by MURIEL VAN TUYL TRIGG
EACH morning of our first summer in the desert we were up with the sun. Soon after the midnight air had brought relief, the hot dawn pushed a ball of fire up the other side of the mountains and with a mighty thrust started it across a sky which held it for fourteen or fifteen long hours. And when the sun hit our outdoor beds we couldn’t get up fast enough to scramble into the house, where we hurriedly closed all doors and windows against the onslaught.
After breakfast Wallace and little Wally would put on their sun helmets and dark glasses, which with shorts comprised their work clothes, and soon I would peer out and see them lifting backbreaking pails of adobe mud and carrying sixty-pound bricks from the piles where they had been curing to their ultimate position in the rising walls. That sight shamed me into silence when even sheets got too hot to lie on and when I had periods of wanting to scream that I never wanted to see a desert again.
One day I just couldn’t stand it. With bitterness and envy I thought of the tenant in my home in Pasadena, using electricity to run my fan, my refrigerator — and, whenever she felt like it, turning sprinklers on my green lawns and shade trees! Well, I thought, take a shower, but then what will you do when you wish to freshen up for supper? You know that one shower a day per person is all you can afford of the precious water which Wallace has to haul from three miles away.
I turned on the shower and jumped back scalded. Hot water from the cold water line! That brought me to my senses. Of course the water coming from our tin storage tank through the pipe close to the surface of the hot sand was hotter than my flesh could take. I should have to wait till evening. It was too hot to read, and even too hot just to sit when every contact of the body produced itching rash.
That morning I had found a scorpion between the sheets when I made up our bed. Whether he crawled in when we went in to breakfast or whether we had slept three in a bed we shall never know, but I do know that seeing him started the static day with a nerve prick, By night I was taut as a hightension wire and it took only a small Dipodomys deserti to touch me off. We had been training these little animals to come into the kitchen for food. That evening, having no way of knowing of human trials and weaknesses, one confidently approached me and, miffed by my unprecedented lack of interest, tried to attract my attention by nipping my bare toes.
My screams rose on the heat waves up to the guest house, where my husband had just put away his tools. Wallace reached my kitchen on the run and, sizing up the situation at once, grabbed me by the seat of my playsuit and turned me over his knee and spanked me. I was so incensed by the indignity that I forgot all about the heat and my hysteria. Fury turned to farce as Wallace said, “Oh, honey, I hated to do that, but there are only two ways to treat hysteria: throw water on the victim or shock her, and I couldn’t waste the water.”
BEAMS twenty feet long and six by eight inches thick present a real difficulty to three people who have to lift them into position on the top of ten-foot walls, especially when one of them is a five-foot, hundred-pound woman and one is a boy of twelve. I was on one side of the wall; Wallace, the beam, and Wally were on the other side. Over the wall ran a rope, one end of which was looped around my waist and the other around one end of the beam. As Wallace lifted that end of the beam I would brace my feet against the wall and Wally would push something under the beam to block it up. All I could think of, as little by little we raised first one end and then the other, was a clown who had once held me spellbound as he piled up chairs, tables, boxes, and barrels and climbed high in the air on his tottering tower.
After this experience of raising the beams, I anticipated no trouble in helping Wallace with the ceilings — but as usual my optimism was based on ignorance. We were to have a pine ceiling of footwide boards fitted together with tongue and groove. But within an hour of the time we started, I understood why my husband had sputtered about having a fifteen-by-twenty bedroom. Boards one foot wide and fifteen feet long are hard to handle, and we would get the tongue of one end fitted into the groove of the next only to have it slip out at the other. Until the entire span was firmly fitted and clamped to hold it in position, Wally and I, balancing on sawhorses, held each board up with our arm muscles aching. When we were given the high sign Wally and I would brace the boards with our heads and Wallace would start hammering.
How he could keep on hammering three nails to a board, every eighteen inches, above his head, for eight hours a day, is still beyond my comprehension. I soon had a pounding headache, to say nothing of the grudge I developed toward every countersunk nail when I learned that I was to stuff each nail hole with sawdust and glue. Before I could start oiling the ceiling with hot linseed oil to preserve the wood and still expose the natural grain, I stuffed 3056 nail holes, so that they are not noticeable unless you are looking for them. I am going to use insulating fiber boards, which come in four-by-eight sheets and can be painted on the ground, for my next house.
I honestly thought that, having conquered the nail holes, I should find it a pleasure to paint the ceiling with hot oil and a broad brush. I had temporarily forgotten the law of gravity. My first brush stroke on ceiling number one convinced me that something would have to be done.
Even when holding the pail close to the ceiling and slapping on oil as fast as I could, I still had almost as much running down my hand and arm and puddling in my smock elbow as I had on the ceiling. I finally removed my smock, hung a light pail on my right arm, the one with which I held the brush, and let her drip. At the end of each board, I triumphantly returned the saved oil to the paint can.
