It had been Saturday, his day to ride the horse into the mountain. If there was one thing he didn’t want to hear, it was a truck grinding up out of the one ranch that remained.
He’d listened ten minutes before the logs appeared. Ordered, stacked, chained, levered down. Locked. As if, having at last made the decision to quit the forest, they must get out by any means possible.
¡Viva México! Innumerable héctareas denuded in numerable years. Deforestación was something you had to live long enough to appreciate.
When the authorities dug underpasses on López Mateos, Hernando tied no yellow ribbons round doomed trunks. When fire, man-made or not, added to the gloom over Guadalajara, he replanted no hillsides in la Primavera. It was only upon retirement, when he left the urban landscape and returned to El Refugio, pueblo of his youth, that he felt el medio ambiente might include him.
He’d backed the gelding into the undergrowth. His horse, no proud black out of a Western, would trot proudly before no raven haired heroína, lengthen his stride to no ground consuming gallop for the camera. But he would go up or down any incline, push his way through any tangle.
Hernando and his horse would have been suited to the irregular cavalry of another era, picking their way through impenetrable forest. On behalf of those who believed in change. On behalf of those who believed, period.
But now? In the present day. If man and horse were spotted? By those with money to hire. Los empleadores. Their hatchet men?
The horse’s color against him. Dapple gray did not complement shadowed earth tones at ground level. Always a ray of light from the space that roofed the forest, a ray to reveal man and horse, not quite half hidden, concerned citizens suddenly forced to think of themselves.
Hernando knew it was none of his business. Logging = Work. Empleo. A fragile growth in this part of Mexico, forever closer to extinción. And yet, as he sat his horse, motionless in a crush of damp low branches, it was one man he saw gainfully employed.
One man drove the truck stacked with logs cut to match its width, trees that had been a half meter wide, more. That man opened the florid wrought iron gate out of el Rancho del Quinto Pino, drove through, closed the gate and drove off, downhill now, on the graded road to elaserrío in the town beyond the hills.
Of course men had felled the trees deep in the hollow of the ranch. Others would cut them again in the sawmill, others load another truck, another driver drive it off. There were jobs, some, would be.
Until the trees were gone.
The big ones were already gone, trunks Hernando had seen off-loaded in the town that was no longer lumber town, but party town, a brassy music amplified to fill the space once filled by trees.
Trees seen when he was a young man. More recently. It wasn’t ten years since the forest reached every pueblo in the jurisdicción. Now it reached none. Ten more, ten years after el jefe had first hinted that other, younger, men could do his job, the forest would be gone.
At least every mid-size reasonably straight trunk would be. The short, the twisted would make quieter, more lonely exits. Dragged off by men with burros, returned to the earth as palos, postes, contorted fenceposts, wire taut between them, crying out to the end of time.
… we were the last, the very last…
Hernando rode the gelding up out of low branches, twined ivy. Neither man nor horse had relished the boyhood adventure, the hint of danger. They made their way cross-country with no destination very much in mind. Up this ravine, between these straight, yet somehow standing trees. Down.
Hernando, el contador, kept track of everything. He numbered. That was what he did, what he’d done. He knew the newspaper had reported the deaths of some 30 forest guards in recent times. It was a hazardous occupation in Mexico, more so than that of reporter, though enough periodistas had met untimely ends, even those remarking upon the stripped and naked hills.
Foresters gunned down, not by landowners who paid to have certain regulations overlooked, who would not be stopped by a lonely figure in green who embodied restraint, natural order. By richer, generally younger, more contemporary types. Men like the men who had taken Hernando’s place, who could juggle dollars as he had pesos. Who were making fortunes off a cross-border traffic that took its last steps in somewhat smaller increments. Whose empleados were armed and defended and expanded territories that didn’t have a tree on them. Not a memory of one.
No, there hadn’t been armed men galloping back and forth in the sierra, not since los cristeros had opposed las federalistas and the church had blessed the former but not the latter and the descendants of the former had so confused the story that federales sometimes fell on their knees before a natural virgin of moss or mold.
And now? If he didn’t keep his mouth shut, would it be Hernando’s turn?
Kissing the earth, besado la tierra, might not be a bad way to go. But the moment before. Shot from a horse. The fall.
Hernando didn’t like to see trees cut down, trucked out, trees he had known since before there was a sawmill in party town. Or anything else.
And he didn’t like injustice. Some men had seen the advisability of saving el bosque, had written it into law. A numbered law passed in a numbered year with a numerable majority. As a man of numbers, Hernando liked to see it respected.
