The Fish Hook

(fiction , 2013)

I arrive outside my apartment building and do everything I can to avoid parallel parking my truck, which means driving around the block a few times, and while I’m looking for a spot I see a vehicle that is exactly like my mother’s. Of course I see these all the time in Portland, tan Ford Explorers. But something about this particular car makes it hers, mom’s car, and it’s not a ding or a scratch in the side that distinguishes it, not a certain type of hubcap or particular dulling of the headlights. No, but it just. Must. Be. The way you know your own dog, who is an Australian shepherd, even though there must be hundreds of thousands of Australian shepherds on the earth and each dog looks more or less the same. You connect with the very essence of your own dog, just like, driving by it, I have connected with the very essence of my own mother somehow residing in and resonating from this altogether common car I passed at a crawl while looking for a parking space. I find one across from a park, beneath the fragrant needles of a Cedar tree, three blocks up from my building.

I park the little Ranger and step on the E-brake, then release it again and it spring-slams back. This is a habit from living up in the mountains with Ewan and every time I do it I am reminded of him, but I hardly notice the sting. I don’t let it– after all, most things in the world remind me of him and no amount of reminiscent salt in my scratches can make him love me. It doesn’t add to my grief, or relieve it. It just goes on, a boring, dog-with-rawhide gnawing at my spirit.

I guess I stare, when I pass the Explorer again on foot. “Champagne” is the color mom said they called it, saying how the dust wouldn’t show on it because it’s the same shade, and I said:

“Then why isn’t it called ‘dust’?”

I get close enough to discreetly peek over and into the car, and even though it’s almost six o’clock and the crisp October sun is gone but the moon has yet to rise, I can see the shiny piece of amber, embedded in the center of a twisted pewter cross, hanging from the rearview mirror. Just before Christmas when I was nineteen, I found it at one of the rummage antique stores on SE Hawthorne and brought it home, and braided together three old necklace chains to hang it from, knowing my mother would appreciate how the amber complimented her “champagne” exterior. This isn’t normal, for Cindy to be in Portland, randomly on a Saturday night. Why didn’t she call? My parents often come into town on shopping trips from Estacada, the little logging town where I grew up, where they live, but they always call before they come over. And since Cindy wasn’t in the car I’m now certain is hers, (Rhett would have driven his pickup if he were with her), she must be up in my place, to which she has a key, for emergencies.

I begin to list mentally the reasons that could bring my mother to my dwelling unannounced and come up blank. Cell phones exist, as does email. Maybe she’s upset. Maybe she and dad have been fighting.

It isn’t possible. In twenty-one years of knowing these people inside and out from dawn to dusk I have never seen them argue over anything of more impact than what to watch on TV, beef or chicken, organ donor or no…

I punch in my code and leap in long strides up the stairs, three flights, to my landing. I listen for music, for clues. Mom sometimes arranges to come over and get drunk in her single daughter’s place, pretending she is me or I am her, which we are. She’ll take a gin and tonic time machine around the Southeast, beatniking the booze cafes like she does sometimes when dad goes hunting or fishing, whatever he does on his long weekends that sometimes stretch into two weeks. Why my mother never nags him or complains about this to me I don’t understand. She nags and complains about most other things. But no, when he leaves, and maybe tonight, she will broodingly don a black beret and run between alehouses abusing Bob Dylan and Kerouac quotes, as she does from time to time, flirting with men who could never have her to be on the safe side. But the closer I get to my door, the more the whole thing feels like crazy weather.

“Your dad’s dead.” Is what I hear when I look into my mother’s hard, weary face.

There is no way to say or hear these words gracefully. Because I don’t know what to do with my face, because I am numb and can’t really feel what my face is doing, I bury it in the warm space that is my mother’s hair and neck and shoulder.

Sam Dresden stands in my living room with a quiet demeanor and a strong chin, a doctor

from the hospital where Cindy works as a nurse. Dr. Sam approaches and I can hear his Italian soles on my carpet and I feel his hand on my shoulder, but I don’t. Really feel it. And I know I should stay here and comfort my mom, but I don’t. Dr. Sam, in his rich, Don Lafontaine voice, is saying something about, “Drowned in the river but they aren’t sure…” and I lift my head, feel the sting of cool air where my mother’s warmth and my own is separated, look her in the eye. With both hands on her shoulders, I say,

“I am so sorry, mom.”

I grab the slouchy green bag I keep under the round mahogany table in the foyer as I leave. I hear mom calling out to me, “Wait, Sarah!” but I don’t.

This green kit I have stashed for emotional emergencies is made out of very soft denim and looks something like a tackle bag (And in fact there is an old fishing lure stuck in the side that my dad slipped in when I wasn’t looking, some busy morning before school, and now cannot remove), except the color is lighter, like an army duffel left in the desert for a decade. I keep it near the door because I don’t want to drink with Ewan, but he makes me want to drink when he is here. I often go for a drink and a smoke in the park to escape my lover, who is my captor, and to try to escape his hold on me and regain some of myself.

The main order of business in the bag is a bottle of Johnny Walker Red, my drink. I converted when I discovered Elliot Smith, his song “Miss Misery”, a few years back.

            “I’ll fake it through the day with some help/ from Johnny Walker Re-e-ed/ and the cold pain behind my eyes/ that shoots back though my head…”

            Now I rarely drink anything else, and in fact rarely drink at all. I grew up watching my

Cody/ The Fish Hook/ 5

father methodically clean his guns for hours, the whole time sipping slowly from the same glass of Maker’s Mark, in his den at home. When I once commented,

“You really take your time with that stuff, don’t you?” (I meant the drink but he thought I was talking about the guns), he launched both of us into an hour that would change my future, during which he explained how each weapon was disassembled, cleaned, and reassembled, how one careless move could literally blow up in my face. What I took from that conversation was inspiration to be sober, and methodical, and thorough in all things, like him. Twice as a teenager I came down to his den at night when I couldn’t sleep and poured a glass of whiskey for myself, and tried to fit into his place in that room, sipping it. Then I screwed the cap back on the bottle and replaced it in his rifle cabinet, on top of the locked drawer which no one else on Earth but Rhett knew the contents of.

There’s also a leather-bound journal in the bag, and a short, thick-walled cobalt-blue glass with crystal-cut edges ‘round the bottom so that it sparkles in the light of towering streetlamps like a very large sapphire. I sit on a bench at the riverfront, looking upon the Columbia.

I pour one and stay there, and this is the process. Sadness, disappointment, fury; these emotions all shock me completely and I cannot cry. As much as a desperately, maddeningly need to cry, I cannot, so I come down here, past Pioneer Square and down Yamhill to Riverfront Park, to this bench, and drink. And after a while the liquor acts as a harsh solvent against my thick armor of stoicism. My father once told me, “Stop Whining.” And so I did.

I realize I haven’t had my cell phone since I left it lying on the seat of my truck, powering it down intently like throwing away a stale cookie after one dissatisfied bite because Ewan wouldn’t stop texting me. Asking me to eat with him. Asking me, “What’s wrong?” Although he knows. With every ounce of him, beyond either of our flippancy, he knows. This is the process. He tries to relieve his own guilt about stringing me along by continuing to string me along with his apologetic concern. He disguises as loving affection his selfish desire to prolong a relationship with frequent, oh so hot sexual encounters and a very casual level of commitment. From him, anyway, and I know if he were here right now he wouldn’t know to hold me.

