Full moon out tonight. Bound to cost a life. The brain, you see, is mostly water–the human body is mostly water, but the brain even moreso–and the full moon pulls upon those cerebral juices just as it does the tides in the harbor. Induces criminality in several ethnicities, the full moon does. The emergency room at St. Agatha’s fills, and the Main Drag wobbles, and the drunk tank bogs down in the mud. The sun was still out, but there she was. Low in the sky, skulking and pock-marked. Anaxagoras and Aryabhata figured out that the moon was just a big rock that reflected the sun’s light, and everyone said “Thank you for figuring that out; we’re going to continue to believe in magick.”
Capolina Gardner believed in the power of the full moon long before her husband became a werewolf. She was a nurse at St. Agatha’s, an emergency room nurse, and she knew what went on every 28 days behind the modern glass doors wedged into an art deco brick entranceway with Quid hoc fecisti, ut modo tute? chiseled into the arch. Men came in encased in skin that had armadillofied. Women had emergent scurvy, or imminent dropsy. These patients did not present without a full moon, Capolina thought. The statistics department from Harper College disagreed. They had run a study. The metastatistics department agreed with the disagreement. They had run a metastudy. It was determined–to several p-values–that there was no correlation between the full moon and the intake of the emergency room at St. Agatha’s.
Whatever, Capolina thought. So it wasn’t more crowded. But it was fucking weirder.
Like that boy from the garage explosion. He and his father were rebuilding a 1972 Datsun 240z. Father was teaching the son to weld. Open can of paint thinner, kid stumbled and fell, and when they brought him to St. Agatha’s, he had blackened and molting skin and his eyes had melted closed. Pork. It smelled like burnt pork, and Capolina prayed as she tried to find a vein in his scorched arm to start the line, and then the boy stopped writhing and sat up. Casually. Cocked his head. Nodded once, twice.
“You’re all doing wonderful work here,” the burned boy said.
There were two nurses and a doctor tending to the boy. They stopped what they were doing and listened to him. He was so calm, and he said,
“There are worlds beyond pain.”
He smiled, and his teeth were stained with fire, and he took the needle from Capolina and found the vein in the inside of his elbow on the first try. She connected the line to the IV bag, opened the flow, squeezed, and he smiled wider.
“There are worlds far beyond pain.”
And that was it for the boy. Died in the burn ward eleven hours later. You could hear him screaming from down in the ER. She couldn’t eat bacon for months afterwards. Full moon.
They walked by Bixby’s, where the nurses all ate, and McNeal’s, where they all drank, and turned north on the Main Drag and they held hands and Capolina squeezed Harry’s tight because he was afraid and she knew it, and she had a canvas shoulder bag wedged under her elbow, not allowed to dangle on the strap. There were pins on the flap: a cartoon blue ox on a yellow background, and Madonna, and The Snug. She still had her hair in her work ponytail, and his was cut short; he was seven inches taller than her, and had to shorten his step to make them even in their stride. They both pretended not to stare at the moon, early as it was in the daytime sky. Almost all of those fucking flyers blaming the fires of werewolfs were gone, but there was one left high up on a telephone pole at Swann’s Way and they pretended not to see that, too.
Cannot Swim saw everything, and then the stupid horse clonked him on the head with his jaw and he wobbled a bit; he turned around and said,
Easy Life had gotten used to his easy life and was proactively self-sufficient to the point of ornery-ness. He was born in a livery on Tanner Street in C—-a City, and his name was Snowy. His head and shoulder and flank were all solid brown, but his ass was white and so the Whites that owned him called him Snowy. Men paid other men for his services. He was ridden. He was whipped. Prodded, and yoked to the bit. Afterwards, he would be groomed. Shod. Poked at a bit. People, Easy Life thought. What pains in the balls they are. Not that he had balls. Easy Life was forever a little disappointed with himself that he did not kick to death every motherfucker he saw for that indignity. But he was a horse, and so had a much less causal and chronological system of memories than humans, and so was just generally annoyed every time he saw a person. Or maybe he was just broken.
