Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Untranslatable City

Most of my time in Tetravania (the country) I spent in Tetravania (the city). It's a strange place - stranger than the rest of Tetravania, if possible. The city seems to concentrate all the confusion generated by the entire country. The streets are full of musicians singing nonsense songs. Professional riddle-makers gamble with passersby, continuing the age-old riddle game in a slightly more profitable variation. The riddle-makers almost always win, of course - the ones that don't quickly go out of business - and fill the pockets in their hats with brass carolmarks and silver dringles. (The dringle is Tetravania's moebius coin, famous throughout the world for having only one side.) Perfectly respectable buildings occasionally decide to spend a day or two upside-down. The ones that don't lean out over the streets, close enough at the top to step from one house to the next; it's a popular saying that in Tetravania, sweethearts on opposite sides of the street can kiss each other without leaving their houses. Many people travel by rooftop alone, finding the slanted peaks and gables easier to navigate than the labyrinthine streets below.

The city of Tetravania is built on the side of a mountain. There's a ship grounded on the Southern slope. No one knows how it got there - or, equally likely, they do and just weren't telling me. It's hard to get information in Tetravania. If people don't think the truth is interesting enough, they make up something better.

It's easy to tell how old the ship is, though. It's got the light, bamboo-framed sails of a carnelian silk riverboat - or would, if the sails weren't long gone. Carnelian silk was only used in sails for three and a half years, the exact length of the crenelated weevil's incubation period; after those three and a half years, all the eggs that had been spun into the silk hatched, and the weevils ate the sails in a matter of weeks. River trade did not do well that year. The people with upholstery or clothing made of carnelian silk weren't too happy either. People in Tetravania still wear carnelian silk, but only in sashes; the weevils are quite pretty, with iridescent exoskeletons so knobbly that they seem to be encrusted with pearls. They're worn like living jewelry. Of course, everyone who wears them makes sure the rest of their clothing is completely inedible.

The peak of the mountain, perpetually hidden by high-altitude clouds, is commonly thought to be the highest point in Hamjamser - though no one's bothered to actually measure. (Mount Moler is not the highest mountain, just the most beautiful.) Like everything in Tetravania, though, that could be just a myth that's more interesting than fact.

I speak fairly good Theskerel, but the Tetravanian version of the language is like nothing I've ever heard. They speak entirely in metaphors and figures of speech. Words seem to have no literal meanings at all. I had a conversation with a large, fluffy samoval one day about the relationship between barnacles and plaid. The conversation ended when he handed me a large enameled fish, beaming as if I'd made his day, and left. I still have no idea what he thought I said.

The restaurants and cafes claim to serve only one thing each. I went to the Cafe Mastraflan one morning and was handed a menu containing exactly one word: "Raspberry." The cafe had the usual assortment of food and drinks.* Not a raspberry in the building. I tried to signal that I wanted a glyph muffin and coffee for breakfast, but no one cares what you point at in Tetravania. The waiter said, "yes, yes, raspberry," and left. Presumably, the Tetravanians have some sort of code to indicate what they want to order - or maybe they just don't care. I can never tell. My breakfast, when it came, was a miniature loaf of artichoke bread and a glass of green lemonade with whipped cream. There was not a raspberry in sight. It wasn't what I ordered - or, at least, what I thought I ordered - but it was surprisingly good.

I had some trouble getting to the cafe the next day, as there was a flock of stone sheep on the steps. the sheep are one of the many mysteries in Tetravania. They're only barely sheep - polished stone balls with little pillar legs and the carved suggestions of faces. If they were larger, people would probably call them elephants; smaller, and they'd be capybaras. They are sheep-sized, though, and therefore sheep. They move at night - or, at least, are in different places every morning. No one has ever actually seen them move. The most common theory is that they graze on the city's paving stones and move to new ones every day.

I don't know. It would make as much sense as anything else in the city.

* The cafes in Tetravania serve more or less the same sorts of things as cafes anywhere - coffee, pastries, experimental pies and pasta - though the selection and color of any given thing is likely to change from day to day. My theory is that the cafe owners have some sort of secret code that they use to communicate with each other. Every morning, Magdar Galordi of the Cafe Mastraflan walks over to the Cafe Venogoral** to look at the pastries. If there are scones on sale, it means that one of Tetravania's many impromptu street-barricading groups is at work again. Strawberry scones mean the Order of the Detour; walnuts mean the Society of Walking Flowerpots - unless, that is, the muffins have blueberries, in which case the scones refer not to barricaders, but to pastry locusts or snatch-ravens or yesterday's weather.

This is probably entirely in my imagination, but it's the sort of thing one starts thinking after a few weeks in Tetravania.

**Mastraflan means "by the Ocean." The cafe, like the rest of the city of Tetravania, is halfway up a mountain. Venogoral means "counterclockwise." I have no idea why.

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