Something I wish I could say I’d written

This essay is by Ariel Nieman, a girl in my nonfiction class. I think it’s brilliantly written and I wanted to share it with you. Enjoy.

The Red Gelding

This horse hates me and I hate him back. I have struggled for at least fifteen minutes to wedge this metal bit between his stubborn yellow teeth. I’ve stuck my thumb in the small space where his long incisor teeth end and his munching back teeth begin, tried to stroke or poke the tender tongue and convince him to open his mouth for me, but any progress comes with fists full of green saliva. The metal clanks against his teeth and my arm is nearly dead from holding the upper part of the leather halter over his angry bent ears, ready for the moment he takes the bit. He rolls his big black eyes at me and nods his long head up and down like it’s some big joke, the whole situation is hilarious.
I am experiencing one of those rare moments in life where everything is exactly, perfectly wrong. I should be in Seattle, doing my midterms and turning papers in on time. I should be sitting at a little table with an espresso, enjoying the coolness of the overcast day. Instead, I’m in Iowa, in the middle of nowhere being scrutinized by my boyfriend Caleb’s very large, very close-knit family while I sweat against a horse from hell.
I want to swear, to use every applicable expletive in my vocabulary and paint a vivid picture of what this stupid animal can do with himself, but Caleb’s several little brothers and sisters are lined up on the fence, like little birds, chirping criticisms and waiting for this interloper to slip. “That’s not how Mr. Sprague does it,”; “Red doesn’t like you, look at his ears,”; “Do you even really know how to do this?”
I grit my teeth and try again to pry open the clenched jaw and finally, mercifully, the bit slides up the tongue and behind the molars.
Caleb and I are taking “a nice ride in the back pastures” as his mother suggested, to “see the country.” Caleb had let it slip that I knew how to ride, that my family has owned horses, and immediately my competence was challenged. “Well, you would know how to saddle the horses then!” said his mother. She explained that the five animals in their pasture belonged to a man from the church, that they were perfectly gentle, but none of them knew how to ride, wasn’t it lucky I was here?
I remembered the last time I had ridden a horse; it was several summers ago, just before the heat really set in, and the blades of grass in our pasture at home were still cool under bare feet. I was helping my mother break our two year-old Thoroughbred called Winnie. My job was to sit on Winnie’s straight bare back and grip her sides tight with my legs. Mom held the leather whip against the horse’s smooth flank with one hand, and the lunge line with the other, and together we moved in a circle that, when smooth, was almost poetic. Winnie and I drew a circumference around our mother’s defining, anchoring point. We traced a circle again and again in the high grass as Winnie learned to trust the feel of another body connected to hers. We went faster, smoother, and sometimes I released my grip on her short, thick mane and flattened my palms against her neck, confident. At one of these moments something spooked or provoked Winnie and she brought up her hind legs, bronco-style, and launched me over her head and onto my back in the grass. I lay there, shocked and offended that she would ruin the beautiful thing we were experiencing, and considering the possibility that I might now be a paraplegic. My mother unsympathetically insisted that I get back on and show her that she hadn’t won. We made a few more un-poetic revolutions, and then I hobbled like an old man into the house. I hadn’t ridden since; I wasn’t bitter, but I wasn’t eager.
As I look at the animal facing me now, I decide that this situation is not totally the horse’s fault; it’s mainly Caleb’s, and this horse’s distaste for me is part of the grander cosmic scheme to humiliate me in front of this family, fail all of the classes that I abruptly left behind, and generally ruin my life.
Yards away an Amish family in a black buggy pulled by a single horse rattles by on the dusty road, and I am newly struck by how foreign this place is. I am standing next to two horses tied to a tired wooden fence, while three others try to undo their ropes from the other side. Behind me is a low stone house with a basement full of home-canned fruit and vegetables, and over to my left stretch Caleb’s mother’s three perfect gardens. I can look completely around me and this lumpy landscape is broken only by fence lines, one brown road, and on a hill to the right, the barn and simple white house of an Amish farm. Before me, past the pastures where these horses have eaten the grass down to an inch above the ground, past a distant white square where the stiff halves of dead corn stalks jut up from the ground, long green grass and the leaves of trees bubble up from a dip between the hills. Green wilderness, Caleb promises me, that’s where we’ll go.
Red resented being caught. He summed me up as Caleb and I tried to corner him against the fence, halters and lead ropes in hand, and decided he didn’t like the look of me. He squeezed through the gap between the wooden posts and my body, and cantered off toward the furthest corner of the pasture, tail held high and taunting behind him. When finally, after Gray had long been caught and I had traversed every inch of this wretched expanse of heat and mud and grass and manure, Red decided, amiably, to be caught, and humbly allowed me to buckle the dusty pink nylon halter with his name written in permanent marker under his chin, and lead him to the barn. As he followed meekly behind me I told him in low, soothing tones the story of my uncle Steve, who ate a Shetland pony just for the fun of it, how it runs in my family, this taste for horseflesh.
