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Tuesday, January 1, 2013

No Mercy for Dogs Part 9

By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

Part 8 can be read here

I woke up early the following morning, earlier even than the congregation of chickens living next door. Having recently learned that "pollo” was Mexican slang for an immigrant, I drowsily contemplated that perhaps I should have claimed a birth in the stall belonging to the "king." One whiff of the stench emanating from their den was enough to convince me that I had chosen wisely when I moved in with Blackie. I suppose from a certain snobbish perspective, one could still say that living in a roofless barn with 120 lbs. of frisky Labrador was hardly any better than rooming with a bunch of fowl, but, as George Orwell said, some animals are more equal than others. I was pretty sure, all things considered that Blackie was not going to kill and eat me in my sleep. Who can say what exists in the scratch-and-peck mind of a bird? The collective racial memory of several billion KFC value meals, that‘s what. If you have ever seen what happens if you place a speck of red paint on any member of a flock, you will understand why the avian mind is not to be trusted.

The ice-cold well water was proving to be the most ruthlessly efficient alarm clock I had ever experienced. I was still not quite sure what to make of the impotence of Montezuma's revenge, however. I had by this point, been drinking Mexican well water for several days, not to mention bathing in it for weeks. If microbe-induced misery was lurking in the shadows, I had no explanation for why it had not struck yet. The cold water made my emerging beard itch annoyingly, but as cliché as it seems, I felt safer obscuring the sharp and perhaps identifiable lines of my jaw. Exactly how long I intended to let it grow or what I could do to mask the patch of white eyelashes that grow naturally above my right eye, I hadn't decided yet.

My first mission of the day was to tether the three horses to something stable in the pasture. All night I had fretted about how I was going to tow, drag, or otherwise coerce them to leave the comfort and safety of the ranch. In a land where basically nothing had conformed to my expectations, I should have guessed that the trouble was going to be in keeping them from bolting all at once.

Aside from lugging water out to their trough, I hadn't had much contact with my equine neighbors. I had seen them grazing in the back pasture since I arrived, but having had little experience with animals of their size, I kept my distance. Still, I enjoyed watching the carefree rhythm of their gait as they ran, and the way they flicked their ears to (presumably) dislodge insects. Observing them now from the safety of my cabin, I decided that I would try to divide and conquer, and that my first target would be the largest of the lot, the huge white stallion, which I assumed to be "El Blanca." Even for a person totally devoid of even the tiniest vestige of the cowboy gene, I could tell that he was an impressive beast. He looked like the sort of thing that a knight would ride to the Holy Land, draped in shining mail. I reasoned that he was probably the leader of the pack, and that if the others saw me dominating him, they would be easier to control. It was a nice plan. It was also a stupid one.

Once I had gathered several long ropes from the supply shed, I started walking towards a group of mesquite trees under which the herd usually slept. Three different heads came up in unison and looked my direction as I approached. Before I had gotten within 50 feet of them the smallest of the three trotted out to meet me. This creature was pretty much the perfect antipode to the big white: short, squat (actually, he was kind of dumpy, to be honest with you), and covered in a pastiche of unattractive shades of brown fur; his face was the ugliest part of the whole package, with a set of downturned brows that made him look like he was always squinting. I wasn't sure which he was supposed to be - he could easily be El Marrano or El Bastardo - but considering how stocky he was, I suspected the former.

Since he had intercepted me and basically barred my path with his girth, I reached out tentatively to rub his nose. He shook his head violently, and my hand fell away quickly. Ok, I thought, screw you. I moved to step around him, but to my great surprise he once again moved to block my way. Um...ok. I paused, thinking that maybe he had changed his mind about a rubdown, but when I extended my hand he again whipped his head to the side and simply stared at me again.

