Lethe

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Chapter 11

Chapter 11: Passing Through

We come across a dead pine standing with branches bereft of needles. It reminds me of the desiccated Christmas trees my dad would drag into the woods behind our house, year after year accumulating like the victims of a serial killer.

Sabonis wrests it out of the ground and slides it down into the crowd. They descend on it like piranhas, stripping the branches, dragging away the trunk.

“Why’d you do that?” I say.

“They wanted it,” says Sabonis, with a grunt and a shrug.

“What for?”

Sabonis just snorts and looks up at the sky. The mist has thinned, revealing a sky more silver than blue.

“It’s gonna get dark soon,” says Sabonis. “Believe me, you don’t want to be here after dark.”

All the hours we had been walking, the sun should have already set or at least be sitting lower in the sky, but there is something funny about this ‘sun.’ It never budges from its apex, sitting perpetually at an equatorial twelve noon, high over Mt. Abdiel. Shadows didn’t lengthen, they only darkened.

I squint up at the glow and the shape startles me. A pair of dark crescents bracket a central glare like parentheses, as if the sun is squishing flat on two sides. Was this thing even a sun?

Sabonis grins. “Finally … she notices the orb.”

“I’m a he,” I say, abruptly. Orb, he calls it?

“Creepy, huh?”

“Not really,” I say. “Just different.”

“Wait till you see what happens at night,” says Sabonis. “Come on, we gotta truck.”

We continue along the rocky shelf, heading towards the mouth of a canyon. The crowd flows along with us like a shadow, calling to us in a baffling mélange of languages. English is the rare song in this flock.

Sabonis sniggers. “They think we’re special—Elysial. Get real, people.”

I feel like a celebrity. It feels stupid. All this attention because I can step out of a hole and they can’t?

“Do these people have Guides?”

“Not no more,” says Sabonis. “No Guide’s gonna go near these folks. He guffaws. “They’re Squatters, kiddo. Lowest of the low.”

It never occurs to me that a Guide could be lost; that Bianca could ditch me. It sheds a new light on my impulsive excursion, and not a very flattering one.

The rock shelf tapers and runs into an unclimbable face. We have no choice but to descend and join the crowd.

“Hold onto your tush, sweetheart. We’re about to mingle with the masses.”

“Is that … safe?”

“No,” says Sabonis. “Walk fast, and pretend you know where you’re going.”

Sabonis hops off the ledge. The masses peel back from him like water from oil. I jump down and the mob closes in. Grimy hands finger and caress me. Something rough, like broken bone, scrapes me. I jerk away and push after Sabonis.

Sabonis bowls over whoever dares impede him. “We get separated, don’t stop,” he says. “Keep moving, head for the other side and climb out of this mess.”

“So plump,” someone says. “Such skin! So clear!”

I veer away from a man with a huge hole in his chest. Behind his rib cage, light filters in through the skin on his back—like a lampshade. The cavity holds no heart, no lungs, no stomach. His skin is pale and waxy. He doesn’t appear to possess any blood.

What is left of another man—head, torso, stump of one arm—drags himself through the dirt before us, trailing leathery, sun-cured entrails behind him.

“Jeezus!” I say, skipping around him.

“Don’t stare now. Be polite,” says Sabonis.

“How can they live this way?”

“Live?” says Sabonis. “Who’s living?”

“Exist. Whatever. You know what I mean.”

“Beat’s being a Shade,” says Sabonis. “Least they have senses. Shades can’t feel, can’t smell, can’t taste.”

A tiny black bird with a long yellow beak lands on my shoulder. Sabonis crushes it with the heel of his hand. It drops to the ground.

“My God! Why’d you do that?” I say. “It was just a little bird.”

Another bird latches onto my collar and rams its beak into my neck. I smack it away. Flocks circle overhead. Now and again a group of them vector off into the crowd.

“Blood sparrows,” says Sabonis. “They’re like big ass mosquitoes.”

I hold up my arms, ready to fend off more birds when I trip over something soft. A woman with one arm and no legs, slaps at me with her only intact appendage.

“So sorry,” I say. She shrieks at me in some staccato tongue like Arabic. Sabonis grabs my arm and hauls me along.

“Keep it moving,” he says.

A pitted carcass of a man sits on a mound of dirt. A long tuft of white hair drifts forward, obscuring his face. The back of his head has a large chunk missing. His brain is mostly gone.

“How do people get so … fucked up here?”

“Time, numbness,” says Sabonis. “Damage comes easy when you can shut off pain. The key is to hang on to your blood. Lose your blood and you lose your ability to heal. You rot, basically.”

A small person runs between two dwellings and halts in the clay staring at me.

“Oh my God. That’s … a little girl!”

“Midget,” says Sabonis.

“No way,” I say. I study her round features, her delicate chin. “That’s a little kid.” So many withered faces, but she’s the first child I’ve seen here. “How come there’s hardly any kids here?”

“This is Lethe,” says Sabonis, grim-faced as he shoves away a man who comes beseeching. “Ain’t supposed to be no kids here.”

“Why not? Kids die too.”

