FIFTEEN YEARS AGO my best friend and I drove east on I-40. We were headed for a writing conference in central Oklahoma. It was time for my friend to unpack his gear and make us coffee. When we saw the Cuervo highway exit in New Mexico, we pulled off. What better place to drink my friend’s fierce dark brew than a dirt road on which we might be attended by fierce dark birds.
There were no crows or ravens, but there was an old New Mexico cemetery. The tombstones were melting back into the pink-gray dirt. There were stone lambs weathered to gray lumps on some of the markers. What dates we could make out told us that many of the bones gone to pure mineral under them had been the bones of ninas y ninos. The names of the grown-up dead might have been given in hopes of bestowing virtues and blessings. Fulgencio. Rosendo. Adora. Epifania. Dulce. Shining One. Path of Fame. Beloved. Manifestation. Sweetness.
The oldest stones were carved with roses and crosses and circles. There was a rusted iron grill around a family grave. More roses, plastic and faded, glowed pink and pale orange in the mid-morning light. The silence was crystalline.
We drank our coffee, talked, and were quiet; then we gathered up the plastic flowers that had blown into the ditch between the cemetery and the dirt road. We scattered them on the oldest graves, and on the most recent burial. There was no last name. Only this: Juan. Our brave son. 1950-1968.
We headed back on the dirt road. A town rose on the hillside to the east. We drove slowly up through its six streets. Houses and sheds were slumping back into the earth. Lights burned in perhaps five of the twenty houses. We wondered who lived there. We made up stories that the families left were the grandchildren of vaqueros and miners. We imagined asking about buying a house, and learned later that only those from the original families would be allowed to own property in that place.
Winter of ‘07 I drove east to visit my daughter. I was alone. My finest road buddy and I had parted company. It was midnight by the time I came to the Cuervo exit. I was tired and the moon was just past new. I pushed through the last miles to Tucumcari and slept in the Buckaroo Motel. I woke to a thread of pale green seaming the eastern horizon. A mother cat and her teenage kittens twined around my ankles as I went for coffee. The owner’s young daughter ran to get me milk. The cats and I drank our morning beverages on a plastic bench in the chill air.
I ate cheese enchiladas and eggs in a mom ‘n’ pop café down the road, filled my thermos with coffee, and headed east into a weather-blurred silver morning.
I timed my return trip so I could visit Fulgencio, Rosendo, Adora, Epifania, Dulce, and Juan. I slept again in the Buckaroo Motel. Again, the mother cat and three kittens who lived in the laundry next to my room greeted me as I brought my coffee to the bench. For a few minutes, I felt less alone.
I drove west in the growing light. By the time I came to the Cuervo exit, the sky behind me was soft tangerine. I found my way past the hillside houses and pulled up to the cemetery. There was a new fence around the graves. A road had been bulldozed up to a new gate. Epifania’s marker had been set upright. A vase of roses tilted at its base. The flowers were frozen. I righted the vase.
Again I gathered plastic lilies and marigolds from the ditch and scattered them over the graves. Again I drove back through the little town. All the houses but one were breaking apart into the earth and air. The authorities had tacked ‘Condemned’ signs on the doors. There seemed to be only one story to tell about Cuervo. It was the story echoing in my smaller life.
This morning I woke to bone deep cold. The fire in the woodstove was dead. I went to the woodpile in my front entry. I bent to pick up a log and saw that the floor under the edge of the woodpile had crumbled down into the dirt below.
Cuervo surrounds us. My cabin is becoming earth. Air. A crow. We are winging our way into nothing known.