This was not going according to plan. I had no idea that horses have personalities just as well-developed as dogs, but I was starting to suspect that this one didn't particularly like my kind. I thought about attempting to rope him first, but I really wanted to get to the big one before they got spooked and ran off. After pondering the situation for a moment, I began to move to my left towards a large bush. At the last moment, I dashed right, slipping past my foe. Yeah, I thought to myself smugly, that's homo sapiens sapiens, horse. That means two times the "wise." El Blanca did not try to run as I approached, and let me slowly rub his neck and haunches as I tied a thick rope around him. I was aware of El Marrano sulking behind me, but I was mostly fascinated with the feel of Blanca's skin and hair and paid him little attention. This changed immediately when he bit the back of my left thigh.

I think I must have jumped about three vertical feet in the air, spinning around mid-flight. I am absolutely, positively, 100% certain that I didn't shriek like a girl. Completely, totally certain. Anyone who says otherwise is a lying liar. The horse that had decided to take a nip out of my suddenly-less-than-two-times-the-wise thigh stepped back from me, the look on his face one of total shock. If I didn't know better, I'd swear that he was trying to broadcast the idea of "who, me? I didn't do anything."

"Ok," I murmured, rubbing the back of my leg gingerly. "Two things: you are going to go first from now on, and if you ever do that shit again, I will find a glue factory to ship you off to, me entiendes?" He seemed deliriously excited to have me tying a rope around his neck, and it dawned on me that I had probably gotten the labeling catastrophically wrong from the very beginning: if this wasn't El Bastardo, I'd eat my hat.

Once I had the three roped securely, they all started towards the main gate at once, practically dragging me in their wake. They seemed to take a perverse sort of pleasure in crisscrossing their paths, and, try as I might, I could not keep the lines from tangling. By the time we reached the gate, the mess of them looked like a bird's nest.

"You are the worst freaking Texan in the history of humankind, you know that, Whitaker?" The horses mostly agreed with my assessment, stamping impatiently while I disentangled the lines. It took me 90 minutes longer than it had any right to, but eventually I managed to get the three attached securely to the toughest shrubbery I could find. Since pretty much every plant native to northeastern Mexico comes replete with a healthy provision of thorns and otherwise pointy appendages, my fingers and my forearms were soon able join my thigh in the growing list of body parts which were not happy with the current management.

A touch weary before I even began, I returned to the ranch to grab my satchel and dictionary. I had only a general idea of Cerralvo's layout, but I felt fairly confident that I could locate the cement plant, from which I ought to be able to see the town's main radio tower, which sat right to one side of the Plaza Grande.

This is pretty much what happened, though the journey took me half an hour longer than I had expected. I arrived at the door to Pallas Athena's temple sweaty and exhausted, which is perhaps the proper attitude to have when searching desperately for a deus ex machina. To my great surprise and pleasure, the air that greeted me upon my entrance to the library was blessedly cool and artificially crisp. Even if I learned nothing today, at least that nothing would be toyed with and sifted through in the embrace of air conditioning. I had, indeed, come to town. I cannot imagine what the librarian must have thought of me on the day of my first visit. I doubt very seriously that she had many gringos wash up on her little stretch of coast with any frequency, especially ones barely capable of stammering out half-memorized requests for children's literature. I can only hope that an American librarian would be half as kind to a Mexican as this Mexican was to me. Somehow, I seriously doubt it.

Once she ferreted out my intent, she led me past an orderly front desk to a short hallway, which in turn led to the door of the library's main chamber. This space was not large, consisting of a few thousand books laid out in sequence on wooden shelves that lined the walls. The entire area of the room was perhaps 50 by 75 feet, and the center of this space was taken up by several rows of wooden tables. Halogen lights bathed the entire room in clean, white light, and I recall thinking that all of this seemed somehow shockingly modern. You lose civilization far faster than you realize, as uncomfortable a thought as that may be.

