by Talia Cohen

The thirty burros were the last straw. I already couldn’t sleep because the road kept unspooling in front of me whenever I closed my eyes, and Thomas’s macaroni-bean special added its own sour notes to my internal chaos. I launched myself up off the narrow little cot and banged my shin on something before I found the light switch.

Those animals. They’d made the whole scene even queasier when I first arrived this afternoon and spotted them. They were huddled together in a too-small paddock behind the house, enclosed by assorted hunks of metal roofing and up-ended pallets arranged against four dead trucks, all on bare dirt. Thomas and Petra had only recently acquired them–I learned the story at dinner from a guy named Sico, who somehow came as a package deal with the burros and now slept in a trailer at the edge of Thomas’s property. Sico rescued the beasts from some sort of lethal repossession and then apparently he had needed rescuing right along with them. Out of misery or orneriness–I didn’t know–the whole thirty of them filled the night with a creaking, mooing yammer like the soundtrack to hell. When I jumped out of bed I half-believed I’d go outside and release them. They deserved to be let loose, and I deserved a decent sleep.

Thomas and Petra–both apparently dried out, maybe due to settling on this desiccated land–had left our moist, in-grown Northwest forest not long before and made their way down to this dusty place, trailing drama the whole way. Petra’s drunken partying back home had been noteworthy, but she hadn’t lived there long enough to count and nobody stayed very interested in her until she began having an affair with Thomas. Grimly married to a talented, unhappy woman, Thomas had pursued alcohol as a private hobby. He’d kept it well-hidden until a knee injury forced him off his feet with his wife as sole gatekeeper of food and drink, and two days later he had to be rushed to the hospital with DTs and seizures.

Within ten minutes after I showed up on Thomas and Petra’s doorstep, we were all sitting around a homemade plank table pretending we were old friends having a normal visit. There’s an art to making conversation where so much has to go unsaid. I guess we improve those skills after a few decades of living, but this evening tested our limits.

The thing was I resented Thomas as much as I liked him. I was busy trying to put a semi-ex-wife behind me, who had put Thomas behind her-maybe-a few years earlier, but I never trusted those barriers to hold. Life in a small town can be exhausting.

So we talked about the fossils they’d collected in the ashy hills visible from their front yard, and Sico–who seemed to have turned over all burro-care duties to Petra–held forth about the authorities and what they had done to the land they seized from him. His narrative was strong, if limited, and he pursued it as relentlessly as someone trying to push-start a busted car.

Even before Petra threw open the door and welcomed me with a sticky kiss on the cheek, I already regretted stopping there. My solitary sojourn through Baja had achieved the parallel goals of wearing me out and scouring my mind of leftover marital brambles, and now I could feel a new set of mental burrs landing and getting stuck. I could have stayed in a motel that night, but I’m drawn to certain disaster scenes, like how you finger a bruise.

I’d gotten hungry, driving all the way from Mexicali on nothing but MiniMart crap, and pulled into a tavern parking lot hoping for a burger. I called Thomas’s cell number to see if he’d even answer, and he told me he’d just cooked his new specialty, and besides I had to meet Sico. And Petra would take it personally if I didn’t eat dinner with them, and we couldn’t have that. Walking around the front of my truck, I saw a padlock on the tavern door. So that was that.

Their house was off a dead-end road, past a couple of auto junkyards. One of those spots where it takes an act of will to perceive good open space instead of a godforsaken smear of earth that no one cares enough about to make into something. Land free for the having, its value evaporated with all the moisture.

The main part of the house was old, old enough to be built in classic two-foot-thick adobe style–but the kitchen that we ate in was just a lean-to of wood added on. It smelled of onions and had a sheet of clear plastic duct-taped over a window opening above the sink.

The town barely existed as a town. Mostly it was a security station, built around a border-patrol outpost. Look up photos of it online, all you see is the massive fence along its edge. La migra and illegals, the terrifying games of hide and seek played for keeps.

Thomas had done plenty of kinds of work in his life, and he used to occasionally show an offbeat resourcefulness that surprised me. I found myself hoping this improbable excuse for a life was only camouflage for what he was really engaged in: something brave and worthwhile, maybe some kind of modern-day underground railroad. Maybe the burros were part of his cover story.

You could stand at their back door and see the border fence, not even that far away. In my mind it was shrouded in a hazy menace, a power grid that would electrocute you if you came anywhere near it, or take video of you that would show up instantly in agents’ rifle sights. I wondered if there were tunnels under it, or if it cut down deep into the earth, walling off all burrowing creatures. But Thomas and Petra told me that out in the hills, the fence just stopped. There the only barriers were invisible: satellites or heat sensors or drones that detect movement. Half the people you saw in town had uniforms on.

But I don’t think Thomas was doing anything as real as smuggling. He seemed to have embraced retirement as a new calling, had swapped out his beat-up jacket and work-boots for a bright Mexican shirt, leather sandals, and an official walking stick because of his bad knee. I was bothered by the sight of how his hands had gone all soft, but that’s partly because I was jealous: as soon as I get home I’ve got weeks of plumbing jobs ahead, crawling under people’s houses to repair frozen pipes and make back the money I spent on this road trip.

