Sunday, June 27, 2010

Bestiary of Nowhere

Like practically every town of any size in Sedge, Crucible is built by the River Truckle. As the town is also the source of the molten River Flare, it contains one of the strangest river-meets in the world. Water and iron do not mix well. For the length of the town, the Truckle flows underground.

Before Crucible was built, the molten metal of the Flare simply flowed into the Truckle, solidifying as soon as it hit the water. More metal then flowed across the solid part and solidified farther out. Over the course of centuries, a thick shelf of iron gradually formed across the Truckle, spreading horizontally but never coming more than a few inches below the surface. The farthest edge is just over halfway to the far bank. Boats on the river are careful to skirt around it, or they risk having their hulls sliced in half at the waterline.

Most of the iron doesn't reach the Shelf these days, of course; the Flare has always flown sluggishly, and the smiths now siphon off nearly all of it before it reaches the Truckle. People have settled on the Shelf. They've built houses on the foot-thick sheet of iron and drilled holes to pull up water and fish. Crucible may be the only place in Hamjamser where people can live on top of a river and still have to dig wells.

I spent most of the day wandering through the streets of the Shelf. The heat on Crucible's central hill is a bit much to endure for more than a day at a time. The Shelf is much quieter than the hill. The edges are full of docks, some wooden, some iron. Like the docks in any town, they're backed by a forest of cranes for the loading and unloading of ships. The cranes are all anchored in the riverbed, of course. The Shelf wouldn't hold that much weight. There are rust-colored fish in the water, possibly relatives of the ones that live beneath the Earthmover in Cormilack. They eat the rust that flakes from the bottom of the Shelf. If they didn't, half the length of the Truckle would be red by now.

Now that it's no longer being replenished from above, the Shelf will probably rust away to nothing someday and drop its load of docks and buildings into the river. No one seems particularly concerned about it.

The buildings of the Shelf are covered with carved plants and animals. There seemed to be at least one on every wall. I had noticed a few of them up on the hill, but the thickness of the cloud and the dim firelight make them all look like soot-clad gargoyles. (If there were any real gargoyles, they were remarkably well-camouflaged.) The ones here were clean; in the slanting morning light, some of them were even lit by the sun. It should have been easy to identify them. I didn't recognize a single one. There were serpent-birds with eleven wings, skeleton fish with lanterns hung in their empty ribcages, tortoises with the legs of crabs beneath their spiny shells, creatures with all manner of multiple heads and mismatched limbs. Several seemed to be strange combinations of animal and plant. Even among those, there were none I recognized - not a single ordinary trapper vine or vegetable lamb in sight. These were fanged lilies and web-footed potatoes and cats with flowering whiskers.

As I was puzzling over this, I was stopped by a smith near the docks; he could tell, apparently, that I was an artist. He asked me what colors I had. As it happened, I still had some blue paint from the Gray Coast, where the villagers gave me a whole bucket of cockleworms before I left. Blue is apparently quite a novelty here. It's hard to find any color but red. Farmers bring the inedible stalks of corn and carrots into town along with their crops; leaves and stems don't pick up so much color from the rusty soil. People buy them for the green, keeping them in buckets of water as if they were flowers. All the flowers here are red.

When I told the smith I had blue, he was delighted. He asked me to paint his sign for him. Aside from portraiture, this is one of the jobs I get most often; I've painted one sign or another in half the towns I've visited. Many of them weren't even in languages I could read. I accepted, of course, and prepared to use up most of my remaining blue.

The smith's name was Dinbar Hammergavel. It was printed on his sign in peeling red paint, and he was polite enough to introduce himself as well. He was a thickset reptile with scales like river pebbles. His arms and chest were covered with shiny spots of metal, spatters that had cooled and fused to his body. He seemed to have a second coat of black and silver scales over his natural red ones. Apparently, his scales are thick enough to keep the hot metal from burning him, as it would anyone less armored.

He didn't seem to think much of the smiths by the Flare. Anyone, he said, could work metal that kept itself hot and let you shape it like wax. It took a true smith, one who worked with hammer and bellows, to heat it just enough and no further.

I was lucky enough to get to see what he meant. He came to work outside as I painted, saying that he liked to stand in the sun before it rose above Crucible's perpetual smoke. I had no idea what he was making. It started as a block of iron. He pounded it flat, then indented the surface with a complex pattern of holes and grooves, working with a progression of steadily smaller hammers and chisels. The ones at the end were hardly bigger than upholstery nails. In the end, the thing looked as if it had been made in a machine. You could have used the sides as straightedges.

It was, he said, a metaphorical flange for the Answer Machine in Miggle-Meezel. The machine has a tendency to catch the flanges with its paradox pistons and break them. He makes replacements when they're needed and has his apprentice bring them to Truckle Stop. Miggle-Meezel stops over Truckle Stop occasionally to pick up pipe crawlers from Tesra Malerian; his apprentice waits for the airship to come down from the floating city and brings the flanges up with it. Tesser Hammergavel rarely delivers themself these days. He is, he said, getting too old to make the trip, and his apprentice still finds it exciting.

