I liked the big tadpoles best—the feel of them squirming against my palms. At seven, I was captivated with pollywogs and the tiny frogs they became. My secret place was teeming with them.
A stream ambled past the corral on my family’s Santa Barbara ranch, shaded by immense sycamores. Before the culvert, where the water ran under the road, the creek bed jutted out, exposing hundreds of flat stones. Ferns lined the walls of the tiny cove, emitting a pungent, lively smell. Adjacent to the culvert was a large rock, perfect for sitting on while dipping my feet into the cool current. A small pool formed where the water lay still, allowing pollywogs to grow. I would squat on my rock and scoop up the tadpoles, several at a time. Before the water trickled out of my hands, I’d dip them in again. I hated seeing the tadpoles flap as they struggled to get back in the creek. I wanted them all to live.
“Ana!” Aunt Rosa was calling me. This had to mean the cattle were coming and I needed to get in the truck. My father and Uncle Scotty had gone on horseback to round them up for their annual pinkeye treatments and leptospirosis vaccinations. Little kids were like dogs to cows, and I’d likely be kicked if I got stranded in the herd. I’d been taught from the time I could walk how to escape a charging cow: I could sidestep it at the last minute and the cow would barrel past. However, while cows were predictable, bulls would break out on their own and charge for no reason.
I needed to get in the truck.
I cradled my pollywog as long as I dared, knowing Aunt Rosa was waiting for me, and released it back into the stream. I dried my feet on my pant legs, pulled my shoes on, and shoved my socks into my pocket to save time. As I stood up my foot slipped off the rock, sinking into the creek bed. Mud poured from my shoe when I pulled it out of the water and climbed onto the road. The minute I saw Aunt Rosa, framed in the truck window, I knew I’d taken too long.
Rosa was my favorite aunt. Her laugh was full and frequent. Her black hair and rich brown skin showed her Hispanic blood more clearly than my mother’s. And she had something the rest of us lacked—style. In jeans, boots, and a button-down shirt she carried herself with an indefinable flair.
I hurried toward my aunt, stopping to pick cockleburs along the way. Grown-ups hated cockleburs because the big, thorny seeds would burrow in the cows’ necks, causing huge abscesses. I hoped my good deed would make up for my tardiness, but when I opened the pickup I could feel her disapproval.
“It looks like you’ve been in the creek,” she said, glaring down at me. I was confused. Of course I’d been in the creek—where else would I have been? But I quickly shook my head.
“No I wasn’t.”
“I think you were.” I wanted the not liking me in her voice to go away.
“Nuh uh.” My protest continued as I observed the trail of muck I’d smeared on the front seat.
What did it matter? Mom never complained about dirt. She’d put down a towel, remind us to check for ticks, and that was that. That was the difference between Mom and Aunt Rosa, who liked things to be clean and tidy. I figured that’s why she was cranky sometimes.
“Nuh uh,” I said again.
We sat in silence listening to the distant bawling of the herd. I kept glancing at Aunt Rosa, wanting her to look happy to be with me, but she only stared ahead.
We drove the cows several times a year. In the winter and spring, we moved them from pasture to pasture when they wore down the grass. Other times we had brandings, our annual round-up and, like today, vaccinations. The grown-ups sounded worried when they talked about leptospirosis—something about the cows losing calves.
I gazed at the green bluffs angling up sharply on either side of the canyon. I loved these hills, especially now, after the rain. I could see poppies, aster, and lupine. Later the hills would become a blanket of yellow mustard. In the evening, after a day of work, we would stop on our way home and pick mustard greens for dinner. Mom would let us climb the hill as far as we could—high enough to see the ocean—and roll down sideways, encountering rocks, thistles, and dried manure along the way. But these were nothing compared to the thrill of the speed and our dizziness when we stood up.
Today Uncle Scotty and my father were bringing the livestock down from the east pasture. I could hear the moos getting louder while the first cows appeared on the crest of the ridge. Dad was whooping at the animals, and I knew by his tone he’d be using the whip when he got to the corral—probably the hot shot as well. The electric shocks were meant to encourage cows into the chute when they wouldn’t budge. But Dad would zap them even when they had no room to maneuver.
I hated that sound in his voice, when he was ready to hurt something. I hated his hands—those stubby fingers—the way they twitched when he held the whip; and I hated the look on his face when he operated on cows in the chute, the set of his mouth as he palpated an abscess, lifting the knife out of the antiseptic solution.
The cattle were lumbering down the hill by the dozens now. I liked watching their hooves sink in the mud with each step, and the sucking noise when they pulled them out.
