Some writing about the House of Red Fireflies...
(Note: A whole bunch of people have expressed interest in various creative endeavors using this setting. I am not averse to the notion, but I also don't know how the heck I'm gonna do it--I suspect it'd be a very good shared world setting, but there's a lot involved with that sorta thing, and I don't want to deal with it just yet, since these things tend to blow over quickly, and it could be a lot of mental work for nothin'. However, if people are still interested in a week or so, and if I'm still enthralled by the idea, I'll post some of my concerns and questions about it and maybe people who have some experience with this sorta thing can weigh in. So I don't have answers yet, but keep an eye out.)
But for now, a rambling bit 'o world building!
The House of Red Fireflies is easy to find.
It shouldn’t be, being tucked in one of the illogical corners of the otherworld, but if you’re running a brothel, inaccessibility is a bad thing. So despite the winding road and the woods patrolled by small, grumpy, spear-carrying mushrooms, despite the narrow eyed black storks lurking at the crossroads and hitting up passers-by for small children and cigarettes, despite the swift currents and sudden backwaters of the Feverstream that runs by the House, despite the labyrinthine limestone passages deep underground that lead from the tastefully decorated maw of Hell to the somewhat less tastefully decorated sixth sub-basement of the House, the House remains paradoxically easy to find.
Practically all you have to do is set out in any reasonably enchanted woods with the intent of going there, and the next thing you know, the red lanterns are twinkling in the distance, like the fireflies from which the House takes its name.
The House is built in the Grandmother Tree, a tree so old that its dryad requires a wheelchair on the rare occasions she manifests at all, and this has given rise to the euphemism “going to Grandmother’s house.” Somebody even wrote a song about it once, and occasionally you can get one of the sleek-voiced seal women that perform in the evenings to sing it for you.
The Grandmother Tree is huge beyond telling, a gigantic gnarled tower of an earlier age, hung with red lanterns and ornamented with gaudy carvings, as if one of the great primal trees from the dawn of time had been transported across unimaginable gulfs of memory, and then redone in the style of Early Bangkok Whorehouse.
Massive shelf fungi the size of dance floors cling to the outside of the trunk, roofed over and hung with lights to make charming outdoor pavilions, each with a small shrine to the fungus spirit within, and every week, small offerings of buttermilk and burnt paper money are left in gratitude.
From the higher branches hang great papery structures, like wasp nests, (built by trolls) which form sleeping quarters for the workers of the House. The branches themselves are hollowed out, forming long, irregular wooden corridors, set with round windows like portholes. Each paper nest is accessible by ladder from hatches set within the branches. The highest nests sway considerably in the breeze, and are fitted out almost nautically, with hammocks and slung nets, while the largest and lowest nests are as well decked out as any stateroom. At night, the nests glow faintly when lit from within, giving the impression of enormous lambent fruit hanging from the highest reaches of the tree.
Within the trunk itself, individual rooms for the entertainment of clients are hollowed out in a spiral wrapping its way up the inside of the trunk, ranging from small, cozy rooms for entertaining clients and old friends, to much larger rooms for games, parties, performance stages of varying sizes for dancers, and the occasional high priced orgy. The largest room of all, the Great Bole-Room, set within a particularly large gnarl of the Grandmother Tree, has hosted the great feasts of the Seelie and Unseelie Courts, the crownings of beggar queens, the weddings of stones, and on one occasion that the floor-scrubbers still remember with horror, the stately and ponderous Dance of the Elephants.
There are a number of ways to approach the House of Red Fireflies. The road through the woods is the main one, leading up to the great main doors, which are almost always thrown wide. This route sees the approach of people of so many descriptions that the word “people” is more courteous than accurate, on mounts ranging from great warhorses and tiny hand-and-a-half ponies to camels and aurochs and gallomphing landleeches weighing many tons.
A more discreet entrance, nestled among the roots on the other side, lets in the shy and the hunted and also the people who deliver the milk and the eggs and whatnot.