After propelling myself out of the pointless bed, I walked into the empty kitchen in my underwear and t-shirt. There was no wine in their house, no beer. They’d already made a point of that at dinner; way too much conversation about it, awkward and self-praising. Thomas was more linear now, I guess, but I liked him better as a drunk. And Petra–oh, whatever. I did my part, was decent. What do I know: maybe they needed the words if they couldn’t have the substance. They served a god-awful Mexican brand of orange soda at dinner that I’d managed to avoid through my whole three weeks in Baja. Not only that, but I’d tossed all my weed into a ditch before crossing the border, even the bottles of THC-spiked lemonade that was my Baja friends’ specialty. This night had no escape hatch.

They had art on the walls of their kitchen. Fruit-label posters thumbtacked up, and a couple of not-very-good paintings in frames. I remembered from years ago that Thomas said he’d done some art once and I felt embarrassed for him. I couldn’t exactly put my finger on the creepiness of this place, the sense of it being like a stage set. I mean, I got part of it. Thomas and I both used to have wives. Both of them were still up in that little forest town now. Claustrophobic or gorgeous, depending how you looked at it, but my roots were sunk too deep up there now for moving to even be a question. Or at least moving more than I had, setting up a yurt in a mossy clearing down the road from what had been home and scrabbling to do the whole starting-over routine one last time, be a good neighbor, shed the self I’d come to hate. Thomas’s wife meanwhile was turning bitter at the core like a fermenting acorn or an old stone, and liking me just a little too well. I’d fix her water system, rebuild her goat shed, take the checks she wrote me and clear out of there.

The moon was almost full, making a flat light through the window plastic. All its natural mystery seemed rectified and rendered ordinary. I got a glass of water at the sink and went back to my windowless cubby room to get some pants and shoes on. The burros were still raising a ruckus and it was time to do something about them.

I figured if I did let them loose they’d probably just take a walk and come back, or that at least they’d be easy enough to round up. The border patrol probably had infra-red indexing on every living creature within a hundred miles, so it’s not as if anything could wander off and get lost.

Outside, I cut my hand on a broken fender as I struggled to move sheet metal silently out of the way. The burros all crowded around to watch me, being quiet for once. Not that they had much choice besides crowding. I fucking hate it when animals are cooped up; there’s just never an excuse for it, it’s nothing but pure selfishness. Besides, I had to let something loose in this town.

They just stood there and stared at the opening I made in their fence, so I shoved one hard on its rump. Then I thought about getting kicked and backed away. When Petra and Thomas had shown me the burros earlier today, there was one that had no ears. I asked about it, and they said a coyote had started eating it while it was being born, and in the time it took Sico to shoot the coyote, the ears were already eaten. I looked for that one now, but there were too many and the light wasn’t good enough. I jumped up and down behind them, waving my arms like a lunatic, trying to shoo them through the opening without making noise. Finally I picked up some little rocks and tossed them against the butt of the one in the lead. That made him head through the door I made. The rest of them all followed then, filing meekly through and walking out into the night. Adios, burros. Hope you find water. Or wild cousins to run around the hills with.

The night was like a blanket pulled over my head and it was hard to breathe. When I came back into the house, Petra was standing at the kitchen window. She was lit by that skim-milk moonlight, her nightgown a soft smudge of white in the shadows.

“That was quite a dance you did out there. I thought the Kachina spirits had come to haunt the place.”

“I couldn’t sleep,” I said.

“They’ll get thirsty.”

“I’m thirsty,” I answered.

She was holding a drink, and she picked up a second glass before walking over to me, close enough that I could smell the tequila and see the dark curves above her loose white neckline rising and falling. I wondered if I’d have to fend her off, and if I would. We went out to the front porch where the night was a flood of moon pouring over my skin. My hand hurt where it was cut, and I sucked on the bloody place to clean it.

She reached behind a planter thing that was against the porch railing, and pulled out a bottle. She poured herself a new drink while I tasted the one she handed me. No water in it. It was perfect.

“Are you sure Thomas doesn’t have his own stash?” I asked her.

“I love him because he doesn’t suspect me,” she said.

We drank silently, standing out there and watching the moon. The heat was heavy on our skin. I thought about being naked with her, wondered if it would stitch together the edges of this trip and make a cover to shut out what I’d be heading back to.

She tilted her glass high and held it there, catching moonlight on the silhouette of her throat while she waited for the last slow drops. She moved toward me, lifting her gown so the lower part of her bared body was against me. I breathed her in without moving my hands to touch her. Want. Yes. But I’d let out what I’d needed to, and now stood emptied.

And strangely, I sensed it wasn’t really an offer. That this was as was as far as it would go, this one naked touch was the complete gift. I couldn’t say how I knew that. It lasted a long time, the touch of her softness so still. Breathing together.

But it was also a way to push me out of the house. I wasn’t going to get any sleep now, that was obvious. Her skin burned the retina of my mind’s eye, even if I knew it was only reflected light. I was already dressed, anyway.

I went back in the bedroom and put my things into the backpack: there wasn’t much, just an extra shirt and my glasses, a map, my phone–and headed back out of the bedroom. She was still standing there at the porch railing, looking out. Her glass was half-full again.

When I left, I stopped for a minute on the top step, but she didn’t look at me. I put my stuff in the cab of my pickup and started it. I didn’t see any of the burros as I drove out of town. I wasn’t sorry I let them out; I knew if they wanted water, they’d go back home.

Talia Cohen is originally from California. She studied anthropology in college and is fascinated with the ways in which people and landscapes affect each other. When she’s not in a classroom or at a keyboard, she can be found out in the field, observing the behavior of creatures in their natural habitats.