The gods were greedy. Cub picks his way across the Pile. The remains of religious worship is accumulated in mounds all around him. Wafts of incense blow in drifts, fires fan in the horizon, and the city sits like a jewel in the middle of it all. Cub stops and drops what he is inspecting. Something amazing has happened. He finds a box. It’s small and ornate with pretty hinges. Greedy, he sets himself at it. No luck. The box is wedged between the feet of some forgotten statue. He uses his hooked pole, usually used for picking through trash, to lever open the box. He is desperate for it. His small frame quivers with the amount of force he puts into prying at it. Inside was his ticket back to the Bridge, back to safety. His face burns, and he can feel tears on his cheeks. Finally, right at the end of what little strength he has the box gives. It pops free, falling to his feet. The wooden encasing is destroyed, cracked and chipped. He doesn’t care. Please, please be there. This runs like a mantra in his head.
He opens it.
The prize lies before him. A small porcelain doll: dead eyes, rosy cheeks. It’s the most beautiful thing he has seen. If he hurries he can get to the Bridge of Dolls before nightfall. Before the terrible taloned things come out. It is dangerous, but he must risk it. His heart beats quicker now. He takes a sip from the jar of water at his side attached by a red strip of prayer flag. His sips are slow, deliberate. He wraps the doll carefully with some rags he has disentangled from the heap that lies before him. He has made his decision.
The Bridge of Dolls burns bright in his mind. Getting there will be difficult. He knows there are many of the Named between here and there. The sun is setting. His shoulders are tight with anxiety. But, beneath that, there is hope and it burns bright right in his chest. He feels an odd sensation on his face. It hurts. He realises that for the first time in weeks that he is smiling. He can see the bridge now; it sits small on the horizon. It’s so far. He has to try.
Cub grips a dirty bundle that holds the prize in his left hand. His right grips the metal pole with the hooked end that is used for searching the pile or as a weapon when his life grows desperate. He shoulders this as he crests a trash mound looking towards the fiery city. He can hear chanting, and under that the sound of feet as they walk upon the bridgeways that radiate out from the distant towers that cut pink clouds ragged. The mounds he stands upon represent a promise, a fulfilment, of prayers answered, of lives saved, sins absolved. But for Cub they are a curse. Only his prize offers him an escape.
The distant city was built from the very bones of man. Decreed as a divine site, the grounds were chosen. The gods spoke and city was born, holy towers rose soon after, the great granite bridgeways followed: large raised causeways that spanned from the city like spokes of a great wheel. Then, with the pilgrims, the Pile, it rose. Then, when it couldn’t rise anymore, it stretched, sown like seed by the spiritual processions, further and further, feeding the ever-hungry pantheon.
Now it is, as Cub knows it.
There is no escaping the form of the city, or the distinct swathe of rubbish it has accumulated. Here and there are bits of things, pieces of a lingering past, spiritual contracts that now lie forgotten. Sheets of prayer paper, prayer flags, statues, animal bones, coins, cloth, broken wheels, dirty glass, jagged shapes of metal and wood were as common as trees, grass, and earth. As the pile grew the gods went to fat, the towers taller, the lights brighter. Some nights Cub has trouble telling the city lights from the stars.
The figures of the Named were few this far out in the mounds. He can see, from the top of a pile where he stands, only scattering of half glimpsed forms, they rise and then fall off in the distance. There was a rhythm to their movements, they were gleaning whatever had been deemed valuable that day: copper, metal, cloths were commonly sought, though, sometimes, it could also be flesh. Images come to him unbidden: of a woman screaming, telling him to run, they cut her down in their horrible robes, then there is only silence. The memory is forced aside as he is reminded of his bundle and he squeezes it, as if in reassurance. He doesn’t believe his luck. His pace is steady.
Further on the massive stone form of a bridgeway spans the mounds, upon it a caravan of anointed pilgrims just now depositing their tribute. It rains down cloth and money, and with it libations of alcohol. Those of the branded caste that had witnessed this arrival scamper over; they wade through the mud and faeces of the tribute point. They shove at each other and try to get what they can. A few men and women raise their heads to drink in the red that falls from up high, it runs like blood down their chins, they whoop in satisfaction before others jostle or cut them out of the way. They go down in a sprawl and do not get up.
