It rained. Mayella was not here to mop up the puddles that collected under the kitchen awning, all those muddy climber feet seeking shelter, marching toward the stove, to the sink. Shuffling around the long table in haste, in boredom, in the defeat of an unplanned rest-day.
Mayella was not here to see how the wet came with a vengeance like a miniature wrath, or how it stayed, all day long, through the dim afternoon and those shards of sunlight just before dusk that paint the mist a haunting grey.
Mayella was not here to take care of the bunny left in a bird cage, hung on a nail off a large tree just outside the kitchen. There’s a metal bar through the middle of the cage, for a bird to perch. Bunnies don’t perch. So we watched the bunny fidget and gnaw against the wires, gave her scraps of our food, and wondered how much space a bunny needs, or should get. I’ve never had a bunny before. We named her Buns.
After a day of wondering what to do, one of the Canadians decided it wasn’t okay, after all. There were no bark chips to soak up excrement; only Bun’s white fur she didn’t bother to lick, turning black. Her hind legs were soaked. Her ears set back. So we lowered the cage, opened the door, and let Buns hop around the grass and mud, inside our circle of legs, anxious hands awaiting her dash, while Kirstin washed out the cage, changed the water, and laid down a pee pad of Shep’s, and some cardboard.
We held her tight and baby-wiped her jerky legs until they were faded brown. Yoav built a fire in the big tin barrel; night was approaching and it was cold enough without it, and we hovered around, and held Buns close enough to dry, but not too close, and she calmed down or went into shock, we couldn't be sure. And when the rain started that very next day, we moved her to a space under the chimney guarded by a metal grill, after she was sopping because we were too late, and it seemed ironic, swapping her old cage for this one. But it was easy and open and cozy and dry.
Mayella is in charge of the property. She runs around sweeping and mopping and laundering and scrubbing, emptying trash and burning our used toilet paper. Her laugh comes easy, as do her sighs, when she’s tired. She tires quick, and will sit down with us as we’re eating breakfast, Yoav and I, or reading, or playing cards, and chit chat while munching a Ritz cracker sleeve from the free stuff shelf, where leaving climbers discard non-necessities for the plane ride home to Canada or the States or Sweden or Switzerland or Austria. She acts out any Spanish word we don’t know with animated gestures and wild expressions; she would be the kindergarten teacher everyone hopes they get. She tells us about her family. We’re never sure which kids belong to whom, or whether she is divorced or never married, but we have an idea of the tree, and it extends down the main street of Cienega de Gonzales: a niece renting out quads here, a sister running the shop down there, an aunt making hamburguesas somewhere in between. She tells us things about other climbers that have stayed here before, or are currently here; we don’t ever know her sources. Her eyes are good enough.
She tells us not to eat at the restaurant across the street, and like all the other things she shares, she starts with Spanish, simple and slow. She knows we’re limited, easily confused, especially me, never trusting my memory, always assuming I’ve assumed incorrectly. Yes, they have hamburguesas. No, they are not good. Yes, she has eaten there. No, it is not good. Then she acts out the story, the method, the reason. She goes to sleep—a hand-stacked pillow tucked beneath her ear—then startles herself awake, eyes agape, wild; one hand she thumps on her chest, the other rubs vicious circles around her belly, thrust out at us like a proud pregnant woman, as she lets out a long, deep groan; then she rolls her eyeballs back, jolts up, and suddenly she’s jogging her arms, as if in a sprint, breathing heavily, the way we’ve seen her do while shooing the dogs from the chickens, or racing back to her house for money she forgot while the propane truck driver waits outside, shouts her name every few moments in case she’s dawdling. Then she squats down on an invisible throne, and wipes her butt five times in quick succession. We laugh. She repeats the last motion again, in case we’d like to laugh some more.
We heed Mayella’s warning; we always heed her warnings. She is in the know, and generous with her advice, doesn’t withhold simply because we are gringo, or so it seems, so we like to think. She seems natural with us, genuine and generous and concerned, like an aunt might be. We planned to thank her with some apples from the market, just a small gesture for all she does—she’d requested one, in her way. But when we got back, she and Kika were already gone. It’s been over a week now. They haven’t come back.
The Canadians were the first to tell us Kika went to the hospital. But they speak only enough Spanish to buy a beer and some produce, collectively. So it was difficult to ascertain the accuracy of their interpretation of the explanation they got, surely in Spanish, as to why Kika’s store wasn’t open on Wednesday, when it’s only usually closed on Tuesday. They once asked how to request more chips at the restaurant. Mas chips, por favor. Of course, I also didn’t know it was the same word, once; I had asked a shop owner back in Potrero, and she laughed at me, and I laughed at me, and it was nice, to laugh at me together. I think we were laughing at the same thing.
The Canadians seemed to think Kika would be back in a couple days. She was getting a stint. The operation itself would take some time, and beyond that, Kika was old. Seventy-something, someone had once said. She would have to be observed. A couple days would be too quick, but a few should do.
And it was odd, how the main fixtures of this place we had begun to understand as home suddenly disappeared, leaving traces of their absence like crumbs. An un-mopped floor. No wafts of burning garbage at dawn. Towels left to hang in the rain. Crackers on the free shelf long past the afternoon. A bunny, in a cage, on a tree. They weren’t gone, exactly—we expected them to be back at any moment, we kept getting told just another day, maybe two. It felt like they were just misplaced, really. Like if we looked hard enough, we would find clues they had just been where we now were, or they were simply exactly where we happened not to be, at any given moment; we were always riding their heels. We could stumble upon them any moment.
But as the days left and came, we grew more anxious, I guess. We started to wait for them to come back like kids waiting for the sound of the front door peeling back, and mom’s whispers, long after they’ve been put to bed by the sitter; long after dark.
