Jon sat in Pátzcuaro’s Plaza Grande, heavy in spirit and no longer young. He sat in the shadow of the great ash trees but in his mind horses lifted their heads, as if they had finally sensed his presence. Then they formed a black-brown river, their tails outstretched. and were halfway across the road before he could react, and then the image faded. His hand dropped and felt the cold stone of the bench. It was not what he needed to be sitting on. It awakened a dull ache halfway down his spine. His wife was waving at him, got no response, hesitated, her hand still in the air, then continued walking toward him. When she finally got his attention, she stopped and called out that she was going to get mangos at the mercado in the Plaza Chica. He nodded, smiled and waved. The image faded more and more, the further she walked away from him.
He had been in Michoacán for three months, and he was still trying to understand. Seeing, not shopping, was what he wanted to do, see the horses that grazed beside the road between Erongarícuaro and Pátzcuaro. In the plaza’s penumbra, although they weren’t there, he could still see them, some with ropes still attached to their necks, some with slipped tethers that now dragged from one front leg, where they had been tied between fetlock and hoof. Now nothing held them away from the road but his own distant and silent imploring.
The contradictions assailed him. In Mexico horses were special, clearly loved, involved in the lives of the campesinos, who treated them as part of the family, walked with them to pastures beside the lake, rode on them, visited them during the day with an entourage of wife, friends, children, burros, cows, and dogs. With so much contact, they were comfortable around humans. He supposed you could walk up to them if they knew you and their ears would not go back. There was no greater pleasure for a campesino, it appeared, than to ride his mare, with all his gear—the saddle with the leather-covered wooden frame and pommel, the sheathed machete, the coiled suspended lazo and, for festivals, the gaban de caballo, the poncho of still oily wool that covered saddle and rider. For summer rains he rode with a yellow plastic poncho, rubber boots, his tightly woven straw hat with a black swallow tail ribbon hanging down in back. And, most important, a month-old colt, free, sleepy, trotting behind, pulled along by the invisible connection with its mother.
In the square, where he sat, a young attractive middle-class woman, perhaps from Morelia, walked beneath the ashes, followed by her brood of two boys nine or ten, on new roller blades and a girl, six or seven, on roller skates. The girl sat down on an adjoining stone bench, while her brothers lurched off around the square with the loud chatter of the privileged. The mother had passed close enough for him to form an impression. She was stylish and at once comfortable in her clean blue jeans, pink blouse above, clean white tennis shoes below. She was young, athletic, and private, a counselor to and protector of her children. There was something about her, the way she walked, the whisper of indecision, eyes empty, that spoke of discontent. Perhaps because it was a Sunday, and the other protector was not with them.
He looked past her, west beyond Pátzcuaro to where he knew horses moved through a 19th Century landscape, a riparian quilt of many greens, interlaced with dirt roads and paths between milpas, corn fields, that swept up toward dark volcanic mountains or downward toward the shimmering lake and its soft bordering marshes where, here and there, campesinos still ploughed with oxen. In his mind, through his failing eyesight, he could see a campesino and his son, on one horse, the boy sitting back on the horse’s haunches, chatting and laughing in tones he associated with a satisfaction he himself had not grown up with, living near Boston. Now and then, the father swung the coiled lazo and rapped down on the rump of a straggling calf. The calf hopped ahead but not too far. With inflamed fly bites on its back, there were worse things than a slow rap from a lazo. They wove back and forth behind the cattle. There was no hurry, only the practical delight of riding herd and, for the animals, the activity of being herded toward pasture.
They passed other horses with children mounted with their fathers, perhaps a girl of nine or ten. They carried bundles of pasto, grass, cut by hand with a short-handled sickle, as feed for pigs or a milking cow. They passed a burro, also heading home, carrying rostrojo, drying corn stalks. When the animal is fully loaded, it is hard to see, the farmer leading it, with his machete looped over his shoulder. It was a walking haycock of corn stalks, slung by knots and ties known by the father and taught to sons, and sometimes to daughters as well. They followed a grassy lane back toward the village and their house, where, warm in the sunlight, a mare grazed close to her colt. The colt stood on legs that were too long, staggered, nudged its mother here and there, looking for teats, sucked once or twice and then looked up at the entourage of animals and people returning from the lake.
It looked over at him seated under the great ash trees, its head still bowed, at the level of the teats. Feeding and connection to its mother were the stronger impulse than standing tall and alert. The mother’s presence and protection made it unnecessary. Plus, it was all too much effort, for colts were always tired from so much growing. The mare was watchful and moved between him and the foal. He could no longer see the foal, partly because of the mare’s position and partly because of the age of the ash trees and shadows of time that he sat in.
Again, it was evening, and a campesino lunged his horse in the area between the road and stonewalls, holding the horse from the end of a long rope which was attached to its halter. The horse, snorting and farting alternately, trotted in a circle around its owner, wearing a shallow circular trench in the soft earth. They were both excited. The campesino turned and grew dizzy from the blur of passing stone walls, road, and dark volcanic mountains, the smell of earth, and the presence of an ownerless dog whose ribcage is showing. The horse’s hooves, a muffled pounding, trembled the earth, and in the falling darkness campesino and horse belong to each other.
