“Ya, vamanos,“ ”Let’s go”, said Francisco, my then husband. “Oh good,” I replied, “We can go in town and have breakfast.” “Fine,” said Francisco, “and then we can stop and get tacos for La Perrita de la Capilla.” Inspite of my grogginess, my antennas went on alert. “What perrita, of what chapel?” I asked. At the time we already had a complete contingent of creatures at the ranch, including multiple dogs, two cats, Rafik, my Arabian gelding and his companion, a loud braying snow white mini mule named Clementine, both of whom we had had to smuggle across the border into Mexico a few years earlier when we couldn’t get a permiso to cross them, an adventure in absurdity, that thankfully all the authorities turned a blind eye to...We had also just engaged in a major rescue operation of a decrepit old pony we named “Kipi Pony” from the Seri for “very pretty” -- which he atleast proved to be on the outside after several months of 3 stage poisen and herb baths to kill all the flora and fauna living on and in him. I’m not sure he ever quite made Kipi on the inside, as to the day he died, he hated humans (tolerating only Francisco and I), and loved peaches, each with equal and undiminished passion.
“Pues, la perrita de la Capilla”. “Well, you know, the little dog of the chapel.” In a teeth gnashing attempt at clarity I asked, “What Chapel?” “Oh you know, the one by the highway.” In Mexico, roadside shrines are as common as cactus, so “by the highway” was not exactly the most informative description I’d ever received. Sort of like describing Walmart’s location by saying, “Oh, it’s in town...” Knowing to my bones of a certainty that something was afoot, I refrained from further questions, figuring I’d find out when we got there, and there wasn’t much point worrying about it in the meantime.
Besides which, the prospect of feeding a little dog felt pretty normal after our adventures of the last 48 hours. We had started out with our dear elderly Yaqui cowboy friend, Don Pancho, riding shotgun in my little Suzuki up into the mountains from Magdalena, Sonora, Mexico. I was very excited to have a real 4 wheel vehicle after sinking my old battered beloved Nissan Sentra in the Magdalena River. Well, it wasn’t my fault, Miguel said that the crossing was fine, and I had crossed there a million times. How was I to know that the river had run the night before churning the bottom into a mesh of fine unpacked silt into which we sunk up to the floorboards...?
Anyhow, we started up the side of the mountain. It sure seemed awfully steep to me. “Don Pancho,” I asked, “are you sure the trucks go up here.” “Pues si, Maryna, todo el tiempo.” “Sure, all the time.” he said, thereby teaching me the efficacy of asking someone about driving conditions whose only mode of transport was either Ejote, Moshomo, or Milagro – Greenbean, Plum, or Miracle, his three mules.
So, I shifted down into low 4x4 and muddled my way up the hill with four of us in the Suzuki. A short distance before the lip of the hill where I could see the road turn and go up at a more gradual incline, I felt a funny sensation under my foot on the gas pedal, and a weird feeling in the car. The boys in the band, two old cowboys and Francisco, were telling tall tales and not paying any attention to me who they trusted to get them through whatever part of the mts, they had me point a vehicle at. So, on a burst of sheer intuition, I floored the gas pedal and we catapulted up over the lip of the road with a fair amount of flight and a substantial crash on landing like something out of *******. They all looked at me like I was crazy, but talented, and went on talking. The next day we were to return to see a truck oveturned in exactly the spot where I started to ...yes, flip over backwards...
Up into the mountains we trundled, bottoming out on rocky outcroppings, slipping and sliding. Hey, the ads said the thing was an offroad vehicle, so I took them at their word. Like most of my expeditions with Don Pancho, in which he assured me that trucks passed through there all the time, it would cost me $500.00 to have the dented axle replaced, but heck, I didn’t know enough to know any better so we kept going. And I must say, it was a glorious place we arrived at, even if the shack still lingers in my nightmares. Don’t ask why we didn’t sleep outside, to this day I can’t recall the rationale.
