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Spring/Summer 2007, Volume 23.3

Essay

 

Simmons B. BuntinPhoto of Simmons B. Buntin.

Calendars of Sun and Moon


Simmons B. Buntin is the founding editor of Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments. His first book of poetry, Riverfall, was published in May 2005 by Ireland’s Salmon Poetry. He has work forthcoming in Isotope, Pilgrimage, South Dakota Review, and Orion, and is a recipient of a Colorado Artist’s Fellowship for Poetry.

 

As morning light stipples the concrete floors of our house, my wife Billie and I take down the past year’s calendars, those marked and re-marked with twelve months of music lessons and birthday parties, dance recitals and teacher conferences—the events that fill and drain the weeks of the year like water cycling through the soft stone fountain of a Sonoran courtyard. It is jueves, Thursday, three days after Christmas and three days before the new year. On walls the colors of desert wildflowers, the calendars advertise glossy rooflines in January and red canyons in August, emperor penguins in April and crested rockhoppers in October.

Every year we are reluctant to toss the old calendars out as we hang the new ones in their place. Perhaps we are afraid of throwing away something of ourselves, the scribbled squares that amount to a diary of the year; or if not a diary, then a medley—the resonant pitch of viola on Wednesday from three to three forty-five against the pirouettes of ballet on Monday from four to five-thirty. Or the monthly art itself may restrain us. Not every entrancing landscape or black-and-white portrait can be saved, but the photograph of Liv Tyler as the elf princess Arwen—the one with the misty forest background where pale skin is backlit as if in a dream of twilight, the black hair tinged with cobalt to reveal an apex of elvin ear—maybe that one we could keep? Billie sighs and hands me a new calendar.

Outside, the half-moon dips beneath a wintry line of clouds as light rain appears—not falling exactly, but filling the cold Arizona air from within. Inside, our daughters sleep as we ready the van for the day’s journey: Tucson to Alamos, Sonora, an eleven-hour drive from the lush Sonoran highlands to the foothills of the Sierra Madre Occidental, to an almost unfathomable mix of cactus, deciduous hardwoods, and tropical evergreens known as Sinaloan thornscrub. Before we leave, we complete the ritual of changing the calendars so when we return in January, the days will be unmarked and we may begin anew, or at least without schedule.

Except for our early departure, the trek to Alamos with seven other neighborhood families is also unscheduled. Billie and our young daughters Ann-Elise and Juliet have not been to Mexico, and are anxious. Despite the paperwork of passports and permits, and the challenges of bringing and preparing food for a child with allergies, the lure of the colonial town, once the hub of the Spanish silver-mining empire, is strong. For me, the trip represents passage to a place comfortable with its own slow pace—a town and region that rely upon and celebrate the rhythms of the days and seasons. Years matter, but not as directly as months. Months matter, but only in the context of renewal—a repeating cycle without beginning or end. North of the border, we cannot help but operate on the literal consumption of time, a time linear as opposed to cyclical as it constantly races on: no roundabouts or turnoffs on this desperate straightaway.

On our trip, we’ll pass from 2006 into 2007. In cyclical time, the past is infinitely repeatable, dependent only on the length of the cycle—events of the past year (and much before) may repeat, rising and falling like hills on the arcing horizon. On the sleek hood of linear time, however, the prior year and its events are lost, irreversible, the days of 2007 passing like roadside markers as we drive toward 2008 and beyond. "In the one view past is prophecy; in the other it is prologue," says ethnohistorian Nancy M. Farriss. In traveling to Mexico are we trying to give time the slip by sliding into a new geography, if only briefly? Or is there a larger ritual at work?

