A 92 year old lady who is close to my heart has been telling me stories about growing up in the Texas Brushlands for a very long time. A smile always comes over her face and as often a faraway look as she reminisces about her childhood. About the house built by her dad at the little spot by the road he christened El Centro, Texas; and about the ten citrus trees he planted out back and the way her mother baked fresh bread in the oven built alongside the house. Stories of geese flying low overhead and the old Remington model 10 her father would put into good use to fill their larder. And how her mother made most of their clothes and crocheted and knitted and was an artist in the kitchen as well.
There were spring flowers and long walks out back in the thick brush and the lady who tells the stories says she’d often pick a handful of flowers then place them in a water-filled jar to set on the mantle. They brought in a telephone line and a man from a distant town who owned a car dealership would bring the latest model and then say to her father, “Drive it around and let the locals look at it.” Invariably someone would want to buy the auto so there was always a new car to drive. There were stories too of rattlesnakes and other nasty critters. But it wasn’t a time of violence. Not like it had been a few years before she was born when the Texas Rangers were as blood thirsty and crooked as any bandit from south of the border. And nowhere as violent as it is now with the current turmoil in Mexico that rivals the 1910 revolution. Of course, there’s the incessant drug smuggling and people smuggling we see today. No, those were different times way back then or so that’s how the stories are told. Just yesterday I was chatting with her on the phone and she began talking about “the ranch.” I could hear a change in the tone of her voice. It didn’t sound frail anymore. I’m sure she had that faraway look in her eyes as she spoke of those times so very long ago.
It’s been cold and damp the last few days. The Texas Brushlands take on an eerie look when blue northers sweep overland. Not too far from my cabin sits a dilapidated dwelling that was probably built around the same time as the house the story lady grew up in. Her house burned down after her father sold the place because oil was discovered in the region and that brought in a crowd that most of the locals wanted to keep at a distance. So they moved away and after a while I imagine the stories took on an ambience not unlike that of myth borne into cultures and nurtured by time. But then I also imagine that most of it is true. Skies were less polluted then than now so they must have been bluer. And the population was but a fifth of what exists these days so there was much less congestion and a great deal more room. Last week as we were about to eat breakfast we heard the dogs barking in the way that tells us that it’s not a coyote ambling down the road or a raccoon in a tree. No, this was a different sort of bark. The dogs were letting us know that we should be alarmed and on guard. Someone called out to me saying, “There’re two men out at the end of the driveway.” I looked out and saw them and grabbed a firearm and walked outside. A quick check around to make sure there weren’t others hiding and then the inevitable conversation about how they had been abandoned by their smuggler (el coyote) and there were twenty others wandering in the brush; and they had been waiting in the woods for el coyote to return. So it was at that moment that I said, “He won’t be coming back.” They looked at me confused and I added, “This is what they always do. Let me guess, you crossed the river last night and they drove you to a spot along the highway and then all of you jumped into the brush and then walked several miles….” They nodded amazed at how I knew almost exactly what had happened to them. Like a broken record I kept thinking. But as always I gave them water and sandwiches and then asked them to leave. Even so it was a watchful day knowing there were others in the woods perhaps close by.
My son needed to drive into the hamlet that’s south of us by four miles to buy some supplies. Past the first gate he spotted the two men’s tracks in the sand and then noticed they’d edged off the road in the direction of that old dilapidated house. A quick look in that direction but he saw nothing. No tracks merged back with the road so the two were probably hiding amidst those rotting boards waiting for darkness. Perhaps they planned to keep heading north though I had warned them there is no water for nearly fifty miles in that direction. People learn their lessons hard sometimes. My neighbor a few miles to the east wondered recently how many bodies lie out in the desert. Their bones covered now by layers of sand.
Do you ever have dreams about going back into the past? Not the past of your life but the past of lives that went before you were born? Perhaps you might want to see your parents when they were young or maybe visit with your grandparents or great-grand parents. I guess the Texas Brushlands run deep in my veins. A corpus of memories formed from mesquite sap and nopal thorns and cauterized by the South Texas sun. Maybe I’d like to journey back five or ten thousand years. Spend some time with those who came before the Quahuiltecan people or the Lipan Apache. Make an atlatl from a mesquite branch and a dart from a straight stalk of phragmites. Build a wickiup and then roam the woods all around. Have you ever stood at some spot and thought about what that exact place looked like thousands of years ago?
It’s raining outside and though it seldom freezes in the Brushlands we are expecting a hard frost tomorrow night. The brush will take on a khaki-gray look afterwards that won’t change much until springtime. The mesquites will go leafless though the ebony and brasil will stay green. It’s a time of little wind and intense quiet. Not something most people would want even though many claim otherwise. The story lady remembers but never really seemed all that eager to return. Maybe that’s what happens to some people though I’m not sure why or what it means exactly. But we all have memories. Do they ever wake you up in the darkest part of the night when there is no one to talk to and the recollections bore into you like an auger turning slowly round and round? I wonder if the story lady ever feels that way about “the ranch?” I know I do even though it was long before I was born.
PS: Check out the link below. Go to Starr County and look up El Centro, TX.