The History in Which We Live and Move
By Mike Bonifas - Quitaque, Texas, USA - 2 September 2016
Morning horseback rides prove the best. Air flows cool. Light floats soft and pink. To the north, canyons unfold like blankets on a rumpled bed. Lazy and half asleep, I round a bend of boulders. My mare jerks to a stop. Her muscles tense beneath my legs.
Up ahead, a colt bolts at our sight, slams its rider into a fist of mesquite. Branches slash, wood snaps. I stand in my stirrups. “You all right?”
The commotion subsides. A young cowboy retrieves his cap from a twig of thorns.
“You okay?” I ask again.
He steps the horse from the thicket, cap pressed to his chest. “I reckon.”
The rider, African-American, steadies his colt and puts the cap back on his head. This guy’s fresh,” he says.
“First ride alone.”
The colt settles down. I ride up.
The cowboy nods. We shake hands.
His frame is thin, unchanged from the picture of him that hangs in my barn.
“You’re taller than I imagined,” I tell him.
In my tack room, next to the bridles, a page torn from Texas Highways decorates the wall. The edges curl with fly-speck. In the foreground, a break-away colt blurs the shot. The date: March, 2009.
Locked in the saddle a black teenager -- E.J. Ivory -- yanks the reins. The horse flings its head. Its neck taut with stress. The technique is harsh but the rider is calm, his eyes confident and steady. His posture, pliable as a cinch.
The expression on his face? As soft as the dust that billows the air.
In rural America, history grays the landscape like clapboard siding on an abandoned church. Current events -- Ferguson riots, school shootings, ISIS decapitations -- play out against tales of local battles and truces, atrocities and accommodations. Some of the memories snap and spark like a grassfire consuming the prairie. Others -- vague intuitions -- smolder beneath a haze of collective dementia.
Inside the weathered church, a ghost preacher paces the platform. “Remember the past,” he shouts. “Remember the days of old.”
In Amarillo, Texas, a public park bears the name of Bones Hooks, a renowned cowboy and a son of former slaves. A Remington-inspired bronze depicts Mr. Hooks astride a bronc in mid-pitch. The rider’s back curves skyward. In his hand, the cap of railroad porter, the job Bones worked in his later years.
Known for breaking horses no one else could ride, a crowd stopped a train near Pampa when word spread that Hooks was aboard. Bones bucked out the horse and the men whooped and hollered. Years later, when Hooks died, cowboys brought roses to his grave.
History Theory #1: The Trajectory. Espoused by optimists. Strives for objective knowledge. Confident that society can advance beyond atrocities, bigotry, etc.
History Theory #2: The Cycle. Favored by pessimists. Catalogs past horrors. Sighs -- or shrugs -- at destruction in wake of lessons not learned.
“We found the grave.”
I’m standing in Ronny Carpenter’s workshop to borrow a floor jack. Ronny is seventy-three years old. Last fall, he built a steam compressor to bend oak planks into wagon wheels. His name and hobby are happily congruent. But he reserves woodworking for winter. The rest of the year, he and Jerry Leatherman traverse Briscoe County with metal detectors searching box canyons and flinty hills for bullets and buckles. At night, they scour copies of faded diaries.
“Yep, we found the grave.” he says again.
He holds up a metal strip toothed with oblong gaps. “This harmonica reed lay about thirty yards from a pile of stone.” Ronny’s face is long and creased. “Private Leander Gregg lies beneath those rocks. I’d bet ribs on it.” He reaches for a plastic bag on the work bench. “We find lots of these.” He tosses me the bag.
“Jerry figures the soldiers held wrestling matches to pass their time.” Ronnie drums his fingers on the bench. “Nothing else explains all the buttons we find.”
Inside the bag, corroded disks tinkle like rain.
History Theory #3: The Cycle of Virtue. Described in The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. Similar to Theory #2 in regards to repetition buts spirals deeper as it revolves. Through repeated confrontation with Evil, the common good evolves.
Toby Schenk wears a hardhat and labors in the oil fields. “Over there, maybe fifteen miles,” he points from the cab of his pickup, “stands the corner of a stone house.”
I’m riding shotgun.
