Tuesday, June 18, 2013


The last place I visited in the Golden Desert was Saframish, a town built around a giant fish temple. The caravan stopped there to exchange passengers with other caravans and refill its supplies of water.

To be more precise, it's one of the Temples of Gilliva, Lady of the Waters, a deity much appreciated in the Golden Desert. The Temple of Gilliva in Saframish is built in the fossil skull of a giant fish. Its jaws rise up from the ground like twin steeples, dwarfing the houses and shops that have sprouted like barnacles around it. The mouth is open; from inside the main sanctuary of the temple, you can look up past the crooked stone teeth into open sky. This is a common feature of all Gillivan buildings. The followers of the Lady of the Waters don't keep rain out of her temples.

Below the open mouth is a long, oval pool, in which swims a single great catfish as large as a bull. Its whiskers have grown long enough to brush its tail as it swims, like the gray mustaches of an old, old man. The townspeople call the fish the Lasra, which means "tongue." They say it speaks for the Lady of the Waters in times of trouble. This century has been good to Saframish, though, and no one I spoke to could recall the fish speaking in their lifetimes.

According to the people of Saframish, there are catacombs beneath the skull, excavated in the spaces between the ribs and vertebrae. I would have liked to go see them, but they don't let just anyone down into the heart of the fish. Some of the passages are flooded, inhabited with shrimp and blind cave fish. The Gillivans consider them sacred, like all fish. (As I've mentioned before, this religion has never really caught on in coastal areas.)

The founders of the town cut the mountain away from the skull a century or two ago. At that time, a giant fish in the Desert was seen as sufficient evidence of a miracle - or at least a place with interesting geology - so they carved the inside into a temple to the Lady. It's the reason that Saframish has grown from a tiny village to the bustling town it is now.

It does bustle, too. Pilgrims journey to the Great Fish from all over the Golden Desert; there are always people grateful for the water with which their homes have been blessed, just as there are always people in desperate need of more. Most of them, being pragmatic as well as devout, bring things from their home towns to trade while they're here. Nearly every kind of nut and fruit in the Desert can be found in the markets of Saframish - even if only in the amounts that can fit in a single backpack. The cries of vendors and crafters and a whole menagerie of Desert animals fill the streets. One herder I saw had a group of lookout giraffes, wearing lightweight viewing platforms like wicker collars around their necks. Another was selling blind hounds, like a hybrid of dog and earthworm. She said they could sniff out water in the Desert.

There was little chance for them to prove their skill in Saframish; water was everywhere. In all my time in the Golden Desert, I have never seen a town with so many fountains. Several of them were full of lily pads, and I'm sure I caught the golden gaze of a bullfrog in one of them. Floater-merchants paraded their way through the streets, pulling billowing globes of water through the air behind them with oil-coated hands. No one but the floater-merchants is sure how they can make such vast quantities of water hang in the air, as weightless as soap bubbles; they have kept the secret carefully guarded for centuries.

This abundance of water was actually why I ended up leaving the caravan. But more on that later.

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