Juan del Llano & the Braising of the Snakes

Things were going well enough for Juan del Llano. The passing of his mother, maddened and dangerous in her final years, had smoothed him out and changed his face a little. He used the modest cash from his inheritance to pay off credit cards and spent freely on his needs until the fear of running low set in again.

Somehow it had gotten to be fall. Here and there a battered pick-up truck piled high with firewood crept up or down the road, reminding him of age and freezing. Too soon, he wailed inside. The thought of spending another winter huddled in the old adobe with mice and spiders, crumbling plaster, Taos plumbing, and no room for a goddamned thing was almost more than he could bear—or so he told himself. Taos being Taos and Juan being Juan, however, it had been this way for years.

That night it got cold enough to freeze the bird bath. Juan built a fire in the wood stove, not for the first time that October, but now it made more sense. Suddenly his wife was happy, with her bare feet on the coffee table. Juan plopped down in a comfy armchair with an old-guy groan. He had a cup of coffee, cookies, and his iPad. The cat walked in and sprawled out by the stove. In gratitude and horror, Juan realized that the unseen side of his eternal housing angst was shelter from the storm! In fact, when all the world was locked in snow and ice, the ancient Ashley wood stove raised the temperature to 70 °F in 15 minutes, and the thick mud walls were like a fortress. Nothing rattled when the wind blew—he rarely heard the latter—and he’d sit barefoot in his chair, not two steps from a loving wife who made him coffee every morning while radiators burst and stray cats froze. Without realizing it, he’d gone completely native, and it wasn’t hard at all.

While something of a prize, this made him restless, too. If he wasn’t careful, Juan thought, he’d end up just another gray-haired idiot with a pony tail, shuffling along the Paseo in Birkenstocks with socks, looking for a gallery opening to score free cashews and a little plastic cup of wine… What a cruel town Taos was, where aging hipsters went to die! You had to be clever when resigning from the club, Juan decided 40 years too late. Otherwise, it was like stepping into a hole and coming out when everyone had left. A few days later, the moon rose over the mountain, almost full. In the primal stasis of the bone-dry air, nothing earthly moved or needed to. Juan sat quietly at his desk. Inside the wall or high above the vigas, something gnawed a while and stopped.

Meanwhile on the East Coast, a giant hurricane was bearing down upon the very land he’d left to make a new life in the mountains. He remembered their old house, and all the tricks he’d used to keep them safe from coastal storms. Besides the candles and the food, there were towels and buckets for the porch, a jerry-rigged sump pump in the basement, and storm windows to be lowered when the rain and wind began. He’d even kept a chain saw in the hallway, in case trees fell down against the doors and blocked them in. Juan thought about his friends along the sandy lanes and woodlands of the Eastern Shore. It had been some time since empathy had loosed his memory like this, and he wondered how they were.

By way of contrast, he had only dust and cold and human foibles to contend with, like the time the gas company shut down service at 26 below. (No natural disaster, that.) He had few friends in Taos, either, after 13 years. It seemed that everyone was struggling, and their own narratives—his included—were the only things that mattered. After all, most had come from someplace else and shared no common frame of reference, outside of the adopted one. Juan wondered if his own version of the Taos trip—resigning from America—allowed a man to play a bigger game or put him deeper in the dark. Latinos, on the other hand, could bask inside a culture that had thrived for centuries, and Native life predated Moses. They were rooted in a way the Anglo seekers and retirees could never hope to be.

The next day he and his wife went hiking in the vastness underneath a vault of blue. The air was clean and cool. Suddenly from over the hill, a mountain biker appeared, and they stepped aside to let him pass. (Juan stole a glance back at his wife, bare-headed and beautiful in the sun.)

“Another day in paradise!” the rider called out as he rolled by.

The less he minded that, Juan thought, the better off he’d be, no matter where he was.

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John Hamilton Farr lives at 7,000 feet in Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico, U.S.A. As New York Times best-selling author James C. Moore tells it, John is “a man attuned to the world who sees it differently than you and I and writes about it with a language and a vision of life that is impossible to ignore.” This JHFARR.COM site is the master writing archive. To email John, please see CONTACT INFO on About page. For a complete list of all John’s writing, photography, NFTs, and social media links, please visit JHFARR.ART  

  • Sunday Tidwell October 29, 2012, 7:44 AM

    Brilliant! You made my day already. It’s such a pleasure to read something so well written. I can’t believe you give this away for free on your blog. I’ll be thinking about this. You need an agent and publisher if that’s not too mainstream for ya ; )

    • JHF October 29, 2012, 8:12 AM

      Thank you, Sunday!

      There have been paid columnist gigs in the past, although not lucrative enough to matter. I’m giving it away for free now because a) it’s short, 2) at the moment not included in any collection, and 3) I wanted something posted this morning for people to read!

      I sure do need an agent, and I am working on another book. I may publish another collection first, though.

  • Beth in Hurricane October 29, 2012, 7:53 AM

    Thanks for the read. Still enjoying after 16 years. xoxo

    • JHF October 29, 2012, 8:18 AM

      Beth! How are you guys doing?? Thank you very much, of course!

  • FrankPowell October 29, 2012, 8:08 AM

    What a delight to read first thing in the morning. Good stuff.

    • JHF October 29, 2012, 8:21 AM

      Hey Frank! Many thanks for your kind words. You may be interested to know that the first title I had for this was “Raising the Stakes.” Somehow it turned into “Braising the Snakes” by the time I hit the Publish button. I actually got up this morning to change the title back, but here you guys are already with the comments.

