Big-Dicked Sheila’s hair was the same color as Superman’s thighs and biceps, stupidly blue, and short; messy like she had just finished fucking. She sat with a leg folded under her and one dangling over her chair in the back room of Madame Cazee’s on Sylvester Street. Sheila did not go in for any padding or bras, so her tight black dress clung to her skinny chest. Her arms were bare and hairless and defined. Her eye makeup was a bit much. There were three silver hoops in her left ear, and two gold hoops in her right.
Madame Cazee didn’t tell you your fortune. She told you someone else’s fortune. She had the Gift, the Sight, the Vision, whatever new-agey word you’d like to capitalize: she lived both here and there, but the wires had gotten jumbled somewhere within the pychosophic interrealm and so she was always right, but to the wrong person. Little Aleppians didn’t mind, in fact they preferred it this way. Someone knowing their future was an intolerable invasion of privacy, but someone knowing somebody else’s future was fine. And there were also the Interpretationalists
Madame Cazee had a connection, an inkling of a link–this was known and documented: the things she said came true–and thus her prognostications were coming from Somewhere. She was not guessing. She had the truth. It was seemingly irrelevant, but it was the Truth, and so perhaps it was relevant. Yes, Madame Cazee was telling you someone else’s fortune, but maybe she was telling you someone else’s fortune for a reason. What if it was a metaphor? It could be explained as an allusion. Anything can be explained as an allusion if you’re good enough at bullshitting. Interpretationalists took analogy seriously; reality, less so. Sheila was an Interpretationalist.
“Why would they send you out into such danger?”
“They’re bastards, that’s why,” Sheila answered.
Both of their eyes were closed, but the cat was watching the encounter from a high shelf.
Sheila held her arm across the table which–Sheila tried not to use words that upset people, and she knew the word “gypsy” upset people, but she couldn’t think of a better descriptor–had a gypsy tablecloth on it underneath a crystal ball. Madame Cazee squinted open her left eye. Took the joint.
“Why do you come in here with death weed?”
“It’s normal pot,” Sheila said.
“You’re supposed to be.”
“No, I feel like my head is made of pure light.”
“I’m not seeing the problem.”
“There’s weather up in the Hills. And blind turns, and 200-pound cats made of muscle and claws and teeth.”
“Double-check the rifle,” Madame Cazee said. The crystal ball clouded over, cleared, clouded back; she had bought it at a yard sale for two dollars. They wanted five, but she paid two. On a shelf over her left shoulder were four human teeth which had been knocked out by an axe; they were in a glass case that she bought at the same yard sale where she got the crystal ball.
“You need to believe what you’ve been told sometimes. Everyone’s not out to fuck you. Warnings are often sincere.”
“Okay,” Sheila said in a small voice.
“Listen to your elders and trust your gut and double-check your rifle.”
Sheila did not have a rifle, but she did have several handguns, one of which was in her purse. The fortune was for someone else, but she had received it for a reason. It might have been about expanding her shop–Sheila was thinking about expanding her shop–or it might have been about Gussy, and when Sheila thought about Gussy her cock shifted in her dress and she could feel her armpits get warmer. The only thing Madame Cazee’s fortunes weren’t were random: they might be tangential, digressional, obliquely related, or connected via drug/dream logic, but somedamnhow they were meaningful.
“My head feels strange.”
“Like it’s made of pure light,” Cannot Swim said.
“Keep breathing,” Here And There said.
“I can breathe.”
“What if you couldn’t?”
The fire died and it was dark in Here And There’s kotcha; there was no sound at all, and everything was thick smoke. Cannot Swim’s throat swelled and thickened and bulged, and he clawed at the air and fell over to his left. When his shoulder hit the packed earth, he was sitting up again and the fire was burning and a dog was snoring outside.
“What just happened?”
“Something,” Here And There said. “Definitely something. What do you think just happened?”
“I don’t know.”
“Me, either. Isn’t it nice to be honest? Look the moment in the eye and say you got no clue what’s going on?”
