Like you, I grew up with the telling of the Tale of the Scout and the Pachydormu. That telling, on the night of first new moon of winter, marked my years between toddler and twelve like tree rings.
The warm spice smell of the Butter Punch, the weight of that punch on your tongue and in your throat, the sugar crunch of the cookies—the slumped star of their legs and heads, the soft meringue of their shell hiding a spoonful of jam or a candied nut or the startling crack of the one uncooked bean that appointed the finder the night’s Governor—the giggles and gasps as the night’s Governor was hefted overhead and passed hand to hand around the room, the soft-hard of flannel blankets quilting the floor, pillowcases still filled with last year’s smells and last year’s crumbs, the knock and groan of the radiators whose warmth grew more welcome as the night stretched out. And of course the soft solemn tones of ‘Uncle Willow’ reciting the Tale.
Our ‘Uncle Willow’ was a woman named Anna, who worked at the Stationer’s on Main. Or so the older children believed; under the knitted cloche and beard of yarn and layer upon layer of sweater could have been any one—or two, so vast was that pile!—of the town’s grownups. The most bold of the children would try to trip her up, shouting “Oh, Uncle!’ after Anna on the street, or dropping envelopes labeled “For the Teller” on the floor of the Stationer’s and watching through the window to see if she would pick them up. She never once slipped, but there was something in the careful way she sorted the pens into their racks, the slow small smile she shared with parents passing on the street, that had convinced generations of twelve-year-olds that she was our ‘Willow’.
Regardless of the true identity of the teller, the telling was always at the Bellamy’s on Filbert Street, in the parlor that stretched the length of the house. The furniture would be pushed to the walls, with Mr. Bellamy’s own chair set between the radiators at the back wall for ‘Uncle Willow’. The great cabinet of the radio was covered with a cloth to protect it from abuse and to protect us, I thought, from thoughts of the grim news it would carry on any other night, of the distant war and the closer, quieter decay. The rug that Mr. Bellamy had brought back from his trip to the West would be dragged from the center of the room to the foot of ‘Uncle Willow’s chair, providing an extra layer of padding for the youngsters, though the older children agreed the age-polished pine of the floor was preferable to the worn bristle of the rug, which could prick right through flannel.
The Bellamys opened the house at noon for a potluck dinner. Every family with children who lived south of Main and west of the South Road was invited, and the crowd spilled down the steps to fill the yard, under tarps if it was raining and on them if there was snow on the ground. And then games—of running and tumbling and clapped rhythms for the children and of black and red backed cards for the parents—filled the little space of light before the dusk came down. And then the lighting of lamps and the spreading of blankets and goodnight hugs for the parents, timid or tearful from the youngest children, carefully casual from the older, but all with a quiver of anticipation.
When the last of the parents had left with a wistful wave, and only ‘Uncle Willow’s keepers were left—the Bellamys, of course, and a handful of others—then out came a low table and then the Butter Punch and the pachydormu cookies, then the discovery of the hidden bean that appointed the night’s Governor and the passing of the night’s Governor around the room, then the moment when we realized that ‘Uncle Willow’ had arrived and was in ‘his’ chair, that arrival missed despite another year of vows from the older children that this time they’d be watching. Then the sorting of blankets and pillows, the colors gone soft and muddled in the lamp light and a couple always gone missing under furniture or bunched up inside another. Then one last round of Butter Punch, small cups for us and a round bowl, as white as bone and as wide as two hands, for ‘Uncle Willow”, over which was grated a spice whose scent vibrated the air like distant bells ringing.
Then ‘Uncle Willow’ would stroke ‘his’ beard until the room grew silent. Then the telling of the Tale of the Scout and the Pachydormu...
THE GOVERNOR and how he slept
In the far West there was a province of great prosperity whose Governor slept no more than one hour a night.
Why this was, no one could say with certainty. But many of the uncertain said the cause might be the stress of the responsibility of his office, or perhaps the great altitude of his bed in the tower-top chamber his office afforded him, or perhaps the slightest scent, carried on a wind from the West that stalked those heights, of the distant unbound sea.
The Governor himself said the cause of his sleeplessness was the heavy tread of those great underground beasts, whose name he could not recall, whose steady migration from the land of the Founders in the far East drove the deep tectonic forces that raised mountains and awoke the choirlike groans that one hears in the deepest sinkholes. But the Governor suffered from a forgetfulness born of his affliction, along with a tendency toward the seeing of visions, the hearing of voices, a difficulty in making decisions, and the occasional frothing fit.
There were some, both in government and the broader public, who feared these afflictions had left the Governor unfit for office. But the process by which the Governor was appointed—that bean that gave all an equal chance and thus avoided dispute, dissension, and decay—provided no mechanism for un-appointing.
All the doctors agreed that the lack of regular dreaming, in particular, was doing great harm to the Governor’s mind; some thought that this, alas, would lead to his death, and others thought that this, alas, would not. And so great efforts were taken to give the Governor a good night’s sleep.
At first, the traditional remedies were attempted. Poppy and passionflower were stuffed in his pillow and his ears filled with hops. Bags of doves were place underneath his bed. Sheets were laid of finest flax and rabbit-fur felt, of summer-spun spidersilk and bright patterned flannel. Toddies were heated from the liquors of the most somnolent of regions, dusted with turmeric and willow, swirled with egg or cream or rich ripe butter from the deepest cellars.
When these measures failed, Experts were summoned from every corner of the province.