If there was some way he could proceed without danger to himself, unofficially, not through las vías oficiales…
Hernando nodded to himself. The horse, nodding into a sudden upgrade, seemed to agree with him. The ascent ended at a dropoff. There it was. All that. The land of youth, middle-age… Party town in the blue haze of middle distance. Restaurants, horses for rent, all-terrain vehicles, drug scene, sawmill.
And between here and there, still and yet: el bosque. A vision of infinitely variable greens all the way to el Río de la Pasión.
No sector was clear-cut. No one from outside, no city dweller, would ever know how many of the big trees had been marked, felled, dragged, trucked, cut again. That they were gone. Hernando knew. One part of the world, his, had changed. It was still changing.
The horse, put to the downgrade, didn’t hesitate, but ignored the countryside spread before him, the dropoff, inclined himself at an angle even a man with hands to hold on with might reconsider.
Safely home, Hernando slept his sleep, awoke sweating to the rumble of machinery that wasn’t there, not yet, lay awake confronting evil in one of its incarnations. He remembered the natural clearings of youth. Framed distances, volumes randomly distributed, mysteriously pleasing to the eye, a glimmer of sky. And then (now): infinite verticals reduced to serviceable horizontals, shaped to occupy as little space as possible. Counted. Accounted for. Loaded. Trucked.
Hernando was no man of action.
Monday and Tuesday passed before it appeared anything might be done.
Suddenly there it was before him, obvious if hitherto overlooked, no number out of sequence, but a pearl-handled revolver lying on the trail of dreams. The solution.
Hernando wasn’t quite sure how you did anything in a world in which—unlike one in which figures didn’t have to represent anything—there was action and inaction. Some things got done. Some things didn’t. Never would. Certainties. Uncertainties. Categories. Two anyway. Into which fell the anonymous call?
And how did you begin?
Did you put your handkerchief over the mouthpiece, make a face, hold the phone upside down? You certainly didn’t use your own. You stood in the street, inserted what had to be, did your best not to look suspicious. Hmm. It might be better to call the mayor who, it was said, had trouble locating his office. Perhaps if he heard a certain ringing…
Hello! Is that you, Hernando? What? They are? ¡Pinche hacendados! Well, I’ll see what I… and right away. Thanks, Hernando. Really.
An incalculable improbability.
But before Hernando put two and two together, took his place in the line of anonymous callers, he should check to see if trucks were still grinding up out of el Rancho. No point in calling if the big trees were gone. If el propietario had said to himself no, this is a crime against nature. I will not see el medio ambiente destroyed. I will not have my magnificent pines cut to end tables, matchsticks.
And so, of a Saturday, the next, Hernando saddled his horse and rode into the mountain.
It was this Saturday Hernando met the hairy man. No driver of a logging truck, el hombre hirsuto gripped the wheel of a wreck, 40 if it was a day, older than the hairy man himself. It was, though, coming up out of el Rancho and the hairy man, perhaps used to peering through so much, had no trouble spotting Hernando and his horse motionless in the undergrowth.
He stopped. His wreck slipped slowly backward. He pulled on his brake, got out, put a stone behind his tire. He faced Hernando.
What are you doing there?
I ride my horse through the woods.
How did you get past the gate?
Where the wire’s down… We step over.
The hairy man smiled, thought Hernando. In order to appear less suspicious, he rode his horse up out of the low branches. He thought he would now be cross-examined, but the hairy man had lost interest in Hernando’s presence.
That your horse?
I didn’t steal him.
Hernando, called upon to defend his horse, even if he wasn’t in movieland.
He’s good on the mountain. He’ll go anywhere.
Horses haven’t much choice, have they?
I wouldn’t know. This is my first.
I was born on a horse. You have to have a horse here. This country’s not friendly to machinery.
Maybe that was it, Hernando thought, machinery’s not friendly to the country either. An unfriendly world.
The hairy man had gestured at his wreck. At the gesture it slipped a handful of centimeters downhill, pushing the stone behind it. Time to go.
You ought to find somewhere else to ride. He’ll be wondering.
Who’ll be wondering?
El jefe. He might not like his land ridden over.
Ridden over, thought Hernando, as if the harm done by man and horse could possibly equal… I’ll think about it.
Think about it…
Hernando, reining his horse into the forest. His own words, repeated, stopped him. He didn’t think he’d been threatened. Not in this life. Maybe it was because he was on a horse that he turned the horse back, met the man’s eyes.
More words of his own, though none passed his lips. Meeting the eyes set in hair took all his strength. Backwoods eyes. Eyes of a man born in the boonies, growing up surrounded by trees.
Something to think about.
