In the late afternoon I drive down to Clint to be in touch with its small-town pleasures. I walk along the canal, and the clumps of yellowed grass in the sandy ground, the half-buried beer tabs, the broken plastic spoons somehow reassure me. I look out at the plowed fields. They lie in a kind of pale, cinnamon-sunlight and are intersected here and there by intrusions of tree shadows cast from the canal.
Clint is my altar, my relief and fulfillment, my simplicity. I go there because I am wounded and Clint can heal.
I love the farmland at sundown, broken and bare. I hawk glides above a line of cottonwoods. A rooster walks about a farmhouse yard in the shade of a screened-in front porch.
I drive to a convenience store along the highway that runs through town and I sit in my car, sipping a bourbon-and-Coke from a plastic cup. These are good moments, my front-seat office hours in Clint at the end of day. Boys in baseball caps walk into the store, emerge later with sodas in big plastic bottles. They go back across the nearby ditch–disappear into it for a moment, just their caps visible–and return home. I watch them, Clint guys on a Sunday afternoon, and try to imagine them, their lives, as they grow up in a small, bypassed, cotton-growing town near the Mexican border.
I linger at my observation post just beyond the glare of the convenience store. The car is the checkered table at my Paris sidewalk café. Clint is my expatriate’s world.
After dark I drive toward the interstate and turn west toward El Paso. On the left is Mexico and the long, unbroken border horizon: the desertland at early nighttime lit–as if in an unending Christmas celebration–by the feast of Juarez and El Paso lights.
We had two dogs in our shady backyard, but we had a rabbit there too, in her pen, in a back corner of the yard. We got her, a just-born little thing, and cared for her, gave her more than adequate space in a pen that we built. The rabbit–female, we thought–dug a hole for herself underneath the rock wall between us and the neighbors and she went down into it–properly rabbit-like–at night or when it rained. We fed her rabbit food, and slices of apple and carrot, and had a rabbit-crap pan she agreed to use, and we emptied it daily. In short, we gave the rabbit a good life and a safe one.
Every day the two dogs went up to the screen wire of the pen and sniffed the rabbit and renewed their acquaintance with her. They seemed satisfied with their properly divided territories: rabbit secure on the inside of her pen, dogs still in possession of their large-enough back yard.
One day–I can’t remember how it came about–we decided that the rabbit might enjoy some extra freedom and the dogs might actually leave her alone–might not corner her and turn her into a lifeless bundle of fur. So we let the rabbit out, and the rest is history.
We stood nearby, of course, and severely cautioned the dogs, who at first quivered and couldn’t quite believe their eyes as the rabbit moved blithely about among the rose bushes and lantana and bougainvillea. We stood and watched; we were poised to intervene.
Each afternoon we tested the backyard dynamics before going into the house and watching through the backyard door, ready to dash outside at the first sign of the dogs saying Enough of Niceness and bolting over to chew the rabbit raw. We kept stretching the time period that the rabbit was out of her pen. We turned our backs on the yard–sort of–and then looked quickly to see what was happening. Nothing was. The dogs were on the cement porch, dozing, and the rabbit was either chewing at the trunk of the almond tree or lying full-length among the geraniums.
And so it went.
As a family ritual, so to speak, we began letting the rabbit out of her pen just before dark. The dogs paid her no mind and went on sleeping. The rabbit first cavorted a bit, glad to get the kinks out of her legs, and then went about her business in the yard–eating a rose leaf here, an elm twig there. The only time we had to open the sliding backyard door was when the rabbit started annoying the dogs. She sniffed them–irritating them enough to make them get to their feet–then stayed at their heels and chased them around the yard in continuous circles. They really didn’t like that so we had to yell: “Leave the dogs alone!” The rabbit usually minded us although there seemed to be a certain in-your-face twist to her hop as she turned away. She would scratch hard at grass roots beneath the almost tree and then, rather luxuriously, stretch out on her belly in a damp cool spot.
The dogs were always glad–and so were we–when she finally settled down.
MEDITATION ON A PHOTOGRAPH
I was seated at my desk when I happened to glance up from the typewriter to a framed picture on the wall. It was a composite of three photographs my wife had taken some years ago–neatly spliced together so that it stretched out like one of those wide-angle pictures made of a high school graduating class. The picture showed a dozen or so red Hereford cows, grazing during a summertime afternoon in front of our family’s hill country hunting cabin.
I looked at the sleek-bellied Herefords, the live oaks and their pools of shade, the background greenery of the other pasture live oaks, cedars, and sycamores. It was a ranch land pastoral that had been a part of my life since childhood, and as I stared at it–framed, familiar, serene–I tried to plumb its depths.
I got up, stood closer. On the summer day when the photograph was taken, I was just out of camera range, and now I was inches away from those same imperturbable cows that–noses to the grass–were still oblivious of the rusted barrel beside the fence, the boards and logs of the back corral, the arching live oak limbs, the sunlight and show streaks and sky.
What was going on that day? What remained unspoken about it that needed to be said?
I remembered sitting in the cabin doorway on a similar summer day, reading the letters of Isak Dinesen to her friends and family. She wrote about the animals, the people, the landscapes of her farm in Kenya as she later wrote about them in Out of Africa, and I had thought that without too much of a strain or shift of reality her descriptions would have been appropriate for the hills and pastures and arroyos of the Texas hill country.
I finally turned away from the picture to other things, and it was two weeks later–reading a letter Henry Miller once wrote to Anais Nin–that I came to understand that what the picture framed was my unrecoverable Eden. Miller had written that in the beginning, yes, there was the Word, but for the Word to appear there had to be a parting, a separation from the original innocence, and that the Word is always seeking out the first, more perfect state.
In my cabin-lot picture the red cows, the constant trees, the summer sky are as silent as Adam and beyond the reach of words. They are simply there, in their perfect equilibrium: forever lost to me behind glass.
Elroy Bode lives in El Paso, where he teaches in the public school system.