From the Arroyo

Nonfiction by Tovah Strong


Here: moving water has carved and re-carved an arroyo into the earth. It is a channel filled with sand. A crevice that always seems separate. It can be found on topographic maps of southern New Mexico. Its banks crumble when I step too close to the edge. After new borders have been sculpted by running water, tangled roots poke out of the dirt—chamisa and sagebrush and rabbitbrush. This arroyo divides my parents’ property: horses and chickens and goats on one side, dogs and cats and humans on the other. It changes and moves and grows, but I do not know what it is beyond that. Not really. Something lives inside it, underneath it, through it, but I have not found a single word to describe it; it is more than a thrumming.


I fell from Bubbles’s broad back in this arroyo. He was a former cutting horse. A barrel-chested, sorrel Quarter Horse with a rounded belly and arthritis in his hocks. White stockings on his hind legs and a sock that rose above his right fetlock. A narrow, lightning-like blaze trailed down the center of his forehead, from the slightly off-center whorl underneath his scruffy forelock to a snip that stretched between his nostrils. Gentle and stubborn and far more interested in food than in carrying around a seven-year-old whose hand could barely reach the top of his withers. He was polite between meals—when I insisted.

We followed the road to the arroyo. I perched on Bubbles with my feet stuck through the stirrups of a kid’s saddle, while my dad’s legs hugged Willow’s barrel. Bubbles and I halted, and Willow arced her neck in a tight horseshoe to study my dad’s scuffed boot, her mismatched eyes partially covered by a black forelock, one brown and one pale blue.

My dad gestured toward the edge of the road, past a clump of juniper trees whose branches met and tangled like clasped fingers. “Do you want to lope up the arroyo?” Willow’s black-tipped ears followed his voice, then his hand.

Bubbles stood still, hooves etching crescent moons in the dirt. “Yes! I think he’d like it too.” I twisted my fingers in the short, coppery mane scattered across his withers.

My dad settled back in Willow’s saddle. “You lead the way. I don’t think Willow’s up to it yet.”

Willow dug her hooves into the ground and stiffened her legs when she was asked to move forward without following someone. She never bolted. Instead, she stood and pawed the ground or lowered her head to rub her muzzle in the dirt in confusion. A past that we could not identify clung to her, slowly ebbing away but never quite gone.

Bubbles flicked his ears toward me, broad ears moving smoothly like bats twisting in midair. I nudged his barrel with my heels. He broke into a trot that rattled my bones, no matter how I shoved my heels toward the ground and tried not to lean forward. Willow’s light steps followed us as I nudged him again, harder, and he quickened his pace, almost bouncing across the sand before shifting into a lope. A tree branch threatened to sweep me out of the saddle as he swerved to avoid a cluster of rocks. I leaned to the side and ducked; the saddle slipped, or I slipped, and I shoved my weight into the opposite stirrup as the arroyo widened ahead.

His ears tipped forward, toward the bend that coils waves during the monsoons and releases them when they round the corner, crashing and foaming toward the culvert. His hooves dug into the sand as we thundered toward the bend. This was flying. His shoulders were wings. His short mane brushed the backs of my hands with every stride. The loose saddle tilted. My left foot slipped from the stirrup and I grasped his mane and reached down, fumbling with one hand to hold the stirrup still so it wouldn’t bang against his ribs.

The rocks underneath us were flecked with mica. Some, slate gray. Some, shades of green and blue like dragonfly wings or potions. My foot tapped the stirrup and I shoved my toes past the tread, balanced. The ground was too close on the opposite side. The reins slipped from my hands. Maybe I reached for his withers—maybe his shoulder, maybe I froze until my shoulder met the sand or the sand met me. The saddle landed on top of me, half on my stomach, with a broken off-billet hanging from the cinch and leather pressing into my arm.

Bubbles veered to the left and leaped up the side of the arroyo, the longest strands of his tail flicking behind him. I shoved the saddle aside, kicked the neon blue saddle pad off my legs, jerked to my feet, and stumbled after the glint of his tail.

My dad drew Willow to a halt. “Are you okay? That looked nasty.”

“I’m fine!” I flopped my hand toward the edge of the arroyo. “Where is he? I have to find Bubbles!”

My dad dismounted. “I’m sure he’s fine. Are you sure you’re okay?”

He offered Willow’s reins and I snatched them from his hand. “I’m fine!” Bees gathered in my skull as I followed him out of the arroyo and toward the house. What if Bubbles disappeared? What if he left me alone? What if he never came home? Willow trailed behind me, steady breath and even steps with mismatched eyes staring over my shoulder.

My dad abruptly halted and laughter burst from his mouth. The bees in my skull scattered, rippling behind my eyes. Bubbles lifted his head up from behind a chamisa bush, a clump of grass sticking out of both sides of his mouth. His jaws slid back and forth as he chewed, watching us with mahogany eyes that hid worlds. His ears swung forward as if he was asking, What is all the fuss about?


Here: I find juniper trees with mauve berries that stain my fingers a sticky purple when I dig my fingernails into their flesh. In some spots, the trees’ gnarled roots are exposed. Stubby branches bend out over the arroyo and cast shadows that twist across the rocks.

A decade ago, yellow wildflowers sprung from the pinkish sand with scraggly green stems just stiff enough to snap between fingers. I spent an entire day weaving back and forth between the plants, building fairy houses out of stones tugged from the sand. Red cowboy boots and a not quite pink, not quite orange, short-sleeve dress that fell past my knees.

