So I asked the raven as he passed by,
I said, "Tell me, raven, why'd you make the sky?"
"The moon and stars, I threw them high,
I needed someplace to be flying."
- Kiya Heartwood, from "Wyoming Wind"
If men had wings and bore black feathers,
few of them would be clever enough to be
- Rev. Henry Ward Beecher (mid-1800s)
it's a long long road
it's a big big world
we are wise wise women
we are giggling girls
we both carry a smile
to show when we're pleased
both carry a switchblade
in our sleeves
- Ani DiFranco, from "If He Tries Anything"
PART ONE: POETRY IN A TREE
Everything is held together with stories. That is all
that is holding us together, stories and compassion.
- Barry Lopez,
from an interview in Poets and Writers, Vol. 22, Issue 2, March/April 1994
Newford, Late August, 1996
The streets were still wet but the storm clouds had moved on as Hank drove south on Yoors waiting for a fare. Inhabited tenements were on his right, the derelict blight of the Tombs on his left, Miles Davis's muted trumpet snaking around Wayne Shorter's sax on the tape deck. The old Chev four-door didn't look like much; painted a flat grey, it blended into the shadows like the ghost car it was.
It wasn't the kind of cab you flagged down. There was no roof light on top, no meter built into the dash, no license displayed, but if you needed something moved and you had the number of the cell phone, you could do business. Safe business. The windows were bullet-proof glass and under the body's flaking paint and dents, there was so much steel it would take a tank to do it any serious damage. Fast business, too. The rebuilt V-8 under the hood, purring as quiet as a contented cat at the moment, could lunge to 100mph in seconds. The car didn't offer much in the way of comfort, but the kinds of fares that used a gypsy cab weren't exactly hiring it for its comfort.
When he reached Grasso Street, Hank hung a left and cruised through Chinatown, then past the strip of clubs on the other side of Williamson. The clock on his dash read three a.m. The look-at-me crowd was gone now with only a few stragglers still wandering the wet streets. The lost and the lonely and the seriously screwed-up. Hank smiled when he stopped at a red light and a muscle-bound guy crossed in front of the cab wearing a T-shirt that read, "Nobody Knows I'm a Lesbian." He tapped his horn and the guy gave him a Grasso Street salute in response, middle finger extended, fingernails painted black. When he realized Hank wasn't hassling him, he only shrugged and kept on walking.
A few blocks further, Hank pulled the cab over to the curb. He keyed the speed-dial on the cell phone and had to wait through a handful of rings before he got a connection.
"You never get tired of that crap, kid?" Moth asked.
Hank turned the tape deck down.
"All I've got left is that six o'clock pickup," he said by way of response. The only thing Moth considered music had to have a serious twang—add in yodeling and it was even better—so there was no point in arguing with him. "Have you got anything to fill in the next couple of hours?"
"A big nada."
Hank nodded. He hated slow nights, but he especially hated them when he was trying to raise some cash.
"Okay," he said. "Guess I'll head over to the club and just wait for Eddie outside."
"Yeah, well keep your doors locked. I hear those guys that were jacking cars downtown have moved up to Foxville the past couple of nights."
"Eddie told me."
"Did he say anything about his people dealing with it?"
Hank watched as a drunk stumbled over to the doorway of one of the closed clubs and started to take a leak.
"Like he's going to tell me?" he said.
"You got a point. Hey, I hear that kid you like's doing a late set at the Rhatigan."
Hank almost laughed. Under a spotlight, Brandon Cole seemed ageless, especially when he played. Hank put him in his mid-to-late-thirties, but he had the kind of build and features that could easily go ten years in either direction. A tall, handsome black man, he seemed to live only for his sax and his music. He was no kid, but to Moth anybody under sixty was a kid.
"What time's it start?" he asked.
He could almost see Moth shrug. "What am I, a press secretary now? All I know is Dayson's got a couple of highrollers in town—jazz freaks like you, kid—and he told me he's taking them by."
"Thanks," Hank said. "Maybe I'll check it out."
He cut the connection and started to work his way across town to where the Rhatigan was nestled on the edge of the Combat Zone. The afterhours bar where Eddie ran his all-night poker games was over in Upper Foxville, but he figured he could take in an hour or so of Cole's music and still make the pick-up in plenty of time.
Except it didn't work out that way. He was coming down one of the little dark back streets that ran off Grasso—no more than an alley, really—when his headlights picked out a tall man in a dove-grey suit, beating on some woman.
Hank knew the drill. The first few times he took out the spare car, Moth had stopped him at the junkyard gate and stuck his head in the window to reel it off: Here's the way it plays, kid. You only stop for money. You don't pick up strays. You never get involved. One, two, three.
