Chapter 35: Cato
We top the stairs and exit the temple. People down-valley swarm out of their catacombs. They stagger through the orchards wheezing like emphysema victims, staring up at the hillside. I follow their eyes, but see no sign of the man they worship.
A herd of black-fringed white things scurry across the heather and stone. Goats? A pale slash bisects across the valley wall, curving around the headwall and back to the harbor. Like a contour line on a topo map, it maintains a constant elevation as it passes into glens and around spurs.
Yoshiko hands me the basket of offerings.
Sabonis pulls me aside. “You don’t have to do this.”
“I want to.”
“Then just stick it on the path and get your ass out of there,” he says. “Don’t ever get in his way. Cato can get nasty. I mean dangerous nasty.”
Yoshiko leads me to a jumble of boulders that forms a sort of rough stairway up the base of the headwall. When I begin to climb, a murmur reverberates through the mob gathered in the orchards. Heads turn my way. Fingers point.
“Be careful up there,” she says. “Facilitators sometimes roam those heights.”
Now she tells me. I scan the slopes, but find them devoid of souls. No resident of Zion seems to have to ability or inclination to Ascend. I climb alone.
I take long strides, gobbling long stretches of mountainside. The filberts rattle with every step. The wind whipsaws through the heather, plastering my dress against my legs.
Stitches and tightness grip my lungs before I have climbed very far at all. My heart thuds at this confirmation of my diminished capacity. I try not to think about it, to see if that eases my way. But the pressure in my head builds as if my brain has swollen too big for my skull and is squeezing out my ears.
At only half the height I achieved on Mt. Abdiel, I feel twice the pain. I doubt it is the mountain that is changed. I am a Fringer now, well on my way to becoming a Squatter. Pangs of regret clash with indignation. Should I have stayed on the mountain?
I pause to look down. Sabonis stands with the Pope and Yoshiko. He seems fidgety. I gaze out towards the harbor at the chevroned ranks of breakers advancing against the mudflats.
My head throbs as if my heart has taken up residence behind my eyes. Cato’s path lies just a little bit higher. One more push should get me there. I gird myself with a breath and hop over a little brook bubbling through a chute. The heather gives way to slanted slabs of smooth, pale stone, stripped and lean as clean-picked carrion, interrupted only by pockets of scrub and patches of scree.
I reach the path before I expect. It is little more than a rut worn into the ledge, wide enough to place one foot in front of another. I wedge the basket of nuts against the groove.
The detritus of previous offerings litter its flanks: dead flowers, nut shells, fish bones and other bones, some disturbingly large and human—the remains of an offeror?
Pain riddles my every articulation. Nausea just as intense as that first day on the mountain wobbles my innards. I sit on the path and cradle my head in my hands.
A wind-muffled roar erupts in the mob below. I look up, presuming they are cheering for me but they’re not even looking at me. They’re watching the headwall.
I spot Cato. He doesn’t look very dangerous from a distance. He is stout, but quite short. His belongings are bundled on his back. They rattle as he plants and swings his staff, hurtling down the path with a bouncy gait and strides long for his stubby legs. Eyes fixed ahead, he ignores the fawning crowd below.
As he barrels towards me, I drag myself down into a patch of creeping willow. I stare transfixed like a deer at a truck. Strands of white whisker screen a face as brown as over-baked bread and speckled with black moles. Patches of skull glisten gold from metal plates partially overgrown with skin.
The arm that wields the staff bulges with muscle but the other dangles withered and mummified in a harness. What first appeared to be shoes are calluses grown so thick they obscure the gaps between his toes.
Cato’s white-less eyes fix me with twin beams of hate. “Meretrix! Ex meus via.” He glances at the basket. “Hei! Eu! Nux coryli. Pro pudor fie.” He bats it away with his staff. Filberts spill, bouncing and tumbling down the slabs.
Cords of muscle in Cato’s good arm tighten like hawsers. He raises his staff up to strike me. I scurry out of reach. He grimaces as he breezes past, revealing teeth as black and dull as his eyes.
The wind carries faint cries from below. The crowd swirls as if stirred with a giant ladle, scattering here, bunching there. Two men flee. Several others chase. One man falls, dropped by an arrow.
The uninjured, chased man passes between stone houses, and emerges on the graveled flats leading to the docks. The catamaran’s sail billows open. It pulls away from the pier. A gun flashes. Staccato stutters follow after a delay. The pursuers halt before the beach. The chased man leaps off the end of the dock and onto the boat.
Sabonis is fleeing back to the temple. Yoshiko and the Pope stay put.
Cato motors on, barely glancing at the scene below. Wary of descending into the chaos I have just witnessed, I collapse onto a bed of springy willow, enmeshed in aches that seem to emanate from the marrow of my bones. The pain eases somewhat if I keep my mind blank, so I zone out.
It would make things so simple to stay where I am and rebuild my tolerance for heights. Then, if I wanted, I could climb. Why return to all the horror and confusion of the flats? For Gina? Who was I kidding?I could stay here and watch the sea, listen to the wind, climb a little higher every day. Clearing doesn’t strike as so awful now, considering the alternatives. Maybe I could learn how to forget life.