Fish Magic

Yesterday, after a long hiatus from fishing due to a broken collar bone, Felipe our caretaker, caught three fish. My dad and I were duly impressed that he hadn’t lost his touch with the fishing line. A friend of mine, who has a reputation for being a successful fisherman, says that it’s all about numbers. “You catch one fish for every thousand casts.” Felipe’s odds are more like three to ten. He’s a ringer. And unlike the guys who drive down here from Colorado, California and Portland, he uses nothing but a hand line.

Most of the local Mexicans use hand lines to fish. It is literally just fishing line, a weight and a hook with some bait, and in Felipe’s case he keeps the line organized and under control by wrapping it around a 4”x3” piece of wood. The weight is often makeshift, a stainless steel nut or other piece of heavy metal. Casting is a technique that takes some skill. He swings the line in a circle over his head as if it were a lariat and then throws it into the surf. The casting is critically timed with the surf action, so that the out-flowing water takes the line into deeper water rather than pushing it back to shore.

The fish Felipe caught yesterday were all what he calls pescado blanco (white fish). These are what other Mexican’s call “lisa” or white mullet. When I asked him what he did with them, he said he cooked one for the dogs that morning and that he’d eat one later that day. I asked him if he thought he might be able to catch a guatchinango (red snapper, my favorite fish) for me to share with my father. He looked at me confidently and said he would catch one the following day. He said he’d seen some in the waves that morning. I was a bit surprised by his confident declaration and didn’t put much faith in it.

The next morning upon rising I looked down the beach to see Felipe fishing with three of our dogs lying in the sand nearby. It was comforting to see him back in his usual position casting out into the surf. I went about my morning routine, but a couple hours later a knock came at the door.

“I have your guatchinango,” he said, nonplussed. “If you come to my house to get it in a few minutes, I will have it gutted and scaled for you.”

I thanked him, closed the door, and still not really believing it myself went out to the patio to my dad the news.

“No!” he said in utter disbelief.

Later when Felipe handed the fish to me, I noticed it was the perfect size for three people to share. My dad and I had a dinner date that evening with my friend the artist.

If you know anything about fishing, you know that this was a virtual miracle. I felt a bit like Captain Picard of the Star Ship Enterprise – it was as though I’d issued my command to Felipe, “Make it so.” My artist friend said it speaks to my ability to dictate my desires to the Universe, but I think it says more about Felipe’s ability as a fisherman.

The local ranchers have often commented to me about his ability to catch fish as though he has some kind of gift.

When the subject comes up more than once one of them has said, “Felipe is a good fisherman. He always catches fish even when others come home still hungry.”

I never put much stock in what they said and figured it had more to do with how often he fished than the results. They are ranchers after all and I guessed would be prone to making assumptions about his abilities. How could they know how good a fisher he was? I also imagined Felipe would, in his manner, smile shyly and not correct them when they said, “So Felipe you must be quite the fisherman?” But what I didn’t realize was that their knowledge was, in fact, first hand.

Yesterday, Felipe came to the house to tell me he was leaving to walk three miles to his friend Lloyd’s ranch.

“What for?” I asked, always wary of the potential for him to get fall-down drunk when he leaves the property.

He looked at me like I he was always beyond reproach and said, “I want to take the extra fish I caught to Lloyd.”

“Do you want a ride?” I offered.

“If you’re going to drive,” he said matter-of-factly, “why don’t you take it to them yourself?”

Lloyd’s ranch is a modest place, a concrete block home painted white with no stucco on the blocks. The ground around the house is bare sand with a few sprigs of dry grass, most of chewed short by the goats. I was greeted noisily by a couple of very skinny dogs, followed by Lloyd’s wife, Luisa.

When I pulled the fish out and handed it to her, she told me he often gives them his catch. I inquired further and discovered Felipe gives a great deal of the fish he catches away. To families who live in ramshackle houses with dirt floors, no electricity, no plumbing and often not much in the way of food. Families who are truly “dirt poor.”  They are right – he does have a gift.

