Lethe

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Chapter 30

Chapter 30: Sixwing

The outrigger slides past spikes of broken caldera that poke out of the first of two nested harbors. We pass over the black and bottomless hole of the first and the sandy bottom of the second rises up to meet us.

Slender fish dart through wafting beds of seaweed. A smattering of canoes and rafts made from bundles of rotted reeds bob in the waters ahead. Fishermen pick through sparse catches snared in raggedy nets. They stop and stare as we creep by them.

Sabonis steers us into a narrow, marshy inlet that splits the outer beaches, aligning us with the heart of the Rift—that void in the landscape separating mountains as cleanly as a sword through clay.

Stretches of salt marsh alternate with sand, and a shelf of pumice separates them both from interior scrub lands and grain fields as scraggly as an un-mowed lawn. Clumps of buoyant stone bob and swirl in the waves.

Sabonis rows hard, building momentum as we close perpendicular to a narrow beach heaped with rotting mats of seaweed and shellfish middens.

The crunch of bow against beach is a welcome sound after all we’ve been through. It means I can stop bailing. Good thing too, because the sun-brittled plastic bucket is ready to crack into so many plastic shards.

Sabonis hops out and drags the outrigger through the shallows. I help him wedge it securely onto the sand and he secures a line against a log almost large enough to carve out another outrigger hull.

Someone has carved the pumice shelf here into rows of squat, blocky figures of toads and owls and nameless monsters—like a horizontal totem pole. Racks display rows of drying fish like offerings to the orb.

There are few people about but huts dot the edges of the beach and marsh. More cluster just beyond a fringe of trees. A larger settlement sprawls down the strand where the estuary narrows to a stream carrying overflow from the Loch.

A man strides up to us, his posture stiff and confident. He holds a black and white monkey on a leash.

Sabonis sighs. “What the heck does this clown want?”

The monkey strains at its harness and leash, hunkers down on all fours, hoots and snarls, baring its incisors.

“That’s some set of teeth,” I say, stepping back.

With a sharp tug, the man yanks the monkey out of its aggressive stance. He scolds it in a language of soft consonants, with words that burble like a brook.

“My monkey, she bites,” says the man.

I saw no reason to disagree. The monkey’s fur is ruffled back and it looks ready to pounce.

“You let that monkey bite either of us, and I’m having monkey steaks for dinner.”

“No worries,” says the man. He peruses us with piercing brown eyes. “Fortuna and me, we go.” He smiles at me, a bit too broadly. I pick self-consciously at my dress, covering up what I can. He walks away down the strand. His monkey keeps its eyes on us, trundling backwards.

“Weirdo,” says Sabonis. He stretches his sail over the sand and surveys the damage. His mendings are already teasing apart.

“Crap,” he says. “We’re gonna need a whole new sail.”

“Or a better seamstress.”

He folds the net back up and tucks it under his arm with the bottle of rum. “You stay and watch the boat. I’m gonna make a quick run into Sixwing.”

“Isn’t this place Sixwing?”

He shrugs. “The outskirts. The place kinda sprawls. Mostly fishing huts out here. The tradesmen hang out in a ways, down by the Loch.” He gives me a serious look. “Listen. Any strangers come by, you don’t give them the time of day. Don’t even admit you know me. If you gotta say anything, tell ’em I hired you to watch my boat.”

“You mean like … Collectors? Facilitators?”

“Maybe worse. There are these mercenaries Bianca calls Potents. They ain’t supposed to come down here but they do when some big shot wants something done. It was a matter of time, I guess. They’re bad news. Beyond human. I’m pretty sure they’re the ones who took out my buddy Andali. But don’t you worry. It’s me they’re after me, not you.”

Somehow, I didn’t find that reassuring.

“So what do these … beyond humans … look like?”

“Whatever they need to be. They’re sneaky bastards. Shape shifters.”

Great. Yet another unknown quantity to fear.

Sabonis slings the sail over his shoulder and strides off.

