Monday, June 14, 2010


Invertebrate towns tend to be different from the rest to begin with. The differences in anatomy, speech, family structure, and seasonal schedules tend to keep them just slightly out of step with the vertebrate world. I enjoyed my stay in Carvendrone, meeting giant wasps who have a thousand sisters and speak with their wings, but I know there's a great deal I will never understand about them. For the most part, the differences aren't important - but they still exist. Most people prefer to live in places they understand. This is why insect towns tend to stay insect towns.

None I've visited have been half as odd as Chelissera.

Chelissera is for textiles what Woodpot is for ceramics. Most of the thread and cloth in the Great Shwamp comes from here. This is because the town is inhabited by giant spiders. From beneath, the town looks like a vast cobweb; there are a few wooden buildings, but most are enormous cat's-cradles of rope and silk strands. Hanging threads connect every tree. Many of the highest ones are woven to catch birds, the way small spiders would catch insects, in a strategy quite different from that of the trick-hunters. The rare ones they carefully untangle and set free; the rest they eat. Other lines go down into the water to catch fish.

Everything billows in the wind. Brightly colored flags and curtains hang everywhere. Many of the master spinners live in huge, gauzy hammock-pagodas hung between branches; the billowing buildings seem to just float in midair, like clouds with faint, busy silhouettes inside. The threads that hold them up are practically invisible unless the sun hits them right. Sparkles glint on the thousands of tiny strands, played by the light like the strings of a violin.

The spiders bought several large jugs from the Pelirikas. Ranapleximilian told me - very quietly - that they use these for what they call "half-soup." This is the food that they've digested with their venom but haven't eaten yet. He obviously thought the idea was quite disgusting and therefore talked about nothing else for almost half an hour. Half-soup is inedible to nearly everyone who isn't a spider; the acids alone would kill most vertebrates. Among spiders, though, it's by far the most popular food. There are half-soup chefs who strive to achieve the perfect combination of meat and venom, dissolving fish and fowl alike and stirring them together. They experiment with different acids, different animals, even different combinations of specific organs (though many consider it barbaric to dismantle prey while it's still solid). Spiders consider no part of an animal inedible except the skin and bones.* The rest all gets mixed together anyway. A few chefs have experimented with fruit and vegetables, but this is considered avant-garde at best and simply ridiculous in most cases.

It all sounds quite fascinating. This is an entire culinary world that's completely separate from any other. I can't decide whether I want to become a spider to try it out or whether I just want to be sick.

Fortunately, half-soup is not the only thing of interest in Chelissera. Most of the town is involved in the spinning and weaving of fabric. There is, after all, no one better suited to it. They dye the thread as much as any ordinary spinners, but the fact that they produce it themselves means that they don't have to add the color afterward. Many of the farms in the town are devoted to edible dyes. A relative of indigo grows down near the water; cochineal beetles are raised in the trees. The spiders eat them to change the color of their silk. This takes much less work than coloring it separately. There are spiders who eat cochineal like candy, specializing for their entire lives in producing red silk and nothing else. Others choose different dyes or mix them together, balancing their diets based as much on color as nutrition, striving for the perfect shade. The dye eventually stains their exoskeletons as well. There are spiders in Chelissera covered in outrageous swirls of bright colors (they don't blend in the chitin as they do in the silk) whose relatives are uniformly black or brown. The rainbow spiders wear their colors with pride. It takes dedication to a job to achieve so spectacular a change.

Spider silk isn't the only material produced here, of course. There are several farms in the town that produce the more ordinary variety made by worms.** Flax and cotton grow in boxes of earth high in the canopy, field plants growing next to silvermoss and other epiphytes. Sheep graze on the huge tussocks of grass that pass for land in this part of the Shwamp. I'm fairly sure I even saw a few angora goats and longhaired needle-mice.

Much of the cloth in the town actually comes from people. The Great Shwamp has fewer longhaired mammals than colder, drier parts of the world; long fur can be a nuisance in the sticky humidity that lasts all Summer here. Many do live here, though, and nearly all of them are in Chelissera. They go in several times a year to be shorn, just like the sheep. The difference is that they get paid for it, and they can take the dirt and brambles out of their own fur.

I was surprised to realize that, despite all the farming, there actually isn't much more land here than in any other part of the Shwamp I've visited. The tussocks are the only solid things in the water. Even they have very little actual soil, growing instead on the decomposed leaves and roots of previous layers of grass. Most are perfectly round. They sit in the water like giant green pom-poms with sheep on top. The spiders stick a post in the top of each tussock and tie the sheep to it; otherwise, they have a tendency to roll off the sides.

It's strange to see land again - real land, oddly shaped as it might be, with plants growing on it. I'd almost forgotten what that looked like. The Pelirikas plan to stay here for a day or two, selling pottery. I may stay longer than that.

*On invertebrates, of course, skin and bones are often the same thing.

**Like many silk farmers, they kill the moths before they chew through the cocoons. Unlike many silk farmers, they eat them afterward. Spiders don't let much go to waste.

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home

  • Stats Tracked by StatCounter