Other Cities #10 of 12: Penelar of the Reefs

By Benjamin Rosenbaum

Tenth in a monthly series of excerpts from The Book of All Cities.

Until the bridge was built, Penelar was very hard to find. Ships approaching it from the west saw a wall of rock festooned with boobies, terns, and albatrosses, with the naked ribcages of shipwrecks tangled in the surf at its base. Ships arriving from the south saw only the constant plume of white spray, tall as a mountain. It was only from the northeast that a small ship, riding high in the water, might have the good fortune to navigate the reefs to Penelar, and only if someone aboard had the good sense to throw away maps made by other voyagers and follow a pod of dolphins returning home from the hunt.

Refugees settled Penelar, fleeing wars of the body and wars of the mind. Practitioners of forbidden professions found their way there, and seekers after lost arts followed them. The heretics and pirates and alchemists of Penelar treated each other with a tolerance born of gratitude for the unlikely chance that brought them through the reefs. When the last whalers of the coast found Penelar -- their courage crushed in the end not by any leviathan, but by the falling demand for blubber and ambergris -- they too were welcomed.

If finding Penelar was rare, leaving it was rarer, and the writings through the ages from the few travelers who had seen Penelar and returned range from the curious to the absurd. Some describe a village of rude huts, others a gleaming city of alabaster columns. Black Pete found the town empty but for a few doddering old men; Flavius Inconoscenti described it as "teeming with laughing folk." Then there are the tales of mermaids, of strange midnight rituals, of eminent personages elsewhere believed dead -- the usual embellishments of those who have seen a place so remote as to be legendary.

The bridge changed all that. Now Penelar is a half-hour's drive off the I-15, and the plume of spray and the wheeling albatrosses are impressive enough that there are always tourists pulled over at the shoulder to photograph them. The descendants of the mutinied crew of the Esmerelda work the T-shirt shops and the full-service gas station. The pidgin of Polynesian and Sanskrit that so astounded Lord Faunce is still employed (as when Hohaia Pandavi calls out to ask his wife if there are any disposable cameras left under the counter, next to the Playboys and cigarette cartons) but raises no eyebrows. The tradition of the alchemists lives on, perhaps, in the shop selling crystals and aromatherapy oils -- although the products themselves are shipped from a factory near Detroit.

A Starbucks has opened on Penelar. Billie Holiday sings on a compact disc, and the cappuccino machine hisses and snorts. The place closes at eleven, and the manager and the assistant manager lock up. He has a goatee and a silk shirt; she has a ring in her nose and a bare midriff. They have skipped supper, only nibbling a little on scones and biscotti, and they are hungry. They hurry down to the beach. There, by the crashing surf, they see other couples and groups in the fading light. He waits for her to stub out her cigarette, and then they take off their clothes and wade into the surf, hand in hand. They dive beneath the waves and swim among the mazelike reefs, hurrying to join their pod, eager for the hunt.


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Copyright © 2001 Benjamin Rosenbaum

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Benjamin Rosenbaum
Image © 2000 Lee Moyer.

Benjamin Rosenbaum lives in Basel, Switzerland, with his wife and baby daughter, where in addition to scribbling fiction and poetry, he programs in Java (well) and plays rugby (not very well). He attended the Clarion West Writers' Workshop in 2001 (the Sarong-Wearing Clarion). His work has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and Writer Online. His previous appearances in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive. For more about him, see his Web site.