Thursday, June 16, 2011

Market Street, Day 3: the Animals

There are probably more animals for sale on Market Street than there are people to buy them. Their snorts and clucks and shrieks occasionally drown out even the songs of the vendors. Horses, mules, oxen, emus, and a variety of cart-lizards pull wagons between the crowded stalls. Klepts lurk silently in the shadows. Fish circle in barrels and tightly woven baskets. Messenger monkeys scuttle over the rooftops, screeching to each other in raucous code. Below them, people stop to listen to the songs of the Kelleries, birds as drab as kiwis and as musical as nightingales. Their voices have outgrown their wings. Some of them sing counterpoint with the calliope cicadas.

The spotted hens this one boy seemed so fond of are only one of the hundreds of kinds of poultry in the market. There are ducks and geese, chickens and kaklbirds, paihens and pahareets, bred for meat or eggs or feathers. One breed of tiny bantams produces eggs the size of grapes, with all the iridescent colors of an opal in the shells. There are jewelers who use them in jewelry; they spend hours hollowing out the eggs, filling the shells with something more durable, and coating them in substances that make the colors last. The recipes for these are jealously guarded by each jeweler. Only their apprentices learn the secret.

The russet crabs are raised to turn food scraps into useful meat, like pigs. They get to be about the same size. The ones at the market are usually sold small - palm-size at most - but they never seem to stop growing. A man once kept one for twelve years to see how big it would get. At the end of the twelve years, it ripped its way out of his basement and cut a thundering path of destruction through the city before plunging into the depths of Lake Twiliat. The hole it left revealed that the man had quadrupled the size of his basement to make room for it. It was taller than his house. As far as anyone knows, it's still somewhere in the depths of the lake, growing bigger every year.

Since then, everyone makes sure to eat russet crabs before they get much larger than a pig. Almost every family has one if they can afford it. You can see them all along the canals, scurrying around in wicker pens under the water. There's never more than one crab to a pen; they have an unfortunate habit of eating each other. I can't say I blame them. I've tasted them once or twice myself, and they're delicious.

There are pets in the market too, of course. This girl seemed to have fallen in love with one of the house-spiders, as so often happens with small, fuzzy animals. It had pink feet. Her brother didn't seem quite so sure about them.

House-spiders are a fairly common sight in SuyMaTmakk. They're descended from the wild tarantulas of the plains, in much the same way that lap-dogs are descended from wolves. The poison was bred out of them a long time ago. They can still bite, but it's only painful, not deadly, and they've long since lost the aggression of wild spiders. You're more likely to be bitten by a hamster. They're kept for the same reason as cats; they're soft, they're affectionate, and they catch mice. Many people prefer house-spiders to cats. They're more easily housebroken, and they get rid of ants as well.

There are dozens of kinds of fish in the market - this is a lake city, after all - but these are some of the strangest. In the wild, jar-fish live in the abandoned tunnels of muskrats and water-snakes. Only the most vertical holes will do. They sit in the holes all day, dangling their long fins down through the entrances, and only come out when they can sense that nothing's moving nearby. No one's sure what sense they use. It could be hearing, or a form of echolocation, or the strange electric awareness used by sharks.

Jar-fish are always kept in tall jars like this, hence the name. If they're kept in larger containers, they develop acute agoraphobia and stop eating. The TiLeKraNas knew a scientist once who kept one in a beaker and used it as a seismograph. He said it was the only reason his workshop survived the eruption of Mount SanCheLi; the tremors were still too gentle for him to feel when the fish panicked and tried to hide in its own mouth.

This is one of my favorite parts of Market Street, second only to the scavenger docks and the booksellers' alley. The animals of the market come from all over the plains. There are birds from the forests, beasts from the open spaces, strange and wondrous fish dredged up from the lake. Parts of the city have become whole ecosystems of their own, narrow wicker forests between the lake and the plains. Many of the creatures here were bred in SuyMaTmakk and exist nowhere but in the city.

Every day, it gets harder to leave the market without bringing some of them with me.

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