Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Market Street, Day 1: the Scavenger

After a day spent exploring the market district of SuyMaTmakk, I'm afraid I'm too tired to write much tonight. I did come back with some pictures, though; perhaps they'll make up for it. Here's the first.

This is Harzifan Scrath, scavenger and merchant. He spends most of his days climbing over the islands of flotsam in the center of the lake. On Tuesdays, he brings back what he's found over the week and sells it at the market. His stall is set up by the docks. It's full of old clothes, boxes, and assorted bits of furniture; he found a whole butter churn last week, perfectly intact. A heap of tableware in materials that float (wooden spoons, bone-handled forks) sits next to an array of mismatched jewelry.* There are books so waterlogged that they're shaped like fans, their pages splayed and wrinkled and all but illegible. There's a china doll that looks like the survivor of a shipwreck. Perhaps she is. She has one shoe, patent leather with a brass buckle, and lake-weed in her hair.

A row of bottles stands in an uneven line in front of the stall. They're full of the small, smooth gouges left by the vitreous snail, which makes its shell out of glass. Any glass object left in the lake will be full of the same little pockmarks within days. The snails normally eat sand, processing it into glass in some strange pocket of their digestive system, but they've developed a taste for pure glass since people first settled by the lake. The TiLeKraNas have a colony of them at their house; they bring the occasional shell to the market whenever a snail dies of old age. There were none this time, but the shells are apparently quite lovely. Surprisingly, they're also quite practical. Most of the predators in the lake eat snails - if they like snails - by crunching them up, shell and all. Hail-storks and a few kinds of seagulls can crack even the toughest ones by flying them to great heights and dropping them on the docks.** Nothing bothers to do this with the vitreous snails, though; cracking their shells gives you nothing but a lump of meat full of glass shards.

An ornate wooden mantel clock sits on a back corner of the stall, ticking quietly. Harzifan says he's had it for five years now. It's made of some kind of hardwood - rare and valuable on the plains, where most wood comes in the form of small sticks - but no one has bought it. Harzifan says this might be because of the water stains, which have turned the clock charcoal-black in splotches, or possibly because it's run backward ever since he fished it out of the lake. I'm impressed that it runs at all.

Harzifan himself simply sits there all afternoon, grinning that same piratical grin at everyone who passes by. Every Tuesday, he says, he's more grateful than the week before to have the chance to relax. (His voice is deep and rough, like gravel on a lakebed, or the razor grin of a shark.) He's getting too old to be climbing over heaps of flotsam all day, he says. When someone buys the backward clock, or when it finally stops ticking, that's the day he'll retire.

I took a look at the clock as I was leaving, after I'd thanked Harzifan for letting me sketch him.*** The gears inside, where they were visible, gleamed with polish and good repair; the clock's price was higher than everything else in the stall put together, including the stall itself and possibly Harzifan's hat. Somehow, I don't think he's in a hurry.

* It's impossible to find a matched pair of earrings at a single scavenger's stall. It takes visits to at least a dozen to have the slightest hope of a match. There are people who spend hours going from stall to stall, playing the scavenger market like some sort of giant memory game, cataloguing hundreds of salvaged earrings in their heads in the hopes of finding a match. According to Harzifan, it's surprising how often they succeed.

** This, of course, is what hail-storks are named for. A whole flock of them can produce a short but devastatingly well-aimed shower of snails. This is why dock workers around Lake Twiliat wear such thick hats all the time, even during the hottest weather. They can't just drop what they're doing and run, the way everyone else does when the storks appear overhead; they have to have a different method of avoiding concussions.

*** I bought one of his books, as it seems rude to sketch someone's business and not buy something from it. It's called Hni Teli Paka, which could be translated as either "Greetings, O amusing one" or "Hey you, ugly." Some of its pages still look legible. This could be interesting.

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