‘Twas the Night Before Donkmas

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Some small creature was stirring; could it be a mouse?
There weren’t any stockings because I don’t care:
Festive decor is not quite my affair.

Two dogs were sprawled out all across the big couch
While I couldn’t sleep, which made me a grouch.
I wandered the room in my oversized pants
Quite pleased with the growth of my little houseplants.

When out towards the barn there arose such a clatter,
No doubt, all my critters just wanting to chatter.
Though quite cold out there, I can never resist
Three fuzzy snouts that might need to be kissed.

I pulled on my boots and my rainbow knit hat
(‘Cause really I love a midnight donkey chat.)
When what to my wondering eyes should appear:
But a burst of bright feathers with squawking and fear.

On no! A trash panda with scurrying legs,
I knew in a moment, he’s after them eggs.
More rapid than eagles I flew ‘cross the grass,
“Git git, you racoon, and your big furry @$$!”

He scrambled then two more ran into the woods
As I ran to check on my avian’s goods.
“Now ParmParm, now Gene, and Ron Swanson, you too,
And Dorothy and Pat: thank God you all flew.”

I checked in the box and thank goodness still there:
Were two tiny eggs leaned together with care.
I shuffled the birds right back into their coop
And sang them a song to help them regroup.

Of course all the noise would wake up my three donks,
For just then I heard a loud chorus of honks.
I bid sweet goodnight to my wee sleepy flock
And walked to the barn saying, “yoo-hoo, knock knock!”

Their eyes – how they twinkled! Their ears oh-so merry,
Such kissable noses (despite being hairy.)
They spoke not a word, my darling donks, three:
Bodhi and Bunny and last, Little Tee.

My face super cold, and nose surely rosy,
I stepped in the stall where it was real cozy.
There in that space, being watched by the moon
I (per my usual) hummed them a tune.

I s’posed it was time to try for some sleep,
So I whispered, “Y’all are each other’s to keep–
‘Till later when it’s just a little bit bright.
Merry Christmas to y’all, and to y’all a good night.”

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Whatever this season means for you, I hope it brings you peace. Take care, y’all. – Jess

Party of Five

It’s a bright, brisk Sunday morning where the grass and leaves twinkle with a million drops of dew. I’m reclined on my couch with a cup of cool coffee grateful for the weather being such that I can open the windows and let the fresh country air move through my house. The donkeys are enjoying their breakfast and the birds peck and flutter around their feeder. I take the last sip of my coffee when from outside, I hear a crow. Of course, Ron Swanson the rooster crows all day every day, but this is a different crow. A raspier one. A softer one, like an old car’s coughing engine. It’s struggling. 

I dart over to the window and see Ron Swanson, ParmParm, and Gene along with the ducks, Pat and Dorothy, standing in their normal party of five stance. Ron crows, but it sounds like his usual crow. What did I hear a moment ago?

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I watch for a second longer and then shrug it off—maybe Ron had a bug stuck in his throat. As I turn to drop my mug into the kitchen sink, I hear that raspy crow again. I whip my head around and…huh? I take a few, slow steps towards the window and once more, the raspy crow. And it’s coming from ParmParm. ParmParm, the hen that when we got her, was sexed and confirmed female. 

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As I stand at the window dumbfounded, I begin to recall some odd behaviors from ParmParm within the last month or so. Besides the fact she’s grown substantially, she’s also become a little aggressive, especially towards Ron Swanson and Pat. And oddly enough, about a month ago, she molted (which as I understand it, hens are not supposed to molt until they’re over a year old) and her feathers have since been coming in ridgy and sharp—like rooster feathers. I should note that before this molting, she had typical soft, bland, rounded feathers and was the same size as Gene. Her comb and her waddle have transformed quite suddenly and I have found it all a bit interesting.

Plus, so far as I know, ParmParm has not laid any eggs. I have seen her fluff out and settle into a typical hen position in the nesting box within the coop many times—fluffing her feathers out like she’s laying—but I’ve never found any of her eggs. Gene, however, lays in the box right next to ParmParm’s go-to box and leaves an egg every day. It’s all quite peculiar.

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ParmParm crows again and appears to try and do a mating dance in front of Gene. But as quickly as she starts, she stops and chases a nearby fluttering bug. Ron Swanson crows loudly.

So of course, I quickly drop my mug in the sink and grab my laptop to do some research. I google, “can chickens become roosters?” and other similar questions and by golly, there’s quite a host of articles documenting this very phenomenon whereby hens can be genotypically female but become phenotypically male. Here are some references I found:

https://animals.howstuffworks.com/birds/what-cluck-case-gender-changing-hen.htm

http://www.scoopfromthecoop.com/tag/can-my-hen-become-a-rooster/

https://backyardpoultry.iamcountryside.com/feed-health/spontaneous-sex-reversal-is-that-my-hen-crowing/

It’s been a while now since I’ve heard ParmParm’s crow, so I look outside to see the party of five doing what they always do—migrating around the yard in a group, gobbling up and bickering over bugs. 

I decided to write about this for two reasons: 1) it’s incredibly interesting, something I’ve never heard of and wow, nature is amazing and 2) because I’d love some input from some chicken experts or avian vets out there. I’m considering taking ParmParm to the vet just to see if this is the case, but then I wonder, does it matter? She’s healthy and happy as it is. I guess I just worry that her and Ron Swanson might begin to butt heads and I don’t want injury if I can avoid it. I also don’t know for sure if this is what’s happening, but every behavior and physical change seems to check all the boxes. 

