Crossing the Rio Puerco

Every year, when late Spring brought the snowmelt from the San Juans, the Rio Puerco took a victim—just last year, Mercedes Guzman, who managed, in spite of her girth, to clamber out the driver’s side window of her battered minivan before the vehicle surrendered to the charging waters.  But never, in all his 78 years of living on the river, did Ildefonso think the Puerco would come for him, and not like this, not in his beloved little Toyota truck, 173,000 miles behind it, its faded blue hood now straining upward toward the cottonwoods’ green arms as the river surged and rose around it. Ildefonso felt a rush of regret for his little blue truck, groaning under the Puerco’s furious rise, and also for his heart, only just recovered from an operation this winter, now pounding heavily in his ears. Dear heart, he thought sadly, you have withstood so much; I did not want to part from you this way. He began the litany of his heart’s suffering and happiness, and as always his mind returned to Frances, his younger brother, now departed more than fifty-five years. How Frances had loved the Puerco, especially on late spring afternoons like this one, when the little river threw off its muddy meander and charged through the cottonwoods, and the horses, Frances’s little Appaloosa and Idlefonso’s big bay, snorted and pawed at the banks.

As the truck groaned and slipped again, he permitted himself a faint surge of resentment toward his daughter Paula, no doubt sitting in front of her computer in Santa Fe, satisfied that her constant haranguing about the virus had finally sent him to the hospital. How horrified Paula would be to see him now, he thought with satisfaction. After badgering him for a week about his cough and fever, she had persuaded him to drive to the clinic in Espanola. She might have spent some of that time driving the two hours north to see him, crossing the Puerco in her gleaming Range Rover, and re-crossing with him safely strapped in the seat next to her. She was a strong and capable woman, the family’s first college graduate, now a lawyer in Santa Fe, rushing back and forth from the criminal courthouse to represent unfortunates who, as far as Idlefonso could see, were a waste of her time and education. He sighed. Better to rush out here and spend a little time with her own father, not to mention her son, who at this moment was holed up in Ildefonso’s basement smoking weed with his buddies from Gallina.  

The truck’s rear end dropped violently into the water and Ildefonso’s head was thrown back, which is how he first saw the boy, on the other side of the river, arms outstretched toward the blue truck as with each step he teetered on the river’s slippery bottom, his jeans already soaked to the knees.  It is true that the boy, tall and lanky in his teenaged limbs, looked nothing like Frances, who had been sturdy and quick, with black eyes as luminous as the river’s own swirling waters. Yet there was surely something of Frances there, in the boy’s furious concentration, as he staggered against the river’s churning waters toward the blue pick up. Ildefonso tried to wave the boy back but his arm, heavy against the seat, would not move. “Go back, “ he whispered weakly. But Ildefonso knew that the boy, hip-deep now as he grasped the truck’s front bumper, would not go back. 

When the boy reached through the open window to pull Ildefonso from the front seat, Ildefonso looked into his face and saw that he was terrified, his green eyes wide, his lips blue from the shock of the cold waters. Ildefonso held his gaze for a moment and smiled, and the boy nodded his head, lips trembling. Ildefonso wished that he could pat the boy’s neck, reassure him with an encouraging word, but his body, though slight from age and illness, was heavy and would not animate. So he merely nodded as the boy’s long arms, surprising in their strength,  reached through the window to take hold of him, and now the boy, panting a little, was carrying him sturdily, his gaze already fixed on the river bank. In this moment Ildefonso felt that he could relax a little and did not have to worry about the boy–the boy had Frances’s determined way about him–and by the time they reached the bank his body had returned to him and his heart, muscular and sturdy, was beating strongly in his chest.  His feet, submerged in shoes that gushed water and mud, reached for the ground and just then the truck groaned heavily behind them. Ildefonso and the boy turned together to look. 

“I’m sorry to lose that truck, “ Ildefonso said, placing a hand on the boy’s arm, and the boy nodded solemnly. 

Dear Frances, Ildefonso thought, how I miss you. And very suddenly the world returned to him, through ears that had gone deaf but now roared with the Puerco’s rush, with the green commotion of the cottonwoods above them, and with the shout of a big jay behind them. He looked forward to his phone call with Paula, who would scold him and demand that he go to the hospital. But Ildefonso knew that he was quite well. There was no virus in his lungs. See how they expanded and contracted, at once fragile and tough, winged defenders of his old heart.   

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