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Saddled: How a Spirited Horse Reined Me in and Set Me Freeby Susan Richards
It was late fall, and my cousin Holly and I were galloping down an old dirt logging road near the Adirondack farm I'd just bought. I was on my new Morgan mare, Georgia, and Holly was on a bay quarter-horse mare named Nikka, who boarded in my barn. The air was sweet with the smell of white pine and horse sweat, and I was laughing even though I was so depressed about a disastrous marriage and a drinking problem that I didn't care if I fell off my horse and died. I always laughed when I galloped a horse. Even when I was so hung over that my hands shook or when the night before was a blur of violent confrontations with my husband.
I'd had Georgia less than a week. That morning she'd kicked our stable help, Alan, out of her stall, slamming him so hard against the wall it had knocked the wind out of him. I'd grabbed her halter and dragged her outside. No, wait. She had dragged me outside, but once there, I'd finally asserted control and punched her on the rear flank, yelling No! She had turned to look at me standing next to her rear leg, thinking maybe I was getting ready to slug her again. Are you crazy? I shouted into her placid eyes.
How fast a horse blinks can tell you a lot.
At first she didn't blink at all, but when she did, it was so slow I could have recited a short poem by the time the thick-lashed lids ho-hummed their way back open.
Either she didn't feel the punch or she didn't care. Her ears were straight up and perked forward, perhaps listening for the sound of fresh hay being scattered on the ground or just enjoying the full attention of the human at her side, even though the human seemed temporarily demented. We looked at each other for a long time. I glared at her and she? She bah-linked.
I was looking for guilt, for some indication that she understood kicking was very, very bad. It would have been OK if she had looked scared, if she had danced away from me, scooting her flank out of reach of the terrible hitting hand. But she hadn't. It wasn't that we didn't understand each other, that we had somehow failed to communicate our point of view. We had. I was sorry that she had kicked Alan, and she wasn't. Bah-link.
Later we galloped through the woods on that crisp fall morning, the incident forgotten, while laughter ripped its way through my despair. My worst fear has come true, I'd written in my journal earlier that day. I'm an alcoholic. My life, my marriage_=_it's all a sham.
My worst fear had actually come true years before, but it was only that morning that I'd named it for what it was, that I had written it down. Alcoholic. It seemed as bad as cancer, maybe worse because this felt like an elective, like one of those classes you took at college just for the fun of it. Something you decided sounded better than the dozens of other classes you could have taken. Alcoholism, you might have written on your registration form after reading the course description: Students will learn to drink large amounts of alcohol, often surreptitiously, while pretending to suffer no ill effects. Prerequisites include the ability to lie and a strong belief that the laws of physics and biochemistry and irrefutable evidence of any kind that attempts to undermine a lifestyle of complete dissipation applies only to others.
I'd been waking up hung over since 1970. Nine years. It seemed like a long time not to see something as obvious as a drinking problem. But denial was part of the course description, the part where you lied a lot, which included lying to yourself. I was good at that. I was good at all of it. Except suddenly I was almost thirty, and I knew what I hadn't known the day before or the week before or the year before. Why now?
It had something to do with Georgia. It had something to do with making a commitment as enormous as caring for a horse who might live as my companion for the next forty years. It had something to do with love. My search for a horse had lasted almost a year and taken me all over the Northeast_=_from the best Morgan-breeding farms in Vermont, New Hampshire, and New York to the backyard paddocks in the suburbs of Boston where young girls had gone off to college, leaving their passion for horses behind.
I had known I wanted a Morgan since I was seven years old and had outgrown Bunty, the impossible but beloved Shetland pony my grandmother had given me when I was six. After two years of being bitten, kicked, and thrown, I saw my riding instructor appear at my lesson one day leading a Morgan gelding school-horse for me to ride. I fell in love with Alert's stocky, muscular beauty as he effortlessly carried me around pony-club show rings and later on cross-country hunts and bareback swims in nearby Langley Pond. The breed is known for its endurance and versatility, and there seemed to be nothing Alert wasn't willing to do. His steady good nature and love of being ridden endeared me to the breed forever, and I longed for the day when I could have my own Morgan.