Fowl Play

Our caretaker Felipe bought a rooster a while back. I first saw the animal tied by one leg to Felipe’s outdoor table. I asked him what he intended to do with it and he replied that he was going to make a caldo (Spanish for soup). The next day, I found Felipe sitting on the stoop outside his house, the rooster cradled gently in his arms. He was stroking it. I asked him when he was going to make his soup and in reply he said something about someone named “Enrique.” Felipe is shy and mumbles a lot. Even my Mexican friends have trouble understanding his garbled speech. So I asked, “Enrique? Enrique who?” He looked at me like I was daft. “The rooster!” he shot back, holding the bird out with both hands in emphasis. I shook my head and pronounced, “I doubt you’ll eat him now that you’ve named him!”

Later the same day, I heard Felipe talking to the rooster, cooing to him in a high-pitched voice, as though the rooster were a small child.

The following day as I passed by Felipe’s house I asked when he was having rooster caldo. He looked at me like I was crazy. “Oh no…no caldo. I’m going to keep him.” No surprise there. I suggested that if he was going to keep Enrique alive he needed to keep a close eye on him – a couple of the dogs have a shady past, back when we lived in Cabo Pulmo, related to my neighbor Clotilde’s chickens.

As the days wore on, I often observed Enrique perched in a tall spiny bush near Felipe’s house. Tony, who detests the vicious spines borne by the Vinorama plant, kills any growing on the property, but this one, the largest of them all, had been given a stay of execution, much like Enrique. I suspect Tony’s reasons were two-fold: the size of the bush was considerable meaning taking it down would result in plenty of swearing and bleeding; but standing at the main entrance to the property, the plant also provides a screen from the trash-laden exterior of Felipe’s house.

One day I noticed that Enrique was tied to the leg of Felipe’s table again. Felipe was working off the property that day. In his stead, I noticed Ruby watching Enrique intently. Ruby bears a striking resemblance to an Arctic fox. I told her sternly to leave the rooster alone and left, figuring the rooster would teach her a lesson if she dared to follow through on her foxy machinations. I’d seen the damage a rooster can do with his talons.

Did somebody say "chicken"?

Did somebody say “chicken”?

Later the same day I heard odd noises coming from near Felipe’s house. Listening intently, I realized it was Enrique. It sounded was like he was choking.

I ran up to Felipe’s and found Ruby with Enrique in her mouth. She had a firm hold of his back. When I yelled and screamed at her, she spat him out and cowered away. The poor bird flopped and fluttered into the safety of the spiny Vinorama tree. With delicate maneuvering around huge pointy spines and the aid of a towel, I managed to retrieve him.

Once I had him firmly in hand so he couldn’t peck me, I pulled back the towel to assess the damage. To my dismay his back was a mess of raw flesh – he had been plucked and skinned alive. I didn’t give his chance of survival much hope and considered whether I should put him out of his misery. I couldn’t help but think, “Felipe may have his caldo after all.”

But no, I couldn’t kill Felipe’s little friend. That was the last resort. So I placed him in a dog crate (minus the dog) with some chicken feed and water and left him to recover or perish. When Felipe returned from work, I brought Enrique to him. Felipe was surprisingly nonplussed by Enrique’s condition. I explained again how clearly he must not, under any circumstances, leave his rooster tied up where the dogs could get at him.

Enrique lived. Miraculously, the skin on his back grew back and, when I checked on him several weeks into his incarceration, I noted small white pin feathers starting to poke through the new soft skin. Felipe and I agreed it was time to let the prisoner free.

It turned out that doing time under the closer supervision of his master left Enrique a changed and quite docile rooster. Each morning I watched as Enrique trotted along behind Felipe as he went about his morning chores, Felipe cooing and chatting to him sweetly, Enrique making the odd cluck or throaty coo. If someone unsuspecting were to arrive at breakfast time, the sounds coming from Felipe’s kitchen would suggest he was entertaining much more human company.

Several weeks later, I looked out the kitchen window towards Felipe’s house and saw him lying on the ground outside his door. Reticently I walked the 100 odd meters up to his house to see if my eyes were deceiving me. No, he was, indeed, very, very drunk. The curious thing was Enrique was there, strutting around Felipe, clucking and eying me, in a manner that could only be labeled “suspicious.” As I approached, he jumped onto Felipe’s chest, flapped his wings and made a noise that I interpreted to mean he would disembowel me if I were stupid enough to come any closer. I laughed out loud. Enrique was guarding him!

