The sun, and the sky and then the ground and rocks battling against his skull. He looked for the horse, and then nothing, disconnected blurs and flashes that whirled and then nothing again. His back was bleeding from being dragged along the dirt, and there were pebbles and clumps embedded into his skin; he had lost his tunic and one moccasin. His head felt battered and tender, and his jaw was not broken, but only just. The light hurt his eyes, but he could make out a figure in the semi-circle of illumination. A cave. He was in a cave. The back of a cave, and something’s in the mouth. Someone. The figure adjusted itself, and he could see that it was mostly human-shaped, almost, but hairier.
The Pulaski language does not have the word “motherfucker” in it.
“Motherfucker,” Cannot Swim said.
Before the Pulaski were the Mi-oh. Before the Mi-oh were the Shan. Before the Shan were the Tarka. The valley in between the sea and the mountains has been inhabited by humans for eight thousand years. Within a century of the first footstep in America, there was a village on the land that would one day be the neighborhood of Little Aleppo. There were fields bursting with fruits and berries, and trees bearing nuts and seeds, and woods full of game, and a lake full of fish. It became unbearably hot for only three days in the summer, and never froze in the winter. There were quakes, but no tsunamis because of the natural harbor. Each tribe that occupied the valley worshiped the quakes, but they did not fear them. The quakes were not worshiped like those who live under a volcano worship the volcano. The quakes could not harm them. None of their structures were heavy enough to kill someone caught in a collapse, and the villages were always far enough back from the mountains to make rockslides negligible. The Tarka thought the quakes were the Bear God laughing; the Shan took them as starting guns for orgies. The Mi-oh would, at the first rumble, sprint to the center of their village and begin singing. It was a sacred melody, and it was powerful magick, the Mi-oh thought; every time they had ever sung it, the quake eventually stopped. The Pulaski said that the temblors were The Turtle Who Was And Will Be Again reminding them of his predominance. Many peoples, many reactions to the same phenomenon.
But for the 8,000 years humans lived in the valley, nobody went up into the hills.
And then the Whites showed up.
Nothing could induce a White into sallying forth faster than a Native saying, “Don’t go there because you’ll die.” The Natives told the Whites not to go into the Amazon, and so they lashed together some canoes and died of yellow fever. The Natives said that the ice thickens around October and that the ship will become lodged in, and the ship became lodged in and everyone ate each other. The Natives said not to follow the Nile into the jungle, and the Whites immediately hit the river and became lost and began presuming at one another and died. Had there been natives in Antarctica, they would have told the Whites not to try walking across the continent, because they would die, and if there were, the Whites would have ignored them, and attempted to walk across Antarctica, and died. The Whites gave the men who ignored Natives a title of glory: they were called Explorers. Sometimes, the Explorers roped a Native into helping them explore, but the Natives were not called Explorers. They were Guides.
Hannah Speke did not have a Guide. No Pulaski would accompany him up and down the hills to map them, partly because they had all been murdered and dumped in a common grave the year before.
“He who summits the mount, names her,” Hannah Speke said.
“We got the same rule around here,” Miss Valentine said, smiling. The whores were hanging over the railing listening in.
It was early in the morning, and the first Wayside Inn was only speckled with drinkers talking quietly at the tables, and the faro game had not started yet. Piano player was still asleep. Miss Valentine and her guns were drinking coffee and reading the Cenotaph. She was behind the bar, and Hannah was in front of it.
“Those fucking savages didn’t have any honor.”
“They were a proud people,” he said.
“They’re a dead people.”
“Pride does goeth before a fall, Miss Valentine.”
When she smiled, her sliced face creased up and the scars took new angles. She didn’t show her teeth when she smiled. Poured him a drink of whiskey and then one for herself, and they both drank their whiskey down and replaced the glasses on the wooden bar.
“It was an arduous trek, ma’am.”
“Arduous? Please. It can’t be 5,000 feet up.”
“Grizzly, Miss Valentine. I saw three on my ascent. And puma. One shadowed me for my entire journey.”
“Which was a treacherous one.”
Miss Valentine wasn’t a madam; she wore black trousers, and a white shirt with gray suspenders over it. Brown boots that had been shined the night before. She was neither large or small for a woman of her era. Knife on her belt where you could see it; knife in her boot where you could not. Her shirt did not have a collar. They were separate garments at the time. There was another knife in her pants pocket. She glanced upwards, and the whores recoiled from the railing and away from her gaze.
“Frightful and perilous, yes. But I witnessed a creature in those hills–”
“Fuck off with that, Speke.”
“–ne’er before seen in Christendom. The beast that the Indians spoke of.”
“Bullshit. The only monsters in Little Aleppo live on the Main Drag.”
Hannah Speke reached for the bottle of Braddock’s whiskey, stopped himself.
“It’s going on your tab. Pour me one, too.”
He did, and they drank.
