And I Will Send Word with the Scavengers: The Haunting of the Olina Museum Toy Rooms

On Saturday the long-closed Olina Museum and Distillery re-opened to much fanfare in the Printer’s Quarter. How the Museum came to be closed is a matter for another time; depending upon who you talk to the conflagration that reduced the building to ashes was either part of a massive conspiracy (and really, in this city, what isn’t?), the work of a few directors on a board that had descended into chaos and paranoia over a supposed haunting in the folklore wing, or something like, but not precisely the same as, spontaneous combustion (although really the only people who appear to support that hypothesis are the surviving members of what was then the Museum’s board). But whatever the cause of the closure, the Olina is open again, so I dutifully dusted off my NBTC badge and talked my way into the opening day festivities. In addition to a few widely-publicized exhibits, the opening promised a few surprises. This post is about one of them.

The new buildings of the Olina Museum are special. In order to be able to meet the budget for the rebuilding, the new board crafted a unique (but somehow, to this correspondent, who has now spent enough time in Nagspeake to be shocked at nothing, entirely unsurprising) strategy: they bought up a collection of old and abandoned buildings around the city about to be demolished, moved them to the Printer’s Quarter, and assembled them into a brand-new Olina Museum. Now, if you are wondering whether a board whose predecessors may or may not have burned the Museum down years ago over a supposed haunting had any qualms about tempting the ghosts of the ages by forcibly moving a bunch of ancient and crumbling buildings into unfamiliar territory and asking them to work together, the answer is, of course not. They recognized the absurdity of their predecessors. This was a board for a more modern time. Logical, realistic. Don’t be silly. They did hold off on announcing a few of the exhibits, those aforementioned “surprises,” but that was just practicality. After all, those exhibits were housed in the leaning Victorian B&B that now stood on the ground where in years past, the supposedly-haunted wing stood. But no grisly deaths took place before the 15th, so yesterday I found myself in what was once the kitchen of that old B&B, touring the new Olina Toy Room. And, no surprise, it’s freaky. Yes, I took pictures, and yes, they’re here, but even the creepy toys aren’t the source of the freak factor. In order to understand the organism that is the Olina Toy Room, in order to get the creepiness, you have to know a little about two things, both of them long-standing Oddball Nagspeake Institutions: the scavengers, and the murder-poet, Owen Ilford.

First of all, the scavengers, or, to properly name them, the Right-Worshipful Company of Escauwagieres. If you meet one on the street, no, you don’t have to address him or her by her full title (Sir or Lady Whoever, Chevalier Escauwager). That would just be silly. But you’re best if you never, ever, actually use the word scavenger. In Brookyn, where I spend most of my year, throw out the word scavenger and it calls to mind the folks with grocery carts roving up and down the sidewalks the night before trash day looking for recyclables or anything that might be salable at a flea market. In Nagspeake, however, the city rag-pickers, like the word scavenger itself, descend from customs-collectors. And if you stop one on the sidewalk, any Nagspeake escauwager will park his or her grocery cart full of Rescued and Useful Crapp and give you the full etymology and the full history. There are stories in these parts of underground warrens, caves full of curiosities, even (perish the thought) hidden archives that have survived the civic burnings since the days of the Yankee Peddlers. The Escauwagieres even supposedly had a critical partnership with the city’s most recent hero, the modern smuggler known as the Gentleman Maxwell. And, according to the press-packet handed out Saturday at the Olina, late last summer they sent a delegation to the Museum’s board offering to donate every toy they’d ever rescued from the gutters if the new Olina would include a permanent exhibit to display them. The board agreed. The Toy Room was born.

Like I said, it’s a weird room. (For one thing, it’s in a flipping kitchen.) The exhibit, such as it is, progresses along a nominally historical timeline, but then there’s the random display of Star Wars tontons in the diorama next to the collection of assorted cowboys and Indians. There are lots of trains, but then there’s the gorilla randomly stuck on the train track (which I still don’t find half as weird as the giant grasshopper overseeing the carnage in the faux Wild West). It doesn’t appear to have been curated so much as shoved into the space by whatever means sort of made sense. One wonders why the board even bothered taking the collection if they planned to treat it so haphazardly. Have a look at the pictures, and ruminate on them while we move on to Weird Factor Number Two.

Owen Ilford. Where to start and how to keep it brief, both for your patience and my long-term safety? Owen Ilford was the Nagspeake Poet Laureate at some point way back when (as with much of Nagspeake history, just when is tough to pin down). He wrote a number of historical poems and a number of poems about murder. There is even some question of whether or not he even existed. Most importantly, there is an incredible shortage of scholarship about Ilford because Ilford scholars tend to suffer violent deaths or just disappear. Since I don’t care to do either, we’re going to focus on just one of his poems and lay off any speculation about his life and identity. The poem in question is called The Scavengers (I know, shocking), and this is how it goes.

A nameless narrator forced to flee the city takes leave of his or her children, promising that this is for everyone’s safety, and that someday he/she will return. In the meantime, he tells the children, there’s nothing to be afraid of;/sleep and trust the night;/and I will send word with the scavengers/and you will know I am all right. Throughout the rest of Ilford’s perverse little lullaby, through the good offices of the scavengers (who, in the world of the poem, constitute a confraternity that stretches beyond the borders of the city) the refugee parent sends little toys, reminders of happy family moments, to the boy and girl left behind, one for every year of his absence. Each time he asks the messenger to repeat his parting words and deliver a promise: there’s nothing to be afraid of;/sleep and trust the night;/one day I will make it back home to you/I miss you, but I am all right. The scavengers, in turn, bring back tales of the happily growing children. At long last the exile returns, only to find an overgrown ruin where the family home once stood. Of the children there is no sign. He searches the city and finally learns the horrible truth: the day after his escape, the unknown powers that forced his flight destroyed his home and murdered his family. Walking the streets in a daze, he finds himself at last in the graveyard, where after some searching he finds the all-but hidden graves of his children. They are unmarked by headstones, but unmistakable: atop each one is a small pile of the toys sent with the scavengers over the years.

Nobody knows which, if any, of Ilford’s murder poems refer to actual events. Ilford scholars generally assume many, if not most, do, and they love to speculate on who and what these poems refer to. Oddly, however, they tend to dismiss The Scavengers as nothing more than a cautionary fable intended to freak out parents and give them nightmares. But it’s pretty hard to imagine they won’t change their tunes now. The plaque on the kitchen door leading to the Toy Room bears the following inscription.

The Toy Room

Gift of the Right-Worshipful Company of Escauwagieres, in memoriam

Sleep and Trust The Night.

There are far too many pieces in the exhibit for all of them to have been failed messages from that long-ago exile to the children lying in their unmarked graves, and many are far too modern. But what if? What if they’re here, those failed messages to the dead, hidden among the bits of shining tin and molded plastic?

