Friday, June 24, 2011

The Shell of a Town

I'm not sure exactly when we crossed over from the Pinstuck Plains to the Golden Desert; perhaps we haven't yet. There's no clear border between the two, and what there is shifts constantly.

Rain is capricious in the outskirts of the Golden Desert. People settle in the green spaces, plant crops and build towns, only to have the rain move on a decade later and turn their farmland back to dust. There are ghost towns all over the Desert's outskirts. The dust piles up against cracked boards and peeling paint, drifting through the broken glass of carefully shut windows. Years later, if the rain returns, the exiles of a different town will move in and bring the ruins back to life. The people of the outskirts are used to living with someone else's ghosts.

CheChmit is one of these towns. It's new and old at the same time. The people only recently moved in, settling down in the abandoned husk of the town after weeks of traveling. Their old town dried up several months ago. A few months more, and it will look exactly like this one did.

At the moment, though, CheChmit is coming back to life. Weeds grow up around the buildings. In most parts of the world, people would pull them out, but not here. Weeds are a sign of life. When they start dying, you know it's time to leave. The town well has water in it again - though the bucket is rusted through - and the farmers are busy plowing the soil around the town. Families are clearing the dust from the houses, putting new glass in the windows, and replacing curtains worn to white rags by the wind. The children keep finding old wooden toys and glass marbles that have lain in the empty houses, forgotten, for decades. The town is like a hermit crab's home - a dry, discarded thing filled with sudden, bustling life. Before it was abandoned, this place was known as Kelikeff. The place its current inhabitants came from no longer has a name. This is the outskirts of the Desert, where whole villages pack up and move all at once; a town's name goes with its people, not with its buildings.

I walked around the streets for a while (there aren't very many), looking at the deep cracks the wind has worn in the stone and wood of the buildings. People were painting a few of them. Mostly, they limited this to a touch of red here, a yellow door frame there; in the Golden Desert, the texture of well-aged wood and stone is considered at least as beautiful as a coat of paint. I stopped for a while to help a family of reptiles patch the roof of their new old house. They were doing it very carefully, so as not to harm the tree growing up through it.

Their daughter stayed on the ground (her mother didn't want her up on the roof) and drew things on the walls with a piece of charcoal. I came down to take a look when we all took a break for water. She had drawn a procession on the walls; strange, solemn-looking shapes marched in a rough black line around two sides of the house. There were tall ones and short ones, smooth and spiny, bare-faced and hooded, fat and thin. Mostly thin.

"These are the quiet people," she said, without waiting for me to ask. "I see them every time we move. We've moved a lot. They always leave the towns before we get here, because they don't like noise. That's all my mother would tell me. She said it's not polite to talk about them. Too noisy." She returned to drawing. One of the taller shapes was covered in what might have been stripes or bandages. "She didn't say anything about drawing them, though."

I didn't ask anyone else about the quiet people - I wouldn't want to be rude - but I'll have to keep an eye out for them if I visit any more abandoned towns.

FlunDitChukk delivered the jazz birds and musical instruments to the leader of a caravan in town. They'll be moving on to some city or other in the next few days; the caravan is only in CheChmit to pick up the birds and replenish their water supply. I don't know how they managed to schedule the meeting so precisely. In return, FlunDitChukk picked up a load of palm-tree crystals to bring back to SuyMaTmakk. His wagon settled noticeably lower on its wheels when the chunks of honey-colored stone were loaded onto it. I said goodbye before he left, and he replied with a grunt that sounded almost friendly. The caravan leader noticed me a bit later, when I was painting a border of morning glory vines around the window of a house, and offered me a seat on the caravan. Apparently, they need someone to touch up the paint on the wagons.

I accepted. It's been years since I've visited the Golden Desert.

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