Cannot Swim was a Pulaski boy. We would call him a teenager, but the Pulaski didn’t have that concept in their culture, so they didn’t. The Pulaski were all tall and the same color as the redwood trees they stripped bark from to make their homes, which were shaped like teepees and called kotchas. Several dozen of varying size surrounded a communal hearth and a store-house. To the east of the village were the Segovian Hills, and to the west was the harbor, but right besides the village was a lake fed by three streams.
The Pulaski women fished with nets that they wove from dried dogbane cords. The lake had a gentle slope filled with rushes and littorals and waving cattails, and the women would wade in totally naked and chase the trout and steelhead and kingback into channels made from redwood bark that they’d laid, and they’d go right into the nets. To the northeast, in the oval-shaped plot where everything grows that would later be a park named the Verdance, the Pulaski men were tending to the gardens, also naked.
The tribe wore tunics made from animal hides. The Pulaski were skilled tanners and tailors, and the clothes were soft and comfortable, but still: leather doesn’t breathe. Thus, the naked labor. However, the Pulaski–like every other culture before and since–had all sorts of arbitrary rules about nudity. Men could be naked around men, women could be naked around women, families could be naked around each other. And that was it. The young people of the tribe are taught that these rules were passed down by The Turtle Who Was And Will Be Again. (Pulaski cosmogony is too complicated to get into here.) The elders were mostly sure that no good could come from everyone walking around dangling their bits at one another. Hence, the segregation of labor.
The men gardened because they used to fish, but soon became competitive with one another and started organizing contests and weigh-ins, even though the Pulaski did not have scales. When the men began to build a pontoon boat so they could go after the bigger fish, the women realized that if something were not done, the lake would be empty in months. The men were forced into the garden, where they immediately began growing giant pumpkins and cucumbers at one another.
Hunting was done while clothed, so both men and women participated.
The valley in between the hills and the harbor was temperate, but it was warm enough in the summers to make a dip in the lake a necessary adjunct to a sticky afternoon. The women would go first, then the men. The grown-ups would lounge and chat, but the boys and girls would roughhouse and dare each other into danger. Who’d go out the farthest, down the deepest, hold their breath longest. But not Cannot Swim. He just couldn’t figure it out: he’d manage a jerky dog-paddle for a few strokes, and then he’d sink. It didn’t make sense: Cannot Swim could run the second-fastest of all the boys in the village, and was the best shot with a rifle, and he could do a standing backflip. No one else could do a standing backflip, and yet none of them were named Cannot Do A Standing Backflip.
Every Pulaski had three names. Your parents gave you one when you were born, and that was your family name. It rained every 18 days in valley that would become Little Aleppo, and Cannot Swim was born in the morning of that 18th day, and so his family name was Morning Waters. It sounds pretty in English, but it was a poem in Pulaski when his mother would say it. She died in the last sickness. His father, Shoots With Wrong Hand, still called him by his family name, but it didn’t sound as nice. Your peers give you your village name, and his peers had named him Cannot Swim.
The third name is your secret name, and you may never learn it. All Pulaski had a secret name, the elders told the children around a campfire well away from the village and towards the Segovian Hills. Every nine days, the elders would bring the children out to the Learning Fire and there they would be allowed to chew the leaf of the Peregrine maria tree. Only adults are permitted to chew the leaf in the village, but the rules did not reach out here. The Learning Fire was in the exact same place as it had been when the oldest elder was a young girl.
Someone else knew your name. Or maybe something else. A bush might have it, or it might be far out in the harbor. The fox-god who is called Sees With His Teeth may know your secret name, or the heat that came unpredictably in the summer and baked the village for three days. It is possible the Whites on the other side of the hills have possession of your secret name. The gods could hold your secret name dear and refuse to turn it loose, or you might trip over it on the way back to the village tonight.
When you learned your secret name–if you did–you could announce it to the tribe. Or you could not. It was up to you.
Cannot Swim’s head was both lighter and heavier than it had ever been, and he laid back under the stars that were wheeling above him and wondered which of them had his name.
