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Coming of Age


ISSUE:  Autumn 1994

They saw a distant steeple behind the hills, then the same steeple, larger, amid a clutch of roofs, and finally they drove into a cobbled street where the church stood, its cracked steps leading down to a dog lying in the road, dead. Their daughter would have been most upset had she been there to see it. Yet what a relief to stop after a long drive. In the stillness they could smell newly baked bread. Children were gaping at them with impudent innocence.

“You’d think they’ve never seen tourists before,” Cordelia said.

“Maybe they haven’t.”

“Oh, they must have done.”

“In a remote place like this?” her husband asked. “Not often.”

Perhaps he was right since they were his compatriots, not hers, who swarmed down here in the thousands. She glanced again at the directions the lady in the hotel had given them. “It says to turn right at the church and head out of town again.”

Harvey waved as they drove away. The children, too bemused to respond, just watched. A distant mountain range was out of focus in the purple mist and the foothills seemed heavily sprinkled with pepper and salt. It had all grown lovely again with that capacity for abrupt change that was so typical.

They found the ranch without trouble. There was a barn, a fence and, sure enough, horses. Harvey got out as if the long ride had aged him. His wife took longer having turned the rear-view mirror on herself. When she joined him at the fence a shabby, unshaven man, in appearance more beggar than landowner, approached them in his own sweet time. Though it must have become quickly evident to him that the woman spoke Spanish and the man did not, he continued to reply only to Harvey though Cordelia asked the questions and translated his replies. Twenty dollars for two horses for two days. That included a guide. Harvey was more than happy with this.

“He says we can start in five minutes.”

“In Mexico that means half an hour. Let’s go back and get some food. Might be a long haul till lunch.”

“He’s one of those men who thinks women don’t exist,” she complained, as they headed again in the direction of the steeple. Harvey pointed out that he was a typical Mexican: the man is the head of the family, the man is expected to make the decisions.

“Exactly,” she said, “women don’t exist.”

Again he worried that their holiday would go sour. He thought of Lake Patzcuaro where, two days ago, they had spent a wonderful morning walking by the shore as the valley become slowly unchilled in the subtle sunlight, the netwinged boats like frail birds come to rest on the water.

Back in their car again, he stopped so his wife could ask directions of a green-eyed Indian woman with a baby in her arms. The woman pointed on ahead, silently. They thanked her and were about to drive off when she stepped closer to the window, peering in at Cordelia with a query of her own. He heard the Indian say, “Muy bonita,” more than once and his wife’s insistent “No gracias.” But then he saw her give the woman some money. “Let’s go now, please,” Cordelia said, turning to him with a strained look. As they did, the receding eyes, like luminous green marbles, watched them.

“What was she selling?”

“The baby.”

After a while he asked, “Was it hers?”

“She said she needed the money to feed the others.”

“Good God.”

Although they were both shaken, it didn’t sour Mexico for her as he feared it would. It simply made her all the more convinced that England was the only place to live.

Opposite the church and its lifeless dog, they found boxes of fruit and bread guarded by a mute woman seated on a stool from whom they bought one mango and two rolls. Eager to buy a hat in case of rain, he could find nowhere to go for such an item though impressive, wide-brimmed stetsons atop gloomy Indians floated this way and that.

“They forever try to sell you things you don’t want,” he groused, while driving back, “but, of course, once you’re in real need, all commerce ends.”

“Oh, a little rain won’t hurt you,” she said, in that maddening way of hers of suddenly becoming blissfully free of all his concerns. To pass a man leading a burro, he glanced in the rear-view mirror and found, thanks to her attempt to turn it back to its previous angle, not the road but simply his own ungainly face peering irritably at himself.

At the ranch, two horses were saddled. Again the owner finally appeared. Harvey put the food in his saddle bag and asked his wife where their guide was. She spoke to the owner. “He says this one will take us.”

