My, but how pleased the artist vagrants were to see Hermano back at the old Water Tower, even Colonel Black, but Pepe and Alfonse, Lenno, Seamus, Rumi and Walpole too.  So much so that Jeb Cowpaw took up Cowboy poetry again and strummed his old Guitar. But Hermano was very sad and worried now, because as Buzzy had led him back to the closed bookstore he had seen garbage all over the streets of New York, blowing like tumbleweed in the hot wind.

“Thought we’d lost you to the darn City, boy,” said Jeb that same evening. “The Urban Jungle. Darn good to have you back again. Though something’s up, Hermano.  Or down, among the rats. The city animals are really frightened now.”

“Vladimir,” whispered Hermano nervously. “I met him at Pier 54. But there wasn’t any great writer there at all, or white whale either, and everything has changed, Jeb. Perhaps it always does. Now it’s just the Municipal Garbage dump. It’s like your stories of the Wild West, not being quite right. And I don’t think great great grandpapa ever came here at all, or made friends with a human being either.”

“He didn’t, partner?” said Jew Cowpaw sadly. “Heck.”

“No, Jeb. People don’t tell true stories at all. It’s all just a lie and we all die too. Even become extinct. X. Like one day the sun will go out.”

Jeb Cowpaw looked rather guilty as well.

“But what do you think the rats want, brother,” asked the Cowboy poet, “the dirty rats, I mean?”

“Terror,” whispered the spiny tree rat sadly, “somehow they want to spread terror, Jeb, and fear and mayhem throughout New York City. Someone should stop them.”

“Sounds dangerous, brother,” said the cowardly Groundhog with a gulp. “But can’t the humans do it?”

“They don’t notice anything anymore,” said Hermano, feeling ashamed of his friend, “always on their smart phones, and IPads, on their Laptops and Game’s Consoles. I doubt they’ve even noticed the Municipal strike. But it’s hopeless anyhow. I mean, it’s not just the garbage on their own doorsteps. It’s what they do with that anyhow. Plastics and poison, landfill sites and destruction. How can they ever clean up?”

“Recycling,” said a grave voice above them.

“What?” said Hermano, jumping slightly.

“They have to learn recycling,” said Max the lobster from inside the Water Tank, who was feeling rather hot and pink, “like us lobster scavengers. First they have to find ways to eat up all the nasty stuff, I find delicious. Then how to re-use the harmful stuff they throw away too, so they don’t just make more and more and more of it. Cut down on all that packaging, as well.”

“Yes,” said Hermano, wondering if with all the humans it was possible, “I guess they do, Max.”

“But they won’t really wake up until they realize that we’re all going the same way, Hermano, and that we’re all recycled in the end too.”

“We are?” said Hermano.

“Sure,” said the lobster cheerfully, “and eaten too.”

“Eaten?” gulped Hermano in horror.

“Of course,” said Max the lobster more gravely. “I mean, even if we don’t get eaten in life, on the Sardis’s menu of existence, we are all going to die eventually, and then something else will eat us, make use of us, even if it’s just the soil. We’re bio-degradable. Cruel but fair.”

“Not if you believe,” said a voice, as Rumi’s head popped through the hole in the tower peering through his spectacles, “Believe in God and Eternal Life, I mean. The Afterlife.”

Inside the water tank Hermano could not see Max frown, but Hermano thought of the ants and grandpapa Raoul. Now, like a light bulb coming on in his head, Hermano realised what the ants had been doing, recycling his dead grandfather. It made Hermano feel strange and even dizzy.

“And since we’re all going to die, Hermano, what’s the thing above all that we should do when we live?” asked the Lobster from above.

Hermano could not answer, because he had just pushed passed Rumi and set off alone through the City, and as he went he grew more and more frightened of meeting Vladimir again. But above all Hermano found himself missing Hermione bitterly. It was as if he wasn’t himself without the pretty gerbil and he wondered if he could be happy in her gilded cage after all. But Hermano was thinking of what the lobster had said of everything dying and being eaten one day, despite Rumi’s words, and it seemed so horrible, so terrible, as again he thought of what the ants had really been doing in the rainforest, it made everything seem darker and sadder and lonelier.