THE EXPERTS and what they tried
The Poet Laureate was fetched from his retirement in a lighthouse on the far shore of the Founder Mer to compose a song of eighty-six interlocked stanzas like steps on a stairway spiraling down into a cool dim quiet. But on the forty-seventh stanza of its recitation, the Governor squinted into the space over the Poet’s shoulder and said, “listen, any deeper and we shall hear the words those beasts sing as they pass” and demanded that the previous stanzas be read in reverse; “back to the surface,” he said.
The Dean of the University’s Department of Mesmery constructed an array of lanterns and cleverly cut pages to project hypnotic patterns onto the ceiling of the Governor’s chamber, and a network of tubes that piped a wordless drone from a choir in the Great Hall at the base of the tower and sent the sound swirling around the room. When the Governor was deemed sufficiently susceptible to suggestion, a signal was given and the choir’s song was replaced by the voice of a well-loved actor, who read an affirmative text with the repeated refrain, “The Governor is the exemplar of most excellent repose.”
The Governor frequently repeated the phrase in the weeks that followed but in one of his fits of forgetfulness could not recall that he himself was that same Governor. During those weeks he spent his nights writing missives to the Governor of his fancy—a child, he thought, in the far East, from a different place entirely, and perhaps a different time—for advice on his own condition. As those letters were addressed to “The Governor”, they were one by one dutifully delivered back to him unopened. He grew despondent, and after a few more weeks the lanterns were quietly dismantled.
A choreographer from a famed ballet in the East brought her entire troupe, who gently passed the Governor from hand to hand overhead with a rocking motion inspired by the motion of moonlight on the slow creeks of the Governor’s childhood home. For a while this approach showed great promise; the Governor slept for stretches of three or four hours at a time. Fresh dancers were brought in from every company in the province to help, and on one night the waiters of the Café Circady, known for the skill with which they balanced their high-held trays, took a shift. But partway through the fifteenth night, the Governor sat up and said, “And here we reach the sea. I dare go no further for fear of being lost.” After that he would not venture back into the dancers’ hands.
And so it went, from shadow puppets to mechanical mattress, butter baths to aeolian emersion. After a full year of such attempts, the Experts and Advisors and provincial Officials gathered around the Council table in Great Hall of the Governor’s tower and concluded that every idea within the province, from the Eastern border to Western sea, from the deepest thinkers to the highest seats of learning, from the reasonable to the ridiculous, had been attempted, and all had failed.
From the entrance to the Great Hall the Scout said, “Which is why, while you sat here in comfort and sought within the province, I have gone without.”
THE SCOUT and where she had been
The Scout was the commander, and sole member, of the Province’s armed forces. The province was not, and had never been, at war; her responsibility was to survey the landscape—settled or wild—and the creatures—human or otherwise—that inhabited it. “Not so much the armed forces as the legged,” she liked to say. Her legs were long in bone and thick with muscle, wired tight by tendons. Her skin was a dark made darker by years in the landscape, and every inch was marked like a map with contour lines tattooed in the method of the far North, in which slivers of white gold were inlayed under the skin to catch the light Annotations and legends around these contours called out points of interest, history, or danger. Standing in the entrance with the sun wrapped around her, dark in her dark and brilliant against her gold, with a rumble of distant cries from the city echoing her quiet, she was a catalogue of contrasts.
She crossed the Hall, navigating the clutter of the Experts’ equipment, and rested her pack on the Council table and beside it her long glass and her short glass, her stout steel blade, and the leather satchel that held the powders with which she spoke the language of rockets. She stood for a moment, to take account of the people seated around the table, and the table itself, and the way her own shadow fell across it.
Then she said, “I have gone in search of the Pachydormu.”
One of the experts, a noted collector of folklore, said, “I have read tales of such a beast.” He gave his beard a stroke or two to prime his memory, then said, “Yes, Mybek and Tidman provides a description in their Illustrated Rituals of the Outer Lands.” He recited,
“’In form, the Pachydormu is most like a tortoise, albeit a tortoise the size of two great Western wagons yoked together. Like a tortoise, it bears a shell on its back, but this shell is soft, some say like a bag full of the finest down, some say like the surface of slow moving water. Its legs are like the trunks of trees. Its heads—’
“They say ‘heads’ for the beast has two of them, side by side,” the collector of folklore interrupted himself to explain.
“‘—its heads are each the size of an entire ox, tusked and wrinkled like the elephant, great-eyed like the whale, shagged like the bison. One head sleeps as the other wakes, and thus the Pachydormu is capable of constant motion. It is said that the rocking of its slow stride, along with the exceptional softness of its shell, places anyone who lays upon its back into the deepest slumber, and the strange impulses within the beast’s two heads, the one asleep and the one awake, induce within the sleeper the most wondrous of dreams.’”
The Chairman of the Geographic Society, a master cartographer who had never ventured further than the Garden of Succulents on the outskirts of the city, shook his halo fringe of hair dismissively and harrumphed, “If the Pachydormu is anything more than legend, the idea comes too late. It would take a good six months to find it in the Outer Lands, and another six months for the creature to reach us here.”
The Scout smiled and said, “It is well, then, that I went in search of it a full year ago.”
The quiet commotion from without—the sound of a crowd shouting in fear or delight—that had followed the Scout into the Great Hall had grown loud, punctuated by the shrill whistles of the police and honking of carriage horns and a steady approaching tread that rattled all the Experts’ equipment.
The Experts and Advisors and provincial Officials leapt up from the table, the Chairman of the Geographic Society last and with heavily pantomimed reluctance. They crushed together in the entryway of the Great Hall, in time to see the crowd in the plaza outside scatter to make space for the arrival of the Pachydormu.
