By Tanya Ward Goodman
My mother tracks time by the first hummingbird, the appearance of roadside sunflowers and the crazing of frost on the windows. She’s as quick to weep over the beauty of a sand dollar as she is to rave like Lear at the gophers that tear up her garden. As a gardener and bird watcher and lover of nature, she’s often smack dab in the middle of life and death, creation and destruction. She celebrates and excoriates in turn. Her vehemence sometimes overwhelms me. Her world (my world, our world) is a place of delicate balance.
I am contemplating this family legacy as my daughter, Sadie, and I look for tadpoles and minnows. We’ve got a plan to meet my mother in an hour, but for now, we wander along the ditch, which runs high and wild with water the color of a chocolate shake. Across the North Valley of Albuquerque, a series of cranked doors open and close for miles irrigating fields, crops, and meadows. We walk along, listening to the sound of cicadas in the cottonwoods. We skirt puddles from last night’s rain. Above the Sandia mountains, the clouds are gathering again. The air is heavy with moisture. The sun is hot. Sadie’s blue Keds are caked with red mud. She tiptoes as far as she can down the side of the ditch. As far as I will let her. “La Llorona,” I say. That’s all I have to say.
“Yes, yes.” She shrugs off my warning, but takes a step back. Everyone who grew up in New Mexico knows the story of the “Weeping Woman.” My mother warned me to stay away from the ditch, lest La Llorona pull me under to join her own dead children. It was only after I’d had my own kids that I read the whole story and understood that La Llorona had drowned her children out of spite and anger and for that she walked the banks filled with guilt and sorrow.
This is our second walk of the morning. Despite the heat, and our family commitments, my daughter is determined to return to the ditch. I didn’t want to accompany her, but I didn’t want her to go alone and so the first bit of our walk was silent and she stayed a few steps ahead. We stop to take in a section where the water gate has been recently shut. The mud is thick and creamy as frosting. Tiny pools remain and in the water are small fish, the little comma bodies of tadpoles, and crawdads of all sizes.
“I want to catch a fish,” my daughter says. “I want to take the tadpoles home.”
Here in New Mexico, we are far from our Los Angeles home. I remind her that the temperature in Needles, Arizona, on our drive out was over 115 degrees. The tadpoles are happier here in the water of the ditch.
“But the water is going away,” she says. “They’ll die.”
Things die. I don’t like to admit it, but more and more, I’m forced to. I’m forced by my daughter who is coming to terms with death and every day asks knowing questions in a forcibly naïve tone.
“What’s on the windshield?” she asked as we drove across the Mojave Desert.
She pointed to the yellowish smudges that streaked like comets across the glass.
“Bugs,” I said.
Her eyes grew stormy. In her eyes, lately, it’s always monsoon season.
“It’s mean,” she raged. “It’s unfair.”
“It is what it is,” I said.
After that, we drove for a long time in silence.
Sadie cranes her neck to see the beating of fins in the muddy bottom of the ditch. She turns to me and her eyes are moist and steely at the same time.
“We have to save them,” she says.
“You’ll be up to your knees in the mud,” I reply. “There’s no going into the ditch.”
The water is sinking into the mud bottom. The backs of the fish are visible. The crawdads raise tired claws, scrabbling for space.
“We’ve got to do something,” Sadie says.
“There’s nothing to be done.”
“You don’t care. You’re horrible.”
“I do care,” I say. “But I can’t turn on the ditch valve. I have no control over this.”
“We have to move the fish,” she says.
And I want to. I want to climb down in the ditch with a big bucket and rescue all the tiny fish and tadpoles and crawdads. I want to move them to where the water bubbles and pulls the grass from the bank like hair. But I can’t. First: I have no bucket. Second: I don’t want to climb down into the ditch where the mud will suck at my shoes. Maybe somewhere, someone might be cranking open a valve. I don’t want to wonder if the water is going to rush through and take me with it. I don’t want that for my girl.
She is frantic. My girl is frantic. “They are idiots,” she says. “The world is full of stupid people who can’t take care of anything. I can take care of things. I have to save the fish because no one else will.”
“It can’t be your job to save everything.”
“But the world is horrible, horrible.”
The world in the water puddle is horrible. We watch as a big crawdad pulls himself slowly through the mud from one small puddle to another. He pauses in the water for a moment before continuing on. He’s not willing to stop until he is stopped. The fish have no alternative. They brush fins as the water drains. They swim one body over the other, their scales hit the air and then the water. The tadpoles circle and circle.
Stretching out on both sides of the ditch are fields of green grass and sunflowers reaching for the sky. Giant cottonwoods filter the sunlight and provide homes for woodpeckers and ravens. Below the soil, their roots drink in the water as it drains from the ditch. Bees hover like golden helicopters over one flower and the next. The ants move across the soil in single file. Birds may eat the dead minnows. Raccoon paw prints in the mud remind us that some fish have already met their fate.
I want to do something so I say, “If we can find a cup, maybe we can bring some water to the puddle.”
