Tug of War

I dug the heel of my bare foot into the clump of fresh grass in front of me, hoping to anchor my strength into its tender roots. The acequia, just a few yards to my right, was running deep with snowmelt, and a healthy crowd of men, women and children stood beyond. They laughed innocently as one of them, my neighbor Sol, broke free of the crowd and ran to the aid of our opponents. “Slick move,” I thought, but I couldn’t waste energy on words. My body was taught, inclined at an angle that, if I wasn’t pulling fast against the rope, would otherwise have been impossible. In front of me was the pool of mud. Behind, eight other men and women (including Sol’s three-year old daughter Ruby) pulled with me as our opponents, now reinforced, took up the advantage. Easter. I wore my best shirt, pink and yellow, with khaki pants.


“What’s a tug of war?” Pema asked me as we painted eggs one night at Silke’s house. Francis and Ruby were with us, and each of us had our place around the kitchen table, an array of colorful paints spread before us. Eggs, in varying stages of completion, sat in little silver cups. “Do you have a rag?” I asked Silke, nervously attentive to the children’s drips on her handmade wooden table. She looked at me with an expression bordering on annoyance. “Did you know I had to wear an apron to school every day in the village?” she had told me earlier, as she passed out aprons to each of us. She had been kneading sweet bread in advance of our arrival, and her plain kitchen apron, with grease stains and patches of dry flour, was modest and to the point. The children, who received aprons of canvas and old colorful scraps, were delighted. Then she handed me my apron, her belly jiggling with a little snicker. Utterly immaculate, it had the figure and outline of a women’s negligee. “I always hated that,” she continued, “How come the boys didn’t have to wear aprons?”


“I’m gonna pull,” Ruby said, her tone dry, matter-of-fact, as she slopped purple all over an egg, the silver cup, and the table, whose wooden boards kept sneaking out from under the newspaper, smiling, as if to spite me. “I just want to watch,” Pema answered. Then, looking up from her egg, dappled pink and white, she asked again, “Dada, what’s a tug of war? Will there be, like, warriors there?”


Pema, now five, is old enough to have the haziest sense that people sometimes fight. Her mother and I aren’t shy about the truth, but the complexity of nations and armies and the violent history of war is, of course, not something Pema has enough context to understand. It’s all a story to her, as of course it is for me.


“Well, Pema” I began, “a tug of war is a game. It’s not a real fight. There won’t be warriors. It’s supposed to be fun.”


“So long as the adults can let go and be silly,” said Silke, a twinkle in her eye.


“Basically,” I continued, “there’s a rope. People get on either side and pull. Sometimes there’s mud in the middle, sometimes not…”


“Oh, there should definitely be mud,” said Silke.


“Anyway,” I ended, “the point is to pull the other side into the middle, the mud or whatever, and then you win.”


“I’m gonna pull,” Ruby said again, dry as a bone. Francis, smiling brightly, clapped his hands, splattering blue paint onto his face, the table, and my skimpy negligee. “Geeze Louise,” I said, rolling my eyes. “Francis, let’s go wash your hands.”


Everyone erupted in laughter when Sol ran to help the losing side. Me too, but I was too focused on winning. “I know that you’re all going to feel a bit shy!” I had shouted earlier, announcing the advent of the tug of war, “So I’m going to provoke you a little bit!” I like the taunting and banter of sporting. I like losing too.


We had all had a good meal. Most folks were relaxing outside as the kids, like the water in the acequia, ran between our feet. Along with the lambs and turkeys, someone had brought their kid goat, a pygmy, who dodged between us and scooted inside as occasion allowed. “Hey Joe,” Bob, the owner of New Buffalo (my landlord) had said at one point, pulling me aside. “The goat is in the Buffalo Room.” “Oh. Shit. Okay, I’ll get him,” I said, running inside with a smile. A couple folks were getting food from the kitchen, but not a single person was in the Buffalo Room. The goat, sniffing around some wooden chairs, had the place all to himself. He looked over his shoulder as I entered, then returned to his business as if he didn’t have a care in the world. I walked up slowly from behind and laid my hands on his belly. I had seen the owners scoop him up earlier. He’d walk right into your arms like a puppy.


With the goat firmly under one arm, I headed back outside, where I spied Kerim, one of my housemates, in the distance. He and Brant were wandering back with the pony they had borrowed from next door. A child I didn’t recognize was up top, riding on its back, and two others followed on foot as Kerim slowly brought the beast back to the congregation. A few stragglers were headed that way too, returning from the labyrinth where Bob, a seventy-eight year old retired doctor, brimming ear to ear, had been sprinkled with water as a blessing from the children.


