It was Saturday morning, and the Jews were walking to church. Since Torah, Torah, Torah burned down, the congregation had shuttled between sanctuaries, davening up and down Rose Street. The churches and temples and mosques still standing passed them around. One week here, the next there. The Jews wandered, as is their tendency. This week they were in the First Church of the Infinite Christ, and Jesus peered over the rabbi’s shoulder as he read from the Torah.
Behind and above the pulpit was stained glass, but between the stained glass and the pulpit was a giant crucifix with a larger-than-life (and rather detailed) Christ nailed to it. The Spectacular Harold had been paid to consult, and the magician earned his money: from any vantage but directly under the crucifix, it floated in air with no support at all. Rabbi Levy would not think of asking anyone at the First Church to cover up their Christ–they were guests, after all–but he was grateful for the yarmulke and tallis placed on the figure by the Reverend Arcade Jones.
Technically, Earnest Hubbs had dressed the Christ. Arcade was 6’5″ and 300 pounds–before lunch–and therefore not particularly suited to scampering up and down ladders, but Earnest was a foot and 150 pounds smaller. Earnest had been the synagogue’s handyman, and he had lived in a basement apartment along with the synagogue’s cat, Kischka; he saved the cat from the fire, and he saved one of the two Torahs. Sy Feldstein wanted to know why Earnest hadn’t saved both Torahs, but the rest of the congregation told him to shut the fuck up. Then Sy started yelling about free speech, and everyone dismissed him using exaggerated hand gestures. Rabbi Levy had paid for a room at the Hotel Synod for Earnest; the rabbi thought he was doing a mitzvah, but Earnest came to him with tears in his eyes and asked if there was anywhere else he could stay. Earnest Hubbs had not graduated from high school, but he knew himself. He knew he should not surround himself with bad influences. He knew he was a sinner, and so it was better to stay in the House of the Lord. A bad man who lived with the Gospel could walk right again, one of these days; a bad man who lived with other bad men would sink and drown and die. Lord, protect me from my plans, Earnest Hubbs prayed every night.
So Rabbi Levy sat and thought. Earnest could come home with him. Can’t be a more godly environment than a rabbi’s house, he figured, but then remembered he had five children under the age of ten. He and his wife Rivka had made the children, so they had to live with them, but no one else should have to. The Episcopalian and Presbyterian churches were out, as the rabbi could not recall which one was which. The mosque might work, the rabbi thought: Muslims like cats.
But he had a feeling about the First Church of the Infinite Christ.
“The man’s a wizard.”
“An actual wizard?”
“What, like Merlin?”
“Yeah,” the Reverend Arcade Jones said.
“No,” Rabbi Levy answered.
“Don’t act like there’s not wizards in this neighborhood.”
“Earnest has no magical abilities.”
“So why’d you call him a wizard?”
“It was a metaphor.”
“Metaphors are warnings around here,” Arcade said.
“He’s an excellent handyman, is what I’m saying. All I’m saying.”
“Okay. Where’s he gonna stay?”
In the apartment he built himself in the First Church’s basement, the Reverend learned. Earnest was not a carpenter, but he could carpent, and he was not a plumber, but he could plumb, and so with only his tools and a few hundred bucks from the congregation of Torah, Torah, Torah, Earnest Hubbs built himself and Kischka a place to live; before anyone could complain, he had fixed the wobbly pew in the sixth row and she had solved the mouse problem.
The First Church of the Infinite Christ always did have trouble turning away refugees.
“Give me another leaf. This one’s cashed.”
“You’re not supposed to chomp on them.”
“I’m a fast chewer,” Talks To Whites Said.
“That’s not a thing,” Cannot Swim answered. “Besides, you have the leaves.”
Talks To Whites checked the pouch slung over his shoulder.
“I could’ve swore you had ’em.”
“Maybe you should pace yourself.”
“Maybe you should suck my balls.”
