Enrique closed the lid on the medicated mud, wiped his hands on the towel hanging from his back pocket and used the wall to steady himself as he stood up in the stall. Mercy Street’s legs were slathered in cooling mud and wrapped in clean cotton pillows. He’d have to come back in and paint the bandages with a sauce of habanero pepper to keep her from chewing them off overnight.
Snorting and blowing, the mare regarded him warily as he stood. She wasn’t the friendly type. But Enrique knew her well. He reached slowly toward her withers, never looking her in the eye. Within seconds, the mare’s eyes glazed over, her neck stretched and her upper lip began to quiver in equine bliss. Her itchy spot was always on her left shoulder. He scratched for a full minute and then patted her softly. Both satisfied, he ducked outside the stall door and made his way down the barn aisle to fetch the pepper paste. His eye was drawn to the empty stall where the dead filly Dolce et Decorum should have been. The stall was clean and bedded, the straw fluffed and the hay net full. Enrique pictured her powerful frame and curious face as it was this morning before her workout. She’d had promise and was easy to be around. She had a habit of peeking around her hay net, curious to see what was happening in the stall next to her. He’d liked her for that curiosity and he missed her now.
In an industry where sentimentality is a luxury, Enrique was a wealthy man who spent lavishly. He knew the quirks of each horse and he indulged them whenever possible. Each animal was a treasure of personality. Some made him laugh, some made him wonder. He was a man satisfied with his work. He knew horses would come and go, some naturally, some tragically and he cherished the time he had with each one. However, when it came to humans, Enrique was thrifty with his emotions. He was an island of a man who preferred the company of horses over humans any day.
Fishing a peppermint out of his pocket, he fed one to the barn goat and one to his favorite bay gelding who quietly lifted the candy from Enrique’s thick palm and crunched it between giant molars. “Che old man.” He rubbed the silky nose and headed back to work.
Things would change at the barn and things would stay the same. He had a good crew – with a couple of exceptions. Most of the guys showed up on time and did their jobs well. A couple of the hot walkers were on notice for laziness.
Only one groom worried him.
His head groom had travelled home to Mexico for a holiday and sent his cousin to cover his job in his absence. Enrique took an instant dislike the the cousin. Something about his way with the horses unsettled Enrique. The man had skills and wasn’t afraid to work, but he had a shiftiness in him that made both Enrique and the horses wary. The guys called him Tito but Enrique knew that he carried around multiple licenses from the State Horse Racing Board with different names.
He’d keep an eye on Tito.
He’d seen the Boss talking to Roxy Ayers about galloping. Enrique remembered a time when all of them were younger and romance was on the menu for Jude and Roxy. Now Jude was a big-shot trainer while Roxy aged in a hard edged sort of way. Now, the notion of them being together was laughable. Both were acting professionally at the moment and Enrique hoped things would work smoothly. The barn was poised for a nice year with some good running stock and some up and coming hopefuls and if, just if ,they could keep The Big Horse, Invictus from destroying himself or some unfortunate human, great things could happen.
Enrique had his doubts that Invictus would do well without Ann. He had worked around female riders for most of his career and he knew that some of them were good, most of them were out to prove something and none of them had the talent that Ann possessed.
Normally, women interrupted the flow of a barn. Most women created chaos or drama. They needed too much attention, or demanded respect they weren’t willing to earn. Some women you wanted to protect. Enrique had to admit that he did have protective feelings about Ann but he never let on. He knew it would just confuse Ann and they had their jobs to do. Enrique thought about visiting Ann in the hospital, but he had no idea what he would say and he didn’t like the idea of seeing her laying in any bed. He liked thinking of her as strong and capable and laughing in her special way. Yes, he did feel protective of her. If only he would have waited until later to get the filly to the track – she wouldn’t have been at the wrong place at the wrong time. If only he would have put that little cholo rider on her back, then Ann wouldn’t be laying broken in a hospital right now. None of it mattered of course and nothing would change the way things were.
Enrique passed by Invictus’s stall and noticed that he’d emptied his water bucket completely. Whether he’d drunk it all or whether he’d kicked it out of the bucket was anyone’s guess. But no racehorse, especially one as talented as Invictus ever went without fresh water and so he slipped inside the stall, fended off the vicious teeth of the red monster and ducked out quickly with the empty water bucket in hand. He washed the bucket clean and filled it being careful not to let the hose end droop into the water. Doctor Connor had been adamant that not only did the horses never share a water bucket again, but that immersing the hose into a water bucket was a sure source of disease spread. He’d primed all of the grooms on the practice and he’d had to keep a close eye on one of the lazier grooms lest the barn be beset with another raging respiratory infection. He fished another peppermint from his pocket and let Invictus see it. His sharp ears heard the cellophane noise and perked forward. Enrique was not fooled, he tossed the peppermint expertly into the horse’s grain bucket to distract the animal while he re-affixed the filled water bucket to the wall. Invictus dove for the peppermint and savagely rooted around in his grain bucket to find it. Enrique chuckled appreciatively. Aggression in a racing colt the size and breeding of Invictus was not the horse’s fault. It was the product of hundreds of years of racing bloodlines and a wholly unnatural environment. In the wild, Invictus’s rogue behavior would be so over the top that the herd would banish him to perpetual bachelorhood. Instead, if he continued to race as well as he had, he would retire to the breeding shed where his every whim was attended to. But if they couldn’t get his feet to harden up, Invictus would be just another failed and unrideable ex racehorse with a lovely pedigree and nowhere to go. Enrique looked at the pale saucer shaped feet and sighed. Supplements, special glue on shoes, careful training and racing only on choice grass courses or wet and cold tracks, acupuncture – they tried everything and now Enrique would have to manage this beast without Ann.
“If they come for the innocent without stepping over your body, cursed be your religion and your life.” – Philip Berrigan
The orange barn cat is sitting on the ledge scrubbing his face with a licked paw. He’s not bad company. There’s a deep ache in my hips where pain was earlier. It takes my breath away if I move suddenly.
It’s quiet since the grooms turned off the crackling radio. I’m settling in for the evening in bed of sweet straw. There is full net of hay for me to munch whenever I like and my sore legs have been massaged and wrapped in soft cotton pillows supported by clean bandages. The bottoms of my feet are packed with cooling medicated mud. The knee is sore of course but the ache is bearable. I shift my weight to my stronger hip and doze. The horse on the other side of me paces, but he’s slowing down. He will be asleep soon.
The cat scurries away. What’s that?
It’s a person coming toward my stall. He’s in a hurry. I curl my nose toward my chest to get a better look at him. I snort, letting him know I need time and space. I know this man and I don’t like him. Expertly, he slips a halter over my nose. It doesn’t smell like the cleaned oiled leather halter hanging on my door, this halter smells of cold metal and dust. He tugs on the stinky rope and I follow, still sleepy. It’s dark out.
There’s another man waiting by the back of a small trailer, he’s also in a hurry. The one with the lead rope jerks me toward the rig. My knees are stiff and I struggle to keep up.
It’s a rope on my hips from the man in back. I pin my ears and kick out.
I am punched hard by the man with my lead-rope. Tired, sore and wanting more than anything to be alone, I load into the van and look for food in the feeder – there is nothing. The back of the trailer is slammed shut and the truck wrenches into motion. I stumble a bit, the floor of the trailer is slick and smells of fear and urine.
We’re stopped at the stable gate, words and slips of paper are exchanged and the trailer is tugged down a smooth highway. I place my nostril next to the broken window to get a stream of cool air and I rest.
Eventually, we pull into a bumpy yard. It’s hot here. I’m unloaded in a pen with three other horses. One is old and scared, another is young and curious and small, one is angry and wants us to know she’s boss. Thickly built and strong, she bristles, neck arched, nostrils flared,I can smell her estrus waning. I turn my back to her, I’m not interested in a fight. Quick as a snake, OUCH! She wheels and lands a vicious kick on the upper part of my hind leg.