A man and his daughter are walking their dog. I’m sipping, and see them, and I am in Seaside, digging for clams with my dad as a child, and I grope with my mind around the place he fits, but he’s gone. I couldn’t fill his chair back then, in his study, and he can’t fill it now. The steely truth of that emptiness forms in my throat like the jagged shell of an oyster, firm like the meat of a clam tensed to fight in his final moments, and a single drop of rain hits the middle of my forehead like Chinese water torture as I look up, I think to try and reach him. City lights across the river shine red and gold and shimmer in the ripples that begin to form on the water as the rain picks up, and I take a second sip of scotch. The drink looks clear black, in the sapphire glass, like the ponds we found once, deep in the Hoh Rainforest. I close my eyes, which drip tears, as I lower my drink to my lap and feel the hot wetness of grief, true grief, for the first time in my life, pour down my face and into my childhood. Creaking open are the gates to the new and unwanted freedom, deliciously dark, of losing a parent to death.

All at once, after decades or moments, the waves of nauseating agony subside as do my violent sobs, and all is quiet on the river. The father and girl have gone. I must have been wailing, but I’m wrung out now, I’m finished. I compose my posture and drain the glass, reach for my bag to fix it. I prick my finger on the ever-present fish hook and flash on my father’s memory and feel the sting like a bad dream, like never being able to wake up from one, and my heart is at war again. Again, I cry.

I walk back to my building in the drizzling, sea-spray rain but I don’t go home. I find my keys in the bottom of old green and unlock my pickup, dig out my jacket and put it on over my soaking wet tank-top and slippery shoulders. For a moment the fabric feels abrasive, itchy and slightly gross against my damp skin but a few miles out of town the heat cranks up and I forget about it. I light a cigarette and get on Highway 212 toward home, turn the radio to the country station that plays twangy stuff from the nineties like I used to hear every day on the school bus, and on the way to the river with my dad. “A thousand Miles from Nowhere” by Dwight Yoakam is on.

I’ve got bruises on my memory/ I’ve got tear stains on my hands/ and in the mirror there’s a vision/ of what used to be a man…”

            The clock on the dash says 9:07 but really it is 8:07. I’m mindlessly driving down the same roads I’ve always followed home, taking the same turns I’ve taken all my life, but I won’t go home when I get to Estacada. I’ll probably just drive, up the Clackamas River where lush beds of wild lilacs grow all summer along the highway, which is otherwise lined by eerie moss-weeping pines over floors of dark ivy and moss-covered logs. I want and don’t want to scream. I see someone, walking almost on the road because there’s barely a shoulder here, just past Eagle-Fern Park, where the two-lane highway winds like a snake and witchy trees hover like beggars above him.

The guy looks like Alex, a kid I knew in college, with his long blonde hair and beard on a young, handsome face like a child dressing up as his uncle. He wears patchwork pants and a grateful dead t-shirt, with a fishing pole over his left shoulder and a small leather pouch hanging at his hip. He sticks out his right thumb and smiles as I pull up. Alex used to say:

“You smile at them so they know you’re not a psycho killer.”

I come to a stop on the side of the road and roll down the passenger window, his face appears, and rain droplets roll down strands of his dirty, half-dreadlocked hair into crystal blue eyes.

“Where are you going?” I ask him.

“Home.” He says, grinning playfully despite the fact that he is shivering. I can’t help but feel the buzz of the whiskey and the clean feeling of having cried, but I can’t try to grasp that relief without remembering daddy, and picturing his face, void of soul, still connected somehow to a pale slab of him somewhere clinical and cold. I choke. I can’t help but see it, I wish I couldn’t see that. I smile back at the hitchhiker in spite of myself, because that’s what you do.

“Where’s home?”

In the brief time before I know anything about this man, he is Alex, crazy, funny Alex with whom I sat inside a tent during a hailstorm and heard say:

“Now I know what a pop rock feels like.”

Alex who, the night we met in the flicker of a bonfire, I told:

“I think I better go tonight.” Serious. Intense. “If I stay here I’ll fall in love with you.”

He once introduced me at a party as a girl he used to date.

“I thought we were just fucking.” I said, and felt sorry when he became sheepish.

“Well, I guess I just don’t get a lot of girls to date me.”

now he’s on a train he’s not official for, somewhere in France or Italy, wearing sunglasses shaped liked silver stars, holding his new puppy by the scruff of the neck to hoist him onto the moonshine-weary metal of a train car’s roof. He once told me, another time I couldn’t stay:

            “I think we’ll be together when we’re old. When we haven’t married other people, after all.”

            He’s trying to get to Cologne.

            “We’re just up past Estacada, camped out by the river. My wife, my daughter, and me. I was just out catching dinner. Well…” he holds out his empty hands.

“Someone told me about a good hole down here, but they either lied or I couldn’t find it.”

“Most of the best fishin’s up the river, past the bridge.” I tell him. He laughs.

“I hope it is.”

“Well, come on. Take you up there.” We pass the Forest Service headquarters, floodlights shining slick on the wet blacktop, then the museum, the big wooden cowboy outside the tackle shop, the Conoco and fire station on the left.

“Once you spot the grocery store, that’s pretty much it for your tour of town,” dad said. A picturesque waterfall drops crisp, misty Clackamas river water into the reservoir, south of the highway, from the far bank. I learned to paddle a canoe down there. He taught me.

My spirit droops, remembering.

“We have some wild mushrooms and apple wine, though. You’re welcome to stay for supper.”

“Sure,” I say dully, sounding to myself somewhat entranced. So again, I say,

“Sure,” this time with feigned enthusiasm.

Their camp is in one of the many wide spots in the road which become unofficial camp sites in the summer, and I pull in with my headlights shining right on things, see what I’m getting into. Their home is a pop-up camper hauled by a VW bus, and the camper is decked out in strings of clear Christmas lights, with pink feather boas strung along and hanging down from them, and branches dripping with moss are wedged into the frame so they stick out like rustic flags. A little blonde girl with a very red face sits on the ground wearing a tutu and overalls, holding her ankle and screaming like it’s the apocalypse.

“Louisa!” the hitchhiker yells. I realize I never learned his name. He looks at me.

“My daughter. Where’s Tracy? What the—?” he’s out of the truck before the sentence is finished.

“Louisa, Louisa, what happened, sweetheart?” He holds her face and whispers. I’m running toward them, my headlights still fixated on this scene, and this kid’s ankle is gushing blood, gushing. I can guess what happened here. A new-looking and therefore very sharp hatchet lies on the ground, tossed aside, near a chopping block where small pieces of kindling are neatly stacked in a tiny pile. The blade of the axe is covered in Louisa’s blood, and her ankle is contorted, clearly broken, the gash upon it halfway through. I can feel the bone-deep sting just looking at her, and I’m glad I drank that scotch. Dull nerves. The hitchhiker is already retching his guts out, right where he crouches down next to his daughter in a panicked, helpless way, holding her hand but hunched away, vomiting. I can see that he’s only soaking himself in Louisa’s blood and not helping.

“You have to move.” I push him out of the way, take off my coat, then my shirt, wrap it around the ankle, hear the bones move against each other and feel that, picture exactly how it happened. Louisa must have been sitting cross-legged and hacking off pieces of kindling from the pointed corners of the chunks of wood there, trying to make long, snappy sticks of kindling which, when piled, would go up in flames in a magical flash of fire. It’s what I used to do because it impressed my dad, those super-thin pieces of kindling.

“Don’t cut your pretty toes off, though.” Dad said. “Otherwise I’ll have to eat ‘em.” And on and on about chocolate syrup and barbecue sauce being appropriate toe condiments, the bringing out of knives, etc., the more I protested and laughed. Louisa did not know, however, the sharpness of the hatchet’s blade, didn’t think through its path of travel or what would happen if the log slipped out of its way, stupid to sit like that, put too much force in her swing. Missed the log entirely. Hit her ankle and snapped it, tiny child bird leg, and broke it wide open.