At last Hermano reached the Zoo in Central Park, where Vladimir had said he lived, and looking about for the boss of the rats, hearing the whooping, hooting birds in their cages, and the bark of wild dogs, the ceaseless call of caged animal, he saw the strangest beast he had ever seen. It was part cow, part horse, with spindly legs and the longest face below its horns, hanging with a wispy beard.

“Woof,” said the creature mournfully, “it’s hotter here than even in Botswana.”

“Botswana, Sir?” said Hermano.

“Where I come from, my good friend, in the mighty continent of Africa.  I’m a wildebeest and I’m a very long way from home indeed.”

“Me too,” said Hermano, “I come from the Amazon. I’m Hermano. It means brother.”

“Lots of animals come to America then,” said the Wildebeest, nodding. “And the World is getting smaller and smaller, all the time.”

Hermano nodded too, thinking of that Virtual Reality image of Earth through Mr Sugarbug’s strange VR goggles. Just seeing it seemed to have changed his knowledge of everything, or his thoughts about it all at least.

“But they don’t like us anymore,” said Hermano, “with their wall and their borders and their Customs Officials.”

“No,” said the Wildebeest sadly. “It’s terrible.  But so very Human too.”

“So very human?”

“Countries and flags and words,” said the Wildebeest, chewing his leathery lips thoughtfully. “Even names. They create the borders, when they aren’t real at all.”

“Not real, Sir?”

“Not in Nature, Hermano, or among animals and plants. I mean, does a tree know it grows in America, or Botswana, or Brazil? Does a plant or a flower? No, they just grow and are. They live and flower. And when a bee collects pollen and flies to the hive, does in know it might be crossing a human border?” said the wise wildebeest. “When a beautiful Brazil nut tree sends its roots into the ground to drink, does it know they might be passing a human checkpoint?  And if the birds and the bees stopped flying where they wanted, how could they pollinate the plants and flowers and make beautiful things grow?”

“I don’t know,” answered Hermano sadly, thinking the wildebeest very intelligent indeed and realising that then everything really is connected somehow.

“No, it’s Humans who like to build and make and own so much stuff, who do that,” said the African Wildebeest, “and make it so unnatural too.  Look at my proud little country of Botswana. There they’ve put up lots of fences now to stop something called Foot and Mouth, and so we Wildebeest and our Zebra friends can’t migrate anymore, or get to our water holes, so we’re dying. CRASH. Did you know that two species are made extinct every fifteen minutes?”

“I’m sorry,” said Hermano, thinking of his poor family too.

“So am I,” said the wildebeest gravely, “but they just can’t stop it. It’s partly fear. So they go on trying to be better than everything else, or living in taller buildings, or bigger cities, or getting ahead and growing richer and richer, with all their progress, getting more and more stuff. When they should just go for a walk in the forest and remember how beautiful it is just to be alive and be.”

“Yes,” said Hermano, thoroughly agreeing and wanting to be walking in the Amazon again.

“And their Walls.  Did you know that in America some of them hardly even know about the rest of the world?  I mean only 5% even have passports. But boy it’s hot, I could do with a drink, or a shower.”

Hermano felt sorry for the poor Wildebeest and thought he deserved a place among the vagrants, below the water tower. But he went on, sort of keen to find Vladimir. Which he did, at the far corner of the zoo, near the Polar bear enclosure, among another huge pile of garbage.

“Little brother,” cried Vladimir, with a smile as he saw Hermano. “I heard what happened with that pretty chick Hermione. Tough call. Though can’t say I’m sorry. But I see you’s come to join us after all.  To be a dirty rat. A true city criminal. I’m proud of you, Son. Good job.”

“No,” said Hermano softly though, “I’ve come to stop you spreading mayhem and terror everywhere, Vladimir.”

“Stop us,” cried the rat, with a laugh, “and how is a spineless, snivelling, cowardly little out-of-place autistic Amazon tree rat ever gonna stop the ruthless rat gangs of New York?  We’re all united now, under me, and sharpening our teeth too, in readiness.”

“Sharpening your teeth?” whispered Hermano, trying to fathom their plan. “But why?”

“Never you mind, son,” said Vladimir suspiciously. “Unless you’re with us now.”

Hermano shook his head.

“Haven’t you got the nuts to be a dirty rat then, Hermano?  That’s why you lost the girl.”

“I….” whispered Hermano, missing Hermione even more and feeling very spineless indeed, but with that two of the rats jumped on Hermano and beat him mercilessly with their paws and tails.