Instantly, I’m screaming in fury and firing back at her. My legs are striking out at her and at the soreness in my knees and the exhaustion in my body, at the filth of this place and at the fact that my breakfast and soft clean stall are somewhere other than where I am now. She submits, licks her lips and lowers her head. She has conceded leadership. I glare at the others and they avert their eyes, the young and curious horse stands beside me, showing that he is my compadre – I pin my ears and whip my head toward him, showing teeth. I want nothing to do with him and I back up three steps to sulk in the corner of the pen. The older scared horse tries to scurry away. I position myself to show I mean him no harm. My flank is screaming with pain from the mare’s kick. I notice she’s limping and bleeding, there is no satisfaction in that.
The flies are hungry and thick. They probe my eyes and nose, crawl up my legs and under my belly. Their incessant hum is maddening. A single flake of hay is thrown into the pen, I know that it’s mine to eat and not one of these horses would challenge me, but I’m not hungry. The old horse and I just stand and watch the others tear it apart. I’m thirsty. The water trough has balls of manure floating in it. Undrinkable.
I lick the rusty fences for some moisture and find nothing. The harsh sun reflects off the packed clay ground and stings my eyes. I close them, shift my weight again, I dream of a soft straw bed to lay down in and I long for the smell of cooking oats or the crunch of a peppermint offered from a friendly hand. I miss the orange cat.
Horses come and go. The angry mare is replaced with a saucy pony who has it in for the old horse. I do my best to manage the terrible little beast, but he’s quick and lands vicious bites on the old horse who is now terrified and afraid to sleep. I resort to cornering the pony, peppering him with kicks and mustering my scariest screams, but in no time, he’s back to terrorizing. Like all of us, he’s confused too.
I’m tired. My stomach cramps with hunger. I think about daily baths and a soft space to lay down. I picture hay neatly tied in a hanging net. I dream of cooked oats with chunks of carrots laced with salt.
The top of the water trough is crusted with green slime that sticks inside my nose and lips. The mud around the leaking tank has pulled off one of my front shoes and the uneven standing makes my bad knee catch badly. I think about laying down but I don’t trust that the skinny dogs running the perimeter of the pens won’t attack me when I’m down. I stand and sulk.
I’ve gotten to know a bit about the old horse. I know that he loved living in a pasture with friends. I know he’s confused and scared. I know that he is dying.
Predictably, stupid young horse is friends with the terrorizing pony. They prowl the perimeter of the pen flicking their noses at the hungry dogs. They pace back and forth every time the old trailer pulls into the yard with another beast. They chase the old horse every time I doze off.
One of the men halters me and brings me into the yard. A snarling dog circles us and I snake my head with pinned ears until he tucks tail and runs away. The man holding my lead-rope shanks me hard and stomps toward me with teeth bared. I remember the heavy punch from our first meeting and step back submissively.
He presents me to two men, they have yellow eyes and smell like chewing gum and cologne.
“I thought you said this horse can race?”
“Hombre, this horse is fast – I tell you. Look at the muscles! He was at the Big Track!”
“He can barely walk, he’s done. I need something to run now. ”
“All this horse needs is a little magic dust and he can fly for half a mile. He knows how to win.”
“You want $2,000 for a cripple. No way.”
“A cripple who can fly. Look at him. He’s got a good family too. And he’s mean, you saw him go after my dog. Mean horses run. You know that.”
“Show me something else – I don’t want a horse this old.”
“Gimme $1200 for him. He’ll run I swear.”
“I’ll give you $600 for him.”
“I can do better than that for meat.”
“Liar. I know what meat prices are.”
“$600 is the best I can do.”
“I’ll show you this other horse I got, maybe you take two?”
There is a clump of grass just out of reach. My belly is screaming for moist food, I reach hard for it and get a good mouthful before a swift kick to my chin makes me lift my head. I’m torn between gratitude for the morsel of green food and an urge to stomp all three men into the ground. I keep myself out of trouble by munching hard on the grass in my mouth.
In the pen, saucy pony and his side-kick are cornering my elderly friend and closing in fast. He’d made the mistake of helping himself to some of the hay left by the water trough. I don’t want to care, I want to brood in what’s left of the shade in the opposite corner of the paddock but I can smell the cancer that bubbles up underneath the skin of the old horse’s belly and I know that he won’t be able to defend himself. I charge in, head lowered and tail raised, put myself between my cowered friend and the marauders and glower and paw. Stupid young horse scurries away and saucy pony turns his back nonchalantly. I know I can’t protect my old friend for long, but for now, he’s safe to cower in the corner. I glare at both the pirates and lower my head to take a large bite of the hay on the ground. It’s bitter and dry and I eat every bite and dare that saucy pony to come and take any of it from me. I can’t eat for my friend, but I can keep my strength up to protect us both. Behind me, I hear the old guy nibbling at dried manure.
In the early morning a giant truck pulls in. It’s loud and smells dangerous. I stomp, too tired to care. The dogs circle the vehicle pissing on the tires. The rig backs up to a ramp and the pens begin to clear out. There are four men pushing horses through a chute and into the trailer. Hooves clatter on the thin wooden floor, cries echo off the aluminum walls. The belly of the rig shudders with it’s growing load. Our pen is the last to be emptied.
I put my body next to my old friend to shield him from the threats that lurk everywhere. Stupid young horse tries to stay with saucy pony but he’s lost in the fray. As we are loaded into the trailer, we realize that the pony has eluded the handlers and he’s running frantically around the pen. Terrified of being alone and even more scared of being touched by these men, he ducks and dives and spins away. His eyes roll in fright and in anger. His coat is flecked with foam and rivers of sweat run from behind his small ears, around his wide eyes and drip from his quivering chin. We watch through the slats of the trailer as the men shout and try to corner him. When they have the pony cornered, he charges past them, knocking the big one over.
The big man picks himself up off the ground, storms across the yard into a shed; the pony panting and watching. The man squints and aims and we all jump when we hear the report of the rifle. The pony crumples on the spot. As the truck starts up and the trailer pulls away, we shudder at the sound of starving dogs feasting.
Twenty or so of us are standing as still as we can, trying to stay upright on the slippery floor smeared with nervous excrement. We sway against each other as the vehicle lurches down the road. We are so packed in we can’t turn our heads to see where we begin and another horse ends, so we collectively muster our senses of smell, taste and sound to gain awareness.
A slamming thud behind me and a shift of bodies into mine tells me that a horse is down. A smell of fear and sickness reaches my nose. I know it’s my old friend.
Another horse reacts to the crush of his falling body on her legs. She squeals and lashes out creating a chain reaction of panic and kicking and thrashing that doesn’t stop until a hard left turn of the truck makes us all regroup to remain upright. The fray has us re-ordered and I can see the old horse down and battered. His head is jammed at a horrible angle against the metal wall and the damage to his body is grave. Blood trickles from one nostril and his breathing is labored. He sighs and does his best to stop moving but he’s constantly stepped on by horses doing their best to remain standing on the moving space.
I lean my head into the strong back of the horse next to me. This horse shudders and I sigh to show him I am neither trying to dominate him nor be protected by him. He echoes my sigh and I close my eyes and dream of sweet straw beds, of rich alfalfa hay, of immaculate white bandages caressing and supporting my massaged legs, of her singing off key while rubbing my coat with a soft rag. She’s patting me with her small hands and offering my favorite peppermints.
I’m awakened from my sweet dream by a scream of brakes and a crush of bodies. The van swings hard to the left then back to the right. Tires and horses scream and acrid smoke billows from the wheels. Something big slams into the side of the trailer.
The violence of the impact causes two horses to flip into the air. The floor is a frenzied mess of wailing. Blood and urine pepper the walls as a score of horses try to flee the aluminum cage. Legs are tangled with tails and throats. I struggle to find the sky to figure out which way is up. I fail again and again as I duck the hooves and the bellies that keep me from remaining on my feet.
After an eternity of exhausted thrashing, daylight and air cascade over when the rear doors of the trailer are jimmied open with iron bars. Two uniformed men stand sweating between us and clean air and solid ground. One frantic mare jumps over the near corpse that was my old friend, pushes past the humans and bolts into oblivion.
