We buried my father in his boots and cowboy hat. I sat in the Western-themed bar off his kitchen and polished them. I left the stubborn clods of dust and grass on the heels. My father was a master horseman. I didn’t want him to look like a greenhorn in the next world.
At first, the wild horse ate only dust. He came to my father’s New Hampshire farm in the summer of 1986 from Nevada, part of the mustang adoption program. The word mustang comes from the Spanish “mestengo” or “mesteno” meaning “stray livestock animal.” Mustangs are both domestic and wild. Animalia mixta: “mixed beasts.”
My father was a mixed beast. He lived on a farm and rode horses and fixed fences and baled hay. He drove an hour and a half to Boston each day where he worked as a reporter for The Boston Herald. He wrote stories about the Mafia, odes to the rare lady blacksmith, celebrations of meteor showers. “I think I’ve written about everything at least once,” he told me. I remember thinking, as we drove through the green countryside, that my father was a lucky man.
Living in the country softened some of my father’s hard, city vocabulary. When a state trooper committed suicide, my father told me, “He took his own life in a meadow.” He understood how the word “meadow” opened out into life and touched the soft edges of eternity.
I saw my father take his last breath in a hospice bed, wearing a gown patterned with a goofy cartoon moose and grinning bears. At the church I gave his eulogy, recounting a summer day when he fell into the well. My brother Jeb and I had to pull him out.
I watched his coffin disappear into the ground at the cemetery. But I only believed my father was dead when I returned to his farm and found the fields silent and empty.
A few weeks after his death, boxes I packed in New Hampshire arrived at my apartment in Los Angeles. I’d packed in haste—random pieces of tack, photographs, and ephemera. I opened a 1994 date book to April. The square for April 2, my birthday, was unmarked. But two rows below, on April 21, my father had written: BLAZE’S BIRTHDAY.
That the old horse had died in 1992 apparently didn’t matter.
Perhaps because he was a hybrid animal, my father didn’t really belong to the city or the country. He could elicit confessions from fallen politicians and engender lifelong connections with the mothers of disappeared girls. But my father preferred the company of horses. Exiled in New England, my father imported the West: the Paint gelding Cochise from Colorado, Dakota the Quarter Horse from Montana, and Smokey the Mustang from the Nevada desert.
Smokey didn’t know what to make of grass, or even the concept of lushness. He sniffed unfamiliar plants with a kind of studied boredom. He waded out into the field, pulled a few tentative stalks, then returned to the dusty circle around the well cover where he tore at the stubborn weeds that ringed the concrete. His dark, vigorous nose sifted dirt until the yellow splatters of pollen on his lips were eclipsed by brown dust. However unimaginative “Smokey” sounds, I can’t imagine what else we could have called that kind little horse with his body of bright ash, his mane and tail of thick smoke.
Smokey was a beautiful shimmering gray color. “They call that color grulla,” he told me, pronouncing the word like “gruel-ah”-somewhere between grueling and gruel, between the endurance of the difficult and the thin sustenance of survival. My father had never heard the word spoken properly before. Didn’t know it was a Spanish word. He repeated what the Yankee horse shipper said.
My father’s work in the city could be brutal. Horses were a sanctuary, a way to survive. My father rode as much as he could. I rode with him—to old quarries, on logging trails, along the margins of dirt roads, through apple orchards and across overgrown meadows. Sometimes we rode into the little village of Mont Vernon where we visited the grave of my sister, Julie, the only one of my father’s seven children who had a natural gift for horsemanship.
Even in death, Julie was synonymous with horses. Every so often my father would ask me if I knew the last thing Julie said to him. Inwardly dreading it, I always said no. “She asked me to lift her up on the horse. I didn’t know how to answer, so I said, “ ‘I can’t—he doesn’t have any shoes.’ ”Julie’s death showed me how absence also meant presence.