After all that, I was quite ready to clean up a little and indulge in a lovely homemade breakfast at my favorite inn, and if Francisco wanted to bring tacos to some stray, I was good, I was firm, I was solid. No more dogs at the ranch. The rules were that I only took in things that actually made their way onto the ranch of their own impetus. There were just too bloody many strays in Mexico, not including the pups and kittens thrown in the arroyo next to the ranch to drown. I had learned to drive down the road with my eyes in neutral to not take in all the suffering I had to drive by. It wasn’t an option. Just a fact of life. Hence my rules, nothing adopted outside the ranch fence. Years later, Dandy dog would confirm my critters’ understanding of the rules, by standing outside the gate, and pushing a tiny puppy onto the ranch with his nose. As I’m screaming at him to leave what I thought was my neighbor’s livestock, he frantically pushes faster and faster until he gets what I am beginning to see is a pup about ten feet inside the fence. He then stands up and waves his tail as if to say, “olie olie in come free”, that old phrase of safety from the child’s game of hide and go seek, and smiles at me with that wonderful, heart melting, mischievous Norwegian Elkhound smile.
Absolutely the last thing I needed was yet another mangy, Mexican cur that I would have to nurse back to health. But food, yeah, I could bring the poor dear food, it was probably half dead anyway, and the food would just let it die gently. We pulled over into the parking lot in front of the chapel and whistled for a dog. Now mind you this chapel is right on the side of the major four lane highway going into Mexico. Not a place with high odds for long term survival for a dog. Out from behind the chapel came this little tear drop shaped golden brindle dog with soft brown eyes and a hint of whimsy in their loving depths. Without the slightest bit of hesitation, as if she had been patiently waiting for us to finish our expedition, she daintily ate everything we offered her and drank the water we poured into makeshift dishes that had been left there by the cowboys. Female pups in Mexico who hit their first heat cycle, are sort of like women in India in days of yore, simply thrown out on the garbage pile to survive or not, without aid or succor of human hands.
She finished her lunch/breakfast/supper, who knows when her last meal had been, and I picked up the garbage, got back in the car and drove away. Melissa never tried to run after the car, she just stood there with her soft brown eyes and snaggle toothed overbite and waved the plume of her tail. We got several miles down the road with Francisco sitting quietly beside me, not saying a word, exhibiting no tension or concern whatsoever. Finally, I couldn’t stand it. “OK”, I said, “We can do this the easy way or the hard way. “We can turn around now and go get the dog, or we can get up at 2:00 in the morning and drive all the way back and get her.” We had done just that when we rescued Kipi pony who had been very weak, so we brought him hay where he was standing with the intent of returning in the morning for him. A storm broke that night and I went looking for him in the driving rain to no avail. As we would find out in the am, the wretch had wandered miles down the road in the storm ending up in the pasture he had grown up in... With that recent experience firmly in our minds I asked, “Which would you like to do?” “Whatever you like, dear, “ Francisco replied....thereby confirming my strong suspicion that I’d been had from the get go.
So back we went. Melissa wagged her tail in greeting as if to say, “You’re a little slow, but dear, and you catch on eventually.” She stepped out of the car at the ranch, and just moved in without a moment’s hesitation, taking our motley crew of dogs and people in her stride. From the beginning, she had poise and presence. I never really trained Melissa, she simply took up her role as the Queen of Sweet, not the iccghy kind of energy sucking sweet, but a big, strong, life affirming current of sweet. Her attitude every minute of every day she lived was, “Oh my God, isn’t this morning, mid-morning, noon, mid-afternoon, afternoon, evening, night marvelous”, and sniff, sniff, “isn’t that just the most amazing scent”, and “isn’t that just the most perfect breath of wind you’ve ever felt.” She just celebrated the moments and expected everyone else to do the same. She was every member of our dog pack’s best friend, and never met a human that didn’t find her the most endearing of creatures, from the crustiest old cowboy to a hardened survivor of Mexico’s mean urban backstreets. Children and stranger dogs she treated with the kind of condescending insolence that queens are prone to at times. She tolerated them, but they were not her favorite, although gentle children could sit with her for hours and she would simply float underneath their hand. Energy seeks its own, and she would always draw to her kindness and gentleness. She taught me much and validated parts of my soul, I keep well tucked away.