The Grandmother Tree’s roots extend over the bank of the Feverstream, and down into the water on one side, forming a cavernous tangle of enormous, mangrove-like roots. Boats tie up among the roots, or at the small, quaint dock that extends into the Feverstream, throwing ropes over posts carved to resemble a fantastic and oversized bestiary worth of rather specific male anatomy. Lanterns hung between the roots reflect on the shifting surface of the Feverstream, and on the slick surface of the Water Stair, which spirals around a main root many feet thick, extending down below the surface of the water. It is up the Water Stair that the selkies come, and the tribes of merpeople, and the occasional snorting hippocampus, come up to the surface world for a Good Time. The House caters to them all.
Stranger creatures entirely come up from the darkness underground. There are several basements, a few of which are suitable for entertaining guests, but most of which are storage cellars. But at least one well-appointed entrance stands at the end of a long, winding path of stone, through glittering caverns, which joins, a long way away, to the anterooms of Hell and to even stranger places beyond them, which make Hell seem, if not comfortable, at least straightforward and comprehensible.
It would probably surprise people how many demons come and lay out good money—the black serpentine coins of hell are as good as anybody’s—not for deviant sexual practices, but in order to pour their woes out into the ear of someone trained to be a sympathetic listener. Hell is full of victims, but precious short on sympathy, after all.
And this is fine. Whatever your particular desire, the House can probably accommodate it. From light conversation to drugged euphoria to sexual satiations undreamt of in the mortal realm—the House knows it, has a specialist, and will offer classes for a small fee.
Some of the desires are perfectly understandable. Some of them are a little baffling. The most popular person among the Red Caps, for example, evil dwarves who eat their victims and dye their caps in the fresh blood of the slain, is a plump middle-aged human woman of great personal warmth, who can speak for hours about the properties of textile dyes. On any given evening, a half-dozen burning-eyed, gnarled men with scarlet caps will be hunched around her, buying her drink after drink, and listening with captivated expressions.
Some are simply incomprehensible. A woman solicited by the skeletal Bay-kok, the red-eyed, rattleboned hunter of men, might expect a really unpleasant experience at best, and a nasty death at worst. She would probably not expect to spend the evening knitting. However, for reasons known only to itself, the Bay-kok’s most fervent desire is to spend time going “drop one, purl two,” in company, and it will pay in rare and beautiful pelts for the honor. It brings its own yarn, too.
And of course, some creatures simply want a roll in the hay, or the silk, or the sand, or the water. To each their own.
For some particularly dangerous desires—for creatures like the Nuckalavee, a flayed and skinless horseman with a single burning eyes, whose pleasures are a little beyond the pale, for the Mayan demons Scab-Stripper and Lord-of-Pus, whose genitals are laced with ropes of thorns and obsidian knives, for members of the Unseelie Court foul and shapeless—even for them, there is a place. There is the Door.
The Door is black, and unadorned, and even though the House of Red Fireflies is always pleasantly warm, the Door is always a little too cold. It lies at the bottom of a shallow spiral staircase cut into the floor, where a shadow falls across it. The steps down are ornamented with a frieze of strutting peacocks, and only when you are looking will you notice that the tail of each peacock is made of chains.
Humans do not serve behind the Door. Indeed, while there may be as many as sixty or seventy prostitutes at any given time, with specialties ranging from engaging conversation to erotic yo-yo, there are less than half a dozen, at any given time, that serve behind the Door. The golem girl, who is made of clay and indestructible, who feels neither pain nor pleasure nor boredom nor fear, is the longest lived. The djinniyeh, who is more than a little mad, fashioned of fair flesh and immortal flame, once killed a client behind the Door. She said, when someone finally coaxed her out of the smoking salamander heart of the fire, that it was what he had most truly desired. This may even have been true. Those who serve behind the Door generally do not speak about what they do there, and rarely does anyone dare to ask.
There’s a lot more to be said about the House of Red Fireflies, but this is as far as I’ve gotten…
February 8th, 2006