Sunday, June 06, 2010

The Boardwalk

I left Meligma this morning, bringing with me a sack of climbing potatoes (the farmers say they keep longer in the humid Shwamp than any other food) and a few bottles of the fruit dye that the Meligmans use on their pod-houses. Trilliko was quite pleased with the sketch I made of him. In return, he gave me a small charm carved from cypress wood. It's shaped like a spectacled owl and is supposed to protect the wearer from falling from great heights. His mother carved it for him; he's never worn it.

"Not something I need, eh?" he laughed, flapping his wings and knocking one of the other trick-hunters into the water. "Don't tell her I gave it to you," he added. "She thinks I lost it years ago."

I will miss talking to Trilliko.

The Great Shwamp, it turns out, has an extensive system of boardwalks in the wetter areas. This is the only way to travel if you can't fly and don't want to swim. It was mostly built by beavers. Most things in the Shwamp were built by beavers. They have shown little interest in maintaining the boardwalks, though, and age and Shwamp damp have taken their toll. The boardwalk is a ruin of patches and detours now, twisted and sagging, parts of it completely submerged. Half of it seems to be held together by the weeds and fungi growing from the rotten boards. It creaks when stepped on. Whole sections of it have collapsed altogether. Soon after leaving Meligma, I came to a fork in the path - or what had been a fork, long ago. It was not much of a choice anymore. One branch was still intact, though it leaned at a drunken angle and was patched with a mad zigzag of boards, sticks, and broken furniture. The other branch was nothing but a line of disintegrating posts sticking out of the water like rotten teeth. Mushrooms and marsh flowers grew from the stumps.

I didn't go that way.

Large parts of the boardwalk are actually quite beautiful. The trees are enormous here, cypresses and redwoods and inundation willows, feet in the water and heads in the clouds. The branches are dripping with silvermoss and other epiphytes. Brackets the size of cart wheels grow from the trunks. Walking under a redwood at one point, I briefly became the center of a small shower of cones. I don't know what dislodged them - a squirrel, perhaps, or a gust of wind too high to notice from the ground. Fortunately, the cones were the size of grapes and mostly empty space. I might have been injured otherwise. Some trees grow larger and larger seeds the taller they get; redwoods grow taller than any other trees, but continue to produce the same elegant little cones. They just make more of them. Judging from the size of this tree, there were probably tens of thousands still waiting to drop.

Later in the evening, I got my first glimpse of marsh-wisps. Technically, I suppose I didn't actually see them; no one ever does. What I saw was a sudden blooming of blue lights in the water around the boardwalk. Marsh-wisps are gaseous creatures. They eat by finding pockets of swamp gas, those little clusters of bubbles that break the surface every now and then, and igniting them. The small blue flames provide most of the light for night travelers in the Great Shwamp. The ones I saw looked like wildflowers, small blue blossoms among the dark trees, or fireflies that had taken their name more literally than usual. The soft whoosh of flame was quite audible from the closer ones. I was glad that the boardwalk was too rotten to burn.

Even the crumbling path itself has a sort of decrepit charm, like an old ship encrusted with barnacles. You never quite know what you're going to find in it. I ate lunch in the afternoon with a family of mice who live in a chest of drawers, one of many old pieces of furniture that have been used to prop up the boardwalk. I don't know where it all comes from. Several of the mice are actually experts on antique furniture; the abundance of it in the boardwalk is the reason the family moved here in the first place. It's been many generations since then, and they've intermarried with the local water-rats and taken to moss-farming and fishing, but a few in every generation still take an interest in antiques. The chest of drawers they live in was apparently built during the reign of the Dowager Duchess of Glog, who was half marsh serpent and needed monumental wardrobes to contain her outfits. One of her most famous tube-gowns contained a full mile of lace. It quickly became the fashion in Glog to own enormous furniture, which is why so many of the largest houses in the region are now partially submerged. There's only so much weight a Shwamp house can take before it begins to sink. When this became obvious - and several basements became underground lakes - most of the enormous furniture was disposed of, which is how so much of it ended up underneath the boardwalk. This is also the origin of the narrow quarter-dressers that are unique to the Great Shwamp. Much of the furniture was quite beautiful, if oversized; sawn neatly into quarters, it was still perfectly functional and a much more sensible size.

I learned all of this from the matron of the family, a stately mouse who has broken several records by living to the ripe old age of six. In addition to being the thirty-six-times-great-grandmother of most of the little mice who ran around climbing and splashing and squeaking the entire time, she is also the family's current authority on antiques. I think she was glad to have an audience who wasn't tired of hearing about them. She gave me marshweed tea (which was surprisingly good) in a doll's teacup, part of a set they keep for visitors, and I gave her a saltwater scone I'd been saving since I left the coast last month. She thanked me, saying that it should provide the family a whole week of desserts.

The entire time we were talking, her thirty-six-times-great-grandchildren kept sneaking up and running off with pieces of the scone. I'm not sure it will last that long.

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