[4] Volume I, Summer's Night - Part One, Sescut and Cutset, the Mother and Child (c)

The extremely close relationship between history and geography in the minds of the Talkers contributes considerably, I was convinced, to the mutual antagonism between their many tribes. For it means that even the most ancient of disputes between one tribe and another does not gradually fade from popular awareness as it would with other peoples with the passage of time and generations, but rather remains fresh within their minds whenever they see or pass by the geographic location with which the dispute is associated. As Talkers go about their daily lives, that is, they are confronted at every turn with places where, at some point in the past however distant, some awful event took place which could be attributed to the actions of this neighbour or that. Forgiveness, then, is inconceivable to them, and wrongs, instead, fester endlessly and, indeed, accumulate over time as new events take place in new locations around them. This, at least, was my thinking as I ruminated on the nature of their society and the peculiar lengths which they go to to find reason to despise each other.

Each tribe of Talkers has its own clearly-defined territory within the fungal forests. But I see I have not yet begun to describe these forests, so I will attempt to do so now.

Most of the island of Sescut is covered with fungal forests, except for the mountain peaks, which rise up black and shadowy against the firmament, silhouetted by the dim glow of the light emitted from the lands below them. This means that it is only on the mountain slopes themselves that one encounters true darkness on Sescut. The rest of the time, one's way is illuminated, albeit usually very dully, by the thin greenish glow from toadstools and mushrooms of various kinds, many of them standing much taller than a man. (The biggest variety of all, a bulbous spherical white cap atop an impossibly-thin looking black stalk, stands over 20' tall and is called, by the people of Telluctet, the "Headman's Bounty" for the way it resembles a disembodied skull floating above ground when seen from a distance.)

The fungus provides the natives (both Talkers and Dreamers alike) and almost all animal life on the islands with sustenance, directly or indirectly. The Talkers feed on many of the different kinds of mushroom, which they do not farm or cultivate, but which typically grow rapidly whenever the stalk is cut and the fruiting body removed. They do not seem to be affected by the poisons which afflict human eaters of certain fungus types, but rather undergo entirely other experiences. I have taken the liberty of listing some of the various mushroom species of Sescut below, together with their effects of humans and Talkers; this is done for illustrative purposes rather than to be comprehensive, for I had neither the knowledge, skill, temperament or time to complete an encyclopedic catalogue - leaving that task to others who may follow after me. The names I cite are those given the various funguses by the men of Telluctet, rather than those in the dialects of the Talkers, which are often not vocalised.

The Lowly Whisperer - This is a small toadstool only a few inches high. When the wind blows, the veins underneath its nondescript grey cap hiss and vibrate, sounding for all the world as though somewhere just out of sight people are whispering dark threats that are just too low to make out. There are stories of travelers who are unfamiliar with the fungus being led off their path to investigate the source of the whispers, never to find their way back to civilization. The flesh contributes to a delicious stew which makes it a delicacy for Talkers, but for humans it is a soporific, widely used as an insomnia cure.

The Dreaming Spires - These mushrooms grow very tall, up to 12' high, and their caps are very long and thin and straight and pale, like narrow towers. They glow dimly blue. The flesh is considered a dull staple by the Talkers, used as ruffage to thicken up other meals, but for humans it is deadly poisonous and a mouthful is enough to kill within hours; the unfortunate voids blood profusely from his bowels until death. Only very few survive; I was introduced to one in the village of Hussep, a few miles down to the coast from Telluctet. He was an old man now, withered and drawn, and he had not walked in ninety growth seasons; his legs were useless and thin like dried twigs and he shuffled himself around on his backside with the aid of his hands. He had lost so much blood due to his illness that the colour had drained from his eyes, so that the irises were perfectly white. His former wife had placed a few segments of a Dreaming Spires mushroom in his food to attempt to kill him so she could be free to marry her lover; I remember very clearly his mournful refrain, "I had thought that she loved me, but she hated me enough to do all this to me." He still appeared puzzled by his misfortune even after the passage of half a lifetime.

The Purple Sponge - This fungus resembles an undersea sponge in its shape and texture, being a kind of round tubular shape with a hollow centre, and is of course purple, hence its name. It grows in clumps that can reach waist-high, sometimes up to a hundred or more in a dense thicket, and these are the lairs of a predatory land crab known colloquially as clippers. Each purple sponge typically houses one clipper, who lurks at the bottom of the central tube; whenever a small animal climbs the outside of the tube to the top, seeking the succulent flesh around the rim of the tubs - the only edible portion - the crab darts up from inside to attempt to seize it with its claws.

