The owl swooped in a silent, loping arc from one edge of the cliff to the other. I stood on a weathered rock, nearly at the edge of a precipice that dropped thirty feet straight down to the shattered boulders below, then trickled softly the last few hundred feet to the Rio Hondo, whose cascading waters raised a familiar sound in my ears. In each direction, to the left and right, the edge of the cliff described a parabolic curve, encompassing a small amphitheater in the face of the rock under my feet. Small, because the vastness of the Rio Grande Gorge was but yards away. But even here, in this relatively small side canyon, where the rock felt small enough to be home, it was immense, like the chamber of a cathedral, silent, pulsing, alive with secrets.
It was evening. The last sherbet rays of the sun had struck the orange-red rocks obliquely over an hour ago, but warmth still crept up from them slowly into my hands and feet. I held my breath and peeked over the edge. I could feel the tension climb through my toes, up along my left ankle, into my calf and knee. Dangling my right leg behind as a counterweight, I flexed the muscles in my hips and lower back like a bowstring, agonist and antagonist, holding my body still in space. Traveling the tiny increments of my spine, like a staircase, the tension finally gave way as my neck drooped forward and beheld the world below. Straight down. The owl was perched in an impossible locale, accessible to me only by eyesight. The rocky earth in front of my eyes was also at the tail end of the direct line of gravity plying at the bones and sinews of my inner ear. My brain, receiving these conflicting signals, grew anxious, and my sympathetic nervous system plummeted into action. Flight. A wash of gray.
The day before, Silke and I had taken the children to Farmer Ron’s, a sprawling estate in La Villita, about an hour south of Taos. A biodynamic farmer who grows heirloom corn, raspberries and blackberries, seed onions, and dozens of apple varieties, his is the sort of genius that thrives on simplicity and self-sufficiency. His leather shoes, which he makes by hand, are plain and purposeful. His turkeys, while beautiful, also prey on grasshoppers. But best of all is his tricycle, a custom-built vehicle he fondly calls the “triketor.” Powerfully constructed of a reinforced steel frame, it has the capacity to haul hundreds of pounds of tools, grain, or, in this case, children. By means of a lever at his side, he can drop a plow on the underside into the earth and, by manpower alone, plow and cultivate his fields.
After arriving at Mer-Girl Gardens, Ron’s farm, we had had a quick snack with the children in the grass, under two massive willow trees who were beginning to leaf out. Afterward, as we followed Ron to the chickens and turkeys, the children ran eagerly up to the fence. “Hey!” I shouted, as Pema and Griffin took hold of the fence, whose plastic netting I knew held embedded wires for electrification. “Don’t touch the fence!” I yelled, a little too late. I wasn’t too concerned, as I’ve been zapped by these fences dozens of times and I knew it would give only a warning dose of current, but I want these kids to learn how to identify these kinds of things, and, to be honest, I was a little worried they would trample the fence, which is rather flimsy. “It’s okay,” Ron shouted, waving his hands, jogging jauntily from around the bend, apparently on his way back from the battery terminal. “It’s off.”
Inside the chicken pen, the kids took turns overfeeding the birds with handfuls of blue corn - corn Ron had grown last year, and which we had helped harvest in the fall. The chickens, stuffed to the gills, looked curiously at each child’s outstretched hand, then walked away contentedly. “Today,” Ron shouted, above the gobbling turkeys and clucking hens, and the giggling children who were dodging between apple trees, just beginning to blossom, scavenging for loose feathers. I’m not sure anyone was paying attention. “Today,” Ron shouted again, “we’re going to make BD solution and spread it in the fields.” I picked up a handful of corn, passing it back and forth in my palms to listen to the tiny, hollow sounds of the kernels rolling gently against each other. “It’s basically cow manure,” Ron went on, mostly to the other parents who had come with us that day. I started walking to the distant edge of the fence, where I saw several apple trees in full bloom. On the way here, I had seen a wild apricot blossoming along the Rio Grande and was on the lookout for just such an opportunity. I wanted to fill my nose with the bouquet of blossoms for the first time this spring. Taos, at a much higher elevation, was just barely waking up from winter. “Fermented cow horn…” I overheard Ron saying in the distance, “…the light of the moon…a homeopathic dose.”
The owl, never yet leaving the empty space carved in the stone cliff, had moved behind a craggy rock, no longer visible. Even before, in the shadow light of dusk, it was nearly impossible to make out gray black feathers amongst gray black stones and even blacker incisions and cracks. Everything was turning into shades of the same inexpressive color. Other senses, more subtle than mine, would be required in the coming night.
