Lethe

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Chapter 48

Chapter 48: Seaward

The cat’s twin bows cleave through gentle swells as our tack carries us out of the estuary and into the harbor. We leave Alecto and her gang stranded on the other side of the marshes, except for one persistent soul who breaks through the reeds and pursues us along the beach.

The guy with the dreadlocks sits in back of one hull, one arm draped around the dual rudder assembly, guiding us through the center of the channel.

Sabonis hops down off the mast onto the center board. “Can you believe this guy? Steals my boat, and now he thinks he’s crew.”

“Or vice-versa,” I say.

Sabonis looks stricken for a moment, but then his face relaxes. “Nah, he’s just being pragmatic. Knows what side his bread’s buttered. You gotta admire that. He’s a quick thinker.” Sabonis looks to the stern. “Yo, rasta man, what’s your name?”

Dark eyes study us from the nest of dreadlocks. “Name is Roddie,” he says. “Roddie Harris.”

“Where you from?”

“Ladyville. It is in Belize. You know Belize?”

“Course we know Belize, don’t we, Dan?”

I nod. “Sure.”

“You like my boat, Roddie?”

Roddie stares at Sabonis, wheels clicking behind his eyes.

“This ain’t your boat, mister,” he says. “Any more than it is mine.”

“Well, Roddie my man, stick with us and maybe this boat will be yours.”

“You’re giving away your boat already?” I say, whispering. “You just got it back.”

“Not like we’ll be needing it,” says Sabonis. “Where we’re going.”

“Why? Where you go?” says Roddie, overhearing.

“Me?” says Sabonis. “I’m going to Connecticut. Naugatuck, Connecticut.”

“I ask where you go,” says Roddie. “Not where you come from.”

Sabonis rolls his eyes and smiles at me.

888

We have easy sailing out of the harbor. It’s all downwind once we get past the broken lip of the caldera. We zip past the volcano, keeping well away from those Shade-crowded islets and their treacherous ledges. We’re in no hurry; no need to thread the needle this time.

“Go spell Roddie at the rudder,” says Sabonis. “We got some tacking to do.”

“Why? Where are we headed?”

“My place, for a bit,” says Sabonis. “Rest up. Heal up. Get the cat refitted.”

“Is it … safe? What about Alecto?”

“Don’t worry about her,” he says. “Her sort don’t bother with Dilmun.”

“How come?”

“I don’t know, they just don’t. That’s why us rejects always end up there. Andali. The Prospers. Delgado never hung out there much, but he was always on the move … till the end.”

I take the rudder and Roddie goes up and helps Sabonis reconfigure the trim of the sails. Roddie proves quick and deft with knots and lines. Unlike me, he’s obviously done this before.

We get pointed on an oblique across the prevailing wind. All I have to do is hold on to the rudder until Sabonis calls out to bring the boat around. It sure beats bailing. I marvel at how dry the bottom of this boat stays compared to that sieve of an outrigger.

When it’s time to tack, it takes all of my strength to budge the limb connecting the rudders. I do fine, mostly, except for once, I overdo it and bring the cat around in a complete circle.

Roddie comes back. “No need,” I say. “I can handle this.” Roddie pries at my fingers and shoulders me out of the way and takes the rudder. Miffed, I go forward to the center board, almost wishing there was bailing to be done, something to make me feel useful.

I grab onto the shelter and stand behind Sabonis, by baggy clothes flapping in the wind. We’re on a line headed for Dilmun. Sabonis is looking mighty pleased with himself, whatever the reason.

“So remind me,” says Sabonis. “What do you remember about floating?”

I bite my lip. “I told you. I don’t remember much.”

“Except for that jellyfish.”

“Oh … yeah,” I say. “But it wasn’t really … I mean the shape of it maybe … but it was way too dark and opaque for a jelly fish.”

“You said you were drifting for a long time. How long?”

“I don’t know. Felt like years. But I was barely conscious for most of it. So who knows?”

Sabonis scratches his beard and looks out over the open water. “Well that alone tells us something,” he says. “It means you didn’t just pop up in the shoals. You probably came in from a long ways out.”

