Cannot Swim could not sleep. His dreams chased him around his head when he shut his eyes: fire, and squatch, and the Jack of Instance, whatever that was. The Pulaski slept on wooden platforms that raised them off the packed-dirt floors of their kotchas. They had thin mattresses made of tightly-woven grass and did not use pillows. Cannot Swim shared the kotcha with his family: his father, Shoots With Wrong Hand, and his little sister, One Dimple. Sometimes, his grandfather Not One Hair would sleep with them when his grandmother got sick of his bullshit, but he was not there now.
(The Pulaski did not know what alopecia was, and so when Not One Hair was born, the tribe had no idea what to do with him. Some claimed he was a sign from the gods, and others demanded he be drowned in the lake immediately. After much chewing of the Peregrine leaf, the elders came to a decision: let’s give the kid a couple years. Not One Hair turned out to be neither holy, nor a demon; just a bald shit-starter.)
It was cool outside. The moon was in the sky and in the water, full in both locations, and Cannot Swim sneaked from his bed and slowly pulled the embroidered leather flap that was the door to the kotcha back–just enough to ease out of it–and lowered it back. (The door-flaps were rough, thick bear skins; they creaked.) He was barefoot and wearing just his breechcloth, which all the Pulaski wore under their tunics. A belt goes around the waist. A piece of very light leather, four feet long and one foot wide. Drape the leather over the belt in front, pull it under your taint, up over the belt in back. Breechcloth. Many tribes wore them, and each had a slightly different style. The Pulaski wore theirs to the mid-thigh and sewed fearsome beasts into the crotch. This was to dissuade the Fox With Teeth For Eyes from eating their genitals.
The Whites who would murder the Pulaski and settle the area would make a specific gesture–up-and-down and then left-to-right across their chests–to appease their gods. A very small number of the Whites wore a special hat and did not eat certain proteins to keep their gods happy with them, but the other Whites were not quite convinced that these Whites were actually Whites.
But now there were no Whites and just the Pulaski’s gods were in the fields and the fire and the lake and the trees.
Cannot Swim shivered–he was sweaty with nightmares–and his dark-brown nipples were hard, an aureole mountain surrounded by bumpy foothills. His black hair was in a single braid that reached to his shoulder blades. He untied the thin leather cord at the end of it and unlaced the braid until his hair was free, and then he dug his fingers deep in and shook his hair free, and it all fell about his neck and cheeks still bearing a slight curl.
The village was asleep and the only human noise was the crackling of the communal hearth behind him. He was alone in the night, and the hills hooted at him and the lake burbled and owls in the trees asked the same question over and over. The moon was floating on the water and then it was not the moon, but an eye of a creature he only knew by smell, and then it was red and full of melting flesh, and then it was a stage for a tap-dancing Jack of Instance, whatever the fuck that was, and Cannot Swim no longer knew if he had woken up and left his kotcha at all: maybe he was still dreaming, but if he were then why was he so cold, and why was the village so near and true, and why was there a hand on his shoulder?
Talks With Whites tried to keep his laughter quiet as he fished Cannot Swim from the lake into which he had jumped out of surprise.
“Why sneak up on a person?” Cannot Swim hissed.
“I thought it would be funny.”
“Dude, it was. You got serious air. And then you got serious water.”
The tribe kept dogs. Watchmen, companions, emergency food source. When the Pulaski hunted bear, the dogs would harry the animals until they were exhausted and chase them up trees. Easy targets, and the dogs would always get an equivalent share of the meat as the hunters at the feast that night. Black Eyes was a hundred pounds, and muscly, and gray except for a dark strip across her eyes like a burglar’s mask. She ran at the cousins barking.
“It’s us, dumbass,” Talks To Whites whispered as loudly as possible.
When Black Eyes got within ten feet, she saw that it was indeed them. She downshifted into a friendly trot. Black Eyes liked these two. The big one always gave her the tastiest scraps from the weekly communal meal. Sometimes the smaller one would leave for a few days, and when he came back there was an odd and new smell on him that Black Eyes did not like, but mostly he was a decent sort.
