A Huevo

Only a fool would choose the desert entrance to Real de Catorce, when they could take the 2-kilometer long wormhole through the bedrock instead. I’m talking about the one-lane tunnel that was unlit on a recent weekday, when even cell phones weren’t working. Events triggered, according to superstitious locals, by up-coming tectonic clashes or political upheavals. Or both.

And so now you had to take the baton from the man at the entrance. And if, God willing, you came out the other out the other side, as most people did, you handed the baton to someone else. A rational system, and democratic like the tope, where even the President of the Republic has to observe the laws of physics. If not necessarily any others.

The Governor of an unspecified state arrived on that Wednesday. The poorly paid tunnel attendant greeted the first car, a bodyguard with a bull neck and expensive dark glasses, and explained that the tunnel was in use and, after that, it was the other side’s turn to come through. The bodyguard checked with the Governor, a man of ample girth, who was hungry and had been looking forward to a long meal at the little Swiss-run hotel at the other end of the tunnel, renowned for its thick steaks and fine wines. And afterwards, to a nap in the usual charming, top-floor bedroom along with his adoring, young, light-skinned secretary.

“Aren’t I the Governor,” he asked. And gave the signal to proceed.

His security men were Mexican ex-Marines, but not all-knowing. Because, with about the same frequency, the odd narco warlord also liked to eat thick steaks in the little Swiss-run hotel—and to wash them down with 100-Euro Spanish Riojas, which he brought along in his black Ford Expedition—while his bodyguards, in their SUVs, carried equally generous supplies of lightly greased 7.62 x 39 mm rounds for their Chinese-made AK47s.

The difference was that the Governor, though married, was hungry and in love, and “Chuy,” our narco warlord of the Soft Waist, was already full of steak and premium Rioja and drowsy with satisfaction—when the lead car of each party spotted approaching headlights and had to come to a stop. The guards got out. The Governor ordered that the citizens blocking his way should reverse direction and clear the tunnel. And so his Marines, holding all kinds of automatic and semi-automatic weapons, approached Chuy’s group. While the latter’s sicarios kept their AK-47s out of sight, so as not to alarm any citizens who might run out the other end and phone the Army which would then happily descend on the Chuy from both the East and West with their nopal-green HumVees and mounted Browning heavy machineguns that fired .50 rounds as long as your hand.

In the meantime, the poorly paid attendant on the Swiss hotel side, who had stood back as Chuy’s group entered the tunnel, decided to seek invisibility among his goats higher on the inner canyon wall. And so he was not present when the Butane truck from the Sonigas rumbled up to the tunnel. Its driver—the father of four hungry children under the age of ten—was eager to get out of Real de Catorce and away from the pinche tourists and their fat wallets. With no one to warn him otherwise, he entered the tunnel, and used his powerful headlights to fill the darkness with Butane-generated brightness.

By that time, the gunmen from both caravans were brandishing their weapons, and the Governor and Chuy, from behind their over-sized SUVs, were screaming obscenities at each other, forgetting that they had cooperated with each other over the last three years and belonged to the same moño-waitressed country club. Their respective lieutenants begged for calm. A significant current of mountain air was sucking through from the Swiss hotel side, they said, and would serve as God’s own bellows, if their military-grade bullets hit any of the eight, nearly full gas tanks and ignited the white fire that would cook them to termino medio in the singe of an eyelash.

That was when word spread that a Butane truck had pulled up behind Chuy—upwind from all of them, with enough explosive power to blow them all out the Governor’s end of the the tunnel, along with their SUVs and what remained of Chuy’s 100-Euro Riojas and the Governor’s unfulfilled condoms, Sico brand, Ultra Sensitive, “designed to let you feel the warmth of your partner,” in a bursting grand finale to the sound of a soprano’s wavering high C and an impressive short-lived roaring between the ears.

Chuy had just screamed something like “A huevo y, si no, a balazos!”

Which was something like “You’ll back the fuck up, or I’ll blow your heads off!” Only stronger. A getting-to-yes formula perfected during the Mexican Revolution—just as he began to understand what the Butane truck meant, and remembered that he had the Governor’s number under Contacts on his new iPhone. Which he smashed against the tunnel floor, when it didn’t work under the one thousand meters of peña above him. Instead, in the light of his headlights, and though his hands shook and affected both his syntax and spelling, he scribbled a note to the Governor—in which he apologized for being a pendejo. And ordered the bodyguard he trusted the least to deliver it, hoping some good might come of the attempted negotiation. But that man returned without bullet holes in him, and delivered the reply, in which the Governor also apologized and said they should have drinks at the Country Club and discuss what they could do to make sure that Andrés Manuel López Obrador, that corrupt Communist shit, didn’t win the Presidential election in July and legalize drugs and grant a general amnesty to narcos everywhere.

