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SPHINXES

by Chris Wayan, 2004

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A sphinx draped on a stone wall in a seacliff village, western T'kela. Based on a watercolor, 'Nell', by Rea of VCL. Click to enlarge.

Watercolor sketch of a reddish sea-stack in turquoise water. Arched doorways cut into the rock. Winged sphinxes wheel like gulls.

SPECIES

Sphinxes look much like the Terran myth--a feline frame, with wings and fairly dexterous forepaws with opposable thumbs; the head, except for mobile feline ears and typically large Lyran eyes, looks rather humanoid. They're cheetah-sized, but far more delicate: hollow-boned! "Sphinx" is just an English equivalent of their name in the Lyran trade tongue; they call themselves something like Lrrrreee or Wrrreee, but many other Lyran species find that hard to pronounce, hence their Trade name.

Originally omnivorous hunter-gatherers and fishers, prehistoric sphinxes became the first herders on Lyr, of a species whose name translates as "milk-monkeys"; today many sphinxes are ethical vegetarians (high-protein ones, heavy on dairy products, nuts, and bird- and lizard-eggs), though many, particularly in sea-cliff villages, still eat fish. Sphinx sushi is renowned. They've had time to learn--even pre-sentient protosphinxes lived in coastal cliff-burrows and fished, and many still do.

Sphinx sleep cycles are fast--even for swiftly spinning Lyr. While mostly diurnal (sphinxes have good night vision, but night flying is risky--smashing face-first into a tree trunk is something you only do once) they catnap round the clock. Watercolor sketch of a reddish sea-stack in turquoise water. Arched doorways cut into the rock. Winged sphinxes wheel like gulls. Click to enlarge.
A lebbird, a winged feline with opposable thumbs, draped over a tree branch reading a round book.

Sphinxes aren't unique on Lyr. They closely resemble lebbirds. Yet the two species are quite unrelated--indeed, they evolved 30,000 km apart. Convergent evolution! It's not surprising, given Lyr's many isolated continents with similar climates. Sphinxes are a bit larger and heavier, more human-faced, less upright (lebbirds, like bonobos, flirt with bipedality), and are comfortable in a wider range of climates--from jungle to savanna to arid, rocky coasts, and from hot to cool if not cold. In contrast, the more delicate, light-boned, arboreal lebbirds thrive only in warm, humid forests.
A map of Lyr, a large water world with small scattered continents. The range of sphinxes (intelligent, winged felines) is marked in yellow.

HABITAT

Sphinxes probably originated on Gaiila, or in the nearby Quenna Islands of southern Oronesia. It's hard to be sure, as their range is so large; but both the biggest and smallest sphinxes are found on Gaiila, suggesting it's the sphinxes' homeland. Today they're common in Gaiila, Oronesia, Ythri and much of Troisleons. Many still live in treetop- and cliff-villages, but most prefer mixed communities, getting along well with icari, lebbirds, floxes... even the nervous, sensitive antels, who tend to instinctively fear the other large catlike species.

Sphinxes are perhaps the most adaptable of all Lyr's peoples; habitats range from jungle to near-desert. All subspecies are good swimmers. Though most sphinxes prefer warm weather, a couple of upland subspecies can tolerate snow--shaggier, stockier, they're a bit more leonine than cheetah-like (though still not lion-sized; they couldn't fly).

Sketch of a winged female sphinx in profile atop a cliff, pointing offscreen. Leonine body and pelt, but handlike forepaws and somewhat humanoid head with large nocturnal eyes.
On the other hand, lowland sphinxes in warm dry country are adapted for heat dispersal: they're much lighter, leaner and smaller, with a short pelt; their faces look almost fox-like, with big ears. Next to the alpine subspecies they could well pass for kittens or adolescents, except for their long rangy limbs--and articulate opinions. Despite their small size they appear to be just as intelligent as their big, leonine cousins; the selection pressure for brains is simply too strong. Is this a general principle? Once the threshold of true language is passed, is there no turning back?
A sphinx sprawled in the shade of some rocks. A winged, golden feline like a small cougar, but much lighter, with four handlike paws with opposable digitis. This is the gracile subspecies found in tropical lowlands. Rocks by Odilon Redon, 19th century. Click to enlarge.
BEHAVIOR A winged female sphinx rolling on her back flirtatiously. By her is a set of (round) sketches she's drawn of Earth.

Sphinxes are the most social of Lyr's felines, except possibly the wingless centauroid cheetaurs. Friendly, as sensual as lebbirds but calmer, a bit less high-strung. They excel in scents and herbs, dance, bodywork, seduction and sex (which many sphinx cultures consider an artform, not an instinct).

Sphinxes are highly visual. Their primal food-seeking strategies required a pelican's or osprey's acute sensitivity to detail, shape and especially motion, and a treetop fruitpicker's sensitivity to color, and an amphibious (sea-otter-like?) ability to see clearly in the air and underwater, due to extremely flexible corneas and strong focusing muscles. Sharp eyesight is lifelong; at worst, old sphinxes see poorly underwater. Our loss of vision in old age isn't genetic, but largely the fault of Sol, a sun cranking out way more ultraviolet than most stars in the cosmos. UV cumulatively damages the cornea over time. But Lyr has far thicker air and a cool red sun that puts out little UV in the first place; Lyran eyes last.

