Farewells, Feelings, News Crews and Two Remaining Donkeys

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.

I don’t know, but I’m hopeful.

Peace, Love and Donkeys

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

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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The Last Little Rockstar

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.

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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.

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Life and Death, Again. I Guess That’s the Way of Things.

It wouldn’t rain. My goodness, had it been trying to, but it just would not rain. The thing about late, Texas spring is that when the sky tries to rain, but can’t, we’re all left wandering through soupy, walking-through-a-warm-wash-cloth air that gets trapped around the middle of the rib-cage when you inhale. For those of us who wear glasses regularly, you can expect that they will fog up much like a car windshield does if rain has gotten into it.

Still, the property, the garden, the chickens, and the donkeys all needed tending to, so I slipped my feet into my work boots, grabbed the cowboy hat that King Ranch and I share, and headed into the yard. Over my shoulder, I had a red, 100 foot extension cord needed to power the tiller for the garden. In my back, right pocket, I had my yellow gardening gloves and in the back, left pocket, my phone. I keep it handy because, as many of us 80’s kids entering our 30’s do these days, I take pictures of my activities and post them on various social media sites to link up with other enthusiasts.

This is an introvert’s dream — social media. It’s connection without obligation. People have a lot of negative things to say about these social platforms and although I agree that we should all be careful in the kind of information we’re sharing as well as be careful with our time, I guess I don’t think we need to feel bad about using it as a way to connect. As long as you’re still getting outside and living life away from screens, I say, utilize the interwebs as you please. Just be smart and don’t become dependent.

Little Foot was in a hiking pack specific for babies and toddlers that I wore like a backpack and it made sweat pool along my spine — it ran down and collected at the waist of my jeans. He likes it though — riding in the hiking pack while I work around the yard. He even naps sometimes.

I’d opened up the well house to retrieve the tiller and a rake in order to start tidying the garden, when from out of the corner of my eye, I saw a few streaks of black move across the cloudy, heavy sky. Leaning the tiller back against the inside wall of the well house, I turned to see somewhere between 8 and 10 large birds circling the back parts of the property. I thought they could have been vultures, but I wasn’t sure. They circled like vultures do.

I stood there for a moment, watching the swirl of birds criss-cross back and forth over something that was clearly on my property, every once and awhile, diving down and then swooping back up. The donkeys were okay; they stood just on the other side of the fence from Little Foot and me curious, I’m sure, to know if we had carrots — which I did, in the front, left pocket of my jeans. I had planned on giving them to the donkeys when I was done with the garden and headed out to the rest of the property to mow.  

Once, about 6 months ago, I was out on the property and I found two vertebrae. I think they must have belonged to a cow or other large animal because they were about as big around as my fist. My only thought is that vultures dropped them there. We have a lot of them around here. Here’s a picture I snapped a while back of what I assume is their relaxing time:

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I closed the door to the well house and adjusted Little Foot’s pack on my back as I headed out into the pasture. The donkeys greeted me enthusiastically and nosed at my hips, probably, because they smelled the carrots in my pocket. I pulled out a few for them and continued walking to where the large birds were circling.

A few of the birds floated higher as two dove down quickly without soaring back up. This made me nervous. Then, one after another, they dove down. Every few seconds, one of the massive birds would dart into the sky, but then gracefully glide back down. I really don’t know how many there were.

My glasses kept fogging up, so I placed them up on the brim of my cowboy hat but of course, this made everything look like an impressionist painting. I had the thought that I really should finally call the optometrist and get a new prescription for contacts.

As I approached the back paddock, from behind me, Bunny let out a loud bray and shortly after, Tee squealed in his loose-timing-belt sounding bray. They were indicating to me that I should be careful. In my blurred vision, I could see the collection of birds swarmed around something, although I had no idea what. I’d seen some rabbits on the property recently and wondered if it could have been one of them.

I wasn’t sure if I should be worried — would vultures (if indeed they were vultures) attack Little Foot and I? As far as I knew, birds were pretty scared of humans. Still, the fact that Bunny and Tee brayed nervously was enough to make me halt and keep distance.

I pulled the glasses off the brim of my hat, cleared the fog from the lenses with the bottom of my shirt, and pressed them onto my face. There were seven of them, and most definitely vultures. They had bald heads and black feathers and were frantic in their consuming of, whatever it was. I found myself becoming angry that this carnage was happening on my land, but was nervous to get closer because still, I wasn’t sure if vultures could be violent to us.

In the front, right pocket of my jeans, I’d had a small spade in case I had any digging to do in the garden. The handle was shoved down into my pocket and the actual scooping part of it was sticking up. I pulled the spade from my pocket and threw it as hard and far as I could at the pack of feasting birds while screaming, “blllaaarrrrghhh!!!” I’ve got a pretty good arm — I did, after all, play 3 years of little league softball from ages 9 to somewhere between 11 and 12.

All but two of the massive birds scattered away without a sound but wing flapping, so I felt safer to take a few more steps forward. Plus, Bunny and Tyrion were three or four steps behind me, so I felt safe within their protective proximity.

It was then that I noticed what the birds had: the smaller of the two birds, although, not smaller by much, reached down with it’s nude beak and grabbed hold of something that it then stretched up and I immediately knew that it was the rubber-band texture of lean muscle. The pinkish, red bit snapped and dangled from the bird’s beak before the thing gobbled it up with only a few gulps. The other bird, pecked a few times and lifted the creature up to flip it.

It was a squirrel. A light brown squirrel.

One by one, the other birds landed cautiously, although they kept an eye on the donkeys, Little Foot, and me between pecks at the squirrel.

Little Foot said, “huh, huuuu” which, to him, means donkey. When King Ranch or I ask Little foot, “what does a donkey say?” — “hu huuu” is his response.

Both donkeys were only a step behind me with their ears straight up. They watched the birds like I did, curiously and cautiously.

I turned back towards the garden and decided I’d come back later for my spade. I didn’t want Little Foot to figure out that he was seeing creature consumption. I also worried that this was one of the squirrels that lived in the pecan tree in our backyard — one of the squirrels that constantly drives our dog, Tucker, crazy in the mornings.

Back in the garden, I tilled and pulled the larger weeds by hand. I also thought about the squirrel and wondered how it must have died. Or maybe the vultures killed it. I don’t know. What I did know was that I was angry. I was angry that a gang of big birds chose to spend their afternoon tearing apart the little guy. Surely, there was some larger carcass elsewhere that they could have fought over — but instead, they fought over a squirrel. A helpless squirrel.

As I pulled a few onions out of the ground, careful not to disturb the ones not quite ready around them, I realized I was crying. But I guess birds need to eat, too, right? Still, I couldn’t help feeling sorrow for that squirrel. What a way to go.

I noticed, then, that my poblano pepper plant had finally popped out some peppers after weeks of only flowering. They were still very small, but a deep, forest green and shiny. Life. It was sprouting life.

This made me so proud. Until I lived here at the ranch, I’d never had a garden. Of course, I’d never had a toddler or donkeys or chickens either. And all in one season, I’ve had tomatoes and peppers and onions and lettuce grow as well as a new chick hatch and become part of the flock.

Life and death. All here. Life and death.

The beginning and the end. And we’re lucky enough to be in the middle somewhere.

It’s a powerful thing: being in the middle. This is where we get to do something. Where we get to be someone. Where we get to stand up for what’s right. That doesn’t mean we have to understand everything, but we can be kind. We can appreciate that which is unfolding in front of us.

There is so much more than us. It’s right there — all of it. A whole world. Life and death and everything in between. How badass that we get the privilege of being in between right now.

Cherish it.