Treed by big dogs, the lone coatimundi digs its bear-like claws
into a single brittle branch of an old mesquite. His small eyes
dart back and forth, taking in everything, recognizing nothing.
Just below, at the base of the tree, big and small blurry shapes
close in. A jagged abrupt sound, snarling and barking, punctures
turns to tremble under his skin. He squeals, races up and down
the branch and freezes. His long flexible snout jacks from side
to side, trying to make sense of the acrid smells emanating from
under the tree. A bushy non-prehensile tail hangs limp halfway
down the length of the mesquite. The great tail, used to balance
on his back feet or and signal other coatis, is no good to him
now. There is no one of his kind here to alert, no pack with
which to flee to safe canopy.
mid-winter in Arizona, in the Sonoran desert. The young male,
like generations before him, finds himself solo, cast out after
lusty mating. In alien territory, every instinct tells the
creature to flee as fast as he can down the dry arroyo and
across the flat.
Diego hits the ground running, his heart pounding as loud as the
helicopter bearing down on their group. He races from the
copter’s twin tracking beams towards a dark spot on the
landscape, darker that the dark night that shrouded them. He
leaps high into the air and lands abruptly into the void, right
leg first, falling into a deep hard-packed clay hole. He pulls
his jacket over his head and tucks his body into a ball. His
mind races: If I don’t move, they won’t find me; if I am
perfectly still, they’ll forget about me. He hears a muffle
of shouts in the distance for a long time... and then nothing,
absolutely nothing, the silence thick as a sky filled with
struggles out the hole. His leg doesn’t work right. Yeah,
it’s hurt, he thinks, but I can still walk. He looks
around. They are all gone – his nephew, his cousin, la migra,
everybody. In the pre-dawn light, he can see only the vast flat
with round clumps of scrubby mesquites in the distance. He has
no idea where he is. He had crossed the desert plenty of times
but always in a group, never alone. So accustomed was he to
keeping his head down, watching his feet and the feet of the
others in front of him, he doesn’t recognize any of his
picks up his near empty gallon water bottle and tries to think.
O.K., I know the sun rises in the east, but where is north?
He turns his head to the right of the pale light on the horizon,
then to the left. He takes a deep breath, kisses the tiny cloth
prayer cards tied on a braided string around his neck, and
begins to walk.
* * *
first spots the coatimundi up a tree on the edge of the old
cattle ranch right outside her place. From her front door, it
looks like a small brown bear, dark and distinct in the boned
trees against the dun colored winter sky. By the time she
crosses her yard, she can see it clearly, a cross between a
bear, raccoon, and an ant-eater – a finely marked masked face, a
long skinny white snout topped by a boxy black nose, and big
paws with extended claws that curve around the branch on which
it teeters. She has never seen anything like it.
struggles to corral the dogs, hating all the while to look away
from the creature. When at last she is alone, she stands back
and quietly observes the animal. How amazing to not know that
such a thing existed here right under her hose. How marvelous to
be surprised by natural mystery after all these years. Her
breath catches sharply. Tears well in her eyes, an honest relief
washing over her like rain over parched land.
* * *
mid-day, Diego sees a small shack in the distance, the sun
glinting off a tin roof. No matter what, he has to stop. He has
to get water. He has to rest. His leg throbs, each step a
burning pain in his shin. Seeing no fence, he slowly approaches
the front door and knocks. No answer. An old Chevy truck is
parked next to the house. He knocks again and waits. Slowly, the
door opens and an old man motions him to enter.
takes a moment for Diego’s eyes to adjust to the dark one-room
shack. He sees a wooden table with a couple of chairs, a single
cot against the wall. On the counter in front of him, steam
rolls off of a big pot on a hot plate. The old man sits a glass
of water in front of him and then brings him corn tortillas and
beans. With runny eyes like rice milk in a glass, the man sits
across from Diego and peers at him. He says nothing, even when
Diego asks him where he is. It is hard to know whether the old
man doesn’t speak Spanish or just doesn’t speak at all.
food is like cardboard in Diego’s mouth. He eats slowly, knowing
how easy it is to get sick from not eating for so long. He sips
the water from the glass. After dinner, the old man refills
Diego’s plastic bottle with water, brings him a blanket and
motions for him to go outside. He grunts, pointing toward a
stand of trees, the sun slipping behind the horizon.
the morning, Diego can barely rise. The condition of his leg has
worsened. He looks up and sees a lay of the land that looks
familiar. I must be getting close to asphalt, he hopes.
* * *
her mind, she commands the coatimundi to go...now. The coati’s
eyes, still darting from side to side, stop and stare at her for
a long moment. Then, slowly, bobbing with anxiety, the coati
comes down the tree head-first, stopping for a brief moment as
it hits dirt. Nosing the air, it takes off on all fours and does
not look back.
next day, she hears the dogs barking. A young man is limping
fast down the dirt road in front of her chain link fence. The
gate had been left accidently open; the dogs charge. She shoos
them away and offers the man water and a shady place to rest
underneath the ramada.
After awhile, with permission, she slowly removes his shoes and
socks. The telltale blisters blossom all over his soles of his
feet. She hacks wild aloe from the yard, splits it open and
tapes the gooey succulent to his feet. He winces. She takes his
empty water bottle and goes inside. Later she emerges with more
water and some food. It is getting dark. No way is he going
anywhere with those feet. She leads him into the house and shows
him the spare bed in the guest room.
Reeking of sweat
and old cologne, he pulls off his shirt. In huge lettering, the
name "Diego" tracks across his back in the Old English font of
Spanish conquistadors. A tattoo of his mother’s name in matching
style dances across his chest. Tiny cloth prayer cards, woven
with the image of Guadalupe and the Saint Jude dangle from
braided thread circling his neck and each wrist.
Protected only by grace, coatimundi closes his eyes. Tomorrow,
he will make his way.
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