As I retreated from the ledge, crawling up the sloping embankment, I took in the old house that had drawn me here. In the waning light, no moon yet, the abandoned building and encompassing yard, full of old, broken tools, bones left over from coyote kills, and shards of glass from vagrants like myself. It was the peak of withered, aloof majesty. The depth of landscape was quickly receding into the flat, two-dimensional spectre of night’s silhouettes.
An old adobe with a pyramidal roof, the house is visible from many places where I live. I often catch a glimpse of it while on a walk, and wonder. Who had lived there? Of all places, there? But it is not easily accessible. Perched on the edge of a steep cliff, on the far side of the Rio Hondo, far from any other house, it marks the very end of the advancement of humans into the empty corridors of New Mexico, at least here in Hondo. Beyond lay the gorge, a vast wilderness of rock, water and empty space. Even the house’s nearest two neighbors, both crumbling adobes, are abandoned.
The house is by no means impossible to walk to, perhaps two short miles from my home, but it’s not a place one would happen upon. The path is circuitous, requiring a walk back up the river, across the bridge, up the hillside, trampling across several “Private Property” signs, under the seclusion of only the occasional juniper, hopping fences old and new, until finally one comes to an old dirt road that leads, safely, away from everyone else. Otherwise, one has to ford the river and scramble up three hundred feet of scree and cliff. Either way, it takes a certain intention, perhaps a little bit of pluck.
“Do you know that house?” I had asked a friend, many moons ago. “I want to go there some day.”
“I’ve never been there,” she told me, looking at me uncertainly. We were on the mesa, overlooking the Hondo valley below. Perched on the edge of the cliff, on the far side of the valley, was the old house, its distinct pyramidal roof raising a flag in my mind. Having lived in Hondo for over a year, I had seen the house from many vantage points, and it beckoned me. I was patient, but a little shocked when my companion, who has lived in Hondo for nearly thirty years, informed me that she had never once set foot there. Never?
It was a cheerful, sunny day, but I could see that my friend had some hesitation as she spoke. “I was told it was an old Bruja’s house, like La Llorona or something. Do you know that story?” My expression bloomed with incredulousness, and she quickly added, “I’m sure it’s just a story to scare kids.”
Walking back to the garage of Mer-Girl Gardens, I turned the corner and saw the kids, Silke and two parents stirring water in plastic buckets with knobby sticks. “Make sure you mix it counterclockwise, like the sun,” Silke was saying over the tumult of the children, who were stirring frenetically. I had run to the car to put away some of the kids’ jackets, as it was now quite warm. Silke stood, her black and slightly graying hair falling straight down like shafts of wheat from under her wide-brimmed hat. Stirring slowly with her long wooden stick, she set an image in my eye, comically offset by her bright pink shirt, which was, no doubt, an acrylic and polyester blend.
Surveying the scene, I took up one of the sticks the children left unattended, and began to stir. Farmer Ron, who was now bringing out three giant plastic tubs, red, yellow, and white, had placed a heavy sack of dry corn, still clinging to the cob, in our midst. “Take an ear,” Ron said, showing the kids. “You just sort of rub it against the grain, and,” as the kernels rained down, clacking and knocking in the empty tub, he looked up, pleased. “We can make tortillas later.”
“Oh, wow,” shouted Griffin, as he pulled an ear of corn from the sack, covered in blue and purple kernels. “Hey, look at this one!” responded Wolfie, who held an ear, translucent and green. Soon all the kids, ever eager for the next thing, had largely abandoned the swirling buckets, except for Alaia, who clung to her mother. I knelt on the ground, stirring the water mindlessly in my bucket. Peering down, I saw that I was stirring clockwise, what felt natural. Damn. I reversed direction and hoped no one noticed.
As the kids rubbed off the kernels of corn, vying for space over the tubs, I looked back toward the house and saw, to my amusement, that all five buckets were now tended solely by adults. I looked back into my bucket, about a third full with mostly clear water. At the bottom was a handful of silty something, which, as I stirred more, then less, vigorously, didn’t seem to be dissolving or mixing in remarkably well. Which way does the sun go? Does it go counterclockwise? Wait, that doesn’t even make any sense. Silke was purring softly in her singsong voice about the “merry bagpipes of the shepherds,” and two of the parents, having listened at length to Farmer Ron describe the preparation of the BD solution, were debating the orientation of the cow horns when, stuffed with manure, they were buried in the ground last fall.
What kind of hocus-pocus was this?
An old power line, no longer in use, approaches the old adobe, then drops to the ground, lifeless and flaccid. I could see this from a distance, along with the old slanted fence posts and a few remaining posts and beams of what must have been a hayloft. A dilapidated old shed sits nearby. Ominously, the grass and shrubs that cover the ground everywhere in Hondo end a couple hundred yards from the house, so that it is entirely surrounded by bare earth. Not even sage grows there.
