The ceiling is low, the concrete walls are thick and painted white. We’re standing in the former lock-down portion of our county jail, now a museum featuring art from Montana elementary students.
Paint your favorite farm animal. The teacher hands out 8 x 10 card stock. A rush toward the pots of chestnut-tail and roan-haunch paint ensues. Thick paintbrushes soon murk the jars of clear water. Rolled sleeves, splattered paint, stacks of paper towels. Tongues held between milk-white teeth. Someone sneezes. God Bless comes the whisper. Water spills. Someone in the last row giggles.
He told me once he kept a separate herd of corrientes because he liked their spirit. This was years ago. I was still a dam-dweller, more focused on the sound of earth and running water than on any one animal, but a cowboy tuned to spirit was something I didn’t forget. And then mountain-climbing came to him and poetry happened to me. The more I wrote, the more I avoided the writing herds. Came the thought to head uphill: to the timberline: the quiet, the space, the wide-open.
Came this poet to the county-jail-turned-museum. The walls were hung with Eastern Montana art: horse, horse, Angus Beef. A sculpted rabbit, two pink pigs. And then, surprise: the corriente, the cattle from the late 15th century Spain. Painted by a student from a small town in the center of what we call nowhere.
And so I thought of him, the cowboy, and wrote to his last known address. Tell me about the corriente. Weeks later came his talk about corrientes generally going everywhere at a trot, wanting to head uphill. And how so much time has passed he sold the last of his heifers and steers this last autumn. All but one old, long-horn cow. Seems he kind of liked her: She was very level headed and if you got her in the lead of those corrientes, she would calm them down and lead them right where I wanted them to go, she knew the ropes.
The ropes included dealing with the yearlings that would squirt by her in their tendency to trot—then panic would set in—and there would be a little melee until she got them back in line. And what were her last ropes, this final corriente keeping his horses company before he moved them to winter pasture? Becoming donated meat to a widow in the valley; rawhide braided into reins; caped head and wide horn span mounted on a wall; innards hauled up to the ridge. Even the coyotes shared in her.
In which corriente can mean “common” and in which it can mean “stream.”
Names of artists: unknown. Name of cowboy: not revealed unless he says ok.