I have been looking back at some of the earlier entries in this blog and have found my first reactions to El Becerro. I had just been to the 2014 NSN Conference where New Mexican storyteller Joe Hayes had used the story in his class on working with stories from different cultures. El Becerro (the word means “calf” or “young bull”) goes like this:
There was an old woman who, as was the custom, sent her cattle into the mountains for the summer. Unfortunately, she soon fell terribly ill and learned that she would not survive unless she drank a broth made from the liver of a calf. Since her own cattle were not available, she went to her neighbor, an old man who had kept one of his own calves in the valley. He agreed to “loan” her that calf. (“Loaning” meant she could slaughter the calf he gave her and pay him back with one of her own at the end of summer.)
The broth did not help and the old woman did not survive. Once the cattle returned from the mountains the old man asked the woman’s son for a calf. When the young man refused to pay his mother’s debt, the old man’s wife came up with a plan. The couple pretended to forget about the matter.
When the time came to clean the acequia, the communally-owned irrigation ditch, the old man asked the Mayordomo, the ditch boss, to schedule the young man’s first water in the middle of the night. The Mayordomo was well aware of the argument between the neighbors and agreed to do just that.
On the night the young man went out to the irrigation gate to turn his share of the water into his fields, he saw a strange and wavering figure in the distant trees, a figure who called out to him in a tearful voice.
He was terrified and turned to run, but the figure seemed to come closer. “Do not be afraid, m’jito,” she cried. “It is me, your own mother. I need your help. I owe my neighbor a calf and I cannot reach heaven until my debt is paid. Please m’jito pay my debt. Give the old man a calf. No, wait, give him two for all the trouble you have caused him.”
Terrified, the young man went straight home and spent the rest of the night under his bed, trembling.
The old man emerged from the bushes. While his wife untangled her best bedsheet from the branches, he turned moved the water from the young man’s field to his own.
The next morning the young man took his two best calves to his neighbor’s house. When they opened the door, he – with deep apologies – gave both calves to the old couple.
In 2014, I was interested in the ways research could help me build the world of this story. Why did the community send their cattle into the mountains? What exactly was an acequia, and how did the community work together to clean it? Why and how was the irrigation water allocated? Since I had lived in Northern New Mexico for almost forty years, I knew the answers to most of these questions, but I had a lot of fun digging deeper.
Now that I am looking more broadly at the world of the story, I am realizing that I am more closely connected to El Becerro than I originally thought. As a matter of fact, I met one of the calves in the story (or at least one very like him.)
During my childhood my father occasionally loaded my brother and me into the back of our family’s ’57 Chevy Carryall (a distant ancestor of today’s SUVs) and took us up into the Jemez Mountains, just west of Los Alamos, for an overnight camping trip. Those were the days when State Road 4, which wound from the Pajarito Plateau up into the mountains was narrow and not yet paved.
On one of these trips, Dad navigated the Carryall around a particularly sharp corner where the aspen trees crowded the road and came to a complete stop. There, in the middle of the road stood a small cow. Or, as my father explained, an adolescent bull (which is an exact translation of the word becerro).
This becerro had planted himself right in the middle of the road and – undoubtedly hormone-befuddled state – seemed unable to understand that he was no match for the Carryall. He refused to move and we could not get around him. Dad honked the born.
El becerro did not move.
Dad opened the door, stood on the Carryall’s running board and shouted.
El becerro did not move.
Dad climbed down and walked toward el beccero, waving his arms.
El becerro lowered his head.
Dad walked rather quickly back to the Carryall.
I was a child with a vivid imagination and I immediately became deeply unhappy. What if that cow (I still thought of el becerro as a small cow) trampled my father? What if the cow refused to move? We would have to back down the road! What if dad couldn’t find a place to turn around before we got to the place where the road went along a cliff? I saw nothing but disaster.
Dad climbed back into the Carryall and shut the door. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I have a plan.” And he put the Carryall into compound low, otherwise known as granny gear.
The Carryall was not a 4WD vehicle, but it didn’t matter, not with compound low. All Dad had to do was tap the accelerator once and the Carryall started forward and a speed somewhat slower than a walk.
El becerro stood his ground. He even lowered his head, bur the Carryall was undeterred.
My imagination when back into high gear. “Dad, what if we run over the poor little cow?”
“Don’t worry,” Dad answered. “He’ll move.”
He did, but not until the Carryall’s front bumper nudged him. And when that cow’s nerve finally broke, he fled with a truly impressive burst of speed.
We continued up to the campground where we all had a fine time.
That little episode, by itself, is barely a story but it did – years later – provide me with more than facts about the world. Remembering the story helped me remember the smell and taste of the world. I am not saying that storytellers need this kind of connection with the world of a story to tell that story.
I am saying that storytellers need a deep connection with their own worlds to connect with the worlds of the stories they tell. I will be exploring this further in future blog entries.