“When are they supposed to get here?” Jake asked impatiently, eager to meet the girl who was “like” him.
It was a cloudy Monday morning. We were all doing last minute chores and clean up around the farm so as to be free to visit with Molly and Jeremy when they arrived. Jake and I were just finishing reorganizing the tack room in the barn when it started to rain. The months between last snow and first rain are usually the driest of the year, stretching from March to July. But here we were with an unexpected rain in early May.
“Oh man, I hope they're in a four-wheel-drive truck,” Jake commented as we stepped outside to look up at the sky. The clouds were heavy, but not a solid blanket across the sky. It wouldn't last too long.
“Molly said she'd call and tell us when she leaves Albuquerque,” I said, moving back under the roof of the barn. “When she does, I'll warn them to stop out by the paved road and go pick them up with the truck. I'm sure they'll be driving Molly's little Honda. Wow, it's really coming down.”
We stood under the barn's overhang and watched the late Spring rain alternate with popcorn hail as it fell all around us. It couldn't have come at a better time for me.
I had been rotating my herd of cows for the past two weeks and had covered about a fifth of my pasture land. The paddocks where the cows had been were thoroughly trampled. The ground was heavily littered with cow piles and old, scattered hay smashed into the dirt. The seed I'd sown the year before was bruised and ready to open. All I needed was a bit of rain, and here it was.
“We're done here. I want to go over and check the herd,” I told Jake.
“On your land?” he asked. “In the rain?”
“It'll slow down,” I said, looking out into the open parking area in front of the house. “Look at the sun behind the clouds out there.” I pointed with my chin like Grandpa does.
“What about Molly and Jeremy?” he asked. I could tell he was half-inclined to go with me.
“Watch the phone for me, would you?” I asked. “If they call, make sure to tell them to stop out by the road.”
“Okay. You're obsessed with that land, you know,” Jake said, knocking my hat forward on my head. Then he turned and ran for the house, hunching his right shoulder and lowering his head against the rain. I watched him, smiling, and then turned back into the barn to saddle Roy.
“It's not an obsession,” I told Roy. He politely turned his ears backward to listen to my explanation. I draped the saddle blanket over him and turned away to lift my saddle off of the railing beside us.
“When you have something valuable, something beautiful and productive, you love it and care for it. You want to watch it grow and flourish.”
Roy blew through his nose and turned his head to look at me. Then he filled his lungs with air in anticipation of the tightening girth strap.
“Money—now that's an obsession. That's like piling up the manure a little higher every day, counting turds as they accumulate. No matter how much you collect, it won't ever be more productive, beautiful, or capable of giving pleasure. In fact, after a while it's going to stink to high heaven and make you an unpopular cuss. Unless—” I kneed Roy lightly in the ribs and he let out his captured air with a whoosh. “—Unless you spread it around on something more valuable. Which of course, in the case of manure, would be land; something that can reproduce and give you pleasure. That's what a pile of manure—or a pile of money—is good for.19”
Roy obligingly dipped his head for me to pull the bit-less bridle over his ears and then turned his head to press his nose against me for a moment.
“You're an affectionate old fellow,” I said, and held his head against me gently. “And a good listener. What do you say, Roy? Are you game for a walk in the rain?”
Roy followed me willingly to the open end of the barn. I mounted him there, waiting under the overhang for a few minutes until the rain paused and lightened to no more than a steady drizzle.
“You're right,” I told Roy, “it's beautiful out here.”
Beyond the open area in front of the house, we took a trail through the pines that would lead us to my land. Here, there was hardly any mud, since the ground was covered with a thick layer of pine needles and leaves.
The trees sparkled with rain; they were more resplendent in the trillion reflecting drops of light than any Christmas tree could be in drugstore tinsel. The forest world was reflected in each drop, backwards and upside down, like innumerable views of the same observable truth. Each droplet portrayed a different perspective of the same event. I looked around, feeling privileged to experience such a well-recorded moment in time.
A yucca plant stood by the path, it's curved, spiked leaves opened outward to catch and preserve every single drop of moisture that fell within it's grasp. Most of the desert is like the yucca, careful and conserving of all that it receives.
