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The Mammyth

by Harry Turtledove

The mammyth is out there. Unless, of course, it’s not. First there is a mammyth. Then there is no mammyth. Then there is. Unless there isn’t.

How do you find a legendary, maybe mythical, creature? You may seek it with thimbles—and seek it with care. You may hunt it with forks and hope. You may threaten its life with a . . . Oh, wait. That’s liable to be something else, but there’s no need to get snarky about it.

There’s a high priest’s throne whose panels are supposed to be carved from mammyth ivory. You can see pictures of it in Fallmereyer’s famous tome, Geistkunstgeschichtliche Wissenschaft. They say you can, anyhow. But you know what they say is worth.

And they also say that somebody went through every single copy of Geistkunstgeschichtliche Wissenschaft with a razor and cut out the illo of the mammyth-ivory priestly throne panels, so you can’t see it. Some of them say it was Fallmereyer himself. Since Geistkunstgeschichtliche Wissenschaft had a print run of nine copies (eleven with a tail wind), it’s not impossible. One more time, though, you know what they say its worth.

There’s an Emperor who paraded down the main thoroughfare of his very imperial capital wearing a robe woven from mammyth wool. There’s supposed to have been such an Emperor parading down such a thoroughfare in such a robe, at any rate. Such a robe! There’s also a nasty little boy who said rude things about the robe the Emperor was or wasn’t wearing. Or there’s supposed to have been such a little boy who said such rude things. Such a boy!

I could go on. I could go on and on, in fact. After all, I’m getting paid by the word. But we need an Adventure. A Quest! If we don’t find one pretty damn soon, you’ll go read some other story, and then where will I be? That’s right, and without a paddle, too.

So here’s Tundra Dawn, seeking the mammyth with all her strength. She wants ivory. She wants wool. She wants glory. She wants to be able to shuck off her chainmail shirt, which is the questing fashion accessory this year, but which proves fashion and comfort don’t go hand-in-hand, even in jurisdictions where that’s legal.

Tundra Dawn isn’t alone on her Adventurous Quest. No story’s heroine is worth the paper she’ll eventually be printed on without sidekicks. Tundra Dawn has a couple of them. Lucky her. She has Cleveland, for instance. No, not Cleveland the city with the inflammable river. Cleveland the sidekick. He’s fuzzy and blue and excitable and not too bright. But he helps the plot along sometimes. If he feels like it. Which is about as much as you can hope for from a sidekick.

And she has Tremendous Ptarmigan—or sometimes he spells it Ptremendous Tarmigan. TP/PT (he calls himself a translettered avian) is, or may be, worth his weight in drumsticks when it comes to hunting mammyths. In fact, he insists he has one for his best friend. That nobody else has ever seen that mammyth doesn’t bother him a bit.

“They’re very shy, you know, mammyths,” he says. “They don’t let just anybody set eyes on them.”

“One of them had better let me set eyes on it, and pretty darn quick, too,” Tundra Dawn declares. “This here is only a short story. I don’t have time to mess around the way I would in a novel, or even a novella.”

“Short stories are good things,” Cleveland says. “You cannot have a monster at the end of a book if there is no book.”

“Maybe there will be a monster at the end of the story,” Tundra Dawn says.

“Oh, no! There had better not be! Then it would be a scary story, and it is supposed to be a funny story.” Cleveland is better at getting excited over nothing than any other three more or less people you can think of.

“It’s a good thing you told ’em the story’s supposed to be funny,” Tundra Dawn says. “They might not figure it out otherwise.”

“Everything will turn out fine.” Tremendous Ptarmigan is a great believer in happy endings. He has other annoying characteristics, too, like a high, thin, kinda squeaky voice. But, because he is so Tremendous, he can see a long way. He points ahead. “Looks like we’re coming to a town.”

“Low bridge! Everybody down!” Cleveland sings out. He knows all kinds of useless things, and commonly turns them loose at the worst possible moment.

There is a bridge over a straight channel of water in front of the canal. Ghosts moan and whuffle their sheets above the eerie canal. Once Tundra Dawn and her sidekicks have got past it, she sees what a big place they’ve found. “It’s not jut a town,” she says. “It’s a city!”

“It’s not just a city,” Cleveland exclaims. “It’s a metropolis!”

This is not one of the useless things Cleveland knows. There’s a sign not far past the bridge: WELCOME TO METROPOLIS! Cleveland isn’t wrong all the time—just often enough to be completely undependable.

What, you may well ask, is a metropolis, or even Metropolis, doing in the middle of the tundra? This particular one is kind of sitting there waiting for the adventurers to arrive and get on with things. So they do.

