Mercy

Artword by Erika Ashley

The following is an excerpt from the memoir I am writing about my first three years living in Baja, Mexico.

It was a cool April evening in 2002 and I was visiting with Kani and Barry in their palapa-covered living room when the bell at the gate announced someone’s arrival. Out of the dark Angeles, the woman from the palapa restaurant on the beach, appeared, an anxious expression on her face.

Buenas noches,” she said, a little out of breath. “I am sorry to interrupt you,” she said making eye contact with me, and then to Kani said, “But do you have an injection I can give my cat?”
Kani and Barry looked from Angeles to each other and back again with confusion. “An injection?” Kani said, “what kind of injection?”
“You know, the kind that will put it out of its suffering. Juanito’s dog Chaquira got my cat and I think he’s broken his back. He’s suffering and I want to give him an injection to stop it.”
“Oh!” Kani said, understanding that she wanted to euthanize her cat, “oh no, we have nothing like that. It isn’t legal for us to have it.”
“Oh,” she said, disappointment clearly written on her face, ”someone said you had it, from when your cat was bit by the snake.”
For some reason I interjected, “I can come and look at him for you if you like. Then we can decide if he can be saved or not.”
A look of hope flooded her face and she smiled, “Would you? Yes, please I would appreciate your help.”
Angeles and I walked back to the lot where her family’s house sat, unfinished grey concrete, the lot defined by a barbed wire fence with posts made from the branches of native trees. The moon was almost full that night and lit our way. When we entered the property Chaquira brought Juanito out of the house with her barking. He carried a flashlight and called to ask who was there, his eyes not yet adjusted to the semi-darkness. Angeles responded and he joined us next to a pile of old tires covered in tarps and some pieces of old carpeting. Angeles pulled back a tattered blanket to reveal her cat beneath it. Even in the poor light I could see he was very old. His bones were visible under his dull coat and he felt fragile like a baby bird when I reached out and touched him. I asked them to describe what the dog did and with some gentle prodding and manipulation I could feel where his spine had been broken two-thirds of the way down his back. He moaned a couple of times, the deep pathetic sound of an animal in great pain who can do nothing to retreat.
I asked Angeles if anyone in the village had a gun. While it is illegal to possess firearms in Mexico, there is an exception for ranchers who need them to protect their livestock from the ubiquitous coyotes and occasional cougar.
“Yes, my uncle – he has one.”
She wrapped the cat in the blanket taking great care as she lifted him into her arms and together we retraced the path we’d just covered a few minutes before.
At El Caballero Angeles called to her uncle and spoke to him in Spanish. Pelon, as he was known, or Baldy, had a coarse face with a crooked and hooked nose, presumably the result of run-ins with bulls, horses and perhaps, I thought, the occasional man. He wore blue jeans, a white collared shirt, cowboy boots and a belt with a shiny silver belt buckle. In one hand he held a can of beer and, I noticed as he came to the doorway from which Angeles had called him, he was not too steady on his legs using the door jam to steady himself. He regarded me suspiciously, with a look that I interpreted as, “Who the hell are you? And what are you doing in my backyard?”
Angeles explained why we were there and he barked an order to a young tall boy in the restaurant, who scurried off and quickly returned with a rifle. We were soon joined by another man, with a greasy and pitted complexion and a soft chubby body visible under his ill-fitting white t-shirt and cotton pants. Pelon remained in the doorway appearing strangely aloof in his drunkenness and continued to bark orders at the two men and Angeles. I had no idea what he was saying.
It occurred to me that as the owner of the cat Angeles should not be present when the men killed her cat. It would be too traumatic and it suddenly occurred to me, what if they weren’t successful with the first shot? I suggested that she leave and promised I’d stay there until the deed was done and would return with the cat so she could bury him. Her face flooded with relief. She related the plan to her uncle, placed the cat in a curved depression on a broad tree trunk that was growing along the ground and left.
Pelon issued another order to the young man standing there in the semi-dark who now looked overwhelmed and intimidated by his charge. He held the gun out to the chubby man, who sat on the crooked tree trunk next to the semi-conscious cat. The chubby man shook his head drunkenly and dismissed this idea with his right hand. Then he said something that sounded like words of encouragement and pointed at the cats head.

The young man cocked the gun and pointed it gingerly at the cat’s head. The muzzle moved up and down uneasily. Pelon barked at him again and laughed. His laugh was a harsh and cutting sound. Bullied to proceed, the young man pushed the muzzle up against the side of the cat’s head. I steadied myself for the retort, stepped back in anticipation of the noise.  He pulled the trigger.

Pffflluut! came the flaccid sound of air pressure released. The cat moaned. This was not the loud bang of a rifle cartridge.

It was nothing but a pellet gun.