“They are not bear, Miss Valentine, nor are they North American ape. Lives above us a new category of creature, ma’am. Haunches like Heracles. The loins of Leonidas. Furry as Fenrir.”
“You’re a tedious fuck, Speke.”
“Hear me out. You back a hunting expedition. We’ll construct a trap for the animal, and bring it back alive.”
The largest of Miss Valentine’s killers, Canadian Bill, handed her a roll-up cigarette. He struck a match ZHWOP and lit hers first, then his, and then checked out the level of coffee in her cup.
“Why the fuck would I do that?”
“I don’t suppose ‘the spirit of scientific inquiry’ would satisfy you.”
The only science Miss Valentine had any use for was medicine, which wasn’t anything close to a science in 18–, and that’s only because medicine kept the whores alive and working. She also tolerated chemistry, as you could make bombs using chemistry, and sometimes you needed to blow up a rival’s bar.
“You could keep the thing in a cage and charge people to see it.”
Miss Valentine had a rule about ideas: they were to be considered without regard to their origin. Just because an idiot presented it–and she thought Hannah Speke was a complete fucking idiot–didn’t mean the concept was inherently flawed. She used to run a place in Tulsa. Had a mermaid. It was the top of a dead kid stitched to the bottom of a catfish. Folks came from miles around to see it, and drank and fucked while they were there. When Miss Valentine told the story, the punchline was “Finding a dead girl was a snap, but it took us three days to catch the fish!” Everybody always laughed when she told that story, no matter how many times they’d heard it before.
And, she figured, if she was paying for the little trek, then she could pick the men. She’d send her men. The Turnaway Lode down in the valley was spitting out gold, so surely there must be some in the mountains. Prospectors had gone up, and come back empty and spooked. Some hadn’t come back, and soon the Whites on the Main Drag were just as scared of the Segovian Hills as the Pulaski had been.
Fuck ’em, she thought. More for me. Ain’t no such thing as monsters.
Miss Valentine hired three mountain men to accompany Hannah Speke, and paid for a cage to be made of iron. Several drunkards were brought on to hump the cage up the tallest of the seven hills, which the Cenotaph had only recently begun referring to as Pulaski Peak. The team was heavily-armed, and they were hard men of the outdoors, except for the drunks, who were drunks, and Speke, who was in his tweed hunting suit with the high, black boots that he wore on the outside of his trouser legs.
The cage returned three weeks later, it was sitting on the Main Drag when everyone woke up; the boots were within, and the bars were crumpled and bent. No more hunting expeditions were sent into the hills for a very long time.
“Is this one of those stories where someone dies at the end?”
“Dunno,” Flower Childs said to the starved man on the horse.
“I hope so. Those are the best kind.”
He was on fire, the starved man, and so was the horse. The flames looked like water. They flowed up from the ground, over the animal’s shrink-wrapped shanks, and over the man’s legs and up the shrunken chest and corded neck and gaunt cheeks. There was a hat. The hat was on fire, as well.
The summit of Pulaski Peak had been flattened in 1934 to facilitate Harper Observatory’s construction. When he feels like it, man is an irresistible force, and mountains, though they look it, are not immovable objects. You can absolutely move a mountain. It just takes money, and in 1934, the New Deal money was flowing into Little Aleppo just like the rest of the country. Use the money to buy dynamite and bulldozers. Use the dynamite to blow up the tippity-top of the mountain. Use the bulldozers to push to push the rubble down the slope. Repeat until you have ten acres of flat land, diamond-shaped with soft angles, room enough for a park and a parking lot and churro stand and maintenance buildings and several antennae and an observatory and a crescent-shaped stand of trees.
The 100-inch telescope, once the largest on the West Coast, sat in a building that was an exact replica of the White House, but bigger. Harper Observatory was named after Harper T. Harper, and Harper T. Harper thought Franklin D. Roosevelt could go fuck himself. He got a White House? Bam: I got a White House, too, and it’s bigger than yours. And I can fucking walk, you class-betraying sumbitch. Plus, I made you paid for it, dumbass.
The observatory was on the west side of the diamond; it overlooked Little Aleppo.
The trees were Peregrine Maria trees, and they were knurled and knotty and the bark looked tumorous with bulges; their branches spiraled up the 100-foot trunks in a helix. The trees grew leaves plentifully, and the leaves were 13-pointed and the size of a child’s hand. Deep green and waxy on the front side, and pallid olive on the other. The Pulaski had chewed the peregrine leaf, when the tree grew in the valley. The Whites felled them, without knowing what they were, to lay down Sammartino Street. The peregrine does not grow naturally on the top of Pulaski Peak, and even if it did it would have been uprooted during the leveling of the summit. No one knows who planted them, but they are now protected by the federal government.
The trees were on the east side of the diamond; they overlooked America.