“I don’t understand what’s going on,” Cannot Swim said and the fire was everywhere and all around him; brightness and heat that he could not escape, and he felt his eyeballs blanch, and then bleach, and then pop and melt. He covered his face with his hands and fell to the right, and when his shoulder hit the packed earth he was sitting up again and whole.
“Is that gonna keep happening?”
“You’re asking me like I’m in charge.”
“Not as far as I know,” Here And There said. “Maybe I am, but I haven’t been informed.”
“Is anyone in charge?”
“As little as possible.”
“Is there water?”
The kotcha brightened, and Cannot Swim could see the flood pour in from the small opening up top where the strips of redwood bark formed the vertex of the cone; it was freezing and rising faster than the space was being filled and above his head with force enough to slap open his mouth and water rushed down his esophagus and trachea into his stomach and lungs; his whole torso wracked in convulsions and thrashed back and forth violently enough to snap his spine against the packed earth floor that he was sitting cross-legged on, dry.
Here And There grinned.
“What was in that tea?”
“What you’d assume,” she answered. “Before the Pulaski were the Mi-oh. They lived where we live now. Many generations ago. One day, boats came into the harbor from over the horizon. These were large boats with sails. The sailors had hair like ours. The Mi-oh knew other tribes that traveled by sea, but these men did not smell like men should smell.
“The Mi-oh fed them. Allowed them to bathe and sleep safely. In the morning, the villagers woke to see the strangers standing in one of the streams that feeds the lake. They were picking out the shiny pebbles. The Mi-oh saw that they had turned into demons. Taller than the trees and made of fire and sickness. The heads of rats, slobbering with hunger.
“Just like you’re slobbering.”
Cannot Swim was slumped into his own lap, and drool formed a bridge between his mouth and crotch. He pawed at it.
“Sit up straight,” Here And There said.
“The Mi-oh did not understand what was happening, but they knew what needed to happen.”
“They killed the strangers?”
“And ate them.”
“And ate them?”
“This was before the Whites brought rifles. Hunting was tougher. Meat is meat. There were also spiritual aspects.”
“How were they not cursed?”
“Oh, they were. Two weeks go by, and then their skin bubbles and bursts; their flesh heats and cooks; their guts bleed and fail. For every five that live through it, one dies. Survivors are scarred. Some are blind.”
“This is as it should be! Eating people is an abomination. The Turtle Who Was And Will Be Again made it clear.”
“Yes. After the sickness had passed, a Mi-oh made the journey through the hills to ask the neighboring tribe for help, or food, or magic, or medicine. And to tell the story of the demons that had visited. That neighboring tribe was called the Lay. They sent back help, and food, and magic, and medicine. Do you know what happened two weeks later?”
Cannot Swim was not a teenager, but only because the Pulaski did not have that concept. He was over six feet, but he had only been that size for a very short time, and so he was fidgety and did not quite have control of his limbs. He could not stop eating, and his father Shoots With Wrong Hand marveled and raged at how long he could sleep. His dick got hard for no reason, constantly, and he wanted nothing more from his days than to hang out with his cousin Talks To Whites and their friends. Cannot Swim was a teenager, but he was not because the Pulaski do not have that concept, and so he was still a boy until he completed his Assignment.
He would be sent into the hills. This was a common Assignment. All of the boys and girls used to be sent into the hills, but only 70% of them came back. Now only the boys and girls who will survive are sent. 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. Just as the psilocybe cubensis grew on cow shit, the psilocybe cybelinus grew on squatch shit. The villagers brewed it into tea for their Midsummer’s festival.
His father and uncles and aunt and grandparents and assorted other elders who felt like having a say gathered at the Learning Fire after dark, where they chewed the Peregrine leaf. His father brought a basket of huckleberries to pass around, as was the custom. All of the adults around the fire had crept up to eavesdrop when their parents were discussing their Assignments, and they assumed Cannot Swim was on his belly in the darkness outside the light’s radius.
Cannot Swim was sure they had no idea he was there.