The librarian led me first to a bank of books on the far wall and began speaking in an extremely slow cadence, as though talking to the mentally retarded. The initial wave of shame and embarrassment only multiplied as I realized that I hadn't really understood a thing she had said. Suddenly flooded with a desire to be a thousand miles away from another human being, I thanked her with as much proficiency as I could muster, and moved towards the stacks to my left. She stared at me for a moment with a confused smile before walking off. I think she paused to look back at me when she neared the door, but I pretended not to pay attention. As soon as I was certain she was gone, I closed my eyes and leaned my head against a shelf. My head ached, and I wished the moment would pass. Books over people, imagined worlds over real ones, I thought. It's always been like this. How could a person get this irredeemably broken in so little time?

The shelves supporting my entire universe turned out to contain books far too advanced for me, and it took me several minutes before I found a series of racks lined with the most rudimentary titles imaginable. I took several of these to a table near the back corner and sat down facing the door. From my satchel I produced my dictionary and a notebook, and began the laborious task of translating the Spanish equivalent of Go Dog Go.

Over the next six hours, I returned to the stacks numerous times, beset with the conflicting emotions of frustration and cautious optimism. It didn't take me long to figure out that this was going to be tougher than I had imagined. I had only the faintest concept of the task at hand, as if sensing more than seeing a great body of water through a thick fog. Perhaps I had taken a step or two closer towards this immense presence, and whatever clarity I had gained had shown me that what I was approaching was not a lake but a sea. That I would have to, one day, walk the entire shoreline before I could feel safe in this place was terrifying. And I had so little time to become once again hypnotized by language, so little time ....

For starters, it appeared that there were two bloody Spanish verbs for "to be." One, ser, seemed to hold sway when dealing with enduring situations, like origins, relationships, physical attributes, date and time, and possession. The other, estar, dealt with short-term situations, locations, and the results of some action. Verbs seemed to come in infinitive forms of three varieties, differentiated by -ar, -er, and -ir endings. Once you mentally selected the verb you wanted to use in a sentence, you had to conjugate it to fit the tense needed. Had I known then just how many tenses exist in the romance languages, I probably would have gone home and never returned. As much as I have come to hate it, sometimes ignorance is all that stands between us and a very well-reasoned suicide.

At half-past-three my quiet little cocoon was stepped on by the arrival of at least 15 elementary aged children. They came on like a swarm, their uniforms crisp and clean and probably the nicest thing most of them owned. All in all, I decided that they were probably far better behaved than my friends had been at their age. It didn't help matters that they were taking books off of shelves that I had already deemed to be far too advanced for me.

A short time later, as I was engrossed in the exciting travails of a pink bunny rabbit named Carlos, I felt a slight tug on my shirt and looked to my left to find a child of perhaps 9 or 10 staring intently at me. I didn't understand her first comment to me, save for the word "ninos," which I knew to mean children. I looked down at the book opened in front of me, and decided that she was probably asking me what I was doing with a book made for little kids.

Ok, let's try this out, I thought, before opening my mouth. "Yo...soy...Americano. No hablo espanol, y...y..." I stumbled, trying to recall the verb for "to learn". Instead of waiting for me to finish, she took of running back towards the other group of kids, some of whom were looking furtively in my direction. Shit. Did I say something offensive, I wondered quickly, trying to figure out what I would do if the child summoned the police. Instead of bringing the heat, she raced back to me lugging a large book on English grammar, which she plunked down on the table next to me. She settled into the chair to my left, one unbroken chain of verbiage pouring from her tiny mouth. I couldn't help but marvel a little at how confident she seemed, how un-self-conscious. Had I ever been so carefree? I didn't think so. Tugging on my shirt again, she pushed her book towards me and pointed at the open page. I looked around again before reading the sentence out loud.

"Shirley...goes...to...the...store."

She stared at me for a moment before trying it on for herself.

"Sheerlee...goos...to...thee...stoor."

"In Spanish?"

I was able to pick out "I don't know" from her response, so I started trying to find each word in the dictionary, pausing to write each down as I went along. She paid special attention to my handwriting, though I couldn't say why

"Ok...Shirly...ir...a...la...tienda...

"No, no, tonto," she interrupted me. "Sheerlee ya a la tienda."

I started to laugh at her nerve for having called me a dummy.