There were three of them walking through the pass: Cannot Swim, Talks To Whites, and Easy Life. The first two were sixteen-year-old boys, cousins, from the Pulaski tribe; the third was a horse.
The Pulaski had little need for horses. They were not nomads following their food like some tribes: their valley was bountiful and never froze. Fish swam in the lake, and their farming techniques did not require plowing. They did not seek out fights with faraway Natives, nor had they been harassed by Whites. Some Pulaski knew how to ride, but there was no day-to-day requirement for the animals. But once every two months or so? Then the horse came in handy.
The Pulaski were gun nuts.
Wanders Away had brought the first rifle into the village. When he was a child, he would walk out of his kotcha in the middle of the night; when he was a boy, he would stroll into the woods for days. Back then, all the Pulaski children were given the same Assignment: a trip to the Low Desert. Wanders Away left the village for the desert the morning after the rain that came every 18 days. He came back into the valley two years later wearing clothes no Pulaski had ever seen before. And he had a Springfield Model 1842.
The 1842 was a leap. Previous guns were smooth-bore. That means the inside of the barrel is flat and the projectile comes out with no spin. The Springfield was rifled, though, which means there helical grooves cut into the interior surface of the barrel. Difference between a knuckleball and a tight spiral. The Pulaski were still using bows and arrows when Wanders Away brought the rifle into the village. One hunting trip later, the tribe decided to scrap the bows in favor of guns. Wanders Away said that the shiny nuggets in the streams that fed the lake were valuable to the Whites, and that they would trade rifles for them, so the Pulaski gave him some of the rocks and sent him back over the hills to find more guns. When Wanders Away hadn’t returned for a year, the tribe decided to find someone more reliable. The elders woke Talks To Whites’ father at dawn, roughly.
“What? What’s happening Is the Turtle back?”
“It is time for your Assignment, High Noon.”
Talks To Whites’ father would soon share his son’s village name, but his family name was High Noon. The sun was barely shining through the clouds and the village was quiet. Talks To Whites, Sr., rubbed his eyes and said,
“No,” the elders said.
“No,” the elders said.
“I thought those were the only two options.”
“High Noon, you are clever. And you never shut up. So, you will go to the Whites. You will learn their language. And you will bring us back rifles.”
He stared at his parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, assorted kibbitzers. Then he said,
“I’d really prefer the squatch.”
The people who loved him the most grabbed him, naked, and threw him out of the kotcha. His breechcloth and tunic followed. High Noon thought to himself that this was no way to begin manhood. But he was, as his elders thought, smart and resourceful. High Noon walked through the pass just as his son would out of the Pulaski’s valley and into America.
After a day’s walking, he came to a small farm. He paused at the treeline and dug the sack with the nuggets out of his deerhide pouch. Wanders Away had told the elders about the magic of the nuggets. There was a curse on them, he said, but a curse that depended on size. Men with a small amount of the pebbles would be treated as guests, and with kindness; men believed to have a large reserve of them would be robbed, or killed. High Noon found a distinctive rock on the west side of a spruce and buried most of his stash. Then he walked down to the farm.
The farmer and his son stopped their work and watched the tall boy approach. High noon’s tunic had a sun embroidered on it, and so did the pouch slung over his shoulder. He was short for a Pulaski, but taller than the Whites.
The farmer leaned against his shovel and spat in the ground. His son mimicked him. They were wearing hard shoes and overalls, and both had beards–a full one on the father and a scraggly blondish one on the son–which High Noon had not seen before. Pulaski men did not grow facial hair.
“Hi. My name’s High Noon. I mean you no harm,” High Noon said, but obviously he said it in Pulaski.
“Howdy,” the farmer answered in English.
High Noon thought it was going well so far.
“I need to learn how to speak the White language,” High Noon said. He pointed to his mouth, and then at the farmer’s, and then back while making a gesture with his fingers like air was coming out.
“Should I kill him, Pa?”
