Cannot Swim was soaking wet. His tunic and cloak were made of deerskin, which is naturally waterproof, but it didn’t matter: the rain had gotten down his wide collar and coated his torso and legs. He had removed his moccasins and placed them in his satchel. The mud squelched up in between his toes, and his shins were covered in stalks of grass. He could not see the sun for the trees and thick clouds, and the ground had become uneven so he had lost count of his steps. It was mid-morning, he figured, but could be no more specific than that.
There was no time constraint to the Assignment, but it was bad form to take too long.
Teenagers are like dogs: unnatural and recent. No such thing as teenager, not in nature. Either you can’t procreate, which makes you a child, or you can, which makes you an adult. You can’t argue with biology, but you could ignore biology and make up some bullshit. You could delineate a category of not-quiteness: not quite kid, not quite adult. Hence: teenager. Hell, it wasn’t even a word until the 40’s. Teenagers were invented in America; in California, in fact, not too far from where the Pulaski lived and were massacred and buried. The Pulaski didn’t have teenagers. They had children, who then underwent their Assignments, and came back as adults.
In large cultures, societies bound by books and separated by distance, the coming-of-age rituals are flattened and homogenized. A Bar Mitzvah is a Bar Mitzvah, with minor geographical or theological variations, as is a Quinceañera or a Baptism. No matter who the kid is, he’s getting dunked in the tank. But the Pulaski were not many in number and all knew each other–and everyone knew the children better than the children knew themselves–so each Pulaski was given an individualized Assignment.
In the old days, everyone was sent into the Low Desert with no water to have visionquests, but a lot of kids died and so the elders started sending everyone up the Segovian Hills, and fewer kids died but still far too many, and then everyone had to swim the lake back and forth, but that wasn’t much of a coming-of-age ceremony and a few kids died anyhow, so now the elders personalized the ritual. Some children were spiritual and had a connection to The Turtle Who Was And Who Will Be Again; they went into the Low Desert. The hunters and the warriors went up into the Segovian Hills. And the other kids, well, they did what they could. Cloudy Eye was completely blind in her left eye, and mostly in her right. She couldn’t go to the desert or the hills, but she could sing for the whole village at the next communal meal. and everybody was okay with that being her Assignment. Loud Fingers was the tribe’s best embroiderer, and had been since he was about seven. He scoured the lakebed for shells, and the woods for pebbles, drilled through them with his hand tools and laced them together with dogsbane and leather cording to form bear, elk, eagle, wolf, and then these were attached to tunics and cloaks and satchels. Most of the Pulaski were wearing a Loud Fingers design, and so he obviously could not be sent into the desert or the hills, and his Assignment was to produce a very large work for the door of the storehouse, and he did: a massive turtle, which was the finest and most intricate he had ever done. Had the Pulaski been aware of the guild system, it would have been called his masterpiece. Means Well was a giant lunkhead that wouldn’t hurt a fly, but had often gotten lost within the village; the elders told him, “Just go pull some weeds for a while,” and he did, and that was good enough.
But Cannot Swim was a hunter, and so he was sent up into the Segovian Hills, which the Pulaski called Jesus fucking Christ, don’t ever go up there; there’s squatch up there. (It sounded a lot better in Pulaski, plus it was only one word.)
“The bear is as afraid of us as we are of him.”
“Bears are not afraid of anything,” Cannot Swim said.
“Everything that lives is afraid,” Shoots With Wrong Hand told him. Cannot Swim was 12, and they were standing on a small plateau about a quarter of the way up what would later be called Mt. Chastity. His father had unslung his rifle from his back, and cradled it in his left arm. Cannot Swim had grown four inches that year, but he was not yet as tall as Shoots With Wrong Hand.
“We are smaller than the bear.”
“This does not matter. There are two kinds of bears in our woods. Ones that have not encountered us, and therefore fear us because we are alien to them, and ones that have. The bears that have seen us know our rifles and our arrows and our knives. They know our dogs. If they are still alive, then it is because they escaped us. They will always fear us, and for good reason. The bear is not stupid.”
“The puma is also more afraid of us than we are of him.”
“Pumas are scary.”
“They’re cowards. Ever hear of a man being attacked by one?”
They were on the western face of the hill, and it was mid-morning and their shadows were the same height as they were. Shoots With Wrong Hand turned in a circle, scanning the sky and sniffing. Pulaski did not come up into the hills unless they had to.
“No. They stalk us, but do not have the courage to attack. The puma knows that, even though it is bigger than us, we can put up a fight. The puma is scared of a fight. It prefers to snap necks by surprise.”
“The squatch is not more afraid of you than you are of him. The squatch is not afraid of you at all.”
“We could just hire a hitman.”
