At first, there was nothing.
Next, there was something, but very little of it.
Then, Cannot Swim opened his eyes and Here And There was sitting on the edge of his bed.
He didn’t say “motherfucker.” There’s no word in the Pulaski language that directly translates to “motherfucker.” What he said sounded kind of like “ri’znizh’ki” and meant something like “owls shit in your mouth and you enjoy it,” but it had the connotation of “motherfucker.” The Pulaski did have a word that directly translated to “motherfucker” but it was used to address a man who was married to your mother but wasn’t your father. Like a second husband. It wasn’t a curse word, and it certainly wasn’t something you’d yelp in surprised fear when the shaman showed up in your kotcha in the middle of the night.
“Oh, good. You’re awake.”
“I wasn’t. Why are you here?”
Here And There and Cannot Swim were most probably cousins. Everyone in the tribe was related–there were technically five families, but there was a lot of interhumping–and it was probably true that they were cousins, but Cannot Swim did not know exactly in what way. He knew they weren’t cousins like he and Talks To Whites were cousins: their mothers had been sisters. He also knew that he had never corrected Here And There when she called him “cousin.”
“Cool out tonight.”
“Mm. Which is why I’m under the blanket. You could be, too.”
“I don’t think Throwing Knife would like that very much.”
“I meant your blanket in your kotcha,” Cannot Swim said, and turned over to look at his wife. She was lightly snoring, she sounded like a happy cat, and her left leg was kicked out from under the bearskin that covered her enormous belly. The Pulaski slept on low wooden platforms, just a few inches off the ground, and their mattresses were made from the same bearskin as their blankets, but shorn of fur. More leather for a pillow, rolled up into a tight cylinder. The bed took up almost half of the floor space; the Pulaski spent little time in their kotchas. Sleeping, fucking, staying out of the rain every 18 days. Otherwise, they were outside.
The only sound was Throwing Knife. She went schWOHz and snorted a little. When she was not pregnant, she slept in total silence. Cannot Swim found that hard to get used to when they moved in together. He would watch her in the dark and wish for just a little plurp or muhhf or something. She looked dead. He wanted to poke her, and did once. He did not do that again. Ever since she started showing, though, she slumbered with more volume. He secretly liked it.
But she was a light sleeper.
“Why is she still sleeping? She wakes up when the dog farts. And, holy shit, why is the dog still asleep?”
In a few hours when the sun rose over the Segovian Hills and blessed the valley, you would be able to see the white in Black Eyes’ muzzle. She slept inside now, where it was warmer and she had a blanket to lay on. Throwing Knife had made fun of Cannot Swim for this: dogs were not pampered in the Pulaski village. They drank from the lake, ate what was tossed to them, and slept on the ground. Cannot Swim agreed with her 100%, and then laid the blanket out, anyway. He had figured out that trick in the short time they had been cohabitating, and was proud of himself. Throwing Knife let him think he had gotten away with something. It wasn’t like she was getting rid of the dog: Black Eyes had heeled up on her right side nine months ago and refused to leave. She had done the math and it said that the dog took up her post the morning after the conception, but Throwing Knife refused to believe the math on account of she didn’t want to.
So Black Eyes was at the foot of the bed. She was a 100-pound lumpish shape in the dark, unmoving.
“I drugged them.”
“What? You drugged Throwing Knife? She’s fucking pregnant!”
“I didn’t drug her. It was a joke.”
“You’re not funny.”
“I drugged you.”
“Motherfucker, you did, didn’t you?”
And now they were atop the pass in between the fourth and fifth peaks of the mountain range that separated the Pulaski’s valley from America. The stars were in their hair, and the wind from the Pacific snapped at their ears, and prickles of grass shot up between the bare, too-long toes of Here And There’s wide, flat feet. Cannot Swim was also barefoot; he shivered in his breachcloth.
“You couldn’t let me put on my shoes?”
“You’re not really cold.”
“I absolutely am.”
“No, you can’t be. We’re not actually here. This is just a dream.”
Cannot Swim was a foot-and-a-half taller than Here And There, and he took a deep breath because he had never struck another member of his tribe before out of anger, and he instinctively knew that he should not start with the shaman.
“Here And There?”
“With all due respect?”
“Oh, of course.”
“Completely unfuckingnecesary. All of this, the entire thing. If you have something to tell me, you could’ve told me at dinner.”
“Oh, no. No, no. I need to discuss shaman shit with you. Can’t do it over a meal while you’re sober. Shaman shit is for the middle of the night with your mind all greased-up.”
He ran his fingers through black hair, which was loose and to his shoulder blades. Throwing Knife braided it every morning, very early, just as the sky is pinking up and the world is quiet and thoughtful. When she was finished, he would braid her hair, which was the same length and shade. It was his favorite time of day.
