Mandala and the Bear
o get to the ranch, the boys ride the Rail Runner out of Albuquerque Station and up I-95 North to Domingo. Eight bucks a boy for day passes, bought by Simon Hägëdörn, whose voice is high and whose arms are slim and white and soft, soft like a twelve-year-old girl’s. Uriel wouldn’t have let him come but for his allowance. It’s enough money to pay for Uriel and his brother Adrian, and Josh Munoz, and Simon, least important because he’s new and from Idaho.
In Domingo they catch a bus west to the Santo Domingo Pueblo. Another three bucks a boy, courtesy of the Hägëdörn house. Simon told his parents they were spending their Saturday at the Albuquerque Zoo, as Josh told his mother. The brothers couldn’t find their father to lie to.
They stop at the pueblo to worship the glass bowls and tobacco tins inside the big shop windows of Smoker’s Discount World. Adrian leans a chapped elbow on Josh’s shoulder. “Go in and pick up something for Daddy, huh?”
They move south through a yellow arroyo cut by some nameless tributary of the Rio Grande. Uriel smacks the flat of his palm into his brother’s back. “Son, don’t lose your shit when we get there. Let Daddy talk to the lady.”
Adrian rubs the spot where he’s been hit. “Go fuck yourself, Daddy.”
This is a thing the boys do. A game, sort of. One of them will call themselves Daddy and give an order—bring Daddy a Coke or pull down your pants in the neighbor’s driveway for Daddy—and if it isn’t followed, Daddy has the right to lecture that boy on why he’s a pussy and a disappointment. Those are the rules. Uriel, fourteen and the oldest by eight months, likes that part of the game best. As they hike through scrub in a heat as dry as tree bark, Uriel fans his hands out in front of his chest and cracks his knuckles. “Let me tell you how to talk to a woman, son. You have to talk, like, nicely. Like, si ser sexy fuese un delito, te pasarias la vida en la cárcel!”
He stops lecturing when the slow broil of the sun through his T-shirt takes the fun out of it, and after a while, a pack of wooden signs carved like crude wolves points the boys down the Comstock driveway.
The ranch is owned by Mr. Comstock, a family business marshaled by his only daughter, and is like nothing they’ve ever seen. Josh lives in an apartment complex downtown on a street of power lines and grassless clay patches between the high-rises. The brothers live with their father in half of a comfortable duplex on Cerillios, with an Astroturf lawn split down the middle. It’s penned in by a chain link fence, which the boys can look through to the neighbor’s slice of the yard. Out the backside they can see the hot cars parked on the street and, across the wavering asphalt, the new Coca-Cola factory. Nobody cares where Simon Hägëdörn lives. “Probably Potato Road,” Adrian, two years younger than Uriel, sometimes laughs, thrusts the crotch of his jeans into his cupped hands, moans “Aye, mi patata…”
But the Comstock Ranch. The land around it is wide and far from everything.
At the end of the driveway is the house, ordinary stucco as square and pebbly and brown as all their homes, but adrift in a tangle of mesquite and desert grass that grows in bleached. Also adrift is Mandala Comstock. On a folding chair in the front yard, she reclines in sweats and a great blue and red feathered headdress, like they’ve only seen in history books and on school field trips to the Museum of the American Indian. She doesn’t look like any Indian. Face tilted toward the August sky, rapping her nails tunelessly against a fat brown bottle—“That’s a forty,” Uriel whispers—she stirs at their approach.
Because his little brother and the boys have shoved backwards, and because he considers himself too much a man for that, Uriel steps forward. What’s a girl anyways that you lose your cool when she smiles or rolls her hips, and hot falls of sweat spring from your armpits, and you get that low down ache, and can’t for the life of you say something cool?