“Get lost,” cried Vladimir coldly, when they were done, looking at Hermano’s now badly blackened eye, “You haven’t a home anywhere.  You’re not even worth the name of rat. Spineless.”

Hermano was too small to fight them, and off he ran again, feeling utterly miserable and totally ashamed. Although he was on the ground anyhow, Hermano felt as if he was falling and falling, far further than he ever had before, and would never stop. Perhaps he was a spineless coward after all. Hermano didn’t have the courage to fight Vladimir, or save the world, he didn’t even have the courage to love Hermione and everything that lives is going to die anyhow, one day. Night came in over New York City, and then a day and another night, as Hermano wandered along alone in the terrible heat and now huge tears began to well up in Hermano’s brown eyes again and out they came, pouring down his long nose and dripping off the end.   Hermano thought of all the terrible things that had happened to him, as he went he knew not where. He thought of his falling tree and his murdered parents, of all the trees being cut down in the Amazon, and the vagrant animals too, and the wise Wildebeest as well.

He thought of those two great ships, the Lusitania and the Titanic, that had never even made it to Pier 54, and all the people lost inside them. The world seemed a terrible place indeed, nothing but evil, and now the weight of all those tall buildings seemed to press down on the little tree rat. But fighting any of it seemed utterly pointless. Besides, Hermano was thinking of something his cousin had told him, that he was just garbage. As he went, and slept in doorways, Hermano looked into the windows of those cafes and bars and restaurants and everywhere he saw humans eating, consuming things, and stuffing their faces with food. Then the tree rat began to notice some of the humans living on the streets, in alleys and in doorways too, and they didn’t look rich and well fed at all.   Hermano saw animals as well, scrawny dogs and cats, mice and rats and even a fox, which seemed to have been beaten like him, and so had two black eyes.  It seemed that somewhere there was always something suffering, or losing out.  Hermano suddenly felt the whole city was like a wheel, or an elevator, and to get anywhere you had to be on it, but that the gap between up there and down here was becoming impossible.

Hermano also noticed that the black rats were all out on the streets, openly now, and that they had started to gnaw at the human wires running everywhere, if you notice them. But with the strike of the New York Garbage, Fire and Sanitation men, there was no one to stop them at all.  Not that the other humans seemed to mind, because they went on as ever locked in their machines.  Yet wasn’t it true what Mr Sugarbug had said about it being better that there was a Virtual World, if the humans were set to destroy the real one? As he thought it Hermano realised that the world isn’t black and white at all, but that every story seems to have another side, but if that was true, what was the Truth?

Hermano hardly cared now though, even if he thought that he guessed Vladimir’s plan. But why stop the rats anyhow, why not destroy everything, since it would be destroyed in the end anyhow, especially when the sun goes out, in five billion years?  Everyone was a liar, everything out for itself, and stories were lies too, especially hopeful or heroic ones.   As the hot tears went on falling and falling, it was as if Hermano had been blinded, or saw in his own unhappy tears only images of anger and fear, loneliness, cruelty and hate. But always there was Vladimir too, laughing cruelly at him, whose face seemed to turn into Cartel. “You’re garbage, Hermano, just trash and rubbish.”

Then suddenly on a street crossing one of New York’s great avenues Hermano bumped into a shivering little creature. It was a red squirrel, but it was tiny and looked much the worse for wear, having been attacked by grey squirrels in New York and its tail had almost been bitten off, like that human’s leg in the story. It look petrified.

“Get out of my way, trash,” snarled Hermano and with that all the fear and hurt and anger at the rats welled up inside Hermano and he delivered the little red squirrel such a box with his spiny snout that it went sprawling across the side walk.  But as the little creature went flailing there Hermano heard a voice in his head, old Raoul’s kindly voice, talking to him still: “Remember too, never harm anything less than yourself, Hermano, and that if you strike, you must always strikes upwards, even as high as the stars themselves.”

Hermano felt bitterly ashamed, as night came in once more, that he had struck the little creature. He desperately wanted to be with Hermione too, and thought of her saying perhaps they had a connection. Then Hermano realised that if Yage had told him everything was connected, like those other poor animals, Hermano felt connected to nothing at all. As a hot wind blew down the hard New York pavements, it brought a terrible fear to poor Hermano. Worse, it brought a Terror. Hermano was utterly lost.

To be continued,,,

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