Thursday, June 24, 2010


I've been uncertain whether or not I should write to you about this. It happened back in May, before I started corresponding again, and it is undoubtedly one of the strangest experiences I've ever had. If you have a sensitive stomach, you may prefer to wait until tomorrow's letter.

I was traveling on the boardwalk at the time. It was one of the above-water sections - fortunately, as it turned out. I had been walking for most of the morning without seeing anything particularly unusual. There had been a dead fish or two, but that's not all that strange; fish die all the time in the Great Shwamp. Something always eats them sooner or later.

As I kept walking, I came across more of them. Most were fairly small. When I passed the seventh one, a four-foot marsh pike floating on its side, I started to be uneasy.

The surface of the water gradually became covered with dead fish. The current was moving them along - at least, I hope it was the current. They kept pace with me as I walked. The bodies of water-rats and small alligators joined them, green and brown in the expanse of tan and silver. I'd rather not discuss the smell. Through gaps between the fish, I could see the bleached shells of crustaceans drifting across the silt. I almost didn't notice when the trees began to be covered with mushrooms.

I certainly noticed when I reached the source of the mushrooms. The boardwalk disappeared into a wall of cloud. Whatever force was moving the bodies in the water seemed to be keeping it contained; the edge undulated slowly, but it didn't seem to be spreading. I thought it was fog until I walked - hesitantly - into it.

I got out much more quickly. After a brief and violent fit of sneezing, during which I nearly stumbled off the boardwalk, I turned around and looked at the cloud through watering eyes. It had, I noticed now, a slightly greenish shade.

An avian woman with black feathers and the face of a vulture was standing in front of it. She wore a necklace of teeth and rodents' skulls.

"My apologies," she whistled. "Normally I catch strangers before they walk in. You're new here, aren't you?"

There seemed little point in denying it.

She didn't speak English. It's difficult without teeth or lips. Many avians are capable of pronouncing the full range of necessary consonants with their throats, parrot-style; this one either didn't have the required vocal anatomy or simply hadn't learned. Fortunately, I'd been practicing the whistling language she spoke, the one that non-avians call Whoopish. It's easy enough to pick up if one has any musical ability at all (though it apparently sounds rather comical when whistled with lips).

Her name, she said, was Lady Carnelia Sarcoramph, and the cloud I had walked into was the boundary of the town of Sporetower. Visitors often react that way to it. Due to some quirk of the currents, or perhaps a geographical sense of tidiness, everything that dies in the Great Shwamp (and isn't immediately eaten) ends up there. The water is thick with bones and floating carrion. Fungi cover the entire town, sprouting on every surface, from the damp houses to the contents of the water below them. The cloud that surrounds the town is made of their spores. It's no wonder I couldn't breathe it. The townspeople are used to it; they breathe in spores like incense. Travelers, not being similarly adapted, have to cover their mouths to keep from choking to death.

I was ready to turn around and take another branch of the boardwalk, but Lady Sarcoramph said that wouldn't be necessary. I was a guest of Sporetower and would be allowed to enter the town. Her tone was friendly enough, but I got the impression that the choice was not mine to make. She gave me a tightly-woven silk scarf (to cover my mouth) and a pair of goggles and led me into the cloud.

The sky of Sporetower was perpetually overcast, the sun visible as a blurred and slightly greenish light through the fog. Flies and brightly colored carrion beetles buzzed through the murk. Mushrooms and shelf fungi covered every tree, every post of the boardwalk, many of them taller than the largest pligma or elephant's-cap. There were small toadstools even on the little rafts of mold in the water. The surface was still covered with fish, but they were obviously older than the ones outside the cloud, and continued to get older. I was able to see the entire process of decomposition as we walked. (The scarf and goggles kept out the spores, but did nothing against the smell; I tried not to breathe through my nose.) The fish around the boardwalk were little more than bones held together by floating mushrooms when Lady Sarcoramph stopped.

"Behold," she said. "The town of Sporetower."