Harvey saw that a child was waiting for them. The boy stood there thin as sticks, barefoot in his poncho, and looking about as useful as a busted balloon. The horse he stood near had not yet been saddled. Harvey was about to say, “No children,” when the boy, without warning, became an effortless flow of mercury until he was astride the horse, bareback, like Zapata himself. His longish, tar-black hair was held back with string. His small mask of milk-chocolate had the familiar look of monumental resignation.

The owner spoke. “He wishes you a pleasant trip,” Cordelia said, with pointed irony.

“Come on, let’s go.”

“He also says it would be good to tip the child later.”

When the ranch was out of sight, Harvey galloped. Here at last was true adventure. He stopped when he looked back and saw his wife bouncing uncontrollably like a rodeo rider atop a wild horse.

“Don’t do that,” she snapped at him when she had caught up.

“I forgot that when one runs they all run.”

“Remember it. Please!”

Although the boy had flown into the lead, he kept watch on them and now cantered back unable to resist a smile.

Soon slippery mud made even walking the animals difficult. They went in single file following the boy through the gullies of low hills and scrub land. Then into woods and out again. There was no view. Occasionally a Mexican would appear on foot and say, “‘Dios” as he passed.

“If they’re such friendly people,” she smiled, “why do they say “Goodbye” as soon as they meet you?”

“Ask him.”

She did. “He says they’re saying “God” as in “Go with God.”“

“Of course, yes.”

“I asked him his name. He’s called “Twig. ” I think that’s what he said.”

“How does he spell it?”

She lowered her voice. “He can’t. He can’t read.”

“What’s his age?”

“Same as Jess.”

“Eleven? Looks smaller.”

“Much smaller.”

They went on silently for a while, the boy leading until it began to rain. He stopped and spoke. Cordelia looked into her saddle bag and pulled out a poncho. There was one in Harvey’s too. He felt a bit foolish fitting it over his head. This was forgotten when he discovered how protected he was from the cutting wind as they came to the crest of a hill and a view of the valley before heading down beneath an offcolored sky.

The mention of Jess had sent Cordelia’s thoughts far afield. “Do you think she’s all right?” That was the question, always.

He said he was sure of it. Really sure? Yes, of course he was. Their daughter, Jessica, had been left behind with his parents in New York. To Cordelia, that city’s year-round open season for rape and murder was worrying enough. But his parents were hopeless. Even in the safety of their flat there was cause for worry. Jess would be spoiled rotten by American permissiveness and made fat by American ice cream. She was annoyed that Harvey didn’t understand this. “Look what a cock-up they made of you,” she said.

They each thought the other worried too much because they worried over different things. When flying, she was engrossed with death, he, the cost of the flight. When eating, he was obsessed with cholesterol, she, the number of calories. But, separately and together, they both worried full time about Jess. When Harvey dismissed concerns involving his parents or the dangers of New York, he did so for Cordelia’s sake, keeping his fears to himself just as he kept to himself those old stories of bandits in the Mexican hills.

As the rain stopped they came upon fences and more people saying “ ‘Dios” and finally a bleak, shabby village. It was so primitive, there was no road leading to it and yet there, before them, was a large Coca Cola sign held aloft by posts in a field. They dismounted in the plaza onto weak legs and sat down. The boy brought them canned sardines, fresh bread and warm Coke. The aroma stunned them. They had never had a more delicious feast. The boy brought the horses together and emptied numerous bottles of Coke into each large, uplifted mouth. He went about seeing to it that they all were taken care of without himself stopping to eat or drink.

Cordelia marveled at the self-sufficiency of someone no older than their daughter who couldn’t take care of herself and wouldn’t take care of her room. She asked if he was going to eat now, and he said, “Si, momentito,” and went off in his small bare feet. He soon returned, sat with his back against a wall and, looking at nothing in particular, took discreet bites out of his bread and cheese. Children watched them from a distance, frozen with amazement. Cordelia grinned, and one of them, a little girl, cringed in a blissful, gap-toothed smile. At his wife’s insistence, Harvey gave the child their rolls to share among them. The mango had proved to be rotten.

To help Cordelia into her saddle, Harvey pushed with both palms on her buttocks. His horse, too, seemed to have grown in height. He climbed the animal like a wall. Could it really be that he was getting old?

