For over two years now, King Ranch, Little Foot and I have been exploring the ever-offering wonderland that is our small ranchette in nowhere, Texas. We’ve seen the souls of donkeys (although not the bottom of them because to get there would require years and years and probably some NASA made vehicle). We’ve witnessed the one evening in late February where the knockout roses come out to dance their twirling dance and then go on spread their pink petals for the bees and for us all to enjoy. We’ve watched shooting stars and satellites and our hearts glide across the sky at night and the deep love that roosters can actually have for their hen companions. We’ve seen lives turn on and lives turn off just as rhythmically as the fireflies flash their sulfur yellow undersides around the pecan trees.
But like a vinyl record scratching and halting the blinkless stare we’ve had at the glittering world around us, we snapped into reality last weekend when King Ranch got bit by a brown recluse.
Before I go on, I should mention that he’s very thankfully doing fine. In comparison to accounts we’ve read of others who’ve been bitten by this venomous spider, King Ranch’s bite is minor (although it’s still gnarly and painful). No hospitalization has been required. Thank goodness, no vendetta required at this time.
After we noticed the bite and then went on to spend hours researching brown recluses, their bites, the side effects, their behaviours, and more than I ever thought I’d know about any one kind of spider, I assumed they were these evil, drooling spiders waiting on the insides of cupboards to hop out at you and dig their fangs into your cheek. The thoughts of their long, thin legs intimidated me and even just typing this out, I can feel about 80 of them crawling along my spine.
But what I’ve read is that brown recluses are actually very shy spiders and don’t bite unless provoked. They have sloppy, unkempt, little webs, usually close the floor or on the insides of boxes, but don’t use their webs to trap their prey. They, instead, hunt their prey. They are identified and confirmed by two things: 1) the shape of a fiddle on their backs and 2) their six (not eight) eyes. They’re also called fiddle-spiders (aww!) They bite because YOU’RE big and scary.
Still, the brown recluse, as shy and intimidated as they are, can do a lot of damage in their bites and lucky for us, King Ranch is fine, but what if it had been Little Foot? So since the bite, we’ve done an overhaul of cleaning out and inspecting our house and garage for any other introverted arachnids and, lucky for us, we’ve only found a plethora of house and wolf spiders which means that the recluse event was either isolated or they’ve all spoken to each other and hidden that much more diligently.
I guess the point of my posting all about this is to be aware—introverted and shy or not, the recluse can really do some damage if it feels threatened, so be careful. Look for brown recluse signs. Don’t keep cardboard boxes around your house or clothes on the floor because they love those hiding spots. If you live out on a ranch or anywhere in Texas, really, you definitely have them around, so be careful. All the rainbow glitter magic that’s swirling about your farm or homestead has an underbelly of creepy-crawlies that really just wants to be left alone. So be safe.
In other news, if you missed this video on my Facebook or Instagram yesterday of Bunny trying to eat my phone, then here it is again. I’ve watched it at least 8,000 times and I’m still giggling. What a goose.
In the lush shade of one of the pecan trees out in the pasture, I ran a circular brush along Bunny’s spine and down her sides as she blinked heavily—her long lashes moving in slow motion over her glossy and flickering brown eyes. Sprinkles of shedding, gray hair tumbled around in the almost non-existent breeze before either disappearing into the brightness of the day or landing on my boots and jeans. Donkey dust.
On this morning, Autumn teased us with tiny hints of itself in the breeze—it carried a ripeness in the wind that smelled like someone had just sliced a ripe, honey crisp apple and the trees were mostly still except when the leaves took turns twinkling as that fresh-apple air tickled them. Everything was in full, green bloom and seemingly asking for a trim and a change from that first bitter cold that’s hopefully not too far away.
With my hand on her back, I circled behind Bunny to continue brushing her other side. I read somewhere long ago (when I first took up an interest in donkeys) that brushing donkeys is a way to bond with them and I agree with that theory. The donkeys love when I’ve got the brush and sometimes, like this moment, they seem to fall into a trance with their ears lowered and eyes drifting. It’s therapeutic for me, too: line after line of combing and watching the stray hairs fall. I wondered what Bunny thought about as I brushed her. Not just about what she thought about the brushing, but what kinds of things regularly go through her mind? When she spaces out, I wonder what she imagines? What is created in a donkey mind?