The man who looked after him put the packsaddle on his back, tightened it. Easy Life did not blow up his belly with air to make it difficult for the man. Accepted the saddle. There were those things loaded onto the frame. The things that make that terrible and sudden noise, the long things. And satchels full of assorted whatever. Not too heavy. Not too bad. About the same weight as a man, and well-laid. The man put a leather halter around his muzzle and skull and led him from the livery, and then Easy Life, who was still at the time called Snowy, was in the hands of Talks To Whites, who had absolutely no idea what to do with a fucking horse.
The Pulaski were not a horse tribe. They had encountered them, knew they existed, but they had no need for them. The occasional herd had ambled through the pass in what would come to be called the Segovian Hills, and the Pulaski had eaten one or two of them, but that was as far as the contact went between species. The valley in between the hills and the ocean had everything the tribe needed: game and fowl from the woods, and fish from the lake, and the ground was supple and giving so that anything would grow with little effort. For hundreds of years, there was nothing the Pulaski needed.
And then Wanders Away wandered back into the village with a Springfield 1842. The barrel had been rifled, and so the shot flew true. It was a percussion cap weapon. Bullet shoved down the breach, hammer cocked back, cap placed on the nipple, bang. Shorter reload time than the old powder and flint method. Shot in all sorts of weather, too.
They discounted it at first, the rifle. The elders said it was bad magick and the hunters agreed. The old ways are the good ways, the hunters said; the elders agreed.
“I understand that,” Wanders Away said. “But watch this.”
He pegged a deer in the skull at 150 yards, and the elders withdrew their objections.
“Sometimes, good magick looks bad at first glance.”
And the warriors said,
“Are there more of these things or is this the only one? Also: can I hold it?”
The rifles, Wanders Away explained, were neither bad nor good magick, but White magick. Which could be purchased with the gold-colored rocks from the streams that fed the lake. The elders took little time in making a plan: Wanders Away would return to the White village and buy as many rifles as he could, plus ammunition.
“Did I show you the White knife?”
“You didn’t,” the elders said.
“Slipped my mind. Sorry. You’re gonna love this,” Wanders Away said.
Comparing cultures is fool’s folly. The Whites demanded their crops march in straight lines, and the Pulaski grew everything all on top of each other in the Verdance; neither way was objectively correct. The Whites had the Christ, and the Pulaski had The Turtle Who Was And Would Be Again; the deities responded to prayers in equal measure. But the Bowie knife? The Bowie knife beat the living shit out of the flint knife, and that’s just a fact.
Wanders Away had returned to the village wearing the clothes of the Whites, mostly. Black trousers and a black vest with no shirt; he wore the hard shoes of the Whites, too, but had kicked them off the instant he was back on the soft grass of the valley. He dug in his satchel and pulled out the knife. The handle was bone, and smooth, and there was a vertical guard that separated the handle–and the hand–from the blade. 19 inches long, and tapering to what was called a clip point. It was in a tan leather scabbard, and when he unsheathed it, the edge of the blade caught the light and the elders became wary of bad magick once more. Wanders Away drew a whetstone the size and shape of a child’s eraser from a pocket in the front of the scabbard and FSSHT FSSHT FSSHT ran the blade in an angle across the whetstone’s face, and then he walked up to a kotcha. The Pulaski’s kotchas had rough bearskins for doors, but the knife slid right through from head down to the ground, and Wanders Away pulled the two fresh sides apart.
The elders decided that the knife, like the rifle, was good magick. The hunters all wanted one. One Eyebrow said, “Dude, that was my fucking door,” but no one paid him any attention.
Wanders Away spent a week or two with his family and friends, and then the tribe threw a great feast. There was dancing and stories and Stormy Eye sang a song she had written. Many speeches were made, and Wanders Away was given a leather pouch full of the gold-colored rocks he had said were so important, and in the morning he walked east from the village to buy more rifles and ammunition, and also knives.
A year later, Wanders Away had not returned He had made it to Boston, and then Nantucket, where he struck out on a whaling ship. He gave his Pulaski name to his shipmates, which they pronounced Kwee-kweg; he didn’t correct them. The elders, after much chewing of the peregrine leaf, decided that they were at least partially to blame for the outcome. We should have foreseen that Wanders Away would wander away, the elders agreed. They chewed the leaf well into the night, and the next morning, High Noon was pushed towards the pass in the hills that was the only path to America with a sizable Assignment: learn the White language and bring back some rifles and ammo, and also knives.