Whereupon, both parties switched their assault weapons onto Safety and slowly backed out of the tunnel the way they had come in, bashing fenders as they went. A fifteen-minute operation, with headlight blinding everyone. Twenty minutes for Chuy’s group, because the Butane truck driver was nervous—given the extra dimensions of his truck—and because one of Chuy’s men, the one with half an ear missing, sat too close to him, holding a 9mm Beretta automatic up against his own perfectly in tact right ear.

Once outside, the Governor, his jowls sagging with resentment, repaired with his secretary to a modern, characterless Motel with a poolside bar on the main trucking route in Matehuala.

And Chuy, in a better mood than before, descended the lovely dirt road to the West, where it is said you can buy peyote buttons for meditative experiences and where small inns with nothing to offer still managed to get fruit to grow to maturity in clear glass wine bottles affixed to the pear trees that grow there in quiet courtyards. And where Chuy could linger a while, sip a lukewarm Coke by himself and breathe in the smoky scents of the Potosí desert and dream of the young, dark-skin beauty he would marry someday—and make as happy as he could.

Am I sitting in this table-wobble Bohemia café in a colonial Mexican town recognized as a UNESCO Heritage Site, embarking on the one sentence I am allowed for the evening, as I listen to Andreas Scholl sing Bach cantatas in his countertenor voice, which sounds like a castrato but isn’t, yet prompting my friend, a retired, down-to-earth officer of the British Royal Navy, to make silly, limp-wristed gestures with martyred, up-turned eyes as if appealing to God to join him in rejecting the whole idea of this kind of music, while of course the whole time the real target of his ridicule, his gentle jab, is someone close to me, if not identical, the one who loves listening to Andreas Scholl, about whom I know nothing at all, except that he has a long and distinguished career in the Music World and is surely one of the most talented in his field, again about which I know very little, except for once in an ancient abbey, Maguelone, on the French Coast near Montpelier when a another friend and I—he had painted the abbey many times in wonderful studies of light and dark, as if the building, surrounded by Maritime Pines were a ship of lesser tonnage, not English, approaching through a thinning fog, backlit by a weak sun that had forgotten that it was a Mediterranean sun—were sitting, he and I, in the middle of the empty pews, when a similar voice, carried on perfect acoustics, filled the abbey for several minutes, followed by a silence during which I waited for the mezzo-soprano to emerge from somewhere above and behind the altar, which happened, but as one of three young men—not a woman—grinning at their daring contribution as they passed by, and we, marveling, smiled right back at them, enchanted that a male voice could sound like that, in an abbey surrounded by dark Maritime Pines that had survived Roman shipbuilders—I’m talking about masts—all of which made me wonder whether the Roman soldiers, sitting around their campfires, wiping thick, heathen blood off their broadswords, had asked their own castrato or falsetto warrior to get up and sing a tune to relax his exhausted comrades, whose eyes would have been a mixture of Germanic Blue and Mediterranean Brown, or Cow-Eyed Limpid Umber—Homer’s phrase—if they were of Greek descent, and who didn’t think for a second of their singers as menso, zafado, loco, missing a wooden screw, or as someone whose goats had gone the mountains, hence Mexican for wacky, but just singing with vocal cords designed differently from yours and mine, hence completely undeserving of ridicule of any kind, least of all by me toward myself for going on like this without the usual punctuation, since Andreas Scholl, surely not dressed in a leather Roman battle skirt, has been stringing me along, as well as allowing me to make whatever I wanted to of his voice and of the mystery surrounding it, as well as of these Maritime Pines (gesture) made into tall masts, ghosting toward me, approaching off the coast of Montpelier, carrying a delegation of people I wouldn’t know but who are mezzo-sopranos and Hermaphrodites who can sing like Andreas Scholl and have been hoping for some time to find a writer wanting to write to their cantatas, which also go on and on, as their voices caress first the abbeys, then the Pines, and finally the mountains where my goats have gone when I listen to this music, which, as far I’m concerned, I wish would never end.



My friend likes to meet once a week to discuss important things. Like the trips I am planning to take. He has all kinds of questions. First of all, why am I going? Especially when I could stay home. I say we’re going to Madrid for a month. Maybe to Dubrovnik, too. He wants to know how to spell Dubrovnik. I tell him. D-u-b-r-o-v-n-i-k.

My friend is a very good writer, as well as a tireless reader. And highly literate. But he can not get beyond the –D-. I think it is because it is a city that is somewhere else. Where you have to travel to get there.

I do not press him. I had a father once who was also hodophobic. “Hodo,” Ancient Greek for “road.” Someone who is afraid of travel. Which doesn’t quite fit my father, who loved to drive the back roads of our New England stomping grounds. I use that word for lack of a better word. Though now I’m beginning to have my doubts. Like who did the stomping? The Original Peoples who lived there, as part of religious or cultural celebrations? Or the original dirt farmers who stomped their floors into harden earth in place of wooden floors. Or was it a more powerful group that came along afterward and stamped out the people I mentioned?