I tucked the brush into the back pocket of my blue jeans as I knelt down in front of Bunny’s face. Her eyes widened, meeting mine and in them, I could see the silhouette of me and my cowboy hat and the brightness of all the blue and clouds behind me. She lowered her large head and rested her snout in my lap as I scratched the insides of her ears.
With my forehead against hers and now my own eyes closed, I focused on the way the air touched my skin. It was a perfect temperature—not cold or hot but Goldilocks perfection—and in that absolute comfort, my skin prickled. Goosebumps covered my entire body and I began to feel like I must have been glowing a bright, honey gold.
It radiated—that place where my skin met the most perfect air and it started to shine so brightly that it could no longer be contained in my own skin and in seconds, it’s warmth exploded outward like the birth of a brand new universe. Elements of all kinds scattered and shimmered and suddenly, the whole world was a radiating, healing gold.
The light touched my family and my friends and it healed them of all their pain—physical or otherwise. It touched those people who have helped and assisted me. It touched those people who really, I don’t have much of an opinion of at all and it even touched the difficult and hurtful ones, too, stripping them of hate and hopelessness. It touched all animals and all plants and all the rocks on the beach and in the center of it all was Bunny and me. My best friend. The creature responsible for such a big chunk of joy in my world.
The light circled Bunny and seeped into her heart and her mind and with it, an assurance that she would never, ever be abandoned again. I poured all my alabaster gratitude into her through my hands and imagined wrapping my arms around her entire being which is far larger than the donkey shell in which it’s contained.
I am so grateful for my friendship with Bunny the donkey. Her and I share a world beyond words; beyond human expression. My dear Bunny, where would I be without you?
The pulsing, warm gold covered absolutely everything—the whole world and all of it’s contents floated above the ground. Waterfalls ran up cliffs. Flowers bloomed at lightning speed. Wolves howled and the sky began to sing in an angelic chorus that vibrated the entire history of mankind.
I opened my eyes and leaned back as she lifted her head and snorted. The air around us was still and silent but for that flickering, fall breeze that drifted by. I made eye contact with her once more—my silhouette and a bright, golden sky peering back at me.
I stood up, knees popping, pulling the brush from my back pocket and adjusting my hat. From behind me, Tyrion nudged my legs and so I placed a hand on his back and started to run the brush along his sides. I wondered what he must imagine when he’s spacing out, too? Who could ever really know?
A tan, rattling horse trailer bumped down the road away from my house kicking gravel and dust as its rusty doors creaked and clanged in a travelling, metallic melody which is quite common in these rural areas. Inside those doors, which likely still dripped with the sweat from my hands, two sets of furry ears stood straight up and wobbled side to side: Ethel and Charlie (two more of my foster donkeys) were going home. They were going to their forever home.
The choppy waters of my insides were churning like a pot of stew—boiling bubbles popped and spat in a scene which was familiar—it having only been 10 days since Ali the donkey had been adopted by a couple from central Texas. The feeling was complex: it stretched as far as grief and heartache could before likely causing serious damage—like a stressed rubber band which, had I not let go into gratitude, would have snapped and slapped my innards which were already raw from having said goodbye once and now two and three times.
After the trailer attached to the truck turned off of our road and its rustic, tambourine encore faded away, I tipped up my hat and ran my forearm across the lines of sweat collecting in my brows. Grief was swelling in my throat: that tingly feeling that warms the insides of your cheeks (like the moment before you bite into something that you know will be sour) was causing me to salivate. Perhaps that’s where tears actually start…in the throat.
I gulped it all down: that damp, pin-prick feeling that had started to fizz into the backs of my eyes because I could not yet touch the grief. Not yet. Behind me, leaning on the open gate, was a journalist and photographer from the local news who had come to my house on that same morning to do a story on our donkey adoption facility and we had an interview to finish.
With the exception of many job interviews and once by a woman who runs a podcast which features motivational folks, I’ve not been interviewed and certainly not by any news crews. In hindsight, I honestly cannot tell you if I did well or not but I get the feeling I was difficult to follow in my answers. I stumbled and stuttered nervously because the news is exposure and exposure is the most crippling of conditions for those who have struggled helplessly throughout their whole lives with anxiety. I almost declined the opportunity because the violent whirlpool of ‘what-ifs’ from the initial media query that popped into my inbox weeks ago was enough to suffocate me.
