|O. Lynne Hacklin is a semi-retired copywriter and technical writer. She lives near the Oregon coast where she enjoys hiking, books, and writing.|
By O. Lynne Hacklin
“Aguila!” I cried as I sobbed in the shower.
Aguila, my sweet and affectionate llama, was born in 1995 on Bald Eagle Day, a festive occasion that always occurs the third weekend in July in Cathlamet, Washington. So, she was named Aguila, Spanish for eagle.
She wasn’t expected on that day, in fact she wasn’t expected for another month. But early that morning I made my way out to the barn and noticed a big scrawny, long-necked bird in the pasture, its head trembling and swaying. On a closer look I was alarmed to realize that instead of a bird, it was a cria, a baby llama. She was a very pre-mature cria. I rushed her to the veterinary hospital where she stayed for a few days until her lungs were strong enough. When she came home her mother had no interest in her, in fact she had already abandoned her baby when I discovered her shivering in the pasture. My husband, Bill, and I took turns bottle-feeding her day and night. Aguila and I were bonded.
Aguila was like a stuffed animal come to life. Her fleece was white and soft rusty brown and grew densely right down to her ankles (pasterns in llama-speak). She blinked her large black eyes and her long lashes fluttered as she drank from her bottle. Aguila’s long ears curved into perfect parentheses. She took easily to a halter and pranced joyfully by my side. Aguila was a big hit at the county fair and was authorized to come and go during the fair hours, as I refused to leave her on the fairgrounds overnight.
Bill and I lived a storybook life on Puget Island, Washington. Having left the high-pressure, high-tech life in California behind, we were living our dream on an island in the middle of the Columbia River. We had a herd of alpacas and llamas, a wonderful old house to remodel and a solid relationship. So I believed. After the first few wonderful years there Bill became infected with a life-altering case of mid-life crisis. My life was toppled like a game board.
Once divorced, I spent several years moving place-to-place, and renovating houses. I was trying to outrun the grief of a failed 20-year marriage, and I couldn’t seem to run fast enough. A basketball-sized sadness surrounded my heart.
I had been living in northern New Mexico for near nine months and summer 2007 was in full swing. Sunflowers bloomed everywhere, the pinyon pines smelled divine, and electric storms rumbled and cracked and flashed and gully-washers threatened almost daily. I was in love with New Mexico and her enchantment but I was lonely.
I brought my llamas and alpacas along to New Mexico where I had purchased a rural home in need of remodeling. Coming from Astoria, Oregon I was looking forward to plenty of sunshine. The neighbors adjacent, Linda and Rand, had a barn and pasture, which they kindly rented to me. It was all quite scenic and lovely and the locals were welcoming, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I didn’t quite belong, I wasn’t home yet.
My dog Tipper and I would walk down the one-lane unpaved road from my house to my neighbor’s to feed and water my two llamas and two alpacas. They were all older females who were no longer breeding and had become pets, especially Aguila.
Hot days were rare at the elevation where I lived. But this day was hot. As I walked over to feed my “girls” I found Linda and Rand out enjoying their yard. We were chatting when I looked over and saw Aguila writhing on the ground. Alarmed, I ran to her and calmed her until she could stop panicking and was finally able to sit upright. Linda and I examined her and could find no injuries, but she was clearly in distress. Linda ran in to call for an emergency veterinary visit while I comforted Aguila. The on-call vet said he would arrive in about 30 minutes. Linda brought out an old stadium cushion so I could kneel more comfortably next to my beautiful frightened llama. She also began to search the Internet for possible causes of Aguila’s distress.
I took an opportunity to run home to fetch Aguila’s halter while Linda took over comforting her. Tipper, and Linda and Rands’s dog Lucy accompanied me. At home, I snatched up the halter and started hurrying back to the barn. Mid way I was stopped short by a terrifying sight. A huge rattlesnake was coiled in the middle of the road, its head standing up at least two feet while it rattled, hissed, and showed it’s fangs. Its dusty color blended perfectly with the ochre of the dirt road. Lucy began to dance around the snake, which struck out at her. I began to holler for help, but my voice was lost.
This was not my first encounter with poisonous snakes. As the youngest of seven children raised in far northern California, I would follow my siblings through the woods. If a rattlesnake was encountered I watched as they dispatched it in a frenzy of rock throwing and shouting. In the 1990’s my husband Bill and I had four different encounters with rattlesnakes while hiking in the Ventana Wilderness and High Sierra. And when we were in Fiji a resort worker encouraged us to wade along the perimeter of the island where we would see a beautiful grotto. The grotto was teeming with nesting sea snakes – deadly, aggressive, nesting sea snakes. They were on the rocks, in the silt at our feet and swimming in the water. We were very lucky to survive that encounter.
I always look for meaning and symbolism in life but I was at a loss to understand the significance of my many poisonous snake encounters.
Once I reached the barn, more shaken by the rattlesnake roadblock, it became all too clear that dear sweet Aguila had been bitten on the nose by that pit viper. Two bloody puncture marks began to swell and she suffered terribly. The veterinarian arrived and was less than useless – he didn’t want to return to his office for anti-venom. He insisted that she would be “fine”. I stayed up most of the night checking on her and trying to find a good veterinary clinic that would help her. I called my veterinarian in Astoria, Dr. Hunter, and he too was working to locate a veterinary clinic in New Mexico, which could treat her. It felt like a slow-motion nightmare where help couldn’t be found.
Mercifully, Aguila passed that morning. Rand called early and gently told me Aguila was gone. I went to see her a last time and told her of my love and blessed her on her journey. And then there is reality, so I called neighbors with a backhoe and arranged for Aguila to be buried on my property. They insisted that I stay in my house while Aguila was interred.
Once inside, I got into the shower and felt the heart wounds open again and I cried for my Aguila, for her horrific suffering, and for seemingly too many losses to bear.
I returned to Oregon that fall almost seven years ago. Since, my remaining llama and alpacas have passed peacefully of old age. The basketball of grief has diminished and the wounds have mostly healed. My life is peaceful and I think I’m finally home.
And no poisonous snakes live here.