a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
Alberto Baca shuffled his feet to keep them warm. The early March air of the season still whispered of snow in the mountains. The Rio Chama rushed with the first melt of the season, but he could feel there would still be more freezing weather in the next few weeks. He was a peón today, working during his spring break on at his grandfather’s apple orchard in Northern New Mexico. He’d done this ritual since he was old enough to hold a shovel. He used to know all the boys and men who helped clear the acequia. This morning, he didn’t recognize a single person. The changes to the valley were obvious, but none so much so as the hired labor that arrived in new farm trucks. Today they would clean the ditch, digging dirt and debris, underbrush, and trash from the only water source for the ten families that had water rights along the centuries old ditch. Alberto started clearing his grandfather’s section. He didn’t need instructions on how to care for his family’s ancestral land. Silently, he named the plants as he pushed his shovel into the muddy and icy soil. Frozen and yellowed tufts of galleta, blue and black gramas, and Indian rice grass slipped off his shovel. These grasses held the soil in place, so he was careful not to cut too far into the massive roots. The hardy saltbush, Mormon tea, and shadscale he left so the deer and cows could forage. His grandfather would appear soon, to make sure that everyone in the acequia association participated. The work warmed his body, but the winds gusted off the snowpack on the San Juan mountains. He wished he was with his friends in Florida, enjoying spring break like most American college kids. When his grandfather called in early February, Alberto was surprised. Not one to use a cell phone, Alberto had answered his grandfather’s call tentatively.
“Abuelito! ¿Que pasa?” The long silence made Alberto say again, “Abuelito?”
“Si, yes, Alberto.” The wind pulsed in the phone’s microphone. His grandfather’s voice was both muffled and quiet. “You coming home, si?”
Alberto had had this conversation with his grandfather at Christmas break. “I’ve got plans to go to Florida. It’s my last year.”
Even over the whistling of the wind, Alberto could hear his grandfather’s deep sigh. “It’s been a dry winter. Water is scarce. Two families have not paid their fees.” His grandfather didn’t explain much, but the spaces between the short sentences were as if he was yelling commands to the two stubborn mules he owned.
Alberto remembered sitting in his tiny apartment in Albuquerque, looking at a cheap poster his girlfriend has popped on the wall of the famous balloon festival. He wished, at that moment, he could float away, into the bright New Mexico sky. Water was everything to the farmers that belonged to his grandfather’s Velarde Acequia Association. If taxes and fees weren’t paid then the property could go to auction. Each parcel was worth only the clear title to the water rights. To his grandfather, that meant more strangers hoarding the precious agua. Alberto didn’t need the lecture from his grandfather that he was the seventh generation who must nurture the land. Alberto caved in with a begrudging, “I’ll come home, abuelito.”
He was startled when a husky voice behind him asked, “A penny for your thoughts?”
Reaching out, giving his grandfather’s long-time neighbor, Marta, a one-armed hug, he said, “Where’s everyone we know?”
“Sold out, moved, broke, dead.” She pushed her fingers through her short grey hair. “You pick one.”
“Worse.” Marta held his gaze. “You haven’t talked much to your grandfather this spring?” She jammed her hands into her old shearling coat and waited.
“No more than usual. You know he hates cell phones, and usually the reception is horrible here.”
“Or are you too big-city boy, too good to come home and work the land?”
Alberto knew the tone. Marta spoke evenly, but she didn’t tiptoe around any issue. “I came because he asked, yes.”
“He shouldn’t have to ask. He’s old, Alberto. You need to be around more.”
“He doesn’t care if I’m here or not. He only want’s my sweat equity, not me.”
Marta sniffed. “Last week we found two dozen swallows dead in rows between the apple trees.”
“That paints a macabre scene.”
“You know how superstitious your grandfather is, Alberto. He thinks it is a message.”
“You’re the witch, the bruja for the village.”
She laughed openly. “I’m nothing more than the acupuncturist. Stories have gotten larger than life over the years.”
“What really happened to so many birds dying?”
“Lots of theories. Smoke from the fires in Colorado, temperature variations this winter, and starvation.” She paused, her wrinkles around her mouth and eyes sharpened in the early morning light. “He’s called in a medicine man.”
“That’ll go over well with the new association members.”
“It’s not like it was when he was first elected mayodomo. There are new councilmen who come to the meetings with an agenda.”
“So, he can’t be the dictator any longer?”
“Not funny. He’s been fair and evenhanded over the years. And who else possess the intimate knowledge of the acequia Madre?”
“You, perhaps,” Alberto answers quickly.
Marta nodded. “But it is deeply patriarchal, you know that.”
“Break with traditions.”
