My madrina and I right away got a truckload of watermelons from a neighboring rancho, to keep us hydrated for the two months we’d be working. We—me being a twelve-year-old boy but strong like a freaking tiger homie, she being my fifty-year-old godmother, XXL because her meals had lard plus no small amount of fixings . . . she made me think of pozole but damn she was fast, with that ability to move through cornstalks like the mysterious wind itself. We—she and I—were tasked with tending my uncle’s rancho: four acres of dried-out cornstalks, an adjacent field of unused dirt, plus a rasquache-ass barracks system.
Cramped into the rancho’s northwest corner, these animal barracks were a mess of scrap lumber, chicken wire, corrugated tin panels, plastic buckets, pallets, metal pipes welded, all geometric patterns resembling fences. In their confines were potbelly pigs (black), regular pigs (pink), two ostriches, a squadron of goats, an old skinny horse, chickens everywhere, cute rabbits, big big-bootied geese, too many cows, and the meanest-looking pit who ever lived chained to a tree trunk. The foo’s name was Vaga.
Our first day on the job made us make sure enough feed was stored in six cylindrical tambos. Propped up on pallets, these things like canisters stood near the barracks’ dead center. I didn’t even have to peer inside. They were overbrimming with garbanzos, dry whitish-brown little beans. In my hands, they were pebbles. Eating one would crack some molars.
“That food’s not for us,” my madrina said. “For us there are watermelons, and I have for you some surprises in the kitchen of the little trailer.”
She was always feeding me, my madrina was. Yeah, she was always feeding everyone, but she knew my little secret: I loved her food more than my mother’s. Her jamaica water was ultra-sweet, a million things swam in her soup broths, and one handmade tortilla was enough to fill me with goose bumps.
“And what are we going to eat today?” I said.
“Today we have to work,” she said. “Now fill two buckets and take them to the goats.”
She disappeared behind the chicken houses, and I thought to myself, Strong. I have to be strong and help my madrina. I felt the white sun in the sky, felt the earth bake my sneakers, my nostril hairs inhaling dust, animal crap, the grassy green alfalfa. It was all my first job, and even though there’d be no money, I felt like a person for the first time.
So I grabbed the first bucket in sight. It was blue and plastic and big enough to fit five piglets. On top of the stepladder I balanced myself and filled it from a tambo. The thing was too heavy, so I returned half and inched my way to the ground again, then wide-step danced toward Goat Land, half a bucketful of garbanzos hanging between my knees. At the border between Rabbit Cages and Goat Land, I was supposed to dump contents only, but because I had to heave the thing onto my shoulder, when I finally leaned forward to dump, the bucket fell in too. It landed on its side, a trail of garbanzos splattering dirt, which was already muddied with hay and goat poop.
The greedy goats stampeded like hungry customers. Then they started eating, crunch crunch crunching those beans like cereal. There were twelve goats, children included, all varying shades of black, white, and brown. Even the mostly brown ones had patches of white, black had brown, and all like that mixed up. For some reason their eyes had yellow irises, and the pupils were sideways, like bold hyphens.
It was my first time feeding them, feeding any animal ever, and while I felt like we were friends, I didn’t know if they’d be cool with me just hopping in and interrupting. Breakfast is important. I was scared of getting kicked or bit or headbutted.
That’s when I saw it. It was standing at the far end of the pen, almost camouflaged against a backdrop of charcoal gray plywood, as if someone had positioned it for a photo. Thicker and taller, its neck was wide and massive, like you’d have to chainsaw sever through. Its coat was black and shaggy, like a mountain goat’s. On its head, cannon horns were curled into spirals. That creature was a ram.
It looked like a ram from my animal encyclopedia, except this one was black, had proportions of a llama, the white face paint of a gazelle.
Why does my uncle have a ram? I thought to myself, then remembered: the kooky ostriches, the superfat potbelly pigs, mysterious manifestations of my uncle’s twisted imagination, his longing for an empire established here, en los Estados Unidos, not México, never México again.