That day came on a late fall afternoon in upstate New York when, to get away from a husband I'd grown to hate, I'd hopped in the car and driven four hours to a well-known Morgan breeder near Syracuse who had lots of stock for sale. I don't know why I thought bringing a horse into the chaos in my life was a good idea. I just knew that for the past year, looking for what I had come to refer to as my Morgan had given me the only peace and sanity I had.
It was as clear and crisp as a fall day can get when I turned off the main road and onto the long dirt drive that led past dozens of Morgans pastured on both sides of the road that cut the farm in half. I drove slowly, letting my eyes wander over the beautiful faces and graceful arched necks for which Morgans are so prized. I was looking for signs of poor health or poor breeding, either of which would have ended my search on the spot, before I'd even met the owner. But I was also looking for something else, not in the herds grazing almost to the horizon on either side of my car, but for something inside myself, a sense of recognition or connection that would let me know when I'd found my horse. In all the horses I'd seen in my year of looking, I'd never once felt this. I'd never felt That's my horse, and I knew I wouldn't buy one until I did.
What I didn't realize was that in my search for a horse, I was conducting another search, a much older one connected to my first memories of a horse as a traumatized six-year-old dealing with the death of her mother and the disappearance of her father. Into that gaping void had stepped Bunty, a gift from Grandmother Richards, who must have known she was throwing me a lifeline, the only one she had in her limited ability to nurture but, as it turned out, the best anyone could have offered. My reaction had been immediate and visceral, a heart-pounding recognition that I was in the presence of something wonderful beyond belief, the most spontaneous outpouring of love I had ever felt. In that moment I became someone else, someone who was more than just a girl who'd lost her home and parents. I became a girl who loved that pony. I became a girl who loved horses.
Twenty-four years later, traumatized by a battering husband and a growing sense of shame about my drinking, I was in need of another lifeline. And of all the ways in which I might have searched for help, turning toward horses had been instinctive. I wasn't just looking for any love; I was looking for that love, that first involuntary spasm that jolted my five-year-old heart back to life at the sight of a Shetland pony named Bunty.
I hadn't expected to find my horse that fall day. As I headed down the dirt drive looking from pasture to pasture, I saw many healthy, well-bred equines, but not one of them “spoke” to me. The drive ended at several large red barns, all in need of repair and fresh paint. Except for the fifty or so horses grazing in various pastures, the place looked deserted. There were empty silos where the roofs had caved in, and the front porch on the main house looked dangerously close to falling off. When I parked and got out of the car, a couple of mangy-looking black dogs had ambled across the barnyard to pee on my tires.
I was debating whether to get back in the car and leave because I hadn't seen “my” horse grazing in any of the pastures, and I didn't want to waste the owner's time in showing me a lot of horses I knew I didn't want, when I turned around and looked up the road I had just driven down. There in the distance, a quarter of a mile away, was a heavy-set man driving a two-wheeled cart being pulled by a chestnut red Morgan. Either the horse didn't like being driven or this was her first day in harness because she yanked the cart from one side of the road to the other, occasionally breaking into a short gallop before the driver was able to pull her back to a trot. She'd settle down for a minute before she'd give a little buck and bolt again. But none of that seemed important compared with the instant certainty I felt that I was watching someone else drive my horse. Even from a distance I could tell she wasn't bad, only untrained and giddy on this windy fall day, dancing out her joy in heading back to the barn after an unpleasant lesson in something she didn't yet understand.
By the time the driver pulled her to a fidgety stop near where I was standing, I felt almost proprietary about her. I reached up with one hand on her bridle to help hold her still while my other hand stroked the thick sweaty neck. Her large almond-shaped eyes didn't show the least bit of interest in me, only a great impatience at wanting to be free of the harness so she could join the herd grazing in the pastures beyond. But I had fallen in love with the bold youngster with the beautiful chiseled red face, and nothing was going to separate us until I knew for sure she was mine.