The realization horrified me, but before I could try to intervene, Pelon was issuing more commands. And by the way he was waving his arm toward the cat, he was telling the young man to shoot it again. The look on the young man’s face indicated he was as horrified as I, but Pelon persisted and the cat moaned again. Perhaps out of compassion for the cat, he hunched his shoulders and cocked the gun, pushed the muzzle against the cat’s head, and pulled the trigger. Another moan, this one slightly higher pitched – the cat was clearly in great pain and each attempt to put an end to it was only making matters worse. Pelon and the chubby man were now both egging the young man on to try again. I couldn’t let this continue and begged them to stop. “Alto! Alto!” I pleaded. They regarded me like a fly. The chubby man now stood and took the air gun, cocked, pointed it, and pulled the trigger, three times in quick succession. The cat moaned and then began to yowl a wail that pierced my heart. I was on the verge of tears. The poor animal was still not dead despite the five pellets sitting somewhere in its head. The men shrugged, Pelon turned, and with the chubby man in tow, walked back into the light of the restaurant. Only the young man remained, looking uneasy, but with a hint of compassion in his dark eyes. That’s when I knew I had to do something to put the poor animal out of its misery. How much more life can it have left in it? I thought.

As gently as I could, I took his skinny neck in my hands and squeezed. The young man regarded me curiously. I’d expected the cat to go limp in my hands, for the life to drain from him effortlessly, for his body to jerk slightly as he gasped for the breath I denied him. His neck felt so skinny, I could have used one hand. But I miscalculated. This cat, despite a broken back and head riddled with pieces of metal, still had life in it. He did not “go gently into that dark night.”

As I tightened my grip, his muscles contracted, and his neck seemed to expand against my hands. The cat sputtered. Had his body not been destroyed, it was clear he would have fought me, but he had no body to fight with. I knew I couldn’t stop. It had to be done. After what seemed like a very long time, the muscles in his neck relaxed and I felt him go completely limp. I didn’t release my hold on him right away. When a good minute had passed and it was clear he was truly gone, I finally let go, relief washing over me. My hands and fingers ached with the effort and I squeezed them closed and open again. As I did so, I looked up saw the young man looking at me with concern. He said something quietly that I interpreted to mean, “It’s done.” I nodded and proceeded to wrap the cat in the blanket. I stood and walked back into the darkness along the dimly moonlit path towards the road that would take me back to Angeles’ house.

I called to her out of the darkness when Chaquira’s barking made me stop short at the gate. In response to Angeles’ wrinkled brow, I told her it was done.

“Do you think he suffered?” she asked.

I lied. “No, it was fast. He didn’t feel any pain.”

It was a cool April evening in 2002 and I was visiting with Kani and Barry in their palapa-covered living room when the bell at the gate announced someone’s arrival. Out of the dark Angeles, the woman from the palapa restaurant on the beach, appeared, an anxious expression on her face.

Buenas noches,” she said, a little out of breath. “I am sorry to interrupt you,” she said making eye contact with me, and then to Kani said, “But do you have an injection I can give my cat?”
Kani and Barry looked from Angeles to each other and back again with confusion. “An injection?” Kani said, “what kind of injection?”
“You know, the kind that will put it out of its suffering. Juanito’s dog Chaquira got my cat and I think he’s broken his back. He’s suffering and I want to give him an injection to stop it.”
“Oh!” Kani said, understanding that she wanted to euthanize her cat, “oh no, we have nothing like that. It isn’t legal for us to have it.”
“Oh,” she said, disappointment clearly written on her face, ”someone said you had it, from when your cat was bit by the snake.”
For some reason I interjected, “I can come and look at him for you if you like. Then we can decide if he can be saved or not.”
A look of hope flooded her face and she smiled, “Would you? Yes, please I would appreciate your help.”
Angeles and I walked back to the lot where her family’s house sat, unfinished grey concrete, the lot defined by a barbed wire fence with posts made from the branches of native trees. The moon was almost full that night and lit our way. When we entered the property Chaquira brought Juanito out of the house with her barking. He carried a flashlight and called to ask who was there, his eyes not yet adjusted to the semi-darkness. Angeles responded and he joined us next to a pile of old tires covered in tarps and some pieces of old carpeting. Angeles pulled back a tattered blanket to reveal her cat beneath it. Even in the poor light I could see he was very old. His bones were visible under his dull coat and he felt fragile like a baby bird when I reached out and touched him. I asked them to describe what the dog did and with some gentle prodding and manipulation I could feel where his spine had been broken two-thirds of the way down his back. He moaned a couple of times, the deep pathetic sound of an animal in great pain who can do nothing to retreat.
I asked Angeles if anyone in the village had a gun. While it is illegal to possess firearms in Mexico, there is an exception for ranchers who need them to protect their livestock from the ubiquitous coyotes and occasional cougar.
“Yes, my uncle – he has one.”
She wrapped the cat in the blanket taking great care as she lifted him into her arms and together we retraced the path we’d just covered a few minutes before.
At El Caballero Angeles called to her uncle and spoke to him in Spanish. Pelon, as he was known, or Baldy, had a coarse face with a crooked and hooked nose, presumably the result of run-ins with bulls, horses and perhaps, I thought, the occasional man. He wore blue jeans, a white collared shirt, cowboy boots and a belt with a shiny silver belt buckle. In one hand he held a can of beer and, I noticed as he came to the doorway from which Angeles had called him, he was not too steady on his legs using the door jam to steady himself. He regarded me suspiciously, with a look that I interpreted as, “Who the hell are you? And what are you doing in my backyard?”
Angeles explained why we were there and he barked an order to a young tall boy in the restaurant, who scurried off and quickly returned with a rifle. We were soon joined by another man, with a greasy and pitted complexion and a soft chubby body visible under his ill-fitting white t-shirt and cotton pants. Pelon remained in the doorway appearing strangely aloof in his drunkenness and continued to bark orders at the two men and Angeles. I had no idea what he was saying.
It occurred to me that as the owner of the cat Angeles should not be present when the men killed her cat. It would be too traumatic and it suddenly occurred to me, what if they weren’t successful with the first shot? I suggested that she leave and promised I’d stay there until the deed was done and would return with the cat so she could bury him. Her face flooded with relief. She related the plan to her uncle, placed the cat in a curved depression on a broad tree trunk that was growing along the ground and left.
Pelon issued another order to the young man standing there in the semi-dark who now looked overwhelmed and intimidated by his charge. He held the gun out to the chubby man, who sat on the crooked tree trunk next to the semi-conscious cat. The chubby man shook his head drunkenly and dismissed this idea with his right hand. Then he said something that sounded like words of encouragement and pointed at the cats head.