Dogs are incapable of blackmail, we are told, but Black Eyes flopped onto her back in between the boys and began making pre-bark noises. Little warm-ups in her throat that came out of muzzle BERF BERF. Cannot Swim had walked a few feet away and removed his breechcloth; he was flapping it in front of him to dry it off.
Talks To Whites looked down at the dog.
“I don’t negotiate with terrorists.”
Black Eyes began making a noise like HuuuuuuuUUUURRRRRR, and Cannot Swim yell-whispered,
“Rub her fucking belly!”
Talks To Whites got on a knee, administered scritchy-scratches, looked up at his naked cousin.
“Water’s cold, huh?”
“Dude, you’ve seen me naked a billion times. You know this is an aberration.”
The water was, as a matter of fact, rather cold: Cannot Swim’s cock looked like a sad mushroom, and his balls like a brain sucked-in on itself.
“Maybe those other times were the lie. Maybe this is the real you.”
“Your mother knows the real me.”
“That’s your aunt. You’re talking about your aunt.”
“Why are you awake?”
Cannot Swim redid his breechcloth, and tied his wet hair back.
“I heard you out here. You were, like, moaning for a while.”
This was news to Cannot Swim, who had been certain he had only been outside for moments.
“I thought you were going at yourself, but it was a weird moan.”
“I don’t do that,” Cannot Swim said.
“Why do you insist about lying about this?
“The Turtle Who Was And Will Be Again says that it is wrong.”
“He says a lot of stuff, dude. He was off about this one. If we’re not supposed to jerk off, then why did Great Bear Who Is Pregnant With The Universe put our hands so close to our dicks? They’re so close, dude. It’s meant to be.”
“You’re spending too much time with the Whites, and it’s turning you into a perverted degenerate.”
“They’re not so bad.”
“I know one, and I don’t trust him. Case closed.”
“Stranger Who Hunts’ Useless Friend? Well, yeah: he’s crazy and a nimrod. They’re not all like that. That little fucker is an anomaly. Judging the Whites by that guy is like judging the Pulaski by Yells At Trees.”
“Yells At Trees does not stink. The Whites stink.”
“Oh, yeah, they’re dirty motherfuckers.”
“Do they bathe at all?”
“Mostly just wipe their armpits and crotches with wet cloths.”
“But sometimes they take baths, dude, and they are the shit. You sit in this big tub of hot water, and for one of those shiny rocks from the stream, a women washes you. All of you.”
“Especially. They pay special and careful attention to it.”
“Like I said: perverted degenerate.”
Talks To Whites laughed and stood up; Cannot Swim knelt down and rubbed Black Eyes’ belly with both hands. He had never had a hot bath. The Pulaski bathed in the lake, and made soap from the meat of the yucca plant and shampoo from ground-up fuchsia leaves. Lake got cold in January.
“How hot? Like mushroom tea? As hot as that?”
“Just about. And the lady that washes you keeps bringing new water straight from the fire.”
“What does that feel like?”
“You know the three days in the summer when the sky bakes the ground?”
“Sure,” Cannot Swim said.
“And your skin is so warm that your breath becomes shallow and it seems that the air is hugging you?”
“Like that, but wetter. Plus, like I said, the lady uses her hand on you.”
“Why would you let her do that?”
“Let her do it? I paid her to do it!”
Cannot Swim whamped Black Eyes on her side twice with his palm, which in all cultures means “Your belly rub is over, dog.” The dog and the boy stood up, and walked over to Talks To White at the edge of the lake.
“You’re still having those dreams.”
“My dreams are my business.”
“Unless they’re visions. In which case, they’re everyone’s business.”
“They’re not visions.”
“You’re not qualified to make that call,” Talks To Whites said.
“They’re my dreams!”
“Sure, if Here And There says they are.”
“She doesn’t need to know,” Cannot Swim said.
“She already knows, dude.”
“My daddy says that the fire department works for the CIA.”
“What’s your last name, young lady?”
