Monday, June 13, 2011


According to the TiLeKraNas, SuyMaTmakk is the only real city on the Scalps. There are a few large towns that like to call themselves cities when they think they can get away with it, and a couple of ghost cities where no one lives except night-haunts and the intensely solitary, but SuyMaTmakk is by far the largest concentration of living people. It's built around the only lake.

When I first saw SuyMaTmakk, I thought it was on fire. The setting sun caught the cloud of mist that hangs constantly over the city, raised by its hundred waterfalls, and lit it all up in orange. The buildings, made of sticks and straw and sod bricks, cast scarecrow shadows against the sunset.

Every river on the Scalps eventually empties into Lake Twiliat. There are only four of them, so this is not quite as impressive as it sounds, but that's still a lot of water for the Scalps. The Hley comes from the East. The other three rivers are the KleMit (West), the HatPaLikk (South), and the Flyeek (Northwest, except during full moons, when it moves around to parallel the HatPaLikk from the South).

The entire lake spins slowly, as if someone's opened a drain at the bottom. According to those who live in the lake, that's fairly accurate. There's a giant hole in the floor of the lake. It's called the Hwuyk - literally, the Drain. Most lake-dwellers stay away from it; the current is too strong to resist past a certain point. Many people have gone into the hole, curious or simply unaware of it until it's too late. Only a handful have ever come out again. They've returned over land, all of them, stumbling across the Scalps on dusty feet or carried in barrels of water by traveling merchants. Their stories have made little sense. They've raved of moons, of coal-fish, of strange and secret oceans. As they recover their senses, they lose their memories of their journeys. No one has ever gotten any sense out of them. The world beneath the Drain remains a mystery.

Some call Twiliat the Lake with No Plug.

It's actually surprisingly difficult to reach the lake by water. Its constant spinning has carved a huge bowl in the ground over the centuries, and the banks are much higher than the water. In many places, they actually overhang it slightly. Fish lurk in the shadowy places underneath, waiting for prey that doesn't have a hook in it. Water only leaves the lake through the Drain; everything above ground flows into it, not out. The four rivers reach the lake as waterfalls. Only the stupidly adventurous sail over those. There are a few systems of locks around the banks, series of stepped pools that lift boats with clever arrangements of valves and gates, but few boats use them. Instead, most of the city's shipping trade takes place in a ring of canals around the raised edges of the lake.* Much of the city is built around and over these canals, or clinging to the steep banks below them. Many buildings slouch on piers over the slowly swirling water.

The dry part of SuyMaTmakk forms a ring around the lake; the submerged part of the city forms a somewhat smaller ring inside it. Their populations are about equal. The city is evenly divided between the people of the air, the people of the water, and the amphibians who travel between the two.

The only people who sail on the lake itself are fishers and scavengers. Whole islands of debris build up in the center of the lake.** The current draws them together, but it's not strong enough to pull them down into the Drain, so they simply float on the surface, spinning gently. Everything that falls into the lake and floats eventually ends up there. The islands are made up of broken furniture, lost toys, dead fish, papers blurred to illegibility, leaves and sticks and wood shavings and a hundred kinds of dust. Some of them are old enough to have sprouted grass and small bushes. There are people who make their living by rowing or swimming back and forth, scavenging in the shifting heaps of trash and lost things. They bring back what they find and sell it in the city's markets. Their booths are full of stained books, locked boxes with no keys, dolls with waterweed in their hair, wooden clocks with their gears full of silt. The scavenger's booths are the first places people go if they lose something. Chances are it will turn up in one of them eventually.

The city itself is a chaotic jumble of buildings. Wood is just as scarce here as elsewhere on the Scalps, so the buildings are made of wicker, of crooked sticks lashed into bundles, of piled sod bricks topped with grass, of bones taken from the elephant graveyards outside the city.*** I don't think there's a straight line in all of SuyMaTmakk. The city tangles around the edges of Lake Twiliat like the nest of an enormous bird.

I haven't actually seen all that much of it yet. The sun set shortly after my first glimpse of that crazed silhouette against the sky, and it was dark when we began to reach the outstretched fingers of the city's river docks. The lamps on them are lit by bottled fireflies and exquisitely trained salamanders. In a city made of sticks and straw, actual fires are extremely scarce. The streets are mostly dark after sunset.

The inn the TiLeKraNas usually stay at is on the Hley, so we didn't actually set foot on the streets tonight; we simply tied the raft up at the dock, next to a shack built on a huge floating dome, and went inside. I looked back as the door was closing and saw the dome lift its head out of the water. It was an enormous turtle.

The inn is called the Hmofrem Pekelli (the Eloquent Pig). It's a cozy, slouching building made of sod bricks. From outside, it looks like a grassy hill with windows. The walls are threaded with embroideries of living roots, some of which reach pale flowers out to the lanterns or the dusty windows. The most bored or drunk patrons of the bar pour various drinks on them; some turn the next day's flowers interesting colors, as if the plants themselves are drunk. A few regulars have become experts and can combine drinks to give the flowers multicolored stripes or splotches. The other patrons generally agree that they don't have enough to do.

All of this is still only what I've heard from the TiLeKraNas; they come to SuyMaTmakk often enough to be familiar with the most interesting parts of the city. It was late when we arrived, though, and the children went straight to bed (after some protesting), soon followed by the adults. I've only stayed up late enough to write this letter and hand it to the patiently waiting postbird. My own exploring will have to wait until tomorrow.

* Twiliat literally means "Ear." It is, after all, a hole beneath the Scalps. English-speakers call the city's main waterway the Ear Canal.

** This might explain why rafts on the Hley look the way they do.

*** Most of the bone-houses' inhabitants are immigrants from Trammelghast, where a house is not considered homey until it's haunted by at least one shrieking specter. They see the dead as something like eccentric pets. Their neighborhoods tend to remain politely out of earshot of the rest of the city.

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