Trudy and I were having a Santa Fe Christmas when an old friend named Robbie drove up to the house in his vet truck — a semi-cantankerous dodger that had mostly obeyed its owner’s wishes during their 300,000 mile, 25-year partnership. He asked me if I could ride along as his assistant so I threw caution aside, jumped in, and away we lurched.
“I’m pretty sure I’ve spent more time in a manger than Jesus, Joseph and Mary.” He paused. “These days I’m down to one client; trying to make a mare remember where her hind legs are.”
I looked at him for the explanation we both knew was coming.
“Came outta Oklahoma with a parasite. We’re gonna help her with a little Chinese.”
A half hour later he was still talking when we pulled in through the front gate of an emerging horse ranch. He rummaged around through the boxes in the back of the truck and gave me my instructions.
“Your job is to hold this tray of needles and keep everybody believing that what we’re doing is gonna work.”
The tray contained an assortment of acupuncture needles and some little packages of herbs. I walked with him toward the corral where a good-looking blood bay mare was watching us.
“How’s my girl? We came to take a good look at you, darlin’.” The mare watched us with her ears. “Maybe see if we can help your north end find your south end.”
I walked the mare in a circle; it wasn’t hard to pick up on the wobble and sway she made every time one of her hooves hit the ground. Muttering a few incantations, the old vet pawed his way through the tray in my hands and began inserting needles along the midline of her back. After a pause he had me walk her out again. This time it was clear that she was steadier, that her legs were finding and holding the pieces of real estate they were intended to find.
“The thing with this Chinese medicine is that you have to believe in it. Look at her eyes. She’s the only one here who has no reason not to believe.”
We left a bill for the owners, loaded up and headed back to town. Just before it got dark, Robbie noticed me eyeing a small instrument case in the back seat of the truck.
“Got that in Dublin. Fell in love with her and, bless her little unplayable heart, the only thing she’s ever done to make me regret it is that she can’t sing with her top strings. God, I’d love to be able to play her.”
“I tell you what," I said. "I’ve got too many miles between oil changes in my bowing arm. You get me back in one piece and stick some of that Chinese in my elbow and I’ll buy you a drink and see if I can get this mando up and running.”
He looked over at me, the dash lights illuminating the eye sockets and crags in his face.
“You got yourself a deal, cowboy.”
A long, one-sided conversation brought us back to the house where we got ourselves settled inside.
“Roll up your sleeve. Let’s see if we can put a little spark into your life.”
I waited with my drink, soaking my aching arm from the inside out while he got out his needles and went to work from the outside in. Before long I’d been quilled enough to remind myself of one of Custer’s 7th Cavalry after the dust had settled.
“You think this will work?” I asked.
“Man, didn’t you learn anything? Remember the mare? What’s the first lesson I taught you today?”
I thought for a second.
“You need to believe.”
He nodded his head.
“There," he said, pleased at my answer and admiring his needle masterpiece. He began telling Trudy stories while I worked within the invisible space between the strings and the fingerboard of the mandolin. And then...
“Done. Here, give it a try.” I held the little guy out to him. “Play me a tune.”
Cautiously he took the instrument from me. I watched as his stiff fingers tentatively searched for music inside the steel and wood on an instrument that was so willing with fingers that were so weak. He put the mando down, finished his drink, pulled the needles out of my arm, stood up and said goodnight.
Trudy and I sat in the loud silence for a minute. She looked over at me with two questions that got answered as one.
“Did it help? And do you think he’ll ever learn to play that mandolin?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. Sometimes, all you need to do is to believe.”