Here’s one more thing I noticed at the opening. Among the guests was a very old man. Unlike the rest of us, he didn’t wear a name tag. I never saw him speak to anyone, and I never saw him drink from the glass he carried from room to room. I think I began following him more to amuse myself than out of any particular suspicions (my nominal supervisor at the NBTC was at the opening, and I am an ace at finding random things to get me out of a room she’s in). It was while following this man that I found myself in the Toy Room. It was only while writing this post today that I remembered that when I lost interest in following him, it was because he had stopped his wandering to stare for a very long time at something in a glass-fronted case. I wish now that I’d bothered to speak to him, or at least to take note of what he was staring at, but I didn’t.

A Postcard Homage on the Occasion of the Nth Burning of the Civic Archives

For the last six days I have been holed up in Brooklyn, blissfully enjoying a writing vacation that I’ve spent working on the second draft of a new manuscript that, at the moment, I’m simply calling Charlotte Underground. Yesterday I wrote a page for the beginning of the book, introducing the location. As you might’ve guessed, as I’m posting this here rather than on my “professional” site at, this story is set in Nagspeake.

Charlotte’s story touches on a lot of the things I love about this city: feral metallurgy, architectural drift, the legendary smuggler known as the Gentleman Maxwell, and Bud Chell’s wonderful Shore to Shore radio program that, unfortunately, currently only broadcasts in Nagspeake and along the Odd Trail. The opening page doesn’t remotely get into all of that wonderfulness, but maybe it gives a little bit of the sense of the city anyway. In any case, writing it made me a little wistful and homesick–if the term can be applied to a place that isn’t, technically, your home–for my little flat in Shantytown with its restless fire escape, Annabelle Bechamel’s homemade lavender madeleines and rotgut gin, and the constant warring of the muddy, vegetal smell of the Skidwrack River with the clean brackish breezes off the Magothy Bay. And since I haven’t posted here in ages, and since it’s Burning Day, which despite my mixed feelings on the subject seems to demand some marking of the occasion, and since anyway I have no way of knowing if this page will survive the next draft, here it is.

There is a city on a bay.

It is a city of shifting identity: it has been a pirate stronghold, a smuggling hub, a derelict ruin, a major beach destination, the victim of ruinous plots and depredations, and the architect of others. It is a city of shifting nationality: it speaks the languages of nearly every country that ever colonized North America or sent ships in that direction (you have to really, if you’re going to be a halfway-decent pirate hotspot), but it had never truly belonged to any of them. These days it is connected by train, one mostly-forgotten road and a very patchy uplink to the country it shares a continent with, but those are the extent of its ties.

It is a city of shifting history: several times every century the citizens burn the Archives building and all the records in it, then spend the years until the next burning vigorously debating the past they spent so much time and effort erasing the evidence of. It is a city of shifting alliances: it has sheltered thieves and lawbreakers, maniacs, visionaries, dissenters, and saints; it has been under the thumbs of terrible mayors, a despotic mail order catalogue empire, and at least one prophet (there might’ve been more, but if so, records of them have been lost). Sometimes it has even turned on itself like a snake rearing back to bite its own tail. And that’s just the citizens, doing what people who live in close proximity with thousands of other people sometimes do. But cities are more than just the sum of the people who live in them.

This is also a city of shifting waterlines. It is a city of shifting sands: great dunes that sweep across streets and have to be fenced in. And it is a city that sometimes simply, inexplicably, shifts itself. Sometimes the shifts are small and amount to nothing more than disorientation and inconvenience: a fence, a balcony turning up in an unaccustomed place, or a garden one day having two gates rather than one. Other times (to the eternal annoyance of tour guides and printers of street maps) they are larger ones that require people to file changes of address with the postal service. To be fair, though, these bigger shifts are rare enough that most people in the city ignore them, if they believe in them at all.

Happy Burning Day, Nagspeake.

Shifting Sands at the Chip-n-Putt Emporium

As I type this, I’m sitting at Magothy Treats, drinking homemade gin that Annabelle persists in garnishing with cranberries so that I won’t feel like I’m taking shots to dull my fear, so I apologize if my syntax isn’t perfect.

Last week I posted a piece on the NBTC website at about the Funicular Railway in the Slope. In it I basically accused four men a century or so ago of plotting murder to cover up something that happened at one of the city’s most exclusive, mostly-annual events, the Shutter Club’s Sepia Ball. The four men were a former mayor of Nagspeake, a railroad magnate, the son of the man who developed the district known as the Slope, and the visible half of the mail-order principality known as Deacon and Morvengarde. It’s not the first time I’ve posted about something toeing the “iffy” line around here, but it is the first time it’s brought a knock on my door at home rather than at the NBTC offices. Or rather, a death-rattle from my doorbell. So I put on an insulated glove that I keep by the intercom buzzer for just this purpose (the wiring in my building is, shall we say, intermittently deadly), and shouted “hello” into the resulting static.

Somebody at the other end of the intercom said something back that sounded a lot like Balthazar Morton–but given the static and the dim possibility that the person on the other end was being electrocuted even as he or she attempted to identify him/herself, I was pretty sure I had misheard the name and my visitor probably wasn’t actually the current Mayor of the city. Still, I shouted a warning to step away from the intercom and buzzed the visitor into the building, hoping he was wearing gloves to dull the shock that’s pretty much a guarantee any time anybody touches the front doorknob. Then I waited for my visitor to hike up the stairs to my seventh-floor flat. I waited a really long time, and I admit that I waited most of that time with my eye glued to the peephole. It isn’t that I think the Mayor’s a bad guy, but you can’t live in this town without becoming something of a conspiracy theorist. Plus, Morton’s got a family link to Deacon and Morvengarde, and I think if I ever turn up on their radar, it’s not going to be as a fan. And I live in probably the easiest part of town for making people disappear. So I was just being, you know, a little careful.

After what seemed like enough time for anybody to get to my floor, even with frequent breaks for hydration, I cracked the door open and peered onto my landing. Nobody. I listened; you can always hear people before they get to this landing, thanks to some miracle of accoustics and the fact that usually they’re breathing pretty hard by the time they get a couple flights up. I couldn’t hear a thing. Then I noticed an envelope sitting neatly on the doormat. Deep plum-colored paper embossed with the seal of the city of Nagspeake: a lantern surrounded by a tendril of iron. I kicked the envelope inside, slammed the door, and locked it, half-expecting to hear the thudding of, I don’t know, arrows, or a hail of bullets, raining against it. I don’t know why. Too many spy thrillers on tv this week or something. Not to keep you in suspense, inside the envelope was a single sheet of paper, with a question and a location printed on it. The location was SEPIA SANDS, SUNSET. The question was: How much do you want to know?