A couple of days later I went to check on a work crew that Felipe was part of. Felipe paused from his work to ask me for some money. “What for?” I asked, giving him the it -better-not-be-for-beer look.

“Enrique’s getting married,” he said casually, as though roosters getting married was an every day thing. “I need to get him a woman.”

“A woman? You’re going to get a woman to marry your rooster?” I paused and looked at him. “Don’t you mean a hen, Felipe?”

The distinction was unimportant to Felipe. “Yes, yes! A hen!” he said impatiently, “He’s getting married to a hen, but I need to buy her first.”

Antonio, the mason, laughed and remarked that the rooster would be married before Felipe. Felipe, unhappily single and with few prospects, always asks me the marital status of the women who come to visit. On occasion he gets all dolled up and declares that he’s going to town to find himself a mora (a berry, or in this context a woman). Antonio, his assistant Juan, and I couldn’t help ourselves and stood around joking about the rooster’s impending nuptials.

The hen arrived a few days later – a gift from Ismael Gonzalez, the son of a local rancher who as a hobby raises fighting cocks. She was the ugliest hen I’d ever seen. I pointed out to Felipe, “I think there’s something wrong with her. She’s lost all the feathers on her neck and bottom.”

I thought surely she had mange or some other horrible disease. Felipe gave no notice to her appearance and was, I believe, glowing with anticipation. He smiled broadly and, when questioned, explained that now that they were “married,” Enrique and his bride (she didn’t seem to warrant a name) could make babies. He would have a whole flock of chickens and could sell the eggs. Tony agreed with me, but being a man of few words, the extent of his commentary was “That’s one ugly chicken.“

When I ran into Ismael, the provider of the ugly hen, a couple of days later, I thanked him for his generosity and casually mentioned my concerns regarding the hen’s health. He laughed and assured me, “No, no. She’s fine. That’ss what the hens that make fighting cocks look like.” I thought, “Oh great, Felipe’s going to raise a bunch of fighting cocks and hideous hens. This should be interesting.”

In fact, I didn’t have to wait long before things got interesting.

First Felipe informed me that the hen didn’t want to have anything to do with Enrique. Based on what I’d seen of the hen, I imagined the feeling was mutual. Felipe assured me that Enrique was doing his best to woo his bride. A day or two later, however, Felipe turned up at my door, grasping his forearm. A trickle of blood escaped from under his hand. “What happened?” I asked him as I cleaned the deep wound and bandaged his arm. “Enrique attacked me,” he said, a note of disbelief and hurt in his voice.

A few days later, Felipe was back at my door again. It was his hand that needed bandaging this time, but the cause was the same. As I cleaned his wound, Felipe wondered out loud what had gotten into Enrique. I thought for a moment. “Felipe,” I said, “I think the hen is your problem. Enrique is jealous.” His eyes grew round, but he said not a word.

Felipe didn’t appear at my door again seeking medical attention, so I figured he’d adapted to his rooster’s increasing aggression and learned to stay clear of him when the hen was about. In time, however, I noticed something amiss, or rather, missing – the hen was gone. Enrique got a divorce and Felipe finally had his caldo.

Two Belts

Felipe is our caretaker or, in Spanish, our velador. He is a simple man with very little formal education. He is not sure when his birthday is and he cannot read or write. When I came to live in Vinorama, Felipe was quiet and did not drink much. Tony had hired him to feed his dogs when he is away. Felipe was an excellent choice because, unlike many living in this area, he really cares for animals. In fact, animals are his best friends. Despite being relatively tall and very strong, he is painfully shy and speaks quietly, avoiding eye contact. It is clear to us that he has been treated very badly and has a very low opinion of himself. So, as is often the case with such individuals, he has a special bond with our dogs.