By twilight, which tends to be Jon’s only time, the horses were loose and moved over the old paths that eventually crossed the country roads. Flat-nosed three-axled Autocar, Dina and Mercedes trucks with tarps lashed tight over their freight hurtled over these roads. They and thirty- or forty-year old buses spewing black diesel smoke wore heavy steel tubing grates over their radiator grills, grates called tumbaburros, a little Spanish sentence in itself which means something like, “Knocks burros aside,” but also horses. Mules and cows received more supervision and were kept corralled at night.These were the devices that protected them from horses and cattle that wandered across the road at night on legs that snapped from the impact. With tumbaburros there was no need to slow down, whether day or night.
Another animal sat in the plaza and watched with Jon. It was one of Mexico’s ubiquitous ownerless dogs that all look the same and feed in garbage dumps or from wherever they can, especially the ranging females with hanging teats that are desperate to feed their pups. People kicked at them and threw rocks. They flinched and slinked away, always preoccupied with their bottom position in an unforgiving pecking order. From so much effort to survive their responses were dulled. They stumbled against each other when avoiding a stone. They snarled while mobbing a bitch in heat or, distracted, crossed the road without looking to catch up with the families leaving for the pastures beside the lake. Or they cut back and wheeled around into the path of trucks and buses and cars. And died in great numbers and lay on the road for days, before they disappeared . Their bloated legs stuck out at an angle toward the sky. They turned dark, and the air around them turned putrid. There were always two or three dead dogs on our road. It was said that some drivers aimed at them, as if it were a game.
A man walked by Jon with his two children, a girl perhaps thirteen, a boy perhaps ten or twelve. She was as tall as her father, the boy nearly as tall. But he was very much their father, warm and present. It was obvious, as they hung on him, that they looked up to him, assured that he was looking out for them and loved them and treasured them. Jon had two sons. They were in their mid-thirties, but he was not sure what they thought of him, nor if he had looked out for them sufficiently, though he loved them dearly.
But what concerned him now was not so much his sons but rather dead horses. It was not something he had considered entirely possible. Dogs were one thing, but horses, entirely different. The first horse lay on its back in a ditch with its legs straight out and rigid. It lay there for two days, then it was gone. A tractor, an ox team, a truck—somehow responsibility had been assigned and the carcass was removed. From where he sat in the Plaza Grande, he could see it, albeit indistinctly. But how was it lifted into a truck and taken away for rendering? He couldn’t think it through the first time. There was a piece missing. Dead dogs and dead horses on the road? Everyone knew you didn’t stop when you killed something. The legal problems were too great, too labyrinthine, leading to grudges and complications you couldn’t afford to be involved in. And so, in his mind, he moved on.
The second horse lay in the middle of the road on a beautiful morning, when they were on the way to Pátzcuaro. They slowed down to maneuver around it. As they got closer, they saw a dogs ripping at it, a whisp of steam rising from its still warm flesh. On the way home it was still lying there, in the middle of the road. Three dogs tore at the horse’s rectal and vaginal areas where the flesh was softer and more accessible. Another dog lay dead in the road, a victim of its own distraction. The next morning, the horse lay just off the pavement. Now there were seven or eight dogs ripping at it. In one night, they had devoured everything but the rib cage, the backbone and parts of the leg bones, now bare and pink. Its massive head was missing. That afternoon, on the way home from Pátzcuaro, they saw the rib cage lying over near the stone wall, where one or two dogs tore at it. On the next day, nothing. Seven or eight hundred pounds of horse devoured in a day and a half, leaving no trace except a layer of undigested grass from the stomach.
Then what? Under a full cold moon, bored with eating, with their tongues bloody and hanging out, would they try to run down the panicked colt? While, not far off, trucks bellowed through the night, spewing smoke, churning ahead like angry ships?
The rollerbladers clattered by and stopped to ask their mother in whining tones, couldn’t she just please step across the street and bring them cups of the popular homemade ice cream?
They saw the third horse on the road to Salvatierra, on the way to the 25th Cervantino, the International Cervantes Festival held annually in Guanajuato. In area away from villages, a dark form lay on the side of the highway, its legs raised and slanting upward because of the bloated belly. On the way back six days later, its stomach had been cleaned out, the rib cage lay open like a dark basket. Its other parts remained blackened and uneaten, a sign that only slow-eating buzzards had been at work, for dogs would have taken everything, to the last bone, with no time left for the corpse to turn black.