At the end of it all, whether this is what ParmParm is experiencing or not, there are surprises every single day. There’s so much that we don’t know, don’t understand, and don’t recognize and it’s a testament to how vast the world is around us. Something rare could be happening right in our own backyards and as Ferris Bueller once famously and accurately said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” 

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Scatterbrained Showers

Finally, my favorite days. I’ve written about them before: the days where it’s warm in the sun and cool in the shade. On and off I take my flannel shirt as I move across the yard beneath spotted shadows of spring-heavy trees. The ground went from washed out to tangled jungle in a mere handful of days, so I’m tending to her with my myriad of second-hand tools that clink and clank with rusted age. Yard work is my favorite work, especially on temperately blissful days like this one. Like the eager plants around me, I could swear every cell in my body is reaching for the sun.

Bodhi and Tee are playing donkey games in the yard while Bunny stands at the fence  grooming the neighbor’s horse with her teeth. Around my legs, Ron Swanson the Rooster and Trixie the dog chase each other endlessly. This unlikely friendship is one that even the grumpiest of curmudgeons can’t help but smile about. I post about them often on my Instagram, if you’re a ‘grammer.



My last post was a dreary one in which I swore the storms were never going to end. It’s difficult to feel optimistic when the ground is continually washed away along with any real hope for stability and growth while the world around is a blur of colors that you can’t see through clearly even though you want to so badly. And indeed there is more rain in the forecast in the coming week.

But as I stand outside among my funny family of seemingly sunshine-drunk animals and leaves that are practically unfolding before my eyes, I’m reminded that all of this is just an infinite series of small moments. One after another they come, an endless film strip that moves so quickly sometimes, it’s hard to tell what you’re looking at until it’s passed—images already fading softly in your memory.

The sun has dropped behind the trees now with only small bits of light shining through the holes between the leaves as a chill crawls along my arms. I untie the flannel shirt from around my waist and head towards the barn where the donkeys bray because sunset means dinner time and they know I’ll be there with their hay. I always will. I suppose those routines are roots in their own way.

As light slips down the barn walls, I take pause with my donkeys, stretching the fleeting moment as long as I can because with them, I am present. I am here. I am rooted so firmly that no amount of scatterbrained showers can wash me away. Day after day, the donkeys remind me of this. They hold down my kite string when the wind turns wild.

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Like pulling eggs delicately from the chicken coop, I think the best we can do sometimes is pick up one moment at a time as they come, examine them, and tuck them carefully into our apron. Some of the eggs might be bad—it happens—but typically, as long as you’re handling them the right way, they’re going to be just fine.

The Morning Five Foster Donkeys Arrived

In my freshly shined boots and my one pair of jeans without any holes, I’m standing at the edge of the gravel road out in front of the ranch. The sun has only barely peeked over the treetops; it’s morning rays filtering everything in a lively, lemony hue. Little Foot is securely fastened in a toddler hiking pack that’s strapped around my back and he’s saying “ball” over and over again. I’ve unlocked, unlatched and opened one of the larger side gates of our property and am holding the rusting chain that was looped around it in my left hand—it’s ends clanging softly together.  

Although it’s still quite early, the humidity of Texas summer engulfs us in it’s warm-washcloth embrace. My hair has already begun to stick to my forehead which frustrates me because I spent time straightening it before I came outside about 30 minutes ago. I also spent several minutes debating which shirt would be most appropriate to wear on the morning that I would be meeting our first five foster donkeys.

Ever since last summer, after King Ranch and I adopted Tyrion the mini donkey from the Humane Society, I’ve had it in my mind that I would like to volunteer to help in donkey adoptions, too. More than that, I felt like I needed to volunteer. I don’t know why. It’s been a growing and driving idea in my mind and so, after months of research, planning and lots of discussion, King Ranch and I have found ourselves here: opening our property to these five, soon-to-arrive foster donkeys.

Any minute now, the owner of the organization in which we are fostering the donkeys, Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue, will be pulling up with a trailer attached to his truck—five donkeys for whom I have yet to even see a picture will be in tow.

Moving the chain between my fingers one link at a time, I’m running through my mental checklist again:

-Troughs cleaned and filled: check.

-Hay distributed: check.

-Bunny and Tee secured into a separate paddock with plenty of hay and water: check.

-Fences sturdy and locks functioning properly: check.

-Coffee and cold water ready in case Mark, PVDR’s owner and today’s donkey deliverer, wants any: check.

I reach the end of the chain and start to move it through my fingers in the other direction. With my other hand, I tug at the bottom of the plain, gray t-shirt that I settled on when deciding what to wear. I thought plain, gray was calming and not the least bit intimidating for donkeys coming to a place they’ve never been. This must be terrifying for them.

From down the road, I hear the slow, heavy crunching of gravel. Although I can’t see beyond the tree line what or who has turned onto our road, I get the strange feeling that it’s got to be them: the five.

I gather the chain up in my hand and place it on the ground in front of the open gate before adjusting Little Foot’s pack on my back with a bounce which makes him giggle. The gravel crunching is getting closer as I run my fingers through my hair in an attempt to make it presentable.

I’m suddenly very nervous. Are we doing the right thing? Can we really take care of five more donkeys?

