The neighboring ranch has been losing cattle. One is struck by a passing car, the bones in her leg obliterated. She collapses until someone notices her lying in the road, her eyes unnaturally wide. She is made to walk on her broken leg into a stock trailer, and then she is driven someplace and shot dead. A few days before the dogs arrive, a calf is taken by a mountain lion, its bones and skull found dragged through the desert. Men begin hunting the lion.
As the crow flies, it is nearly eighty miles from the Mexican town of Sasabe to the city of Tucson, through the most remote parts of the Sonoran Desert. Summertime temperatures surpass 110 degrees, and winter nights dip below freezing. The desert crossers move like flocks of birds. They scramble through washes at night, twisting ankles on rocks, drinking from stock tanks gone green with slime.
When hunting, wolves intentionally scatter their prey. Factoring in conditions of weather and terrain, they create panic to separate a herd, pushing individual animals into more treacherous areas where they will be vulnerable. In 1994, to deter migration, the Clinton-era US Border Patrol began funneling migrants into the most dangerous and isolated part of the border—the Arizona desert.
Under the cover of spindly trees, families huddle to keep from being noticed. When the Border Patrol helicopters drop from the sky, they hover so low that they kick up walls of dust too thick to see through. Panicked mothers are separated from their children are separated from the boys traveling alone. They run further into the maze of washes; they may not know to find water inside a barrel cactus, to chew mesquite beans for sustenance, to suck the blood-red pulp from cactus fruit.
Within a day, they might be dead. Within two, their bodies unrecognizable. Within weeks, they could be bones, spread out by animals across an entire mile. The desert is a weapon.
Out the back door of our farmhouse, my father-in-law builds a treehouse in the arms of an old mesquite. Across the drive are more mesquites, gnarly things that drip with spring sap, where the contractor kills an entire nest of baby rattlers one summer.
The husband and I paint our bedroom blue. It is lighter than intended—an anemic pastel color that resembles a daycare. Sometimes I chase those walls all day long. They’re gray at dawn and blue by day, but at night, they’re black like everything else—like the desert outside, like the sky over the Little Rincon Mountains, like the moment I realize I have to leave. But while I will leave the husband for good one sunny winter day, this is a story about middles. About the kind of pressure that builds slowly—a kettle set on the stove, just beginning to sing.
The desert sun swelters us—bleaches work shirts, burns cheeks, splits tomatoes down the middle. There is always one more row to weed, one more bed to harvest before the heat, the spring winds, the javelina, the first hard freeze.
A farm is a sanctuary. A farm is a war.
The dogs appear on the ridge above the farm one early morning, and make their way toward the woodpile. They cower as they approach the porch, and then they collapse belly-up at my feet. They are skinny brown things, spines like sharp meridians. There are cactus needles barbed in their muzzles and in the folds of their chests. They smell like sweat and dust.
My friend Kat wears gloves to inspect the personal belongings of migrants who have been found dead in the desert—photographs of babies, rosaries, water jugs, identification cards. She visits the bones every Wednesday for work—skulls, femurs, sets of teeth—noting details from the forensic anthropologist, who approximates the amount of time since the death: weeks, months, sometimes years. They take descriptions of the disappeared from family members over the phone—people searching for their husbands, their daughters, their nephews—and compare age, height, medical and dental history, clothing, and personal effects with the human remains found. Each bone, each hair clip, each faded lottery ticket.
More than a decade ago, Kat and I worked together in a dark office, she at one desk and I at the other, flanked by stacks of towering papers. We documented cases of abuse for a nonprofit—a Mexican construction worker not paid by a white boss; a brown woman, pulled over and beaten by the Border Patrol on the road overlooking her Arizona hometown of Bisbee.
Once, I drove up to a resort to collect the statement of someone who had been assaulted while in police custody. She met me at the pool, which had a swim-up bar. It was late spring and already hot. She wore a black bikini, and she ordered me a frozen coffee drink. At one point, we went to her hotel room and I photographed bruises on her arms, ribs, and legs—the fingerprints of the police officers becoming dark-blue moons.
When we buy the farm on the east side of the Little Rincon Mountains, we are warned by the previous owners not to let our goats birth in the field. The ravens will keep watch over a pregnant doe, will intuit her labor, will wait for the newborns to spill slick-wet onto the ground. We are told this as we are standing at the fence, looking out over a field of Bermuda grass.
What will they do? I ask.
They’ll peck the eyeballs out, and the colons. And then leave them for dead.
