Winter in Dallas, Chuck and Morgan and me all tucked into an efficiency apartment with a murphy bed, smoking marijuana in a large walk-in closet that also doubles as my writing space because Shorty the landlord says if he catches you smoking pot he’ll throw you out. Shorty is king of this straight baptist red-brick apartment and square lawn in the middle of a block of black chicano-low-riders and jesusfreak vans with holy fire painted in orange running off the front fenders, gunshots at night and sirens in the alley behind the supermarket, taxi driver asking on the corner have you seen that blonde hooker that’s always here, flat brown bottles on the sidewalk when I walk to work past the park in the morning, everybody asking me are you sure you should be walking to work?
And we’re all working. In the morning everyone up at six-thirty, Morgan into the bathtub, blowdrying purple punked-out hair, red suspenders, grey corduroys for the carwash, catching the Abrams-Mockingbird bus but still having to walk three miles at the end of the line. Chuck and me working kelly girl, Chuck bumming out fast from so much joking around — Chuck the kelly girl, Chuck the poet, Chuck the man who comes home and watches tv with a quart of beer at night, completely wiped out.
And me, walking along the downtown sidewalks, underneath the North-Central Expressway, past the liquor store black men waving brown package out, say don’t you talk to black men huh? thinking about when I used to live in the desert, when I’m going to be rich, when I won’t have to be a kelly girl anymore, when I’m going to tell just the right story. It’s going to come to me, and it’s going to be the right story for everyone. Walking back past the park where Chuck says the winos come at night and pool their money and buy the bottles I’m always seeing on the sidewalk.
But in the late afternoon the birds come before the winos, hundreds of black birds, grackles, swirling over the park, resting in the tops of the trees like large black leaves come to cover the bare branches, the sidewalks white with grackle guano, and here and there in the grass the dead stiff body of a grackle, died in his sleep waiting for the spring to come a little more before following the wind onto Kansas and Illinois and wheat fields coming ripe all the grackles dream about. After dark the winos will come, grackles and winos occupying the branches and roots each to his own, watching the moon in its phases barely clearing the Dallas skyline.
And before grackle park, I walk along the sidewalk, thinking about everything. But when I get there it is half past five and the sky is turning red and grey and the grackles are flying down into the branches, finding each other, making the hiss-whizz-crack-and-cackle thousands of times. I stop thinking about everything except grackles and grackles, my head filled with them like the trees. One day I stop in the middle of the sidewalk. I think that I will try and call to one of the grackles with my mind. I will call out come to me, come to me, come to me, and I will try to think of the motion of a grackle flying through the air and landing on my shoulder. So I pick out a bird by himself at the top of a very tall tree. I look at him squarely and think as loudly as I can come to me, come to me, concentrating on the motion. But he continues to sit, looking in the sky, in the branches, at the other birds, never at me, until the energy is gone and I stop thinking at him and continue walking along the whitened sidewalk, the litter of dead birds and leaves in the gutter and the swirl of birds high in the sky. Blocks away from grackle park I forget the birds completely, wondering if Morgan scored roaches from the ashtrays at the carwash, wondering what to make for supper.
There is a woman named Jewel Babb who lives in the desert. When I talk about her I call her wise, I tell people she is eighty years old, that she lives with goats, that rumor has it she can heal people with her hands. And suddenly it is February, I am saying this about publishers and that about contracts, and maybe I will write this up I am saying and I will even print this my-self, swaggering around in the apartment talking to anyone who will listen, fast and loud — oh there will be a meeting with this woman in the desert, I will bring champagne, I will make arrangements, get money, so many telephone calls to make and to receive. At the same time Chuck is becoming confused and disheartened. He says there are not enough windows in the apartment, there are not enough rooms or beds, and he wants to leave me. He has told all our friends, I can hear it in their voices solicitous and curious on the telephone. So when he leaves me alone one evening at the apartment, closing the door without saying if he will be back, I sit down in a chair in front of the television feeling too large and heavy and awkward for anyone to want to keep around. Besides,
there is no money, no check in the mail that was supposed to come, and there is no grass, not even seeds or roaches, and there is no Morgan, he is at a movie or a punk rock club, gone somewhere leaving me alone alone alone.