In any case, it was a limited area, circumscribed by my school, the bank, the factory where my father presided over the braiding of nylon filaments to make saltwater fishing line. A sand pit where we shot at each other with .22 rifles aimed wide. Jacob’s Pond. And my Uncle Ed’s house—which reminds me of fruit cake at Christmas, it’s dollops of hard sauce, and the unsettled brandy flame that flickered on top like St. Elmo’s Fire. My Uncle Ed had bad circulation in his legs and fell dead while mowing his lawn in 1955.

At the other end of the Known Area—the opposite boundary—were bright beaches where you had to have a membership and not be a minority. Then the salt tidal river accessed through the home of one of my father’s classmates, Harvard 1923. Then over to the yacht club in a neighboring town, where I heard something about Jews being discouraged. My best friend lived across the street from me. My mother explained pleasantly that he couldn’t go to the river with us because my father’s Harvard 1923 classmate’s wife didn’t feel comfortable having my friend there. Same for the yacht club, I knew, although no one ever said as much. My friend was black. And he was my stomping ground.

In New England, it seemed, there was a stark difference between the Known and the Unknown. My father delighted in the Unknown, the back top roads that led outside of Our Area. Together, he and I, in his old station wagon, we would drive through the mottled light, under over-arching Pine, Beach, Maple, and Birch, and my father would point out small farms he wouldn’t mind living on. Past fields that were surrounded by ancient stonewalls, where he could see his Black Angus cattle grazing, if he had them, and dream of the other women he had known but not married. Something I made up later, when I decided to call myself a writer. That’s how strong the unknown was in my mind, even when it was partially true, I think. And there was usually a porch where they could sit and just look out over Known New England while he smoked his pipe. The one my mother said never left his lips. The one whose stem, levered against his upper teeth, pressed down on his lower lip and gave him a look of comfortable authority. And innocence. And finally killed him with a series of heart attacks punctuated by final stroke. That made him act indecently in his final bed. So that my mother had to cover him with his sheet and blanket.

“Why go to Dubrov….?” my friend asked, “when you could go to Norway?”

I replied that I could go to Norway later.

“It’s very cold there,” he said.

“I could buy a coat.”

“That would weigh you down.”

“I could buy it there.”

“But you would have to bring it home.”

“I would give it to a Laplander,” I said.

“That would be cultural appropriation,” he said.

“Then maybe ask him for one.”

He was silent, considering my reply.

“Plus, I’m not even going to Norway,” I said.

“You could give it to a poor person in Oslo,” he said.

“I think I’m going to Dubrovnik.”

“Do you know anyone there? In Du…?”

“…brovnik. No, I don’t.”

“Then why are you going?”

I was beginning to lose my urge to travel, to have adventures. To see something different. Plus, Dubrovnik would be overwhelmed by aggressive tourists bent on having too much to eat, talking too loud,
and on taking a hundred and forty perfect photos. It would be hard to get away from them.

“Why not take me along?” he asked.

“You don’t like to travel.”

“I don’t know, I’m kind of interested in Du….”


He was quiet. Happy, I would say, at the prospect of seeing something I wanted to see.

“You know,” I said, “the Croations were allies of Hitler in the Second World War. They did terrible things to people. Ustaše fascists murdered outsiders. People who were different. Serbs, Jews, and Roma. Genocide. Of the 22 concentration camps, two of them were for children.”


“Yes…and they speak a different language. And you have to wear special trousers. There are pickpockets everywhere. And they haven’t removed the land mines from the last two wars.”

My friend was smiling at me. “You’re trying to talk me out of traveling with you to Dubrov…nik.”

Something had gone wrong in the course of the conversation, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

“There’s a good chance we’ll go to Norway,” I said. “My wife and I.”

“Because of the coat?” my friend asked, nodding wisely.

“Yes,” I said. “Because of the coat.”

Yesterday, I put on my old German Expressionism 1930s leather jacket and, full of questions and expectations, rushed to the recital being held in the diminutive upstairs Foro Cultural 81 concert hall at calle Positos 81, Guanajuato, Mexico—wondering whether I would find a seat, be able to see, feel ensconced, anchored, tethered to the mast in such a way that I could, if I had to, resist both high c’s and the overall complex seduction of opera. The occasion was a master class given by James Demster, an esteemed voice coach from Mexico City with a very long list of distinctions, among which—the one that caught my eye—is having been piano accompanist for Plácido Domingo. I suspect the event was arranged by city treasure Kate Burt of Ópera Guanajuato. Maestro Demster was a slim, refined looking man who clearly loves the human voice and, as far as I could note, guided each participant with equal gentleness and respect as he accompanied them on the grand piano. I have had the great privilege of having had teachers like him but in Latin, Greek, German and French—not in music, about which I know very little. Except that when I write my fiction, I listen to Bach’s Mass in B Minor, or Mozart’s Mass in C Minor or, best of all, to famous opera duets.