But then I thought of the donkeys. They could use the publicity. They could use a special interest story because if even one person who reads this soon-to-run story takes up an interest in the well-being of donkeys, then it would be a success.
Donkeys have an odd mixture of a reputation: stubborn, stupid, worthless, to start. It’s why they’re left behind and discarded at an alarming and heartbreaking rate. It’s why they’re roped for sport and tied to trees and whipped and overworked. People don’t take the time to understand the force to be reckoned with that is the donkey: a highly intelligent, loyal, deeply emotional and complex creature that is unmatched anywhere else in the animal kingdom…at least to me. When cared for, they’re affectionate and protective and loving almost to a fault.
So I agreed to do the story…heels in the sand and all, I agreed.
The journalist and the photographer assigned to this story handled the whole experience with the most tender of care and for that, I hope they know how grateful I am. They were kind and patient and truly interested in the welfare of donkeys. I suspect my donkeys felt that, too, as they put on a beautiful show of their own: braying and nudging and even trying to play. They will make for a great story, no doubt.
Once everyone left my house and the dust settled from the last leaving car, I grabbed a beer from the fridge and pulled a lawn chair into the pasture where my two remaining fosters paced curiously. They were clearly confused and concerned with heavy exhales and fast steps so as I sipped, I started to hum a nameless tune and after some time, both donkeys eventually positioned themselves in front of me. I scratched their noses, continued to hum and finally allowed the huge, webby, conglomerate of emotions that had been tumbling inside me like a heavy load of clothes in the dryer to pierce the surface of my control…and I cried. I hummed and I cried and hummed and cried in what felt like bursting levies until there was nothing left but a wobbly tone vibrating under my tongue.
It occurs to me now that this donkey fostering and adoption process is a metaphor for life: that we’re blessed with different opportunities every day and it’s up to us to seize them whether they’re temporary or not. It’s up to us to do good things and difficult things and to love so hard if it means making this world for someone…even a donkey…a better place. And then one day, this whole life will be over. Everything is temporary…so alarmingly temporary. But temporary doesn’t mean ‘not worth it.’ No, quite the opposite. Temporary means a more compact and intense time to pour your whole self into something good.
I don’t know for how much longer I’ll have these two remaining foster donkeys and as I sat there in that lawn chair, I studied their eyes knowing that one day, probably soon, I’ll be saying goodbye to them, too. Before going in, I replenished their hay and gave them each one more pat on the rump. They ignored the hay and followed me to the gate and watched me walk inside…ears on high alert.
Ethel and Charlie have gone to the best home with one of the loveliest women I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. I know that for them, good things are finally ahead and for my remaining two, I hope to say the same one day.
And when this news story runs in a few weeks, I hope that others will begin to see donkeys in a better way. Maybe more people will pause and reflect on how they’ve treated animals they’ve encountered. Maybe those which would normally ignore the problem or even contribute to it will stop and realize that really, they want to help. I do believe that most people really do just want this world to be a better place and donkeys have made my life better. So. Who knows.
It’s just after 11:00 PM on a Sunday night during the first week in August and someone is shooting off fireworks down the road. They’re not setting off little snappy, poppy, crackly fireworks that flicker across the ground like big crickets. No. They’re setting off commercial-grade, booming, colorfully raining down fireworks that rattle the windows of every home and the bones of everyone in them. What the 4-letter word. Seriously. What the 4-letter word?!
Because of this display of exploding inconsideration by folks who I am noting to dislike from here on out, I’m out in the pasture, desperately trying to comfort not only my two donkeys, Bunny and Tyrion, but also my group of newly arrived fosters. Every flash, crack and boom startles the donkeys whose ears point up, eyes widen, and hooves scatter. They are terrified and I am furious with whoever has decided that this is an appropriate time to celebrate whatever this first week in August has brought them.
Like most animals and myself, donkeys are not fans of recreational explosives that are both obnoxiously loud and highly dangerous. Like operating an airplane, I personally feel that fireworks should be left to the professionals and be left to nationally recognized holidays in which most folks don’t have to be at work early the following morning.
I do not like exploding things. I do not like their colorful rings.
I do not like them late at night. I do not like them in my sight.
I neither like them in the dark, or exploding high, above the park.
I do not like exploding things. Nor the frustration that they bring.