Sitting in the chair in the apartment in Dallas, watching the little brown cockroaches roam around the cheerios box above the television picture which is fast becoming a black and white blur, the sadder I become, the more loaded and heavy with responsibility I feel. I think that I have taken on too many people to care for and that I won’t be able to go to the desert after all, and that the photographer (who is Anne) will be so disappointed because this is her first free-lance job and it is falling through, and that the artist (who is Hal) will be so disgusted because I have told him I am going to make a book with his paintings of the woman and the goats in the desert. And I am thinking I am crazy, I am crazy, I have lost my train of thought, I have made myself believe that there is some good to writing stories which are only dirt in my mouth, too much mariajuana has filled my brain with strange ambitions, and on and on until I am gone completely, the apartment is gone, the floor melts the walls melt I see the delicate ice crystal structure that everything depends upon, that the universe rides on, and then the ice melts and I melt and everything is terrible. All sense has completely gone.
But the next morning the sun is out and I get up and have a grapefruit and a cup of coffee. I’m feeling better even though my stomach is messed up and won’t digest anything before eleven o’clock in the morning, serious symptoms. I will die of nervous ulcers before I am forty-five. Then Chuck comes in the door wanting to go to the desert with me after all, tossing around money, even willing to pay for the airplane tickets until my own check should happen to come. That is the way it is, living with Chuck: one day he is a regular-sized man, then the next he becomes big and lion-hearted, a man of large proportions, elastic seams.
So that night I am settling into a southwest airlines economy seat, a cardboard box of files on my lap, Chuck tucked in on the wingside with a yellow plastic bag of grapefruit and peanut butter, provisions for the trip, and the plane takes off above all the lights that are Dallas, lurching a little in the air currents, making me think of my own death as airplanes always do, of what everyone will say, that I died before my prime, that I still had quite a bit to say, and I wonder if people who die in airplane accidents always have a head full of plans right up to the time of fiery consummation. I decide that they do, just like me. Then we are very high and the night is black and somewhere above the desert we start slowing, coming down.
Hal’s new red car is going to carry us all. He is packing his watercolors, a large pad, sleeping bags for everyone, gloves and a knife so that he can look for peyote. He isn’t sure there will be anything else — are you sure she’ll be out there? he asks me, are there going to be goats? And I answer always yes, I’m sure. I am getting good at pretending. Hal is having some problems at the house with his wife, she says well ex-cuse me! and he says I’ve had it! He walks out, but Chuck and I don’t look up from the packing. Then we pick up Anne, who just came back from Guatemala. She has her cameras and bags, doesn’t have a job at the photo lab anymore and is shy and doesn’t know me very well, and I am amazed again that these people are going with me to a place I have named in the desert to see a woman who I have assured them is supposed to heal people with her hands. But then it is the twenty-first century, we’re not going for the laying of hands, we’re going to lay hands on. If Jesus Christ were living I would write a story about him and get some people out for photographs and sketches, some close-ups of the miracle of laying on of hands, and sell it to a magazine. Chuck has divorced himself from the pilgrimage. He is going along for the ride, he has forgotten his camera, his writing tablet and his pen. He will look out of the car windows and count the yuccas while I try to remember what road to take when.
And where are we going? We are tracing out a vague pattern of dirt roads south of Sierra Blanca winding through the Quitman Mountains toward the Rio Grande. I know that one dirt road goes to the woman’s cabin, which is alone on a ridge looking out over Mayfield Canyon, and another dirt road goes to Indian Hot Springs which is down by the river. It is special country, all red rock and huge tumbled stone and mountain cliffs studded with caves first used by river-and-rock loving Indians, now by coyotes and wet-backs. I can remember one area, the river plain spreading out a white crust on the ground instead of sand, marking out an area of hot springs bubbling out of the ground into twenty-two pools, which the Indians declared forever neutral ground. There is a rope bridge across the Rio Grande there, that Mexican villagers cross to get to the springs to bathe, although the border patrolmen shoot men in the legs for doing it. Even if they are only villagers coming across for the baths, they are nevertheless wet-backs when they cross the river. A border patrolman is a visionary, taught in geography classes to hold the map of the United States firmly in mind, so that even when he works for a living in a desert which stretches to infinity and upholds a river from both sides, he can still see the clear black line that cuts it cleanly in half.