The ram approached the horde, walking regally, its hooves clawing the ground.
“What kind of sheep are you?” I said.
The other goats shooed away. The ram lowered its mammoth head, began to peck from the pile. Behind it I noticed were balls, globular testicle things, almost to the ground.
“You’re a beast,” I said.
He, the ram, kept eating.
My uncle had acquired the rancho in a last-minute move of the old transa dance: dude who owned it died, uncle convinced somehow the family (who didn’t even speak Spanish) that he and owner dude were brothers. Tears happened. My uncle became Innocence. Hugs and handshakes happened. In the end, they sold it to him cheap.
For it was dirt my uncle loved.
But that summer he’d trekked to Canada for that other thing he loved: feria.
What happened was this: a Canadian grower dude needed workers for his roses near Toronto, and since Wasco, California, was officially the country’s rose capital, the Canadian located my uncle, the region’s fastest injertador. That is: he was a worker who injected rose plants with genes from a stalk. The process was delicate. It had to be done at a certain time of year. A snip was made to the rootstock’s stem, then filled by the end of the adjoining stalk, finally bandaged together by a rubber band. Thus producing: red Loving Memory, white Princess of Wales, orange Paddy Stephens, violet Purplelicious.
It wasn’t the easiest field work around, but the more plants you finished, the more you got paid—sometimes up to two cents per plant, allowing the most skilled workers to earn upwards of one hundred dollars in one day.
My brutish uncle somehow in his training found a way to grasp efficiency with his hands, becoming a cash cow for his abilities. He would ravage those rose fields, leaving everyone behind in their furrows. At the end of day’s count, he’d win first place every day, though some days he’d allow someone younger and ambitious to creep ahead of him, if only to instill confidence and the illusion of progress. The next day, my uncle would rise to his former stature and crush his opponent anew, thereby accomplishing a challenge he himself had orchestrated. Such a stud like this was valuable, and my uncle knew his worth.
The day White Bill illegally showed up to the rose fields, he was driven off by the foreman, a mustached man who had a shotgun and knew exactly the kind of games recruiters played. White Bill had to wait on the outskirts of the rose fields until my uncle cruised by in a sedan filled with a motley crew of the most determined-looking vatos.
My uncle said, “Buenas tardes.”
Then White Bill, who had foreign features (German), proceeded to lay the cards on the table, while my uncle’s face remained stoic and disgusted, like he was smelling something disagreeable but didn’t know where it was coming from. The distinguishing feature of my uncle was his hair. It was always powdered with gray dust, contrasting with how sheen and spruced the rest of his face was—shimmering healthy skin, no facial hair to speak of, chiseled features on nose and cheeks, a dictator’s mouth.
“It does interest me what you’re saying,” my uncle said. “But the problem of distance remains.”
They were parked on the dirt shoulder of Highway 46, which led into town and was buffered by miles of pink roses singing glory from their stems. The smell of a dead skunk was near. The men were sweating from work still, and tall skinny Bill was in uniform: tight blue jeans plus a long collared shirt. He’d left his sombrero in his truck.
Eventually, Bill offered gas money, free housing, and six cents paid for every plant that was finished.
“Now we’re talking,” my uncle said, then indicated the other workers in his car.
“But I won’t go,” he continued. “If I can’t bring my team.”
His team was other uncles plus a teenaged throng of my cousins. The reasoning was that one person couldn’t do a whole field by himself. That person was actually the driver of the other workers. Bill must’ve known how worker dynamics could either bolster or corrupt the whole enterprise.
“Está bien,” he said. “We have a deal.”
Trabajo, chamba, labor. My uncle and other uncles drove home that day talking the type of shit only winners can pronounce.
“You fucked him beautifully,” they told my uncle. “You surpassed yourself.”