I’m not making this up. I guess if you’re going to run a city like this, you have to have an overblown sense of the dramatic.

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In the Hacker’s Bazaar

The Printer’s Quarter is universally distrusted in Nagspeake; at the same time, everybody wants to live there, go to parties there, be able to talk casually about “last weekend in the Quarter.” (In this city, starting an anecdote with “last weekend in the Quarter” is like opening up with “one year at band camp.” You just know something is going to go  dreadfully wrong, and the only question is whether hilarity or slaughter is going to ensue. At the end of the anecdote the listeners sigh, wishing they’d been there for the highbrow hijinks/funny romantic escapades/death and dismemberment because it was clearly the social event of the season.) It just makes sense that when anything goes not-quite-according-to-plan with disastrous citywide consequences, it originates in the Printer’s Quarter. This time it started with nomenclature.

When you know there’s a pretty strong likelihood that your writing is only going to survive for only a finite period of time, measurable in the twenty-five year increments between archival burnings, it creates a certain sense of urgency. This urgency manifests itself in weird ways amongst academics, of which there is an abnormally high concentration in the Quarter. For the last month a debate between a cabal of professors from the City University’s Crypto-Urban Studies department specializing in Architectural Drift and a pack of Conservatory for Urban Expression editors has been slowly elevating past theory and discourse into the realm of monomania. The debate is this, and I am not kidding in the slightest: does the term feral metallurgy really apply, when most supposedly feral metals tend toward expression that can be interpreted as conforming to urban form and function?

If you’re rolling your eyes now, so was the rest of city academia. Except for about ten people who were laughing their asses off: City University’s actual department of Special Topics in Feral Metallurgy. Yes, that’s right, the actual academics at CU whose purview this was were not involved, except for being the shit-starters behind it all. The Architectural Drift people are notoriously touchy about the fact that their specialty is widely considered to be along the lines of researching Bigfoot, and somebody in Ferroculture sidled up to somebody in AD and did some faux commiserating. We understand your frustration; nobody takes us seriously either, look what they call our department. Feral Metallurgy, when half the city wouldn’t be standing today if not for the Old Iron holding it up. Feral, like it’s a badly-housebroken dog.

Well, if there’s one thing your average Architectural Drift researcher can do, it’s get his back up over a perceived slight to the legitimacy of somebody’s line of research. And since the average AD researcher hasn’t got the evidence to back up his own research, it’s like a gift from above when he can get on a high horse about something like Old Iron which , if not precisely explainable, is at least observable. Old Iron exists for sure, which is more than you can say about unanchored abandoned houses that supposedly move at will around the city.

The people at the Conservatory for Urban Expression are not a bunch of kids looking for a fight. They are a no-nonsense bunch, they like quantifiables, and they felt that debate over exchanging the term Feral Metallurgy for Civically-Minded Holding Us All Together Metallurgy was a waste of everybody’s time. But the Conservatory Press is City University’s publisher, so that’s where AD went to whine. The Conservatory, predictably, told the AD people to go bugger off and find something real to do with their time. The AD people went for the strategy of annoying the hell out of the Conservatory until it had no choice but to answer back. The resulting firefight has involved everything from scholarly debate to TP-ing Conservatory editors’ front yards. The Conservatory fought with pen and ink at first, publishing editorials about the absurdity of it all, and then they gave up on the pens. They posted snipers with ink-filled Super Soakers on the Conservatory’s front turrets. They turned up at Architectural Drift classes, locked the doors, and set off sprinkler systems in the classrooms in which the water had been miraculously replaced with ink. Supposedly one AD professor opened his car door only to have a flood of ink pour out of it, the way beer pours out of cars in those commercials about the evils of drunk driving. All good fun and games, until the AD people decided to do a little infiltration of their own. They decided to try and find a way to rig all the typesetting machines at the Conservatory Press so that every time someone tried to enter the phrase feral metallurgy, the machine would override it and set the acronym CMHUATM (civically-minded holding us all together metallurgy) instead.

Amazingly, this plan had a shot. Conservatory Press still uses phototypesetting machines, and when the typesetter wants to enter a phrase, he or she enters it on a keyboard with no display and types it a second time to confirm the content. If the two entries match, a piece of punched tape comes out. You feed that into the typesetting machine, and the machine produces an image of the page that’s used to make a plate for printing. So all the AD people had to do was figure out how to get the keyboard to recognize the hated phrase and replace it with the new acronym. The substitution would be caught eventually, but it would certainly freak some people out in the process, and maybe, just maybe, drive the point home. They probably could’ve found a consultant somewhere in the city to do this; however, if these were men and women willing to look for the simplest solution, they would never have wound up in Crypto-Urban Studies in the first place, let alone in Architectural Drift. They went straight to Shantytown, and this is where things went wrong.

There are lots of dodgy places in Shantytown. Most people avoid the tenements behind the basilica of St. Horace Rye, where sometime in the last century the groves of trees that had once decorated the cemetery were torn down to build the thin, tall tenements that stand like overgrown mausoleums among the gravestones. Most keep out of Slaughterhouse Row, because it is what it sounds like and blood literally runs in the gutters. Considered worse than either of these, though, is the Hacker’s Bazaar, a short street of warehouses not far from where I live in Creve Coeur.

Wires overhang the street like jungle vines. Occasional sparks run along them like little lemurs. The scents of ozone and melting soldering wire are omnipresent. Snips of stripped wire and tiny bits of the bright plastic coating accumulate in between the cobblestones along with candy wrappers and empty Mountain Dew bottles. The occasional castoff from a keyboard crunches underfoot like a little square beetle.  The hiss of a compressed air can makes you jump and turn to look behind you. From a window above, a burst of frosty air pours down onto you, air conditioning allowed to run wild and out of control. Where the makeshift curtains haven’t been yanked all the way closed, the flickering light from a LAN party illuminates a human head, neck bent at the unnatural angle of someone who is computing on the floor. From everywhere, you see the ghostly glow of tiny blinking lights like mismatched eyes. On market days, the streets are lined with booths piled with cardboard boxes full of parts, antique computing arcana, discarded manuals and cds of pirated software and anime labeled in Sharpie. Behind the boxes, young men and women studiously ignore you as they work on pimped-out electronics or play old-school computer games on their laptops or re-read Cryptonomicon for the fifth time.

It is the ultimate tech support zone: the answers to everything are there, held by a populace of geeks and nerds who may or may not render up those answers depending on whether or not you look like you already tried re-booting your system before bothering them about it. Most of them, raised on the hundreds of YourLittlePCs donated by Deacon and Morvengarde to underperforming school districts around the city in the 1990s, learned how to field-strip, diagnose, and repair at about age ten in order to be able to use the shoddy laptops. They are all-knowing, totally dismissive and yet vaguely threatening at the same time.

