I used to read a lot when I was a kid. Some of my favorite stories were about horses. Ironically, Ernest Hemingway was one of my favorite authors. I always resented the fact that Hemingway hadn’t written more about horses, and less about more boring subjects like bullfighting and boxing and wars and fishing. I bet if he had set his mind to it, he could have written a classic horse story.
Since he hadn’t written anything like that, though, I had to create my own equestrian adventures. I fantasized about finding a gorgeous unwanted horse that I could tame for myself after the mean rancher guy had failed. It would stare at me, ears perked, neck arched, nostrils flaring, expecting to be chased or beaten. But I would be patient. After a few days it would be eating out of my hand. A few days after that we would be galloping bare-backed across the countryside, boy and beast melded together in a heady camaraderie of mutual respect and eternal friendship. Every night when I knelt by my bed, I begged heaven to send a wild horse to my back yard. Any old Lippizaner or Sorraia or Posan would do. The truth was, though, that I would have settled for a 30 year old, toothless, worn-out draft horse.
I don’t know exactly when the dream began to fade, but once I got a job and a wife with the accompanying responsibilities, the keen yearning for a horse adventure attended me more and more infrequently. In fact, for the past several years, I hadn’t even thought about those delicious flights of fancy. I owe part of that to the three horses tromping around in my field. They have acquainted me with a less romanticized perspective of equine ownership–a perspective integrally tied to my dwindling bank account.
So I must say that the last thing I expected was to ever again experience the intensity of emotion invested in my prepubescent equine fantasies. Yet just the other day, out of the blue, my childhood dream unexpectedly popped out of the brush beside the four-wheeler trail just a stone’s throw from my house. There she was, wild and white, with ears perked and nostrils flaring, just like I had seen her in my daydreams. I went to my knees, gasping with the vivid shock of longing that belted me hard in the solar plexus.
I cannot describe what the next few minutes were like. Papa Hemingway would have been able to describe it for you if he were still alive. Too bad I can’t tell my story to him and let him seize your imagination in that inimitable way of his…
He was an old man who walked alone on the trail. He had gone forty-three years now without glimpsing a wild horse. For the first thirteen years, a boy had lived inside of him. But after thirteen years without catching a horse, his parents had told him that he was the worst form of daydreamer, and he had better get on with his life.
It made the boy in him sad to see the old man return from his walk each day with his dream empty. The old man would shuffle to the barn and take the soft rope halter down from its rusty nail. He had braided it when the boy’s hands were still smooth and pink, but it had never been worn. These days the old man would inspect the halter with deep-creased hands and then hang it back on its nail like a flag of permanent defeat.
The old man was thin and gaunt in the shoulders with deep wrinkles in the front of his shirt where his pecs should have been. The sodden bulge of a developing paunch strained against the shirt buttons above his belt buckle. Everything about him seemed old and weary. The old man knew he was living on borrowed time but his eyes were not ready to give up yet.
There were a few leaves still hanging from the trees and the urgent wind of Alaska’s autumn made them shiver. He thrust his fists deep into his pockets and leaned forward into that wind as it came down from the mountains. He inhaled deeply, taking in the clean early morning smell of frost on dead fireweed stalks. A rose hip caught his eye. He felt embarrassed by its shriveled and misshapen tenacity, clinging to its naked branch so long after the first freeze. He picked up a stick and tried to knock it to the ground, but its stem was anchored deeply among the thorns and refused to surrender its grip.
The stubborn rose hip reminded the old man of himself. Why should he force it to give up? He tossed the stick away. From the patch of low bush cranberries where it landed four spruce chickens whirred up one after another into his face almost. Then they veered sharply away to land in a cluster of black spruce. From their perch they peered at the old man, heads bobbing at him in silent laughter.
The old man didn’t blame them. When you have lived as long as the old man had, you have a lot of fine things you can remember. When you think back over a cup of hot coffee on the things you have loved in life, your memories should bring you pleasure. Old men should be content with that. But all the memories that came dancing out of the crackling flames of his wood stove at the end of the day were not enough. He could not expect the mocking spruce grouse to understand why he could not contentedly fade away like everybody seemed to expect. He didn’t understand it himself. But the boy inside him knew. He was made to catch and befriend a wild horse. He needed that memory. That need kept him alive.