I sat in the front row. Which placed me about eight feet from each singer. A station that carries with it certain restrictions. I hesitated to wriggle or move, uncross and re-cross my legs while the young divas were singing, or clear my throat during a pause. I didn’t know whether to look at them, or look away. Because before each one began, she had to gather herself together, looking down at the floor—wrapped in a private moment of composure—then up again when she was ready for the maestro to begin the accompaniment. There were fourteen or fifteen singers, all sopranos with one or two mezzo-sopranos sprinkled among them. They came forward in an arranged order. The less experienced first; the more advanced, afterward. So no one had to follow a devastatingly stronger performance. I have been around long enough to know that it takes enormous courage to stand in front of an audience and try to perform to the highest possible standard. To render the music so that the notes are strong and gentle, absolutely in tune and rich in tone variations. I heard high notes that were strained, lower ones that were more beautiful. Each singer warmed up and did better and better as the moments passed. And I, eight feet away, was more and more conscious that something special was happening. The presentations became more and more powerful, more sure-footed. With me, they have the effect of calling forth figures from my past whom I had not expected at the recital. I thought lovingly of my father who was my extended family’s best singer, once someone gave him a beginning note. And my mother, who, in contradiction to all my fault-finding, would open her mouth and transcend her Puritan constraints in a voice that was clear and passionate and foreign to me. In that moment, she was someone who was not my mother, perhaps someone else’s mother, or not even a mother at all but an independent and unknown person, who led a secret life apart from my father, my brother and me. A life that was magical and beautiful. And unassailable.


Other visitors appear, from much further back. As much as thirty years back, I sat in the middle pews of in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, just after the fall of the Wall. It was late morning on a week day. A voice from above and behind me, in the choir loft. A woman’s voice, a mezzo-soprano, as exquisite as anything I had ever heard  began singing “Agnus Dei” from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B Minor. In the very church where Bach had been the Cantor for many years. It was a chance moment and as spiritual a one as I have ever felt. As if the Past were the Present, and as if I were inside the music Bach had written back in the first half of the Eighteen Century. Or it was inside me.


You ask, how can I compare that experience to the recital of the fourteen young singers at Foro 81? Easy. I sat right in front of the recitalists, and it was as if my ears were laid back by the passion coming at me from each one of them. That is what is grand about young actors and singers. And I suspect that is something Maestro James Demster may have taught them. That it is not possible to sing opera with complete sincerity without giving it everything you’ve got. Or, put another way, truly good opera will not be good opera if it does not come largely from the heart. The effect on me is transformative and I am back in a Thomaskirche and part of something so much greater than my own little struggles. Part of all the composers, singers and musician that ever risked trying to create beauty. I feel immensely lucky, privileged. And, for a man who is not religious, I find myself resorting to religious vocabulary. Feeling blessed. In a state of wonder. Being as close as I could imagine to that which is spiritual. Standing outside of myself, as in the Greek ecstatic. In a state of rapture and delight. Along with others in the audience, daring to softly cry “Brava!” over and over. Praise that surely registered with no one other than myself. But sincerely meant from someone who knows so little about music.



A Small Matter

My wife was visiting in the north, helping our friend, who is Mexican, married to a Frenchman and living in Madrid, research Mexican engineering students studying in the U.S. in the 19th Century.


I stayed home in my small colonial city, practicing no longer being dependent on my wife, as well as exploring solitude, bachelorhood and cat farming. The latter can be explained by the fact that a small stray cat family that lived next door decided to live at our house. My neighbor, who had given sanctuary to the family—on her laminated tin roof held down by stones borrowed permanently from our property—argues that it was enticement. Not by us but by our cat, an earlier immigrant. Who always leaves food in his bowl. Hence, enticement.


The new family consisted of a mother with a brown moustache, a doting father and two young ones. Then one day I reported to my traveling wife that the mother cat appeared to be pregnant. And after a bit more time, that she appeared to be un-pregnant.


“Did you look for the babies?” my wife asked from the archives of one of M.I.T.’s libraries.


I said no I hadn’t. I had more important things to do. Like Yoga, writing, getting a massage, and finding a place to eat lunch, followed by a nap, putting together something for supper and watching horrible news from the country she was visiting.


“Have you looked for the babies?” she asked from the archives at Cornell.


I said I hadn’t and wasn’t going to because they could be anywhere, near or far.


Then one day, after climbing the 203 irregular Mexican steps to our house—plus long, steep, slanting stretches—I came through the garden gate, then the garden itself, and spotted them. Two little things, on a patio. I counted them again. Two. I had expected more and was relieved to arrive at the same count.