Uriel knows all about women. Just yesterday, didn’t he tell that joke to the sisters next-door? And weren’t they laughing still when he swaggered into his side of the duplex? The sisters are in Adrian’s class, but his little brother doesn’t know how to talk to them. Sometimes Adrian watches them from the window in his room, Uriel knows. The window overlooks both halves of the backyard. On their narrow strip of Astroturf the girls tan in bright halter-tops on towels, polishing their shoulders and collarbones and the sharp cradles of their hips with tanning oil, funneling potato chips into their wide mouths. Sometimes Uriel watches, too.
Mandala Comstock is no older than the college girls who slap up and down the sidewalks outside UNM in their flip-flops, but she isn’t even that pretty. She leans forward and her raw pink elbows press into paddle-wide thighs.
“I heard about you. My cousin in Santa Fe told me,” Uriel says.
This is almost true. It was in fact Josh whose cousin told him about the ranch, Josh who first mentioned the trip while he and Uriel and Adrian were kicking rocks around the tiny clay courtyard of the Munoz’s apartment complex. But Josh is younger, and wouldn’t have known how to get here or what to do with himself when he did. So Uriel made the idea his own, with no real protest. He squares his shoulders and steps forward.
“What’d he send you for?” She looks him over.
“He says he’s been out here. He says…you got animals.”
High stepping in her moccasins over weeds and plastic bits, gutted buckets and the dull metal of a child’s bicycle, Mandala Comstock leads the boys toward her father’s backyard. “The bear came first,” she recites. “Then the fox, the eagle, the vultures. The lynx and the siamangs. The red wolves. All my brothers and sisters.” Turning back, she smiles. Her eyes are brown and clear, like shallow pond water. “Just ask my daddy.”
She starts forward again. The boys follow. They jab their fists at each other at the sight of her from behind. The headdress bobs on the surf of her yellow hair, thin but long. Her thick ass, packed inside pink sweatpants, is a bright globe in the shade of the yard.
Around the corner, Uriel stops short. There are cages in front of them, two dozen or so in rows, all made of plywood and galvanized, heavy-duty chain link. Inside the pens are a pair of foxes, a grizzled coyote, wolves, a huge spotted cat that Simon Hägëdörn, mostly forgotten in the rear, points to and calls a lynx. “Only in New Mexico,” he shakes his head and chuckles dramatically, which annoys the shit out of all of them. Uriel follows Mandala down the aisle between the cages, and the rest follow him. In one pen, a mottled thing with a black muzzle and great bat-like ears drinks from a plastic pink bedpan. Blades of grass and a few bloody feathers float on the surface of the water.
“Maraboo,” Mandala nods and wiggles her fingers through the wire. “Our African Wild Dog. Forty-two teeth. She chews through the bones pretty quick.”
The last cage in the last row, some fifteen feet wide and thirty feet deep, contains a bear. It’s dark black and broad, its rough fur speckled with bits of straw. Its tapered head is chest-high to Uriel. His throat constricts.
“This is Minrose.” Mandala kneels, unbolts a feeding hatch the size of a shoebox in the cage door, and dips her whole arm inside, stirring thick fingers through the brush on the other side of the gate. “She’s Daddy’s favorite. His best girl.” Her voice hikes up in pitch. “Aren’t you, Min? Aren’t you just his best girl?”
The bear sniffs.
She withdraws the arm, pink with sun like the rest of her, fingertips dirty. Uriel licks the sweat from his lips.
“Looks like Dad’s last girlfriend, doesn’t it?” his brother laughs. “No kidding, it does. With the beard? Don’t you think, Uri?” When Uriel doesn’t answer, he turns on Simon Hägëdörn. “Reach in there and pet the bear for Daddy, huh?”
As the younger boys start to roughhouse, to kick sand around and shove each other, Uriel hooks his fingers around the wrist of the woman on the ground, hauls her up from her squat and leads her away from the animals, towards a dark patch of piñon trees. He leans over her, breathes into her ear, eyeing the fine hairs that dust her jaw. “My cousin from Santa Fe told me you do more than show guys around. He says you and him, like…” he tightens his fingers around the bones of her wrist, smaller than expected through the pale skin and slight fat.