Hernando gave what might have passed for a nod and turned his horse. The wreck ratcheted into one of its remaining gears behind him. It had been a truckload of… twigs, leaves? Sawdust? The man had taken his attention. The problem was not solved. Hernando had forgotten why he was here.
It seemed a good moment to get out of the woods and he rode out, no wiser than before. He rode into another season.
La temporada de las aguas.
Sunday he woke to a slow silent downfall. He thought good, I do not have to do anything, I don’t have to go anywhere. He went out to feed the horse, the animal standing hoof deep in mud. Seeing the man who fed him or the bucket in his hand, the horse made a low rumble, thunder half unheard, months, years, piling up.
Hernando got under the shelter he’d had built. Muddy there too, for the rains came often from the side. At least the horse didn’t have to stand in them. Hernando dumped his bucket of rastrojo into the old tire, added a bucket of water to keep corn dust from horse nose, horse lungs.
The horse never showed appreciation, not of Hernando’s walks in the rains. Perhaps, on occasion, when he produced a piloncillo from his pocket. The horse prized the little pyramid of sugar, knew to roll it round the great mouth, make it last. In the process he would look at the man, nothing in the big eye, a kind of darkness.
The rains floated no longer, but fell, still without sound. Hernando stood just out of them, his hand on the horse shoulder, muttering his usual unappreciated monologue about crushed kernels, cobs, stalks keeping head and tail together.
Rain helped Hernando think and he thought.
No. No day for a ride. Not for a retired accountant who’d come close to being chief financial officer before his gala sendoff with 50 of his closest friends. People willing to toast him at least once in unison. People he hadn’t seen in three years.
No day for a ride. And yet. Things add up or they don’t. There are answers. Or there aren’t.
If you’re a man considering an anonymous call, tipping off authorities first time in your life, a man who’d never thought he’d be a whistleblower, not even on the day of judgment, you might want to be sure of your facts, to have seen with cool eyes of observation the place, once treed, that was no longer.
An ideal day, in short, for detective work. Murky, foreboding…
The rains, giving Hernando his cue, thinned. He saddled his horse. The old stoic didn’t look at him, didn’t seem to care if a slow silent drizzle might multiply its drops per second, might already have done so in the wetter woods they knew so well. He took the bit, stood until Hernando returned to load a canteen of hot coffee and a couple of pan dulces crumbly with sugar.
Intending to make it a real comida campestre, a picnic in the rain, Hernando had not forgotten piloncillos. In some circles the word would have been a reference to female flesh, but man and horse, for differing reasons, didn’t take it that way.
Relatively secure under poncho and sombrero, Hernando worked his way up the slippery cobblestones of his pueblo económico, a paradise people left as soon as they were ready for the barbed wire of the border, the dying river. A pueblo to which they returned decades, generations, later when they found they would collect el subsidio de la seguridad social in neither country.
That it was cheaper here.
Treetops disappeared, curtains dropped to ground level, rose, dropped again. Man and horse entered the realm of el Rancho del Quinto Pino, stepping through where rotten posts dropped rusted wire ages ago.
It had occurred to Hernando that one of these gaps, like some unaccountable chasm in the suburbs of Guadalajara or an unrememberable crack in the course of a day, might close behind him. There in his saddle bags, along with hot coffee and sweet rolls, was a wirecutter and, so he could close the fence if forced to exit elsewhere, a small coil of wire, a pair of work gloves.
He tried to recall the great private eyes of fiction, investigative journalists of more recent eventos, but near-term memory was blank. A couple of jerky stars trotted the canyons of the mind. Soundlessly singing cowboys who didn’t carry wire, wirecutters, or work gloves.
Suddenly. There he was. There they were. Farther below him than he thought possible. The adobe buildings of El Rancho.
Hernando stood the horse under an outcropping and dropped his reins. He sat down to cafe caliente y pan dulce. This wasn’t half bad. He should have tried detective work before. Far more interesting than the life of contador, even one deftly manipulating the figures of a dozen subordinates.
In the future he would bring binoculars. Surely there was a swimming pool down there, una piscina, someone’s kidney offered on the black market of necessity, some strange heart out of some strange chest. Hernando peered through the steam of his coffee, through the silent drizzle of time itself, and suddenly…
There she was.
On her back. A lovely long-haired woman swimming in the rain. A very white woman for these parts, a touch of raven to heighten perfect pallor. She looked up at Hernando beneath his outcropping. She spoke in a voice only the microphone of his silent cinema could capture.
Come on in, Hernando. The water’s fine. Oh never mind that! Nothing to be embarrassed about. These are the backwoods. The back of beyond. The sticks.