As a child, I tried to reconcile two other equally true but opposing realities: my father hated being married, felt trapped by his obligations, yet despite his volatility, drinking, and complete lack of parenting skills, he actually loved his children
They met on a blind date. My father gave my mother a cowboy line: “He told me I was as cute as a speckled puppy in a red wagon,” she told me with a wry exhalation of cigarette smoke. “Pretty rich stuff for northern Massachusetts.” When my mother became pregnant in 1952, they married. My father was still a journalism student at Boston University. My mother didn’t enjoy the outdoors. She liked to stay inside and smoke and talk and drink tea. She hated horses. “Blaze stepped on my bare foot,” she told me. “Your father traded my piano for a black stallion named Loner.”
In 1952, my brother Joey was born. He didn’t like horses either. In early photographs, my father’s firstborn son appears sullen in his boots and black cowboy hat. Whether we liked horses or not, my father recruited us to take care of them. My father could never tell who was home, so he’d shout our names in a jagged litany: “Jeb, Joellen, Sean, Janet….” I always felt a shiver of sadness when Julie’s name remained in the list long after her death.
“Don’t you remember,” my sister Joellen reminded me, “how Dad forgot our names so much, he used to call us Girl 1 and Girl 2?”
Our family became a cautionary tale about the value of freedom. My father would inculcate this truth to Jeb and me at the diner after church. He circled his bylines in the Herald while we swirled fat French fries in pools of ketchup. “Remember,” he’d say, “marriage ruins a lot of great friendships,” or “Jesus, whatever you do, don’t have kids. They’re the end of everything.”
Not one of my father’s children ever gave birth. My mother lamented this. My father didn’t care. Instead of pictures of grandchildren, my father opened his wallet and proudly brandished two photos of his Appaloosa stallion Silky mounting a less-than-thrilled mare named Selena.
One summer day Jeb and I stood on the lawn reading Phillip Larkin’s “This Be The Verse,” the poem that starts “They fuck you up, your Mum and Dad,” and ends with “Get out as early as you can and don’t have any kids yourself.”
Jeb laughed. “Oh man,” he said, “we gotta give it to Dad.” I felt a stab of conscience, but followed Jeb to the barn to show my father. He read it and laughed.
“Can I keep this?” he folded the poem into a little square, opened his wallet and slipped Larkin behind the picture of the horses fucking.
* * *
A few months after my father’s death, I sign up for a class in horse husbandry at Pierce College in Woodland Hills. I take the class because I am afraid of forgetting: forgetting the things my father told me about horses, forgetting his voice, how he sat in a chair. I try to anchor the fleeting bits of memory with fact:
Grullo horses must have:
A dorsal stripe that runs from the base of the mane into the tail.
Black or brown legs
Dark tips on the ears
Head darker than body
The class is mostly girls. Some wear sleek English boots and slobber-stained breeches. Others shuffle in with ornate spurs that jingle mutely as they search for their seats. The daughter of the blacksmith is something of a know-it-all. The other girls roll their eyes when she speaks of the difficult horses she trains. The cowgirl from Texas in front of me never takes notes. She’s forever switching from Facebook to solitaire to a site that sells engagement rings. Once I saw her browsing through a page of shotguns.
The girls giggle when the guest lecturer, a handsome veterinarian, reveals that certain stallions enjoy the mechanics of artificial insemination more than the real thing. “There are many styles of fake horse vaginas,” he says holding a long leather sheath that ends in a funnel. “We call them phantoms.”
My teacher brings her Australian shepherds to class. They trot through the small lecture hall, nosing in students’ purses, eating stray Cheetos off the floor. My teacher wears cowboy boots and shirts or baseball caps covered with crucifixes. She’s fun and unpretentious and loves to talk about horse color. She scrawls ecstatic equations on the board:
Ee aa Dd
A black legged (not red horse) with a dorsal stripe
The grullo is a black horse with a dun gene.
The silver grulla (grullo) carries the cream gene.