Old, crumbling adobes are common in New Mexico, where land is ample. When houses fail or become old, people don’t waste time tearing them down. They just build a new one, or simply abandon them. Since the old houses are largely made of earthen bricks and wood, they slowly disintegrate back into the earth like a huge pile of compost. One sees buildings like this everywhere, even right in the middle of thriving towns and villages. They’re so common, in fact, most of us take them for granted. But they all have flat roofs.
As I approached the house for the first time, I recalled my friend’s comments about La Llorona months ago. I don’t believe in spirits and fairies, but stories are powerful, and I could feel this one echoing in my bones. “Do you know that story?” she had asked me. “Yeah…” I had answered, noncommittal. “Like a witch, right?”
“Sort of,” she had answered.
Hopping the last fence, I saw the edge of the barren landscape only yards away. The boundary, as I came upon it, was so narrow I could straddle it with my legs. On one side, the bleak, grassy landscape common to New Mexico ambled on, unchanged, for miles. On the other, an empty field of windswept dirt, black and brown, piled up in small dunes. I knelt down, running some of the earth through my fingers, a prayer of sorts. Naked and dry, the earth poured through my fingers like sand through an hourglass.
The boundary where I stood, to my surprise, was an old ditch. “So they did have water,” I thought, overlooking the empty fields. The Acequia Atalaya, a surface ditch, diverts water miles above, near the source of the Rio Hondo in the mountains. As it trickles down the high ground above the river, it feeds water to the houses on the north side of the valley. A similar ditch, the Acequia del Llano, from which we get water at New Buffalo, runs on the south side.
A couple hundred yards away from where I stood, I knew, the tail edge of the Atalaya plummeted off the cliff in a waterfall to rejoin the mother waters of the river below. That is, if any water made it this far. The ditch only runs in the summer and fall, and even then it usually dries up well before it makes it down here. The mayor domo, the manager of the ditch, is my friend and neighbor. He’s also the father of Ruby, who plays with Pema and me many days a week at New Buffalo. We’ve talked at length about that ditch.
Stepping over the old channel, which the owner would have filled with water diverted from the mother ditch, I envisioned an expanse of alfalfa, crisp and juicy, the patch of corn they must have had, and the small vegetable garden for squash and beans.
“La Llorona,” my companion had told me, “is an old Spanish legend. I think it dates back to when the Spanish first came to America. Maybe earlier. Anyway, the woman is jilted by her husband, who leaves her for a younger woman. In her sorrow, she drowns her children and herself. It’s a very sad and bleak story. La Llorona, the woman, is asked at the gates of heaven where her children are, and she is sent back to the earth, crying wretchedly, in search of her dead children. The name, Llorona, means something like wailer or moaner, and kids are often tormented with stories of her haunting the night with shrill cries.”
I walked into the cornfield with five kids and a bucket of BD solution, which I now understood was basically fermented cow dung, stuffed in a cow horn - not a bull’s horn - and buried in the ground last fall with the tip of the horn oriented toward the sky in order to align with the energy of the moon. Okay. Why not? The kids had basil “wands” in their hands, and we were going to walk the field and lightly sprinkle the soil, ostensibly adding microbes, but also a little blessing. Sure.
“Just don’t sprinkle any water past the fence,” I said, dryly, as we walked into the field.
“Why not?” asked Autumn, one the kids. I had drawn all girls, no surprise there.
“Looks like a graveyard over there,” I answered. “We don’t want any of those people coming back to life.”
Little Bear, who had already crushed her basil wand three times, requiring me to continually give her a new piece from my small bundle, reached into the bucket absentmindedly and flicked the water, which landed right on my face. Jesus. Playing it up, I acted like an old silent movie character, straight-faced and purposeful. I’m going to get you back. But she ran away before I could return the favor. Everyone giggled. Then Advah, dipping her wand into the bucket, flung the mixture wantonly into the air, her fluid motion unwittingly scraping drops of wet, fermented cow dung all over my shirt and hat. This was great fun. Soon everybody was at the game, and, making the best of it, I resisted it as if the devil stung by holy water.
“Come on, guys,” I shouted, “We’re not supposed to be blessing me. I’m already spiritual. Look at me.” Striking a pose, I tried to indicate how good I looked. “We’re supposed to bless the field,” I continued, moving forward with the bucket. ”Come one. Get with it.” Dodging the flinging wands, I advanced slowly into the corn field, which was full of pyramidal stacks of corn stalks from last fall. We progressed down the first row, the bucket of cow shit sloshing in my hands. “Get out of here!” I shouted continuously, chased down by five fairy girls with wands.