The woman twisted in some playful yet irresistible current, wrapped herself in unbelievable hair, black as black snakes on the white sand of desire. She turned, floating pale as pigeons on a day when clouds loom dangerous behind them. She whispered into that waterproof microphone.
Don’t let that S curve, that collapsed thorax, bother you, keeper of the books. You were never of heroic proportions, Hernando. I stopped awaiting my champion years ago.
But even solitary picnics come to an end.
Hernando mounted. He took the route that must reveal to a clear eye, an exact mind, the place from which the felled trees had come.
The rains retreated and advanced, insistent, persistent, lasting. Hernando had seen no flattened forest riding in or out, though perhaps he made some slight miscalculation, enough to change all that followed.
There it was.
One of the places from which the great trees had been taken. Geometric, unnatural, a shape that had no business in the woods. And… tracks of bulldozers, skid marks of dragged trunks, ripped yellow soil, desertification of days to come…
A field of stumps more extensive than he thought possible. He reined his horse beside one missing colossus, dismounted to run his hand across the smooth, wet plateau of the years. He looked more closely. Unbelievable. Time incarnate. He tried to count, lost count, tried again. The rings of existencia. The innumerable.
The stump larger than any he had seen in this part of the sierra, a meter wide at the base, more, yet he had seen no such trunks trucked out.
Hernando stood in the rain and counted stumps, stumps, for some reason, as uncountable as rings. No matter where he began or ended, he could not reach a total.
He double-checked his location, stared into the vault of the firmament, noted a certain patch of sky, the trees that weren’t… And a field of boulders swept by some more recent runoff, half freed, half stuck. In and out of whatever it was. Unique, identifiable. Locatable.
The trees certainly were gone. They certainly had not floated past his own anacronismo of a pueblo, overlooked village of the very young, the very old. All would have stood on broken sidewalks in sun and rain to watch the great trunks pass.
The last of the last.
Trees that outreached the memory of man, that made no mash of the wars of los cristeros y las federalistas, told no garbled tales of schoolteachers ambushing unarmed priests, of believers breaking into churches, dancing with the holy saints.
History as Hernando heard it in his hideaway was less than a hundred percent factual. His fellow refugees from economic reality had many stories. Hernando thought that, if animals could speak, they too would recount a blurred string of improbabilities…
The tailless dog Hernando sometimes passed on the road. He was sure he had a story in him. Other than the obvious. As the animal seemed sure the man was waiting to hear it. Hernando would rein his horse, look down. The dog would look up, in earnest, the story right on the slavering old lips it could not pass.
Hernando uselessly wiped the saddle, remounted in rains that would not cease, the gusts that now accompanied them. Bowing his head he decided the great trees must have gone the other way. There was another road. He knew. One he had never taken because it didn’t lead home. Next time he’d bypass el Rancho, take the backroad the other way, see where the unbelievable trees were going, had gone.
How they started the journey that awaited.
Hernando himself would arrive at the answer.
He rode out, but not unaccompanied. Man-high corn in the milpas, wind pushed, waved at him. Figures in distress. A landslide of water surged at his side. Heavy, unpredictable. Of its volume, in hundredths, what part solids?
Did it flow from the clear-cutting, rush ahead to spread upon la presa, thick and brown? The pueblo’s drinking water would be no better than they got in the road towns where all was turbid, inseparable sediment, and in its depths, the taffy colored sludge, half pulverized, sticky.
The next day dawned painfully bright, scrubbed air for sun to glare through. Hernando washed his horse, let him graze weeds till dry, saddled and rode off. Up the mountain, past el Rancho, the horse spurred a little beyond his fastest walk, a gait known to older men everywhere as the prostrot. By whatever name, it covered ground.
Hernando had assumed the backroad led to some pueblo de mala muerte caught between crumbling cornfields, collapsing mines. There had been a road sign at the end of his own pueblo, so far to something or other. What was it? El Hoyo? How far? Twelve kilometers. The backroad wandered aimlessly between rocks and trees and, quickly, was not wide enough for logging trucks he’d seen, heard grinding out of el Rancho, never mind the colossi.
Should he turn around? No. He’d rest the horse. Continue. He stopped in the shade of an unserviceable oak, bent beneath several lifetimes greater than his own. This was no picnic in the rain, but he’d packed a couple of piloncillos for the horse. He reached in his pocket.
The horse heard the crackle of plastic, twisted his head, backed senselessly toward his rider as Hernando leaned forward, hand outstretched. The horse stopped backing when he had it, rolled it slowly behind his front teeth, appeared to contemplate the uneconomic landscape with a concern that equaled his rider’s.
