They sat around an open fire, late on Christmas Eve, drinking hot whiskey and lime. They were just a few compatriots a long way from home in the midst of some vast problem. “Who knows a good Christmas story?” one asked, as another groaned.
“I got one.”
The five faces glowed, leaning into the cracks of the dry wood and the anticipation of something familiar, but it was not to be. This group was far too distant for that.
“How to begin…let’s see…I was driving a truck for an old man who owned a tile distributorship in Austin. You know, Texas.” They all laughed. “Those were the days when you could drive back and forth over the Mexican border without much trouble and he’d send me down to buy tiles. I spoke Spanish and was a pretty good driver, so it worked out fine. Anyway, I was carrying a full load when I got to the river on December 22nd. Normally it took maybe two hours to clear customs on both sides and then another four or so over to Austin. I’d be home that afternoon. But it didn’t work out that way. For some reason on this trip my paperwork was really messed up and not only did the Mexicans have a problem with it, but the US stopped me cold. I got stuck on the American side for two whole days and after a lot of calling Austin and having new paperwork faxed to customs, they let me go.”
“What kind of a truck?” a voice sounded. “Oh, it was nothing fancy, a flatbed that could haul thirty maybe forty thousand pounds of tiles. I was carrying those rough, unglazed Saltillo tiles. So I pulled out of Del Rio about 9:00 at night on Christmas Eve. I decided not to eat and there was no one on the road and as I was drifting along, making good time, a dog casually walked out into my lane. This was a narrow highway with no real shoulder or anything like that. The dog was large, looked right at me, gray, and defiant; an old statue in my headlights.
“What do you mean defiant?”
“It was the eyes, you know, like the dog could take on the truck and win. As if I had more to fear than he did. Something…I’d been over this scenario, like you guys have…never veer or slam on the brakes for animals when fully loading. It was like a mantra when I’d drive past animals on the side of the road, but then everything happened in a flash and I gripped the steering wheel and yelled for the dog to get out of the way or I’d kill him. And then he was gone. I felt nothing. It took about two hundred feet to stop. I cussed to myself and jumped out of the cab and walked back to the dog. It was a beautiful, full-moon night and everything was clear and cold and I could see the stars falling upon the elevated horizons in all directions. My breath was a white feather as I walked on the pavement and each step was a voice calling to me.”
“Was the dog dead?”
“You know, that’s a strange question and I’ll tell you why.” He took a drink and resumed. “Well, when I got to him I could tell my wheels had gone over the middle of his body. He was twitching and breathing slightly. He wore an old black collar and appeared to belong to somebody. His coat was shiny, a deep gray, probably an Anatolian mix of some sort. I put my hand on his side and felt his tight muscles. He exhaled deeply, a final movement, and then he went still. There was a hole in his big head that had healed over and some blood on his nose, but other than that he was okay…except he was dead, right? Anyway, I stood up and looked around and there was a cattle guard and a gate with a wide entryway and in the distance I could see the lights of a little house. I felt guilty and decided to take the dog up to the house. I figured he belonged to whoever was living there.”
“That was a mistake,” one of them said. “You never follow-up on killing anything in the road. Never.”
“Yeah, I know, but it was Christmas Eve and so I picked him up and he must have weighed a good hundred pounds, maybe more. So I put him down and walked back to the truck and turned around. Once I got him in the cab, I pulled through the gate and drove up to the house. The lights were still on inside and I knocked on the door. A Mexican woman answered and I could see three young kids in front of a fire. I told her in Spanish that I’d run over a dog on the highway and wanted to see if he was theirs because he had a collar. She looked stricken when I told her about the dog, his size and color. Yes, he’s ours, she said. My husband’s not here…he’s at the patron’s house…on the other side of the ranch…a mare is giving birth…he’ll return when everything is alright. She backed up and grabbed a flashlight. We went out to the cab and she held the light on the body and said, you killed Fantasma. How could you do that? No one can kill Fantasma. The kids were standing behind us and they inched closer. Fantasma is only sleeping one of them said. But he wasn’t sleeping. I’d killed the ghost, I thought.”
“So the woman wanted money, right?” one of the men asked.
“No, not at all…she invited me inside, out of the cold, to explain the details of how it happened and so I went in and she had Christmas pan dulce and coffee and there was a little scrub cedar with blue lights. I told them everything and none of them could believe that the dog was dead. One of the kids said, Fantasma is not dead, he will never die. And then she told me the real story, because what I’m telling you guys is not the whole thing. No, here is how life can unfold in mysterious ways: The woman began to talk about how they’d swum the Rio Grande two years earlier, the husband, the three kids and her. They’d brought two horses to sell and the big dog to shepherd and guard the kids, the sheep, and the goats. They knew the owner of the ranch and he gave them jobs. It was an isolated and very large ranch, plenty of work for good hands. Everything went well until one night Fantasma wandered near the highway and a truck hit him.”
“Just like you?” one of the men asked.
“Yeah, just like me. I was the second truck that got him.” He coughed.
“So she goes on that the patron and her husband came upon the dog flopping around, whimpering on the roadside, right after the truck went by. When they got out, they quickly decided there was nothing to be done, and the patron pulled out his rifle and shot Fantasma in the head to put him out of his misery. They took him up to the house, the same place I’d seen from the highway, and buried him beneath a little tree. When they were through, the patron and husband went inside the house to talk, but after a few minutes they heard a scratch at the door. When they opened it, there was Fantasma. He was standing, the pure embodiment of his name and ready to fight for all that he was worth. Both of the men grabbed him and ran to the truck and drove fifty miles to the nearest vet and in the middle of the night the dog was saved. It took Fantasma a month to recover and then he started working again. The patron brought steaks, hamburger, and chickens for Fantasma to eat. He promised the family that he would feed the dog only the finest foods for as long as they were on his place. Life went on like that until I drove past their house that Christmas Eve and Fantasma stepped in front me.”
Somebody built up the fire and all of them sat staring into the flames, drinking on another bottle of whisky.
“What happened next?”
“Well, when the woman finished her story, there in the little house, I asked if I couldn’t help bury the dog. Yes, she said, we can bury him now, in the old spot, his first grave. My husband won’t mind, since he already buried Fantasma once before. So we went outside and there was a rock-lined shape big enough to lay the dog down. It was the spot where he’d clawed his way out a few years before. The kids were carrying candles and I dug until the hole was wide and deep enough for the body. Don’t make it too deep one of the kids said hopefully. The woman wrapped the dog in a white cloth and we laid him down in the hole. The kids started crying and so did the woman. After I finished spreading the dirt, the oldest boy placed a flat rock at the head of the grave and we put a bunch of candles on the rock, and the light cast our forms in shadows and the moon had moved across the sky and I thought to myself that it was probably just the beginning of a new Christmas day and there I was, sharing it with this family and the big, gray ghost.”
“That’s a good story,” somebody said.
“Yeah and it’s all true,” he responded. “So the moral here is that every person and dog has a tale to tell and if you ever hear somebody saying that Mexicans don’t care for dogs, just tell them about Fantasma, and how some dogs and people never give up, at least until it’s fully decided they can go no further.”
The men sat for a few minutes in silence and somewhere in the distance they heard the gunfire and one of them said, “I hope that’s on the other side of the river.” Everyone nodded and it seemed that Christmas was upon them yet again.