CHAPTER FOUR CONTINUED….
“But where are we going, Jeb?” asked Hermano nervously, thinking his new friend the groundhog might lead him to a safe, snug hole, deep in the ground. But instead the Groundhog led Hermano to a huge shop front on the Greenwich Village sidewalk, with whitewash on the windows.
“What’s this, Jeb,” asked Hermano.
“Was this. Used to be a great big bookstore,” answered Jeb Cowpaw, frowning. “Biggest in New York City, they say. Borderline it was called. Where people not only used to read, but meet and talk too and drink groundhog coffee and eat ice creams together. But it’s closed down now, with the Internet and EBooks and everything delivered to folk online. It’s like Greenwich Village. Used to be filled with poets and musicians and actors and artists, but now the rent’s just too steep. But come on in.”
Inside, with all the shelves, it was rather like the Amazon warehouse, except there was nothing on them at all but an old, faded copy of Time magazine.
“But what happened to all the books, Jeb?” asked Hermano.
“Pulped,” answered the groundhog gravely, “turned back into wood pulp.”
Hermano remembered what Che had said of books having characters, like the people who read them, and thought this horrible. Had all the stories inside just been killed then? But the Groundhog led Hermano up some steps into a lobby with a dusty marble floor and towards a giant stairwell.
“I’m really not sure I can climb, Jeb,” muttered Hermano as they went, looking fearfully at the stairs.
“Don’t have to climb, little brother,” said Jeb reassuringly, looking at the walls beside the stairwell and two sliding doors. “Not much anyhow. I’m mean, I’m a groundhog, so I don’t like climbing neither, Hermano. In New York City you use the elevator though. So you don’t have to look out half the time, with that fear of heights. That diagnosed Vertigo.”
The kindly Cowboy groundhog led Hermano through one of sliding doors, into a metal box with buttons on the wall and since the human janitor had just got in too, not noticing the animals, up they went, up and up in the elevator, but with Hermano hardly feeling frightened at all. When the doors opened again Jeb led the tree rat down a peeling corridor and up some little metal steps. So out they came onto a flat roof outside, which looked out over the whole of sweeping New York City and Manhattan Island that it’s built on.
“But heights,” trembled Hermano, feeling dizzy again and starting to shake furiously. “This is higher than I’ve ever been before, Jeb, even higher than my Brazil nut tree in the Amazon. And we can’t sleep out in the open, Jeb, it’s not safe from eagles and condors.”
Just as he said it Hermano felt a swooping gust of wind and his spines began to bristle furiously as a huge bird fell towards him. But seeing Hermano’s spikes, the bird changed its mind and turned up again.
“That’s Conrad,” cried Jeb Cowpaw. “An American bald eagle that lives even higher than this, up on the roof of The Empire State. Then someone’s always higher up in life, specially in New York.”
Hermano scowled but relaxed his spines a little.
“There,” said Jeb though, with a happy smile, turning his head. “That’s home, Hermano. Just like way back West. This is how a sensitive, artistic groundhog overcame a fear of heights.”
Hermano saw an extraordinary sight in the silvery moonlight. It was like a huge barrel on metal stilts, like those barrels to collect rain water in the Amazon, but with a kind of Chinese hat on top and standing on the roof, up there among the clouds.
“It’s the old Water Tower, partner,” explained the groundhog proudly, his face pouring with sweat in the strange, unnatural heat. “Like they have all over the dirt farms of the Wild Way-out West, though down on the ground. And what is it that nothing can live without in life, partner?”
“Water, Hermano. Take it from a thirsty groundhog. And a little food, and somewhere to sleep. But they have them all over New York City too. Water towers, I mean. Just take a look, kid. There.”
Hermano plucked up all his courage and dared to look out, and the rat began to see them everywhere, among the strange buildings and the soaring modern skyscrapers, the little Wild-West Water Towers of New York city. Some were taller than others, others were sprayed with graffiti, some even had human advertising on them. The sight somehow made the jungle of giant modern metal and glass buildings less terrifying and rather old fashioned too. But then that’s one secret of modern New York, it’s rather an old fashioned sort of place, as well.
“If you’re lost, partner,” declared the groundhog softly, “Always find something to remind yourself of home, that’s what I reckon, Hermano. A home from home, yes Siree. We city vagrants found our way up here when the bookstore closed and up here we’re all trying to be artists too. Well, most of us.”
“Yes, Sir. It’s an artistic community, so it be.”
Jeb led Hermano up to his Cowboy Water Tower on the rooftops of New York City, that impossibly hot summer night, with Hermano feeling a little surer of heights. The huge red-coated squirrel creature scurried him up the strut of one of the metal stilts, wide enough to run a uni-cycle along, and by a huge faucet that was sticking out of the side of the water tower, through a hole that the Groundhog had made in the wooden side with his huge front teeth, but below the actual metal water tank itself.
Jeb had made it rather fine up there under his Cowboy Water tower. The place was like a little attic room, where poets work burning the midnight oil, the slats letting in the growing moonlight. It was filled with Groundhog furniture, that Jeb had made from things he had gathered on the hoof in the city. There was a mattress bed made from old straw, a cowboy hat and a kind of saloon bar Jeb had made from bits of crate. There were plastic bottles he’d used as plant holders and an old bicycle wheel that kept turning and creaking like a weather vein. In the corner was Jeb’s wooden guitar.
The one thing poor Hermano immediately noticed about the place though, as a water droplet plashed on his head from above, was first a strange tapping from above. Tap. Tap. Tap. Then that the tower was rather damp inside, but in the terrible heat it didn’t seem like a bad home at all. Jeb frowned though and said they should be grateful because in this darn heat, like no summer on record, in fact, he was worried that the old Water Tower was drying out.
TO BE CONTINUED…