2018 – a Journey up the river Leiph

Made for the 2018 Sketchbook Project.

Another volume found in the Okulistí Arkivje – a journal kept during a journey to the source of the river Leiph.
Date and author unknown.
17 illustrations in red and blue washed ink with pouched memorabilia.
The narrative appears to be allegorical?

Watch it in the Digital Library.

the Giant’s Toenails

The ship brought us to this rocky deserted shore. As our guides erected tents, we wandered along the coast. I am so glad to feel solid ground beneath my feet again.
Our camp is at the mouth of the River Leiph – the estuary is wide, the water placid and dark. All around us are the sharp, craggy rock spires that the locals refer to as “the giant’s toenails”. I can see the resemblance. Our guides have prepared a sumptuous meal; black bread, fried fish, roasted herbs and barrels of sweet green wine.
In the evening, around the campfires, I get to know my fellow travellers a little better. Most of us get drunk, some very much so. Arguments break out and the night ends in shouting matches and thrown pottery.
In the lavender dawn of the next day we start our journey up the River Leiph.

the Cloister of Talo Cruris

We’ve come to an acute bend in the river and our party has made its way up the surrounding rocks. There is much complaining and bickering among my fellow travellers and plenty of scraped elbows and sprained ankles.
On top, in a narrow gorge, balanced between two smooth slopes rests an enormous boulder. Our guides tell the story of Talo Cruris, the Emperor’s former Head Courier who is said to live in the ruins on top of the boulder. In turn they yank the cables tied to the boulder and make it rock back and forth; very soon Talo Cruris himself appears on top of the broken battlements and throws insults and the contents of his chamber pot at us.
We scatter and run down the twisty path.

DAY 10
on the Tibian Slopes

The Tibian Slopes are seemingly endless and near featureless. A bare patch of rock, a broken metal gate or a desiccated tree trunk; these are the sights to be seen on these limitless, lichen covered slopes.
The days are long and exhausting. Our guides keep singing the jangling song they call “Piciorului” and it quickly gets on everybody’s nerves. For a day or two I climb together with a middle aged dowager from Svetane. She climbs without complaints or any apparent effort. She tells me rambling stories of her estate back home, the trials and tribulations of her children, the horrors of the mosquito season. I mostly listen.
At noon every day we break for luncheon; jellied eel, bread fried on open fires, sweet dark tea.
At night we sleep in our tents, dreamless and tired to the bone.

DAY 15
the Broken Palace of the Genunchi

Sparse birch trees cover the last stretch of the Tibian Slopes. On the morning of the fifteenth day the landscape finally levels out and as we leave the birch trees behind, the banks of the river are there to meet us. A wide marble bridge crosses it.
Rows of market stalls line the bridge, selling anything and everything; from spices in bulk to birds in cages. Bottled shadows, willing slaves and fragrant flowers by the bushel. We slowly make our way across, stopping here and there to browse, haggle or purchase.
Set back from the river bank lies the Palace of the Genunchi. It squats on top of a low, smooth hill like a toad on a rock. The former elegance of the royal grounds can still be spied underneath the unkempt bushes and toppled statuary. Once inside we marvel at great halls, enormous mosaics, hidden gardens and patios. But it is painfully clear that the palace has been deserted. Rotting tapestry, formal pools filled with slime.
Our guest chambers are damp and gloomy.

DAY 20
the Valley of Industry

From the palace we board a long river barge. It is painted in umbers and mauves and adorned with many tiny banners. When we cast off from the Palace Pier we’re accompanied by many local children in fish skin coracles.
The river is wide and streams slowly. Within hours the river banks rise, all hilly and wooded. After two days they have grown to towering mountain ranges straddling the languid waters. Thick, lush woods cover the slopes. The banks and slopes are increasingly populated with the works of industry. We pass underneath soaring steel bridges. Factories, mills, quarries and mines fill the air with smoke and dust and thumping, grinding noise.
On the twenty-third we spend the night inside an enormous foundry. Our tents fill only a small portion of the factory floor. By the light of the electric furnaces we get drunk and rowdy with the workers.
I dance until I collapse on my bedroll.

DAY 25
Ancestral Dance

High above the river the bosky slopes are crisscrossed with narrow trails. The trees are ancient here, the ground mossy and covered in tiny flowers.
“Do you smell that?” the shy woman on the trail in front of me asks. She looks back over her shoulder and smiles at me. The warm forest air is filled with the scents of decaying leaves, ripening fruit, spores. But there’s more, an undercurrent of something dark and musky. A smell that makes me short of breath, my heart beats fast and deep. “Perhaps an animal? Or some fungus?”. She stops and leans against a tree. I can’t read the look she gives me but she smiles again and answers “perhaps”. There are beads of sweat on her forehead.
The trail ends at the mouth of a dark cave. Among the trees are scores of towering megaliths. Our travelling party splits up in small groups, the men mostly bragging to each other or measuring the stones. Many of the women make their way into the cave, alone or in small groups.
We wait.
Something is coming.

