Monday, June 27, 2011

Fish of the Ground, Beasts of the Air

The people here have a great deal of trouble with flying camels. The beasts just swoop down out of the sky on bristly wings and carry off small children, spiriting them away to their camel fastnesses in the desert, where they raise them on the fruit of the hazzle-cactus and teach them the mystical secrets known only to flying camels. The rare camel-snatches who return to the villages are famed for their wisdom. Most people are willing to overlook their eccentricity and their refusal to explain anything (not to mention the spitting). Still, most parents here keep a close watch on their children while they're small enough to be snatchable.*

One of these camel-snatches was Hanzifan Krickl, who found a fish in the Desert and founded a town on it. The town is called Kellekath, the local word for "coelacanth." The caravan stopped there for water today. According to the legend, Krickl discovered the system of caves beneath the town thanks to a fossil of one of the ancient fish, which pointed the way for him. The water that collects in the caves is all that allows the town to exist. There's an aquifrax in the caves, as there is in every oasis in the Golden Desert, but it allows the town to use the water in exchange for honey and the occasional shiny marble. It probably has hundreds down there by now, unless it's been eating them. You never know with an aquifrax.

These days, the coelacanth fossil is considered to have been a sign from Gilliva, Lady of the Waters, to whom fish are sacred.** Fish show up seldom enough in the Desert that they're generally considered to be a sign when they do. Kellekath is particularly devoted to the Lady; the town keeps a pool full of koi in her honor. Like most koi, they - or their distant ancestors - were imported from Mollogou. Unlike the piebald Mollogou koi, though, the ones in Kellekath have been bred to be shades of blue and green; they range from the deepest ultramarine to the pale green of new leaves and a turquoise the dry desert sky has only seen in its dreams. The townspeople love them and spoil them terribly. Many people wish they could have actual coelacanths in the town, besides the fossilized one, but bringing a whole population of misanthropic saltwater fish to the Golden Desert would be all but impossible. The koi were difficult enough.

Coelacanths aren't the only fossils that show up here. According to geologists, the whole Golden Desert used to be the floor of an ocean. The tall rocks that stick up from the sand often have fossils in them, fish and ammonites and strange spiny beasts with compound eyes. They speckle the stone in layers, like jeweled rings around sandstone fingers. Other parts of the Desert have larger things. The bones of whales and great sea-serpents emerge from the dunes now and then, breaching between the waves of sand, until the wind covers them again. A few travelers have found a mountain that, when seen from the right angle, is unmistakably the skull of a giant fish. The smaller peaks of its vertebrae stretch out in a line behind it. The most dedicated wanderers say they've even found shipwrecks out in the sand, buried up to their bone-dry masts, with shreds of ancient sail flapping in the Desert wind. Archaeologists have found books in some of the wrecks. Their pages are speckled with strange pictograms, beetles and blowfish and delicate assemblies of gears. No one has deciphered them yet. Linguists believe that even the gears are a language, but any meaning remains lost in the machinery.

Perhaps one of the camels' pupils will decipher them one day.

* A few parents with different ambitions send their children outside every day wearing brightly colored clothing. It all depends on your hopes for your child's future, I suppose.

** Fortunately, fish are rare in the Golden Desert. This religion has never caught on in coastal towns.

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