Lethe

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Chapter 22

Chapter 22: Dilmun

We stroll along the beach. Sabonis struggles to maintain dominion over his limbs. One arm hangs limp. The other keeps flinging out randomly and whacking me in the side. His Shade keeps leaking out here and there, and whenever it does he loses control of the afflicted limb. We stop frequently so he can pull himself together.

Not all his problems are spiritual. He bleeds from the broken arrow protruding from his neck. His face is paler than pale and tinged with blue. I can’t see how he can afford to lose any more blood. I can’t see how he is able to walk. But this is Lethe, where health means something different from what it meant on Earth.

We keep close to the base of the cliff. Sabonis glances over his shoulder constantly to see if we are being followed. I am worried more for him than me. I have to say, I’m feeling pretty invincible after emerging from beneath the waves intact and then receiving Alecto’s mercy. I’m untouchable, it seems. I hope I’m right.

The bluff curves around to a channel separating us from the long mound of dune and scrubby hills Sabonis calls the Cape. It’s not attached to Lethe so it’s technically an island, though the strait separating it looks waist-deep at most. Sabonis says the Guides call the place Dilmun, but that name seems to irritate him.

Dilmun is not much to look at—a collection of spits and dunes and low hills covered with stubby conifers. Though not exactly verdant, its sparse greenery contrasts starkly with the absolutely barren wastes of the Rift and its headlands.

The tide, if that’s what you call the irregular slosh of water in this bizarre ocean, has ebbed as low as it ever gets. Sabonis leans on the sand-carved, salt-bleached pole he is using for a walking stick and stares across the channel. He shivers like a scolded dog.

“You okay?”

He gives his head a brusque shake. “Gotta keep going,” he says, his voice still fuzzy and garbled. “Don’t cross now … never will.”

The channel looks shallow, but carries a current as swift as a river. A stew of flotsam hurtles by—mats of sheared off kelp, evergreen branches rusty with death and even a palm frond or two.

“You have palm trees here?”

Sabonis ignores me, keeping his eyes fixed ahead. He pushes off his staff and into the channel. An elbow comes undone and peels away from the flesh. He jabs his staff into the mud and whacks it back in place with his good palm. “Get back in, you bastard!” he says to his elbow. “I’m taking this body with me whether it wants me or not. This one’s mine. I earned it.”

His staff topples into the drink. I snatch it before the current can carry it away. Sabonis stumbles as I hand him back his staff. The current tugs at my legs. I keep within an arm’s length of him just in case. I picture him falling and being swept out to sea.

We emerge from the channel a good hundred yards from where we entered. Sabonis hauls himself up a gravel bank and sways drunkenly. I put a hand on his side to brace him. His flesh is squishy from the bits of Shade that don’t quite match up with his physical form. I yank my hand away as if I had touched maggots.

Sabonis glares. “Stop looking at me like that.”

I look away across the channel. Above the cliffs, I can see a steeply curving lava slope leading to the smoking cinder cone of the volcano. Sabonis lumbers off without me.

I trot to catch up. We pass quickly over gravel banks onto a wide field of dunes ascending in ranks as we move in from the channel. Most of the dunes are overgrown with shrubs bearing waxy, blue berries, but some display their gleaming sands in delicate frames of encroaching lichens and mosses.

The dunes quickly transition to a series of rumpled and wrinkled hills. Small ponds hide deep in their dimples. The stone underfoot is far different from the pumice and lava of the wastes. We tread mostly over crumbly shale and chunky conglomerates studded with shells and quartz.

Sabonis leads us down into a hollow undulant with tall grass and vetches, treeless but for a few venerable and scarred specimens, stout with broken and stubby limbs. Jagged splinters bleached pale gray crown ancient trunks whose canopies seemed to have been twisted off.

A vague crease in the greenery marks the trail. We pass a stone wall and a collapsed foundation with cracked timbers and piles of rotting thatch.

“Was this a village?”

“Prospers,” says Sabonis. He squeezes his wayward elbow against his side to keep the Shade limb contained. “Married couple. Quentin and Ruby. Before my time, but Andali knew them. Both died old, found each other here. Had a baby, even.”

“A baby?”

“I know. Right? Bianca denies it ever happened. Says it’s impossible. But you and me, we know … mistakes happen.”

“Was it … alive? I mean, not like how we are now. But how we were … in life?”

“Not sure. But her name was Diamond. Guides wanted them to give her up. They refused. Andali says this monster storm came, one of these Pounders. Tore the place apart. See all the broken trees? Strange thing … they never touch any other part of Lethe. Only here. Sounds kinda fishy to me.”