From the beginning, she came when she was called and in all the ten years of living with me on unfenced ranches, never strayed a whit from her property, except to patrol its boundaries. She sat sort of, and lay down kind of, and in all my comings and goings from the ranch never failed once until the final two weeks of her life, to be the first to greet me, at the gate, thundering down the driveway and hurling herself into my arms as if the entire breadth of the Sierra Madre could not contain her passion and joy at being reunited, even if I had just wandered over to the neighbors, 15 minutes earlier.
Over the years, tiny pieces of the puzzle of her survival as “La perrita de la capilla”, emerged. Early on, we became aware that if we went somewhere to gather herbs and Melissa was with us, if we dug for a particular kind of herb, she would begin to scout and and then dig for the precise herb we were harvesting. She never erred. As a dog of healers, one of whom was a sixth generation Apache herbalist, we simply thought that behavior charming, and took it for granted, as part of the magical mystery tour shamanic world we lived in. I often wonder as I look back if Melissa knew how much her extraordinary talents were wasted on us heathens. We speculated then that she had had interaction with the coyote to learn to dig for herbs.
Years later, when I moved with all the remaining dogs to a ranch in the U.S., I was privileged to witness Melissa’s relationship with the world of coyote, which merely strengthened our theory. For several nights, the coyote had been in close and howling. A large dog coyote and his lissome wife regularly patrolled through a well marked path a few hundred feet from the house, and the dogs would often sound and give chase. However, I never really paid much attention till one day I happened to be outside in the back. I was getting tired of the cacophany of dog barking and coyote howling and was about to scream at the whole kit and caboodle of them, wild and domestic, when the coyote couple paused in their gallop across the yard, and turned back to the dogs. Prepared to defend my pups, I started to open my mouth and give chase, only to have it drop open in amazement. The coyote couple turned and stood, just like any domestic dog with good dog/dog social language. All my dogs fanned out and began doing curving body language, a dog’s polite greeting language. But Melissa slowly walked with her head lowered straight to the male and proceeded to gently sniff noses with an intensity and concentration I had never seen, as if she were welcoming back one of her own. The coyote responded in kind, and I stood bearing witness to a real life Walt Disney moment. One of the other dogs finally took umbrage, and the coyote bounded off. I would witness this behavior on a couple more occasions with just this particular pair before they seemed to vanish from our neighborhood.
And so the years passed, and the 13 dog pack dwindled to five core dogs, all of whom and myself had been together for nearly ten years. We had a well oiled routine, took each other a bit for granted, groused and grumbled at each other a bit as we all got a tad stiff and arthritic, but in the way of wooden rings wearing smooth over many years, we were supremely sensitive to ripples in the fabric of our family. A glance could tell what kind of mood each of us was in. Heck, we all knew before I would even get to the gate of the ranch how we all were. We were aging, but it seemed as if we would go on forever.
Then, a few years ago, Melissa began screaming in agony with every movement she took. When she had first arrived at the ranch, her bone growth was severely behind the curve, and she had a fairly profound limp on one hind leg. At my vet’s suggestion, I would supplement her diet for several years with MSM until the limp finally disappeared and she stayed sound even when I discontinued the supplements. But throughout her life, her lack of bone density would take its toll. Cervical x-rays revealed severely degenerating cervical disks. One of my colleagues, a brilliant and compassionate chiropracter had pioneered the use of Laser therapy technology. He let us use his office and machine to treat my little golden brindle dog. Four treatments and to the day she died, with just a few minor twinges along the way, she never experienced that level of pain again.
