When I was ten years old, my mother left me in Mexico with an uncle. He had a family and a farm. Where my uncle lived, the land and buildings were apart from each other. The land for crops ran along the largest river in the region. The buildings where people and their animals lived were together in the town. The town was small enough for everyone to know everyone else’s name and business. I remember walking from one end of the town to the other in a couple of hours.
My uncle’s adobe home was attached to other homes on the same block. The house was arranged in three columns perpendicular to the dirt street in front of it. The first column was made up of three rooms: two bedrooms at each end and an open patio between them where my grandfather took naps on the floor. The second column was a roofless walkway with a wooden front gate at one end and, at the other end, a gate to the huge corral that was behind his home. My uncle walked his donkeys and cows through this hall twice every day: once on his way out to the field and a second time when he returned home in the evening. The third column was made up of four rooms: a living room where most of the family slept, an empty bedroom, a kitchen, and bathroom.
I don’t think I have ever been as free as I was that summer. There was no alarm clock to wake me in the morning. I maintained my hygiene at my own discretion. Mealtimes where when someone gave me food. I devised projects for myself to kill time. Many of these projects got me into trouble. When it was so dark I feared being eaten by stray dogs, I ran back to my uncle’s home. I slept wherever I believed I’d be safest from mosquitoes, but they always found me and bragged about it in my ear.
I don’t know what inspired my aunt to plant a seed in my mind one day. I can only guess she was unaware or dissatisfied by the dangers to which I exposed myself. She told me of a secret oasis called La Guaje located somewhere within the vast desert that surrounded the town. She said there were waterfalls in it which made possible the growth of beautiful plants and a variety of delicious fruit. She said most people knew about it, but did not know its location and could not tell me exactly where it was.
To appreciate the allure of La Guaje, one must know that food was scarce. Most people ate a modest meal once or twice a day. People only fed me because I was a novelty, and the missing filter between my brain and mouth made me an unwitting entertainer. Fruit was such a commodity that street venders sold it as a treat. Days before, an older cousin chased me around the neighborhood attempting to whip me with his belt for eating a watermelon out of his garden. Fruit was just not easy to get. The thought of a fruit feeding frenzy alone in some secret paradise was tantalizing.
One morning, I asked my grandfather if I could borrow his donkey. I preferred my uncle’s donkey because my grandfather’s beast was stubborn and bit. However, my uncle worked every day. Being over seventy years old, my grandfather only worked when he wanted to. On that particular morning, he planned to hang out all day with other ancient ones along a wall by the church. I took whatever guttural sound he made as an approval of my request. I saddled up the uncooperative donkey, filled a canteen, and headed into the desert to find La Guaje.
I had no idea where I was going. I went in the direction I though my aunt pointed. Perhaps she only gestured in a general direction. I may not have been paying attention. I rode my grandfather’s donkey on the dusty road past homes that had been brightly painted once a long time ago. The steel bars on the windows were decorative trying to hide their true purpose. Heavy steel front doors were already left open for the day so people, flies, and chickens could wander in and out freely.
Eventually, I reached the only paved road in town and crossed it. The last and only sign of civilization on the other side was an abandoned school building. Hills scattered about in front of me obstructed my view of the desert. When I got around them and saw the vast brown earth and brush that extended until the base of some gray mountains far off in the distance, I considered whether I should be heading out alone.
I rode the donkey most of the morning. He was used to a short trip to the fields in the morning; a day of leisure, food, and drink; and then a short trip home bearing a heavy load. He stubbornly wanted to take the same route on the trip to the fields and on the way back. It got boring not having to figure out the way; but sometimes we were attacked by dogs on the route.
Near noon, the donkey decided he’d carried me far enough to nowhere. He wouldn’t continue unless I walked and pulled him along. So, I walked on the mix of powdery sand and gravel. The short plants capable of living in the desert soil were rude to my exposed skin, so I avoided touching them.
The sun burned the back of my neck as I continued to walk toward the gray mountains in the distance. I was sure I would find La Guaje in those mountains. I couldn’t imagine waterfalls in a flat desert. I finished my water by mid-afternoon, but didn’t worry about it because I didn’t know better. I wondered if the donkey was thirsty. I looked back at him to assess his face. He gave me such a look of bitter indignation that I had to look away immediately. I was hungry too, but glad for it because there would be plenty of room for fruit.
As our shadows grew longer and the ground beneath me cooled, I began to worry that I might not reach the mountains. Then, the sun set. I realized the trip back to my uncle’s home would take as long as it took to me to arrive wherever it is I was. My plan for getting back to my uncle’s house was simple: walk away from the gray mountains. I regret I did not anticipate the day would end and I would be unable to see the mountains or anything around me.
My mind went wild in the dark. At any second, scorpions were going to run up my legs and into my pants. They would sting my butt cheeks or more sensitive targets. Rattlesnakes were going to sink their fangs into my calves. I was going to be devoured alive by coyotes. I would cry as they nibbled on my arm and the donkey would look away ashamed.
I mounted the donkey for safety. He bucked once in protest, but I held on. He turned back and bit my leg. I deserved it for the trouble I had gotten us into and forgave him. The night sky was crowded with stars flaunting beauty I could not appreciate. The desert at night was loud and terrifying. In the middle of this enormous dark world we stood: a couple of jackasses. I don’t know how long fear kept me awake, but fatigue won in the end and I fell asleep on the donkey’s back.
The next morning, I fell off the donkey when it lowered its head to drink water from a public water trough by a street near my uncle’s home. Two women, one who swept the sidewalk and another who sprayed the dirt road with water to keep the dust down, stared at me. Stupidity so early in the morning must have been prohibited, so I waved at them apologetically from the ground. I got up, grabbed the reigns, and led the donkey to my uncle’s home. I was enormously relieved the donkey had walked back to town as I slept.
My aunt saw me walking through the front gate. She asked me if I’d had breakfast. I didn’t answer and looked at her face waiting for her to ask me why I hadn’t come home last night. Instead, she told me to take the saddle off the donkey and put him in the corral. She told me to go eat breakfast at another aunt’s house and to avoid my grandfather for a few days. I had worried him so much he had become angry about his missing donkey.
Years later, when I was an adult, I remembered La Guaje for no reason in particular. I was sure if I tried again, I’d be able to find it. I wondered whether the word guaje meant oasis, so I looked it up. Oasis translated from English to Spanish is oasis. I thought guaje might instead be a Native American word, so I looked up the word specifically. I found that guaje means sucker. My aunt sent me on a snipe hunt.