BY PUNCTUAL eve the stars are lit, and just as punctually our amusing little desert animals come up onto the porch for easy food. The jack rabbits appear at the back door and the Dipodomys at the front, divided by their preference for vegetable stalks, leaves, and parings served at seven on the kitchen stoop and the seeds and grain thrown on the floor of the front loggia where we and our guests gather to enjoy the floor show. Though it is not compulsory, the Dips always dance for their supper, to the delight of all who witness their antics.
The Dipodomys deserti (often miscalled a kangaroo rat) resembles a rat only in size. He hops on long hind feet like a kangaroo, but goes about his business so fast that to the casual observer he appears to run on all fours. The front feet, however, are as tiny and useless for running as the bound feet of Chinese women. They serve only to brush food into the check pouches, for Dips belong to the squirrel family and carry and store their food. Their tails are rat tails, however, but they have a brush of hair on the tip. Their fur is soft, and when the wind ruffles it, it reminds me of sealskin.
The Dips are as thorough as a vacuum cleaner, getting every tiny grain from the floor, and when we make them climb up onto our hands for food, they straighten and stiffen their tails, using them as a tightrope walker does his pole for balance. When they fight they jump straight up into the air and bump their heads together. Occasional bloodshed gives evidence of toothwork at the same time. In the moonlight they look like tiny elves dancing up and down.
I well remember one evening when it was full moon and they had been having a very special treat of watermelon seed. We had been reading a letter aloud (by moonlight , believe it or not) when we were suddenly interrupted by their inactivity. There was a tapping on the ground as though one of them had stamped a warning, and every little Dip stood motionless. Then just as surprising was their complete disappearance. They either went too fast for our human eye to witness, or else they are elves and just invisible. We remained perfectly still, suspecting something was approaching, and almost at once a dainty little fox (one of the kind called swifts) came up onto the porch where we sat. With the grace of a miniature deer he stepped up to a piece of watermelon we had placed on the flagging; and having quenched his thirst, he leaped daintily away into the shadow.
Wallace was to witness another interesting scene on this same porch before the moon had set. We had moved all our beds onto the porch that night, and after our little friends failed to return, we decided to go to bed and play our game of seeing who could count the most shooting stars or the most lightning flashes over the mountains.
I didn’t stay awake to hear who won, but I couldn’t have been asleep long when I was most unceremoniously wakened by our large cat, Mr. Mew, jumping accurately on my abdomen. He had found an unusually juicy mouse and was eager to show me his affection by sharing it with me. With my arms pinned under the bedding held down by his weight, I was powerless to forestall his advance up my chest until he was dangling the wretched thing right over my face. With a supreme effort I endeavored to sit up, and the cat dropped the mouse down inside my nightgown. The rest was pretty fast, but not fast enough to elude the human eye. They say it took me just two leaps to reach the top of the table at the other end of our twenty-foot porch, where I pirouetted with my gown held high in the air before my astonished audience.
Speaking of mice, we had a good laugh one night when we were trying to catch one of the wary beasts. It was a field mouse which must have come in when a door was left ajar, and was temporarily making his home in one of the “heatilator” holes in our fireplace. It seemed expedient to oust him before starting a fire. Wallace had set a trap where he couldn’t miss it as he came from his hide-out. We spent one whole evening watching him jump the trap as neatly as any hurdler. Then I set a saucer of poisoned grain on the hearth in an adjoining room and thought that was that; but the next evening I found a much diminished saucer of poisoned grain and a still very active mouse going out of his way, each time we changed the trap position, to jump the darned thing.
Back and forth, back and forth. We watched spellbound. Surely by the law of averages he would miss his jump sometime and land on the trap if not in it. Finally Wallace could stand it no longer and hid behind the door of the next room to see where the little teaser was going on his many trips in and out. He was going up to the saucer of poisoned grain and carrying a mouthful at a time back to his home in the heatilator. We couldn’t have him dying at some future date in a place where we couldn’t get at him, and we couldn’t lure him into our trap, so Wallace resorted to chasing him with the broom. I, with my feet tucked securely under me, applauded from the gallery.
I do not mind so much the instant killing of whatever must be killed, but I never want to go through another day such as the one when I was alone on the hill and a steel trap set for a trade rat who had been stealing our soap went off and crushed, but didn’t kill, a chipmunk. All day I followed my suffering friend as he flopped with his trap toward his hole down by the road, trying to get up courage to shoot him, but knowing that with my inaccurate aim and chicken-heartedness I should probably add to his misery instead of relieving him. If I had only been able to convey to him that I wanted to help, and if he hadn’t struggled so furiously and flopped away from me, I might have released the spring from his neck. I met my family that evening with a shovel, but though we dug deep into his runway, we couldn’t find the poor creature. That cowardliness on my part has been on my conscience to this day.