"Tonto?' I smiled, somehow totally disarmed by this little creature. "Tonto? Yo soy un tonto?" She laughed at this, nodding vigorously, and it didn't escape me that she was pretty much correct in her assessment.

We went through her book for about 45 minutes, pausing for me to look up words and have my mistakes corrected. I would, at times, hold up my hand and correct her pronunciation. The librarian eventually entered the room, and seemed surprised to see the two of us sitting together. I instantly worried about how this might look, but an immense smile lit up her face, and she came over to listen to us for a spell. She fell into the program herself after a few minutes, correcting some of my mistakes as well.

This entire scenario was beyond my wildest imaginings, and I was bathed in the strangest sensation of being genuinely cared for without reason, as if something immense had caught me up and had begun to weave me into a galactic weave beyond my conception. It felt wonderful, but at the same time I couldn't shake the knowledge that none of these people would consent to sit in the same room as me if they knew what I had done with my life.

Still, in America the sight of a little girl befriending some random adult male in a public place would have been met with suspicion, to say the least. Whatever its flaws, I think it was at this moment that I first came to love Mexico, to feel more at home there than I ever did in Texas.

Eventually, our little trio was broken up by the arrival of my pseudo-brother Pedro. He was obviously a fixture here, because the younger kids all crowded around him vying for his attention after he walked in. He approached our table with a confused look on his face, and I quickly explained what was going on. He, in turn, told the librarian who I was and proper introductions were finally made. The librarian was actually a part-time teacher named Rosa, the precocious child the daughter of the owner of the hotel found on the Plaza Grande. Her name was Alicia.

Pedro explained to me that these kids were part of an after-school program, and it was his responsibility to walk each of them home. It was such a relief to be able to communicate with someone that I agreed to go with him. The kids lined up in what appeared to be a very specific order, and called out numbers starting with "uno" and ending with "catorce."

I could see parts of his father in Pedro, such as in his serious, this-is-not-a-game way of looking at the world. At the age of 12, he was already touched by a deep spirit of wariness, a quiet man as well as a shy one. I saw much of myself in the lad as well, and it did not surprise me in the least that a bond formed between us. He had developed a route through town that seemed totally optimized, and each child was placed in an order such that the leader was always the next to arrive at home. He would wait until each was safely inside before moving the group along, and traversing a major street, would watch over the crossing like a hawk. `

As he moved through his circuit, I would pick out objects for him to translate for me. His English was really excellent, he explained that his mother had lived in Texas for years, had required him to be bilingual from the very beginning. His bane, it seemed, was mathematics.

"What are you studying in school?" I asked, out of curiosity.

“Algebra."

"Ah, now you are speaking my language."

"I thought English was your language."

"No... I mean, yes, but...it's like a saying. It means I'm good at math." I replied, adding "smartass" to the end of my sentence when I saw the crooked smile forming on his lips. That, too, reminded me of his father. "You want me to help you with that, or what?"

In response, he invited me to dinner, and though I was pretty exhausted by this point, I accepted. I felt that any time with Pedro would be vastly more informative and educational than time spent studying by myself. On top of that, I was actually pretty desperate to do something nice for someone, for a change. This is a real desire in all people, I am convinced, though we forget it for various reasons.

Beyond that, his offer would also present me with a different type of information, what in times of war might be called "high-quality human intelligence." In addition to the language, I needed to learn all I could about the Hammer, and who better to fill in the gaps than one of his mistresses? This was playing with fire, and I knew that he would find out about my visit. But he needed to know that I had abilities, too. Hopefully, he would see my ability to worm into his life as a useful commodity to have in an associate. If not, then some piece of data I learned that night might be useful in escaping the gravity of his dying star.



Thomas Bartlett Whitaker #999522
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351
USA


TCADP 2013 Annual Conference
“Changing the Conversation”
Saturday, February 23, 2013
St. Edward’s University 8:00am - 5:30pm
3001 South Congress Avenue  Austin, Texas

Click on the link to download the flyer and registration form!

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