Friday, February 16, 2007

The Scent of Terrified Animals

Manuel Ramos

This week La Bloga turned into Love Bloga -- in that spirit, here's un cuento de amor.

by Manuel Ramos
First appeared in Saguaro (University of Arizona), 1990
All rights reserved.

“I hate the mountains." Her back rested against a faded, splintered corral fence.

The smell of burning pine clung to the tourist ranch. Smoke floated across the sky, hiding the scenery and corrupting the air.

Irritation slipped into his voice. “How can you say that? You told me you loved the outdoors, hiking. Christ! If I'd known ... if you had said anything before ... damn, we could have gone to L.A., Vegas, any place. You hate the mountains? Good God, you hate the mountains!”

He stepped back from her and rushed away to their cabin.

She could only stare after him. She should have said something. That was easy to see.

She should have told him many things and she wondered when she would. The bank, her friends, the party, the wedding -- it all happened so fast and, she had to admit, she had been swept up in the flow of events and the energy of her office romance -- the famous affair. She could not resist Philip. And now she was in the mountains, surrounded by smoke and fire and she had no idea what she was doing.

The ranch's owner invited them to his cabin for drinks the night they were the last remaining guests. They sat on rickety wooden chairs the old man spread among the weeds and cacti.

“This is a shame, folks, what with you on your honeymoon and all. 'Course, young people like you got a lot of other things to do 'sides hiking around these hills, eh?” He chuckled, amused with his brashness. Mary and Philip ignored his remark. He shrugged and poured more drinks.

“The forest won't recover, least not for me to ever see it. Have to pack it in, try to sell. Don't see how, though, not with the park burned out.”

“I had hoped we could come back next year,” Philip said. “But I guess there won't be much to see. Not much point.”

Mary groaned. “Oh, Philip. Don't be an idiot. Of course there won't be much around here, the whole miserable place is burning down! Can't you see what's happening? Can't you smell it?”

Calhoun clucked his teeth. He waited for the man to respond.

Mary kept at it. “There might be some fish in the ranch pond. They're put there every year just for the tourists -- right Calhoun? You said you always wanted to catch a fish, Philip. Won't your man, what's his name ...”

Calhoun answered, "Montoya."

“Yes. Montoya. Won't he stock up your little lake so that Philip can catch his fish? You can do that next year, even without trees, without anything else around here. Just you and your fish, Philip, you and your fish.” She presented her empty glass to Calhoun and he filled it with whiskey.

The smoke carried the scent of terrified animals. The fire's dull roar served as background for all other sounds. They drank without speaking, watching the moon appear for a few minutes and then succumb to the smoke. The mountains were dim, weak silhouettes.

The old man spit in a rusted bucket. “This is the worst one I've ever seen, and I've been in mountains and woods and forests most of my sixty years. A careless tourist did this. What a waste.” He might have been giving a tour of the ranch, pointing out the sights.

Mary tilted her glass to her lips and the liquor rolled down her throat. “Yes, Calhoun, a waste -- a lousy, goddamned waste. Good night. I'm going to bed. Philip?”

“Go ahead. Don't wait up.”

She stood and knocked back her chair, and it lay on its side in the dirt.

“I apologize for my wife, Mr. Calhoun. The fire ruined the trip for us. She needs to do something. She gets bored easily. Women? What can you do? Guess we'll go on into the city. She'll be all right as soon as we get away from the smoke.”

Many years earlier Calhoun would have told Philip what he thought. But now he was a good businessman and he offered Philip only more whiskey.

They finished the bottle and started a second one. It was too much for Philip. He passed out and Calhoun left him slumped in his chair. His thin jacket flapped with the night wind. His hair and skin soaked up the smoke. Mary did not come looking for him.


Calhoun sat on the steps to his cabin. The hazy, gray sky had slowed him and he had slept later than usual. His throat was parched from the smoky air that surrounded his land. He heard Mary and Philip shouting until one of them slammed against the cabin's wall.

Philip slowly emerged from the cabin. For a minute he stood motionless, undecided about his next act, lost as surely as if he had been dropped from the sky into the most desolate area of the park. He saw the crude, hand painted sign with the word Fishing hanging over the shed where Montoya drank coffee and read the newspaper.

“I want to fish. I'll rent equipment, buy a can of worms. Whatever I need.”

Montoya had been taught by Calhoun to overlook the quirks of the tourists. He needed the job and he learned quickly. He grunted in the direction of Philip. “Any fish you catch will cost you a dollar an inch.”

Mary strode from the cabin a half hour later, her eyes musky and red, her skin as clouded as the smoke-ringed sun. She wore shorts and a halter top in the coolness of the overcast day. She stood near the corral and watched the horses.


The breeze picked up dust from the corral and blew it across her face and into her eyes. She closed her eyes suddenly and hard, to make them water, but the dirt held fast. She frantically rubbed her eyes, her face, the skin on her arms. She was caught in the panic of the dust.