  • Rita Vail October 29, 2012, 8:48 AM

    It is so good to read this because I’ve been following your blog long enough to feel the big shift in you since your Mom’s passing. It makes me happy, and it gives me hope that my own family situation might improve someday. Patience.

    A writer can always pass off the hard times as “gathering material.”

    Instead of thinking about it as “giving it away” maybe you are building a following so that when you have your next book done, there will be a ready market.

    • JHF October 29, 2012, 11:19 AM

      What a fine thing to say about the shift. There certainly has been one. And of course you’re right about the followers and a ready market. I’ll have more work available soon.

  • FW October 29, 2012, 12:35 PM

    Thanks John, it’s always a treat to get your posts and you are always a pleasure to read..!! I was in Taos for a week in November 2002, I love it..!! I know exactly what you’re talking about when it comes to Taos weather, cold & snowy one day and warm and comfortable the next, but wonderful non-the-less.

    • JHF October 29, 2012, 12:50 PM

      You’re very welcome, FW! Yes, the weather is a trip around here. Pretty calm today, though, and 15 degrees above normal. I seem to be spending today watching storm news from my old stompin grounds. Plenty of action there!

  • ken webb October 29, 2012, 3:28 PM

    I don’t think Juan is really as complacent about the passing of his mother as he makes out. There’s a story in there that’s much more nuanced than merely that she was a monster, that he wanted her to die and that her death brought him some money and peace. Life is trickier and more interesting than that, especially when we are talking about the people we sprang from, who gave us life and whom we can never really escape. She wasn’t always what she became, and what she became is a story in its own right. Brother Juan, you know this, and you can and ought to write it.

  • Sunday Tidwell October 29, 2012, 6:33 PM

    Really, John, what I like about your writing is your ability to just be raw and say what you feel. And you are quite introspective. What I detest is too much analysis, so there I differ with Ken. I did so much literary analysis as both a student and a teacher. Let the reader analyze it, but don’t you dare change your writing style. Of course you loved your mom. But you also despised her. And there is the story. It is art. I can’t stand for art to be over analyzed. I am so sick of everything in our world being analyzed too pieces. I find joy in your style. I look forward to each piece. I am thinking of that old saying, “Don’t ruin a good story with the truth.”

    • JHF October 29, 2012, 11:32 PM

      That’s a good saying. My own version of it has always been something like, “Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good line.”

      As for Helen, I wouldn’t say “despised.” Do you think that’s the right word? She became a great locus of pain and in turn inflicted much on us. It was like, “I oughta go and see her, but she’ll kill me.” More a matter of self-preservation, then. Being aware of the danger.

      In any case, though, yes: there is the story!

      • ken webb October 30, 2012, 3:58 PM

        What’s wrong with the truth? We humans are dodgy and opportunistic, admittedly, we do what we have to do to survive – but these aren’t qualities of the life of the mind that anyone should extol. Tell it like it is, I say, from whatever flawed perspective you or I or any of us might have on whatever the subject might be. Make it a story, certainly, but make it a story that imbeds the truth. Special pleading for one’s own special struggles is not permitted to the writer who picks up the pen to write something anyone wants to read.

  • Sunday Tidwell October 29, 2012, 6:35 PM


  • Sunday Tidwell October 30, 2012, 10:13 PM

    JHF, I have such a parent from whom I had to sever all ties in my 20s, and what a wonderful difference that freedom has made. (My brothers had to do the same with regard to that parent.)
    Ken, I’m just quoting (or paraphrasing) an old saying. Please don’t take me literally; I’m not encouraging dishonesty.
    I’m just a random reader, the audience. I view JHF as an author, an artist. What’s left out is just as important as what’s included. The author or artist need not include everything.
    Now, maybe if JHF were writing only as personal therapy, he should write every detail. But isn’t writing his profession? I’m not sure. I’m somewhat new to this blog. Anyway, I’m seeing some real talent here, a man who has this beautiful voice, who is generous with his introspection, who has fantastic tales of life in Taos — and I’m wondering when he’s going to be picked up by a big publisher. Maybe he doesn’t want that? Maybe he does? I am wondering what you mean by “something anyone wants to read”? If a writer is to make a living, he must have an audience, no?
    I wonder if you 2 gentlemen read Rick Bragg’s All Over But the Shoutin’? WOW! That was a powerful book about Momma — and shame, pride and love!
    Peace to you both,

    • JHF October 31, 2012, 10:18 AM

      But isn’t writing his profession? I’m not sure. I’m somewhat new to this blog. Anyway, I’m seeing some real talent here, a man who has this beautiful voice, who is generous with his introspection, who has fantastic tales of life in Taos — and I’m wondering when he’s going to be picked up by a big publisher. Maybe he doesn’t want that? Maybe he does?

      Publishing deal? You bet! But ebook sales is what I’m focused on just now.

    • ken webb October 31, 2012, 3:27 PM

      “If a writer is to make a living he must have an audience, no?” –Yes. That was the point I was making. The reader gets queasy when he detects what I called “special pleading” in a piece of writing. The writing may be intensely personal (as JHF is), but we ought not to feel the purpose of it is therapy or self-justification. Make it raw, make it true, but make it also trenchant, witty, elegant and universal!

      I don’t know Rick Bragg. Modern accounts of the subject of the horror of Mom are not nearly as satisfying as W. Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”. Pardon me if I suggest that there’s a bit of nuance in that depiction. Now, if only we knew what Bill’s own mammy had done to him to fire him up in that way!

      • JHF October 31, 2012, 4:25 PM

        It must have been something you ate! I plead for no man.



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