“Maybe,” I say. An image flashes into my mind—a jagged and barren landscape fringed with rocky coves and black sandy beaches, punctuated with frosted peaks.

“I saw … the island,” I say. “An island, anyway. I remember looking down on it from up high.”

“You did say you were flying for a time,” says Sabonis.

“Not on this side, I wasn’t. When I saw the island, I was in the water, looking down on it from a height.”

“Huh? How can that be?”

“I don’t know. I bobbed up for a few seconds, broke through and there it was, far below me. Along with those … those tangles of tentacle or worms or whatever they are.”

“That don’t make any sense.” Sabonis scrunches his face.

“Sorry,” I say. “It’s the best I got.”

The wind stiffens and stalls us out. Roddie brings the boat around while Sabonis shifts the sail for a starboard tack.

Along the horizon, greyish-black lumps, like dense smoke from a distant brushfire, creep into the cobalt sky.

We get the cat pointed on a heading that will take us smack in the middle of the Cape to Sabonis’ little homestead. I stretch out on the platform, out of the wind, cozy in my layers of flannel and hoodie. I look forward to Dilmun’s beaches, snakes or no snakes. The pears in Sabonis’ orchard should be ready to pick by now.

No mists block our view this time. Dilmun’s full length is exposed, from the rolling hills and dunes, to the layered, pyramidal promontory at the tip.

The mountainsides of the main island are fuzzed with patches of brown that I know to be the temporary flesh of thousands of souls striving to Ascend.

The sky at the horizon looks much more interesting than usual. Its clouds have a meaty heft and definition, like ripples in muscle, not the uniform and ubiquitous smudge that I had seen every day since my arrival.

The orb shines strong enough for me to bask and accumulate some warmth. I picture myself sprawling in the sand listening to the wavelets lapping in the cove.

But the clouds don’t settle for merely looking picturesque. They evolve into spiky columns and anvils. Sabonis goes back to confer with Roddie. He clambers back to the center board looking worried.

“Change of plans,” he says. “We got Pounders coming.”

888

“Pounders?”

Sabonis’ eyes meet mine with unusual gravity.

“Ever notice how there’s hardly any big trees in this place, especially on Dilmun?”

“Yeah, but—”

“Pounders,” says Sabonis.

“What are they? Like hurricanes?”

“Nothing like you’d ever seen,” he says. “Best I can describe is like an upside down tornado, except they don’t spin, and they don’t suck, they pound.”

“Good thing we’re so close to home, eh? We can duck into your cottage and sit it out.”

Roddie leans hard on the rudder and wheels the cat around facing downwind.

“Get up off your ass and help me with this sail,” snaps Sabonis.

“But … it’s just … weather. Your cove is right there … practically swimming distance.”

“You don’t understand,” says Sabonis. “You don’t just sit one of these out. There’s a reason they’re called Pounders. These ain’t just windstorms. They’re goddamned fists that slam down and obliterate anything in their way. There’s Seraphim behind these things. My cottage doesn’t stand a chance.”

“So what do we do?”

“We run,” says Sabonis. “Out to sea, where we got space to maneuver.”

Roddie points to the rudder and waves for us to come back. “Follow me,” says Sabonis. Roddie straightens the rudder and holds it firm while Sabonis lashes it against a strut.

“This will make it easier for you to control,” says Sabonis. “I left a little wiggle for adjustments, but really all you gotta do is make sure the rope doesn’t come undone. It loosens up, you get it lashed up tight right away. Understand?”

I nod. He and Roddie go forward and expose more of the sail, securing it with extra lines. The cat begins to pick up speed as the extra bit of sail billows out and catches the wind.

I glance back at the storm. My eyes fix on three churning, charcoal columns that have risen from the sea. Knots of boiling mist bulge like tumors beneath their bulbous crowns.

We blow past the Shade-infested islets, passing much closer this time, but well away from their reefs. We enter rougher waters with long period swells. The sharp hulls list up and cut through the chop.

Stringy clouds, branched and twined like veins, stretch out overhead, borne by high altitude winds far swifter than the cat. They filter and weaken the orb light.

