Torn Pages Discovered in the Vest Pocket of an Unidentified Tourist
(note the rust-red discoloration in the lower left corner)
AN EXCERPT FROM HOEGBOTTON’S
COMPREHENSIVE TRAVEL GUIDE
TO THE SOUTHERN CITY OF AMBERGRIS
Chapter 77: An In-depth Explanation
For the City’s Apparent Lack of Sanitation Workers
(And Why Tourists Should Not Be Afraid)
Upon the traveler’s first visit to the legendary city of Ambergris, he will soon espy crimson, rectangular flags, no bigger than a scrap of silk cloth, attached to the tops of pencil-thin stakes hammered into dirt or between pavement cracks. Such a traveler, as he peruses the Religious Quarter, the various merchant districts, or even the run-down Industrial District, may also notice the complete absence of rotten food, human excrement, paper refuse, flotsam, jetsam, and the like on the streets — as well as the almost “spit-cleaned” quality of the gutters, the embankments, the front steps of public buildings — and no doubt with a measure of puzzlement, for this sparkling condition contrasts sharply with the disheveled state of Belezar, Stockton, Tratnor, and the other picturesque southern cities that straddle the silt-mad River Moth.
Such a naive traveler (unless having had the good sense to buy this particular guidebook, available in Ambergris itself only at The Borges Bookstore [see Ch. 8, “Cultural Attractions”]) may not at first, or even on second or third glance, discern the connection between the flags, as uniform and well-positioned as surveyors’ marks, and the preternaturally clean quality of the city’s convoluted alleyways. The unobservant or naive traveler, therefore, may never come to understand the city itself, for these flags mark out the territory, and are the only daylight sign, of those unique inhabitants of Ambergris known in the vernacular as “mushroom dwellers.“1
Travelers should expect a certain tight-lipped anxiety from the locals upon any query as to (1) the red flags, often as clotted and numerous as common weeds, (2) the preternaturally-clean nature of the city, or, especially, (3) “mushroom dwellers.” The curious outsider should not be particularly surprised or alarmed at the stone-faced non-response, or even hostile extremity of response, engendered by such questions. (See Ch. 6, “Survival,” for a list of mannerisms, sayings, and articulations that will charm or mollify angry locals.) A corollary to these questions, “When is the Festival of the Freshwater Squid?” should also be avoided if possible. (See Ch. 5, “The Festival of the Freshwater Squid: Precautions, Preferred Weapons, Hoegbotton Safe Houses.)
However, given a choice between satisfying rampant curiosity on these matters through consultation with the locals or through interrogation of the mushroom dwellers themselves, it would be advisable for even the adventurous traveler to seek out the nearest local. The mushroom dwellers generally remain mute on any subject related to their close-knit clan, nor are they likely to help the disoriented or lost traveler find his way to a safer part of the city.2 Nor are they likely to converse with the casual passerby on any topic, especially as their only documented language consists of equal parts clicks, grunts, and moist slapping sounds that have thus far frustrated even the most prominent linguists.
Nor should it be expected that the average visitor will actually ever set eyes upon a mushroom dweller. These shy citizens of Ambergris3 sleep from dawn until dusk, and although the red flags often do indicate the close proximity of mushroom dwellers, they are likely to be resting below ground. Such flags — always found in clumps, except when a single flag marks the doorstep to a house or building4 — may simply indicate an opening to the network of old sewage conduits and catacombs that have existed since the First Construction Empire presided over by Trillian the Great Banker. (See Ch. 3, “Rulers, Tyrants, and Minor Merchant Barons.”)
It has been put forth by the noted naturalist and social scientist L.(oqueem) Bender — cousin to the great opera composer Voss Bender (see Ch. 2, “Native Celebrities) — from the bloodstained notes discovered near the sewer duct where he was last seen (see Ch. 15, “Unsolved Mysteries of the City”) that the mushroom dwellers have excellent night vision, but that as a consequence of their generations-old sleeping patterns, their eyes can no longer bear any but the weakest sunlight. If true, this intolerance would certainly explain the wide-brimmed floppy gray felt hats they wear during the day (and which, in combination with their short statures, diurnal habits, and long necks, have no doubt given them their eccentric reputation).5 Bender’s notes include fascinating physical details about the “mushroom dwellers,” whom he once, during the early days of his research, described as “merry little pranksters”: “I find they are remarkably strong, this strength at least partially due to a low center of gravity combined with thick, flat feet, extremely well-developed, almost root-like leg muscles, and very large yet supple hands.” Although it is not advisable to attack a mushroom dweller, or even to defend oneself from an attack (L. Bender, in his later notes, recommends standing quite still if charged by a mushroom dweller) it should be noted that their long, strangely delicate necks will break easily if the traveler can get past the clinging, flailing hands thrown up in defense (and which, coincidentally, may be groping for the traveler’s own neck).