As soon as the tourniquet is secured, I yell to the hitchhiker, who is frantically searching for his wife,

“Dude! Get in the truck. Let’s go!”

He snaps into focus and sprints to the truck, passing us, eyes darting back at Louisa over his shoulder. The truck is still running, thank God I picked him up. I’m carrying the small child’s ridiculously heavy body, right behind him, and placing her in his lap as he sits. Her face is pale and shines with the oily sweat of panic, glowing like the underbelly of a fish in the near pitch dark. She passes out, one sweet note of a sigh to end her screams, and her next breath is shallow. I could drive to the ER in Estacada with my eyes closed, I’ve done it a thousand times. My mom’s been a nurse there since I was ten, and we arrive in minutes. Eleven minutes.

Louisa goes into surgery, and I stagger toward the medical center’s 24 hour café in a daze, having just seen my mother in triage. My mother, whose husband died today, who is insane to come back to work at a time like this. She should be resting, crying, drinking… but working? As though nothing out of the ordinary has happened? I try to imagine how I would feel if Ewan died, if he and I were married, and I can’t. I’m trying to decide if this is just because the thought is too unbearable, and finally arrive at this conclusion: I can’t imagine it because it just won’t ever happen. There’s no truth to it. In an instant I know I’m not in love with him.

I know I saw her. Our eyes locked. Cindy caught a peek into the room where I sat with the hitchhiker (Gary), holding his hand while he tried, through his panic, to answer all the triage nurse’s questions. Mom was holding a clipboard and looked down at it quickly, as if she could hide from the previous moment that DID happen, I did see her. She handed the clipboard to a doctor and disappeared.

I pour myself a cup of Peet’s and dump four French vanilla creamers into it. I sit down at a round cafeteria table made from cheap particle board, in a pea-soup green chair, and stare at myself in the 10×10 mirror on the wall across the room. I guess it’s there to give the illusion of space. The fluorescent lighting gives my cheeks a sunken, tweaked-out quality, and my eyeholes are mostly just black, weary shade. My lips are full and reddened from my biting at them. I muse that I look like the type of girl Mick Jagger would take home, some strung-out starlet babe.

Then there’s mommy, walking through the propped-open double doors to the left of the funhouse mirror, and nothing is as it seems. She is me, in twenty more years. She is some kind of liar, a cheat. But I do not know yet how this is true, or what it all means.

She takes her time pouring herself some coffee, with her lips pursed like steeling herself to win a fight that has yet to begin. I wait until she’s sitting, across the table from me. I can see her rigid back in the mirror.

“Why are you here?” I’m not angry. My head’s propped on my palms supported by my elbows on the table, and I’m tired. Just so tired.

My mom tells me, “I guess I don’t know why I shouldn’t be.” Pause. “Sam is here.”

“Dr. Dresden? So?” I watch my mother’s face soften, looking at me with something nearing pity, as though she finds my ignorance as endearing today as it was when I was five years old needing help popping a doll’s head back on. And oddly, at the same time she is that little girl, with her eyes drawn up and together, just begging for permission and acceptance.

“We’ve been together for seven years,” she says.

At first, I think she means they’ve been working together for seven years. Together, at the hospital, as a team. But that’s not true. Sam already worked there when she started the job, eleven years ago.

“Together? You’re cheating on dad?”

“I told you earlier, honey.” Still in a tone that’s both ballsy and begs me, “Dad is dead. And we fell out of love…long ago.”

I stand up and the chair makes a harsh, chainsaw sound scraping back. I’m pacing, gesturing wildly as I speak.

“Ok mom you got to fill me in here. What the—? How is this possible? We were a family!”

“Of course we were. Your father was one of my dearest friends, one of my greatest loves, and all I can say is I’m glad he died peacefully.”

I just stare at her, feeling disconnected from the place I’m in, from mom, from me. Do I know me? I sit back down, dizzy. I know my mouth is gaping and I know I must react. Should speak, but nothing comes to me.

“There are things you don’t know about him.”

“About dad? What things?”

“Rhett was…” Cindy leans in, to be heard. “He was a…”

She appears to be searching for a word, and I feel pretty sick, like I felt when dad came home early to tell me Jeeves got hit. Like I felt this afternoon when I saw the explorer. I could tell life was about to change, my world.

“Professional.” Cindy says between long, nerve-wracking pauses. “He took care of certain complications for people with a lot of money. How do you think we put you through school? I’m a nurse. And what was his job title again?” She actually chuckles at this and I think I might slap my mom.

“You are telling me my dad was an assassin? A hit man? What the hell, mom?”

She’s sitting there, nodding. She puts a finger to her lips, slowly, and I get the point. I want to slap her bony finger away from her thin lips, want to grab it and twist it and hurt her a little, make her stop grinning insanely, maybe start to feel just a percentage of the pain I’m in.

I consider my childhood. My dad was an entrepreneurial manager.” My understanding was always that he advised new small business owners on things like advertising, and hiring, things like that. How much could that pay? It’s true we never lived like kings, but I went to the best private school in Portland. Nauseatingly, it all makes sense.

Louisa will live, and keeps her foot. I drive Gary back to their home along the river, where his wife is frantic and must be held tight for ten minutes before she can even hear what else he’s saying. I feel awkward among them now, even in the middle of the dark night, hidden. I wander to the river with my green bag swinging against my hip. I sit on an old stump, one that’s worn by the wind and rain into a smooth, soft seat like the “thrones” my father found for me in the giant redwood forest. I reach into the bag, planning a drink, but again I catch my finger on the fish hook he put there, snagging it good. I don’t cry this time. I suck on the sweet, salty blood while I use the other hand to get the whiskey, but my fingers find the journal first, and I pull it out instead. I have to squint to see the pages, searching for a blank one, prepared to write whatever comes to me just to get it out.

The handwriting isn’t mine, about a third of the way in, and I know just like I knew my mother’s car, even in this dark, that this heavy-handed scrawl is of my father. He left me a message.

Dear Sarah,

You will not know your way home until you find your way to me. Your mother asked me not to do this, but I must give you the option to know me as I really am. Everything you need is in this bag. Just go where your ticket takes you, and using your heart, you will find me. I love you, my daughter, whether you come or you don’t.

Love,

Dad

I fumble in the bottom of my bag and find, cold from the night, a US passport that is mine, and a plane ticket to Cologne, Germany. The land of my grandfather’s birth. A name that sounds like something Alex mentioned, once. One of his dreamlands that stuck in my mind.

I cannot change what I suddenly know, and I can’t resist the pull to him, or him.

Gary and his girl are in the pop-top, and I don’t say goodbye, I just go home to pack.

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Dreams About Horses

coast for blog

This is fiction. However, I agree with this:

“It always amuses me that the biggest praise for my work comes for the imagination, while the truth is that there’s not a single line in all my work that does not have a basis in reality.” – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

insert into post

There is a storm in my heart about how much I miss my father whenever I come to the West Coast. I grew up here and the ferns, the moss, the endless rain are my ecosystem; they’re how I breathe easy. I’ve known this feeling for ten years, since Dad died, but what’s new is the twinge of deep regret about the man I left behind. Every time I wake up. Old Montana. I know either I’ll make my way to Mexico or he will pull me back; my magnet, all the vulnerable metals in my mind. I know I’ve been drinking too hard again. On my own, in these jungles, with my tendency to seize right up, I could get myself killed that way. I’m trying to convince myself I’m just a horse-crazy girl, missing her father; I’m a romantic, indulgent young thing with a guitar. I know the dungeon stairwells and the heavens of my heart are more complex than that one, two, three, four, five-part sentence.

