Wednesday, June 16, 2010


The fog rolled in today. I woke up this morning, in my silk hotel room like a giant's coat pocket, and there it was. The gauzy white buildings of Chelissera blended perfectly into the fog and became invisible. Nothing was left but the signs on them. The letters seemed to float in space, abandoned, like names that had forgotten whose they were.

I nearly fell off the thread bridges several times because I couldn't see them. It was not a good day to explore.

Now that I have money again, I spent this morning in the market, buying things I really should have bought earlier. Food, for one thing. I was down to my last salted cuttlefish. Fortunately, every town has some shop where travelers can buy the kind of food that lasts forever. In Chelissera, the best example of this seems to be a thing called "shell cake." No one seems entirely sure what it's made of. I suspect beetles. It is the color of fossilized sand. The main ingredients are shards of crunchy stuff held together with globs of slightly less crunchy stuff. The consistency is rather like fried eggs, if someone forgot to take the eggshells out and then burnt them.

The flavor is actually surprisingly pleasant; it has that spicy, nutty, shrimp-with-a-sunburn flavor that well-cooked insects often have. I suspected it would get monotonous fairly quickly, though, so I bought a few dried crustaceans* and six lumps of the universal travelers' staple, rock bread.

Ah, rock bread. How I love the stuff. It lasts forever and never gets staler.

Having obtained food, I then went to the bookstore and picked up a book, "Sikelak for the Mammalian Mouth."** I've been intending for some time now to improve my Sikelak. Of all the languages I know - not that there are many - it's probably the most often useful. I haven't learned as much as I might because it's so hard to pronounce. It has the flaw of all universal languages. Anyone can speak it; no one can do so comfortably. It strains every voice in the world. Its great advantage is that it strains them all equally.

Like KeChorlitrix, the shopkeeper spoke English. This happens in many invertebrate towns. The most successful shopkeepers are the ones who can speak the languages of lungs and vocal cords - such as Theskerel and English - as well as their native clicks and hisses. The owners who can't speak the languages themselves find someone who can to mind the counter. The spider behind the bookstore counter was every inch an arachnid, behind the compound spectacles and flowered apron, but somewhere in all those jointed mouthparts was something capable of pronouncing English. Clicking, scissory English, but English all the same.

I knew that my third and last stop would take a while. I decided to take a break for lunch. There was a cafe by the weavers' district that sold solid food; I got a pastry with what looked like blueberries, but turned out to be water beetle larvae. It was delicious. While eating, I watched a bristly spider outside weaving a basket, lying on its back and working with all eight limbs at once. The entire thing was done in about twenty seconds. No wonder the Chelisserites can afford to weave everything in the town.

After lunch, I went to the Chelissera tatter-shop. I try to visit the tatter-shop in every town that has one. This is where people bring their broken things - shredded clothes, smashed dishes, mangled machinery - in the hopes that someone else will find a use for it. Someone almost always does. A few people in every town make their living by fixing things from the tatter-shop and selling them. Others just use the pieces.

From the outside, the shop was all bulges and protrusions, like a sack stuffed with too many lumpy things (which I suppose it was). Inside, it was obvious why. The walls and floor and ceiling were hidden behind pure chaos. There were broken typewriters, reams of cloth with rips and stains, mismatched stockings (only five or six of a full set of eight), two-legged furniture (most of it designed for arachnid anatomy and completely incomprehensible to me), dented pots, stopped clocks, broken toys - everything jumbled together without system or reason. Any trace of organization the shop may have once had was more broken than the objects it contained. There were whole barrels full of shattered china. A spider was picking through them, sifting through shards and comparing them like the scrambled pieces of a hundred jigsaw puzzles. From the way everyone ignored him, I got the impression that he spent a lot of time there.

I looked around for quite some time, wondering about the purposes of some things and the state of others. What did that bottle hold before it lost two of its three spouts? What was the purpose of the clockwork beetle with abacus wings? Who in the world has the strength to not only bend typewriter keys, but to crochet them? I wish I knew.

Amazingly, in all the chaos of mystery and malfunction, I found the one thing I have needed for weeks.

Bubble-wrap is a variety of cloth that can only be made by spiders. It's one of the most precious things to come out of Chelissera. Unique among every kind of cloth, it is completely waterproof. All you have to do is wrap something in it; drop it to the bottom of the ocean, and it will remain dry.***

The secret of bubble-wrap is the stickiness of spider silk. Other kinds of cloth are waterproof only to their edges; you can weave them tight as an alligator's grip, oil and wax them until they gleam, and water will still leak through the seams. Bubble-wrap doesn't have seams. A mix of adhesive and static electricity makes it cling so tightly to itself that even air can't escape between the layers. This is why it's so prized by travelers in the Great Shwamp. If you leave enough air inside the wrapping, not only is your luggage waterproof, but it floats as well (hence the name). You can simply tow it along behind you in the water.

The wrap in the tatter-shop was somewhat shredded, which is why it was in the tatter-shop, and why I was able to afford it (it cost only a sixel).**** I spent an hour this afternoon sewing the tears together and sealing them with snail glue. It's not as perfectly waterproof as the bubble-wrap itself, but it will help it stay in one piece.

Inside the wrap was a pocketwatch with six hands and no numbers on its face. I have no idea how one is supposed to read it. Apparently, neither did whoever left it there. The shopkeeper seemed to have given up trying to sell the watch; when I asked about it, she threw it in with the bubble-wrap for free.

I have more useless curiosities than I probably should. I can't help it. There's something irresistably fascinating about devices that do nothing at all.

In a place like the Great Shwamp, though, bubble-wrap is as far from useless as a sheet of cloth can get. I really should have gotten something like this years ago. It's only luck that I haven't been caught in the rain more often than I have, and I can't rely on the Great Shwamp's haphazard assortment of transportation to keep my luggage dry. My encounter with the troll made that quite clear. Sooner or later, I am going to need waterproof luggage.*****

*It's been weeks since I gave up asking people to identify Shwamp crustaceans for me. It's impossible. No two seem to be the same species - if the word "species" even applies - and they blithely ignore all the rules of taxonomy. They combine features of crustaceans, insects, arachnids, and fish. Many seem to have chosen their number of legs by rolling dice.

**Given the variety of people who speak Sikelak, books on the language are sorted not by the native language of the learner, but by their vocal anatomy. The other options were "Sikelak for the Avian Larynx," "Sikelak for the Metatarsi," and "Sikelak for the Bipalate Coccitella." I didn't think those would help me much. I don't even know what a coccitella is.

***Even in Chelissera, city of spinners, bubble-wrap can be only be made by the very best. It takes experience to make fabric so tight it's waterproof. The master spinners hire other spiders with inferior thread to do their hunting for them; it takes a lot of protein to make silk. The masters grow fat and enormous, spending their days eating and spinning and rarely moving from the same spot. Most eventually learn to spin with one pair of limbs; this becomes a mechanical motion that they do with as little thought as I would need to tap my foot. Their remaining limbs are free for whatever occupation they choose to pass the time.

****Sixels, it turns out, are the middle of the Great Shwamp's glass currency system. One sixel equals eight crickles (smaller marbles with ants inside). Four sixels make a terlimick, a larger marble containing a flightless harlequin grasshopper. There's apparently a fourth coin that is large enough to hold an entire crayfish. No one I've met has ever seen one.

*****I borrowed a lovely waterproof chest while I was in Cormilack, the city with more rain than air. Unfortunately, it was too heavy for me to bring along even if I'd owned it.

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