“We don’t know any hitmen, baby. We don’t know any criminals at all, really.”
“Your cousin Cliff was in jail,”
“For Medicare fraud.”
“Maybe his roommate was an assassin.”
“So you’ll call him?”
“No,” Capolina Gardner said.
Harry Gardner had barely touched his cheeseburger, even though Louie Bucca had charred it to hell just like he liked. Ever since becoming a werewolf, Harry preferred his meat with as little blood as possible. Capolina had told him approximately a billion times that the red squeezings from a rare piece of beef wasn’t actually arterial fluid, but it didn’t matter to him: Harry knew blood when he saw it, and he saw it everywhere.
The rain was constant on the windows of the Victory Diner, so steady that your brain tuned out the sound until you looked at the drops hitting the glass. To the right of the door off the Main Drag were tables, and to the left were booths and the counter. Harry and Capolina were in a booth. There was a jukebox, a mini-version with a black plastic wheel that spun the shutters that the songs lived on, and Capolina had fed it a quarter. D8. The Fontanelles singing What Happened To Our Happy Home? in three-part harmony tighter than a snowman’s asshole.
You said “I do”
But now it’s two;
My momma said I should’ve known.
The table’s still laid
The bed is still made
What happened to our happy home?
O, those girl groups: no one ever suffered so pretty.
Harry knew it was 11 am because he was wearing a watch, but otherwise it could be any time of day: the sun was hiding like it owed Little Aleppo money, and the Main Drag was gray and gloomy. Umberto Clamme was selling his umbrellas for three times their normal price; Beer Cooler Ethel was nowhere to be found. The pizza boys had started their early lunch runs: the neighborhood ordered a shit-ton of pizza every 18 days. Capolina’s eyes were the same color gray as the entire world, and when Harry stared into them they were the entire world, and he didn’t know how to protect her. There were neon flyers on telephone poles, shining through the rain and the Victory Diner’s greasy windows, accusing him of setting the neighborhood’s fires and he wasn’t just a him, he was a them. That’s what “I do” meant, he figured. He was all tied up in her.
“What if we go talk to him?”
“The butcher,” Harry said.
“So, we’re not gonna take out a hit on him?”
“You sounded like you were down on that idea. Are we considering that again?”
Capolina was a nurse who worked in the Emergency Room at St. Agatha’s, and Harry was an unpublished children’s book author, and you should read quite a bit into that.
“We could talk to him,” she said. “Do you think that would be safe?”
“I don’t know.”
“We should take the offensive. Do something.”
Capolina put the triangle of club sandwich down on the oval-shaped plate, reached across the table, took Harry’s hands in hers.
“Baby, if you don’t stop talking about hitmen, I’m gonna stab you a little in your sleep.”
She brought his knuckles to her lips.
“Love you, too,” he said.
“Okay, we can’t go to the cops or, well, anyone.”
“Best case scenario is you get thrown in a mental hospital.”
Harry was pushing fries around on his plate and looked up confused.
“What’s the worst case?”
“The worst case is that the authorities believe you’re a werewolf.”
He saw lab coats and stainless-steel tables and men in uniforms. Or a quick silver bullet to the back of the head. He was right, too. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man who has become a werewolf must not inform the government of the fact.
“So what do we do? Just walk into his shop and start asking questions?”
“What if there are other customers?”
“We wait for them to leave,” Capolina said.
“What if they have really big orders and take a long time?”
Capolina was the oldest of five, and when her mother died, she helped raise her younger siblings. A psychiatrist would point out that she had engineered the same dynamic in her marriage, but Capolina did not believe in psychiatry. Her yoga teacher had told her exactly that once, but she didn’t put much stock in yogis’ opinions on her mental health: wasn’t like they had any psychiatric training.
She took Harry’s hand again.
“We’ll worry about that if it happens.”
Harry was an only child.
“Eat your burger.”
“I envy your taste, Mr. Scotland,”
“It’s refined as shit, Mr. Leopard. People been tellin’ me that since I’m a kid.”
Since they were on the phone, Mr. Leopard felt free to roll his eyes, but made sure his lips did not curl into a smirk that would be heard over the line. There were accolades on the wall of his Town Hall office, but if you looked closer, none of them had his name engraved; all of the photos were of him with impressive-looking people whom, upon scrutiny, you’d never seen before. Nothing at all was on his desk except an old-fashioned green blotter and a telephone. He did not take notes or doodle. Rain against the window and a bare coat rack in the corner. The trash can was made of close-woven wire, and so you could see that it was empty.
“Of course. We shall have your usual available when you join us next, if you’ll only let us know when that shall be.”
“Yuh-huh. Well, here’s the thing. Thinkin’ about having a little party at your place. You do a caterin’ thing?”
