I am the manager of a small ranch above Lake Matthews. I pick up day labor at the Eremos Hill Feed and Supply. Zolin is the boy from Peru. Zolin is always one that I beckon to my truck.
“Hop in, Zolin. ¿Listo a trabajar? (Ready to work?)”
Zolin smiles and says, “Always ready, Mister Brandon!”
We drive up into the hills to Miss Adele’s little ranch. She’s a nice old lady who loves critters. The ranch is more like a zoo if you ask me. She’ll adopt any abandoned, orphaned, unwanted, abused critter. But just because it isn’t what you would call a “working ranch” doesn’t make managing the place any easier. It’s about five acres spread on the side of Eremos Hill. Miss Adele jokingly calls her ranch “Frazzle Rock Acres”.
Zolin tells me, raising the bag from his lap, “I have brought some ceviche from my mother for Miss Adele and for you, Mister Brandon.”
Zolin has shared ceviche with us before, and I like it: fresh raw fish marinated in lime juice and spiced with chili peppers and onions. But this time I have to say, “Zolin, Miss Adele is not here today,” and he senses something in the way I said it.
Zolin asks, “Miss Adele is OK, sí?”
I say, “Miss Adele had to go back to the hospital again.”
Zolin says in a whisper, and I pretend not to hear, “It is the cancer of the belly again.”
I say, “The downed fence is up there, Zolin.”
Today we’ve got to replace the wooden fence that Bart the big white Yorkshire pig pushed down. Bart is huge. He is up the hillside even now, still plowing into the wild cool dirt and looking down at the ranch house. He is the ranch’s “revolutionary”. A month ago he “liberated” the roosters and chickens from their enclosure. Bart was born to be eaten, but Miss Adele got him at the County Fair as a piglet and he’s been a pet ever since; a very expensive pet. Miss Adele got Dolly, his companion, a pig with flower-like dappling, at the same time for the same reason. I can see that Dolly has joined Bart up the hill even now as we speak. Miss Adele had told me, cooing, “When they were babies, they looked at me so sweetly like they were saying ‘help us, please, help us’.”
I remember with a wince of guilt that Dolly smells like spicy sausage to me. I love sausage. I haven’t eaten any since.
As we walk past the big artificial dirt pond, Zolin makes goofy honking sounds at the three Chinese Swan Geese: Kwai Chang, Oprah, and Brooke, who are huddled and gossiping. The geese turn toward us their heads upon necks rising like periscopes. Kwai Chang is the leader and he raises his wings as well, lowers his head, and glides toward us with a menacing hiss.
Zolin laughs, crying out, “¡Ayúdeme! (Help me!)”, quickly trotting up behind me, calling to the little drake Mallard duck standing on the shoreline, ““¡Ayúdeme! Puddles! ¡Sálveme, sálveme! (Save me, save me!)” Puddles turns his bright green head down and then ruffles the grey and brown feathers on his chest. Puddles had flown in to the dirt pond one day during duck migration and he never left.
The downed fence is attached to the barn. The barn is full of rescued cats and a few strays from the nearby residences. They loll in the straw and climb in the rafters. Miss Adele has names for each and every one of them.
I say, “First we have to get Bart and Dolly back inside the fenced area.”
Zolin nods, “¿Coyotl, si?” using the Peruvian word for Coyotes, as Zolin explained it to me one day. Apparently, the Aztec Moon Goddess was named Coyo-something-or-other, because coyotl bay at the moon.
I reply, “Yup. Coyotes. But I’m not worried about Bart and Dolly. My guess is that they can take care of themselves. They’re probably too much even for a pack of coyotes.”
Zolin points out politely, “And you have dogs, Mister Brandon.”
I shake my head, saying, “Yes, but Rommel and Lafayette can’t guard every inch of this ranch.” Rommel is a short haired Shepherd-Pincher-mix, and Lafayette is a curly-haired Shepherd-Schnauzer- mix. Those two together are a real “Band of Brothers”.
Bart and Dolly have dug themselves a comfortable ledge in the hillside and I’m sorry I can’t let them have their way about this. I approach Bart and he grunts once, questioningly. Sitting prone he is as high as my crotch. I stand beside his big head and fondle his big ear and rub his tough snout and he grunts, contentedly. But then I lean my knee into his neck to let him know he has to move on. He grunts indignantly a couple times, but when I lean in again, he bustles onto his feet, snorting derision at me, and starts stiffly down the hillside back to the fenced-in area. He knows. And Dolly follows, but with fewer comments. Zolin rubs her big bristly jowls and she gurgles with happiness.
