P.C. Hodgell



play_audioHorseDreams  The Meaningof Horses in Women's Lives,  Ed.  Jan Fook, Susan
Hawthorne,& Renate Klein.  North Melbourne, Australia:  Spinifex, 2004.  Pp. 160 - 163.

By P. C. Hodgell

Imagine a middle-aged woman in a laundromat, listlessly reading notices on a public bulletin board as she sips stale coffee.

    '99 Chevy:  only 99,999 miles; bongo lessons; residential cleaning...

The stairwell at home is spattered with brown, following yet another of her mother's explosive bouts of diarrhea.  Fouled underwear thumps in the washer.

    Cemetery plot for sale: nice view ...

It seems like a year since, over coffee at a Denny's restaurant, she arranged for her father's cremation.  During exploratory surgery, they had discovered widespread colon cancer.  Two weeks later he was dead, never having left the ICU.  The consummate artist, he sketched angels on 3"x5" cards until drugs stilled his hand.

That was March in Florida.  This is Wisconsin in April, only a month later.

Her parents divorced when she was two years old, leaving her to be raised by a grandmother in the same house that she has shared with her mother since the latter's retirement.  Her only sibling died before she was born.  As a child, returning from school, she used to open the drawer to say hello to the tiny packet containing his ashes.  My brother in a box.

    Bookcases, cheap...

She has grown up to be an author with a distinct dark streak and several fantasy novels to her credit.  She has a contract to write the fourth book in the series, To Ride a Rathorn, but how can she when her mother keeps wandering into her study to ask, "Who is alive, and who is dead?"

Good questions, really.

    Bridal gown for sale, never worn...

She has never been married, never even been in love unless one counts various cats, most now also boxed ashes on a shelf.  She certainly never wanted a child.  Nonetheless, now she has one - a professor emeritus once the chair of a university art department, now eighty years old with wild white hair and a bewildered expression, wanting this, wanting that, never satisfied, never leaving her alone.  Goddamn Alzheimer's anyway...

    Riding lessons...

A pause.  She remembers as a child bicycling down Vinland Road, stopping at the white fence to scan the paddocks beyond for horses.  What a passion she had had for them then.  What a hunger.  Oh, if only she had known someone at the stable, someone who might have invited her in...

Could this be the same place?  She squints, near-sighted, at the address.  It is.

Returning home, she finds the house full of smoke.  Her mother has tried to defrost a frozen dinner on the gas range:  "But I was hungry."

By noon the next day, the woman's legs bend like rubber, her buttocks are black and blue from posting in an English saddle, and she has discovered that one does not fall off a horse the same way one fell, all those years ago, in a judo class.  If nothing else, it's a lot farther to the ground.

But the world has changed.

Six months of lessons follow.  One hour of peace a week in the sweet shadows of stall and arena, living out a childhood dream.  But it isn't enough.

She decides to buy a horse.  Moreover, she wants one she can help train, as research for the stalled novel, as an escape.

A Saddle-Bred mare has recently come into the stable.  Used exclusively for breeding, she is six years old and has barely been touched by human hands, much less ridden.  Perfect.

Winter passes.  Every day, the woman and the trainer work with the mare, lunging, long-lining, driving, and occasionally riding her.  Slowly she learns, but in the stall she bites and kicks like the wild thing she still is.

She hates me, says the woman sadly, rubbing a bruised leg.

No, says the trainer.  She's afraid.

She hasn't been cuddled enough, adds his assistant.

The woman tries to remember:  Did anyone ever cuddle me?

Her mother starts to wander away, and to hitch rides back with strangers.

Her daughter puts her into a group home.  She hates it.  The phone rings constantly.  "Take me home or I'll eat broken glass."  Instead, she climbs out a window and starts to walk home in her nightgown.  The police catch her within a block.  Another time, she sets a fire, hoping to escape during the confusion.

This is horrible, thinks the daughter.  At least I waited until Dad was dead before I buried him.  What kind of a person am I?

The phone rings again.  She leaves for the stable, closing the door on its desperate appeal.

A year passes.  The woman turns fifty.  She continues to visit her mother every week, but she also changes to an unlisted number and goes to the stable nearly every day.  Sometimes she takes her mother.

Her mother is there the day that the mare comes back without a rider and the trainer sprints to the rescue.  He arrives just as the woman emerges from the tall grass and swings back into the saddle.  She doesn't tell him until later that she was not only thrown but dragged.  In fact, over the past year she has been thrown repeatedly by her skittish mount, dragged face down over gravel, and hurtled backward down a deep drainage ditch.  To her surprise, none of this has greatly upset her (except the ditch) nor has she been much hurt.  Perhaps she isn't the timid, weak person that she always thought she was.

Meanwhile, there is such peace, riding through an autumn wood or across an open field under the great dome of the sky:

She gives me fields of white lace
Brushing her shoulders
Brushing my shoes
Leather creaks
Ears twitch
Grass braids in the wind
White butterflies dance around us
Like snow in August

And sometimes, in the stall, the mare quiets to her touch.  They stand together, her arms around the sleek neck, the velvet nose on her shoulder, cuddling.

This is my horse, she thinks with wonder.  I'm a horsewoman.

The mare sighs; then, deliberately, she steps on the woman's foot.

They decide to breed the mare to the trainer's stallion.  The mare is an old hand at this.  The stallion is not.  On his first time, he nearly falls off on top of the woman, who is holding the mare's head.  The second time, he gets it right.

Eleven months later, the woman kneels in the deep straw of the stall, one arm around the new-born foal, who is nibbling at her ear, the other around the mare, who is licking the foal's back.  They had never thought that she would let them near her baby.  In three years, how far she and the woman have come together.

Mothers and daughters.  Mares and foals.  Women and horses.

Out of so much grief and guilt and fear, somehow, has come this small, perfect creature.

Then the mare bares her teeth.  Enough.

The horsewoman retreats, absently rubs her bruised arm.  Sometimes life bites, she thinks, but it goes on.