There were five Town Fathers, and they scurried down the Main Drag jammed against one another in a testudo formation, and sometimes they would deploy preemptive umbrellas against the hurl of insults, jeers, and fruit that invariably came their way. Little Aleppo was not very good at being governed. The neighborhood had tried anarchy for a time, but realized that anarchy just meant there was no one to blame. Also, there was a cholera outbreak almost immediately; while Little Aleppians might be odd ducks, they’re still normal humans, and that meant someone had to be in charge.
“The Lord shall be in charge,” Busybody Tyndale said to the committee that had assembled in the Wayside Inn, which was next door to the second First Church of the Iterated Christ.
Busybody Tyndale was a preacher, and he was the first white man to live in what would be known as Little Aleppo. If you asked the Preacher, then he would say that Jesus had led him to the spot, and to the Pulaski tribe, which he had converted. If you asked Peter, Busybody had gotten lost and wandered into the Pulaski’s front yard, and they had taken pity on a simpleton and adopted him. Peter was a member of the Pulaski tribe, and obviously that wasn’t his real name, but neither Busybody, nor I, nor you could pronounce it, so Peter just let Busybody call him “Peter” for the sake of expediency.
Peter had built the first First Church of the Iterated Christ with the Preacher. (There had been five iterations of the Iterated Church: abandoned, fire, fire, unintentional implosion.) For a few years after Busybody came to live with the Pulaski, the Church had been a cool, flat rock under a redwood tree. The two of them would have services there, which consisted of long afternoons of chewing leaves from a tree which grew about an hour’s walk from the village.
Peter had been looking for someone to talk to, honestly. Before Busybody Tyndale came, he had spent a lot of long afternoons chewing leaves by himself. The village, with its kotchas around a central hearth, hummed in the background, but the rock didn’t: it was granite and almost perfectly flat on top, sword-sliced, and shaded by the redwood’s branches so it was cool as the stinging hot summer blew on you from the west.
The clouds blew that way, too, at least in the afternoons this time of year. Peter knew the sky like he knew his name, which was not Peter, and he would watch it though the splayed branches of the redwood, laying on his back. Sometimes he would cross his left ankle over right. Sometimes, he would put his knees up, and rest his right ankle on his left knee. Occasionally, he would wander down to the stream for a drink, and usually when he did he would take a piss. Mostly, Peter would chew leaves and read the sky like a book.
The clouds were in the sky, but they were also of the sky, so then they are the sky, Peter decided, and therefore–since it is above me–so must the redwood be the sky, and since the redwood is married to the ground just as a man to his wife, then so must the ground be the sky. Which is ruled by the sun, who pushes the clouds and lifts up the redwood and reveals man to wife. The sun was all that was holy, and all that was holy was the sun.
And thus Peter spake, “Ohhhh, right.”
Which was as far as he ever got in verbalizing what he had realized: he knew what he knew, but he didn’t know how to say it. He felt very alone.
Until the next day, when Busybody Tyndale–lost, nearly starved to death, and missing the left sleeve of his coat–wandered into the village. This is a man, Peter thought, who knows what to say. Might not know what the fuck he’s talking about, but knows how to say it. And, he was very small, and Peter had a knife, so why not amuse himself?
“Chew these leaves,” Peter said to Busybody.
They talked for a very long time, on the cool flat rock under the redwood, and chewed many leaves; it was not more than a few weeks before the full flowering of Jesus the Infinite. There were, obviously, details to be worked out.
“What about those little bugs that get in the corner of your eye?”
“They are the Christ, Preacher.”
“Hate those things.”
“You can kill ’em.”
“Ah, but is that not killing the Christ?”
“The act of killing is also the Christ. He exists in beauty and kindness, but also in terror and violence. The night does not exist independent of day: it is absence of day. No shadow, just absence of light. A thing that is because of is part of; a thing that is part of, is. The high and the vile, Preacher. All or nothing at all.”
“I need some more leaves.”
“You’re gonna throw up again.”
“I’m not going to throw up.”
“You’re gonna throw up.”
Ten minutes later, the Preacher walked into the woods to throw up; Peter muttered something in Pulaski that does not directly translate to “lightweight,” but that’s what he meant. He wiped at his mouth with the back of his hand, and then wiped his hand on the rock; chewing the leaves got a bit juicy, especially if you were laying on your back.
As of this writing, the Peregrina Maria is classified as a cryptarboral–the tree version of a yeti or a ‘squatch–but the Pulaski knew where they were, a small stand of them east of the village. Walk an hour, turn left at the lake that smells weird, can’t miss it. The women would go once a week with their baskets, flat-bottomed ovals with sides of redwood bark, and collect the leaves, which tasted like something other than root beer.
The peregrine tree’s leaves were the size of a child’s hand, plump in the middle and waxy green, with scalloped ridges and thirteen points around their circumference; everyone in the village chewed them. You’d roll one up, tight and lengthwise, and gnaw on it for the morning and then another in the afternoon; chewing the peregrine’s leaves just made everything easier: thinking, working, seeing, pooping. In small quantities, that is.