She stares off towards the house. “My dad’s back from town soon.”
“I got money.” Folded in his back pocket are thirty dollars, stolen from the wallet of his own father last week. He took it while his dad smoked out on the back porch. His dad is known to smoke shirtless on their porch every day, spring through fall, arms folded behind his head, jungle of armpit hair on display for the neighbors. This he’s done since forever. Uriel remembers playing in the yard with his brother when he was very young, and Adrian even younger. Somewhere in the hours of television they got away with watching, they’d seen a program on the gorillas of the Congo. How these sad-eyed hairy fuckers fished in the jungle soil for bugs to eat. Squatting on the Astroturf, he and Adrian poked twigs snapped off their Yucca tree through the scratchy green mat, then popped imaginary jungle bugs into their mouths. Their dad watched from his chair, the cherry of his cigarette bright in the shadows on the porch.
This is one of Uriel’s first memories. Their mom must have been around then—they were young enough—but she’s missing from the scene altogether.
After he stole the money Uriel sat out with his dad, who gripped Uriel’s shoulder and nodded with the butt of his cigarette towards the sisters next-door, sunning themselves on the other side of the chain link. He said you never saw a girl look as nice in her swim things as your mom did. Have a look and take what you can while you can, Uri. That’s what they’re good for.
Uriel tugs Mandala behind him. When he imagined this moment, lying awake at night, or zoned-out on the couch with his father, or standing in his brother’s bedroom window, a girl whose name he did not know and whose face was undefined was pulling him towards her room, towards her bed, her fingers crooked in the waistband of his jeans, smiling fox-like, her eyes heavy on his. That he’s dragging Mandala Comstock cheerlessly towards her father’s house makes him feel…not much.
They’re almost to the back door when the heated air of the yard is punctured by a woman’s scream. It isn’t Mandala, who’s looking behind them, bloodless. Uriel turns towards the cages, sees the boys knotted on the ground.
Then Mandala is running and he’s running and it isn’t a girl’s scream, but Simon Hägëdörn’s. And Adrian—his arm, the slim brown rope of it, is threaded through the bear’s feeding hatch. It disappears into the cave of the animal’s mouth. The bear pulls and shakes like a dog, like a stubborn child, dragging Adrian backwards into its home, stopped only by the boy’s shoulder jammed against the chain links. His brother isn’t screaming but moaning horribly. He smells, up-close, of hot urine, and has never looked younger. Not even when he was very small in the yard, fishing for bugs in the Astroturf, and Uriel wrestled Adrian to the ground for his stick, and—oh Jesus there is so much blood on the ground—and their father settled his cigarette on the railing, strolled out into the yard, stuck his foot in the mix and scuffed Uriel off. “Get,” he snorted. “What are you? Don't you care that’s your brother? Be a man.”
“No, Min!” Mandala beats at the wire. “Drop it! Oh Lord…”
“We were just playing,” Simon is weeping.
Josh has a handful of earth bunched in his fist to pelt the bear, but is tossing nothing so much as pebbles and dust at the cage door.
Throwing her arms around Adrian, around his chest, Mandala holds him up, her big lap pressed into his backside. With one foot she braces against the cage. Uriel can’t get around her to reach his brother, so he wraps himself around her body. He pulls and pulls. “Don’t you got a gun to shoot it?”
“We can’t shoot her. Daddy doesn’t even know you’re here We can’t. We can’t. We can’t.”
At last one of Josh’s rocks strikes something necessary on the bear. It wrenches away, retreats bloody-mouthed. Uriel can’t see past Mandala, even after she near-collapses, sags on top of his brother. He sees only her, sees her lean down and whisper who-knows-what into the ear of the boy on the ground in front of her. He sees her crooked headdress, her wide back, and the slope of her hips above her pulled-down sweatpants, like the curve of a pale Earth. He sees her body rock as she rocks his little brother slowly, gently.
Uriel’s heart spikes, unfamiliar and sour. He loves her without knowing how to love.
Illustration by Meghan Murphy