Roy walked on in silence, and I didn't urge him to move any faster than he felt inclined. There was time enough and plenty to enjoy along the way.
I was trying not to think about Molly. Jake is the one who enjoys working with an unwilling horse someone else has ruined with a heavy hand. I'd rather start with a horse that trusts me and enjoys being with me—like Roy. Not that Molly was anything like a horse. However, even with people, I like peace and interaction that goes both directions.
If Molly doesn't want to live this life, I'm not going to hurt either one of us trying to make her change her mind.
I nodded my head in agreement with my own decision. But, the problem was, I didn't know how to let go of the hope that Molly might like life on the farm.
Roy paused on the edge of the ridge that looked down into my valley. The cows were laying in the sunshine, chewing the cud with their eyes half-closed. The clouds had parted and the yellow-orange light lit up the valley with saturated colors and strong definition. It looked like a painting by some famous Taos artist. Then, true to New Mexico beauty, a rainbow appeared in the eastern sky, vivid and brief.
“If she could see this,” I said aloud. Roy turned his ears backward again, ever the polite listener. “If she could see how it is out here, what she's missing. . .”
The fences were fine, the cows were fine, and it was afternoon, so I rode home again. I'd scarcely entered the yard when T-Rex started barking. I rode Roy up to the gate and looked down the road. There, trudging through the mud, with a broad smile on his face, was Jeremy.
“Jeremy!” I said in surprise, and slid off of Roy to open the gate.
“Ah—thank God. I'm at the right place,” Jeremy beamed, holding his hand out in greeting. “Will, my friend, we're stuck in the mud about one mile back down the road.”
“You're stuck!” I echoed. “Is Molly—?”
“Oh, she's in the car, waiting. She only had, uh, what do you say—slippers? I told her to wait.”
I'd forgotten how big Jeremy was. He was built like a basketball player, with wide shoulders and strong legs, standing well over six feet tall.
“Did you call? Man, I'm really sorry about the mud, we were going to warn you when you called.” I closed the gate, and noticed my family was coming out onto the porch.
“Ah, yes. Sorry about that. Molly wanted to surprise you. I guess the joke's on her, hey?” Jeremy laughed and I walked with him to the porch, leading Roy behind us. Ramona came down the stairs, and Jeremy bobbed his head in greeting to her.
“Hi Jeremy,” she said and reached out for his hand. “We'll take care of your shoes, sorry about the mud.”
“Oh, don't worry, I come from a place that is either very dry or very muddy also. It is so beautiful here, Will. You are a very blessed family to live here. So beautiful!”
Jeremy's wide gesture seemed to imply that our family was beautiful as well, and Mom smiled, coming down the steps to greet him.
“I'll go get Molly,” I told the others, and left Jeremy in good hands. As I rode through the gate, I looked back and saw Ramona watching me go. I waved to her and she lifted her hand in return and then turned up her thumb as if to say, “good luck.”
This time, I made Roy trot, and he was not too pleased. The road was muddier than the forest trail. We stayed on the grassy edge of the road as much as the tree branches would allow. The mud wasn't nearly as bad as it would get later in the year, during the summer monsoon season. The reason for this is that the soil is almost pure clay.
When Uncle Lonnie wants a new tobacco pipe, he digs up a shovel full of clay by the road, wets it down, and shapes himself a new pipe. Then he fires it in a bed of hot coals, and glazes it with pine sap. No need to buy potter's clay.
Soon, I saw the Honda slid over sideways in a rut. Molly's white face stared at me in surprise through the windshield. I rode up beside the car and leaned down. Molly looked through the open window at me and her mouth was a little round ‘o' again.
“Hi,” I said, realizing belatedly that Molly'd probably never been on a horse before. Her blue eyes looked both excited and frightened. I wondered what I had been thinking to come out here on Roy.
“Am I. . . are you. . . how. . . hi,” she said in a small voice that trailed off into silence again.