If you jammed a wad of it in your gob and gnashed on it real fast, though, then time became frightened of you and gravity owed you a favor, and you exhaled the secret name of God, and you inhaled the password to His bank account. When all is Christ, time is one, and Peter saw a road where the wheat is planted; stone buildings and no nature except the rock he was on, and surrounding verdant green. He saw no Pulaski at all, and knew that it was holy, but he did not understand how. He had his hands under his head, and his left ankle was over his right knee.
“Peter, look what I found in the stream!” the Reverend Busybody Tyndale said.
It was a chunk of gold the size of a child’s fist.
The Pulaski man named Peter was correct, even though he was not named Peter, and was also not a Pulaski, not originally. Peter was a Pawnee by birth, and his given name meant something like “standing bare-chested in a chilly dawn and feeling alive but also cold” and was just exactly as unpronounceable as his Pulaski name, so I’m going to keep calling him Peter for the sake of clarity.
He had been orphaned, and then raised by white people–the very same white people that had made him an orphan, in fact–and they taught him English, and the Bible, and that he was a savage; they taught him well. But Peter had seen the savagery in the whites, too, and so his education left him with the unexpected result of believing that all men were evil, and that the world was one of shade and death, and that the only logical response to this world was to be better at being a bastard than everyone else.
Peter was fifteen when he stole the horse and headed out of town, calculating stealth versus speed in his head and transmitting the equation to the horse with his heels. There’s always work for a bastard in America, he thought.
And there was, for a long time.
He had wandered into the area that would be known as Little Aleppo years before, and the Pulaski took him in just as he had taken in Busybody Tyndale, except nothing like that. Native American tribes were like the Greek city-states: they had wildly differing characters. If you graphed societies into a bell curve of dickishness, then the Spartans and the Comanche would be on the left, and Costa Rica and the Pulaski would be on the right.
Maybe their genial and welcoming temperament could be attributed to chance of geography. The hills to the east caught fresh water and brought it down in sparkling and icy-cold streams, and it was temperate and never froze, so the fields could take a winter crop. The Pulaski planted to the north of their homes, and they planted in an oval shape, and everything they planted grew.
The peregrine tree’s leaves might also be an explanation.
Peter’s first introduction to the Pulaski was the opposite of Busybody: he knew exactly where he was, and he had both of his sleeves, and was capable of murdering everyone in the village. Peter was wearing a buckskin suit, worn but well-maintained, that had had fringes when he bought it, but he got annoyed and sliced all of them off with his knife. He had several large guns, and one large rifle, and a very large hat.
He had been watching the village from a ridge at the foot of the hills to the east, climbed a redwood and sat about forty feet up on a limb, he had a small brass telescope in his pouch, which he had also cut the fringes off of. The Pulaski have a communal meal once a week: a stew with venison, and possum, and bear, and elk. Whatever was killed that week went in the pot, along with the vegetables from their oval-shaped field, where everything grew, and it simmered all day in the communal hearth in the middle of the village. Also added were herbs and spices, but the exact number is not known.
And the wind was blowing in from the west, as it always did that time of day,
When Peter got off his horse twenty paces outside the ring of kotchas circling the fire, what he judged to be the edge of the encampment, he affected a pleasant and open face, and–though he had not taken off any of his weapons–put his hands out to his side with his palms facing forward. Then he pointed at the stew, and then back at himself, and then the stew, and then his belly.
They fed him.
Stuffed him, rightly stated: Peter’s belly was bulging, and he laid on his back with his left ankle on his right knee. He was like the Preacher in one respect, and that was that he didn’t speak a word of Pulaski; at that moment, his brain barely recognized it as a language, but it was melodic, and one of the men came over and handed him a tightly-rolled leaf. Then the man took his tightly-rolled leaf and placed it in his mouth, in an over-exaggerated way. Then he chewed while pointing at his mouth, and then Peter’s, and then back at his.
“Chew this leaf,” the man said, Peter assumed. He spoke no Pulaski, but he could pick up context clues. So he chewed the leaf.
The next morning Peter woke early in the kotcha he had been given, and stuffed a bunch of peregrine leaves into his mouth and walked into the woods with his rifle. He was back by noon with a dressed buck, four-pointer, over his shoulders. He found the man who had given him the leaves, and gave him the deer.
And he just kinda moved in after that. Peter brought game back all the time, and didn’t take his dick out at the communal hearth, so everyone liked him well enough. Within a few weeks, he was picking out words, and after a couple months he could have an idiot’s conversation, but the Pulaski language’s intricate conjugation would remain forever beyond him. Peter had quit being a bastard, but he had no one to talk with; before Busybody showed up, he was thinking about going back to bastardry, just for the conversations.
But Peter really didn’t have any bastard left in him, and no one has ever been sadder to see gold.
“Peter, don’t you see what this is? What this means?”
“We can build a church!”
“Course we can. Mine needs a town, town needs a church.”
