On the day that Ike died, I tried unsuccessfully to hide my dejection from the other folks on the fazenda. My faithful blue merle, the first dog that was ever mine, had died of old age on my parents’ farm while I was off in this remote corner of Brazil.
I felt silly for being sad about it. The daughter of a veterinarian, the devoted reader of James Herriot – I should be used to the idea of a beloved pet dying. “Faz parte,” the people around here say. “That’s all a part of it.” But I felt sharply the loss of my old friend, and Gabriela the cook noticed.
She heated water for me to make coffee as I tried to keep my composure. She called me over to the bergamot tree to eat some of the late-season fruits and talk leisurely in the shade. And she told Ester about it on her way home, as I later found out.
Ester is one of the many characters that make up life at the fazenda. She and her family live just off the road that leads to the university’s experiment, a fact which has led them to become great friends of the project. Students stop there after a hard afternoon working in the sun for a glass of cold water or maybe fresh strawberry juice. If we are passing late in the afternoon we sometimes pause to drink mate with them, and end up chatting until the sun goes down. Sometimes I join Ester for her evening walk. Sometimes on the weekends we sit in the shade and watch as José, Ester’s husband, and Tiago, her son, engage the neighbors in a friendly game of Bocce Ball. When something goes wrong – a truck breaks downs, someone cuts a finger – Ester’s house is the first place we go to look for help.
When I got to Ester’s house that day, she was ready with juice and my favorite sweet peanut cakes, the closest thing that I get to peanut butter down here. It was Friday evening, the ranch hands and the cook had gone home, and I was looking for a little companionship.
“You know my old dog that I told you about, Ester? He died today.”
“I know my dear, Gabriela told me. I’m sorry to hear that. But you know, I was thinking,” she gestured to Sombra, the black lab with the mania for chasing rocks.
“She’s Tiago’s dog, but how about when you’re here, she’s yours? Then Tiago can have her back when you go home.”
José giggled and winked at me. Ester smiled slyly. It was a thinly veiled joke, as everyone knew that Sombra could be tiresome with her constant begging to play fetch. Sure, why don’t you take her off our hands? But, joke or not, I had a soft spot for Sombra and Ester knew it. It was, I thought, the sweetest gesture anyone had made for me in a long time.
Every time I pull up to Ester’s house in my dirty white truck, Sombra and her partner in crime, Ticaba, run around the corner of the house to greet me, tongues lolling. Clunk goes the precious rock deposited carefully on the bed of the truck.
“Sombra!” I call. “You’re mine now, did you know that? You’re mine!” I toss the slobbery rock down the dirt road and wait for her to bring it back.