I spoke briefly to the driver, who was the farm's trainer, and he said this was, indeed, her first day in harness. She was three years old, and in what must have been the understatement of the day, he explained she was still pretty green.
I nodded, laughing. What's her name? I asked.
Rockridge Georgiegirl, he said, but everybody calls her Georgia. She's all heart, he added, giving her mane an affectionate tug, and about the most opinionated animal on this farm.
In horse lingo heart means gusto, pizzazz, a willingness to go anywhere and try anything. Not blindly, but with an expansiveness of spirit and intelligence that are visible in a horse's posture and eye. Heart is confidence. It is the biggest difference between a good horse and an extraordinary one, and Georgia had heart. I could see it the minute she appeared on the horizon pulling the cart, the way she cocked her head and carried her tail stiff and high, the way she laughed with her whole body as she tangoed down that road. She was audacious, too, bold enough to defy her trainer. Opinionated, he called it. Well, why not? Who didn't have an opinion? But in a world run by humans, only a confident horse would dare express it. I liked her trainer. It meant he hadn't been too heavy-handed with her. He hadn't forced his diva into the chorus line.
In a few minutes the owner of the farm appeared, a thin, tired-looking woman dressed in jeans and smoking a cigarette. We had spoken on the phone earlier in the week, and she had given me some background on the various horses she had for sale.
She's not one of 'em, she said, flicking her ash in the direction of Georgia. She's too green and too much of a hothead, she added.
I barely heard her, or, rather, I barely listened because it didn't matter what she said. I knew I'd found my horse. As the woman moved away from Georgia in the direction of the horses that were for sale, I didn't follow her. I stayed next to Georgia, holding the head that didn't want to be still, until the woman stopped and turned around, aware that I wasn't behind her. She looked at me for a minute and then she knew. The trainer knew, and I think even Georgia knew_=_we all knew that this horse belonged with me. The owner made a halfhearted attempt to talk me out of it, and when she saw she couldn't, she offered to keep Georgia for a few more months to let the trainer work out the “bugs.” But in my mind, the only bugs to work out were how much she wanted for the horse and how we were going to get her back to my farm. Both were settled quickly, and the very next day Georgia arrived in Lake Placid.
As soon as I had found Georgia, as soon as I saw her and experienced that spontaneous outpouring of love, I knew I had been altered irrevocably. It's impossible to open your heart that wide and not be changed in the process. I wanted to protect that love, and I couldn't do it by lying to myself, not about drinking or anything else. I'd had her less than a week, but already she was working her magic. I was no longer just a woman in a bad marriage who drank too much. I was the woman who loved Georgia.
A few days after Georgia's arrival, my cousin came to visit and we went riding. I could hear Holly's laughter and Nikka's hoofbeat behind me on the trail. Nikka was the perfect companion horse. Dependable, good-natured, smooth gaited, and willing to let Georgia rule the barn. Nikka had been there first, a loan from a young woman who had recently left for college. The day Georgia arrived after her long trip to my farm, she stepped off the trailer and went right after Nikka, who was standing nearby with her head up and her ears forward, ready with a friendly greeting for her new pasture mate. At the last minute Georgia changed her mind, and instead of sinking her teeth into Nikka, she spun around and kicked hard, sending Nikka fleeing across the field. What have I done? I thought. Georgia's previous owner and I watched at the fence as a squealing Georgia chased Nikka around the five-acre field.
She's got a lot of heart, chuckled her former owner, flicking the ash from her cigarette.
Completely ignored in this pasture drama was a third horse, an old Welsh pony named Thunder, a retiree from a nearby amusement park, who trotted behind Georgia trying to get a sniff of the red diva who had suddenly appeared. Georgia seemed to have no issue with him whatsoever, and when it became obvious that Nikka was not going to challenge her alpha status, she dropped her grudge against Nikka as well, and the chase ended as quickly as it had begun. Within hours they were a cohesive herd, dominated by the three-year-old arrival. The three grazed quietly, crowded together in the middle of the pasture as if the other four and three-quarter acres didn't exist.