THE KEEPER and what the Keeper charged
The beast was exactly as the account had described. Its size was perhaps closer to two cottages than two wagons, but, as the folklorist commented to no one in particular, wagons, like all things, had been larger in the old days. And no account could have done justice to its color: the yellow of old porcelain broken by veins of brown and gold, like autumn leaves glimpsed under sunset snow.
Its two great heads were heavy with pale hair like cobweb or treemoss. One hung close to the ground, eyes rolling under shut lids. The eyes of the waking head were as large as waiters’ trays held high overhead. Like the sea, they took whatever color the viewer imagined.
Balanced atop the waking head—spinning on one pointed toe while sweeping first one hand and then the other at the crowd—was what seemed at first a beautiful youth clad in riotous colors. The Experts stood debating the gender, provenance, and purpose of the figure, until the Scout came up behind them.
“The Keeper of the Pachydormu is, I suspect, older than the beast itself,” she said.
The Pachydormu came to a stop before the Experts and lowered its waking head. The Keeper leapt down with a flourish.
Nothing about the Keeper was any more obvious when seen up close. What had seemed motley was in fact the Keeper’s own skin, covered every inch in bright fantastical tattoos. A wrapping of silk concealed only what was needed to preserve ambiguity. The Keeper’s eyes were the same no-and-all color of the Pachydormu’s.
The Keeper bowed to the assembled Experts, winked a greeting at the Scout. The Experts stood in silence, some with mouths agape, some shuffling their feet in awkward silence, some muttering observations on the beast or its Keeper to their colleagues. The Pachydormu’s waking head tilted like a bird’s to look down on them. The sleeping head rumbled a slow snore. Its breath smelled of spiced pastries in foreign shops or last year’s fallen leaves.
Finally, the Poet Laureate cleared his throat and said, “We—”
The Keeper spoke over him in a clear high voice. “I have heard tell of a province in the far West whose Governor sleeps no more than one hour a night.”
“Why, I myself suffer from this very affliction,” said a voice from the Great Hall. The Governor came forward through the press, the Scout gently nudging stunned Experts and Advisors aside to clear a path. For the last few weeks the Governor had fancied himself, or rather herself, a lady of the high ranges of the South, and the copper sequins cladding the red velvet of her traditional garb jingled as she walked.
The Governor stopped before the Keeper and looked up at the waking head of the Pachydormu, then down at the sleeping head. Her eyes went yet wider in their kohl frames.
“Those great underground beasts who migrate from the East...” The Governor trailed off with a quaver.
“Are distant cousins, to be sure,” the Keeper said, “but the Pachydormu comes from the West, from the unbound sea, with no companion save myself. It sings no songs, but were it to do so, they would be lullabies.”
The Governor, eyes still wide, reached a jeweled hand toward the great shaggy heap of sleeping head.
The Keeper caught the Governor’s hand. “Have care, your Honor. Such is the soporific power of the Pachydormu that even a touch can set one dazed and staggering. A step or two on the shell itself is enough to send the most anxiously awake—be they a dutiful official, a steadfast scout, an entire audience of excited children!—into the deepest slumber. It is only with long experience, and the chewing of certain beans known to me, that I can steer the beast.”
The Governor raised her free hand to her cheek and said, quietly but with a great and rare lucidity, “I would very much like to ride upon the back of this noble animal.”
The Keeper studied the Governor for a moment, then said, “And so you shall, your Honor.”
And to the Experts gathered in the entrance to the Great Hall and the Citizens in the square, the Keeper declared, “Three circuits a night, from the Main Gate to the South Road, the Founder’s Gate in the East to the far Western Bridge, and three nights of those circuits; nine trips into the warm deep dark, a sleep as soft and sweet as the meringues for which the bakers of your city are renown, nine dreams of wonder and elucidation, and by the grace of the Pachydormu, your Governor shall return in finest fettle, fantastic and fabulous!”
The crowd cheered.
The Chairman of the Geographic Society had been muttering with the collector of folklore. He now stepped forward with a ponderous frown and asked, “And what exactly do you expect in return for this ‘service’?”
The Keeper smiled and bowed to the chairman as if this had been the greatest compliment. “I do have an expectation, which I shall describe to you exactly, and which I believe you shall find to be if not reasonable at the very least feasible.”
The chairman’s frown grew yet heavier.
The Keeper turned back to the Governor, “At the end of the three nights of three circuits, your Worship, I will ask you to pick which of the nine dreams has most touched your heart—” The Keeper tapped the Governor’s breast; the sequins rang like bells. “—and I will add it to my account of the tale of Pachydormu.” That, with a sweep of a hand over the Keeper tattoos that ran riotous from head to toe.
The noted collector of folklore leaned forward to better study the tattoos; his eyes grew as wide as the Governor’s. “Would that I could record a description of these fabulous images. Such a book they would make.”
“Not all stories are meant for the page, or even for words,” the Keeper said. “Skin grows, it slips and slides, it tears and heals.”
“There are other ways to tell a tale,” said the Scout, who spoke the language of rockets.
The Governor added, “A tale for which I feel I have been chosen!” She raised her arms toward the Pachydormu, all of her adornments jangling in enthusiasm.
“A deal, then!” the Keeper cried. And before the Chairman of the Geographic Society could comment, the Keeper leapt up onto the waking head of the Pachydormu and announced to the crowd, “Citizens! This very evening, at the moment the sun touches the horizon, your Governor shall lie down upon the back of Pachydormu to enjoy a journey into the most excellent repose, the most wondrous dreams!”