He was strong, the adults agreed. He could survive outside on only what the land provided him. He was an excellent shot, and a patient hunter. And he was brave, but not so much that it made him stupid. Cannot Swim felt pride in knowing that the adults believed these qualities present in him, and then he remembered the Pulaski name for the hills and stopped feeling in any way positive towards the adults.
He would be a man soon, if he weren’t eaten or stomped to death, and he was technically a boy, but he was a teenager and so when a grown-up asked him a question, he wanted to get the right answer. Even if the adult was terrifying and had drugged him.
“Did they get sick?’
“Yes. The Lay got sick. Same thing the Mi-oh got. Skin, flesh, guts. Bodies bodies bodies. Now, Cannot Swim, you tell me: should the Lay have been cursed in the same way the Mi-oh were? They did not eat their fellow man. Do you not recognize the sickness I speak of, cousin?”
The Pulaski did not speak of the dead. Prayers were said, songs were sung, and the body was pulled halfway up the slope of the tallest of the hills. Left there. If it was a beloved elder who died, then the communal hearth would be extinguished for one day. But their names were never spoken again.
“My mother’s name was Laughs Too Much. Her family name was Born At First Light. If she learned her secret name, then she did not share it.”
“She died in the last wave of the sickness. Generations separate her from those Mi-oh who ate their fellow man. The Mi-oh left the valley; we are not their ancestors. Nothing binds your mother to them. And yet she was cursed just like they were. Why is this, Cannot Swim? Why did she get someone else’s fortune?”
He was sitting up straight, crying: big hucking sobs that he did not even bother to try to hide.
“Now, cousin,” Here And There said as darkness fogged out from behind her and took everything in the kotcha to black but her eyes and teeth. “Tell me about the Jack of Instance.”
Flower Childs was a motherfucker for maintenance.
“I’m a motherfucker for maintenance,” she’d open up her customary speech to probies with. A person couldn’t fight a fire. You could slap out an itty-bitty one, but the fire department didn’t get called to itty-bitty fires. Fireman wasn’t anything without the truck, the hose, the ladder, the axe, the coat, the air tank. Wasn’t that you were reliant on your tools, it was that you were nothing without them. Job doesn’t exist without the accessories. Fire was primal, but fighting it was technological. Man didn’t stand a chance against nature, Flower thought, but man and machine combined did.
And so the tools had to be maintained. Water is the universal solvent, and it frays a hose from the inside, which means that you check it foot-by-foot every single time you re-roll it. Dirt and grit foul up connections and quicken decay, so the trucks were washed constantly. The oversized wrenches, and the long-handled prybars, and anything else made of exposed metal were rubbed down with a light-grit sandpaper so that they were perfectly dry and would not rust. Flower Child would check through lockers in the middle of the night, and heaven help whoever had a pull or tear in their boots or gloves or mask. Entropy required apathy, she thought.
The LAFD were back in their house in Alfalfa Street. They were filthy and stinking and tired and hungry, and they had lost the building. It was a synagogue called Torah, Torah, Torah. The roof had collapsed. No one had died, and no one had been hurt. By the time the fire was out, the sun was well established in the sky.
She and her men stripped out of their gear, and checked the equipment in their underwear. There were only two showers in the small bathroom upstairs, and so it took a while to get everyone clean. Dwayne McGlory had carried a man and a holy book out of the fire , so he got to bathe first. Flower Childs always showered last. She was a taskmaster, but she was not cruel and so she did not make the probies fully wash the trucks, but they did have to wipe the mud and soot before it had a chance to cake on. She grabbed a rag, too. Ash-Nine, the station’s dalmatian, was already asleep on the couch in the front office.
A flash of white by the garage doors. Flower Childs walked over and saw it was an envelope on the floor, so she picked it up and opened it. A page of typing paper folded in three. Opened that. HOW’S THAT FOR AN OPENER? – J OF I in childish block letters. To the right of the massive garage doors is a human-sized one, and she slammed it open and ran out to the sidewalk in just her underwear and covered in grime and sweat. There was no one on the street at all, but Flower Childs stood there for a while almost naked and wondering how to interpret a fortune in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.