The young man cocked the gun and pointed it gingerly at the cat’s head. The muzzle moved up and down uneasily. Pelon barked at him again and laughed. His laugh was a harsh and cutting sound. Bullied to proceed, the young man pushed the muzzle up against the side of the cat’s head. I steadied myself for the retort, stepped back in anticipation of the noise.  He pulled the trigger.

Pffflluut! came the flaccid sound of air pressure released. The cat moaned. This was not the loud bang of a rifle cartridge.

It was nothing but a pellet gun.

The realization horrified me, but before I could try to intervene, Pelon was issuing more commands. And by the way he was waving his arm toward the cat, he was telling the young man to shoot it again. The look on the young man’s face indicated he was as horrified as I, but Pelon persisted and the cat moaned again. Perhaps out of compassion for the cat, he hunched his shoulders and cocked the gun, pushed the muzzle against the cat’s head, and pulled the trigger. Another moan, this one slightly higher pitched – the cat was clearly in great pain and each attempt to put an end to it was only making matters worse. Pelon and the chubby man were now both egging the young man on to try again. I couldn’t let this continue and begged them to stop. “Alto! Alto!” I pleaded. They regarded me like a fly. The chubby man now stood and took the air gun, cocked, pointed it, and pulled the trigger, three times in quick succession. The cat moaned and then began to yowl a wail that pierced my heart. I was on the verge of tears. The poor animal was still not dead despite the five pellets sitting somewhere in its head. The men shrugged, Pelon turned, and with the chubby man in tow, walked back into the light of the restaurant. Only the young man remained, looking uneasy, but with a hint of compassion in his dark eyes. That’s when I knew I had to do something to put the poor animal out of its misery. How much more life can it have left in it? I thought.

As gently as I could, I took his skinny neck in my hands and squeezed. The young man regarded me curiously. I’d expected the cat to go limp in my hands, for the life to drain from him effortlessly, for his body to jerk slightly as he gasped for the breath I denied him. His neck felt so skinny, I could have used one hand. But I miscalculated. This cat, despite a broken back and head riddled with pieces of metal, still had life in it. He did not “go gently into that dark night.”

As I tightened my grip, his muscles contracted, and his neck seemed to expand against my hands. The cat sputtered. Had his body not been destroyed, it was clear he would have fought me, but he had no body to fight with. I knew I couldn’t stop. It had to be done. After what seemed like a very long time, the muscles in his neck relaxed and I felt him go completely limp. I didn’t release my hold on him right away. When a good minute had passed and it was clear he was truly gone, I finally let go, relief washing over me. My hands and fingers ached with the effort and I squeezed them closed and open again. As I did so, I looked up saw the young man looking at me with concern. He said something quietly that I interpreted to mean, “It’s done.” I nodded and proceeded to wrap the cat in the blanket. I stood and walked back into the darkness along the dimly moonlit path towards the road that would take me back to Angeles’ house.

I called to her out of the darkness when Chaquira’s barking made me stop short at the gate. In response to Angeles’ wrinkled brow, I told her it was done.

“Do you think he suffered?” she asked.

I lied. “No, it was fast. He didn’t feel any pain.”

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.