But some things you didn't walk away from. This time of night, in this part of town, she was probably a hooker—having some altercation with her pimp, maybe, or she hadn't been paying attention to her radar and got caught up with a john turned ugly—but that still didn't make it right.
He hit the breaks, the Chev skidding for a moment on the slick pavement before he got it back under control. The baseball bat on the seat beside him began to roll forward. A surge of adrenaline put him into motion, quick, not even thinking. He grabbed the bat by its handle, put the car in neutral, foot coming down on the parking brake and locking it into place. Through the windshield he could see the man backhand the woman, turn to face him. As the woman fell to the pavement, Hank popped the door and stepped outside. The baseball bat was a comfortable weight in his hand until the man reached under his jacket.
Hank could almost hear Moth's voice in the back of his head. "You get involved, you get hurt. Plain and simple. And let me tell you, kid. There's no percentage in getting hurt."
It was a little late for advice now.
The man wasn't interested in discussion. He pulled a handgun out from under that tailored dove-grey suit jacket and fired, all in one smooth move. Hank saw the muzzle flash, then something smashed him in the shoulder and spun him around, throwing him against the door of the Chev. The baseball bat dropped out of numbed fingers and went clattering across the pavement. He followed after it, sliding down the side of the Chev and leaving a smear of blood on the cab's paint job.
Moth is going to be pissed about that, he thought.
Then the pain hit him and he blacked out for a moment. He floated in some empty space where only the pain and sound existed. His own rasping breath. The soft murmur of the cab's engine, idling. The faint sound of Miles and Shorter, the last cut on the tape, just ending. The muted scuff of leather-soled shoes on pavement, approaching. When he got his eyes back open, the man was standing over him, looking down.
The man had a flat, dead gaze, eyes as grey as his suit. Hank had seen their kind before. They were the eyes of the men who stood against the wall in the back room of Eddie's bar, watching the action, waiting for Eddie to give them a sign that somebody needed straightening out. They were the eyes of men he'd picked up at the airport and dropped off at some nondescript hotel after a stop at one of the local gunrunners. They were the eyes he'd seen in a feral dog's face one night when it had killed Emma's cat in the yard out behind her apartment, the hard gaze holding his for a long moment before it retreated with its kill.
The man lifted his gun again and now Hank could see it was an automatic, as anonymous as the killer holding it. Behind the weapon, the man's face remained expressionless. There was nothing there. No anger, no pleasure, no regret.
Hank couldn't feel the pain in his shoulder anymore. His mind had gone blank, except for one thing. His entire being seemed to hold its breath and focus on the muzzle of the automatic, waiting for another flash, more pain. But they didn't come.
The man turned away from him, cobra-quick, his weapon now aimed at something on the roof of the cab. It hadn't registered until the man moved, but now Hank realized he'd also heard what had distracted the killer. An unexpected sound. A hollow bang on metal as though someone had jumped onto the roof of the cab.
Jumped from where? His own gaze followed that of his attacker's. One of the fire escapes, he supposed. He knew a momentary sense of relief—someone else was playing Good Samaritan tonight—except there was only a girl standing there on the roof of the cab. A kid. Skinny and monochrome and not much to her: raggedy blue-black hair, dark complexion, black clothes and combat boots. There seemed to be a cape fluttering up behind her like a sudden spread of black wings, there one moment, gone the next, and then she really was just a kid, standing there, her weight on one leg, a switchblade held casually in a dark hand.
Hank wanted to cry a warning to her. Didn't she see the man had a gun? Before he could open his mouth, the killer stiffened and an expression finally crossed his features: surprise mixed with pain. His gun went off again, loud as a thunderclap at this proximity, the bullet kicking sparks from the fire escape before it went whining off into the darkness. The man fell to his knees, collapsing forward in an ungainly sprawl. Dead. And where he'd been standing...the girl....
Hank blinked, thinking the girl had somehow transported herself magically from the top of the cab to the pavement behind the killer. Only the first girl was still standing on the roof of the cab. She jumped to the ground, landing lightly on the balls of her feet. Seeing them together, he realized they were twins.
The second girl knelt down and cleaned her knife on the dead man's pants, leaving a dark stain on the dove-grey material. Closing the blade, she made it disappear up her sleeve and walked away to where the woman Hank had been trying to rescue lay in the glare of the cab's headlights.
"You can get up now," the first girl said, making her own switchblade vanish.
Hank tried to rise but the movement brought a white-hot flare of pain that almost made him black out again. The girl went down on one knee beside him, her face close to his. She put two fingers to her lips and licked them, then pressed them against his shoulder, her touch as light as a whisper, and the pain went away. Just like that, as though she'd flicked a switch.