We can’t bring enough water to the puddle to save the fish. I know this. My daughter knows this. But we can feel like we are doing something and sometimes that is enough. We walk along the bank, looking for a plastic cup or a soda bottle. On the far side, we spy a Big Gulp cup. It’s embedded in the mud, but with the help of a sturdy pointed stick, we manage to pry it loose without falling into the ditch. My girl holds it in both hands and we walk quickly toward the water.
There is a cement bridge across the ditch, little more than a walkway the width of two concrete blocks. She lays her body on this bridge and stretches to fill the cup with brown water. We walk quickly back to the small puddle and she pours the water over the fish and the crawdads. The force of the stream knocks a few of the minnows off their course, but they right themselves and continue to swim in the small circle of wet.
“We can add another cup,” I say. It’s not really going to help. The sun is very high. Our cup, big and gulpy though it is, is not ever going to hold enough water to save these fish.
But we fill it again. And again. My girl makes the trip from the puddle to the running water four times and then looks up at me. I smile. I’m trying to be positive.
I am bracing myself. It’s a familiar feeling. I’m striving to keep the delicate balance between the beauty and the horror. A sad story is as dangerous as the ditch. The grip of ghostly fingers. The cold water on my neck. La Llorona.
We walk back down the ditch together. Grasshoppers spring out on both sides, green sparks. Dogs yap and bark and follow us the length of their chain link. The sky is the brightest blue. At the end of the road, she stops.
“The fish will be dead in an hour,” she says. “I couldn’t save them.”
“It’s not your job to save them,” I tell her.
“You don’t understand. I have to,” she says. “No one else will. I have to take care of everything.”
“Not just you,” I say. “It’s too big a job.”
I put an arm around her shoulder, but she pulls away. She keeps herself tight in moments like this. She is a fist, a clenched jaw, eyes narrowed against wind and sun and light.
“Let me take care of you,” I say.
She looks up at me. There are muddy trails on her cheeks.
I open my arms. And this one time, she leans into me. Her head is damp and hot and I can feel the beating of her heart. She gives me her full weight and I stand and hold her and don’t ask a thing in return.
A little over an hour later, we’ve joined my mother and the rest of our family at what’s called an “open space.” This is land set aside for animals and plants. There are many open spaces in New Mexico and just as many that are open, yet undesignated. In this open space, there is a pond and at the end of the pond, a viewing room has been built. We all sit on low sofas and look out through the wide windows. We see ducks and coots. We see hummingbirds and the webs of spiders. Turtles poke their heads out of the water and a bullfrog the size of my two hands hides in the moss, nearly invisible save the shine of his big eyes.
An old woman sits on the sofa nearest the window. A red walker waits to be useful nearby. She introduces herself as “Sondra.” As a volunteer guide, she’s spent hundreds of hours watching the pond.
“People say it’s so peaceful here,” she continues, “but it’s mayhem all the time.” She tells us she once watched a bullfrog swallow a goldfinch that was caught in a spider’s web. “They can eat anything they can get in that mouth and that mouth is pretty big.” She tells us that she’s seen an eagle “grab a coot, toss the entrails and devour the breast quicker than you could blink.”
Without moving my head, I try to glimpse my daughter’s reaction to these stories. I can feel the damp warmth of her body next to me, but her hair hides her face.
Volunteer Sondra and my mother, Sandra, swap stories. They are both old birders, gray of hair and creaky of hip.
“I’ve seen a grebe eat a whole fish,” my mom says.
“I watched a grebe eat a salamander as long as its own body,” Sondra says. “It was digesting the thing and swallowing it at the same time. Took nearly forty minutes.”
“When I was at High Island,” my mom begins.
“I’ve been there,” Sondra says. “I’m from Texas. I’ve been there for migration.”
“I’ve been there for migration,” my mom says.
“Five times,” Sondra overlaps.
My daughter turns to me and rolls her eyes. She puts her lips very close to my ear and she says, “it’s an old lady bird battle.”
It’s mayhem. Growing old and growing up.
Sondra is telling a story about the roadrunner and how the male will sometimes hold a cricket over the female’s head while he “does his business.” When it’s all over, he might give it to her. “Or he might not.”
I’m thinking about earlier, by the ditch. The fish are surely dead. I’m thinking about the way my girl let me hold her and the way she holds herself out and away from me now. I’m watching my son and his cousin stare at the screens of their iPhones. I’m thinking about the way the skin on my arm is growing thin and creped and the way my hair is threaded with grey. I’m thinking that I have a daughter in seventh grade and a son in high school and I’m wondering where the time goes. I’m looking out at the pond and the reeds and the way everything shimmers with life and with death and I hear, just barely, Sondra the volunteer say, “I was holding my breath as I watched. I didn’t mean to do it, but that’s the way it was.”
Tanya Ward Goodman is the author of the award winning memoir Leaving Tinkertown. Her writing has appeared in numerous publications including The Los Angeles Times, The Orange County Register, Coast Magazine, Luxe, and Panorama: A Journal of Intelligent Travel. She is co-founder of Girl Group Enterprises and is working on a second memoir. For more information visit www.tanyawardgoodman.com.