In between was the park, which had blacktopped trails running through it, and here was an elm and here was an oak; benches, and a small bandstand where jazz combos played in the summer, and teens got high in all year. During the day, Yuri ran the churro stand, but it was dark out now and he was not there. There were furtive lovers and first daters and the parking lot was half-full of hotboxed station wagons. None of them paid any attention to the Fire Chief and the Jack of Instance. They were in the middle of the park, the middle of the summit, out in the open field of grass where the astronomers played pick-up games of soccer at dawn.
“You’re the Chief. You’re in charge. Chief.”
“You got a name?”
“If you could pronounce it correctly, the sound would drive you mad.”
“You’re a tedious fuck.”
“Wish the churro guy was still around.”
Flower Childs was over six feet tall, and almost 200 pounds, and she had an axe and a dog. The dog was a dalmatian named Ash-Nine, and she was the direct descendant of Ash, who was the very first Fire Dog in Little Aleppo. Ash was a mean little fuck; she’d bite anyone who got in the way of the wagon when they were rolling to a job, dashing back and forth in front of the massive horses nipping children and chomping on looky-loos. When the firemen worked, she watched the gear, and she did not growl if you got too close, just bit you. She’d snap at the firemen, too, but they’d sock her in the snout. It was the past, and dogs were allowed to bite people, and people were allowed to punch dogs.
No one would ever punch Ash-Nine, and she would never give anyone a reason to: she was a sweetie, and as deaf as she was stupid. The firemen brought her to the grade school to teach children how to stop, drop, and roll. They dressed her in silly outfits to raise money for worthy causes. She came along on calls because firemen are superstitious–it surely must be the worst of luck to try to fight a fire without a dalmatian–but mostly she napped on her favorite couch in the common room of the station on Alfalfa Street, and whined for food in the kitchen.
Ash-Nine was hiding behind Flower Childs’ legs.
“Are you going to hit me with the axe?'”
The Jack of Instance had a lance. The butt was resting on the ground, and the point was above his head. It was just as on fire as he and the horse were.
“Do you think that’ll work?”
The horse snuffled, and flames shot from its nostrils.
“Because I don’t think that’ll work. Shit, I wish that churro guy was still around.”
“You pissed yourself, Sidney.”
“Piss off. Haaaaa ha ha. Piss off.”
Sidney Shines was missing an ear and taped to a wall. He was having a terrible night. He had had a plan, and he thought it through a hundred times, and it ended well for him each time. A rifle, a knife, meat, delivery, payment. Sidney did not see what could possibly go wrong, and he was now duct-taped to a wall in a rented house and missing an ear. The left one. Capolina Gardner sat Indian-style to his right. Her husband, Harry, was to his left.
Harry was a werewolf.
There might be werewolfs everywhere. If your next-door neighbor was a werewolf–a conscientious one, a werewolf that did not roam around eating chickens and drunks, a hairy and fanged metamorph that just stayed inside and watched teevee with the curtains drawn–how would you know? You don’t understand the human you share a mattress with. The fucker next door is a complete mystery. Anything at all could be happening next to you.
He growled; it sounded like a bus drag-racing. Capolina reached out and gave him scritchy-scratches on his muzzle. Sidney lolled his head from right to left.
“Oh, Sidney. Don’t.”
He was stupefied and nodding and drooling.
They were in a living room on Bailey Street, five houses down from the one-bedroom cottage that Harry and Capolina rented. There was a clear line-of-sight between the two. The olive-green curtains were pulled and the room was its own universe: captive, captor, werewolf. A rifle laid on the muted-red carpet by the window. Capolina had brought a flashlight, but she decided that turning the lights on in the house was less noticeable than a single beam bouncing around within shuttered windows.
“This will not do, Sidney. Up and at ’em.”
“You force my hand.”
There was a towel in front of Capolina. It was a hygienic towel, a towel that promised antisepticism and modernity, and it was laid out with no wrinkles whatsoever. Syringes laying upon. Swabs, and ties, and wipes. A scalpel, too, and pliers in plastic wrap to keep them sterile. There were eight syringes, and one was empty. Seven full. All labeled in her small, neat handwriting; blue ballpoint pen on white tape. She chose the third from the left. Held it up to the light to see if there were air bubbles. There were. Flicked it with her middle finger, and the bubbles jumped up towards the needle. She pushed, slightly, on the plunger. No more air, just thick serum that was milky-white. She wiped his neck with an antiseptic swab, and thought that she should have started a line. Next time, she thought. Next time someone tries to eat my husband and I’m forced to torture information out of him, I will start a line, she thought.
She didn’t have a line. Just a syringe with a 23g needle and a 2 cc barrel, which slid into Sidney’s jugular vein. Blood flowed, just a drop; Capolina blotted it with gauze. There was a rush of crimson into the chamber, so she pushed with her index finger and the substance that was in the needle was now in Sidney and he HRAPH HRAPH coughed and now his eyes were open and his head no longer lolled, and he knew exactly what was happening to him. He sucked in air like a landed fish.
