Hanna awoke to the sound of neighing and barking. She slipped on her rubber boots, wrapped a thin robe around her boney body, grabbed the shotgun and walked out of the trailer into the moon-drenched night. Damn coyotes, she muttered. Or that blue roan stallion nosing after her mares like he did right about this time last night. The pit bulls quieted as soon as she approached, wiggling and whimpering in anticipation of her touch, a kind word, a dinner scrap. The mares and foals and the pair of old geldings still stirred in their pens, nickering softly as they heard her footsteps, hoping for an extra sheaf of hay as a midnight treat. Monarch, the big Arab, stood stiff at attention, head held high, ears straining forward, tail arched, skin quivering. She eased her hand onto his slick hide. “What is it, big guy? What do you hear?” she asked in a low voice. He broke his vigil for an instant to acknowledge her presence by quickly sniffing her arm, and then whipped his big head back to stare into the night, stamping his front hooves with worry.
Hanna walked to the back of the pens, trying to cock her ears as acutely as Monarch could, listening into the night for coyote yips or the percussion of hooves off in the sage. Although the moon was close to full, she couldn’t see but for a few yards and the shadows cast by the chamisa and sage were deceiving. Her eyes had dimmed over the years, and her ears had dulled from so many years working heavy machinery at the mine when she was young and spritely, so she had to rely on senses other than the regular five. A sixth or, better yet, seventh sense, her father had always called it, the kind you can’t really explain to someone who doesn’t already understand, the kind that confirms what you just know.
But the prairie was quiet that spring night. No wind, which was a blessing, and no sounds except the ones she knew came from her own menagerie: Monarch, the old stallion who, although boasting a fine pedigree, had endured poor conditions for such a long time that he looked much older than his age; Rosie, the crippled Morgan mare she’d rescued seven years ago, standing close to her new filly Cupid; Windigo, the recently rescued mare who didn’t trust anyone but Hannah, and her three-month-old colt Spirit; Bella, her oldest rescue horse, who stood hugely pregnant with her head drooping and belly sagging, miserable and sore-footed as she waited for her time; and the two old mustang geldings whom she had rescued from her cruel neighbor to the south, the one who had told her that if he could not break them to saddle, he would truck them to Mexico to the slaughter house. And then the dogs, twelve of them now, mostly rescued pit bulls, their ears torn and muscled bodies scarred, whom she had gentled one by one with the only fool-proof method she knew, the way her father had taught her: love. Love, and a giant dose of patience. And the three feral cats who only allowed themselves to be touched after she spooned out their supper. And of course, the two house dogs—a miniature dachshund and a Chihuahua—and the four house cats probably curled up in the vanishing warmth of her bed.
As Hanna stood listening to the night, it slowly began to occur to her that there was no distant whine of traffic. Usually in the wee hours when she would step outside into the starry night, she’d hear a trucker winding up or down to take the small hill coming off of Wild Horse Mesa to the east. In fact right about now was when Mr. Henderson from Matorral would usually fire up his old Peterbilt with a load of big alfalfa bales to truck down to the dairies outside of Clovis, NM. She’d see his running lights and hear the distant diesel rumble as he headed east before he turned south to Taos. Like so many other truckers, Henderson knew that the best time to negotiate his big rig through the narrow streets of Taos was when most of Taos was asleep.
Maybe tonight Henderson was curled around his wife, dreaming of what else he could do to keep his farm afloat and the banks at arm’s reach. Maybe he was out checking his cows; Hanna knew from visiting the post office where Mrs. Henderson worked that Arnold was an insomniac and often went out into the night to check on his creatures, just like she did. But even if Henderson was snoring away, there should be one or two other lonely truckers on the road. Tonight there were none.
She let the pit bulls nuzzle her hand through the fencing of their pens and then threw a few handfuls of hay to the horses. They quieted, chewing the dry leaves with contentment, all except for Monarch, who still stood stiffly, staring off in the direction of Matorral. “What is it, big guy?” she asked again, and then looked as hard as she could in the direction his ears pointed. She remembered her father saying that sometimes what you need to notice is what’s absent. What am I not seeing? she muttered.
Lights, she realized. There were no lights from Matorral to the southwest, or from Manzanita to the southeast, or even from Alamosa to the north. Even with a moonlit night, there was usually the earthbound glow of civilization, a soft artificially pink fog visible even from way out here in the borderlands, the desolate prairie scrub of the southern edge of the San Luis Valley.
Tonight there were no lights, not even the 24/7 light her cruel neighbor to the south had installed, much to her dismay. True darkness at night, isolation, privacy, silence. Or at least as close as one can come to finding these qualities in the madness of today’s civilization. These were what she needed, why she had chosen this desolate place, why she knew she would die here when her time came. That, and undeveloped land with any infrastructure—no water, no electricity, no modern conveniences and hardly a serviceable road—was the only kind of land she could afford. It pained her that her neighbor had dished out a considerable sum to bring electricity to his place, and that now light intruded into her world.
But tonight even that light was dark. Good riddance, she muttered as she returned to the trailer and crawled into her feline-warmed bed.