There is only one way into Little Aleppo, except for all the other ways. There was the harbor to the west, obviously. One might, with the aid of an industrial boring machine, tunnel one’s way to the Main Drag. There was no airport, but there was a dedicated helipad at St. Agatha’s with the big H painted onto it. A mathematically incongruous number of blimps had crashed slowly and humorously into the neighborhood. Parachutists, too, but they were to a man set upon immediately on landing and robbed of their silk, and also their fancy goggles. If you were willing to put in the effort, and probably die along the way, you could get to Little Aleppo from the west, or from under it, or from above it.
But if you were in America, then the Segovian Hills were in the way. They were not hills–they were called that because English speakers prefer a certain rhythm to their phrases and “Segovian Hills” danced from your mouth while “Segovian Mountains” stuck in between your teeth like peanut butter–there were sheer drop-offs and boulder fields and droopy soil that would slip-slide you down a thousand feet in five seconds. There were seven. Lincoln, Faith, Fortitude, Chastity, Pulaski Peak, Charity, and Booth. Left to right if you’re standing in the neighborhood looking east. They were jammed together and their junctions just as dangerous as their summits, except for the saddleback pass between Mount Chastity and Pulaski Peak called Christy Canyon.
Before there was a road, there was a trail bushwhacked by a man named Furlong Christy in 1861. He had surveying equipment, and he took careful note of all his observations in great big notebooks carried by two semi-free black guys whose names no one bothered to write down. They also carried the surveying equipment. Furlong laid out the switchbacks necessary to keep the route from becoming too steep. Trees were uprooted, and sagebrush burned. The land was made more efficient for transit and commerce. Sometimes, Manifest Destiny meant telling mountains to go fuck themselves.
The Pulaski had been using the pass for hundreds of years to trade with the inland tribes, but they did not keep horses and had no wheeled vehicles and so they did not need a trail; they walked over using any number of routes depending on how late in the day it was or how much stuff they had to carry with them.
But the Whites had carriages and wagons and pullcarts and mules and horses, and those things requires a trail.
“What is that thing?”
“The device on the tripod he’s looking through?”
“It’s called a…well it’s called a <theodolite> but there’s nothing to translate that to. I saw one in a book once,” Talks To Whites said.
Cannot Swim tried to say theodolite, failed, got past it.
Furlong Christy’s team had crested the pass that morning and for a moment, miles away and in the sky, the men were silhouetted against the sun with their equipment and their notebooks. No one in the village saw them at first, but no one saw Here And There standing in the middle of everyone at first, either. She was barefoot, and her black hair streaked through with gray was loose, and she was the shaman. Physical maladies were treated by Tall As The Sky, who was the medicine man, but spiritual remedies only came from Here And There. She lived south of the village, and kept her own fire. Sometimes, she would disappear entirely for weeks at a time, and other times she would appear right the fuck next to you in the middle of the night. Here And There scared the shit out of the Pulaski. She pointed towards the White man and the Black men on the peak of the pass, and the tribe looked up and saw them, and then looked back and she wasn’t there anymore. Everyone truly hated when she pulled that bullshit.
The elders usually took to the Learning Fire to make decisions, but did not need to this time. Cracked Smile said,
“You two. Go up there and find out what’s happening.”
Cannot Swim and Talks To Whites shouldered rifles and marched off towards the hills. They passed the Reverend Busybody Tyndale on the way.
“You know what that is?” Talks To Whites asked.
“What are we looking at?”
“The men on the pass.”
Busybody squinted, tilted his head, squinted some more.
“Boys, my eyes are not what they once were.”
“Helpful as always, Preacher,” Talks To Whites said, and clapped the small man on the back, and the two Pulaski cousins continued east, and then upwards until they were about 300 yards to the north and downwind of the foreign men. They could smell tobacco. Cannot Swim had led them up, picking through the wooded thatch that covered the bottom half of what would later be named Mount Chastity. Neither man had been in the hills for several years; neither had ever wanted to go back.
A tree had fallen onto a boulder, creating a window, and tall grasses had grown within the window. It was a perfect hunting blind.
“What is he doing?”
“Like, measuring the land. How far away things are, how much higher or lower.”
“It’s a White thing. They need to know exactly how far places are from each other.”
“It’s like a fetish with them. Oh, and building. You have to do this before you build anything.”
“We built our kotchas, and we did not need to do whatever the hell this is.”
“We don’t have a word for it. <Bridges.>”
Cannot Swim turned to look at his cousin. He had been to the town that would one day grow into C—-a City once, and not for very long, and he did not wish to repeat the experience. He had only spoken to two Whites in his entire life; they may as well have been Martians.
“What is a…bidge? Budge?” He could not quite pronounce it. The hard R sound only comes at the beginning of words in Pulaski.
“<Bridge.> It goes over a big stream, which is called a <river>.”