As you've probably noticed by now, many of the towns in the Great Shwamp, lacking solid land, build instead on trees and clumps of marsh grass. Sporetower is built on mushrooms. The town floats in the water, sprouting from a raft of accumulated decay, a translucent heap of fungus taller than the nearby trees. I don't know how deep it goes. I don't even know how large it is. We were close enough by then to make out the closest section of the town, bobbing gently on the cemetarial water, but the farther sections were lost in the fog. Most of the buildings I could only see in silhouette. That was enough to make out their shapes. If there's any wood in Sporetower, it's either well-hidden or rotted nearly to nothing by now; the town appears to be built not only on, but out of enormous fungi. They form the walls and columns of every building. Stalks like pillars hold up mushroom-cap roofs, tubular chimneys, walls of fungoid brick or woven mold. The streets are made of enormous brackets, ringed like slices of trees. The town is built on the slope of the fungal heap; the streets climb at steep angles, often built on top of buildings. Twisted bridges stretch from roof to roof. Instead of dogs, carrion beetles of all sizes wander through the streets.

From the middle of this heap grows the Necrophyte, a monumental tower of fungus, porous and translucent and turreted with spore caps. It looks like a crumbling castle of mushrooms. Most of them have been hollowed out inside to make rooms and hallways; the narrowest stems have been carved into spiral staircases, punctured with spongey windows, connected to the rest of the building by high walkways of living mushroom. No one seems sure whether the building is a single fungus or a collection of many.

Lord Microbius Sarcoramph, the Undecayed Baron of Sporetower* and Lady Sarcoramph's father, lives with his extensive family in the Necrophyte. He apparently likes to invite every visitor to the town to dinner. He says it's for hospitality. Lady Sarcoramph says it's so that he knows whose pockets to go through if they return to the town by other means. "Few people come back to Sporetower voluntarily," she said. "Many say they will die before they set foot in the town again. It is surprising how often they turn out to be right."

I saw a few other foreigners on their way to the castle, wrapped up like travelers in the Shattered Waste. None of them live here. Every visitor wore the same scarf I did, and most wore the goggles as well, to keep their eyes from watering uncontrollably. Springtime pollen is nothing compared to the air of Sporetower. The townspeople delight in telling about careless visitors who sneezed to death.

The town is inhabited mostly by avians with no sense of smell. Like Lady Sarcoramph, many of them rather resemble vultures - bald, wrinkly heads, similarly bald and sinewy arms, austere black feathers. (A few are a startling blood-red. I don't know if it's dye or just a rare color, like redheaded humans.) They breathed quite comfortably in the murky air. After ten minutes or so of watching them through my goggles and scarf, I began to feel as if I was underwater, surrounded by fish. Every few minutes, I'd see someone nearby make a little swallowing motion; it took me a while to realize that it happened every time they inhaled a fly. I think a large part of their diet comes from breathing insects.

Like ordinary vultures, the lack of feathers is perfect for the townspeople's work. Most of them are scavengers. They wade through the water, sorting through dead animals, collecting useful bones and other bits and pieces. There's quite a lot of that. Sporetower is the largest source of alligator skin in the entire Shwamp. It's also the most painless, for both people and alligators; all the reptiles are already dead. The people of Sporetower receive all the material of a hunter or a livestock farmer with very little of the work. It's not for everyone, of course, but those who can stand to live in Sporetower consider themselves uncommonly lucky.

Of course, not everything worth scavenging is actually part of an animal. Alligators eat so many inedible things that the people of Sporetower call an alligator's stomach its "purse." A cutpurse in Sporetower is not a thief,** but something between a butcher and a beachcomber. They often find such indigestibles as bottles, eyeglasses, nails, pocketwatches, jewelry, and the metal eyelets from boots. Alligators apparently have a fondness for shiny things. There's a legend in Sporetower that the disappearance of Baron Bredebrick was only solved when his crown, his scepter, and his cousin's dagger turned up inside the same alligator.

This is the sort of legend one hears in Sporetower. Any other place would consider stories like this morbid. The townspeople here just think they're funny.

They have no sense of smell, but their tongues are quite sensitive, flicking into the spore-clouded air like snakes. They can taste which fungi are blooming at any given moment. Women wear mushrooms instead of flowers, choosing those with the brightest colors or the sweetest spores. I saw at least three sporist shops (florists are for plants) with lush bouquets of spore caps in vases of decayed wood or carrion. Restaurants grow carefully selected mushrooms on their tables; the customers shake spores onto their food instead of pepper. (In this town of galvanized sinuses, pepper is considered a rather bland spice, suitable only for the sensitive of palate.)

Many of the avians I saw had rings pierced through the wrinkles of their faces. Some had little bone-and-feather charms hanging from them, swinging freely from a nostril or neck-wattle. A few had bells that jingled whenever they raised their eyebrows. One of the guards at the palace gates had hardly an inch of his face unpierced. A row of rings spanned both eyebrows, a mix of all different sizes. The farthest right was too small for a finger; the farthest left could have been a bracelet. He was tapping out a tune on them as he waited.

