Chapter 34: The Pope
As we stroll past the docks, Sabonis stares down the Aussie with the machine pistol lounging on the platform of his catamaran. “If I get my hands on a long bow, that bastard’s going down.”
“That’d be murder,” I say, as if murder mattered, was immoral or even possible in the land of the dead.
“No shit, Sherlock,” says Sabonis. “Bet it’s not the first time for that punk.”
We approach the throng of onlookers, not quite as damaged as the residents of Gihon, but they show plenty of wear and tear: missing fingers, teeth, eyes.
“Anyone seen Hector Delgado?” Sabonis bellows. “Mr. D?”
The people murmur amongst themselves.
“Anybody?” says Sabonis.
“He vas vit da Pope,” says a slender man, trouser-less, but wearing a shirt with long tails.
“Could’ve told you that myself,” says Sabonis. “Thanks anyway.”
The crowd parts. Some follow as we pass the first rank of houses lining the beachfront.
The houses behind them are embedded in the ground, clinging to a constant, level plane as the valley floor rises, as if a mudslide hit the town and they never dug out. Soon the rooftops are only knee-high. Walkways plunge into trenches shored with timbers and walls of stone and brick. The town transforms into a subterranean network of alleys and catacombs.
“What if he’s down there?” I say as we follow the rim of a trench.
“Not a chance,” says Sabonis. “He ain’t one to mingle with the masses. Too paranoid. And for good reason. Up here, no one can fuck with him but us Fringers.”
The rooftops become flush with the ground and turfed over. They remind me of pictures of the subterranean stone churches of Ethiopia—buildings carved down into bedrock.
We walk above the fray milling through a small plaza with market stalls displaying fish and fruit and nuts along some miscellaneous detritus of the living world combed from beaches—poly sacks, single sneakers and clear plastic bottles.
A few people venture above their roofs to tend gardens and orchards, growing cabbages, carrots and beets, among the trees—olives, hazelnuts and plums. Those with constitutions stout enough to do so nevertheless wheeze and whinge as they work, backs slumped, feet dragging like Himalayan mountaineers. Some must retreat to the alley staircases to recuperate. Envious eyes track us as we stroll with ease among the groves.
I spot two of the spear wielders from the docks tracking our progress from the trench below. They have tailed us all the way from the beach, neither daring to surface.
We come upon a row of stilted wooden platforms. I mistake them for drying racks, but they are littered with sickly-looking people. Most sprawl listless and silent. A few bob and pray to the orb. They moan and groan and cry as we pass. A Fringer woman hauls a bucket of water from platform to platform, refilling bowls.
“What’s all this?” I say.
“Penance,” says Sabonis.
“For what? Who?”
“They just do it,” says Sabonis. “Nobody’s makin’ ’em. Pope don’t give a crap.”
“This is going to sound stupid,” I say. “But is the Pope Catholic?”
“Actually … no,” says Sabonis. “It’s just a made-up title. He’s actually just another Fringer able to stick his nose a little higher than the rest. That’s all it takes to go far in a place like this. Was a time folks like you and me’d be treated like Kings here. That’s why all that bullshit we went through on the docks still sticks in my craw.”
We lose the men tailing us when the trench narrows and disappears into a tunnel. For a good long stretch, the ground stays unbroken before opening up into another, deeper plaza with a massive, gnarled maple at its center.
“Pope’s friend Yoshiko lives down there. She’s technically a Cardinal. But you’d never know it from lookin’ at her. This Pope don’t bother with the robes and all that crap.”
Sabonis whistles into the pit. It echoes through the grottoes leading off the plaza. A woman in a royal blue shift appears.
Beaming a broad smile she trots up a set of stairs cut into the wall of the trench and gives him a hearty hug.
“How ya been?” says Sabonis.
“Same old, same old.” She speaks perfect English.
“Listen. I’m here trying to find Delgado.”
Her eyes narrow to slits. “Is this about that boat of yours?”
“Well, yeah. Fuckin’ Hector stole it right from the beach. Slaughtered my watch.”
“Oh really? He told us he traded you for it, and now you’re trying to welch out of the deal.”
“Traded me what? The dregs of a rum bottle?”
“A favor in the forelife, or so he says.”
“Where is that fucker? He with the Pope?”
“I’m sorry. It’s an official audience. Off limits.”
“Fuck that. Where are they? Up in the high temple?” He flicks head towards the ravine’s headwall and a structure like a squared-off Stonehenge—the only building away from the beach front that rises above the natural surface of the valley floor.
“Doesn’t matter where they are. You’re too late. Hector’s probably already left.”
Sabonis bugs his eyes. His face turns red.
Yoshiko smiles and puts her hand on my, coaxes me to turn. I comply, reluctantly. “New girlfriend? This one’s pretty.”
Sabonis squints down towards the harbor. Trees and buildings block our view. “Dang it! Can’t see the docks from here. Dan, do me a favor. Climb up that hill a ways and see if my cat’s still there.”
“Um … okay.”
I cross through a patch of stumps to the valley wall. It’s steep but walk-able. I climb through a mix of creeping willow, blueberry and heather. As I rise, more of the harbor creeps into view. I spot the dark indentation of the river, the gazebo. The catamaran sits snug and calm, bobbing gently beside the pier.
Sabonis, halfway to the temple now, shouts up at me. “Is it still there?”
“Yup.” I give a thumbs-up.
A tightness grips my chest. It feels like the stirrings of a heart attack. I wait for it to resolve, but the sensation persists. A pain as sharp as an ice cream headache crescendos deep behind my ears.