The other officer radios for backup help, closes the hellish door, sinks to the ground and repeats “Jeezus!”
Racing as a sport in my home state of California is in the news lately and the news is not good.
This week’s chapter has not been published yet. It didn’t feel right in light of the current news Any story has to have “bad guys” and they certainly appear in this story and in particular, in this next chapter.
I wanted instead to shed a light on the “good guys” in racing. The people who do love the horses they care for.
So if you will allow me – here’s a poem I wrote instead of the chapter. I promise to publish the chapter next week. It’s a chapter very dear to my heart. In the meantime, there is this:
In the Race Between Glory and Kindness
The wreath of flowers is draped over her sweaty shoulders
The winner’s circle is filled with winners – smiling – jumping – hugging
So much triumph
It feels like love
It is Glory
Is there any kindness in Glory?
Nine other mares prance and limp back to the barn. They are cadre of the defeated.
Each mare walks alone
but for the one poor man, or one grubby girl who leads her
She feels the disappointment that she doesn’t understand.
She hears the crowd roaring for the winner
One fifth of a second, one lean body length behind
One missed step from winning.
One shallow breath from Glory –
A hand reaches up, steadies her gnashing heartbeat
A hand, warm and strong on her neck
The poor man – the grubby girl – with one gesture – offers
Hearing a commotion, Lilith peeked through her locked door to see her chief tormentor leading a dark horse into a battered trailer. The horse hesitated and Lilith’s knees buckled when she saw the man brutally punch the horse. Silently she closed the door, leaned against the wall and tried to breathe.
She listened while the trailer pulled away and the man washed his hands with the hose directly below her room. He blew his nose and walked into the night. She would never forget the sounds his hard boots made on the asphalt. She would blame herself forever for not heeding her instincts to run that terrible night.
That was the night when a barn cat had given birth to kittens and Lilith gathered them up and brought them to her room. Mamma cat paced the room mewling nervously and Lilith suspected that there might be a kitten still hidden in the straw. She tiptoed downstairs careful not to disturb a loud and drunken party of men at the other end of the barn. She crawled into the bales of straw fishing around for a newborn kitten gently probing the spaces between the sweet smelling bales where a tiny body may have fallen. Kneeling on the lowest bale, she bent forward laying her ear on a the bale and reached her arm down as far as possible. She heard the boots coming up behind her but she was sure there was a kitten within reach. The step quickened and a cold dread gripped her guts. His meaty hand pressed into her lower jaw and gripped her mouth shut. The flannel pajamas she was wearing offered no resistance. Her face was pushed brutally into the straw her neck twisted savagely with every thrust of his drunken hips, her mind grappled with the reality of the act while her dangling hand impossibly searched for a tiny abandoned motherless kitten.
At some point, his stupefied grunting stopped and in that moment of stillness she held her breath. He stepped back from her, her exposed hind end feeling a cool breeze. She dared not move as she heard him zip up his pants. One boot stepped back, a small pause. His kick landed in the meat of her thigh, the power of it was like an explosion in her head.
“Puta.” He belched. The boots stormed away.
As Lilith rolled, her shoulder reached further into the straw. Lilith’s fingers found a small, cold body. Her trembling hand closed around the tiny dying kitten and gingerly brought it up to her bruised face. Cradling the kitten on her belly, she collapsed, pajama pants dangling around her slippered feet. The kitten stirred and Lilith managed to sit up, pull up her pants and limp soundlessly up the stairs to her room cradling the kitten in her shaking hands. She laid the tiny creature on her bed and sat on the floor to watch mama cat revive it’s tiny body with urgent licks and proddings.
Her body wanted a burning hot shower but the fear of leaving her room was stronger. Shaking, she took the chair from her small desk and jammed it under the doorknob, sat on the cool floor and watched the mother cat nurse her kittens.
Lilith knew that horses leaving the racetrack in an old trailer in the middle of the night was not Jude Keenan’s style. Everything about the situation was wrong.
Fear and hate bubbled inside Lilith. She hated this man and feared talking to anyone. If she lost her tiny room above the barn, she had nowhere to go.
It had been six days since the rape. Her bruises were healing but Lilith couldn’t sleep and felt she was losing her mind. The thought of talking to Jude Keenan horrified her. He was one of those smart, fast talking men who would be impatient while she strung words together. And what would she say? Even if Jude fired her tormentor, what would keep him from hurting her again. Surely he knew which room was hers?
She’d spent most of her life lonely, but if she had horses to ride, somehow it was okay. All she had was in this tiny 8’ x 6’ room and if she lost her room there would be nothing.
Lilith penciled out a list of people she might talk to:
The old man
The old man couldn’t hear or didn’t care and he hated trouble or drama. Security was completely out. When she pictured one of the officers, she couldn’t help focusing on the blue uniform and the gun. Just thinking about a man with a gun on his hip made her sweat. Her heart would beat and instead of making words come out of her mouth, her head would pound
The gun.” She knew she couldn’t talk to an armed man. Jude Keenan was almost as bad. He was so handsome, so polished. He talked loud and fast and used bad words that felt sharp and damaging. The only one left was Ann Garrison. Ann had never acknowledged Lilith’s presence and for that Lilith was grateful. She loved to admire Ann and would be embarrassed if Ann knew it. She’d tried to adopt Ann’s riding style – so confident, so relaxed. She’d even tried to mimic Ann’s walk, her bouncy, balls of her feet walk with the slight limp and her chin up and ready smile. But she knew Ann had no patience for timid exercise riders and on more than one occasion, had felt Ann’s snort of contempt as Lilith galloped by, her horses not under perfect control and of much lesser quality than anything Ann would ride.
No, there was nobody Lilith could bring herself to talk to. Whoever that horse was, he was gone now – likely to a match racing pit in the desert and then on his way to a Mexican slaughterhouse. The thought haunted Lilith on her seventh night in a row with no sleep. If it weren’t for the purring of the mother cat and her kittens in her room, Lilith knew she wouldn’t be able to survive another night.
Laying down next to the kittens Lilith hoped their purring would lull her to sleep. When her eyes closed she couldn’t separate herself from the horse she saw punched by her tormentor. She felt it as deeply as she had felt the kick from the same man. It sickened her. She rolled over and stroked the mama cat who smiled and arched to meet her hand.
The mercy of sleep closed in on Lilith and for the first time in six days, she slept.
She awoke five hours later to the sounds of shuffling horses and footsteps down the hallway in front of her room. Another day would start and she had two horses to ride for the old man.
With the advantage of a rested mind she settled on a plan of action. She couldn’t bring herself to talk to Ann Garrison, but she could write her a note. Maybe even an anonymous one. She drew out a few pages from a notebook she’d salvaged and opened the shoebox full of the pens and pencils she loved to collect. She rolled them around in the box feeling the sounds they made when they rolled over each other. Pencils in different shapes and sizes, pens with felt tips and roller balls and her favorite, the sharp smelling permanent markers with tops that made a satisfying “pop” when you uncapped them. She tried over twenty different stylus’ on the note paper, feeling each as it glided or ground over the paper surface. Pens that leaked were frustrating, pencils that slid too easily over the coated paper made a strange sound and feel. Those she lined up at the top left hand corner of the desk to be dealt with later. Markers were too thick, even for a title and their precious ink could seep through the paper. Those were relegated to another pile at the right hand corner. Ball points were tricky, if the ball jammed, a word could disappear into a barely visible dent in the paper and that could cause her writing to stop altogether. This was a job for a medium felt tip. She rummaged through the box and found a favorite, a dark brown medium felt tip with just the slightest fray in the tip. This might leave a tricky tail to her writing, but not if she positioned the pen carefully in her hand and didn’t press too hard and cause the tip to fray further. She placed the cap carefully on the top of the paper and drew a smooth “s” shape at the bottom corner of the page. She surveyed the mark carefully and repositioned the marker 1/4 turn counter clockwise and tried again. Much better.
You don’t know me.