Shortly after the turn of the year, 2006, I began noticing that she looked peaked, tucked up, with her bones more prominent, her eyes more cavernous in their sockets. I had watched her like a hawk for several years as the cervical pain had done that to her as well, but it had been a long time since she had exhibited those symptoms. Blood tests confirmed major kidney failure. I’m not sure if after that, I ever particularly got my feet back under me to handle her, the diagnosis or the situation well. To say that I dithered is an understatement. What should I feed her, supplements, diets, email lists, research, consults? I spun from one to the other without really instituting anything concrete as I watched her fade before my eyes. I don’t fault myself, I knew what Melissa was doing, and she was choosing her time and manner of exit, and the lessons she would bring me. I knew from the power of her presence, that it would all be big, really big, and I felt like a bug about to be hit by a tsunami.
Easter time in the Sonoran region is a time of passionate spiritual intensity. The Native groups reenact Christ’s story during the quaresma, the 40 days of lent, in a folkloric pageantry that has one foot in the most ancient of traditional mysticism, as evoked by the Deer Dancers, and one foot in Catholic ritual, and culminates in the “Gloria” of Holy Saturday, in which the forces of evil, the Fariseo and Caballero societies, are repulsed and defeated by the united forces of the enchanted world, Sea Ania, the flower kingdom, both the symbol of the blood of Christ transformed into a weapon that enables the church to triumph over transgressors, and the ancient emblem of seasonal renewal and faith in the natural world of the desert Yaqui and Mayo people.
The ceremonies are breathtaking, inspirational and life changing. To witness Yaqui Easter rituals is to feel onself step between the worlds, step into the mysteries of the natural kingdom, Sea Ania, the mystic beyond, where man and animal live together in a world of incomparable beauty and peace. Melissa, May-lee-sa in Spanish, a kind of golden flower, had been named as a symbol of this world.
In the weeks prior to Easter, her condition deteriorated rapidly. The lack of uptake of serum calcium (Ca++ in the blood) characteristic of kidney failure was causing severe leaching of calcium from her chronically compromised bones, leading to a severe and devastating osteoporosis. Subcutaneous fluids were keeping her alive and happy, but I had a sense that she was disintegrating from the inside out. Her muscles over the hindquarters felt like calcium was melting out of the bones and depositing in her muscles, like sand on a beach. And yet, I could not bring myself to take her life. Wonder still shown bright in her eyes, and her innate sweetness, if somewhat dimmed, still perfused the house.
On Easter Sunday, she began desperately eating dirt, as if there wasn’t enough dirt in the world to satisfy her craving for the minerals that were pouring out of her body as her kidneys shut down. I knew then she was pushing me to release her to her roots. On Monday afternoon, as the murmers of cocoon rattles, harp and violin, flute, water drum and rasp faded on the breeze, I held her as her muscles trembled and the drugs stopped her heart. She wagged her tail to the end, thereby ripping my soul out through my intestines and hanging it on the wall to be devoured by vultures.
The following morning, racked by grief, clinging to shreds of Melissa’s presence, I opened the back door to allow the dogs to come in and out at their pleasure. Hummingbird, “chuparosa”, flew in. Frantically, he beat his tiny emerald green body against the kitchen windowpane until I could capture and release him outside. Symbol of the ranch in Mexico, long time messenger from the other side for many cultures, I was deeply grateful for the sign. Gathering the tattered few shreds of courage I had left, I sent Melissa with hummingbird, flashing into the sky.
P.S. “The lessons she sent me?” you ask? Her passing shone a torch on a thousand pockets of festering wounds with relentless implacability. “Now, is the time”, she would say... says. “There is no more time for dithering. You need to clean it up, move it out, and get a bloody move on.” As strong a force as was her sweetness in life, so has been the onslaught of her truth seeking, truth telling in death. I have muddled through this process, with an astounding lack of grace, crashing, screaming, whining, and sniveling to no avail. Small she may have been in life. In death she is Valkyrie. The gifts? Finding myself on the inside of my pack looking out, not on the outside looking in, neither leader, nor follower, but participant, family member, pack member, mutually interwoven with the well being of each of us in a way that I used to only dream about as a child. The lessons, they come. Ai yi, they come. Fly well my sweet, fly well. You are deeply and sorely missed.
© 2006 Ozuna