But I’m pretending, anyway. What else can I do? I am cosmically distant from my non-existent home. The two things I love most, writing and drinking, have always separated me, and perhaps that’s what I have preferred. I shrug. I’m alone, standing outside the tent. Bam-bam’s tent. I call him Bam-bam because he’s blonde and stocky and he wears his clothes tattered like the cartoon cave-kid. I can picture his round, sprightly face in my fuzzy memories of yesterday, but I don’t know where he is now. The tent is pitched on a hillside in the forest, overlooking the Oregon Coast, hidden back in the trees like a cave. I could seize up and die here, and no one might find me for days, and they’d find my songs, and that’s how they’d know me.

I like it on the road, how I don’t have to tell my temporary friends, my favorite strangers, how I’m troubled. They don’t need to know how weak I get, just how fun I am. I can crawl out into the woods to die humbly, and all they’ll remember is the sexy match of pool I took ’em for and how well I sing Patsy Cline songs karaoke.

My guitar leans against a tree, and I pick it up. Of course I didn’t put it in its case, and in the morning fog condensation beads on it like the wood is sweating. It may as well be rain, I’m in a cloud, and it smells clean. I sit down on the pine-needled earth. I roll a cigarette with my arms stretched around the hollow music-maker, the beer-bringer, the teacher of intros. I decide I would rather have a skirt on and get back up, and dig in my hitch-hikin’ pack for my long summer dress, the one with the scrunchy top, trying all the while to keep my damp cigarette lit, puffing. If I were observing myself, loneliness would be glaringly evident. But I am surviving, and objectivity has gone out the window. What windows?

Changed, I shove the cherry off my smoke into the dirt. I play; C,G, D, Em. I’ve been dreaming about horses, the pastures of my past. Singhie and Sammy were Arabian mystics; they were my childhood unicorns. They were white spirits in a field of sunshine green.

“She dreams about horses, twilight, and northwestern pines,” I sing. “She sleeps by the ocean, ’cause that’s where her daddy died. A man who once loved her said the only thing wrong with you is your pride–”

No that’s not right. I shake my head.

“Pride,” I sing again while strumming C instead of E. This satisfies me, though the song will keep changing.

“It’s a fuckin’ three chord Taylor Swift-style monsterpiece.” I mock myself, aloud. But I know the stairwells, the true heavens, of this song. “Her momma just don’t understand why she’s so torn up inside…”

There’s no booze at camp and I need coffee, so I head on down the trail. It’s about a half-mile down of skinny, fern-gully forest to the road and another two miles into Seaside. The hillside Bam-bam (he wants me to come north, to Long Beach, with him but I won’t) took me to, his camp, is north of Seaside, past where the pavement ends, up where they’re beginning to log, clearing lots for development. Yesterday the cops stopped us on our way home because Bam-bam was carrying a conspicuous TV antenna, the giant kind from the 80s. I guess it looked a bit unusual, the two of us with all our gear and wobbly and sharing a hand-rolled cigarette that looked like a joint (wink), but Bam-bam won that antenna clean in a card game, from some other bum who found it in his squat house near the marsh.

All the nomad folk who pass through here use the house from time to time- there’s even running water there, and it’s hot. Anyway the cops let us go, me with that creepy feeling of always having to flirt with men to get what I want, and now we have TV. Bam-bam has one of those crank-power TV/radio deals, which is hilarious because the antennae is six feet tall and the TV is the size of a loaf of bread. The most stressful thing that happens to me is I’m dirty. I jump in the ocean– I’m clean.

I take some water bottles and rinsed-out milk jugs in a backpack of Bam-bam’s to fill. We can collect rain water, for washing dishes and ourselves, with the tarps strung tree-to-tree above the tent, but it gets full of needles and tastes like non-alcoholic gin. And I don’t even like gin. I grab my guitar, which doesn’t have a strap so I either hold it by the neck, over my shoulder like a shovel, or hug it to my body like a kidnapper.

The beach is the first place I go. Seaside, Oregon in July is all flip-flops and hot pink visors and sun-screened spots on pink, pink faces, coconut-skinned humans letting go for two short weeks, showing little Apple and Maryssa how to make a sand castle, electrified by all the pink-and-yellow umbrella, bright-striped candy sand of it. I’ll probably go to the square, where the main streets downtown intersect, later, and play, but I need to see the ocean, have a stand-off. What say you, mighty sea? Face up to what you’ve done. I know, I know, this is only your nature. Doesn’t change the fact you killed my father.

The same big, long-haired Native American guy we got buzzed with yesterday pulls up in a van, passenger side, on the road along the boardwalk, where I’m sitting on the ground and tuning up.

“Play us a song, girl!” he yells out the window.

“Yeah, but I can’t get her quite right here.” I smile big.

“Let me try.” he doesn’t make it any better.

“I might have a tuner at the house. We have to go by the bank and then I’ll check.” says the old man at the wheel.

“I don’t need a tuner.” I say. I still need coffee. I take a raincheck from the waves despite the grime caked on my face because it’s still too chilly out for a swim. Up through town, across the highway, there’s a Safeway grocery store and that’s where I sit and play for change for 30 minutes or so. Some high-school smoker-types on vacation come out and get excited about me, and I feed them some Zeppelin for two bucks and a tailor-made cigarette. A hippie princess in a floppy hat flounces by, carrying in the bend of her elbow a basket of bushy red roses, tossing one short-stemmed blossom into my hat. I wink at her and she winks back. She smiles big. A soccer mom drops me a five and I’m pleased; I can see in her eyes that she knows my world, that maybe she left a wayward girl like me in the recesses of her past.

I get my coffee, a double Americano made with Italian beans, with cream, and head back. I savor the quiet part of town and stroll through residential streets, admiring the creative touches these sea-people put on their homes. Seashells embedded in a cement sidewalk. A four-story birdhouse fashioned out of driftwood with moss growing on the roof, on everything, now that I look around the yard. One house that looks like a bachelor pad, based on the shopping cart full of redeemable beer cans, has a bench in the front lawn made from a surf board. Nearing the beaches, I’m getting the shakes, so I stop in at my favorite mom and pop for a couple of tall cans, take those with me. The guy’s nice, most days. Today he likes my dress.

I run into Henry, the bleached-blonde emo kid who is far too innocent and decent-hearted to pull off the hardened, hardcore look he strives for; wallet chain and skull tee, lip ring. His lower lip protrudes in a pout like a caught fish, baby blues peering out in wonder.

We sit on the beach and I crack a can and summon the balls to jump in.

“So, how’m I gonna do this thing, Hen? I’m wearing a thong and I’m not sure that’s what these babies and their mamas want to see.” I say.

“Hmm.” Henry ponders the question. “Probably not. You go all in, kid.” he says, 17 to my 25. “What’s not dirty, anyway?”

I look around. “You’re so right! What isn’t dirty?” I spring up and lunge for the sea, crushing crustaceans bare-footed and raining down a saltwater flash-flood of consciousness.

In the meantime, Henry is back on the beach getting so tired of his own ukulele (I know, it doesn’t help him achieve his look), he picks up my baby and starts cranking knobs. He starts turning and tuning and snaps a damn string just as I make my way back onto shore. I do not have a dollar for another string, and even if I did, there’s nowhere to get one this minute. With my little E out of commission, I don’t know if I can earn a dime.