“Do you think she goes to school?” his wife asked of the little one to whom he had given away their food. He didn’t know. But the question sent her thoughts back again to Jess. Had they made the right choice in sending her to an all girls school over one that was mixed? They talked about this for a while and got no further with it, on horseback, than they had all the other times they had dredged through the subject in their flat in Belsize Park.

They lived in London because Cordelia had a job there as a journalist and he had been sent overseas as a salesman for an American film company with offices on Wardour Street. They met at a health food restaurant, and the next evening he took her to a private showing of Under The Volcano.

To Harvey she evoked any number of elegant English film actresses who had mesmerized him in his early New York youth. To her he was an entertaining, rough-hewn original who, though wanting polishing like many lumbering Americans, only occasionally became an actual social hazard. His emotions, however, were refreshingly free from restraint. For a time everything seemed deceptively uncomplicated. England agreed with him, as did marriage with her.

Having a child would also agree with him, she said, and soon he was happily astride a runaway horse called parenthood. What he hadn’t been told was that the gallop never ceased, and each day was a race toward the end of something endless. Their daughter transformed their lives as they knew she would but in ways they would not have been able to guess. She freed them from self-obsession and certainty. She opened up a vast and complex world while enabling them to extract great pleasure from the very simplest of things. She deepened at a stroke their understanding of life and renewed, as never before, their acquaintance with dread. Their daughter was always with them even when she was somewhere else. The very fact of her existence was as if she were constantly crying in a carrycot at their feet. And when she was somewhere else, the dread was worse.

“Oh, look, look,” she called to him from her saddle. “How beautiful.”

Coming upon a lake, they had frightened off some geese who tipped-slapped the water with each loud beat of their wings as they raced across the surface leaving double rows of widening circles until furiously lifting off and sliding into the sky. Their young guide flapped his arms and laughed, not at the birds but at the pleasure they gave Cordelia. She reached across from her saddle and patted his head.

While crossing a landscape reminiscent of the African veldt, she talked to the boy for a while, then said to her husband:

“He has three brothers. One’s dead. One’s in Texas. One’s in jail. He explained why but I couldn’t follow. When he grows up he wants to work in a big hotel where rich Americans stay. His mother was hurt in the earthquake, when was it, two years ago? He likes the music of Michael Jackson. And he wants to know why we’re not taking snaps like the other tourists.”

“Did you tell him our camera was stolen the day we arrived?”

“Yes.”

“What did he say?”

“He said people should not steal.”

“A moral philosopher.”

“I tried to tell him we weren’t out of pocket because of the insurance.”

“And?”

“He doesn’t know what insurance is.”

The boy turned in his saddle to see if they were following.

“Oh, his face is so beautiful. Wouldn’t he make a lovely brother for Jess?”

“Bet he’d keep his room tidy if we told him to.”

“And ours as well,” she laughed.

At dusk Harvey began to understand how men could sleep in their saddles. Cordelia didn’t seem half as tired. Is this what turning 40 does? He cheered up when she said, “God I’m exhausted.” But he regretted the rolls given away to those children. Increasingly, he had trouble seeing the path. They had damn well better get to where they were going, he thought, or they’d be lost in the dark.

“Here we are,” Cordelia’s voice called out, and before them loomed a clutch of huts where an old woman was cooking food over an open fire inside what, to Harvey, resembled a shabby imitation of a baseball dugout.

Sitting like benched rookies waiting for a chance at bat, they each ate a steaming plateful of painfully spicy enchiladas and refried beans. The request for a drink to cool the furnace of his mouth was a serious mistake; a gulp of warm Coke all but lifted off the top of his head. He gave up drinking and just ate. Then he gave up eating and just sat. After unsaddling the horses and leading them away, the boy returned to ask Harvey a question. Cordelia, using his thigh as a pillow, had to be shaken awake to translate. The boy had wanted to know if they were ready to sleep.