They all soon after that packed themselves into cars and vroom vroomed four thousand kilometers, listening to corridos all the way probably, smelling like ass from burgers plus no showers, into the unlikely province of Toronto’s outskirts. Canada.
With the nest cleared of roosters, my madrina came knocking on my door, asking if I wanted to work at the rancho. I right away put my old sneakers on, told my mom bye, bye bye bye, let my little brothers in on the good news (they didn’t have to worry about me hogging the PlayStation one more summer), and locked myself inside my madrina’s little truck.
When she finally got in the driver’s seat, I snapped my seatbelt on, wanting the truck to peel out, wanting black smoke to explode from the exhaust pipe, wanting to yell at my neighbors, “See you later, sons of the dick!”
But as soon as we were set, my madrina pat-patted my knee. She said, “Ready? Let’s go.”
And she petered off slow like, both hands on the wheel, her brown-red hair not a problem. It was cut close to her head like a man’s. On the radio a ballad by Ana Gabriel was playing, and even though it was morning the furious sun was working double time.
So there we were, going, in that little truck with the two bucket seats, leaving the town’s city limits, now entering rural outskirts, cruising past Wasco State Prison, turning right at North Kern Elementary, now heading north on Gun Club Road, stopping for watermelons, more cruising, past fields of almond trees and shrubby plants I couldn’t even name at the time, finally arriving to the rancho, the place my working life began.
Before long, we settled into a morning routine: replenishing the water troughs, dishing out shares of garbanzo and alfalfa, harvesting chicken eggs, playing Tetris with the barracks so that the horse, ram, goats, cows, and ostriches could exercise in the big field, but never at the same time for some reason.
It was slow work and peaceful. Most of the time, my madrina and I were in separate parts of the barracks, coalescing with our animals. I became attached to the goats. The ram was mysterious, marvelous, beautiful to me. I couldn’t understand its furies. I didn’t know the temperature of its armpits. I wanted to check its tongue for color/texture. Why was it sleepy sad sometimes? And why other times was it a bully that charged its horns into the sides of its pen mates or mounted them like a bull and did the thrust thrust thrust?
One morning, a hairy tarantula was walking. This it was doing across the clods of dirt that lined the barracks’ dead center. There were so many clods, and because the damn sun hadn’t stopped chingándonos como cohetes, the clods were dry. Some of them were as big as softballs. The tarantula had to struggle across these mountains. The good news, which I had learned from Animal Planet, was that arthropod legs had eight to eleven joints that allowed them to scurry over uneven surfaces. If a tarantula was the size of Godzilla, it could sprint across the downtown L.A. skyline in less than a second. Then it would say, “That was easy. Is that the hardest city there is around here? Man, I’m done with this game.”
Leaving my post near Goat Land, I decided to follow the tarantula with a bucket, wanting to capture it and examine its exoskeleton (for Scientist was my number-one career choice at the time). I also wanted to know what it was like to kill something (for Soldier was number two). So I had a bucket in one hand and a machete in the other, ready for striking. I had already practiced and perfected on a now-dead piece of leña from firewood my uncle kept precisely where the tarantula was now creeping: by the space between the trailer and the tool shed, where also Vaga—that nasty old pit bull—lived in her own piss y mierda.
Hell no, I wasn’t getting near that foo. Not even with a machete. Homegirl was ferocious!
So, beyond the tree where Vaga was tied to, the tarantula crossed the wire fence into the neighboring field of cotton (forever exempt from probing eyes).
So, so there I was—standing between the trailer to my left, the tool shed to my right, and a few feet in front of me old Vaga, snoring like a puma, flies orbiting above her eyes and snout. She was all brown with a patch of white over one eye. Her fur was matted, greasy with dog sweat, not huggable. Crusty turds, some fresher than others, speckled the ground between us. Above us, tree branches provided shade.