“Shut the fuck up, Johnny,” the farmer said. He was a simple man, which is a euphemism for poor, but he was not stupid.
High Noon repeated the gesture again. Then he pointed at his own chest.
“My name’s High Noon,” he said, and then repeated it slowly and loudly as people have been doing to foreigners since time immemorial. “Hiiiiiigh Noooooon.”
Mouth gesture once more. Then he pulled a gold nugget the size of a ball bearing out of his pouch that had the sun embroidered on it. Extended it to the farmer. Mouth gesture.
The farmer pointed to his overall’d chest and said,
And then he took the nugget from High Noon’s hand, held it up to the light, bit it, unbuttoned his breast pocket, dropped it in, buttoned his breast pocket, pat pat pat, and then he smiled and held out his hand.
High Noon had never shaken hands before–the Pulaski grasped each others’ shoulders with both hands–but he reached out and took Caleb Greenwood’s hand and shook it once twice three times and when Caleb smiled at him, he smiled back.
The farmer pointed to his newly-richer chest and said again,
High Noon pointed at him and repeated back as best he could,
“Close enough,” he said and then pointed at his son. “Johnny.”
High Noon pointed at himself and said,
“High Noon,” but the Pulaski language was difficult even compared to other Native languages, so all Caleb heard was random fricatives and vowels where they didn’t belong.
“Yeah, I can’t pronounce that. I’m gonna call you Peter.”
Caleb Greenwood pointed at High Noon and said,
High Noon took a second, and then he pointed at himself and said,
High Noon was completely unfamiliar with Whites, so he just figured all guests got new names. He shrugged and nodded his head and said,
Caleb held up his shovel and shook it, then pointed over towards the barn where another shovel was leaning. High Noon, who was now called Peter, went and got the shovel. Caleb turned to his son.
“He’s already smarter than you.”
“What’s going on here Pa?”
“Seriously, Johnny, just shut the fuck up.”
Peter stayed with the Greenwoods for six months. By the time he left he was fluent in the White language, which he came to learn was called English, and he set off for C—–a City to trade for rifles and ammo. It wasn’t much of a city–three blocks containing 13 bars, a bank, and a hardware store–but there were rifles for sale and so it was all that Peter needed. Caleb had taught him the worth of gold during his stay. Peter did not believe that men could be so obsessed with rocks, but Caleb insisted that they were and Caleb had not lied or mistreated him, so Peter trusted his opinion and negotiated for the rifles well.
He did not anticipate the weight of weapons and ammunition.
There was a livery on the far south side of the city, and Peter bought the cheapest horse and strapped the guns and bullets to the animal’s back. He led it east out of the city and then doubled back after dark in case anyone had followed him to learn where the gold had come from. When he returned to the Pulaski village after six months away, bearing precious rifles and ammo, the tribe let out a great holler and there was a feast that night in his honor where he received yet another name: his village name, Talks To Whites. He also got a handjob, which he thought was awesome.
The horse was allowed to wander around the valley; his only responsibility was the regular trip to C—–a City with Talks To Whites for ammo and rifles and parts, and so the Pulaski named him Easy Life.
Now he walked the pass through the hills with Talks To Whites’ son.
“It’s not fair,” Cannot Swim said.
“You don’t know what I’m talking about yet.”
“Whatever it is,” Talks To Whites said, “it’s not fair.”
“You have an easy Assignment.”
“It’s not easy. You couldn’t do it.”
“Of course not. I cannot speak the White language.”
“And I can’t go up into the hills. You know how much I hate sleeping outside.”
“It brings you closer to nature.”
“You wake up covered in dew. It sucks.”
The Segovian Hils had one pass, a saddle-shaped depression to the north of the highest peak, and the two cousins walked in light that writers are forced by law to call dappled: little needle-shivers speckling on the ground like reflections off a lake. The woods were moving and alive and awake and breathing, and there was no trail cut at all because that’s how the Pulaski liked it. A man named Furlong Christy would bushwhack a swerving and slippery route along the pass a few years later, and when a road for cars was built, it followed his path and so the road and pass were named Christy Canyon.