I don’t want to go all the way to the river and the hot springs, I want to remember when to make the turn away to the woman’s cabin. I tell Hal to take a turn and then another one and then we get lost in a maze of little arroyos criss-crossing roads which have becomes paths. In the low parts we all get out, Chuck and Anne and I put rocks underneath the wheels of Hal’s red car so that it will drive over the washed out places without getting stuck, and we push and Hal revs the engine and gravel comes out, the smell of burning rubber comes up, there is dust, it isn’t very funny that we’re stuck and lost in the desert. Finally at one arroyo the three of us push very hard so that the car becomes unstuck again and Hal drives away in a big cloud of dust, Anne and Chuck and me standing there. The engine fades over the hill and the desert is quiet, big yuccas bending over us, little scrubby greasewood here and there, lots of sky. We walk until we get to the top of the hill and he can’t be seen. We walk some more and we walk about a mile, then there he is, the red car stopped in the road, Hal sitting down on a rock beside it. He isn’t smiling when we walk up. It was sure good to get away from you for a little bit, he says. We drive on.
The sun is almost down when we finally round a turn, the tumble of pens and sheds appear on a ridge above us and we make the last climb up the road into a cleared area, a quiet dark cabin in the middle. It looks like nothing is going on. No cars. There are some chickens picking apart a mattress close to the porch door. There are half a dozen horses standing bunched together in the mesquite which grows along the edges of the yard who are giving us the lookover, and in the back of the cabin somewhere, although I can’t see them, I know there are a great number of goats. Chuck and Hal and Anne start wandering around the yard, sniffing around tentatively like humans do trying to get their bearings, trying to locate this and that, peering into the distance at the hills, shuffling through the dirt of the clearing discovering rocks and rusted nails, making mental note of the road where we were before, the large yuccas, the dog with a blue eye and a yellow one who flaps his tail around in a circle when I come up to the door and knock. Someone is stirring in the darkness of the porch, but when the door opens it isn’t Jewel Babb, it is an old man thin and brown, white grizzle for a beard, old blue stocking cap, two black teeth set between two brown ones in the gums. Jewel Babb, he tells me, no esta en la casa, she was earlier, he says, but she isn’t anymore. Well, she would be back sometime, I know that, or maybe she won’t be back, but what can we do? We can stay, we can wait, we can look at the goats.
The old man says his name is Evaristo, he herds the goats which, he waves toward the back, are all in the pens. So I wander outside and there they are, hundreds of goats, all different colors and sizes, but more babies than large ones, standing, sitting, bumping each other, watching Anne and Hal and Chuck who are leaning at individual places around the pen. I find my own place and stand and watch them for a long time. They are such beautiful animals, the shades of their coats strange colors, their eyes with the pupils slanted sideways some blue and some gold, and their mouths smiling goat-buddha smiles. Watching them I see that I have come to a place where the four-footed far outnumber the two-footed and where in the large space of sky and canyon even that little differentiation breaks down. So I stand and watch the goats just like they stand and watch me, no more, though, than they are standing and watching each other, and then I watch Anne and Chuck and Hal, all of us watching not saying anything, part of the general herd.
At night the four of us walk into the desert in a loop of goat paths, the moon bright enough so that we can see exactly where we are in relation to the path, the rocks, the hills and the greasewood. The stars swim straightforwardly in a band which sweeps across the night as we walk the eye of the kaleidoscope, enjoying our own black silhouettes jutting out from our feet in the sand. Hal says that he has been rolfed and Chuck asks what that means. Hal says it’s like zone therapy a little bit, the rolfer finds these places in the body that are sore, then you yell and cry and talk about what you are thinking. Hal says that rolfing is a wonderful thing, that everyone should do rolfing, and Chuck believes that Hal has fallen in love with his rolfer, and right after telling about rolfing, Hal mentions love, that we’re taught not to do it. Anne agrees, but she doesn’t say too much because she doesn’t talk as much as everyone else, although she says yes yes intently at times and nods her head. Chuck is agreeing too, that’s true, we haven’t been taught to love, and I say yes, that’s true, because everyone’s afraid that if it’s okay to love everybody then we’ll all wind up going to bed with our fathers and mothers as well as our neighbor’s wife. Everyone agrees with that, so we are quiet and think about it for a while, walking along the path of illuminated rocks, crunching along, someone picking up something, rubbing it in the palm. Look, Hal says, let’s sit down together and make a circle, so we sit down in a circle in the path but it is silly, we hold hands but Chuck yawns, I hunker down, feel like the stars are breathing down my neck, crunch rocks, cough a little. Finally Hal says maybe we should get up, Chuck says it’s just that I’ve got a little stiffness in my back. Walking is better, Hal says, Anne agrees.
