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Welcome to the second episode of Notes from an Imaginary Place:


In those parts, in those days, archive meant aviary and aviary meant archive.

Birds were the guardians of memory, and that association went back to the oldest stories, to the ochre and charcoal frescos on the rock outcroppings of the inland plains. An archive wouldn’t have seemed complete without birds of every kind and color.

Contrariwise, it wouldn’t have felt right to gather birds anywhere without having a compliment of books nearby. Even a solitary person living in an attic with a single flame-red chorus-wren would keep at least a handful of poems beside the cage.

Not that this made things easy for either the archivists and conservators on one hand or the birdkeepers on the other. Walls of filters continuously strained the air clean lest mites or mold make their homes in the books’ pages or spines. Glass walls were everywhere. Crews of gardeners maintained the habitat on one side while indexing teams kept everything organized on the other. Resident scholars and visiting readers alike always saw some flit of color out of the corner of their eye as they squinted at ink that had nearly faded into the pages on which it was scrawled.

Traditionally, the glass walls were striped to keep birds from crashing into them, and that wavy stripe pattern had come to represent the idea of an archive. The same design was used everywhere—laminated on the tops of the reading tables, painted on the backs of the reading room chairs, stitched on the manuscript-handling gloves that the docents wore, painted on the outside walls of the buildings.

When the jockey arrived, she could see this particular archive complex for leagues and leagues across the plains, but the striping kept her from realizing at first that there were nearly a dozen separate buildings. She couldn’t see that until they’d nearly arrived.

She’d traveled by flatboat up a canal of stagnant water and was restless as they drifted toward the mooring. She kept trying to count the buildings and kept coming up with different numbers. She could have gotten here so much fast er if she could have ridden in on her own.

However, even though the archive had all the resources to maintain its hundreds of birds—silos full of seeds, an on-call staff of ornithologists and veterinarians—it didn’t even have a simple pond where she could have stabled her manatee while she pursued her research.

Historical records said that one of the old rulers had sent a herd across the Great Inland Sea (back when there had been a Great Inland Sea) as reinforcements for the naval cavalry at the battle of the fourfold swamp. It was said that the ruler’s court inventors had built hundreds of mechanical riders to guide the manatees across. Not even full mannequins, just cylinders full of weights with enough clockwork to move those weights around and convince the beasts that a living rider was shifting their balance to give steering commands.

As far as the jockey could figure out, there had probably been only a handful of automatons. Surely the inventors would have known, or the cavalry grooms would have told them—they only needed to guide a few lead animals and the rest would follow. When the manatees arrived, the automatons weren’t needed any longer and had probably been discarded on the fringes of the swamp. The jockey hadn’t found records of any surviving.

She wasn’t at the archives to learn how to build more clockwork jockeys, though. There were stories that the inventors, in order to calibrate the gearworks, had distilled the motions that a jockey makes down to their essence. As outsiders, the inventors were said to have had insights no jockey would have. She wanted to know what they’d understood, so that she could understand herself that way, and maybe discover something new about the riding she’d been doing since she was a small child.

She consulted indexes and indexes of indexes, but that didn’t give her more than general hints about where she should look next. She skimmed royal histories whose pages crumbled at her touch without finding any reference to the automated riders and barely any mention of the battle. She sifted through boxes of letters written or received by generations of retainers, only finding one by an inventor, and that seemed to be half complaints about the royal laundry always losing their shirts and half laments of their homesickness.

Eventually, by pure luck, the jockey found what she was looking for. She wandered into the dovecote where stacks of papers awaited reshelving, and recognized the handwriting on one stack-top ledger as the same as that letter writer’s. The ledger was ridiculously large, nearly the size of a small door. She hefted it open and saw rows and rows of parallel lines, like the staves on the sheet music used by racetrack bandleaders. The top of the page had a date, a time, a place. Leafing through, she guessed that each page recorded an experiment—maybe just a single rider on a straight-line course, maybe three or four riders steering around a series of obstacles—notes on the research that had led to the creation of the automatons. The cooing all around her, audible even through the glass, sounded like cheering then, a lullaby version of the applause she was used to hearing at the end of a race.

Decoding the inventors’ notations took days, and weeks passed before she understood the whole book. The archivists shunned any artificial light that might throw off the birds’ day/night cycles, so the jockey arrived every morning when the archive was still largely in shadow and stayed until the stripes of light that the bird-safe glass cast across the pages could no longer be distinguished from the stripes of shadow.

The decoding was slow work. The jockey could guess at what the various swoops, dots, curls, and crosses meant, but it was hard to ever be sure. One thing that helped were the occasional notes in the margins, many of which were questions addressed to someone called “T.” From the answers written even further into the margins and corners of the pages, it seemed T. had been a rider or trainer who’d helped the inventors to interpret, or even to see, the movements that the riders were making. The handwriting of the questions changed, and the jockey supposed that different inventors had transcribed different test runs. But T. seemed to have always been the one responding.

The jockey’s theory was that this T. would been someone talented enough to be chosen to work on this royal commission, but kept back for some reason when the cavalry left for the front. Maybe they’d been too young. Maybe they’d mastered riding, but were still learning the other knightly arts. Maybe they were someone who became well-known later, someone whose life had left a trace elsewhere in the archives.