I don’t know–nobody does–what happened when the diplomats from AD ventured into the Hacker’s Bazaar looking for someone who could take on the phototypesetting machines at Conservatory Press. Somehow, somebody knew enough about talking the talk to get an audience with the Savant, a shadowy uber-geek who all but rules the Bazaar. Supposedly when he ventures onto the cobblestones, people actually look up from their screens, lower their dogeared paperbacks. When his navy appears in FreeCiv, all lesser empires tremble. He has more Twitter followers than Neil Gaiman. And when the AD people approached the Savant about their project, his entourage scoffed. Of course the Savant could do this. But why would he? Any two bit hacker out there in the Bazaar could do it. This is not the sort of thing you bothered the Savant about. Away, academic rabble!

But the Savant put out a soothing hand. Yes, any hacker could tell a phototypesetting keyboard to produce X when a user enters Y. But the great one was wise enough to see the potential here. What was being offered was a way into  the city’s publishing heart–something the Savant had wanted for a very, very long time. He agreed to the AD’s request.

The Savant’s program was installed and executed and did what it had been programmed to do: it replaced a thousand or so instances of Feral Metallurgy in the next few weeks, but that was only the smallest part of its functionality. It also made copies of everything it encountered and saved them remotely. It began to create an alternate archive in a secret location out there somewhere in the ether, one that would be protected from archival burnings forever. One of the Conservatory people discovered the hack; he was a kid who had grown up on one of those YourLittlePC’s and, when the acronym CMHUATM started showing up, he took apart the keyboard he’d been working on and found a little piece of something or other that he recognized from childhood days he’d spent tinkering with his own laptop. Immediately he knew something had been compromised, and when the AD people admitted to what they’d done, the Conservatory editor knew that the Savant’s program was some kind of Trojan Horse.

One of the great reasons the Hackers and their wild Bazaar are anathema in Nagspeake is the unease the city feels for any information that isn’t subject to the redemption-by-fire of the archival burnings. How can the city truly take back its history and give itself a fresh start as it claims to do every twenty five years if there’s a copy somewhere, a copy that doesn’t exist in the real world? (There are conspiracy theorists who hypothesize that Deacon and Morvengarde had something shady up its sleeve when it donated the YourLittlePCs to the city schools in the first place, that it somehow intended to raise this weird army of counterculturists, that it has plans for the Savant and his people. These theorists are held in only slightly higher regard than the Architectural Drift people–or would be, if they didn’t go to such great lengths to hide their identities.)

The riots that followed have already been written about, as well as the city’s thwarted efforts to put Shantytown under martial law and raid the Hacker’s Bazaar. From my balcony in Creve Coeur I can see the cordon of police milling uneasily a few yards from the line of robotic guards holding them off at the near end of the Bazaar. The robots are a ragtag collection of weaponized Roombas and science-fair projects and the things that look like somebody’s attempt to build the bot from Short Circuit or Wall-E. I can see at least two life-size R2-D2s with something that looks like trebuchets mounted on top of them. I can’t see what they’re supposed to launch. The police are trying to get clear shots at the geeks that occasionally peer out of the windows of the warehouses on the assumption that they’re the ones with the remote controls. It’s the most absurd standoff I think I’ve ever seen, and somehow I don’t think it’s going to end anytime soon.

Every now and then, a silhouette in a long black coat emerges on top of one of the warehouses and crouches down to peer over the roof, keeping an eye on the tension below: the Savant, I have no doubt. In the right light, he stops looking like a geek and starts to look a little like a lonely, doomed anime hero keeping an eye on his army of mechanical ronin as he draws his duster around him like a cape. Which is probably the look he’s going for.

Annabelle the MMA Goddess and the Mystery of the Missing Pots

Annabelle Bechamel and I have been friends since basically the day I arrived in Nagspeake. I have been a regular at Magothy Treats, the eponymous confectionery shop on Bay Byway, if not every day then at least every third day. Annabelle has heard every gripe I’ve had for the last two years, and I’ve listened to plenty of hers. You share enough of Annabelle’s liquors with somebody and you get to be friends or you start worrying about blackmail; Annabelle and I became friends, something we’d probably have done even without the drinks, and I can’t imagine this city or my life in it without her. But something happened a couple of weeks ago that drove a bit of a pike into our friendship. Actually it was two things: 1) my husband a care package to Nagspeake, and 2) Annabelle and I joined Twitter.

Before I explain how these things caused the rift they’ve caused, let me explain that Nathan mailed the package to me in care of Magothy Treats because my apartment in Creve Coeur is notorious for “losing” mail. Creve Coeur is one of the slightly less-squalid neighborhoods of Shantytown, but it’s still Shantytown, and it’s just better–safer–if you keep a post office box someplace else. Annabelle offered her shop as my post office box, which was wonderful of her until this particular mailing. I’m sure she had no intention to steal anything, but suddenly a flurry of tweets from Annabelle’s account demonstrated a sudden fascination with mixed martial arts, which suggested to me that she just might have gotten into my mail. My husband, you see, is a mixed martial arts geek, and was concerned that I might have been missing our domestic evenings at home with a few beers and the complete history of the UFC, which we were working our way through. So he mailed me every single one, including a bunch of other promotions he particularly likes. I suspect that if Annabelle has been plowing through them as fast as her growing obsession would indicate she’s almost done with them, at which point Nathan’s care package will miraculously appear and make its way to me. That’s fine. I have plenty to keep me busy. Annabelle of course denies that she intercepted my mail, although she has more or less admitted to the crime on her website. Whatever. I’m willing to accept her apology along with the DVDs whenever she’s done with them. But someone out there who was reading our tweets back and forth, which anyone would be forgiven for reading as evidence of animosity between the two of us, then called me anonymously claiming to have Annabelle’s long-missing collection of antique copper pots in case I wanted them.

Now, if you’re not in Nagspeake or if you are and somehow have missed the fact that Magothy Treats hasn’t sold caramels since last winter, here is the quick background. Annabelle has always been justifiably famous for her seasonal caramels. In the spring she makes Bouquet Caramels, flavored with things like rosewater and orange flower, hibiscus and lavender and plenty more exotic blossoms. In the summer she does some amazing thing she calls Saltwater Caramels, which are like a weird hybrid of taffy, caramel, and summer honey. In the fall and winter they get warmer, flavored with spicy liqueurs and things like clove and ginger and cardamom and whatever more interesting spices she happens to have on hand. I was heartbroken that she didn’t make them this year, because they were going to be my Christmas presents to just about everybody. And the reason Magothy Treats has been without caramels (and plenty of other things it usually stocks) is the disappearance of Annabelle’s heirloom copper pots and pans.

