Saturday, June 19, 2010

Benevolent Clockwork

After more than a month of water, I've finally reached one of the more solid parts of the Great Shwamp. Early this morning, I saw the familiar shapes of docks in the distance, shaggy with moss and freshwater barnacles. Something was odd, though; they weren't attached to trees. I had to get closer before I saw that they were actually connected to land. I can't remember the last time I saw land - not tussocks or mudbanks, but real land, the kind you can't see all at once. It seems strange to actually see the roots of trees.

There's a branch of the boardwalk here, somewhat better maintained than the one I left, but I think I'll be continuing on land from here. I miss being able to stay dry for an entire day.

I paddled my suitcase up to the docks, earning a round of stares from everyone nearby, and stepped ashore. I'll have to remember this mode of transportation. It was quite convenient to be able to pick up my boat and take it with me. Having no idea where I was, I asked a man on the docks. He was carrying a basket of cleaner snails bigger than himself.* Several had escaped and were crawling on his head and shoulders. This seemed to be a fairly common occurrence; silvery snail tracks covered his upper body like tattoos. He told me that the town is called Truckle Stop, as it's where the River Truckle reaches the Shwamp and stops being the River Truckle. Sensible enough.

Truckle Stop looks more or less like an ordinary marsh town: trees full of moss, houses on stilts, little plank bridges over the ponds and inlets that break up the land like the spots on a cow. Dogs and tame caimans wandered over the wooden streets. Many of the houses had fishing poles hanging from the windows; every so often, a bell would ring, and someone would come to the window to reel in a fish. Half the people travel by foot or moa cart, half by rowboat and canoe. The land changes position when no one's looking, as land does, so you never know when your house is going to be on the mainland or on an island.

The town is centered around a bridge over the River Truckle. It's built of wood, like everything in the Shwamp; if there was ever stone here, it's sunk far beyond where anyone can find it. There's moss growing on the bridge. Moss grows on everything here. Most of it is beaded or silvermoss, but there's an edible variety called spaghetti moss that the Truckle Stoppers try to encourage in the town. I tasted a bit this evening, boiled and served with marsh tomato sauce, and the name is quite accurate.

I'd never heard of the place before, but Truckle Stop is apparently rather famous in the Great Shwamp as the home of Temery Malerian, a local inventor. She makes pipe crawlers. They're the windup variety, of course, not the crustaceans. Everyone has their own opinion on which kind is better. The clockwork ones are easier to train; the live ones can make more of themselves. (So can the clockwork ones, of course, but they can't work at the same time.) Most of the towns in the Great Shwamp have the live kind if they have any at all. It's the perfect habitat for them. In Truckle Stop, however, there are so many clockwork pipe crawlers that there's no need for any other kind. Tesra Malerian** apparently does nothing but build them, all day and often all night. The nocturnal townspeople can hear her clanking away after dark. The town crawls with her previous creations, works of clockwork art that are as much like ordinary pipe crawlers as a jade statue is like a rock. Fortunately, this is one of the more accepting towns;*** the people treat the clockwork menagerie as something between pets and benevolent local spirits, welcoming them into their houses and winding them whenever they run down. The children of the town have the usual interest in animals, catching frogs and raising caterpillars in well-stocked jars to watch their metamorphoses; one little girl is constantly surrounded by a cloud of pygmy dragons, a few of which she's trained to carry her schoolbooks for her. With the pipe crawlers, though, the children never do anything more than watch.

The crawlers are beautiful creatures, elegant assemblies of polished silver and brass, like glittering beetles of rods and gears. No two are quite the same. Many of them do the usual pipe crawler tasks - fixing plumbing, patching roofs, collecting lost coins, and so on. Others are... different. It's common in Truckle Stop to come across geometrical arrangements of snail shells, elaborate abstract designs scratched into the plank streets, spidery webs made of cast-off bits of string and strung between banisters or fenceposts. One particularly large crawler shows up on the doorstep of any family that leaves a red ribbon around the doorknob, waits politely to be let in, and alphabetizes all their books. Another seems to know when construction of a new building begins; it always shows up to press bright pieces of broken glass into the clay between the boards. It spends the rest of its time collecting and filing the pieces smooth. The townspeople have developed a habit of leaving all their broken dishes in boxes on their front steps so this crawler can collect them. It must have thousands of pieces by now. No one knows where it keeps them.

