188x

10

Albert von Keller (1844–1920, Germany)

Figures and scenes

Keller was a German historical and genre painter, popular in his time as a society portraitist. Over his fairly long life, unlike a lot of artists who found their style at odds with modernistic trends, he appears to have adapted quite easily to the altering artistic priorities at the end of the 19th Century. In some of his work can be found elements of symbolism and expressionism.

33.

AULDOMOUCHE. The mask was fully loaded with its charge: a massive dose of chloropallidol. The stench is overpowering. What possessed him to do this? His curiosity about certain matters must be far stronger than I knew.

SOPHELAIDE. His pulse is returning to normal but his gibbering is the same…

AULDOMOUCHE. It may remain so. With chloropallidol, the mind is not technically intoxicated; rather, it is coerced to perform oneiric processes, identical to dreaming sleep — even while conscious. The mask’s purpose may be to keep its subject in this state for an unusually long amount of time, or perhaps for good.

WILFRED. …warmed by the air of a room. Meet with the queen at night, so that all wishful thinking in the daytime disappears. Answer quickly! Answer quickly! Two eye-holes in front of us…

AULDOMOUCHE. Nevertheless, we’ve found several of the cowled robes that will allow us to attend the conference undetected. It must be starting soon, quite soon. We have to press on.

29.

THE FIFTH ITEM INSPECTED: A MECHANICAL TOY IN THE FORM OF A ROTUND GROTESQUE, FEATURING A BELLY CHAMBER THAT SPRINGS OPEN TO REVEAL SMALLER FIGURINES.

According to Euxinovan legends originating in the Roman era, Lapurnippas was appointed guardian of the nubile orphan Pampiphlorine, a scion of the oldest noble family of the island province of Thriampa. When bandits stormed the family seat, Lapurnippas hid himself in the woods and swallowed all of the gold bequeathed to his ward. This feat was possible because the old servant, faithful also to the forest god Arbrocomesus, had chosen to rest against a massive oak whose exposed roots bounded an ancient grove sacred to the deity. So long as Lapurnippas did not move from the spot, his health and safety would be sustained and his stomach could retain the treasure. It also served as a gold-lined conduit (accessible through his navel) to an underground sanctuary where Pampiphlorine and her attendants took refuge until the bandits were driven from the island. Before Lapurnippas rose again, certain unwelcome forest denizens, such as the parasite Coccidillio and the “bandit maiden” Plundribel, clambered inside his belly uninvited; their expulsion is the subject of several comedic fragments.

AULDOMOUCHE. This was plainly manufactured within the last decade or so, with these indiscriminate figures recalling less the original legends than the popular caricatures of those revelatory photographed magnifications of Balkan mallardfish eggs — which (due to the appearance of their undeveloped heads and the tendency of certain parasitic species to burst unexpectedly from afflicted specimens) drew comparison to the iconography of Lapurnippas. Recent entertainments bearing his name have strayed considerably from tradition.

19.

The Whirligig bladderwrack (F. gyrovesiculosus), an alga common to the Black Sea, thrives in the coastal reefs off the Euxinovan province of Draephedusa. Anchored fast to the seemingly inhospitable jagged rocks, its irregular branches terminate in symmetrical reproductive bodies containing paired blades of fibrous tissue and air vesicles. Subject to the violence of the surf, these bodies will detach from the weed and take wing, their descent slowed by their own rotation.

The sight of the seeds dispersing aerially from a distance has led to fanciful accounts of diminutive “limpet cranes” (thought to hatch from oversized limpets) possessing horns that curve like those of a ram. Known in Antiquity as “fledglings of Pumphon” (ibid.), their ability to portend shipwrecks derives from the fact that a swarm of seeds must indicate the presence of shallow rocks. 

Specimens of the weed burgeoning in the calmer waters of coves may yield winged seeds that, though too bulky to disperse while alive, can be manually detached and dried to create a flying toy that rides the air’s currents like a gliding bird. Children often affix the wings to a stick, adding for a “head” seashells that spiral like the mythical crane’s horns — and, if available, the skull of a local bird, such as that of a burrowing osprey (also ibid.).

2

1.

ELLUBECQUE, EUXINOVA, MARCH 1, 188X. Yet another anonymous warning sent Wilfred Archbairne-Quelleck* into the Coelobonese Pavilion of the International Trade Exposition to locate a sabotaged fixture and avert an outrage. This time, the message steered him to a fountain whose jets balanced glass sculptures of the most celebrated marine invertebrates found off the Asian island-kingdom of Coelobon. Of these, the model of the Makassar salp was a miniature bomb in disguise. He was to snatch this out of the exhibit shortly before noon, when another visitor meant to deploy it.

But yet again, despite obvious tampering, the threat itself was absent. Wilfred discerned the separate inner chamber, filled with stone pellets, which pressure from outside could agitate — yet without the lethal element of petroleum, the ornament was strangely harmless.

This was the third such incident for Wilfred. And like the others, it coincided with a genuine atrocity — for at that moment, on the city’s outskirts, the boiler of the public condenser carriage La Gondole exploded for unknown reasons, killing eleven passengers and a conductor.

*Employed by Archbairne’s Fine Arts Quarterly (London) on behalf of the Euxinovan crown (due to his partly Euxinovan extraction) Wilfred served as editor and principal scribe for the 188x Exposition’s English-language catalog.

28.

THE FOURTH ITEM INSPECTED: A VESSEL MADE OF BLOWN GLASS AND SILVER, OPENING FROM THE BOTTOM, EQUILATERAL BUT FOR AN ORNAMENTAL FACE AND FILIGREE SPIRALS SUGGESTIVE OF A NAUTILUS SHELL.

