eventually, of course, I had to buy one. I needed a new umbrella anyway; I lost my old one earlier this year, in Tazramack, when a large green thing (possibly a dragon with unusual taste in treasure) came down out of the rain and flew away with it. I hadn't found another one I liked since then. There were several I liked in Flishel's stall - I'd already been admiring them, without knowing what they were, for weeks - and I eventually chose one painted a rich blue (cockleworm dye, I think) with orange sunbursts. The handle is a little mountain sheep with enormous curving horns.

There's nothing left of the umbrella plants now but the stubby trunks - which, as usual, are hollow inside and resemble umbrella stands. Without their leaves, they seem to have finally gone dormant for the Winter. Flishel packed them all into his suitcase this evening. This is rather a relief, really; the umbrella plants had grown so large recently that there was hardly any room in the compartment.

From what I can tell, Flishel sold almost half his umbrellas today. They were a huge success with both Train passengers and Vanister townspeople. As pretty as metal-and-cloth umbrellas are, they're still mechanical things; some people prefer their umbrellas grown.

As I write this letter, which I will give in about two minutes to one of the Train's flock of postbirds, Professor Flanderdrack has still not returned. I hope he's all right.

* Other wings include the Northless, Salient, Spectacular, External, Superterranean, Ghastly, and Flightless. The rooms in them were named by the curators, but the wings were named by Mister Creemer himself.

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Blogger susan said...

This is a very lovely and unique collection of stories and pictures. I'm very impressed by your vision.

8:26 PM  

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