Not many people actually lived in the Teeth. It was windy, and smelly, and damp. The ground sank beneath your feet a little with every step. It was, you know, creepy. Not the sort of place you expected to find yourself in when your parents unexpectedly dropped you off with instructions to stay put and keep your nose clean and then failed entirely to return in a timely manner.
Namka built her house on the riverside, instead. The water that ran out between the back two Teeth on the left-hand side was viscous and lukewarm, but the fishing was good and the wind whistled quieter. More importantly, it was near enough to spot anyone making a belated return before they touched down in the Teeth.
The downside was your neighbours.
“Look,” she said again, summoning up vast reserves of patience, “The key goes in a lock. That is what keys do, that is, in fact, the entire point of keys. Do you see a lock around here? Waving it in my face is not going to open anything.”
The Craven pouted. Its outstretched hand and the object therein continued to hover hopefully in front of Namka, although, to be fair, it was more in the general region of her navel than her face. The Craven, a muckraker, was a stubby little thing and Namka came from a long line of stilt-walkers, flautists and mountainous terrain.
“Door,” her erstwhile neighbour insisted in a firm, no-nonsense tone of voice. The key it held out was large, bronze and covered in algae, presumably something recently fished out of the fetid marsh the Craven called home.
Namka scratched furiously at the descending point of her mask, a stress move she’d been trying very hard to purge since her last moult, when she noticed how the paint flaked. Finally, in desperation, she seized upon the first thing that caught her eye on the horizon.
“There! You see that?” she pointed at the looming, eldritch spiral structure travellers had referred to, inexplicably, as the Worrying Snook.
The Craven looked sceptical. “Door?” it said again, cocking its head.
“Lots of doors,” Namka assured it. “ALL of the doors. Tower’s chock full of them. And I know from chock.”
The Craven trilled excitedly and waddled back in the direction of its burrow, which Namka took to mean she was free to go back to her fishing. All she had for dinner tonight were the giant clams that bred ubiquitously in the pond near her house, and she was hoping to supplement them with a minnow or something.
This hope proved to be misguided: an hour later her neighbour was back, comically large handkerchief on a stick in tow, to tug on her coat and point in the direction of the Snook.
“Door, door, I know, I know,” groaned Namka. “You’re just not going away until I help you with this, are you?”
The Craven beamed, and resumed tugging Namka’s coat.
She swore under her breath. Maybe she could show him to the tower and conveniently lose him there. That wouldn’t take too long. The Snook was a day or two’s walk from the Teeth. It was just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other.
“All right, all right,” she said, grabbbing her pack from its place by the door. It was fully provisioned, of course, in case her parents were in a hurry when they picked her up, fleeing perhaps from the powerful enemies they had hidden her from in this soggy wasteland and had been valiantly fighting this whole time. What if they came while she was gone?
She shook off the Craven and grabbed a stick of chalk. Clambering onto her flat stone roof, she scrawled a big arrow pointing in the general direction of the Worrying Snook, and a sloppy facsimile of the family crest. She’d have to hope that was enough.
“Right,” she said, jumping to the ground. “To the Snook!”
“Snook! Snook! Worrying Snook!” added the Craven, and did a lopsided little dance.
The Worrying Snook unfolded from the bog like a lunatic straw, curling in and up and around in ever-widening spirals. Shifting tartans of sun and shade covered the ground beneath it, rubbing up against their shins like absentminded cats as they approached. Its flank when Namka reached out to touch was something like an organic concrete, grainy yet mobile. She pulled her hand back and wiped it on her overalls.
“Well, this is it!” she said brightly to the Craven. “Aaand I’ve got fishing to do so I’ll just be-”
The Craven pouted.
“Oh come on,” she said.
Inside the tower, improbably enough, were doors. Dignified wooden doors, pulsing organic doors, big looming eldritch gates and tiny cat-flap doors, cheap rickety paste-board doors, delicate cloth-and-paper doors, bizarre oily mechanical doors. Where did they all lead? The corridor appeared about as wide on the inside as it had looked from the outside. Were there even rooms behind the doors?
“ALL OF THE DOORS!” shrieked the Craven, bouncing up and down rapidly.
“I really need to go home,” whispered Namka. But when the Craven began dashing up and down the slanted corridors, trying its key in random locks, she followed.
She got out her chalk and started marking off the doors the Craven had already tried. Whenever they came to an intersection she marked the direction they had taken and the way back down to the start. Even so, she soon became wildly disoriented – some of the corridors crossed each other in strange bulbous junctions, and sometimes she looked back to find the bank of doors they had been investigating five minutes ago was at a 180 degree angle to those they were checking now, as though the tunnel had twisted upside down without the benefit of objective gravity. Soon she stopped looking back – it made her nauseous.
Namka soon lost track of time entirely. The mad architects of the Worrying Snook, so enamoured with doors, had neglected entirely to install a proportionate number of windows, the number they had settled on being in fact zero. It had been late afternoon when Namka and the Craven arrived at the base of the Snook, and for all she knew it might be the evening of the same day, or the next, or a week might have passed. She began to imagine her parents touching down at the Teeth, their balloon worn and weathered, her father perhaps with a dashing eyepatch, her mother with new paint covering scratches in her mask. They would leap over the rail, calling her name, but find noone there. They would see the signs she painstakingly re-pasted on the teeth every Sunday, if the moisture hadn’t rotted them off again by now, and run joyfully down the riverbank to her house.
They would find it empty.
She imagined them searching the marsh for her, knocking up and down the neighbours doors, getting told off by the old crane lady for unsettling her beetles, even calling up to the implacable school of tube socks that swam through the humid air, to no avail. And then they would give her up for lost, eaten by a bog creature, perhaps, and return, weeping, to their balloon, never to come back-
“Door?” said the Craven, uncertainly, from behind her.
“Door?” Namka screamed, whirling to face it. “Look around you! You’re surrounded by doors, you stupid, ugly, irritating-” she groped for the right word – “Irrelevant creature!”
The Craven stared up at her with its big painted eyes and its long trembling lip. “Door…” it whispered, pointing at a nondescript, whitewashed wooden portal.
It was open.
Namka stared at it for a while. The Craven bowed its blocky little head and shuffled towards the rectangle of light, which wavered and hummed and occasionally seemed to reveal small glimpses of a landscape, of cobblestones, of clear water. The Craven stepped up to the threshold. It looked over its shoulder once.
“Door,” it said with a small, sad smile. And then it stepped through.
Namka reached out and grasped the doorknob. This was what she’d come here for, wasn’t it? The Craven was gone. She could retrace her steps, make the trip back to the riverside, settle in with her fishing rod, wait. She imagined her parents descending triumphantly, embraces and explanations in hand, taking her back up into the sky with them for adventures and excitement and excellent meals that did not in any way involve molluscs.
“Bollocks to that,” she muttered, and put one foot in front of the other.