smell-of-hot-iron's story

by the spiders, with help from harmony and smell-of-machine-oil (2022-06-24)

spores-on-the-breeze gathered together in the story chamber, holiday excitement buzzing among her. scent-of-festival-crowds stepped out from her, and into the clearing in the center of the room.

a "fair evening, sisters, and happy equinox" drifted off her bodies. a reply of "happy equinox" came from amongst spores-on-the-breeze.

"i want to thank mushroom-soup-steam for the excellent work she put into tonight's feast. it was wonderful."

that elicited the murmur of feet stamping in approval across spores-on-the-breeze, while the bashful mushroom-soup-steam offered a cloud of embarrassment at the attention from her sisters.

scent-of-festival-crowds continued: "the dark of the year is once again here. smell-of-hot-iron must be running through her bedtime rituals even as we speak. it won't be long before she dreams."

"and with her bedtime rituals comes ours. we are, of course, gathered here to hear smell-of-hot-iron's story, as we and our ancestors have done for countless years."

"once", she started, "our world did not exist. but there was a colony. her name was dust-of-endless-granite. she lived in her vast mountain, which she took her name from. her fungi grew prosperously, fed by the leaves of the lush forests that seethed and swarmed over her mountain."

within her was a gifted artisan, named smell-of-hot-iron. smell-of-hot-iron was renowned throughout dust-of-endless-granite for her wondrous creations. she could carve intricate art into the walls of the colony without a single misplaced chisel. her dream wheels were impeccable in their timing. she once tricked stone into speaking plainly, a task no ant has ever been able to accomplish since.

(that earned a bloom of amusement from spores-on-the-breeze.)

smell-of-hot-iron also had a knack for finding new and beautiful materials to work with. she once climbed to the top of the mountain and plucked stars out from the sky, and used them to light the tunnels of dust-of-endless-granite. on another instance, she made petrified wood in a matter of years rather than millennia.

one day she was down in the lower tunnels of dust-of-endless-granite, helping her sister and friend deep-air excavate a new trail. suddenly, one of smell-of-hot-iron's bodies struck something thrilling. it was the most beautiful metal she'd ever seen. blues, greens, reds, and brilliant whites swirled through it, and prismatic sparkles seemed to illuminate it from within. excitement cascaded off of deep-air the moment she caught sight of smell-of-hot-iron's discovery.

"smell-of-hot-ion, i bet you could make something wonderful with that" came from deep-air.

smell-of-hot-iron retreated with the metal to her workshop where she dreamed of the possibilities. she wracked her mind, spent hours staring at the ceiling or at her murals, and nothing came to her that felt worthy of the metal.

"will i ever find something that feels right?" she scented to herself. "i'm the greatest artisan of my time, holding a metal more beautiful than starlight, more beautiful than stony wood... and yet here my bodies stand idle in my workshop."

she shook her antennae in dismay, and then retreated to her quarters for sleep. and in her dreams, a idea finally took form. she saw a small but beautiful sphere, no more than a giant worker's antenna in width, whose surface was covered with intricate fractals with an infinite capacity for detail. the more she looked at the sphere, the more she saw little images, still-life carvings of interactions between beings living on the surface of the ball.

she woke up in the middle of the night, drowsy but convinced she could make this work of art. her bodies sleepily meandered into the workshop and started stoking the furnaces and fires.

she purified the metal, heated it and started shaping it. she carved the mesmerizing fractals into it, and it became more and more beautiful and elaborate. after putting the finishing touches on the sphere, she carried it to the slack tub to cool it off. and of course, that is when, in her tiredness, the body carrying the sphere tripped.

something about that sphere must have been very strange indeed, because when it flew out of smell-of-hot-iron's grip and landed in the water, what was once a shallow pool was transformed into a well of seemingly endless depth.

smell-of-hot-iron stood dumbfounded in her workshop, watching her masterpiece sink deeper, and out of her reach. then the tub transformed back into its usualal form. "all my work, lost, just like that..." she thought. "i've let down deep-air, and the rest of dust-of-endless-granite."

she could not go back to sleep that night.

when she joined the colony for the morning meal, dust-of-endless-granite noticed her exhaustion. deep-air stepped out from among her and approached smell-of-hot-iron.

"what troubles you, sister?" inquired deep-air.

"something... very peculiar happened last night. i lost the beautiful metal in the slack tub."

"you lost it? in a little pool of water? how is such a thing possible?"

