I had popped my knee — it sounded like chicken bones breaking when it went, and a sheet of white pain blanked me out. I fell to my side and gasped. Several of the missionaries carted me off to a clinic. Even after six months, my leg was weak, the knee very tender. Sometimes I still limped, especially on days like today, riding 300 miles through the back country, in and out of valleys in the central highlands of northern Baja. Hours spent cramped in a van with other
people, then hauling 100-pound sacks of food into orphanages, made the leg stiff and sore.
I was walking around the end of a low barbed-wire fence, thinking I'd try to climb over it on my way back. The kids at the orphanage had run up to me, shouting something about a monkey on the roof of the school next door. I couldn't believe it — I’d seen a lot of things at the orphanages, but never a monkey.
We climbed up the outside of the building on wooden ladders, and there, on the roof, was a monkey. He was little and black — but skin-black; all his hair was gone. It was a brutally hot day. around noon.
The monkey was screaming. He had a chain around his neck, and a boy had a hold of the end of it and was swinging him around, choking him. I slapped the chain from the boy’s hand, and the monkey thumped to the roof. The kids all stopped laughing and stared at me in disbelief. The monkey ran to my ankle and climbed up my leg, chittering.
“Get out of here!" I said to them. “Go on! Leave him alone!”
They backed away and filtered down, off the roof. The monkey climbed up into my arms and wrapped his tail around my biceps. He put out a hand and stroked my jaw, putting his lips out in a kiss, cooing. My leg was still stiff, so I had trouble sitting down. There was a post in the middle of the roof — his chain was attached to it. I put my back against it and slid down. The cement was hot; the post was the only source of shade up there.
The monkey reclined in my arms. He was trembling, his skin as hot and sticky as overheated vinyl.
The countryside was burned yellow by the sun. In the distance, a truck raised a plume of dust.
Smoke rose from the hills.
I’d blow in the monkey’s face. He would close his eyes, tilt back his head, and stick out his tongue. His tail was thin and surprisingly muscular; it never let go its grip on my arm. He liked my whiskers; he ran his finger across my cheeks.
He was panting. There was a can of water. I gave him one drop, then another. I used my body to shield him from the sun. The truck’s dust hung in the air, unmoving. It looked like trees.
In about an hour, a big boy climbed onto the roof followed by a flock of little kids. The monkey was his. When he reached for it, the monkey tried to bite him. It scrambled up my neck and screamed when they tried to pull it off. The boy dragged it away from me with the chain. As I climbed down, I could hear it shrieking, the chain clanking on the cement.
I wanted to get away from there. One of the orphanage boys climbed on my back. I decided to step over the barbed-wine fence instead of going around it. My knee gave out halfway across, and I fell back into the wire. It tore my thigh open, and blood spurted out.
The boy helped me across the fence with a spooked look on his face. Little boys always stare at blood like it’s a miracle.
I went into the bathroom where Pastor Von was bathing the orphanage boys.
“Drop your pants,” he said.
We could see the fat inside my leg through the cut. “Looks good,” Von said.
One of the gringos in there cried, “Jeez!”
Von washed it out with hot water and held it open with two fingers as he squeezed antiseptic into it. (Such instant medicine was common: once, at the same orphanage, a kid somehow tore a perfect pyramid of meat out of my knuckle. We had no medicine with us, so we poured perfume into the hole.) I still had tetanus vaccine in me — the winter before, I had gotten a two-inch thorn into my foot during a flood at Las Palmas. The tear in my thigh definitely got my attention. For the time being, I forgot about the monkey.
If people have it hard on the border, the animals have it harder. Mexicans are often criticized for being cruel. It has caused me great shame over the years because it’s true. I have seen a donkey stoned to death by Mexican boys for sport, dogs poisoned in the Tijuana hills, cats shot. Americans are horrified to find that it is a common practice in Mexico to kick dogs. I was once shocked to find my father kicking his dog — a dog he loved — savagely. (Yet he — and many Mexicans — were extremely softhearted about animals. He loved cats, which was a rarity in Mexico. He loved birds. In fact, when he was a boy, he had owned a little goat. It followed him everywhere; according to relatives, the goat would walk through town with him and wait outside the door for him to come out. Perhaps it comes as no surprise that someone poisoned it.)
At one orphanage, the much loved dog Whiskey took care of the children. He was part border-collie, and he herded them, always lying nearby in the dust, watching them play. When I’d camp out on the mountain behind the place, Whiskey wouldn't let me go alone; after the kids were in bed. he'd find me and sit at the foot of my bed.