It was L. Bender who first conducted credible scientific studies6 of the mushroom dwellers’ two main preoccupations: mushroom harvesting and the daily cleansing of Ambergris. L. Bender discovered that the ritual cleaning of the city’s streets provided them rich leavings with which to propagate their midnight crop of fungus. “Although the mushrooms are grown underground for the most part, and may reach heights of four feet, weights of 60 pounds,” L. Bender wrote, “on occasion a trail of mushrooms — like a vein of rich gold or silver — will burst out from the netherworld to riot in a spray of mauve, azure, yellow ochre, violet, and dead man’s gray upon the walls of a merchant’s pavilion or across the ceiling of a mortician’s practice.”
L. Bender’s studies further proved that the mushroom dwellers nightly mastery of city refuse was due not to incredible efficiency so much as to a large population — they simply exist in greater numbers than previously thought by so-called “experts,” much as a single cockroach seen implies the existence of a dozen cockroaches unseen. Second, by studying the few civil records still in existence, as well as the 30-year writings of the obsessed statistician Marmey Gort7, L. Bender discovered that over hundreds of years Ambergris’ citizens had altered their patterns of consumption and refuse disposal to accommodate easy pick-up by the mushroom dwellers.
The locals’ treatment of the mushroom dwellers varies drastically between valley residents and city residents (see Ch. 9, “Cultural Differences Between Valley and City, And How to Exploit These Differences to Get Better Bargains”), no doubt because the city folk have spun a complex series of legends around the mushroom dwellers, while the valley folk, who rarely see them, know them only from the watered-down versions of such stories.8
These legends run the gamut from the inspired to the inane, although the traveler will, as mentioned previously, find it hard going to pry even a word or two from the lips of locals. Some folk believe the mushroom dwellers whisper and plot among themselves in a secret language so old that no one else, even in the far, far Occident, can speak it. Others weave tales of an origin in the subterranean caves and tunnels beneath Ambergris, inferring that they are not of human stock. Still others claim they are escaped convicts who gathered in the darkness many years ago and now shun the light from guilt over their forebears’ crimes. The sailors on the docks have their own stories of mushroom dwellers as defilers of priests and murderers of young women to provide nutrients for their crop of fungus. The poor and under-educated spread rumors that the mushroom dwellers have supernatural powers — that newts, golliwogs, slugs, and salamanders follow in their path while above bats, nighthawks, and whippoorwills shadow them. And, even among the literati, especially among the Shortpin Group led by the noted author Sirin, irresponsible gossip has revived the old chestnut that the mushroom dwellers can “control our minds simply by spreading certain mushroom spores throughout the city’s public places, where they may be inhaled all unknowing by the general populace, this inhalation soon followed by an unnatural fascination with fungus, and, of course, an unwavering devotion to the mushroom dwellers.“9
However, the most ridiculous version of their origin postulates that they once belonged to a guild of janitors, ordained by the Priests of the Seven-Edged Star when that order ruled the city so many centuries ago (see Ch. 21, “Conflicting Religions”) and that, during the lawless Days of the Burning Sun, they became feral, seeking haven underground as a desperate remedy for unemployment and the persecution meted out to public workers as a form of protest against the government. (See Ch. 1, “A History of the City.”) While this theory provides an explanation for the mushroom dwellers need to “cleanse” the city of refuse, it ignores the blatantly spiritual nature of their many rituals.
In any event, anecdotal evidence from rare eyewitnesses (including two of the compilers of this book) suggests that the city folk secretly worship the mushroom dwellers10, setting out plates of eggs and moist bread or mugs of milksop for them at night, while some young girls and boys, strangely unafraid, have been known to feed them by hand as they would pigeons or squirrels. For the traveler interested in a more scholarly pursuit of the mushroom dweller myth, the L. Bender Memorial Museum, until recently kept up by his wife, Galendrace Bender11, provides a good starting and ending point. The museum contains the actual bloodstained notes discovered near L. Bender’s last known location. It also displays items L. Bender stole from an underground mushroom dweller religious site, including such enigmatic objects as an ancient umbrella, a duck embryo preserved in ether, a mop even more ancient than the umbrella, and the steering wheel to a now-extinct motored vehicle.
As with most attractions in Ambergris, however, the careful traveler should not visit the museum after dark. To reiterate the safety precautions set out in Ch. 13, the wise tourist should avoid the following areas after nightfall: the Religious Quarter, the Industrial District, the Majori Merchant District, the Hoegbotton Merchant District (save for the Hoegbotton Safe Houses, half-price during the monsoon season), the docks, and the old bureaucratic center. Mushroom dwellers are notoriously near-sighted despite their fabled night vision, and have been known to mistake even the best-dressed gentleman as an exotic form of refuse, fit to be processed and dragged underground.