I climbed some outside stairs to the terrace off our main living level. The house is small but has two main levels and three terraces, two terraces on the lower level and one on the upper. Sometimes I call them patios. When I reached the terrace on the upper level, my neighbors’ seventeen-year old son Evan was standing on his flat roof—which we call an azotea here—which is level with our top living level.


We both heard a third kitten, but it was not clear where the sound was coming from. Evan kept looking at a drainage hole near the top of the stairs I had just come up. I climbed our iron spiral staircase, thinking the crying was coming from our azotea (an Arabic word). The crying was weaker. When I descended the spiral staircase again, I saw Evan still staring at the drainage hole. That was where the kitten’s cries were coming from. Somehow it had gotten up to our upper level—I suspect his mother—and then entered the hole and dropped twenty feet down the 4” PVC drainage pipe. And was trapped—essentially entombed by tons of cement and brick.


“What are you going to do?” my wife asked.


I said I had snaked a thick rope down the pipe, and if the kitten couldn’t climb up it, it was going to die.


My wife said I should call the builders who built the house. I said they would never be able to find the exact spot where they could break through to the kitten.


“Do you want me to call them?”


My wife is the most take-charge person I know, and at eight-thirty the next morning our two chief builders and a helper were at the front door. They had dropped whatever other project they were assigned to by their boss, who is our former presiding builder-architect. At the same time a close family friend—a great animal lover—called to see whether he could help. I told him how hard I thought it would be to reach the kitten. That the rope I had worked down the pipe was synthetic and therefore too slippery for the small frightened claws.


My friend is a busy artist. “I’m coming up,” he said.


Including me, five men were now working on the matter. The helper unlatched a heavy case and brought out a powerful hammer drill, something like a small jackhammer, and began chipping away at brick and cement.


My wife was calling every half hour. She told us to drill in an area circumscribed by the circumference of a quarter circle radiating from where two walls met at a ninety-degree angle. The pipe had to be in that area. We could not miss, she said. Unless, I thought, the pipe had not dropped straight down.


The first mason left to go to work on their current, official project. I think he had only come to reassure me and make sure the correct measures were being taken. And because he feels we’re part of his family and he’s responsible for us.


After more than five hours of pounding with a sledge and chipping and drilling away with the machine, we could not find the pipe. And I ordered a halt. Everything else had failed as well. My next-door neighbor, who argued enticement, helped me wrap strips of cloth around the slippery rope. That didn’t work. The cloth bunched up and wouldn’t descend. She then started making a cloth rope. I rigged a weight to carry it down. The weight wouldn’t go around the corner just in from the entrance hole. We tried a chain as a weight. That worked, but the kitten’s cries had weakened and then ceased when the chain descended. I was afraid the chain could pin the kitten and keep it from breathing. The masons tried to snake black half-inch PVC tubing with a sharp end down the pipe. It wouldn’t go around the first corner. Plus, I was afraid it could injure the kitten.


At the beginning of all this, my friend the artist took off his clothes, donned my bathing suit and went down into the cistern on the lower living level patio, while I drained the sludge-fermented rain water from the cistern down into the garden.


There were two drainpipes entering the cistern, and my friend was able to determine where the kitten’s cries were coming from. They got stronger during the blasting and drilling, as the kitten fled the noise and came closer to the cistern.


I went into my shop and built a bridge that extended from the entrance pipe the kitten could approach from to the rebar ladder that descended into the cistern. I rigged a piece of screen so the kitten could climb the ladder. When everyone had left and I had thanked them and arranged for payment, I placed a frozen salmon patty and some dry cat food at the end of the pipe entering the cistern.


I was beginning to realize the kitten’s plight. It hadn’t drunk or eaten for thirty-six hours now. I went up to the upper level and poured some purified drinking water down the pipe. Not a lot, but enough to lick, at least. Then some dry kitty food. Whenever possible the kitten’s mother had hung around the fatal opening and made encouraging noises. So I blocked off the opening. I want the kitten to go in the direction of the cistern and not linger at the mother’s end of the pipe twenty feet above. I also didn’t want a downward air current carrying the smell of salmon away from the kitten. I rigged what they used to call a trouble lamp in the cistern—a light bulb with a screen around it, equipped with a hook. I wanted the kitten to see light when it was night and everything was completely black.


My neighbor had been up on our roof watering plants, which is part of her job. The water had run off, I realized, passed around the kitten and had started to fill the cistern. Where the kitten would drown, if it missed the bridge and fell in. So I drained the cistern again.


It was all I could do. Survival now depended on the smell of salmon and dry food, the kitten bridge and the trouble light. I went to bed and slept fitfully, worrying about the kitten. It’s crying had grown weak, and I wasn’t too hopeful about its escape.


At four-thirty, I woke up and heard it crying, seemingly close by. I hopped over to the bedroom window and listened. The cries were coming from the cistern. I got my flashlight and went barefoot down to the lower level and stuck my head down into the cistern. Its cries were very loud, but there was no little head at the point where the pipe entered the cistern.