“That’s, like, so much stuff,” High Noon argued, but they wouldn’t stop pushing him, and so he went over the hills and out into America where he found a farmstead run by a man named Caleb Greenwood and his son Johnny; he traded a few of those magickal gold-colored rocks (and labor) for room, board, and English lessons. Learning a language is like learning to swim: the fastest way is the most traumatic. Complete immersion. Sink or speak, man. After three days, High Noon could pick out one word from another during Caleb’s monologues about “the bankers Back East, fancy fucks that they are” and around a week in, he started putting together simple sentences. Idiot’s conversation before a month, and before half-a-year had gone by, High Noon was fluent as fuck, and with a decent accent except for the “ch” sound, which the Pulaski language did not have and he found impossible to conjure, so he said “tursh” instead of “church” and “matsh” instead of “match.”
English was a simpler language than Pulaski, he thought. Imprecise. Run. The boy runs. Does he run towards something or away? Is he running alone or with others? If he is running with others, are they his relatives? Run doesn’t tell you. And the nouns were static, whether they were the subject or the object of the sentence, and the adjectives were not gendered.
He also learned the word “fuck,” which confused him greatly.
“So who can I say ‘fuck’ around?”
“Men. Just men. And only some men. Y’don’t wanna go cursing ’round a preacher or nothing. And you can only say it in certain ways.”
“This is a complicated word,” High Noon said. The Pulaski did not have dirty words. There were thoughts you didn’t express in public, and names you didn’t call your friends, but no word had the inherent taboo that “fuck” did.
“Y’can’t tell people to fuck theyselves, or to fuck off or whatever. But y’can say ‘What the fuck’ or whatever the fuck.”
“And never around women.”
“Can’t fuck women.”
“No,” Caleb Greenwood said. “Y’can fuck ’em, but you can’t say ‘fuck’ around ’em.”
“Oh, unless they’re whores. Y’can say ‘fuck’ around whores. And y’can fuck ’em.”
“Aren’t there some chores to do?”
It was a farm, and this was the past, so there were always chores to do. The horse was a nag named Chester who plowed the fields and slept in a rickety one-stall barn next to the house; she trudged along in the heavy harness with Caleb behind, whipping and saying “fuck” in the presence of a lady. Chester was the first horse that High Noon had gotten to know. He did not learn to ride because Chester refused to take a rider.
At the end of six months, High Noon packed his things–Caleb had given him a knife; Johnny, a Bible–and put on pants and a shirt and a jacket. Caleb said that he would be better received in the White village, which was called C—–a City even though it was still barely a town, if he were wearing their clothes. He tried a pair of boots with hard soles and heels, and fell over several times before deciding that he would stick with his moccasins.
Caleb had taught him how much the rocks, which were not rocks but nuggets, were worth to the Whites. He used pebbles. This size, you trade for ten bullets. This size, rifle. And if you got one this size–Caleb held up a rock the circumference of a golf ball–then you can get yourself a horse and a packsaddle.
“Actually, make it a li’l bigger. They’re gonna cheat ya.”
He was right: the Whites in C—–a City double-charged High Noon, but his pouch of nuggets was up to the tariffs, and he walked east out of town leading a horse named Snowy who was bearing rifles and ammo, and also knives. They walked until High Noon was sure they were not followed, and then hooked southwards in a great loop that was well out of sight of the Whites. They sneaked through the foothills going north until they came to the pass, where they turned west and soon enough they were back in the Pulaski village, where a celebration began and High Noon received his village name: Talks To Whites.
He unloaded the horse and the warriors made off with the rifles and the ammo, and also knives, and some of the children helped him take the packsaddle off of the horse’s back, and then the lead harness, and then the two of them stood there looking at each other.
“Welcome home, I guess.”
