The boy could ride. Hours before she escaped the spring blizzard, up on Cat’s Claw Butte, she’d watched him running the legs off his grandfather’s flea-bitten gray. There was no joy in it—he was riding the fury out of that horse, a darkness out of himself, the only thing he knew to do, twelve-years-old and bareback.
When he charged past, he didn’t see her resting against the megalith. The woman, the stone—both out of place on the high flat plain; she, large, the color of the rock in her overalls and aching from the climb. This time she thought he was going to ride right off the cliff, the air clean before him, the dust swallowing him. The boy and horse passed so close that she inhaled raised particles of grit. She closed her eyes and coughed, and she couldn’t hear for her own racket. When she stopped enough to listen, it was silent except for the explosive breaths of the horse. Alarmed, she labored to her feet to see what happened.
The animal stood at the brink, its hocks lowered and quivering, flanks foamy with sweat, front hooves not a palm’s width away from the chasm. The boy aimed the horse over the sweetgrass country like a rifle, cocked and ready as if, were she to call his name, she’d trigger them over the edge. So she waited. When he turned the horse around, he looked at her and nodded. She nodded back.
She’d made the hike to get a bead on the spring’s progress. Ever since she was a child with her family, and alone now, she’d touched the stone with flat hands when the first wash of green came over the grazing lands, her people’s once, before the whites came with their deeds and measure. Antelope didn’t recognize ranch boundaries; jack rabbits didn’t; why should she? As she was getting older and heavier, and older and heavier still, every year she made the climb. But the time was coming when her bad knee wouldn’t bring her down again.
A month later, she sat under the lonely tree in front of the cave hole. She’d have to stand and twist clear round to see the orange butte, stark in the distance against the noon sky. But with her weight, to rise she’d need to rock onto her hands, ass in the air to keep the pressure off her knees. She was doing a lot of sitting these days, a lot of resting.
The cave’s slanted entrance on the hillock looked like a giant badger hole partly obscured with weeds. The next rise protected her from the view of the boy’s ranch house—his grandmother wouldn’t approve she was there. The tree, a misshapen apple, grew practically out of stone, the dirt was so thin. Someone had spat a seed once, or a bird shat it, flying over. Strange place to take root. She liked that tree. She liked how the tough fruit resisted teeth. Even the crows didn’t bother. She said hello to it every now and again when she was near-by.
And here came the boy, once more crossing her path, this time leading the horse, patched with dried sweat. As he got closer she could see that his nose had been broke, still raw with injury, and his eyes were starting to swell and mask.
“Hello, Bird,” he said.
“Luke,” she answered. “Out for a ride?”
“Something like that.”
He dropped the reins and eased down beside her, dusting off his hat.
“You been into the cave?” he asked.
She patted her corpulence. “Tighter fit every year.”
She glanced at his face. “You didn’t fall off that horse, did you.”
He looked at her, not saying.
“Didn’t think so,” she said. “It would take more than that nag to toss you. She do that?”
He thought about the answer, then nodded.
“You should slug her back.”
“Last time I tried, it was a mistake.”
“Someday you’ll be big enough and strong enough—you can wallop her and she won’t ever do it again.”
“I’d like to, except that’s what she wants. It will prove she’s right about me, and I’m not going to give her the satisfaction.”
“It’s not good to hold things in.”
“Don’t have a choice.”
“How’s your grandfather?”
“Good. We stay out of her way. We’re out in the bunk house now. It’s better.”
She offered water from her canteen which he accepted. “You should get that set or it’s going to be crooked forever.”
“I can fix it,” she prompted.
“It will hurt.”
“Yes, but it will be over quick. “
His shoulders drooped. “Do I have to?”
“Nope,” she said.
He thought about it, his mouth becoming unhappy. “Well, damn it,” he said. “Where do you want me?”
She pulled him over and in front of her, laying his head in her lap. With her hands on either side of his cheeks, she looked upside down into his pretty brown eyes, ringed with lashes. Those eyes were going to drive the girls crazy.
“It won’t be like this forever Luke. You’ll be grown before you know it. You stay who you are.”
“I know you are.”
When she snapped the cartilage back into place, he howled like a man. Tears welled. She patted his shoulder and they stayed like that for a while, the massive woman, the boy stretched out in the dirt, his head in her lap, his boots pointing at the bright sky, the tree offering spindly shade.