“I want a straight answer.”
“Man, are you talking to the wrong person.”
“Am I dreaming, or did you drug me?”
Here And There also had black hair, but hers hung to her waist and was shot through with seven vertical white stripes like an overachieving skunk. All the Pulaski had dark eyes, but there was no distinction between the black of her pupils and the corneas. She was the only member of the tribe to have freckles. They splotched winglike around her nose. She had a smile you wished she’d point somewhere else.
And now they were back in the kotcha on the bed.
And now they were atop the pass.
“What does it matter? Stop breaking my balls. It’s magick.”
And now they were standing on the surface of the water in the middle of the lake where the Pulaski fished. Cannot Swim looked down, at Here And There, down again, back, and then up at the sky with his eyes tightly shut.
“We could go back to the pass.”
“Are you sure?”
He did not look down one tiny little bit.
“Yes. Yes. The pass sounds great. I’m up for the pass.”
“You’re gonna stop asking stupid questions?”
“I’m just gonna listen.”
“Oh, no. This is a conversation we’re having, cousin. I welcome your input.”
They were back on the pass, and the stars were back in their hair, and Cannot Swim stomped the ground several times before peeking downwards. He poked a rock with his toe suspiciously. He had never been up here without a rifle before, and definitely not at night. For good reason.
The culls began in earnest in 1920. Little Aleppo had profiteered the living shit out of the federal government during the First World War One. No substandard was too sub, no price was too inflated. The sailors who docked at the Salt Wharf had a buyer for the trash fish they used to use as chum, Hognosed fluke and Tierra del Fuegan flipperdicks and spaghetti mackarel; the garment shops turned out uniforms made from wheat shavings and human stubble; a carpenter named Alan Lamp made a quick buck selling the Army wooden bullets. The neighborhood was making money by the trenchload, slowed only by the still-dirt trail that connected it to America. Trucks had taken over for horses, but not entirely, and it was still not safe to make the journey at night. People still did, and most made it, but more than occasionally the morning would find a truck sitting empty right in the middle of the trail. The merchandise would only be touched if it was food.
Before 1920, there were forays. Hunting trips. Heavily-armed ones, but still just men ambling about the woods while drinking. Couple even nailed a squatch, swear they did, but there was just blood and grass when they got to where the downed corpse should be. Drunken ninnies with rifles, most. Gunther Hundeschreier even made a trip: he was the biggest big game hunter, and he was game. He left from the Irving Club at dawn, accompanied by six porters in native garb. Native to where was not obvious: one guy was in a grass skirt, and another had paint all over his face, and one was a Sherpa. Gunter was in all-khaki: pressed shorts, and a shirt with all sorts of pockets, and tall boots with laces, and one of those hats where you button a side of the brim up and leave the other floppy. He had an elephant gun–must have been five feet long–that he made sure everyone watch him load, then he shouldered the cannon and he and his porters marched towards the Segovian Hills. He handed the gun off to the Sherpa when the crowd could no longer see them. The rifle, badly rusted and occupied by a family of shrews, was discovered in 1972; the hat was never found.
After 1920, though, Little Aleppians got serious about carving their road to America, and they also became much more heavily armed due to all the surplus war materiel coming back from the Pacific part of WWI that everyone has forgotten about. The Browning M1917 is a water-cooled full automatic that shoots 30.06 shells at a rate of 500 a minute and at a range of 1,500 yards. Properly maintained, a Browning M1917 will fire for several hours straight without needing repair. It made killing very easy; the only tough part was carrying all the ammunition. The Town Fathers paid for a militia, but they didn’t pay a lot, so the militia was not well-regulated. Estimates put the number of human dead, from carelessness or drunkenness or falling off the mountains, at about commensurate with the number of squatch deaths. Men outnumbered beast, so it was a game of attrition. If you ever find yourself in a game attrition, try to be on the side with the machine guns. In 1922, the hills were declared clear, and construction begun on not only Christy Canyon, but also on Skyway Drive and Biscuit Court and Gitcheegoomee Way and a hundred other concrete tributaries tracing upwards. The machine guns were locked away in the armory.
They were hurriedly fetched from the armory in 1923 when it came to be known, bloodily, that the hills had not been cleared. The last stand of the squatch was called the Battle of the Main Drag, and there are still one or two buildings with bullet holes in them from that day, but they blend in with all the other bullet holes made since then, so the historic ones are tough to find.
And then the Whites lived everywhere in Little Aleppo. (The Blacks and Hispanics and Asians, too. The hills were not segregated, mostly because the homes were so spread apart or tucked away that no one had to see their neighbors.) The final foot of tarmac was laid on the crest of the pass in ’24, and then there was the world and there was America, but not in that order. No more horses. Just cars and trucks and even buses. Motorcyclists zoomed over, and died a lot. Move your product inland in a tenth of the time. Commerce, baby.