“River,” Cannot Swim repeated. He could say that one. “How big of a stream?”
“Streams get fucking huge, dude. The ones that flow into the lake? Nothing compared to rivers. As wide as the whole valley.”
“Yeah. And the <bridge> goes over that. They make them out of rocks or something.”
Cannot Swim kept an eye on the White man and the Black men. The device on the tripod seemed to require an inordinate amount of fiddling with. The White would adjust the dials, of which there were many of varying sizes, and peer into a little circle, and then adjust the dials again, and then he would shout at the Black men, who would pretend not to hear him, and he would shout again, and now they answered, and they brought him large notebooks that Cannot Swim could just about make out had drawings and sketches in it, along with small scribbles that he assumed were what Talks To Whites had said was called “writing.”
“Why do they build these things?”
“So they can get over the river.”
“Why don’t they just live on one side of the river?”
“The Whites don’t live on one side of anything.”
The White man was yelling at the Black men again, and the two Pulaski were quiet. They were sitting cross-legged, and Cannot Swim pulled two peregrine leaves from his satchel. Handed one to his cousin. They both spat out the dried and flavorless leaves they had been chewing, rolled up the fresh leaves that were the size of a child’s hand and 13-pointed and waxy, and chewed anew.
“What’s he saying?”
“The White is calling the Blacks lazy.”
“But the Blacks are carrying everything.”
“It’s a long story.”
Cannot Swim’s tunic had a squatch embroidered on the front to honor his bravery during his Assignment, which was the Pulaski coming-of-age ceremony. He had been taken by one of the creatures, and had to fight his way out by himself. (And three other men with rifles and a pissed-off horse, but the tribe didn’t need to know all the details of his bravery.) Talks To Whites’ tunic had a half-dozen hummingbirds on it. He liked hummingbirds.
They watched the two Blacks talk with each other, motion towards the sun starting to droop in the west. They are ten yards off from the White, who was not paying attention; he was playing with his device. Now the Blacks speak to the White. The White hollers. The Blacks do not holler back, but they raise their voices and point at the sun.
“The Blacks want to head down. They say it is getting late and they don’t want to be up here when it’s dark.”
“And what is the White saying?”
“He is calling them cowards.”
“But they’re absolutely right. It is dangerous up here at night.”
“Again, there is a lot of context and history going in between those two tribes that you just don’t get.”
The two Pulaski men sat there for only a few more minutes before the Blacks ceased talking to the White, turned their backs on him, and began ambling eastbound and down the pass. The White screamed after them, and then gathered up the black device on the wooden tripod in both of his arms, followed. Yelling all the way. When the cousins could no longer see their heads, they rose from behind their hide and walked west, into the sun and back home.
The Whites did not live in the mountains, which they named the Segovian Hills, for a long time after settling the valley, which they named Little Aleppo. Several men moved up there over the years, but they did not live up there for long, nor did they come back down. The Hausen Cabin is now a tourist attraction on Mount Fortitude. That was a family, and the neighborhood held out hope for a Tarzan, or perhaps Mowgli, type of situation; no sign of the child ever surfaced. Locals were angered by that one, focusing their rage not on the parents who brought a baby up into a mountain where monsters lived, but on the monsters. Hunting parties would coalesce in the taverns; rifles would be fetched; hills would be swarmed. But squatch are guerillas: you see them when they want you to see them, and usually that was the split-second before a humongous hand-paw shwopped your head off your shoulders. It was like fighting the Viet Cong, but if the Viet Cong were composed exclusively of Wookiees. No one made this observation, since it was 1889, but if you traveled back in time and explained the concepts of the Viet Cong and Wookiees to Little Aleppians, they would be all, “Yes. It is exactly like that. Did you really travel back in time just for this?”
The railroad could never defeat the barrier, not without multiple Hiroshimas worth of dynamite, and so for decades the only way in was the zig-zagging trail first surveyed by Furlong Christie. It cut brown back and forth up and then back down against the green. No grasses grew on the path, wildflowers and daffodils along the edges. It was slow, but none of the vehicles of the time had brakes or a suspension, so it was advisable to go slow. There were drop-offs where you could see the bones of wagons that had tried to make good time; the bones of the men and horses had long been the vultures’ meal. Or the condor. California still had condor then, great stinking flocks of them. Travelers crossing the pass into Little Aleppo would use them for target practice.
August 9th, 1903, was an auspicious day for Christy Canyon, and for Little Aleppo: first car to make the crossing. It was a bet between two drunks in C—-a City, one of whom a State Senator, and therefore rich enough to afford an Oldsmobile. The car was called a Curved Dash, and it was mass-produced. Cadillac and Duryea and Jeffrey made cars before the Olds Curved Dash, but they were relics. Hand-kitted like a carriage. This Olds, though, was the future. Men becoming machines to produce machines! My God, America was something, wasn’t she? That’s what the State Senator would say to his constituents when he bought them beers. He’d lead the men from their taverns to look at the car.