You will have to get her to tell you the story of where they were made and how they came to her. I have suggested over and over that she write it down somewhere. The tale involves romance, smuggling, ciphers hammered into the surface of a turbotiere that lead to the negotiation of a very secret treaty by codes based on flavored candies made in the same pots Annabelle now uses to make her confections. In honor of her collection of pots, Annabelle had plans this year to introduce a gift box of Treaty Caramels, reproducing as faithfully as she could the candied correspondence that enabled the Magothy Concord and set Nagspeake on the path to becoming the great city it sort of is. But everything went to hell when she took a nap at the counter one day and woke up to find her kitchen pillaged.

Annabelle claims she knows who did it. If she does, she’s never named names, probably because it’s a little unnerving to have somebody waltz past you and steal a truckload of metal without making so much as a sound. She also claims she knows how they did it, and you have to know Annabelle to understand why this would be a logical conjecture on her part, but she says the thieves must’ve used a Hand of Glory to do their dirty work.

A Hand of Glory. Where to start? Well, like any good sinister bit of old European weirdness with any kind of history to it, there are plenty of variations. Some say you use the left hand of a hanged man. Some say you want the hand of a murderer, and it should be the one that committed the slaying. It’s used for home invasion, basically; either the hand is lit like a candle, or it’s made to hold a candle that can only be put out by very specific means. As long as the candle’s lit, whoever you rob will sleep, enabling you to abscond with her copper pots without having to worry about noise. Whatever variation you make your Hand of Glory according to, though, there are other tricky ingredients to source before the Hand will work. You need, for instance, a substance often translated as Lapland Sesame. There is supposed to be no such thing. Annabelle, being obsessed with weird spices, actually went looking for Lapland Sesame not too long ago. She hadn’t found it, but she thinks somewhere along the way in the course of her search she must’ve talked to someone who not only knew what she was talking about, but knew what it actually is and what it was used for. She clearly also thinks she knows who that person is.

I think I know who that person is, too. There just aren’t that many people in Nagspeake who both wish Annabelle ill and seem likely people to know about the arcane history of strange spices. I can think of two off the top of my head: John Pinnard, owner of Nagspice, Bayside’s premier spice shop; and Salvie Edmondson, owner of Cryptic Messages, a psychic parlor a few mileposts down the Byway from Magothy Treats. Neither sound precisely like the strange voice that called me a week ago offering the pots up for sale, but then both of them could safely assume I’d recognize their voices if they weren’t disguised. Of course, there could be an unknown dark horse out there whose grudge against Annabelle or her landmark candy shop I don’t know about. I presume, though, that whoever it is has read our Twitter conversations but not my Expat archives, or they’d have understood our spat for a spat rather than any kind of real animosity. My money’s on Salvie because although Pinnard’s a pretentious bastard, I don’t think he’s got a shred of real evil-spiritedness to him. Salvie, on the other hand, is a real bitch. She also happens to have recently been divorced by Annabelle’s brother Ted. We’ll see. I’ve arranged a hand-off meeting to buy the pots this evening. I have an itemized list from Annabelle to make sure I get the whole lot, and in my correspondence with the anonymous caller I’ve hinted strongly that if he/she is willing to sell the secret to stealing a heap of metal without waking a sleeping confectioner, I will pay extra. We shall see what it all turns up. More to follow!

(From 14 January, 2009)

We call it research, Mr. Flyre

Here is what I wanted to do last week: I wanted to find out about Nagspeake’s train station. It’s this crazy Art Nouveau structure, all luster-finished glass and dark metal, old leather benches with brass nailheads, mosaic floors–and if you believe the most common story about it, it was ordered from the Deacon and Morvengarde catalogue by the city of Nagspeake sometime before 1900 and completed in 1903. There’s also the school of thought that says it was ordered out of the D&M catalogue sometime before 1900 by the city of Magothy Hill, thirty miles west of Nagspeake. How it got to its present location at the top of Whilforber Hill would make a great story for this column–or so I thought. I guess it depends who you talk to, and if you talk to Augustus Flyre, the guy in charge of the Terminus, it extra-super wouldn’t. It would just be me being nosy, and nobody has time for a nosy Parker, which marks officially the first time I have ever been called that.

In my defense, about twenty-two people have suggested I write about the Terminus since I moved here. It’s something of a favorite local story, one that both entertains and does civic duty these days, as it’s often trotted out by dissatisfied citizens to demonstrate the audacity of yesteryear, and how we’re just a bunch of whiny buggers nowadays. (Also in this category fall the Righteous Murder stories, but I’m still too new in town for the majority of Nagspeakers I meet to bring those up in polite conversation.) Figuring the Chief Conductor of the Magothy Terminus would be, if anything, even more excited at the prospect of talking about this favorite bit of Old Nagspeake history, I made my first order of business to seek out Augustus Flyre.

“I got nothing to say to you reporters.”  It was not the welcome I expected. My protestations of non-reporterhood fell on deaf ears (or rather one deaf ear and one that just wasn’t interested). “Don’t care, don’t know, don’t bother me. I got nothing to say. You reporters are trouble.” “Okay, Mr. Flyre, but I’m not a reporter. Wilmer Cobblebridge sent me from the NBTC. He said to ask you about the Magothy Hill story.”

It turns out Willie Cobblebridge and Augustus Flyre aren’t as close as Willie thinks–Willie thinks they’re bridge pals and Mr. Flyre thinks that’s less important than the fact that Willie took a girl to his senior prom that he had no business dating because she had broken Flyre’s heart in grammar school. Evidently he quietly, secretly hates Willie and only plays bridge with him because he loves bridge so much. So my introduction didn’t get me much in the way of points with him.

As Chief Conductor, Augustus Flyre (Willie calls him Augie but the second I laid eyes on him I knew this man would wish ill on me in every way he could think of if I presumed to call him Augie) has three basic responsibilities. 1) He runs the Magothy Terminus itself and acts as a liaison between the city of Nagspeake and the owners and operators of the Magothy and Whilforber rail line (which includes scheduling, ticketing, safety, and various other things that were fired off at me like verbal bullets too fast for human hands to record); 2) he runs the Iron Pony Museum, a railway history attraction on the Terminus grounds; and 3) he manages the local fulfillment of Deacon and Morvengarde catalogue orders because they all arrive by railway shipment. He has one full-time employee, a bicycle messenger named Linus Mirrock; for larger orders, of which there are many, he hires local freight agencies. Between the three jobs he is, as he explained to me, “too goddamned busy to waste time with goddamned reporters.”