The Citizens cheered. The Experts muttered amongst themselves or jotted down notes for future papers. The Governor swept off her embroidered cap and clutched it to her chest, grinning like a child. The Pachydormu’s sleeping head grumbled and shook its shag. The Keeper leaned down from the Pachydorum’s waking head and beckoned to the Scout.
“My true and most observant friend,” the Keeper said. “You know the bean that I chew to stave off the power of the Pachydormu, that seed of the fruit known as káva, kahawa, kape, or the like. And I am sure you know where to find these beans in this city, strange to me but as known to you as is your own skin.” The Keeper gently tapped the Scout’s gold-annotated arm with a finger as bright as a parrot’s feather.
“I do,” said the Scout.
THE KEEPER and what the Keeper mistook
Late that evening, as the midsummer sun drooped below the tops of the trees toward the horizon, the Scout returned to the plaza in front of the Governor’s Great Hall. In one hand she carried a small sack of caife from the Northern marches, and with the other she lifted her long glass to survey the preparations for the Governor’s excursion upon the Pachydormu.
A set of wooden steps had been raised in the center of the square, as tall as the Pachydormu, and from the top of these steps protruded a plank long enough to reach the center of the beast’s back. The entire structure was decorated with blue silk banners, along with the odd stuffed fish or sucker-studded tentacle, recycled from a scheme to decorate the Governor’s chamber as a deep sea refuge.
The Governor stood on the plank, dressed now in a flannel robe and fuzzy slippers, waving to the crowd with a look of somewhat befuddled excitement. The crowd wore bed clothes and nightgowns, striped stockings and long tasseled sleeping caps; many had brought blankets and pillows with the intention of spending the night in the plaza to cheer the Pachydormu and its passenger as they passed on their three great loops around the city.
The Scout struggled through the crowd, stepping over picnic baskets and under mugs held high in toasts, around gaggles of seated elders and through clumps of giggling children, as the sun sunk ever lower. When she was within a few dozen paces of the steps, she whistled, and when the Keeper—perched high on the waking head of the Pachydormu—looked her way, she waved her sack of caife over her head.
The Keeper waved a small bottle full of beans back at her with a grin and a shrug.
These were not the toasted brown of the coife seed, not the pale kahv of the East or the mild green kave of the southern mountains. Somehow, the Keeper had acquired a very different sort of bean entirely. Rattling in the vial, unmistakable through the Scout’s long glass, were the fat black beans of the far West, the very same whose finding appointed the Governor. Even one as vigorous as the Scout dared consume no more than a dusting shaved from a single bean and tempered by butter and brandy.
The Keeper, slender as a youth, had filled a delicate palm with the dozens of the beans.
The Scout shouted a warning, but her words were submerged in the churn of the crowd’s excitement. She waved her arms overhead. The long black lines of her limbs, traced with gold, caught the eye of the Keeper, but the Keeper must have mistaken her sign, that crossing/uncrossing ‘X’ for stop, as a signal to go. With another grin for the grimacing Scout and a twirl for the crowd, the Keeper tossed the beans back and bit down.
The Scout got her long glass up to her eye in time to see the look of bewonderment fill the Keeper’s eyes, a shifting of focus as if the Keeper saw through to another world entirely.
And then the Keeper’s head went back and the Keeper’s legs went out and the Keeper tumbled from the waking head of the Pachydormu to land atop the sleeping head.
With a groan, and a shake of its shaggy locks that sent the Keeper tumbling to the ground and the Experts scuttling back into the entrance to the Great Hall, the sleeping head awoke.
The hitherto waking head blinked twice, sighed, and drooped into slumber. The newly awoken head delicately snuffled the prone form of the Keeper, then craned up to loose a cry with solemn conclusivity of a cathedral choir’s “amen”.
The startled Governor teetered for a second on the edge of the plank, then fell... to land, with a sound like a dozen pillows being fluffed, flat onto the back of the Pachydormu. Through her long glass, the Scout saw the Governor rise up on one elbow. Then a look of absolute contentment flooded the Governor’s face, and she lay back down to sink nose-deep into the soft shell of the Pachydormu.
The Pachydormu shook its newly waken head thrice and slowly turned, setting the crowd shrieking with terror or delight in accordance to their wont. And then it swung its legs, that were indeed like tree trunks, step by step, Westward, away from the Great Hall and toward the distant unbound sea.
THE EXPERTS and how they managed
The Scout first made her way through the crowd to where the Keeper lay on the paving. The Keeper’s fall from the formerly waking head of the Pachydormu, broken as it had been by the previously sleeping head, had done no apparent harm. The tattooed tale of the Pachydormu’s dreams was unmarred by bruise or blemish; the delicate curves of the Keeper’s skull were unbroken. But the Keeper did not respond to the Scout’s questions, nor her cautious search for damage, and even through her short glass she could find no reflection of the chaos in the plaza within the Keeper’s far-focused eyes.
The Scout carried the Keeper through the still-swirling spectators in the plaza to the entrance of the Great Hall and handed the still figure to a pair of the Governor’s staff.
“Give what aid and comfort you can,” she said. “We owe the Keeper that and more, for, however this ends, our Governor has as promised been delivered a sleep ‘fabulous’ and ‘fantastic’.
The Scout then turned to the Experts, Advisors, and Officials. “It seems I am to return to my task of tracking the Pachydormu. Your work, however, is as turned around as the beast itself. The Governor sleeps at last. How shall we wake him up?”
In the first few months of the Pachydormu’s slow progress Westward, the Experts’ campaign to pluck the Governor from his repose on the back of the beast was as vigorous, and as unsuccessful, as had been their attempts to lure him asleep. Fisherman from the Founder Mer flicked their hooks, gauchos from the Eastern steppes plied their lassoes. Aerialists dangled down from their balloons, flocks of specially trained starlings, fed a strengthening diet of kale-meal and kava, strained upwards.