As Holly and I galloped down the dirt road, I kept a loose rein on Georgia, letting her determine how fast she wanted to go. As long as the road was straight and flat, I enjoyed letting her set the pace; because much about her was still new to me, I was curious to see how she would behave with a free rein. She always began with a buck but settled down quickly, stretching into a smooth, powerful canter, slowly easing herself into a gallop as she realized I wasn't going to stop her.
There is something intensely solitary about galloping on horseback, as though horse and rider become a single unit, shooting through space with just the smell of pine to hint that they are still earthbound. Perhaps it is nothing more than excess adrenaline that makes the experience so isolating, but perhaps it is something else, something darker that explains the feeling of being locked inside a speeding cocoon hurtling toward oblivion. Maybe it was because of all the things that made me drink, all the ways in which I felt inadequate and unfit for the “job,” any job, particularly for the job of living. Maybe it was because I had no answers, and with no answers you get no meaning, so oblivion is the only place left to go.
Something golden with flying flaxen hair broke into our cocoon, brushing my leg as it galloped ahead of us. It was Thunder, loose on the trail and free to follow us like a dog. He'd stop to nibble green delicacies along the way, and when we'd get too far ahead, he'd run to catch up, bucking his joy at Georgia as he charged past her. Sometimes my one-year-old dog, a Newfoundland named Bear, would be right behind him, and we'd watch the two of them disappear ahead of us down the trail. It was a funny sight, this odd pair flying through the trees, two creatures who by nature moved as little as possible. Georgia no longer seemed to mind not being the leader and slowed her pace to allow them to pass. The logging roads zigzagged for miles through these woods, and even after cross-country skiing on them all winter and riding on them all summer, I never ran out of new roads to try. Sometimes Thunder would stop at an intersection and wait for us, and sometimes he wouldn't. But it never took him long to discover if we'd taken a different way, and soon enough we'd see that flash of gold beside us as he charged ahead.
We'd been riding for about two hours when I saw light through the trees ahead of us. I rose slightly out of the saddle and pulled back gently on the reins. Whoa, girl, I said to Georgia and watched her ears flicker in response to my voice. I liked that she listened to me. I always reinforced any leg or hand signals I gave her with my voice so she would be completely voice trained one day. She slowed reluctantly, a three-year-old with enormous stamina, seemingly happy to run all day. But I didn't know what the light ahead indicated. A clearing full of tree stumps? A pond? A river? It was better to slow down than to discover too late it was a gravel pit or some other landscape that could injure a running horse.
We slowed gradually, and Holly pulled up beside me on Nikka, both horses breathing hard as we trotted out of the woods into a large mowed field. Thunder was already grazing and Bear lay nearby panting. It was a beautiful field, about ten acres surrounded on all sides by pine forests and distant mountains. At the far end was a small log house, and near that, at the edge of the field parked along the tree line, were four small airplanes. We had ridden onto someone's private airstrip. Concerned about the horses' tearing up the perfect grass, we kept to the edge of the field as we rode toward the house to see if we could meet the owner. As the crow flies, he was sort of a neighbor, two hours by horseback and who knew how far by car. I wasn't even sure in what direction we had ridden.
Before we'd ridden halfway to the house, we saw a man emerge from a back door and begin walking across the field toward us. I had trespassed accidentally before on other properties but had never had a bad experience introducing myself to the landowner and apologizing for the intrusion. I had made several new friends that way, and judging from the expression on this man's face as he came closer, it was very likely I would be making another. He was a handsome man with thick brown wavy hair, a muscular build, and a big smile directed straight at Holly.
How ya doin'? he said, coming to a stop between the two horses but reaching his hand out to stroke Nikka's sweaty neck while grinning up at Holly. I'm Mike.
Holly grinned back, tossing her shoulder-length brown hair out of her eyes. Holly, she said, almost giggling.
They'd known each other less than thirty seconds and already they were flirting, their chemistry so palpable it was like walking into a warm rain.