I don’t know what finally made him agree to talk to me. It might just have been the fact that I kept showing up, but I suspect it was something else: the turning point came when I finally suggested maybe I’d just contact Deacon and Morvengarde directly ((by every account I’d heard, of course, the Terminus itself was ordered from D&M, who, not being located in Nagspeake, presumably keep actual permanent records without burning them every twenty-five years).  Mr. Flyre blanched. “Why would you do that?” The question sounded genuine, and tinged with a little bit of concern, if not actual fear. “Because I figure they keep actual permanent records without burning them every twenty-five years,” I said. “Come back tomorrow,” Flyre said after a long pause. “Lunchtime.” Then he disappeared without further specifics, so I showed up at 12 only to endure ten minutes of lecturing because Flyre actually takes his lunch at four p.m. on the cafe car of the Bayside Brougham, which has a one-hour layover at the Magothy Terminus every day between three-thirty and four-thirty. Evidently the cafe server on the Brougham makes (and here I quote Mr. Flyre) “the only perfect John Collins”. (I said, “You mean a Tom Collins?” and Flyre said, “I do not.”) So, with four hours to kill I walked the unpaved cowpath from the Terminus to St. Whit’s Asylum (which is another story) and back in time to present myself precisely at 4 p.m. only to find out the three-thirty train was running late. It actually wasn’t until five p.m. that we sat down on the old wooden stools at the tiled bar in the dining car of the Bayside Brougham so that Augustus Flyre could rip into me again.

“You reporters all think you have a right. You think you have some kind of…some kind of right,” Flyre muttered as he watched the gaunt bartender pouring his perfect Collins. Somewhere in here is when he flung the nosy Parker accusation, which I maintain was unnecessary under the circumstances. “Look,” I said, “there’s plenty of people who want to talk to me about the Terminus.” I’d pretty much given up insisting I wasn’t a reporter. “What’s the deal? Why are you the only person in Nagspeake who doesn’t?” Then I caught him scoffing at the gin gimlet the bartender set down in front of me (which turned out to be exceptional, matched only by the ones made with Annabelle Bechamel’s heirloom gin) and if there’s one thing I hate, it’s being scoffed at for my drinking habits. “And why don’t you want me to call Deacon and Morvengarde?”

Blanch. Flyre retreated into his glass muttering something about his good ear and stop mumbling.

Here’s what I already knew. The big controversy about the Magothy Terminus is that supposedly it was ordered by the town of Magothy Hill, meant to be delivered and installed in Magothy Hill, and the night after it arrived in Magothy Hill, it disappeared. Poof. It turned up a week later (it, or a railway terminus exactly like it down to the cast-iron and carnival glass sign proclaiming it to be MAGOTHY STATION) thirty miles east of its intended destination, at the top of Whilforber Hill just outside of Nagspeake. What nobody seems to know is how it got there. In Magothy Hill, the story goes that it was simply delivered to the wrong location, an easy mistake to make in 1905 when Magothy Hill was a very small town and hardly on the map. Why didn’t they correct the situation? Because, said Ted Bilton, deputy mayor of Magothy Hill, it had already been built, and certainly I didn’t think you could just go and move a railway terminus, lock, stock, and barrel, after it had been built?…Well…did I?

Of course I did, because it was a more interesting idea, which is possibly the biggest indication that I have spent way too long in Nagspeake already. I certainly wasn’t going to tell Bilton that, though. Instead I got him to tell me how one went about ordering a railway station back in the day. It started out sounding a lot like ordering from Sears, Roebuck and Company: then, as now, Deacon and Morvengarde catalogue sells additional catalogues of plans for houses and other buildings. You could order the catalogues of plans for free, and for a small sum (back then it was fifty cents) you could then receive the plans for the structure of your choice. Your fifty cents were credited toward the purchase of building materials, which you also ordered from D&M. This is where it stopped sounding like Sears, Roebuck; the cost of your building materials included the services of a Certified Deacon and Morvengarde Architect and Builder Emeritus, who showed up along with the 20-40 thousand house pieces that needed to be put together. The A.B.E. handled all the subcontracting necessary to complete the house, and guaranteed the future homeowner the lowest possible prices on services–“by force, if necessary,” Mr. Bilton said. What did that mean? “It’s Deacon and Morvengarde, so I assume it means exactly what it sounds like,” Bilton said. “I’m quoting directly from the customer service promises in the catalogue.”

This is probably as good a place as any to remind readers who might’ve forgotten that Deacon and Morvengarde has always had a stellar customer service record but not always a sterling reputation among competitors or subcontractors…or basically anyone who isn’t a customer. Yet another good reason to turn to D&M, trusted since time immemorial, for all your needs. Every single one. Or else. Somewhere in here I started to formulate my new theory, and it was this theory that made me suggest to Augustus Flyre that I might call D&M. But back to the Bayside Brougham.

“It’s simple, of course. Whichever town got the rail terminus was going to survive. Whichever one didn’t was going to wind up like Magothy Hill,” Flyre said. (Magothy Hill is just fine, by the way; it’s hardly a dead town.) So why couldn’t Nagspeake just have ordered its own station? “Question of timing. Same time this was happening, railroads were popping up everywhere, and the stations that were built earlier had a better chance of being connection points in the grid that was developing, as opposed to stops along the way to those points.” So–not to beat around the bush–did Nagspeake steal the Magothy Hill station? Flyre gave me a withering look. “Of course it did. Why else is the station called ‘Magothy’ rather than ‘Nagspeake?’ I suppose you want to know how they did it,” he grumbled. I did. “Thing was built in five parts that came together clamshell-like. All of ’em were built on some kind of skids so you could position ’em right. So one night a group of fellows rode a couple dozen horses and mules down to Magothy Hill, cut all the power lines to the town so’s it all went dark, and just hitched the station up, in its pieces, to the pack animals and tugged it away over here to Whilforber Hill. Satisfied?” The last word was shot at me like a snarl. And of course, I wasn’t–this was the same story I’d heard from everybody and I’d been expecting some deeper look from Augustus Flyre.

“Mr. Flyre, I already knew all that,” I said. “Everybody knows all that. I was hoping you’d be able to tell me something new, something nobody else knows.” I took a stab in the dark. “Like how Deacon and Morvengarde was involved.”

That did it. Only this time, Flyre didn’t blanch, didn’t retreat into his glass, didn’t say anything for a long moment. He turned to the bartender and asked him to leave. When we were more or less alone, Augustus Flyre leaned in close and spoke in the nastiest whisper I’ve ever heard. “Listen. I don’t know who you are, or who sent you, and I don’t care who that idiot Wilmer Cobblebridge thinks you are, either. I haven’t kept my mouth shut for my whole life just to start vomiting answers up for you, whoever you are. Call Deacon and Morvengarde. I don’t care. Get Marcus Aurelius Deacon himself on the phone, for all I care, and see what he says. But you better be ready to watch your back for the rest of your life. And you better tell him you got nothing from me but what you already knew, or I’ll be one of the ones coming after you.”


I don’t know what I started protesting first, but in the end it didn’t matter. Augustus Flyre was finished with me.