Leaning back, she offered Hank her hand. Her skin was dry and cool to the touch and she was strong. Effortlessly, she pulled him up into a sitting position. Hank braced himself for a fresh flood of pain, but it was still gone. He reached up to touch his shoulder. There was a hole in his shirt, the fabric sticky and wet with blood. But there was no wound. Unable to take his gaze from the girl, he explored with a finger, found a pucker of skin where the bullet hole had closed, nothing more. The girl grinned at him.
All he could do was look back at her, stumbling to frame a coherent sentence. "What...how did you...?"
"Spit's just as magic as blood," she said. "Didn't you ever know that?"
He shook his head.
"You look so funny," she went on. "The way you're staring at me."
Before he could move, she leaned forward and kissed him, a small tongue darting out to flick against his lips, then she jumped to her feet, leaving behind a faint musky smell.
"You taste good," she said. "You don't have any real meanness in you." She looked solemn now. "But you know all about meanness, don't you?"
Hank nodded. He got the feeling she was able to look right inside him, sifting through the baggage of memories that made up his life as though it was a hardcopy résumé, everything laid out in point form, easy to read. He grabbed hold of the cab's fender and used it to pull himself to his feet. Remembering that first image of her he'd seen through his pain, that impression of dark wings rising up behind her shoulders, he thought she must be some kind of angel.
"Why...why'd you help me?" he asked.
"Why'd you try to help the woman?"
"Because I couldn't not try."
She grinned. "Us, too."
"But you...where did you come from?"
She shrugged and made a sweeping motion with her hand that could have indicated the fire escape above his cab or the whole of the night sky. "We were just passing by—same as you."
He heard a soft scuff of boots on the pavement and then the other girl was there, the two of them as alike as photographs printed from the same exotic negative.
The first girl touched his forearm. "We've got to go."
"Are you...angels?" Hank asked.
The two looked at each other and giggled.
"Do we look like angels?" the second girl asked.
Not like any kind he'd ever seen in pictures, Hank wanted to say, but he thought maybe they were. Maybe this is what angels really looked like, only they were too scruffy for all those high-end Italian and French artists, so they cleaned the image up in their paintings and everybody else bought it.
"I don't know," he said. "I've never seen real angels before tonight."
"Isn't he cute?" the first girl said.
She gave Hank another quick kiss, on the cheek this time, then the two of them sauntered off, hand in hand, like one of them hadn't just healed a gunshot wound, like they weren't leaving a dead body behind. Hank glanced down at the corpse, then looked back up the alley where the girls had been walking. They were gone. He leaned against the cab for a moment, dizzy. His hand rose to touch his shoulder again and his fingers came away tacky with the drying blood. But the wound was still only a puckered scar. The pain was still gone. He'd be ready to believe he'd imagined the whole thing if it weren't for the blood on his shirt, the dead man lying at his feet.
Straightening up, he finally walked around the corpse, crossing the pavement to join the woman he'd stopped to help. She sat on the pavement, back against the brick wall behind her, the lights of the cab holding her like a spotlight. He saw the same dazed expression in her features that he knew were on his own. She looked up at his approach, gaze focusing on him.
"You okay?" he asked.
"I don't know...." She looked down the alley in the direction that the girls had taken. "She just took the pain away. I can hardly hold onto the memory of it...of the man...hitting me...." He gaze returned to Hank. "You know how when you're a kid, your mother would kiss a scrape and you'd kind of forget about how it hurt?"
Hank didn't, but he nodded anyway.
"Except this really worked," the woman said.
Hank looked at the blood on his hand. "They were angels."
She had short brown hair and was holding a pair of fashionable glasses with round tortoise-shell frames. One of the lenses was broken. Attractive, late twenties-early thirties, and definitely uptown. Well-dressed. Low-heeled shoes, a knee-length black skirt with a pale rose silk jacket, a white blouse underneath. After tonight the outfit was going to need dry-cleaning.
Secretary, he decided, or some kind of business woman. A citizen, as out of place here as he'd be in the kinds of places where people had a life on paper and paid taxes. Met her Mr. Goodbar in some club tonight and things just went downhill from there. Or maybe she was working, he thought, as he noticed the camera bag lying in some trash a few paces away.
He rinsed his hand in a puddle, wiped it clean on his jeans. Then he gave her a hand up and fetched the bag for her. It was heavy.
"You a photographer?" he asked.
She nodded and introduced herself. "Lily Carson. Freelance."
Hank smiled. He was freelance, too, but it wasn't at all the same kind of thing. She probably had business cards and everything.
"I'm Joey Bennett," he said, shaking the offered hand. They might have gone through an amazing experience together, but old habits were hard to shake. Joey Bennett was the name that went with the I.D. he was carrying tonight; Hank Walker didn't exist on paper. Not anymore. "You need a lift somewhere?"
Her gaze traveled to the corpse. "We should call the police."