We're neighbors, I said, waving my hand back toward the woods, somewhere over there.
I know where you live, he said. I've seen these two in your pasture. He nodded toward Nikka and Thunder.
Our horses danced impatiently on either side of him, pulling downward on the reins toward the grass. I let my reins fall onto Georgia's neck, and she stopped dancing and lowered her head to graze. Holly did the same thing on Nikka, and for a moment it was wonderfully quiet except for the rhythmic sound of ripping grass and the dull grinding of teeth.
I don't remember what we talked about in the next few minutes. I just had the sense that something exciting was happening right in front my eyes. Holly and I had grown up together and talked about everything under the sun including, recently, men, and how she might one day meet the right man despite many false starts. At twenty-five, she was six years younger than I and in no rush to marry. Still, she was ready to meet someone special.
We learned Mike was an artist (so was Holly) who taught painting at a local art school. We learned he lived here full-time and collected and flew antique planes. And after asking, we learned it was OK to ride down his runway if we stayed to the side so we wouldn't rip up the sod down the middle.
Drop by anytime, I called over my shoulder as we took off toward the tree line. Cantering through the woods on a dirt trail is a heady experience, but cantering across a wide-open meadow is even better. Open space is intoxicating to a horse, and all three of them raced down that runway bucking and snorting like a herd of wild mustangs.
Hours later Holly and I sat in rocking chairs in my newly built sunroom off the kitchen, watching the horses graze in the pasture down the hill below us. We sipped mugs of tea and rehashed the day's ride, including the irony of bumping into an attractive single man in the middle of nowhere. It was hard enough to meet a man in Boston, where Holly worked as a counselor in a group home, but stumbling on one in the woods? We shared our incredulity in hushed voices, careful not to disturb my husband, who was in an upstairs bedroom recovering from a heart attack.
My life was a crazy mix of good and bad, of luck and misfortune, of hope and despair: this beautiful farm, the horses below us in the pasture, even the kitchen behind me, just renovated with a Mexican tile floor, complete with the dog prints left in by a contractor who knew I would like them. But I was in a loveless marriage and drinking myself to death. I had dreamed of living in the Adirondacks since I was a child. And here I was, almost thirty-one, the dream both realized and ruined.
I didn't want tea. I wanted a glass of white wine, but embarrassment kept me from pouring one in front of Holly until at least five o'clock. I'd been wanting a drink all day, but I forced myself to wait, the last remnant of control in a battle I knew I'd lost. Fear gripped me when I remembered the journal entry from that morning. What did it mean? What would happen to me now? Even as I laughed with Holly about our exhilarating ride, even as I watched my beloved new horse content in her alpine meadow with views of the high peaks beyond, even surrounded by all the trappings of a charmed life, I wondered if I had the courage to kill myself. I couldn't stop drinking and I couldn't live with the shame.
What about my marriage? It was less than a year old and a complete failure, partly because of the reckless decision-making that comes with alcoholism and partly the result of a fatal neediness I was too proud to acknowledge, even to myself. I'd married a man I hardly knew, a man who drank more than I did, which made it easier to deny my own problem. I lived in Boston and he lived near Lake Placid. After visiting him there for the first time, it was the memory of the farm he rented_=_one hundred acres in the middle of the Adirondack State Park, with pastures for horses and views of the high peaks_=_that had lingered in my imagination. I had gone to camp in the Adirondacks for nine straight summers_=_the happiest days of my childhood_=_where I had established a deep love for the area. As an adult, I had been living in and around Boston for the previous seven years, always dreaming of the day I could move back to the country.
For our first date, Stuart stopped by my house on the morning after the office Christmas party. We had sat together on the bus that took the whole company to a dinner. As I was sitting at the kitchen table in my Boston house, drinking coffee and eating a bagel with him, I decided to fall in love with the man with red hair who lived in the only place I'd ever felt happy. He was charming enough then to make it easy to imagine. It wasn't love at first sight. That had already happened to me once, and I remember the great sweep of confusion, lust, and embarrassment because it had all seemed so crazy. No, this wasn't that. This was more calculated. This was red hair and a sparkly smile that could lead to a farm in the Adirondacks with a dog and a horse.
