February 18th – The Salt Miners’ Festival

Nobody has mined salt in Buentoille for hundreds of years; nowadays all the salt eaten in the City is imported, but Buentoillitants still remember the work done beneath their feet. The mines, once a huge part of the City’s economy, brought thousands of people to the City, most of whom never left, even after the salt stopped flowing. Beneath Ranaclois hill the mines are still extensive, though now they have become inhabited, turned into The Hidden Library and the Unfathomed Archive; a honeycomb of rooms hang beneath the City.

It is estimated that at its peak, the mine was producing a hundred tons of salt a day. Of course, this is nothing compared to modern salt mines, but for the time it was immense. Initially the salt was ‘sluiced’ out of the hill by pumping gallons of water through the salt, dissolving it on the way. This brine would then be heated in great iron pans, or, during summer, dried out in the sun. The former method burned vast amounts of wood, most of which was felled from what is now the east of the City. There can still be found three large pipes at the base of the hill, where the salt solution would flow out. The other, larger, pipes have been made into alternate entrances to the Hidden Library. One of the pans that laid beneath these pipes now forms part of the roof of the Pohlatiné Mission.

As the mines sought deeper, the sluicing method was no longer viable; instead the salt was dug out in blocks, in a chequerboard formation, until it was no longer safe to dig any further. Large chunks of salt are still left as supporting pillars on the lower levels, and it’s estimated that three thousand tons still remain below the City. Most of these pillars have now been shored up with bricks and concrete to avoid subsidence, after three collapsed due to a water leak, destroying the west wing of the Church of the Churlish Moment. As such there are few sections of the mines where you can see their original form.

There is one place, easily accessible via the Hidden Library, where people travel today, to better connect with their ancestors and the City’s past. Hundreds of Buentoillitants will dress up in traditional miner’s garb (usually one-piece overalls in the City’s old colours, yellow and red, accompanied by thick gloves, steel-toe-capped boots and a wide-brimmed metal helmet with accompanying neckerchief or headscarf), and traipse down into the dark. Nowadays they have the use of torches, but back when the mine was operational they worked by candlelight; it was hard and dangerous work, and in the early days (before the discovery of miner’s sorrel, a herb which hydrates and draws sodium from the body) many died from dehydration or from sodium poisoning.

Whilst the workers lived hard lives, they seemed to have had plenty of time to create beautiful works of art; inside the Hidden Library, many of the doorways and walls that are carved directly from the limestone that lies alongside and amongst the salt deposits are beautifully ornamented, with names of different parts of the mine chiselled above entrances in Old Buentoilliçan. In the long passageway that leads off from the library there are hundreds of salt carvings, depicting beautiful vistas of the City above, historical scenes and mythical creatures like dwarves, waursts and klivitchans, Some of the most striking images cut into the salt and sand walls are portraits of miners themselves, working together in unison, standing arm in arm, sinking pints in a pub, kissing in hidden alcoves.

At the end of the passageway is a large open space, with carved salt pillars. Here you can taste the salt in the cold air. A light wind blows around the space at the arrival of new people, and as the visitors to this old space light proper torches firelight licks the walls (incidentally, so do some of the more inquisitive children, before being reprimanded by their parents). New designs are revealed by the light; the shadows of lines of miners waver as they walk one by one into their graves. The memorial is old, with lives of those who died so long ago all but forgotten. Here, beneath a portrait made to look like a playing card, an epitaph:

for Hans, who loved cardes

who fhifted falt lyke no other

who I played againft

who wonne my heart

The adults sit in silence, remembering dead ancestors, those who built this great City. Remembering the hardship they endured, the premature deaths they suffered, so that we may live happily. The children gaze up at these strange images, and search for loose pieces of salt on the floor to lick.

Other festivals happening today:

  • The Festival of the Listing Gull

  • The Festival of Archaic Injuries