It had been several years since I had saddled a horse alone, “tacking up,” my mother called it. I could imagine forgetting to tie one strap or another, and Caleb or I would fly off the horse at a tragic moment, and I would either spend the rest of my life re-learning how to go to the bathroom, or be charged with man-slaughter. Grooming first. I remembered that, at least.
I beat the dusty brush against a gray wooden post and held the bristles under Red’s soft muzzle “so he knows what you’re about to do,” my mother had told me. He snorted his disapproval but I moved my hand over his face anyway, and pulled the brush along his neck and then over his shoulder, and then his back, following each stroke with my left hand. He stood alert, ears erect and cocked like I had some nerve, tying him by the head to a post and taking over his grooming. I put my hands over his whole body, claiming him, begging the favor of a safe ride, mercy from a hard fall. He promised nothing and eyed me suspiciously as I put away the brush and offered the saddle blanket for his approval. I pulled the thick plaid weave high up on his withers, where he would carry most of my weight, if he deigned to carry me at all. The saddle went on next; I hefted the heavy leather onto Red’s back, rejecting Caleb’s offer of help. Red stood still as I maneuvered the saddled into position, pulling it by horn higher up on the blanket and circling wide around Red’s back end to check the other side.
I spoke to him, out of habit, in a soft voice, like you would to a fussy three-year-old, explaining what I was doing now and were my hands were going next. I said, “Now comes the girth, ready?” and ran my hand under his tender belly, over the soft hair and ribs underneath till my outstretched fingers touched the woven girth hanging from the far side of the saddle. Red stood attentive and still. This was a crucial moment; he could clobber me if he chose. He could rear back and turn, and come down on my crouched body with his forelegs, like the Romans trained their horses to do in the war.
I could imagine the chirpy children dancing in a circle around my mangled body, singing something like, “Ding Dong, the witch is dead,” while they congratulated Red for his flawless performance. I would be a martyr to the cause of family relations, and back home, my family would grieve my death, being told that my incompetence as a horsewoman led to my demise.
For whatever reason, Red decided not to take my life. He stood placidly next to the gray wooden post and allowed me to pull the girth tight around his belly and loop the black nylon strap once, then twice through the metal ring at its end. But when it came time to loop the end around the ring and through again (“like you’re knotting a necktie,” my mother would say), there wasn’t nearly enough strap left to finish the knot. Confused, I pulled the strap out completely, and tried it again. Perhaps I had strung it through too many times. Behind me, Caleb hushed his siblings, and their advice quieted to snickers as I tried the knot again: around, around, over, through and down. I had done it right, I was sure. This time the strap seemed even shorter.
“Are you sure that this is Red’s saddle?” I asked, struggling to make the strap and ring meet. Caleb pointed to a place behind the seat of the saddle, where RED had been scrawled on the leather with a black marker.
“Duh,” said one of the brats on the fence.
Maybe I hadn’t pulled the strap tight enough. I yanked and cinched, ignoring the objections of “Stop, you’re hurting him!” while Red stood, quiet and patiently submissive, his tight belly seeming to expand even as I watched. Suddenly, I remembered a trick my mother taught me when we would try to saddle our neighbor’s stubborn horse, Milly. I unhitched Red from the post and ordered Caleb to walk him around the barn a few times, while I started to saddle his horse, a gentle, speckled mare named Gray. He obeyed, and when they returned, Red’s saddle and blanket had shifted radically to one side, and the woven girth hung loose around his belly. Red, thinking he had won, had relaxed his tight belly and breathed normally as they walked toward the gate. With no small amount of satisfaction I righted the saddle and cinched the strap before Red could puff himself back up again.
I smiled, enjoying my small victory in this battle of wills that seemed to silence my critics on the fence. With a little more confidence I slid the leather bridle and bit up my arm and onto my shoulder, and began to unhitch Red’s halter. The moment the chin strap of the pink halter was loose, he saw his chance for escape, or at the very least, a good bit of fun. He pulled his nose out of the harness and threw his long head back and let out a horsy cry, loud and long, broadcasting to the other horses in the pasture the comical stupidity of this little pest hoping to ride him. The three free horses trotted up from their far corner of the pasture to see the fun, as I desperately hurried to loop the loose halter back around Red’s neck before he galloped off to terrorize the Amish. Red started nodding and bobbing his head and neck back and forth so fast that there was nothing to do but hold on and wait for the joke to get old. When he had settled down enough, I managed to pull the thin leather straps on the upper part of the bridle over his ears, and started the long battle with the bit.
So here I am, exhausted long before I crawl onto this wretched animal’s back in hopes of anything like a pleasant ride. My right arm is dead, and I don’t think there’s quite enough strength in my left one to pull myself into the saddle. Just enough, perhaps, to slug someone.