The doorsteps all over town, in fact, are covered with bits and pieces for the pipe crawlers: glass shards, wood shavings, bits of string, nutshells and eggshells, pits from peaches and hobberel fruit, bent pins and old rags and the hair from combs and fur-brushes. The doors are just as thickly covered with signs for the useful crawlers. People leave red ribbons for the book-sorter, chalk marks for the windowsill-duster, daubs of jelly for the spoon-polisher, knotted string for the boot-scraper, and paper flowers for the one that comes in and paints tiny floral patterns on ceilings. In addition to the known signals, people often put things out at random - rocks and stockings and old keys - in the hopes of attracting a new crawler. It's like the fairy-signs in the villages of Fethily. Truckle Stop's fairies just happen to be the windup variety.

The overall effect is strange to anyone who don't know what it's for; there's an odd assortment of tiny things by almost every door, like the sweepings of someone's attic carefully arranged in little boxes. Newcomers to the town are occasionally somewhat disconcerted by this until someone explains it to them.

Tesra Malerian's family does most of the business, buying supplies and selling the ordinary pipe crawlers. (The special ones stay in town.) Fortunately, Truckle Stop is near a large supply of the crystal brains used in pipe crawlers. They mine them like gemstones. No one in Truckle Stop knows how the crystals work; no one in the world does, to my knowledge.**** They just hope they never run out of them. Without crystal brains, even Tesra Malerian's clockwork pipe crawlers would be little more than mindless windup toys.

Apparently, they're quite prized in several of the floating cities. No one uses more pipe crawlers than the floating cities, those weightless mountains of prehistoric machinery that depend on maintenance for their very existence, so that's high praise indeed. The inventor herself never leaves her workshop except for the occasional meandering, distracted walk around the town. She is not interested in business. As long as she's got mechanical supplies, she's content. By all accounts, there is no logic to her process; she simply builds the pipe crawlers "the way that seems right." Her clockwork is more art than science, and she is never satisfied with her own work. She considers all her creations, beautiful as they are, failed experiments. They're useful - worth making and keeping - but they're not what she's aiming for. No one seems able to explain what that is.

The townspeople all wish her luck getting wherever she's going. Still, though no one I've met has been tactless enough to say it, I have a feeling that they hope she takes her time getting there.

* The basket, that is, not the snails. The snails were only the size of his head - not unusually large for cleaner snails. Unlike most mollusks, cleaner snails are bred not as food, but as working animals. Practically every coastal town has a colony or two of them. They're let loose to eat the barnacles and shipworms that weaken wood. I'm used to seeing the ocean variety crawling around on docks and fishing boats; I wasn't aware there was a freshwater breed.

** Tesra is the title, in many parts of the world, for a master craftswoman. A ruler of places is a Lord or a Lady; a doer of deeds is a Sir or a Dame; a maker of things is a Tesser or Tesra.

*** This would never work in somewhere like Dubulith, for instance, where any machine that moves by itself is considered unnatural, and the harmless passing of a floating city overhead gets much the same reaction as a hurricane.

**** The Hill Builders presumably did, being the ones who made them. Whoever the Hill Builders were, though, they've all been gone for centuries. I asked why the crystals haven't sunk into the Shwamp, like every other stone does. No one is entirely sure. A common theory is that the little tunnels in them, those microscopic grooves that carry electricity like the cells of an organic brain, make them lighter than ordinary stone. Another common theory is that they're lifted by the power of thought. I don't claim to understand the science of the brain - or electricity, for that matter, fierce and mysterious substance that it is - so both explanations make equal sense to me.

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