She was taking this well. He reached up and touched his shoulder. Though he wasn't exactly stressing out on it either. Those girls had done more than take away her bruises and the hole in his shoulder.
"You can call them," he said, "but I'm not sticking around."
When she gave him a surprised look, he nodded towards the Chev. "Gypsy cab."
"I don't get it."
Now she understood.
"Then we can call it in from a phonebooth somewhere," she said.
Hank just wanted away from here. He'd sampled some hallucinogens when he was a kid and the feeling he had now was a lot like coming down from an acid high. Everything slightly askew, illogical things that somehow made sense, everything too sharp and clear when you looked at it but fading fast in your peripheral vision, blurred, like it didn't really exist. He could still taste the girl's tongue on his lip, the earthy scent she'd left behind. It was a wild bouquet, like something you'd smell in a forest, deep under the trees. He started to reach for his shoulder again, still not quite able to believe the wound was gone, then thought better of it.
"We should go," he told her.
She didn't move. "You've been hurt," she said.
He looked down at his bloody shirt and gave a slow nod. "But they...those girls...just took it away. I caught a bullet in the shoulder and now it's like it never happened...."
She touched her cheek. There wasn't a mark on it now.
"What's happened to us?" she said. "I feel completely distanced from what just happened. Not just physically, but...."
She let her hand drop.
"I don't know," he said. "I guess it's just the way we're dealing with the stress."
She nodded, but neither of them believed it. It was something the girls had done to them.
He led her to the passenger's side of the cab and opened the door for her. Walking around back, he stopped at the trunk and popped it open. Between the coolers of beer and liquor on ice, he kept a gym bag with spare clothes. Taking off his shirt, he put on a relatively clean T-shirt and closed the lid of the trunk. He paused for a moment as he came around to the driver's side of the car, startled by the body lying there. He kept fading on it, like it didn't really exist, like what had happened, hadn't. Not really. He remembered the girl's lips again, the taste of them, the faint wild musk in the air around her. Her breath, he thought suddenly, had been sweet—like apples.
His attention returned to the corpse. Frowning, he nudged a limp arm with the toe of his boot, moving it away from the Chev's tire. Last thing he felt like doing was running over the thing. He picked up the baseball bat from where it had fallen and tossed it onto the back seat.
"Where to?" he asked when he joined Lily in the front of the cab.
She gave him an address in Lower Crowsea. Yuppie territory. He'd figured right.
She was quiet until they pulled out onto a main street and headed west. When she spoke, he started, almost having forgotten she was there.
"How come you don't get a license?" she wanted to know.
Hank shrugged. He turned the cassette over and stuck it back in, volume turned way down now.
"This isn't that kind of a cab," he said.
He put an inflection in the way he spoke that he hoped would let her know this wasn't something he felt like discussing. She took the hint.
"Who's that playing trumpet?" she asked.
"I thought so. And Wayne Shorter on sax, right? I love that stuff they were doing in the mid-sixties."
Hank gave her a quick look before returning his attention to his driving. "You like jazz?" he asked, pleasantly surprised.
"I like all kinds of music—anything that's got heart."
"That's a good way to put it. Miles sure had heart. I thought a piece of me died when he did."
They were on Stanton Street now, the sky disappearing overhead as they entered the tunnel of oaks where the street narrowed and the big estates began. A few more blocks west, the houses got smaller and closer to the road. Most of these had been turned into apartments over the years, but they were still out of Hank's price range. Everything was pretty much out of his price range. He took a right on Lee Street, then another on McKennett and pulled up to the curb in front of the address Lily had given him.
"Nice place," he said.
Her building was a three-story brick house with a tall pine and a sugar maple vying for dominance in the front yard. Hank looked at the long front porch and imagined being able to sit out on it in the evening, drink in hand, looking out at the street. A pang of jealousy woke in him, but he let it go as quickly as it came. Only citizens had that kind of a life.
"I don't own it," Lily said. "I'm renting a secondfloor apartment."
"But still...it's a nice place, in a good neighbourhood. Safe."
She gave him a slow nod. He put the Chev in neutral, engaged the handbreak and turned to look at her.
"So who was the guy?" he asked.
"I don't know." She hesitated for a long heartbeat, then added, "I was out looking for animal people when I ran into him."
She had to be putting him on. It was that, or he hadn't heard her properly.
"Animal people?" he asked.
"I know what you're thinking. I know how crazy it sounds."
"It doesn't sound like anything to me yet," Hank said.
"The only reason I brought it up is I thought maybe you'd know what I was talking about. They're supposed to live on the edges of society—sort of a society onto themselves."
She nodded. "Like you. No offense, but you know, with this cab and everything."
"No offense taken," Hank assured her. "I've been an outsider all my life. I guess I was just born that way."