Months later, when the ravens begin perching over the chickens and goats, the husband shoots one out of the sky.
After I worked with Kat, I worked for an organization providing humanitarian aid to migrants. One summer, I spent weeks sleeping on a cot in a small dark room in a house in Nogales, Sonora, just two blocks from the border wall. The room was so dark that I could not even see the shape of the other volunteers, splayed on their own cots, trying to manage an hour or two of rest.
Day and night, we met just-deported migrants at the port of entry. Whole busloads of people were deported without their shoes, their belts, without food or water or a single cent to call home. Mothers and babies dropped off in downtown Nogales at two in the morning. A girl in a costumed princess dress and Mary Jane shoes, her face full of desert. People with cactus still stuck in their legs, rupturing blisters and wounds, socks that had to be cut off. We collected migrant accounts of Border Patrol and law enforcement abuse.
A group of 15 people was forced to run in place for 30 minutes by Border Patrol agents who told them that they were making them do so to ensure that they would not want to come back. They kicked anyone who stopped.
Three women, approximately age 20, sought treatment for injuries sustained while crossing. All three reported that the agents who apprehended them had pushed them into cacti as they were walking in custody.
A group of 9 was in detention from 6pm to 8:30am. The jail was very cold and they were not provided with food or water. Maria begged for water for her two children, ages 6 and 9, and the BP officers drank in front of them and refused to provide any water for her children or the others.
For most of the year, the Santa Cruz River is bone-dry. From the Canelo Hills in Arizona, the river cuts south into Mexico, then veers north again, where it crosses the US-Mexico border once more and continues on to the city of Tucson.
The year that I meet the husband, we are working as farmhands along this river, just north of the border. I use the wheel hoe all summer, and my body is the strongest it has ever been. Once, at dusk, the entire farm crew is racing the sunset. We keep the truck’s headlights on, guiding the transplanting of eggplant. Each plant must be picked from the tray, its roots mussed, placed into the hole, and covered with soil.
The Grateful Dead blasts through the speakers of the truck, and I am thinking about how much I hate jam bands, when something stirs across the field. At first, it is a single man, his arms raised over his head, walking slowly. Behind him are a dozen more men, all of them with their arms raised, jugs of water clipped to their belt loops. They keep their eyes down. Two Border Patrol agents follow on horseback, guns cocked, held to the backs of the men.
There is a wall of moths in front of the headlights. Dust clouds up beneath my boots. The bodies of the men are the faintest shadows against the purple sky. When they reach the road, they disappear into the trees, and it is almost like they were never there.
We call the phone number on the collars. Damn dogs wandered away. They’ve been gone for days, says the owner. We’ll be down in a while.
They do not stray from one another. They lay shoulder to shoulder in the sun. From the window, I watch them sleeping on the porch, all of their ribs visible. One of them runs in his sleep—muscles tensing, legs moving in circles—as though he is sprinting through grass and bramble, up the length of a wash, chasing the scent of raccoon, rabbit, ground squirrel.
It is late afternoon when the truck pulls in—white with a built-in chrome toolbox and a metal dog cage welded to the back. There is a mountain lion drawn in a logo on the door. The hunters light cigarettes and blow smoke at the sky. Such pain-in-the-asses, one of them says, before yanking out the cactus spines and tossing them on the ground. The dogs yelp and cower.
When I moved to Arizona from the Blue Ridge Mountains, I reached out with my bare hand to touch the greenest thing I could find—a prickly pear pad as smooth as the top of a lake. But when I pulled my hand away, I took with me hundreds of nearly invisible spines that irritated for days. I learned myriad ways to pull them out: a warm bath, tweezers beneath a bright light, duct tape, a layer of Elmer’s glue, tongue and teeth. The desert does not leave us.
I live and dream in predators and prey. In one dream, I am walking in the river when a coyote stops in my path and licks its lips. In another dream, I am picking lettuce in the field and I hear the sound of wings. When I look up, there are hundreds of great blue herons flying overhead, their yellow feet pointed like ballerinas.
In real life, though the memory is dizzy like a dream, the husband ties up my dog for murdering chickens. My bird dog cannot resist the flapping of wings, the smell of feathers and flesh. When it happens, I am making deliveries in town. The husband flips the dog onto her back, hog-ties her legs, duct-tapes her mouth, ties her upside down inside a dog crate. Hours later, I come home. I find her—wild-eyed, shaking, her own shit smeared down her tail.