Gewgaws of this general design can, at least in theory, be submerged while retaining air, by means of a principle observed by Aristotle (Problemata 32). They date from Antiquity and were originally understood to represent Pumphon, the tutelary deity of pirates (son of Mercury and the Nereid Pontoporia), who would often appear to mortals as the hybrid of an enormous cephalopod and a living ship helmed by mute, stunted figures. Well-preserved examples from the Roman era have been found among the ruins of the ancient canal city of Carqueviscum, in the center of the Black Sea.

SOPHELAIDE.      This odd jar is just like one I had as a child — they could almost be one and the same. I recall an excursion to Draephedusa, along the coast. My sisters and I had a mass of aniseed bonbons to share. I stole their portions and ran and hid in a half-flooded cave. I wasn’t so greedy as all that; I merely wanted a reason to test this magic receptacle, to hide a stolen treasure where no one could find it.

I placed the vessel in a cleft beneath the water line for an hour or so, and to my recollection it kept the candies dry. I also remember several pretty objects, including polished animal skulls, in rows on ledges of rock near the ceiling of the cave. I thought they were toys as well, belonging to someone else. I couldn’t reach them.

20.

NOT LONG INSIDE THE VILLA, THE CONFEDERACY ARRIVED AT A CUL-DE- SAC, SINGLY ADORNED.

PRENDULECK.     This would appear to represent a mythical creature called a “limpet crane,” or perhaps a burrowing osprey in its apocryphal horned form — the regional folklore will readily conflate them.

This impasse deviates from the floor plan, so I imagine this is no simple ornament — there. See how the beak opens! I expect it contains a mechanism that can give us access to the further chambers from here. With this special pick, I might manage to open it, and perhaps deactivate a trap if there is one. Still, we must be wary. One moment…

25.

THE FIRST ITEM INSPECTED: A SCULPTED MODEL OF A RARE COELOBONESE FLOWER (R. CANDELABRUM) HOUSING AN ELECTRIC LAMP THAT CAME ALIGHT WHEN APPROACHED.

A close relative of the Indonesian Corpse flower, the jungle-dwelling Anajamut tinkar consists of a stemless, parasitic bloom, lacking roots of its own but subsistent on those of a lignified vine (the host in this case being the Tajamunugu grape, ibid.). Its name in Sulepawak means “dead dog’s ears,” as its fleshy petals (each up to half a yard long) taper like the ears of a Coelobonese toy boxer. While it gives off the same carrion odor as its relatives, this is often abated by another benign parasite: the Uburutan or Land jelly (P. terrestris), a coelenterate that, true to its name, is typically found out of water — albeit in very damp conditions. Its ideal resting place is the central cup of an Anajamut tinkar blossom, around which its wispy, barely visible tentacles can droop, ready to trap and devour Indomalayan buzzard midges that might otherwise chew away at the flower (ibid.) by stinging them with chemicals that, on contact with the plant’s flesh, will reduce its noxious odor. While the quelled stench might dissuade humans from destroying the flower, it remains perceptible to needed pollinators such as Carbuncle scarabs (ibid.) and their larvae — which the Uburutan spares.

On account of this union, an Anajamut tinkar can last longer than others of its kind, living up to a fortnight. Once every five days, however, the blossom is compelled to close, which can smother and possibly kill a tenant jelly.

The Uburutan’s float bladder, though small and vestigial, resembles that of its cousin the Bolertankulak (ibid.) in that its gasses ignite upon death, sputtering flames for a minute or more. On occasion, a blossom will open to reveal a dead Uburutan in mid-blaze. Natives interpret this event as the birth of a mythical Uborlepoluk — an auspicious sight for those who witness it, despite the newborn imp’s wicked nature.

24.

PAST THE TRAGICALLY UNLOCKED DOOR WAS A TROVE OF UNFAMILIAR THINGS.

AULDOMOUCHE.   I suspect the room was always a repository of some kind. It might have been the buttery; the building is old enough… But what items are these? They exceed the interests of some political sect. Although they are now motionless, I recognize some figures in the recesses as sculptural automata such as are only found in seasonal rotation at the Parc d’Urongelex.

Other articles are still more perplexing. To identify them, if there is time, might help us understand the villains who are hoarding them.

At any rate, we have to look around for the cowls. Set Ovarind down there for now — there in the corner. Careful with him, Sophelaide.

30.

THE SIXTH ITEM INSPECTED: A RESPIRATORY FACE MASK THAT APPEARS STYLED AFTER THE SKULL AND CARTILAGE OF A BALEEN GAZELLE (G. GAZELLA EDENTULATA) AND INCLUDES AT EYE LEVEL A GLASS RECEPTACLE CONTAINING AND MAGNIFYING A FLOATING ASSORTMENT OF MINIATURE FOSSILS.

WILFRED.         I understand that this does not reproduce the natural feeding processes of a baleen gazelle, nor could it to the wearer’s benefit. It does contain actual preserved “air plankton,” however, including the mallardfish spawn you just mentioned.

Surely it isn’t an aid for consumptives at all, but a certain rumored prototype (you know the one) that administers soporifics while flooding the patient’s vision with samples of the baleen gazelle’s diet. Supposedly, those tiny plants and creatures correlate with mythological typifications that can appear simultaneously in the thoughts of multiple individuals when their minds are united in deep sleep.

Could there be any truth to it? Did the horrors I endured yesterday take place in this unconscious domain? Could the rigorous approach promised by this device offer better results? Could I discover… The Curtain of Somnus… Is it something more than an old wives’ tale spun from hysterical contagion? I wonder…