Even his wife, who enjoyed camping far more than he, found the empty storage room abysmal. It smelled of dried mud and farmyard animals. “Wants doing up,” she said. Harvey was too exhausted to speak. They lay on mats, each wrapped in a blanket, wearing their shoes for warmth. Somewhere a baby cried without stopping. When Harvey woke hours later, the night had grown solid with cold. There was movement next to him. Are you warm enough? No, she said, as if the fault were his. They pushed the straw mats together and rolled themselves into both blankets like a single bundle. Was it better this way? We’ll see, was her reply. He kissed her. Yes, it’s better this way. Her body was small like a well-made watch. Greater size or weight would have been to no advantage. Styling and quality was all. Nice, she said. What is? he asked. But she was asleep again.

The door swung open, slicing the room with morning light. They blinked at bare feet and two twigs for legs. He bid them each good morning and after he went out, scraping the door shut, they hobbled about amused by their infirmities like old people who knew they would soon be young again.

Mounted on horses, they entered a blue, moist, cool day. A man on a chair in an open field was having his hair cut. At noon they arrived at a stream near a clearing in the woods. In the warm sun, they sat eating fruit and cheese as the boy took the horses down to the water.

Harvey stared after him. “Hard to imagine him being afraid of the dark.”

After musing for a bit, she said: “You know, I really do think we should take her to see someone.”

“You really want to get into all that?”

She nodded and he said no more. When the boy returned, leading the horses, Cordelia was attending to a slipped contact lens, and Harvey was throwing left jabs at the leaf of a low-hanging branch. The boy smiled and hit out with his fist at the leaf of a much lower branch. Becoming his coach, Harvey changed the boy’s stance and taught him to bend and jab with his left while keeping his right at the ready. He was such a good student that they boxed each other for a few moments with ferocious exaggeration, neither trying to land a blow.

When Cordelia was ready, it was time to leave. Because the animals were nervous, the boy held the reins as she mounted. Harvey climbed on and then waited with fascination to observe once again that nonchalant jump-float onto a saddleless horse. The boy stood in position, patting the smooth, brown hair of the enormous neck. Then he stopped and became terribly still. His attention had been riveted to the middle distance as if by a miraculous annunciation.

Harvey turned and saw a man standing among the trees. A rent in the left leg of his trousers hung open like a door flap. His tongue was at work inside his mouth as if he had just finished eating. He held a machete, resting it in the dirt like a cane. Harvey noticed two other men: a fat one in a pair of overalls too small for him, a straw hat perched high on his head; the other was squatting to pick something out of the dirt, then tossing it away. In his other hand he held a knife.

Cordelia said, “Oh, dear, my sunglasses,” and climbed down to get them as Harvey called out, “No, don’t.” Too late. Now she, standing beside her horse, also saw them. She turned to her husband, her face sagging with fear.

“Get mounted,” he told her. The fat one barked something and she froze.

“Ask him what he wants.”

She did and when the man with the machete responded, Cordelia lurched slightly. “Oh my God, oh my God,” she whispered.

“What?” Harvey called out. “What? What did he say?”

The fat one said something to the boy. All three were watching him now, perhaps assessing his resourcefulness in these empty woods, knowing that these others, for whom he was the guide, were helpless.

“What did he say to him?” Harvey asked in hushed desperation.

Before his wife could answer, the boy began emitting a sound that rose in a steady whine, private and pitiful, as he sank to his knees, his face at last revealing what he really was: a child. “Padre,” he wailed. This pleased the three men and they smiled at each other.

“What’s happening?” Harvey cried. “Will you tell me what’s happening?”

At that moment the earth jumped, the horses went crazy, Harvey was spun about, Cordelia knocked over. A veil of dust inundated everything. “Aheeeeeeee!” This from the man with the machete. He was sitting on the ground, eyes closed, pressing with both hands on his right thigh. The fat one backed away, then ran, losing his hat. The third man was already gone. On his knees, both hands holding the gun, the boy studied the wounded man and then spoke, ending with “porfavor.” The glistening machete was tossed forward. The boy found a safe slot for it in Harvey’s saddle, then slipped his gun under his poncho. As if there was safety in heights, a trembling Cordelia, with the boy’s help, scrambled onto her horse. Then he swiftly levitated onto his own. Beckoning, he led the way in a diligent canter.