 

* * *

In 1957, the carpenter Guillermo Jordan Engberg and three other men painted an enormous hillside version of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, Our Lady of Guadalupe—the virgin patron saint of Mexico. She is brilliant, overwhelming at forty feet high along the barren eastern face of Sonora’s El Cerro de las Viboras. The large Hill of the Rattlesnakes radiates in a fleshy mix of organ pipe and cardón cactus, mesquite and palo verde beneath a shallow sky tracking us since Magdelena de Kino, where the rain finally broke. A half-dozen miles south of the sprawling capital of Hermosillo, our caravan of small SUVs and minivans turns into the dirt lot at the base of the shrine. The Virgin greets us with coral dress and a teal robe. Her distinctive aura coils in yellow and red behind a pale indigenous face and tight black hair, ending in robes that fall to the outstretched arms of a small boy who may represent Jesus but looks more like any of the niños selling warm tortillas at intersections and toll booths along Mexico Highway 15. He is clothed in scarlet beneath solemn, colorless eyes and combed black hair. The mural begins one-hundred-fifty feet above the base of a white stairway striped in red and green. Square flags—green and white and red, laced with images of Our Lady—flutter along wires held high in the wind, clasped to a thin crucifix at the hill’s summit.

On December 9, 1531, the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared before Juan Diego, a converted Aztec, at Tepeyac Hill outside Mexico City. In the native language of Nahuatl, she told him to build a temple for her so she may remedy the people’s pain and suffering. Diego took the message to Bishop Zumarrago, who refuted it. As Diego passed the hill on his return, the Virgin appeared a second time, with the same request. Again Diego met with the bishop, who demanded proof. Three days later, Diego approached the hill where once again Our Lady appeared. She told him to gather red roses in his winter cloak and deliver them to the bishop. Diego watched as the roses bloomed in the summer of her breath. Then he gathered the flowers. Yet by the time he found the clergyman, they had vanished, leaving only a vestige of the Virgin’s image. Now convinced, Bishop Zumarrago built a temple at Tepeyac, where the cloak, hermetically sealed, still drapes.

As an Aztec—a Mesoamerican like the Mayans and Olmecs before—Juan Diego held a cyclical sense of time, in which events of the past foretold and even constructed acts of the future. The conquest by Hernán Cortés provides a famous example. Though modern scholars doubt that the monarch Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin believed Cortés was the predicted "returning god-ruler" Quetzalcoatl, Aztec rulers and priests read the sacred calendar and foresaw massive change before his landing. The arrival of white men on ships like floating cities could only be a recurring event, albeit over an era beyond their lifespans. When Cortés descended, the Aztecs fought, because battle was inevitable, nobly. And because they always fought, even and especially under the dark sky of cataclysm. And though they succumbed, the Aztecs also believed their people would rise once again.

Climbing the steps, my daughters and I find a weird collection of hand-etched plaques, cast-off casts and medical devices, and a slagheap of discarded candles in homage to the saint’s healing. The scent of wax is dull yet persistent. Roses and other flowers, mostly plastic, line every crevice, crammed beside thank-you notes pushed farther in with the next or, when the wind picks up, lifted from the granite hillside in awkward flight. The notes disappear over the ridge or collect on the many-armed organ pipe cactus, held until the next rain some weeks or months away. We are held, too, by the hillside mural; not just its immediate vastness, but the shrine’s enduring presence for the people of Sonora. Ours is a family devoid of religion, where spirituality most often finds us in a contemplative hike through the desert. My daughters and I are speechless in the image of faith painted across the rock, a conviction as tangible as the fallen petals of a rose fluttering like metalmarks between the flags, above the solitary cross, and into the turquoise sky beyond.

 

* * *

The Aztecs, like the Mayans before, observed cyclical time through a pair of largely independent calendars. The xiuhpohualli calendar of 365 days accounts for the solar year—charting the seasons, serving as a guide for agricultural and other earthly events. The tonalpohualli, or day count, is the sacred calendar of 260 days. In addition to scribing an "ancient future," it assigns distinct days and rituals to the Aztec gods, a critical division that referees the deities’ unrelenting attempts to procure power. The tonalpohualli provides equilibrium. "Without it the world would soon come to an end," says researcher René Voorburg. "This equilibrium is in constant danger of being disrupted by shifting powers of the gods, of the elemental forces that influence [the people’s] lives." The Aztecs lived in a world that at any moment might unravel, save for the tonalpohualli and the guidance and rituals of those who could divine it.