Their multiple visual gifts make sphinxes excellent artists--and art lovers, for they mentally fall inside images, readily see them as windows into other realities. They use this trait socially; where a human might offer a new acquaintance a card, or hand a date flowers or a poem, a sphinx offers pictures; even an interesting conversation may drive a sphinx to scribble cartoons instead of notes. The artist I sketched at right was busy sketching me, as well as her impressions of my home region on Earth as I spoke of it. Then she rolled and stretched on the drawings just to make clear how much conversing with an alien turned her on. (Sphinx flirting isn't subtle; they use sex to form friendships and defuse aggression or anxiety, much like bonobos, or Californians.) A winged female sphinx arching her back: flirtation. Click to enlarge.

In wooded regions, some sphinx cultures resemble the tribes of British Columbia--they build elaborately carved plank lodges, though they lack totem poles--too much of a flight hazard. Instead there are elaborate roof-landings and terraces, stained with berryjuice spirals, and full of carvings you're meant to feel, not look at--perches to sprawl sensually on, with odd textures and folds and fins. On sunny mornings a whole village will flap up to the roof and roll and scratch and rub themselves silly. Adolescents use them to flirt--if that word can be used for blatant public sexuality. But for sphinxes, a yowling alleycat performance is quite admired--just so it sounds like you're having fun (and rub any leftover juices into the woodwork for the sun to dry. Sphinxes think it adds luster). "Polishing the roof" is a smutty phrase in Sphinx--but rather complimentary.

Human visitors can expect an enthusiastic high-calorie feast of seafood or fruit, nuts and "dairy" products, then a lot of music and partying and toothy flirtation. Don't expect to get more than, well, catnaps, since quite a few curious singles (and a couple or two) will try crawling into bed with the interesting stranger, just to see what happens. It's not quite the puppy-heap that pegasi prefer (sphinxes have claws, after all) but even for human tourists from relatively uninhibited cultures, sphinxes' cheerful crudity can feel a bit overwhelming...

But this same lack of sexual inhibition has encouraged individual sphinxes to marry outside their species, both in dyads and in small groups. And sphinx villages will readily adopt members of other species--if they think you're cute. They get along well in multi-species towns, too.

Sphinxes are as nosy as the Terran myth they're named for. Intensely curious, they make good therapists, shamans, and scientists--fields with complex puzzles. Despite their reputation as sharp reasoners, sphinxes' catnapping means they live always on the border of the dreamworld; short, vivid dreams provide advice and complement their logic. Perhaps for this reason, sphinx language tends toward metaphor, with strong visual and tactile images. It's what got them dubbed sphinxes in the first place--while they speak fluent Trade and can confine themselves to literal statements (well, literalism laced with humor--no sphinx can resist a joke), to more prosaic species a relaxed, socializing sphinx always seems to talk in riddles. A fishing sphinx dives into a lagoon like a pelican, in a great splash.

Despite their intellectual reputations, quite a few sphinxes have stuck to traditional fishing from sea-cliffs--diving for their prey like pelicans. They say it's an exhiliarating experience. Sphinxes have a embarrassing, primal urge to chase shining, wiggly things. In many, though, it goes beyond embarrassing, into guilt; sphinx sociability gives them strong empathy, and many cultured, sheltered sphinxes, raised in cities or in orchard- or herding-villages, feel sorry for the fish and just won't kill or eat them. In summer, these inland sphinxes crowd the beaches, swimming, diving, playing water games with silvery fish-effigies instead of balls or frisbees. Local sphinxes (from fishing villages) mock their tender-heartedness, dangling fresh-caught, wiggling fish before their sheltered cousins, trying to lure them into eating the forbidden, tempting thing...

It's the closest any Lyrans come to human race-baiting. Or is it religious baiting? Do the fishers feel guilty themselves about killing, are they eager to bring these city snobs down to a common level?

It's revealing that the conflict is within one species, not the inter-species problems you'd expect on Lyr. Does distance add charm? Perhaps the oddities of other species never bother us like our own kin. The most irritating people on Earth, after all, are always your own family.

Sphinx psychologists haven't resolved the riddle, either; they write learnedly about fish guilt and fish envy...

After seeing a sphinx hit 120 kph in a power dive, human tourists may feel fish envy too. Even after a miss, sphinxes come up excited and beaming from the sheer rush. Unfortunately, strap-on wings and human flying skills just aren't up to it; hitting the water in rented wings is suicidal.

You've been warned. Not that it'll stop some of you. To date, some fourteen human tourists have been pulled from the water either dead, paralyzed, or with two broken arms (lucky, lightweight boy!) after seeing the locals and trying this stunt.

Now tell me again, dear monkey-see monkey-do reader, about those ridiculous, compulsive, irrational cats who can't resist silver wiggly things...

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TOUR LYR! Climb volcanoes, swim seas, meet weird creatures. First: survival tips! Then, pick a region:
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