Others had noticed this commotion, ghastly figures in dirty cloth, dark words inked into their cloth backs, arms, and headscarves. These words spelt many things, making Cub’s stomach knot upon seeing them. They were part of the Named: Ghost, Silence, and The Unending, and they set themselves upon the crowd. The dirty white-gray cloth of their garb turns pink and red. Cub turns his back to the screams, making certain to give that section a wide berth. He pulls his bundle close to himself and his rag-covered feet turn him towards the Bridge of Dolls. The screams however have drawn others, as if smelling the blood. More Named come. They carry rusted hooks and walk with a steady menace.
One comes for Cub now. It is named Ruin. Bits of the Pile cascade behind the figure. Cub turns his head at the sound and his heart beats like a trapped bird. No, this wasn’t meant to happen. Ruin breaks into run, dark words on cloth flap predatory around it. Its left arm stretches out as if to strangle Cub. Cub drops his package reluctantly, and takes hold of his hooked pole in a double grip. Raising it above his head, he brings it down as they meet. There is pain.
It is black.
He is crying. Tears burn their way across his face. He is suffocating, he can’t move. But he is till alive. The panic fades. He pushes at the lifeless corpse on top of him. Cub is very small so it is an effort. Light returns.
Ruin is dead. Red is written upon it. It does not move. He sees his bundle has fallen and is quick to retrieve it. If he notices the blood that soaks him he does not seem to care. A large slash marks his bare chest. Pain is forgotten. Cub has his prize. He is quick to retrieve his hooked pole; it has sunk deep into the flesh of Ruins face. He knows others are nearby, and death is something to be capitalised upon. Again, he runs.
Cub nears a second bridgeway. Upon it more pilgrims in flowing robes pass up high, the caravan brings with it the possibility of another sunrise. Underneath them in the growing dark gather the familiar sight of desperate men and women, holy guards peer down at them with faces of concrete. They clutch guns that spit fire with eager fingers. Cub had witnessed their anger, smelt the animal stink of their carnage, and he envied their power, and felt ashamed for it. He does not look up at the guards as he passes beneath them. The wound on his chest is now thick crimson and seeps slowly. He is light-headed. Men and women in wretched states push past him fixated on the possession. No-one stops to ask if he is okay.
As Cub leaves the bridgeway behind the pilgrims sow wealth and food uncaring on the masses below. Sometimes even newborns were cast down. Cub had seen this only a few times, he did not return to those places. Close behind packs of wild dogs follow the processions; he could hear their barking and baying and picks up his pace.
His legs and chest hurt but he cannot afford to be late, he cannot stop. He knows that the things that look like rats but aren’t follow the dogs. He is reminded of their eyes, feline and full of a dark intelligence. He shrugs off those memories as he comes to a river of raw sewerage, rainbow patterned. It gets between his toes as he makes his way across. Crows circle in the twilight, and behind him, on and on footfalls of the pilgrims fall like a constant rain. And in his head another mantra runs: faster, faster.
But Cub can only jog slowly. He has a stitch and is nearing exhaustion. There is only another hour before the bridge is shut against the night. Faster, faster.
He circles around another procession; he is close, but not close enough. Named scavengers on the tops of mounds flick their shrouded heads at his approach, and he shies away, making sure to never get too close. Further on he grows uneasy. Stopping to take a drink from the canister of water he has tied to himself, there is not much left. He makes to continue but stops. What’s that? He hears movement and so peeks over the top of the mound in the direction he thinks it has come from.
There, a hundred meters away roam Harvesters. They look for flesh. They must have spotted him as he left the bridge. The boys and girls move in a silence, lead by an older man. Fingers that are far too small hang from his neck. He grips two girls by their hair, pulling them along. Paint and black grease smears their faces. The children’s small arms hold metal bars with wicked hooks on the ends. They stare hungrily outwards, searching. He knows if he is seen he won’t escape. They tread closer. Closer still. Cub huddles down amongst the pile. He holds his breath. The man is so close now that, as he stops on the rise that Cub has just peeked from, he kicks rubbish down over Cub, who lies as still as death. You do not see me. You do not see me.