The jockey found her way to the main reference atrium and asked a series of archivists, including one with a falcon perched on his padded shoulder and another who was coaching a pair of thesaurus parrots. Finally, an archivist with a raven on her hat led her to a map and pointed to one of the smaller buildings on the outskirts of the complex.

“Maybe there,” croaked the raven.

The jockey made her way through the tall grass. Even within the complex, the stripes made it hard to see where one building ended and the next began, and it took her three tries to find the entrance to the correct building.

The moment she stepped into the lobby, she knew she was home. An archive housing the records of the royal cavalry for as long as there had been royals to have a cavalry. The walls in the main room went up three stories. To her left, they were covered in saddles not unlike the ones she used. To her right, the spiky shapes of manatee armor. She couldn’t even contemplate the amount of wrangling it would take to truss up her usual mount in one of those suits of copper, all angles and points and unexpected curves. The walls ahead of her and behind her were crowded with portraits of high-ranking cavalry officers, centuries and centuries of them. Every one looked like kin to her, although she couldn’t really decode the language of ribbons and pips on their chests and shoulders. Their expressions, though, the way they squinted like they were used to being outdoors, and their postures, like they were unaccustomed to standing on solid ground, those were as familiar to her as the last mirror that she’d passed.

And, not twenty minutes after she’d entered the cavalry archive, she turned around to see a portrait hanging directly above the door she’d come in. Sea-leader Terranezzarion. The jockey noticed that one of the loops dangling from the sea-leader’s shoulder wasn’t gold brocade but a strand of seagrass. That and the sea-leader’s half-smile felt like the same sense of humor she’d seen in T.’s replies to the inventors’ questions.

The jockey trekked back to the main atrium and asked for every reference the archivists could find on Terranezzarion. What they found was scattered throughout the complex. Up in the vulture loft, they had genealogies of the sea-leader’s ancestors and descendants, as well as water-color sketches of her childhood home on the tidal flats somewhere off the lost coast. In one of the desert biome galleries that served as overflow for the cavalry records, they had a single letter, written late in Terranezzarion’s life by a close friend or relative, full of concerns and questions, but low on information of the kind the jockey was seeking. The letter was just a few pages long, and a roadrunner stood on the other side of the striped glass the whole time the jockey was reading it. The bird alternated between staring at her and bashing a snake it had clutched in its beak against the rock floor of its habitat. The archive’s treasure turned out to be in one of the simulated migration towers. While hummingbirds strove against the wind machines like blurry jewels hovering all around her, the jockey discovered Terranezzarion’s collected diaries. She read about the early years of the future sea-leader’s training and skipped ahead to the time when she’d worked with the inventors.

That had been the early days of everything. The manatees had recently been domesticated, were only barely accustomed to living in groups, let alone to living with humans. The cavalry trainers were beginning to understand how to introduce the creatures to training exercises they must have seen as games—games that could prove deadly to them or to their human companions, games that had long since devolved back to being just games, steeplechases and ring-jousts, sprints and overnight endurance races.

Terranezzarion had been one of the best of these trainers, able to get into the minds of both riders and manatees. There were struggles to get her training methods adopted, politics in the cavalry leadership and the royal court. She’d volunteered to help the inventors, thinking it might help to spread her ideas, but the inventors had their own personalities, their own agendas.

One morning, the jockey realized that she’d been at the archives for nearly a month. Her skin was drying out, starting to flake, itching across her shoulders and in the parts of her back that were hardest to scratch. She missed the camaraderie of the manatees and the other jockeys. She missed the rolling swim-gait of her favorite mount, Bay Flower Suntop, who might have forgotten her after so much time apart. And she still had decades of Terranezzarion’s diaries to read.

She began to skip ahead, skimming for the section that discussed the inventors’ shorthand, that would tell her how they—and Terranezzarion—saw the basic mechanics of manatee-riding, which might give her the insights she’d come for. She found them, an elegant algebra of motion explained through pages and pages of sketches and diagrams, accompanied by personal asides that made the jockey understand this long-dead rider so well that she could feel in her own body exactly the postures and balance shifts she described.

Looking at the mural of the great battle that wrapped panoramically around all the walls of the basement reading room in the cavalry records building, the jockey realized that the motions a rider could have made in the cavalry days would be different, restricted, constrained by that armor. These days, she and her fellow jockeys could move more freely. But she saw that this meant that all the techniques she’d been taught, that riders had been taught since Terranezzarion’s day, were only a small portion of all the techniques that could be.

Swallows swooped and swirled in an enclosure in the middle of the room, then spiraled up out of sight through a hole in the ceiling. On the walls, the jockey saw bravery and blood, triumph and inconsolable loss. It was time for her to return home, to the friends and manatees who knew her as well as she now knew Terranezzarion, and to the quieter triumphs and losses of their games together. Her arms itched in her sleeves. She’d come for insight and left knowing that she needed to find her own insights, find new ways to ride. To find new ways to move with the manatees, outside of the ghostly traces of old wars.

Thanks for subscribing to Notes from an Imaginary Place--I appreciate you coming along on this journey!

If you'd rather hear me read this story, I've recorded it as a podcast, which you can find at this link or through your favorite podcast app or service.

Check out my website for links to more stories and news about what I've been up to, including (most recently) a folk horror reading on YouTube and a somewhat frivolous story in the online magazine Pareidolia Literary. (I've been busy lately!)

See you in a month with another story from another place.

Copyright © 2021 Rudi Dornemann, All rights reserved.

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