Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Going Downhill: The Pem-Pah, Part 3.

"Don't throw them back in. Not even if they have too many heads, or too few fins. Those we take back to the city. The priests burn them and don their ashes."
- One fishmonger to several apprentices, on the choicest picks of fish to bring to market.

"Like kneeling to adjust your sandals."
- A Pem-Pah expression arising from fisherman jargon, meaning to make a rookie mistake which results in immediate, often severe punishment.

The mid-range heights of Pach-Pah Yul are known for experiencing truly terrible blizzards, the valleys below avalanches, and the peaks above both freezing temperatures so low that no precipitation falls for years at a time. There is no denying that the rugged mountains are a challenging place to live, coupled with a periodic earthquake or the rare century's reacquainting with a dormant volcano.

But the shore of the Khaitam-po bay is another matter entirely. Storm and sea both make their presence known at all times at the heart of the Pem-Pah homeland. The most immediately visible is the former, taking the shape of unnaturally frequent lightning over the estuary and the water of the sea proper just beyond. Virtually every day and night, spiderwebbing crackles of lightning fill the roiling skies or shoot downward into the waters, ranging in frequency from once every couple of minutes to several times a second (according to the reckoning of those who make no use of the standardized taleck). The lightning has a range of colors as well, some of them allegedly very bright and lurid, and a particularly active show can be as captivating as it is distressing.

The cause for the lightning storms and the accompanying thunder is unknown at this time, and shall probably remain so. But the Pem-Pah believe that it is the manifestation of all of the hate and malice possessed by the dark gods of the world, directed toward their people in particular. Naturally for the Pem-Pah mindset, this is in the natural order of things, and a lengthy cessation of the Khaitam-Po Lightning is guaranteed to stir up native anxieties.

In the published journal of one truly adventurous tall-fellow, Basen of Meroth, we have a midsummer event dated to approximately B.R. 84 in which the lightning entirely stopped for a full day and a half, to the point that the sky cleared and stars were visible during the night. The shock to the nearby capital city of Anqoh was so severe that what Basen hoped would be a night of quiet respite turned into endless parading and ritualizing in order to bring back the ire of the gods. Without their bay as a focal point, they explained, the entire world would be ravaged and robbed of its sanity. As our sleep-deprived friend concludes, the return of the storms on the second day resulted in the tearful cheers of thousands crowding the desolate beach which rings the water.

Of course just as soon as they saw their job finished, they one and all sprinted as far up and away from the shore as they could, for the fishermen and keen-eyed among them were quick to point out how the lightning was now joined by something else.

They saw how the unsettled waters had suddenly become much more turbulent, and how the waves were now breaking with foam and bubbles as far out as the barrier between bay and sea. And so, keeping their necks stuck out high and faces upturned as a precaution, they retreated to the places above sea-level where they would not be in danger of the aptly named Killing Tide.

It is a truly insidious killer. Besides the bubbling of the water, it comes without warning. It is tasteless, colorless, and odorless, yet it is capable of wrapping around a person like a cloak and killing them without them even fully realizing it. Some take it to be the groping of angry spirits, released form a chasm in the underworld deep below the bay. Others, including theorists at Nambar or Deneroth (by way of ideas from Nambar), hold it to be some sort of heavy, toxic gas. Whatever it is, it seems to only have an area of influence about as broad as the shore, owing to its inability to reach much higher than five or six feet above the waterline.

This limitation, learned over centuries of hard trial-and-error by doughty fishermen, has been exploited to the safety of those workers, and to the benefit of the industry. Far more often than they are taught to swim, Pem-Pah fishermen are taught how to maintain and use a pair of stilts while working along the coast, or how to operate their small fishing vessels while tethered to  flexible poles thrusting up from their carefully balanced centers which are just long enough to elevate, but not long enough to make them more of a target for lightning than the occasional spike positioned across the bay. Just out of reach of the tide's influence, they are able to continue working their trade until such a time as it is safe to come back down- generally one or two hours after the end of the bay's bubbling are considered safe, depending on how chaotic the water first appears. Similarly perfected over the years is the art of determining which fish are safe to eat or not. Their catches are far healthier than one might think, suggesting that either the killing tide has no effect upon marine life, or that it rises through the water too quickly to harm them to a great degree. Nonetheless, they are also taught to look out for things which do not even meet a generous definition of the word "fish", and what precautions to take against those occasionally aggressive aberrations.

Through normalization and adaptation, the Pem-Pah are able to live quite ordinary lives in the face of truly great and terrible natural forces. Casualties to the storms or tides are either nonexistent, or remarkably low per year. The disposition of the land's people almost makes a stay in the place seem like it could be enjoyable in a challenging and thrilling sense, and I don't doubt that it could be for the right type of person.

But the consensus from people who have done just that seems to be that, no matter how muggy and buggy they are, the outlying villages and trading towns are preferable places to stay than in the scalloped monolith that is Anqoh.

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