The Ivy of Thlenan-Chemmosh

Simon Whitechapel

Nor ever falls the least white star of snow...
   Tennyson’s “Lucretius”, line 108.

Perhaps the greatest gardener and botanist of any period was the wizard Thlenan-Chemmosh. The extent and splendor of his gardens became exaggerated in later centuries, but they surely merited such growth in the telling and in some respects could be talked no higher by the tongues of succeeding generations. Who could invent somewhat more dazzling, both literally and metaphorically, than the vast mirrors of fine-hammered silver positioned by him on the peaks overlooking his demense, that his flowers and trees might be bathed in light long after sun-set on the rich alluvial plain whereon he dwelt? Or stranger than the giant, jungle-garnered orchids he had brought, after many generations of cross-breeding and blood-eked cantrips, to such a pitch of perfection that a strong man might be slain by their scent alone? Or more ingenious than the quasi-vivified mechanisms by which he kept fresh and living his vast, crystal-walled tanks of lake-herb and sea-weed?

Yet among all the plants of his wizardry, whether true to its collected nature or bred up by his tenebrose arts, Thlenan-Chemmosh held none in higher affection than his ivies. Not content to cloak trees alone in these favorites, he reared taller and taller towers on his plain, destined all to topple on his passing when the spells that secured their foundations failed, and wreathed them each in hederal greens and golds. It was said, too, that he employed several species of cissomancy, divining the future or progress of a famulus’ plant-collecting by variegations of the leaves or wind-induced rustling at star-spangled midnight, and he used the plant as his amanuensis, whispering his secrets to it, that they might be recorded and reproduced after the same wise. Here, then, are three of the ivy-scripted tales of Thlennan-Chemmosh, one complete before his passing, one not complete till long after, and one never complete.

The Flower-Barques of Hmior-Sthaan

And sank down shamed
At all that beauty...
      Ibid., lines 63-4.

In his later years Thlenan-Chemmosh was loath to leave his gardens even an hour and so sent his famuli forth in his stead to collect fresh plants and flowers for his collection; but in his youth he had been a great collector on his own account, traveling far and risking further in pursuit of the rarest and most exotic blooms. So it was that he dared that which none had dared before him: to rob a flower-barque of the island-kingdom of Hmior-Sthaan.

The barques were launched in solitary pairs perhaps once a half-century, carrying out to sea the corpses of the king and his self-slain year-queen, for the longaeval monarchs of the dynasty stretched and sweetened their years with herbal doses brewed after uncounted centuries of wisdom. And it was the custom to load the barques, which were woven of light-riding fluminal papyrus, with bulbs or tubers of all the flowers bred by the king in his many years, and to destroy all remaining exemplars in the royal gardens. Such was the horticultural skill of the kings that the flowers thus dispatched sempiternally beyond human recall might be worth many times their weight in gold; but no sea-thieving pirates had ever dared to intercept and board a flower-barque of Hmior-Sthaan, for fear (if superstitious) of the triplex curse that would pursue such violation or in caution (if of a more practical bent) that blooms’ beauty would be matched only by their letiferousness.

Thlenan-Chemmosh, who even in early youth had worked with countless plants of surpassing toxicity, disdained equally the curse and the letiferousness, and had high hope that the reign of King Tšmuor-Dwenev III, already third in length only to that of his father and great-great-grandfather, was nearing its herb-protracted close. Final news of the king’s death might be slow to reach him, but the flower-barques of the king and his young queen, Mruith-Yvuan, would not be launched till high summer, when the sea was at its calmest and warm rains would ensure the sprouting of the barques’ floral freight as each drifted west to the nauphagous whirlpools of the archipelago of Dhnarkë. As he waited, Thlenan-Chemmosh studied charts of the region and frequented the taverns of many ports, questioning sailors anent the currents and the clime of the ocean west of Hmior-Sthaan, till he had settled on an islet whereon to await the flower-barques.

Then news came, sped on its way with golden spurs, of Tšmuor-Dwenev’s death and the self-slaying of his young widow; and Thlenan-Chemmosh could conclude or set aside his other business and sail by increasing stages to the innominate islet whereby, if his calculations held true, the flower-barques would drift. He dwelt there a week, plucking brief blossoms of sleep between his vigils on the islet’s headland, wherefrom he scanned the sea under sun, moon, and star; and was rewarded towards the close of the ninth day, when a speck on the eastern horizon resolved itself to a flower-barque creeping closer. His anxiety, when he had raced from the headland to his oar-craft, that he would miss his prey in the descending dusk was soon dispelled, for as he rowed out to meet it his nostrils caught thickening threads of scent, wafted on sea-zephyrs from the flower-laden decks; and at last the air was swooning with burden of sweet musks and oils.

