Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Pieces of Mollogou

The Truckle road ended today.

It wasn't completely unexpected. I'd been following it since I left the Great Shwamp, and it had been getting smaller since I left Crucible. I have a feeling that Sedge doesn't have many more towns that size. I said goodbye to Mr. Radish and his typewriter this morning, after sharing breakfast with him and Rumbulligan and reading the typewriter's latest poem. A few hours later, when the road had shrunk to half of yesterday's width, Rumbulligan turned off into what looked like a village made of origami lily pads in a water meadow near the road. He apologized for not being able to invite me. Weight is apparently a great concern in a floating village; they can't allow anyone in who's a great deal larger than they are, for fear of sinking. Rumbulligan is, he said, one of the largest people in the entire village. He is possibly a little over three feet tall. I assured him that I wasn't offended, and he splashed off over a bridge made of half-submerged leaves, looking relieved.

I wonder if his book of earthquake words has anything to do with this. Shaking earth, sinking villages - it's all just a matter of stability. I hope he succeeds in whatever he's doing.

In any case, I was traveling alone once again. The road continued to shrink all day, getting lumpier and narrower and more full of puddles. At around noon, I came to a branch in the river and had to take another detour. The road quickly became little more than a footpath on the bank. I could only tell where it was because the grass was shorter. The branch meandered for a while, looping its way through a jumble of low hills, though even ones that small were surprising after the flatness of Sedge and the Shwamp. I'd been following the branch for maybe five miles when it disintegrated. In the space of a few hundred feet, the water split away into handful after handful of little streams, each of which broke up into even smaller streams trickling down from the hills. Seen from the air, the whole thing probably would have looked like a tree. I've never seen a river branch that way. I counted thirty-six separate streams before I gave up.

Farewell, then, to the River Truckle.

The longer I walked, the stranger the landscape became. The sky here is full of odd, fractured clouds, each one moving in a different direction with no regard for the wind. They collide occasionally. The hills are full of little stone shrines; I must have passed one or two every ten minutes. There are stone animals inside them. Most are ordinary, birds and badgers and giant isopods, but a few rival the gargoyles of Crucible for strangeness. The shrines - and the hills, and the trees, and everything else - have a tendency to move around while I'm not looking. (Geography does that everywhere, of course, but not usually every time I blink.) It finally became truly ridiculous when I realized that I had been walking around the same hill for half an hour. There had been no turns, no forks in the road, but I had passed the same shrine four times. The statue inside was an otter-like thing with scales and a necklace of snail shells. Someone had left half a fish on the little shelf in front of it. I would be surprised if there are four different shrines with statues exactly like that. Just to be sure, I climbed up on top of the hill and looked around. It was quite clear from up there: at some point, the road I'd been following had turned into a closed loop. There was no sign that it had ever gone anywhere - including back to the river. Wherever I had ended up, retracing my steps was out of the question. There were no steps to retrace.

Farewell, then, to Sedge.

I gave up on the road and set off across the hills. As long as I came up on top of one and looked around occasionally, I seemed to actually be getting somewhere. Perhaps it's only the valleys that lead you in circles. I stopped for lunch in front of one of the valley shrines. It had a round, heavy roof that made it look a bit like a mushroom. A man with a vague resemblance to a raccoon was sitting in front of it. I thought at first he was making some sort of offering; you can see them in most of the shrines, little gifts that vary depending on the tastes of the spirit inside. People leave them to thank the good spirits and placate the bad. Some like flowers, others sausages or pretty stones. One particularly reliable one apparently brings rain every time anyone gives it a boiled egg. I couldn't see the statue in this shrine with the raccoon in front of it, and I couldn't see what he was putting in it either. It seemed to be taking rather a long time.

We ended up talking for perhaps half an hour while I ate and he continued to work. He was quite intent on whatever he was doing. I don't think he looked at me even once. I am, apparently, in a country called Mollogou. It's frequently near Sedge and the Great Shwamp, as it's slightly drier and hillier than either of them, but lower and wetter than anywhere else.

According to the raccoon (his name was Num, he said, and left it at that), every hill and valley has a shrine for its guardian spirit. You can tell how friendly a place is by the statue in its shrine. The smiling ones can be trusted; the ones with huge, staring eyes are disconcerting, but safe. The best places have mother animals with children in their shrines. The ones with masks or too many teeth should be avoided. No one seems sure whether the statues change to match the spirits, or whether the stone-carvers can somehow tell what the spirits look like, but no one seems to doubt their accuracy. I assume people carve the statues - though I can't actually be sure; I haven't seen many people here. Perhaps they're self-portraits.

Apparently, no other country could have nearly so many shrines. The spirits' domains never overlap; I don't know whether they're territorial or if it would simply be impossible for two spirits to guard the same place, like two people sharing the same body. Either way, there's still a shrine on every hilltop and another in each valley. Territorial creatures wouldn't put up with an arrangement like that anywhere else.

Mollogou isn't a particularly large country. It's just more fragmented than most. Places tend to be much smaller here. In the Mountainous Plains or the Railway Regions, places at least stay connected; the layout of each city changes from day to day, but it remains a city, with the same buildings and the same skirt of farmland spread around it. People know where they live.

There are no cities in Mollogou. They don't stay together. About the best anyone can hope for is that their house won't have misplaced any of its rooms when they wake up in the morning.

The same goes for everything else in the country. There are no mountains, but many hills; no rivers, but many streams; no forests, but an abundance of copses. Mollogou has just as much of everything as any other country. It's just divided into much smaller pieces. The shrines are content with a single hill or valley because it's impossible to hold on to anything larger.

I was getting ready to leave when Num finished what he had been doing and stood up. On the shelf in front of the shrine was a collection of tiny white eggshells, cut neatly in half across the middle and laid out in a spiral pattern like the seeds in a sunflower. They were arranged with such geometric precision that you could have cut yourself on the angles. The statue receiving them was a somewhat manic-looking owl clutching a ruler and compass (the geometric variety, not the navigational). It's a benign spirit, Num said, but a somewhat obsessive one. It cares more about the precision of its offerings than the substance. When I left, he was beginning a second spiral in what looked like grains of rice. He was using a ruler the size of a toothpick.

I think I'm going to like Mollogou.

This is the last day of June, and therefore the last of my daily letters for this year. Perhaps it's just as well. Even postbirds have trouble finding people in Mollogou. I will do my best to write during the rest of the year, but you should know by now how rarely I succeed in that. Somehow, there's always something to distract me.

Farewell, then, to you. I'll be back next June.


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