“Yeah, that makes sense,” Flower Childs snorted, and Dwayne McGlory stepped in between her and Miss Wendy’s kindergarten class from Lyndon LaRouche Elementary. The children were tiny and overawed by the firehouse: everything was red and shiny and massive, except for the firemen, who were just massive. Miss Wendy stood behind them in a long denim skirt.
“We work for the neighborhood, sweetheart. We work for you and your family and all your friends and your teacher, Miss Wendy, and your school and your church or temple or whatever, and all the people in boats in the harbor and up at the Observatory way up on Pulaski Peak. And all the animals in the zoo, and the folks at the Hotel Synod that keep lighting mattresses on fire by accident and the students at Harper College who keep lighting mattresses on fire on purpose. We work for everybody.”
“Why are the students lighting mattresses on fire, Fireman McGlory?” asked Miss Wendy.
“I’ve never asked.”
A tiny girl with cows and chickens on her dress raised her hand. She was wearing black leather shoes–the kind with the strap across the top of the foot–and white socks. Her left front tooth was missing, and she whistled out her fricatives. Her name was Lillebet.
Dwayne McGlory said,
“What does a third-degree burn smell like?”
“That’s what I hear. How many cases of spontaneous combustion this year?”
“Legally, none. Between you and me? Six.”
“Does fire know love?”
“Fire knows hunger. Fire inspires love.”
Flower Childs did not like children when she was one, and her distaste continued. They were like a landfill or a sewage plant: she understood they were necessary, but didn’t want to be anywhere near them. And she certainly didn’t want to smell them. Curdled milk, dried shit, and that cloyingly sweet kid-stink. Still: she was the Fire Chief, and part of the Fire Chief’s responsibilities was showing children around the firehouse. They had to be taught to call 911, and that the fireman was always your friend (as opposed to the policeman, who was sometimes your friend), and how to stop, drop, and roll. Why they needed to be taught how to stop, drop, and roll was beyond her: she had been with the LAFD for 14 years, and not once had she heard of a single soul stopping, dropping, and rolling. Her opinion on the matter was irrelevant, she figured. Children are taught the Pledge of Allegiance, what seven times six is, and how to stop, drop, and roll.
She didn’t like being young. At first, all the kids ignored her, and then she sprouted up to 6’1″ in seventh grade and no one ignored her any longer. Seventh graders are mean as hell, like puppies with no idea how hard they can bite. They called her Squatch.
Dwayne McGlory loved being a kid: he was handsome with blue eyes he got from his father, and a giant afro he got from his mother. Played running back and inside linebacker for the Paul Bunyan High Blue Oxen in the fall, and shooting guard in the winter, and first base in the spring. His teeth were straight as a razor, and he smiled at cool kids and dweebs alike; his senior year, there were 31 pictures of him in the yearbook.
Harper College after high school. (Dwayne’s cousin Sherry was a Junior his Freshman year, and his Uncle Proinsias was the Chair of the Cryptonumismatics Department. The college had only had three years in its history when a McGlory was not enrolled or employed.) He was taking Business classes, halfheartedly, and playing Left Offset for the varsity Red Rover team. (Harper College only participated in alternative sports.)
One morning, real early, Dwayne was at the track running off a cheap beer hangover. In the infield were four firemen from the LAFD. Flipping tires and wearing big backpacks and one had a sledgehammer for some reason. Whatever was going on, it looked more interesting than running in circles. Dwayne McGlory could strike up a conversation with a tombstone, and so he walked over to the firemen and introduced himself, and then he was working out with them; afterwards, they invited him back to the firehouse for breakfast, and he ditched his classes to hang around firetrucks all day. That was it for the Business degree. He studied science and architecture and city planning on his new friends’ advice, and the day after he graduated with honors, he showed up for his first shift as a probationary officer with the LAFD.
Now he was the Captain , and answered to no one but Fire Chief Childs. And, apparently, a six-year-old named Lillibet.
“Have you ever used your axe on a person?”
“Of course not,” Dwayne answered.
“Have you wanted to?”
“Did you pull that guy’s body out of the water pipe in March?”
“I was there.”
“Did his skin come off?”
“His skin came off.”