I never do replace it, all day. The music stores are boarded up, their proprietors having flown to more prosperous beaches. Abandoned. Or they’re closed, I guess, and how would I know whether it’s a weekend? But let’s not draw the longbow. Henry and I can still rip out some pretty good jams in the square, some everybody-knows-Skynyrd and Sugar Magnolia, some Garth Brooks, Low Places for the good old American dollars coming our way. The coins and ones start piling up. Henry’s sister walks past, stops, and comes back.

“Get a life, Henry.” she says. She has a blonde ponytail. “You got to be kidding me with this. Doing nothing but bumming around every day.”

“It’s summer,” he says, and she walks off in a huff. She doesn’t tell him to get a job, but I still think she’s angrier than is appropriate. I feel a strange breed of shame, and I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s hurt. Probably because this sassy little barbie doesn’t know me, so how can she be so sure I’m a waste of Henry’s hours? But he follows her, and catches her, and suddenly I’m left suspecting something sad has happened in their family, too. What isn’t dirty?

We have some good talks, me and Henry. And no, there’s no mushy stuff going on here. I left Lars behind, and there won’t be another. Henry and me are just buddies. Bam-bam, he’s my buddy and he knows that’s all. He said he could see how it broke me, to run from love. I feel eighty years old. I will find a sea cave and become the flesh of legends, thousands of years in solitude.

I told him I had to, in order to find truth. Lars. I told him I’d be broken either way. We go and get some saltwater taffy, a few blocks down the promenade. We let some dark-haired capri-clad girls take pictures of us for a scavenger hunt; they need a musical instrument.

“Since when can you get away with simply taking pictures?” I ask one. My accent throws her off, I guess. I can even hear her mimic it on accident as she replies,

“Well, I can’t very well take it,” and I say,

“For eighty dollars you could.”

She’s not sure I’m joking, and I’m not, entirely.

We have Henry’s nine-year-old nephew, Josh, with us because the witchy sister clearly needed space. When we start to play, standing in the middle of the floor inside a kite shop with a huge vaulted sun roof, the blonde with a lesbian haircut and wearing a shirt that’s way too tight for her stocky build yells at us.

“I have music playing on the speaker! This is what people are hearing today, and this is what they want to hear!” she screams. Ok, buddy. We were just seeing if we could match up on Tiny Dancer. Sadly, no.

The throngs of tourists are difficult to navigate for anyone, especially two people carrying instruments. In Portland they would jump out of the way of us wild-haired monsters, but these people are enchanted by the magic of summer beach-land dreaminess and feasting on mimosas and shellfish, feeling rich, which almost feels like love. I get sidetracked by Johnny in a pin-striped fedora and a Kelly green shirt. It looks fucking awesome on him, with his matching eyes, and I tell him so under the blue sky.

“Nice hat.” he says because I’m wearing the identical hat to his that Gordo gave me when I met them on the beach the other morning. When I meet his eyes, he remembers me.

“Oh, hey.”

He asks about a Pink Floyd intro and I show him how to play the song, then we all get a ride to the cove to go smoke with some surfers Henry knows. Henry borrows a board and takes Josh to the water.

“We’re from Humboldt, people always saying how the waves up here are brutal.”

“I just want to see some sharks.”

“You know, you can catch them on a regular old pole, dog sharks.”

“Do you eat them?”

“I let them go. You could superimpose them in photos and make them look fierce.”

“You could eat them.”

“You could eat a seagull turd and seaweed quiche. Oh, shit.”

The sunshine-headed California boy in the circle just about catches his shirt on fire.

“Here, hit this. Fuck it, let’s go get some steaks.”

They drive us back to the central stretch of beach on their way to Safeway. Henry and Josh get out somewhere and say they’ll find me later.

“I’ll go by my buddy’s bungalow and see if they got strings there.” sunshine says.

“Cool, I’ll try to get back out here later.” I say. “Though if you don’t find me one, I might have to start gathering firewood to sell.”

But that won’t happen. And I probably won’t come back out to the cove, either. The wind rips around in the rocks and makes sleep difficult, without the wind-break of another’s arms around you. That’s how they get girls into their sleeping bags, these dudes. But I don’t want to be a girl in nobody’s bag anymore.

“Gather it regardless. We know how to burn it.” The dark-featured Australian surfer charms me. We are mutually entertained by an act we’ve invented in the last hour or so, where I pretend to be sure he is Cockney, and mock his accent, all the while making stereotypical references; poppycock and rubbish and the queen’s knickers under big ben’s bed and all that, and he pretends to be offended.

“I’m from Australia!” he cries, laughing.

Crikey.

In the dark, on the beach, is the easiest scenario in which to get drunk for free. I hop from driftwood fire to cedar fire and everybody wants to hear a song, everybody offers me a shot and a chaser. I tell these new friends I’m a boxcar kid, I’m the estranged bastard daughter of some 80s rock star, I’m a vampire. When I travel, I sometimes tell the truckers I ride with my brothers are trained assassins so they won’t try any creepy stuff, but I think that would make me the creepy one here.

I run into two moon-eyed travelers from the High Sierra, one of them so spooky in the face I want to write it down, I see ghosts in him, spirits I’m drawn to. Perhaps, the overworked and downtrodden miners of his homeland. They are searching the sand for a moonlit séance; I am inspired by the shadows and glowing red firelight to think of Plato’s cave. The worlds we know differently, the versions of someone else’s normal that scare the crap out of us and vice-versa.

We talk about the underground, and music, and which rainbow people of the living light we know mutually. I lose them, saying I’ll find them later, I might go with them in the morning, I wouldn’t mind getting back to Cali. But I know three hikers on 101 have a pretty rubbish chance of getting anywhere fast. I travel alone. I will never see his haunted face again in my life.

Round midnight I meet up with two hideously drunk, sick-looking girls, and pull them to the refuge of a nearby fire.  There is a bobbed, skinny blonde with her darker, more muscular sister, who the blonde one tells me is both sick and crazy. Or, she’s just crazy, and that’s the sickness, through the whole family. There’s some cowboy from Texas, just a kid, and a hippie dude named Carl with long hair but not dreadlocks and a beard. I start to play wagon wheel and the sisters cry,

“Wagon Wheel !!” and sing along, and by now my fingers are so sore from playing all night I hand my guitar off to the cowboy and tell him what to play, and he does surprisingly well.

“It’s just C, D, Em, and G. Wait let me see what order.”

“Like this?”

And we sing, all of us except the cowboy, who has never heard of Bob Dylan or Old Crow Medicine Show. The horror.

“Ever since my sister got sick and our dad got remarried…” we are dragging the dark sister back to their hotel. The whiskey is gone, except for the bit in the bottom that no one has room for. I’m wobbly, and Carl sees.

“Come on, I got a room you can crash in. There are two beds.” he says.

“Alright, but no funny stuff after I pass out.” I say, and then stop talking because the words are coming out gracelessly.

I refuse the cold pizza and warm beer he offers, and wave away his guitar.

“This one has 6 strings if you want.”

“No, my fingers feel like they’re gonna fall off.” head to pillow.

Carl’s still a fat cat in the sun when I wake up around ten and my skin is dewy from the heat of the glare from the window, left wide open. I don’t disturb him, only steal some quarters from a cup on the night stand, six dollars worth, and slip out. I’ll have to go down to the beach and find my shoes and my pack, which I left. They’ll be there somewhere. They always are.               I do rather feel like going somewhere, so I go to the beach for my shoes and my pack and I stand off with the sea like I do on mornings when I feel a little rough around the edges, and have me a drink. Then I find a perfectly good piece of pepperoni pizza in a box in a garbage bin along the boardwalk, and I’m sitting on a park bench munching with some crazed, amused look on my face I’m sure, because it isn’t like me to eat garbage and I think it’s pretty funny.