Then the clearing edge again, the four of us stepping into its circle, three of the horses stepping into it from the other side, looking at us, us looking at them. Two gangs. They are spread out in a semi-circle, the middle one white — white in the moonlight like an apparition, like the horse of a thousand stories, charmed, made from wind or the foam of an ocean that the desert used to sit at the bottom of. It seems to me that they are saying something to us, or maybe they are waiting for us to say something, and I am looking at the white one, in the middle of its head, but there is no more than a general concentration between his head and mine, lowered at each other. Then he bows and turns into the desert. The other two brown ones leave, too, and we go into the cabin where Evaristo is already preparing for bed. He shows Anne that she can have the couch where he himself sleeps. It is up against the wall of the kitchen, piled with a brown scrap of blanket in the darkest corner, lit only by the kerosene flame in the lamp that Evaristo holds while he shows her where it is. Anne declines, it is too dark, the folds of the rags too mysterious. She shares the mattress on the porch with Chuck and me, Hal sleeping at the side of the bed in a sleeping bag, sounds of shifting animals outside the screen, Evaristo’s horse taking a long piss right by the door, finally Anne snoring, Hal breathing loudly, Chuck’s breath on my neck.
The morning comes before the sun. It is grey and rose, the black and white rooster is crowing, he is sitting on a yucca near the porch, he has a bright brown neck and red wattles. When I walk out in the yard, there are little chickens, a solitary duck, an eccentric of his own kind taken to the desert, and two guinea hens. Also cows, silly and brown, wandering across the lot. There is the smell of coffee which Evaristo makes in a charred pot, there are the goats in the pen, butting and baaing, rustling, kneeling and gazing, the babies by their mothers, the young males leaping and kicking, everyone waiting for Evaristo to come and open up the gate so they can go. Then the sun is up, Evaristo saddles his horse, his stocking cap slung to the back of his head like a blue flag, and he lets out the goats, they tumble through the clearing, beating up the dust. Chuck is suddenly running down into the desert with them, zig-zagging through the mesquite and over the rocks, he is a goat himself with his own long legs leaping and flapping. And the cows can’t go, Evaristo is beating them away from the path the goats took down the arroyo with a stick, the rest of the day they peer out over the mesas, not knowing quite what to do with themselves because they aren’t goats and aren’t allowed to go with the herd. Then the clearing is quiet again and Evaristo is gone on his horse. Chuck comes walking back up the path, the rest of us looking out over the hills to the last of the goats disappearing around a bend, and the sun is all the way up. There is no Jewel Babb but there is the desert, there is sun, there were goats until just a few minutes ago, their dust and smell and images still in the air.
And in the afternoon Jewel Babb comes. Before she came, I was worrying, I was thinking Jewel Babb is not a wise old woman, Jewel Babb is a silly woman, sometimes she repeats herself and sometimes she makes wrong decisions, and really I have never seen her heal anybody, I have seen her touch them, but I haven’t seen anything. But on the other hand, does that matter anyway? Anne asks me if Jewel Babb really heals people and I tell her that I don’t know. For photographs it doesn’t matter anyway. But then Jewel Babb comes.
Her body is still solid and good, she has a heavy scarf on her head, I remember now that she always wears it over her hair like that, although I had forgotten it, her eyes are blue and she is smiling and happy to see me although we are suddenly shy when we hug each other. I tell her this is Hal and this is Anne, she hugs Chuck because she knows him. So that afternoon Anne tells her to stand there and stand there, and she stands, and then Anne tells her to be by the goats which have come back, and she is by them. She picks the little ones up, and Anne takes photographs of that, and she puts them down, and Anne gets that, too. Then Anne tells her to heal a person, and Hal sits on the chair. Jewel Babb puts her hands on his head and on his back, she sits and looks at him a little, then she moves her hand on his shoulders. Hal says that something flies out of his right eye, Jewel Babb tells him that something left, and he says does it really happen that way, does it really fly out? Jewel Babb says sometimes it does, flying out of an eye or the mouth. Then Chuck says Pat, you should tell her about your stomach, and I say yes, well, I’ve been having a nervous stomach, I can’t eat in the morning. So Jewel Babb tells me to sit in a chair. She sits near the screen, the rooster looking over her shoulder, Anne snapping photographs, Chuck getting some coffee, and suddenly I am farting, I am belching, the juices in my stomach are rolling and roaring, I am getting louder by the second, belching and farting and growling, I put my head down in my hands because it is very embarrassing. Anne is laughing, Chuck comes out of the kitchen to see what is going on, Jewel Babb is looking at me smiling, she says do you want me to take that away now? I say of course. She tells me to lie down on the mattress on my back, she passes her hands over me from my head to my toes, then shakes her fingers at the foot of the bed, shaking all the noise away, everything finally quieting down, my stomach stopped.
