Wednesday, June 01, 2011

The Scalps

Well. After far too long an absence, here I am, writing to you again. One month of letters. It's far too short, but it's all I can promise for now. At least it's easy to find postbirds here.

After most of a year spent in Mollogou (much easier to find your way into than out of), the Cheeserock Plateaus (much easier to see than to reach), and the Death Marsh (much more pleasant than it sounds, actually), I currently find myself on the Pinstuck Plains - or, as most of the inhabitants call them, the Scalps.

There is very little here besides grass.

Grass is everywhere.

Grass covers the gentle bulges of ground that pass for hills, coating their domes with strands as fine as hair. This is where the Scalps got their name. From a distance, the hills do look surprisingly like scalps, a thousand sleeping giants packed together like eggs in a carton. Their hair is colored in patches - green and gold, blue and gray, russet and a surprising carrot orange. Some even have bald spots of dusty pink clay. It is nearly impossible to build a house on the Pinstuck Plains that does not end up looking like a hat.

Grass hides the myriad small creatures of the plains from the slightly less numerous large creatures that want to eat them. The plains are riddled with the holes of mice and rats, prairie dogs, riddler crabs,* tortoises, rabbits and coneybees, dustbowl eels, and snakes of all sizes and every possible shade of brown. Cerberus hyenas stride over the hills on long, spotted legs, keeping an eye or six out for prey. Coyotes howl at the moons. Gigantulas pad along on bristled, fingery legs as thick as my arm, leaving a trail of thin gray silk tangled in the grass behind them. Dervish lizards spin in dry stream beds. Hawks and falkyries soar overhead, silent except for the occasional sky-splitting scream.

Grass gives the wind a voice, a thousand thousand scratchy whispers from ankle height. Most visitors to the Scalps find themselves talking constantly, a little louder than normal, trying to distract themselves from the sense that someone is constantly whispering in their ear. It's one way, if not a particularly reliable one, to identify the people who were born here. They don't mind the whispering. Some of them simply tune it out. Others, a rare few, learn its language. The people of the Scalps call them Listeners, or Whisperlings, or Giants' Ears - those who listen to the whispers of the hills. They can find water buried six feet below the ground. They can hear tornadoes and locust swarms** coming long before anyone can see them, even across the unbroken miles of the plains. They hear warnings and secrets and long-forgotten stories. The grass, it seems, has a lot to say.

Grass - in more practical terms - also provides most of the plains-dwellers' food, cloth, and building material.

Sheep are rare on the Scalps - domestic ones, anyway. There's something in the wind, or the sky, or the endless miles of unfenced grass, that changes them. It only takes a few generations. Shepherds come to the plains with flocks from the High Fields or the Railway Regions: slow, simple animals that follow anything that moves and devote most of their brains to chewing.

Their children are just a little more intelligent, a little more courageous, a little moreā€¦ wild.

Their grandchildren unlatch gates and vanish in the night. Some of them pick the shepherds' pockets before they leave.

The people of the Scalps have learned to do without wool.

Wood is equally rare. There are a few forests, but they don't spread easily; feral sheep and thunderbeast tend to eat or trample new saplings before they get even a foot high. The forests are jealously guarded by the timber towns (the plains' largest permanent settlements), by the squirrel clans with their deadly chestnut catapults, or - in one case - by an unusually aggressive grove of warrior dryads. Plains forest wood is taken from dead trees only and sold at exorbitant prices.*** People who attempt to steal it and survive generally wish they hadn't. The largest plant outside the forests is a little dry bush - hair brush, they call it - and it would take acres of those to make enough sticks to build an outhouse.**** Instead, the people make their houses out of grass.

The nomads live in wicker huts like upturned baskets. They're woven in elaborate patterns, diamonds and zigzags and spirals that rival the fanciest knitting. The nomads set them up in rings, like mushrooms, fastened to the ground with stakes and grass rope. They keep them far away from their cooking fires. The nomads travel with crunklewicks - large, hairy, round-backed creatures that look like their ancestors may once have been woolly mammoths, or possibly the hills under their feet. These carry the nomads' belongings and any family members too young or old or ill or pregnant to walk for days on end. The nomads put their houses on the crunklewicks as well; they fit perfectly over the humps, like wicker tea cozies, and make the crunklewicks look less like mammoths and more like giant armadillos.*****

The more permanent settlements on the plains simply dig a bit deeper. Some take whole bricks of root-woven earth, instead of just the stalks on the surface, and make their houses out of sod. Grass grows in the roofs and windowsills. Others hollow out the hills and make their streets out of streambeds. There are towns that are practically invisible from a distance, just a forest of chimney pots sticking out of the ground, until you get close enough to see people looking out at you from doors in the hillsides.

As if all this weren't enough, I've heard that there are even people who make their homes in airborne grass seeds. I've never seen them myself. They must be very small.

* Riddlers are one of the few species of land crabs in Hamjamser, along with the thirsty crab and the juggernaut horseshoe. All three species live on land, returning to water only to lay their eggs; it's fairly common to find riddlers in forests, and thirsty crabs are often mistaken for scorpions by desert travelers. Juggernaut horseshoes have been found burrowing in pack ice in the Arctic. The shells of riddler crabs are marked with wiggly patterns that look somewhat like writing - the "riddles" for which they're named. People occasionally find, or at least claim to find, riddlers they can actually read. There was one in the Sconth Museum for several years that had a perfectly legible copy of the Recursive Sonnet written on it. Visitors to the Museum can still read several of its castoff shells. Experts on literature and crustaceans have argued for decades about whether or not it was a hoax.

** Ordinary locusts bear only the smallest resemblance to the Locust Marauders of old, but they still call up bad memories in veterans of the Raids. Many families on the plains have stories of their beloved grandfather - or, almost as often, grandmother - blowing the dust off the old war chest and charging out into a locust swarm, armed with a cutlass and a bathrobe. Their children don't mind; the younger grandchildren tend to behave very well around their grandparents after seeing something like this. Besides, you can make a good meal out of bisected locusts.

*** A large portion of the wood is bought by dragons, who say it produces the sweetest smoke in Hamjamser. When one's hoard consists of entire national banks, I suppose one has money to burn.

**** Technically, the largest plants may be the tombstone cacti that grow in massive, weathered rings (crowns?) on the peaks of the hills. Mature colonies of the cacti resemble standing stones in shape, size, and consistency. They grow, though; I've seen a few broken in half, and they have rings like the trunk of a tree. Some even have stubby branches. Opinion is currently divided as to whether they're a plant or a type of rock crystal. They're too tough to eat, too brittle to spin, and too much work to build with, so the plains-dwellers mostly just ignore them.

***** I've never seen a glyptodont in person, but I've seen engravings and a few well-traveled photographs. They look surprisingly like an armadillo might if it was six feet at the hump.

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