Luckily when Bart toppled the tall wood plank fence, he had lifted the whole section up onto his snout after rooting under a main support post. Zolin and I hefted it up again and settled it and tamped it in nice and solid again.
I have been noticing Zolin looking at me pensively and I ask, “What’s on your mind?”
Zolin begins to gesture as if he is trying to weave what he has to say, “Mister Brandon, you must know, of course, how I like to work hard for you and Miss Adele, and, I would like to ask a favor of you, and if I ask too much there is no harm done, please understand me, I hope so, and I would never ask this except Miss Adele is so kind, and you are so kind, and it is not really for myself I must ask, please understand me, and I know this is not an easy time for Miss Adele, so I really have no right to ask, but, please understand me, I have no one else who can help, …”
I rescue him before he drowns in his own words, “Zolin, do you need some money?”
Zolin’s eyes go wide as if I shocked him, “Oh, no, no, Mister Brandon, no, no …” and he blushes and he looks around for a place to set his embarrassment, “My mother would die of shame if I even thought such a thing…, I could never think such a thing.”
I don’t help his chagrin by laughing, “Zolin, just tell me.”
Zolin closes his eyes, takes a breath, and then begins to spread his situation out before me, “My father, my mother, and I are living with my mother’s sister, in her house, and it is good, but when we have come to this country my father has brought two tuis, and he has brought them in two big dog carriers and no one cared.”
I interrupt, “Zolin, what is a tui?”
Zolin rubs his neck, trying to squeeze the right words out, “A tui is a cria that has been, has been, has been … weaned, yes, weaned,” he says at last, in triumph
I now implore him, “Zolin, what is a cria?”
Understanding dawns, and Zolin says, “A baby alpaca.”
I repeat, “Alpaca.”
Zolin confirms, “Alpaca. My father has dreams of starting a ranch for alpacas. The money is very good, very good.”
I say, “So go on with it.”
Zolin continues, “The female has died, and the little male is now very lonely. He looks for more attention than my mother, or my father, or my aunt… can give. And I have seen how kind are you and Miss Adele, and I have no one who can help, just until we find a house of our own, soon, and we can take little Ceviche.”
I ask to clarify, “Ceviche? You named him Ceviche? Like the food you brought?”
Zolin grins wryly, “My aunt has threatened to make the little guy into her ceviche, so she has begun to call him Ceviche. She is only joking, of course,” Zolin swallows, “but Ceviche sneaks into the house when he can, and that upsets my aunt, and then my aunt yells at my mother, and then my mother yells at my father, and my father has asked me to ask you if Ceviche can live here for only a little while, of course, with these other animals for his consuelo, his comfort in sadness, just for a little while, I am sure.”
I shake my head, “Zolin, you can sure shovel words. I am impressed. Sure, Ceviche can stay here for awhile. I’m sure we can find him a happy place. And I’m sure Miss Adele,” I swallow, “will love him.”
The next morning I pull in at the Eremos Hill Feed and Supply and there is Zolin with Ceviche, who is as tall as my waist, as well as with his father and his mother and his aunt. Zolin’s three relatives are small people, with faces like chiseled flint. The two women wear what seems to be “traditional” Peruvian clothing that they obviously wove themselves. However, the father wears a blue “Hawaiian” shirt just like the one I bought from Wal-Mart. They all three seem to move together. Zolin has remarkably softer features than his parents, maybe from a life here.
Zolin nods, saying, “Mister Brandon, this is my father, Atl, my mother, Centehua, and my aunt, Chimalli,” as his relations lower their eyes, and he then says, “We cannot thank you enough, Mister Brandon. You are doing my family, and Ceviche is part of my family, a great service that we can only hope to repay to you someday soon,” and Zolin glances towards his relations, and on that cue their faces soften in unison and they beam the most generous of smiles.
I bow and say, “Howdy. Nice to meet ch’all.” We then guide Ceviche up two planks of wood into the back of the truck. We tie him behind the cab. Ceviche seems to welcome the excitement.
I say my usual, “Well, Hop in, Zolin. ¿Listo a trabajar? (Ready to work?)”
Zolin smiles and says, “Always ready, Mr. Brandon!”, as he waves good-bye to his father, mother, and aunt who raise their arms in unison.