“Hi, Samantha,” a man says, emerging from his storybook beach house, weathered grey with scaly shingles, to check his mail. I don’t know how he knows my name, but I guess I must have played for him sometime. I must have liked him, if he knows my real name.

“Hi,” I smile big regardless of my lack of understanding. He kind of looks like Jack Johnson, and I’m remembering now he has a daughter, and he’s so young he’s either very successful or he must have inherited his house. Ican tell he’s not married, there’s no mother – it’s just something about him, about the way he and his daughter interact.

“You want some breakfast? We were just whippin’ up some pancakes.”

“Got it.” I hold up my za.

“Dude, come on. You just took that out of the can.”

I grin around my bite of delicious, saucy cheese, with dough bits squished between my teeth, a cat caught in the bird cage. I could take him up on this, and maybe we would date. Maybe he could clean me up and put me in diamonds and display my witty banter to our houseguests, like other men have tried to do. I know I’m only wild, and always will be, so I spare him.

blog forest

Crooked Crossing chapter eleven

The following is an excerpt from my novella, Crooked Crossing, available at:

Support independent publishing: Buy this book on Lulu.

Jody rode quietly into the trees. A screeching owl broke the stillness. She followed the sound of the creek flowing close by, letting Garnet choose her own path through the underbrush. She was careful not to urge her through thick brambles, or over big logs she could bruise her hooves on, or trip over. That was especially important now that she was balancing a forty-pound child, and her saddle and reins were wet with rain. She slipped around in her saddle and tried to hold on to it all.

She worried about keeping her horse fed, and hoped to find a good patch of grass. At least there was water. Hopefully this wouldn’t take more than a day or two. Cain left her with enough to keep the kid from starving. For a day or two.

She wished Jay were there. She wished she’d been more honest with him, but he would have tried to protect her, and he wouldn’t know how. Maybe that’s what she’d been most afraid of, that if she were really in trouble, no one would be there to help her.

And now she was really in trouble. The little guy was pretty quiet by then. Jody had never saved a life before, except for birds with broken wings, and calves, and other creatures of the mountain, and she thought if she pulled this off all the way through to getting him home to his mom and dad and tucked snug in bed, she would feel alright about it. Maybe that was why she didn’t trust her gut and bail in the first place. Maybe, somewhere in her soul, she had a premonition that there was a higher purpose for her there.

She set up camp and untied the bandana that Steven had apparently tied over the baby’s face; his gag, his tiny little gag.

He was a cute kid, with orange hair and freckles, and deep, cobalt blue eyes. She tickled him under the rib; the same place Harriet was ticklish. His skin felt brand new.

“Well, what are we going to do now?” she said.

“Gha…” he cooed sullenly. His eyes were full of confusion.   She tended to the fire and built it up well so she could hold the baby while he slept without getting up every ten minutes to stoke it. No one would see the smoke with all the clouds still hovering after the rain. Even if someone did, they probably wouldn’t give a shit. They’d think she was just another camper.

When he fell asleep she wrapped him in an extra blanket and laid him on the ground with her saddle blanket under him. She rested her weary self next to him, but she was too restless to sleep, despite her exhaustion. She heard the ancient language of the fire, and Garnet in the background grazing lazily and breaking twigs under her hooves, and the small breath of the stolen child next to her. She said to herself,

“Too tired to sleep.”

At daybreak, still running on fumes, she got the fire roaring again from a deep bed of red coals and gathered a fresh pile of wood. The baby slept soundly. She looked around for the right place to pitch the tent and began to assemble it, as quietly as possible, which was a bit of a challenge.

She had to hand it to Cain. This was a pretty spot. With the rain falling onto the ponds, dripping through the moss, it looked like some South American jungle or something. Crooked Creek dropped off the side of a ridge so the stream pooled into perfectly round ponds that staggered down through a thick, ferny forest of trees so tall they blocked the sun. The water looked black, but it was clear as air. The first time she’d come here, her toenails had been painted red, by her mama, who was happier then.

She put the tent in a small clearing where the sun would hit it, once the rainclouds cleared, and warm it up inside. The baby had been awfully quiet since he woke up. He sat, hunched over, on a saddle blanket, staring at the fire.

She wondered if he would see her, standing in line in a gas station someday. Would he recognize her?  Would he wonder why looking at this strange woman’s face made him nervous? No, she’d be long gone from that county. She’d somehow forget this whole thing.

He began to cry and she went to him.  He flopped himself onto his back, and his deep-set, mesmerizing eyes widened when he saw her. Then they closed again, and he let out a good, healthy wail, face red and tears streaming.

“Ssh,” she pulled him to her chest and hugged him. “I’m going to get you out of here. I’ll get you home where you belong. Ssh. Look.

Look at the pretty blue sky. Look. Horsie.”

He groaned and sniffed a while longer, but she managed to lull him. Of course, there were no bottles or any dishes at all in the supplies but she melted the top of a water bottle with her lighter to make it more like a bottle and poked a hole in the side. She poured some powdered milk into the water that remained and tried to give it to him, but he refused it. She found a baggie full of sugar in one of the saddlebags, added some to the milk and let him taste some on her finger. He perked up a little, so she gave him the bottle and he slowly but curiously raised it to his lips and drank. She couldn’t believe it.

“Thank you,” she said to the sky.

She left him to it and searched out a can opener, opened the beans and put the can right on the fire, balanced on burning sticks. She figured she might as well eat something, too. It was going to be a long day.

Sabah Habib Means Sweetheart

This story is about me, though Sabah Habib was not actually acquired like I tell it here. The horse was one of five or six that we bought in bulk from a neighbor in Mossyrock, WA. My mother had a long history of horse-trading, that’s true, but in fact she started her cowgirl career down in Oregon. I have taken many liberties (poetic license, if you will) in this work of creative nonfiction.

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Sabah Habib means Sweetheart

It means loved one born in the morning. When I was a little girl just breaking into the competitive equestrian scene my mom took me to a big Arabian horse show at the Puyallup, Washington fairgrounds. The costume class, which took place at night in an indoor arena under spotlights that lit the horses like dancers on stage, was the main reason she wanted to go. Or maybe I just remember it that way because I wanted her to want something fun and magical for herself; she was always taking us shopping and not buying herself anything, continually working twelve hour shifts with an hour-long commute just to keep us in saddles and boots. I saw my mother as a fun and whimsy-driven gypsy that day instead of an over-worked old person (the way every adult is old when you are not one of them) bent under her own yoke, when usually whimsy was not her way. It was her spirit, but not her way.

It must have been a spring show because it was dark by 7:30, making the magic I saw in the parking lot more impressive yet, on my impressionable mind. I had yet to see beyond the smoke and mirrors of childhood; it would be years before I went to enough concerts and music festivals to see with lucidity how fake the whole production can be. How tortured are the souls inside the smiling show hosts, and how insecure is the perceived ferocity of heavy metal bands. I hadn’t met the players on stage, in real life, where they falter and disappoint. You find out they are only human, the world is just the same old place.

The horses stood, tied to trailers, undergoing elaborate grooming regimens performed by sheiks and belly dancers, desert nomads and Arabian princes. Tom and Larry, the shit-booted stable-boys every other Friday night, sipping Coors light under broad-brimmed black felt hats.

