Thursday, June 10, 2010


The boardwalk continues to be flooded. The water is up to my knees now; I'm starting to wonder just how deep it's going to get. As if that wasn't enough, the water got gradually more opaque all morning. By noon, I could no longer see my feet.

It seemed to be silt. The water was a thick, even brown color, occasionally turning reddish or yellowish, as if something was stirring up layer after layer of mud. I can't imagine this is pleasant for the fish. I saw silt eels break the surface several times; I've never seen so many in one day - or ones this large. They're muddy brown creatures that lurk in cloudy water, preying on befuddled fish lost in the murk. There were probably a lot of those today.

The mudbanks to either side of the boardwalk continued to grow in size as I walked. They didn't seem to be the source of the mud; they were the wrong color. It wasn't until almost sunset that I found out where it was coming from.

The trees in this part of the Great Shwamp are mostly gridwillows and gnorls. Their complex, twisted shapes are quite a contrast to the monolithic redwoods and cypresses around Meligma. They limit vision as well; I heard the diggers long before I saw them. Once I did, it was quite clear that they were the reason the water wasn't. They were in the middle of dismantling a mudbank. It looked as if it had been nearly the size of a house once. They had hollowed out the middle, leaving the sides high so that they could dig below water level. Water seeped in anyway; two of them did nothing but toss buckets of it out of the pit. The rest were busy filling more buckets with thick red clay and passing them on down the boardwalk. Those not equipped with webbed feet wore things like snowshoes to keep from sinking. They seemed to be a mix of species, like most people you meet, but it was hard to be sure. Fur looks the same as scales with enough mud on it.

They were singing one of those morbidly amusing songs that are so good for repetitive work. Miners and sailors seem especially fond of them. I didn't catch all the words of this one. It seemed to be about mud - I'm digging a hole that fills itself in, I can't remember what color my fur is, throw me in the oven and you'll have a brick wall, and so on. They seemed happy enough, in a businesslike way. Work songs just seem to turn out like that.

"Hey there!" one of them called, catching sight of me. "Welcome to Woodpot, the most beautiful village in the Shwamp!"

There was no village in sight. As far as I could see - which, admittedly, wasn't all that far - there was nothing in sight but trees, the boardwalk, and mud. I looked around, trying to think of something to say.

The digger seemed well aware of my confusion. He grinned at me, his teeth startingly white in his clay-covered face. "What, don't you see it?"

I admitted that I didn't.

"Look up."

I came out from under the gridwillow that shaded the mud pit and looked up. The trees seemed to be full of enormous striped pots. It took me a moment to realize that they were houses.

The only land near Woodpot is mud; the villagers build their houses not on it, but out of it. The buildings perch like fat clay owls at the bases of branches. Some of the larger ones have multiple stories or wrap all the way around the tree. Many are striped, like hornets' nests or sedimentary rock, each layer laid down in a slightly different color. They're more pottery than architecture; with their bulging shapes and round windows, they look as much like jugs as like houses. I almost expected to see corks sticking out of the chimneys.

Several of the diggers were quite happy to take a break from work and show me around the village, pointing out their own houses and talking about their construction. The houses are kept in repair by trained mud rats and dauber wasps. The mud rats seem to be a sort of cross between squirrel and beaver; they build their mud-and-stick lodges in trees, carrying mud up from the ground in their cheek pouches.* The dauber wasps are thin and blue-black, like the dauber wasps found near every muddy riverbank in Hamjamser. In size and intelligence, they're somewhere between the little wild ones and the civilized, dog-sized architects of the Sclesserax. The small daubers live here too, building their little clay egg cases alongside the larger ones. The rows of large and small tubes look like clay organ pipes.

No one bothers to decorate their houses much in Woodpot. There's no point. The baroque nurseries of dauber wasps end up covering every surface. If a building stands for a full year without a dauber wasp building on it, it is judged to be cursed, and the villagers tip it into the Shwamp to dissolve. Most people try to finish new construction during the egg-laying season, just in case.

The basic structure of each house is still built by the villagers. Mud-rats build everything in balls and mounds, while dauber wasps use only tubes. Humans still prefer to have things like floors and windows. Most of the actual clay, however, is laid down by rats and wasps. Each building is full of burrows, mud rat nests and chambers for the wasps' larvae. The grubs are roughly the size of my arm. They spend their entire childhoods in tubes only big enough for themselves and whatever food their parents can hunt or scavenge for them. Barring accidents, no one ever sees the grubs until they complete their metamorphoses and break through the walls as fully mature blue-black wasps. The village children play with them as if they were shiny, flying cats.

Most Woodpotters don't even try to keep their children clean. In a town where the very buildings are made of mud, there's not much point. A few parents do try to keep their children from burrowing in it with the others; they tell them to at least stay in the trees.** Children restricted this way have a remarkable tendency to accidentally fall off of low branches and land in mud pits.

The diggers eventually went back to work and left me at the inn, a collection of honeycombed chambers clustered around a particularly huge and twisted gnorl tree. The sun had set by then. Candles and marsh-lamps were burning in windows all through the village, making it look like a collection of lanterns hung in the trees. I went inside and rented a room.

The room is nearly perfectly spherical; it's tall enough, just barely, that I can stand up in the very center. Most of the walls are hidden behind heaps of old pillows and blankets. It's like being in a mouse's nest. I'm not sure I've ever been anywhere more comfortable. The room is full of the rich, dusty smell of dry clay, and the evening chorus of frogs and insects is just starting outside. I expect to sleep deeply and dream of Summer.

*For a long time, this behavior led people to believe that they ate mud, like earthworms or auger weasels.

**Most of those parents are avians. Cleaning mud out of small down feathers is not a pleasant task.

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