Hernando got down, walked the backroad a few meters forward, backward, side to side. He didn’t have to worry about his companion. The horse wasn’t going anywhere. The piloncillo in his mouth tied him to place and time. He had found a slot in his weekly routine, in the history of horses he didn’t want to leave.
No overloaded logging truck had labored in the direction of El Hoyo. There was no outlet to the highway here, no rough track to party town where the great blade spun. But. Hernando would complete his journey as he had laid it out in his mind. He would know where the massive trees had not gone. He would reach a solution.
Forty minutes later he sat the horse looking straight down at the miseries of El Hoyo. A scattering of flat houses, dirt streets, fields of the same hard earth. Electricity. Maybe television. No water system, in or out. More open than many places in the sierra, logged out generations ago, more recently farmed out. Now nothing grew, perhaps children, presently unseen, unheard.
Hernando squinted, strained his eyes. As if the tracks of giant logs trucked or skidded in or out could possibly be hidden. What he thought he saw were three or four men, muddied, meditative, motionless as midday. If empleo ever did come to El Hoyo could they, hardened in a more impossible season, pick up their tools? It was not a question Hernando felt he had to answer.
There was, of course, no road out the other side of El Hoyo, and no sawmill.
The horse, looking down through scattered rocks and trees with Hernando, seemed on the point of shaking his head, but didn’t. Together, they turned back up the backroad to el Rancho and, beyond that, Hernando’s considerably more developed pueblo with its town water and flush toilets. Too bad la presa was turning into taffy. Perhaps it would be possible to dredge it or dig another upstream, save the water for a year or two until it, too, turned.
For the trees drew down the rain from the vault of the sky, stored it beneath them, channeled and released it in usable flow. You could see the clouds moving over the sierra, following the line left of el bosque, raining into the wood, a little beyond. Not much. Clear-cutting would draw no rain until it rained everywhere and the loosened earth rushed downhill with the flood. That rain would be the last.
The irresistible one.
Hernando had a vision of his pueblo, deserted, uninhabitable, heard the sawmill in party town whirring for the last time, subtracting the last tree, adding the last hill of dust. He saw the people gone, houses standing empty.
The widening waste.
He didn’t know when he’d turned his back on hopeless dirt streets, the men of mud. The gate of el Rancho swung open. Hernando must have been floating on his horse or the washed sun had hit him harder than usual.
A vehicle drove up to the backroad, stopped. A vehicle also a car that could take good roads with bad. A metallized sand color showed through standing trunks, gold trim caught the light. Logging money incarnate. The driver, expecting no dapple gray gelding, no retired accountant in love with his last landscape, got out and went back to close the gate.
Hernando deemed it best to hold the horse to his prostrot and was directly in front of the versatile vehicle when the driver returned.
There he was. Obviously. El empleador. El propietario. And there was Hernando, who reined his horse and offered his most innocent greeting.
Eyes not in the least rattled. This was not the visage of a man who had nearly made chief financial officer, but of one who had in fact been chairman of the board. El jefe.
And the man in charge bore a stunning resemblance to el hombre hirsute. He was—in fact had to be—the hairy man with a shave, a haircut.
Nice horse. Nice color. Just right for you… Ride here often?
What did he mean, Hernando would wonder. Just right for you. He had a feeling the man had been close to adding viejo. Hernando wasn’t ready to be called old man, not yet. But he’d only answered the question.
Weekends. I like to get out.
Out of town.
Hernando had nodded, but he’d been thinking out of the house, a house built for heat that never made it to the hills, a house forever cold. El propietario had continued.
Come down to the ranch sometime. We have trails. This used to be ranching country. When ranches were ranches and men were men.
It had hung in the air between trees Hernando thought it wisest not to mention. El propietario had made it clear that Hernando was not a red-eyed ecologista ready to chain himself in the wood, but one of life’s onlookers riding out for a last look. Harmless.
I thank you. I certainly shall. But now I must…
Hernando’s stomach rumbled loudly enough to be heard in El Hoyo. He should have eaten a piloncillo himself. The landowner smiled opening the door of his all-round vehicle, he referred only indirectly to Hernando’s upcoming meal.
Don’t forget la siesta. Really though, I meant what I said. The gate’s locked. But there’s a loose brick. On the right. Just put the key back.
Man and horse, by mutual agreement, walked the rest of the way. It was time, not for the prostrot, but something more reasonable. The conversation, friendly as mud, had taken their momentum. Even the horse was not as eager as before to shake the sight of El Hoyo from his head, to get Hernando off his back.
No, giant logs were not floating out through El Refugio, not being trucked the other way past El Hoyo.