We made it to the end of the field. The ground, surely, had received some of the sprinkles and I figured that was good enough. “Okay, let’s go down this row,” I said to the girls, skipping a couple, because at this rate it would take us all afternoon. “Hey! Pema! Away from that cemetery!” As we came back down the row, Ron turned the corner. His bucket was empty, and, presumably, his field was done. How the hell…?
“Hey Joe!” he called out to me. “Oh,” he said, noticing the contents of my bucket, and, pleasantly surprised, added, “Pour some of yours into mine. You’ve got plenty.” I poured half of my bucket into his as he asked, “Did you do it methodically, so you get a little bit all over the field?” Methodically? Hm. I wouldn’t exactly put it that way. “Well,” I answered, “I’ve just been going up and down the rows,” which was a lie, because I hadn’t even made it back to the other side yet. “But we’ve only done this much,” I said, indicating with my hand the sliver of the field we had done so far. By now, one of the other parents was marching into the distant corner of the field, flinging the potion with aplomb. This was great.
Ron headed in the other direction, flinging merrily. The girls and I continued down the field, more or less in the same manner, till the girls bored of it and ran off to the corner, where they started pulling at one of the pyramidal stacks of corn. I was now alone with my bucket of shit in an old corn field. I love school. Silke came into the field, yet another bucket in her hands. “Children,” she said, humming softly in her singsong voice, and they immediately followed like ducks. She sprinkled the last few drops of her serum onto the field and, with a wordless exchange from Farmer Ron in the distance, set about removing the corn stalks from the field. Within seconds, the kids were off like ants, marching back and forth with giant bundles of stalks on their heads, following the invisible scent lines of their sisters. The whole field was active. I looked at the water in my bucket, the silt at the bottom. “Hollyhock, eh?” Farmer Ron said, approaching from behind, flinging a bit of water with the frond of a corn stalk. He had given up on the basil too. Excellent. “Oh yeah,” I answered, looking down at the hollyhock, whose firm stalk and fig-shaped seed pods I had found somewhere midfield. “The basil sort of wilted,” I said, “But this guy,” and I shook the hollyhock firmly, “stands up to the work.” Ron nodded approvingly.
I stood overlooking the empty bowl of rock near the abandoned house. After perusing the scattered contents of the yard and house, I had returned in a loping arc, as if drawn to the spot. Whoever lived here, I thought, they must have come here often. It’s so peaceful. Suddenly, it dawned on me that this was the terminal of the acequia, where the water plummeted off the mesa down to the canyon below. The house, whose ruins I had walked through moments ago, as the light of the advancing moon pierced through holes in the roof shingles, had three small rooms. The first, the kitchen and main room, was full of scattered debris, crumbling adobe bricks, an old stove, a jawbone from a horse. The roof, whose dormer window was shattered and collapsing into the roof beams, still held awkwardly above my head. The walls, scored with messages from teenage boys of the last several decades, were white, and there was the distinct ammoniac odor of a rat’s nest. La Llorona didn’t live here. People lived here.
Absorbed by my thoughts, I knelt to peek over the edge of the cliff once more. No one had died here. They eked out a life for years, probably decades, then moved on when things dried up. Their energy. The water. Children leaving the house. I stood up. It would have been hard to live here, and surely there were a great many tears shed here, tears of joy and grief, beauty. Suddenly, a cold hand fell on my shoulder. Instinctively, I flinched, first forward, then backward. I was not alone.
“Give me some of your hair,” a voice said. It was my companion, the same one who had told me of La Llorona months ago. Quietly, like an owl, she had swooped in silent crescents from the house to the shed, to the old root cellar, the pile of scavenged bones and shards of glass, now back to the edge of the empty space once more. Like me.
“Hair?” I said, returning to my senses.
“We should leave an offering,” she said.
“Yeah, but…hair?” I said, smiling. “That’s how people bewitch you. We can’t leave hair.”
Moments later, on our way home, we crossed the threshold of the old ditch. The air was dark, and I had put a sweater on to break the chill. I could no longer make out the grasses on the other side, but I could feel them as my foot struck the ground. My friend, who had a bag of dried apple rings, a gift from her mother’s orchard, had handed me a piece as we walked back home through the barren field. I held it in my hand, soft and leathery. Silently, at my waist - I didn’t want her to notice - I broke the ring, tearing a section off the supple fruit, breaking the circle. With one hand I put a piece to my mouth, all innocence, just chewing a snack here, while with the other, invisible in the darkness, I let go.