Being a metropolis, Metropolis is the capital of the local kingdom. “What,” says a gate guard, in tones of darkest suspicion, “is your purpose in entering our fair city?”

“We’re looking for—” Cleveland can open his mouth wide enough to fall right in.

Tundra Dawn stomps on his foot. He yips and does an amazing dance. Tundra Dawn says, “We want to talk to the King, man.” She sounds like someone who has wandered into a burger joint with a late-night case of the munchies.

“Right.” The gate guard is anything but impressed. He must have heard the routine before. But he stands aside. “Go on in, then. Quickest way to get to the palace is with the subway—the Metro, we call it.” His meager chest swells with civic pride.

“Why do you call it that?” Ptremendous Tarmigan isn’t the shiniest ornament on the tree, or even on the ptree.

“Beats me.” Neither is the gate guard.

There’s a Metro station just inside the gate. That’s handy. It saves steps, and exposition. A stairway goes down, down, down to the permafrost layer. Tundra Dawn and her sidekicks approach the ticket seller, a short, squat, bearded bloke with a bad case of stocking cap who twitches every so often.

“Who’s he?” TP/PT does have that gift for missing the obvious.

“He’s the Metrognome,” Tundra Dawn explains.

“He certainly tics like one,” Cleveland says.

On getting paid, the Metrognome stylishly turns the turnstile. Tundra Dawn and Cleveland and Tremendous Ptarmigan go on to the subway car. It’s pulled by a team of four large, broad-shouldered, metamorphic-looking individuals. “Stop!” One of them holds out an enormous, mineralized paw. “Pay troll!”

“Nobody told us this was a troll road,” Tundra Dawn says.

“Is,” the troll assures her.

“We already paid the fellow back there!” Cleveland squawks.

“No pay,” the troll says, “no go.”

“Here.” Angrily, Tundra Dawn forks over again. “I still think you’re full of schist.”

“Complain all you want, meat lady,” the troll answers. “Long as you pay, I don’t care. I got me a big apatite to feed.”

“Meat lady!” The pupils in Tundra Dawn’s eyes roll round and round under their clear plastic outsides, she is so mad. Not only is the troll a bigot, he is a stupid bigot. Must have rocks in his head, she thinks, which is not altogether tolerant, either. But if he doesn’t know foam rubber and terry cloth when he sees them . . . It’s his loss, is what it is, goes through Tundra Dawn’s noodle.

Cleveland, of like construction, is quivering with rage of his own. But quiver is all he does. Even he is not usually foolish enough to piss off a troll. Things that piss kidney stones are better left unpissed. Ptremendous Tarmigan? Even his friends have trouble telling what TP/PT is thinking, or if he is thinking. He is dumb as rocks in his own right, although not constructed of same, and his beaky face ain’t what you’d call expressive.

How can foam rubber and terry cloth come to life and have adventures? Because this is a fantasy story, that’s how. They could come to life if this were a skiffy story, too, but then I’d have to bore you with a bunch of bullshit explanation. See how lucky you are to miss all that?

The trolls haul the subway car down the long, cold tunnel. People and other forms of allegedly intelligent life get on and off. “Avenue J!” the lead troll bawls, and then, “Lois Lane!” and then, after a while, “Avenue Q!”

“Stop that, Cleveland,” Tundra Dawn whispers. “This is a family story.”

“I can’t help it. I feel like double-clicking,” Cleveland whispers back.

They leave Avenue Q behind. Cleveland finally does stop that. After what seems like forever but is really just a long time, the troll roars, “The palace! You wanna play the palace, this is where you get off!”

“I already got off,” Cleveland says to no one in particular.

“Someone should beat that troll with a big shtick,” Tremendous Ptarmigan says as he and Cleveland and Tundra Dawn get down from the subway car.

No one guards the way out. “Where’s the Metrognome here?” Tundra Dawn wonders.

“Probably at the Mets game,” Cleveland doesn’t quite explain.

Up the stairs they trudge, and themselves in the very heart of Metropolis find. Into the palace they walk. Very palatial it is, yes. Escorted straight to the King they are. Backward run sentences until reels the mind.

If getting escorted straight to the King doesn’t prove this is a fantasy story, I don’t know what would. In skiffy, you pretend hardest to be realistic when you’re most un-. In fantasy, you can roll with it. Sometimes. So roll with it. Please?

The King—his name is Wolcott, which is why he likes getting called King a lot—looks them over. “What are you doing in my throne room?” he asks. This is not the kind of fantasy where everybody, or even anybody, knows everything. It is more the kind of fantasy where nobody knows anything.