Lilith stopped. The pen was not exactly right. Dark brown wouldn’t do for Ann Garrison. She needed blue – a deep blue. Brown was too angry. Lilith paused again. Maybe angry was the right color. Lilith hated her tormentor and Ann would hate him too when she understood what he had done. Maybe it was an angry letter. But what if Ann’s anger was toward Lilith and not to the man? Lilith paced the room. She sat at the desk and ran her fingers through the box of remaining pens. The sound and the feel of them quieted her somewhat. She realized that time was slipping by and that The old man would be expecting her. This would have to wait. She slowly placed each pen, pencil and marker back in the box, each item facing the same way. She allowed herself one more brush of her hand through the pens and pencils and relished the sound and feel of them in the cardboard box. She replaced the lid and placed it with reverence under her bed.
She waited until she couldn’t hear any footsteps by her door. Dressing quickly, she checked water and food for mama cat and stole quietly out the door pulling her gloves and helmet on and hurrying silently to her barn.
The old man grunted when she approached looking disgustedly at his watch. He was holding the young gray by the bridle. Avoiding his eyes as she normally did, she approached man and beast and the old man legged her up onto the gray’s thin back. She tightened the girth left and right as the old man turned them both loose towards the track. The gray jerked nervously, slinging his head side to side and Lilith exhaled and pretended for all she was worth, to be Ann Garrison. She stood in her stirrups and rocked the saddle back and forth to check the saddle for tightness. The gray was agitated. He snorted and Lilith touched the edge of the saddle cloth, it was dark brown, like the ink. Angry. She sat up forgetting the gray’s perpetually sore back and he lifted his head and started bouncing angrily. Other riders passed her on their way to the track chatting aimlessly with other riders, singing loudly, laughing. Lilith exhaled loudly and the gray echoed her exhale with a frustrated snort and he took off awkwardly toward the track. Lilith silently begged the gray to relax and almost panicked when he nearly collided head on with a horse and rider coming back to the track.
“You stupid bitch – watch where you are going!” Lilith ducked, grabbing the gray’s reins tightly and hustled to the track. She headed right out galloping, not taking the time to backtrack to the right on the track’s outside rail but found open space in the middle of the track to let the angry horse move. Rhythm would calm them both. Lilith stood in the stirrups with a steady grip on the reins. They gray was still too agitated, his head high, his strides crooked. Lilith cheated and tipped his head hard to the left, the gelding pitched sideways, growling. Lilith heard a wall of workers pounding up the track behind her four horses across. Whips were cracking as the riders and horses pushed the final eighth of a mile in a speed drill. Lilith would have to fade right to keep her horse out of their way but that meant straightening his head and asking for another runaway horse.
Lilith’s body still hurt, her hip was badly bruised and each jarring stride of the crooked horse caused pain to shoot through down her leg. She blinked slowly and could feel the pain in her horse’s thigh as well, felt the nervousness and near panic in his body as the wall of horses closed in on them both. She was in that space again where everything in her and everything in the horse was wrong, wrong wrong.
She needed to find something right. Above her, she tuned into the birdsong floating overhead. She could pick apart their voices, the trills and the cawing, the whistles and the stops in between. She and the horse were now breathing, hearing, floating. His body straightened, his head dropped, they both sunk into a rhythm where nobody else existed, just the birds and them. His gallop developed a bubbling of energy, up and down not down and out. She never wanted this gallop to end. The gray was breathing quietly his body and hers dusted with a light warming sweat. She could feel the trilling and whistles of the birds overhead vibrating in her shoulders and throat. A soft “mmmmmm” escaped her.
“Tis a beautiful morning’ Miss” A male voice jerked her out of her reverie. Alongside her was Charlie Clahain galloping a rangy bay horse. He was too close, his smile too clean, Lilith braked hard, turned her horse around and hurried off the track.
The old man grabbed the bridle just outside the barn as Lilith vaulted off patting the gray’s sweaty shoulder. He nodded at Lilith once and she nodded back. Everything they needed to communicate was addressed. She stripped the tack off the horse and carried it back to the barn pausing twice, once to dip the bit into the solution of water and disinfectant and once to drop the saddle cloth into the bucket of laundry. She picked up a fresh saddle cloth and brought the tack to the stall of the black mare and began to tack her. The mare jerked back hard when Lilith went to bridle her. Lilith stopped and slowly ran her hand up the mare’s nose towards her ears. The mare ground her teeth. Lilith closed her eyes, planted her feet and felt a hotness in her jaws and a saltiness in her mouth. She ran her fingers in the groove below the mare’s ear and followed it down and then forward under the mare’s chin. The mare’s head relaxed, her eyes drooped. There was something wrong in there. But Lilith cringed at the thought of telling the old man the mare was hurting and worried even more about the old man ignoring her and sending them both to the track anyhow and she knew she would need the additional $15 for the gallop money to keep mama in cat food and another box of cereal for herself. Lilith crooned to the mare and slipped her fingers in the mare’s mouth, the surprised animal snorted when Lilith slipped the bridle on. She gently led the mare out of the barn and accepted the leg up from the old man and headed toward the track, the mare’s teeth grinding set her entire body on edge and she knew she had to listen to the horse. Knowing the old man was too old and crippled to follow them to the track to watch them gallop, Lilith ducked around a quiet corner, dismounted the mare and they walked the perimeter of the barns for the next 20 minutes never going close to the racetrack.[ Lilith witnesses Ann’s wreck – Charlie/Paul was trying to flirt with Lilith when his horse spooks and flips ]
“Hmmmmmmm.” Ann swam through the narcotic haze that covered her sleep, drawn to a voice that inspired a thick warm trust tinged with guilt. She fought her way to consciousness to meet the concerned eye of her mother who seemed suddenly old and very wise. “Mom?”
“Shhhhhhhh, rest, I’m here and I’ll beat anyone who comes in to bother you.”
“I have a list for you to start with, there’s a nurse out there who” Ann realized that she’d tried to shift her body towards her mother to find that her encased and hardware-clad leg would not co-operate. The reality of her situation stormed into her rested consciousness and the anger and fear dissolved into despair. Despite her mightiest efforts, she wept in front of her mother.
“Oh my girl. We’re going to make it okay. You just have to learn to rest and heal, that’s all. Bones heal and you know it.” Gayle caressed her daughter’s callused hand.
“Why everyone is telling me to stay still?” Ann sniffled herself back to some semblance of composure.
“Because you can’t run from everything dear, some things you need to stand and face.”
“Stand and face?” Ann was awake and mad. ‘If I’m one thing mom, it’s fucking brave. I’ve never backed down from a fight and I take my licks like a man. You know it.” In an instant, Ann had transformed back into a rebellious teenager.
Gayle was ready for this. She’d had years to think about the pattern they had developed. Like an intricate dance, each setting the other up for the predictable move, each reacting in the same way with the same defenses, the same body language, the same territory to defend.
“Oh, you are brave my dear. Nobody can take that from you. Ounce for ounce, you are one of the toughest souls to climb on a horses’ back.” She watched Ann’s body quiet. “But you sure can turn tail and run from life when it comes knocking. No doubt about it.”
“I don’t even know what you are talking about mom. I’ve made a career for myself in a man’s world. In a tough man’s world that has chewed up and spit out lots of men. And I’m still here and I get things done, I run a hell of a business. I’m proud mom PROUD of what I do, whether you like it or not!” Ann’s cheeks flushed and her chin jutted. Her arms crossed over he chest exposing her naked hip to her mother through the open back hospital gown.
Gayle’s eyes were drawn to the shamrock tattoo on Ann’s hip. She tried mightily to conceal her surprise and disapproval – her daughter was a grown woman and could tattoo her body without regard to her parent’s feelings on the subject.
Ann felt her mother’s gaze and quickly drew the gown to cover her hip – she then turned her scowl back to her mother’s face and dared Gayle to comment.
Something unexpected bubbled up from the deepest reaches of Gayle’s belly, it rose and lightened her, effervesced in her throat and tickled her lips and cheeks, narrowed her eyes and wrinkled her nose and exploded into what began as a giggle and devolved into uncontrollable laughter.