“I’m too old. I know how to irrigate, dig and clean ditches but I don’t want the headaches.” She leaned on her shovel, and said quietly, “All of our traditions seem to have unraveled.”
Alberto looked up and towards the headgate, where his grandfather stood. His white hair was tied back, and his worn felt hat flapped in the gusts of wind. The parciantes, shareholders of water rights to the ditch, gathered around him. Some of the members knew their duties, but the rules of the association for the La Saca de la Acequia, cleaning of the ditch, were sacred. His grandfather called roll. Many members left as soon as their names were announced and had their peónes do the hard labor for the rest of the day. Alberto noticed there were no plans made for the usual lunch break feast, or an evening around the fire with a few beers.
Marta faced Alberto. “I’ve got tamales ready for you for lunch.” She turned towards her brazo, her branch from the acequia Madre.
“Wait, there is a lot you aren’t saying to me.”
“You’re a college boy, figure it out.” Her smile didn’t reach her eyes, “If old man Gomez sells his water rights, all of us down stream could have less. Your grandfather has paid his fees for the last two years, but he can’t afford to do it any longer.”
“I know the past few years have been hard on everyone with the drought and fires each summer.”
“More than climate change or the warming planet, Alberto. When Victor Gomez votes as a councilman, your father has his respect. The two new councilmen think of the old families as relics to be tossed aside. Victor is in the way of progress.”
“It’s just Victor and his wife. They didn’t have children, right?”
“True. Hardest for Victor is the money that has been offered to him for that dusty patch of land. Of course, it’s not his horses or goats, it’s the water rights.”
“He could sell and have a really good life with his wife. Maybe buy a big travel home and see the country.” Alberto smiled, “I want to travel when I get done with school.”
Marta tilted her head. “You ever see Victor leave his ranch? Do you remember any vacations he took?”
“But, with money, he could,” Alberto said quickly.
“Ahh, but here is the thought for you today. Does he want to leave his land?”
“Don’t know. Never asked.”
“I get that you’ve been away for a while. You seem to have forgotten the rhythm of the water, land and people here.” She pushed her shovel hard into the ground and faced Alberto. “I came to Velarde as an outsider. White woman, alone, putting needles in people and burning incense. It has taken forty-one years and sometimes I’m still looking in from the outside. Your family was kind to me when I first got the land. Your grandfather and dad showed me how to tend the crops. The melons and pumpkins, the peach and pear trees are alive because of the community of farmers.”
“Everyone knows you make sure the food pantry is stocked and no one goes without a warm coat.”
“That’s how I can participate in this finely woven, ancient cluster of families. Your grandfather gave me status, just by helping me farm and tend the land I inherited.”
“I guess I didn’t think of it that way.”
“He takes the role of mayordomo as a great honor,” she paused, “there will be another election next spring and I don’t think he can keep the title.”
“Who else wants it?”
“Well, there are a gaggle of lawyers chomping at the bit to represent the association. The new councilmen have money to buy the position and hire someone to do the daily oversight.”
“Those lawyers from Santa Fe or wherever don’t know the traditions.”
“We are spending more money on defending our acequia rights in court than with dividing the water or maintaining the ditch.”
Alberto lowered his head. “I didn’t know.” As he watched Marta leave, Alberto pushed his shovel into the dirt to mark his place when he saw his grandfather motion to him to come forward. Standing at the headgate, the old man watched the river ripple downstream. “Abuelito,” Alberto stepped to shake his hand.
“Where were you this morning?”
“I drove in from school early today. I knew I’d see you here.” Alberto felt the cool, weathered skin in his palm. His grandfather’s grip was strong.
“This year is bad. Every drop of water has to be allocated. Everyone is fighting for water.” He said sadly, “There were no songs today.” He hummed the final line of the song they had sung every spring, “para mantener lo que yo quiero tanto.”
Alberto translated the words in his mind, ‘to maintain that which I love so much.’ “I thought you had good monsoon rains last fall.”
“It’s getting drier and drier, so all the trees and land drank up the water before it got to the river.”
Alberto nodded. He knew that there was more for his grandfather to say.
“I turned off water to the Gomez’s last year because they didn’t pay the assessments. Our families go back six generations. Now, they will lose their ranch.” He rubbed the stubble on his chin. “The commissioners told me that if I didn’t stop water to their property, they’d take me to court.” He mumbled something sinister in Spanish. “They have their fancy lawyers waiting for me to make a mistake. Just watch tonight at the yearly meeting.”
“You want me to come?”
He nodded. “Marta told you of the dead swallows. They brought the message of conflict and chaos.”
Alberto did not question his grandfather’s mysticism.
“The morning before your parents died, there was a swallow lying on the porch step. I picked it up quickly. You loved all animals, and I was afraid you would be so sad to see this songbird with his broken neck.”