I was scared but stepped closer, skillfully avoiding Vaga’s landmines. Her radar hadn’t registered tarantula footsteps, but now my stealthy sneakers awakened her, and first one eye, then the other, then her whole body shook and she ran to attack me.
I ran. During my escape, I felt something scrape my elbow and when I was far enough, brave enough, I turned around and saw that Vaga’s rope hadn’t snapped. She was still harnessed to the tree, but starry-eyed now with sadness and whimpering like a child, like a dog that’s just been kicked.
My elbow, it was bleeding. Maybe it was the heat. Maybe it was the inordinate amount of cortisol flooding my central nervous system. For whatever reason, I fainted then and there, didn’t even have a chance to say bye.
When I came to, my madrina was standing over me, blotting the sun with her largeness. At first, all I could see was her heavy presence, though I knew she was holding something wet with rubbing alcohol near my nose. I could smell it, and sometimes its frigidity pressed against my upper lip. The motherfucking sun was still oppressive, thoroughly cooking me, so I closed my eyes again, then realized how thirsty my mouth and throat were.
I pushed myself up to a sitting position. My head hurt like a bitch. In front of me, I started seeing rainbows dancing on invisible networks, the contours of air itself. I thought to myself, Damn. Here we go. Round Two. But then the sparkles went away, and I was left with just my headache, smelling rubbing alcohol, not knowing if it was helping or making it worse. In any case, I was awake again.
“You gave yourself a good fall,” my madrina said. “I was watching you over there from where I was.”
“Esto vale verga,” I said, feeling groggy, forgetting my usual manners.
My madrina, she laughed.
“And where did those little words come from?”
She was wearing a purple bandana wrapped across her forehead. It was drenched with sweat and her face too was slick. I realized I wasn’t sweating.
“I feel bad,” I said. “Forgive me, but that is why the words are coming out nacas.”
“I’m not going to tell your uncle,” she said.
“Now,” she continued. “Raise yourself. Let’s see if you can. You need to eat something before you die of fright once again. And what exactly did you think to do with the pitiful Vaga? The poor old dame suffers sufficiently.”
“Nothing,” I said. “I was persecuting a tarantula—it was this big, look—I wanted to trap it in a bucket, but it escaped. That’s why I crossed the line close to Vaga.”
“And then you ran,” my madrina said. “Like a cockroach.”
She laughed again, loud, like a drunk, like the happiest godmother in the world.
“And what would you have done?” I said.
It was all so absurd, the little fright I had given myself.
“Oh, but just look,” my madrina said. “Your arm, it’s carved up like a chicken.”
My forearm was covered with blood. The flowing had dripped from the elbow, which was now just a dark clot. I didn’t feel pain, so I got up and followed my madrina to the trailer, where we usually had our midday meal. I had never felt so hungry. But I’m probably just exaggerating. It was my first time fainting and everything, you know? I was proud of it.
Inside the trailer space was tight, but what excuse had my madrina ever given about why she couldn’t cook every day? She had none, only reasons. She had to feed herself plus her children (grown now, but still). And always the hungry ghost of my uncle ordering food between work shifts. She knew how to make everything: enchiladas, corundas, tamales, uchepos, salsas, arrozes, aguas, licuados, champurrado, buñuelos, panes, frijoles charros, quesadillas de todo y lo que sea, tacos de lo mismo, en fín todo todito.
That day she sautéed greasy pork chorizo in a pan then added a few eggs from our collection. The smoky smell of chile and spices from the chorizo made my mouth water. I started feeling like if I ate enough I could go outside and teach Vaga to sit.
“Is there ketchup here?” I asked.
“Look there in the fridge,” my madrina said.
I opened the fridge door and damn: there was a giant cow head looking at me with dead eyes, its limp tongue hanging out from its mouth, which was lined with teeth that still looked healthy. The cow’s head skin had been cut away so all I saw was the white and pink sinews of tissue and muscle. It smelled, worse than a live one.
