Desert Notes


by Kristin Mader



Santa Fe, April 15, 2003.


Today it hailed violently, then the winds came and whipped through town.  That "end of the world" kind of weather.  By 2 p.m. it was snowing and the mountains got whacked with several more inches.  Now it's gentle as a lamb outside, just cold and clear and calm enough to enjoy the full moon.


But when I arrived home earlier it was to bad news from my neighbor.


My neighbor KiKi's horse died today.  A 30-year-old palomino mare, which by horse standards is quite old.  The vet had to put her down because she was colicking so badly last night.  The strange thing is that somehow I knew it.  While walking up the lane yesterday I saw her standing motionless in the field staring at nothing but a blank imaginary space in front of her.  She looked ancient and very tired. I thought to myself that she was getting ready to pass.


My son Auben wanted to see the "dead horse" so badly, and despite what KiKi said, I let him.  Perhaps it's because I can remember to this day being so upset and disappointed when my father shot that rat in the garage (with buckshot!) one January.  But he and Mom never really understood why I was upset.   It wasn't because the rat died, but because they wouldn't let me see it.  The following day I traced my father's footsteps in the snow to the Big Woods across the road.  (My brother and I called it the Big Woods in opposition to the Little Woods adjacent to our house.)  Once there I dug around in the spot of overturned snow so that I could uncover the rat and see him for myself.  I lifted the frozen, bloody thing up by it's pink tail.  It had no head whatsoever.  Nice shot!  It was only then that I could go home satisfied.


Auben had to feel the same way, I imagined.  I knew he would never forget the moment for the rest of his life: gazing at the huge fallen beast in the pasture.  He ran out with excitement towards the Kalfin's residence without his coat.  I'd tried to coach him ahead of time about respect and maintaining a solemn posture around the recently departed.  But he busted out of the house as if the ice cream truck were jingling down the lane.  Despite the zealous approach, he settled himself once he saw her form on the ground. Then he walked all around her, inspecting her up and down.  It all seemed like a good idea until he approached KiKi afterwards and blurted out, "Why are her eyes and mouth open?" Something which KiKi didn't know because she couldn't bear to witness the event in the first place.  It was at that moment she burst out in tears and I felt like a horrible, terrible person.



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The door swings open at 7 a.m. and Matilda begins her song.


At first she sounds like an old man shot from his horse, fighting breath for his last words in a western. Then she's a dead ringer for a rusty door on it's weathered hinges.  The heavy, painfully gouging moan finally warms up to a true bray--hopeful, identifiable--then finally crashes into a throaty stuttering smoker's hack.


Matilda runs the property shamelessly.  Her soul is over a thousand years old. She is only a five-year-old jenny, but comes with the accumulated wisdom of a sage. Think Yoda. Her baby is pressed to her fuzzy latte-colored warm sides. The little one only drifts apart to practice what will be the life-long pursuit of selective grazing. Her lips practice hovering the dead winter grass, but they only make contact with her mother's teats.  It's an ancient reflex which will one day mature.


They know I am coming for them. In fact the worse that I am dressed for the cold, the faster I arrive with flakes of orchard grass and alfalfa. They know this too, and it sets the pace of their reaction. Whether it's a T-shirt in a high sprint or a heavy-coated stroll, gloves are an absolute must in feeding from the shed. The winter fodder pokes my dry skin.


As I arrive with the flakes, the baby jenny (Jessie) is licking and cribbing the fence. I cannot help but rub her downy forehead. Donkeys are therapy.  I have quietly observed them and can only parallel the experience with a spa-quality massage or hypnosis. So serene... Donkeys have incredible minds. More sight than flight. Egoless, they put up with us in an evolved sort of way.  Much like dolphins.  Unfortunately theyve been reduced to our poor little beasts of burden. In this case I've sought them out as companion animals for Hernando.