Alberto only knew little of his parent’s death. They had spent the night in the small, shed outside of the main house. Alberto was with his grandfather. The night was cold, someone must have lit the kerosene heater and gone to sleep. By morning, carbon monoxide had taken both of their lives. His grandfather grieved quietly. He tended his apple orchard and raised his pollinating bees. He’d leave on routine ditch business, traveling between parciantes, taking his hives to other orchards, settling disputes. He was gone from the farm often and left Alberto with Marta.
Alberto’s grandfather cleared his throat. “Marta has been treating me. She says my spleen meridian is,” he stops to think, “it’s not working right.”
Alberto contained his smile. Marta was always checking his pulses, telling him to eat less sugar, to listen to his body. In all his years of taking science classes at University of New Mexico, he had never given much thought to her medical advice. “Abuelito, Marta says stuff like this all the time. Don’t worry.”
He waved his hands. “Maybe you are right.”
“Have you seen a real doctor?” Alberto looked over his shoulder to make sure that Marta was not anywhere nearby. He didn’t want to hurt her feelings.
“No time,” he answered quickly. “You must meet with señor Gomez today.” He raised his bushy white eyebrows. “Make time as soon as you clear the ditch.”
“Can’t I wait until tomorrow. It’ll be a long day.”
“No, hijo. It has to be today.” His grandfather turned and walked briskly away.
Alberto spoke to the wind, “Yes, master mayordomo.”
Working on a cup of coffee and a protein bar left Alberto starved after a morning of digging and cleaning. He was grateful when Marta came by and offered him lunch. She set out her Pendleton blanket and opened her rolling ice chest. She pulled out warm green chile tamales and posole. She had empanadas loaded with tart apples and raisins. They didn’t talk much through lunch, but as Alberto leaned against one of the cottonwood trees and closed his eyes Marta said, “He’s sick, you know.”
Alberto didn’t want to make eye contact. “He said he hasn’t been to a doctor.”
“Stubborn old man. He thinks he can manage being mayordomo like he manages the waters in the orchard. He can tell you in his sleep how the flow of water over the irregular rows and roots will soak in and deeply feed his ancient trees. But, he won’t listen to me.”
“What makes you so sure?” Alberto folded his knees and hugged them.
“I’ve been checking his pulses for as long as I’ve lived here. We trade my medical services for his apples and his snowplow.”
“He’s just stressed with the new members of the association.”
“The commissioners wanted to cut his stipend this winter. They said since the water was almost dried up in the river, and there wouldn’t be any pumping, there was no use for him.”
“It’s the droughts that are the roughest times. They need him most now.”
“True,” Marta added, “but it’s about owning water, not equity among the land holders.” She tucked the leftovers into the ice chest. She asked softly, “You think you could ever come back, make this your home?”
Alberto had given this question lots of thought over the years. The land was beautiful, the history part of his blood and part of who he was as a man. “Let me ask you, why did you encourage me to leave?”
“Fair question. I knew you needed to leave so you could come back willingly. I came here to hide out; to fix a broken heart. Even though your grandfather is a hard man, he’s good to everyone who needs his help, even me. I saw that for you, he held his heart at a distance–kept you more than arms reach from him.”
Alberto put his head down on his knees. “I used to pray every Sunday at the mission church for him to smile at me. Maybe the virgin of Guadalupe would send him a sign to show I needed him as much as the river or village.”
Marta pushed up from the blanket. She reached over and tapped Alberto’s bowed head. “Love comes in many forms.” She opened her arms and spread them wide. “He has a big love for all of this.” The river bubbled and Alberto could hear a horse whinny in the hills.
“Would it be so hard for him to be a softer, gentler version?” Alberto looked up sadly. “I get that I’m what’s left of our family. But, he makes it hard to walk in his shadow or join him at the dinner table.”
Marta’s hand had felt warm on top of his head. She had been in Alberto’s life forever it seemed. Her adobe house was always colorful and warm. He couldn’t look at her as he asked, “Why did you really come to Velarde?”
“My partner and I had a large acupuncture practice in Santa Fe. We were more than just doctors sharing an office. I’d known her most of my adult life, until she came home one afternoon and said she found someone else to love. I couldn’t work with a broken heart.” She paused. “Like you, I knew I always had this land. Your dad took care of it for me while I was in Santa Fe.”
“You grew up here?”
“Yes and no. My parents sent me to boarding school in El Paso. Imagine my delight to be in an all-girls school.” She laughed. “I was way ahead of my times on the sexual revolution.”
Alberto blushed. He knew she lived alone, but as Alberto grew older, he realized that she had come to his small town to get away from someone. She traveled to Santa Fe three days a week to see her patients, but always returned before Alberto got off the school bus. “Then you aren’t an outsider?”
