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Chapter 5

Chapter 5: The Slopes of Abdiel

I wobble after Bianca and Sabonis. My new geometry disturbs me. My legs swivel on unfamiliar hinge points. I sway now when I walk. And all the motion on my chest disconcerts me. I’m grateful for the tattered overcoat.

Bianca has no qualms about her nakedness. Her breasts are but puffs, her hips narrow, boyish, like a prepubescent girl’s. I suspect she is older than she seems. Her eyes carry an adult intensity and wisdom.

“You’re an angel, aren’t you?” I say.

Sabonis sniggers. Bianca shoots a glare at him.

“If it helps you to think of me as such, then yes, why not?”

The dunes transition to a firmer slope of ledge and soil, thinly fuzzed with grass and heather. It looks like ordinary rock and dirt and plants. Nothing supernatural about it. I feel cheated, somehow.

As this new aspect of my present reality registers, a pang of self-grieving blind-sides me. I’ve gone through waves of such grieving, out in the ocean; agonized, yearnings for the life I lost, facing the horror of never seeing Gina again, leaving without saying good bye. Baseball season was just starting. And I had just planted tomatoes in the back yard. Gone. All of it.

“I was only twenty-two,” I say. “Why … so young?”

“Don’t be silly,” says Bianca. “Death happens at all ages. It’s not the domain of the elderly. I was quite young when I died, in fact, younger than you. In some places, it’s the babies who are most intimate with death.”

We cross a well-worn path cutting across the slope. The grade steepens. We pass people, lots of them, most naked, many scared, some placid and hopeful.

“I’m not ready for this,” I say.

“Don’t worry,” says Bianca. “I’ll help you.”

She takes my hand. I feel, not flesh, but something less substantial. Her touch tingles and imparts more warmth than I expect.

I look to Sabonis. He is laboring, out of breath.

“My how the mighty have fallen,” says Bianca.

“I’m fine,” says Sabonis, huffing. “Just a little out of shape.”

“I’m amazed that you still walk the beaches, Marco. I thought for sure you would have been Collected by now.”

“Collectors know better than to go after me,” says Sabonis. “It’s the Facilitators I worry about.”

Bianca smirks. “Why are you so interested in this one, Marco? She’s doesn’t seem your usual choice of lap toy.”

Sabonis shrugs. “She’s … American, for one.”

“Excuse me,” I say. “I’m a he, remember?” My insides churn at the prospect of Sabonis as suitor—insides that feel all rearranged and alien.

“Just wanted to chat,” says Sabonis. “He’s got a good memory.”

“For what … news from home?”

“Yeah. News,” says Sabonis.

I note that he has yet to ask me a single question about current events.

“Stick with us, if you can,” says Bianca. “It’s never too late to Clear.”

“Me? Clear?” says Sabonis sputtering. “Again?”

“Why not?”

“Once was enough,” says Sabonis.

“You can’t just expect to just roam the beaches for all eternity,” says Bianca. “Eventually, your body will give out.”

“Who says I’m stickin’ around?” says Sabonis.

“Oh, stop with that nonsense,” says Bianca. “Haven’t you learned your lesson?”

“Delgado might have crossed me, but I copped his game,” says Sabonis. “I know how he does it. I know how he goes back.”

“Goes back … where?” I say.

“Go, then,” says Bianca. “Be off with you and leave us be. Let me attend to Miss … eh ….”

“Name’s Dan,” I say.

Bianca sighs. “Sorry. I forgot.”

“Where’s he going?” I say.

“Never mind,” says Bianca. “Let him go and we can attend to our business.”

“I’m coming along,” says Sabonis, following us to an indentation in the slope that seemed to have collected a particularly dense collection of people, as if people could puddle.

“You think so?” says Bianca. “I suspect … Dan’s … stratum will be far above whatever you could muster on your best day.”

“Oh, don’t worry about me,” says Sabonis, as we clamber up a steep chute piercing a line of low cliffs. “I’ll do just fine.”

We emerge into another crowd; clots of adults of every ethnicity stretching off into the fog. Many seem to be in pain. Strain etches their faces. They groan and shift endlessly.

“You’ll fare better than these poor souls my dear,” says Bianca. She looks at Sabonis. “At least they try.”

The grade steepens. Scrubby soil gives way to solid stone. Plants root solely in fissures.

I can no longer smell the sea. A relentless wind wraps around the slopes and drowns the crash of the surf.

The low clouds above tear open and tumble, revealing a promontory high above us. It barely registers on my retinas before the clouds swoop back in and consume it.

“That was the summit of Mt. Abdiel,” says Bianca, smiling. “You’re lucky. Most never catch a glimpse.”

“Lucky?” I say. I don’t feel lucky.

“That summit is our goal, Daniel,” says Bianca.

My stomach retracts. The peak looked impossibly high. Unreachable.

“Why?” I say. “What’s up there?”

“You’ll see, when you Clear,” says Bianca.

“But … how long will it take?”

“That’s up to you,” says Bianca. “Your journey begins once we find your stratum.”

“Isn’t it … cold?”

“No colder than here,” says Bianca. “Do you feel cold now?”