The philosophy in Sporetower seems to be that flesh is a temporary thing, a substance that outlives its owner hardly at all, so there's no reason to be particularly careful of it. This makes sense when you realize that most of their contact with the outside world is through its skeletons. They might as well experiment with their faces; a few years after they're dead, there will be nothing left of them anyway. Their bones, however, they treat with exquisite care. However invisible it is in life, a bonesetter's work can endure for centuries beyond its owner's death. As the saying goes, skin is the present; bone is the future.

If I needed any proof of that, I got it when we passed through the gates (the first wood I'd seen since entering the town). The entrance hall was made of a transparent fungus; it was cloudy, like the air, but the surface was as smooth as wax. There was a skeleton sealed inside the wall like an insect in amber. Its hands were crossed over its ribcage. The bones were perfectly arranged, with the shadowy outlines of clothing around them, as if the transparent fungus had simply replaced the flesh and left the rest in place.

Lady Sarcoramph smiled for the first time. "There's my grandmother," she said fondly, gesturing to the skeleton. "Quite well-preserved, don't you think? My grandfather always said she had the loveliest skull he'd ever seen."

Her grandfather was a few feet farther on, equally well-preserved in the shadow of a broad-shouldered suit. Lady Sarcoramph pointed out the symmetry of his eye sockets and bemoaned the arthritis that had distorted his perfect knuckles. Only in Sporetower is beauty judged by the bones rather than what covers them.

The Baron had obviously inherited those bones. He was a magnificent avian, a good six feet tall, his feathers raven-black with faint crimson highlights. A few of the ones on his neck-ruff had been edged with gold paint. This seemed to take the place of a crown. Like perhaps a third of the townspeople, he had wings, though I don't know whether or not he could actually fly. Perhaps he could in his youth. Judging from his appearance, though, he had since been more interested in putting on weight than in lifting it.

One of his eyes was missing; he'd replaced it with a large glass marble, the kind with a swirl of color in the middle. I have no idea why. I would have asked Lady Sarcoramph, but she left as soon as we entered the great hall and sat with her father throughout the meal. The Baron talked at great length and great volume. I got the impression, though, that his daughter was the one actually paying attention to the room. Her conversation was short but carefully attended. If she's not already running Sporetower, I think she will be before long.

The great hall was sealed from the outside, every window made of the same fine silk as the breathing scarves, the air free of spores. All the visitors could take their scarves off to eat. I'd been wondering how we would do that. It was strange to see faces other than vultures - or, for that matter, to see anything unobscured by the spore-fog. After my introduction to the town, I didn't expect to have much appetite, but the feast Baron Sarcoramph provided was surprisingly appetizing. Contrary to popular belief, carrion-eaters don't eat rotten meat. They just aren't so picky about it being fresh. Everything here was quite fresh, though; the fish were only the most recently dead from the water around the town. Some of them had even been alive when caught. I didn't quite have the stomach to eat any meat, but many of the townspeople survive quite well on a diet of fungus, so that's what I ate. Properly prepared - and these certainly were - mushrooms can be as good as meat anyway. I tried not to think about what the mushrooms had been eating.

I don't really remember much of dinner. I found it difficult to concentrate on the conversation; the Baron's substitute eyeball kept distracting me. It spun in circles whenever he blinked. The other visitors were a rather subdued group anyway, many of them more disturbed than I was by the fungal architecture, by the invitation that seemed unwise to refuse, or simply by the amount of death in the town. I think we were all relieved when dinner ended and we were escorted to similarly filtered bedrooms.

Overall, the Sarcoramphs' hospitality was beyond reproach, but it seemed just a little too mandatory for comfort. I left a small sketch of Lady Sarcoramph and the Baron in my room, as a sign of gratitude, and snuck out of the palace before anyone was awake. I was out of the spore cloud by dawn. I don't usually leave a town so quickly, or without thanking my hosts in person, but I can't honestly say I regretted it. Sporetower is a fascinating place - beautiful, even, in its own strange and morbid way - but I prefer to visit towns where I can breathe unassisted and choose where I stay. One visit was quite enough for now. I may return someday, but not any time soon.

Perhaps after I die.

* It's a lifelong position; the title changes only after death. You can probably guess what it becomes then.

** Of course, this depends on whether you consider it stealing when the owner is already dead.

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