Though the tonalpohualli defines twenty weeks of thirteen days each, the xiuhpohualli includes eighteen months of twenty days, with an additional five days at the end of each year. Every fifty-two years, the two calendars align for a period called the calendar round—a crucial overlap foretelling significant events, cultural and environmental both.

South of Guaymas, I cannot help but think of the calendar round, the provocative yet inevitable rotation, as the December sun slips toward the Sea of Cortez. I wonder too about sacred space. Even now, driving deeper into Mexico, are we not shifting in time and space? Large, dark raptors with white heads and tails and banded white wings trace the thermals. They seem limitless in these dimensions. As I push the van to seventy-five miles per hour on the shoulderless four-lane highway, it is difficult to judge their size. Ann-Elise thinks they are bald eagles, a reflection more of her menagerie back in Tucson—a homemade eagle’s nest knotted to the top bunk of her room, walls filled with bald eagle photographs and posters—than actual identification. Billie radios the first vehicle in the convoy, and the crackled response from Jerry, our resident bird watcher, sounds like "caca." We eye each other. "Caracara," he repeats.

Known also as the Mexican eagle, the crested caracara ranges throughout South and Central America and as far north as California and Florida. My family and I have not seen it before. More than the landscape, which has flattened near the sea and thinned in vegetation, the bird reminds us that we are in a foreign land. At one glance this should not be easy to forget—table-top shrines to the Virgin are found at every stop, as are vendors of freeze-dried shrimp and tamales smelling of corn and humidity. Yet I can barely read the kilometer indicator on the van’s speedometer, so stick with miles per hour. Our music and conversations, the movies the girls watch on the DVD screens velcroed to the backs of our headrests, these are in English. The entire cabin is clearly American, from its Anglo-Saxon occupants to the Trader Joe’s detritus of wrappers collecting between the girls’ seats.

The effect is at once comforting and disturbing. Three-hundred miles south of Tucson, our pattern of travel has changed only slightly. Gas is full-serve, and I request verde or rojo—green for regular unleaded, red for premium. Por favor and muchas gracias are among the few Spanish phrases I know, but I use these informally in Arizona, as well. The ease of traveling into Mexico is a singular goal of Solamente Sonora, Only Sonora, an expedited permitting process designed to increase American tourism, and therefore spending, throughout Mexico’s second largest state. It is working. Yet as Americans infiltrate Sonora, I fear not only for the authenticity of my own experience—the perennial ability to lose myself in a wide and wild place—but also for the Mexican and indigenous cultures and their native landscapes. I am aware of the hypocrisy, the same odd logic of any distinct place worth saving: Welcome me, if you please, but shun all others.

Our group of twenty-six neighbors is traveling to Alamos, the traditional, plaza-centered town of ten thousand founded in 1684, precisely because it is not the Americanized entertainment gateway that larger and more accessible tourist destinations like Ensenada and Puerto PeZasco have become. We cherish the tacos de pescado in both locations, and enjoy, too, the Coca-Cola made with pure cane sugar instead of the refined stuff north of the border. But the Costcos and Home Depots, the McDonald’s and Carl’s Jrs. are better left in America, where their ubiquity fast becomes a riddle of place: What is the difference between Tucson and Tulsa and Tacoma? On any given street corner, look for the saguaro, but look out for tumbleweed.

Deep in Sonora, however, the intersections are defined by cholla and organ pipe, amapas and palo santos, small-leafed trees tangled in gray and green among thorny succulents. Street signs? They provide no clue, nor should they. Here nature’s calendar quickens, perhaps following the eighteen months of xiuhpohualli, where despite the latitude seasons last only weeks at a time, if the waxing and waning of the flowers are any indication. Just now the barren wood of the palo del muerte, the tree morning glory, rivulets into silver. The two-story tree is leafless, yet white flowers bunch on the thinnest of branches, an indicator clear as named day that we are past the winter solstice. Here, nature keeps its calendar by the seasonal changes of flora and fauna—the migration of songbirds and windstorms, the sparse rainfall above blooming thickets, the keen sentinels whose wingtips flare in the afternoon’s topaz light.