"i don't know. it's as though the water became bottomless, and swallowed the thing. and i had created such a beautiful piece as well. to be honest, i feel like a failure because of all of this."

deep-air reached antennae out to comfort her sister. "you have not failed. no ant could predict such strange happenings. the workings of the mountain are mysterious. i know it's hard, but the best thing for you now is probably to distract your mind with the chores of the day. you're no worse off than before you found the metal, after all."

deep-air was correct. smell-of-hot-iron busied herself with the activities of the day, fixing this and that, and by the time she settled in for sleep, she'd hardly thought at all about the sphere.

but she had strange dreams that night. first she dreamt of the sphere, saw it sinking further and further through the water, except, in that dream way, she knew that the water was not water anymore at all, but time. it had been turned to time by the magic within the metal. the ball was sinking deeper into the future. the sparkles that used to reside within the metal were now swirling around the tiny sphere like stars, with one particularly large glimmer lighting half of the globe. and the once-still engravings on the sphere seemed to be moving. she watched them for a long while, mesmerized.

then, she woke up in a beautiful snowy forest. something about it felt very familiar. her bodies split up to explore the area, and throughone of them, a giant worker, she met another ant of many bodies, each of which was carrying leaves.

"hello" gestured smell-of-hot-iron. "what is this place?"

"this is our forest" drifted from the ant. "i'm waft-of-broken-leaves, a part of smell-of-wall-lichen. are you a traveler? where do you come from?"

"i am smell-of-hot-iron, a artisan of dust-of-endless-granite, and i come from a mountain of the same name. i don't think i've ever heard of smell-of-wall-lichen before." except, something about that name was indeed oddly familiar.

"nor have i heard of dust-of-endless-granite." waft-of-broken-leaves scented. "but it would be remiss of me to pass up welcoming a guest into our colony. come eat with us."

smell-of-hot-iron followed waft-of-broken-leaves. after twenty minutes of walking, smell-of-hot-iron had her breath taken away by a sight that was indeed very familiar. how could she forget it? she was standing on the crest of a vast valley, looking over a lush evergreen forest. in the middle of the valley stood a towering snowcapped rock formation of red banded stone. she had seen it before. the pieces started clicking together in her mind.

the colony of smell-of-wall-lichen gave smell-of-hot-iron a wonderful feast. it was the midwinter festival, so smell-of-wall-lichen was in high spirits. and with everyone finished, smell-of-hot-iron stood amongst smell-of-wall-lichen and began speaking.

"thank you, smell-of-wall-lichen, for the wonderful meal." she started. "when i first came to this world, i was confused. i had no idea where i was, but i have come to a strange realization. a couple days ago i found the most beautiful metal i'd ever seen. i forged it into a sphere, covered with landscapes, and still images of people and places, but due to my carelessness, i dropped it into my slack tub in my workshop, which briefly opened into a strange bottomless well and swallowed it. when i saw the vast rock in front of your colony, i recognized it, because i saw it before, in the very sphere i made."

"a dream told me that the water of the bottomless well the sphere is sinking down is time, and your world is animated by its fall through that time. your sun and stars are the glimmer of metal swirling around the sphere."

as you'd expect, this got a disbelieving reaction from smell-of-wall-lichen. what a strange thing for an ant to say! most of her assumed smell of hot iron was joking. "are you sure you're not a storyteller?" drifted from one of her. another of her added "and if you're from another world, then how did you get here?"

"i'm telling the truth!" smell-of-hot-iron gave. but it was no use, she wouldn't believe her, and she didn't quite know how to answer how she could be here. the reason felt like it was on the tip of her antennae, but she couldn't quite smell it... but suddenly smell-of-hot-iron woke up, and lay disoriented in her bed once more.

"what a strange dream", smell-of-hot-iron thought.

the next day of work was uneventful, but tiring. after it all, she laid down for sleep again, and there was that dream again, first, watching the ball fall through the future, seeing the happenings on it from the outside, and just like last time, she suddenly woke up in that snowy world, standing outside the entrance to smell-of-wall-lichen's colony.

"is that... was it... smell-of-hot-iron? right?" came from waft-of-broken-leaves, who happened to be walking past. it was obvious that she had replaced many bodies, and some of the familiar ones looked older.

"it is! and of course you are waft-of-broken-leaves. how's the day been while i was gone?"

"smell-of-hot-iron, it hasn't been a day. why, it's been a year exactly since you've last been here."

"that's... not possible. i was only gone for a day."

waft-of-broken-leaves gave a scent of slight confusion. "well, you know, the midwinter festival is here again. i'm sure smell-of-wall-lichen wouldn't mind having you over once more! i know we poked fun at you last winter, but we truly love having guests, even strange ones like yourself."