If confronted by mushroom dwellers (they often travel in groups of 50 or more) safe places (in addition to the Hoegbotton Safe Houses) include: (1) the top floors of tall buildings, especially buildings that do not possess dumbwaiters or air ducts; (2) the topmost branches of tall trees; mushroom dwellers are mediocre climbers at best and will, at dawn, forget their prey and return below ground, allowing the traveler ample opportunity to escape any light-sensitive sentry they might leave behind; (3) the center of large groups of fellow tourists (groups of locals may be inclined to give the unsuspecting traveler up).
The traveler planning a vacation to Ambergris this year should not be unduly alarmed by the information set out above. In fact, there have been far fewer tourist fatalities this year than in the previous three years combined, no doubt due in part to the extensive city-wide bloodletting that occurred at last year’s Festival of the Freshwater Squid (see Ch. 5). For this reason, it is the opinion of the editors of this guide12 that even travelers who too closely investigate the apparent absence of sanitation workers in Ambergris will enjoy a pleasant stay.
1 Please see “Exploration of a Theme,” the rather inaccurate if pleasant rendering by the famous collage artist of the last century, Michael Shores. Shores has included in his montage an even earlier and more whimsical drawing of the ‘monkfish’ by the celebrated draftsman Nablodsky. “Exploration” is currently on display at the Voss Bender Memorial Art Museum.
3 Sometimes referred to as “mushies” by the locals when drunk, but never when sober; indeed, if the mischievous traveler wishes to provoke a full-scale riot, he simply need shout into a crowded tavern or church, “You’re all a load of stupid ‘mushies!’ “.
4 Do Not Enter any such marked house or building. Often, these dwellings will, on closer inspection, prove to contain relatives mourning a late relative still encased in a living room casket. The mushroom dwellers seem particularly sensitive to the presence of death.
5 Incidentally, L. Bender posthumously received the Manque Kashmir Award of Achievement from the Morrow Institute of Social Research for “his close friendship with and in-depth studies of the mushroom dwellers.” The book of his notes published by the Institute is on sale at the aforementioned Borges Bookstore.
6 Previously, there had only been such romantic renderings as a slight description in Voss Bender’s famous opera “The Refraction of Light in A Prison” sung by the distraught, suicidal Frange when he looks out of his window to exclaim:
What mystery fringed by dusky dawn
has given the soul of misery form?
Has the face of love come stumbling
crippled and confused to mewl ‘neath
a sneering moon? No, ‘tis only the elders
of the city eager to cleanse, and pray
More descriptive is this melodramatic passage from Dradin Kashmir’s semi-autobiographical short novel Dradin, In Love: “Positioned as he was at the mouth of the alley, Dradin felt as though he were spying on a secret, forbidden world. Did [the mushroom dwellers] dream of giant mushrooms, gray caps agleam with the dark light of a midnight sun? Did they dream of a world lit only by the phosphorescent splendor of their charges?”
7 Gort kept minutely detailed records of city denizens’ sanitary habits, including their storage of refuse. A typical entry reads: “X — outhouse use increase: av. 7x/day (5 min. av. ea.); note: garbage output up 3x for week: connex?”
8 As recently as three years ago, a mushroom dweller that wandered into the valley, presumably by mistake, was lynched by an angry mob of tradesmen. (Coincidentally, short travelers, defined as “under four feet six inches tall,” are advised not to visit the valley without several sets of corroborating identification.)
9 L. Bender seems to have disproved this once and for all in his final set of notes, when he writes, “Not only did I allow them to sprinkle my entire naked body with the spores, but I readily breathed them in. At no point did I lose control of my mind. At no point did I fall asleep, or come under the spell of a hypnotic trance.” Thus, the spores appear to be a friendly form of ritual welcome.
11 Sadly, Ms. Bender, a noted specialist on fungus reproduction, did not long survive her husband’s death. She disappeared one month before this revised guide went to press, leaving behind a letter in which she indicated she had decided to live in the catacombs among the mushroom dwellers. A postscript to the letter which read in part, “I believe the mushroom dwellers are doomed angles [angels?] who have lost their wings, their position, and even any knowledge of their glorious past, and now consigned to a lugubrious state of semi-awareness,” does not say much for her current mental state and it is only to be hoped that she will indeed someday emerge from the catacombs. [Ms. Bender was a frequent contributor to the Ambergris travel guide — she contributed greatly to this very article — and her expertise will be sorely missed. –Eds.]