Then I realized the cries were coming from below the pipe opening. I shined my light lower, and there in the far corner at the bottom of the cistern, in the mud, was the three-week old kitten. My bare feet hurt on the narrow rebar ladder rungs as I descended. I squished through the mud to the far end of the cistern, had a moment of hesitation when I considered whether little wild thing would claw me, but picked it up anyway and held it to my chest to give it warmth and to calm its shivering.


I climbed the rebar ladder with my left hand—with the kitten and flashlight in the right, but I needed more of my right hand to get up onto the patio above me. But each time I set the kitten down on that level, it ran back toward me, I suppose to not lose contact with me. So I put the flashlight down and held the kitten and I finally managed to get my bottom up onto the patio floor, my knees under me and stand up.


I unplugged the work lamp and went upstairs to the higher living level, found towel and dried off the kitten. I wrapped it in the towel, found an eyedropper, warmed some soymilk and slowly squirted the milk into its mouth. When I thought it had drunk all it should have after a period of starvation, I found a plastic bottle, filled it and heated it in the microwave. I found a shopping bag, lay the warm bottle on one fold of the towel and the kitten on the next and wrapped it and the bottle with the rest of the towel. I hung the bag on a knob of cabinet at the foot of the bed. The kitten cried softly maybe five or six times and then was silent. And slept for more than three hours.

I sent a telegraph to my wife (via WhatsApp), announcing that the kitten had walked through the pipe, fallen into the cistern and was now safe, fed, warm and asleep.


Later that morning it, I placed the kitten near where I thought the mother and other two kittens had their den. It started to cry immediately when I put it down. The mother eventually approached, nosed it, and then hopped up on a sifting screen that placed her a good three feet above her baby. The screen rested against the vine-covered, twelve-foot wall at that end of the garden. With mother always above her, the kitten managed to climb up through the vines until it was about six inches from the top. At that point, the mother reached down, took it by the back of the neck with her teeth and hopped a few times until she entered her leaf-covered hiding place. Silence ensued and I was sure the mother had started to nurse her wayward kitten.


An hour later, I heard the kitten crying again. I looked down from one of the patios and saw that it had fallen down the other side of the wall and was lying on one of several old chicken cages. That’s when I began to form the theory that the kitten didn’t see very well—as many don’t, I later learned, at a young age. It had fallen three times. Once twenty feet down the drain pipe, once from my bridge down into the cistern and now down the other side of the twelve-foot wall. I remember mumbling something like, “Oh, God, you’re on your own now. Either you climb up the wall or your mother goes to get you. Or natural selection takes its course.”


A few hours later, the kitten was on the other side of the wall again, crying for its mother. It was there when night fell, and I carried it to a cat bed on a couch under our arches, wrapped it up with a warm bottle and small blanket. When I got up the next morning and checked, only a small portion of its head was exposed to the morning chill. I peeled back the blanket enough to see that it was breathing. It opened its eyes and said something to me. I took it upstairs to feed it warm soymilk, which my wife told me by phone was not good for kittens.


Eventually, the mother took the kitten back into good standing and kept hiding the three babies every time we tried to check on them. Now they all eat dry and wet kitten food from the palms of our hands. The mother supervises but does not hide them. The rest of the family serve as loving, concerned aunts and uncles, or half-sisters and brothers. We tried various names for him (his sex having been determined), settling on something that sounds like Tooby for the kitten that fell down the tubo, the pipe, but saved himself with a little help from others who felt it was no small matter.


When my mother called me in from the woods, she told me I was going to repeat the eighth grade and this time with Latin, American history and a real English teacher. And so, off I went to a lonely boarding school outside Boston with bee’s waxed floors and gas lanterns on the wall. And then, not long after, Lincoln Steffen’s autobiography came into my hands. I remember exactly where I was sitting all those years ago, and I remember the feeling of being transported to a world that was not centered around myself.

In the sixties I was a graduate student at Berkeley in Germanic Languages and Literature and read Theodora Kroeber’s Ishi, the Last of His Tribe and her biography Ishi in Two Worlds. The books had such a powerful influence on me that I would still like to have my ashes strewn on top of a certain cliff that looks down over Deer Creek Canyon northeast of Chico, California, where I found my better spiritual ancestors. Where Ishi lived and where the rest of his people were wiped out by white people for sport or bounties.

Reading Paula Dunning’s memoir, Shifting Currents, has now provided me with a third epiphany, this one explaining what I was doing for thirty-five years on a small, non-producing farm one and a half hours north of San Francisco, on a ridge that divided the dairy country to the south from the apples, plums, and grapes to the north. Her chronicle gives shape to what remains only a vague understanding of my own “farming” years, where I raised two children by myself and taught full-time at a nearby university. It was more that we kept animals, as well as ourselves: cats, dogs, pigeons, chickens, a few milking goats, a few Black Angus beef cows, two pigs, two sheep, a donkey, a pony—now and then a horse. Most of which got loose, or broke through old fences. Or, in the case of sheep, were attacked by big dogs from miles away.