Jerry’s radio voice clicks and whirrs like an excitable grackle, quoting excerpts from his worn Birds of Mexico guide. The broken documentary gives us the sentient details: crested caracaras are primarily terrestrial, and the only member of the falcon family that actually constructs nests. Billie and I turn our heads in opposite directions, beyond the tinted glass, in search of a crazy stick nest perched, maybe, in the crotch of prickly pear or on the crooked shoulder of a cardón. No luck. Their faces have fleshy pink patches separating gray beak from amber eyes, he continues. Long, yellow legs built for sprinting and ripping help the carrion-feeder catch fish, crabs, and lizards—or steal prey from other birds. Though rare north of the border, caracaras are common throughout most of their extensive range. For this, and our first sight of the Sierra Madre Occidental as we turn east onto an uneven ribbon of new highway out of Navajoa—now just forty miles from Alamos—we sing.

 

* * *

In the salon of the Casa Encantada, a ten-room hacienda built in the 1850s along Alamos’s busy Avenida Juárez, an eclectic mix of colonial furniture, artwork, and décor greets visitors. On the large ironwood table at the back of the room—beyond the tall, trellised fireplace and to the right of the folding screen hand-stenciled with the profile of a stern European dame—rests an unmarked calendar. And behind the calendar, propped against the wall, is an oil painting of an indigenous Mayo woman. The artwork is framed in silver, offset by bronze candlestick holders and their leather-colored candles. In the painting, the woman’s dark hair is tied back. Her daughter, about three years old, sits on the mother’s right knee, wearing a white dress trimmed in a pattern of roses, mint-green leaves, and opalline lace. The girl bites a piece of fruit—golden apple or yellow pear, glowing.

Early morning light slants into the room from the windows along the street, revealing rays of dust, thin and active, that adorn the painting. I move through the light.

In her left hand, the mother holds a pair of calla lilies, the yellow stamens light against lush, milky petals. In the soft crook of her arm, a boy perhaps a year old sleeps, his lips curling happily around mother’s nipple, the breast exposed, expectant and compliant. Pearls loop around her neck, against a floral blouse of red and black and green. Her dark but pleasant eyes look to the right and past the viewer. On her coppery face, a slight smile.

The mother’s contentment is familiar and welcome. Billie also nursed, though initiation was difficult. When Ann-Elise was born, she tried feebly to breastfeed but could not. Time was against us, for Ann-Elise lost weight, and though we declined formula, the singular alternative encroached like the spruce’s shadow across our Colorado front lawn. Working through frustration and escalating fear, Billie and I devised a plan: she pumped breastmilk into bottles every two hours; I placed a dropper into the bottle, then into Ann-Elise’s delicate mouth. In between, Billie lifted our daughter to her breast. The cadence of the pump made me dream, in those half-lit days of little sleep, of cycles—time slowing yet returning, the constancy in each crucial moment between mother and child, and now father. After a week, after our daughter slimmed and the lactation specialist wearied in our persistence, Ann-Elise finally nursed. Billie then relaxed, and I gave thanks for this simple intimacy.

We have been in Alamos three days, and of the many images—the baroque church La Parroquía de la Purisima Concepción completed in 1804, the view of the densely wooded valley from El Mirador, Plaza de Armas with its white ironwork gazebo—the painting in our hotel’s salon may best represent the small city and its history.

