On the Backs of Horses
Dismissed after chores, we hightail it out of
sight and mind. The north pasture absorbs us
against any spill of light. Moonless haven, it brims
with the purl and scrum of water in the canal, struck
through with a chorus of hoof, snort, tails and teeth,
and animal musk bathed in hay and dandelion dust.
My sister Bet shakes a bucket. The herd swells with mass
enough to kill or crush and soft-lips oats from her palm.
I boost her onto the bay mare, who squeals so we know
who’s boss. Romy, leggy sorrel too tall to mount, I lure
to the fence with sugar cubes stolen from my mother’s table
after her latest fit ends as it always ends, after she gives me
my due—burn, break or blood for my sins. My sister and I,
we lie across the backs of horses and look at the sky.
They rock us, grazing pace, as if we are their own daughters.
Warm our bodies with the sunlight saved in their bones.
You wanna talk about it? Bet means my eye,
swolled black. Or what came before. I don’t know
how to start, or worse, won’t stop. The sky is not a place
but distance between celestial bodies indefinite. Maybe later.
Bet plays The Yellow Rose of Texas on her harmonica
slow as if it’s a lullaby, and I wish I could cry or die.
Legs draped over Romy’s withers, arms wide, my chest opens
for me to breathe horse-breath, spines aligned. I pray to be subsumed,
Romy racing out of this dark unbounded, floating what’s left of me
in the suspension of his gait, my only word a gasp of starlight.
I saw you got throwed by that new colt, he says,
over on Searle’s field. The one turned out for barley.
You were down for a bit. Hit your head? He says it while
we’re kicking in the lava beds, plunking rock-chucks and rabbits
for no reason but to sight in his new rifle. He can’t be trusted
times he steals liquor from his dad, but it’s early on a Sunday,
and I don’t yet know why a boy his age takes a girl,
too young to drive except on the farm, out to the lava beds.
A rock-chuck chirp lures us around a ledge of basalt. I follow
the boy, wary of what he knows—too specific to be a guess.
What he doesn’t know is how I lay in the tilled dirt,
buzzed from the high of that headlong gallop
cut short by the colt’s spook. Lay until the colt came back
to snuffle into my bareheaded hair like an apology,
and my hat, lost on impact, lifted in a finger of wind
to roll up against my boot as the sky slid
colors with no names into the long summer dusk.
The chirp turns whistle to sound alarm. He hands me
his twenty-two to juggle with mine and drops to one knee
with the thirty-aught. Scans a distant outcrop for the telltale
flash of reddish fur through his new scope. I tell him it’s too far,
but he says he can get a decent bead at almost a quarter mile.
I do the math. His place to my horse. Another high-pitched
alert pricks the short hairs at the back of my neck.
It knows you’re coming, I say. He eases the long gun
down to rest in his palm, elbow on black rock spewed
from the earth a millennium before any white folk broke
ground here. Checks his scope. Instinct’s older
than know-how, he says. It don’t know when it’s hunted.
Only that it’s always hunted.
Twenty-seven years later, I am crossing the Willamette
on the Fremont Bridge, 175 feet up on a summer solstice.
The half-lit river is a metallic shine,
eyes of an animal caught in the headlights
of oncoming disaster.
Inside my last-chance treatment center, one guy
told me he walked out on this bridge to kill
himself, but when he got to the middle,
it was too high to jump.
We were skipping morning meditation
to sneak regular coffee from the break
room for the staff, wishing it was time
for another cigarette.
The other guy said that’s nothing.
Last time I was here, I threw myself out
the window of the psych ward. What happened?
Nothing. Psych ward’s on the first floor.
A day-old newspaper posted NBA stats and front-page
photos of the bombed-out Murrah Federal Building:
in Oklahoma. Morning traffic on I-84 below
the hospital window became my meditation.
Nothing would ever be the same.
Too late to jump in the river of animal eyes,
we got caffeinated, swapped stories,
and laughed like hell. Twenty-seven years later,
I am crossing the Willamette.
Horseback my daughter works
the arena in crazy eights. Picks
unrelated objects from the tops
of long fence rails. Drops
them into a bucket at the far end.
She juggles the reins and calls
with her body for the lead. Once
she told me hummingbirds flap
their wings in figure eights to hover.
Her coach’s voice, a woman’s, undulating,
directive, loops around to track the ride.
Stay low. Heels out.
This daughter, my youngest, grins
as she passes where I watch
from the hood of the old Scrambler.
I am stretched thin but still a believer in
what happens between horse and rider,
grace or something like it.
She misses an orange cone.
Go back. Tighten it up.
Doesn’t look my way as she pivots
the palomino, Blondie. The horse snorts
against the correction.
Better. Take her home.
Rhythmic huff to gaited lope, hooves
kick up dust in a fleeting twist
quick as the future unfixed.
I holler. You got this. Because
I can. We whoop, both of us,
into the final sprint.
© Sherri H. Hoffman
Sherri H. Hoffman (she/her/hers) is a working writer, teacher, and sports fanatic. As a rule, she writes twice as much as the finished piece, nurtures fierce love for her family, and seeks good coffee.