She laughed openly. “The color of my skin, the fact I’m a woman, and queer, doesn’t make me fit in easily into this community.”
Alberto remembered once he saw her hugging a woman. Hiding behind an old cottonwood, Alberto saw Marta tenderly kiss the woman. When he asked her later, at dinner, she said they were friends, not to worry. She had said goodbye. Goodbyes were hard, Marta repeated. “I knew you were gay a long time ago,” Alberto said quietly.
“I never hid it or apologized for who I loved.” She sighed. “Your grandfather always watched out for me. Not everyone in this community was so accepting,”
“Why did you care for me. You practically raised me.” Alberto said this more harshly than he expected.
Marta reached down and held Alberto’s hand. She pulled him up and tenderly took his face in her palms. “You helped me through my greatest sadness. After your parents died, your grandfather was lost. I didn’t have the love of my life any longer either. We formed the clan of broken hearts I think.” She smiled softly, “We rescued each other.”
“Grandfather doesn’t seem like he has found happiness.”
“Perhaps this is true, but he needs you now.”
It was early afternoon when Alberto finished with the spring cleaning. He wandered through the apple orchard, the trees’ bare branches were still and dark. The beehives were at the end of the property. He could hear the insects transitioning out of hibernation. Occasionally the March days had been above 57 degrees, so the queen bees would soon take to the sky to meet thousands of male suitors. His grandfather had told him of the ritual. The virgin bee would be drawn by scent, and she would dance, mate, and then return home to build a new colony. The drones that had mated would die, and in their place were the worker bees that touched each of the blossoms in the orchards and fields. Alberto knew that Marta helped keep the hives. She used the honey for a home cure for allergies and she practiced using bee stings for the arthritis that plagued the elders of Velarde. Alberto was enjoying the afternoon when he heard someone coming through the orchard.
From under the arching branches of the ancient apple trees, señor Gomez ducked his head and weaved between the trees. His worn cowboy hat brushed the lower limbs. His freshly starched, plaid western shirt was faded from many washings.
“¿Como estas?” Alberto walked towards the older man.
Señor Gomez looked down at the ground. “I’m glad you came for the cleaning this year. Your grandfather is pleased.”
Alberto knew not to fill in the gaps in the conversation. He waited patiently.
Señor Gomez took off his hat and slapped it against his thigh. “I have no money for lawyers. I’m sure you know by now that I haven’t paid my assessments.”
Alberto was quiet and nodded.
Señor Gomez motioned for Alberto to walk with him. They came to the common fence between the two pieces of land. The coyote fence was in good repair. One of señor Gomez’s horses trotted over to inspect the two men. “Your grandfather’s land and ours have touched side by side for centuries. The Baca and Gomez families have kept the parciantes working together for many generations. Our land is sacred and blessed by years of families and traditions living here.”
The men were silent as they stared into the gathering evening. As they neared his grandfather’s house, Alberto could smell the piñon wood rising along the updrafts of the evening air. After saying goodbye, señor Gomez continued to his home. The San Juans were dark purple in the distance. Heavy clouds hung over the ridges. Snow clouds, Alberto thought. The river hummed, just over the acequia, and there was a quiet that covered the land. He wasn’t one to put much stock in the myths of dead birds or the magic of bee pollen, but he respected his culture and those who had raised him.
As Alberto wended his way through the parking lot of the Velarde Community Center, he saw many faces he knew. The men, in their straw cowboy hats and pearl-buttoned shirts, hurried into the warmth of the building. These were landowners who didn’t have water rights but the acequia traversed their property. His grandfather always invited these farmers and ranchers, telling them they were welcome to attend meetings, but they could not vote. New, white pick-ups were aligned at the front entrance, as if they were parked on a dealership lot. Various magnetic signs on the sides advertised a couple of wineries, an equestrian center, and a boutique motel. Los forasteros, outsiders, Alberto thought as he entered the brightly lit auditorium. He stepped up to the long table of lease holders. Sides looked like they had already been drawn for this yearly meeting, Alberto noticed. The newest members were flanked by suited men, with briefcases and yellow pads ready. A camera had been set up on a tripod at the back of the room. Alberto took an empty chair at the end of the long table, reached into his coat pocket, and pulled out an old envelope señor Gomez had handed to him this afternoon. As he pulled out the parchment paper and laid his deed to the water rights out for the association to inspect, he held the stares of the forasteros. His grandfather stood, walked purposefully to Alberto, and held out his deeply tanned hand, smiled and said, “bienvenidos, hijo.”
Lynda Webb is an author and a poet. She earned her MA at the University of Texas at El Paso where she studied with Raymond Carver.