Kage Baker loved The Marine Layer.
That’s a fixture in coastal California – theoretically, it’s a meteorological phenomenon, but it happens so dependably it might as well be geography. Or architecture. In May and June, especially, the ocean edge of the state lies under the top-most layer of froth on the sea: fog and bubbles as secure as a tent ceiling, roofing the land 10 miles wide and a thousand miles long.
The Marine Layer makes a distinctive and unique environment on the western side of the sea-hills: Kage took it for her natural habitat, and was never happier than we lived in its cool embrace. The years in Pismo, we certainly did.
All summer it comes and goes, that Layer. Even the clear hot days of July and August will have their spells of “late night early morning cloud” – it’s all one word to Californians. Kage always said it wasn’t the bottom layer of the air, but the top layer of the sea: we all lived in the littoral zone, where air and water mixed indiscriminately for half the year and we learned to breathe through our skins.
“In Fall, the Coast is clear.” It’s what the little towns on the coast advertise, to make the most of the incontrovertible fog that covers them the rest of the time. The summer fog is still a blessing; people drive in desperately from Bakersfield and Modesto to escape the heat under that milder cover.
San Francisco just shrugs and ignores the problem – because if you don’t know that The City is under the fog in the summer, your opinion of the weather doesn’t count, does it? But it’s why Mark Twain is credited with complaining that the worst winter of his life was a summer spent in San Francisco. It’s why Captain Sir Francis Drake – an Englishman, for gods’ sake! – complained of the “filthy fogs” when he stopped at Drake’s Bay to careen his ship.
Checking my palantiri this morning, I found the coast deep in fog from the Golden Gate to Pismo Beach. It was clear on the deck of Nepenthe, in Big Sur; but 20 feet below their railing, a roiling sea of opals washed around the oaks. Pismo was in a bubble-fog, small children and wet dogs appearing and vanishing out of drifts on the sands. And even here in Los Angeles – where the sun has been out for some hours – there is the tell-tale metallic undershadow to the blue sky that means the fog is just waiting to return …
With the Fog King, no doubt. So, let us resume the story:
The first day was with Momma, and that was fine. It wasn’t the first time Wenekla had been to the Mother House, but she got to go different places that day. She saw the Lady Preceptor’s office, where that august lady quizzed her on her letters and complimented Momma. She saw the dormitories and was allowed to bounce on a little white bed to see how soft it was. She saw the Chapel, where the flame that was the Mother rose up out of a huge rose made of red glass; and she was allowed to throw the incense in herself. And then they went home, and that was just fine.
But the next day she went back with the big girls, hand firmly in hand with her determined sister-cousin Halka. Momma and all the Aunts kissed her: she was Going To The Sisters (which suddenly sounded a lot more sinister); she was Going To School. Halka delivered her to a room with a dozen other nervous little girls in it, and walked off to her own classes with a palpable air of martyrdom.
That was one of the best days of Wenekla’s life to date. The tall lady who came in to take charge of the class was kind, beautiful, patient – like one of the Big Girls, full of strength and fire, but transmuted from a natural disaster to a benevolent goddess.
“Little sisters, I am your Elder Sister Cirlan. You are all very lucky children – for you, the world will be a broad smooth highway,” she told the little girls. “And I will teach you how to run down it as fast as flames and sunlight.”
Enraptured, they all believed her.
Wenekla didn’t always care for her lessons, but they were arranged in such a way that a new one came up just when an old one was fomenting mutiny in the students. They ran everywhere – the halls of the Mother House were broad and smooth, and filled with rivers of girls intertwining, passing and overtaking one another at ferocious speed. Ribbon scarves on collars let you track your class through the maelstrom.
The physical training was a great relief – interspersed with reading maps and memorizing entire treatises and learning to travel by the stars (A Runner is like a sailor cast away without even a boat, said Sister Cirlan. She must be better than a mere sailor at navigation.) there were the lessons in running, tumbling, wrestling, climbing. Young Runners were encouraged to solve all problems in movement; they learned meditation while jogging round the city walls, timing trance-state to their own foot-falls.
By the middle of the first year, they could run from the Duke’s palace, down the Haft to the Spike. By the end, they could circle the Spike and run all the way back without a rest. In the second and third years, they began to race one another. There were prizes for every class and age division. There was also a lively black market betting pool among the students themselves; and, it was rumoured, another one among the Teachers.
It was traditional for the Lacquer girls to sleep at home. A flock of them went back and forth at least twice a day, running between the Mother House and home like the tides. But that was only because they lived right there in Axe Bay; most girls slept in the dormitories, and all of them were gently urged to try it.
Wenekla moved in during her first week. She loved it there in the Mother House – the neat, narrow little bed, the tidy privacy of her own spaces and places: no Big Girls to rampage over her and her toys, friends her own size … Momma and the Aunts didn’t mind, as long as she was happy. Her cousins all teased her for rooming in, but she knew they would have teased her just as much for going home. That was the way they were.
But they went home instead of her. Wenekla began to learn peace and solitude in her evenings; her teachers said she might make a long-distance Runner.