I asked if it wasn't dangerous for the apprentice to travel alone. I've had relatively little trouble myself, but there's no telling when a traveler might run into bandits or cathomars or a nastier-than-usual troll. The smith laughed for a good half-minute at that. Apparently, his apprentice takes in wounded alligators that wash up on the Shelf; several, once healed, have decided to remain with her. They follow her everywhere. What few bandits there are on the river road have learned very quickly not to trouble her.

"Besides, she's got a lad there," he said, grinning. "Apprentice to a gear-cutter in the floating city. Reason enough to give her a little time to herself. Anyone's guess whether he'll convince her to stay in Miggle-Meezel or she'll convince him to come here. The other apprentices have been laying bets on the two of them for years. Personally, my money's on Serilla. A girl who can beat an alligator back to health isn't one to give up easily. I just hope she waits to bring him back until he's finished his apprenticeship. We could use another gear-cutter in Crucible."

Later, I asked about the creatures on the buildings. Apparently, the people of Crucible (most of them, anyway) disapprove of representations of plants and animals. This is not a particularly rare opinion. The mesmerizing geometric artwork of Thrass Kaffa and Hestamar is a result of this belief, as is the elaborate calligraphy of the Talixa Valley.* Quite a lot of people disapprove of copying the work of other artists, and many believe that the creator of the world - whoever they consider that to be - should be given special respect in this matter. Depictions of plants, animals, rocks, clouds, and anything else not made by people are strictly forbidden. Needless to say, I won't be painting any portraits in this town, unless they're of buildings.

As a result, the only creatures available to Crucible's artists are the ones they make up. No dragons, no chimaeras, no doorknob gremlins; the only creatures you'll find in Crucible are imaginary. Sculptors and painters are judged here by their ability to depict unreality. They restrict their work to beasts that don't exist - preferably ones that couldn't possibly exist, just to be safe. You never know what explorers are going to find.**

This is why the buildings teem with unidentifiable creatures. Happily, Tesser Hammergavel was able to identify quite a lot of them for me. The serpent-bird is a Frenible Tepiary; the tortoise-crab, a Chelimincer; the skeleton fish, a Garnet-Tailed Lissel. The oak-tree squid that shows up several times in the rafters of the Flue is a Hastadendraflack, commonly attributed to the Lady Pyrafax. The snail-shelled bulldogs are Pemerines, the birds with butter-knife feathers are Tallimonians, the feathered wasps with peacock-tail stingers are Claridots, and the snake with a head on both ends is an Ouroboruo.*** Even Crucible's flag is its own invention. The town's emblem is the Carrifrock, a plant that grows upside-down with its fruit buried and its perpetually flaming roots in the air. It's fitting for the town. Their harvest comes from the ground, produced by flame, and there's more water in the air than in the river.

The most popular artists here are the ones that make up the best impossible things. I wasn't surprised to hear that many of them had come from elsewhere; there's no shortage of inventors of the impossible in Hamjamser, both the drawn and the written, and it's rare to find places that appreciate them so completely. I knew most of the ones Tesser Hammergavel named. Ramer Oswelt - writer, illustrator, and beast-maker extraordinaire - was quite well-loved here. According to the smith, the town holds several hundred of his creations, copied many times in wood and iron and stone. The Chelimincer and Frenible Tepiary are among them. Oswelt's original sketches are in the town's fireproof museum, as are several paintings by Elva Ursunorn and the legendary (some say the mad) Mynorbious Chesho. Rae Drawdle and Carlis Rowell, writers of surprisingly sensible nonsense poetry, also spent several years each in Crucible. There are several of their impossible beasts on the buildings around the Hammergavel smithy. Many of them, according to the smith, have the poems from which they came carved into the walls beneath them. I'll have to go look for them when I have time.

* Talixan calligraphers are masters of not-quite-representational art. They will not paint a horse. They may paint a glyph that captures the essence of a horse, all its speed and grace and elegant strength, but it would have none of the features of a horse. Where are its hooves? they would ask you. Where is its eye, its tail, its snorting nose? Do you see them in these brushstrokes? No? Then how could this be a horse? It has no part of a horse within it. Many stubborn people have debated with the calligraphers of Talixa over this, and to the best of my knowledge, none of them have ever found an answer to that question.

** The discovery of the aerobatic frogs on the floating islands of Salyovemit, nearly a century after their invention by the decidedly earthbound Herbert G. Welleger, goes to prove that either the impossible is a lot more possible than it originally sounds, or science fiction authors know a lot more than they let on. I don't know which is more likely.

*** I thought this one was skirting dangerously close to reality, but apparently the fact that it has two heads and no tail to bite with them was enough to let the artist get away with it.

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