But now the pass had no name and there was no trail, just pine trees and grass and two cousins and a horse.
“Seriously, I can’t believe this is your Assignment.”
“Today, I am a man,” Talks To Whites said.
“You do this all the time!”
A flock of startled starlings flapped away from the boys.
“Pnerfpbpbpbpb,” Easy Wind said as shit slopped out of him.
“What he said. You’re not seeing the big picture.”
“You live by yourself?”
“You know where I live.”
“Answer the question. I’m making a point.”
“I live with my father and sister,” Cannot Swim said.
Talks To Whites spat loudly and wetly.
“You three all by yourself?”
“I thought you said you had a point.”
“I’d get to it if you’d answer the questions the right way.”
Cannot Swim spat, too.
“I like in the village with the rest of the tribe.”
“Right. And everyone in the village is good at something. We all contribute what we’re able. All connected. It’s like this pass. The pass is a village just like ours. Owl’s good at being an owl; squirrels good at squirreling. Ask the squirrel to catch a mouse at night. Ask the owl to find a nut. You’re good at hunting. Me? I’m good at buying bullets.”
Talks To Whites kicked an oval rock ahead of him as he walked, and the cousins could see a circling eagle through the canopy of needles.
“You’re not very good at spotting pumas.”
“I might be. Haven’t ever tried.”
“You should try right now,” Cannot Swim said, and pointed towards a rill 200 yards to the south.
Talks To Whites scurried around Easy Life, putting the horse in between himself and the big cat.
“You cannot hide from the world!
“No, not for long. World finds you, world creeps in, world seeps through. You are part of the world, and what is part of is. Rabbi Levy, he’s been teaching me a lot about the Jews. About Judaism. Keeps on coming back to the tree of life, and I keep saying to him, ‘Rabbi, I’m from Loxachachi, Florida! Life ain’t a tree, no! It’s a swamp.’ It’s overgrown and everything yearns for the sun.
“But when there’s so much life, then the world is full of shade. Overgrown, like I said.
“Trees don’t grow by their lonesome! Got brothers and sisters and cousins surrounding ’em, we call that a forest. Maybe they call it a village. We call it the woods, but maybe the trees see a neighborhood.”
The Reverend Arcade Jones was behind the pulpit; Rabbi Levy and Cantor Manevich sat behind him in chairs with absurdly tall backs. Earnest Hubbs had rigged up a temporary ark at the back of the bema, and the Torah he had saved was within. Christ hovered above; he was wearing a breechcloth and a yarmulke. The pews were filled with Jews: coughing, hocking, eating hard candies, holding grudges.
The Jews had been shuttled from place to place–people kept getting tired of them–but now they were here in the First Church of the Infinite Christ and they had stood and sat and stood and sat, and they had declared the Shema as one and sang Havenu Shalom Aleichem led on by the Cantor. It was not the High Holy Days, but the rabbi blew the shofar anyway, just as he had done every Shabbat since the synagogue burned, and the horn made a sound like baaaahROPABOBbahROPABOB that echoed up and down Rose Street. Rabbi Levy blew as hard as he could. He wanted the Main Drag to hear.
It takes a year to read through the Torah, and then you start again. It’s not a sprint or a marathon; it’s not a race at all. A passage each week and then it’s Simcha Torah and you begin again. This week was called Kedoshim. The rabbi said the prayers over the scroll and removed the velvet cover and rolled it out so he could read the words he knew by heart. It went like this:
And the word of the Lord came to me, saying, “And you, son of man, will you judge, will you judge the bloody city?”
And it continued on:
Behold, I strike my hand at the dishonest gain that you have made, and at the blood that has been in your midst. Can your courage endure? I the Lord have spoken, and I will do it. I will scatter you among the nations and disperse you through the countries, and I will consume your uncleanness out of you. And you shall be profaned by your own doing in the sight of the nations, and you shall know that I am the Lord.