The trout flipped her tail and scraped a tree.
She squirmed through schools of daffodils
and rooms of dancing chairs,
through swarms of clattering aspirin jars
and sinking clouds of sheep.
She laid her eggs in robin’s nests.
Some days the river is like this.
—from Nightly at the Institute of the Possible
First published by New England Watershed
It’s not the traffic, a hot river slowed
on I-91; it’s the loose dog–
not that he’s loveable with his trashcan head.
Look, I say to the fairy,
smudged lipstick, mascara and a wand.
On the seat between us, a pumpkin
with Magic Marker eyes.
The dog scoots among stopped cars.
There’s a party atmosphere, children waving
through passenger windows, the sky crayon blue.
Police try to catch the dog.
When we come to be in front, he is calm.
It isn’t the officer un-holstering
his gun. It isn’t the dog’s heart blossoming
on a stalk of blood, or the spread legs of the man,
shot after shot, or the smile that escapes him
as he houses his gun and waves us on.
It’s the stillness of the wand.
—from Nightly at the Institute of the Possible
First published by descant
The Betsy Colquitt Editor’s Choice Award
Other Sins More Deadly
I wish to be a three-toed sloth,
so on my head when I fall into sleep
a researcher might place a Petri dish
of water (blessed by every known religion);
to sleep with all assurance that sleeping
is divine; to wake and show
that through the night I’d kept the dish aligned;
to stay ignorant of jungle news;
to fecundate my silky loves sparingly,
be slow to mate; to live
in the world, disguised as the world,
unnoticed as a stone, and so sprawl
moss-like in a tree, aging inconceivably.
—from Nightly at the Institute of the Possible
First published by The Berkshire Review
from The Trouble With Horses
By our own admission, horse-people are crazy, each of us crazy in our own way. We are opinionated and tribal. We agree and we disagree.
Human beings do all manner of things, and all manner of things with horses. Some pride themselves on refinement, others on toughness—there’s more than an ocean and continent between the Downton Abbey hunt and the last dash of True Grit. Exceptions exist, and we’re better for them, but generally, where one tribe might smoke cigarettes and sit Western, another sits English and generally disdains tobacco. One has members who can fix tractor valves, and another is likely to have someone who can fix the valves of a human heart. It’s rare for tribes to interact.
Trail riders cringe at sculpted dressage horses; dressage riders grit their teeth at the pounding show jumpers take—one thousand pounds air-born, landing again and again on frangible legs; show-jumpers squirm at the sliding stops of reining horses. Rodeo riders, three-day-eventers, and jockeys have earned the right to think the rest are wimps. Arabians exist on a planet of their own, as do draft horses pulling sledges at county fairs, and Central Park carriage drivers. There’s polo and police horses. And with the interplay of greed, gambling, insurance and tragedy, everyone is grieved by abuses on racetracks.
But without us, all of us, horses would barely exist. They’ve been described as biologically extinct—truly wild herds, the few that are unmanaged, struggle to participate in the gene pool of natural selection. While authorities debate this, there’s no question horses in the wild are threatened. Meanwhile, domestic ones are dependent on us, forced to go along with whatever we dream up. At one point, we found it entertaining to spur them off sixty-foot platforms into pools of water.
Recently I discovered a new sister. (I was put up for adoption, she was not.) She keeps horses on a ranch in Nebraska and is quick to criticize the stall-kept, overprotected, grain-stuffed horses of the East—in other words, mine—while her team-roping horses graze together, un-housed in a broad pasture, and watch prairie sunsets. She isn’t wrong. She has a point of view.
I have mine. I’ve changed names but I’ll be as factual as possible, solipsistic as the next person and as truthful as memory will allow. I’ll digress, mostly into music, because my life with horses was detoured and colored by life as a pianist. I rode intensely for fifteen years, a journey I couldn’t have imagined at the outset, from innocent to experienced, striving to bring my best self to barn and keyboard every day. I didn’t always succeed.
I tried to stay sensible and wise, but I lived with horses for a goodly length of time, so my wisdom is questionable. I understand I don’t know everything and that there is still much to learn. Around every barn of every sort, you hear the refrain; I must be crazy to be doing this. You hear it daily, weekly, year in and year out. You’ll come to understand why—if you don’t know already.