He could not be called Snowy anymore, because the Pulaski had never seen snow and so did not have the word in their language. The tribe had little use for him, and they paid him little mind. Sometimes, he would watch the women fish in the lake. He napped with the dogs. There was more than enough to eat, and he nibbled all day. The men chased him from the oval plot where they grew vegetables and gourds daily; he would sneak around the side where no one was and start munching on bean stalks and corn. They would yell, and he would leave without a fight. Bird’s nests on lower branches were a particular treat, especially if there were eggs in there and even moreso if the mother bird was sitting on them: he’d take the whole meal in his mouth in one chomp, his head tilted sideways, it was almost delicate, and then he’d RONCH RONCH the noisy mess with his flat teeth. The Pulaski were more attuned to nature than modern man is, but even they thought that was disgusting.
Two or three times a year, Talks To Whites would get out the packsaddle and the lead harness, and the two of them would make a round trip to America.
It did not take too long before the tribe had named the horse Easy Life.
Some of the animals in Harper Zoo were having easy lives, and others were trying to.
Yusef, who was a panther, was going through some shit. He had escaped a few days before and found the outside world less pleasant than the zoo, which he had not thought possible. He had been born out back of a double-wide in Ohio and sold to a drug dealer in Miami where, after a few years, he became a piece of evidence in the government’s case against the drug dealer, and eventually moved on out to Little Aleppo like some sort of feline witness protection program. Technically, he was a jaguar, but he was all black and so was called a panther. He could have killed caiman with one bite, leaping into the river from an overhanging branch and swimming the meal back to the shore, wrestling it up the muddy banks, and into the underbrush, and then up another tree. He might have snapped tapirs necks with one bound. He may have fucked some lady panthers. But he was born in Ohio and lived in a cage in Miami, and now a slightly larger cage in Little Aleppo.
There was a world that fit him. There was a world that fit him outside these doors.
But there wasn’t, just more of those upright fuckers that fed him and locked his cage, and there was strange ground that was smooth and terrible to walk on, and monsters speeding by so fast he could barely register them. And nothing smelled right. Nothing smelled right at all, and Yusef with no way to redress his grievances. He was almost happy when he woke, groggy from being shot with tranquilizer, back in his enclosure.
“You gonna eat that?”
“All of it?”
“Every last bit,” Dwayne McGlory said, and gnawed a big hunk off of a chicken sandwich; he had advised Pep Oneida to make one before they walked over to Harper Zoo for their overnight shift, but probies never listen–this is true in professions other than firefighting, too–and so he could suffer. “Then I’m gonna lick all sauce off my fingers. You want that?”
“You can lick my fingers when I’m done.”
“Kiss my ass,” Pep said.
“I’ll get ’em extra goopy for you. Practically a whole meal.”
Pep got up off the bench they were sharing in the entrance plaza of Harper Zoo. The turnstiles and ticket booths faced onto Loring Street, and beneath them the ground was made up of thick timbers cut and laid 60 years before, placed perfectly and right and with care and so there were no gaps in between them; to the west was the shuttered souvenir shop, to the east was the darkened snack shop called Congo’s Cafeteria. In the middle of the plaza was a popcorn cart with a full hopper; Pep stood before it.
“I wouldn’t,” Dwayne said.
“Just a little.”
“It smells so fucking good,” Pep said.
“That it does, probie. Good nose on you.”
TAP TAP TAP on Pep’s shoulder. He turned around. An elephant was giving him the stink-eye, and that is a large stink. On top of the elephant’s head was a dog, who seemed similarly peeved.
“Better nose on her, though,” Dwayne said.
Pep Oneida had grown up in Little Aleppo; his mother had read him the series of children’s books starring Congo and her dog. First the Congo & Shep books, and then Congo & Bailey, and right at that moment parents were reading Congo & Pax‘s adventures to their kids. He had rolled around Harper Zoo in his stroller, and then toddled around, and then he had gone on school trips. Even a couple dates. Girl named Lydia had dumped him by the capybaras. That morning, Pep drank his coffee from a mug with a cartoon of an elephant with a dog on her head, and the inscription HARPER ZOO: WHERE ANIMALS ARE.
The elephant swung her head and glared at him with her other eye.