It was a leather bench on top of a wooden platform, essentially, and that was on top of a cast-iron suspension that rode on four sickly wheels–so skinny you wanted to feed them–with wooden spokes. In 1903, it was still possible to get a splinter from your car. The engine was in the middle, under the seat, and it made 5 horsepower. Steering was via tiller, which us like a rudder, but drier. The brake was a lever: when pushed forward, it would apply a wooden block directly to the wheels. The State Senator called the handle the Baptizer.
“If you ain’t a Christian before you push the damn thing, you sure will be once you do. I had me a Hindoo fellow in here not two weeks ago. Let him drive. Second he laid his hand on the Baptizer there, he accepted Jesus Christ into his heart. Now ain’t that a thing? True story, fellas. Who wants another beer?”
“I don’t want no beer, Senator. I want a ride home!”
This was at a joint called Limpy’s in C—-a City. Sawdust on the floor, pickled eggs on the bar. Regulars could cash their checks there, and they were a solid voting bloc. Women weren’t allowed in. It was a 1903 kind of joint.
“Wait, I do want another beer, too. I want another beer and then a ride home.”
The men all laughed and the State Senator called out,
“Who said that?”
Billy McGlory was at the end of the bar, and his sleeves were rolled up over his thick forearms; heavy boots, and a flat cap pulled down lowish on his eyes. He finished his beer, wiped the foam from his prodigious mustache, turned around to face the State Senator.
“I’m your man.”
The State Senator called for a beer for Billy, and shook his hand and said,
“Where you live, son?”
Billy McGlory hated being called son.
“Right over the hill in good old Little Aleppo, sir.”
Now the State Senator stopped smiling, but just for an instant. He was well-practiced at smiling through anything; the man had once gladhanded through his own tonsillectomy.
“Unless your new toy can’t manage a wee incline.”
Limpy’s was watching. There was an equal sentiment towards the State Senator winding up the hero or the chump in this interplay. He did buy quite a few drinks, and hand out quite a few jobs. On the other hand, the money for the drinks came from the kickbacks he required for procuring the jobs.
The bartender put a fresh beer in front of Billy, and Billy laid a $50 next to it.
“I says your buggy won’t make it.”
The State Senator had the best teeth in the bar, and a silken necktie, and a wallet that did not fold and so was twice the size of modern models. He withdrew it from inside his maroon coat and took out a $50 and set it atop Billy’s.
“Finish your beer, son.”
Sound travels faster through steel than it does through air, but sound travels fastest through a bar. Limpy’s erupted. A bet! It was 1903: there was no radio, no teevee, no internet. There were Mark Twain’s novels, the Bible, the morning paper, or you could drink. The past was far more boring than we’ve been led to believe, so when something actually happened, people went bugshit. Side wagers sprouted, and then wagers about the wagers–meta-wagers–branched off from these; the gambling became fractalized , and a fellow named Lonesome Jimmy became so over-excited that he ran straight into a wall, shit himself, died.
A crowd gathered, kibbitzed, judged each other’s clothing, tipped their hats, obviously there was more betting, street vendors picked off the hungry and impulsive, men ignored the exposed titties of the whores to sneak a peak at dignified ladies’ ankles, rootless preachers heckled Satan, more cigars and pipes than cigarettes, hats hats hats hats so many fucking hats, the Sheriff was so tall, and the State Senator was tall, too, but Billy McGlory was not–5’4″ or thereabouts–so he had to hop up into the Olds.
“What’s the time?” the State Senator cried out.
Someone shouted that it was just after one o’clock, and the sun’s nearness to the hills backed that up. He cranked the z-shaped lever at the front of the machine once, twice and BANGPOPOPOP the engine caught and rumbled, and now the State Senator is in the driver’s seat and he shouts,
“Who’s got a gun?”
And everyone does, and they fire into the air to mark the beginning of the journey; the State Senator shifts one of the levers–there are three in front of him–all the way forward and the car lurches ten inches and goes HOCKPLUH and the State Senator says,
“Tricky to get into first.”
He shifts the lever, which is wooden, forward again. Slower, and with his right hand turns the dial controlling the choke, and HOCKPLUH ten more inches.
“Y’know what? Fuck it: we’ll pop start it. Everybody! Push!”
Everybody pushes and once the car hits around five miles an hour the gear catches and there is a sound like THROPTHROPTHROPVRRRRRRRREEEEE and the Olds Curved Dash is pulling away at what is, even given the year, not a particularly swift pace. Now there is more gunfire, this time in celebration. The two men yell at pedestrians to disinhabit their path; they make it to very nearly 20 miles per hour by the time they leave C—-a City.
