“Man is alone everywhere. But the solitude of the Mexican, under the great stone night of the high plateau that is still inhabited by insatiable Gods, is very different from that of the North American, who wanders in an abstract world of machines, fellow citizens and moral precepts.”
— Octavio Paz
The last lengthy writing I have to post on Oily Stuff in the series about early Mexican oil is not about oil at all. It is about a young man that worked for us on our little ranch long, long ago and a story he told me once about his twisted arm and a horse named Evita.
It was told in Spanish to me on a cold January night, by the popping of a mesquite fire and thru the warmth of tequila in a tin cup. My friend's name was Alonzo. Estaba muy lejos de casa... and the story he told me made the young man think of his mother. He wept.
Several months later I gave Alonzo money, drove him to Nuevo Laredo and put him on a bus to go home. I never saw him again.
I wrote this story, about his story, years later. It is important to me. It reminds me of an old Mexico that I have gotten glimpses of over my life, that I wish very much still existed and that I could wander in. Free and full of... hope.
The boy’s mother gave him bitter tea from yam roots and he slept dreaming of mountains with black birds soaring over tall trees. Sometime in the middle of the night she carried a candle into his room to feel his forehead and put another blanket over him. He did know she was there.
He woke when the old rooster crowed and laid in bed listening to his father and brother in the kitchen mumbling in soft voices. The sky across the meadow was just coming into clean, blue light and the air thru his window was cold and smelled sweet of Chamisa. Cattle bawled in the wooden pens near the barn.
He rolled under his blanket and his arm ached sharply as if the two halves of the bone were still trying to meet with each other but could not find their way. He moaned quietly so his father would not hear and closed his eyes to the hurt he knew another day would bring.
Three days ago when his mother was hoeing down in the field below the house he had taken the roan mare with the spots on her rump from the corral and threw a hemp rope over her sleek neck and sung a song to her he learned in the little church in the village.
The horse’s name was Evita, his was Alonzo. He rode proudly in front of his little sister, behind the barn and around the house between green lime trees.
Alonzo was the second son of a vaquero, his grandfather before him also a vaquero, su familia siempre vaqueros, his family always vaqueros. He sat the horse very tall.
His father had told the boy many times that she needed more work and to stay off her but Alonzo believed that if he could shorten the path from boy to man his father would see he was ready to work cattle and he would no longer have to stay home with clucking chickens and burros.
But a wind came across the meadow that made dry leaves swirl and with it a smell of bad memories for the horse. She jerked her head up, her nostrils flared, and she bolted thru the pine trees along the base of the grey talus slope. He clung to her neck and ducked his head, swayed with her back and forth like riding in the little charcoal wagon but the horse was fast and his arms too short and he fell hard against the base of an iron colored rock, his arm snapping like a stick over his knee.
When he sat up he heard the mare breaking brush and limbs ahead of him, still crazed with unknown things in her head. He looked puzzled at the hand below his arm bent to one side and the pain came over him like warm wind. His eyes fluttered closed. When he woke the sun was still high in front of the hill and he felt sick in his stomach.
He stumbled down to the field where his mother stared at him. He said he was sorry the horse ran away and asked why his hand was bent before blackness fell upon him again, his words bouncing off what seemed like rock walls in an empty room. His mother straightened the bone in his arm between two rails in the corral, wrapped it with thick, wet clay mixed with dried grass then carried him to his bed.
Alonzo woke when the sky was turning pink behind the hill and watched from the door as his father and brother rode toward the corral covered in dust, their shirts stained white with sweat, horses wet and blowing. The boy’s mother told the story while his father washed in the tub down by the well. He said nothing when he ate his supper of stewed meat and potatoes then went to his room to sleep.
That night a heavy rain came with streaks of bright light across the dark sky and deep thunder that shook the brown, clay walls of their little house. The next morning his brother looked for the mare in poor light but her tracks were gone, lost to soft, wet ground.
The boy lay in bed and behind closed eyelids he imagined the missing horse floating over puddles of dirty water like a ghost with black wings.
“Como es su brazo est manana, el hijo?” his father asked from the doorway, his grietas, his chaps already hung from his waist, his sombrero in his weathered hand.
Alonzo sat up. He could hear the crackle of mesquite wood burning in his mother’s oven and the smell of coffee, of sweet bread baking was strong in the thin, morning air. He had not eaten from the torment his arm caused him, his stomach groaned like a wooden gate on leather hinges.
“It feels like it is on fire inside, papa. I will look today for the mare; she cannot be far.”
His father looked at him with thin, drawn lips and eyes that said nothing.
“Yo le he decepcionado, papa. Lo siento mucho.”
“Have your mother make you food this morning, Alonzo; you must eat. Leave the horse to, Tino; I will send him home today from the arroyo seco to look in different country to the east. I want you to tend to the chickens and help your mother and sister with the goats today. Take the soap that I have left for you on the stump by the shed and rub the saddles and the leads the best you can, con un brazo.”