This discomfort resembles what I felt on Mt. Abdiel, except the first it hadn’t kicked in until I had climbed hundreds of meters above the beach. Here, I’m barely fifty meters up. I force myself to climb a few more steps. The symptoms worsen.
Something has changed. The realization sends my heart pounding. My palms begin to seep. I scramble back down.
I reach the valley floor. The pain in my head vanishes. The pressure in my chest eases. Did this mean my soul already begun its downward spiral? Was I well on my way to becoming a Squatter?
Sabonis and Yoshiko have wandered off towards the temple. My sudden altitude intolerance continues to gnaw at me. Had those symptoms been for real? I’m tempted to climb right back up the wall of the ravine to make sure all that discomfort hadn’t been a fluke. But instead, I make my way over to the temple.
The place is bigger than it looks. Inside, there is no ceiling, no floor. Crude stone monoliths surround a circular pit. They support a ring of lintel stones that appear to frame the stationary orb like an eye in a monocle. Stone stairs spiral down the walls into the hole. Sabonis and Yoshiko have almost reached bottom.
I descend after them, hugging the outer wall because the pit side has no rail. Rituals of greeting boom through the pit. I hear Sabonis straining to be cordial, but inside he’s ready to burst.
My steps fall into a rhythmic trot. Entranced, I reach bottom before I expect, stumble and fall onto a floor checkered with squares of reddish slate. River stones, one per square, cover the floor in clumps and circles and amoeboid blotches. More stones lay sorted by color and piled around the wall. Some kind of census map of the Pope’s flock? Some sort of runes for divination?
Furnished alcoves pock the walls, some dark, some illuminated with oil lamps giving off the odor of burning pork fat. An arched tunnel connects to a trench system and the rest of the subterranean city.
Sabonis and Yoshiko are across the pit, speaking to a tall man standing in the shaft of light thrown down by the orb. The man—the Pope, I assume—wears a white bathrobe, plush but tattered, with a hem that drags on the ground. He carries a small brown jar with a yellow lid.
“So what’s the story?” says Sabonis, turning to me as I rise off the floor.
“Your boat’s still docked.”
“So Hector hasn’t left after all,” says the Pope. “I imagined he had gone. We said our goodbyes this morning.” His accent is very British, very refined, very Oxford.
“That bastard tell you he stole my boat?” says Sabonis.
“Stolen? He said he purchased it from you.”
“Purchased, my ass,” says Sabonis. “He stole it outright. Slaughtered the poor Squatters I left to watch it.”
“Shameful, if true,” says the Pope. “But that’s between you and him. He’s never wronged me.”
“That’s because Hector thinks you’re still a real Christian,” says Sabonis.
“Well, I am Christian, culturally and ethnically speaking. Anglican, to be precise. Was, anyway. To hold onto faith in such a place, don’t you find it charming? How some manage to stay true to their beliefs, despite all the evidence to the contrary.”
“Cretins,” says Sabonis.
“Now, now. Be kind,” says the Pope. His eyes turn to me. “And who is this lovely creature?”
“His name is Dan,” says Sabonis, looking sour.
“His?” The Pope’s eyes twinkle. “I see. Well, there’s nothing wrong with that. How do you do? I am Howard Jenkins. Pope Jenkins, they call me here. Mayor of Zion might be more fitting, but I am glad to uphold tradition. Whatever keeps my flock happy.”
He switches the jar to the other hand and we shake. The label reads: “Marmite.”
“What’s with all the stones on the floor?”
“It’s a game, called Go, or at least a variation of it. Six colors allow us to employ up to six forces. Makes for far more interesting and complex strategy—alliances and defections and such. Only wish we had more associates willing and able to play. Our game’s gone into the doldrums since several our fellow Cardinals succumbed. Sad, really. Any chance you all would like to give it a go?”
“Nuh-uh,” says Sabonis. “We gotta get back down to the harbor.”
A harsh clanging echoes through the tunnels and reverberates through the pit. All eyes shoot upwards.
“Someone’s sighted the Caretaker,” says Yoshiko. “Shoot! He’s days early. I don’t have an offering prepared.”
“Well, you had better whip something together quick-quick,” says the Pope.
“It’s Cato,” says Sabonis. “Some folks call him the Caretaker. Not sure what he takes care of. All I ever seen him do is circle the damn island.”
“Cato is the oldest soul here on Lethe,” says the Pope. “He has his own little cult following here in Zion. I don’t partake of it myself, but we try to humor the masses.”
Yoshiko rummages through some baskets and crates in the alcoves.
“Finding anything suitable, Yoshi?”
“Didn’t we give him filberts last time?”
“It’s all we’re harvesting these days, Howard. It’s either that or moldy fish jerky.”
The Pope smiles sheepishly. “Pardon me, but could one of you do us a favor and take a small offering up the slope? We usually find a volunteer among the other Fringers, but we’ve been caught entirely unprepared. I used to do it myself, but I’m afraid my stamina isn’t what it used to be.”
“Sorry Pope,” says Sabonis. “We gotta go.”
“It won’t take long at all. It’s just a short climb up to his path.”
“I’ll do it,” I say, stepping up.
Sabonis turns abruptly, and puts his hand on my arm. “No. I don’t think so.”
“I said … I would do it,” I repeat, with emphasis.“Oh, don’t make a fuss, Marco,” says the Pope. “She’ll be back in a jiff. Yoshi. Assemble those filberts, pronto!”