That night, in bed, Hernando lay in woods wet as the back of your neck when you couldn’t get dry. He lay as chain saws bit, chained logs lurched up slippery tracks. He started awake, slept, started awake. It was a drawn-out torment, this destruction of the forest, starting at the most desirable, proceeding to the least which, as soon as it was all that remained, became the most.
He woke before dawn to the scream of pigs. Not only the trees were heading to market. The butcher quarantined his animals across the street from Hernando’s. They went in quietly enough. Two weeks later, dragged by two men, they knew where they were going.
Hernando got up, fired off the water heater. The burst of gas flame always reassured him. Some things worked. Water flowed. While his shower heated he made coffee, boiled himself an egg. At least chickens didn’t scream. As far as he knew. What about cows?
Out of the house. Into the street. Swallows swept the length at ankle height, rose to pass at eye level. Such lightness, thought Hernando. Out of place. Of time.
To know such grace.
On the morning walk with a bucket of rastrojo or a couple of leaves of alfalfa, Hernando passed a solitary cow. No calf. Too young to milk, she awaited her place in the food chain.
Now her place was in a partially roofed, unfloored house, the owner making the best of two unreadinesses. In the rains she stood in mud to her pasterns.
No, cows didn’t scream.
Good she was not destined to be eaten, not yet, for this cow was a good neighbor. Hearing Hernando, she would lean against the bars of her prison. He’d see one long black ear long before he got there. The cow enjoyed a good scratch. Strangely, her horns were warm. He had never thought of animals keeping their horns warm. It seemed they did.
After the cow Hernando met the thin man on his uncomplaining burro, the man’s legs nearly touching the ground. Gentlemanly, old enough to have died a natural death, he still sucked aguamiel from his ágaves every morning with an odd shaped gourd and fermented it in back of his house. He had a certain quixotic sense of it all. Seeing Hernando, he’d pull his bandanna up under his sombrero till only eyes were visible. Eyes that twinkled till Hernando called out…
At which point the bandanna came down, Hernando and the don would exchange greetings of the day. Once he held up a hand to reveal a scorpion sting between two fingers and told where he got it.
Right in el cuenco.
That was the irony of it. The beast waiting in the belly of the plant, having a sip of the good stuff before he nailed the competition. Hernando had inquired.
Doesn’t it hurt?
Yo soy gallo.
That’s what the don said, riding on. Strange how he’d kept his youth. Was it the pulque he brewed? The saddling, the ride, the daily harvesting? Other, younger men in El Refugio had their mobility compromised. Two brothers. One limped left, one right, cane carried opposite the other. Each brother philosophical before weather that came, that didn’t. Fatalista before clouds roiling black as black horses, the apocalypse; under sky parched pale as milk snake, white, appalling; or only gray, gray as the gray crow of age. If it was not a day to venture, the brothers did not venture.
The don not like that. He rode into wind, rain, came back bearing his odd shaped gourd, his tin of the inestimable.
No, it wasn’t drink, though many of Hernando’s neighbors gathered for the morning milk. The men, anyway, took in good quantities of something more refined with warm white froth. Neither had done much for them. They were of the crowd that dragged its feet.
There was the man, gray as ashes, who more than dragged, but hauled himself along, a chimney sweep in a land without. Bent before the unseen weight he trolled, he never failed to look up at Hernando’s passing, to signal him imperiously, if weakly, to stop.
Once Hernando had. The man had only looked at him, mouth open, one more with an untellable tale. Next time they passed there was the imperious gesture. Slow, weak, ineffective. Hernando did not have time for talebearers, especially the speechless type.
One of his neighbors would stop him to inquire the saint’s day. Hernando, questioned, had no idea. His neighbor’s method of questioning was to trace one slow finger across the sky. That was the unnamed saint looking down like a satellite. Having looked up only to fail the test, a better informed Hernando would pass on.
There was an older woman who always greeted him by name, her head strangely tilted and one eye kinder than the other.
On his morning walk to the horse Hernando might be preceded by a bird of indescribable blue, a piece of sky stretched tree to tree. The message seemed to be that he, man, was walking into nature itself, fresh as creation, blue as blueness, timeless.
Hernando finished his coffee and his egg. With a wet fingertip he picked the flakes of the tortilla he’d dry fried to go with it. He looked at his hands.
Had the time come? For stumbling over coblestones to the plaza, standing in line for el teléfono público? Yes, by God! He might not know where the great trees were going, how they got there, but he knew where they’d been and…
He knew they were gone.
He was on his way, stumbling as anticipated. The newly molded man of action looked down to make sure he hadn’t remade himself in slippers, that he wore pants, not pajamas, that his fly was closed.