Bumpy clouds, like heads of cauliflowers, cap the pursuing columns, staggered one behind the other. Spiral arms uncoil from their shoulders. They look like three-dimensional ankhs or chi-rhos. Sabonis and Roddie gawk at them from the masts.

The swells grow deeper and steeper until it seems the sea has sprouted foothills. I brace for impact as the cat noses into a particularly mountainous swell. The bow tips up, but we ride it smoothly, pivoting over the crest and surfing down the back side.

The Pounders look much too solid for creations of wind and water. Their spreading arms block the orb light, though the horizon remains queerly bright. Wind swirls down on us like helicopter rotor wash.

We nudge off-line and ride up a swell sideways causing the cat to strike the trough awkwardly, ripping Roddie off a mast and onto the roof of the shelter. I shove against the rudder to get us pointed straight again but there’s very little give in the lashings.

A sudden gust from a new direction strikes us and the lashings unwind, freeing up the rudder assembly. The cat spins wildly in the swirling winds. I yank back the rudder to get us straightened and lashed up again under the blameful stare of Roddie and Sabonis. From then on it’s a wrestling match, but I stay alert and resist any counter forces to keep us on track.

Our shadows grow, no longer truncated by the perpetual noon of Lethe, as we move out from under the orb. Our line of travel, and the wind, perfectly aligns with the shadows. The orb’s glow, behind a thin screen of cloud, looks squashed, more elliptical than round.

I look back and see only storm columns. Lethe has vanished. Only a moment ago I had seen Mt. Abdiel poking high above the horizon. A wall of water seems to have risen to block it from view.

Snatches of Sabonis arguing with Roddie carry to me with the wind.

“It is just a squall, mon. We can ride it out,” Roddie shouts.

“Ain’t no squall, Roddie. But … this … this trench … this is a new one on me. It can’t be a swell.”

I look out over the bow to see what disturbs them. The sea rears up steeply ahead of us, fixed like a standing wave. The sea seems to dip and then curve upward into the sky. We sit at the bottom of a deep wrinkle. Mountains of water rise fore and aft, or so it seems.

The effect disorients me. I pick up a pebble and drop it. It falls to the bottom of the boat, as true as a plumb bob on a plain. Gravity is curved here, just like earth, except we’re on the inside of a dimpled sphere or bowl.

Sabonis comes back, undoes my shoddy lashing, sets the rudder more firmly. The trench messes with the wind. Our sails alternately fill and collapse. Our momentum slows. The columns loom closer.

A gust inflates the port sail and jerks us out of the doldrums. We creep up the wall of water. The other sail fills and we climb higher. We leave the trench. Lethe reappears behind us, but the perspective changes as we rise above its dunes.

I wait for Sabonis to explain.

“Don’t look at me,” he says. “This is insane.”

“You had a boat,” I say. “Didn’t you ever notice?”

“I thought it was a fucking fog bank. I never came out this far.”

Dizzy with vertigo, I keep my head down. My empty stomach clenches.

The lead column crosses the trench off our port side. Sabonis clambers over the boat from stern to stern, tapping in pegs, tightening braces.

I brave another look. We ride up the wall like snails up the side of a goldfish bowl. I look across at Mt. Abdiel as if from the window of a jet liner. Ripples of déjà vu jolt me as memories of those days spent floating return.

The columnar storms on our tail have split wide and far apart. One races into the trench off starboard, bending almost ninety degrees as it climbs the wall. The other two linger far behind, cutting off any possible return to Lethe.

Their spiral arms have entangled the sky in a lacework of alternately congealing and dissipating wisps. The orb light pulses bright and dim as stripes of cloud shuttle past.

We sail on, rising higher above Lethe. The closest column comes alongside and passes us, as if determined to head us off.

Sabonis motions to me from the center board to nudge the rudder to angle away from the closest column. The rudder won’t budge. He lashed it too tight, leaving no play.

He bounds back and helps me loosen the lashings and together we haul on the assembly. The column bends its trajectory to match our maneuver.