“Did it make a noise?”
“Like an octopus’ leg detaching from an ugly man’s thigh.”
Several of the children were crying at this point.
The communal hearth was in the middle of the village, and a storehouse made from stone and wood, and surrounding that were a few dozen tightly-clustered kotchas. From five to ten feet between each one. All except three.
Stranger Who Hunts and Stranger Who Hunts’ Useless Friend lived half-a-mile to the north. They would argue in the White language all night, so the village banished them outwards a bit. The elders asked Talks To Whites to eavesdrop one night, and report back on what they were yelling about.
“What do they never shut up about in that ugly language of theirs?” the elder named Giant Chin asked.
“What is that?”
“He is the god of the Whites.”
“And what do they say about this Christ?”
“Honestly, sir? I have no idea.”
“Do you not talk the White language?”
“I do. Like, at a high conversational level. I can hold my own in everyday encounters, but those two are deep into obscure theology. They’re making up a lot of words, too, I think.”
“Well, what is the gist of it?”
“Trinitarian essentialism and the irresolution of fate and free will.”
“I have no idea. I told you this. I have utterly no idea what the hell they’re talking about.”
Tall As The Sun lived a mile to the west, nestled in between two gentle foothills with a sprawling, shaggy garden in the front yard of his kotcha which had many figures carved into the redwood bark that made up the conical walls. He was the village’s medicine man; he dried fungus that clung to wounds and prevented infection on a flat rock outside his door, and stemroot that he simmered for days into a thick paste which Pulaski women who did not want to be pregnant choked down, and vines of lancetberries that he pulped to make a drink that cured stomach ailments.
It all stunk–nostril-burning, high-test stink–and the wind mostly blew in from the west, so Tall As The Sun lived a mile to the east.
Two miles to the south was Here And There. She lived on the edge of the wood, and redwoods loomed behind her kotcha. She had her own hearth, but would wander into the village for the communal meal some weeks; as she ate, she would point at people and tell them the truth.
“She doesn’t love you anymore.”
“The baby will be born wrong.”
“Seven Tuesdays from now.”
Every village needs a shaman, but no village particularly likes having one around. People want to worship the gods, not receive proof they they exist. Here And There was proof of magic, and as the tribe had no access to magic themselves, they hated her just a little bit and feared her openly. When Yells At Trees yelled at trees, everyone laughed at him, but when Here And There yelled at trees, everyone pretended not to notice her.
“I’m not going anywhere near her,” Cannot Swim said to Talks With Whites.
“Not your decision.”
“Course it is. She’s all the way out south. I stay here, she stays there.”
“Here And There goes where she wants, cousin.”
“That’s true,” Here And There said. “I do.”
She did not help either of the boys or the dog out of the lake, into which they had all three jumped out of surprise.
Here And There was not five feet tall, but she had long, wide, flat feet and the backs of her large hands were covered in veins. Her hair was mostly black hair and worn loose, tucked behind her ears and streaming down to her lower back, but there were bright white stripes like a UPC label running across her head. No Pulaski but her had freckles: they covered her nose and forehead.
The moon was full, and the two cousins were wet. They wrung out their hair and exchanged panicked looks. Black Eyes, who was a dog, shook herself dry and walked to Here And There’s left side and sat there. Talks To Whites shivered in the dark chill, but Cannot Swim did not shiver at all.
“You are my second cousin,” Here And There said.
“I think I knew that,” Cannot Swim said.
“Do you have a second, cousin?”
“That’s not really a question, is it?”
“A question one knows the answer to is still a question. I have some tea simmering in my kotcha. Would you like some?”
“You know the answer to that question, too, don’t you?”
“Of course. And so do you. Come.”
Here And There and Cannot Swim walked south, and so did Black Eyes the dog. Talks To Whites was alone by the lake, and still wet, so he took off his breechcloth and shook it like the dog had shook herself; he laid the leather over his shoulder and stood there nude with just the moon and the hills as witnesses; there was no human noise made except the hearth and the occasional snore or fart, and a shaman and a boy walking south along what would one day be called the Main Drag through Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.