“Mr. Scotland, you do understand that we are a private eating club.”
“Course I do. Some of ’em already members, but there’s three that ain’t. I’ll vouch for ’em and pay their way. Eight of us put together.”
The light from the overhead fixtures could not find a single fleck of stubble on Mr. Leopard’s head. It was pale and shaped like a pencil eraser.
“I see no reason why your guests could not become my guests, Mr. Scotland.”
Membership at the restaurant with no name was 25 grand, cash just like everything else at the restaurant with no name, and there was also vetting. Mr. Leopard had found vetting possible members far easier since he became a Town Father.
“Peachy. Now, here’s the other thing.”
There was always another thing.
“I wasn’t lookin’ f’r my usual this time. I got myself a real curiosity about somethin’ unusual as hell.”
“Kinda meal only comes ’round once inna blue moon.”
“Only in a blue moon, you say?”
“Well, shit, hunter’s moon, too. Harvest moon. Any ol’ moon’ll do, I suppose.”
“The moon is th’ part we’re payin’ attention to in my query.”
“I understand you perfectly.”
Mr. Leopard flicked an imaginary piece of dust off of his blotter, then smoothed the thick paper’s fuzz towards him with three passes of his hand. His fingers each had an extra knuckle.
“Now: how soon could we be doin’ all this?”
Personal schedule from the inside pocket of the black suit coat. As he flipped through the pages, a circle at each’s top waxed and waned. Fingertip stroked a fully-filled-in sphere.
“22nd, right? Night o’ the 21st is the first full moon, and you ain’t got shit yet. Cupboard’s bare an’ all that. Right? Cuz otherwise, you woulda told me a date ‘steada waitin’ on me.”
“I was taught it was bad luck for a restaurateur to discuss the contents of his larder with his guests.”
“Bad luck, huh?”
“Well, tell ya what. You can accommodate my guests an’ me on th’ 22nd, I make it worth your while.”
“How’s a million sound?”
The Verdance was outside the rain-slicked window; no one was in the park but the swans, and they were rather cross about the situation even though they had been built a short wooden lean-to specifically for them to stand under all day every 18 days. A volunteer from Friends of the Swans named Jarva Cantley would muck it out the next day, and the birds would thank Jarva by attempting to murder her. The Verdance was shaped like a dumpy oval and had three paths cutting through it that, when viewed from above, formed this shape: ≠. Beyond that were the foothills and then Mt. Fortitude and then America, where a million dollars was still a great deal of money.
“It sounds round, Mr. Scotland. Round and robust.”
“It’ll puff up yer pecker.”
“I got a reservation?”
“No, sir. You have eight.”
“Leopard, it’s a disappearing fuckin’ art.”
“What is, Mr. Scotland?”
The line went dead, and Mr. Leopard replaced the handset briefly, then replaced it at his ear. Punched in seven numbers. A phone rang in a butcher shop on Harcourt Street.
THRUMBLE said the sky, and Cannot Swim shrugged his shoulders because he had no idea how to answer. There were no individual clouds, just splotches that were darker than the rest of the gray, and he poked his head out from under the outcropping of rock he had sheltered under. He knew he had not been followed, but he was a 16-year-old breaking rules, so he was paranoid. Between the rain and the heavy brush, he couldn’t see more than 20 yards in any direction, but he still scanned around. Sniffed, too.
The seven peaks of what would later be called the Segovian Hills are orogenic in nature: collision-birthed. The Pacific tectonic plate slides under the North American plate where the two tectons meet; this causes the tippity-top layer of the NA plate to buckle up. The process is violent, and ongoing, but it is a far slower violence than humans can register and so we go hiking and build our homes on what–from a geologic point of view–is a bar fight. Scars and pocks and ridges and crevasses and bruises and plateaus: the septet was unplanned, a mess, a craggy crumble of land.
Sometimes, the water cut through the limestone. Pooled. Rubbed away at what was so solid. The first White to attempt to map the Hills was named Hannah Speke; he had completed Mounts Lincoln and Faith when he discovered the cave system underneath Mt, Fortitude by falling 80 feet into it. The second White to attempt to map the Hills, Aubrey Norge, was much more careful about where he stepped.
Cannot Swim did not know anything about tectonic drift, and he would not be able to understand the compulsion to chart out the hills. The Pulaski lived in the valley, and the mountains lived in the mountains. It was a working strategy, he figured. The rocks above his head sheared the water away from him, and the ground was mostly dryish. Mushrooms would still be there tomorrow, when it would no longer be raining. Hell, probably be more of them, he thought. Cannot Swim knew this was not the most honorable was to complete the Assignment, but on the other hand, it was raining, just like it did every 18 days in what would later be called Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.