Saturday, June 12, 2010

A Wagon Without Wheels

For breakfast this morning, I had a sort of chocolate pastry called a mud pie. Given where I was, I was somewhat wary of this, but the baker assured me that there was no actual mud in it (or, at least, as little as is possible in Woodpot). I ate it while wandering through the village. I had only been walking for about ten minutes when I realized that I had a small swarm of large dauber wasps following me. They kept a polite distance, but they were quite obviously waiting for something. I looked at them for a moment, then broke off a piece of my pie and tossed it to them.

There was a brief blur of buzzing black chaos. When it cleared, there was no sign of the crumb, but one of the wasps was cleaning its face and looking pleased with itself. The rest were still waiting.

I decided that this was more fun than eating the pie. The wasps got the rest of it. They continued to follow me as I walked around the village, looking at the architecture and the potters at work. It didn't matter which direction I tossed a crumb; there was always a wasp there to catch it. Some of them eventually got tired and sat on my shoulders, trying to snatch bites of the pie while I wasn't looking. They were surprisingly heavy. They hummed constantly, a faint vibration that I could feel but not hear, like the purring of a cat.

It's quite possible that feeding them is encouraging a bad habit, but I couldn't resist. How often does one get to spend a morning playing with giant wasps?

According to the baker, the boardwalk in the other direction is in even worse condition than the one I arrived on. I decided not to risk walking on it. Instead, I got a ride with a pottery merchant and her family. I met them at the bakery.* Like most people who travel frequently in the Great Shwamp, they can't afford to depend on the boardwalk and have come up with something better. I've met travelers who ride on alligators and giant tortoises, others who use rowboats or rafts, and one or two who have long enough legs (and wide enough feet) to wade in even the deepest water. Many people fly. A traveling tinker I met in May had a clockwork vehicle powered by a pair of capybaras running in wheels. He said they were a special variety bred for racing. The vehicle was amphibious; it had wheels, mechanical legs for soft ground, and a paddle-boat attachment in the back. It seemed to work quite well, aside from an unfortunate habit of shedding gears and breaking down every few hours.

The pottery merchant doesn't have anything so exotic. She and her family travel by wagon. Given the scarceness of solid ground in this part of the Shwamp, they've removed the wheels; instead, each axle has a cluster of ceramic floats tied to it. They look a bit like the glass floats used by fishermen to hold up nets, but in clay instead of glass. Each one is held in a many-knotted web of rope. They're glazed in three or four different patterns, like a mismatched set of dishes. Several have been broken and glued back together with metal. Webs of rusty lines outline the patterns of the cracks, weeping streaks of rust over the glaze.

The pottery reminded me of something I hadn't thought of before. Unbaked clay architecture works well in the desert, where there's plenty of sun to harden it and little rain to melt it. The Great Shwamp has just the opposite. How, I asked, do they keep the houses in Woodpot from melting in the rain?

One of the merchant's sons was happy to explain this to me. His name, he told me proudly, is Ranapleximilian, an old Kletheran name that means "slayer of the great night-frog," and he can pronounce the whole thing. (His sisters and brothers, all younger, have not yet succeeded with their own equally impressive names.) Apparently, the houses are waterproofed with gristlebird oil. Gristlebirds have the oiliest feathers of any bird in the Shwamp; according to Ranapleximilian, they repel water so strongly that they create a bubble of air around themselves when they dive. They eat the stunned fish that fall into it.** To waterproof a roof, the villagers simply lay a few fish on top of it; this inevitably attracts five or six gristlebirds, each of which wants all the fish and is prepared to fight for them. The resulting brawl leaves the roof, walls, and surrounding trees evenly coated with oil. (It also leaves them covered with feathers, dandruff, bird droppings, and half-eaten fish, but those wash off in the rain.)

The merchant herself is named Mrs. Pelirika. She doesn't seem to talk much. For most of the day, she was busy navigating the Shwamp and managing the somewhat temperamental marsh-squid that pulled the wagon. Her five children, in contrast, talk enough for ten. The other four's names, from second-oldest to youngest, are Tessemira, Donrondamole, Coralilamander, and Vanesily. No wonder the younger ones can't pronounce them yet. Vanesily, the youngest, is only just getting his down feathers. Ranapleximilian says that he is almost old enough to fly (he does have a few flight feathers, though they're mostly gaps, like some mammal children's teeth) and kept jumping off the wagon all day in attempts to do so. None of these worked, but he didn't seem to mind landing in the water every time. Quite often, he would come back with some sort of snail or outlandish crustacean. His sister, Tessemira, was fascinated with these; I don't think she ever had less than three or four sitting in her hands or on her head. All five children kept up a constant commentary on every unusual tree and fish we passed, as well as the pottery in the wagon and life in the Shwamp in general. They kept coming up with things for me to draw all day long. I was happy to do so. Hardly anyone makes a better audience than children. If you do something wrong, they will tell you immediately; if you do something right, they can be more enthusiastic than almost anyone. They found my attempts to draw some of the fish they described to me quite hilarious.

Much of the conversation during the day was about the current load of pottery. The children seem to take just as much of an interest in it as their mother; they had something to say about nearly every piece, and quite a lot of the talk of styles and glazes and double-firing went well over my head. The wagon seemed to have something from practically every potter in Woodpot. There are quite a lot of them. The clay under Woodpot is the best in the Shwamp, Ranapleximilian said, so all the best potters (and quite a lot of the others) end up in the village eventually. So do all the pottery merchants. No matter where you go in the Shwamp, you'll find someone eager to buy Woodpot work.

My favorite piece in the wagon is a huge pitcher in the shape of an octopus. The base and handle are made of five of its curled tentacles, and the other three twist above it to form the spout. The children said that this was the work of Artemisia Treble, one of their favorite potters, who is rather famous for beautifully detailed pottery in the shape of aquatic animals. Tessemira showed me a tiny bottle shaped like a marsh snail, in which she keeps buttons.

There appears to be a sixth child on the way. On the floor by Mrs. Pelirika's feet was a portable incubator, a metal basket with smoke coming out of the little oven in the bottom. There was a thermometer stuck in the mound of blankets in the basket, which she checked every few minutes. I assume that somewhere in there is an egg.

I have not met Mr. Pelirika yet. Mrs. Pelirika said only that he doesn't like the sunlight and travels underwater by day. I didn't press any further. The children seem to take after their mother, with brightly colored plumage like jungle parrots; they obviously enjoy the Shwamp, but don't seem particularly aquatic.

Perhaps I'll get to meet him tonight.

*Most of the village seemed to be at the bakery when I arrived. The diggers from the previous day were there - most of them, at least - though I didn't recognize them until they started talking to me. Their faces look different without a coating of mud. Some of them had sculpted patterns in the clay on their faces the day before, pinching it into cracked masks of swirls and ridges. I found it much easier to read their expressions this morning.

**He may have been exaggerating here, but I'm no authority on marsh birds, so I wouldn't know.

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