It wasn't entirely a lie. When you didn't get nurturing from day one, you learned pretty quick to depend on yourself.
"I thought you might know about them," Lily went on. "Or maybe know where I can find them."
He'd heard of them, but not as anything real. They were only stories.
"Animal people," Hank repeated.
He was thinking now might be a real good time to get her out of the cab and put all of this behind him. It was getting close to six when he had to pick up Eddie anyway, so he had an excuse, but he couldn't let it go. The whole thing was too intriguing. A good-looking, straight citizen like this, out walking the streets of the Combat Zone looking for animal people like Jack was always talking about. He knew what Moth would say, what he'd do, but he wasn't Moth. Moth wouldn't have stopped in the first place—not unless he'd known her. Then Moth would have given his life for her, just as he almost had.
"What exactly are they supposed to be?" he asked.
"The first people—the ones that were there when the world began. They were animals, but people, too."
"When the world began."
This was way too familiar, he thought as she nodded. At least Jack knew they were only stories.
"That'd be a long time ago," Hank said, humouring her.
"I know. Lots of us have their blood in us—that's what gives us our animal traits."
"Like the Chinese calendar?"
"I suppose," she said. "The thing is, there's been so much intermarrying between species—you know, us and real animals—not to mention us killing them off when they're in their animal shapes, that aren't many pure animal people left. But there are some, living on the edges of the way we see the world, the way we divide it up. They're like spiritual forces. Totems."
Hank didn't know what to say.
She sighed and looked out the windshield. "I told you. I know how crazy it sounds."
Hank knew crazy, and this wasn't it. Crazy was Hazel standing out in front of the Williamson Street Mall, trying to tell anybody who'd listen about the video games going on inside her head, how right now, Mario the Plumber was walking around inside her stomach. Or No Hands Luke who was convinced that aliens had stolen his hands and would only pick things up with his wrists held together. But he thought he knew where she'd picked up this business with the animal people.
"Do you know a man named Jack Daw?" Hank asked.
She turned so that she was facing him. "Do you know him, too?"
Everybody on the street, or who worked it, knew Jack. The only thing that surprised Hank was that a citizen would know him. Jack didn't exactly fit into the cocktail hour/espresso bar set. He lived in an abandoned schoolbus up on the edge of the Tombs near Moth's junkyard, had the place all fixed up inside and out: pot-bellied cast-iron woodstove, bed, table and chairs to eat at, big old sofa outside where he'd sit in the summer when he wasn't out and about, cadging coins and telling stories. There were always crows hanging around that old bus, feeding off the scraps he fed them. He called them his cousins.
"How'd a woman like you meet someone like Jack?" Hank asked.
The smile she gave him transformed her features, taking them from attractive to heartstopping. Easy, Hank, he told himself. She's way out of your league.
"So what kind of woman am I?" she wanted to know.
Hank shrugged. "Uptown."
"Are you always so quick to label people?"
"You've got to be—in my business."
"And you're never wrong?"
Hank thought about the man that right now was lying dead in an alley back in the Combat Zone. If things had played out like he'd expected, the guy would have taken off and still be running.
"Once or twice," he said.
She nodded. "Well, I meet a lot of different kinds of people in my business. I'll take a man like Jack over politicians and the moneymen any day."
Hank studied her for a long moment.
"I guess you're okay," he said finally.
She gave him that smile of hers again, lots of wattage, but genuine. "That's what Jack said, too."
"So how'd you meet him?"
"The way I usually meet interesting people: I was working on a story."
"You said you were a photographer. Doesn't somebody else write the stories?"
"It all depends. Sometimes I sell a story, sometimes just the pictures, sometimes both. It really depends on whether I've got an assignment, or come up with the idea for the piece myself."
"And this one you came up with."
"It wasn't about Jack, but I ran into him and...he's really interesting."
That he was, Hank thought. He'd listened to more than one of Jack's stories himself, late at night, fire burning in one of the junkyard oil drums, the sky so big and clear up above that you'd never think you were in the middle of the city. The things he talked about sounded almost plausible and stuck with you—at least until you thought about them in the daylight.
"Jack tells those stories to everybody," he said. "That's what he does. Mo—" He caught himself. "A friend of mine says it's Jack's way of explaining the world to himself. You can't take what he says literally."
"No. Of course not. It's just...." Her gaze went away again, not simply out the windshield, but to some place Hank couldn't see. "I need to believe in something like animal people right now."
Hank didn't ask her why. He just gave her the same advice he'd been given by an older kid in juvie hall.
"Believe in yourself," he said.
"I do," she said, her voice soft, as though she were sharing a secret. "But it doesn't always help."
Before Hank could think of a reply, she shook her head, clearing it, and turned to look at him. Wherever she'd gone, she was back now. She reached into her pocket and pressed a business card into his hand.