“Children have a deep way of knowing,” Silke had said in the labyrinth. A few parents had begun to reign in their kids when the sprinkles became splashes. Finger-flicks had turned into cupped hands and those of us circled around the kids and Bob in the center were now receiving abundant doses of blessing. “We always have the choice,” Silke continued in a firm, but relaxed tone, “to walk away from moments like this with discomfort.” It was a gorgeous day, and a huge swath of green grass lay at our feet. “We also have the choice,” she said, “to fully receive the blessing of the children, the joy that they bring into our lives.” Letting go of the need to moderate their children, the adults in the inner ring relaxed and, like Bob, who could hold the blessing of too much water, a goat in the living room, and bare feet trampling the muddy grass, we sat and witnessed the innocent expressions on the children’s faces as they splashed us with cool spring water.


“I am the strongest man here!” I boasted, calling on all the men in the crowd. “Now, let me be clear!” I added, “I mean that physically - I am physically stronger than all of you.” And I meant it. I held the crowd with my gaze for a moment, puffing up my chest in my pink and yellow shirt for effect, and then continued. “But I also mean that my will is stronger.” I was laying it on pretty thick. “Because I’m not afraid to stand here and call you out, to look a little stupid, or,” and I reached down with my fingers into the mud, “of getting a little mud on my shirt. After all,” I said, wiping my fingers on my pretty blouse, “I wore my Sunday best.”


“Pull!” a woman shouted hoarsely on the opposite side. With Sol now on their team, we were losing ground an inch at a time. Laughs and smiles were spread across the crowd as, stepping from clump to clump, I tried to keep as fast a hold as I could against the earth. My feet were getting dangerously close to the mud.


The evening before, Silke had come by to visit. We dyed eggs, real ones this time, and did a few things to get ready, but mostly we just enjoyed the time with the kids. As the sun was setting, we stepped outside to spray down the mud pit. “I’m going to scout out a location for the puppet show,” Silke told me, ambling away toward the pond. “Hey there, buster!” I shouted playfully at Ruby, who was inadvertently splashing water all over my legs and bare feet. “Keep the hose on the mud,” I said, “It has to get real wet and sloppy.” “Watch it, buster,” she gave back, ending with a belly full of laughter. Francis, feeling the playfulness of our exchange, smiled and clapped his muddy hands. Pema, anxious to hold the hose, clamped onto my leg and asked with a whine, “When’s it going to be my turn?”


“I found the perfect spot,” Silke said as she returned from her walk.


I nodded my head hurriedly, then shouted, “Ruby! Keep the hose on the mud!”


“Oh, yeah,” she replied.


“Oh, and I meant to tell you,” Silke told me as she drew by my side, “I found a woman who plays the harp. She’ll dress like a fairy and play under a tree while we eat.”


I cocked my head and rolled my eyes. Silke and her fairies. “That’s hilarious,” I said, shaking it off. “Have you noticed how easy this is?”


I could feel the rope thinning as we pulled harder, the individual threads twisting and snapping. There was no question we were losing ground. Even as we soaked the pit the night before, and again that morning, I had the sense that it would be me slopping it up in there. That was the whole point of the pink and yellow shirt.


Suddenly, to the accompaniment of boisterous laughter and shouts of approval, another one of the fathers broke free from the crowd and came running to our aid. Stepping in front of me, he took hold of the rope with both hands and, with a vigorous cheer, we started pulling the other side back.


“Look,” I said, as I paraded in front of the crowd moments ago. I may have been boasting, but I was also serious. “You can walk away today, neat and tidy, and you’ll have a good chuckle. It was a good party, blah, blah, blah. You’ll be happy you came, and your kids will have a few eggs to take home. Great. But if you join us on the rope, if you take the risk, I promise that you will remember this for the rest of your life.” With that, I took up my position in front of the mud pit.


A few men and women came down and picked sides. Ruby took up position directly behind me. Then Sol came outside with a plate of food. “Oh!” I shouted, “Just happened to need something to eat right now, huh?”


“And I want to challenge all my strong sisters!” Silke shouted. “These games are important not just for the children and the men. Stand strong with me and show your kids that we too have courage and strength.” And she took up a position opposite me.


“Damn!” I thought. I hadn’t expected that. A few weeks ago I was playing with the Earth Children, Silke’s outdoor kindergarten, when several of the kids had taken up the rope in a challenge to best me. At first it was just a handful of scrawny kids, but pretty soon most everyone was geared up for the fight. Seven or eight kids pulled heartily against me, but I’m not just boasting when I say that I’m strong. Besides, these were five and six year-olds. I dragged them around the yard repeatedly, till some of the children began placing benches and rocks and anything at hand on top of the rope. Then one of them set down a large box, giggled, and stepped inside. It was Esperanza, the daughter of the man who, bursting from the crowd to a round of cheers, turned out to be my savior at Easter.