I hear her say: “Conditions must be just right or you get another color.” I write: When Conditions are right, I manifest
It’s a line from the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hahn. I listen to his lectures in the car as I drive to Pierce College. Thich Nhat Han says our human nature is one of “no coming, no going of no birth, no death.” To illustrate he lights a match:
If we ask, “Dear little flame, where have you come from?”
The flame replies:
I have not come from the East. I have not come from the West. Or the North or the South. When conditions are sufficient, I manifest. When conditions are no longer sufficient, I cease my manifestation.
The word “manifest” feels like a single swipe, a brushstroke. Birth without pain. No messy sacs or cords or blood.
The first and only time I saw something being born, the conditions did not seem right for manifestation. At 18, our mare Misty was too old. She groaned and paced the birthing stall. She stopped and nipped at her hindquarters. She could not push her baby all the way out. Through the blurred dream of the birth sac, I could see the colt poised like a diver with his little hooves tucked under his chin. The vet finally looped a chain around the foal’s head and attached the other end to a winch. The vet pulled. Misty groaned. I remember the old horse’s cries of pain and relief when the baby emerged. I remember the afterbirth a red, alien, gelatinous thing flecked with sawdust. The colt turned out beautiful. All legs. But by the time he finally wobbled to his feet, Misty felt too sore and pissed off to be a mother. When he tried to nurse, she kicked him.
All the old horses haunt me: Chief, the white Lippizan who went blind and zig-zagged like a vaudevillian drunkard into the barbed-wire fence, the evil genius Blaze who sported a stitch on his left haunch from backing into the fin of a 1950s ambulance at a rodeo. Dakota always shone–golden dun–the color of a newly minted penny. Once my father rode Dakota right up to the drive-thru bank window. He charmed all the female tellers, who delighted in his cowboy eccentricities, not knowing he’d lost his license for driving drunk.
So many horses with bigger personalities, longer histories than I had with Smokey. Yet for months after my father’s funeral, all I seem to remember is that little Mustang horse with the strange and beautiful color: grullo.
Western riders say the horse is “sorrel” colored.
English riders say “Chestnut.”
The stripes on the legs are called bars.
The stripe on the forehead is called cobwebbing.
My father had light chestnut eyes.
I exist in two worlds at once: the strange purgatory of mourning and the relentless forward-moving present. Sitting in my car before class, I try to memorize facts about antibodies and mare’s milk while listening to Buddhist lectures. To be compassionate, we must understand the origins of another’s suffering: Breathing in, I see my father as a five-year-old child, breathing out, I smile to that five-year-old boy who was my father.
I receive an “A” in horse husbandry.
Master horseman Buck Brannaman comes to Pierce College to give a clinic. My friend Helen and I watch the horses and riders orbit around Buck like some eccentric carousel: an obese woman piloting an enormous draft horse, a thin effeminate man astride a little gray Arabian mare, her eye, a wet black jewel. The mare scans the bleachers and emits a rib-shattering neigh. “Whinnying horses miss the comfort of the herd,” Buck explains. “They can get that comfort from the rider. But you guys are not there yet with your horses. So you gotta distract and redirect. Say, “‘Don’t think about that, think about this.’” It’s all in the timing. Learn to change the subject.”
I was always trying to shift the conversation, forever hoping to rescue my father from some real or imagined abyss. When he drank, I could pinpoint with almost scientific accuracy the moment an irritable observation could explode into a rant, and swiftly tried to change every potentially explosive topic—bussing, the heating bill, my mother’s driving habits—into something clownish. I tried to make him laugh: Dad, Dad, on Monty Python they have a game show where you have to guess what a guy’s disease is…or I’d switch to horses, any subject I thought he could get lost in: What’s the difference between a paint and a pinto, a piebald or skewbald? Is Palomino a color or a breed? I never stopped looking for the perfect question.
Buck sits on his young horse with lightness and presence. “The goal is one body, one mind. You want his legs to be your legs. You want to be one creature.”