The – difficulties – begin soon enough. We get Ceviche to the ranch, to “Frazzle Rock Acres”, and take him up to the assorted pens and enclosures. None of them seem just right at the moment, not even the goat pen, so we let Ceviche loose in the main back yard while Zolin and I start some landscaping that Miss Adele had requested over the phone from the hospital.
Ceviche trots expectantly to each pen and enclosure. I had read a little about alpacas last night on my iPhone. They are naturally curious and intelligent. It is possible to have a single alpaca, but it is not a pleasant existence for the animal. Alpacas are herd animals and are instinctively gregarious. They obtain security and contentment from having at least one other alpaca for company. Ceviche seems most interested in the big goat, named Almond by Miss Adele because of his color, and I added “because he’s a ‘nut'”, he’s a rowdy male, probably a Toggenburg that someone couldn’t handle anymore and so Miss Adele took him in. Zolin finds it amusing that little Ceviche and big ol’ rowdy Almond are nose-to-nose with civility. I decide to build Ceviche at least a temporary pen next to Almond’s.
But while I am kneeling to secure a fence pole, I suddenly feel Ceviche rub his wooly cheek against the side of my head. He is making an insistent sound like an infant. “Ehh. Ehhh. Ehh.”
Zolin smiles, “Ceviche likes you, Mister Brandon.”
I say, scratching under Ceviche’s chin, “Yeah, that’s sweet. But I got work to do, Ceviche,” and I nudge him away and turn to the task at hand. But a moment later I feel him rubbing on my shoulder, “I like you too, Ceviche. But, find something else to do for awhile,” and Zolin looks a little concerned as I firmly move Ceviche away. I bow back to my work.
Suddenly Ceviche has both fore-legs across my shoulders in a bid-for-dominance display. He spits at me! That is it: I have to tie Ceviche to the nearby Avocado tree. He is not happy and he begins to screech. It makes me sad and it upsets Zolin.
Zolin assures me, “Ceviche will be happy when he gets used to this place.”
But when Ceviche’s pen is finished, he paces his fence with nostrils flaring if Almond is not giving him complete attention.
It is the beginning of a hot, dry summer. Sometimes I just stop and drench my head with water from the hose while I’m working. One of Zolin’s jobs is to constantly check all the water lines to the animal pens and to keep the dirt pond filled.
Miss Adele has come home from the hospital and she is amused with our new guest, Ceviche. She often calls me out from the room I rent to show me some alpaca information that she finds on YouTube. She finds everything on YouTube. The air-conditioner is not working well and she finds me a repair demonstration video for that particular make and model. Miss Adele always says, “You can find anything you want on YouTube.”
Miss Adele will not tell me details of her condition.
This night has a bright silver full moon, and it is still in the 80’s in the house. I cannot sleep. I go to my dresser finally and I take the bottle of Maker’s Mark whiskey from among my toiletries and I shuffle outside into the back yard area wearing a V-shirt and underwear. It must be 4 a.m. and it is not a lot cooler out here. I now have to piss. I set the whiskey down on a plastic chair under the Avocado tree.
I go to the sage bushes near the wooden perimeter fence to relieve myself. I can hear coyotes calling in the distance from the orange groves on the other side of Eremos Hill. It has been so hot and dry I figure it must be getting hard for them to find rabbits and gophers. The bright silver full moon sits on top of Eremos Hill. Then I hear a coyote call from somewhere nearby. Then another.
The geese begin to make noise, the roosters and chickens start babbling, I hear the cats jumping in the barn, Bart and Dolly are snorting, and Almond is hopping in his pen and making his spitting sound. I get chills down my spine.
Suddenly something hits the fence right in front of me and I jump back. A big coyote scrabbles on top of the fence, sees me, but leaps past me into the compound anyway. I can now hear the thuds all along the perimeter fence and I can see the flashing silver of coyotes climbing and leaping into the compound. Now shadows are racing in every direction. Holy shit! The geese are screeching.
I holler, “Hey! Hey! Hey!” and run clapping my hands loudly to sound like gunshots. I can hear Rommel and Lafayette snarling and barking down at the dirt pond and I hear a weird yipping. They are tangling with the coyotes! No coyote stands up to the two of them together for long. But what about a pack of coyotes? I hear a bashing sound from Almond’s direction, thrashing and crashing, like he’s kicking the pen. It is a whirlwind of shadows inside the compound. I now hear cats screaming. Rommel and Lafayette charge toward the barn.