Sidney’s heart was thramping and near damnation. WaPAH WaPAH. He felt like his chest was under assault from within, a cardiac fifth column, and there was sweat in his eyes. Everything was open, all that he had, from his asshole to his lungs; he breathed deeper than he had in years. His pupils were the size of teachers.
“Yeah, you feel good. I have some questions.”
Harry licked the spot on Sidney’s head that used to bear an ear.
“He has some teeth.”
“You can’t do this to me,” Sidney said.
“We’re doing it to you.”
“I’ve got rights.”
Capolina swabbed his neck once more and slipped a needle right into his jugular vein. Pushed. Sidney’s eyes rolled back.
“You’ve got rights. I’ve got drugs and a werewolf. Guess who wins in the short run?”
Harry smelled meat and cigarettes. Must from unwashed clothes. Sidney had been to Yung Man’s two days ago. No, three. Booze, too, but Harry didn’t drink enough to place the scent with any specificity. The blood from his neck. He had dried cum in his shorts, or on his balls. Gasoline. How did animals do it, he wondered? To be able to differentiate all these smells, but not have the words for them. He could tell the dried sweat from the new sweat.
“You’ve gotta understand: there was a lotta money at stake,” Sidney said. He turned to Harry and said, “It wasn’t personal.”
Fraction by fraction, little bit at a time, Harry opened his cavernous mouth while inching his head forward until Sidney’s face was secured within his jaws.
He bit down gingerly and one of his four-inch long canines, the right one, pierced Sidney’s forehead and blood started. Harry blotted his tongue against the flow without moving his teeth.
“Harry! Don’t eat his face!”
He withdrew, but slowly.
“Sid. Sidney. Siiiiiiiiid.”
Capolina was smiling and her hair was still in its work ponytail.
“Do you know what this is for?”
She held up a length of blue rubber tubing, stretchy and medicinal.
“It’s a tourniquet.”
“It is. Good eye, Sid. But I’ve been hitting you in the neck. Can’t use a tourniquet on a neck, obviously. So what did I bring the tourniquet for?”
His legs were duct-taped together, so she had to thread the rubber tubing between his knees, and then wrapped it tight around his right leg; the rubber was tacky and caught against itself. Circulation stopped and he looked at his leg, her, the werewolf, his leg, her.
“Did you figure it out?”
“This isn’t right.”
She removed his right shoe, which was black and steel-toed. The sock, white with a hole.
“Have you figured it out yet?”
Harry was drooling.
“Don’t do this.”
“I don’t want to, Sidney! I totally don’t want to do this. Neither does Harry.”
“Okay, Harry wants to eat you. But he doesn’t have to. You can make all of your problems go away, Sid. All you have to do is tell the truth. The truth shall literally set you free, Sidney.”
“You’ll let me go if I tell you who hired me?”
“Yes,” she lied.
“What does it even mean?”
“Jack of Instance,” Flower Childs said.
“Oh, you know: the god of the sucker punch. I’m the phone call at four in the morning. I’m the car that skips the curb. I’m the flood. I’m the cave-in. Life changes slow most of the time, but sometimes your whole life changes real fast. In an instant. That’s me.”
Ash-Nine had begun to whimper, and Flower’s knuckles were white around the axe. She had on no jewelry except a black digital watch, and her blue twill pants were cuffed above heavy black boots. There were radii of sweat under the arms of her white button-down shirt with the nametag and the pockets.
“Why are you setting my fucking neighborhood on fire?”
“Well, someone has to. I drew the short straw. My cousin? He’s the god of sexual reunions. You know: you haven’t seen someone you used to fuck in years, and then you see them and fuck? That. He’s the god of that, and I will be totally honest: much better gig. There’s more joy in his work, at least. But, hey: we deal with our lot.”
“Uh-huh. Can you fuck off?”
“Are you even listening? I’m a manifestation. I don’t live within reality; I’m created by reality. I can’t go someplace else because I’m already there. And if I went someplace else, I’d still be here. I got a real ‘omni’ quality to me.”
“Why the notes?”
“I was bored.”
And Flower Childs hurled the axe at him, one-handed and overhead, and end-over-end it flew true right into the Jack of Instance’s chest SHWOP and it quivered a bit. He looked down, at the axe sticking out of his torso, and then back at Flower.
“I didn’t think you were gonna do it.”
“I did,” she said.
“Yeah. Huh. Good for you. Moxie.”
He pulled the axe from his chest and held it out towards her. They were maybe ten feet from each other.
“You want this back?”
“Seriously. This looks expensive. Take it.”
“I’m not tricking you. I’m not gonna bite you when come over here.”
“I’m good. Fuck you.”
“I’ll toss it to you.”
“Don’t toss a fucking axe at me.”
“Gently, I’ll toss it gently.”
“It’s an axe, jackass. There’s no gently.”
“Fine, fine. I’ll throw it over there.”
The flaming man chucked the axe well to Flower Child’s right; it landed on the grass with a PLUMPF. She stood fast for a moment, two, three, and then she rolled her eyes and walked over and picked up the tool, gripped it tight again, and walked back to where Ash-Nine was crouched trembling in her own piss.