DAY 29

The sun drenches these hills in warm light. Walking here is pleasant and our party of travellers is in high spirits. These hills are brimming with life, not a day goes by without us spotting squirrels, deer, foxes and countless birds.
On the twenty ninth day we arrive at a peculiar geological feature: a perfectly round sinkhole, no less than sixty yards in diameter and perhaps half that in depth. Rugged wooden stairs and walkways line the hole and give way to many small cells carved into its’ walls. An enormous stone egg rests on a dais in the centre of the hole. The egg has been decorated with ribbons and it is riddled with apertures of various sizes. The floor around it is covered in brightly coloured rugs. The red robed nuns that live and work here serve us honey tea. We watch in astonishment as they pull all manner of newborn animals from the holes in the egg; handfuls of chicks, foals still wet, mewling kittens.
They lovingly carry them off to be dried and fed.

DAY 34
A run through the Cocoreaux

The two men next to me are clearly nervous. The lanky trader keeps touching his nose and the well dressed artist coughs incessantly.
Our Lead Guide’s directions made me apprehensive as well; “Always keep running. Do not stop to help your companions. If you drop something, consider it lost.”
We are gathered in the first chamber of the underground maze of caves the locals call the Cocoreaux. The walls, the curving roofs: everything is bright red and wet. Great thumping noises shake the floor. From these caves iron-rich water is pumped to many distant places. The Lead Guide blows a curved horn and after a stunned moment of hesitation everybody starts running. The trader streaks ahead of me, his long legs pumping furiously. The artist veers off to the right, following a screaming group of girls into a large steaming cave. Everything becomes a blur, I dodge boiling hot pipes, slide underneath ducts, curve around gargantuan pumps. I see many of my companions stumble and fall but I make it out into the cool air.

DAY 36
Silent Woods

The red caves of the Cocoreaux lead to a seemingly endless forest. The river runs through it – placid and straight – but we travel these woods on foot. My travel companions are quiet and subdued. Our guides and porters likewise; no singing or banter. Something here demands introspection. A stillness. Perhaps even reverence.
The woods are as quiet as we are. There’s no bird song or animal calls. The only sound is of the mighty wind, the rustling leaves and creaking branches. After two days we come upon a vast circular field. Shrines, statues and obelisks are scattered about. Without a word we start picking flowers at the forest’s edge. I’m with the trader, he holds out his cape and I fill it with white lilies and yellow mimosa. We spend hours fashioning garlands and wreaths. As the sun sets, the wind abates and all of us hold a wordless memorial, decorating the stones.
I silently ask myself “why did I come here?”

DAY 40
The Bridge of Keys

From the top of a hill we catch a glimpse of our next destination: the Bridge of Keys. Draped across the undulating landscape in an S-curve, it catches the golden rays of the rising sun. It looks delicate and fragile but when we arrive at the bridgehead it becomes clear that this is a construction of astonishing size and strength. It arcs from titanic column to titanic column, bridging the depth of the ravine and the sea strait below.
The bridgehead houses the tiniest museum. Exhibits include the trowel used to lay the first brick, cyanotype portraits of the architects and models of the ritual kites flown from the bridge. Crossing the bridge will take the better part of two days. On the bridge we enjoy phenomenal vistas, green cormorants diving straight down from the balustrade and fishermen hauling up nets from the waves far below. Halfway across the bridge we spend the night in a stonemasons’ camp.
We share their fish cakes, drink together and discuss the constellations overhead.

DAY 43
The Kurkut Gate

They assure me they are sisters, but these three girls are so wildly different that privately I have my doubts. “This bit is very, very boring!” exclaims the short sister with the mass of dark curls. I have to agree with her: we’ve seen nothing but grass, mud and the occasional wading bird.
The tall sister, with the short hair and the birthmarks, snorts and says: “You’re just spoilt Auremelia, there’s a good bit coming up.” The third sister, always dressed in tans and vermilions, nods and reads from the guidebook: “The Kurkut Gate guards the way to Kurkut Gorge. The towers that flank the gate are home to the Brothers and Sisters of the Hymn, who communicate exclusively through song.”
Auremelia expertly kicks a pebble at a wading bird. “Still sounds tedious to me.” Later that day I see the three of them in a lively discussion with two Brothers of the Hymn.
I catch snippets of laughter and sing-song arguments on the blustery winds on the roof terrace.