I think Kika’s husband felt the same way, at first. I supposed something might be more serious, or wrong, when I saw him get home late that first night. He walked to his front door, not ten feet from the open kitchen, where I sat in a daze of sleepy boredom. He walked with his usual measured, warn gait. He went in, in the dark. He came back out. He banged a hammer against part of the frame that wasn’t sitting quite right, kept getting stuck when he tried to shut the door. He smoked a cigarette. He did not look over at me. He went back inside the house. He came out. He walked to the grassy field behind the shed and sat in a fold-out chair, in the dark, for a while, with a beer or a soda, it was too far and dim to tell. He went back inside his house. He turned out the lights. He sat in the dark.
The next day at breakfast, I watched him again. He was inside his house, staring out from the half-open door, I assume at the rain as it came down, wearing the same tan cowboy hat he always wears, with his blue jeans, and silver belt, and collared shirt. It hadn’t rained for weeks. It was the rain that brought the mud in; the rain Mayella never saw. It fell from the sky like an accident. Fast and hard and senseless. I didn’t watch him long. I felt like a voyeur and to stop.
He disappeared for a few days then. I was never sure whether or not he was in the house, or gone, in Monterrey, with the others, wherever they were. I wondered if one day I might wake up clutching an empty sleeping bag, Yoav and his chest and his nest of dreading curls gone. Gone to Monterrey, with the others. A place that feels so far away because I can’t get there, without a day of hitchhiking, four or more cars caught. It seems so far away, but it’s not. And I’m starting to wonder if they’re ever coming back.
We’ve built Buns a new home behind the kitchen, tucked up in a corner against the neighbor’s fence, composed of scraps we collected off the property: an old grate; a panel of glass, a window; concrete bricks, with open centers she can burrow; warped aluminum signs; weathered plastic display shelves still branded with a Mexican snack. The whole thing is about four feet wide and long, on a sparse patch of grass. She munches on green blades and scraps we toss in, and approaches your hands with a curious sniffle now, rather than cowering back, which I think is good. Healthy. Better than before.
Of course she escaped shortly after we rigged it. The tiniest spaces must be guarded with tinier spaces. We came back from climbing, only three hours gone, and her patch was empty. She’d eaten all the cilantro and left. It was almost dark when I first saw. My stomach tied itself up and I thought I was going to puke as I called out for Yoav. Buns is gone. Buns is gone!
I had thought it would be smart to put her back in her birdcage, just while we were away, unable to witness her sly squeezes, and now I circled in on that thought like a taunting bully. I had forgotten to do it, had been too distracted. Or, closer: I hadn’t been able to, when the time actually came, while watching the spring of her hind legs. Not in the middle of the day. Not in the middle of the sunny day when I’m going off climbing and all the dogs are running around and a horse is neighing and the chickens are hunting and pecking and hunting and pecking and everything is roaming and natural and vibrant right in front of her face.
Yoav said all the right things. All the things my swimming head never says, never recalls, refuses to acknowledge, when I may have let someone down, I may have failed, I may have chosen a different way than the one hindsight has stamped correct—a way I’d noted with an apathetic nod, then ignored.
He reminded me we had done the right thing. No one was taking care of it because no one cared about it, would miss it; it had been abandoned to die in that cage and its own filth through the fates of an oversight that could only exist in the absence of regard; or, in the chaos that ensues when another, more pressing emergency had taking precedence, and simple things must simply be left behind. Laundry left in the washer I later hung. Dishes in a sink I’ll never see. Tortilla’s molding in an unopened store. A bunny in a birdcage, hanging on a tree.
I knew the truth of what he said. We had saved the bunny, even if we later killed it through our own oversight, our own confidence, our own negligence, our own ignorance. It’s hard to pick which one when you know they’re all in a closed room chatting. But would the little girl understand? Was it her bunny? She glanced at it sometimes, and cooed conejo with a smile. Would she understand when we told her it had run away? Would she blame us? Would she hate us? I remembered it was always a half-glance, a half-smile. It was never Buns to her. Only conejo.
Whose was it, then? We’d heard someone once mention Mayella was taking care of it for someone else, on vacation. Would Mayella come back and see what we did, and forget, then? Forget the laughs; forget how Yoav wheeled in wood at her beckoning, to start a fire, aptly, without question or complaint; forget how we’d sweep and wipe and keep things clean knowing it made her life easier, and translate her notes, her orders for tidiness, for those gringos who didn’t understand her words, no matter how many gestures accompanied them; forget how we’d all gotten along in the afternoon heat, how we’d really tried to learn her story.
Would she hate us now, for making her life harder, for taking the privilege that had been left us simply because we could afford it? The time, the travel, the leisure, the satisfaction. Would she despise us, the two spoiled gringos who come into her town as if invited, as if we belonged anywhere we wanted to be, just like all the others, to live cheap at her mother’s house, even as it empties out. Would she hate us for our misguided pity, placed on something as inconsequential as a bunny’s pain, knowing full well what we know, what we can guess, as we watch the procession of faces, muttering things we don’t understand, the only word we recognize again and again, Kika.
I listened for the bunny’s shuffle in the dark. The goat, the horse, the dogs, the pounding music on the street, all too loud. I wondered if bunnies can return by scent or instinct to places they once sat, when they get scared, when it all becomes too loud and they need a moment to think. I wondered if she was too far gone now to find her way back, even if she wanted to. I wondered how long I had, to plan, to learn the words, to design the proper sentence to mutter when Mayella returned to her home and found the empty cage, and asked us, the only ones still around since she'd left, where was the bunny? What have we done?