Harvey caught up to his wife to ask if she was all right. She could barely speak and they held hands for a time. Then she told him what the bandit had said. The money first, then the woman. And the boy would be killed if he didn’t obey. They held hands until the path narrowed, and their horses pulled them apart. He wanted to stay near to reassure her. But the boy was the one she wished to be near. Last in line, Harvey kept looking behind him, his back growing cold in the mid-day heat.

Cordelia talked rapidly in Spanish, asking many questions.

“He thinks we’re quite safe. Says they’re probably cowards. If they are not cowards, he will shoot at them again, so not to worry. How can he be so bloody calm? He doesn’t know who they are and doesn’t care. I asked how he could take us out knowing this might happen. It never happened before, he says. Then why did his father give him a gun in the first place? It’s so nothing nasty happens to us, right? No, he said. It’s so nothing nasty happens to the horses.”

As his heart beat lessened, Harvey’s sense of uselessness diminished. That their lives rested in this boy’s palm seemed extraordinary. What a relief that Jess wasn’t with them.

Above was a panoply of foliage through which light dabbed with flecks of gaiety and sudden, frequent sun-streaks of joy. Shambolic relief settled upon him with its volatile sense of peace. They were alive. It was sinking in. Up ahead, waiting eagerly, was the rest of his life. Flying home, hugging Jessica and putting to use a vast unimaginable extravagance of time.

Later on, his voice low, Harvey asked, “Did he shoot to kill, or what?”

“He aimed at that rip in his trousers.”

“Well, as you would say, we’ll dine out on this one.”

“We’re not home yet. And I want to talk to that boy’s father. Oh, I’d like to clock him one.”

When they had been out of the woods for some time, the boy asked them to wait and rode to some high ground. There he stood on his horse like a circus performer and looked back. Cordelia finished off an apple while they waited. He returned, smiling. But when he saw that she had thrown the core into the path, he slid disapprovingly from his horse, tossed the telltale item out of sight of possible pursuers, jumped, clutching his horse with his legs, straightened up and rode on.

“You know,” Harvey said, “when he grows up, he’s going to be dynamite.”

The feeling that they were now almost surely safe didn’t keep him from gasping, or her from screaming, when a man appeared in front of them, said “‘Dios,” and walked on.

At the ranch, Cordelia was angry to find the owner gone. Probably went to town, the boy said. There was nothing for it but to pay and leave. While the boy unsaddled the horses, a quiet discussion ensued over what the tip should be. They decided on a large sum, larger than Harvey had wished. Cordelia smiled brightly and handed over the money. The boy kept nodding, eyes wide, saying “muchas gracias” many times. She chatted a bit more. He responded at length. When one of the horses wandered, he hurried to fetch it.

But something had happened. Cordelia looked lost as if unsure of who or where she was. Her eyes met her husband’s without noticing him. For a moment she was not seeing, she was understanding.

“Did you hear what he said?”

“No.”

“I told him he’s a very brave boy.”

“And. . . ?”

“And he said he isn’t a boy. He’s a girl.”

“A girl?” They watched her leading the animals to a trough of water.

She lifted each saddle to balance it on the fence. Looking up, she saw them watching her. A moment’s hesitation: a wave of her hand. Caught gaping like rude tourists, they also waved, walked to their car, and drove up a hill to the paved road. There they stopped and looked back.

She was riding again, she and her horse lifting gracefully and floating weightlessly over the fence to bounce down into the dust and ride forth, turning, cantering, gaining speed and flying back over the same fence as if nature, compensating for her size, had given her magic powers to lift that great beast and set it down again whenever she wished.

“Shall we go?” Cordelia asked. “A hot bath would be lovely.”

“And dinner with a bottle of wine.”

“And a proper bed.”

“Yes, let’s go.”

But they kept watching the girl on the jumping horse and had yet to notice the coming of dusk.

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