It took me a bit of convincing, but I’ve managed to group the five fosters in a close huddle around me. I’m singing my favorite James Taylor song, Close Your Eyes, loud enough so that when the fireworks boom and crash overhead, they can still hear me. Bunny and Tyrion are next to us but on the other side of the fence and I ensure they can hear me, too. With every explosion, the donkeys jerk and jolt and one by one, I press their faces into my belly and rub their ears, still singing my song.
All of the donkey’s exhales are heavier than usual right now—their fear warm through their snouts. I’ve taken one of the fosters, Charlie, into my embrace and I am resting the side of my face between his ears. Next to him is Ethel, a 9-month old jennet. In her large eye, I see another firework climbing up through the night sky—a trail of glitter moving across her pupil. Her eye widens and I quickly wrap my arm around her neck, too. The firework booms and all the donkeys jump.
“Shhh shhh shhh,” I say to them, now squatting down. I continue to sing.
After the longest 10 minutes that has ever happened, the fireworks finally stop and it is quiet but for the crickets and heavy snorts and exhales from the donkeys. They’re still scared and I don’t blame them. I don’t want to leave them still afraid, so I decide that now would be a good time to try and meditate. I, myself, have been trying to meditate more often as a way to keep my perpetual anxiety about everything at bay. For example, when I’m standing in front of the front door having just locked it yet still unable to convince myself that I have, I try to slow down my breath. When I inhale, I say “the door is locked” and when I exhale I say, “you have locked the door.” Inhale, “It is done.” Exhale. “It is done.” It works, sometimes. Perhaps it will work on the donkeys, too.
I lead all 7 of the donkeys over to the gate which separates the fosters from mine and take a seat upon a pile of hay. Two of the fosters start to pick at the hay while the other three stand back a few paces and begin to graze. On the other side of the gate, Bunny and Tee stand still and alert.
I close my eyes and pull in a long breath which I hold at the bottom of my belly for a few seconds. I imagine that the breath is a warm light that’s the color of honey and when I exhale, I imagine it pouring across the ground, illuminating everything it touches. I imagine that the ground beneath all of us is now a glowing gold that exposes any fear and any anger that lingers in the shadows around us.
I say, “May we be free from danger. May we be happy. May we be healthy.”
The donkeys seem unchanged so I pull in another breath, imagining that the light of it is brighter and warmer. When I exhale, the glowing gold beneath us is even brighter. I say again, “May we be free from danger. May we be happy. May we be healthy.”
One of the fosters lifts his head from the hay and looks at me, chewing slowly.
I pull in another breath and it’s so warm that I start to sweat. I exhale and it’s practically daytime in this light. “May we be free from danger. May we be happy. May we be healthy.”
All the donkeys are looking at me now. They are all very still.
One more breath—this time, the light removing all negativity from the space around us in the same way helpless twigs are disintegrated in a growing campfire. “May we be free from danger. May we be happy. May we be healthy.”
Behind me, Bunny revs up for a bray. As her breath quickens, one of the fosters suddenly lets out a bray. Soon, all seven donkeys are braying and braying loudly—so loud that it echoes and bounces back from the trees around us. It’s a chorus of relief releasing the fear that they’ve had since the fireworks started a half an hour ago out into the universe. The differing pitches of their voices sends a vibration through everything around us—the whole world consumed by their song.
Their voices linger in the air for a moment before disintegrating softly away like a clearing fog when, one by one, the fosters wander off quietly into the night. Tyrion snorts and saunters away, too. Moving through the gate and locking it behind me, Bunny waits for me. I wrap my arms around her neck and lay my head on hers. With my face between her ears that have laid back, I sing my song one more time, loud enough so only she can hear it.
Back inside, King Ranch has fallen asleep in the recliner in the living room, so I gently nudge him and say, “let’s go to bed.” On the way to our room, I stop and peek at Little Foot who is asleep in his crib and luckily, has managed to stay asleep despite the earlier fireworks. I lean down, kiss his forehead, and adjust the blanket over his belly.
May we be free from danger. May we be happy. May we be healthy. All of us. In this house and on this property. In all homes and on all properties. May we all be free from danger. May we all be happy. May we all be healthy.
May we all recognize our connection to each other and our responsibility to care for one another.
And may we not, pretty please, set off fireworks late on a Sunday night anymore. With a cherry on top, I’m begging.