There are comedies as well as tragedies in the animal kingdom, and we are daily amused by the chips with their constantly quivering tails and endless trilling as they scoot all over the place, climbing high in the greasewood and standing up like little soldiers surveying the field from their watchtowers. I didn’t know, until I had this opportunity of studying the habits of my tiny desert friends, that chips trail the smells along the ground with their noses just like dogs. The little cheats let the sober, industrious Dips store food all night and then they make daylight raids on their stores. I cheered one day when I saw an old grandpa Dip, who apparently was having insomnia, catch them at it, and what a chase he gave them!
One day when Wallace was taking his noon siesta, he lay idly swatting flies and watching an ant dismember the fat flies and then lug his burden of meat until his path took him in front of a rock on which was sitting a lizard. The lizard would reach out with uncanny swiftness, pick up ant and fly, and then, after churning them around in his mouth, spit out the ant — who would keep coming back for more flies. A half-dozen times the ant delivered food to the lizard. Were they friends or was the ant a slave?
DESERT animals and insects are gregarious, living in colonies, traveling in swarms and even armies. I have seen “swarms” of insects in cities as well as on the desert, but I was to have my initiation to “armies” when the homesteaders twenty miles east began warning that “armies of worms” were advancing. It took this particular army just three weeks to travel twenty miles and Sherman’s March left no more complete devastation than these creatures in their mile-wide path. I looked with unbelieving eyes at the uncountable ranks of the largest and most repulsive caterpillars I have ever seen.
They were a Kelly green with large red spots on their fat sides and were as garish as the cheapest traveling circus. They were so thick that we could not walk in a sober line without crushing the horrible things underfoot. They were so full of our precious desert flowers they had stripped that they actually waddled from side to side. This movement, combined with their humping forward motion, produced the effect of a restless green sea, and as I watched them I experienced the unexpected sensation of seasickness on the desert.
An invasion of a different variety came one night when I was alone on the hill. I had been enjoying the dropping sun from our protected loggia, for I do not like to get too far from the protection of doors and screens when I am left alone with no car or phone and with my nearest neighbor a mile away. Sky colors had blended and faded and the stars were coming out, when an unfamiliar noise sounded my mental alert. It seemed to come from inside the house and, puzzled, I went in to investigate. As I groped deeper into the darkness of the living room, I began brushing something which buzzed about my head. Many “things” were now tangling in my hair and getting in my eyes and ears.
I dreaded turning on the gaslight almost as much as I dreaded the uncertainties of darkness. The match flickered and went out, but not before I had singed several of the enemy. They were flying ants, large ones, invading everywhere — and I mean everywhere. My walls were alive with crawling ants, my window screens were black, quivering panels, the air was a hum of wings, and my floors were creeping,
I walked out and surrendered the house. After two painfully long hours the siege was over and I went in to clear away the dead. I am not exaggerating: I swept up (for they die soon after they swarm) one coal scuttle two-thirds full of dead ants. The next time similar annoying invaders entered our house, Wallace calmly entered into their midst and searched until he found where they got in, then informed the family we would stuff the throats of our fireplaces when they were not in use. I was reminded of a statement he chidingly made another time when I had evidenced vacuity in an emergency: “No, darling, you aren’t dumb, but sometimes you display the sign ‘Some Rooms Unfurnished.’”
I remember the first day I put out grapefruit peel when five jack rabbits showed up simultaneously at the kitchen door, where it was my habit to throw out vegetable and fruit parings for them along with wilted lettuce, carrot tops, and the like. The first rabbit who sniffed the grapefruit skin looked up with the air of rich discovery and at once picked up the whole half and tried to carry it off. Immediately the suspicions of the other four were aroused and they left their familiar fare to follow her.
If you have never seen jack rabbits fight, you have missed an amusing farce. They lay back their very long ears and jump at each other. If that doesn’t intimidate one of the participants, they assume belligerent attitudes and stand perfectly still, usually until I can no longer control my mirth, and startle them with my laughter. Then there’s nothing to do but put up a front in my presence. So they stand up on their hind legs and box like champions.
In the instance of the grapefruit, the first rabbit, knowing she would stand no show against four, deliberately put down her prize and placed her two front paws on it, fastening it to the ground. As her chasers would approach (and they seem to have adopted the policy that an excellent strategy is to start a fight by nipping your opponent in the tail) she would pivot around the peel, still keeping her two front paws firmly on it, and give a far from ladylike kick in the face of her attacker.
Finally the four, somewhat abashed when they were held at bay by one small female, withdrew and sat in a surrounding circle, still as statues, watching with greedy and envious eyes their coveted treat getting smaller and smaller. Of course you can understand why I hastily changed my menu and, substituting grapefruit salad for the one planned, scooped out the sections from two grapefruit, throwing the four rinds to my dejected friends.
The tale should end here, but it doesn’t. The first lady, having finished her dessert ahead of the others, proceeded to box one after the other until the last one assaulted picked up his half in despair and ran. The last I saw of them, she, with ears low, was close on the tail of poor Jack, who was handicapped by the large burden hanging from his mouth.
(To be concluded)