Draped across the horses’ backs were sweeping, sinuous blankets of silk, ribbons of satin elaborately woven into their feathery manes and tails. They appeared to be fashioned from stone, with their svelte, chiseled coats; in the warm-up ring, under the lights, a dapple gray gelding held the light like opal, chased round and round by a black onyx beast in a dramatic robe of red. A red roan pony asleep on his feet was a jasper stone, settled non-alarmingly in the gravels of aesthetic mediocrity. Chewing hay in his slumber.

Somehow, in the face of all this visual stimulation, the most striking image in my memory of that night was of a rust-orange blanket of silk, the costume of one horse in particular, because that’s what drew me to her. The cock-sure simplicity of it. There were more silky, shimmering, seemingly liquid fabrics in bright hues of every color than I have ever seen in action at one time, before or since, all illuminated in the glow of parking-lot lights. But strangely, what piqued my interest the most was that out-of-place color, somewhat drab, like burned sugar. The thing was, it came alive on her, this radiant, rusty-gold colored horse. She wore it with purpose, like disciples in the desert, in their rags of holiness.

She was looking right at me, spooky, with the same expression I’d seen in a National Geographic photo of a third world peasant woman, a young thing who will never know what her beauty means to an American, or anyone, because she’s just trying to survive.

I wondered if the mare had been abused. A lot of the horses you see who are fidgety and disturbed have been, somewhere along the way.  A mask was fixed over her eyes, but I could see them shining through. I could see into them; vast, black, feather-lashed orbs calling out to me. Her forelock fell over the mask in a few graceful, tawny strands of flaxen.  Her soft, grayish-black nostrils and mouth was the only part of her that didn’t shine. In fact, her muzzle seemed to be dusted with soot, as horses’ noses do. Their fascinating snouts; there is power there, where they gather fuel, and from where they snort and whinny. In the low, nickered words they say. You reach out to touch, to earn trust and acceptance, or hope to. You expect something like the rough underside of a dog’s paw, and instead it’s so soft, like letting a rabbit’s ear slip through your fingers. She could take your fingers with her toenail-sized teeth, but she doesn’t.

I had always known horses are not just animals, not just dumb beasts like some people say.

But before I could get close enough to touch this horse, her handler went to pick up a hoof and she kicked out, and startled him away. She reared up as high as she could with her lead rope still tied to the side of the trailer, clanging against the hollow metal vessel with her heavy, solid black hooves. Her shoes banged and crashed against the steel, clanging like marching band cymbals. The man stood shaking his head, like it wasn’t the first time she’d done it.

Another reason mom loved these shows, apart from the whimsy, was that she was forever chasing the high of her first noteworthy horse purchase, which happened right there at the Puyallup Fairgrounds when she was in her teens and the place wasn’t such a commercial production. She’d scored a purebred quarter horse filly with impressive bloodlines for four hundred dollars, after the foal’s mother broke a leg in the ring during a stadium jumping competition. A string of bad luck had befallen the breeder, and every mare from the line had been injured somehow. He wanted out. The filly, Persimmon (we called her Persie), was just nine months old, but she grew into a champion. Mom still loved to slum around show parking lots, whether or not her girls were competing (but especially then, for gossip. WHAT did Nicole West do with her boyfriend in the tack stall? WHO spent seven grand on a new western saddle?).

“What an interesting creature.” mom said to the handler. She should have had a Mardi Gras mask and a cigarette in her hand.

“She’s not for sale.” he grumbled. He had a short, dark beard– just stubble, really. He wore a robe and turban, reminding me of last year’s Christmas card with a drawing of the three wise men on the front.

“Every horse is for sale.” My mom insisted, sparking my admiration. She was so sure of herself, always seemed so confident, even though I understand, now, that she wasn’t, not always. (I am enchanted by memories like this one because after my father passed away and she found herself alone, she got lost for many years and doubted who she used to be, with him. She became depressed. She moved from place to place looking for something to fill the void he left, realizing ten years later and back at home, down the road from Grandma’s, that she’d have to manifest it in her own heart. She’d have to let him go.) She reached out to the fire-orange mare and let her smell her hand. She leaned down and blew softly at her nose, and they exchanged breath. This is how you ask a horse to trust you. The mare’s ears perked forward, a sign of interest and calm, and she reached down and chomped up a monster bite of hay.

I didn’t even have to lead into it, because my mom and I were thinking the same thing. We’d been looking for a new show horse for me, a zippier model, since Darby (my 25-year-old Quarter Horse) was getting pretty long in the tooth and I was growing up; my legs would soon be long enough to hang nicely down the side of a horse like her.

“Please, mom?”

“No. She’s too hot, look at her. Arabs are too hot.”

“She’s different, you look. She has kind eyes. You see them.” I was bold, and I was both right and wrong. The horse had just showed us how true to her breed she was by throwing an irrational fit. But I knew if mom hadn’t seen something in her, she wouldn’t have been making friends with this hot little horse. I thought my calm, grown-up tone might hide my air of superiority – I was a stubborn little kid and I was sure I was right about the mare. But Mom knew I thought I was hot stuff; she knew I meant to imply that she was stupid if she left this horse behind. Still, she pretended not to notice.

“They all look kind, honey; they’re just pretty.”

“Maybe they are all kind.” I took the disrespect out of my tone and suddenly my voice could fill a room, if ever we were indoors. “You always say a horse is only as crazy as its trainer.”

“True, but only Crazy trainers take on crazy horses.”

“This country was founded on crazy ideas.” I said. This weakly manipulative effort from left field was mercifully ignored. I pushed on, amused but getting desperate.

“And are you denying your craziness, mum?”

“It will take years to get her ready for show. You know I’ll have to be the one to break her? Your dad is too big, and your sister isn’t experienced enough for that yet.”

“She would break her.” I snickered. My sister was heavyset back then, and we feuded in those years.

“Oh, stop it.” She fixed her gypsy eyes on the scruffy wise man. “Seriously. How much for this horse?”

I know my mom and dad had some sort of conversation about this, or some kind of pre-arranged agreement on how acquiring new stock would be done. Or maybe it was agreed that the money they each earned was theirs to spend as they pleased. It doesn’t matter. To me, back then, watching the thing happen from the awed perspective of a child, nearly a young woman, she worked seamlessly. She ripped the check out and walked away with my new horse in tow like she’d just bought me a pair of boots.

Her name was Sabah Habib. “What’s it mean?” I asked the grumpy wise man.

“Sweetheart.” he said. And now, I know that it’s more like lovely darling, or sweet lady, or something like that. I know that the language I was raised on doesn’t cover every human expression. Sabah means ‘born in the morning.’ Habib could mean darling, or loved one, or sweetheart. She came from a line of nice, average purebreds who weren’t flawed in any great way but who weren’t great champions either, with typical names like Riyadh, and Ridahli, and Spice of the Emirates, probably Spicy for short. I’m pretty sure someone figured, Sabbibah, shoshanna, sabbahhabbib… and landed there and that was good enough. She was worth about 5 grand, and that was a 5,000 dollar name.

My dad was always giving us grief about riding our horses in circles. He was a mountain man, a trail and logging-road rider. He was a forest-service ranger and knew every inch of his district like the back of his old Chevy’s steering wheel, every trail and foot path. I can’t tell you how many times I have feared for my life, on the edge of some cliff face somewhere on Mt. Rainier or on some icy glacier in the pacific cascades, our horses clinging anxiously for balance on four legs and slick, shod hooves. He didn’t understand the competitions, the arena, the letters and patterns and expensive getups, but he stayed out of our way while we put in our ground work on Sabah. If it were up to him, we would have saddled her up and led her into a reservoir where she couldn’t fight, not under water, swimming, and we would have hopped on her and it would have been over with. She’d have been broke. Looking back, I wish we had.