I shake my head and pull in a long inhale. In the bottom of my belly, I hold my breath and close my eyes. I imagine the day we adopted Tyrion and how touched I was at the grace in which that organization handled all these animals in search of a forever home. I remember how Jo, the woman who led us around, knew every single donkey, horse and mule and all about their stories. I remember how she’d taken the time to know them and how she was probably sizing us up—wondering if we’d be fit owners for Tee. I remember wanting to do what she did: help save donkeys.  And I wanted to do it just like her—thoroughly and with my entire heart. By the time donkeys need fostering, they’ve already been through so much. I wanted to be a peaceful and loving transition for them.

Through a small opening in my mouth, I let out my exhale and open my eyes. From around the tree line, a large, white truck approaches with a low, rumbling diesel engine—a dark green trailer rattling along behind it. It’s them.

As the truck halts in front of the ranch, I jog around the side of the trailer—Little Foot bouncing and giggling in his pack. A tall man with a long, white goatee exits the truck and from behind his sunglasses, he says, “Jess?”

I reply, “Yes,” and smile.

He extends his leathery hand and I extend mine—realizing then that my hand is shaking. When it meets his, I notice too how clammy my hand is in his dry and strong one.

“Pleasure to meet you,” he says, removing his sunglasses. He’s got a deep and steady voice which is calming for me.

I say, “Likewise,” and relax my shoulders.

He leads me to the trailer and says, “This is them.” I stand on my tip toes and peek in—five sets of furry ears is about all I can see. He continues, “You got a good group here.”

We’re both quiet for a moment. In the distance, cicadas call from the trees and flicking grass bugs hop and buzz on the sides of the gravel road.

I clear my throat and say to him, “Thank you so much for this.”

He smiles and says, “Lead the way,” and climbs back into his truck.

I direct him onto the property as he maneuvers his truck and the large trailer of donkeys flawlessly around behind me. As we reach the paddock in which the five will be staying, I open the gate and motion for him to stop. He steps out of his truck, unlatches the trailer and there they are. The five.

Five donkeys—all smaller than Bunny but bigger than Tee—are staring at me. Their eyes are wide with curiosity and the ears shift around quickly. My heart is pounding so heavily that I barely hear the sound of their hooves against the metal as one-by-one, they gallop out of the trailer and onto our property. We’re both smiling as we watch them gallop away.

After the owner and I talk for a long while about the logistics of fostering, he shakes my hand and leaves me to it.

I’m now standing in the middle of the property. The sun is higher now and pure, white heat. Little Foot is still strapped in his pack on my back only now, he’s not saying anything. Bunny and Tee are quiet and curious in the paddock to my left and the five fosters are curious and exploring in the paddock to my right.

So many long ears. So many flicking tails. So many snorts and exhales and big, searching eyes.

Once more, I pull in a long inhale and hold it. With my eyes closed, I think of Jo back at the humane society. She had a day one, also, right? When I release my breath and open my eyes, every single donkey on my property is looking at me with their ears straight up.

I peek over my shoulder at Little Foot who grins when he sees my eyes and say, “Alright bud. Let’s do this.”

The five foster donkeys

 

The Ghosts of Summer: Part Two

Before reading below, make sure you’ve read Part One! Link here: The Ghosts of Summer: Part One

 

The black widow’s eight legs are sharp and shiny like daggers. Clearly, she’s sharpened them. In my left hand is the hose, still running—the water splashing heavily in the mud around my feet. Like yesterday, I look around for a stick or something similar, but as I shift my eyes, in my peripheral, I see the widow move a few steps in my direction.

I fix my gaze back on the widow who freezes: her legs stopped mid step. The sun beats angrily down on us—our shadows small underneath the high noon sun. Nearby, Bunny and Tee have lifted their heads from grazing in curiosity.

I think that surely, this is a different spider because King Ranch most certainly killed and dismembered yesterday’s identical black widow. I don’t know enough about the spiders to know if they travel in packs. If by some strange, cosmic force, this was the same spider, I’m sure she’s furious and ready for revenge. If this is a different one, perhaps a sister or a parent, then vengeance is in order. Whoever she is, she’s angry.

What I do know is that in this moment, I can’t blink. She would surely strike if given the split second.

I remember then that I already have a weapon: the running hose. I press my thumb over the opening, creating a pressured spray. The widow is watching this and I could swear that she, too, is looking around to plot her next move. Two of her legs curl in close to her and as quickly as I can, I turn the hose and spray her with everything I’ve got.

She clings to her web, all of her legs curling in tight. Her web is strong, unbroken by the pressure of the hose. I step closer and spray harder.

She retreats—scattering up the web and behind the circular handle where she’s blocked from the water. I spray still and step closer. To my right, from the corner of my eye, I see the same stick that King Ranch used yesterday and with full hose pressure going and my eyes fixated on the round handle behind which she is hiding, I fumble to reach the stick with my right hand. Finally reaching it, gripping it tightly, I release my thumb from the end of the hose—the water once more plopping into the mud below. Beads of water shimmer along the chaotic pattern of her web like twinkling stars.

She remains behind the handle. I can’t see her, but I know she’s there. My heart thuds in my chest as my eyes begin to dry out from having not blinked. Still, I hold my gaze trying desperately to see any movement in the shadows.

My eyes are watering now and the flickering drops on her web are too bright to handle any longer. As quickly as I can, I blink.