Taking the cue from Esperanza, the kids piled whatever they could find on the rope and sat down, eyeing me confidently. “Alright,” I said, once everyone was in place. I wrapped the rope around my hands, and pulled. Then I yanked and heaved. But the weight was too much. The rope stretched, but we didn’t go anywhere. The kids cheered.


“Okay, okay!” I shouted, not to be outdone by a bunch of kids. “You’re right that I can’t pull the rope any more, but that doesn’t mean you won. The point of tug of war is to pull me across to your side. This is just a stand still.” I’m not the kind of adult that lets the kids win. They have to beat me. I’ll also maintain, when presented with the clear fact of my loss, that actually I won. I’m very loud, and, when worst comes to worst, I have no hesitation to declare my opponent a cheater.


“He’s right, children,” Silke said, coming up to our game. “You can’t just sit on the rope. You have to pull.” The kids, who follow her lead like eager puppies, or, shall we say, pygmy goats, got up again and took their positions on the rope, but not without complaining. “That’s not fair,” Esperanza said, resigning herself to her new position. Now that’s my kind of game.


Set squarely against each other, I was about to handily defeat them once again when, to my delight, Silke grabbed the rope. Keeping her back to me, she began marching in the opposite direction. “But that’s no way to hold the rope,” I thought. Then she shouted, “Children, you all have to pull at the same time!” And then, as if Samson lost his hair, my feet slid across the desert floor, scampering eagerly for a foothold. But there was none. It was as if my feet were on melted butter.


“Pull!” the woman shouted again, now quite hoarse, on our opponent’s side. Our losing march had been reversed and Sol, who had initially been the savior, was now on the front line of the mud pit. “Keep going!” I shouted, as I saw Sol’s feet creeping within inches of the mud. “Keep going! Keep going! Keep going!” The crowd of children and adults watched, eyes and feet riveted, from behind the acequia. I could hear the occasional gasp of expectation or nervous laughter.


“Ahhh!!!” I shouted victoriously as we dragged our opponents into the mud. Sol, nimble as the goats in his herd, managed to keep his footing, but then Silke and another was in the slick brown clay and a feeling of jubilation spread into the moment. We had won. But then, as suddenly as he had come, Esperanza’s father let go. The other side never stopped pulling. Neither, to my surprise, had Sol or anyone slipped or fallen in the mud. The tension in the rope never let up. “Ruby!” I thought, as my feet slipped back toward the mud pit, “You’ve got to keep the hose on the mud!”


Later that evening, I climbed out onto the edge of a cliff overlooking the Rio Grande Gorge. I was on top of the world, yet hidden. After a long weekend of hosting and bandying about, I was finally, deliciously, alone. That is, except for Silke, who had brought her bundle of sacred objects, including a silver egg that rang with mysterious workings inside. As she arranged her bits and bobs, I leaned back against the warm rock and was instantly reminded of the caked mud, still clinging like little pebbles, to the back of my shirt. Pink and yellow and brown. Easter.


Paris, the beautiful, but somewhat cowardly, archer in Greek mythology is often portrayed as a bit of a dilettante, a dandy. In Homer’s Iliad, he shows no sign of the real courage and honor that men like Menelaus and Diomedes have, men who fight face to face with drawn swords, and never hesitate. Yet Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, the daughter of Zeus, escapes from Menelaus, her husband in Greek Sparta, to elope with Paris, famously causing the Trojan Wars. And it is Paris, after all is said and done, who, with the help of Apollo, kills the peerless Achilles. Wimpy Paris.


I sat up and brushed off my pink and yellow shirt. I wouldn’t have changed my clothes for the world, but I would recline comfortably. “You didn’t really win,” I said, leaning back. “In fact, the way I see it, it’s sort of like I won twice, first by winning, then by falling in the mud. Sort of a double win.”


Silke rolled her eyes at me, then smiled. The sun was getting low in the sky, and a comely pinon tree, its roots coiled like muscular arms clenched against the rock, gave us a bit of shade. The sound of roaring water trickled into our ears from the river below. Suddenly, as if to remind us that we were on the top floor of a thirty-story building, a black vulture rose from the unseen depths below, only inches from the edge of the cliff and my bare feet. It soared, motionless, on a column of air five-hundred feet deep.