"Call me sometime," she said.
Hank smiled. He'd been right about the card, too.
"Sure," he lied.
He glanced at the card before he dropped it on the dash. She played it safe. The card had her name on it, phone number and email address, and one of those "suite" addresses that people used when they didn't want to make it look like they had a P.O. box.
"Are you still calling the cops?" he asked.
She shook her head. "I wouldn't know what to say. Two girls came out of nowhere and killed an armed man and all they had were pocket knives? Besides, I think maybe he got what he deserved. He was going to kill you."
Not to mention beating on her, Hank thought. But it was hard to get worked up about it anymore. They should both still be in shock, dead or on their way to the hospital at the very least, but the whole thing seemed surreal now, as though it had happened to someone else, or a long time ago. He could see she felt the same way.
"I think those girls were animal people," she added.
Hank flashed on the afterimage of wings he thought he'd seen when the first girl landed on the roof of the cab. He touched his shoulder, feeling the wound that was only a scar.
"They weren't like anything I've ever seen before," he said.
She nodded. "Thanks again—for everything. Most people wouldn't have stopped to help."
"And call me."
"Sure," he said, just as he had the last time, only this time he thought maybe he might.
He watched her go up the walk to her building, the branches of the pine and maple entwining above her, waited until she was inside before he put the Chev in gear and pulled away from the curb. He got the sense she wasn't like Andrea, the last uptown woman he'd dated, that she didn't look at him as a project, something to clean up the way other people went to garage sales, buying junk that they could polish into antiques.
But then, Andrea hadn't been the kind to go out walking the streets at night, looking for animal people.
He knew what Moth would say. You've got to ask yourself, what's in it for her? Because everybody's playing an angle, working the percentages. That's just the way the world turns, kid. Look out for yourself, because nobody else'll be doing it for you.
Except for a couple of kids with switchblades who could rub spit on a gunshot wound and make it go away like it had never happened.
He thought maybe he wouldn't tell Moth about any of what had happened tonight. Moth wouldn't believe it anyway. Hank had been there himself and he wasn't really all that sure what had happened. It felt too much like he'd dreamed the whole thing.
But as he took a sharp corner and Lily's business card began to slide down the dash, he grabbed it and stuck it in the pocket of his jeans.
- 2 -
Lily waited just inside the front hall, studying the cab through a slit in her landlady's lace curtains until it pulled away. Without her glasses, the receding taillights and the red reflections trailing behind them on the wet street smeared and blurred. She waited until the cab turned a corner, then moved away from the window.
Well, she'd certainly made a good impression on Joey Bennett, she thought. She leaned her back against the wall, shoulders slumped. What could she possibly have been thinking, talking to him about the animal people? He probably thought she was ready to check into the Zeb.
When Jack was telling his stories, she hadn't believed in the animal people either. Not really. But she wanted to. She wanted to because, for all that she clearly knew the difference between what was real and what wasn't, those strange animal spirits of his still called out to her. When he spoke, she could almost see them lift their heads to peer at her from the spaces where he took a breath, the idea of their existence resonating against something that ran deep in her own blood. But that didn't mean she actually believed in them.
I was out looking for animal people....
She cringed, as she remembered saying that. She hadn't needed her glasses to read the look on Joey's face, the polite way he didn't come right out and tell her he thought she was nuts. But he didn't have to.
Jack could get away with it, telling those stories, believing in animal people. He was such a character, living in that old schoolbus of his, the way he put himself in so many of his stories, as though he'd actually been there when they happened, no matter how tall the tale.
Lily understood the temptation, perhaps too well. She might even call it a need because, while she didn't know Jack well enough to be able to say why he did it, she was familiar enough with the process. The stories he related were like the ones she and Donna used to tell each other when they were kids, the two of them thrown together because no one else in the neighbourhood wanted to play with the fat kid with the Coke-bottle glasses or her gimpy friend. They were both voracious readers, as much by circumstance as by choice, and the stories they made up were a natural outgrowth of all that reading, born out of the need of two tomboys, trapped in bodies that didn't look or work properly, having to make up a place where they could fit in. Because the real world didn't have such a place for them.
All these years later, Donna still had her limp. She'd moved to the east coast where she worked as an editor for a small publishing house and was doing well for herself, though she often mentioned missing Newford when she wrote. Lily was no longer fat; in fact, if anything, she was slightly underweight, but inside she was still that tubby little kid and she still wanted to believe. She thought maybe Donna felt the same; that what Donna really missed was being able to believe. But that was something they never talked about in the email they sent each other every day.
