“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.”
“Oh,” said Hermano, his spines tingling strangely and remembering what Cartel had said of his not being happy in his own skin.
So there they went on living up below the old Water Tower. Yet as Jeb Cowpaw told his stories and wrote his Cowboy poems, Hermano began to notice something else – inconsistencies. For a start, one day a pigeon dropped a little grass snake on the hot, flat roof, but which made the groundhog jump and bolt back to his Water tower in terror. So Hermano wondered how a groundhog that was afeared of snakes could have been a famous Snake wrangler back home. Then there was that great wagon trek way out west, that in a different telling, when Jeb had drunk some hooch, spoke of how it had gone completely wrong, and the wheels on the wagons had all fallen off and half the animals had died of thirst.
Then the native American racoon Lenno, who overheard Jeb Cowpaw talking one day, told Hermano of how the Western pioneers had been bad and not heroes at all and had killed so many of the Native American animals, to steal their home and trees and land. Hermano was very shocked indeed. The raccoon also described a terrible war among the humans, after that thing called Independence, that had killed many animals too, between the North and the South of the country, over the fact that some humans had kept others as slaves, and little better than animals. Hermano thought it sounded like the great lost civilizations of his home, the Incas and Aztecs and Maya.
Then, one evening, Hermano met a very superior Miner bird, or rather saw him. Because the old fellow landed on the edge of the roof, but refused to mix with the neighbourhood, although he had clearly been here before. Instead he kept looking at them all with disgust and making a noise that sounded like “Grunts.”
“Why, that’s Colonel Black,” explained Jeb Cowpaw laconically, when Hermano asked who he was. “A Veteran of the skies. Very proud and superior old East Coast sort of bird, is Colonel Black. He’s old school and thinks America is just going to the dogs.”
“And is the Colonel an artist too?” asked Hermano.
“Not a bit of it, partner. Colonel Black hates artists, much as vagrants. Thinks we’re pointless and just take up space. But I wouldn’t bother trying to talk to the dude, Hermano. He’ll just ask you if you’re paying your taxes, which you can’t if you don’t earn any human money, and go on and on about the Founding Feathers too. Military type, you know. Though he sure is grizzly.”
“Founding Feathers?” said Hermano.
“The birds who got together years back to write an Animal Constitoootion, about how all the animals in America should behave properly and really work together. Very self-important is Colonel Black and always going on about defence too, and Mastery of the skies being key. He’s particularly suspicious of Rumi and his kind, although he believes in God too.”
“Crap on them all from a great, big height,” cried the Miner Bird suddenly, peering out at the skyline and at the pavements far below them. “Damned filthy pigeons. Flying rats, if you ask me, taking over our God damn marvellous City. Like all these damned animal immigrants, and artists and vagrants.”
So there Hermano was, safe if a little unsound, with his strange new artistic neighbours, up there in Jeb’s Way-Out-West Water Tower. Hermano was happy for a while, but we all miss home soon enough and soon Hermano was thinking of the Amazon all the time, and of Yage and Che and even cousin Cartel. Hermano wondered if they ever worried about him, or wondered what had happened to him and how, since he had been FedXed to New York City, quite by mistake, he might ever get home again. Hermano had quite forgotten his mission to ask the human who owned the Amazon Depository to stop cutting down his trees and making a hole in his rainforest. Forgotten about Raoul’s father’s book too. He was growing rather depressed again too, because frankly now Hermano didn’t believe half the tales that Jeb, or the others told him about the past. While it seemed far too difficult to be an artist in New York city.
Then one especially hot evening, when all the animals seemed to be melting, just like the sticky covering of the roof the old water tower stood on, Hermano was sitting outside again, feeling more confident about going near to the edge and taking off that label of Vertigo, when Rumi wandered up.
“And what you looking at, little brother-brother?” asked the Middle Eastern hedgehog softly.
“That great human statue, Rumi,” answered Hermano mournfully. “Lady Liberty. She’s very beautiful, Rumi. Like some great idea. But not as beautiful as the river. As Nature herself.”
“The Hudson river,” said Rumi, his little eyes sparkling and nodding, “and I wish we realised that all around the World, although there are different languages, and different beliefs too, we’re all united by the beauty of Nature, little brother-brother.” The Middle Eastern desert hedgehog sighed wistfully and blinked through his spectacles thoughtfully.
“Rumi,” said Hermano, “isn’t it true you wanted to be an Artist once too, but now you don’t anymore. Why?”
“Because how can anyone make anything as beautiful and true as what God has made all around us,” answered Rumi seriously.
“And you don’t seem very happy here, Rumi,” said Hermano softly, wondering if God even existed.
“Oh, I am, my brother, I am. But they don’t like immigrants these days, especially not vagrants. They don’t think we’re really all brothers and sisters at all. And they love putting labels on you, and trying to put you in a box.”
Hermano thoroughly agreed, thinking of how he had been labelled with vertigo and on-the-spectrum Autism and sent to New York in a box.
“It’s all this Terror, I think,” said Rumi sadly.
“Terror?” said Hermano and Rumi sighed.
“When bad humans from my land attacked the City once, from the skies. They say they did it in the name of God, Hermano. But that’s silly, because how can anyone know what God thinks, who thinks of everything? But here they won’t forget.”
Hermano looked out nervously at the skyline and the surging streets below them and wondered if it might happen again.
“Still, we shouldn’t talk about sad things, Hermano,” said Rumi, more happily. “Just look at the glorious evening then, and the sunset too. There, over the pier. There’s God in that Sunset all right, my little brother.”
“Pier?” said Hermano though, his spiny ears pricking up sharply.
“Down there along the great Hudson river, Hermano. That’s Gansevoort Pier. It’s where I arrived in Manhattan, before I escaped. I’ll take you if you want, Hermano. Hermano?”
Rumi looked around in the boiling hot evening, but Hermano had vanished.
To be continued….