The flowers were a gift. A forest of plants that reached my shoulders. I had not expected them when I woke that morning. I knew plants were growing from the sand, tall and sturdy enough to survive the summer, but I did not know they were flowers. Bright yellow petals seemed to spring open overnight, unfurling a world I had the privilege of entering—just this once.

Maybe I wanted to escape, to feel individual grains of sand sticking to my feet. Maybe I wanted to hide my mind from the expectations of growing up, of learning how to read picture books when my friends were reading Harry Potter.The plants and rocks and insects did not care if I stuck my head in the stratosphere and refused to come down, as long as I did not try to break them.

That is what I remember now. Ink on paper and I can still feel heat from the midday sun crackling on my skin. The day brought a sort of wonder, a sort of peace and existence that I have not held onto from morning to evening since then: a sense of floating in the moment between music chords where the air thrums with what is.

The flowers remained for weeks, three or four or five. Slowly, they shriveled and dried. Green leaves turned into brown paper and stems cracked when wind gusted down the arroyo. Their deaths were small—their seeds would scatter and they would live again. Somewhere. But I would never find a forest of yellow flowers that reached my shoulders in the arroyo again. Even then, I knew the one day I spent with them would be the only day.

The arroyo came from the hills, carved by storms and the debris of storms. Widened and deepened and widened again. When I was four, my mom could stretch out her arms and just barely brush its walls. By the time I was ten, the arroyo’s width had doubled. Now—after descending the steps my dad dug into its north side to prevent us from sliding down on the heels of our boots—it is wide enough to contain six, seven long strides. A portion of its south edge, on either side of the path we tread each time we cross from the house to the barn, is lined with muck from the horse corral. Mushrooms grow here in the spring: parchment white globs with tuberous stems or clusters of small brown heads. They appear suddenly, but not as suddenly as the yellow flowers did.


Here: growth is easily ripped away. Sometimes churning water fills the arroyo with angry brown swirls. It rumbles and growls. A wave curls around the bend and crests before crashing. Chunks of earth are torn from the sides. A railroad tie or piñon tree floats past, roots bared to the wind. The rushing water sounds like a train frantically chugging down its tracks. Thunderous and devastating and beautiful. All at once. The slopes of the hills behind us provide momentum and the water rushes around a second bend, then a third, before crashing into the road.

Before we built a cinderblock wall around the edges of the culverts to hold them still—one old and one new—the single culvert we relied on filled quickly. Too quickly. Water tumbled across the road, ripping out chunks of earth and dragging them down the arroyo. Soon, the road was a footpath we had spent hours building up with dirt and sand and rock to hold it together until it became a road again.


Here: the arroyo is filled with semi-arid desert sand. Fossilized shells from a long-evaporated inland sea. Past peeking into present.

Victoria called the culvert a tunnel. I thought it was a passage. I imagined a bubble woven out of spider webs or thin silk on our side of the road. Crossing the boundary was dangerous, but we crossed it often. We scrambled through the culvert, laughing, then snapping our mouths closed and trying to laugh with our eyes and smiles as the noise tumbled around us.

Our friendship began with horses. We brought plastic horses to each other’s houses. We pretended to be horses, drinking water from bowls sitting on the floor and laughing when it dribbled down our chins. We neighed and nickered at each other, pawing the ground with our heels. We tossed our heads so our long hair swung around our shoulders.

We built rock corrals for plastic horses in the arroyo. We crouched and built them around ourselves—or each other. We carefully stacked rocks into small walls with sand-caked hands. Often, we took off our shoes and buried our toes in the sand to feel pebbles lick our skin like cat’s tongues.

Our plastic horses were precious possessions with elaborate backstories of family feuds, unconquerable enemies, and ferocious desires. Our plastic horses always broke out of their corrals. We pretended we were them, kicking down the rock fences and digging holes in the sand. Once they were free, we became the humans that chased after them and found them underneath a bush or behind a mica-flecked rock. We hauled them back to the newly repaired corrals and barricaded the gates.

After a monsoon, my parents and I walk the arroyo. Moist sand clings to the bottoms of our shoes and the crevices in large rocks hold thimbles of water. We find fossils and the washed-away bits from people’s lives. Railroad ties, bits of pottery, cans. Once, we found a muck rake we had lost the year before. The same year, our neighbor’s road crumbled and rocks embedded in chunks of cement, railroad ties, and a metal cutout of a raven from their front porch tumbled down the arroyo to stick in the ripped-up roots of silt covered juniper trees. The following year, floodwaters took our wheelbarrow. We searched for a week before finding it underneath a juniper tree an eighth of a mile away. This, too, is part of the arroyo’s mystery. With each rain, each gush of water that tumbles down the hills and grows into a river, the arroyo changes its clothes and rearranges its flesh.

This summer, a tarantula built a burrow at the edge of the arroyo, next to the path we have worn into the dirt. A small hole covered with sticky spiderwebs looked like lace early in the morning; coated in dew, they gleamed and winked. The tarantula wandered between the grasses one afternoon, clambering over sticks and rocks. He moved slowly, steadily, as though the world could not surprise him; an umber-brown, furry body with eight legs picking their way across the ground like something ancient that had crawled from the earth to soak up the sun. It was the beginning of mating season, the end of monsoon season, before autumn. The tarantula kept his course, passing underneath chamisa bushes as though the world was as steady as his stride, as constant as he appeared to be.


About the Author:

Tovah Strong comes from a small train town in New Mexico, where rainstorms are precious and ravens build nests in sandstone crevices. A graduate of the Alpha Young Writers Workshop, she is currently studying Creative Writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts.

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