He pushed his fists back into his pockets and began to work his way down the trail, humming the theme from “Hidalgo”. The sun, rising thinly from behind the low mountains to the east, cast tree shadows like groping fingers against the frosted ground. In the fall the frost was always there and he did not give it any notice. Between the shadows the sun was warming the frost into fading tendrils of mist. Small birds blew in the wind and the wind turned their feathers. Fifty yards ahead something moved in the brush. Then it stepped out onto the path. The old man stopped in mid-stride. There were two of them. A big brown one and a small white one. The old man went to his knees, gasping as the vivid shock of longing struck his stomach like a hard-fisted right hook.
When he could breathe again, the old man eased to his feet delicately and softly, and his left hand slowly began to unclasp the buckle from beneath the bulge of his paunch. He wished he had the bridle that hung in the barn on the rusty nail, but it was too far. There was no time. A belt would have to do.
The mare swung her head around to stare at him. The wind had backed into a little breeze that was blowing his scent away from her so that she was trying to identify him by sight. He stood still to let her look and he took a good look at her. He could see her long face tapering the wrong direction to a nose like a boxing glove. Gaping nostrils drooped over her front lip. She seemed to be made up of random parts of other animals. She had the beard of a goat, the legs of an arthritic giraffe and the shoulder hump of a grizzly bear. The old man couldn’t tell if she had any tail at all. The ears that were perked in his direction belonged to a mule. She was an exceptionally ugly horse and clearly her filly had inherited the same mismatched features. Any decent horse breeder would have shot them both on sight to prevent them from infecting his stock.
Yet it was just that outcast quality that stoked the fires of the old man’s boyhood fantasies. He would befriend this ugly little white filly who had been so misunderstood and rejected. Their souls would be joined in a mystic union of mutual respect and eternal friendship. The white filly’s mule ears were perked and her nostrils flared just like the boy inside him had seen in his daydreams. He had almost forgotten how much the dream could hurt. A chill still hung in the air but the old man felt the sweat trickle down the back of his neck.
“Little white filly,” he said aloud. “I am going to catch you. I am going to catch you or die trying.”
He shouldn’t have spoken. The mare flicked her ears twice and moved away across the road in a rollicking canter that was deceptively fast for such a comical gait. The filly went along, pressed against her left flank. The old man froze and held his breath. In the ditch on the other side of the road the horses stopped again. The old man exhaled softly with relief and scolded himself. Think of what you are doing. You must do nothing stupid. I wish I was a boy again, he thought. But you aren’t a boy. You are just an old man with a belt and it is up to you.
The mare was looking in his direction again. The old man’s thighs were cramping and his poised hand had begun to quiver with fatigue. He looked at his hand in disgust. What kind of a hand is that? He willed it to stop quivering. Cramp if you must. Make yourself into a claw. It will do you no good. You will remain motionless until I am dead if I ask you to. A raven came from somewhere behind him, tacking sideways in the wind. The old man could see that the bird was very tired. The raven settled in the ditch between the old man and the horses and began to strut back and forth, plumping his feathers. That seemed to comfort the mare. She abruptly flicked her ears again and began stripping the bark from a willow sapling. The white filly dropped her head and nibbled at something on the ground.
“That’s it”, the old man smiled to himself. “Keep eating. Don’t be shy, horses. Doesn’t that taste lovely? Eat it up now. ” He dropped to his hands and knees. The high shoulder of the road rose up to hide him from the suspicious mare. Steadily, the old man began to crawl, ignoring the rocks that tore his hands and bruised his knees. When he had reached the spot where the horses had crossed the road he raised himself up slowly and steadily.
The horses were just across the pavement from him now. Their rumps were toward him and now he could clearly see that they had no tails worth mentioning. Someone had trimmed them back until they resembled a Rottweiler’s tail. In fact their manes were gone too. Such human cruelty nauseated the old man. Once he caught the filly he could fix that. With enough love and oats and time the hair would certainly grow back.