You see? It is more realistic than you thought.

“We’re hunting the mammyth.” This time, Cleveland comes out with it before Tundra Dawn can trample his toes.

“In my throne room?” King Wolcott says. “I don’t know everything there is to know about mammyths” (told you so—if he’s a reliable narrator) “but I never heard that they were very common in palaces. Isn’t that more what the tundra’s for?”

Wistfully, Tundra Dawn says, “If they were very common anywhere, we wouldn’t have to hunt them so hard.”

“Well, why are you hunting them?” the King asks.

“It’s a Quest,” Cleveland says.

“An Adventure,” Ptremendous Tarmigan adds.

“It’s a whole ’nother story,” Tundra Dawn says. And, since it is, I don’t have to tell it here. I can get on with the silly one I’m in the middle of.

TP/PT raises an arm—a wing—a whatever the hell. “Excuse me, your Kinginess, but where to you keep your big birds’ room?”

“Go out there.” King Wolcott points to a doorway. “Turn left, then right, then left again. You can’t miss it.”

He and Tundra Dawn and Cleveland yatter away for the next half hour. Tundra Dawn presumes that Tremendous Ptarmigan damn well can miss it—damn well has missed it—after all. But when Ptremendous Tarmigan comes back, he does seem relieved. He seems happy, too. TP/PT seems happy most of the time. Tundra Dawn guesses it has a good deal to do with the seeds he eats.

At last, when the spectacle of a muppetoid heroine in chainmail and her clunky sidekicks commences to pall, the King asks, “How can I help you in your quest?” By which he means, How can I get you the devil out of here?, but it sounds much nicer the way he says it.

They dicker for a while, which, unlike some of the bits here, is less obscene than it sounds. King Wolcott decides that some horses and some food are a small price to pay for washing these adventurers right outa his hair and sending them on their way. He even throws in a little cash. He watches them ride away into what would be the sunset, only the sun doesn’t set on the tundra at this time of year.

And that washes him right outa this story and sends him on his way. Well, almost, because a couple of days later Tremendous Ptarmigan says, “I had a nice chat with the mammyth at the King’s palace.”

“Is that what took you so long?” Cleveland said. “I thought you fell in.”

Tundra Dawn reins in. She sends Ptremendous Tarmigan as exasperated a look as she can manage with eyes from a craft-shop discount table. “Um, you do remember we’re searching for a mammyth? Hunting a mammyth, even?” By the hopeless way she says it, she has no confidence that TP/PT ever remembers anything.

But Tremendous Ptarmigan nods brightly. “Oh, sure,” he says.

Tundra Dawn holds on to her patience with both hands. With sidekicks like hers, she has considerable practice. Morosely, she considers it. Then she asks, “Why didn’t you tell us that before it was, like, too late to do anything about it?”

“You heard the King,” Ptremendous Tarmigan answers. “He said mammyths weren’t very common in palaces.”

After considering her practice some more, Tundra Dawn says, “They don’t need to be very common. There just needs to be one of them, so we can hunt it.”

“What did you and this mammyth, if there was a mammyth, talk about?” Cleveland asks. Then he sneezes. Even in tundra summer, baby, it’s cold outside.

“Don’t snuffle up at me,” TP/PT says. “We chatted about all kinds of things. He says to watch out for the one from fit the eighth. I don’t know what that means, though.”

“The Baker could tell you,” Cleveland says.

“What Baker?” asks Tremendous Ptarmigan.

The Baker,” Cleveland says. They go on confusing each other, and Tundra Dawn, for some little while.

Then our chain-mailed (but not chain-stored) heroine cocks her head to one side and says, “I hear music.”

“But there’s no one there.” Cleveland comes in right on cue.

“It’s, like, a bell,” Tundra Dawn says, which is not the next line, but which is, like, what it is.

There may not be anyone there, but Ptremendous Ptarmigan points to motion in the distance. “Look!” he exclaims. “It’s a herd of cheeseheads!”

Cheeseheads they are, ambling across the frozen tundra in search of tailgates and other Arcana of the Sacred Pigskin. Instead of by an ordinary bellwether, they, like some other faithful, are led by a lamb. Like an ordinary bellwether, the lamb wears a bell around its neck. Unlike an ordinary bellwether’s, the lamb’s bell is held on by a pink satin ribbon with a fancy bow.

Tundra Dawn spurs her horse forward, careless for the moment of worries about animal cruelty (what she will do if and when hunting the mammyth segues into killing the mammyth is something she resolutely refuses to dwell on). The horse jumps high over the lamb’s bell-bedizened neck. After her touchdown, she waves her sidekicks forward. They too perform the lamb-bow leap.