It was like having Santa call you an asshole, Pep thought. Congo can’t be pissed at me. I love Congo, he thought, and so he hugged her trunk.
Congo and Dwayne McGlory made eye contact, shrugged.
She lifted up her trunk with the probie still holding onto it and deposited him out of the way of the popcorn stand, towards Dwayne, and shook him loose. Pep went to pet her, but she had turned her head back to the popcorn. The tip of her trunk slipped into the plastic-encased hopper without any bumps; it was like a ballet dancer made of lips, and so very gentle. Congo scooped up the popcorn and brought it to her mouth, and then back in the hopper for more, and then back to her mouth, and then she lifted a trunkful up to Pax–she dropped it lightly on her flat top of her skull–and then back and into her mouth, and then back.
Pep was still standing there gooning at her. Elephants are physiologically incapable of rolling their eyes, so Congo rolled her mind’s eye and dipped back into the hopper and swiveled her trunk over to Pep. His face lit up and he cupped his hands in front of him; she released the popcorn, and he looked from it to her to it to her and back. Pep about-faced and rushed over to the bench where Dwayne was still sitting. Brandished the popcorn.
“Shut the fuck up.”
“I’m friends with Congo,” Pep said. “We’re best friends now.”
Dwayne flipped his head forward and tried to snap away some of the popcorn, but Pep was quick. He drew his hands to his mouth and ate the kernels as though they were Communion wafers.
“This is the best popcorn I’ve ever had.”
“Seriously: shut the fuck up.”
His walkie-talkie went FEEK. It was the size of a brick and attached to his belt like a cop would wear his gun. There was a thick, curly cord from it to the mouthpiece hanging from his shirt pocket, which was black with a silver button that you pressed to talk and did not press to listen. He unfastened it and pressed the button with his thumb and said,
“McGlory here. Over.”
“Hey. How’s it going over there?”
The sun had just about set, and the probie was leaning against the elephant with his arms spread wide.
“I love you, Congo.”
The elephant, who had a dog on her head, was eating popcorn.
“Everything’s fine. Over” Dwayne said.
“All right,” Flower Childs said over the walkie. “I’ll send someone over with coffee later. Over and out.”
“I said ‘Over and out,’ McGlory.”
“Noted. Why are we here again?”
“Credible threat against the zoo. I told you this already.”
“You did. But you didn’t say where the threat came from.”
Flower Childs did not say where the threat came from because the threat was not so much a threat as it was a fortune that came from a psychic on Sylvester Street named Madame Cazee. There was no rule book to being the Chief of the Fire Department, but if there were, Flower figured “Don’t tell your men their assignments are based on the babblings of fortune tellers” was surely one of the chapters.
“Credible threat. Keep the line clear. Over and out.”
The firehouse was quiet. The ladder truck and the pumper sat in their berths, and her Mustang was out front. One of the doors was down, but the other was up and let the sounds of the early evening in. People got ready. Flower Childs got up from the desk in the office on the first floor–it was open to the garage–and the dalmatian called Ash-Nine saw her from the couch, and stretched, and joined her at her left heel. The two stepped out onto Alfalfa Street, and when Flower looked east towards the Segovian Hills, she saw a flame atop the highest one, which was called Pulaski Peak, and then it died. Rose up again. Died. She could see the diamond-shaped summit of the hill, and the lawn with the stand of trees in a crescent on one side and the Harper Observatory on the other. She could read license plates in the parking lot, and serial numbers of dollar bills in the gift shop. And there he was, aflame and whole, on top of his rotten horse; he had his lance, pike, spear, whatever. The horse snuffled and pawed the ground by the visitor’s center, and the man rolled his shoulders.
And the man cocked his fiery head.
Flower Childs strode back into the station, and Ash-Nine followed. The garage door closed, and then the two walked back out the door; Flower locked the door behind her. She was not wearing her walkie-talkie. She had an axe. The passenger door opened, and the dog hopped up, and then the passenger door closed. Red-and-white Mustang SSP goes THRUGGADUM when it starts. Flower Childs flicked the switch that rotated the red lights, and pulled away from the curb and then she and Ash-Nine were driving east with a purpose through Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.