CHAPTER FIVE – THE ROOFTOP VAGRANTS
That is how Hermano settled in with his new friend Jeb Cowpaw, up there, high above ground zero, listening to his stories of what it had been like way out west once, fighting rattle snakes. The greatest rattle snake wrangler America had ever known was Jeb Cowpaw, or so he said, who knew about all the critters in the world. Hermano listened to tales of some great wagon trek too, that Jeb’s family had once made way out West, to conquer the land, heroically. Jeb the Cowboy poet recited his poetry as well and sometimes sang his Country and Western songs, when the mongoose picked up the little guitar. Hermano of course returned the favour, telling Jeb tales of the Amazon rainforest and all the magical animals and birds and insects and plants there, and of those great, lost civilisations as well. Telling his story in fact. Yet, although he was getting better and better, still Hermano did not feel like a real Shaman storyteller.
Hermano liked Jeb’s poetry, he loved the rhymes and rhythms. Yet up there in the Water Tower he also liked gazing out safely through the gnawed slats in the wood and counting not only all those buildings, but the thousands and thousands of offices and rooms and windows everywhere. Somehow numbers made Hermano feel safe and more certain of things and after what the one eyed cat had said of science, and his being a little autistic, Hermano wondered if his real calling was to be an artist at all. Hermano got to know some of his neighbours as well, who were all homeless vagrants, but artists too, as Jeb had said. They had been attracted to the Water Tower, through the entrance in the old bookstore, because of Jeb Cowpaw’s guitar playing and the ease of a getting a cool drink, or showering under the steady drips. But perhaps, well, just perhaps because of each other too and the love of art.
Up here though, high above the abandoned bookshop, there was a Korean Peacock called Kim who specialized in making shadow pictures on the wall with his feathers in the moonlight. There was Pepe the Puerto Rican Porcupine, a very prickly customer indeed, although also a poet, but always getting angry, shooting his spines about and talking Animal Rights, who lived with Alfonse the very effeminate husky. Alfonse had a very fine tail and when he moulted he would use the fur to make special paintbrushes.
On the first day Hermano met Pepe though, the Porcupine glared at him and cried “Strike One.” It turned out that it was because Pepe’s other passion was Baseball, and Strike One meant the first time you miss a swing at the ball. Miss three times and you don’t get another go, so it’s three strikes and you’re out. Up there too was the cheerful little microscopic bird called Buzzy, with the very long beak from Central America, who kept humming to herself day and night and could flap her wings at incredible speed and hang in mid-air like a drone. Buzzy’s art was beak-painting and acapella. Not all were artists though, some were just vagrants, like the scrawny old Irish wolfhound Seamus, always talking about science himself, and as he gazed out at the city would suddenly declare “Now, the Universe is just a pot of boiling chemistry, and that’s my point!”
There was the long haired Native American Racoon too, Lenno, who although a celebrated singer, kept much to himself, and kept saying that everyone had stolen his land. Then there was the very serious, God-fearing long eared hedgehog Rumi, who wore horn-rimmed spectacles. Rumi had wanted to be an artist once, but now spent most of his time thinking deeply and reading about anything from Astronomy to Alchemy. Rumi had lived in the deserts of the Middle East and before his escape into the city had been smuggled into New York by bad people, as something called an ‘exotic pet’. Rumi would pray to God day and night, bending his head to the rising sun, and was always calling Hermano and everyone else brother, a bit like Che. So Rumi got to know Hermano in particular as ‘little brother-brother’. There was an Owl too, with enormous, serious eyes, all the way from Hampshire in England, named Walpole, who liked to sculpt strange shapes out of twigs and branches.
Hermano soon realised that all these poor artistic animals had somehow abandoned in the City though. The Raccoon because his owners had only wanted him for Christmas, and Kim for showing off, and Rumi because there wasn’t enough food around. Buzzy had escaped from a crowded bird cage and Pepe had been dumped because he kept leaving his spines everywhere. Horace was the exception, who had flown away from England, three thousand miles, because at home the place called United Kingdom didn’t want to be friendly to its neighbours any more.
But now something wonderful happened. As Jeb read Hermano his made-up Cowboy poems, all about the West and the Wild, about the prairies and the good old days, Jeb would carefully show Hermano the letters that made up the little words with his paw. So bit by bit clever Hermano learnt how to read from the Cowboy poet. What better teacher could you have in the world than a Cowboy poet, under a Wild West water tower in New York City?
There’s dust along the highway, but flowers across the prairie,
There’s singing in the churches, where they praise the Virgin Mary,
There’s drinking on the pack-trail, and fighting on the ranges,
And when the sun is sinking, they’re ringing in the changes.
But as they fight and work and die, and fry up all those fritters,
There’s friendliness and laughter and hope among the critters.
But one hot evening, when Hermano and Jeb were chatting together again just below the water tower, Hermano suddenly heard that strange knocking from above again.
“What’s that, Jeb,” whispered Hermano with a gulp, remembering the legends around those lost temples, “Is it a ghost?”
“No, Hermano. That’s Max,” answered Jeb Cowpaw, with a wink, “he’s a lobster.”
“Lobster,” said Hermano in astonishment, “in the old Water Tower?”
“Best place for him,” said Jeb. “ Max used to hang out in the live tank of Sardis’s Celebrity restaurant, waiting to be eaten. But he was about to serve his turn as the main course for a very important US Senator, when Conrad swooped in and stole the fair. But it was windy that day and so the bald eagle dropped Max and he fell through a break in the roof of the old water tower. Come to mention it, I must mend that hole. But he’s the oldest darn lobster that ever lived.”
“Ever survived,” said a grumpy voice, through the dripping ceiling above them. “I’m only twenty five, but that’s pretty good for a lobster in these parts.”
“Why, Max?” whispered Hermano.
“Food and over fishing, course,” answered the lobster. “I mean, you spend six years growing a body and a ravishing, knobbly Exo-skeleton around it too. But then what do the humans do but pluck you from the sea and pop you in boiling water to turn pink, so they can eat you, with lemon and egg mayonnaise?”
Jeb Cowpaw the groundhog whistle pig whistled and strummed his guitar knowingly.
“Agony,” said the lobster, “And because there are so many of them now, humans I mean, they just fish and over fish, and now we Lobsters are all tiny and rarely make it beyond three.”
This made Hermano rather sad and sorry for the lobster, though he couldn’t see him, indeed for every lobster around.
“They’re very clever mind,” said Max mournfully. “Humans.”
“Clever at making things, like lobster pots, or the old water tower. And the pipe that leads below it too and the faucet on the side, which if you turn the wheel, will let all the water out, so you can even clean it. Though luckily they won’t be letting any water out soon, with the drought and the new City water restrictions. It all works by Hydrostatic power though.”
“Hydrostatic power?” said Hermano, wondering what a drought was.
“Pressure. Just a fancy scientific name for pressure, with the water so high up. So I guess they aren’t as clever as Nature, because it really works by natural gravity.”
“Gravity,” said Hermano, thinking of the cat, “What’s gravity?”
“The unseen force between things, Hermano, which stops us flying off the earth, and makes the water fall to earth too.”
Hermano suddenly realised gravely this was the force that had made him fall from his Brazil nut tree and twisted his tail and killed his family. Gravity.
“Though clever humans have even gone into space now,” said Max knowledgeably from above, “and some are talking of living up there too. But they have to wear space suits, of course, to breathe, because everything really exists in its own element. Like Lobsters have to live under water. That’s why the key to life is always being happy in your own skin.”
To be continued….