“As I was saying–”
SHWOP the axe was in his chest again.
“Are you fucking kidding me?”
“Anyone ever tell you you’re a fucking asshole?”
“Plenty of people.”
“They were right.”
“Probably. Did I kill you this time?”
The Jack of Instance pulled the axe out of his chest, and the horse reared a bit.
“No, you didn’t kill me.”
“Gimme the axe back.”
“No, now you don’t get it back. Dick.”
Over in the bandstand were three teenagers, one of whom was narrating the action between the fiery rider and the Fire Chief, and two of whom were refusing to pass the joint to the first one any more.
It was just a dinky cavity in the north face of what would later be called Mt. Chastity, not more than a dozen feet deep and likewise high. Half that wide. Proportions of a thick textbook, chunked out of the mountain’s side, and Cannot Swim was propped against the back wall. He was half-naked. His right moccasin was gone, and so was his tunic. His breachcloth was twisted halfway around his hips, and his dick was out; bare ass on the chilly clay of the ground inside the cave. His arms ached, and his head felt like rocky morning, but it wasn’t morning any more. The light had waned, the angle shifted, outside the cave’s mouth.
There was a squatch sitting in the cave’s mouth.
It was wider than a man, and its head was bulbous. The mouth was part of a snout–not vulpine, just subtle, but a definite snout–and the nose took up half the face above. Cannot Swim could not see its eyes. The ears were covered in a thick fur that, in the light, was the color of a redhead swiftly going gray. Silvery-orange. It was unlike a gorilla in that its chest was fully hirsute; the pelt got even thicker in the abdomen, and so Cannot Swim could not tell if it was a male or female. One knee was on the ground, and the other pointed towards the ceiling of the cave, and it was leaning on its right arm. Cannot Swim had not anticipated that squatches would sit so casually.
There was a noise from the animal, an elongated and varied one with pauses and breathy plosives. Cannot Swim had not heard many languages in his life. Pulaski, of course. He knew the White tongue by sound, and could imitate it with nonsense noises–“Hurrah hurrah hurrah”–and had been fascinated by the sounds that came from the men his cousin Talks To Whites told him were called Chinese when he was in C—–a City, but none other than that. It didn’t matter: gooey bits deep inside his brain lit up and buzzed and (though the Pulaski language does not have a word for motherfucker in it) Cannot Swim thought, This motherfucker’s saying something.
The boy pointed to his chest.
And the squatch pointed back with gnarled fingers and made a noise that was almost precisely, but not exactly, Caaaanuh Swih.
The Pulaski did not give thumbs-up. Gestures are cultural. They touched their thumb to their middle finger, hand pointing up and palm out. Cannot Swim did so, then tapped on his chest again.
The squatch made the noise again. Caaaanuh Swih.
“You got it.”
Now the beast in the mouth of the cave slapped its chest, not hard, and made a sound. Prah-nlah.
It made the sound again, and slapped its chest. It did not point, because gestures are cultural. Cannot Swim repeated,
The squatch pounded the hard ground with its palm, twice, three times, and hooted upwards. Cannot Swim figured he should do the same, and so he did. They hooted together for a moment.
It was all a lie, Cannot Swim thought. There are no monsters swimming in the harbor, and there are no beasts stalking the mountains. His father had lied, and so had his mother, whose name he would not say, and the elders. These were not demons of the mountains, they were men like the Pulaski. There was nothing to fear. They were just like us, he thought.
The squatch made like he was holding a great imaginary sandwich, and then took exaggerated chomps from it ROMF ROMF and then disengaged its hands from the sandwich configuration to point–double guns-style–at Cannot Swim while nodding up and down with a smile on its face. Then, back to sandwich and ROMF ROMF and then one more thick index finger towards the boy, and then towards its open mouth, and the boy, and its mouth.
Gestures are cultural, but there was no mistaking that bullshit.
Cannot Swim scrambled to his feet. He was wobbly and lightly concussed, and he searched in the shallow light for a rock to use against the squatch, who was standing and so much bigger than he was when he was sitting down; there was nowhere to juke or jive, and the walls held no crags to use for position. His satchel and rifle were at the creature’s feet, out of reach, and then it advanced and then BLAM its head exploded into the cave. Two small pieces of brain landed on Cannot Swim’s stomach.
It stood there for a second, face like a prolapsed asshole, and then fell forward with dead muscles and landed in a clump.
Other shots now, from outside the cave, BLAM BLAM BLAM, and PAP PAP and SHBOOM. Multiple guns. There is howling outside, and though the Pulaski language does not have a word for “motherfucker” in it, someone outside was calling the squatches motherfuckers at the top of his lungs. His breechcloth is still twisted and his dick is hanging out; he steps over corpse and puts his hand up to shield his eyes from the sun outside the cave.