WHANGWHANGWHANG went the alarm at the firehouse, a heavy metal bell with a just-as-heavy metal clanger inside that was above the garage doors. Flower Childs was making chili in an ancient and stained ten-gallon pot. Chili was about the beans, she thought. Gotta simmer, sure. And must have the right seasoning, obviously. Ground chuck is ground chuck, but the beans? The beans made the chili. Otherwise, you just got stew. Two parts pink bean to one part navy bean. A fuckload of bay leaves, too, in a little pouch like a teabag. Easier than dicing ’em up, Flower figured.
Pep Oneida was the lowest ranking man on duty, so he was on the desk and he had taken the call from the 911 dispatcher. There was a fresh 312 in front of him and he pressed down with his blue ballpoint pen hard so it would come through on the triplicate form. He wrote down in carefully-legible capital letters MAN STUCK IN PIPE and then the address under that. Then he affixed the 312 to a clipboard and made sure he had two blue ballpoint pens in the breast pocket of his white, short-sleeved shirt. Then he readied himself to be yelled at. Then he hit the red button that set off the alarm.
“I’m making chili, you little motherfucker!”
“There’s a guy stuck in a pipe,” Pep called upstairs.
“Fuck him!” Flower Childs had already shut off the stove and was moving towards the pole that connected the second-floor living quarters to the garage and staging area on the first floor. There were stairs, too, and they were to be used for everything other than alarms. The pole was to be respected, Flower thought, and it was only used on calls. It was a perk of the job, and not to be treated lightly. God help the probie found sliding down because it was quicker.
The living quarters were set up like a shotgun shack: all in a row. The kitchen was at the front, and then the dining room, and then the lounge with the teevee and couches, and then the bedroom with two bunk beds and also the bathroom.
“We shoot 10,000 psi of compressed air into the pipe and shoot the fat fuck out past Boone’s Docks,” Dwayne McGlory yelled out as he bounded out of the lower bunk of one of the beds.
The pole was in the lounge, and Flower and Dwayne got there at the same time. Fire Chief went first, and Dwayne followed.
“Shitbag that you are, you do not realize the heating requirements of a proper batch of chili.”
“Which she only makes on occasion,” Dwayne added as all three headed towards the open lockers alongside the garage.
“Can’t be playing around with that shit, probie! Affects the integrity of the chili!”
It was not a fire, so they did not need their full turn-down gear, but they got their hats. Firemen wore hats in Little Aleppo. Flower Childs also put two large tubes of industrial lube into her pack; she had been on man-stuck-in-pipe calls before. A white dog with black spots named Ash-Nine was barking and leaping in excitement.
The ladder truck had two rows of bench seats. Dwayne McGlory slid in behind the wheel as the garage doors opened, and Flower Childs rode shotgun. The dog was between them, and Pep Oneida sat in the back. As they pulled out and turned right onto Alfalfa Street, Flower reached back with her hand open and Pep put the clipboard containing the 312 in it. She checked the time he had written down against her watch.
“Too fucking slow! Too fucking slow! Too FUCKING slow!”
Dwayne McGlory was the strongest man in the LAFD; he may have been the strongest man in the neighborhood. At parties, he would rip tennis balls in half and shatter wine bottles with one hand and blow up hot-water bottles until they popped. At work, he would rip doors off their hinges and fling king-sized mattresses across the room like they were playing cards. Dwayne McGlory had three medals just for lifting cars off of people. He was still scared of Flower Childs.
Pep Oneida wasn’t scared of anything, because he was young and stupid. He wasn’t a complete moron, though, and so he knew enough to keep his mouth shut.
Ash-Nine was a dog, and so didn’t quite understand what was going on. All she knew was that it was time to do the thing. She also didn’t quite know what the thing was, but she was very excited. The first Ash had slalomed between the legs of fire-horses on the dirt streets that surrounded the Main Drag. She would lunge ahead of the wagon and bite anyone in the way. She was a mean little motherfucker. Nine generations of dalmatians later, Ash-Nine no longer bit anyone, but she was dumb as shit and 80% deaf.
A plumbing supply store on Hopper Street. The dumb fuck had gotten himself stuck in a display model. His ass was sticking out into the air. Jesus fucking Marimba. Flower Childs was professional, and Dwayne McGlory rolled his eyes.
“Sir, we’re the fire department. We’re here to help. How did, uh, how did you get yourself stuck in the pipe?”
“I dropped my sandwich,” came a voice.
Dwayne eased up right next to Flower and said into her ear,
“20,000 psi. We’ll shoot him to Hawaii.”