He felt a surge of delight to be so close to his dream. For a moment he saw himself sitting on the filly’s back smacking that white rump with a cowboy hat, but he knew she would not let him do that. Not yet. I must convince her, he thought. I must never let her learn her strength nor what she could do if she took a dislike to me. He knew that it would be hard to sneak up on her. He would only have one chance. The old man fed the end of the belt through the buckle to form a noose. He let it slide, controlling the buckle with his forefinger and thumb until he had enough of a loop to throw over her head when the right instant arose.
The old man crouched to make himself as small as possible. He started to work his way across the road. It was easy to tiptoe quietly on the pavement, but when his feet crunched into the gravel shoulder the mare’s head swung around. Her ears probed and her nostrils quivered as she searched for him. The old man was off-balance and felt himself tottering. He had no choice but to shift his footing. In that moment, the mare licked her lips and the hair rose along the ridge of her grizzly hump. Then the mule ears flattened against her skull and she came at him with a rush. The filly bawled and scooted into the brush.
The old man saw the mare rearing above him, hooves flailing. In moments like that it is curious how a man’s mind works. The thing that he noticed was that her unshod hooves were in bad shape. The bottoms were deeply split all the way up to the fetlock. He didn’t have time to notice any more details. The hooves were coming down toward him then. He rolled beneath her belly, aiming for the gap between her hind legs. That was a mistake. The hind legs danced upon him with numbing blows to his ribcage and neck. The old man kept rolling. He had never before seen a horse that could kick all four directions at once. It was impossible to escape her fury.
The old man grew desperate. At this rate he would never be able to catch the white filly. Just then both of the mare’s rear hooves connected with his paunch. The impact lifted him clear of the ground and he closed his eyes against the pain as he tacked in the wind like the raven had done. He seemed to spin slowly through the air. Now she has beaten me, he thought. I am too old to catch wild fillies. But I will not give up as long as I have legs to run and arms to cast a belt noose. He had let go of the belt, though. As it turned out, he did not need it. He opened his eyes very wide as he felt a tremendous impact between his legs. It was the white filly. The old man had landed on her back.
The filly seemed to be as startled as he was. With a braying sort of bleat she started to run. The old man wrapped his arms around her neck and wove his fingers tightly into her dense white coat. She moved like a runaway rollercoaster, scraping the old man against birch trunks and shredding him through willow thickets. Still he hung on with teeth gritted, flopping against her hump. His face cracked into the back of her skull. He felt the cartilage sever in the bridge of his nose. The white of the filly’s neck was suddenly covered with a rush of crimson. A pink cloud seemed to pass before his eyes. The cloud was full of blinking spots. He felt something pluck at his collar. Then the daylight contracted into a bright white dot and went out.
He dreamed of vast herds of wild Lipizzaners thundering across the tundra. It was the time of their mating and they leaped high into the air and twirled in an awesome spectacle of synchronized dressage. Then he dreamed that he danced with them under the northern lights and the herd was nuzzling him and nickering soft greetings.
He woke with a jerk. The jerk was his neighbor who prodded him and asked if he was all right and why was he dangling all bloodied from a birch branch by his shirt collar. The old man felt faint and sick and could not see well. But he kicked out at his neighbor and the motion caused him to spin in a little circle. The spin twisted his collar onto the birch branch until he began to strangle and the pink cloud came back. The neighbor cut him down just before the bright white dot went out.
“Don’t sit up,” the neighbor said. He handed the old man a canteen.
The old man took it and drank from it.
“She beat me,” he said. “She truly beat me.”
“That was a big moose. I saw her. The albino calf too.”
The old man knew that the neighbor would not understand. He spat something strange and it felt like something in his chest was broken. He also realized that the boy inside him was dead. The boy’s dream was dead too.
“Can you help me back to my house?” he asked the neighbor. “I need a clean shirt and something to eat.”
Ten minutes later, in his house the old man was sleeping again. He was sleeping on his face and the neighbor was sitting by him watching him. The old man was dreaming of butchering horses.