Cleveland wrinkles his nose. With the kind of nose he has, this isn’t easy. With the kind of nose he has, this shouldn’t even be possible. But I’m the narrator, and I’m here to tell you he does it. In fact, I repeat myself, slowly: Cleveland . . . wrinkles . . . his . . . nose. Okay? Wrapped your visualizer around it yet? Sweet! Then we’ll go on.

“What smells nasty?” Cleveland asked.

“I don’t smell anything,” Ptremendous Tarmigan says.

“Of course you don’t, you translettered avian, you,” Cleveland says. “The only avians, translettered or not, with a good sense of smell are vultures.”

“Sounds discriminatory to me,” TP/PT says. “And elitist. Everyone should be able to smell as good as everyone else.”

“If you want to smell good, try taking a bath,” Cleveland says. “If you want to smell well, try not being an avian.”

Tremendous Ptarmigan gets mad and puffs out his feathers to look, um, ptremendouser. Before the bickering can get really bitchy, Tundra Dawn says, “Boys, boys.” She’s defused, and defuzzed, these squabbles before. She goes on, “I think you’re smelling the cheeseheads, Cleveland. They’re Roqueforts.”

“Rogue farts?” Cleveland nods. “They sure are!”

“I used to watch The Roquefort Files sometimes,” the Tarmigan says. “I didn’t smell anything bad then.”

Tundra Dawn sighs. Good sidekicks are hard to come by. And stinking cheeseheads are a fact of life on the frozen tundra. “Faa-aar-vv!” they bleat mournfully. “Faa-aar-vv!”

“Come on,” Tundra Dawn says. “We’ll ride away from them. Then we won’t smell them so much.”

Away they ride. The smell does get . . . not so bad, anyhow. Cleveland keeps complaining about it anyhow. TP/PT keeps complaining about Cleveland’s complaining. Instead of resolutely not dwelling on killing the mammyth, Tundra Dawn resolutely doesn’t dwell on killing the two of them.

It may be summer on the tundra, but it is the tundra. There is still snow on the ground, at least where the story needs there to be some. In a patch of snow that Tundra Dawn and Cleveland and Tremendous Ptarmigan conveniently happen to ride past, there is a hole as if someone has pushed down with the bottom of a big, round wastebasket. Or it would look like that if big, round wastebaskets came equipped with stubby toes.

“Is that a footprint?” Nothing gets by Cleveland. Nothing gets through to him, but nothing gets by him.

“It is a footprint,” TP/PT says. “And do you know what?”

“No. What?” Cleveland says.

“It looks . . . It looks like it could be a mammyth’s footprint.”

Tundra Dawn rides on to the next convenient patch of snow. “Here is another footprint,” she says. “If we follow the mammyth’s toes, we will go in the same direction it is going. Pretty soon, we will catch up with it.”

“You are so smart, Tundra Dawn! I never would have thought of that,” Cleveland says. The good news for Tundra Dawn is that even half-assed sidekicks like hers give you egoboot. The bad news is, she totally believes he never would have thought of it.

They follow the tracks. And they follow the tracks. And they follow the tracks some more. They come to the edge of the cold, cold sea. Walking along the muddy beach are a Walrus and a Carpenter. The Walrus is fat. The Carpenter is skin and bones. In spite of the season, the Walrus and the Carpenter are caroling together.

Tremendous Ptarmigan waves to the pair. “How are you doing, Paul?”

The Walrus waves a flipper back. “Not bad. How about you, Ptremendous?”

“I’m fine. I’m looking for a mammyth right now,” the Tarmigan answers. “Oh, and have you seen Dave?”

“Dave? Dave’s not here,” the Carpenter says quickly.

He’s only just begun, but the Walrus interrupts him by pointing with that flipper. “Might be a mammyth over that way. Don’t know what else you’d call it,” he says.

“C’mon, sidekicks!” Tundra Dawn hollers. “We’re heading for the dénouement!”

“For the who?” TP/PT asks as they ride away.

“Not for the who. For the what,” Cleveland says.

“For which what?”

“For the end.”

They ride up a small rise and down the other side. They ride up another one. Tundra Dawn spots something moving on the far side. “Is that—?” she asks Tremendous Ptarmigan, who may have seen one before. “Could that be—?”

“Yes, I think it’s—” Ptremendous starts.

Then they softly and silently vanish away. Tundra Dawn’s armor clatters about her, or about where she has been—an epic ending granted a mock-epic heroine. For the mammyth, even if it doesn’t quite scan, is a Boojum, you see.

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