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 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
The mid-afternoon air hung heavily around us as King Ranch and I stood behind the wooden back house with chipping red paint that sits a ways back on our property
The back house is a dilapidated structure that we were told was the original house on the property. One side of it appears to have been a chicken coop at some point with netted fencing and wooden boxes, although, now it was a tangle of vines, weeds, and spider webs. The main part of the house — one small room with a concrete floor and rotting, wooden walls — had become a storage space for scrap wood, miscellaneous ranch tools, and old Christmas decorations that must have belonged to the little, scratchy woman from whom we purchased the property. On the other side of the house was a garage that was, in comparison to the rest of the house, in pretty good shape. The door had clearly been replaced and within it were extra water troughs and wood pallets. Still a lot of spider webs, though.
We stood behind the house where colorful weeds lined the base of the structure — thick, tangled weeds with flicking bugs and spiked leaves — because our last, little Rockstar rooster had finally been found.
He had been missing for three days. Of all the chickens and roosters at the ranch, the last Rockstar was the most social. He was a bouncy bird with a blueish, green tail that looked like slick oil on concrete. The rest of his body was jet black. He had made our back patio his home — specifically, he would sleep atop the firewood pile all on his own — and every morning between 4 and 5, he’d let us know if was time to wake up.
King Ranch placed his hand on my lower back and said, “I’m sorry.”
Tears stung the corners of my eyes. In front of us, our once shiny, hip-hoppity Rockstar was now a graying pile of loose, lifeless feathers. His head was buried in a hole near the base of the back house and his body hung limply down into the jagged weeds. He had gotten himself stuck.
I leaned into King Ranch and cried.
I wondered how many birds at this point had died at our ranch and recalled them all:
There was Black chicken who had gotten out of the yard and was hit by a car early last summer when the Unicorn visited. There was another Rockstar rooster who’d been attacked by something while we were out of town whom we found dead in the corner of the coop. There was the Rockstar who was stomped out by the donkeys late last summer when Nikki came to visit. There were the three chicks who tried to hatch who didn’t make it and then the most recent tragic death of Prince, our other chick, who drowned in his water dish after being alive for only one week.
Now, the last of the Rockstars dangled out of the back house after what I knew was a struggle until his end.
I felt awful.
Behind us, Bunny snorted. She nosed her way in between King Ranch and I and King Ranch let out a sound that, I think, was somewhere between a laugh and a frustrated exhale, although I couldn’t tell which.
He said, “Well excuse me,” to Bunny. She raised and lowered her head a few times and pushed against me harder.
I laughed behind my tears and squatted down in front of her.
King Ranch scooped up Little Foot who was nearby flailing a stick and walked back towards our house. As he did this, a low rumble of thunder rolled by in the distance.
I’d have to pull the Rockstar out of there and give him a proper burial. I wasn’t sure how best to go about this because I wanted to preserve his body as best I could and I didn’t know how strongly wedged his body was in there. I imagined, pretty tightly to have been his end.
For now, I cried for him. Bunny stood with me, her head on top of mine, and I cried for him.
I cried because I felt awful that he was gone. I cried because I didn’t have the chance to say goodbye. I cried because life is so freaking fragile. I cried because how stupid must this bird have been to get stuck in a hole and how stupid was I to allow myself to get so attached?
But he wasn’t stupid. No. He was probably chasing a delicious bug that outsmarted him by scrambling into a hole in the house just large enough for the Rockstar’s head.
Damn you, bug. Freaking bug. It was that bug’s fault.
I wanted to hunt that bug. It was probably a big, fat cockroach with long, spiked, antennae because roaches never bring anything but terror and trickery. Why is it that when you turn on a light in the garage and spot one, they scramble right towards your feet? Bastards. In Texas, cockroaches even fly. Yes. They FLY. In FLOCKS. You’re a dead man, roach.
Bunny exhaled heavily. So did I as I stood up. She pulled her top lip back and pressed her upper gum into my shoulder. I think it was a donkey kiss.
Warm drops sprinkled down from the sky as another barrel of thunder tumbled by towards the west. The red, chipping paint on the house started turning a deep, brownish tint in the growing wetness.
Rest in peace, sweet Rockstar. I hope you’ve found your friends in the afterlife and that you’re alerting everyone to the sunrises. You really did do a good job with that.