We left Severian and Agia touring Father Inire's bizarre masterpiece, the Botanic Gardens of Nessus. Severian did not want to leave the Sand Garden, feeling strangely drawn there (since these gardens are pretty much just an extension of Father Inire's optical time machine, I maintain that it's entirely possible that he got sucked into the life of Apu-Punchau then; who wouldn't want to stick around and be a Mu'ad Dib-ish desert god?), but now blundered into the Jungle Garden to have one of the strangest encounters in this entire novel: the Jungle Hut.
Lots is written all over the web about this scene, in which Severian and Agia both do and do not interact with some inhabitants of the Garden in their hut. Robert and the Zulu shaman Isangoma (his name literally means "shaman" in the Zulu language) can see Severian and Agia, but Marie cannot. We learn that, per Isangoma, it's because Robert is an artist and has trained himself to observe what is actually there, while Marie just sees what she expects to see, but only Robert seems prepared to treat Severian and Agia as actual visitors to his hut; Isangoma regards them as "tokoloshe" -- spirit creatures that occur "when man think bad thought or woman do bad thing" and then remain until the end of the world. Or, as Robert says, kind of agreeing with Isangoma but pulling his punches a bit "They are the spirits of the future, and we make them ourselves."
From all the clues strewn about, including a plane that appears, readers generally conclude that Marie and Robert are 20th Century missionaries who, either accidentally or by Father Inire's design, happened across the corresponding geographical location of one of Inire's mirror-access-point-things and wound up in the Jungle Garden. Possibly Isangoma and his tribe did as well, and might be from a yet different point in time, though how they got from Africa to South America...? I don't even.
Anyway, Isangoma recites an interesting bit of rhyme, that may or may not be another hologram of Severian's story and eventual role in the universe:
In the night when all is silent,There is apparently more to this rhyme, but this is what we get. Note that while Severian's world features a dying red sun, but all of this sun imagery is yellow. Either Isangoma in his little diorama only knows the good old yellow sun that we enjoy, or this is a reference to the New Sun. Hmm.
Hear him screaming in the treetops!
See him dancing in the fire!
He lives in the arrow poison,
Tiny as a yellow firefly!
Brighter than a falling star!
Hairy men walk in the forest.*
He comes when the sun is setting,
See his feet upon the water!
Tracks of flame across the water!"
Even more curiously, Isangoma basically uses this celebration of Severian (wink) as a banishing charm against Severian and Agia. Coincidentally, his poetry slam coincides with Agia getting bored and wanting to leave. "If you want to stay... you'll have to get your avern yourself, and find your way to the Sanguinary Fields." And if he doesn't show up, "the snake called yellowbeard" will be sic'd on Severian's family and friends, including her.
Insert your favorite joke about Graham Chapman's snake here.
They argue some more about the nature of the Gardens and their effect on certain people. Like Severian. No Garden of Delectation for him. Not that there's time anyway. Macht schnell! Off to get the damn avern.
Severian is not expecting a lake, and neither are we. I talked a little bit last time about the Lake of Birds, and the popular reader theory that this is a reference to Lake Avernus, a volcanic crater lake that may once have emitted poisonous, bird-killing fumes. It all fits very nicely.
I'm kind of surprised my good friend EssJay didn't jump up and down and yell "Dead Marshes" at me when she got to this part, actually. There are some major similarities: the tea-colored water "has the property of preserving corpses" for instance. But here, the corpses are sunk into it deliberately, with weights, their positions mapped so they can be fished out later if anyone wants to, Agia explains.
But someone begs to differ. OK, I'm not going to get too into this whole thing with the Boatman and who he probably is, and Dorcas and who she probably is here, because my first time read-alongers will just throw things at me, but it's pretty common knowledge. Anyway, here's the Boatman , doing his Charon bit, on a boat on the Lake of Birds, and he's having a hell of a time finding his beloved Cas, because the Map of Corpses sucks. Or the corpses move around because there is a pipeline to Gyoll that keeps the Lake of Birds from drying out** and manatees (or undines, wink) come and go as they please and mess things up. It is because of the manatundines that the averns were planted on Father Inire's orders, furthermore. Anyway, five years the Boatman has been doing this! Severian is sympathetic, though he suspects the Boatman is "spell-caught" and his kindness earns him a "wish I could help you, but my boat is too small" from the old man. Fortunately, there's another, proper ferryman nearby.
But first Severian has to catch Agia, who is tear-assing along as fast as her messed-up leg*** can take her, so he has to sort-of-run to catch up to her. So of course he falls into the water. He sure does like almost drowning, that Severian. Is he really just crying out to be baptized? While in the water, he drops his sword, which he now has to frantically search for in the stems of the reeds growing in the lake. And while he's doing so, he makes contact with what feels like a human hand. And it feels like that hand is returning his sword to him, Lady of the Lake style. Juturna again?