The laughter launched onto the hospital bed and infected Ann as well. It rolled over both of them in waves that ebbed, swelled and curled over them both drowning them gasping and tearing and clutching each other for breath.
Gayle Garrison drove expertly. With any luck, she would bypass Los Angeles commute traffic and arrive at the Pasadena hospital by 11pm. She knew visiting hours were over at 8pm but she didn’t worry. She would appeal to a nurse who was also a mother. She grimaced thinking about the number of hospitals where she had done the same in her daughter’s career. She knew there were some hospital stays that she wasn’t aware of and she was secretly pleased.
She had never talked to this Boss. It had been three years since Ann began working with him and it had been Mateo who had called her when Ann had broken her knee and her shoulder shortly after beginning work for him. He was absent from Ann’s hospital room and it was just as well. But his phone call today. Was voiced with concern. The call came from Ann’s phone – his voice on the phonewas unexpected.
“This is she.”
“I’m calling about Ann, this is Jude Keenan, her boss. She’s been in a wreck. We’re not sure how bad, but she’s on her way to the hospital.”
“I see. What happened?”
“She was working a young filly and another horse bolted and hit them head on.”
“Oh my goodness. How is the filly?”
“Um, both horses are dead.”
“Good Lord. Does Ann know?”
“Yeah, she only lost consciousness for a little bit. She’ll be in surgery soon. Um, I’m on my way to the hospital – it’s the Catholic one in Pasadena on Arcadia Avenue. I can’t remember the name. I’ll keep Ann’s phone with me so you can call and I’ll give you updates. Is that okay?”
“That will be fine. I’ll leave here shortly and be there tonight. Thank you for your call.”
“I’m sorry to have had to make it. Um. She’s an amazing woman Ms. Garrison.”
“I thank you for that too. And please call me Gayle.”
“Okay Gayle. I’m Jude. I’ll see you later. I’ll call if anything changes. I promise.”
“Please do. Now if you will excuse me, I have some managing to do before driving down. Thank you again.”
Gayle’s phone lit up with three more calls, other gallop girls who knew that she would need to know the news. Each was sweet and each had a slightly different version of the story. Gayle marveled at how these women managed to find Ann’s parents’ home phone number so quickl. She paused to think of her Ann making those calls to other gallop girls’ parents to let them know that their tough and unruly daughters were laying in such-and-such hospital broken and bleeding.
One more call:
“Is this Gayle Garrison?” The voice was a lilting male with a characteristic southern California drawl.
“This is. Is this Mark or John calling me about Ann?”
“How do you know us?” The voice was flattered, rather than suspicious.
“Ann talks about you both. And just so you know, I’m trying to get organized to drive down today. I’ve heard about her injury.”
“How can you sound so relaxed?”
“Believe me, I’m far from it, but I have things to do and six or seven hours in the car to endure before I’m by her bedside, so I’m trying to keep my head. You didn’t answer, is this John or Mark?”
“I’m Johnny.” The voice became shy. “We love your daughter you know.”
“I do know Johnny and she loves you too. Now let me get off this phone and get in the car and I finally get to meet you – we all wish it were under different circumstances.”
“Our poor, sweet girl.” Johnny lamented.
“One thing my daughter is certainly not is poor and it’s questionable whether or not she is sweet. My dear, Ann is not even a girl. She’s a grown woman who knows what the score is. She has chosen her life and the danger and the craziness because it’s what she wants to do. She’s bright and she has other options to be anything she could want, and she chooses to ride crazy racehorses, work seven days a week for ridiculous pay and to hang out with seedy gamblers. Please don’t think I’m being harsh. I’m worried as any mother could be, I want you to know that Ann’s no victim. She signed on to this life a long time ago and she’s had plenty of opportunity to leave it. Each injury, I thank God that it didn’t kill her and then I start hoping that this injury will change her mind about her career choices. And each time, I’m wrong.”
“Do you think it will be different this time? I mean, she could have been killed!”
“I don’t know Johnny. I don’t know.”
Gayle’s truck hummed down Hwy 5. She opted to turn off the radio and instead to think and pray as she drove south towards Ann’s hospital bed. She replayed the phone conversations over and over in her head trying to prepare herself for the extent of Ann’s injuries as well as the extent of her resolve. She played out scenes in her head where Ann asks to move home and to help run Gayle’s bookkeeping service. Business was booming and Gayle had tried unsuccessfully to bring on an associate for years now.
She also played out scenes in her mind where her willful daughter refused to talk about a career change and hobbled back to the track, more crippled and broken than before. She pictured what Johnny and Mark might look like in person, if Mateo will show up in the hospital and if the famous Jude Keenan was as handsome in person as he was in the newspaper and on TV.
She remembered the time when Ann was only about six years old and tried bravely to hide a broken pinkie finger from her mother. She had crawled up on top of the neighbors’ flighty Arabian horse from the fence and had fallen, breaking her finger. Neither Gayle nor the doctor could draw from Ann how long it had been broken.
Gayle had time to remember Ann’s excellent grades in school that came easily to her through elementary school and how they began to fall off in middle school until she was barely passing. Gayle knew her daughter was intelligent, but she was no longer interested or curious in schoolwork. She turned secretive and sullen. By high school, she was willful, rebellious and angry. She’d been caught drinking at school and had been arrested with three older boys driving a fast car with suspicious ownership.
Gayle was not a parent to try and be buddies with her teen daughter. She imposed strict curfews and minimum school performance. She restricted phone use and tried to forbid her to spend time with the most dangerous seeming of her friends. Ann thwarted her at every turn. Sneaking out of the house late at night, failing school classes, even her favorite French classes. Gayle smelled cigarettes on all her clothes and suspected the sticky sweet smell of marijuana as well.
They fought. They yelled, they stopped talking entirely. Gayle worried constantly that the phone would ring in the middle of the night with news that her daughter had died in a fiery car crash.
Gayle was brought back to the present as traffic slowed in the middle of California’s central valley. She found that her jaw was sore from clenching and that the joints in her hands were sore from gripping the steering wheel. She gave herself a few moments to lament on the unfairness that her daughter’s teenage rebellion and dangerous lifestyle had now lasted 25 years. Her daughter’s school friends were watching their own children in dance recitals and swim meets. They had husbands, careers and homes. They collected art, participated in local government, they took regular vacations and visited their families over the holidays. While her daughter racked up x-ray files and scars. But then again, there were the moments of extreme pride when she would watch the big televised races and see her lovely daughter in the saddling paddock with a gleaming horse full of promise.
Gayle knew that it was she who ignited the spark that burned brightly in her daughter. Gayle was never without a horse, even in the early days of her marriage when there was no time or money for such an extravagance. Gayle mucked stalls while pregnant with Ann in order to pay for her board. Ann grew up in a house where her mother’s bedside table was draped with a white cloth embroidered with the old Spanish saying “When I am on my horse, only God is taller than I.”
Even today, Gayle treasured the horse that Ann gave her 12 years ago. He was 15 now. Gayle hadn’t heard a word from Ann for six months. All at once, a rusty truck and trailer ambled to the family home. In the trailer was a smallish shiny bay gelding with big ears and a curious face. His left leg was wrapped in a thick bandage.
“Mom, this is Matana, he’s hurt and he needs you.”
Gayle wanted to yell and scream at her prodigal daughter but was overcome by the liquid eye of the injured horse. She took the rope from her daughter’s hand, stroked the shiny coat and asked
“How long ago did he bow and how bad is it?”
“Day before yesterday in a race. And it’s bad. He’ll need to be in a stall for another four to six weeks and then in a stall and paddock for a few months before you can turn him out. By fall, he’ll be ready to start work. He’s only three and he’s sweet as a kitten. The trainer was furious and he doesn’t want anything to do with the horse. He made me give him killer price to take him off his hands.”
“Which trainer was that?”
“The asshole that I worked for until yesterday.”
“Well, let’s get this handsome fella into a stall, I sure wish I knew you were coming, I could have used some time to prepare for a horse I don’t want or need.”
“I know.” Ann kicked dirt and shoved her hands into pockets.