On the fridge door’s little shelves were condiments that included mayonnaise, a strawberry jam jar filled with green salsa, Salvadoreño-style crema, and a small bottle of Del Monte brand ketchup. I closed the fridge door and sat down, lathered my eggs with ketchup.
“Did you see the head of Leti?” my madrina said.
She was sitting across from me, scooping her eggs and chorizo with pieces of tortilla. She wasn’t using ketchup.
“That was the cow’s name?”
“Yes,” my madrina said. “But don’t tell your uncle.”
“Why? Did you kill and butcher Leti without his knowing?”
My madrina, she laughed with her mouth full of food.
“Of course not,” she said. “I don’t want him to know. He doesn’t believe animals should have names.”
At the little table we were sitting at, next to it was a window that looked out to the tree by the tool shed. Vaga was lying in the shade, her head resting on paws. She was looking in our direction, smelling the chorizo. I knew because dog noses can smell at a capacity six times greater than humans, and the chorizo, even I could discern, was the smelliest shit around.
“Vaga has a name,” I said.
“She’s a perra,” my madrina said. “All perras have names.”
Like lightning, rain happened that day—clouds appeared as if from nowhere, then the whole world quenched. Dust stuck obedient to the ground. There was mud. It was beautiful.
My madrina and I didn’t know what to do except stay inside the trailer, drinking coffee and eating lemon cookies. Almost immediately, she fell asleep on the foldaway bed. I sat at the little table and watched the window that looked out to the barracks. It was framed by a thin panel of wood, cracked in places but holding itself together somehow.
The big animals—ostriches, cows, horse, ram, goats, all except the pigs—took shelter under awnings of tin sheets and plastic tarps, five-star accommodations afforded to them by my uncle’s genius engineering. Elsewhere, the chickens had their own coop, the rabbit cages were covered with plywood, and the geese that roamed free found shelter under tractors. One crazy goose just ran around flapping raindrops off its wings.
It was a cool setup. I had to give my uncle credit, contriving barracks from scraps he’d found during drives in the countryside. He was super resourceful. I wanted to be like him. Only one week into my job—the first of my life ever—and already I was feeling good, committed to the rancho.
After finishing my coffee, I ate an extra tablespoon of sugar. When I washed that down with whatever was left in my madrina’s cup, I started feeling inquieto—wanting to move around. My madrina was snoring like Snorlax. So I opened the fridge door again, squeezed ketchup on my palm, licked it up slurp, then patted my hand against Leti’s cheek.
She was ice cold, colder than ketchup, colder than lettuce. Her eyes felt like catfish eyes but thicker, more dead, and the teeth on her jaws were harder than any I’d ever felt. For a split second, I imagined her rabid, biting my hand, me having to punch her nose or grab her gills in order to get her to release. But no such thing happened. She wasn’t a dog. She wasn’t a shark. She was a cow, and we were just messing around with each other like playground friends. Then she showed me her tongue again. It was the size of a salmon.
I was again standing watch at the border between Rabbit Cages and Goat Land, hydrating with a slice of watermelon so jugosa that its juices overbrimmed from my lips. My tee shirt, it was just a plain white tee, grimy, manchada con lodo from the dirt of recent rain. Every two bites, I’d pull the collar over the lower half of my face, swipe the corners of my mouth, scrub the skin on my hairless barbilla. Rugged, sucio, trabajador—I was becoming this type of persona.
At the moment, I was taking my first fifteen with my favorite animal friends: the twelve goats plus the ram. The ram, como siempre, was up to no good: freaking a white goat that day. It was like a big kid humping a teddy bear. Strange thing about homie’s mating habit: he would mount and thrust, dismount, wait, do it again. It was as if he was teasing himself or the girl. I didn’t understand.
“What are you seeing?” my madrina said from somewhere behind me.
I turned and saw her. She was holding a slice of watermelon.
“Good afternoon,” I said.