It was almost dark by the time the two hit Little Aleppo. The front wheels had lost their rubber entirely, and one of the rear suspension leaves had collapsed; both men had needed to piss in the radiator; a horse, spooked, had thrown itself off an embankment at their presence. Coming up, Billy had leapt down from the seat–the load needed lightening–and he almost rolled under the contraption and then caught her up–the Curved Dash was making just about a walking pace–and then he hopped back up for the descent, the application of the braking mechanism during which causing a small fire in said braking mechanism that both men needed to piss out.
But they lived. August 9th, 1903. First car over the mountains.
“There was something about a bet?”
“That there was, Senator.”
Billy McGlory handed the State Senator a banknote as they puttered towards the Main Drag. Locals cheered them on from the sidewalks, and kids tumbled out of doorways to gaze in wild wonder. The car was filthy, and so were the men.
“Is there a hotel in this neighborhood?”
“Couple of ’em.”
“Are any not completely disgusting?”
“One of ’em.
Dogs ran alongside the Olds. The automobile was an outside-context problem for a dog. It had not heard stories about rich people buying horseless carriages, nor seen pictures in Collier’s magazine. The dog could not intuit that this was merely a horseless carriage, because dogs have no innate sense of technological evolution. The universe is as it is, and them WHAMMO and holy shit that is an entirely new thing. With new smells and new sounds, and maybe I can eat it? The dogs nipped at the tires. No, I cannot eat it. What it is, I cannot tell you. I will bark at it. The dogs barked at it. The car did not respond. I will bark louder at it.
The cats of the neighborhood showed no obvious interest.
“The Norwegian’s a real swanky place. Every room’s got its own toilet.”
“You don’t say.”
“They got carpets and everythin’. It’s like you died and went to heaven.”
“Point the way, son.”
“You can’t go like that. Neither of us can. We’re covered in half the fuckin’ hills and two tons of horseshit. We could do a minstrel show.”
The Olds, having no windshield, kept none of the dirt of the trail from them; the muck had coated their clothes, and made their faces so dirty that they resembled blackface performers.
“And you know the Norwegian ain’t lettin’ that type in.”
“No, they don’t admit actors.”
“Standards are everything.”
“We’re gonna stop at my house, wash up. My ma’ll brush up your clothes and my da’ll get us both drunk. Then, to the hotel.”
The State Senator could not argue with this plan, so he followed Billy’s route to a brick two-story on Moran Street. It was like Dublin exploded outwards when they pulled up: redheads girls appeared from the windows, and pale men who did not talk about their emotions from the door; good God, the State Senator thought. There weren’t enough potatoes in the world to feed them.
“You spell it with an E, right?”
“Yes. C-L-A-R-K-E,” State Senator Clarke said.
“Thought so. My ma’ll probably want to write it down. She takes pictures, and she writes down all the names and whatnot. It’s like she’s gatherin’ intelligence or somethin’. Mothers, right? Come on in!”
Billy usually gets the credit for stealing the first car in Little Aleppo’s history, but technically it was Liam. Having no idea how to start the Olds, he simply hitched it to a horse and rolled it away in front of every inhabitant of Moran Street, none of whom saw anything. State Senator Clarke never made it to the Norwegian, and when he woke up with a monstrous headache the next morning in the Verdance, he found that the $50 he had won was gone, and also the rest of his money and shoes.
“We could shoot them.”
“Maybe we should try other options first.”
“Sure, yeah. But I’m just saying that shooting them is on the table,” Cannot Swim said.
“I just don’t know if that’s going to produce the desired result.”
Talks To Whites threw another blackberry into his mouth. The cousins had come upon a tree heavy with ripe bunches of the tiny, sweet fruits and they had both snatched handfuls to put in their satchels. They ate them like popcorn as they came out of the rolling, gentle foothills of the mountains. The sun had just set, but it was light out still. It was the time of day that fireflies call home.
Both men had filled out since they were teenagers, even though neither had been a teenager because the concept did not exist in the Pulaski culture. Cannot Swim was taller and wider than Talks To Whites.
“We need to find out what they’re doing.”
“What they’re doing is building one of those things you talked about.”
“Yes. That. However the fuck you pronounce it. Their language is an insult to my ears.”
“They’re building one. Across the mountains. You said it yourself. They want to live on both sides of the river.”
“They won’t want to live here. Why here?”
Cannot Swim did not look at his cousin. as they walked side-by-side across the grassy outlands that surrounded their village. Their satchels bounced against their hips.
“You affection for them makes you stupid.”
“You buy the rifles for the tribe.”
“With what? What do you use to buy the rifles.”
Talks To Whites’ stride did not break, and he nodded. Threw a blackberry in his mouth.
“Real early tomorrow, we should get everyone to go to the streams and pick out all the gold and hide it.”
They did not speak the rest of the trip. It was the time of the fireflies.