“Well, hi there,” I laughed, responding to her last word. Molly's lips curved into a smile until she laughed as well, hesitantly at first and then with real mirth. She shook her head and red braids with curly ends flew back and forth over her shoulders.
“You. . . you look like you rode out of a Western,” she said between giggles, covering her mouth to control her laughter.
“A Western?” I repeated incredulously. She nodded and burst into a peal of laughter again. I sat up in the saddle, perplexed, and looked into the forest over the car. Roy heaved a big sigh and shook his head. Molly leaned out and looked up at me, still giggling.
“Well, little lady,” I said in an exaggerated cowboy drawl, looking at her beneath puckered brows, and touching the brim of my hat, “I happen to be the re-al thing.”
Molly's laughter completely fell silent and she blushed scarlet as she withdrew into the interior of the car.
What the heck? I leaned down again and peered into her window. “You in there? What's up?” I asked.
“I wish you'd stop doing that!” Molly exclaimed, holding her face in her hands.
“Doing what?” I asked, dumbfounded.
“Making me blush!” Molly wailed. “I turn red so easy, it's not fair!”
“You're the one that started it,” I pointed out. She didn't answer or appear in the window again, so I turned Roy around and backed up next to the car.
“Do you want a ride out of here, or what? I can go home and get the truck if you're scared of horses.”
“Ohhhh, no!” she said, suddenly appearing in the window again. “I'm not scared of anything!”
I slid my boot out of the stirrup and reached out my left hand. “Put your left foot in the stirrup, and give me your left hand,” I advised with a reassuring nod.
Molly complied, stepping up to balance on the sill of the car window and give herself more height. She hesitated for a moment, crouched in the open window, and then leaped with a little too much effort.
Roy is as patient a horse as you can find, but Molly's sudden and unexpected landing took him by surprise. He lunged forward and tried to bolt down the road, bent on getting away from whatever had attacked him from behind. Molly shrieked and grabbed me around the waist and I, with unchecked mischief, took a few seconds longer than necessary to calm Roy down and bring him back to a walk.
After the first shriek, Molly was silent, but her grip on me didn't lessen. Roy flung mud up into the air with his hooves and it rained back down around us. Before we came into sight of the farm I had Roy calmed down again. Molly took a deep breath and sat up, loosening her grip on me.
“Is this a wild horse?” she asked in tight, little voice.
I laughed and shook my head, “No, this is old Roy. He's the calmest, gentlest horse on the farm.” I reached out to rub Roy's neck as his ears flicked backward at the sound of his name.
“Oh,” Molly answered, subdued. “Oh—is that your house?” she cried, leaning out around me. This startled Roy into a trot again and I heard Molly's teeth snap together with the jarring motion of the trot.
I pulled Roy back into a walk and we rode the rest of the way in silence. I wondered, belatedly, if she'd be afraid of riding now. I should have told her that Roy was the wildest bucking bronco in the west.
“Hi, Molly!” Ramona called out, and left the porch to help Molly dismount. As she slid off Roy, I saw Molly's face was white and there was mud in her hair. She did not glance at me again, but gingerly made her way across the wet dirt and gravel to the porch.
Dang it, I should've taken the truck. What was I thinking? I sighed, and rode toward the barn, leaving Molly on the porch with my Mom and sisters. They began to sympathetically help her pick the mud out of her hair.
“I'm a fool,” I told Roy, as I pulled off his saddle and bridle. He pushed me with his nose, letting me know he'd earned a treat, and not to forget it. “I know, I know,” I grumbled. “Girl's will make you act crazy, Roy. It's a good thing you've got no use for them.” This made me laugh; Roy is a gelding.
“What's funny?” Jake asked, coming into the barn behind me.
“Roy's funny; he's telling me jokes again,” I said. “Are Molly and Jeremy inside with the folks?”
“Yeah. Hey, she's nothing like me! You got mud in her hair, you know,” Jake added, grinning with mischief. “Mom's helping her wash it out in the sink.”
“What's Jeremy up to?” I asked, studiously rubbing Roy down while he ate his oats.
“He's going to go with Dad to get their car. He said to tell you.”
“Oh, okay. Let's go.”