The first European to pass through the present site of Alamos was the Spanish conquistador NuZo Beltrán de Guzmán, who in 1533 captured Mayo and Yaqui Indians, named after the major rivers of the region well north of the Aztec and Mayan lands, to sell as slaves. In the many years since, the history of the indigenous Mayo and other tribes has been predictably agonizing—military and missionary contact and dominance, widespread disease, loss of territory, rebellion, deportation, more slavery. Yet the Mayo today remains the largest indigenous group in Sonora, with a population of seventy thousand. As in pre-European times, the Mayo continue to ranch, fish, and fabricate. They weave blankets, craft wire baskets, and carve ceremonial masks.

By the 1700s, the Alamos region was prosperous from silver mining, cattle ranching, and agriculture, despite a series of Yaqui and Mayo skirmishes and the expulsion of Jesuits from Mexico in 1767. Only a decade later, Alamos was the richest town in Sonora, with a population over thirty thousand. By 1800, the community shipped more silver than any other mining area in the Spanish dominion. Fifty years later, however, the population plummeted to four thousand, the result of rampant cholera and an exodus of miners to California. By the time the Mexican Revolution started in 1909, most mines closed and much of the city was looted. However, in the 1950s—with the completion of dams that provided electricity and irrigation (by flooding entire indigenous villages) and the highway from Nogales to Navajoa—Alamos’s resurgence began. The refurbishment of large haciendas built by silver barons changed the city’s fortunes. And as with our hotel, most of the funding was provided by Americans, who continue to own many of the inns and restaurants. A growing residential area today known as Gringo Gulch attests to the dedicated population of expatriates. The community, though, amiably resists many American temptations; unlike most Sonoran towns, the majority of residents do not speak English. And they don’t mind a good chuckle at non-fluent tourists like myself who, when trying to order six tacos de carne asada along Plaza Alameda late one evening, awkwardly request elderly tacos instead. There are no fast-food restaurants (if you don’t count that delightful mix of taco, hot dog, roasted corn, and fruit drink vendors lining the plazas in the silver carts draped with blue tarps), no hotel chains, no big-box retailers. Alamos, in sum, is idyllic, enduring—but you won’t like it, so please don’t go.

To account for periodic flooding, Alamos’s original streets—a cobbled mix of river rock and brick pavers—lie three feet lower than the adjacent sidewalks and patios, doors and windows. Steps coupled with ramps for horses, still commonplace in the dense town center, provide access to wide walkways inlaid with stone and tile. Walking through Alamos, we notice the narrowness of the streets and their irregular grid pattern. We notice, too, here in the cuidad de puertas, the amazing array of doors. Arched patios line the two main plazas, and deep in the shadows of the porches, double wooden doors display carved shapes of cottonwood, prickly pear, and native flowers. The doors are stained or painted, hold pocked glass and bronze, unfold from ancient handles and chimes. Lintels provide little shade above the portals, instead accenting the flat-roof colonial architecture, providing sharp resistance to the smooth walls painted in salmon and sage, silver and swan.

Every front is a façade. Behind the elegant face is a deep courtyard, a mystery for those on the street but an oasis for those inside. At Case Encantada, the bedrooms buffered by a wide, richly furnished porch surround a lush interior space, roofless and planted with tropical species I cannot name but recall from the photographs of an old rainforest calendar. Shining leaves from November, bright white buds in August, flowering vines across February. From the hotel’s barred front door, however, we would not know the sacred space within. Wandering from block to block along the haciendas and mansions, my neighbors and I made a habit of peeking between door cracks. Rude? Perhaps, yet we were rewarded with thin views of multi-layered fountains, hand-crafted furniture, aged tapestries, and abstract murals. More often, this architectural voyeurism was not necessary, as open front doors announced garnished interiors and mosaics of Moroccan intricacy.