A Trapeze Artist, suspended from the pillars of the Western Bridge that marked that edge of the city, managed to catch hold of the belt to the Governor’s robe. She bravely refused to let go, the belt refused to snap, and the Pachydormu, of course, refused to acknowledge any hindrance; after a few minutes of this tug of war, the pillars of the bridge themselves gave way, sending the acrobat tumbling into the river, clutching one of the belt’s silk tassels as a souvenir.
A Baker’s Apprentice, working on his own initiative and wearing layered rubber boots insulated with the meringue for which the city was famous, made it thirteen long steps across the Pachydorumu’s shell before collapsing on top of Governor. He lay slumped there for a week before the starlings lifted him to safety. He slept for another day in hospital and woke with tears of joy at the dream he had had. For the rest of his life he failed to find the words to describe that dream; his self-rejected efforts were collected into a small volume that met with great acclaim in the East.
Attempts to stop, or divert, the Pachydormu’s steady path Westward proved as fruitless. The beast ignored the coercions of Teamsters, snuffled disdainfully at the proffered treats of Trainers, went around or over or, most often, straight through any obstacle placed in its path.
A small group of Experts applied themselves instead to waking the Keeper, whose experience with the Pachydormu, they argued, would surely be of value. This position was largely discredited by the majority, and regardless, the bean-induced coma which held the Keeper proved as impenetrable as the Governor’s shell-bound slumber.
In the months that followed, as the Pachydormu made its way beyond the Garden of Succulents on the far side of bridge and up into to the western hills, the Experts spent less and less time on the problem of the Governor’s rescue and more and more time attempting to manage the problems of province as a whole. It seemed that the Governor, however impeded by his insomnia, had been more useful than any of them had understood.
THE SCOUT and how she told tales
Long after the last Expert retired in defeat back to the capitol, the Scout continued to track the Pachydormu. Though its pace was steady and its stride was long, the beast was slow enough that she could keep up, as long as she limited herself to a few hours of sleep at a time; the irony of this was not lost on her. With her short glass she studied her maps for hints toward the creature’s path and its droppings, which looked like snowballs and smelled of lavender, for clues to its nature. And with her long glass, she studied Governor.
To say that the Governor slept deeply was not just a fanciful turn of phrase. So soft was the shell of the Pachydormu that the Governor had sunk until his nose barely protruded above the surface. It was only by making a considered prediction of the Pachydormu’s path, then forging ahead of it and climbing a treacherous tree branch or crumbling cliff edge that the Scout could look down upon the Governor’s face. Whenever this opportunity arose, she took careful note of the nature of the Governor’s smile, how his throat trembled in silent sleepspeech, how his eyes twitched under the lids.
And once a week she pulled her vials of powders from their pouch, prepared her fuses, her flint and steel, and summarized her findings in the language of rockets.
The Scout was the only true master of the language of rockets in the West; indeed, she was unmatched across the entire continent. But thanks to the mandates of an antiquated law whose repeal had been blocked over the decades by a coalition of those who feared attack by unknown powers across the sea and those with investments in gunpowder factories, every child of the province studied in school how to read the flashes of light, the bursts of color, the twirling trail of sparks, the whistling, sizzling music of the propellant, the punctuating thump and rumble of detonation.
And so the children of the hill towns of the West, the wide-scattered farmhouses of the plains, the lighthouses of the Founder Mer, shouted shrill translations from rooftops and tree to their parents below, who transcribed the Scout’s reports to paper, which was passed in turn by courier or post or telegraph along the ever-longer path back to the capitol.
And some households, under that same mandate, had dusty stockpiles of ready-made rockets with useful phrases, and so at times the Scout received a message back in reply; though, due to the limitations of the pre-prepared vocabulary and the decay of the chemicals, these replies were often vague.
The Scout’s ninth message read, “The Town of Lambsford – Parade to welcome the Governor – Mayor’s son attempted Baker’s feat – Shoes filled with sugarmice -” (A specialty of that town; not the soft candy of the East but a small, crisp cookie formed with four drooping legs.) “Son tripped before reaching Pachydormu – Broke nose – tooth – two ribs – Mayor ordered arrest of Pachydormu and myself – Seven constables still asleep – Two in hospital – No further incidents – Governor smiles.” The reply read, “Delivery – you – Transom Ford.” When the Scout reached the Inn at the ford, she found a package containing káva, meringues, and a first edition chapbook of the Baker’s Assistant’s initial attempts to capture his dream.
The Scout’s fifteenth message read, “The Forest of Tambourin – Falling leaves cover Governor each afternoon – But Pachydormu faces into breeze each evening – Leaves fly up like swallows – Governor in dream follows.” The Scout was fond of Autumn, and she had visited the Forest so many times she had the details of its terroir annotated over her heart. As a result, the rockets of these weeks were particularly lovely. Even those who had ignored or long-since forgotten their lessons stood outside on the those nights to see the beauty of the Scout’s messages? rising up in the Western sky, to recall a phrase or two from childhood.
There was no reply that night, but the following week she saw, reflected on the still waters of the Founder Mer, “Pirate King – to the light house – still afloat in a rum bucket.” The rocket stockpiles in the lake region had, apparently, been chosen with few specific scenarios in mind. “Pirate King” surely meant the swaggering, motley-tattooed Keeper. The “lighthouse” was presumably some safe place. The rest was baffling, until the Scout realized that the pale peach-yellow half palm of “rum bucket” might have faded from its original coral, in which case the phrase read “still passed out drunk.” The Keeper’s coma, apparently, was as persistent as the pace of the Pachydormu.
