Thursday, June 23, 2011

Pins in the World

The road reappeared today, leading off across the plains instead of leaping over the Edge. It's a relief, and not just because it means we can get the wagon started again. That abrupt end was making me nervous. FlunDitChukk got the dunderblub started again, and after saying goodbye to the geographers, we set out along the new road. It continued to wind through the long grass of the Scalps all day.

After a week in SuyMaTmakk, I'd forgotten just how much open space there is out here. Nothing interrupts it. There are no mountains, no buildings, no hills higher than my waist. I still haven't seen any of the Scalps' precious forests. We did see the occasional single tree - acacias and lightning pine, for the most part - but most of them had jaglars reclining in the upper branches, so we stayed well away. Jaglars are rather possessive about their shade.

For most of the day, though, the wagon was the only thing in sight that wasn't grass. When the wind blows - and it always blows here - the low hills look like waves, an ocean of shimmering grass stretching to the horizon and beyond. I'm not the first to think so, not by any means; many people have written of the Scalps this way. There are even some who build prairie-boats out of lightweight wood. They have sails and run on polished runners, skimming over the grass as if it was snow. A well-built prairie-boat can hold one person - two, if they're small. You can't take much with you, but they're the best way to travel here if you travel light.

Of course, weighed down with art supplies the way I am, they're out of the question for me. I've never been particularly fond of speed anyway. I'll stick to wagons for now.

The grass got thinner and drier the farther we went. Dust rose from the wagon's wheels in dry orange clouds. A few of the jazz birds started coughing halfway through an improvisation, and FlunDitChukk kept me busy bringing them water all afternoon. Patches of dry ground began to creep in between the short clumps of grass - bald spots on the Scalps - and though the grass still shimmered, it was because of heat, not wind. I doubt this is the kind of country that sees many visits from the rainwalkers. With every mile, there were fewer trees. Instead, there were the poles.

I'd heard of them before, but until today, I'd only seen them from a great distance. Most people on the Scalps believe they were left by the Hill Builders. They do have that look. They're battered poles of black metal rising from the ground, probably five times my height where they haven't broken off. Each one has a different shape at the top. You can see them from miles away, silhouetted against the sky, as if they were the glyphs of a very tall language. If there's any logic or meaning behind them, no one's deciphered it yet.

No one is sure what they were for, though there are plenty of theories: radio antennae, vertical shrines, tent poles, the markers of a mysterious game, the dead trunks of metal trees. A compass will go mad if brought too near to one of the poles. Birds don't seem to mind them; there isn't much else to perch on on the Scalps, though, so that could just be a matter of convenience. They seem to have no effect on people, though those who live near them sometimes speak of having unusually vivid dreams. Whisperlings say they can hear the poles humming occasionally. Some of the humming is music, melodies in strange and secret keys, but it never has words.

They've become part of the landscape of the Scalps by now. Birds nest on them. People build sod houses around their bases for support. (Sod houses have a tendency to slouch, especially when it rains.) Unlike many of the things the Hill Builders left behind, the poles are not made of the mysteriously indestructible hypersteel. They're obviously made of a fairly tough metal - they've withstood centuries on the Scalps, after all - but they've been worn and battered over the years. The poles are full of scratches and dents and crookedness. People have carved words into a few of them. Often it's just their names, but I've been surprised at how often the graffiti turns out to be poetry.*

The people of the Scalps call them Kucha, which roughly translates to "pin." This is why the Scalps are also called the Pinstuck Plains.

Archaeologists have tried to dig to the bases of the poles a few times. They always have to stop when they hit bedrock. Some flat-worlders believe that the poles hold the world up, like the pilings of a pier; round-world theorists believe that they go all the way through it, like a giant's hatpins, holding the world together - or perhaps keeping a few specific places apart. Here on the hairy Scalps of the world, that doesn't seem too far-fetched.

* One had a copy of the Recursive Sonnet on it, of course. Quite a few have nonsense poetry by Carlis Rowell.

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