His oars now were waking green sea-fire that played and sparkled from them as though he plied the river Dzeön in the kingdom of the dead, but a touch of the amulet around his neck reassured him and a glance over his shoulder brought him first near-sight of the barque, its outline softened and crusted by the thick-growing flowers whose glories night was fast veiling. Yet he had come equipped for a night-theft, and when the prow of his craft at last nudged the barque-side he reached between his feet, lifting up and igniting a powerful lanthorn designed to shed a light closely approximating that of natural day. He breathed shallowly, for the flower-scent threatened to whelm his sleep-starved senses, and moved with caution as he turned, raising the lamp high that he might cast proprietorial eyes over the barque and its cargo preparatory to boarding and stealing his full.

But even as he grinned with pleasure at the luxuriance and splendor of the blooms on which the lanthorn-light fell, the horizoned sun shot forth a sheaf of final rays, which arrowed to the dias whereon the barque’s occupant lay enshrouded in leaf and petal. But a knuckle of one white finger peeped forth amid the living shroud, and catching the sunlight seemed to glow again an instant with the pink of continuing life. And Thlenan-Chemmosh knew that Queen Mruith-Yvuan’s was the barque he proposed to rob, carrying a cargo self-slain with a drug to arrest decay, that she might met her whirlpooled end as beautiful in death as in life. And shame whelmed the phytophilic wizardling, more potent than the scent of a thousand blooms, and he let fall his lanthorn, murmuring exculpations that his eyes had caught even a glimpse of the flower-barque in full glory, ere sitting back to his oars with a grunt to return unburdened of blooms to the islet whereon he had held vigil.

The Naiads of Demdath

But girls, Hetairai, curious in their art...
   Ibid., line 52.

One day in his middle years, having learned of a forgotten desert kingdom to the far south from a newly deciphered botanic palimpsest, Thlenan-Chemmosh dispatched a famulus, Muid-Ibmyc, to negotiate with the royal gardeners thereof, whose gardens, so the palimpsest said, were of unsurpassed beauty and exoticity, sustained amid their desert by a rain-magic whose secrets were also detailed in the palimpsest. But the famulus returned three months later to tell him that the kingdom was extinct and that the stair to its capital city, Demdath, built atop a looming desert mesa, had long since tumbled to ruin, leaving the city-entrance atop a sheer and unclimbable cliff.

The wizard heard his tale out, examined his sketches of soft charcoal on bleached papyrus, pondered a day or two, then sent him forth again with a package of ivy-seeds. These, a month-and-a-half later, the famulus planted at the foot of the mesa; and as he rode in return the next day on his camel, the rare shadow of a rain-cloud passed over him, granting him a minute’s coolth from the scorching sun. Looking back half-an-hour later, he saw the rain-cloud stationed above the mesa and releasing its moisture, as a hebdomadal succession of identical clouds would do, dispatched by Thlenan-Chemmosh to first sprout and then sustain his ivy.

Thirty years passed and Muid-Ibmyc, risen considerably higher in Thlenan-Chemmosh’s service, returned to note the progress of the ivy. It was half-way up the cliff, flourishing luxuriantly in the desert sun, and supported his weight easily on his test-climb. Thereafter Thlenan-Chemmosh dispatched clouds at twice-weekly intervals, and on the third visit of the famulus, fifteen years later, the ivy had reached the summit of the cliff. For the second time he climbed, glancing below occasionally to see his tethered camel dwindle to the size of a beetle, then of a gnat, finally of a mite, till he reached the cliff-head and its city-entrance with a prayer of thanksgiving to his natal star, and could set foot to streets deserted for many centuries.

The gardens, so the palimpsest said, were sheltered in the heart of the city and thither Muid-Ibmyc made his way as well as he might, for many buildings had collapsed, choking whole streets and even some of the city’s plazas. Yet he was dazzled by what remained of the city’s beauty and the skill of her ceremonial sculptors, whose statues, decapitated or limb-lopped by the scythe of chronocratic Tmol-Pyoüm, were nevertheless of surpassing mastery and charm. And here and there, mingling with the white dust of crumbling stone that choked his throat and stung his eyes, lay rainbow dusts of fallen pigment at the foot of empty walls, speaking to him of paintings that were no more and on whose perfections he mused as he squeezed or clambered his way to the city’s heart.

But here at last, in a heartbeat, all thought of mutilated or vanished glories was wiped from his mind, for the city’s greatest artwork, it seemed, was preserved as well as ever: at the center of a broad, hexagonally paved and hexagonally sided plaza, were arrayed the most cunning sculptures he had ever seen. They formed a green-swarded garden carved in gemstones and colored marbles and seemingly enclosed in a golden bubble of light mellower and richer than the eye-searing glare of the sun above him. He walked closer, seeing that the air of the garden was dotted with minutely sculpted bees and butterflies suspended on barely visible wires of fine-drawn silver, and that amid a grove of nephrite-leafed trees a pool of glittering crystal was sheltered, wherein the white-marbled statues of three slender naiads had been set, their hands flinging strings of air-suspended and glittering diamonds as though they sported there each with each. Closer still he came, marveling more with each step at the skill with which the garden was carved. Doubtless it had been the last and greatest work of the city’s artisans, called upon to preserve a memory of her glory when her doom was foretold by her astrologers.