As the light enters my reopening eyes, a blurry shadow is scattering with furious speed down a dripping web and into the mud. I stumble back, the stick unstable in my sweating hand. She’s at a full sprint towards me—her eight, dagger legs reaching high and leaving small prints in the mud. As fast as I can, I pick up my boot, wait until she’s nearly reached me and stomp.

Mud splatters everywhere.

I twist my boot back and forth, pressing down as hard as I can—it sinking at least an inch down into the ground.

After a moment and another twist each direction, I slowly lift my boot. She’s flattened: her yellow insides mixing with the brown mud. To make sure, I take a step back and run the hose over her. The yellow and brown swirl together and slowly, her corpse begins to run lifelessly along a small river that’s formed—her legs curled tightly into her broken belly.

Closely examining the faucet and seeing no other spiders, I turn the running water off and carefully wrap the hose around the spigot. Using the edge of my boot, I push mud over the widow’s wet corpse.

Now, she’s dead.

It’s the following day and King Ranch, Little Foot and I have just landed from a three hour flight to Michigan to spend the weekend with King Ranch’s family. We’re thrilled to have a break from the heat, if only for a few days. By the time we make it to my in-law’s house, it’s nearly 11:00 PM, so with Little Foot tucked tightly into my arms, we settle in for bed in the room that used to belong to King Ranch’s sister.

Around the walls is hand-painted, forest green ivy sprawling in every direction. There are two framed paintings of fairies wearing water-colored dresses with dainty, reaching hands. The paintings seem old—their colors no longer vibrant but instead, dusted. Little Foot’s body relaxes into sleep and I, too, close my eyes: the last thing I see being one of the fairies staring hopefully up to the sky.

Although we’re inside, it’s quite foggy. A gray mist hovers over the brown carpet while the fairies on the wall twirl inside of their frames. This is the first time I’ve seen sad twirling—they are looking up to the sky with tears streaming down their pale, small faces. They spin slowly and clumsily.

My feet feel heavy, suddenly, and my body feels like it’s growing tall. I look down as the ground is inching farther and farther away from me. The fog clears and bright yellow goo begins to seep up from the brown carpet. I grow taller and taller, yet somehow, feel smaller and smaller when the brown and yellow ground beneath me disappears. I begin falling and falling fast. I reach for anything—the fairies still twirling slowly in their frames that are now seeming to follow me as I fall.

I look up and from the darkness, a red glow appears. It’s faint at first, but then brightens into a beaming red hourglass. Black lines drip and ooze like oil over the fairies twirling in their frames when I see that their heads have turned into small, pointed skulls—their dresses dangling off of skeletal bodies. They wail hysterically when I land in a net.

I try lifting my arms, but they’re stuck to the webbing beneath me. The red hour glass is too bright to look straight into and is growing. I look left and right but soon, even my head is stuck. The redness is so bright.

With a huge exhale, I sit up abruptly in bed, which causes King Ranch to startle awake next to me.

I gasp, “Where’s Little Foot?”

“He’s in the crib,” King ranch whispers, pointing at the wooden crib that my mother in law had set up. Little Foot was rolling over, I imagine, because of the noise. King Ranch says, “I moved him there like an hour ago. What’s going on?”

I’m panting. “I…” I start, but then the tears come.

King Ranch says, “Honey, what is going on?”

“Nothing,” I say, wiping my face. “Just a bad dream, I think.” My heart is thudding and my spine is sweaty.

“Come here,” he says, pulling me into a little spoon. He wraps his arms tightly around me.

I watch the fairies in the frames who are still and dusty once again. They look longingly to the sky.

We’re 1500 miles and several days away from being home at the ranch. The widow will have plenty of uninterrupted time. I shudder and watch the fairies until dawn.

 

The Ghosts of Summer: Part One

Hauntings don’t happen in the summertime: they happen in the wintertime, right? In the summer, the trees are much too lush and kids are out of school, bobbing up and down in neighborhood pools. It’s light until 9 at night at which point the sun sets in a painted portrait of vibrant and far-reaching oranges and pinks. Hauntings don’t happen here.

Instead, hauntings happen in the wintertime—when the tree’s skeletal arms reach up towards a heavy, gray sky. Figures drift across the frosty ground when you exhale while shadows sneak in the edges of your vision. Frigid air creeps into your bones as the wind whispers in pointed, almost comprehensible warnings.

Hauntings happen in the winter, not the summer. Right?

It’s a mid-June afternoon in week 5 of no rain, although the humidity’s weight would suggest some is on its way. The warm washcloth through which we all breathe is heavy on the chest and hopeless for dry clothes. The donkey’s troughs need daily refilling as evaporation is working on overtime—mirages of microwaving water waving lazily above them during the day.

I keep an upside down bucket over the various faucet hookups around the property so the donkeys don’t hurt themselves by trying to scratch their faces on the metal spigots. For the first trough, even the plastic bucket is too hot to lift without gloves, so I do so very quickly, using the tips of my fingers to flail it up and away. As the bucket is flying to the side, something catches my eye by the faucet—a quick, chaotic scramble beneath the shadow of the blue hose. I lean in, but see nothing. A few, salty streams of sweat glide over my lips and drip off my chin into the dust around the faucet.

Round by round, I unwind the hose and walk it over to the first trough. As I approach the trough, whose water has managed to empty by half in only a day, I’m surprised to see just how much algae has formed as well when wait a sec, that’s not algae. I squint.