A rough hand grabbed her. She smelled the horses. The hand pulled her fingers away from her face.

“Here, let me help. You could scratch an eyeball, rubbing like that.” He held her face and she was locked in his grip. He said, “Open your eyes, slowly. I'll hold your eyelid open, you move your eye, slowly, up and down, side to side.”

He held her thin eyelid with the tips of his fingers. The delicate touch surprised her. She followed his instructions and the dirt moved then fell out of her eye. Her eyes watered again and tears flowed down her face.

“That was horrible. Thanks.” She twisted her face away from him and he dropped his hands, awkwardly, away from her body.

She was almost as tall as Montoya. His black eyes and hair blended with the sunburnt darkness of his skin and she thought he was nearly as dark as the Puerto Rican teller who helped her close up the bank.

“It'll be sore for a few minutes. You'll be okay.”

His Mexican accent was different from the teller's. Slower, she thought.

“I'd like to go for a ride on one of the animals. If you're letting the horses out?”

“I can give you one of the older ones, but you can't go far. The horses are spooked by the smoke. They won't go in the direction of the fire. They smell the smoke, hear it burning. Around the ranch, on the path, that's fine.” She nodded agreement.

He climbed the fence and jumped into the corral. He inched his way to the four horses huddled against the far end and talked gently and softly to them. They were unsure. The year was too young for the gray sky. They shied away from Montoya and he had trouble catching one. He lunged at them until he managed to grab a tail. He patted the horse and rubbed her flanks to calm her.

Mary watched him ready the horse. He was steady and deliberate. The horse grudgingly permitted the saddle and bridle. Montoya led the horse through the corral gate.

“Lady will take you around the ranch. She could do it blindfolded. Just let her have her way. Don't make her run, she's too old, and she doesn't like kicks or shouts. You'll have an easy ride.” He handed the reins to Mary.

“Won't you ride, too? I could use the company.” She climbed on the saddle.

“No. Calhoun's rules. When you're back, find me and I'll cool her down and put her with the others. I'll be around.” He slapped the neck of the horse to start her trotting along the deeply rutted path.


Philip had caught more than a dozen fish. The overstocked pond rippled with fish as they struggled for food. His catch lay twisted on the shore, a cord strung through their gills, their bodies half covered with water. The bundle of fish squirmed in the water as they slowly died.

Mary rode by on the plodding horse. She didn't look at him. He waved at her and pointed at his fish and started to lift them for her to see but she rode over the small rise that separated the pond from the cabins. She kicked the horse to make her run. Philip threw his line back in the water.


Montoya found Lady outside the couple's cabin, saddled and hot, standing alone, her flanks wet with foam. He led her to the corral where he did his best to cool her. Philip strolled up to him, dragging his line of fish, uncleaned, stiff from death.

“Son-of-a-bitch! Man, you got to gut those fish. And that's a hundred bucks, easy, maybe one and a half. Haven't you ever fished?” Before Philip answered, Montoya blurted out, his voice high and tight, “And your wife! She almost killed this horse, running her into the ground, and then leaving her hot. I told her to find me. What's wrong with you?”

Philip's eyes glanced away. “She knows about horses. She's been around them. Maybe you better tell her how she screwed up.” His words came slowly, wrenched from him with an effort he had trouble finishing. “I'm going to fish again, try for two hundred dollars.” He walked back to the pond.

Montoya turned to the horse. He brushed and patted her and listened to Philip walking out of sight. The hired hand finished with the horse and then he returned to the cabin. He stood by the door for a few seconds, opened it and walked in.

Calhoun watched from the steps. He spit in the bucket. He did not want to have the talk with Montoya but it had to be done. Montoya had to go. The only question for Calhoun was whether Montoya would leave the cabin before Philip reappeared.

The smoke billowed over the mountains and rolled into the valley and Calhoun's eyes stung from the smell of dead, burning earth.


The top photo was taken by Steven Smith. It was the 2003 first-place winner (Wildland Fire category) in the annual photography contest sponsored by Fire Management Today.

Middle photo by John McColgan.

Bottom photo by Ben Northcutt of the International Erosion Control Association.



Anonymous said...

And I thought I was the cynical one...

One of the benefits of aging memory is rereading old stories, without any sense of dejá vu. Thus your story brought me back from Love Bloga heights to the stiller, burned waters of life as we know it.

Your photo selection and sequence was great, perfectly complementing the prose.

Yeah, none of that might make much sense, but I think Ramos should always be delegrated to finish off Valentine's week.

Thanks for the read,

Lisa Alvarado said...

Spare, tight writing, with so much conveyed about what we find ourselves with in the end. Thank you for this piece, and for the strength of your writing.


janna said...

I agree with Lisa, so much conveyed with few words; I paused several times while reading this story just to reflect. Funny, how entire books may not make me do that, but this little story did. The Love poems were very enjoyable, too. I spent much of Valentines day snowed in, translating some for mi amorcito.

Manuel Ramos said...

Thank you all -- great to know that some readers liked the story.