Jake and I left the barn and found Dad and Jeremy in the truck waiting for us. We swung ourselves into the truck bed, and I slapped the side to let Dad know we were settled.
Pulling the car out was no trouble at all, but it took a little time. Dad and Jeremy were talking, and I wished I could hear their conversation. Dad loves other countries and cultures and Jeremy seemed happy to tell his story.
Jake and I jumped out and chained the car frame to the truck. I started to get into the car, to put it into neutral, but realized the inside was perfectly clean - and my boots were not. So I sat in the seat, pulled my boots off, and swung them up onto the hood in front of me. Hopefully they'd stay on there all the way home. Then I got in and steered the car in my socks.
My boots made it home, along with Molly's Honda, and Dad and Jeremy got out, still talking. Jake and I joined them on the porch.
“So how did you preserve meat? Or you said you ate mostly fish? Did you have a way of preserving it?” Dad asked Jeremy.
“Ah, yes. My grandmother builds a fire in a long trench, yes, very long, like so. . . (his hand gestures implied the trench could be as long as twelve to fifteen feet) and this burns down and becomes the black coals. Over this trench we put a frame made of wood with a, what do you say—a rack?”
“Like a grill sort of?” I asked.
Jeremy agreed, continuing,“Yes, yes, but of wood. They are small straight branches. Then my mother lays the fish on this grill, and the smoke and heat dry the fish. We keep fish a long time this way. It's very good, very delicious.”
Jeremy's face was strong and expressive. He'd never been this outgoing or talkative in Albuquerque when I first met him. I was glad he felt at ease here. He seemed to sense my gaze and turned to smile at me, his teeth flashing bright white.
“You're so lucky, William,” he said, using my full first name. “There is so much peace here.”
“Is there no peace where you are from, Jeremy?” I asked. His smile faded and he sadly shook his head.
“There is not much peace anywhere these days. Much war, famine and disease. My home is the same.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Africa has many valuable resources,” Jeremy explained, opening his hands as though to reveal those resources to us. “There are diamonds, oil, gold, even a mineral that is rare and used inside of cell phones. There are people who want those resources. But, the people of Africa are weak, and typically, not very wise.
“So, the powerful entities fund revolutions. They put guns in the hands of bad men and say ‘make the people leave this area' or ‘enslave the people to work this mine and we will pay you big money.'”
“Why do the people do it?” Jake asked. “Why would they go against their own people?”
“They take rascal boys from the cities to villages that are not their own—not their people. They feel no loyalty and they want alcohol, drugs, power. They are easy to buy.”
“What about in the rural areas?” Dad asked. “Can you leave the cities and settlements and go into the wild areas again?”
“Ah, like the little bushman?” Jeremy grinned. “It's hard. People always want to take away what you have.”
“But if you go further. . . where there is nothing anybody could want? Is that possible?”
Jeremy nodded, but his forehead was wrinkled with thought. “It's possible. But not so easy. Think if you never went to town again, and if you had to live off the land only. The wild land in the north is very dry. This area is returning to desert due to poor land management. If you do find people there, they will be Muslims and they do not like Christians. Also, imagine if there were lions and hyenas hunting your animals. It would be a hard life.”
We were all silent, imagining such a scene. I looked out at the pines and remembered my ride to the land this morning. It is peaceful here. We have a few mountain lions, but the one Clementine killed was the first I had ever seen in my twenty-three years. The bears are small and shy and don't bother anyone. The land is dry, but still fertile enough to support us.
“So it is still better in the cities, better to suffer the disease and danger?” Dad asked at last.
Jeremy hesitated this time, and slowly smiled, saying, “Now you have me thinking. I used to know more than I know now.”
“Grandpa says that,” Jake interjected in surprise. “Is that an African saying?”
Jeremy winked, “Apparently, it is a New Mexican saying. I would like to meet your Grandpa. Where does he live?”
“He lives with us, in a cabin down in the valley,” Dad answered. “Why don't you go see if Grandpa can come up and join us for dinner, Jake?”