Aye, the sward itself was carved with minutest skill of perfectly blended jades whereon beads of crystal glittered like dew, but he knew if he stepped atop it the blades would snap or pierce his buskins. Accordingly, to walk within the garden he set foot to a path of blushing marble that meandered between the tree- and flower-scultures to the pool wherein the naiad-statues played; but a moment after setting foot to the marble he stopped short with a cry of shock and delight. As though his footfall had unworked a spell of suspension, the air-hung bees and butterflies took life and flew beneath a sun larger and mellower than that which the sky had held a moment before. Nor was this all, for he heard girlish cries fluting in the grove as the animated naiads flung sparkling handfuls of pool-water at each other’s laughing faces. He took another step and another, gaping still with surprise and wonder; and then heard a cry of shock and delight behind him, like a belated echo of his own. He spun to see a second of his wizard’s famuli, with foot just set to the path and wonder-rounded eyes fixed on the busy air.

“Sispo-Neälaph!” he called, recalling him after a moment’s unfamiliarity, for his face was drawn with the rigors of the desert journey; and the other replied: “Muid-Ibmyc! But thou seemedst a statue a moment ago, and I thought thee long dead, for I found the bones of thy camel—”

But here both were interrupted by a third cry of shock and delight, and Sispo-Neälaph spun on his heel to gape at a third of the wizard’s famuli, Artim-Yleth, with foot just set to the path, who to Muid-Ibmyc had seemed to spring from the very air. After their mutual greetings the third-comer exclaimed over their coming-to-life from the statues he thought them as he approached the garden.

“I thought ye two long dead,” he explained, “for I found the bones of your camels at the foot of the ivy-cliff, and it is many months since our wizard dispatched thee to the city, Sispo-Neälaph, and many more heaped on that, Muid-Ibmyc, since he dispatched thee.”

But to the famuli of a wizard a solution to the mystery was not long in arriving and after they had conversed but briefly they retraced their steps off the path and stood again on the white-dusted flags of the plaza, admiring the garden as motionless sculpture once more.

“I see now,” said Muid-Ibmyc, “that the bees and butterflies hang not from fine-drawn silver as I thought, and as my eye supplied to me.”

“Aye,” said Sispo-Neälaph. “’Tis a spell of temporal suspension, or rather of temporal tardification, whereby a garden-barque floats down the centuried stream of time, exchanging one of its seconds for a day of ours, where we now stand.”

“And what to do?” asked Artim-Yleth.

“We must return at once to our master, alas,” said Sispo-Neälaph. “For if we entered the garden again to collect bulbs and tubers for him, we would carry them back to lay them only on his tomb, or on the tomb of his successor, or mayhap successor’s successor.”

The other two nodded, with sorrowful glances back at the naiads where the spell suspended them at play in their pool, and joined him in returning over the choking streets of the city, till they reached the lip of the ivied cliff up which each had climbed. But a glance over revealed that they had conversed longer in the garden than they guessed, for between them and the three white specks that marked the bones of their camels the cliff-face was clung with ivy-fronds long-since withered and sear. The wizard Thlenan-Chemmosh, despairing of their return, had ceased to dispatch the rain-clouds whereby he nourished the plant, and when Sispo-Neälaph knelt and tested a handhold, the ivy he grasped at crumbled in his hand. It was plain that the descent was now impossible, and the three famuli surveyed each other with chagrin.

“This magic garden hath doomed us,” said Artim-Yleth, “for we cannot sprout wings and fly hence. Nor will conjuring fresh clouds avail us aught, save to water the bones of our camels, whom I mourn not lightly for the faith we have betrayed.”

The others nodded sadly, and Sispo-Neälaph, a favorite pupil of Thlenan-Chemmosh’s, sighed for his lost opportunities of further advance in his master’s service.

“Aye, ’tis so,” he said. “And thirst will shortly drive us to shelter again in the enchanted garden at the city’s heart, where we might beg water of its naiad guardians.”

“Which they will willingly give, I believe,” took up Muid-Ibmyc, “in exchange for a few words of praise of their beauty.”

“Aye. And perhaps they will grant us their advice,” said Artim-Yleth, “for the predicament in which we find ourselves.”

“Our wizard and mates will be long gone before we have it,” rejoined Sispo-Neälaph, “even supposing we have a tongue in common with them and need not learn theirs or teach them the easiest of ours.”