She quarter-smiled and Pep Oneida had a moment of bravery and said,
“Sir? Sir? What kind of sandwich was it?”
Flower Childs stood up bolt-tall and glared at the probie for a second, but could not help herself and smiled almost halfway, which was a lot for her while she was working, and Pep’s heart shifted down three gears at once.
“Chicken salad,” came a voice from inside the pipe.
Dwayne McGlory grimly shook his head.
“Chicken salad!? You’re stuck because of chicken salad? I can see getting stuck because of a BLT,” Pep said. “But chicken salad?”
“Chicken salad is an outstanding sandwich,” came the voice.
“What kind of bread?”
All three firemen, one of whom was a woman, threw up their hands and walked away from the man stuck in the pipe.
There are no teenagers in the Pulaski village. There were boys and girls, and men and women, and the difference was the Assignment. The Pulaski had many static rituals, but the Assignment was a moving target. When a baby was born, there were songs to be sung and an elk to kill; the village would eat the elk, and the antlers would be given to the child who would keep it for life. When a particularly beloved elder died, the communal hearth would be extinguished for one day. They knew the skies and the stars and the seasons, and so marked the equinoxes and the solstices with feasts and music. The Pulaski reset their calendars not in January, but on Midsummer, and they celebrated with a drink brewed from the psilocybin cybelenis mushroom, which only grew on the Segovian Hills; they danced and sang and worshiped the sun and the moon and each other and every god they could think of.
The Assignment was not that. In each Pulaski child’s fifteenth year, their parents and family and an elder or two would gather to chew the leaf of the Peregrine maria tree and discuss what the proper task should be. Long ago, the tribe had a brutal ceremony that sent boys and girls out into the Low Desert with very little water looking for visions. Maybe 40% made it back. After not too many years, the ritual was changed, and the boys and girls were sent into the Segovian Hills. There was improvement–about 70% came home–but the results were still sub-optimal.
The elders held a council out at the Learning Fire. Out in the darkness, the boys and girls of the village listened in silently. They thought the elders didn’t know they were there.
“We need to stop sending the children off to die,” a woman named Crooked Toes said.
“We are sending them off to become adults,” Seabird Who Dives answered her.
“How can they be adults when they’re dead?”
“One state does not preclude the other,” he said, and looked around in vain for agreement. “Should we be a tribe of cowards?”
“All tribes have cowards, Seabird Who Dives. Some of whom do not know they are cowards until it is too late. Shall we put them to all to death?”
“We do not sentence death, Crooked Toes. The gods do that, or they do not.”
“Do not blame the gods for your attachment to detrimental behavior. Free will is a gift that was given to the Pulaski by The Turtle Who Was And Will Be Again.”
“Don’t bring The Turtle into this.”
“The Turtle ruled once before, and we were his puppets. When he returns, he will once again control us all. For now, we are responsible for our decisions. The ritual must be changed.”
“I cannot believe what I’m hearing. This is blasphemy.”
Kindest Smile was sitting next to Seabird Who Dives, and she put her hand on his forearm and said,
“You know, we did change the ritual once before.”
“That was blasphemous, too!”
And the council of elders all turned away from him so that they could chuckle.
“Seabird Who Dives,” Kindest Smile said, “we all know which boys and girls are not coming back. They are our grandchildren and great-nephews and nieces. They are our blood. We have raised them. Held their hands as they took their first toddling steps. We have taught them how to fish and farm and hunt. They are transparent to us. There is nothing that they do which is a surprise to us, because we made them as they are.”
She kept her hand on his forearm and continued,
“Do you remember the girl called Beautiful Song? Her family name was Night’s Darkest Moment. Do you remember her?”
The Pulaski did not discuss the dead. To do so was to give the spirits of the other world a reason to stop paying attention to the dead, and focus on you. The Pulaski never said the names of the dead. Kindest Smile was a goddamned blasphemer.
“Do you remember her?”
Seabird Who Dives remembered his granddaughter.
“See her arms. Skinny. Listen to her cough. You held her all night. Never quite healthy. Did she complain? Did she spread the sadness that must have filled her heart? No. She sang to us. Hear her sing, Seabird Who Dives.”
She still had her hand on his forearm, and now he put his other hand atop hers.