The people of Telluctet harvest the clippers, as their egg sacs and ovaries are considered a delicacy of great subtlety and distinction, but this is a dangerous endeavour. One cannot reach down inside the purple sponge without risking one's fingers to the claws of the clipper waiting inside, so one must instead insert a long, thin stick or other such implement and attempt to goad the clipper to grab on to it, and then pull it up and out of the tube. Even this task is fraught with risk: if the purple sponge is ready to fruit, which is effectively impossible to know in advance, then the slightest touch of clipper or stick on the inside surface of the tube will cause the purple sponge to instantly jet a cloud of spores up and out into the air. This is completely harmless to the clipper but the spores, if inhaled, quickly block up the lungs of a human, filling them with a noxious purple goo-like substance. The victim is afflicted with a permanent debilitating cough as they try in vain to expel all of this substance from their body; eventually, after many growth-seasons have passed in some cases, he or she will die a slow and miserable death. This danger is considered not to outweigh the benefits of obtaining clippers, not least because they can be sold for very high prices indeed.

The purple sponge is not eaten by the Talkers, most tribes of whom consider it sacred, and humans do not eat it because of the risks associated with harvesting it.

The Looming Presence - This mushroom stands around the height of a man, and has an extraordinarily wide cap, at least twice as wide across in its radius as the mushroom itself is tall. Somehow, the spindly stalk manages to support the weight of this vast cap without it drooping down (or the whole fungus toppling over), and this results in a gloomy, shaded canopy under which a traveler might shelter from the rain or other weather conditions. Underneath, the blue-grey veins, velvety to the touch, are infested with beetles, centipedes and other insects, which live off the flesh of the mushroom itself or prey on those who do.

Looming presences are always surrounded by flitting swarms of what the people of Telluctet call flip-flies: a species of iridescent blue dragonfly which flies upside down with its legs pointing upwards. They fly in this way for the specific purpose of swooping underneath the wide cap of the looming presence and grabbing prey off the underside, without having to trouble themselves to twist in mid-flight to do so. A tribe of Talkers, known by humans as the Quiet River people, catch flip-flies in order to produce a bright blue lacquer which the members of the tribe daub directly onto their flesh for both decoration and protection. Once hardened, this lacquer can never be removed, but is extremely strong, almost impervious to weapons, and also considered to be extremely attractive: the Talker with the "best" lacquer typically has its pick of mates in the entire tribe.

The looming presence produces pleasant hallucinations in Talkers. In humans, it introduces a catatonic state for a number of weeks if ingested. This is not harmful (there is full recovery in all cases), but often, on waking up, the eater experiences memories that are entirely false, or forgets existing memories entirely. People of Telluctet tell the story of Mad Mescat, a woman who ate looming presence flesh and woke, two weeks later, claiming that she had never met her husband or children. She completely refused not only to live with her family as she had previously, but repudiated the marriage entirely; eventually she pleaded with the High Court of Telluctet to annul it. She failed, and was ordered by the court to carry out her familial duties; she threw herself into the sea soon after.

The Green Boat - A toadstool, growing knee-high, which apparently gains its name from its resemblance to the hull of a ship. I have to confess I never saw the resemblance; the green boat rather resembles a somewhat irregular oblong green ball atop a thick white stalk.

It is an extremely tasty foodstuff for humans, but for Talkers it has particularly unusual effects if eaten. The Talker rapidly enters a depressive state and begins to refuse all contact or communication with the rest of his tribe. After a short period of this, during which his compatriots gamely leave him food and water to sustain himself, he eventually wakes after a sleep, gets up, and walks off alone into the forest, never to return. Talkers unanimously refer to this as "going to the Dreamers" and believe that it is connected somehow with the workings of that mysterious people (of whom Talkers are greatly terrified); they never make any attempt to follow a member of their tribe afflicted in this way.

Widower's Black - Widower's black is a small button mushroom which grows in clusters. It is considered bad luck by the people of Telluctet for a married man to see it, as it is supposed to forewarn of the death of one's wife (there is a related species, known's as Widow's Grey, which is associated with a similar legend whose nature one can readily guess at). The only remedy is for him to eat it forthwith, which negates the curse, but makes him violently ill for a period of some recitals. Talkers have no such qualms and use widower's black as an aphrodisiac.

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[1] Author's Preface

[2] Volume I, Summer's Night - Part One: Sescut and Cutset, the Mother and Child (a)