After a few minutes the gaunt bartender came back and made Flyre another Collins. He pointedly did not refresh my gimlet. I left shortly after that. During the entire walk back to the platform where the funicular railway takes you back down to the slope, I had the uncanny feeling if I looked over my shoulder, Augustus Flyre would be standing on the platform, staring daggers into my back.

To be continued.

(From 16 September, 2008)

Annabelle and the Hand of Christ

The first thing I did when I moved to Nagspeake was find the local candy shop.

Okay, it was actually about the fourth thing. I did have to find someplace to live, and I did have to find someplace to buy alcohol, and I did have to pee. Actually that last thing was kind of the priority after I got off the train, and no one who knows me will believe me if I claim I did anything else first. But then I decided to find a nice little place to have a drink before I went apartment hunting and found myself, as a result, looking for the local candy shop, where I was assured I could sit on a porch with a water view and have a nice cocktail.

Annabelle’s way of serving a nice cocktail is to shove through her screen door with a bottle of what she calls her “heirloom gin” under her arm, a tray of little bottles full of thick, jewel-colored syrups in one hand and an ice bucket clamped in the other. The glasses, shortbread, and grape salad took another trip.

It really should be said right away that Annabelle’s heirloom gin is the refined great-granddaughter of the bathtub variety. I’m not kidding. I’ve seen the bathtub. It is a loud cocktail party of flowers and herbs–juniper (of course) singing just a bit louder than the other partygoers–tipsy as even the most genteel of ladies can get when drinking in the sun, but managing to harmonize perfectly nonetheless. Then she tips in the contents of one of those little bottles, adding a few drops of some indescribable elixir the color of sea-glass, the result of which is a gimlet plus ultra, without the syrupy sweetness of the conventional variety but with an extra kick of juniper and basil.

“I like gin in my gin,” Annabelle said as she added tonic to our second round.

Magothy Treats sits on the inland side of Bay Byway, the main beach road through the Bayside Quarter, and by some miracle of zoning or possibly some homeowner’s bad luck, there’s nothing to block the view of the water across the street. Just one empty lot with a birdhouse and a faded For Sale sign stuck in the scrub grass at an angle that suggests it’s been buffeted by the wind for a couple seasons, if not years. After a couple of gimlets the waving of the sign actually takes on a sort of restful quality as it waves back and forth in the beach wind. At some point after I reached this stage of mellow communion with the For Sale sign that Annabelle said conversationally, “I’m on an alchemical quest, by the way.”

By the way? How does anyone go on an alchemical quest by the way?

I don’t self-edit well at the best of times, and this was after drinks. I can only imagine what the look on my face must’ve been.

“More shortbread?” Annabelle pushed the tray across the table. Was it my imagination, or did she shove it a little to the side of me, so it wound up in a patch of sunlight on the table instead of the shade directly in front of where I sat? Was it my imagination, or did the shortbread actually sparkle a little bit in the sun? Sparkle a bit more than one might chalk up to butter and sugar crystals reflecting the light?

It tasted perfectly normal, but still.

“An alchemical quest?” I repeated, holding my wedge of shortbread up to the light and turning it this way and that in what I hoped was a subtle manner.

“I’m looking for the manus christi,” Annabelle said. “It’s a very mysterious sort of candy. Or cordial. Or something. Nobody really knows. It’s different every time someone writes about it, but pretty much all the accounts are from centuries ago. But I have a theory.”


“It used to be that confections were mostly made for medicinal reasons. Sweeteners came into Europe from other places, along with accounts of sweets in those more exotic places. Bear in mind, this is at a time when the same traders were telling first-hand stories of dragons and weird monsters. They’re not all exactly reliable. Take marzipan.”

“Which is like a weird monster…how?”

“People have been eating it and writing about it for hundreds of years, but it means something different depending on where it’s made and when, and since nobody really can prove where it originated, nobody knows what recipe is the closest to what it was when it was invented.”

Since it hardly seemed polite to pull out a notebook and pen, I had to reconstruct a lot of the conversation afterward, but the upshot of the afternoon was this: Annabelle’s theory was that the manus christi represented no less than a confectionery form of the elixir of life–the holy grail of alchemical pursuits throughout the ages. She theorized that someone, somewhere had seen it or tasted it, and brought the account back to Europe, where it made perfect sense for an essentially medicinal marvel to be equated with a confection, since European candy, she said, originated in the apothecary world. All recipes for the manus christi, which means, roughly, Hand of Christ, descend from attempts to re-create that original recipe. None of them, she said, are correct.

I have, since that conversation, done a little research on my own. Nothing like the scope of Annabelle’s scholarship on the subject, but enough to realize that on some level, Magothy Treats is like a little alchemist’s lab in its own right. Sure, there are candies you know and recognize, but there are little red flags, the markers of her quest, for those who know where to look. And there is always one round tray of something special sitting on a domed cake plate on the main counter. Usually it has a vague luster to it, as if something golden or pearlescent has gone into it. Often when you lift the domed lid, the smell of roses wafts out at you.

But on that first afternoon on the porch I had yet to see her kitchen with its collection of copper pots and mortars, rows of jars of spices and herbs and glittering powders; or the distilling room full of retorts and alembics straight out of an old laboratory woodcut. That first afternoon I thought it all sounded a little bit crazy, and to be perfectly honest, I think I can be forgiven for it.

“How will you know when you find the right recipe?” I asked.

“The alchemists knew what they were looking for,” Annabelle said. She paused to refill my glass again, mixing the gin with a few teaspoonfuls of something the color of bruised rose petals. “I’ll know.”

(from 14 August, 2007)

What you didn’t know was weird about Old Iron

There’s a wrought iron balcony outside the apartment I rent in Shantytown. It took me two weeks to grasp the fact that the iron was moving. When I finally noticed it I thought I was drunk.

I assume Nagspeake is not the only place in the world where iron flows. I learned as a child about the liquid-like nature of glass and how really old panes of glass are thicker at the bottom because the glass is flowing, obeying gravity in its slow, viscid way. I thought that was mind-bendingly weird at the time, so I’m trying to keep an open mind about the unique properties of iron in Nagspeake.

It’s very difficult for me.


Nagspeakers have grown up with their balletic, hive-brained iron “animalcules,” so I wonder if my readers can imagine what it’s like to be an out-of-towner discovering the motive capability of Nagspeake iron for the first time.  I know, I know, I’m not the first person to freak out and have to have things explained in a series of small, simple words delivered in a comforting tone accompanied by either a stiff drink or a cup of tea. However, I might be the only one with a website, so I’d like to take you through the series of encounters that have made up my tenuous understanding of what Nagspeakers call “Old Iron.”