I sometimes wonder what I was for him. And at the risk of oversimplifying the answer, I would have to say it might just have been that his beloved wife, who had borne him his beloved son, had left him for another man. Her name was Susan, and we looked so much alike we could have been sisters. But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I wasn't just the stand-in for the first Susan. But I know for sure that by the end of that breakfast, we both knew there was something between us.
We dated for a year; that is, once every two months or so, we'd spend a weekend together somewhere like Nantucket or skiing at Wildcat Mountain in New Hampshire and, finally, at his farm in the Adirondacks. It was a seven-hour drive from Boston, most of it up the Northway through some of the prettiest wilderness in America. I recognized the mountains I had climbed as a camper: Cascade, Marcy, Phelps, Algonquin. It was like coming home; I was in love with his place before I even saw it. It must have been spring, but I don't really remember. There are so many pines in the Adirondacks, the forests are green even in winter. There could have been snow on the ground, or there could have been lilacs blooming on the overgrown hedge between the road and his house. I was so thrilled to be back, I was lost in the memories and smells of camp.
What I do remember is the inside of the house. A two-hundred-year-old hand-hewn log cabin renovated by its owners, a husband and wife who were both architects. It was small, less than a thousand square feet, with an open floor plan downstairs, a large brick fireplace right in the middle of the room, and a loft area with two bedrooms upstairs. The inside walls were white stucco, and large windows opened onto rolling pastureland out to the high peaks in the distance. The electricity went out so often, the whole house was fitted with a backup system of gas lighting that gave it a warm yellow glow at night. Behind the house two maple trees grew through a large cedar deck, and past the deck was a small pond with a waterfall at one end, cascading into a narrow stream. Next to that was a weathered gray barn with an attached chicken coop, both in need of repair. The property was surrounded by Adirondack State Park on every side, and the nearest house was more than half a mile away. I loved it so much it hurt.
Stuart was renting the place with a handsome ski racer for a roommate, and from what I could tell, living there was one big party. Dirty dishes filled the sink and covered every inch of counter space. There was no food to speak of but plenty of wine, liquor, and beer. Clumps of dead flies lay in every windowsill, thick with dust. Don't even ask about the bathroom. But none of that bothered me, fastidious though I am. I saw only the potential. All weekend I imagined what I could do with the place if it were mine, starting with putting a horse or two in that sweet gray barn.
After that weekend, I dreamed of living on his farm and riding my horse on the old logging roads that disappeared for miles into the woods. I dreamed of raising chickens, swimming in the pond, and sitting in front of the fire in February with a howling wind outside and the soft hiss from the gaslights inside. I dreamed of quitting my job and sitting at a desk in the loft to write a book during the long, dark days of winter. I dreamed of marrying the man who rented that farm so he could give me happiness on top of all the happiness I would surely feel just living in such a place. Then something happened that put the dream within reach.
During our year of dating, we spoke on the phone far more often than we saw each other. He was always traveling, and my new job as a customer service manager for a ski company kept me busy, too, but after work, with a glass and a bottle of wine next to my phone and a bottle of Scotch next to his, we would talk late into the night. One such night, when we had been talking for hours, I suddenly had trouble breathing and had to put down the phone. I was a smoker and imagined I had finally done irreparable damage to my lungs. Frightened, I stood up and spent a minute or two bent over, unable to draw a single breath of air. When I could finally take a breath, I was so relieved I cried and right then made a promise to him that I would quit smoking.
Early the next morning, before I went to work, there was a knock at the front door. I opened it to find my aunt, who had come to tell me that my grandmother had died the night before. The time of her death was the exact moment I had suffered breathing trouble.