The cows started across the bridge toward the corral where Aunt Rosa and I were parked. My mother had taken her post inside the corral, ready to open the door to the chute. The animals surrounded us, hollering at one another, while I searched for my favorite cow, “Number Four.” She was the only cow that would let us pet her. During feedings she would stand calmly and let us stroke her back. Her ear tag had the number “4” but I could spot her from the curls on her forehead. I looked for her whenever I was near the herd.
At last my father and uncle emerged, trailing the herd, their cowboy hats shielding their faces. Uncle Scotty rode Boxer, a sturdy, red and white spotted workhorse. Dad rode Danny, who had belonged to my grandfather. Danny understood the ranch better than we did and could find his way home from any point among the hundreds of acres.
As Dad and Uncle Scotty crossed the bridge toward us, I decided to take a nap. The cab was getting warmer. It would be a while until all the cows entered the corral and lined up for the chute. I started to drift when a sudden movement awakened me. Aunt Rosa opened the door and leapt out of the pickup, a look of panic on her face. I followed her gaze to a bull on the bridge. It had turned around, confronting the horses that could not back up fast enough to escape.
Although no one had explained the technical differences between cows and bulls, I knew a bull when I saw one. They had broad scruffy faces, thick mounds of necks, and bulky torsos. I’d heard stories of bulls charging the neighboring ranchers; one even lunged at someone sitting on our corral during round-up, breaking several boards. A cow ready to charge would raise her head, but a bull would lower his, like this one was doing. I’d seen their posturing before, the head cocked to the side, the pawing and loosening clouds of dirt, but I hadn’t seen a bull follow through. Until now.
The bull bolted toward my father’s horse, head down, horns forward. My father jerked the reins in a vain attempt to turn around, but the bull met Danny’s side, ramming itself underneath him, lifting the horse off his legs. My father, suspended above the herd, teetered back and forth then toppled, leaving Danny strung over the bull’s back. I waited for the thud of my father’s landing, but it didn’t come. He missed the bridge and, with a splash, hit the rocky creek below.
Just like that, he was gone. Gone. The word tumbled down my throat, burrowing in my chest, warming my stomach, and cooling the place below that was always too hot; then it rose up again, cradling my heart.
I’d yearned for my father to disappear. On the days he spent alone on the tractor, plowing the fields, his face brown with dirt, I went with Mom to take his lunch. I had to pretend I was happy to see him, but I hoped he’d never come back. On the nights he missed dinner, seeing his patients in the hospital—I wanted him to stay gone; but later, I’d feel the sink of defeat when he came to my bed, pulling down the blankets, insisting.
“Peter!” my mom yelled and ran onto the bridge. The herd parted to swallow the bull as it retreated from Danny, leaving the horse unharmed. Aunt Rosa ran to the bridge, oblivious of the herd, and took Danny’s reins. Uncle Scotty dismounted Boxer and joined them to stare into the creek. “Peter!” someone kept yelling. I sat up, leaned forward on my knees, and pressed against the windshield.
I wanted Mom to come get me, to confirm it was really true. I wanted her to come away from the creek, slow and easy, like she felt free too, and drive me to my favorite restaurant, Foster’s Freeze, and share her french fries with me. I wanted her to tuck me in and read Winnie the Pooh, the part where Piglet gives Eeyore a balloon. I wanted her to imitate Eeyore the way she sometimes would, and fall asleep on my bed.
But she didn’t. She stayed at the edge of the creek bed with my aunt and uncle.
Then I saw him. First the top of his head, wet with mud, then the rest of him climbing up the embankment, dripping with creek water, his denim shirt clinging to his rib cage, his jeans drenched.
My father was back. And he was fine. Not dead, not even injured.
Mom and Aunt Rosa ran toward him, helping him over the rocks. “Thank goodness,” my mom cried as she led him into the corral to sit down.
Number Four came by the pickup, but I didn’t care. Ignoring the rules about being in the herd alone, I opened the door, darted through the cows, and dove through the barbed-wire fence the way my mother had taught me.
“Ana!” she called.
I didn’t answer.
I ran along the road and stepped down the embankment to my rock, where I lingered, listening to the murmur of the stream. Eventually I removed my shoes and crouched down to get some pollywogs. The first couple of times I only caught small ones. But the third time I got a great big one, its head already bulging. I held it in my hands, dipping it in the water over and over as I pondered the image of my father rising out of the creek.
Then I flattened my fingers and let the water drain out. I stared at the pollywog as it fought and flailed. Eventually it stopped moving, and finally, I felt still inside. I waited a long time, and only when I was certain it was dead did I drop it back in the water and watch it disappear, bobbing in the current, out of sight.