“Good morning,” she corrected. “It isn’t noon yet.”
She joined me in taking our first break. Unlike me, she wiped her mouth with a blue bandana. It was like the kind Sureños wore in town. In Arvin, Bakersfield, Delano, everywhere those trece foos stayed G’d up from the feet up. My madrina of course wasn’t affiliated. She was just straight up señora.
“We have a grave problem,” she said.
Oh shoot. Something alarming. As soon as I heard, I knew that Death was near.
“Someone is going to die,” I said.
La Muerte was all around. The señoras in my family could feel it.
“We all have to die,” my madrina said. “The problem of today is that last night something entered from beneath the fence. It has left that poor perra almost dead.”
I remembered how just the day before I had crept up on Vaga while she was sleeping, and I couldn’t possibly imagine her being defeated in a fight. She was vicious, with a strain of muscles so yoked she could win first place in a bully show. I felt scared of whatever monstruo had attacked her, started spinning my head around looking for coyotes or pumas or lobos. I saw nothing unusual, except for a fat goose standing stiffly still and staring at me as if it were about to say something. It didn’t say anything.
“What are we going to do?” I said, returning my attention to my madrina.
“You are going to finish your watermelon,” she said. “Then give the rind to these goats and follow me.”
She turned around and started marching, chucking the green rind over her shoulder like a G. It landed inside Goat Land. Those greedy beards, they couldn’t resist a fresh kill. They jumped that watermelon rind in, didn’t look like it was going to survive the beat down.
Me, I wasn’t done with mine. Not wanting to disappoint, I underhand tossed it over the fence. It landed a few feet away from my madrina’s. There were now two teams of A and B, each fighting for the rinds of a heavenly sandía.
As we trudged north-northwest, smells shifted from the sour fumes of goats, to the vomit-like slops of pig, through a general cochinada of chicken feathers, milky ostrich shit, nitrous cow juice. All the smells were gelling, steaming in the bacterial monkey breath of el sol sin piedad—the unforgiving sun.
Walking across the center sea of dirt clods, we could see the distant outline of Vaga’s body. She was lying on her side, pressed up against the trunk of the tree. She wasn’t moving.
We were approaching slowly, me wielding a spade I’d brought from Goat Land, also sporting the extra white tee I sometimes had folded clean and draped over my left shoulder. Always I put it somewhere safe when I was working dirty, but, since we were just taking a stroll, I decided to wear it and feel gangster. It was just my fashion style. I don’t claim anything. Even if I had tried, those gangster foos were way too freaking scary for me. I just stayed inside and played video games, what can I say?
Ya casi we were arriving to the edge of her perimeter. Our footsteps, the banging of my shovel against dirt, the chiflidos of air I forced through my lips—no alarms stirred her. When we got to her habitat, I started pushing turds away, wanting to clear a path wide enough to walk on.
“You don’t need to do that,” my madrina said. “It doesn’t matter if we step in shit. Don’t you realize that the whole rancho is full of it? We spend our time working among shit. What does it matter if some gets on our shoes?”
Not going to lie. I was afraid. I’d never been friends with a dog before. The first time I tried she bit me. I was still mad about that, and I don’t think she liked me either, so I didn’t really want to help her.
“It’s only that she bit me,” I said. “That hurt a lot.”
“Because you scared her,” my madrina said. “But that was yesterday. Today, aren’t you seeing the condition she’s been left in? Look at her.”
Vaga still wasn’t moving. Her groggy eyes, though: they were blinking every time a fly batted her eyebrows. Yeah, I could see, kind of. Something had scratched her face—it didn’t look right, but I couldn’t tell how serious it was.
“She isn’t going to do anything,” my madrina said. “I’ve already examined her. I only want you to see her before I begin helping her. You are barely getting to know her, but I since she was a puppy have attended to her needs.”