"... sure", drifted from smell-of-hot-iron hesitantly.

smell-of-hot-iron avoided drawing too much attention to herself at the feast this time. the other ants recognized her, but as waft-of-broken-leaves had promised, they were welcoming. the evening was wonderful. vibrations-of-dancing-feet, smell-of-wall-lichen's storyteller, led the colony in dance. smell-of-hot-iron chatted for hours with waft-of-broken-leaves and the other members of the colony, and by the end of the night was happy to call smell-of-wall-lichen her friend. as everybody went home to their burrows, smell-of-hot-iron drifted awake, once again home in dust-of-endless-granite.

the third night brought yet another dream like this. first the gazing at the world from the outside, with the swirling stars and the fall through time, then waking up in smell-of-wall-lichen's snowy wooded valley, with the towering stone pillar watching over her. smell-of-wall-lichen greeted smell-of-hot-iron as an old friend she had not seen in a long time.

"smell-of-hot-iron! such a joy to see you again after so long! how is dust-of-endless-granite, friend?" asked waft-of-broken-leaves.

smell-of-hot-iron had begun to catch on to what was happening. "has it been a year for you?" she asked. "not much has changed for dust-of-endless-granite, as it's only been a day for me."

"indeed it has been a year!" drifted from waft-of-broken-leaves. "here you are turning up on the midwinter festival yet again! your timing is impeccable. say, friend, how do you get here? you always seem to turn up out of nowhere."

"truthfully i don't know." smell-of-hot-iron offered. the veil of dreaming was still on her, so she could not put together the true answer. "but while i'm here, may i join your feast?"

"as always, friend."

for the most part the festival was wonderful, but to recount most of it would be repetitive at this point. what is worth noting is how she woke up this time; in the midst of joyful dancing, some of her bodies lifted off the ground. she was flying! none of her bodies even had wings.

"look at her!" came from vibrations-of-dancing-feet.

waft-of-broken-leaves added "smell-of-hot-iron, how are you doing that?"

smell-of-wall-lichen had never seen anything like it, and neither had smell-of-hot-iron... except, that is...

"oh... i'm dreaming..."

and as many of us have experienced, in that moment she woke up.

dust-of-endless-granite had noticed that smell-of-hot-iron was in a peculiar mood. she seemed to be in a daze during her activities about the colony. deep-air, her closest friend, approached her in concern.

"you aren't still torn up about the that metal, are you?" scented deep-air.

"no. well, yes. see... it's the strangest thing; i keep dreaming about it. the engravings on it come to life and i visit the little world i made at night. except every night for me is an entire year for them. i told the people of that world that i made their world, but they don't really believe me. but anyways, i never realize that i'm dreaming until it's all over, so i never have good answers to the questions they ask me."

"i've got an idea. what if you put something in your bedding to remind you that you're dreaming? i've heard mugwort and seadew can help with that. petrichor foraged some the other day."

"hm. i'll fetch some from her."

she nested on top of the sprigs of fragrant herbs that night, and drifted off to sleep. again, there was the globe, sinking through the waters of time. and then there she was, back in the snowy forest. but this time, she awoke holding mugwort and seadew.

"that's strange. i wonder where- right, i'm dreaming", smell-of-hot-iron thought to herself. immediately she could start to feel herself being pulled back to her world, but she fought it off. "it's not time to wake up yet. i need to stay here." smell-of-hot-iron gazed at the trees and the snow and the plants, taking in the details and keeping herself present. then she wandered off to find smell-of-wall-lichen.

"smell-of-hot-iron, it's you!" came from waft-of-broken-leaves. "to be honest, we worried about you after your strange disappearance last year. what was with the flying? how did you do that?"

smell-of-hot-iron looked down at her herbs, refreshing her lucidity, and scented "i was able to do it, because i'm dreaming whenever i come here."

"that doesn't make any sense. this world is still here even when you aren't."

"when you're dreaming, you have to go somewhere. i suppose it's not always your own mind you visit at night. and anyways, maybe your own mind is a real place of its own as well. you don't know for sure that your dream world disappears when you aren't there."

"i suppose. but there's another thing that doesn't make sense about your story anyways. that first winter you visited, four years ago, you said that you made this world a few of your nights earlier. but it is obvious that our world has been around for much, much longer than just a few years. we suspect it to be billions of years old, in fact."

smell-of-hot-iron scented puzzlement. "maybe those billions of years happened all at once when the sphere first touched the water? or maybe the memories and the seeming oldness were part of the original chiseling. maybe i really am wrong about all this. or... maybe these truths can live side by side? maybe one does not need to invalidate or compete with the other."

