Friday, November 14, 2008

Town of Fossils

I spent most of a week this Summer in Tazramack, a cold town high in the mountains, where things keep for a long time. Everything there has a strange, fossilized quality, as if the town exists inside an old photograph. I couldn't escape the feeling that if I had visited a hundred years ago, I wouldn't have been able to tell the difference.

Nothing ever dies in Tazramack. Not permanently. If it does, it is promptly stuffed and put in the nearest museum. A third of the people are taxidermists, and half the buildings are museums. They are dark and dusty and vaguely creepy. The narrow halls and dimly lit rooms are stuffed with stuffed animals - deer, horses, trantelopes, thugrofflers, cats and canines of all sizes, tortoises, seals and dolphins, even fish. There's an entire museum devoted to the art of preserving dead frogs. Another is basically a three-story filing cabinet full of drawers of dried insects. A third specializes in teeth, from micro-shrew bicuspids to a havernack's tusk that required the construction of a second tower, as it is taller than the museum itself. For some reason I could never understand, every museum in the town - no matter what else is in it - has a stuffed alligator hanging from the ceiling somewhere. Just one. It might be in an entrance hall, a dusty back room, or even hanging nose-down in a broom closet, but it will be there somewhere. No one seems to know where the alligators came from originally. People in Tazramack don't ask questions about the past; they just preserve it.

When the town was built, it seems to have been dug out as much as it was built up. The streets are narrow trenches cut into the stone of the mountain. The first floor of every building is hollowed out, rooms carved in the blocks left between streets, and the wooden upper floors were built on top of them later. Some buildings even have stone furniture sprouting like mushrooms out of the floor. Fossils coat every piece of stone in the town. Only the most delicate have ended up in museums; there isn't room for the rest. Half of the mountain seems to be made of fossilized creatures. The streets are paved with stone clams instead of cobblestones. Every wall is lined with trilobites, ammonites, reticulated sea-nullipedes, and hundreds of other things I'd never even seen before. There are shells smaller than grains of sand and sea-serpents so long that they stretch through the foundations of five or six buildings. Scaly coils form arches above alleyways. The central square of the town was hollowed out around the three biggest fossils: a prehistoric shark, a giant squid, and an enormous eurypterid, circling each other on pedestals of stone above the ground. It's impossible to tell whether they're preparing to fight or taking part in some ancient aquatic dance. On market days, the townspeople set up stalls in the spaces between the eurypterid's legs. Pigeons perch on tentacles the size of trees and make their nests between the teeth of the giant shark. People count their sharks' teeth (the main form of currency in Tazramack) and haggle over the price of sump squid in the shadow of creatures that could have eaten them without bothering to chew. No one seems to think anything of it.

I'm still not sure whether I'm glad or not to have shed my skin in Tazramack. It came off in late July this year, when the Train had stopped in the town to pick up a few boxes of coal. (They use it to train the salamanders, the way dog trainers use biscuits.) As I've said before, I enjoy most of the effects of my particular example of the Shapeshifter's Curse; the changes I go through all year mostly seem to be adaptations to make me more comfortable. When the weather changes, I usually have to endure only a few weeks of discomfort before I change to match. If I spent long enough in the water, I'd probably grow gills. (I haven't had much interest in trying that yet.)

I've had fur in the Summer a few times. I don't know how full-time mammals can stand it.

Even when my fur falls out, the way it does almost every Spring, I try to spend the Summer in cold places. the Mountainous Plains practically roast themselves at this time of year. The same heat that keeps Cormilack thawed and soggy all Winter boils it like a squid steamer in July (another reason so few mammals live in Cormilack.) Normally, I shed in the Spring the way most mammals do, except that I don't grow a Summer coat to replace the Winter one. I just stay bald until Autumn. This year, for some reason, it was different - I lost not just the fur, but the top few layers of skin with it, so it all came off in one piece. (I'm used to shedding my skin, but not when there's fur on it.) Underneath was a layer of scales in a rather nice shade of orange. I think my salamander approved.

I was lucky to be in Tazramack at the time, I suppose; skins shed by reptiles are common enough, but there may not be another place on Hamjamser where people would be interested in a skin shed by a mammal. I had half a dozen taxidermists offering to buy it by the next day. I eventually sold it to the Tazramack Museum of Taxidermy (one of over thirty museums of taxidermy in Tazramack - it gets to use the town's name because it's the biggest), which had exactly eighteen of the thirty-six furs shed by shapeshifter's descendants in the Railway Regions. The other eighteen are in a museum in Tetravania. The Tazramack Museum was delighted to have mine and take the lead.

In short, there is now a stuffed Nigel Tangelo at the Tazramack Museum of Taxidermy. They have it dressed up very nicely. They wanted to buy some of my clothes as well, for perfect accuracy, but I refused.

It's a strange town.

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