A Different Kind of Stone
I've spent most of the last two days walking. I've seen few people traveling and even fewer staying still. There's been the occasional hut, abandoned and overgrown, home to nothing but desert foxes and chimney swallows; one or two dried-out wells with sand spilling over their brims; a brightly colored tent with the symbol for DO NOT DISTURB painted many times over its entire surface - but nothing more permanent.
This is normal for the Golden Desert. It's rare to ever find two places less than three days' walk from each other.
Yesterday evening, just before sundown, the road wound its way into a cluster of rocky outcroppings. I hardly noticed them at first. The sky was cloudless, but the sun was managing a spectacular sunset anyway, painting the empty sky a hundred shades of gold and crimson. I walked in among the pillars of stone and suddenly felt as if I was in a forest. This has not happened in several months; I would have enjoyed it, except that the stones blocked my view of the sunset. I turned around and settled down near the base of one of the pillars near the edge, shrugging off my bags of books and clothing and art supplies, and took out a couple of pakals for dinner. (I love pakals. I'll write more about them in another letter.) I'd been walking since before dawn, and it was a relief to sit down and rest for a while. I would have sat in the shade, but I couldn't have watched the sunset that way.
It was a pleasant place to rest. There was a cool (relatively speaking) breeze off the river. A pack of winged hyenas was doing wild aerobatics overhead; I'm not sure if they were the same pack I'd been seeing all day or a different one. The sun had set where I was by then, lighting only the craggy tops of the stone pillars behind me, but the hyenas were high enough that their spotted fur shone like gold. Their laughter echoed between the stones.
When both the sunset and my dinner were gone, I got up and moved on. The best time to travel in the Desert is when the sun is just below the horizon; that way, it provides light without extreme amounts of heat.
The air was cool between the pillars of rock. Their surfaces were oddly layered, as if they'd been poured into place - quite different from the usual Desert rock formations. Their shapes didn't look as if they'd been eroded by wind and sand. Most of the smaller ones had holes in the top, which made me suspect some sort of volcanic activity; fountain volcanoes, perhaps, or some sort of geysers, dried up long ago. Several were encrusted with the tough brown lichen that grows in shady places here. I admired their rough, irregular shapes, wondering how they'd been formed, until they were reduced to silhouettes against the darkening sky.
As it turned out, I didn't have to wait long to find out. Right at the end of twilight, when the sky had gone a deep ultramarine and a few of the brightest fish-stars had come into view, a light appeared at the top of one of the nearby pillars. I couldn't tell what it was at first. Backing away, I climbed up on one of the stubbier pillars to get a better view - and watched as a frond of turquoise light rose from the stone.
It was dim at first, but more and more flecks of light appeared as it unfurled, blue and green with the occasional speck of rich violet. It was like a glowing peacock's feather. A second one unfolded from another pillar, purple and deep red, followed by a third in white and pink. I stood in amazement and watched. They shimmered with thousands of points of light, like the flecks of pigment in a pointillist painting. They were breathtaking.
They were also considerably larger than I was. As I watched, a large moth flew into one of the fronds, which snapped shut around it and made a motion that looked disturbingly like swallowing. I got off of the pillar I was standing on quite quickly after that.
The moths obviously found the shimmering light even more entrancing than I did. The night air was full of the sound of fluttering wings, cut off by the soft snaps of the fronds as they plucked one moth after another out of the air. I caught sight of the occasional bat as well, silhouetted against the lights. The gathering of moths must have been a feast for them as well. They had to fly carefully, though; more than once, I saw the fronds snatch at passing bats, though I never saw them catch one. Bats are good at dodging.
I had no idea what the fronds were. I'd heard of things like these - creatures somewhere between plant and animal, such as anemones and sea-ferns, that root themselves to stones and grow hard tubes to pull themselves into - but I'd never seen anything like them on land. For that matter, I'd never heard that they grew anywhere near this large.
I suspect I could have stood and watched this strange carnivorous rainbow all night if I hadn't dozed off eventually. When I woke up, the creatures were gone again; they'd pulled themselves back into their stones well before sunrise. That explained the holes at the tops of the smaller pillars. I looked into a few of them, but I couldn't see anything but darkness inside. The tubes must go deep into the sand.
This evening, exhausted after another whole day of walking, I finally reached a village. I limited myself to only the essential questions:
"Where is the inn?"
"How much for a room?"
"What were those feathery things in the Desert?"
According to the innkeeper, who seemed rather amused at the question, they're called samratheel - which roughly translates as "biting flowers."
The name seems to fit them.