I also remember, as I grew older, trying to gallop mentally through rough personal times. Some nights, sleep would not come. At those times, I would let my mind wander, and images of Belle, my neighbor’s horse, would appear: his white head, his deep brown eye, his breath, his smell. He would sniff me up and down, right and left. I never felt so full of secrets. Those images slowed my brain and granted sleep.
The last time I saw Belle, he came to me even though he could hardly walk from the hoof problems that eventually caused him to be put down. I always felt that when I died, he would be there waiting for me at his gray, metal fence.
Maybe that’s the kind of ending you would only find in books. I hope not. As someone who reads a great deal and teaches courses in literature and writing, I often find myself, like my colleagues, sitting hunched over paper, eyeballs fixated on print, maybe leaning to one side. We spend hours listening to others, either through words on paper or physically. We multitask—I eat when I grade; I record when I watch television. We think a lot—trying to twist our brains to understand the logic of another’s words. I could be a big head with an atrophied body.
Horses save me, I think. They are huge, warm, wonderfully odorous, physical creatures that loosen my shoulders and improve my posture. They read me with more scrutiny than I ever read another’s words. They deserve and sometimes demand my often-wandering attention.
For about four years I more or less leased Cisco, a gelding as coppery as Belle was white, whose back has a dark stripe, and whose life has not always been easy. I paid his owner each month for the privilege of riding and helping take care of him. His owner spent time with me (lots of time) helping me learn and re-learn the ins and outs of being with a horse.
Now, after breaking my leg badly, I have not ridden for more than a year. But I still visit Cisco every week and do groundwork of sorts, groom him, sit with him, tell him all my woes. He circles me in a round pen and lets me hug him when he comes into the middle where I stand. I like walking with Cisco, who stays with me when we head down the road even though I know he badly wants the green shoots on either side.
When I arrive at his corral and call out his name, and he raises his head and pricks his ears—to me it’s a homecoming. I don’t want to do him the injustice of romanticizing. Just as often, Cisco hides behind his buddy Tango, to tell me that he would rather be left alone. But he can be with me like no human can.
Except for my dad. I won’t romanticize him either, but he was a very good father, a person who could read people as well as a horse could. I don’t know if he would appreciate the comparison. “I’m not a horse,” he might say indignantly, maybe secretly pleased.
My dad died recently. I believe that when a person dies, he or she creates a lodging in your mind—a home where you can open the door and walk in with your suitcases from a long journey. That person will be sitting there waiting for you. You think, “I feel right here. I am where I should be.” And later you are told to go to bed as if 60-odd years had been peeled away, and you hear the crackle of the newspaper pages being turned, even though your dad is blind and can no longer read the words.
My dad could make fun of me, too, and as my students would say, he “kept it real.” But when my siblings would taunt me and my feelings would ache, my dad knew—and he would ask indirectly, “You had a good dinner, Eileen? Doing OK?” He knew when I might be upset even when he could not hear very well.
Cisco is like that. He knows. Cisco could be a man from the 1940s and 1950s, who raised his family when mothers often stayed at home while fathers left for work early, smelling of after-shave, and returned late in the day. Those dads rarely cried. They were stoic. They rarely hugged. But they held your hand.
Cisco can be there for me, too. Sometimes when you least expect it, he nuzzles you or he falls asleep when you are brushing him and his lower lip quivers. Or he calls to you—and you place the sound in that house in your mind. It’s one of the places you go when your dad has died recently and you can’t believe it and want to place his last words to you in that house, but they are too close to your heart right now. Those words will find their way there someday, but not for a long time.
When I return to my papers and to my students, I sometimes wish I could be as soft and honest as Cisco can be, a buddy, not perfect and not trying to be anybody but himself there with me. I cannot, but I know that after being with him, I feel as I did with Belle—that I have many secrets, including one that keeps my body and head more balanced and one called a house in my mind where my dad will dwell forever and where Belle will be waiting for me at a gray, metal fence.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #458, November 2015.