Dunning and her husband Jack emigrated from the United States to Canada in the 70s and, in a moment of divine insanity like my own, bought a large farm in Ontario and, like me—but on a much larger scale, “went back to the land.”

For me, Dunning’s prose raises a reoccurring question, and that is, what is she doing to evoke this sense in the reader of being in the presence of something larger than ourselves. The closest I can come to an answer is that she anchors even the smallest, every day images and rhythms of farming in an epic sea. Not in the wine-dark sea of Homer, plowed by Greek ships, but rather in the loamy one that the Dunnings’ tractors pass over, following the curve of the earth, plowing Canadian fields into chestnut-browns, that sprout and become Alfalfa and Timothy in emerald greens—that form waves when the wind blows across them. In late summer, those fields morph into rows of drying hay and under them, calms of yellowish gray stubble left standing after the cutting. Followed by the rhythm of baling, hefting the bales onto the hay wagons, stacking them, and then raising them into dark, sweet smelling lofts. All of it, an ocean of activity bounded by the dark hill at the end of the property that serves as one navigation pole, the bend in the river as the other.

Dunning describes what many of us who have lived with animals have sensed, and that is being near to an Otherness that we do not really fathom. An intelligence, a spirituality, that lives behind the rectangular pupil of a Nubian goat, in the sweet breath of a cow, in the exuberant playfulness of pigs. Beings that depend on us and yet whose souls, for want of a better word, remain unreachable and beyond our control.

From cave paintings we know about the spiritual connection that used to exist between humans and animals—as opposed to, say, the tight-wrapped packages in the meat department. It helps to think of Dunning’s writing as similar to ancient cave painting. Her images hint at what we still sense. It may be what Rilke meant about the poet’s task being naming the unnamable. Or what Goethe described as symbol, where, through an image, an idea remains active but also unapproachable, and, though expressed in all languages, including art, cannot be put into words.

There are no saber-tooth tigers in this book, but there are dangers. Machinery that can eat children. Six hundred pound, water-filled tractor tires that can trample us all. Chimney fires that can blow through chinks in the brick and consume the whole house and the family that lives inside it. Damp hay, baled too soon, can smolder and ignite. A river close by to drown in. And the constant possibility of being rendered dead or maimed by hoof, horn or machinery, all of which can cut, hurl or drag.

In the 60s and 70s, there were other costs in “returning to the land.” Most “normal” people didn’t heat with wood, try to grow their own food or raise children “at the North Pole,” as Dunning’s mother believed she was doing. As my own mother believed about my child rearing. “In the 70s,” Dunning writes, “we felt we should be able to do everything, from scratch.” Which diluted our development in certain areas. And so there was always an undercurrent of self-doubt, the nagging question, “Did I make the wrong choice?” And so we suffered gently numbing embarrassment when tennis-playing urbanites visited with their clean shoes and spotless sweaters. With their expectations of unexposed drainage ditches in the yard, or of available hot water for showers and of functioning toilets—both of which seemed to stop working at just the wrong moment—in a comedy of irony and mortification.

Dunning chronicles the social tensions. The farmer neighbor, conservative in her views of school sex education, let alone birth control, was completely practical on how to use three fingers to get a calf to begin sucking and therefore to survive. A young “liberated” leader led Dunning’s women’s group—subdued and cautious people—through the early feminist guidebook “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” with its explicit drawings of women’s bodies and how they function. In a delightful scene, Dunning describes how a session devolved to snorting and laughter—and friendship.

Or the pitfalls possible when Dunning’s “normal” parents visit and a symbolic patricide occurs, a shift in familial power. Dunning yells at her father when, in his innocence, he gets in the way of mischievous, escaped cows and blocks their passage through a critical gate open to where they’re supposed to be going. Then, still full of remorse, she tries to honor her father by asking him to carve the Thanksgiving Turkey—the relationship now changed forever.

Living with animals in the 70s included taking their lives, intentionally or not intentionally. Farming presupposes the role of life-taker. An assumption sometimes only challenged by a child, as when Dunning’s young daughter—a one-person Greek chorus—wails, “Why does everything have to die?”

When a cow is to be slaughtered, Dunning, pregnant, feels she should help, but dreads participating. She is relieved when her neighbor Morley appears to take her place and comments, “Has Jack been reading that damn book again?” Some how-to-slaughter-a-large-animal guidebook that we back-to-the-landers might have bought back then in a counter-culture bookstore. Morley continues, “And you shouldn’t be anywhere near. It could upset you and harm your baby. This is not something to mess with.”