“That fucker’s after our ass,” he says. “And I think it’s gonna get us.”

Roddie calls back. “The other squalls. There is a big space between them. We can squeeze through if we’re quick.”

Indeed, the back two columns have separated. Lethe is framed neatly between them.

“Fuckers. They’re like sheep dogs,” says Sabonis. “Herdin’ us back to the island.”

“It’s getting wider,” says Roddie. “We can shoot the gauntlet.”

Sabonis hems and hisses through his teeth. “Get ’er done,” he says, and pushes the rudder as far as it will go. We wheel around. Rodney sets the sails to tack to port.

I look over our heads. The sea curls up to a rim punctured by tangles of light, like searchlights through mist that bend and twist and squirm.

“No, wait!” I say.

“Whattaya mean, no?”

“Look up there!” I say. “This is the place I remember. This is where I floated in from.”

The beams stretch across the sky fading out and into visibility, all the way to the orb—a bright spot at the base of a massive, dark body hovering far above Lethe—the jellyfish-like creature that is Elysium – ringed by a filigree of translucent tentacles, bouncing and recoiling like springs.

The sight horrifies me. I would have vomited if I had anything left in my belly.

The column that headed us off, swoops after us. The two framing Lethe converge.

“It’s a fucking trap!” says Sabonis. “It just ain’t fair. They never fucked with Delgado like this. My first time out … look what happens.”

I haul on the rudder and the boat wheels abruptly back around, knocking him and Roddie over. But Roddie reads my intentions and gets the sails back open. We surge out of the path of the oncoming column, its mass and momentum carrying it past us.

A Niagara of wind pounds down on the cat. The water thrums. Spikes of foam whip up like a many-toothed monster. We dart through the chop towards the thicket of Elysial strands and slip into the clear.

The rearward columns close like jaws and obliterate each other with a clap of thunder like a sonic boom. They degenerate into spindly tangles of wind and mist.

The third column has come around and is back on our tail. Waves crash over the sides, swamping and slowing us to a creep. Conflicting gusts collapse our sails. I’m back to bailing, me in one hull, Roddie in the other. Sabonis stays at the rudder.

We drift up to the strands, like explorers on the verge of a rain forest. They shimmer just out of reach as the chasing column gains ground.

People float by, some as dark as Shades, some coated in a milky film that congeals into flesh.

I gaze over the side as I bail. The water is dark and unfathomably deep. A splash to our left, like a dolphin breaching. A strand emerges from the water, its end coiling and dripping. A black corpse bobs to the surface and drifts away, the milky film already forming on its skin.

But then we pass over a brighter area and it’s like looking up at the sea surface after a dive—the underside of gentle wind-blown ripples and a real sun, not an orb, in a sky herring-boned with cirrus.

We drift into the thick of the strands, a forest of them, bumping and rebounding off those that lie in our way. They look insubstantial but they bang into and slide off our hull, reeling and unreeling like fire hoses.

Roddie ties up to one of the stationary strands, and lashes the sails tight, and then ties himself up to the center board.

“This must be the place,” says Sabonis. “So where do we go from here?”

“Down there,” I say. “Gotta be.”

“Underwater?” says Sabonis. He looks down and sees what I saw and grins.

The approaching column blots out the orb light. Everything turns black but for the faint phosphorescence of the strands and sunlight seeping in from the living world.

The column strikes. A maelstrom seizes the boat and we whirl. Blasts of wind press down on our hulls. Pegs pop. Lashings groan but hold.

Strands of a different sort descend, thick and opaque, tinged the yellow of an amphibian’s underbelly. One tangles itself around a mast and tries to rip it off. Roddie attacks it with a knife, slashing it free. A milky fluid seeps from the cut end as it curls away.

Another strand attacks Sabonis. He bats it with an oar and it coils around the oar and yanks him out of the boat. He lets go, plunges feet first into the ocean. Bubbles trail from Sabonis’ beard as he disappears beneath the waves.

My arms are wrapped around the rudder assembly. The cat tips up, immersing the stern. A wave blindsides and tears me free, flushing me into the sea.
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