No line. Hernando inserted the insertable, a finger seemed to peck the air. That well known pigeon at work. Was anyone looking?
Wrong number. And then…
El número no existe.
A recording of such finality Hernando suspected it was live, that the woman might note furtive eyes scouring the plaza. But it was a city of the dead. The last of the young off wading the river, scaling the wire, the last of the old on another journey.
Hernando checked scribbled numbers fronted by acronyms. Mislabeled bureaucracies, non-governmental sandcastles. He tried. Tried again. Usually the deadly recording, sometimes a busy signal.
He could see them, jaws dropping at tip-offs. Radioing helicopters. Special forces, faces greened, rappelled into illegal clearings all over Mexico.
When he got no answer, he was pleased to picture every bureaucrat out in el bosque saving trees. Once more, he cased the plaza. No spies reporting to el jefe with the versatile vehicle, no heavies to take Hernando, his number up, for a walk in the woods.
No he wasn’t going to be stopped by a wall of wires and speakers. One more. He would call the Secretary of the Natural World, man or woman, the heavy at the heart of things. The phone rang and was lifted.
Hernando, sure it was the voice of the deadly recording, explained the situation. Without unnecessary detail. Why describe the bearded man who wasn’t the bearded man at all? The woman said this wasn’t exactly the office, but she would do what she could.
Your name, señor?
Name? I thought I could inform you of this matter without danger to myself. I am not telling fibs, señorita. You have only to look down from your helicopter to see the trees are gone.
I am sorry, señor, but we cannot accept llamadas anónimos. Or even, in fact, your name as you give it. You might be someone making trouble or, worse, pretending you’re you. In order for us to investigate the undeniably serious charges you have made—without more people like you los bosques of México would indeed be doomed—you must make them in writing, in triplicate, take them to el notario para autentificación and send them to us por correo registrado. Don’t forget to enclose a copy of your phone or electric bill, an original so that…
Auditors had been easier to deal with. As the level dank as despair rose within, Hernando counted to ten. It wouldn’t matter if the flood were around the corner, a roaring wall of mud and water leaned over him, if he were shuffling home in slippers and his fly had been open for weeks.
Perhaps if he started the day again.
Home, Hernando made another cup of coffee, fried another egg. He tried to remember if he had fed, watered the horse. He looked out the window. The rain, if it had been raining, had stopped. He wondered again. Those trees against el firmamento…
Once upon a time there must have been something in the air. Something beside carbon dioxide. As a child wandering el bosque he had found himself drowsy. Drowsier. He had lain himself down to sleep at the feet of those giants. Looking back, Hernando realized he must have known in the womb he would not quite make chief financial officer. No. He should have done something else with this life. And in his heart he knew…
He would not save the trees.
If he didn’t, who would?
Perhaps he had not told his tale forcibly enough. He would just have to tell it again. And again. Better this time. But to whom?
¡Por todos los demonios! He still had some fight left in him. Time for the old one-two!
Events in time. Array. Order. Chronological. Spatial. The known. The unknown. Facts. Such trees weren’t flown out. Not in Mexico. They weren’t hidden in the trunk of some car, no matter how versatile.
Back to square one. He would check his figures. After his second breakfast—or was it his third?—Hernando saddled up, rode out. He left the backroad, for propriety’s sake, found his old route, followed it.
The coordinates. That patch of sky. Exposed boulders, half in time, half out. But instead of ravaged colossi, a tragic clearing, there stood a stand of medium growth softwoods, a generation old, older than Hernando. Not beyond recall. Not immemorial.
Not the trees he had not seen.
Impossible. Where were the smooth cut bases of trees that were no more, stumps to stand on to give your version of the last days? Where were tread marks, skid marks, rivulets running thick toward la presa, clayey water, ever thicker, deposits of which tiles were toasted and ever more miserable men were made?
Something in Hernando ticked. He knew where he was and when he’d been here. He could have told you the hour, the minute. Accountant by instinct as well as profession, he carried not only an adding machine, but a clock. In him la manecilla grande inched toward la manecilla pequeña, itself straight up. Time was running out.
Not only the big trees were doomed.
Further from knowing than ever, Hernando turned toward home. Never been much given to emotion, uncertainty whirled. History trembled, the continuum quivered. Wind whispered through his bones, pure rain pooled in his eyes. He wanted to wave his arms, while the horse, wiser than he, placed his feet.
That afternoon Hernando slept in his chair. La siesta not his usual practice, but another breakfast out of the question. Like trees there and not there, Hernando was and wasn’t. There was no job to return to. The books had not crashed upon his departure. Sustained by gibberish and jargon, impulse and circuitry, they stood ready for the last audit. Only he, as any man, was doubtful.