A horse is kicking a squatch to death; its chest is caved in and leaking on the grass of the small plateau. There are two dead squatch on their backs off to his right, and more–alive–running towards a crack in the mountain rocks that conceals a path upwards, and then SHBOOM from right in front of him.
His cousin with a rifle.
“I’ve saved your life twice now.”
Cannot Swim was not in shock, but he was not far from shock, either. He was close to shock and WHAP Talks To Whites slapped him, hard, and Cannot Swim recoiled in pain; his eyes focused. Stranger Who Hunts Well and Stranger Who Hunts Well’s Useless Friend were flanking the horse. Stranger Who Hunts Well had revolvers and he was BLAM BLAM winging shots at the retreating beasts. His Useless Friend had a pistol, too, but he was reloading it poorly.
And then it was quiet. The smoke from the guns was harsh for a moment, but it was windy in the hills and in less than a minute, you’d never know anything happened; even the cordite smell was gone.
“He okay?” Stranger Who Hunts Well called out in English.
“Yeah,” Talks To Whites answered.
There was a sound like SHMLARF RONCH RONCH.
“Praise the Lord,” Stranger Who Hunts Well’s Useless Friend said.
“Yeah, you do that,” Talks To Whites said.
There was a sound like SHMLARF RONCH RONCH and the four Pulaski men, two of whom were not Pulaski, and one of whom was not technically a man yet, looked around the small grass-covered plateau to find the source, which was Easy Life eating the squatch he had kicked to death. The chest cavity was meaty paste, and the horse would riiiiiiiiip chunks off and crunch them up, muscles and tendons and ligaments all at once, with his broad teeth.
Easy Life looked back at the four, spat out a piece of rib bone, went back to his meal.
“Is that normal for horses?”
“I don’t know,” Talks To Whites said in Pulaski. “Grab your shit. We need to go.”
Cannot Swim picked up his rifle and tossed his satchel over his bare shoulder.
“Your dick’s out, cousin.”
Cannot Swim rotated his breechcloth so that his dick was no longer out.
“How are you here?”
“Easy Life got us.”
“You can speak Horse, too?”
Talks To Whites squinted at his cousin, and then he took him under the armpit and hustled him across the small grassy plateau. Stranger Who Hunts Well had reloaded both his Colt 1851 Navy revolvers, and scanned the horizon with them. Stranger Who Hunts Well’s Useless Friend had an 1848 Colt’s Dragoon pistol, and he was still trying to get the chamber open. When the boys had made it to the trailhead of the path that led down the hill, the men retreated and followed them. The four descended until they realized the horse was not with them, and then Talks To Whites scampered back the quarter-mile to the plateau and yelled,
“We’re leaving, dummy!”
Easy Life was enjoying his meal–squatch might be tastier than chipmunk, he thought–but he looked around and there were no humans around; much as he hated people, he was also used to being around them, and so he took one last big hunk out of the squatch’s shoulder and trotted over to Talks To Whites while he chewed.
They walked along, the five of them. Cannot Swim removed his remaining moccasin and tread barefoot, cautious of his step. The two who were not Pulaski led, and they spoke the White language to one another. The two cousins spoke Pulaski. The horse said nothing at all.
“I have failed my Assignment.”
“I have. I was sent to retrieve the mushrooms with the curly stalks that grow on squatch dung. I did not. I have failed.”
“Dude, it’s okay. They,” he waved at the two men in the lead,” “have a stash of mushrooms in their kotcha. We’ll grab some.”
Cannot Swim did not know what to say to this. It seemed like cheating, but he had almost been eaten less than an hour before, so rules seemed more like guidelines at the moment.
“Stranger Who Hunts Well says that one of ’em ambushed you about halfway up. He’s a good tracker, dude. He, like, read the ground and everything. We followed your trail up. I’m just glad you’re okay, cousin.”
They stopped and hugged each other, and then started back down.
“What are they like?”
The tall lamps that illuminated the park in front of Harper Observatory had tops on them that looked like coolie hats, thick and metal and painted black on both sides to suck in the lighting and direct it downward to keep it from poisoning the telescope. Headlights flashed across the grass as cars exited Skyway Drive and turned right into the parking lot.
The Jack of Instance was on fire, and so was the lance he carried, and so was the horse he sat atop. The axe, which was in his left hand, was not on fire.
“Chuck it back,” Flower Childs said.
“No. You’re gonna throw it at me again.”
“Naaah. Hey, if I chop your head off, will you die?”
“I’m definitely not giving the axe back after that question.”
“Why the notes? You’re some bullshit…fucking…manifestation or whatever. Spirit of fire or some shit.”
“I’m not the spirit of fire.”
“Why the notes?”
“Because we’re the same, you and–”
“Ow! Was that a rock? Did you throw a fucking rock at me?”
“Don’t gimme that ‘we’re the same, you and I’ shit, you flaming asshole. Don’t gimme that ‘for the light to exist, so too does the dark’ shit. Fuck that. Fuck you for even thinking it. We both made choices, and mine was better than yours. Don’t drag me into your bullshit.”
