Work Songs, Night Skies, and Animal Love

My husband drove me to Farmington, New Mexico, to look at laptops for sale in Best Buy. We contemplated buying one, debating whether we could spend the money right now. I felt pretty stressed out, and just wished I could have my long-gone, motherboard-crashed-and-was-irreparable laptop back. We left the store without a new machine, because I just couldn’t commit to the expense of a purchase.

In the car on the way home, I told Greg about a scene in my third Pterren book, in which Rafael must cook some river fish at a crude camp, and I needed a natural replacement for aluminum foil. “He guts the fish, leaves the bones and skin attached, places slices of pineapple into the flesh, then wraps this up before cooking the fish in the fire. As a soldier responsible for his own meals, he carries salt and pepper with him, but I want this meat to be tender, not dried out at all. Could he wrap the fish in yucca leaves? Would that keep the juice in the meat?”

Greg thought yucca leaves would be far too bitter. “Have him use banana leaves,” Greg said, since this crude camp is set in Central America. “The banana leaves wouldn’t leave the meat bitter.”

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Which I thought could work, and I thought about how South Indians use banana leaves as meal plates. Then I thought of that famous song, “Day-O,” or “The Banana Boat Song,” sung most famously by Harry Belafonte (who celebrated his 90th birthday this year, on March 1). So I started singing “The Banana Boat Song,” and thinking of those dock workers loading ships full of bananas, and in my mind I saw them in a heavy night rain, their shadows illuminated by old sodium lights, their fatigue immense, their eyes distant and sad, anxious for dawn, their voices painful and beautifully harmonious as they sang the callbacks together. The sound rose up and filled me, those straining men and their voices, as I gazed out the window and watched the sun set.

My eyes kept lingering on irrigation equipment, those giant contraptions that turn circles in fields, and as I looked over the farms on the mesa, I remembered taking a particular turn off this highway, fifteen years ago, and driving into those fields. I was a passenger beside a different man then, a man whose name I cannot remember, but he had met me in some chance encounter in Durango, and fallen in love with me, and asked me to come with him out to one of those fields, so he could show me “the most important thing” in his life.

Since I hadn’t been afraid of this man, I had said yes, took a seat in his pickup, and we traveled to the end of some dusty road, parked, and then crossed two empty pastures on foot. The air had been windy and cold, the earth hard with frost, the sky overcast with a storm moving in. The fields were jagged and barren, colorless in the dim haze of winter. We arrived at a wooden fence, which we climbed over, and then far in the distance, I saw a young bison, a goat, and a donkey running toward us. They traveled in a group, excited and happy, kicking up their heels and tossing their heads.

The man had tears in his eyes as he introduced me to his animals, which swarmed around us, eager for pets. We stood in that field for over an hour, petting them and watching them frolic around us. I wish I could remember the name of the man’s bison, and donkey, and goat, but they are as lost to me now as his own name. The bison’s head reached my shoulders, and he had the most beautiful dark eyes, with long, curling lashes. I was so enchanted by the delicate, humongous eyelashes of this buffalo.

american-bison-01

The memory stirred up another one, another time I had spent with a man and his most beloved pet. I had been in a different part of Colorado, about five hours north of Durango, staying in a rickety old hunting lodge way up in the mountains, one of those big open cabins lined with narrow cots, tiny beds with thin blankets and thinner pillows, where groups of men sleep before venturing off into the wilderness.

I’d gone up there to visit my friend. Her father owned the cabin, as well as about 2,000 head of Hereford cattle. Maybe the count was higher than that, I forget. And maybe her dad crossed his line with some Angus, and had some Black Baldies in his herd too, I forget that as well. It’s obvious what a poor memory I have.

My friend helped on the ranch, though she didn’t much care for the hunters who came in the winter and fall. She had a lot of colorful swear words for those guys, wealthy Californians and Rust Belt Hemingway wannabes who didn’t know sh*t about staying alive in the mountains, but wanted to shoot stuff with guns.

My friend shot stuff, that’s for sure — she had no tolerance for coyotes, and would fire shots at them whenever one appeared in the distance. I was nineteen then, she was around twenty-three, and it was mid-August when I went up to see her. I arrived on a Friday night, met up with her at a rodeo in town, and after the rodeo ended, I followed her pickup way into the mountains, to the cabin. We had the place to ourselves, and the cabin was cold that night, since we didn’t build a fire in the stove, but I slept hard and woke before dawn with my friend.

We cooked some bacon and eggs, and then we saddled her two favorite horses and went out for the day. I rode a dun gelding named Captain, and he was a good horse, very gentle and calm. My friend rode a chestnut mare who never flinched when we stopped to shoot at coyotes. My friend would drop the reins, grab her rifle, and fire a single shot, but she never hit one, and each time, the coyote would bolt away. Personally, I thought those coyotes were just f*cking with us, though I never told my friend that. Her hatred was fierce and she wanted those animals dead.

We rode around all day, sometimes coming in sight of the herd, but mostly just keeping off by ourselves, and in the late afternoon, I heard sheep bawling somewhere. I asked my friend if she wanted to say hi to the shepherd, and she said okay, so we searched around a bit and found his tiny trailer.

The man was happy to see us, and so was his Australian shepherd, a scruffy white and brown dog that circled the horses. Maybe the sheepherder was Basque, or descended from Basque sheepherders, or maybe he was from Argentina or Bolivia, I couldn’t say. He didn’t speak English, though he was friendly and kind and he let me play with his dog. His trailer was not large enough to sleep in, just a small steel trailer that could be hitched to a horse and deposited high on a mountainside, because we were right at timberline, barely in the shelter of trees. The grass was tall and lush though, silvery when the wind blew, and he had built a small fire in preparation for supper.

My friend wanted to get back to the cabin before dark, but I decided I wanted to stay and spend the night by the fire. She didn’t like that idea, since I hadn’t brought my sleeping bag with me and the temperature had already started to plummet, the moment the sun slipped behind the top of the peaks. I said I’d just sleep on the ground by the fire and meet up with her in the morning.

So she took Captain with her, and I played fetch with the dog until it was too dark to see the ball anymore. The man heated a tin of beans for supper, and he offered me some, but his poverty was too stark, too brutally apparent, and I couldn’t take what little he had. So I told him I’d already eaten, gesturing when he gave me a quizzical look. When he made a kettle of coffee for dessert, I drank a cup with him, and he tried to teach me a song I could never memorize the words to, but I could harmonize with him well enough. So I laid by the fire with his dog on my chest, which was the whole reason I’d stayed to begin with, to lay there with his dog, and we sang this Spanish song I could never translate, gazing up at the stars.

Sunset over mountains

Maybe he’d chosen a work song like “Day-O,” waiting out the cold dark until the sun rose again. I can’t remember if I slept, or if the sheepherder ever left me to check on his herd. He was there when I told him goodbye, and headed back to the cabin at dawn. My friend was cooking some eggs when I got there. “I thought you’d freeze to death,” she said. I just smiled and joined her for breakfast. We ate on battered tin plates, sitting outside on the cabin stoop, in the sun.

 

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