“In which latter case ’twill be empire-eating millennia ere we come again to the cliff-edge with a means of descent,” said Muid-Ibmyc, but somehow his tone did not match his words. Artim-Yleth grunted.

“Aye. Supposing they are able to supply us one.”

“And we willing to receive it,” said Muid-Ibmyc, “when once we have spoken with them a space.”

And with that the three exchanged glances, each noting the grins that sprang into his companions’ dust-paled faces; and then they turned from the cliff and began to make their way back through the city to the sun-mellowed garden wherein the three naiads awaited them in their crystal pool, spell-suspended till the three youths set dusty foot again to the path of blushing marble.

The Kites of Thlenan-Chemmosh

His golden feet on those empurpled stairs
That climb into the windy halls of heaven...
  Ibid., lines 136-7.

In what were, so far as is known, his final years on earth, the wizard Thlenan-Chemmosh turned his thoughts more and more not to plants of earth and fresh or salt water, of which he had an over-abundance in his collection, but to plants of the air, which he claimed to abound among and above the higher clouds. That their existence was entirely theoretic he readily conceded, and yet who, on encountering his eloquent speculation anent their wonders and beauties, could forebear to share his enthusiasm for the search?

In fulfilment thereof he first haunted the summits of his ivy-towers, turning his gaze skyward through crystal-plugged tubes of rune-wrought metal, whereby his eyesight was miraculously magnified, and directed his famuli continually to the capture of birds known to frequent the upper air, whose crops were dissected and feathers minutely combed for seeds or fragments of the aëroflora. Yet the sacrifice of hecatombs of birds and the countless hours he spent atop his towers proved unavailing, and he might have retired disappointed had not the autumn of his year-grove (where he now allowed the four seasons of a higher latitude to hold sway) brought him remembrance of a childish toy on which he had not thought for nine-tenths of a lifetime.

Aye, the gold and scarlet leaves planing the air in the grove brought to mind his childhood kite; and he soon had a replica constructed and sent aloft. A week later larger models by far were ascending out of sight, constructed of his lightest and toughest woods and borne up by cantrip-summoned winds. The disappointment consequent on the return to earth of each, its mechanisms empty of that which he sought, merely spurred him to greater efforts, and a broken leg suffered by one of his famuli, who was drawn unexpectedly aloft by the largest yet of the kites, seemed a small price to pay for the inspiration it brought. Henceforth his kites would carry famuli aloft not by accident but by design, and they would scan the heights with his telescope, or far-seer.

When this method failed him too, he himself began to ascend in his famuli’s stead. Always slender and fine-boned, and trimmed further by eld, he took to nourishing himself on exiguous nectars and thrice-boiled ptisans, that his kites might carry him higher still and higher. Having mounted his kite in balmy sunshine and ordered up a wind to carry him aloft, he would oft return with rime stiffening his beard and with agued hands blue as his cherished jungle-orchids of Mimtur. So much of his search for the aëroflora he recorded by his ivy-amanuensis, but the denouement was left to his chief famulus, the ambitious Wthib-Všui, who one day had the task of whispering to an ivy that Thlenan-Chemmosh had ascended by kite to his greatest height yet, quite exhausting the fine but tough kite-cord wound around a length of giant bamboo.

And suddenly, without warning, the cord had loosened with a twang and begun to fall from the heavens in seeming never-ending coils and loops. At last, however, the far end returned to earth, its fraying eloquent of the misfortune that had befallen the wizard. His kite, it seemed, had parted its anchor-cord high above the earth and was being blown none knew whither. Or perhaps, Wthib-Všui began to hint to his fellows, their master had come across final evidence that his aëroflora existed, in the form of an aërofauna foundationed on it, one of whose fiercer members—

And here, with a sad shake of his shaven head, he left off his tale. Later that day, as evening fell over the wizard’s great gardens and fireflies began to weave their mating-nets above his night-opening blooms of silver and gold, the earth trembled and rocked, and with rumbles as of thunder or avalanche the ivy-towers of Thlenan-Chemmosh began to sway and topple. Wthib-Všui was killed in the ruin of one with many other famuli, and never joined his voice to the speculation anent whether the tower-fall signified the death of Thlenan-Chemmosh or merely his distancing. The unsecured kite might, after all, have carried him too high or too far for him to maintain the spells that held his towers secure. But the ivy whereto Wthib-Všui had whispered of the wizard’s fate, which might have completed the tale in its growth, was itself lost, alas, beneath a fallen tower; and whether it survived the fall and grew forth in later centuries, none thought to discover, for the secrets of reading the wizard’s ivy-scripts were scattered and lost with his departing famuli, nor ever re-discovered by the scholars of later years.

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