Recently, when Felipe’s regular job ended with the departure of the local contractor from our lovely little community (made even lovelier by his departure), we decided we were ready to start a large project putting pavers around the house and on the driveway, which was just sand and dirt. A condition of hiring Antonio and Juan to do the project was that they also hire their former co-worker Felipe. When they hired Felipe, we told him that the first Monday he didn’t show up to work because he was still drunk, we would forever after hold on to his money and allow him to use it only for non-alcoholic purchases. The first payday came and went without incident, but it was only the second payday when he fell off the wagon with a thud and was drunk all day Monday and Tuesday. He would not get a second chance and we hold his salary for him from now on. Antonio told us that when he asked Felipe about the new arrangement that Felipe said he was pleased because he didn’t want to get drunk.

Yesterday I got angry with Felipe for the first time. Getting angry at Felipe is a lot like kicking a dog, not something that I do as a rule. I’ve always been gentle with him and tried to show him that I cared about his well-being. I reasoned that in time he might come to learn that he was worthy of my caring and develop some self-esteem. This time though, I decided I had to be the “bad cop” for his own good.

It was a Monday and he was working away on the property, making himself busy because Antonio and Juan had not returned from their weekend in the city. Mid-morning he stopped me as I drove off the property to ask me for some of his money. He said it was for two belts and a pair of pants that he would purchase from the traveling vendor. I counted out 500 pesos and told him if the items he needed were more expensive than that, that he should wait and I would arrange to get him some that were more economical. He agreed.

I returned from my errand and at 2pm Antonio and Juan finally arrived. A couple of hours later, I noticed Antonio and Juan working away, but where was Felipe? Antonio told me he was watering plants at the neighbor’s house. I told Antonio that when Felipe said he was watering at Latini’s, he was actually at the local watering hole getting wasted. Antonio smirked knowingly.

As chance would have it, I had to check in with a neighbor who coincidentally lives behind Mr. Latini’s house. As predicted, Felipe was not at Latini’s, so I decided to take action.

On my way home, I turned in to the local restaurant/bar. As I pulled up on my ATV, it appeared to be completely empty, but as the bar came into sight, I saw that the sole patron was indeed our lost caretaker. Hearing the noise of my moto, he looked up, saw me and hung his head in shame. This was it. I was angry and I was going to let him know it.

I marched up to him and began to castigate him for his poor behavior and then, seeing that he had both a beer and a glass of something else in front of him I picked up the drink to discover it was rum. This really incensed me, so I threw the drink out into the desert. “Rum Felipe!!? Why are you drinking rum? You are going to kill yourself!! Why are you here?! Why aren’t you working?!! You lied to me about buying the clothes and now you are drinking the money I gave you!!” I held up the quart sized beer bottle, which was 4/5ths empty and dumped the contents out on the ground. “No more! No more beer! No more rum!” and noticing he had a plate of food in front of him, “Eat your food and come home Felipe!”

The whole time I was standing there yelling, I was only slightly aware that there were two restaurant employees standing behind me. When I turned and noticed them, the one I knew named Abraham began to make excuses and claimed no responsibility for Felipe’s state. “He arrived here drunk Senora. Those are the only two drinks he’s ordered here.” Greeting both employees politely, they seemed to relax and Abraham said “why don’t you take him home with you senora?” to which I replied “because I’m on an ATV and he will surely fall off before I get home.” They both nodded in appreciation of the obvious and Abraham said he would bring him home. I thanked him and turned back to Felipe to repeat my instructions that he was to eat and come home.

I spent the rest of the evening at a friend’s house. I have no idea if Abraham did in fact bring Felipe home, but the lights in his casita told me he was there when I returned. I wondered if he had managed to get more booze and if he’d be in any shape to work the next day. And I marveled at how a man who once did not know what a lie was had learned how to weave a web of deception.

This morning I rode up to his house to ask him to come to my house so we could talk with Antonio. He was standing outside by his makeshift table, a knife in one hand and a belt in the other. I wondered if maybe he had in fact bought a belt yesterday and it just needed a new hole to adjust it to fit his small waist. I asked him “what are you doing Felipe?” and he replied that he was trying to fix his broken belt and that the truck with the clothes for sale had not come yesterday. “So,” I thought, “he did at least intend to buy himself a couple of belts.” When the truck didn’t arrive, he must have figured “Two belts at the restaurant are just as good!”