Oh god. That’s a squirrel.

I drop the hose and turn from the trough, acid bubbling in my stomach.

I peek back over my shoulder to confirm and indeed, that’s a bloated, belly-up squirrel in the trough.

I call for King Ranch who is working on the riding mower, “Honey!” He mustn’t hear me. Louder, I say, “Honeyyy!”

He drops a tool into the grass and lifts his head, his brow furrowed.

I say, “Squirrel,” pointing at the trough, “in the trough. Dead squirrel.” My stomach has folded in on itself.

King Ranch stands and meets me by the trough. After a long exhale that could mean frustration or grief, he says, “I’ll get the shovel.”

Later, after he’s buried the squirrel and I’ve cleaned out the trough, I turn on the hose and lay it in there to refill. It takes some time, it being a large trough, so I leave it and walk back to the barn. Well, it’s the back house, but I’m considering turning it into a barn. This is where a few weeks back, we found the dangling Rockstar rooster. [his story here]

Inside the soon-to-be barn, it’s dark and damp. Sulfur light enters through the slits in the rotting wood and in the rays, specs of filth float aimlessly. The ground is covered in a thin layer of hay and there are more wasp nests on the ceiling than I can count. A hodge podge of rusted farm equipment, wood scraps and fuel containers scatter about the edges of the room. I’m in here to decide if I think it will be too much work to actually proceed with my barn project when from behind a stack of wood, something moves. It’s too dim and dusty to see anything, but for a moment, I stare. Maybe it was a mouse? Or a lizard?

I take a few steps closer when a wasp dive bombs towards me—its buzz, loud and angry. I quickly cover my head and dart out of the house.

Across the yard, the trough is overflowing so I pull the hose out and start winding it back around the faucet. Again, something scatters in the side of my vision in the shade of the spigot. This time, I lean in closer, looking beneath the knobs. In the shadows, there is small movement: a chaotic shuffling. I look around for anything and behind me is a stick, which I pick up and poke into the moving shadow.

It wiggles and whines and then darts into the open.

A black widow spider.

I stumble backward, landing in mud that has formed from the running hose, and scramble to my feet, holding the stick out like a dagger. It shakes in my hand as again I call, “Honey!” I do not take my eyes from the spider hanging in a messy web that is barely visible. “Honey, it’s a black widow!”

I’m surprised at how plastic the spider looks. It’s shiny: oily black with a shiny, red hourglass. It looks fabricated. But it’s looking back at me, furious. I suspect that black widows don’t like the sunlight, and now, I’ve exposed her.

King Ranch approaches, wiping sweat from his brow with his forearm. He says, “It’s a what?”

I use the stick to point out the spider. He tips up his cowboy hat and leans in before he, too, stumbles backwards. “Holy shit,” he says.

He takes the stick from me and tries to stab the spider, but it’s much too quick. It darts in and out of the shadows, striking its arms up at King Ranch.

This duel goes on for a clumsy while before King Ranch defeats the black widow. It’s not a triumphant win, by any means. After a moment of standing over the curled spider corpse—a few legs having been dismembered during the fight—King Ranch says, “I didn’t want to kill her.”

I say, “I know.”

“But she could kill Little Foot.”

I nod.

It’s the next day and King Ranch is at work. I’m out in the pasture checking the donkey’s troughs which thankfully have no bloated squirrels, although they do need to be topped off. Again, I quickly toss the bucket off the faucet and also thankfully, I see no scattering movement which could belong to a black widow. I plop the hose into the trough and walk back to the barn.

As I approach the front door of the barn, I hear shuffling coming from inside. I lean in and my weight snaps a stick that I didn’t realize was beneath my boot. When it snaps, the shuffling stops.

I slowly push the creaky door open and again, behind the same pile of wood, something moves. It’s a small movement: like a shift, although, I still can’t see what it is. I take a few, careful steps into the house before my eyes fully adjust to the dimness of the damp room. The movement stops and in front of the pile of wood, there is something small and round gently rocking side to side. I stand as still as I can, even holding my breath. Flakes float curiously in the rays of entering light.

After a moment and when the round thing stops rocking, I take another step and nudge the round thing with my boot. It rolls over and oh gosh. It’s a small skull. I take a clumsy step back and shake my head. Squinting my eyes, I look closer and yes, it’s a skull. It’s a skull whose face is pointed and small. A skull that could be that of a squirrel’s.

My heart is suddenly an unbearable weight in my chest as I run out of the house and out to the spot where King Ranch buried the bloated squirrel just yesterday. The whole grave has been dug up. All that’s left is loose dirt and a deep hole. I look all around but see nothing.

Sweat is pouring from my brow which is pounding with a frantic pulse when I realize that the trough is overflowing. Grabbing the hose, I wrap it around the faucet as quickly as I can, struggling for breath, when something catches my eye. I stop.

Hanging from the knob on the faucet is the black widow. She’s not in the shadows today: she’s out in the open and she’s staring at me. Her belly’s hour glass is even brighter red and all eight of her arms are spread wide and ready.

Summer sunset
The last bit of sun in the summer

Big BRAYnnouncement!

 

 

With an old kitchen rag, I whacked old, dusty cobwebs from the extra water troughs that are stored in the back house.  Later, I dampened the same cloth to wipe down all the hay feeders until they shined. I thought about where I might hang the feeders and place the troughs and imagined what they will be like—our first shipment of rescue donkeys.

