The stallion paced through the snow in the front yard and snorted threats that jetted sulfuric clouds from his nostrils. At the end of each lap, which spanned the length of the front porch, he pawed the ground, arched his neck, and shook his head with the apparent intent of extracting revenge for every injustice done to any wild horse that ever roamed the plains and ended up stuck on a farm in the northern Midwest with a middle-aged woman who didn’t like horses and was late for work.
I peered around the edge of the living room curtain and pulled it up to just below my eyes so he couldn’t see my face. As the stallion carved his warpath through the snow, a gust of wind lifted his mane and exposed the government tattoo on his neck, which legally branded him my captive, and his eyes, which expressed independent notions to the contrary. On many occasions over the past several months I told him he was free to leave, “Take our road south to the next road, turn west, and keep going until you reach Montana.” But for some reason, perhaps as part of his grand plan of vengeance against the Bureau of Land Management’s Wild Mustang Relocation Program, or because there’d be no one to feed him along the way, the Mustang stayed.
“I have nothing to do with the Bureau of Land Management,” I whispered to him after reading a book about horse whisperers. “I am innocent.” But the Mustang curled his upper lip in disgust, and when he realized I had no peppermints, took a swipe at my scalp as well.
I lowered the curtain away from my eyes as another blast of wind roared in from across the northern fields and bullied an old metal bell once used to call in men for dinner that now clanged like a helpless idiot.
In the few short months I’d lived on the farm, I’d grown to hate the bell, which every visitor felt compelled to pull and, which when pulled sent sledgehammer-against-oil-drum clangs across the entire county. Just the week before, when the FedEx driver delivered two books, Horses for Dummies and Why Bad Things Happen to Good People, and pulled the bell’s chain to announce his presence, I yanked a piece of paper out of the computer printer, grabbed a tube of lipstick, and scratched do not touch in big red letters followed by a gruesome smiley face with an upside-down, zigzagged smile. I duct-taped the sign to the bell’s chain.
That might have solved at least one of my problems had not that morning’s wind—the one that now blew cyclones of snow dust up and around the Mustang’s pacing legs—ripped the sign off the chain, duct tape and all, and flung it straight onto the stallion’s side rump, where it stuck: do not touch followed by a lurid smiley face. I didn’t need Secrets of the Horse Whisperers to interpret his point.
Had I the luxury, I’d just wait it out, wait for a cat or a snowmobiler or a lost driver looking for directions upon whom he could vent his rage, but I’d clocked in late to my new job five of the twelve days I’d worked there and had no coherent excuses left. I was out of time.
I tiptoed to the front door window to scope things out from a different perspective, but when the Mustang saw my face through the glass, he trotted to the foot of the porch steps, where he stood and stared back up at me. Slowly, methodically, never taking his eyes from the door and apparently oblivious to the smiley face stuck to his butt, he pawed a hole in the snow with his hoof.
What did he want from me anyway?
Maybe he was just after Dustin, whom I’d turn over gladly. But my son’s best friend—an aeronautical engineering student—was cocooned upstairs in a world of logarithms, correlations, and exponential prob- abilities (video poker) and wouldn’t hear me if I called. Besides, even though he took thirty-minute showers, spent precious workable hours on the phone with his girlfriend, and had no apparent aptitude for shovel- ing snow, repairing fences, or hauling horse manure to the ever-growing muck pile, which he referred to as the “equine excrement mass,” I couldn’t very well sacrifice him to the animal on the lawn without guilt of the heavy scale-tipping type plaguing me for the rest of my life.
Through the frost on the glass I saw the garage where my car sat and the fifty yards of unplowed snow between it and me. Even if Dustin had cleared a path with the ergonomic, cushioned-grip snow shovel I bought at Farm & Fleet instead of sprinkling salt pellets (which he claimed worked just as well as shoveling, because they helped the snow reach its freezing point depression more quickly by changing its colligative properties but which in reality sank in the twelve inches of snow like lead bombs and did nothing), I still couldn’t outrun the stallion to the garage.
I couldn’t outrun him. I could, however, outthink him. At least that’s what the complex and growing thickets of horse whispering, horse training, and horse management books—strewn across the kitchen table and living room floor like self-help books after a bad breakup—said. Horses have hooves, but people have brains. That’s what they said. So all I had to do was . . . think of something.