Lily sighed. Pushing herself away from the wall she made her way upstairs and let herself into her apartment. She didn't know why she even cared what Joey thought of her. It wasn't likely she'd ever hear from him again—she'd recognized that look in his eyes when she'd asked him to call her. It was the same look men always got when they promised something they never meant to do. "I had a great time tonight. We should do it again. I'll call you." And then you waited all week before you realized it wasn't going to happen. And you never learned. You always thought, maybe this time it'll be different.
Joey wasn't her type, anyway. He was too good-looking, in a tough sort of a way, rough around the edges, perhaps, but so sure of himself. Like the cool, rebel kids she'd always admired from a distance in school, the ones who never had to worry about whether people liked them or not, who just strode through life, pulling everybody else along in their wake. Things didn't happen to them, they made them happen. They were in control of their own destinies.
What a load of crock, she thought, dropping her camera bag on the sofa. Because really, wasn't there something pathetic about a grown man making his living by driving an illegal cab in the middle of the night? What kind of a "destiny" was that? The destiny of a loser.
She sighed. It was a nice try, but putting him down didn't work. She felt attracted to him. It wasn't even the mystique, that edge of danger that clung to him like an aura. It was...the unexpected kindness in him, she realized. The way he'd stopped to help her without any consideration of the danger he'd put himself into. He could have been killed. He could have....
She sat down on the sofa beside her camera bag. Kicking off her shoes, one by one, she leaned back against the cushions. Closed her eyes.
He'd been shot. She remembered that. She remembered how loud the gun had sounded and seeing the bullet hit him, how the impact had slammed him against his car, remembered the blood that smeared the side of the door and soaked his shirt. But then those girls had come with their little pen knives, almost as if they'd stepped out of one of Jack's stories and her attacker was dead. She and Joey were all better, wounds healed, neither of them traumatized, and the man with the gun was dead. Just like that.
She knew she should be feeling something about what had happened but it really was like a story—not like anything that had happened to her outside of her imagination. She'd been prowling about in those lanes and alleyways for hours, feeling like a cat, invisible, very proud of herself for not being scared, feeling like one of the animal people she was looking for.
Then her attacker had appeared. He'd come up to her out of nowhere, sliding from the shadows, demanding she hand over her camera bag, and she, still in her story, feeling impossibly brave and sure of herself, had simply told him off. That was when he hit her. As random an act of violence as Joey's kindness had been. He hit her and kept hitting her until....
She sat up slowly, fingers exploring her face, the back of her neck, her shoulders.
There was no swelling, no pain. She knew if she got up to look in the mirror, there wouldn't even be a bruise.
She remembered the girl kneeling down beside her, her face so close and even without the aid of glasses, oddly in focus: the sharp features below that ragged thatch of black hair and those dark, dark eyes. The smell of her like cedars and wet oak leaves and something sweet. Apple blossoms.
And she'd said something so odd, just before she'd taken the pain away. No, not said. She'd half-sung, half-chanted a few lines that returned to Lily now.
The cuckoo is a pretty bird, he sings as he flies.
He sucks little birds' eggs, and then he just dies.
She was sure they were from some song, though not one Lily knew. Sucks little birds' eggs. What was that supposed to mean? She tried repeating the words aloud, but they remained doggerel, as enigmatic as the girl singing them to her had been.
That girl. Those girls.
They were real.
The memory of the them and what had happened kept trying to slide away from her, to lose its immediacy and become just another story, something she'd heard somewhere once, not something that had happened to her only hours ago. She wouldn't let it happen. She hung onto the memory, refusing to let it go.
She'd really found them.
Jack's animal people were real.
- 3 -
The red-haired woman came by Jack's place early in the morning, as she often did. She called a greeting to the crows who watched her suspiciously from the roof of the old schoolbus. One of them cawed half-heartedly, then turned its head away and began to preen its glossy black feathers. The others continued to watch her, black eyes swallowing light. She supposed they'd never learn to trust her.
Kneeling by the steps of the bus, she reached under and pulled out the Coleman stove that Jack kept there. He had a woodstove inside the bus, but it was too warm to use it for cooking at this time of year and Jack didn't have any wood for it anyway. It took her a few tries to get the naphtha stove going, but soon she had a steady flame on the right burner. The left one didn't work anymore. She filled a battered tin coffee pot with water from the rain barrel, added ground coffee to the brewing basket from a plastic bag she was carrying in her jacket pocket and put the pot on the stove. Once the coffee was brewing, she settled herself on the sofa out in front of the long length of the bus and leaned back, hands behind her head.
After a few moments she heard a stirring inside, then the smell of the coffee brought Jack out to join her on the sofa. He was a tall, gangly man, all long legs and arms, smooth-shaven and raven-haired, with skin a few shades darker than her own coffee and cream complexion. His cowboy boots were black, jeans were an old and faded grey, shirt black, as were the flat-brimmed hat and duster he invariably wore. He had his hat on this morning—like Dwight Yoakam, she doubted he ever took it off in public—but he'd left his coat inside for now.