Hernando the Andalusian is in a class by himself.  Grey, wintry and noble.  A haughty and majestic creature.  He is what is referred to as "hot-blooded."  As impressive as an Andalusian is on the coasts, New Mexicans pay such breeds no particular tribute.  Horses can be one of two things here: useful or a liability.  Hernando, with his fine pedigree, unicorn-like mane and tail, and boundless grace and spirit would simply be a liability.  My neighbor warned me to stop blanketing him at night, I'd just be asking for trouble.


The donkeys help balance Hernando's temperament. They are teaching him to keep his cool. And it is working wonders. His spirit has steadied in the past month. He no longer is working a furrow along the rails and has stopped chewing the poor catalpa tree.


What an odd brood the three of them make!  Matilda and Jessie all ear. Their high withers and drooped faces like prisoners of war.  Mohair heads that bob along the scrub.  Hernando towering over them, his top line arched in perfect conformation no matter the occasion, like a Prima ballerina at the nursing home.  As the feed gets closer Nando prances the rails scolding and tossing his arched neck better than any drag queen in a bar. He is singing for his dinner.


By contrast, Matilda cocks her head out sideways and yawns in mute stupor. Why fuss? For Matilda knows that the lions-share of feed is going into her egg-shaped belly anyway. As stated earlier, she is in charge. She holds her ground with a quirky, mystical confidence. When you know who you are, you don't waste precious calories bouncing around the pen. (I wonder: do donkeys gallop? No, I think they charge straight-legged like rhinos.)


When the feed hits the ground, everyone jumps into place and begins disassembling the flakes.  The pecking order commences. Domesticated animals love the promise of routine. It's very important to be consistent with them. T hey can't graze all day as they would on endless acreage in the wild.  Equines in particular are superb grazers. Their upper lips scan the vegetation with the tenacity of a Braille speed reader; intuitively selecting and editing the forage.  In this case pre-cut fodder.  When elephants interpret objects with their trunks, one could almost imagine that a separate brain or computer chip is at work.  Embedded into the trunk is a surgeon-like precision which defies the rest of their clumsy stature. This is also true of equines: 75% of their IQ lies within their upper lips. Grazing is an all-consuming process that forces a type of overdrive, or cruise control.  And for the moment, having delivered the goods, I have completely disappeared from their concern.



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May, 2003




Someone has shot my donkey, Mama.  I find her in the yard suffering; I find the bullet hole.  Who could have been so cruel?


I run in the house and call everyone from Fish's house.  They're either out of touch or at lunch.


Finally I got Joe Trujillo, who is always home.  A recovering rodeo mess with a talent for shop, he hooked up his trailer. As we lead Mama to the road, she balks, pulls back, and weighs herself back on her heels.  At least she is behaving normally in this regard. The barbwire loop slips out of the coyote fence when you kick the bottom of the post while leaning the top toward the joiner. Took a year to perfect that.  Baby tried to follow and I had to throw my arms up into the air and shout to scare her back.  Joe grabbed his ropes and circled Mama's rear to apply forward pressure, meanwhile assuring Fish, whod shown up, that he was not going to hurt her.  "This isn't my first rodeo," he says.


Joe and Fish will arrive with Mama at Valley Vet first as I have to run fifty yards to the wreck-a-Benz, then gurgle her home and taunt Auben from the house. The house reveals a perfect path of his last five activities: kicking the shoes off into the air, one landing on the sofa, one under the foyer table; getting out the peanut butter and jelly to fix a sandwich--the plastic wrapped loaf open on the counter with slices belching out scattered crumbs--the TV blaring and a dozen action figures scattered in mock war poses on the arms and cushions of the "good" sofa.  From the front door I can see his eczema patch glowing a nice fuchsia and bobbing up and down above the rhythm of his sandwich-chewing jaws.  Mental note: after the psych bill gets paid off I will next take him to the dermatologist.


I promise drama and maybe some blood, so he drops the sandwich and follows me out.