Encounter #1:
My solicitous landlord warns me as he hands me the keys for the apartment I’ve just rented not to fall asleep on the balcony. I ask why (forgetting entirely for the moment that I don’t make it a habit to sleep on balconies) and he says, “Because it’s old iron, honey.” I assume he means it’s rusting and unstable or something. It doesn’t quite explain his precise exhortation per se, but I preferred it at the time to my first interpretation of his caveat, which was more along the lines of “There are bad people in the world, missy, and did you happen to notice you rented a flat in Shantytown, for Christ’s sake?”  Old iron I could handle.

Encounter #2:
Drunk on some kind of intoxicating tea ordered from one of the endless mail order catalogues that have begun showing up at my door, I stare for hours at a flourish at one corner of the balcony and watch it bloom, curlicues and whorls moving like fast-growing ivy as they take possession of a railing…then the phone rings.  I look at my watch, having expected a phone call from a particular friend what seems like hours ago, and discover only five minutes have elapsed since I drank the tea. Out on the balcony the flourish is still twisting slowly. I watch it, convinced the tea is behind this prank. The iron reconfigures itself, but it’s as if it’s obeying a fractal pattern or some kind of weird choreography. It never fully takes another shape; it stays confined to roughly the same 9″x12″ space and it moves only slightly faster than a plant does when its leaves turn on their stems to lean into the light. Fast enough to be seen, slowly enough to go unremarked just as easily.

I record observations throughout what I don’t yet know to call “the grey hours,” and yet the whole time I’m still convinced I’m drunk and hallucinating and recording the effects of the tea. In retrospect I could’ve saved myself the cost of the herbs and just watched the balcony in the first place.

Encounter #3:
I’m invited to a party in the Printer’s Quarter and sometime in the night overhear someone lamenting the total lack of effect she experienced from an herbal tea that was supposed to have intoxicating properties.  Recognizing this as my perfect entree to the conversation, I jump in and comment that she must’ve gotten the dosage wrong because I’d spent a good three hours watching iron move on my balcony after a cup of the same stuff. I assume the resultant laughter is because I’ve just admitted to being a total junkie and slink away to stuff my face with canape-size crab cakes.

It took some work, but I eventually figured things out and then went in search of a physicist willing to sit down over a string of beers and explain the dynamics of Old Iron and its constituent animalcules in terms I could understand. Sort of. To me, to someone for whom iron had always been inert, Nagspeake iron still seems something like a cross between a clockwork interpretation of a plant responding to light and a sentient, serpentine kind of hive. An elemental Borg.
Maybe he didn’t get it as clear in my head as I thought.
That was Encounter #4.

After that I went through several phases of realization and denial, most notably laboring for a while under the conviction that the entire city was having one over on me and then the conviction that I was mad, which precipitated a near-month of panicked fear; I knew I had gone off the deep end and that someone was eventually going to notice it and I had talked to way too many people about “the iron” already–I was seeing it move all the time now, forcing myself to stay awake through the grey hours every night (the time when the iron cools fastest, the animalcules, as I understand it, performing a quantum-level, half-organized sort of elemental yoga), lying on the balcony watching the belly-dancing flourishes, feeling the floor of the balcony itself move under my back…after a while the sensation is like floating on water in continuous but gentle motion. I wondered if I disobeyed my landlord’s injunction and fell asleep on this iron sea, would I wake up somewhere else? Would it bear me away to another place?

No, I never fell asleep out there. I did, however, stop leaving my apartment. I was so afraid someone, some well-meaning citizen, would find out about my madness and  have me committed to St. Whit’s, where I would grow old and die without ever coming out of my mania. Plus I couldn’t stand to stop watching my balcony. I went at least one two-day stretch without eating because of it, and let me tell you, I will never, never run out of Ramen noodles again. You can eat that stuff dry, straight out of the wrapper if you have to.

I got tired of being mad after a while and went back to work, but it was a distracted existence because although I had sort of decided I wasn’t crazy, I was still trying with pathological single-mindedness to figure out what was really going on. I had stumbled onto something for sure, the physicist had probably been speaking in code and now it was up to me to figure it all out.

What I learned:
I’m not crazy. The properties of Nagspeake iron have been documented by thousands of people over the years. The physics is still a little beyond my understanding, but what really interest me these days are the competing theories on the origins of the stuff: depending on which hypothesis you ascribe to, the “Old Iron” found all over the place was either brought to Nagspeake back in the days when the city sheltered pirates year-round, or pre-dates the city altogether.

Theory “A” adherents say there was a particularly devastating hurricane one year followed almost immediately by a citywide fire.  A fleet of pirate ships intent on doing a good deed for their adopted town went out and burned another city down the coast clear to the ground and salvaged the iron infrastructure, which they then brought into Nagspeake the way they always came to town: via the Quayside Harbors on the inlet side of the hill separating the Magothy frontage portion of the city from Shantytown. At the time, it took considerable work to move anything big overland from Shantytown to Nagspeake proper, so most of the iron stayed where it landed. This is why, despite the fact that most of Shantytown is the same ragtag collection of dives and flophouses and dubious warehouses that it was back in the golden age of Magothy piracy and smuggling, the largest transported structures and most beautiful ornamental iron is to be found there.  My apartment, for instance, has that balcony, which you really have to see to believe. There are doors, the great gates of the destroyed city’s cathedrals and churches, giant bells. New Orleans has NOTHING on Shantytown.

Theory “B” is weirder and cooler. It states that the iron underpinnings of the city, all the crazy structural stuff and the ornamental bits and the huge lanterns and grates and the wrought stairs and so on and so forth–all of it–was here first, a skeleton that the inhabitants of what would become Nagspeake used as a foundation. Some people have tried to link this theory with speculations about the Ferrous Sanctus Monastery on the western slopes of the hill, an institution of equally foggy origins–and why not; the monks don’t speak so its anybody’s guess. I think this theory has infinite niftiness over the other one–except in my paranoid moments when I think the iron is going to rise up and destroy the city the way it (possibly?) destroyed the last one, tearing it delicately and gracefully to pieces until only it remains, the gaunt blueprint of a city that once was, left for another people to build upon. If any remain. The monks of Ferrous Sanctus, protected by their devotions, will look down from the hill with bleak resignation, having, sadly, seen this kind of thing happen before.

I still sit up some nights, through the grey hours and into the dawn, watching the iron. More and more it symbolizes this little harbor city to me: rooted but mobile, it expands and contracts and spills over the bones of its basic shapes as it heats in the day and cools in the night.  Its inhabitants and its ships come and go, but the city remains, shifting and sighing, imitating the distortions of the shadows it casts on the ground, dancing in place. When all the people are dead and all the wood rotted away and plaster and brick eroded into the sands of another beachfront a thousand years from now, the iron will remain, older but unchanged, still waving at the sea from its place on the shore. Perhaps (I think sometimes) Nagspeake, the city, is alive in ways that other cities are not.

Or perhaps there’s a room in the asylum being made up for me this very minute.

(From 27 May, 2007)