Sunday, July 15, 2012


The caravan's wagons run on sledges - better for sand - though they carry wheels that they can attach for hard or rocky ground. There are no permanent routes across the Golden Desert; caravans have to be prepared for everything. The wagons are lightweight, mostly wood with canvas roofs, and they're sloped on the sides so that the wind won't tip them over.

I really haven't paid all that much attention to the wagons, though, other than to get an idea for their basic shapes. What I find most interesting is what's in front of them.

The wagons are pulled by creatures called gafl. They are great shaggy beasts like enormous caterpillars. Each one has fourteen feet - soft, squishy pads the size of pie plates - and no legs to speak of. The mouth is somewhere between the little gripping claws and the fuzzy nub that serves as a face. The eyes are hard and dry, like an insect's - one less way to lose water to evaporation. They have no eyelids; instead, whenever the outer surface gets too scratched and dirty, a gafl will simply shed the lens and grow a new one underneath. Gafl handlers often collect the spent lenses and wear them as jewelry.

Gafl usually give birth to two or three calves at a time, which ride on top of their mothers until they're old enough to walk long distances by themselves.

I've only seen the creatures moving around a few times so far. When they do, it's with a rippling, elastic gait that moves down their bodies in waves. (This is why the wagons are hitched to them with giant springs.) The gigantic feet flop down onto the sand with a sound like dropped pillows. The holes in the sides of their body are for breathing; each one leads to its own simple lung, which is attached to one of the gafl's seven hearts. Like kilopedes and other large animals, most of a gafl's biological systems - nervous, circulatory, and so on - are evenly distributed between the segments of its massive body. If one heart collapses under the strain, the other six keep the gafl going until it grows a new one.

They seem capable of regrowing nearly anything, actually, which enables them to live virtually forever. Some of the caravan's gafl are over two hundred years old. The only visible difference between them and the younger gafl is an odd, subtle grace in their lumpy movements.

I wanted to ask if a gafl cut in two would grow a whole new gafl from each half, but Karlishek said that the handlers usually don't appreciate that kind of question. Karlishek is the insect who translated for me two days ago. I haven't quite grasped what his occupation is yet, but he seems to be taking a break at the moment; he spent several hours today acting as an interpreter between the gafl handlers and I. He also taught me a bit more Amrat, so I was able to thank him and the handlers in their own language - or a close approximation of it, at least. Several of them giggled at my accent.

Though they are twice the size of oxen, gafl are slightly less dangerous than overstuffed mattresses. The only way they could hurt someone would be to roll over and smother them. Their only defenses are their thick hides and, according to their handlers, a truly magnificent stench that they produce when frightened. Those who have encountered it describe it as somewhat like a sick skunk that has been fed too many onions and then set on fire. This is enough to drive off most predators - or, at the very least, to make them lose their appetite.

Wild gafl have no objection to the smell. Tame gafl are more sensitive. When something scares them, they belch out a cloud of noxious gas as a reflex, then cry pathetically until it blows away. Caravan passengers learn to tread very carefully around them and not make any sudden noises.

Fortunately, the smell dissipates quickly, as the gafl don't want to have to live with it. A gafl's nose is sensitive enough to smell vegetables ten miles away. This is an essential ability in the wild, where they don't have people to provide food; gafl don't eat often, but when they do, they eat huge amounts.

Camels use their humps to store fat and nutrients on long journeys. Gafl are all hump. Like caterpillars, they are basically a digestive system on feet. With their massive fat stores, they can travel for months without eating at all, though they are considerably smaller afterward. A caravan's usual method is to let its herd of gafl stuff themselves thoroughly at towns and villages, then just give them the occasional drink of water on the journey.

Like the rest of the caravan's herd, the gafl that I sketched had been eating nonstop for the last two days. That's why I was able to stay still and sketch it in such detail. Its handler was feeding it some sort of small fruits - she called them "kimish" when I pointed to them - that seemed to be something of a treat. The great beast gripped the little fruits between its claws and tucked them up into its blunt face, making happy little snuffling noises that shook its whole front end.

This was considerably slower than its usual eating speed. Normally, gafl eat voraciously, stuffing leaves and roots and even pieces of wood into their hidden mouths so fast that it's hard to believe they're chewing. The wild ones will eat whole trees if there's nothing better nearby. Their teeth, wherever they are, must be quite impressive. There seems to be no kind of plant matter that they won't eat. I've even seen a few of the handlers feeding them worn-out clothing - though only if it's made from plant fibers, such as cotton or flax.

After two days of eating, the caravan's gafl have nearly doubled in size. I can't wait to see what they look like by the time we leave.

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