After the vital signs are taken the belly gets "tapped" and something like cranberry juice spills forth. Tom the vet is not happy about this and Joe spits a wad of chew on the ground.  I am cradling Mama's head and rubbing her fuzzy ears. The ultrasound and banamine are administered next.  Auben is jumping up and down to see the blurry nothingness on the monitor.  An abyss of "fluid." He is zealous and wildly excited.  Joe Blurts out something in Spanish - not meant for us - and they are highly amused.


But it is not good, not any of it, for I know Mama and can see she's in considerable distress.  The pain begins crushing down on me.  My own blood has turned to metal shavings, pulsing through me, burning with rage.  We decide against shipping her to Albuquerque for major surgery. Tom tries to reassure me in my decision: "Hey, if this were Secretariat standing here we would be on the road as we speak and flying in the top equine vets in the country, but I understand the realities of economics and she is, well, a donkey. Let's wait and see what happens in the next twelve hours in response to the medications.  If we are lucky it lodged into her liver and will just stay there without a fuss. She deserves to be given that chance.  But if it's pierced the gut then it would take more than surgery.  It would take a miracle."


I drag her with effort to a corral where the other patients over the fence are a sorrel quarter mare and her thirty-day-old filly.  I decide that I don't like them. There's something not right about putting the maternity ward next door to death row.


I make a dozen phone calls from the parking lot.  Auben is bored, so we leave.


5:00pm. Vet is "cautiously optimistic." Her vital signs are not declining and she ate a little and pooped.  I like my vet.


We had to go to a dinner party that night. Auben plays with the magnetic poetry on the fridge. He's ecstaticaly composing such phrases as "picture me at beach kissing a hot woman" and "slice and rejoice the fresh dog crap."  He tires of this after one hour and I follow him outside. "Mom, everything here is cool and broken." Our neighbor, Anthony, collects wonderful old "things." I see a huge plastic rabbit-head-shaped sign nailed to the side of his house.  It's blue and white and says "Bunny Bread."  While playing with Auben I tear my leg up on a stack of cut branches.  It leaves a nasty "s"-shaped cut. I don't remember a thing about the artichokes I was supposed to deal with in the kitchen and I'm drunk one glass of wine.


Anthony's friends are interesting and all slightly damaged.  Julie was born deformed at birth. She has a dwarfed right hand and a prosthetic leg.  The hand resembles an appendage from a crustacean.  But her blonde highlighted hair is pulled up neatly in a little puff with bobby pins. Such a lost art these days. I like her instantly and cling to her for a good hour. The other guests scare me slightly and besides, I can really only think of Mama.


Wake up hung-feeling and slightly cramped. I go to the vet to see Mama.  I'm there before they open.   And I climb into her pen. She is clearly worse.   Curved lashes and the smell of rot from her breath.  I wait for the vet.


"Internal tissues decomposing, systems failing. Vital signs on the decline.  Her temp has dropped.  Her heart is up to 82."


What now?


I call my Mom and cry.


Go to eat, yes pancakes, yes eggs, yes a burrito with green chile--yes!  Who cares what happened--we could all die tomorrow!  I realize suddenly I'm still in my pajamas and am now bleeding between my legs through my pajamas. I am a pitiful human specimen.


Go back to Mama.  I see handlebar ears; very sad and distressed, not interested in the foal next door. She's saying, "Fuck the foal next door."


Tom leads two mares back to be inseminated.  He keeps the vials of sperm tucked into the front of his boxer shorts. One of those specimens didn't ship well and he claims this might help to revive it.  I don't watch this part. I am on the phone again seeking support.


The mares nicker and dance back to their corrals with their tails lifted up and parted to the side.  They appear positively giddy, the little tarts. Back in their corrals they both immediately tinkle. Cunts winking pinkly to release those last few squirts of urine.


I go home, can't sleep, can't eat, can't shower. I don't want to be clean.  I am not done.  I want to feel it all.  I want to smell even more.  I want to sink into all of it and wallow there and be left alone. 