 

* * *

"¡Año Nuevo! ¡Feliz Año Nuevo!" The hoarse shouts of the sons and daughters of Alamos fill the evening, for it is New Year’s Eve. Between their calls, old pickup trucks loaded with children limp down the street, resonant bass shaking the walls, horns barking through dimly lit porticos. Firecrackers dance off the quick hands of the boys who ignite them. Stray dogs cower in dark corners, whimpering, or chase the revelers madly, rabid looks in their backlit eyes. Billie and I walk back from Casa de los Tesoros where we enjoyed a five-course meal as fine as any I can imagine: fresh baby greens, pine nuts, and dates sprinkled with chutney and goat cheese; yellow pepper-and-mushroom soup; steamed prawns stuffed with spinach; herb-crusted salmon and prime rib with ruby center. The challenge following dinner was simply rising from the long, linen-covered table. We finally exited as dancing began in an open courtyard hung with purple balloons the shapes of bunched grapes, green ribbons curving like tendrils toward the floor.

Buttoning my herringbone blazer against the cool evening, I take Billie’s warm hand. Her fingers twine into mine, a reflex as natural—after thirteen years of marriage—as breathing. "I could live in Alamos," I say, thinking of exchanging our overloaded calendars for a community wise in its own rhythms.

"I know," she replies, mouth curved in a slight smile, cerulean eyes bright behind thin, purple-framed glasses. "But I could not."

I am not surprised. The desire to relocate to Mexico and, perhaps, any location with a distinct sense of place is mine alone in this union. While I pour over maps, dreaming of adventures and opportunities along craggy coastlines and remote metropolises, Billie prefers to be more sessile, adopting a place and making it her own. Though she may be less receptive to extreme weather conditions and alternative foods, the home she makes is well worth the return. The home we make together with our daughters, though often as hectic as any American family’s, is comfortable, inspiring, welcoming. I think of these things as a quick kite-tail of fireworks lights the sky, as we continue our stroll back to the hotel.

New Year’s Day is lunes, Monday, and our final day in Alamos. Throughout the region, New Year’s and other festivals are a distinct mix of Catholic and Mayo rituals, a blending of religious and cultural beliefs giving rise to events rich in color, meaning, and passion. At the remote town of La Aduana, eight rugged miles west of Alamos, a festival is held each November to celebrate the miracle of discovering silver. Legend tells that a group of Mayo men saw a woman, the Lady of Balvanera, on top of a many-armed cactus. They piled rocks to climb in an effort to rescue her, but she disappeared. As the vision faded, a rich vein of silver appeared in place of the rocks. The church Nuestra Señora de la Bavanera was constructed to commemorate the site. Surrounded by leafy fig trees, the modest but staunch church is extraordinary because of a massive organ pipe cactus growing from its side, twelve feet off the ground. In certain light, the cactus casts a shadow in the shape of a woman, praying.

The festival begins with a 4 a.m. procession from Alamos to La Aduana, followed by a week of pilgrimages across the southern half of Sonora for Catholics and Mayo alike who have made vows to the Lady. Small bands of Mayo identified by distinct village flags travel many miles to pay homage, later performing the traditional deer dance among a jubilee of songs, drumming, and simmering Sonoran dishes.

On the day before our return—before our own pilgrimage ends—Ann-Elise and I ride in the warm backseat of a neighbor’s car as it crawls along the dirt road to La Aduana. Though never large, the village now resembles a ghost town, an empty space difficult to envision any other way, despite the festival’s annual return. Only a few old pickups, a handful of quiet residents beneath the shade of a giant fig at the church’s front wall, and gardens of bougainvillea, agave, and torch cactus betray the image.

We enter the plaza that serves as cul-de-sac. It wraps like a vacant traffic circle around a dry fountain, white as bleached coral. To our left, high walls of broken stone and red adobe hold the ruins of the old assay office, the smelter, a small garrison’s outpost perhaps. Carved into the thick base of the wall, a small room with open windows and a solitary door hosts a women’s artisans co-op. To our right, a duplex of single-story colonial buildings painted olive green and white appears empty, but it feels like we are being watched, and soon a tawny woman in a colorful skirt and white blouse crosses the road to the co-op, beckoning us to come in.

After visiting the first shop and buying a few curios, we climb the stairs left of the church to another boutique. Here I choose a handmade doll in yellow and green for Juliet while Ann-Elise purchases a scorpion sculpted from copper wire. In both stores, our neighbor Deirdre finds three dolls for her Mexican doll collection, her favorite a scarlet La Diabla with a long tail, stiff horns, and sea-blue bandana.