Alonzo, hijo mio, no debiste desobedecerme.
The boy thought he could feel the skin on his face fall away like melted wax and turned his head to stare at a blank space in air. Birds sang outside his window but the only sound the boy was aware of was the thumping of his heart and of the bones in his arm reaching for each other.
His father said nothing more, turned and walked down to the shed near the barn where his brother held saddled horses, his spurs raking large, flat rocks lying along the path. Alonzo's eyes became wet and hard to see thru.
He got out of bed and walked into the warm, woody smell of the kitchen, his mother looked at his arm with a kind smile and sat a mug of warm goat milk in front of him that tasted thick and made his stomach rumble again. His sister giggled. He did not tease her this morning as he sometimes did because his father’s words felt heavy on his shoulders like a wet coat. His heart ached.
“El padre esta enojado conmigo, mama.”
“Si, Alonzo, es verdad; he is angry. Para el le adora mucho.”
But the boy did not believe that his father could love him after what he had done. Since he was old enough to stand and see his father ride away he wanted to be the same as him, to be a good charro, to work cattle alongside his father and his brother. He had disobeyed and lost a horse, now today he was made to do the work of women, to pick eggs with his sister and milk stinky goats. His mother put warm bread in front of him with red jelly from the fruit of the nopales but he could only stare at it, his hunger disappearing like the sun behind blue clouds.
In the shed he sat in the hard dirt and worked the soap into the leather until it squeaked and was soft. He dreamed the way boys’ dream of high mesas with many cattle in front of him, the air clean and pungent from the flowers of the yellow lantana, of dry pine needles crunching under the bone colored hooves of his horse.
When he finished his work he walked up the path, the Husiache tree that swayed in the breeze above the house made the tile roof quiver in broken, scattered sunlight. Purple bougainvillea grew under thick window sills. His mother was mashing chilies into red, brown paste at the wooden table and his sister was sitting on the floor tying a ribbon onto her doll made of old shirts, humming to herself softly.
He asked shyly if he could walk down to the river and sit with his feet in the cold water.
Along the small stream there were tall cypress trees and he sat watching the water pass before him on its way down to drier land and places he did not know of. He stared at his brown feet shimmering in clear water. The clay around his arm was hard and under it his skin crawled like thousands of trapped ants; he wanted desperately to break it lose over a rock but didn’t as he could not bare his mother being angry at him also.
The boy remembered the cracked, sun beaten face of his grandfather and the long walks they took not long ago, before God came and got him and took him away to a place where Tino said he could see far with his old eyes and always ride good horses. The water of the river gurgled softly and he watched leaves float by until he fell into a heavy sleep.
Across the river the horse blew and the boy sat up, startled at first, confused about the sounds he heard in the short journey between sleep and real things. She was looking at him, the hemp rope still around her neck. He stood and she jerked her head up and blew again. He picked his way across the shallow stream.
“Donde le tiene estuvo?” the boy asked.
She shook a fly from her ear and the boy thought that was likely the only answer he was going to get. He put his hands on her soft nose and all along her grey neck down the strong fiber of her withers, across the white spots of her rump, under her belly to her legs, one at a time. There were large sticker burrs in the stringy hair of her mane and he picked at them.
“Es usted bien, Evita, usted hermoso caballo?” he asked softy.
He kneeled before her and she lifted her head so that he could see the reflection of the cypress tree across the river in her brown eye.
She smelled the clay around his arm and rubbed her head along his face and across the top of his black hair. The boy believed it to be her way of asking for forgiveness that he too sought. He smiled and began to sing the church song to her again. He felt as though small birds beat their wings inside his heart. This he knew was the start of trust that happened only between man and horse. His grandfather spoke of this trust as though it grew from the inside out, like thick trees. They were both born for the same purpose, Alonzo thought to himself, this horse and him, their lives braided together like the rawhide reata used to catch wild cattle.
“Para siempre,” he said aloud. Forever.
The horse picked her head up and blew again, softy, as if to say she knew also.
Up in the canyon shadows grew deep and a raven cawed. They plodded slowly back across the river together, the boy in front of the mare, the frazzled end of the hemp rope skipping across the stream.
Behind them between limestone rocks the horse’s hooves made a sucking sound in soft silt and the water swirled in muddy circles.
I was very fond of Alonzo. When his father died he left home to walk north to Texas and work for his mother and sister. He wired them money every week after he got paid. Because of Alonzo, Tino was able to keep the ranch and most of the stock.
Alonzo thought he was in his mid to late twenties, but wasn't sure. Even with his bad arm he was strong as a bull; there was nothing he could not do around the ranch. In the evenings around the barn I would often catch him singing soft songs to the horses.
My Spanish is very poor but a large part of my heart will always be in Mexico. Thank you for your patience. I pray for Alonzo and his family occasionally, particularly on cold nights.
I am almost finished here; two more coursery posts about Mexican oil and we're done.