A “bow” or bowed tendon is a tear of one or more of the tendons in a horse’s lower leg. Called a “bow” because the resultant swelling is often so extreme that the lower leg looks like something you could shoot an arrow from.
Matana healed beautifully and became one of the trustiest horses in Gayle’s life. Together they explored the Sierra foothills, camped on the banks of the American River, they chased bobcat and deer through parks and pastures. Gayle couldn’t imagine her life without the perky little gelding.
Such was life with Ann. Always showing up with unexpected gifts you were sure you didn’t want or need and then finding out how wrong you were.
Gayle arrived at the hospital before midnight as planned. Also as planned, she was able to connive her way into her daughter’s room. She crept in quietly to find her daughter sleeping and a small but handsome man in a chair at her bedside reading.
“You must be her mom” whispered the small man rising and offering her his hand.
“Are you Mark or Johnny?” asked Gayle.
“Neither, I’m Charlie” he flashed a perfectly toothy grin and a dimple.
“ I’m Gayle Garrison.” She motioned toward the door to the hallway where they might speak without waking the patient.
Charlie followed Gayle into the hallway. “I’m they guy who fell off the horse that was loose and hit Ann and the horse she was ridin’. I can’t tell ya how badly I feel.”
“Are you saying this was your fault?”
“No, we all know the risks we take, but it doesn’t stop me from feelin’ bad. Yer girl’s one of the best hands I’ve ever known. Neither she nor her filly did anything wrong. ’Twas me an’ the damn rogue I was on that shoulda…”
“You poor dear.” Gayle instinctively grabbed Charlie in an embrace. All of the emotion and exhaustion spilled from her body the moment his arms encircled her.
In short order, the two strangers straightened mutually, embarrassed and bonded.
Gayle cleared her voice “So, how is she doing anyhow?”
“Leg’s broken – pins and screws and the whole bally-wick – pelvis is cracked pretty bad, but if they can manage the swelling and she stays quiet, no surgery, it should heal as good as it’s gonna.”
“Well, there’s some comfort in that. What about her head – she looks pretty bruised.”
“Her helmet did it’s job and – if you don’t mind me sayin’ so, as her mom, I wouldn’t look at the helmet – would give any mum nightmares I should think.”
“Both horses died I heard.”
“That they did.”
“How are her spirits?”
“Her spirits? Well, she’s mad as hell that she is stuck here at a hospital and she wants to go home.”
“You mean she wants to go back to work.”
“Well, there’s nothing worse than bein’ told ya gotta be still for a long time.”
“I guess you would know.”
“I’ve had my fair share of wrecks.”
“Do you have any ideas of how we might keep her still?”
“I was hopin’ you might have some ideas. Will she come home with you?”
“She ran away at 17, what’s to keep her from running away at 40?”
“True, true. How about friends?”
“Well, there’s Dee’s place. But Dee’s got her hands full with kids and horses.”
“Where’s this Dee?”
“On the coast, up north. They’ve been friends for years and Dee might be the only one who can talk some kind of sense into her.”
“Her boss is talkin’ about a re-hab place in Orange County. Sounds fancy.”
“How well do you know my daughter?”
“Well, I know that I wouldn’t be able to stay in some fancy re-hab joint. I’d find a million ways to sneak out.”
“And how long do you think Ann would last there?
“She might gnaw her own leg off to get away.”
“My thoughts exactly.” Gayle sank down in the chair next to Ann’s bed. She rubbed her eyes and temples and signed. Charlie watched her and recognized the hands of a woman who has worked hard. Enlarged knuckles and overly muscled pads, rough skin and short fingernails. The apple had not fallen far from the tree.
“You’ll forgive me if I tell you that Ann has never mentioned you before?”
“Ah, if you’re wantin’ to know if I’m her boyfriend, I’m nobody.” His smile was bright and genuine.
“What’s her boss like?”
“He’s in love with her, like we all are, but she won’t give him or anyone the time of day. She just works and keeps us all in our place.”
Gayle laughed, in spite of herself. She placed her hand as gently as she could on Ann’s forehead and Ann began to stir.
“Since yer here with her, I’ll be goin’ along. I just didn’t want her to wake up alone is all.”
“You’re very kind to my daughter Charlie, I’d like to thank you for that.”
“Ah, t’was nothin’ I just hate wakin’ up in a hospital alone. Scares the bejeezus outta me. I have to figure it’s the same for all of us.”
“You might be right Charlie. We’ll see you around?”
“Most likely m’am. I did tell ya that she’s a hell of a gal, didn’t I?”
Ann was nauseously staring at a cup of red jello when Jude walked in.
“You look terrible” Ann said. She meant it. He was bloodshot, unshaven and wrinkled.
“I was supposed to tell you that.” He sat down heavily in the chair by her bed.
“I’ll bet I look nasty.” Ann was excited to see him and to be connected to the barn and to racing. Then she remembered the dead filly.
“Tell me that Lavinia had insurance on that filly?” Ann asked.
“Oh yeah, but she’s pissed she hadn’t re-valued her lately. There is nothing that increases a horses’ perceived value like a death certificate.”
“Jeezus. I wonder all the time if that woman is for real.” Ann sighed.
“She’s just trying to make a living doing what she does.”
“A living? She’s never worked a day in her life!”
“Ah c’mon, she’s just lonely and miserable.”
“I can’t believe you’re defending her.”
“And I can’t believe you aren’t dead too.” Jude’s voice cracked and Ann noticed that he had his elbows on his knees, his hands clasped in front of his nose and mouth and he was holding back tears. Ann was put off and embarrassed by the overflow of emotion that she had not expected.
“Takes more than that to kill me and you know it.” Ann tried to laugh.
“Yeah.” Jude stared upwards and composed himself. He stood up and put his hands on his hips. “I talked to your doctors and they think that with some physical therapy you will be up and around in a few months.”
“Months! That’s crap. I’ll be sneaking out of here in a few days and riding again as soon as I can cut this cast off my leg.” Ann twisted around to shake her finger at Jude and was overtaken by a muscle spasm that gripped her like a monkeyr’s fist. She tried with all her might not to show the pain she was feeling on her face and failed.
“You listen to me Wonder Woman, you’re going to follow the doctor’s orders to the letter. I’m sending you to the best rehab facility in the state and you won’t ride until they say you are ready. Are you listening?” Jude’s face was clouded with authority and anger. Ann looked away.
“Now you are my father and I’m just supposed to do whatever you say with my life. Perfect. Just perfect. How did I ever make it to forty without you telling me what to do all the time?” Her ips pursed in a line of stubbornness.
“Do you want me to point out the painfully obvious?” he waited for a reply and got the silence he expected.
“You asked for it; you are not a 20 year old. You aren’t going to bounce back like you think you are. This brave warrior thing won’t work every time. I’ve seen the x-rays, I talked to the doctor, I have your freaking cracked-like-an-egg helmet in my office. I’m the one who talked to your mom.”
Ann moaned “You didn’t talk to my mom! Tell me you didn’t!”
“I did and she’s on her way down, she’ll be here tonight. Don’t get out of your way to thank me though.”
Ann was able to hold her pout for another 10 seconds before the pain, the exhaustion, the fear of accepting and needing help overwhelmed her. She hated herself for the giant lump in her throat. She refused to cry. Not in front of Jude. She gritted her teeth. “Shit. I do thank you. Honestly, I do. I just don’t want to leave you and the barn hanging like this. What am I supposed to do? Sit around and eat this crappy jello and watch my ass grow while flipping channels all day?”
“Uh, yeah, it’s called healing. And just think, you can read all day and forget about waking up at 4:30am for awhile.”
“I get up at 3:45 no matter what.”
“So let up on yourself for a bit. Take an online course. Do some internet dating or something.”
A thought flashed through Ann’s mind and twisted her stomach “Oh my god, what about my dog? What about Luke?”
“Roxy already took care of it. She brought him over to your friend Pete’s place with a bunch of dog food and some chew toys. Last I heard, everyone is doing just fine.”