The road was for the merchants, but the streets were for the people. Mostly the rich, lazy, or weird people; it was a pain in the ass getting from your house on, say, Mount Fortitude to the Main Drag, and it was completely impossible without an automobile. There were mansions–Harper T. Harper built his Roman-ish villa up on Mount Charity, and so did the Braunce family, and also the Boones–and writers had shacks where their editors would lay in a month’s supply of whiskey and cigarettes and lock them in. The monastery is on Mount Faith. The Observatory went up in the 30’s high atop Pulaski Peak, and the 100-foot-tall antenna went up on Mount Lincoln. During the Second World War Two, fallout shelters were dug into Mount Booth. (No one in the neighborhood was informed of these shelters; they were suspiciously light on concrete and supplies, but chockful of the Town Father’s families and they all had pools, too.)
The artists lived on Mount Chastity, which is the mountain directly north of Pulaski Peak; Christy Canyon divides them. It is the steepest of the seven hills, and therefore the toughest to climb and descend, which means it was inexpensive to live there. Artists can smell cheap rent from across a continent, and Chastity filled up with creative types: drunken painters, and drunken novelists, and drunken guitar players. Barkeeps can smell artists, too, and so The Colonel’s opened up. Everyone was positive that Evelyn Wood had never attained the rank of colonel, mostly because the Army wasn’t letting women in at the time, but she’d throw you right the fuck out if you didn’t call her Colonel, so no one poked about into her story too hard. You could also get groceries, and all the mail for the mountain was delivered there, and small home goods, too. When there were puppies or kitties to be given away, they were placed in a cardboard box on the counter. The Colonel’s was more of a general store.
You’d be shocked how many of your favorite records happened because of The Colonel’s. It was where Kate Skye met Arnie Delviking. She had all those songs, all those whispers of songs sitting there in the living room of the pad she was renting from a friend of a friend of the guy who cut her hair. The place came with furniture, but she moved every stick of it into a back bedroom. Better acoustics. She wrote her lyrics in green pen. She had a thing about it. They were in a composition book with a crease down the front from where she folded it up and carried it around in the back pocket of her bell-bottom dungarees. She had these songs, these little whispers of songs, and she played them for Arnie after they got drunk at The Colonel’s and went back to her bare bungalow. She sat on the hearth in front of the unlit fireplace, and she played guitar like it was a magic trick. When she was done, they smoked a joint and fucked, and then Arnie–who used to write hit teenybopper singles at the Brill Building before dropping acid and moving Out West–drove Kate to his place, where he had a small recording studio and called up muscians who owed him favors and he sat at the piano while she sat on a stool. Arnie arranged ’em, and Kate sang ’em–twice, maybe three times–and the pickup band picked up what they were laying down. Took three days. Kate called the album The Fireplace Sessions, and it went Gold. Kate went on tour, got famous, married poorly, then well. Arnie built a bigger studio on Hyperion Lane.
He called it Virgin Studios–thought it was clever, being on Mount Chastity and all–but received an angry letter from some rich asshole in London, and gave up trying to be clever and just called the place Hyperion Studios. There was a small parking lot out front, and then the lounge and the offices and the little kitchen where rhythm sections had screaming matches, and behind that was the studio proper. It was built into the hill itself: the builders plugged the whole structure into an existing cave. This gave the room a resonance that was tough to find in recording studios not built into mountains.
Muggley, Finch, and Bowels laid down Spinner Topper right there in that room. Sold two million. The drummer was in the corner behind wooden curtains, and the bass player sat by the pianist, and Muggley, Finch and Bowels were in the middle of the space equidistant around one suspended microphone. They would smoke joints and harmonize. By their next album, they were also snorting cocaine and harmonizing, which may be why they named the album Carbonated Underwear Vs. the Jukebox Pirates of Titan. It did not sell as well.
The Snug’s first album didn’t move, either. This made Arnie Delviking ecstatic. He had met poorly-behaved bands before–Keith Richards had once thrown a ladder at him–but The Snug was special. Most bands grew into their arrogance, but The Snug’s entitled dickishness existed fully-formed at their inception, like gods bursting forth from Cronos, but instead of gods there were insane demands and spontaneous tantrums and poorly-timed OD’s. The poorly-timed OD is what separates the wheat from the boys, Arnie thought. Anyone could overdose, but only a true Rock Star would choose to do so while performing at the Grammys, or signing a desperately-needed new contract.