“You gonna be long?” I say, with an eye on the already squinting orb.

“Long as it takes,” he says.

“Can I come?”

“No. Who’s gonna watch the boat?”

“Who’s gonna take this thing?” I kick the outrigger. My foot leaves a dent in the soggy wood.

Sabonis stops and turns. “Every fisherman around here and his uncle, that’s who. You seen their crappy boats. The reeds come apart every time a wave hits ’em crosswise.”

Sabonis uncaps the bottle of Havana Club and takes a swig. He screws the cap back on. “You can keep the rest.” He tosses it to me. “Make you brave.” He plods off.

“Back before nightfall?”

“Whenever I’m done with my business,” he says, without looking back. “Mind the birds.”

I sigh and limp up to the carvings in the ledge. I’m about to sit, but the blobby, one-eyed figure I’m about to sit on unnerves me. I move over a few places to a friendlier looking wolfish carving.

A break in the clouds reveals more of the lithe but massive lines of Mt. Abdiel. From a subordinate peak drops a long wall of cliffs, their flanks gleaming as if polished. Bright threads of waterfalls embroider its face.

Across the inlet, the volcano plays a different game with light and stone, displaying softer lines and warmer colors. Deep hollows indent its side, each absorbing all light like a black hole or a Shade.

I open the bottle of rum and take just enough in my mouth to swish around a bit and savor the taste. The bottle’s only one third full now. I have to make it last. Who knows when or if I’d ever see a bottle of rum again?

I roll the bottle in my hands admiring the logo—a red ball with a lady bearing a scepter. I take another small sip, and recap it, studying the label for lack of anything else to read now that I’ve lost that Newsweek to the sea. “El ron de Cuba” is the company’s slogan. The label was printed in 1973, same year as that Newsweek.

I see the fish drying on the racks. I wonder if I could bum some off the Squatters. That fish jerky Sabonis let me try was edible, but I’d prefer cooking something fresh. I’ve got nothing to start a fire with. Maybe someone would cook it for me.

I see people moving among the huts. Maybe they’ll take pity and invite me to dinner, though I don’t dare leaving the boat out of my sight. I can’t imagine how Sabonis would react if he lost this boat, too.

As far as I’m concerned, it would be no big loss. I’m not thrilled about taking that thing deep out into the ocean like Sabonis is planning. But staying ashore means no more rum, no more Newsweeks, no chance of ever seeing Gina again.

I pick bits of sand and debris from the contusion on my foot. It looks worse than it is, just a shredded flap of skin. But it’s no longer bleeding and the pain ebbs as soon as I look away from it.

A little blur of feathers alights on my foot and pecks at my wound.

“Hey!” I kick it away. Another bird flits past. They’re quick and agile, hovering like hummingbirds.

I hear a snap and something slaps into the bird and smacks it out of the air. I turn. There’s a man standing there with a slingshot strapped to his wrist. His face is splotched and leathery, his fingers scarred, gnarled like oak twigs. He’s got a stringer of dead gulls slung behind his back. He looks at me sadly and continues on his way.

I cross my legs in a lotus position and cover my damaged foot with the hem of my dress to avoid attracting more such pests. I stare at the dead hummingbird. It’s a pretty little thing, a tiny package of blue-green iridescence. If this is how the little birds act, I wonder what the vultures are like in this place.

I pass the hours with micro-sips of rum, not even enough to lighten my head much. Some people are building a fire outside their huts. It reminds me of a time—between girlfriends, alone on a Saturday night—when the neighbors threw a party and I was too shy to crash it. Now, like then, I hover, moving up onto the pumice shelf, closer to the fire, but in sight of the outrigger, hoping for an invite. I sit on the buttressed roots of a lone, old willow. The orb squeezes into twilight.

Columns of smoke rise from Sixwing about a mile down the strand and up the inlet. I picture Sabonis having a grand time in some whorehouse.

All is quiet but for the lapping of the sea. Tiny, shrew-like rodents scurry over mats of debris on the beach. A figure appears on the strand, a woman strolling along the pumice wall from the direction of Sixwing.