“Wow, I guess I have a lot to be thankful for. What’s up with you hiring Roxy?”
“I’ve known that girl a lot longer than you. Don’t worry about it. She’ll probably sell us out with a new boyfriend or head off on a drinking bender, but for now, she’ll do.”
“You should give her more credit. She’s a good girl.” Ann felt her body relax a bit while thinking of her horses being tended to and ridden by the knowledgable hands of Roxy.
“She is decidedly not a good girl Ann. But like I said, she’ll do.”
Both Jude and Ann turned to see Johnny and Mark bursting through the door. Mark bearing a beautiful bouquet of lilies and Johnny tugging along a string of silver and green balloons.
“Looks like you have plenty of company, I’m gonna go.” Jude nearly knocked over the flowers in his hurry to get out the door.
“That must be the lovah you haven’t told us about bad girl!” Johnny kissed Ann on both cheeks.
“That’s my boss fellas. And I think you scared the heck out of him.”
“He’s HOT!” Smiled Mark also kissing Ann on the cheek.
Johnny plopped down on Ann’s bedside and Mark eased himself into the chair. “You are FUCKED up darling.” We read the story in the LA Times.
“There was a news story?” Ann was incredulous. “What are you boys doing reading the sports section?
“There’s this thing….. Called Google. We always know when you win a big race or something.”
Ann, as usual was pleased and charmed by her devoted friends. Johnny looked pale and sweaty, but other than that, stable and happy. Mark seemed pensive, but that was part of his charm.
“Sweetness, Mark and I are leaving for London tomorrow. We feel terrible leaving you like this but we want to bring back something special for you. What would you like?”
“Right now, what I need is a brand new leg, but I’m not sure they sell them anywhere.” Ann laughed, or tried to and the room got silent.
“So now what are you going to do?” Asked Johnny as he surveyed the pins sticking out of Ann’s leg.
“What do you mean?”
“Well you can’t ride anymore, what are you going to do?”
“Of course I’ll ride again. Why would you say that?”
“I just thought you would be too scared after a mess like this.” His hand gestured across the hospital bed. “How could you ever go back to riding? We read that both the horses died.”
“Horses die. People die. It’s just part of the game.”
“Well then, that is a fucked up game.” Answered Johnny.
Charlie Clahain was at Ann’s bedside when she woke up. It took her a minute to realize where she was until the blinking lights from the monitors and the deep aching pain in her hips reminded her of the entire gory day.
“Easy girl, I’ll get you anything you need.” Charlie crooned as if talking to a nervous filly.
“Charlie, what the hell are you doing here and what time is it?” Ann was still struggling to get her bearings and was taking in the sights and sounds of a hospital room.
“Well, I figure this whole thing is my fault. The goofy fucker that hit you got loose when he dropped me on the track so I figured the least I could do was to come and sit with ya for a bit after surgery. Yer Boss has been here for hours waiting for you to wake up, but the nurse sent him home. You’ve had a rash of visitors here watching you snore girl.”
Ann threw her head back on the pillow as she recalled the gruesome scene and thought about the two dead horses laying on the track.
“Charlie, you are the king of escaping from hospitals, do you think you can get me out of this place. I really hate hospitals.”
“Girl, I’d pack you out on me back right now if you weren’t so wrecked. I think yer stuck here for a bit – but I’ll sneak ya anything you want to eat or drink until we can move ya.” He nudged her arm with a shiny flask. Ann tipped it back thrilled to find it filled with a sweet and smooth bourbon. Charlie winked and flashed the dimple that had landed him in many girls’ beds. Ann found it funny that she hadn’t realized just how adorable Charlie was before.
“What do you know?” Ann asked in her most businesslike manner as she tipped her head to indicate her leg and hips.
“Good news or bad news?”
“Both” Ann tried to breathe.
“Bad news is that the leg and pelvis are broken. Tibia broke clean through just below the knee joint. Coupla pins and one giant screw to stabilize it. Pelvis is cracked but very little displacement.” He took a swig at the flask and offered it to her again.
“The good news?” Ann tipped the flask and gulped hard, relishing the sweet heavy warmth of vanilla and tobacco flavors that flowed to the back of her tongue down to her belly.
“Yer helmet did it’s job. You hit something pretty hard and it was split up the back. I’ll bet yer neck hurts like a bitch. As for yer back; if they can keep the swelling down by keeping you still, they won’t operate on the pelvis, just let it heal. That and the fact that it coulda been your knee again and that would have been nasty.”
“What do you know about ‘again?’”
“It’s a racetrack Lass, there’s no secrets. And while you were sawing logs, yer boss and me and Roxy all had a good chat about your broken bone history. Ye could pass for a steeplechase jock with your file of x-rays.”
Ann stared at a corner of room as she took in the information. She remembered the emergency room and some kind doctors and nurses. She remembered the hustle and bustle and the crackle of a radio announcing an incoming helicopter with car accident victims on their way in. She remembered a homeless drug addict stumbling into her bed and the waves of pain when he tripped on a corner of her bed. She remembered gentle orderlies who picked him up and took him away as she groaned in pain.
She sighed and tried to shift in her bed to get more comfortable only to be sieged by darting pain in her hips, shooting pain in her neck and a dull thudding in her leg.
Charlie let her drain the last of the bourbon from the flask before he screwed the top on and he put it in his back pocket. Like most jockeys, he was fastidious in his appearance. His jeans were pressed, his fingernails clean. His hair was expensively and freshly cut, his body lean and tight. Ann had never thought of Charlie as anything but a friend, a work mate and a player with the ladies. She thought she may be understanding what all those girls saw in him.
“Well, ya know hospitals, they’ll be at ya night and day with pickings and probings, pills and catheters. So get some rest while ya can before they come in wakin’ ya up. Why these bastards can’t understand that what ya really need is some fuckin’ sleep I’ll never know. I’m gonna leave ya Lass, if that’s okay. I just hate hospitals.”
“Are you sure you can’t sneak me out?” Ann asked with a weak grin.
“Can’t do dear. Ask me somethin’ I can do.”
“How do you feel about getting on 12 gallopers tomorrow for me?” Ann knew that jockeys rarely galloped for morning exercise. Jockeys and exercise riders have different skills. A jockey’s job is to get a horse to run his fastest. An exercise rider’s job is to keep a horse at the pace directed by the trainer, to keep a horse begging for more, to make him game to give his best on race day. Most jockeys didn’t have the skills or the strength or patience and they focused on working speed drills in the mornings for horses they would ride in races. Jude rode Charlie on his horses from time to time, but had the services of two of the three top jocks and mainly stuck to them.
“Yer Boss-man made a deal with Roxy an me, we’ll be splittin’ yer workload for as long as it takes. Got a new kid that’s hungry too and she looks to be a pretty good hand. Not too hard on the eyes either.” Charlie winked.
Ann was surprised to find herself instantly jealous. Jealous of an unknown gallop girl on her horses or jealous of Charlie or Jude feasting their hungry eyes upon her or maybe jealous that she was so easily replaced right here in her hospital room while she was asleep; she didn’t know. But the feeling was visceral.
“Don’t get on Invictus, let Roxy ride him, I think he hates men.”
“Don’t you be worryin’ that curly head of yours about those nags, we’ll do our best until you can come back bossin’ everyone around.” Charlie kissed her on the forehead and tiptoed quickly and quietly out of the room. She saw from her bedside that he flirted with a nurse on his way to the elevator.
Ann knew for sure that her leg was broken as soon as she quit rolling on the ground – she’d heard it. But as she grabbed the rail to bring herself standing, she realized that something else was wrong. She lowered herself gently back to the ground and waited for the ambulance she could hear coming. The minutes it took the ambulance to arrive from it’s permanent parking space by the track kitchen gave Ann time to take in the horrible scene in front of her.
Both horses lay dead at her feet. The beautiful brown filly, so full of promise twitched from nose to tail. Ann knew by the open mouth and glazed eyes that it was only the continued firing of nerves and neurons that created the movement, she was dead. The other horse lay perfectly still. He was an older horse and by the draw reins attached to his bridle, by the saddle towel on his back, Ann knew he was that crazy horse from the barn that had just arrived from Canada.