Because I could tell that my madrina was friends with her, even though I wasn’t, I felt bad. I wasn’t trying to be enemies with my madrina’s friends. That wasn’t a good idea. She had that señora power no one could touch. And besides: she was like way too important to me, the only person in my life who ever cared and treated me like a human. She was my main dawgmother. I loved her.
At home, I’d lie awake at night and think of her, the meals she’d give me free, the laughter we did together, me not even knowing how to laugh, learning again, remembering, her strange words and ways of saying them, out of the ordinary, siempre twisting my reality into something better. In the bedroom next to mine, my sick mom would be yelling with the most recent vato who’d moved his chump ass in.
I couldn’t remember my real dad dying, and I couldn’t remember when exactly my mom started hearing voices from other planets, needing medications whose regimens were probably the only thing her stupid boyfriends were ever good for: they made sure she took them and stayed easy. I couldn’t remember loving my brothers, and I couldn’t remember ever having a birthday party or a Christmas party or any party except the ones at school. I couldn’t remember most things about my life, but I knew that where I lived was the saddest house in all of Wasco. Working at the rancho with my madrina, it was a milagro miracle.
“As you say,” I said. “I’m here to help.”
We proceeded into the shade of the tree, and I felt a squishy turd under my left heel, then another on my right, though I wasn’t trying to step on them. I was just walking. Their spongy texture, their earthy fumes, these in truth didn’t disgust me. I liked them. It was the possibility of getting bitten that turned me into a chicken.
When we were there in front of her, she seemed to be not all there. Her eyes were closed, and she looked sad, especially sad because of the cuts. Gashes were streaking her brow, her snout, her floppy ears. Red ribbons, black bows, sharp teeth had hurt our dog. Her front left leg had a tear in the skin that ran from the base of the femur to the tip of the paw. The biggest visible wound, it was a river of blood.
“What are we going to do to her?” I said.
My instinct was peroxide, to prevent gangrene.
“We can start,” my madrina said. “By removing this cord that your uncle has placed upon her.”
Vaga opened her eyelids slowly then, saw us standing there, then closed them again. She seemed tired, as if feeling Death was near.
“Yo lo hago,” I said. “I’ll do it.”
Pruning shears. They had blue rubber handles, grainy black arms. The metal on their head was steel, and their beak had silver navajas. It was uncharacteristic for the rancho to have new things. The other tools I’d seen here were rusted, practically unusable like dust bunnies.
“Do it now,” my madrina said.
In the shade of the tree, we were kneeling in front of Vaga, surrounded by her turds. The smell of urine was fanning our lips. She was lying calmly, and, though distraught, she seemed to know we were there as volunteers. My white clean tee shirt was still draped on my shoulder, and the pruning shears were on the ground and ready for cutting.
“How long has she worn this rope?” I said.
I felt a need to know. Because of her bondage, she hadn’t been able to fully defend herself.
“It’s a story of little grace,” my madrina said. “Your uncle tied her up years ago after her first crime.”
I had already cut the knotted rope away from the tree trunk. All that was left to free her was removing it from her neck.
“The story is,” my madrina continued. “That Vaga once was free to do what she wanted. And what she wanted was to be with your uncle. She followed him every which way.”
She took out her handkerchief, dipped it into the nearby water bowl, shook it lightly. Slowly, she started wiping Vaga’s fur, across her ribcage, on her hairless underbelly, her hind legs.
“Sometimes,” she said, “your uncle would let her sit in the front seat of his truck as if she were a person. They appeared very happy, those two. I would tell him playfully: You love that dog, true?
“And he would deny it, that clever one. He was always searching for the way of escaping reality, of not saying what he truly felt, even if you saw it in his eyes. But I tell you here and now: that hombre loved this perra.”
Taking a cue from my madrina, I slid off my extra tee shirt. It was so white and new and now dipping into the bowl of Vaga’s saliva. I applied my cloth to her biggest wound: the river of blood that marred her left leg. Careful so as not to agitate the open cut itself, I cleaned everywhere else: gently dabbing, then stroking in a downward motion, flowing with the lines of her hairs.