I imagine they will be scared. Donkeys don’t forget things. Some have been neglected, abused, overworked, or abandoned. Lucky for all of us, the Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue has grown into the largest organization of its kind after its humble beginnings 16 years (and 8,000+ rescues) ago.

We are honored to become a part of such a loving and prestigious group of fellow donkey enthusiasts and we are thrilled to be able to contribute to such a good cause.

Please follow us on Facebook here to keep up with the latest news and invite your friends to ‘like’ us too—especially if they’re fellow donkey enthusiasts!

Thank you so much to PVDR for welcoming us into your organization. We are so touched.

 

A World Within Weeds

It was a morning in the 7th circle of hell…er…I mean Texas summer heat. Barely into June and already, the ground was cracking from dehydration. I attempted to make sweet potato fries the other day and accidentally set the oven to broil. After only minutes, those squiggly root vegetables looked, well, pretty much how the ground looks now: burned, broken, and waving a white flag.

I’d covered myself in liquid blanket (SPF 50) and wore an over-sized sun-hat yet still, the sun bullied me. The garden needed weeding and trimming, however, so, outside in the oven with my gloves and hat I went.

On the edge of the garden is a wrought-iron fence. When I put this all into the ground months ago, I planted cucumber and snap pea seedlings at the bottom of it–both being vining plants. Not a week passed that those two pods were in the ground when I caught Psycho Brown, our Sex Link chicken, clawing them out of the dirt. After shooing her away, her squabbling and flailing in typical chicken dramatics, I was disappointed to see that the seedling pods were unsalvageable.

Not to worry, I still had rows of potential other plants ready to grow: tomatoes, peppers, onions, eggplant, and lettuce.

What I had done, regrettably, is allow weeds to occupy this base area of the fence in masses, not worried about pulling them because, well, there was nothing they could harm with the upheaval of the snap peas and cucumbers. They’d gotten so out of hand, however, that I decided this morning–this 7th circle of hell morning–would be the perfect time to go ahead and rid the garden, once and for all, of all weeds, regardless of their position.

If you haven’t tried pulling weeds taller than yourself, you should. It’s a fantastic workout. My shoulders, I don’t think, have ever worked so hard. It’s satisfying, too, when you finally get a good grip, the weed gives in just that way that you know you’re close to full extraction and then YOINK! Like a splinter finally fully removed from one’s fingertip after struggling with the tweezers, the roots slip out of the ground with a sigh of relief. You exhale. Toss it. And move on. Cheap therapy.

The pile of noodle-limp weeds behind me was also now almost as tall as me. I was soaked–literally, as if I’d jumped into a salty pool fully clothed–soaked through. I pushed the brim of my hat up and used the back of my gardening glove to wipe the sweat off my forehead. I was nearly finished, only the weeds right up against the rusted, wrought-iron fence were left.

I pulled the brim of my hat back down and sank to one knee to get a good look at my final weed-pulling challenge when suddenly, what the heck kind of vine was that?

Intertwined through the weeds was a furry, thick vine–about as thick as a thumb–with giant, plate-sized leaves. It was bright, green: margarita green. I backed up and realized that the furry, margarita vine had wrapped its octopus arms everywhere–up and across the fence and over into the back of the rosebushes on the other side. It tumbled down across the ground; curly fingers securing themselves around weeds and grass blades and sticks. I tried to lift one of its arms off the ground but its spiraled fingers had secured itself to too many things for me to tug it too high.

I lifted the large leaves that were at my face level–they, too, were furry–when my eyes adjusted and oh my gosh this was a cucumber plant! Dozens, literally dozens of cucumbers hung powerfully off the vines. Some were more than a foot long and others, barely noticeable.

Cucumber Vine in Garden

Elated, I pulled a few of the largest cucumbers off of the plant and examined them. Giant cucumbers. Surprise cucumbers. Little buggers, how you defeated the odds!

On the other side of the garden, behind the smaller, wire fence in which there were no weeds, the donkeys watched me curiously, both flicking their tails and chewing slowly on hot grass. I cracked one of the cucumbers in two pieces and held out a half for each of them. They smelled the cucumber intently and curiously. Bunny bit first and her eyes widened. She then took the rest in one, large bite. Tee followed suit.

Back at the cucumber vine, I traced each arm with my fingers to see if anymore were ready to be picked. There were.

For months, these weeds have strengthened intimidatingly, making the chore to pull them seem more and more daunting. I have, admittedly, avoided it because I knew that when I finally got in there are started cleaning up, it would hurt. It would be physically draining (which it was), I’d end up with splinters (which I did) and many, many bug bites (which I also did) and a few of my own dramatic flails when I ran across a pissed-off spider.

But my, how it was worth it. I’d found a whole, hidden world of cucumbers.

I wonder if the cucumbers would have thrived had the weeds not been there? Of all the plants I’ve been babying for months, the cucumbers are, by far, the most successful. The strongest. The farthest-reaching.

Maybe they needed the weeds. Maybe the weeds made them stronger.

I decided then to leave the remaining weeds that grew closest to the fence for now. Perhaps, they serve a bigger purpose that I realized. With my bucket of cucumbers, I marched proud and sweaty back to the house.