She was a strong horse, Sabah. Not particularly tall, but a muscular 15.2 hands high at the withers, where her spine continued straight and true, on back to her round, sturdy rump. (A ‘hand’ is four inches, four knuckles.) She had good hooves and fine conformation, and her eyes… I told you about her benevolent eyes. And they were true to her spirit. True to her name – Sweetheart. She was my best friend. She just didn’t want nobody on her back.

We’d had her for about five months, and mom went out to saddle her up in the barn, just like she’d been doing. Every afternoon, rubbing a wool saddle blanket on her, setting it on her back and making her stand still for a few minutes before it was removed. She hopped nervously, stringing us high, though we would never let on. I learned right away, riding young, that you don’t want to show a horse if you’re scared because they can feel it right through you. You have to pretend that you aren’t, until you believe it and your nerves do too.

She took the bit in her mouth without much protest, and later with none, but she hated the saddle. After the first time we put it on her back, she wouldn’t let it out of the tack room without throwing a theatrical fit. Hated it. Mom cinched her up anyway and she bucked a little. Mom led her, while I followed in my rubber boots and holey wranglers, to the big pasture, where whatever happened, she wouldn’t get herself tangled up in anything.

“Let’s go around and pick up her hooves, show her who’s boss right now.” mom said. “Just hold her for me.”

I held the reins while mom picked up Sabah’s left front hoof and set it gently down again. She stood quietly with a bored look on her face, and probably I did too. But when mom got to the rear hoof, and leaned on her hindquarters to shift her weight so she would have to pick it up, her ears pinned back quickly and I barely saw her teeth, bared, and coming toward me before it was too late. She landed a gummy bite to my barely-there left boob.

“Ah!”

“You OK? What happened?”

“Nothin’. I’m OK.” I was too embarrassed to even say. But I wasn’t hurt. This was the way of Sabah, at least with me. She gave me stories but she never let me get hurt. Now I could tell people, for the rest of my life, that I got bit on the tit by a horse when I was little. Another time I was riding her, she tripped, and I was thrown right in front of her galloping hooves, on the ground in the practice arena at some show. My helmet’s chin-strap buckle failed and it came flying off in the process, leaving my head exposed. She came an inch from striking me dead with her hoof as she leaped over me, but put everything she had into avoiding it. They say horses have brains the size of a walnut. I always found that hard to believe. If human brains are ten times that size and we only use part of them, that’s pretty scary. We have to trust our horses completely in order to get where we’re going. Maybe we are trusting God. Anyway, I still like to think her tiny brain was always capable of loving me. On that morning when she was not yet saddle broke, however, she didn’t extend the same courtesy to my mother.

The beautiful gypsy cowgirl I called momma led her out into the middle of the field, away from me, away from trees and fences. Without wasting any time, she put a foot in a stirrup and swung on. She was on my horse, my pretty new crazy-ass horse. And for a moment, nothing happened.

And then the rodeo began. It was only 5 or 10 seconds, the young mare jumping and twisting and trying to toss momma like a bona fide bronc. She bucked furiously, four times in a row, leaping into the air and kicking out backward as her forefeet landed, and mom held on. I watched Sabah’s muscles spasm under her chestnut hide and heard her deep belly grunts as she fought, like hell, to free herself. She tried a new technique, and bolted. Once she got to speed, with all my mom’s efforts to control her thwarted, she reared up into the air and bucked again. I watched my mom fly out of the saddle and 15 feet in the air. As soon as she landed, square on her ass in the short, mostly eaten-up grass, strangely peaceful-looking even with her pained face in the artfully forested meadow now that all was quiet, Sabah stopped in her tracks and looked back at her, tremendous eyes blinking and long lashes batting as if to say, “Sorry, but… well, you were on top of me.”

“Mom!” I cried. She stood with obvious pain and what could be interpreted as frustration or determination, or perhaps a combination of the two. She marched to where Sabah stood, head low, waiting for something else to happen. Get right back on the horse, the cowgirl mantra. This was the moment, for Sabah Habib, which would make or break her. Mom swept a leg up and over; God knows how, after that butt-kicking.

My mom is crazy. But it worked. Sabah stood under her, perhaps not calm, but submissive. She danced her weight from side to side, shifting hooves. Probably grinding the broken bones together in my mother’s body. The horse jittered and fussed, but did not buck or bolt. Mom soothed her with long, slow strokes down her neck and her sweet voice, hushed. Holding back tears of pain.

“OK, that’s good for today.” mom said, dismounting. Her words came out on the end of a held breath, a hidden wince.

“Put her back in the barn.” she said.

“Are you OK, ma? Where are you going?”

“To the hospital.”

She had 3 herniated discs in her back, a cracked bone in her shoulder, 2 bruised ribs and a broken pelvis. Her entire rear end was this amazing greenish-blue and black bruise the likes of which I’d never seen. She healed sufficiently over time, although over the years she has had to replace some of her parts; a hip, both knees, the ones that got beat up too much by the horses.  She didn’t win every round, but she always walked away triumphant.

Since she was out of commission for months, it was up to me to polish Sabah’s training, and I did. Sabah never gave me a rodeo ride, but there were times up in the mountains with dad when she got herself worked up and made me pretty jittery, hopping around in her way.

“That horse doesn’t want to fall off that cliff any more than you do.” my dad reassured me. I tried to forget that her brain was the size of a walnut, and trust that this was true.

I used to sleep in the barn, either in the hayloft with my dogs or in Sabah’s stall with her, on nights before a show. I’d get up at four in the morning and load up my gear, then my horse, then go wake up mom or dad, whoever was driving, and we’d hit the road to get there for the first class, which was usually “Showmanship”, at seven. I rode her everywhere; down the road to hang out with a friend, exploring old logging roads and trails around our house with my posse of pups, in competition at 3-day events and week-long fairs, bringing home buckets of blue and red ribbons and shiny trophies with our names engraved on them.

My mom is 66 years old now, and last year she finally sold her last horse. Well, that’s not entirely true. My dad’s old trail horse, an appaloosa named mouse, outlived him, and she lives on my grandparents’ farm in Estacada, Oregon. As for me, when competition got fierce, I traded Sabah in for a thoroughbred named Perfect Timing (known commonly as “Topper”), who was a good horse. He ran fast and jumped high, but he didn’t have Sabah’s passion, or her lonesome, soulful eyes. We didn’t have a relationship, not the way Sabah and I did.

Once, Topper and I had the lead in a three day event, up to the Dressage competition. We got in the ring, and some horse in the parking lot threw a fit, whinnying and crashing against a trailer with its hooves. Topper couldn’t even see the horse from the arena, but he joined in, neighing and carrying on, anyway. Right through our Dressage pattern, the one event where one’s horse must be composed and sophisticated.

I thought about Sabah, and where she might be. In a cozy stall in some backyard barn that smells of sawdust and fresh alfalfa somewhere, I hoped, with a little girl sleeping in the hayloft above her, waiting for daylight to load up the trailer and head for the show.

Sabah was a sweetheart at home, free to roam the pastures. But the first time momma got on her back, we saw the other side of her.

Sabah was a sweetheart at home, free to roam the pastures. But the first time momma got on her back, we saw the other side of her.

MSC

All writing on this site is the original work of Miriam S. Cody, who owns the rights to each piece herein. Thank you for your interest in my imagination.