“Y luego?” I said. “And then?”
“Y luego, one day, Vaga was alone and surely feeling hunger from another world. Because she did something she had never done before. She ate one of the animals. And not just any animal. It was a rooster. The very same rooster that fought at ranchos where men go for entertainment. . . drinking, yelling, gambling, many times fighting among themselves, as if the smell of death, the vapors of alcohol, the full volume of music, as if all of this inspires them to want to kill.”
Without the blood, Vaga’s wound didn’t look as bad. It was indeed a river, now trickled into a stream. I continued cleaning, applying my wet tee to the speckled cuts on her face, using the same technique: dabbing, stroking, until the fur was again becoming brown.
“Entonces?” I said. “And so?”
“And so, to these clandestine events your uncle would take a rooster that had never lost a fight. Cleto. That Cleto was a terror, even here on the rancho. No one could get near him. No one tried. Until the day came when he found himself matched against Vaga. No one saw. No one heard. All that was known came later. Vaga was lying on her belly near the center area of these animal pens. She was gripping him with her paws, happily chewing his heart, his guts, his legs. All that could be seen of Cleto’s spirit were his plumes, blowing in the wind with everything else.”
Vaga’s face without the blood looked better. There were spots of cuts sprinkled throughout, but they were the kind that would heal and disappear. The one on her leg, I knew, it was going to need time to recover.
“Y luego, that day, your uncle, who has many defects, his prime one being rage, he beat Vaga with a stick and tied her, then went further. He prohibited me from untying her. He prohibited me from feeding her. He prohibited me from cleaning her space. He sentenced her to death, saying that one day he would kill her.
“In the aftermath of his fury, I obeyed, because your uncle is quick to temper and dangerous besides. But I did not obey him completely. Every time I cooked something with meat in it, I would bring pieces for Vaga to eat. That cruel one would feed her only rice and grains. Any reasonable person knows that dogs eat meat.”
“Is that why you and Vaga are friends?” I said. “Because you give her food with meat in it?”
“No,” my madrina said. “That is not the reason. Vaga and I are friends because we can be.”
I felt like my madrina was inviting me into her circle of secrets, but I wasn’t sure if this meant also that my uncle was becoming our enemy.
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“Your uncle didn’t need to deprive her of meat. He also didn’t need to beat her or tie her up. No one forced him. And it didn’t leave him satisfied either. On the contrary, since that day you could see in him a profound sadness that wasn’t there before. I suspect it had more to do with Vaga than with Cleto.”
I started understanding why my uncle would choose the rose fields over his rancho, would leave my madrina to take care of it instead. The rancho reminded him too much of the past, of becoming enemies with Vaga. He felt guilty about what his rage had done to her, and he was ashamed of not knowing what to do about it. So he went away every day into the rose fields, where all he had to do was work like a donkey. Finishing plants by the thousands became like medicine to him. He got addicted.
“How you yourself are seeing,” my madrina continued. “And to answer your question: Vaga has been here many years now. That ends today. All these years, without his knowing, this perra has eaten better than your uncle has imagined.”
I didn’t hesitate this time, carefully positioned the beak’s lower curve on the nape of her neck. She seemed to know what I was doing. It took three gentle squeezes for the navajas to cut through. The snip was made. Vaga’s body was bare.
For a moment she tried to stand and finally did. Tall and wobbly, she looked at us as if for permission. Then she bowed her head to the water bowl and started drinking—lap lap lapping big gulps, smacking her lips all the while. She yawned and showed us her pit bull mouth. It was as wide as a basketball and lined with teeth—sharp fangs, incisors, molars. And inside that cave, under a ridged pink roof, her pasty tongue was a blanket. At the height of her open jaws, she released a tiny yelp. It sounded like relief. Our bad girl Vaga was free.