“Mine? What mine?’
But Busybody Tyndale said that to Peter’s back: he walked back to the village; grabbed his jacket, bedroll, and weapons; walked around the perimeter of the lake to where the horse were kept; got on his; rode off south. The Pulaski man named Peter, who was not named Peter and not a Pulaski, had already learned Pawnee, and English and Pulaski; he was sure he could pick up Spanish.
And thus Peter, who built the first First Church of the Iterated Christ upon a rock, did leave Little Aleppo.
The gold that Reverend Tyndale found was part of a seam, a rich one. Busybody tried to explain the importance of the find to the Pulaski, who thought the rocks were rather pretty. The next morning, he saddled up and rode into C——a City, and he did not have to explain the importance of anything to anyone.
The Reverend Tyndale was surprised at how fast the mine was built, but Peter wouldn’t have been. First came the hammers and nails, and then the whiskey and whores, and then men, women, children, and there was a town. A neighborhood, at least.
“The Lord provided those fucking savages, Preacher. And left the white man to deal with them, so unless the Lord has some guns–perhaps wants to loan out some seraphim and cherubim: ones who are good shots, mind you–then the Lord has no place here,” Miss Valentine said.
Miss Valentine was smarter than you, and uglier than you, and was always surrounded by three or four men itching to be allowed to kill you. She operated the Wayside Inn, which was right next to the second First Church of the Iterated Christ, and five times as big. Her face had been carved up when she was young; the lesson Miss Valentine took: learn how to use a knife. So she did.
There’s always work for a bastard in America.
And now she had the Wayside Inn, which was an inn in the sense that you could pay to sleep there, but in no other way at all: it was a cathouse, with faro games downstairs. Besides the mine, Miss Valentine was the biggest shot in town, and so when there was a problem everyone met at her place. Refreshments were served.
“Someone needs to be in charge,” she said, and the room started arguing with itself: everyone else permitted to speak at the meeting was a man, and they all had notable facial hair. The discussion became so vociferous that several collars detached themselves from shirts and made a run for it. A piano player was shot, but someone wired back east for another one within an hour.
The gathering was distinguished, by any standards: the men who represented all the town’s interests. The newspaper, and the businesses, and the mine, and the parcel company, all of them there to defend their stake. Reverend Tyndale stood for the Lord, and everyone ignored the both of them. Some people at the meeting believed in democracy, a government of the people; others believed that the people were goddamned fools and needed to be led.
The whores came out of their rooms on the second floor–they were curious, and bored–but did not dare to hang over the railing and listen in too obviously. They would be beaten by Miss Valentine, who had important things to worry about. She was a scarred old slaver, and she had an idea: both. Elections for the Mayor, who would have no power; power for the Town Fathers, who would have no elections.
A campaign! Raise the hustings, and glue up the posters–post your bills here–and the neighborhood was boisterous and happy, with jovial fistfights and gleeful stabbings everywhere. Elections! Democracy! while the Town Fathers signed a treaty with the Pulaski in the morning, and that night buried the whole savage lot of them in the southwest corner of the Verdance, where everything grows.
It was holy, the Preacher thought. He heard Peter’s voice say, “All or nothing at all,” and saw the streams that ran down from the hills to the east, once clear and icy cold, now speckled with shit and industrial waste, and he knew that it was holy, but he did not want to believe that it was. The Preacher looked in the dead eyes of drunks and bastards out on the road through town, the one people were calling the Main Drag, and there was the Lord, all the Lord. He was small and a coward, too scared to even run as his friend Peter had, but Busybody Tyndale knew that Christ was all, eventually.
It was the “eventually” part that was giving him trouble.
Now–this moment we occupy–flows from then, and therefore is then. Will be exists because of is, and thus what will be, is. It’s simple if you think about it, the Preacher thought, even simpler if you stop thinking so much. Everything happened at once. If you paid even the slightest bit of attention, everything happened at once.
But Busybody Tyndale also believed in the march of progress, in man’s blossoming, from Lascaux to the Louvre. Onward, upward, westward; that kind of thing. The next generation would recognize the folly of his. A century hence, he proclaimed to himself, my progeny shall have fixed the mistakes made here, the decisions made by petty businessmen and slavers.
A century-and-a-half (and counting) later, Little Aleppo still elected a Mayor, who had no power, and were still governed by the Town Fathers, who held no elections. The Mayor got the credit for all the neighborhood’s successes–locals loved to buy the Mayor a drink, and several Mayors had died of alcohol poisoning just weeks into their terms–and the Town Fathers took the blame, even for things that weren’t their fault. Most things were their fault, though.
So when they scampered down the Main Drag, tomatoes might fly–you never know when fruit will become involved–and so the Town Fathers drew into each other like actors playing soldiers in a war film, and each had a massive golf umbrella that he would open and the group of them would be hidden under black nylon stretched between metal. The Town Fathers would speed up, but also they would roll their eyes, and when they got to their next appointment, all the unpleasantness had been forgotten and they could get down to the business of Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.