“Wulp, let’s go,” says Caleb, and he leads Gray toward the gate of the outer pastures at an energetic trot. Red, suddenly finding the idea of a jaunt in the grass appealing, hurries after them, and I let him drag me along. The many siblings whoop and scream and jump around us as we walk, trying their best to provoke one horse or other into some act of violence, and I must admire the animals for their restraint.
As we walk, I study Red, his straight back and the fineness of his gait. We move along the fence and he holds his head erect despite the bridle and braided leather reigns, and when he trots, his front and back hooves don’t click together. He is lean, but not too lean, and evenly muscled; all traits, I remember, of a fine horse. Why then, I wonder, is this animal so obviously unhappy? He has friends and a reliable supply of food; why the apparent inner turmoil? Could he have been neglected as a foal? Was it colt abuse?
We reach the outer gate, and just as I find myself able to muster some understanding for this tormented animal, he plants his heavy hoof on my foot, and for all my pushing and leaning on him, he won’t budge. Caleb must take Red’s reigns and pull his head to the right. The rest of his body follows, releasing my squashed foot, all to the delight of the monster-children. I retract any sympathy as I gather the reigns in front of the saddle horn. I conclude that Red is angry because he is a gelding, and has been deprived of his manhood. The world would never inherit Red The Horse’s fine progeny. “And thank God for it,” I whisper in his ear as I put my mangled foot in the stirrup first and pull my body defiantly into the saddle.
Caleb pulls Gray through the open gate and I follow with Red, and he latches the gate behind us. The children stay behind the fence, climbing on the posts to shriek and hoot at us as we go, but they don’t follow. Caleb mounts and we urge the horses up the immediate hill. Red fights the bit and refuses to go in a straight path, preferring to lean hard to the right. He wants to stay at home, in the comfort of his pastures, and with every small turn he hopes I won’t notice we‘re heading backward. I pull hard left to his right and our progress, imprinted in the long grass behind us, resembles that of some inebriated cowboy with an undetermined destination.
As we at last clear the top of the hill and the noise of the children dies behind it, I am shocked by the blank green openness. We are free. At least, we are free from the noisy mockery of Satan’s minions as we move further out into the pasture. Never before have I seen such an uninterrupted expanse. The beauty of it, the greatness of rising and falling with no relieving tree takes my breath away. We are well into the outer pastures now, and as we move further away from the other horses and the children and the squat brown house and the perfect cans of peaches, I could almost believe that there were nothing more threatening behind that gentle rise than another one.
Red moves smooth and quiet beneath me, seeming to sense the comparative holiness of this intense green solitude. He walks with his head erect, both ears cocked, one back, listening to me, to my breath, and one forward, attentive to the silence that comes with creaking of the leather and the music of the insects in the grass. Caleb and Gray walk ahead, fifty or so yards away, following the curve of the landscape and growing smaller. I whisper a “whoa,” to Red, and he obeys, and together we watch horse and rider descend the far slope and disappear.
We stand perfectly still, and I forget about Red. At this one, brilliant moment, I am alone, exactly in the middle of things. I am in the middle of this relationship, in the middle of this year, in the middle Iowa. I am in the perfect, hidden middle of this rolling green absolute. At this perfect point I can turn completely around and see nothing but green grass and white cloud and blue, blue sky.
“We could be anywhere,” I whisper to Red. He flicks his tail at some offending fly and takes a step to the right. He hasn’t forgotten what lies on the other side of the hill. “Not yet,” I tell him. I have only a few more moments of this. Soon Caleb will come back up the far rise looking for me, supposing the Red had finally murdered me and I lay mangled in the long grass.
Red tries again to head right, toward home, and I pull the reigns tight against the side of his neck. We spin perfectly in a circle, like a weathervane, like an indecisive top. I consider that, when we stop, I might not know where we are. These hills might all blend together and the green might rise up to swallow me on this horse who counts me as no friend. I tell Red “Whoa!” in the sternest voice I have, and finally Red ceases his turning and sends a long snort in my direction. For a moment I’m exactly lost. Red breathes a little heavily beneath the saddle and I wonder if he might be lost too. We stand, confused and tired of fighting each other. I feel sick from spinning and irritated with Red and Caleb and myself, most of all, for being irritated. I’ve forgotten my beginning and I can’t see my end.
From far behind us, I hear a faint shriek, and then laughter. Red’s ears come alive, he knows where we are now. Before he can turn again, back home to the house and the children and the neat rows of strawberries, I tell him, “Go, Red, Hyup!” I push my heels into his sides and we run hard. I tell him, “Faster!” and he obliges me. I lean forward into his neck, into the speed. The wind stings tears from my eyes and I laugh and gasp at this incredible flight. Together we cover the rise of and fall of the soft green, we draw a fast line in the long grass that will connect, I know, to Caleb.

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