In the driveway near the barn, the truck is going ding ding ding because I have left the door open and the keys in the ignition. The air sucks out of the sky like a balloon. Ding ding ding. I cut the rope from her feet, pull the tape off her mouth. As soon as she is free, she jets through the fields, where she squeezes beneath the fence, down to the river.
After the first time he holds me down, I bolt, too.
When I am pregnant, I do not expect to feel like a globe, made of water and bone, but that is exactly what I become. By the third trimester, I cannot see my feet anymore, and I begin tripping over things. I think the baby cannot possibly get any bigger; my body cannot possibly become a bigger house.
At three days overdue, the husband and I are walking around the farm, trying to jump-start my labor. I want the smell of the winter desert, the yellow eyes of animals, the crunch of weeds beneath my feet. I want the night to wrap me up. I want someone to take this baby out of me. For the past few days, the husband has come in from the field to check on me, has blown up the birth pool—but now he is admonishing me for my mental block, for whatever is causing my labor to start and stop again and again, the contractions disappearing into the air. You need to get over it, he says.
Birth, when it finally comes, is like being lost at sea. There are tides and storms, hurricanes, no land in sight. I recognize certain colors and objects—the yellow of lamplight, the blue of walls, the deep red of a rug. When I scream that I cannot do this anymore, the midwife looks me directly in the eyes. Her face is soft and firm. She pours more hot water into the pool, and I sit in the warm place and let the water lap at my body. I scream and scream. When the baby comes, he is a blue fish placed in my arms. We are pulled back to land.
For the duration of the cold months, the ocotillos look like dead sticks shooting up twelve feet in the air. But in the spring, green leaves grow between the thorns, and a cone of fire-orange flowers blooms at the top of each stalk. They bend in the wind, but they do not snap.
The desert prepares me for being kept. It teaches me to play dead. To harbor all of my plans and fears and dreams like a cactus stores water. To make a box in my chest for these things, lest they be used against me. I do this while I carry water to the men who are lining rocks against the fence; while I water the seedlings; while I scratch the ears of the two hounds who have wandered in from the desert, all skin and bones; as I watch dust devils move steadily across the field—sometimes two at a time under the right conditions—tossing tumbleweed and grass.
When the funnels come, lots of things take flight: work gloves, birds, empty trash bags, fifty yards of row cover twisted into a ribbon over our heads. Sometimes we, too, become caught. We crouch in the middle of the field, with only a moment to respond. I cover the baby’s head with the whole of my chest, brace myself for flying objects, wait for it to pass.
The new mother crosses the desert by foot. She hides her belly—just the size of a small round fruit—beneath a baggy sweatshirt. Days and nights pass in a blur until the walking and the dehydration bring contractions. When she falls behind, most of the group keeps going. Three women stay behind to help.
After she labors in the desert,
after the baby girl slips out at the base of a mesquite,
after fingernail clippers are used to sever the umbilical cord,
after the infant is swaddled in a shirt,
the women sit on the side of a dusty road, holding the baby, and wait to be discovered.
I take the turns in the road from memory. From the farm, it is nine miles until the hill that makes my stomach flip, twelve miles before the ground plummets into a wide wash and the country radio station comes in. Beneath the bridge, salt cedars grow through the cracks in the silt.
At fifteen miles, just when the road bends again and the stink from the dairy begins, I catch up to the white truck. Sprawled across the chrome toolbox in the truck bed is a mountain lion—mouth bloodied, head limp, her body winched down by a yellow strap. Through the bars of the cage are the black noses of dogs, pointed toward the sky.
Run away again, I say out loud, thinking of the dogs. And then I wonder—is it possible to break a predator of the hunt? The smell of fear, the glint of eyes through branches, the footsteps of men, the lighting of a cigarette, the sound of the gun. The lion as she falls from a tree.
Not two days after the birth, the mother is still peppered in spines. This is when I meet her, with Kat, in the dark hallway of a Tucson house. She moves tenderly, picking them from her calves and the palms of her hands. Her belly is soft, still in the doughy shape of a baby. She wears her hair long, nearly to her waist.
The baby is a tiny cooing thing in a red dress, ten perfect toes, a head full of black hair. Girl of in-betweens, United States citizen, daughter of the desert.
To the west, the sun sets over the river. I inhale the smell of the desert and cows. After a while, I can only see the vague outline of the mountain lion. I lose her face and the swing of her paws over the side of the truck bed. I follow the brake lights of the truck, watch them dip and glimmer. When I squint my eyes, they become stars.
–Debbie Weingarten (from Guernica)