My, life is full of surprises. Even in the thickest, most vicious and widespread weeds, magic and miracles are happening. We can’t forget that. We can’t be overcome by things on the surface. We can’t be intimidated by things simply because we don’t understand them. We can’t be afraid to get uncomfortable and dig a little deeper if it means discovery of something you otherwise, had no idea existed.

You’re Done, Dead Weight

On our property are several pecan trees. During the fall, literally 1000’s of pecans fall with the leaves — some crack open and some don’t. Pecans that do crack open are quickly discovered by hungry donkeys who look forward to the tasty, autumn treat.  

During the summer time, however, the pecan trees turn into massive, mushroom clouds of bright, thick green with heavy and far-reaching branches. They’re lovely for shade from the hostile, Texas sun, but do quickly overgrow into forces that are difficult in which to reckon.

The overgrowth also makes it particularly hard to mow the grass. More often than I’d like to admit, I have found myself riding the mower through a low hanging arm of one of the pecan trees that leaves a long scratch across my arm or face.

I needed to do some trimming.

When I have tasks like this, instead of trying to keep up with a very curious and exploratory Little Foot, I strap him into his toddler hiking pack and hoist him onto my back. We both wear sunscreen and hats and I’ve found that he actually quite likes the sometimes hours-long piggyback ride. My excuse to get out of having to do a proper workout enjoys it, too.

I stood underneath the welcoming shade of the pecan tree that sits farthest back on our property as Bunny and Tee wandered up to see what we were doing. When Bunny noticed I had a tool of some sort, she trotted away, likely assuming that I was planning not to trim the tree, but her hooves instead. Tee stayed a few steps away, mostly curious about the companion riding upon my back.

I began trimming. The branches were more tangled than I imagined they’d be. I assumed this would be a pretty straight forward chore, but instead, found that the smaller and older the branches became, the more they weaved in and out of one another. They reached down with curiosity as if they were trying to touch the ground. None of them actually did, so I wonder if they talked about it amongst themselves. Maybe it was a competition. Who could reach the ground first?

Bunny decided that my shears were, in fact, not a threat and followed closely behind me to nibble on the leaves of the branches that tumbled down to the ground. Over my shoulder, Little Foot’s glossy, blue eyes watched my chore intently. Sometimes, he’d snort.

Branch after branch, I chopped. Some were easy and some required more might. Sweat accumulated where the straps of my Little Foot pack wrapped around my hips and chest and had even started to run down my forehead, stinging my eyes. Still, I chopped.

I began to notice that many of the branches that hung down lowest were actually barren: dry, prickly sticks not producing anything but weight. I felt bad for them. They were sad. I felt guilty for chopping them away having worked so hard to get here.

From the lowest hanging stick’s point of view, I could imagine that I was quite terrifying. A sweating, two headed monster wielding a long, bright orange and black pair of shears whom, without warning, chopped off the arms of these innocent branches. Behind me, my noble steed dined on the remains of those fallen.

But it was my duty to chop. I had to. I swore an oath to protect my land and that included trimming the trees so that I could properly mow. Otherwise, our land would become a breeding ground for snakes and even more mosquitoes than there already were.

So I continued to chop as Bunny (and now Tee) continued to chomp.

Some branches went down easily and without a fight while others struggled until the end. The more I chopped, however, the more I realized the way the blooming bits of the branches would spring far up towards the sky and even bounce a few times having lost the weight of the bare sticks.

Perhaps these sticks, instead of holding on, were actually looking to be let go.

The pecan trees — nutrient producing and life sustaining beings don’t have the capability to remove their dead bits. They need assistance. My, how the branches perked when I removed those parts which were bare.

I chopped more, but this time, triumphantly! I was healing a hurting tree!

This took just over two hours. Little Foot actually fell asleep on my back. I decided to take the extra time of his nap and clean out the donkey’s water troughs. They were grateful. All that noble-steeding left them quite parched.

Of course this made me wonder what it is that I’m holding onto that I just can’t bring myself to release. I know there are things. I know that there are memories that creep around in the dusty parts of my mind that feel exposed and raw whenever something shines their light on them. There are people who, when they pop into my vision, my heart hurts. Literally, it hurts. There are angry bits, too, that when poked or prodded explode in a fury of 4-letter words and end with tears.

I know they’re there. I know it. But I don’t know how to chop them off.

Sure, I still bloom. I still do my job. I mostly look nice. But my insides, in many ways, are quite heavy.

King Ranch pulls barren branches off from time to time. He sees them. As does my mom. As do most people who get close enough and who care to notice. Then again, I suppose we’ve all got dead stuff lingering around. Even when it’s all chopped and cleared away, next season, there will be more.

What I’m finding now is that it’s a much harder task to go through and release the pecan trees of their dead weight when I’ve let it get out of hand. If I’d have kept up with it, this chore would have been done in a fraction of the time and with a fraction of the effort.

Still, it needed to get done. No matter the time or the effort, it needed to get done. It will again next year, too. And it’ll be worth it to see how proudly the pecan trees stand after they’ve been released.

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Little Foot’s Little Books

We are nearing the end of the usual soaked, Texas spring. Soon, the clay will crackle in devastating dehydration and the treetops and rosebushes will be broiled. I give it another month until we’re begging for relief from the heat.

