The Land of Enchantment has a quiet voice. It’s patience in adversity, and the sound of past stories over and forgotten. The place for hearing it is ear to ground, kneeling on hardpan or sotol brush or the cracked concrete of some abandoned homestead. Anything will hush this voice — any inkling of derision or disparagement or quips that there is no There There. I hope for another chance to go and listen in reverence.
One way to tune the ear is reading Willa Cather in advance, Death Comes for the Archbishop. After that, it’s just attending to the random things that fly or mill around or fall apart in pieces. There are cotton balls from harvests long ago. Red dust that snakes across the road. Mirages. Glare. Dogs in chain link barking down the day. A far-off cloud that sent a black chisel of rain over the Texas border. Three turkey vultures who circled over my head until a neighbor called from his house “You gotta move quicker’n that. Them buzzards are gainin’ on ya.” Or this little pony shoe from the middle of Main Street:
But the heart of the trip, making it all possible, were Hostess and Host. They’ve adapted to the place on their poised tightrope of detachment, watchfulness, intellectual and cultural pursuits, socially creative connections, and humor. They were my trusty native informants, spelling out for me at every step the signals of society and nature.
Hostess waited at the airport with a tall drinkspout cup of lemon water! She even served a lavish head of organic lettuce and a stash of rice milk with my breakfast next morning; she brought them back for me from Albuquerque hours away. Her hospitality thought of everything. Like the perfectly new bar of Bronner’s Castile soap waiting in the shower (I didn’t have the heart to open it, it looked so pretty). Or the abundance of fluffy towels, home-cooked meals, and the extra blankie on the bed.
Our Host, faced with a spouse’s college galfriend from 25 years yore, could have said “Hello she’s mentioned you, have fun catching up this week, knock yourself out to anything in the fridge.” I expected him to shake hands over his evening paper, with perhaps a friendly nod at mealtimes. But, no. First, Host did an exorbitant amount of driving for five days, to claim, entertain, and then return said friend, one who kept hollering “Look! Wait! Can we pull over? Can I take a picture? Is that a tumbleweed? Prairie dog? Sagebrush? Purple Finch? Dust cloud? Barbed wire? Cotton ball?” He made a point of detouring to an improbably placed Middle Eastern restaurant with carpet shop, and to a fabulous Thai restaurant serving huge portions of fresh-cooked vegetables. During all five days he wracked his mental database for all topics of common interest, including the Orthodox Church, the Russian language, vegetarianism, Irish community of Boston, Todd Rundgren music, on and on. He sent off to Netflix for a movie about Russia. He left the Christmas lights on in the yard for my photo-taking glee. He got up out of a sound sleep in some wee hour to cheerfully re-install my entire window when from another floor on another side of the house he heard me clumsily try to open it and accidentally dislodge and unhinge the frame screen sash weights and thingabobs all falling out of plumb in a 100-year-old handbuilt house with handbuilt detailing.
Hostess meanwhile planned us an excursion to a special archaeology site. But due to a cut in the state’s budget for petrified bone displays, we missed their open day. So she took me to the natural history museum, and in good humor waited for me to frolic about yipping with excitement. I pushed the black-light button to ooh and aah over glowy minerals. I admired the stuffed songbirds mounted on snack sticks. Best of all, I stood mesmerized by the tanks of assorted local rattlesnakes, listening to their rattles and buzzing. A young staff member came and gave us the most helpful companionable tour imaginable. “And when you hear that rattle in the grass,” he advised, “Why that is not a friendly sound to us. The fields here are full of rattlers. My dog has a special bark for them. Means she’s cornered or treed one, and then I have to go kill it.”
Host has the long-established custom of leading neighborhood walks with his elaborately carved walking stick from one of his years in Africa. The stick is to intermediate between the walking party and the local pit bulls. (In one of the Africa house portraits, he is strolling happily with a cheetah on a leash. “That cheetah,” he observed, “was considerably better-behaved and more predictable than these pit bulls.”) On windless moments when we sallied forth, Host led the way with stick in hand, a striking figure marching in dark glasses and long hair. This is when it struck me: instead of classifying me as a distraction in his family routine (which I was), he was shepherding me along as an extension of the flock. And only once did I break formation: to clamor for an early return to the house, spooked by that chisel of rain over the Texas border. (He explained patiently that the cloud was too distant to overtake us any time soon, and he was right.)
Hostess keeps a morning room, stocked with lush flowering plants. The windows, golden wood floors, and white plaster walls make it indescribably inviting. Outside, the immense Grackles and the Eurasian Ring-Necked Doves set up a fantastic human-sounding racket: “Who cooks for you? Who? Who? Oh…” or “Gak! Turn off the water, Clyde. CLYDE!” Every day as the first ray of sun sparkles in at the flowers and glass, Hostess and Host settle down for tea, and take turns reading books to one another. It did my heart such good to perch in a corner and hear them. What a blessing, to have and to hold a custom like that!
Then after sunset, with supper over and the dishes put away, they would settle the rocking chairs on the front porch. We would sit out listening to feral cats and pickup trucks driving in circles on the main drag, and under a carpet of stars talk about the meaning of life.
I miss them.