“You’ll never outthink a horse like that,” Irene would tell me several months later, during the spring when she first visited the farm and shot me fairly continual looks of suspicion as she took in the scene—the holes in the barn walls splattered with dry blood, the dented metal stock gates held shut with barbed wire, the electric fences strung chaotically across the property like the poorly planned perimeter of a penal colony.
“He’s not like other horses. He was born in the wild. He was raised in the wild. And then he’s captured and beaten by people who don’t under- stand why he can’t understand what’s happening to him . . .” Irene paused, shaded her eyes, and looked toward the driveway. “Are those . . .,” she squinted, “. . . goats on my truck?”
They were, two pygmies bought after reading a book about control- ling uncontrollable horses, which suggested that the poorly behaved horse might only need a few friends but didn’t explain what to do with the friends if the poorly behaved horse tried to kill them.
The book also did little toward explaining what to do with all of the Mustang’s other friends, the ones who came with him originally—the geese and chickens, the ewes, the two sets of triplet lambs, the rams, the pregnant mare, the dirty pony, the white stallion, and the two-year-old stallion, the “other stallion,” as I called him—or how to explain to visiting dignitaries, such as Irene or the long string of veterinarians or the McHenry County Animal Control officers or the Woodstock Police, who they all were and how they all got there in the first place.
Eventually I would learn to wave my hand dismissively and say, “It’s a long story.” But in the beginning, back when the damage unfurled and the books piled up and the escape routes dwindled doing a real number on my logic, back then, I usually started out with, “I only moved here to write a novel . . .”
I rested my forehead against the cold glass of the front door window and let my breath fog a curtain between the Mustang and me. As my finger traced t-h-i-n-k in the condensation, half-formed sentences of any value from the books pushed through my brain at about the same velocity as escaped convicts through waist-high swamp water . . . don’t show your fear . . . assert your authority . . . be the herd leader . . . all of which might have applied were I still a political press secretary facing skeptical media but none of which remotely applied to my current status as hostage to a horse.
I exhaled over t-h-i-n-k and wrote t-h-i-n-k-!-!-! . . . learn their language . . . know what they’re thinking . . . forge a partnership . . . again, all foreign concepts to a would-be novelist who only wanted to get away from it all and ended up overseeing a bloodthirsty horse with unrestricted access to her lawn instead.
Bloodthirsty or otherwise, he was beautiful, and were he the subject of a Raphael portrait—a Baroque chiaroscuro of a dark bay horse con- trasted against white snow, dramatically lit from an unseen, divine source and titled Animal with Smiley Face—I might have appreciated his form and so-called function a little more than I did as he stood there like a four-legged assassin blocking the way between me and a paycheck.
But there was more than that. More than the aggressive stance and muscled elegance of a wild stallion who disappeared from the mountains leaving no forwarding address. There were also . . . I rubbed a circle in the frost with my fingertips and looked out . . . the scars, the quarter moon bite marks from the competing stallions of his youth and the newer lines from ropes, twitches, chains, barbed wire, and rubber hoses caused by humans that crisscrossed his body like pick-up sticks.
And the tattoo. The strange white string of symbols branded on his neck by the BLM after his capture, which when interpreted meant EL FINAL to his life in the wild.
And the eyes. The haunted eyes. What they looked for, what they couldn’t find, and reflections still in them of a herd he once knew.
Slowly, with the despondency of one condemned, I gave a final blow to the glass to blot it all out, and I wrote my final essay on the window, g-o a-w-a-y, in reverse with hopes as plausible as anything else that had happened to me since I moved to the farm, that the Mustang could read.
That’s when the smell of smoke returned again—as it would more than once that winter. It came in waves, in and out, here and gone, when things got tough and the scenery turned bad. Maybe I just imagined the smoke when I smelled it, and maybe I smelled it after the facts as a form of confirmation. But I almost believed then as I almost believe to this day, that I smelled the smoke before everything happened, like an omen or a premonition or an ongoing call to arms.
Excerpted from The Mustang by Melinda Roth. Copyright © 2013 by Melinda Roth.
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