Jake left, and Anna came outside, dragging Chizzy behind her. She stopped in surprise when she saw Jeremy. I realized that she had probably been taking her nap when he arrived. He smiled at her and she cautiously wandered closer, looking up at him.
“I'm five,” she announced, holding out five fingers.
“That's pretty old,” Jeremy answered seriously. “You can probably do a lot of things now that you are five.”
Anna surveyed him in silence, pulling on one of her brown braids as she considered his response. Anna always has a very definite opinion of strangers. Either she likes them, or she doesn't.
She took a cautious step forward to lean against Jeremy's chair. She looked up into his face and tilted her head from side to side as if she were really studying him.
“Why are you black?” she asked curiously.
“Because God likes to color,” Jeremy answered affably. “Do you like to color?”
Anna dropped her last bit of reservation on the porch floor with Chizzy and put her hands on Jeremy's knees.
“I can color a giraffe!” she announced. “Jake drew a giraffe for me and I colored it pink. He said it was the wrong color. But he wouldn't draw me another one. Can you draw giraffes, or elephants, or lions?”
“Where are the girls?” I asked Anna when she stopped for a breath.
“They're curling Molly's hair,” Anna answered, her eyes never leaving Jeremy's face. “Her hair is red. God colored it red, I guess. He colored mine brown. Do you like brown?”
Curling Molly's hair? I wondered. Could it get any curlier?
Susanna burst through the door, her eyes shining with excitement, but she didn't say anything. Ramona followed her. Although her glance also carried anticipation, she didn't say a word either.
Molly came next, and I almost stood up in surprise. She smiled at me nervously and giggled, swinging her head from side to side.
Molly's hair was down; shining red ringlets fell all around her shoulders. A braided leather band I'd made for Susanna held it back from her face. She looked so different and so vibrant, I was speechless.
“That's lovely, Molly,” Jeremy said pleasantly. “I've never seen your hair before.”
I still couldn't say anything. I wanted to, I was just too busy looking.
Mom followed Molly out and replied to Jeremy, “After we washed her hair, she let us set it for her. What a wonderful head of hair!”
“That is nice, Molly. Do you not usually wear your hair down?” Dad asked.
“No, never!” Molly exclaimed, looking very self-conscious. She leaned against the porch railing, still occasionally turning her head, and consequently, her curls, from side to side. “I never knew what to do with it,” she said. “It was just a huge, frizzy mess my whole life.”
“She didn't know that curly hair should not be brushed,” Mom explained.
“I didn't know that either,” Dad replied. “Is there a science to curly hair? And how do you know it? Your hair is straight, Meg.”
“Well, you know, my parents had foster children when I was young,” Mom answered, sitting down on the porch couch next to Dad. Molly dipped her head forward, swinging her curls up to cover her face, and glanced at me through them. I wished I could think of something to say.
“We had several foster children that had very curly hair—curlier than Molly's. A case worker told my mom, Grandma Welling, how to care for curly hair.” Mom explained.
“It's nice,” I said at last, awkwardly turning my hat over in my hands.
“Do you like it?” Molly asked shyly. I was acutely aware of my family members watching me, and felt my face growing warm.
“I do,” I said. “I. . . I like hair.” Then I grimaced, wondering what had happened to my intellect since Molly's arrival. Susanna twirled in excitement and went on to describe the whole process.
“First we washed the mud out and put conditioner in her hair, because it was too dry. Then we rinsed the conditioner out, but not completely. Then while it was wet, Molly sat in a chair while we made the curls, one at a time, with our fingers and combs. They dried just like that and will stay just like that because her hair is naturally curly! I'd die for hair like that!”
Sue twirled again and Molly laughed happily at Susanna's guileless envy.
“I like your hair,” Dad said to Susanna. “And Ramona's too. I agree with Will; I like hair.”
“We're at the wrong party,” Grandpa told Jake as they came up the steps, overhearing Dad's last comment. “We've got to go to the party for bald people.” He took off his hat and winked at me as he patted his thinning hair ruefully.
“With all due respect,” Jake replied, laughing, “speak for yourself, Grandpa!”