Or maybe it's the woman with "streaming yellow hair" who helps Severian back onto land. What? Where did she come from? Oh, and Agia and another man, who proves to be one Hildegrin and is the other ferryman, are there now, too. But who's the blonde, covered in mud, wearing little but rags? Introductions all around, including a contemptuous reference to Severian as Agia's fish that seems pretty interesting (see my immediate prior Suns Suns Suns post for a refresher on Father Inire's fish) but nobody notices.
The blonde is Dorcas. And she doesn't remember how she got there. Maybe she just wandered in? Maybe someone sank her under the waters because she was in a "com'er" and they thought she was dead? But who's this ferryman, then?
Well, for starters, he's not a ferryman, but a "badger"**** -- basically, an excavator of things -- but he has a big boat, and when Severian tells him about meeting the Boatman, Hildegrin says he feels sorry for the old guy and will do this favor for the Boatman's sake.
But first, Agia really wants to get rid of Dorcas, who is still pretty out of it. Severian makes lots of suggestions, trying, basically, to get her to go to a better, warmer part of the Gardens, like maybe the Sand Garden? Because it's dry and sunny there? "Yes. Sun." (!) But finally they give up on ditching her and she gets to come in the boat. And hear Hildegrin's lecture about the Lake of Birds, most of the substance of which I've already shared, except for the bit about the Cave of the Cumaean (as in the Cumaean Sibyl, who may or may not be the same person as the historical Cumaean Sibyl), whom the Autarch wants there "so he can come and talk without travelin' to the other side of the world" (Italy?). We'll have more about her later, though.
This is my favorite Cumaean image. That is one butch sibyl, Michaelangelo!
Oh, and during some more of Severian's pseudo-philosophical ruminations, Dorcas maneuvers him into grabbing her breast. "Now what are your thoughts? If I have made the external world sweet to you, aren't they less than they were?"
I'm pretty sure that would be a big 10-4, granny.
And finally, it's avern time.
Freaky weird things, averns. Basically, I guess they're weaponized mutant sunflowers. "Each leaf was like a dagger blade, stiff and pointed, with edges sharp enough to satisfy even Master Gurloes." And poisoned. It even kills off the birds and the bees 8o But the flowers are very pretty. Almost hypnotically pretty: "their petals curled in a way that... formed a complex swirling pattern that drew the eye like a spiral limned on a revolving disk." Oh yeah, combat with this will be interesting. Who the Snape thought of that, anyway?
And the actual method of combat-by-avern is totally the Quidditch of BotNS. Instead of swinging it like a mace, like Severian expects, instead one twists off the leaves one by one and chucks them at one's opponent. OK, half Quidditch, half Oriza. While being careful to make sure the opponent can't grab the bare patch you leave by twisting off leaves, and wrestle your flower away from you. And not pricking yourself with the poisoned leaves. Or being hypnotized by your or your opponent's blossom.
I don't even.
But so, it's almost combat time for real, so at last we leave the Gardens and head to the Inn of Lost Loves (all good duels start at a picturesque inn. It's the law), which is right near the huge and (in Dorcas' opinion) terrifying City Wall, which "goes halfway to the sky" (but what wall doesn't, really? What is the height of the sky, again? Exactly). I must confess, this inn sounds like my kind of place. No buildings are permitted so close to the wall, so it has neither walls nor roof, and is basically a series of platforms surrounded by greenery.
And Severian gets ready to fight. He has explained earlier that he believed the challenge was the Guild's round-about way of finally executing him for the crime of assisting Thecla in her "escape" and so he is letting himself be led to the slaughter, but I call bullshytt on this: if he didn't care if he survived, why bother practicing with the avern? Surely not just because Agia is sexy. Surely. Right? And yet here Agia is, offering to do, uh, something, behind the screen...
But no! Because NOTE DRAMA! After the innkeeper lays down the law on how much and when he is going to get paid (snickerhoot at the deposit for dinner, with the rest paid when you eat, and if you don't survive your duel, well, that's why his prices are so darn reasonable!), he is discovered to have left a scrap of folded paper beneath a tray. Severian jokes about the melodramatic possibilities of getting a secret note before a duel, but Agia takes it so seriously that she gets naked and say's she'll schtup him then and there if he promises not to read the note. But Severian is more interested in the note, for all of his protestations to us of how she made him "stupid with desire."
The note is interesting. "The woman with you has been here before. Do not trust her. Trudo says the man is a torturer. You are my mother come again."
*Here Isangoma is interrupted by Agia, so this may be a lacuna.
**I stumbled across a delightful theory on Urth.net, the gyst of which is that the Lake of Birds is Lake Avernus in Italy at the time of its fume-belching worst, but that the pipeline the Boatman mentions is to the Gyoll of Urth. Which would mean that Gyoll, untold thousands of years in our future, is keeping a volcanic lake from hundreds of years in our past, full of water. Oh, and it also allows undines to go back and forth between the river and the lake as they need to. Possibly to switch the corpses around?
***Another reason folks like Borski posit Agia as a relative of Severian's: she's lame like he will be, for a while. OK.
****And, Severian susses out from his familiar voice when he says something about getting the females to safety, Hildegrin is probably the guy who was hanging out with Vodalus the night Severian saved Vodalus' life. THICK PLOT IS THICK!