As soon as they saw him, the crows on the roof began to squabble, filling the air with their racket.
"Hush, you," Jack called over his shoulder. "Go make yourselves useful somewhere."
Still squabbling, the small flock erupted from their roost and flew out across the empty lots that lay between the bus and Moth's junkyard on the edge of the Tombs. Jack shook his head as they watched them go.
"Going to tease the dogs," he said. "Silly buggers."
Katy smiled. "Someone's got to do it. Moth lets those dogs get too lazy. Do you want some coffee? I think it's just about ready."
"You're spoiling me."
"I guess someone's got to do that, too."
"I won't say no."
She got up from her seat to get mugs from inside the bus, filling them on her way back to the sofa. They both drank it black. Squatting was easy to accomplish in the Tombs—regular citizens didn't venture into its sprawl of abandoned factories and tenements and all you had to do was roll out your bedding to stake a claim—but amenities, even such simple ones such as sugar and cream, simply didn't exist unless you brought them in yourself.
Jack took a few sips of coffee and smacked his lips in appreciation. Taking out a pipe, he went through the ritual of filling it, tamping the tobacco down just right, getting it lit. He had some more of his coffee. Katy watched the air show the crows were putting on above Moth's place, dive-bombing the junkyard dogs, swooping and darting in among the wrecked vehicles. The dogs howled their frustration.
"You're feeling sorry for them," Jack said.
"Them and me. But at least those dogs of Moth's have a place to be—somewhere they fit in."
"Anytime you need a place to stay...."
Katy sighed. "It's not that. It's just...she's coming. I don't know how I know, but I do."
Jack nodded to show he was listening, but let her talk.
"I won't be able to stay away from her. I know I promised her before, and it was hard, but I could manage it because we had a few thousand miles between us. But now she's coming here." She looked at Jack. "So it's like the promise is broken, isn't it? She broke it."
"You're going to have to work that one out for yourself," Jack told her.
"Maybe her coming means she's changed her mind."
"Could be. You could ask her."
Katy shook her head. "Anybody else, but not her."
"You've got nothing to be afraid of," Jack said.
"She can kill me."
Jack wouldn't let her run with that. "You can't die."
Because she'd never been born. But Jack was wrong. She wasn't like some of the animal people in his stories who kept coming back and back, their lives a wheel where most people's were a simple line from point A to B. She could die. She knew that, no matter what Jack said.
"Maybe the crow girls could help me," she said. "You could introduce me and I could ask them."
Jack laughed. "You know how it goes. They do any damn thing they please. But ask them right and maybe they'll help you. Point you down a road, anyway. Could be where you want to go. Could be where you need to go. That's not always the same place, you know."
Katy sighed again. "Tell me a story," she said.
"What kind of story?"
"Something about the crow girls."
"The crow girls," Jack repeated.
He leaned his head back against the sofa which made his hat push up and fall down over his eyes.
"I can do that," he said.
- 4 -
This is how it was in the long ago: everyone respected the crow girls. Didn't matter where you were, walking the medicine lands or right here in this world with the roots and dirt underfoot. You could look up and call their names, and there they'd be looking back down at you, two pieces of magic perched high up in a forever tree, black feathers shining, dark eyes watching, heads cocked, listening.
Some people say Raven was older, and wiser, too, but the crow girls were kinder. Any mischief they got into never hurt anyone who didn't deserve it. Knew all the questions and most of the answers, always did. Never had rules, never told you what to do, but they would teach you how to find your own answers, if you asked nicely enough.
Now no one remembers them. Not that way.
I think maybe we started to forget when we stopped looking up. Instead of remembering there was a world of sky up there above our heads, we'd sit on the ground and look at our feet. We'd get together around the trunk of some old tree and tell stories, consider how it was that the world began, try to make sense of how we got here and why—same as people do now, except we did it first, because we were here first. Back then, we were the people. Animal people. Same as you, but feathered and furred and scaled. Those stories you tell each other, you got them from us, all of them. First World, the Garden, the Ocean of Blood, the Mother's Womb.
Everybody would take a turn, make up how they thought it was. Except for Raven and the crow girls. They didn't have to speak. They didn't have to make up stories. Because they knew. They were there, right from the beginning when the medicine lands came up out of the long ago and this world began.
Only the corbæ remember that first story. But Raven and the crow girls never needed to tell it and no one ever really listens to me. Problem is, I didn't always remember it. It took me a long time, trying on different sets of words the way some of us try on skins, until I finally got past guessing and into remembering. I guess I ended up like that little boy crying wolf, told so many stories that when I finally got hold of the real ones, no one was ready to listen to me anymore.
No, that's not true. People listen. They just don't believe.