He chucked the axe well right of her. It landed PLUMPF in the grass.
“We have a connection.”
“You can deny it.”
“I will. To my dying fucking day.”
“We have a connection.”
“Stop throwing rocks!”
“Fine. The axe.”
Flower Childs walked over to the axe, picked it up, and the park was empty when she straightened up. No man, no horse, and nothing at all was on fire. Three teenagers were getting high in the bandshell. There were secret drinkers in Fords in the parking lot. The telescope had astronomers crowded ’round it. There were owls in the peregrine trees to the east. Everything was quiet and dark.
“C’mon,” she said to Ash-Nine, and tapped her on the head because the dog was deaf. They walked to her red-and-white Mustang; she set the axe on the backseat, and the dog rode shotgun. Out of the parking lot, back down Skyway Drive, and into the valley where the fire station on Alfalfa Street was. Flower lived on Alfalfa Street, too, and when the sun was about to start coming up, Pedro Sanpedro relived her, and she walked east to her house. She took off her boots before she eased the front door open, and padded into the front room in her white socks. Unbuttoned her shirt, and then the blue twill pants, and then unlatched her bra and took down her underwear and slipped into bed behind Lower Montana, who was almost still asleep and said,
And Flower snaked her arm under Lower, and the other one went around, and she held her tight.
“I’m proud of you, Sidney. You made the right choice.”
Sidney Shines still had two feet, and Capolina Gardner had a name. Mr. Leopard.
“And what good does it do you? He’s a Town Father. You can’t do shit to him.”
“I’m sure we can’t. But just in case I’m wrong, you’re going to take us to him.”
Sidney was full of 89 chemicals, and his head felt like Mercury spinning ’round the sun; there was pressure and heat and speed. His skin was tingling, and he had to keep looking at his shoulders to make sure they were still there. His vision was rangy and weird; Capolina flipped between close-ups and wide shots.
“Wha? No. No, nuh-uh.”
“Would it help if I said ‘Please?'”
Harry bit off his big toe.
Capolina was quiet for a moment as she watched her husband eat the man’s toe.
“Sid, I’m not gonna lie. That was fucked up.”
She rubbed Harry behind his triangular ears, and then under his muzzle.
“We were doing so well, though.”
She stanched the bleeding.
“We were getting along so well. And then you had to go and be a dick.”
Sidney was breathing shallow and often. He was sweating. His chest rose and fell under the duct tape that held him to the wall. Capolina picked up a syringe from the towel.
“Scopolamine, Harry. It’s a hypnotic. Tends to make one a bit suggestible.”
She pierced the skin on his neck.
“Plus some other stuff.”
And drove the needle home into the vein. Plunger down. Sidney took a breath, two, three, and then his eyes glazed over.
“Sid. Siiiid. Sid? Over here, buddy.”
Capolina snapped her fingers an inch from Sidney’s nose a few times. He looked at her dully.
“Sid, let’s go for a drive.”
Cloudy Eyes was singing a song she had written just for Cannot Swim, and the whole village listened and swayed and ate, except for the drummers behind her. They had tom-toms made of cedar wood and deerskin, and hoop drums made of bear rawhide. 4/4 time. The children danced at the edge of the fire’s light. Cannot Swim was no longer one of them, as he had passed his Assignment. The feast was in his honor. He smiled and greeted all his relatives, and listened to Cloudy Eyes’ song. He thought he was too upset to eat until he smelled the food. No one else had any problem with the day’s events, from the looks of it: Talks To Whites was sniffing around after Too Long Neck like usual; Stranger Who Hunts Well and his Useless Friend were still babbling at each other in the White language; Easy Life was laying down and dead asleep by the communal storehouse.
Cannot Swim felt like a failure. He had not harvested the mushrooms that he presented to the elders; Stranger Who Hunts Well had parceled them out from his stash.
He wandered down to the lake; it held the full moon captive, and there were blips and ripples upon the surface. Off to his right was the mountain that would be called Mount Lincoln sinking into the sea, and to his left was black and night and nothing. The sky held all the stars in the world.
“How’d it go?”
Cannot Swim leapt, just a bit, and tried to pretend he hadn’t. Here And There was standing next to him. She was wide and barefooted and the only Pulaski with freckles.
“So, how bad could it have been?”
“I was captured by a squatch. I had to be rescued.”
“That sounds awesome.”
“It was not. I should have been able to complete my Assignment by myself.”
“Your Assignment was to go up into the hills and bring back mushrooms. You did.”
“I guess you should go back up and do it again, then.”
Cannot Swim was silent for a moment.
“If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.”
“There you go. All the Assignment is is a pre-planned traumatic experience. The key requirement for a boy to become a man is that the boy not die. Did you die?”
“Today, you are a man.”