There was a Bar Mitzvah that week. His name was Josh because all Bar Mitzvah boys are named Josh, and he chanted words he did not understand in a bored monotone. Later, he would be rewarded with savings bonds.
The rabbi asked the Reverend Jones to speak before the congregation, just as he had all the other pastors and priests with whom the Jews had sought refuge. Arcade Jones was wearing a suit the color of a melting creamsicle.
“Ever been to a swamp? Spend time in one? Ooh, Lord, it is hot. First thing you notice. Second thing, too, probably.
“All that life lying on top of one another raises the temperature. Friction and proximity. Leaves get on top of branches get on top of lizards get on top of gators. Nothing gets on top of gators, but they get old just like we do, just like the trees do.
“And time gets thick just like the swamp.”
The Reverend had a glass of water at the pulpit, and he took a drink from it. There were Jews in front of him, behind him, and there was one suspended above him in a purposely uncomfortable pose. Several drunk Christians who had gotten their weekend days mixed up and thought it was Sunday; they were rather confused. Earnest Hubbs had one good shirt, and he was wearing it on the last pew on the left.
Above the bema, the top half of the east wall was stained glass; the artist’s name was Guadalupe Forsythe and she was very famous, but not for her art: she tried to stab the governor of South Dakota at a chili cook-off. Transparent pebbling and shards of blue and green. Fractalized iconography with the sun for a projector: the glass was moving and alive and awake and breathing, and it told the story of Jesus Christ of Little Aleppo. The Stations of the Cross, localized. Christ in a tunic and moccasins as the Pulaski are betrayed; Christ trapped and burning behind painted-shut windows in St. Florian’s orphanage; Christ with her head staved in on the Main Drag; Christ hiding under a bed in Chinatown; Christ a failure on Alfalfa Street; Christ wasting away in a bar on Sylvester Street.
“Rabbi Levy taught me something else. Dayenu. I see you nodding your heads. I see you smiling. When the rabbi taught me about dayenu, I imagined that I had finally met in person someone I’d only known through letters or on the phone. It crystallized something I’ve been thinking about almost all my life. But you know that thoughts ain’t words. Thoughts float around, but words pin ideas down.
“Dayenu. ‘You’ve done enough.’ That’s what it means, and it’s a prayer.
“Anything’s a prayer if you say it to the Lord.
“We woke up this morning with health: dayenu. We woke up this morning with a chance at redemption: dayenu. The synagogue burned, but the congregation remains: dayenu. Fire consumes a building, but not the man living within: dayenu!
The Jews did not know what to do: they had heard many sermons, but never been preached at; there was some renegade applause, and a muffled “Woo” from the right side of the nave, and a muttered “That’s right” from the left.
“Wood turns to ash, but the Torah remains: dayenu. In times of strife, the greatest kindnesses emerge: DAYENU! In the DESERT of CRUELTY, water is PASSED ABOUT: DAYENU!”
Arcade Jones ran a handkerchief over his great bald head; a voice cried out,
“Take your time, Reverend.”
And he did. He preached about the Lord and His infinicy, and how an Infinite Christ must surely be Jewish and Muslim and Hindu and either Presbyterian or Episcopalian, whichever was which, and an Animist and an Atheist and an Agnostic and a Gnostic, however you pronounced that, and so too must the Christ await the return of the Turtle Who Once Was And Will Be Again. The Jews shouted AH-MANE and leapt to their feet and whistled, and Arcade Jones declared that they would no longer wander, that the congregation would stay in the First Church until it had a new home, which surprised Deacon Blue but thrilled the Jews, who clapped and cheered so loudly that–since the doors of the First Church of the Infinite Christ were open–the noise ricocheted off the sanctified buildings of Rose Street and into the bars and courthouses and hair salons of the Main Drag through Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.