The Scout’s twenty-ninth message read, “Have crossed the Great Western Divide – Distant scent of the Sea – Pachydormu stopped head high five minutes to breathe – Governor shifts as if teetering on edge.”
“Since – Governor – gone away – DANGER NO BRAKES!” came the reply; the final rocket in that message had been common equipment on the wagons that had brought the Founders from the far East.
At first the Scout took this as concern over the Pachydormu’s descent down from the mountains.
But then she thought of those clever devices that limited the speed of factory flywheels to prevent them from spinning out of control and tearing down the works, and she thought of the Experts and their tendency for elaboration over wisdom, and of the Officials and their enthusiasm for expansion, and of the Citizens and their love of spectacle, and she pondered the fate of the province.
THE PACHYDORMU and where it was going
It was midsummer’s eve when the Scout reached the end of her task. For the preceding three days they had traveled over heath and moor. The flatness of the terrain and the lack of trees had prevented her from glimpsing more than the Governor’s hair, which had grown long enough to float like a mane over the back of the Pachydormu. And so the Scout was scouting for a better vantage point, a mile or two in advance of the creature’s slow progress, when suddenly the ground fell away before her, low cliffs dropping to a pebbled strand, and she realized what she had taken for peat blued by haze and distance was in fact the unbound sea.
Ever since they had come down from the high mountains, the Pachydormu’s path had been due west, as straight as the rays of the setting sun. And so the Scout did not bother to backtrack; the beast would make its way to her. Instead she sat on the edge of the cliff and read the Baker’s Assistant’s book, which had become a sort of fourth member of the expedition. She had reached that point in the third section that famously ends “Sleep well, my love. Dream well,” when a sudden sharp breeze riffled the pages, with a thump that rumbled in her chest like fireworks and the smell of fresh snow-melt.
How the Pachydormu could so surprise the Scout was a mystery she never solved. Perhaps the year of little sleep was finally catching up with her, just as had the beast itself. Perhaps the Baker’s Assistant’s book, with its strange swirl of words and worlds, had drawn her into a waking dream.
The creature’s great legs swung over her—from underneath, with its treetrunk legs and mottled skin, it looked exactly like the Forest of Tambourin in Autumn—and then without pause it went over the cliff.
The Scout’s packs had been scattered by the Pachydormu’s passing. It took her a few precious moments to find her long glass, miraculously unbroken. Then she leaped to the edge of the cliff and looked down.
The Pachydormu was just stepping into the waves. The sleeping head floated, its nostrils just clear of the surface, its snores foaming the water. The waking head raised up, as it had done in the plaza a year before, and gave one long cry. And then the Pachydormu began to swim.
The Scout feared at first that the beast would submerge and the Governor drown. But the shell stayed clear of the water. Through the long glass, the Scout watched the Governor’s face, the ripple of his eyelids like moonlight on water, the floating spray of his hair, the shapes his lips formed; not the language of rockets, nor any other that she knew. But the job of a Scout is to read the unknown.
The Scout watched through the long glass until she could no longer distinguish the Governor from the shell of the Pachydormu, and longer yet, until she could no longer distinguish the Pachydormu from the sea itself.
She had just enough powder left for one last rocket, her fifty-second. A green star, four yellow starbursts around a pulsing red palm, four yellow starbursts around a cloud of sliver sparks, a deep chest-thump, a spiraling white arrow that crackled like laughter through a spherical peony of perfect blue: “Governor – Still alive – Still asleep – The unbound sea.”
There was no reply.
THE SCOUT and what she knew
A year later, after many adventures, the Scout returned to the city, and to the ground of the capitol, and to the Governor’s tower.
She found no Citizens in the city, no Officials on the grounds of the capitol, no assembled Experts in the Governor’s tower.
That tower still stood, though war and weather had left great gaps in its masonry. The Scout stood in the center of the Great Hall, where just one year before she had announced the arrival of the Pachydormu, and surveyed the changes.
The paraphernalia of the Experts—the writing desks and gear-packed cabinets, the tangled marionettes and brass-bound optics—had become home to mice and beetles and tiny birds. It was the city in miniature, with neighborhoods of moldering paper and broken glasswork all carefully maintained by wax and spittle and well-spun web. Ants and roaches rushed to their duties down streets of streets of copper cable and satin ribbon. The table around which the Council had met formed a sort of park in the center, so mottled by moss and mold, so etched by in-blown rain and the busy feet of vermin that it was indistinguishable from the ornate woven rug from the East that lay at the foot of the Governor’s plush padded chair. A brass tube dangled from the ceiling over all this, just as the Governor’s tower hung over the old city outside. The Scout thought the old city had never been so lovingly fit to its landscape as was this one, in decay or otherwise.
“So which then is the replica?” the Scout asked a spider that glittered brown and gold in a beam of sunlight.
As if in reply, from the tower of the brass tube came the slow susurration of someone snoring.
The lift no longer worked, so she climbed the two hundred and twelve steps to the Governor’s chamber at the very top of the tower. On the second to last step her foot found something that rattled against the tread. It was a bean, dried black and hard as stone. The Scout laughed and popped it into her mouth to suck on like a pebble.
At the top of the steps was a door. The Scout pushed it open; it groaned on its hinges and let loose a swirl of air that held a distant scent of the sea.