Finally there is no more film and Jewel Babb is sitting in her chair on the porch eighty years old telling about the goats, what they’ve been doing, rolling her eyes, her friend Agustin drove her out to the camp she says (he’s out in the yard talking to Evaristo — a little brown man who cuts hair and plays the fiddle for a living in Sierra Blanca) he tells me he’s going to leave and go be with his children in Del Rio, she says, but maybe he won’t go. I get out the bottle of champagne and everyone drinks some, Evaristo comes in, a little for Agustin, Hal, Chuck, Anne and me, the first champagne Jewel Babb has ever had, the first alcoholic beverage in eighty years of life, my responsibility, I’m tampering here with history, major anglo heroine legendary Jewel Babb, anglo curandera and desert wise woman, turns to booze at the age of eighty years, toxifies her system irreparably, her delicately balanced system of healing turned to a jumble of pickled nerves. But Jewel Babb takes some sips, gets happy, we’re going to make some money on this book, Jewel Babb says. Maybe you’ll stay here, I tell Agustin, maybe you won’t want to be taken care of by your family after all. Maybe, he says, always may-be.
Sometimes I think about Dallas while I’m sitting in the back seat of Hal’s red car with Anne, looking out the window at the Rio Grande, driving along. I wonder if Shorty will have stopped outside the apartment door, sniffed the marijuana and busted Morgan, thrown him out, barred the door. Probably not. Maybe so. The road is gravel, the adobes of Mexican villages and single desert farmers along the other side, rocky cliffs on our side, red canyons, dry creek beds running to the river in a tumble of rocks, the air blue, the salt cedar feathering green for spring along the river, the desert red and brown. Then I am thinking about the Rio Grande itself, how it is just a trickle of water, barely visible through the screen of salt cedar that stretches out between the riverbed and the road. I have read that when the Spanish missionaries first came to this valley, the river was so wide, they could barely see the other side and the grass was tall as a man’s head. I am thinking that some day someone should dynamite all the dams on the upper Rio Grande and let the water come down as it should, flooding half of Las Cruces, all of El Paso downtown, a terrible large roll of water which would eventually settle itself into a wide-running band, to make all of this desert green again. And I am looking out over the river when a bird comes down. I see him suspended in the air, his wings spread out, only moving them every few seconds once or twice to maintain his spot above the river bed.
Well we all see it, Hal sees it, he slows down, I grab his shoulder, Anne says wow and look at that and Chuck cranes his head around, we’re all looking at that bird, the sun on such a beam above us that it illuminates his wings to translucent red and brown, his head completely white, it has to be an eagle. It’s an eagle, I say, it’s really an eagle, I can’t believe it is an eagle, maybe it’s a hawk of some kind, Chuck says, no it’s not, it’s an eagle, I tell him. I’m looking at it, everyone’s looking at it, and the eagle is looking at us, he is suspended in the air and he has a direct eye on what must appear to him as a wonderful shiny red object full of chattering animals which has stopped in the middle of the road. Hal comes in a little closer, and the bird moves in a little closer. Then when he stops, we do, too. High above him there is another one just like him that appears, circling at the same distance but on a higher plane.
We know something at the same time — we need to get out quick, Hal is already out, and Chuck is out on the other side, Anne and I are scrambling out, then we’re in the middle of the road in a little group, all looking at the illuminated bird. As the bird stands still in the air, I get an old ecstatic feeling of being overcome, like when holy fire comes down in a church service and the people cry out, tears in their eyes, falling down on the ground, until I can hardly see the bird anymore. But I realize what is happening and I think no, no tears, dammit, I want to see him as clearly as I possibly can. Then, just in that instant we are face to face, on the same plane somewhere very high, and I am eyeing the eagle the aztec bird coasting over the two headed stream of red and blue which is the stream of the desert and the stream of the river, one embracing the other and the sky embracing everything. Then the bird swoops down almost into the water he had been hanging over, then angles in front of us, crosses the road, swoops behind a hill, back up, above us, around us, and away. Then he is gone. We are standing, looking up at the sky, in the middle of the road.