Friday, June 18, 2010

The Gray and Motley Coast

I seem to end up in the Great Shwamp twice as often as any other region of Hamjamser (except possibly the Railway Regions). Other travelers I've met have said the same thing. It makes sense, I suppose. The Shwamp draws everything in. Every river, stream, and ditch flows into it, at least occasionally. It's downhill from everywhere but the ocean.

I got in through a mangrove swamp this time. (All swamps are part of the Great Shwamp, just as all forests are part of the Great Wood.*) I'd been traveling along the coast, stopping in each of a line of the most monochromatic fishing villages I've ever seen. There seemed to be no color in any of them but driftwood gray. The rocks were gray; the houses were gray; the plants were gray; the people were gray. They wore gray clothes and lived on gray fish. Holes in the gray sand contained off-white ghost crabs, which seemed almost garish next to everything else. The villagers were delighted to see someone who carried lots of bright colors and could be persuaded to paint them on things.

In the last village, I noticed a few children playing with what were obviously indigo cockleworm shells; it turned out that they had an enormous field of them just offshore. Cockleworm shells make the best blue dye in the world. I brought this to their attention before I left. If they have any success at farming the worms, I wouldn't be surprised if the Gray Coast eventually becomes the Blue Coast.

It was a few days later that the gray dunes began to give way to mangroves. It was a welcome change. The mangroves were gnarled, ancient trees, raised up on tentacular roots like bark-skinned squid afraid to get their faces wet. Lopsided crabs climbed in the roots next to lizards and sea-green estuary frogs. There were flightless grasshoppers the color of painted Sackamock pottery jugs - and about the same size. Some of them were almost as big as badgers. They ignored the leaves of the trees, preferring instead to take neat little slices out of the roots, which were roughly the consistency of cast iron. I tried to keep my fingers away from them.

Between the mangroves and the sea was Snaffle, a decidedly non-gray fishing village that seemed not so much built as accumulated. In Snaffle, there is no apparent distinction between house and boat. I often had to check under the floorboards to tell which I was on. People without a boat cut their house away from its neighbors and float around in it; people without a house tie their boat up to the village and never leave. They gradually acquire more and more permanent gangplanks, which eventually become whole floors and have more cabins built on top of them, until what was a boat and a dock has become a single conglomeration of buildings with new docks sticking out of it. As far as I can tell, only about a quarter of Snaffle is built on actual land - if the word "land" even applies. It's mostly mangrove roots. The rest of the village has grown out from there. Many of the most solid-looking buildings are built on what are still recognizable - just barely - as the rotting hulls of old boats. I suspect that most of the village's foundations are held together by limpets. There are public fishing holes in the streets and, apparently, private ones inside the houses as well. People put baited strings down through a hole in the kitchen floor and pull up dinner without having to leave the house. Every surface of the village seems to sway, just enough to notice; even the walkways built on solid roots seem to rock gently back and forth, if only in comparison to the rest.

The whole village has a sort of patchwork look to it, being made of boats and whatever spare timber was handy at the time. Sails that have been patched until they're more patch than sail are cut up and made into dresses or coats; many of the people are as motley as the village. There are walls made of driftwood, or furniture, or packing crate slats still printed with their contents. Many people name their houses after the words on them. The inn where I stayed was called the Petrified Fragile. Some of the builders line up the labels to form rhymes:

Extract of Pear
The Finest Tomatoes
Handle With Care

In the end, I had to leave the village in rather a hurry. The hurricane crickets had begun singing. I didn't know what that meant, but the innkeeper (an amphibious man named Cacophonous Moonwreck, who cultivates barnacles on his bald head) informed me that they only sing when there's going to be a storm. The impromptu mating season begins when they first sense the storm and ends, rather abruptly, when it arrives. That way, if the females get blown to other islands, they have all the eggs they need to start new colonies of hurricane crickets.

No one in Snaffle seemed especially concerned about the storm. They've reassembled the village so many times by now that it's practically routine. That's one advantage of living in buildings that float; if your house gets uprooted and blown out to sea, you just tie a bedsheet to the mast and sail it back.

Not being quite so accustomed to hurricanes, I thought it would be best if I made my way inland. I'm glad I did. The storm was frightening enough even three days away from the coast. When it caught up with me, I was able to take shelter in a hollow barrel oak, along with what seemed to be half the animals in the Great Shwamp. The trunk was full of them. Squirrels and tree lemmings crouched in holes with owls and snakes. Marsh wolves crowded into the wide base of the tree next to otters, beavers, several dozen assorted rodents, and one cantankerous alligator, who was given all the space he wanted. The dark hollow of the trunk above us was full of the quiet rustling of winged creatures. Feathers drifted down occasionally. Somewhere up there was a black panther; it never came low enough to see, black on black in the dim light, but I caught the glint of its eyes a few times.

It was an odd few days. The storm raged outside and made the wood around us creak. Inside, everyone was silent; even the goolhowlers and yatter monkeys kept quiet, as if they knew the roaring of the storm was out of their league. The carnivores refrained from eating any of the other animals. Either the storm had inspired some sort of truce, or they were smart enough to realize they were outnumbered. I shared some of my dried squid with them. They were very polite about it. When the wind died down two days later, all of them crept out of the tree and vanished quietly into the Shwamp. I'll probably see any of them again. I'm sure they'd prefer I didn't.

I found the boardwalk a day later, and I've been wandering through the Great Shwamp ever since. I'm in no hurry to leave. There hasn't been a dull moment so far. Nothing has been quite as exciting as those first few days, though - and I couldn't possibly be more grateful for that.

* The odd pronunciation of the Great Shwamp is due to the person who first named it. The Great Wood was named by the legendary explorer and dimensimancer, Lady Erica Pelican, the first to realize it was all the same place; The Great Shwamp was named by Shamyorl Heffelish,** the same sabertoothed explorer responsible for the Shilver Forsht and Lake Shoshenloosher.

** His name was originally Samuel, but he changed the spelling to match the pronunciation.

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