The far wall of the Governor’s chamber had crumbled away, and some of the floor with it. Hanging halfway over the precipice was the Governor’s bed, and in that bed lay the Keeper of the Pachydormu. The Keeper’s chest rose and fell so subtly that only the keen sight of the Scout would notice. Whether due to an unearthly vitality or the perfect repose of the bean-induced coma, the Keeper was entirely unchanged.
The Scout shifted the bean in her cheek and laughed again. “Well, here’s a sleeping beauty,” she said. “The Pirate King in the lighthouse.”
She shed, one by one, the packs and pouches she carried: her hard-dried food and her sloshing water, her travel papers and her collected curios, her long glass and her short glass, her chipped flint and her stout steel blade, the empty vials that had held the powders with which she had spoken the language of rockets. And she shed, one by one, her heavy rain-starched cloak, her muddy boots, her kilt and blouse, and all her much mended underlayers. Then she sat on the edge of the bed and sighed.
This was not the sigh of one who, reaching the end of a long journey, discovers the trip was in vain.
This was not the sigh of one who, in the midst of a great effort, sets down her burden for a moment’s rest.
The sigh the Scout sighed was the sigh of one who, having just awoken, looks forward to a long awaited day.
With one long finger the Scout traced the silver contour lines of her body. That terrain had been somewhat eroded by travel and travail, a new gully here, a gentle slope of scree there, and whenever the Scout had found a practitioner of the far Northern method of tattoo along her way she had added new legends and annotations. Being a Scout, she was pleased to find that since the last update her landscape had already changed.
And then with one long finger she traced the tattoos on the Keeper’s pale skin, the catalogue of the dreams of those who slept on the Pachydormu that the Keeper had collected in payment, starting with an image of the Pachydormu itself rising from the sea, which covered the Keeper’s left foot and made those toes into four mighty legs and the beast’s great sleeping head. The other head looked up to the cliffs of the Keeper’s ankle and beyond.
As she moved up the Keeper’s body, the shifting of her weight set the bed rocking on the edge of the precipice. And as she stopped to study the details of a dream, that rocking died away again.
When she reached the Keeper’s face she pulled back her lips in a smile to reveal the single hard bean clenched between her teeth, as if she meant to appoint the Keeper as Governor or to claim that honor herself.
“Ah, but who should carry whom around the room?” she asked the Keeper’s quiet face.
She traced the last of the tattoos, a lake of butter yellow that filled the hollow of the Keeper’s collarbone and spilled over the edge of the shoulder, filled with floating children who drifted in the shade of a vast shaggy tree. Then she ground the bean between her teeth, which were as strong as stone beneath the landscape of her face.
The Scout gasped, once. The scent of the bean on her breath vibrated the air like distant bells ringing.
“I know what the Governor dreams,” the Scout said. “And I will tell you what it is, and thus seal the bargain between us.”
She set one hand on each side of the Keeper’s head, which set the bed to rocking again, and leaned down close to the Keeper’s lips.
She said, “I will tell it to you in the language of rockets.”
Like you, I know no more than that of the Tale of the Scout and the Pachydormu. No child has ever heard the dream of the Governor, or anything else past that point. Sleep takes us all, one by one from youngest to oldest, before the end of the telling.
In fact, everything beyond the description of the Scout’s sigh is conjecture, assembled from years of recollections from the eldest and most stubborn children, salvaged word by word from the inescapable haze of the Butter Punch and the afternoon games and the rattling radiators and the ever slower ever softer voice of ‘Uncle Willow’.
In my twelfth year, through the long procession of Winter and the creeping Spring and the rolling Summer and the promise of Autumn, I wondered about the true end of the Tale. Night after night I lay awake, comparing the competing reconstructions of the story from our neighborhood and from the accounts of the children who lived north of Main or east of the South Road, who had their own ‘Uncle Willows’ but whose tales of the Tale agreed with ours up to those last uncertain words. I fumbled for another precious word or two among own muddled memories, which went no further than the dropping of the Scout’s packs and pouches. I peered through the cracked pane of those words at the mysteries within: what had happened to the city, all the Experts, Advisors, Officials, and Citizens? Where was the Pachydormu bound? Why did the Scout climb out on that barely balanced bed instead of pulling it in to safety? What was the dream of the Governor?
And there was a mystery on the near side of that cracked pane: how did ‘Uncle Willow’, who drank the same Butter Punch, who sat closest to the lure of the radiators, who was bundled in ‘his’ sweaters as soundly as we were in our flannel blankets, how did ‘Uncle Willow’ stay awake through ‘his’ own telling, when we children, with all of our energy and enthusiasm and anticipation, could not?
As the year proceeded, I became more and more convinced that the solution to this last puzzle lay in that grating of spice upon ‘Uncle Willow’s wide white bowl of punch. Surely this spice came of the same bean that had appointed the Governor, that had laid the Keeper on that perilous bed, that had been ground between the Scout’s teeth in those last, least certain words.
Toward the tailing end of Autumn, I bought any number of unneeded pencils and paperclips at the Stationer’s on Main, trying to smell that spice on Anna’s breath as she counted out my change. I even went so far as to ask her for recipes—a school assignment, I explained—in hopes of hearing some ingredient beyond those in my family’s cupboards. She obliged with accounts of squash pie and cherry soup, written out in neat script as I watched and handed over with that same slow small smile she usually kept for passing parents. I was left with a growling stomach and a giddy thrill in my limbs but with no unfamiliar items, no clue toward that unknown spice.
And so this year, the day of the first new moon of winter, after the potluck dinner while the children ran through dustings of snow and the adults squinted at their red and black backed cards, I snuck through the Bellamy’s long parlor and down the short hallway into the kitchen. The table there was covered with cookies cooling on sheets of parchment, the counter was crowded with the unlikely ingredients for the Butter Punch that was steeping on the stove, the cupboards held every familiar spice from my family’s kitchen... but nothing more.