The idea of blended horse and rider stimulates my childhood fantasies of Narnia, of centaurs and enchanted creatures that almost seemed possible in the woods where we used to ride.
Buck Brannaman isn’t interested in “the primitive walk, trot, canter, stuff,” but of developing a nuanced union between man and animal. He uses expressions like “Chinaman’s chance in Hell.” He speaks of poseurs who dress in the finest cowboy threads or the most elegant dressage costumes, but cannot hide their talentless hands, their utter disconnection from the horse. “They can’t pour piss from a boot.”
In some childish spirit of competition, I begin measuring Buck against my father. Like Buck, my father began riding in childhood. He told tales of how the old traders would try to palm off a blind horse with coded truths: “He’s a good horse, but he doesn’t look good.” Buck’s language is funny, refreshingly non-PC. But my father possessed actual wit, an eccentric hyperbole: An ugly man was a “cyclops.” One never came down with the flu, but was stricken with “the plague.” Death, he referred to as “The Witching Hour.”
Listening to Buck’s lecture of half admonishment, half revelation, I remember the quickening thrill of a horse beneath me on the trail, but harbor no illusions about oneness. “A rider needs to build enthusiasm in the horse,” Buck explains. “But don’t confuse a horse’s desire for open country with passion.”
I long for open country, for the pleasures of the primitive. To amble down a shaded trail. I want to ride behind my father, and admire the weight of his foot in the stirrup. I want to wait for him to signal me to slow down by raising his hand like a Hollywood Indian: “How.”
If not expertise, what did I gain from all the horses that have come and gone? I knew nothing of their intuitive nature. I tried to buy their love with cornhusks. But I hacked the trough with an axe in the winter. I rustled their hay under cold stars. I can still hear the slow, the grinding of horses’ teeth in the dark. I can still hear the bright sounds of hooves on the road. It must add up to something, how much I depended on these things.
My father and I used to ride up a long, steep trail in the woods behind our house to a place called Kissing Rock. In the late 70s, a married couple kept a small trailer beneath the pines there. I remember thinking how happy they looked, sitting in their Adirondack chairs, looking at the fall color and holding hands.
Many years later, on a visit home, my father and I reached a familiar fork in the woods. Dad gestured toward the trail to Kissing Rock. “Wanna see a dream gone sour?” he asked, turning Dakota up the rocky hill.
“How can I resist?” I said.
At the top of the mountain, I watched man and horse circle around the couple’s long-abandoned camp—the trailer with its torn curtains, its oven full of squirrel nests, and the overturned abandoned chairs. I watched the circle grow tighter and tighter as if together horse and rider might reach the center of that emptiness.
I wake up at 2 a.m. and can’t sleep again until 5 or 6. I’m terrified. Other times I’m flooded with peace as if my body is floating. I try to meditate. I think of Thich Nhat Hahn: Breathing in, I know I am alive. The silence almost feels liquid at that hour. Sometimes I hear a siren or a bird. But mostly I’m alone.
Ask yourself: Are you the same person you were as a little child?
Answer: You are neither the same nor different.
My father has been gone six months. I return to New Hampshire to see my brother Jeb and walk alone to Kissing Rock. The lumber company has cleared so many trees that the thickly forested trails dissolve into new clearings of sap-fresh stumps. I feel delirious, disoriented. I’m not used to so much open space. At the top of the hill, I find the old, ruined trailer. It looks like some alien spacecraft that crashed and burned on the earth. Standing there alone, in a place that has long forgotten me, I might as well have climbed out of that ship.
I try to see the New England countryside as if I have just arrived from another world. If a horse and rider emerged suddenly from the trees, would I see a mixed beast or a unified creature? The wild mane or the civilizing reins? As a traveler from some more evolved world, maybe I’d finally understand: Neither one creature nor separate. In that paradox I might find a stretch of time, a way to stay a little longer in these woods.