In our first spring in Texas, I wanted to send family and friends back in California a photograph of the kids sitting among the bluebonnets. I found a pretty patch down the road from our old farmhouse. I set Michael, three years old, and Paige, eight months, on a small blanket. The sky was blue, the sun was warm, and the kids were happy and smiling.
After two or three shutter clicks, Michael hopped up, crying and clawing at his clothes. Paige, unable to scramble, began screaming. Fire ants swarmed over her legs. Twenty or thirty bit her before I could peel off her clothes and diaper to get her free of the assault.
Mark wondered if I had set our babies down on an ant bed without knowing it. They mound up high after a rain, but when the topsoil is dry, the beds are easy to miss. But Terri, my old college roommate from San Antonio, had a different idea. When fire ants first wake from their winter sleep, they run hungry, thirsty, and aggressive, she said.
California’s collapsing economy had chased us back to Texas. We wanted space for the kids and quiet in the evenings. Mark was a native son. He said we could make the kind of life we weren’t able to afford in a valley filled with too many people.
A Wisconsin transplant, I remembered how big Texas weather could get, and the scorching summers. However, through the rest of my college life, sharing apartments and renting houses with other co-eds, I knew little else of the place where I had lived. I was a senior when I first noticed a hill of bluebonnets and asked a classmate what they were.
I bathed Paige in oatmeal baths, and she healed from the fire ant stings. She didn’t fare as well the next time she got stung. As I pushed her in an airplane swing Mark had set up in the backyard, she stretched her arms and legs into the flight path of a dirt dauber heading home. The shiny black beast stung her forearm several times before I saw it and waved it away. The next day, Paige had a staph infection roiling under her skin.
When a red wasp stung her two years later, the wound again got infected. Along with a prescription for antibiotics, the pediatrician handed me an epinephrine pen with the instruction to use it if Paige were stung in the face or neck.
“We can’t be sure what will happen,” the doctor said.
It would be years before she was stung again. The land remained implacable. The spiders and scorpions and snakes and stinging moths and stickers and thorns brought other lessons.
One hot summer evening, I wore sneakers into the pecan orchard instead of boots. The orchard floor was mowed to stubble. Life had moved underground, to survive the summer. It wasn’t a drought year, where life shrivels even below the surface, where prairie fires can rage below ground and erupt above elsewhere. But our trees were young. They needed the rain water we caught in spring and saved for August.
As I moved the irrigation line onto the last row of trees, I stepped on a mesquite thorn. It went through my shoe and into the ball of my foot. I begged the doctor to dig it out. Instead, he gave me powerful antibiotics and showed me how to bandage it.
“It’s better if we let it work itself back out,” he said. Thirty-nine days later, the thorn emerged, leaving a hole that looked as if I had my foot pierced. The one-inch spear sat on my dresser as testament to why real cowgirls wear boots.
Not even cooling off on a hot 4th of July in the chasing waters of the upper Guadalupe River, talking to Terri about everything we could think up, went unpunished. At the end of the day, I scraped scores of tiny leeches off my legs. Terri poured alcohol in her ears to kill any that swam in.
Big plumes rise from Mexico to bake the prairie in their atmospheric pressure cookers, making rain too unreliable for living things to dare that something better to eat will come along. The smell of carrion travels.
On the way to work one late summer morning, I saw a dead armadillo on the side of the road. It had rolled to its back, legs sticking straight in the air. His last act was likely jumping straight in the air, freak-faced, in a desperate move to get a predator to turn and run. I learned from an Arkansas park ranger that an armadillo jump goes just high enough to put itself square into the grill of a passing pick-up.
On the way home from work that day, the armadillo was still there. Someone put an empty Lone Star longneck between its legs. Happy hour. It stayed that way for several days. I laughed every time I passed by. The dead don’t care.
Terri’s ex-husband used to say he didn’t want to be cremated, nor his body eviscerated in preparation for burial.
“Just put me out for the buzzards,” he’d said.
I cringed. That was old wiring, my ancestral acknowledgement of the true need to bury the dead. But, Mark didn’t see the point either.
When he didn’t come home one night, we did what he asked and had his body cremated. I carried his ashes home in a cardboard box and put them on top of the kitchen cupboard, next to the clay pot, the bamboo steam baskets, and the cookie jar shaped like a lion that roared when opened.
We had told each other we wanted the other to travel back to Hawaii — to the spot where we were married, where we twice returned to renew our love — to scatter the ashes. Instead, I hunted for a better box.
The quest was fruitless. My father offered to build one. He would use mesquite he and Mark harvested together in south Texas, he said. Mark had started fixing the stairs to the boys’ room with that mesquite. Mark could fix just about anything, but it usually looked homemade. Mark had admired Dad’s craftsmanship. Dad made us tables and bookshelves and a gun cabinet without a door, so Mark could load the .300 when the feral hogs came.
Dad asked me if it was all right to inscribe Mark’s box with a haiku he wrote. He inlaid tiny bits of turquoise into the lid.
And Dad finished the stairs to the boys’ room with trim, some with tiny bits of turquoise, and a banister.
Dad had made our wedding bands. I asked the jeweler to widen Mark’s band and inscribe it for our twentieth Christmas. The renewed gift brought tears to his eyes. I wear both our wedding bands on a gold chain now. Mine fits inside his, just like me, fitting underneath his arms.
But I take them off when I put on my boots and go outside.
I couldn’t remember how to load the .300, or the shotgun when a rabid skunk came. It kept moving, stumbling across the orchard floor like a drunk college student, as I yelled to Michael to come help. He hesitated to shoot. The skunk was too close to the neighbor’s livestock. The neighbor’s dog kept barking until the skunk wandered into the thicket to die.
Three years ago, when I was tending the trees one evening, Michael was outside nearby. He brought me to a spot near the garden to show a carcass he’d found. He thought it was a Texas horned frog, a first on our land with this rare and shy creature. Michael’s keen eyes came from years of hunting with his father. We couldn’t discern much from the belly, but the head had characteristic shape and the blue-purple scales.
I checked on its decay over the next week or so. The carcass wasn’t always in the same spot, but when the carrion-eaters had whittled it down, I picked up the head, the spine and the tail and put it in a flower pot on the front porch. We could have a token for show and tell of our discovery.
When the carrion eaters didn’t take it all, we learned the secrets of our understory, like the buck’s head or the feral hog’s snout the dogs drug home. Carrion eaters come in a certain sequence. Gordon Grice told me that once he hurled a dead squirrel up on his garden shed so he and his children could watch the progression. After a day or two, he went out at four o’clock in the morning and shone a flashlight on the carcass. He was surprised to see a swarm of daddy-long legs rise up from the innards and scatter from the light.
The next day, the horned frog’s bones were gone from the flowerpot.
I’ve learned since Mark died to wait until winter to fix the fences. The snakes are hibernating and I can avoid the poison ivy. As I’ve worked, I’ve plucked grasshoppers, dead and frozen, from the barbed wire.
Michael asked me why they got hung up like that. “Do they hang themselves on purpose or do they just fall into the barb as it gets cold?” he asked.
“I don’t know, Michael,” I said.
I’ve learned since then that shrikes impale their catch on thorns or barbed wire. With grasshoppers, the birds fly back after a day or two, when the toxins have degraded, to eat the tiny feast.
Except, I’ve also learned, that sometimes the birds don’t ever come back.