A creak of floorboards and a murmur of conversation from the hallway heralded the return of the cooks. I slipped out the kitchen door into the screened porch that served the Bellamys as a cool retreat in Summer and as a mudroom in Winter. Half-blind with disappointment, I slumped onto a chair heaped with coats and kicked my heels against something that swung between the chair’s legs. That something made a musical thump-rattle-slap that I could turn into a steady rhythm by timing my kicks. After a minute or two of this I leaned forward to see what it was and discovered the leather book satchel that Anna wore over her shoulder on her way to and from the Stationer’s on Main.
I stopped kicking, stopped breathing, sat still and listened to the voices from the kitchen. They had settled into a rhythm of their own, occupied with the cooking, I thought, and unlikely to head this way. I pulled the satchel out from under my legs and sat it on my lap, unbuckled the straps that held it shut, lifted the flap. The smell of leather and lavender hand cream and old books and new ink spilled out, but no scent vibrated the air like distant bells ringing. In the main pocket of the satchel I found all the items those smells promised: books and papers, jars of powders, lotions, and inks, a miniature atlas, a pair of reading glasses, a tiny set of binoculars. These same items explained the thump and the slap. But what of the rattle?
Pockets along the front of the satchel held a variety of pens, all of fine quality, solidly screwed together and disinclined to make any noise no matter how vigorously shaken. The satchel itself, though, persisted in rattling, and eventually I found a hidden pocket, and in that pocket a small green glass vial, and in that vial a few fat black beans.
When I unscrewed the top of the vial, the scent was so strong I clamped my palm over the top for fear it would carry through the door and the conversation and the steam and smoke of the kitchen to alert the cooks to my trespass.
And then, when it was clear that I was yet undiscovered, I slipped a single fat black bean from the vial to my jacket. I restored the lid to the vial, the vial to the hidden pocket, and the satchel to its spot under the chair. I crept across the porch and out the rear door into the snow.
The bean seemed to weigh down my jacket throughout the remaining games of the afternoon, making me slide and stumble in a way I feared would reveal my secret, or at least reveal the fact that I had a secret. I wrapped it in a bit of tissue and tucked it into my sock, where it felt less of a burden. I was still convinced that I—and everyone else—could smell it, and I was nervous and distracted through the start of the festivities.
My mother studied me at arm’s length during the farewells and I thought I was discovered, but then she smiled and smoothed back my hair and kissed me on the cheek and said she’d always remember me like this, like rockets, “all aglow”.
That glow seemed to fill me—I imagined my skin shining through with it head to toe, like the golden filigree of the Scout’s tattoos or the Keeper’s riotous colors—and I threw my arms around her and whispered, “Tonight I will learn the end of the Tale of the Scout and the Pachydormu.”
A look came over her then, that was not quite sadness or hope or loss or certainty; like the eye of the Pachydormu it could seem any color because it held them all. It was the look she got when the radio told of the distant war and the quiet decay and she’d reach without looking to take my father’s hand in hers, then touch the center of my back where I lay on the floor with one outstretched toe. It was, I thought, a look that grownups shared with each other.
“Do you remember the Baker’s Apprentice,” she asked, “who awoke from the wonderful dreams of the Pachydormu, but could never quite capture them again?”
“When you get older, you learn...” She paused, and smoothed my hair back down again. I felt older in that moment, solemn. “You learn that there are things you will never learn. And you learn that that’s okay.”
She hugged me again, and whispered, “Sleep well, my love. Dream well.”
And then the youngsters swept in the door, shrieking with laughter, and out came the first round of Butter Punch and the turtle cookies and little Leebeth Jandotter knocked a baby tooth out on the bean and was carried around the room as the night’s Governor and then I found my blanket—green it is, with a pattern of golden acorns along one edge—and then there was ‘Uncle Willow’ appearing like magic in ‘his’ chair and then the second round of Butter Punch and then, with the first words of the Tale of the Governor and the Pachydormu, I fished the bean from my sock and slipped it into my mouth.
The flavor exploded in my mouth like the sip of aquavit I’d once had from my father’s glass, so fierce at first I almost spit it straight out again. My attempts to grind it between my teeth failed with a crack that earned curious glances from children around me. “Teeth as strong as stone,” I thought, and despaired.
But then I thought: the Scout had not given up, had she, during those long years on the trail of the Pachydormu? And had she not held the bean in her mouth for some while, as she studied the Keeper’s tattooed catalogue of dreams? So I sucked on the bean throughout the telling, its flavor filling my head and spilling down into my limbs.
And when ‘Uncle Willow’ said, “Then she ground the bean between her teeth, which were as strong as stone beneath the landscape of her face,” and all the children except myself had succumbed to the spell of sleep and lay curled in their flannel...
At that moment I bite down again on the bean and it bursts with a groan like all the radiators in the world and everything goes the yellow of the Butter Punch and then the bone white of ‘Uncle Willow’s bowl and I feel like I am flying up into the air like a rocket and the same time I am sinking into a blackness as soft and rich as meringue.
And now I swing here with my heart going thump-rattle-slap and I wonder: do I really want to know? Or do I want to stay here in this moment, never quite knowing?
And I wonder: do I even have a choice? What is this warm deep dark, after all, this gentle rocking? Is it the Scout above me in my bed, barely balanced on the edge of the precipice? Or is it the swell of the sea, the steady stroke beneath me of the Pachydormu?