None of them had been in a recording studio before, which didn’t stop them for one instant telling everyone what to do. Johnny Mister insisted on turning his Hi-Watt amps up as loud as they’d go, which Arnie explained was not the way to do it; Johnny countered by taking a shit on the floor. Holiday Rhodes was 99% finished with the lyrics. All that was left to do was to pick out the exact right words, and also the order they went in: 99% finished. He spent most of the sessions hectoring the drummer, Rut Morgan, who was replaced on the second record after losing all of his limbs in a high-stakes poker game. He was probably going to be fired, anyway, but Johnny and Holiday were glad for the excuse. Bassist Dave Ronn sat on his stool and didn’t bother anyone, drinking steadily until he flopped off his stool; the roadies would prop him against a speaker cabinet, where he would continue to not bother anyone.
Arnie hit the button on the mixing board that turned on his mic into the studio.
“We need a marching band.”
“I’ll check in my office.”
“Oh, they wouldn’t fit in there. Don’t bother checking,” Johnny said. He had taken acid, and was now earnest.
“We can’t get a marching band.”
“I need one.”
“Well, it’s two in the morning. So that’s going to be a barrier. Marching bands are almost exclusively found in the daytime.”
“They call that circadian rhythm.”
“And you can’t afford a marching band.”
“They’ll do it for art, man.”
And Johnny took another shit on the floor, this time earnestly.
Hyperion Studios is still there, and Arnie still owns it. Spends more time retelling old stories for rock and roll documentaries than recording lately. The big room hasn’t changed, not a baffle. During tours, Arnie points out the stain on the carpet and say, “That was Johnny Mister.” Young musicians come by to hang out and smoke dope, and they ask him for advice. He tells them to go back in time and purchase a bunch of real estate in the early 70’s. “Worked out great for me,” he says.
“No, thank you.”
“They’re ripe as hell.”
“I’m good,” Cannot Swim said.
“I didn’t put drugs in them.”
He said nothing. It would have been dramatic if a shooting star passed overhead, but none did.
“Okay, yeah, there’s drugs in them,” Here And There laughed and popped a plump berry in her mouth.
Pulaski Peak was behind her; its summit would not be smoothed down and colonized for 50 years, and it was jagged and no human being had ever stood atop it. There was no reason to do so, and every reason not to even think about trying. The hill that would be called Mount Chastity was behind him. Its summit was nubby and sawed-off and covered in gentle grass where Pulaski Peak’s was rocky. Nobody had been up there, either.
“What will you do in the morning?”
“Oversee the hiding of the gold. Then Talks To Whites and I will go and speak to the White.”
“That should work. They seem reasonable.”
“Well, what should we do?”
“I’m not the one to ask. Shamans aren’t good with tactics.”
“Why don’t you use your magick?”
Here And There had several laughs: the low heheheheh she used on purpose, and the sudden BWA that leapt from her when a laugh was forced from her. She went BWA! and a shooting star crossed the sky, finally.
“You don’t use magick. And it’s not mine. But besides that: great idea.”
“You don’t use magick? What do you do with it?”
“Entice it into a temporary alliance. Try not to annoy it. Be elsewhere when it gets cranky. But you can’t use it. Magick isn’t a tool.”
FWOMP there was a neat campfire in front of them, with a log pleasant for sitting.
“I mean, sometimes it’s a tool. But you don’t wanna press your luck.”
She flattened her tunic under her tush as she sat, then patted the empty space next to her. Cannot Swim flattened his tunic the same way, joined her, extended his hands towards the fire.
“Go with your cousin tomorrow. Take Black Eyes, too.”
“She won’t leave Throwing Knife’s side”
“She will. Take her. Pay attention to your cousin. He cannot be objective about the Whites. Their language is in his brain too deeply. His father taught it to him at too young an age. He sees the world as they do.”
“Okay. Are there any raspberries without drugs in them?”
“No, but I have some blueberries like that.”
He held out his hand and said, “Please,” and she filled it. The blueberries that grew near their village were the size of popcorn kernels from an upscale movie theater. Cannot Swim chucked a few back, chewed, swallowed.
“No, wait. I drugged the blueberries, too.”
“When I was a boy, my father told me to stay the hell away from you.”
“You should’ve listened.”
The fire popped and sizzled and was the only source of light. It played across Here And There’s forehead; she had tucked her hair behind her ears and her face fractured, came back together, rebroke in the hopping, yellow glow.
Now the fire leapt outwards, not evenly, tendrils and branches that climbed over each other; the radius of flame was increasing and SHWAMP it was all around Cannot Swim and the shaman, all seven hills and now the valley to the west and America to the east: fully involved and here goes the sky and there went the sea; the fire took it all but would not die out. The two Pulaski sat and burned forever.
“Can you see the future, cousin?”
“Me, neither. Maybe there’s a trick to it.”
And now the fire is back where it should be, a tool to be used, and the two Pulaski sat in the cold night and wished they knew what tomorrow would be like.