Dogs bay again in the distance and the group moves away, running in another direction. Cub slumps, he closes his eyes as the tension in his body bleeds away. Then he checks the bandages on his feet. It hurts to lift them, and when he finally eases them off, the wound there is red and angry. He rewraps it, takes another drink of water, then continues, sticking low to the unnatural depressions of the Piles mounds.
So close now. So close.
His heart thumps loud as he rounds a depression.
One of the Named sits in a rocking chair, worked in gold leaf and ornate flowers. The Named rocks back and forth, back and forth in the sighing breeze. The cloth and words written there are long since faded; sun-bleached and rat bitten. Brown stained is the cloth around the corpses’ eyes and mouth; a more palpable smell of decay hangs in the air. The corpses’ arms that had once been bandaged now lie at its feet, fingers missing. He moves cautiously around the corpse not trusting its stillness. Once he is past it he runs for a while, eager to make some distance. Blood fills his ears, thumping with every footfall. Bits of things claw at him as he passes; hands of the past. They point accusations, or try to snare his clothes or trip his feet. The shadows grow long around him.
After some time, other sounds come to him.
They make him stop and panic. He looks to the bundle. He can hear now more discretely the pleasant tinkling of cans and glass a ways off; he makes certain to avoid it. He hears cries for help a moment later. His jaw works nervously as he tries to pry open a cabinet that lies on its side. His nails scratch painfully at the doors. It opens after what seems like minutes. In it are clothes gone to mould, and it is now home to a couple of rats that sit on their haunches regarding him cautiously. All three of them flinch when they hear a loud clang and laughter, then the tinkling moves closer. He hops in, closes the door and goes stiff, listening. The rats rub their noses at him, regarding him cautiously with glassy black eyes. Suddenly there is movement above him; something has jumped on top of the cabinet. As it walks around there are clicks, like that of a taloned foot. Cub can’t think. There is a deep fear in him. Then the taloned thing screams and the whole cabinet shakes. Then it is gone, chasing some other prey.
The Pile settles and it is quiet again.
He thanks the rats for their hospitality by nodding his head, and carefully lifts his bundle out of the cabinet. It’s dark now as he lets the cabinets’ doors creak shut. The dreaded sounds of screeching and scrabbling come to him then. He picks up his pace shouldering his hooked pole. He is careful to make no sound, as he makes his way through the difficult terrain of tumbledown debris.
He comes to a familiar sight now. Bits of dolls appear, hung upon sticks and poles that are shoved haphazardly into the ground. The further he walks the more they become apparent. Votive figures, women in dresses, soldiers and priests, hang from ropes, or are nailed to surfaces. They are a warning, but they are also security. He holds the dirty bundle closer to his chest knowing now that this day is nearly over. The moon burns bright white in the night; it is not so hard to see the way. The black form of a bridgeway fills the horizon, and on top, fire burns, and again the familiar rhythmic pattern of feet falling on stone returns.
Cub is so close now. He can see the familiar patterns that play across the bridgeways belly, smell the cooked rat; hear the murmur of civilization, laughter, conversation. His eyes swim slightly, he wipes at them. There is warmth and water within those walls, and the promise of a night’s sleep unmolested by men or the things that claw through the nights, scratching, fighting, mating and dying in the dark.
Cub approaches the small shantytown that is not unlike a pup under its mother. It sits welcoming beneath the snaking form of the bridgeway. But the doors are closed. The mantra returns. No, no, no.
He hammers at them but gets no reply. He is too late.
He looks up at the men that man the shantytowns walls. Their faces are dark and he cannot see their details, they may as well be statues. He is shaking now. Through the bundle he clutches to his chest he can feel his heart beat, irregular. He drops the bundled doll, its wrapping unravels, and it stares out towards the city of gods with unseeing eyes.
In the dark the pile has come to life. A thousand yellow eyes regard Cub with a malicious hunger. And above him the feet still walk, unending, on and on.