Here And There was barefoot. Cannot Swim was wearing his father’s old moccasins; they fit well. She turned to face him, and he could have sworn she looked hin in the eye even though she was a foot shorter than he. Here And There said,
“Tell me, cousin: what have you learned?”
“Everything outside the village is dangerous.”
“Don’t be so sure of the village.”
And he blinked and she was gone. Cannot Swim walked back to the feast.
Mr. Leopard was in the kitchen of the restaurant with no name; he was eyeing the telephone hanging on the wall, and hissing at a cook. There was a way to cut shallots, he stated in a cold voice, and whatever this is isn’t it. Service had begun and he had more important things to worry about, but he was forced to deal with the shallot issue. He had four tables in the dining room–two four-tops, a threesome, and a couple–and instead of catering to them, he was worrying about the shallots. Goddammit, man, the shallots.
It was tough being a perfectionist, Mr. Leopard thought, but someone had to be.
There was quiet from the dining room where once there had been conversation, and Mr. Leopard’s bald head cocked. He checked himself in the mirror by the door that led out of the kitchen, and then out the swinging doors, and now he is in the dining room which is empty except for a woman in dark-blue scrubs and a ponytail sitting at the table in the middle of the room. Table Six.
He stood there, briefly, placed a hand to his chest, attempted a smile. Held up his index finger, which had an extra knuckle, and backed into the kitchen. Pots simmered, and pans sizzled, and there was no one in the kitchen.
Mr. Leopard straightened his tie.
Back into the dining room.
“This is a private eating club, ma’am. Are you a member?”
“Sit down, asshole.”
“Do you even know my name?”
“I don’t,” Mr. Leopard said. He smiled. He had too many teeth. “Your last name is Gardner.”
“My married name is Gardner.”
There were half-eaten plates in front of them, forks with meat still quivering on the tines. The wine glasses had fingerprints and lip smudges on them.
“Which means you’re the wife of…”
He tidied up the setting in front of him.
“Harry. His name is Harry. You were going to turn him into dinner for rich assholes. Harry.”
“What a sturdy name.”
Capolina held the water-glass up to the light, turned it this way and that, shrugged, sipped from it.
“I’m a Town Father,” he said.
“What does that mean?”
“It means I can do far more for you alive than dead. You’re wearing nurse’s scrubs. I assume you work at St. Agatha’s. How would you like to be Chief of Nursing? Harry, his name is Harry, your husband is Harry. Do you travel? Little Aleppo is looking for a trade representative. You would promote the neighborhood all over the world. The good parts of the world. Your own personal Town Father. You and Harry are young. Just starting out. Think of what a powerful friend could do for you.”
The dining room was calm and still, and the carpet was very thick and so was the wallpaper, and so there was no noise at all when Harry, who was a werewolf, placed Sidney Shines’ head on the plate in front of Mr. Leopard.
“Y’know what? We’re gonna pass,” Capolina said.
Harry smiled. He had too many teeth.
SIX MONTHS LATER
Everyone loves a grand opening, and no one opened grander than the Wayside Inn. Same location on Sylvester Street, across from the Wash-N-Slosh and Madame Cazee’s, and same layout as the old one. The deejay booth was in the corner, and the dance floor was in the middle, and the bar stretched along the east side of the room. A few tables, some booths. Bathrooms where they should be, with a coke dealer standing outside. The disco ball was disco balling.
Precarious Lee was behind the bar. Lower Montana had started off the night as the bartender, but she did not know what drinks were made of and became flustered. Some people become smarter when they are yelled at, and others become dumber. He spelled her, and sent her onto the dance floor to thank people for coming. Lower was a much better host than bartender. This is not to say that Precarious was any good at bartending. You could have an Arrow beer, or you could have a shot of something. Any order more complicated would be refused. Big-Dicked Sheila, Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui (whom everyone called Gussy), and Tiresias Richardson heckled him as he popped caps off frothy bottles and measured out tequila, whiskey, vodka.
There was a silhouette box behind the bar, above the top-shelf liquor, and there was a drawing. Lower Montana had pictures of the old Wayside, the burnt Wayside, and she researched the medals and ribbons that Manfred Pierce had earned, and shopped around at yard sales and gun shows until she had the complete set. She framed them in a silhouette box just like they used to be. The drawing was of a photograph of a young woman, tall, and with her friends. She was happy.It hung above the bar, and people had taken pictures of it. Lower paid one of her students a hundred bucks to sketch what was in the photograph, and then she hung it right in the same place the original was.
Some things should never change.
“Do you want another one?”
“I want three more. At least,” Steppy Alouette said.
Flower Childs got to her feet, mostly, and walked over to the bar. Precarious was at the far end bantering with his idiot friends, and she was thinking about reaching over the bar and grabbing the drinks herself, and then there is a figure in front of her that she had trouble focusing on. It shimmies in and out of existence. It has a mustache and row of neat, white teeth. It says,
She smiled, and there was a beer in front of her. She raised it, and there was a CLINK from somewhere.