I sat on the floor in the living room sipping my coffee, watching Little Foot flip through his ‘Peppa Pig’ book while it poured in sheets of rain outside. From his point of view, the pages were actually upside down, but still, he flipped through each cardboard page, one-by-one, and studied the pictures. He flips the pages with his left hand and holds his right hand out for balance, even though he sat steadily on the floor.

I’m so grateful that he loves books. All day, when we’re inside, he brings book after book from the bookshelf in his room to me so I’ll read it to him. We read them 3, 4, sometimes 5 times in a row before he retreats to grab another.

I’ll use funny voices if there are characters, some of which make him laugh and some of which make him turn the page faster. I’m not particularly good at voices.

I’ve heard so often that “I don’t have time to read” or “what’s the point of reading fiction?”

The point is simple: you learn things. You learn about worlds that often, you cannot visit. You learn that there are other “me”s out there. That everyone is a “me.” Neil Gaiman talks about this in his most recent book (which I am obsessing over slightly) called ‘A View From the Cheap Seats.’ He talks long and emotionally about how reading fiction helps readers become empathetic. It teaches you how to see the world — real or otherwise — from someone else’s point of view. Young children learn very early on that they’re not the only “me” out there. We are all “me”s.

Little Foot stood up from his book, ran as quickly as he could back into his room, and came back out carrying my copy of Don Quixote. This made me laugh and I told him that I think this might be a tough read right now. He is, after all, only 17 months old. Come to think of it, I wonder from where he grabbed my copy of Don Quixote in the first place.

I thumbed through the thick paperback as Little Foot backed himself up into my lap, through the hundreds of pages with the tiniest, single-spaced print, and picked out a few lines to read aloud for him.

In my best, silly Spanish voice I read:

“Did I not tell you so?” said Don Quixote. “Wait but a moment, Sancho; I will do it as quickly as you can say the credo.” Then, stripping off hastily his breeches, he remained in nothing but skin and shirt. Then, without more ado he cut a couple of capers and did two somersaults with his head down and his legs in the air…

…at this point, I was laughing which made Little Foot grin and scrunch up his nose…

…displaying such arts of his anatomy as drove Sancho to turn Rozinante’s bridle to avoid seeing such a display. So, he rode away fully satisfied to swear that his master was mad…”

I couldn’t read anymore because Little Foot had started laughing hysterically, I think, because I had giggled so much. I’d also gotten louder, my Spanish accent more ridiculous. So I tickled Little Foot who squirmed onto the ground, gasping for air between belly baby laughs.

I gave him a break and stopped tickling so that I could finish my coffee before it got cold. Little Foot scampered into his room and returned, this time carrying his ‘Big Book of Animals’. The book, almost as big as him, is colorful page after page of zoo animals, farm animals, birds, house pets, and a few more categories. We go through this book, Little Foot flipping the pages while his blue eyes jump from shape to shape and me listing off the animals and making their sounds (side note: what does an Egret sound like? Besides the picture, I don’t know if I really know what an Egret is.) I skipped Egret.

This went on for sometime — I drank coffee and tried to get things done around the house and Little Foot chased me with various books, sometimes bashing me in the legs with them, sometimes plopping himself on the floor and flipping through them on his own.

I’d been thinking about books a lot lately, partially because I’m working on one of my own and partially because of the aforementioned Neil Gaiman book I’ve been working my way through. I’d been thinking that books were very important to me growing up and I was very encouraged to read as much as I could.

Where I get sad and a bit regretful is how, as a kid, I was so shy and so insecure that when I did have a book out at school or otherwise and was made fun of (because kids do this – they make fun of other kids for the silliest things) I would, instead of find a safe place to read or tell the bullies to buzz off, I just stopped reading entirely. For years, I didn’t read, even if I wanted to. I just stopped.

I watched Little Foot on the floor now flipping through a lovely kid’s book called ‘The Pout Pout Fish’ by Deborah Diesen and I want, so badly, for him to always love to read. I want him to go absolutely everywhere, reality wise and fictionally speaking. And I don’t want him to worry at all what other people say or do.

I want for him to do what he’s meant to do. Whether that’s read or build things or fly planes or drop different chemicals into test tubes to try and solve critical problems. Or if he wants to splash odd colored paints onto canvases to convey his feelings or if he wants to dive deep into the ocean to learn just a bit more about life down there — I don’t want for him to feel like he has to make those choices based on someone else’s permission or approval.

How, as a mom, do you instill confidence in your child when you, yourself, struggle so much?

I don’t have the answer to this. I don’t have a lesson that I’ve learned on my ranch yet to answer this question either. I’m hoping that I figure it out. I suspect I don’t have that much time to do so.

What I do know is that right now, more than his stuffed animals, his blocks, his trucks, and his dinosaurs, Little Foot is enamored with books. He can’t get enough of them.

And I can’t get enough of that.

Outside, the rain subsided. I thought about going outside but by the time I pulled on some pants, the Texas heat was pulling the rainwater off the ground outside in blurry waves. I would need to wait until the ground was fully cooked outside because it’d be impossible to breathe that steaming air right now.

Instead, I pulled Little Foot into my lap with our copy of ‘Love You Forever’ by Robert Munsch which, for him was a great choice because of the colorful pictures and over and over song of “I’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always, as long as I’m living, my baby you’ll be.”

But for me, it was brutal. I bawled — big, sloppy, swollen crying — because how is this all moving so quickly? This season is ending and then on into the next. One day, Little Foot will be the one to tell me what an Egret says.

 

 

loveyouforever