“God damn. Damn it all.”
The ambulance crew of two were eager to help and she waited silently, fighting nausea as they pulled the gurney out of the back. Neither looked more than 16 years old. Ann leaned back on the rail, took off her helmet, shook the synthetic dirt out from her hair and unzipped the kevlar reinforced safety vest. Scanning her body, head to toe she assessed her own injuries. Head; fine except for a split and bleeding lower lip. Her vision was dusty, but that was probably going to clean up okay. Neck; good. Chest, arms, fingers, shoulders, ribs; everything works, moves, flexes. Left leg; broken for sure but not displaced. Right knee; thankfully unharmed. The ambulance guys picked their way around the dead horses.
Hopefully his rider isn’t hurt wherever that rider might be on this papery goddamn track this morning. She pieced the scene together as her wits and her vision returned.
“This leg’s broken, so go easy.” she told them. She noticed that the one guy still had acne. Jeez, she thought, they’re really young. But they were careful and kind. A shadow appeared over her and she looked up and and saw Norm, the outrider, his tanned and jolly face now pinched and greyish.
“How ya doin’ kid?” He asked while his wizened bay horse pranced and pawed nervously around the two equine corpses in the glare of the ambulance lights. Norman was reaching for his radio as the clocker’s voice came over “Is she okay? Jeezus-Gawd that was an ugly wreck” the radio crackled.
“She’s up. She’s conscious. She’s tough. Over.” Norm answered back. “You boys make sure she stays in that van of yours all the way to the hospital. Otherwise, she’ll jump out and walk back to the track.” He laughed but nervously.
It was when the boys placed Ann on the gurney there was a distinct crunching as her hips touched the thin sheet. The pain intensified. A new layer of sweat broke out over her body. She turned her head and retched on the track.
“Shit” was her only thought.
Ann wiped her mouth with the back of her sleeve. She choked and spat realizing her arm was covered in the strange papery stuff that was recently added to the track as footing. “How did that crazy bastard get loose and hit us Norm?” Ann asked the old cowboy who was trying to look away from the two dead horses and the broken woman he’d known for 20 years. The older of the two attendants tried to wipe her face with a towel from the ambulance. Ann glared at him and took it from his hand and proceeded to wipe her own mouth, face and neck while she waited for Norm to answer.
“Horse bolted after he reared up and over on the Irish guy Clahain. The guy’s like a cat and landed on his feet. Now get in that van and head to the hospital and stop puking on Mr. Ullswater’s brand new track.” Norm nodded to the ambulance crew, winked at Ann, grabbed his radio and announced “clear the track for ambulance exit off the gap. Bring the back up horse wagon, we got two down over here.” He galloped away.
Ann leaned back on her elbows and eased herself back down on the gurney. The boys loaded her as gently as they could into the ambulance, but each jolt sent rocky pain through her loins. She breathed through gritted teeth and felt the sweat bead on her upper lip. “Shit. Shit. Shit.”
The last thing she heard was the sirens on the ambulance before she passed out.
In the impossibly irrigated desert called Southern California, the Santa Anita track is ringed with palm trees and pink and blue hydrangeas although it’s November.
Dolce et Decorum Est* affectionately known as “Dulce” makes her way to the track for a 3/8 mile work as a final prep for her first race.
Cat-light, the filly steps down the track. She hears the rhythmic breathing of the oncoming horses she cannot yet see.
The track’s loamy footing has a bounce to it that sends her feet springing and floating through the early morning stillness.
A flock of black birds, in their first flurry of what will be a busy day startles the filly as they flitter about overhead. She smells the aroma of smoking cigarettes and her guts clench with a memory of pain. The Rider on her back shifts from side to side and urges her forward with impatient knees. Irritated, she roots her head down and forward pulling the rider over her thick shoulders as her hind feet bounce brightly. She squeals in surprise when the Rider deftly smacks her on the rump and urges her forward again. She lets herself be guided along the outside rail of the track. The Rider releases her into a brisk trot then restrains her from jumping forward into anything faster. The bit rhythmically moves in her mouth and she obediently bows her chin toward her chest lifting both the crest of her young neck and the joints in her slim legs as she glides along. The hood on her head employs cups around her eyes impeding her vision of that which is behind her. The moving bit in her mouth causing her to lower her chin means that her vision of that which is far ahead is also limited. She twitches her small ears and hears other horses around her but she knows that she is utterly alone. The human sitting just behind her shoulders is the only other being with whom she has any contact. Luckily, today’s rider is light, firm but fair, strong but sure. It’s her favorite rider. This takes some of the trembling out of her body, this body which has been designed for one thing and one thing only – to run.
The vessels throughout her body dilate and allow the running force to course through her lithe form. As pumping blood warms her muscles, so too do the warming tendons and ligaments bend and flex and stretch. Her breath deepens and strengthens. Her nostrils vibrate as she exhales.
The Rider stops stops moving in synch with the filly. The filly feels the pressure on the bit go slack sending her slightly off balance from the steady reciprocated grip between her jaw and the Rider’s hand via the bridle. The filly knows that this is the sign to stop and she lowers her head and digs the toes of her rounded hooves into the yielding ground. In synch, rider and horse exhale before both reins guide her into a 90 degree turn.
The calm and steady hand pats her on the neck now misting with sweat. The Rider’s voice croons something re-assuring. The filly knows that she’s been instructed to stand still but the ground is humming with the chords of pounding hooves and it’s her ancient nature to join the stampede. She sees movement in each corner of her limited vision and she hears the crescendo of others breathing as they reach full stride. She prances in anticipation, her body beginning to lather. The voice croons again and the hand pats her on the shoulder. Just when the filly is ready to explode, the steady hand guides her another 90 degrees to the right and signals her ever so gently, to run.
Bounding away at first uncertain, worried and choppy but the reins adjust and she begins to lean into the metal bar in her mouth asking the Rider “Is this okay?”
The pressure of the bit, the adjusting weight of the rider poised over the exact center of gravity of the filly says “Yes, and you may go just a little bit faster.”
The strides lengthen, the heartbeat strengthens, the reins and the weight of the rider say “Steady now and I’ll let you have more.”
The track unfolds into a gentle left hand bend and the filly leaps awkwardly into the turn shifting her weight from her right hip to her left. She gallops the turn daring to trust the Rider – focusing each nerve on the space that continues to open up in front of her. Coiling her legs underneath her reaching for more ground each stride more important, more strong and stretching toward joy. She and the rider on her back are of one mind – one breath.
As the turn straightens out, both horse and Rider see the hooves of the horse galloping 50 yards in front. Hundreds of years of selective breeding of the winning instinct kicks in. Instantly she knows she must overtake this horse to show her power, her prowess, her superiority. She wants, no she NEEDS to win. To her surprise and delight the rein hand moves, the weight of the rider shifts ever so slightly forward to accommodate the added speed that she is so willing to give.
Rider and beast celebrate the ground closing between them and their target. Each stride is a triumph bringing them closer to glory. Each muscle contraction is more difficult and yet more delicious than the one before.
The horse and rider in front sense the chase and accelerate as well.
The race is on.
Hooves push, aluminum cleats dig, flesh gives, lungs press, pupils dilate, neurons flash, bones absorb, muscles unfold, ligaments reach. There is no sound but the rush of air by their ears, the coursing of blood through veins and the bass beat of hooves grabbing earth. Blinders and focus keep the filly from seeing anything but the goal, the Rider urges her on. “C’mon girl, we’ve got them now.”
So focused on their shared task, so absorbed in the task of winning, neither saw the bolting horse coming from the right. They couldn’t see the panic in his eyes – the fear that drove him blindly almost head-on. The collective speed at impact may have been more than 70 mph, the collective weight of two racehorses and one rider, well over a ton. With no time to react, the filly saw only a flash of movement, felt a jolt of bright light and then:
*Dolce et Decorum Est (pst Mori) = “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country” – from Horace – poem by Wilfred Owen – 1918