“Dunno. If you don’t pass puberty, maybe you get sent to the trash bin. Only old souls allowed here.”

“Seems rather … un-Christian, don’t you think? You know, ‘Jesus loves the little children. All the children of the world.’”

“I don’t know,” says Sabonis. “Souls need time to ripen. You don’t send green fruit to market.”

“Sure you do? Have you never bought bananas? It just seems barbaric, leaving all the kids out. But … wait. If it’s not supposed to happen … how did she get here?”

“This is Lethe,” says Sabonis. “Mistakes happen. I mean, look at you.”

The girl runs into the arms of the white-haired man with the hole in his head. Like a broken doll, one of her porcelain hands is missing two fingers. The man scoops her onto his lap, and presses his scruffy cheek against hers as they watch Sabonis and I pass.

Down by the muddy river, a scuffle breaks out. People rush to the fray, jostle and squabble over something on the ground. We reach the river bank, Sabonis glances and blinks and leads me away by the elbow.

“What the heck is going on?” I ask, craning to see. Sabonis yanks me along.

“Someone gave up their Shade,” he says.

“Why are they fighting?”

“You don’t wanna know.”

“Yeah, I do.”

“Sweet meat,” he says.

“What?”

“Do I have to explain everything for Christ’s sake? They’re after the poor fuck’s meat.”

Lightning jolts jigger my spine. I look at the green line on the ridge across the settlement and wish I could will myself there instantly. I quicken my pace. Sabonis jogs to keep up with me.

“The bridge,” says Sabonis.

The stone towers supporting the bridge loom before us. Their permanence seems incongruous with the ad hoc construction everywhere else.

“Who built this?” I ask,

“Who knows?” says Sabonis. “Who cares?”

We cross. The walls on either side are partly collapsed. The road bed is pitted. The river runs brown beneath us. We pick our way past a grunting carpet of prostrate forms.

A fluttering startles me. A flock of bloodsparrows boils up from pale bodies sprawling on the opposite bank.

“Hang on to your pecker,” says Sabonis.

“What pecker?”

I bat away birds, and they fly off to regroup, unaccustomed to our defenses. I emerge with minor punctures on the back of my knees and behind my ears. Blood beads and clots into hard bumps.

We turn upriver. The land rises gently here. The river quickens. The huts turn sturdier, the crowds sparser. Some huts have tiled roofs, and mangled shrubs that pass for gardens.

“Welcome to the ’burbs,” says Sabonis. “This is where the Fringers go when they realize they’re stuck. Most’ll get pulled down into the belly of Gihon. It’s inevitable.”

A brown man squats beside a pile of wrinkled leather strips still clothed with fur. He sees us. His eyes widen and he snatches the pile up to his belly.

The valley narrows as it rises. More scrub clothes the clay. The people here have their limbs and no major injuries, just the ubiquitous peck marks.

A woman’s face brightens when she sees us. “Excuse me sir, ma’am, is that the road to Jerusalem?” She points up the stepped cascades that cut into the mountainside.

“Yep. Sure is,” says Sabonis.

I narrow my eyes at him.

“She’s a Fringer,” he whispers. “She’s still got a chance to get out of this mess.”

The cascades lead up to a thirty foot waterfall, falling from a narrow, suspended valley. Mists rise from the rocks. The river collects itself in a swirling pool before rushing off to scour the wastes of Gihon.

Another gaggle of healthy-looking people collect here. They gasp for breath. Their faces warp with pain. One man, blonde and balding, has a purple face. The veins in his neck twitch like worms trying to break through his skin. He hacks away like a cat with fur balls.

Sabonis looks up at the orb, which has narrowed to resemble the aperture of a squinting eye.

“We’re gonna make it,” he says. “I was afraid the damn orb would blink out with us still in Gihon.”

I see movement above the waterfall.

“There’s someone up there,” I say

Sabonis squints. Shouts peal through the din of rushing water. People drag themselves up along the riverbanks. We stop at the edge of a throng beside the pool.

A woman appears, wearing leather leggings and a homespun shift. She drags a dead goat to the edge of the cliff and tosses it down to the waiting people. Some people stare with puzzlement. Others descend on the goat and parcel out the meat.

Sabonis sidles behind a boulder.

“What’s wrong?”

“That’s Alecto,” whispers Sabonis. “She’s a Collector. But I seen her take Fringers … Climbers even.”

“You’re afraid of her?”

“No,” says Sabonis, taking umbrage.

Alecto stands at the brink of the falls, surveying the scene like a raptor. Long, sleek black hair billows out with the wind.

“Why is she feeding people … if she’s a Collector?”

“How the fuck should I know?” says Sabonis, slinking down.

“She’s looking this way,” I say. “She’s looking down at us.”

“Shit.”

I notice a gleam on her hip—an obsidian blade curved like a velociraptor’s talon.

“She gone away?” says Sabonis.

“Not yet,” I say.

Alecto extends her arms and stretches, arching and flexing her back. She spreads long fingers like tip feathers. She tilts her head back. Her lips part, revealing a glint of teeth. A piercing screech echoes down the valley walls. She turns away from the cliff edge and with a skip and a leap she is gone.
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