As with the church in Alamos, I do not enter Nuestra Señora de la Bavanera. There is no religious or other significance in either abstinence. Rather, I opt to walk around and apply my spirit to the outside, where the ceiling is wide and my camera takes finer photographs. At La Aduana, Ann-Elise and I find a thick and healthy cactus growing from the western wall of the church. Thin ribbons of red, green, pink, and gold are tied to many of the arms—a feat requiring an extendable ladder or a courageous vicar willing to teeter on the concrete sill of a nearby window. The shadow of the cactus is tight against the rough-stone wall, which ends in parapets set against cloudless sky and daylit moon, near full. On the opposite corner, a single bell tower with four large arches rises against the overgrown hills. A pair of large bronze bells is open to the elements, yet silent this afternoon, like my daughter and I who once again are delighted, humbled. We watch a magpie jay swoop into the canopy, its long sapphire tail gleaming in the sunlight, then walk back to the waiting car.

 

* * *

Yesterday, after the trip to La Aduana, the girls and I drove the well-graded dirt road east from Alamos toward El Fuerte, Sinaloa. After a half-hour of viewing ranches carved from thick stands of leafless deciduous trees intertwined with vines, brambles, and cactus, we turned back. Pulling over a shallow hill, I pressed hard on the brakes to stop ten yards short of a large bird, a crested caracara. The raptor stood motionless in the center of the dirt strip, even as the dust from our approach floated over, and even as I grabbed my camera and put my slow fingers to the van’s door handle. I halted there, looking into the bird’s jeweled eye, taking in its black cap, sharp gray beak, muscular neck and legs. Then I pushed the door. The caracara leaped into the air, unfolded banded wings, and pushed itself out and over the riotous trees.

The distant image of the bird’s eye is with me this morning as our convoy, tightly packed, departs Alamos. The sky is black, stars hidden by the sharp corners of the buildings we soon leave behind on the highway to Navajoa. Out of the city, the dark road crests against the indecipherable silhouettes of the forest when suddenly, like the giant yellow eye of a mythical bird of prey, the moon reveals itself on the horizon. Its radiance veils the stars and paints the road before us. For the next forty minutes I drive in a hypnotized state, watching the road yet inhabiting the wide moon. The caravan thins but my mind is on that satellite, how the branches of roadside trees hold its eerie light, how thick chords of clouds dissipate in its aura, how the calendar seems to stop entirely in this great, glowing presence.

Only after the massive eye slides behind the deep lid of the horizon do I recover. The moon, it appears, held us all in a trance, as Billie and the girls too shake off the lunar spell. We speed up to catch the convoy in the soft twilight, then brake hard before a police truck in a turnout. Too late. Red and blue lights flash as the truck spins around behind us. I pull over and wait. The lights approach, stop, and then a young Sonoran officer greets me in Spanish.

"Buenos dias," I say as I hand him my Arizona driver’s license. He replies with a long question, mentioning Alamos I’m sure, to which I say, "No hablo español." He leans in a bit and sees the girls with their headphones on, watching a movie, the interior of the van flickering blue. Billie smiles. His flashlight finds my license and he reads my name aloud. "," I say.

For a long moment he is silent. In the darkness his warm features and brown eyes radiate so that, despite the stories of Mexican authorities I’ve heard or think I’ve heard north of the border, I am not nervous. He hands me my license as if in agreement, nods, and concludes, "Buenos dias." We remain motionless as the officer walks back to the truck, turns off the lights, and lurches onto the road ahead of us.

Billie pats my leg and we merge back onto the highway, miles behind our neighbors, ten or more hours from home. In the rearview mirror I see Ann-Elise and Juliet give me a thumb’s up, grins on their lit faces. We find our right speed, then drive into the morning—soaring through Sonora as if on the day’s lofty thermals.

 

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