DAY 45
Floating City

Through the Kurkut Gorge we travel down, along the river that flows from it. On the forty second day the gorge opens out and the river flows into a sparkling inland sea. The hills around are green and dotted with vineyards and groves. Quiet bays shelter tiny villages. Brightly coloured sailboats cut across the emerald water. An ox-driven paddleboat takes us to our destination: the floating city of Bocca.
The city is a marvellous maze built upon islands, floating pontoons and barges. All parts are connected with bridges, levees and swaying walkways. I spend days exploring the Grand Temple, Market Fleet and the Mires. Every night there are dances, balls, entertaining lectures and clamorous feasts. I spend a drunken night with the dowager, swim with two brothers from Melphi and get into a fight with a fur trader.
By the time we gather for the next leg of our journey, I’m nursing bruises and I’ve lost my voice; it’s completely worth it.

DAY 48
Whispering Shore

A slow, three day journey takes us to the shores of another lake. The water mirrors the grey clouds overhead. The beach is white and crunches underfoot. It is not sand we walk over but uncountable minuscule shells. Larger shells are scattered around and what appear to be boulders at first sight turn out to be even larger shells.
Our guides take us to a most amazing place; a village where people live in gargantuan cone shells. These shells are at least three yards high and adorned with abstract decorations of dots and lines. The villagers are quiet and serious people, short of posture and dressed in white and dark greens. They welcome us with smoked fish and bitter tea. Afterwards they show us how to find perfect pairs of shells at the lake’s edge. They believe that every shell from the lake has a perfect twin somewhere.
Whisper your name in one, and you will hear your future foretold in the other.

DAY 51
the Hana Caravan

The plains north of the lake are expansive and flat, covered in prickly teal coloured grass. We’re crossing them in comfortable ox drawn coaches.
Our destination is the Great Hana Fragrance Caravan. We can smell the caravan a full day before we arrive at the gathering place; an ever changing blend of smoke, spices, flowers and rare excretions. The caravan is corralled around the dusty red outcropping of boulders that it is named after. We marvel at the titanic centipedes that carry the tents and stalls of the fragrance merchants upon their flat, broad carapaces. Impromptu inns, cock-fighting arenas, theatres and brothels have sprung up all over. I buy a satchel of ambrette seeds, a tiny bundle of osmanthus bark and some galbanum in a lime tinted vial. On our second night we watch a confusing but hilarious play about a spice merchant, her husband and a lost goat.
I sleep only fitfully; our coaches are parked next to an all-night dance pit.

DAY 54
the Starlit Chamber

The observatory is perched on a cliff top overlooking a bend in the river. Its many white domes are outlined against the frost blue sky. The building is lost in the empty landscape; no farms or villages are near, no busy roads reach it.
Each of us gets their own guest chamber in the vast sprawling building. I’m fortunate; my room comes with a marble balcony and spectacular views across the valley. As mentioned in the guidebook, a masked dance is arranged for us on the first night. An outfit lies prepared on my bed: maroon breeches, mustard frock and a lacquered red mask. The dance is held inside the Starlit Chamber; a mirrored hall in the belly of the building. Lenses in the domed ceiling spread the light of the stars and moon in a dazzling manner. A hidden orchestra plays ever more frenetic music. Throughout the night I observe my masked fellow travellers; they dance, laugh, weep, fight and court each other.
Nobody takes off their mask.

DAY 55

Above ground this place is very unassuming; an ancient farmhouse with a shed and a rickety wooden tower. The buildings hug a low rise that cuts through the rolling barley fields. The interior is unusual: just some narrow benches along the wall and the wooden cage-like construction that houses the lift.
We are all given a voucher (mine has number 57 on it) and descend in groups of six. There is nobody to greet us once we exit the lift, just dimly lit tunnels with sand covered floors. It is warm here and very quiet. A display on the wall reads “57 > rm A3”. With little effort I find room A3.
My Conareon is an old man, with chestnut skin and impressive sideburns. He motions me to sit down at the decorated table. After a brief look into my eyes he says “you are all ears and eyes, but no mouth or hands”.
He briefly taps my forehead and I suddenly wake up next to the shed, very well rested.

DAY 57
Crown Lake

We have arrived at our final destination: the source of the river Leiph. Or rather we have arrived at the foot of the hill that the river springs from.
Our guides have prepared a farewell meal near the waterfall. Sofya, the head guide, gives an emotional speech: we are to climb this hill alone. See the lake at the top with our own eyes. She has become attached to us. She does not want to say goodbye. There is a great deal of hugging and many tears. Addresses and gifts are exchanged.
The next morning we climb the hill, each of us in solitude, leaving minutes apart. The top of the hill is concave, is it an ancient volcano? A perfectly round, shimmering lake stretches before me. Alone with the soft wind and the birdsong I undress and wade into the warm water. A whisper draws my attention upwards: an enormous glowing crown has materialised over the lake. I stare in wonder.
As it rotates it also transforms: a lotus flower, a cloud of butterflies, an echo of laughter.

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