I try to compose the flyer Im supposed to but it is way too emotive and sappy.  It attempts to take on too much: the trees, the flowers, the children, the animals spitefully endangered by the reckless youth with their smashed mailboxes and shot-up street signs on our street.  I reread and realize that I sound like a Greenpeace freak.  Maybe I'm becoming a Greenpeace freak.  Maybe I sound like my mother who liked to sing hymns in the baby blue metallic Cadillac on the way home from Divine Redeemer Lutheran. S he's all syrupy and pointing out the blessings of the corn in the fields and the birds gathering straw but then her forehead wrinkles up as she tells my brother and I how the Beatles "ruined America."  I'm suddenly embarrassed with myself and hit the delete button.  And then I remember: Our minister was GAY and that ignorant Wisconsin congregation didn't have a fucking clue!  I've no choice now but to harden for what is to come....


Mama is worse yet when I return with my resolve in tow. It is now the fourteenth hour.  Her temp at a rock bottom before shock might set in.  The a.m. Banamine has well worn off by now. Her life's duty to be stoic is sliding.  She is now in a frozen-like agony. Behind the stethoscope the vet looks up from his wrist watch and tells me that it is so hard to read a donkey.  Horses get put down well before this point because they panic from the pain. A horse will hit the deck and beat themselves up they thrash so violently from their pain.  Whereas a donkey will die like Jesus on the cross in an old Bible movie. I picture Mama hanging there providing comfort for all those gathered around her, including the two bandits on either side as the Romans cast die for her halter and lead rope.   Gazing upward towards the heavens as the blood spills from her nailed hooves: "Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do."


The decision finally takes hold of me and I nod at Tom.  "OK, enough.  I feel that none of us can take another minute of this." Mama is clearly not pulling through.


He disappears briefly to update Mama's file and I am alone with her.  "Does she know?" I wonder to myself.  She sees me crying, she smells my fear, she feels my shaky hands on her forelock.  I decide to be honest.  "Yes," I tell her in a whisper.  She shows no sign of acknowledgement.  And for this I begin to believe. She is healing me.  She is better than me.


I fasten the green halter over her great ears and buckle the brass chain under her chin. For the first time she leads effortlessly and we follow the vet to a cement chamber.  My eyes have not adjusted to the darkness of this unfamiliar windowless barn but I do notice a drain in the middle of the floor where the cedar chips have been brushed aside.


Tom tells me what to expect and he is overly thorough. I feel insulted by this somehow.  I sense that he expects me to lose my composure and become the unbearable child who wails uncontrollably after "Old Shep gets sent to doggy heaven" or something.  I assure him that I know the most difficult part of his job must not be the animals but their owners, and I even manage to accompany this proclamation with a weak smirk. But the outer curves of my mouth have escaped me and are being pulled in downward spasms.


We begin the injections and everything goes much more slowly than Tom promised. A lifetime passes in silence before Mama's knees finally buckle and Tom jerks her head upwards with all his might to guide her fall.  On the ground, I cup my hands lightly over her muzzle to feel the gentle warm tickle of her breath. The second injection is administered and again we wait.  I can see now how her middle has swollen around the bullet hole. In the darkness her topline resembles a familiar silhouette, the Sleeping Maiden Mountain Range which divides Santa Fe from Glorieta. I do not share this observation.  I try to whisper to her but am interrupted when the breath leaves my palm. 


Upon leaving the body her spirit saw the total collapse of my composure.  I am not the beautiful angel of death who whispers sweetly into the ears of the dying.  The spirit knows, but Tom doesn't.  In two minutes it is over.  Mama and the vet have now both exited with dignity to leave me writhing alone in the dark chamber.





I want the bullet.


"You really should not be there, it's all going to be pretty academic."


Valerie tells me she can't put a live spirit down, one with eyes that can see her, etc.  She's pulled the plug on many people before when they were in a coma.  But the living, seeing spirit is far too great a power to confront. The host one simply cannot ask to leave. After all, it is their house.




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Coming soon: Kristin Mader's Bruce Chatwin Page.



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