“Well … yes … but…”

My skin—or at least the skin of whatever lovely being I inhabited—is goose-pimpled. Yet I don’t shiver. I can shut out the discomfort as easily as closing my eyes.

“It’s not the cold you gotta worry about,” says Sabonis, catching up after falling behind.

“What do you mean?” I say.

“You’ll see. Once you hit your ceiling.”

“He may not have a stratum, Marco,” says Bianca.

“Everybody’s got a stratum,” says Sabonis, wheezing.

“You seem to be finding yours,” says Bianca. “So soon. Tsk, tsk.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I say.

Sabonis pierces me with his glare.

“She’s looking for the place of maximum misery where you can sit and suffer with the rest of these suckers.”

“There’s no more suffering once you’re Clear,” says Bianca. “The Clearer you get, the better you feel, the higher you’re able to climb.”

“Clear?” I say.

“Freeing yourself from all ties with the life you lived,” says Bianca. “But let’s not fret about that now. Let’s concentrate on finding your stratum. You’ll have plenty of time to work on Clearing.”

“Heaven,” I say, my eyes riveted to the heights hidden behind curtains of mist. “That’s it … up there. Isn’t it?”

Sabonis sniggers and coughs.

“You should only concern yourself with your Clearing,” says Bianca. “Discussion of broader issues is not helpful at this point in your journey.”

“In other words … you don’t wanna know, kid,” says Sabonis, wheezing.

We need our hands now to climb over slanted slabs. Halfway up the second pitch, it hits me. My innards knot with pain. It reminds me of the time I got food poisoning from a steak house salad bar. But my gut is empty. My only symptom is pain.

Sabonis slumps and crumples in a crevice atop the first slab. He unfolds and tries to resume climbing, straining like a rat in a sticky trap.

Bianca, meanwhile, glides up the mountainside. Her steps fall silently and precisely on the vaguest of footholds. She holds my hand, steadying me when I lose my balance, pulling me with startling strength over tricky spots.

Sabonis’ tousled head falls farther behind us, but he continues to drag himself onwards and upwards.

“So much for Marco,” says Bianca. “Come.”

Cramps knot my calves, my head aches, my heart clenches under a mounting pressure. “I have to stop.”

“Keep pushing,” says Bianca. “It helps if you empty your mind. Be one with the mountain. Flow with the wind.”

I try, but if it wasn’t for her firm grip on my wrist I would have crumpled.

Aggregations of people grow larger and denser. They part for Bianca. We squeeze past. Bianca ignores their entreaties. Deftly, she evades their grasp, coos sweet encouragements to them.

We pass through yet another layer of cloud, emerging into a clear space.

My lungs feel like a squeezed dishrag. My muscles go limp. I can go no further. I hang my head between my knees and vomit yet more seawater.

“Just a little bit farther?” says Bianca. “Come on!”

“No,” I say. “This is… as far as I go.” I lie on the rocks, panting. The pain overwhelms me in waves, ebbing when I let my mind drift, waxing when I think.

“Not bad,” says Bianca. “Quite good for a first climb. Don’t you agree, Abigail?” A frail black woman watches us from a boulder studded with glassy inclusions.

“Oh yes, ma’am. The girl’s real lucky to start this high,” says the woman. “Took me ages to get this far.”

Every joint and organ continues to throb. Rest brings no relief.

“Clear your head,” says Bianca, softly. “You’ll feel better. Flee from all thoughts. Be a stone. Be a tree.”

I would ask someone to club me with a stone, put me out of this misery, if I wasn’t already dead.

“Don’t think I can handle this,” I say, my voice shrill.

“Of course you can,” says Bianca. “You’re fine. We’re lucky to land you next to Abigail. She’s my charge as well and she knows all about getting clear. She’s left a lot more behind than you. Seven children. Thirteen grands. Seven greats.”

“How do I get this to stop?” I say.

“I told you. Leave yourself behind. Come to Lethe. Get Clear.”

“Not sure … I want to.”

“Shush! Of course you do. We all do. Millions of souls here would be giddy to attain half your stratum. Isn’t that right, Abigail?”

“Oh, yes ma’am. That girl, she’s lucky.”

“I’m not a girl! My name’s Dan!” I shout.

My insides have calmed somewhat, but I still feel like I did when I had the swine flu and could only lay on a couch and suffer, unable to focus on even the most mindless sitcom.

Bianca leans over, studies my face, and frowns.

“Actually, you look rather well,” she says. “Too well. Let’s see if we can eke a little bit more out of you. A few more steps. Abigail won’t mind if you pass her, will you Abigail?”

“No ma’am. Not at all.”

“I’m not moving,” I say.

Bianca flashes her translucent teeth. “Come on, just one little step.”

“Fuck off,” I say, almost growling.

“No reason to get testy,” says Bianca. “I suppose we’ll just let you rest and be pleased with your gains.” She looks down at the shifting clouds below.

“I’m off, then. But I’ll be back soon. Remember, be like the stone. We’re expecting big things from you, Daniel.”

Her eyes seek some sort of affirmation from me, but I can only grunt. In life, I had never felt so sick. My initial inclination that this place is not Purgatory, but someplace much lower, seems confirmed.

Bianca glides off, weaving up the mountain into the next layer of mists, until all I can see is her faintest glow.
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