I expect her to turn towards the huts, but she comes right up to me. Her face seems both youthful and ancient, more worn than old. She has big curious eyes, coppery skin. She wears a black derby like those Inca woman from the Andes.

She wrinkles her brow at me. “You Donny?”

“Um, Dan.”

“Marco send me.”

I assume she’s a messenger. Maybe Sabonis wants me to come to Sixwing?

“He say you like girl. But I see you are girl. No?”

“No. I’m not a girl,” I say. “I just look like one.”

“But you like some girl, yes?”

“I said I look like one.”

“You like how I look?”

“Are you a … prostitute?”

“Yes. I am whore,” she says. “I am Lucrezia.”

“Listen … no offense, but I’m not interested.”

“Marco, he already pay,” says Lucrezia.

“Pay? With what?”

“I no know. Promise, maybe? My keeper say he pay.”

“Doesn’t matter,” I say. “I have no interest in … what you have to offer.”

“Is okay,” she says. “I stay for you. Keep company. Yes? No fuck.”

“Um, alright,” I say. I don’t mind having company, someone to help me fend off the nasty, little birds.

“When’s Sabonis coming back? He’s not spending the night is he?”

“Yes he pay. I stay all night,” says Lucrezia.

“That’s … not what I asked. Oh, never mind.”

She sits down beside me a little too close. I ooze away like a snail, trying to be subtle about it.

“When you die?” she says. “What is your year?”

“My year? This year.”

“What number is this year?”

“2010.”

“Oh! You fresh,” she says, like I’m a cut of meat in a butcher’s shop.

“When did you die?”

“Two thousand one,” she says. “I am from Cuzco. I die in bus.”

“Bus?”

“Crash,” she says. “I am going home for Easter. From my University in Lima.”

“That’s too bad,” I say. “My condolences.” It sounds awkward. I have yet to decipher a proper etiquette for the dead.

“How you die?”

I take a deep breath. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“You fresh. It hurts,” she pats my thigh, leaves her hand in place. I am tempted to peel it off, but it’s just sitting there, not rubbing or anything. I let it stay.

“I no look so old, no?” says Lucrezia.

“Old? You’re not old. Not if you were a student in 2001.”

“No student. I am Professor. I am sixty when I die.”

“Get out!”

“Is true.”

“What did you teach?”

“Nipponese.”

This woman was born well before my mother. Makes me feel weirder about her sitting so close.

“I don’t think you are a boy,” says Lucrezia, forehead gathering in ripples.

“Why’s that?”

“You no act … no talk like boy.”

“Take my word for it, Inside, I’m a boy.”

She laughs. “Inside your dress?” Her hand prowls. Her fingernails clink against the hard spot beneath my dress.

“What this you have?”

“Just … a bottle.”

She giggles.

I rise abruptly and hop down the pumice ledge onto the beach. I don’t want to share the rum, not with a stranger. So shoot me. I am selfish. I scuff over to the boat and tuck the bottle under a strut.

I lean against the outrigger, and look up at Lucrezia sitting there with her chin cradled in her hands, at the bonfire in the village. I wonder if I can trust Lucrezia to watch the boat.

The carved figures are looking extra creepy; deep shadows accentuate their grotesqueries. I return to the ledge, sit a little farther from Lucrezia.

“You have boyfriend or girlfriend, Donny?” says Lucrezia.

“Yes, I do. A girlfriend.”

“She dead?”

“No.”

“I can be your girlfriend here, Donny, no?”

Something rustles behind us, the distinctive sound of branches scraping corduroy. Footsteps slap the path from the fishing settlement. I leap to my feet and wheel about.

Someone tall and hairy like Sabonis is approaching. His steps land unevenly as if drunk or injured. He’s whistling something old-timey.

Lucrezia looks fearful. She scrambles to her feet and slips behind the willow.

Whoever’s coming, he’s not Sabonis.
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