I spent a month shipwrecked on a raft. Halfway to lunacy on a moonless night, it bumped up against a trunk of shadow –
a fleshy cylinder two dozen feet across, vanishing into the blackness above.
Feeling my way around the periphery, I noticed short ropes protruding every few feet. Gathering my strength I pulled myself up the tower rope by rope as the sea silenced itself below me.
Infinite ascension. The night wore on. As the salt dissolved from my tongue I realized I was tasting skin. Hours later I crested the boulder of a knee. Much later I fell exhausted into the crater of her navel. Rila. We watched the sunrise together.
Spend enough time tracing a leg and you will understand the depths of a person. Their decisions. The character that emerges after a lifetime of placing one foot after another. The tentativeness of each step.
By the second day I knew her better than I knew myself. Her face still hovered above the clouds, but at noon she went horizontal and I found myself euphoric as I scrambled across the valley and past the peaks to the plateau of her neck.
Sitting crosslegged, I watched her mastodon hands peel giant squids from sperm whales and eat them lustily. When the heavens opened, she patiently caught the rain in her mouth. As the sun fell to evening she grew a tectonic smile and greeted me.
There are people that line the top of clouds, she told me. An ancient civilization hiding from time and fate. Nervous folk, they scramble to her always. Wherever her head emerges every morning, they congregate – rebuilding their formless cities around her until night comes and she sleeps. Their muted hymns waft in and out of her dreams. To them she is a god.
There are another people that line the ocean floor. She felt them writhing between her toes for ages before a few dragged themselves to her knee one night. They are froglike and mostly blind, and their songs will cause nightmares and eventually madness. Wherever her body lays, they evacuate, rebuilding their fathomless temples to avoid contact. To them she is a monster.
Rila tells me that I have a choice. She can send me to live with the people in the clouds or the people below. To either, she will pronounce me a king and I will reign as long as I wish. Below I will become blind but immortal. Above I will be anxious but nimble. In the clouds I must deify her, under water I must fear her.
I protest, telling her that I wouldn’t do well with either. Nonsense, she insists. Both civilizations would be long dead if it wasn’t for her. Every sailor, pirate and castaway that approaches her is given the same choice. She has been feeding both societies since time immemorial.
I take a running start and dive off of her body into the waves, catching the underside of an orca who hurtles me far into the formless sea.
Days later I can still see her form reaching into heaven from a distance.
Illustration by Keren Albala