Then later by himself the mountains above Guanajuato, between Schubert and the Ballet Folklórico Nacional, fleeing the crowds, high up on the summit of La Bufa, he walked along the ridge toward the mining village of Calderones and came across two horses, one white and one black black with a white face and two white rear socks, grazing unattended there at the top of the world. They walked away as he approached wondering where they had come from. He found their fresh tracks and followed them along a cattle trail until he came to a grassy green spot at the base of a cliff, a sign that there was a seep higher up. The hoof marks were deep and plentiful and led to a filled water hole. Frogs jump in from all sides when he approached. There were smaller hoof prints he assumed from burros led there with milk cans to fill from the hole for human needs. He climbed higher and the mouth of a cave rose before him. An old stone wall, now tumbled, had formed half a corral to keep animals contained at night. There was a break in the wall, and so he entered the way he could see the two horses had recently, stepped onto the thick carpet of dried manure finely ground from many hooves over the years. On the rear wall at about eight feet he saw an old and skillfully painted painting of a saint. Under the ashes in the square, Jon peered again through dimness to read the name underneath, but it seemed even less clear than ever before. “Aogostino,” perhaps, maybe a shepherd’s patron, but with white skin. The date, even less clear, looked like 1788. And below that, a careful hand in blue paint had written “Animals are not permitted in this space because it is sacred.” He could see them now from the stone bench, the white horse and a black one with a white face and two white rear socks, nuzzling each other, wrapped in each other’s closeness, taking shelter from rain and heat and drought, in their sanctuary beneath the shrine. Then he had looked down and seen human footprints as well, which after some time he had realized were his own joined with those of the horses.
The woman on the bench, with the Nike shoes and pink blouse, might have been watching him, because of the way she turned her head away quickly when he looked her way. But the question faded and she faded. A friend had recently told him a story about the shortcut to the Uruapan highway from the Erongaricuaro-Pátzcuaro road. It was a rough dirt road, and the last part of it was an abrupt rise. When they came up over the lip, he said, there was a dead horse lying on the side of the road and five Purépecha Indians, three children and their parents, dressed in their best clothes, sitting on the horse. It was a cold day, and so it was possible, the friend reasoned, that death had been recent and they were keeping warm while waiting for the bus, or maybe, he thought, they were simply communing with a beloved and valued animal.
Now Jon could see the marsh in great remembered clarity, the lush flatlands beside the lake with the slow motion flight of a blue heron or two, the private studied stalking by lesser egrets, and the black, nervous freshwater cormorants. Cattle fed up to their bellies in water, fifteen or twenty of them, making the sounds of vast African splashing herds, strange and glorious—Mexico’s water buffalo, pulling at fat grasses and ignoring the carnal pleas of the young bull with his bowed and swaying head, showing the whites of his eyes.
Far from the village, in this remote, perfect world of eating, movement, and water, Jon had approached a campesino trying to increase the tension of a barbed wire fence with a crowbar, then nailing it tight. They talked. Philemon had had three wives and seventeen children, ten of them now dead. He was seventy-eight and had worked in Jon’s California hometown in the Fifties picking apples. His father had lived to be a hundred and one. He had little contact with his living children who were all in the States. He couldn’t read or write, and so letters were useless, telephones too expensive. Jon held the crowbar after Philemon has hooked the wire and tensed it, while Philemon nailed. They work together. One of the staples fell, and Jon coildn’t find it. Philemon picked it up and asked Jon how his eyes were, and Jon told him he was going blind, a rare disease, the steady degeneration in the cellular connection that permited vision.
They were quiet for a while, sitting on a grassy bank with the sun on their backs, listening to the cattle moving through the water, the croaking of a blue heron, the egrets’ fussing, the young bull’s suffering. Jon told him about the Purépecha Indians sitting on the dead horse, as if they had been waiting for the bus. He asked him why they were doing it. Philemon’s Spanish grew clearer or maybe Jon was listening more intently.
“It’s just a place to sit,” said Philemon. “If it’s not smelling and rotting, it’s a place to sit.
“You don’t think it’s that when something so large and so Mexican and so good dies, it uses a big share of death, more than it needs for itself, and then there’s less of it, less death, for the people sitting on the horse, and that then life is better and stronger for the living?
“Sure, that’s it,”said Philemon, nodding, his smile warm and friendly.
“And that the horse’s soul is still there, and then it passes into the people who are there right close to it, and they profit from its goodness and beauty?”
“That’s even better.” Philemon paused. “Look, my friend” he said, the hammer hanging at his side. “The truth is I don’t really believe in all that. I believe in God, although you don’t see me in the church very often.” He stopped for a moment. “But you know, my wife believes in it. My third wife,” he added, grinning. “She believes that’s why all her children lived. The goodness of animals. The innocence of horses. That’s the word I use.” There was another pause. “But I think it’s because I married her young and strong.
“And pretty?” .
“Yes, very pretty!” The old man laughed and reached into his breast pocket and fished out a squashed package of cheap Alas.
“Do you smoke?”he asked, and fumbled one out.
“Good! You’re still young.”
And then he lit up, the match, his hand trembling, and they sat with the sun on their backs, listening some more to the big sound of cattle moving in water.
Just then the boys pass by again on their roller blades, ignoring their sister’s pleas to wait for her. Jon rested his hand the cold stone of the bench, then leaned forward and got up and realized that His wife was standing right in front of him, studying his face, and holding two large ripe and blushing mangos for him to smell. And then he put his arms around her and held her tight and felt the warmth of her body, but also the two mangos she was pressing against his back, like the young breasts she had pressed against him when they were young.