I now see shapes and shadows of coyotes retreating, leaping up and scrabbling over the perimeter fence. The attack must have been only minutes, but it has seemed like an hour.
I hear Miss Adele pitifully cry, “Oh, no”, and I see her down by the dirt pond. I run down to her. She mourns, “They killed Kwai Chang,” and I see that he must have challenged at least two coyotes because both of his wings have been torn off. I can see in the porridge of dust footprints that Rommel and Lafayette fought the coyotes there, but too damn late. The remaining geese are safe but agitated in the middle of the dirt pond.
Then I hear commotion and barking from Almond’s pen and I run back up the hill. For the first time I realize that I haven’t seen Ceviche. Almond’s pen is askew and he is lowering his head at something in the corner, and Rommel and Lafayette are by his side, growling in the same direction.
There is a young coyote on the ground in the corner. It is a stand-off. When the coyote sees me he tries to stand, but he falls back down with a gurgling yelp. His ribs must be shattered and maybe his lungs are punctured. Almond spits toward him. Rommel and Lafayette are measuring their ability to finish him off. I grab an unused pole and call the dogs to stay, and I am going to bash the little fucker’s head in myself.
Miss Adele hollers, “Stop!” and I halt with the pole raised over my head. She enters the pen, Lafayette and Rommel step back, and she looks down at the coyote which tries to snarl a threat. Miss Adele just says, “Shhh,” and the little coyote blinks and relaxes like a pet dog.
Miss Adele finally seems to notice that I am in my underwear and she hands me her cell phone, saying, “Call Miss Meredith and tell her what we’ve got here.”
Miss Meredith runs the mobile veterinarian service around here. She and Miss Adele have been good friends for years, but I suspect that they were once much closer. I guess guys always get suspicious of women’s close friendships. But neither one of them ever married. Anyway, Miss Adele can expect Miss Meredith to gather her associates and come at any time, any place. And now dawn is beginning to soften this terrible night.
Miss Adele keeps her sentimentality working for her practical side. She tells me, “Bury Kwai Chang under the Avocado tree. I’ll think of him every time I pick an Avocado. I’m going to see what cats are missing,” as she heads off toward the barn, and then says, “and what roosters are missing”, and I think she then sobs.
I call behind her, stupidly, “I think they got Ceviche.”
Miss Adele stops and says, firming, “We’ll tell Zolin together.”
I retrieve my whiskey bottle from the plastic chair under the Avocado tree. I take a swallow, unashamed. I return to my room. My dirty clothes are on the foot of the bed.
I am dressed when Miss Meredith and her associate veterinarians arrive. Miss Meredith consoles Miss Adele. We are all a little stunned as we survey the battle ground. I can hear Miss Adele’s broken heart as she tells me pragmatically, “You and Zolin add barbed-wire to the top of the perimeter fence, OK?”
I drive a while later to the Eremos Hill Feed and Supply. I say, with forced enthusiasm, “Hop in, Zolin. ¿Listo a trabajar? (Ready to work?)”
Zolin smiles and says, “Always ready, Mister Brandon!” but then he asks me, “Is everything OK, Mister Brandon?”
I answer, “We have a lot of work today, Zolin.”
Zolin asks, “Is Miss Adele OK?”
“Yes, she is fine.”
“Is Ceviche OK?”
“We have to put barbed-wire along the whole perimeter fence. It is going to be another wicked hot day.”
Zolin looks forward and says no more.
When we arrive at the ranch, I tell Zolin, “Miss Adele would like to speak with you. She’s in the kitchen. I’ll be right there. I have to get something in my bedroom first.
I take my bottle of whiskey and sit on the foot of my bed and I take a big swallow. I hang my head and close my eyes and sigh, reliving last night.
I suddenly feel a wooly pad press against the side of my head. I sit up startled, as from a dream. But there he is! Ceviche! “Ceviche!” I cry as I drop my bottle of whiskey. Then I startle him by hugging him. His fur is matted and there is some blood. He must have jumped his pen and fled into the house to hide! My bedroom door to the outside has been open since last night! He was hiding right here in the house. Thank God, thank God, and I whoop loudly, “Miss Adele! Miss Adele! Zolin! Come here! I have Ceviche! He’s OK. It’s a fucking miracle!”
Ceviche screeches at my profanity, but I hug him tight as Zolin and Miss Adele burst into my room.
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