“She should not have been sent into the hills. Some people are hard and some people are soft, and all people are valuable.”
Seabird Who Dives choked back tears and said,
“Then what should we do? How do we know when a child is an adult? Is there to be no trial at all?”
Crooked Nose cleared her throat and said,
“Well, there’s not that many of us.”
And so the Assignment. Some Pulaski boys and girls were vicious and strong, and thought well under pressure; they were sent to the Low Desert or to the Segovian Hills. Some Pulaski boys and girls were smart and charming; they were sent to learn about the world, or tasked to figure out how to catch more fish with less effort. Some Pulaski boys and girls were misfits and mutants and weirdos who walked into trees; they were given Assignments that they could not fuck up.
“They’re sending me into the hills.”
“You heard ’em.”
Cannot Swim’s parents and grandparents and uncles and aunts and family friends and an elder or two had walked out to the Learning Fire to discuss what his Assignment should be. He laid in the grass outside the radius of the fire’s light listening, next to his cousin that was born in the same month.
“Seems like it.”
The Pulaski name for the Segovian Hills was There are squatch up there; Jesus fucking Christ never, ever go up there. It sounded a lot prettier in Pulaski.
“I’m gonna fucking die up there.”
“No. Maybe. Yeah, probably.”
Cannot Swim and Talks To Whites had walked around to the far side of the lake and were laying under the early evening stars. They were cousins, born the same month.
“They’re gonna send you to buy some rifles or something.”
Talks To Whites’ father was also called Talks To Whites. Outside the protection of the hills were Americans and Mexicans and, before that, Spaniards. The Pulaski did not care what the Whites wanted to call themselves, only that they would trade rifles and ammunition for furs and also for the small, shiny nuggets that speckled the streams that fed the lake. The elders picked a well-suited man for the job and sent him to learn the White’s language, and he became known as Talks To Whites. He brought his son with him on his trading missions; the son learned the language, too, was called Little Talks To Whites.
His father did not come back from a trading mission, and the Little was removed from his name.
It was cool out, and there was a slight breeze that flicked lake mist towards them. Shooting stars interrupted the sky, and the boys raced to put up their fingers and say “MINE!” first. They were both chewing the Peregrine leaf, which was waxy and broad as a child’s hand. They rolled it up tight like they had seen their parents do, and smacked down wetly. There was sloppy spitting.
Children were not permitted to chew the leaf, but Talk To Whites got them from Stranger Who Hunts Well. Stranger Who Hunts Well had just shown up one day when Talks To Whites and Cannot Swim were 14. He was an Indian, but not Pulaski, and he had thick wrists and a buckskin suit with the fringes cut off. He walked out of the hills during the weekly feast, and asked to be fed; he was. When the village woke the next morning, the stranger was gone, but he was back before midday with a six-point buck around his shoulders. The elders decided that the stranger should be allowed to stay if he wanted–and if he kept contributing–and told Talks To Whites to show him around. They became friends, partly from necessity. Stranger Who Hunts Well could not speak any Pulaski at all, and had no one to talk to but Talks To Whites until the little White man missing a sleeve from his jacket wandered into the valley.
The Pulaski called the little man Stranger Who Hunts’ Useless Friend, and they knew he was no good.
“What’s up there?”
“I know how they smell,” Cannot Swim said. “I can avoid them.”
“It’s, like, fuckin’ Puma City up there, cuz,” Talks To Whites said.
“I’m not worried about bears. They’re as scared of us as we are of them.”
“Pumas aren’t scared of us at all, dude.”
“Stop talking about the pumas,” Cannot Swim said.
“200 pounds of muscle and teeth.”
“You suck, man.”
“And claws. Don’t forget claws.”
Cannot Swim rolled over onto his left side to face Talks To Whites. He could feel the grass dried by the day beneath his shoulder, and a bit of green drool escaped his mouth.
“Could you not?”
Talks To Whites laughed, too loud. He enjoyed chewing the leaf.
“Dude, you’re gonna rock this shit so fucking hard.”
“You know how to live out in the wilderness. Night or two outside won’t kill you. You know what plants not touch, and which to eat. Shit, you know what squatch smell like. I don’t.”