But Dunning has always messed with it. With the Otherness. Always walking a line close to something larger than herself. Something she is aware of and paints with her imagery. Pointing at things that most of us—deep down— know something about.

Dunning confesses to a lingering self-doubt on the Ontario farm. Her husband also taught at a university; while she at times worried, she may have been “just a farm wife.” But when you read her writing, you see she was no such thing. She was becoming a psychagogue in the sense of someone who—in this case, with words—can lead us right up to the edge of other worlds. Someone who offers us a path to understanding the Land and the Creatures on it that we live with—human and non-human. Aside from also being one of the finest and strongest writers I have ever read.

Living here, I have learned to be alert. Each lesson where I have not done that has been costly. We were held up at knife point a couple of years ago, maybe more. You can read about it in The Knives of Mexico in this blog. In that case, a young man ran up the stairs past us—203 to our house from the old city center—twice, and the last time planted himself in front of us, brandishing his knife, a few yard from our garden gate. The missed clue? The lack of awareness? No one runs up the stairs in this city. Unless they’re high on something and/or have robbery on their mind.

At the beach a year ago, staying in a converted trailer, I followed the landlord’s advice and did not turn on the air conditioning. Instead, I kept a window opened (with screen) and turned on the fan. At 07:45 the next morning, I was aware that a man was standing a foot from where I slept. He darted out with my iPhone, a book, my one pair of trousers and other items that came to a tidy sum. I ran after him, without success. I had my money and credit cards in plain sight, tucked into a small Indian-woven purse. He missed it for some reason, or I’d have really been jodido. The lesson: keep windows locked and the air conditioner on, regardless of what any landlord says. He had taken off the screen and come in the window under the cover of the noise from the fan.

Yesterday, a Saturday, I started home wearing my expensive Ridge Runner’s 25 LLBean day pack. Nothing wrong with that, except that it signals you have enough money for that and for what’s probably inside it. I fell in behind a woman in her thirties. She was wearing medium-length high heels and very short black shorts barely covered by a black skirt, with black straps crisscrossing her mostly bare back. Every once in a while, she would reach back and adjust her shorts to a more modest length. Mexican women dress carefully and rarely, if ever, adjust as they walk along. There was something not ordinary about her and her progress through my neighborhood. Plus, I had never seen her before.

At the first alley, a good-sized man came up behind her. He was leering at her, which was also out of the ordinary. How do I know that? Because one notices those thing. We got to the stairs where I have to begin climbing. She turned into the darkness there—there was plenty of daylight left. The stairs are always in shadow. Something I have never done before: I sat down on a low wall on the other side of the road and waited, to spare her me climbing up behind her, if she was so worried about her modesty.

The man had not followed her. She had distracted me from thinking about him. I only knew this in retrospect. After a while, I started up the stairs. At the top, at the level of the higher road, there was no sign of her. Which seemed a little odd. So I started up the next flights of stairs. Half way up, I decided not to rest. The same man was coming up behind me, and I had already decided there was something making me uncomfortable with that. After all, where had he been before? Why was he still around? Why hadn’t he climbed up behind her, or continued on the road below?

At the very top, I sat down on a low wall, as if taking in the extraordinary view of the various church towers, the university and the rich cluster of old colonial buildings in the city center. And I watched the approaching man. Ten feet away, he glanced at me three times, and looked away. Out of the ordinary. Ordinary would have been holding my gaze long enough after the second glance to add a greeting. That is how it works here. But he looked away each time, his face in neutral. Then he sat down on the opposite low wall and looked at his phone.

But my wife and I had been stalked before by a couple of thugs in Guadalajara, and that was what they did: keep referring to their phones. To show their disinterest. Plus, what was keeping him there? There is ordinary behavior, which includes sitting for some reason. You’re old, your children are tired, you’re tired from lugging a heavy bag of groceries up to your house, you’re making a call, or you’re visiting with someone. But no one sits without one of these reasons. I could also tell he wasn’t delighting in the view and wasn’t reading anything on his phone. He and his face were blank, empty of activity. And I wasn’t going to let him get me isolated from that public spot, where five narrow alleys came together, six, if you include the stairs. So, I got up and went back down the stairs, as if, as a tourist, I had taken in the sight and was now retracing my steps. Which I did, all the way down to the center of the city, where I hailed a taxi and went up the side of the canyon and home that way.

I looked back a few times to see if he was following me. But he wasn’t. And today I climbed home, taking a different path, just to throw off anyone bothering to be watching for me.

These things happen here every once in a while. A social predator or two roll in to town and try their luck. That was what the knife holdup was. A chance spotting by someone passing through in a car, who got out and ran up after us. In this case, this series of little things out of the ordinary, is probably a one-off occasion. But I am still curious to know whether the man in this story was working together with the woman so concerned  by the length of her shorts and so successful in distracting me from the man who was tracking me.

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