Before dark he looked out the window. My God! My God! Hernando got his binoculars and looked again. No doubt. Absolutely no doubt. Los pinos nearest El Refugio, ones that lined the ridge and gave the impression to anyone who looked up the world was still there…
He used his binoculars to sweep the street. No gatherings on street corners, no children pointing at the sky, no women gasping, hands over their mouths. No one had noticed. No one knew.
Light fell, the cautioning finger of the last pino did not rise.
Hernando had no friends to drink with, but a bottle of tequila graced the sideboard. He found a small cylinder of glass, blew it more or less clean, filled.
He toasted the milk drinkers, the men who limped, the man who gathered aguamiel, the one who traced the course of saints across the sky. He toasted the man with nothing to say who hauled himself from day to day, he toasted our lady of the kind eye and the cow of the warm horns.
He toasted the trees that were gone.
That night a new Hernando, one he had denied even to himself, rose from the sheets. Hernando the adventurer, practitioner of deportes extremos, hung from a small glider, a creaky, improvised thing, wood and nails. Looking down, he sought out crime, criminals.
Superhombre wouldn’t need x-ray vision to see el Rancho del Quinto Pino, clear-cut, eroding. To see thick water lean downhill, gather to assault la presa, El Refugio itself. Cotton mouthed, his countrymen would drown now, steep and bloat, only to wither in time to come, sunbaked, hard as rocks.
No superman, Hernando spread his arms, hung his head. This mortal wasn’t saving as much as a mandrake.
More practically, Hernando pulled a wire. Unsure how the thing worked, but lucky. A twiddle sufficed. Suddenly, gracelessly, he swept low over low adobe buildings. There was the heart shaped pool, an organ ready for el mercado negro. There was blue water, the woman white as the whites of eyes, the white-eared hummingbird, the white white worm that waits.
Floating on her back, hair floating out from her, the woman raised a hand in greeting to a bird, a plane, to Hernando up in the sky, called out as before.
Come on in, Hernando, the water’s fine.
Is it? Is it??
Hernando’s questions left his lips like bolts of lightning, but he caught an updraft, rose foolishly close to the sun. He’d been about to tell the woman no, it was only the painted bottom of her pool that fooled her, that fooled other hang gliders, less knowing than he, Hernando, man of action, practitioner of extreme sports.
Tell her that the water stank, that kidney-shaped was just right for such ingredientes…
That the trees were gone, only the deformed, the stunted, remained, a waste wider than the eye could see.
That la belleza, beauty itself, was swimming in a sinkhole, her propietario gone for street food, takeout heavy with potatoes, without which they would starve. With it the lovely lady would bob, fat as San Nicolás in her polluted pool, that unbelievable head of hair trailing in something, Mexican red at best, something she’d soon drag herself out of, an indescribable look on her face…
Or would it be simpler to splash-land, slip and slide with her, set, harden by the side of the pool?
Hernando had had enough of crossing the firmament like a holy saint, of floating fixed upon the sky, nailed to nothing at all.
He opened his eyes.
He was afraid to get out of bed, afraid to put on his glasses, afraid to look out the window, lift his binoculars. He thought of reaching for the phone he didn’t have, of calling the mayor who couldn’t find his office.
The man was on the take, had to be. This was his day in the woods that weren’t. He got the white woman once a week, swam on his back, pearly six-shooter in hand, looked up at hang gliders less skilled than Hernando at evading a wild watery shot, watched them drop to earth in a forest long gone.
Hernando made a decision.
He would let it go.
Let it all go.
Let others swim with whales, fly with butterflies, chain themselves to vanished trees. Wisely, he would lie in bed, let the white woman visit him if so inclined.
Hernando closed his eyes. He heard, as usual, only closer, over the hill now, coming down the street. Trucks, bulldozers, chainsaws. It was, if you thought about it, unasinfonía. Everything fit. The rat-a-tat-tat of woodpeckers, the cry of meadowlarks… And not just sounds. But scents. Colors.
Hernando rose, opened his eyes and saw.
A sky blue. Blue as bluebirds, forget-me-nots, lightning. And white. White as the white light of wisdom when it comes too late, as the white eyes of terror when…
But blue. Mostly blue.
There was more of it all the time.
Michael McGuire is the author of The Ice Forest, a collection of stories distributed by Northwestern that was named one of the “Best Books of the Year” by Publisher’s Weekly. Other story collections have been finalists for the Drue Heinz and Flannery O’Connor competitions. His plays have been performed by the New York Shakespeare Festival, the Mark Taper Forum of Los Angeles, and others.