A third of the way up the hill that would one day be known as Pulaski Peak. That was as far as Shoots With Wrong Hand would take his son. They stood on a flat clearing that curved around the mountain, and he told Cannot Swim to breathe deeply and notice the scent that was foreign to him. He did. It was like a steak cut from hairy shit. It was a sharp smell even in small increments, and Cannot Swim did not want to experience it any more purely. He could conjure it up whole and fresh in his mind just like he could his mother singing his family name.
He can still remember asking,
“Is that squatch?”
“Yep. Remember it,” his father said.
Talks To Whites’ father had not brought his son up into the hills at all, just told him to never go up there. Talks To Whites’ father had much more dangerous creatures to introduce his son to.
“They’re sending me up there for those fucking mushrooms.”
“Well, you know: someone’s gotta get them.”
“Why not you?”
“Why can’t you do it?’
“I’d die,” Talks To White said.
“So might I!”
“Might! Right, might. I would die. You might die. Clearly, you should go. Besides, it’s not my Assignment.”
“What if I just refuse?”
“You can’t do that.”
“Of course I can. The Turtle Who Was And Will Be Again is not here right now, and so I make my own decisions,” Cannot Swim said.
“Okay. So you can decide to be an asshole.”
“The elders aren’t sending you to die. Those were the old days. Whatever the Assignment is, it’s something they believe you capable of. Are you smarter than your father?”
Talks To Whites did not mention Cannot Swim’s mother because the Pulaski did not speak about the dead.
“Your grandparents? And your aunts and uncles? And the elders who killed an elk to honor your birth? Do you know more than all these people? Are you wiser than them?”
“They know who you are better than you do. So do I. And I say you’re gonna rock this shit so fucking hard, dude.”
There was a full moon, and they could see the Segovian Hills beyond the lake and beyond the village. They were like teeth in the black-and-white night.
Cannot Swim was taller than Talks To Whites, and wider, too. Stronger and faster and had a better eye. He did not know why he deferred to his cousin, but he did.
“I don’t know. Going up into the hills unarmed.”
Talks To Whites sat up and said,
Cannot Swim did not sit up, just laid there in pity of himself and sighed,
“Which part did you miss?”
“Unarmed? My wrinkly ballsack, unarmed. You don’t go into the hills unarmed.”
“When the elders send you into the hills, they send you in unarmed.”
Talks To Whites loved his cousin, but sometimes he was a dipshit.
“Uh-huh. They send you in unarmed. You wave goodbye to the village unarmed. And then once you’re out of sight, your fucking cousin hiding behind a fucking tree hands you a fucking rifle!”
There was quiet for a moment, and both Pulaski boys could hear the lake burbling. They chewed their leaves noisily, thoughtfully.
“Is that cheating?”
“Depends,” Talks To Whites said.
“It’s cheating if the puma’s speed is cheating. It’s cheating if the squatch’s strength is cheating. They have their attributes, and humans have rifles and loyal cousins.”
“What you’re saying is that it would be wrong not to take the rifle into the hills.”
“Yeah, sure, why not?”
There were no more shooting stars–perhaps the sky had tired–and the cousins chewed their leaves under a static sky.
“Who is the Jack of Instance?”
“I dreamt about it last night,” Cannot Swim said. “And the night before. It’s vivid while I’m asleep, but when I wake up, all I remember is the name. The Jack of Instance. Do you know what that is?”
“No. You know who you should talk to about your dreams.”
The two cousins laid there under the sky, and under the stars, and they chewed the leaf that they were not permitted to chew. They were not teenagers, because the Pulaski culture did not contain that concept, but they were teenagers and thought that they could kick the world in the dick. They still thought the world had fairness in it, and their stomachs were taut and they were hungry all the time. They had met death but not lived with death, and so were still children who clung to each other and the stories that they had been told. Because they were young and stupid, Cannot Swim and Talks To Whites were not scared of anything. They did not know the world enough to fear it, and so the two cousins laid there, and chewed their leaves and watched the stars shine, and made plans.
Where now there is a lake, there will one day be a firehouse, and where there are kotchas would be one day be tamped down and trampled by horses and Whites in hard shoes and bearing currency. The Learning Fire will be replaced by a failing hardware store, and there will be nothing at all left of the Pulaski except one White’s diary, and an ignored treaty moldering in the archives of the bookstore with no title, and a mound in the southwestern corner of the plot where the Pulaski grow their crops which would one day be a park called the Verdance in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.