“Billy the Kid hid inside that house.” Toby throws me a look, daring me to counter the claim. He drops the pickup in low gear as we climb a mesa to check another well. He reads the gauges then nods toward the west. “Over there, maybe seven miles, adobe walls.”
I stare through waves of undulating heat. In the 1880’s, the first Mass in my parish was offered inside the adobe home of a shepherd named Romero. Anglo cowpokes gathered outside to hear the Word of God. A man of the cloth had come to town and the style and cut of the vestments did not matter.
I think of my cows, fat from a summer of good moisture. The land on which they graze once owned by a rancher rumored to have ordered the murder of families with names like Romero.
Across the church aisle, sand dusts the gray hem on the habit of a young nun from Vietnam. Her convent, shy and unassuming, nests like a sparrow in the broken land of Oldham County, not far from New Mexico. The road to the compound bumps along the crest of a remote ridge. In the ravines, cholla cacti extend their branches like beams on a cross.
O God, come to my assistance. Lord, make haste to help me.
This land is no stranger to nuns. A Sister of Charity from Cincinnati, Sister Blandina Segale established hospitals and schools in New Mexico in the late 19th Century. She also nursed a wounded gang member of Billy the Kid. When Billy showed up to scalp the doctors who had refused to treat the man, Sr. Blandina convinced Billy to abandon revenge and ride out of town.
The sisters and I conclude the second psalm of Lauds. My mind wanders and I estimate the distance from the chapel to Billy the Kid’s hideout. I imagine the ancient chant caressing the stones. Prayers for healing and mercy. Pleas for outcasts, outlaws and other outliers.
The convent is home to charismatic Franciscan sisters. They punctuate their worship with hymns sung in glossolalia, senseless syllables that meld into mesmerizing melody, songs that cup the soul like a child in a hammock.
Their regimen of prayer, the Liturgy of the Hours, wafts across the western plains, marking the feasts of saints, solemnities of the Lord and seasons of grace. A cycle of praise and petition to counter the world’s twenty-four hour cycle of news.
The aoudad sheep is sick. The hide hangs loose on the rump. The neck is curved to the right in a spasm that won’t release. I lean from my saddle for a closer look.
The sheep’s hooves stumble across rocks on the canyon floor. Listeriosis. The “circling disease,” a neural disease common in ruminates.
E.J.’s colt, nervous, prances in the sand.
“Ever seen an aoudad this close?” I ask E.J.
Aoudads are beautiful. A mane-like beard flows beneath the length of their graceful necks. Immense horns, curved like shofars, spread laterally from the top of their deer-like faces. Aoudads, introduced to Texas in the 1950’s, are native to Africa.
E.J., a foreman on a cattle ranch, has never treated a case of listeriosis. We gaze at the animal walking in circles. Unarmed, we ride on.
In a previous generation, Western films featured a stock ending: a lone cowboy off riding off into the West, an apt image of history as trajectory. A worldview that discards that which is deemed unnecessary or inconvenient.
The cyclical view, like listeriosis, highlights degradation, the routine destruction of cultures, climate and species.
The third view, the practice of virtue, proves too ephemeral for scholars. Yet, for believers who adhere to it, the concept of history unfolds before an eternal horizon, mysterious and beckoning: the God in whom all live and move and have their being.
E.J. stands in the center of a round pen. He flicks a cotton rope and clicks his tongue. A new colt lopes about the perimeter, its head high, nostrils flared. Again and again the horse passes before the cowboy’s face.
The pen is located near a chicken coop behind a house where E.J. has lived since childhood. Inside, rodeo buckles line the shelves in the living room. In the kitchen, E.J.’s girlfriend prepares supper, their eight-month-old daughter positioned on her hip.
A hundred miles away, in Amarillo, E.J.’s two sons live with their mother. The youngest boy born with only one arm.
It is twilight. Above the open plains, galaxies whirl in a darkening sky.
E.J. works the colt, his mind focused on his task. He is a man, a hard-worker and respected in the community. He is a father, driven to feed, shelter, teach and love. Yet, something more stamps his life: the place where he lives. His place. And the history of his place, afloat in the swirling dust. The gyre chaffs his skin and rasps his breath. Circling in sorrow, like a stricken sheep. Circling and proud, like an untamed colt.