“You mean—”

“I think They done it. Someone up there. I heard Guides talk about Cleansings. Don’t think they were talking about bathtubs.”

“You’d think there’d have been a tidier way of handling it.”

“How?” says Sabonis. “Collectors?”

“Just … let her grow up and die like the rest of us. Why not?”

Sabonis’ eyes alternately blacken and brighten. “Maybe they were afraid of what she might become.”

My eyes drift to a little wooden box embedded in the clay, moss-covered and rotting. I flip it over. It’s a little toy cart with a single, cracked terra cotta wheel remaining.

Sabonis coughs and once he starts he can’t stop. He hunches over, racked with paroxysms that rattle his Shade loose. His face loses what little pink had managed to overcome the gray. I expect his Shade to come busting out at any moment, leaving his body to collapse like a pile of meat.

But he keeps it together and moves on, past the remains of the Prospers’ homestead, into the thick scrub on the side of a hill. We round the hill to find another hollow, this one glinting at us with ponds for eyes and a lagoon for a mouth, protected from the sea by two mandibular arcs of sand. A floating quay bobs in the lagoon.

As we descend, Sabonis steps up the pace. He careens off trees, trips over roots. The path veers towards a round mud-walled hut with a central post and a thick thatched roof. He pushes open a crude wooden door and stumbles through past a hanging partition that bisects the interior. He collapses on a lumpy, dingy mattress below a small curtained window.

“Didn’t think I would make it home,” he says.

“You gonna be okay?”

“Yeah,” he says, hoarsely. “I’ll be fine.” But his tone belies uncertainty.

It’s dim inside. I have trouble assessing his condition.

I stand at the partition, ogling his eclectic collection of detritus, each item weathered like they had spent months or years floating in the sea. There’s an old Sony tube TV, plug-less, its wire frayed; a row of barnacled children’s bath toys—a blue turtle, a red beaver, a yellow duck; chunks of yellowed Styrofoam, plastic bottles and poly bags.

“I need … water,” says Sabonis. “There’s a spring … out back.”

I grab one of the least filthy bottles and head outside. Behind the hut, where the hill rises up, there’s a little sandy seep, dug out a bit to form a clear pool. I fill up the bottle and bring it in to Sabonis. He drinks noisily, like an old man slurping soup. Much of it runs down his face into his lap. I see that his Shade has come unmeshed at the lips. He has two noses again.

My fingers touch something crinkly. I look down. It’s a magazine—a dog-eared and water-warped copy of the international version of Newsweek. March 12, 1974. Old news for me, but maybe not for Lethe.

I hold it up. “Where’d you get this?”

Sabonis’ eyes lift open a crack.

“Delgado.”

“He gave this to you?”

“Nah, I took it. From his stash.”

The address label reads: Hector Delgado, 1137 Puerta del Cielo Blvd., Santa Clara CA 95054.

“Holy shit!”

Sabonis grimaces and writhes on his mat. “Can you give me a hand with this arrow? It’s kinda botherin’ me.”

“Um … I’m really not good at that kind of thing. I’m kind of squeamish.”

“Fuck squeamish. You’re dead. Get your ass over here.”

I comply sheepishly, coming over and tugging gently on the shaft.

“It’s wedged in really tight. I think the barb’s caught on bone. If you push it in and down, I think it’ll come free.”

“I don’t want to hurt you. Why don’t you do it?”

“Because I haven’t got any fucking fingers!” he says, thrusting up a dangly fist. His Shade fingers fan out between his real ones like a rooster’s crest.

I try to be gentle. I take the broken shaft daintily in my fingertips and twist slightly. Sabonis moans. I back off.

“Push the damn thing in!”

“I’m trying!” I wiggle the arrow again. He screams.

“Enough! Get away from me.”

“Sorry. I tried.”

Sabonis whimpers and squirms on his mattress. I retreat back behind the partition. The magazine tucked under my arm is a screw boring into my heart—compelling evidence that a passage to confound death might really exist.

But nothing’s going to happen without Sabonis. Something dark and heavy settles into my low points and smothers the little ember of hope I harbored for returning to Gina.

“Kid?” His voice is weary.

“Yeah?”

“I’m gonna try and sleep this one off. There’s a spear under the eaves. Get it. Use it … to keep the Collectors away. They know I’m hurt. They’ll be coming for me. Maybe tonight.”

His request conjures a chill that nearly incapacitates me. But I rise and duck outside and find the spear tucked behind a post. It’s a head taller than me with one long, tapered point and a second point curving down like a hook. Surging fear flushes the heaviness from my heart. I grab the spear and retreat inside the hut.
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