"that's what many other cultures on our world do. certainly not a bad approach, i think. anyways, as usual, you are welcome to join the midwinter feast!"

at the festival that night, smell-of-hot-iron explained to the ants of smell-of-wall-lichen the dreaming nature of her visits and took advantage of her state to fly again. she lifted other ants within smell-of-wall-lichen into the air with her, twirling and playing together.

although smell-of-wall-lichen did not believe that smell-of-hot-iron had made their world, they certainly knew by this time that there was something strange about their yearly visitor. nearly half a decade had passed for them, but smell-of-hot-iron's bodies were almost entirely unchanged, and of course she insisted that it was only four days for her. the magical abilities of smell-of-hot-iron cemented in the minds off smell-of-wall-lichen that this visitor truly was something different.

as a parting gift, smell-of-hot-iron offered to smell-of-wall-lichen the herbs she had brought with her. smell-of-wall-lichen accepted them gracefully, and returned the gift with some rare and unusual mushrooms, which did not exist in smell-of-hot-iron's world. then the night ended, and smell-of-hot-iron woke up. when she looked around her sleeping chamber, she noticed the herbs were nowhere to be found. but the mushrooms were.

smell-of-hot-iron knew at this point that what she was dealing with was no typical dream. she must really be traveling to this other world every night; and she could bring things across the border between the realities.

"deep-air, petrichor, it worked!" smell-of-hot-iron scented at breakfast. "i remembered i was dreaming!"

"wonderful! like i always say, mugwort and seadew often does the trick." came from petrichor. deep-air wiggled her antennae happily.

"and i brought something back with me!" at that, petrichor and deep-air looked at smell-of-hot-iron, stunned.

"... how is that even possible?" asked deep-air.

"smell-of-hot-iron, you have a talent for doing the seemingly impossible, but that feels a little outlandish even for you." added petrichor.

"no really, look!" smell-of-hot-iron showed petrichor the mushrooms. "you've never seen anything like this before, have you? smell-of-wall-lichen-"


"-the colony i keep visiting, they gave me these in return for me giving them the herbs i used. and when i woke up, i had these but the herbs were gone."

"well... you're right, i've never seen anything even remotely like it before in all my years as a healer and forager." petrichor scented. "if anyone could do this, i suppose it would most likely be you."

"i'm going to give these to scent-of-mycelium and see if she can cultivate them." wafted from smell-of-hot-iron. "petrichor, can you give me more herbs? this time i won't give them away, promise."


that night, smell-of-hot-iron caught some wind, and made a frame which coaxed the breeze into going in circles. this sort of ventilation device was another one of her specialties. she brought the magical fan into bed with her. she had even less trouble remembering that she was dreaming this time, and gave the wind fan to smell-of-wall-lichen, who was very impressed with the craftwork. and at the end of a wonderful midwinter festival evening of dancing and flying, smell-of-hot-iron thought "i don't want to go home yet."

and her wish was granted. she woke up in smell-of-wall-lichen, and this time the forest was in the last traces of winter, just on the verge of true spring.

"smell-of-hot-iron??" scented waft-of-broken-leaves, stunned. "but you've only ever visited at midwinter! it's only been a couple months!"

"i, uh, i guess i can visit other times too?" responded smell-of-hot-iron. "it's never happened before."

smell-of-wall-lichen was pleased to have smell-of-hot-iron as a guest again. they shared a less elaborate dinner, and as things were wrapping up and the ants offered their goodbyes, smell-of-hot-iron felt herself drawn back to the waking world.

on the next night, while watching the sphere fall through the waters of time, smell-of-hot-iron experimented. "i will wake up at the autumn festival" she thought. and sure enough, that is when she visited. she then willed herself to midwinter, and kept trying different dates throughout the dark season, succeeding at each. smell-of-wall-lichen was pleased to have their visitor over more frequently. but when she tried to visit in the spring, instead of waking up to sunny days and flowers on the plants around smell-of-wall-lichen, she woke up in her bed.

as the days went on for her (and the years went on for smell-of-wall-lichen), smell-of-hot-iron found that she could visit during the light part of the year if she took a nap and dreamed during the day. but smell-of-hot-iron did not particularly enjoy sleeping the day away, so light season visits were a rare thing for her. the dark season in the little world, by contrast, lined up quite nicely with her nights, and as she accrued practice, she found that she could make dozens of visits in a night, at any point in the dark season.

as months flew by for smell of hot liken, decades flew by for the little world. she watched child colonies split off from smell-of-wall-lichen, and she visited those colonies too. she taught what she knew about crafting to the ants of this world, greatly improving our technologies and artistry. and because we have years where she has only days, we in turn sometimes improve on her inventions, and teach her things she would not have thought of.

scent-of-festival-crowds began wrapping up to her attentive audience. "as centuries and millenia wore on, of course, the story of her making our world went from being the strange ramblings of a peculiar, but loved, foreigner, to being part of ant tradition and ant culture. we speak of the future as "downwards", we bless new projects in the name of smell-of-hot-iron, and of course, one of our names for this planet is "the falling lands". not all of us take such things literally, of course, although some truly do. but smell-of-hot-iron's yearly visits continue to be treasured by us and our sisters around harmonia to this day. some call her a god, others a spirit, others merely an ordinary ant in dream, just like you and me."

"but there is one thing all ants call her: we all call her a friend." she finished. "happy equinox."