I was flooded with mixed feelings at the news. After the death of my mother and the disappearance of my father when I was five years old, this grandmother had become a legal guardian for my brother and me. She was rich, punitive, and domineering, and I had lived in terror of her for eighteen years until I had left for college and vowed never to see her again. But after that, I had seen her two or three times during brief visits urged on me by my brother or aunt, who insisted it was the right thing to do. I barely remember those visits, except that once she gave me some of her jewelry, which surprised me because I thought she hated me. I hardly knew what to say to her. Besides giving me Bunty when I was six, offering me jewelry had seemed like the nicest thing she had ever done.
I was even more confused when, a few weeks after her death, I discovered that she had left me a substantial inheritance. I could not recall hearing a single kind word from her, yet she had left me money. She had given me my independence. It was impossible to comprehend. I had lived in her grand houses and sat in the back of her chauffeured cars, but I had never thought I was part of that world because I never felt welcomed into her life. The only thing she communicated clearly to me was what a disappointment I was, how utterly I had failed her. This was repeated daily whenever I was in her presence or by mail if I was away at school or camp. I spent much of my life trying to undo the damage of that message. And yet, in leaving me money, she had given me a kind of freedom I could never have imagined and, certainly, could never have created on my own. I was filled with a stunned and guilty gratitude. Maybe she hadn't hated me after all. Would I ever be able to live up to her legacy?
I married the handsome red-haired stranger on the back deck of the log cabin, and a few days later I bought it. My grandmother would have reached out of her grave and grabbed the pen out of my hand if she had seen me put the beautiful Adirondack farm in both our names, mine and my husband's, as a loving and trusting gesture. My grandmother was a smart businesswoman and had known how to preserve her wealth over more than half a century. She wouldn't have put a doghouse in anyone else's name, let alone a hundred-acre farm. But I was determined not to go through life leaving a trail of hurt people behind the way my grandmother had, so I would be magnanimous. I would be kind.
Were we happy for a week? A month? Two months? Yes, it was about two months. The ski racer moved out, and I cleaned up the cabin. We ate wonderful dinners under the gaslights and drank every night until we passed out together, and in the morning we told each other we had the flu, a cold, the runs, anything but a whopping hangover, and so it went, day after day after day. I bought a Newfoundland puppy and named him Bear and one day brought two gray kittens home from the dump and named them Samantha and Zucchini. We hired a young man, Alan, to help us fix up the barn and chicken coop, and when it was finished, I went out and bought half a dozen chickens and one rooster. A few weeks later, a young woman asked if she could leave Nikka, her quarter-horse mare, in our barn while she was away at college, and a few weeks after that, I took in an old gelded Welsh pony named Thunder to keep Nikka company.
For a year I wrote letters to my brother and cousins in Boston telling them how happy I was. I sent them pictures of the horses and chickens and the little vegetable garden I had planted next to the waterfall and the cats sleeping on the open skylights in the roof, and the views of the mountains from our kitchen window and Bear looking big and goofy stretched across the stone stoop in front of the house. But it was all a lie, a terrible lie, because I left out the yelling and screaming and drunken beatings that had started in the first month of our marriage and had only gotten worse. I left out that I had married a monster.
Sitting in the sunroom with Holly after riding that day, I wondered if I had the courage to kill myself. With pills? By jumping from a high bridge? I sipped my tea, giggling quietly with Holly. My husband's hunting rifle?
My Newfoundland lay snoring on the cool tile floor next to my rocking chair when suddenly he looked up. I heard it too, a high-pitched buzz coming from somewhere over the treetops beyond the pasture. All three of us stared through the glass roof of the sunroom, and a few seconds later a small yellow biplane appeared like a smudge of bright crayon. We watched it inch high across the sky toward us until it was directly over the pasture, when it dipped its nose straight down and dived to the earth like a dropped garden trowel.
Holly and I screamed, partly in shock, partly in delight, because we knew who it was. We knew who had come to give us this private air show. No, it was not for me, not for us. This dance in the sky was for Holly. The yellow toy dived and spun and twirled, the horses in the pasture barely glancing up even as it buzzed so close we could see the white stripe that ran through the black strap on Mike's goggles. It was an open cockpit, and we could see the way the wind whipped at Mike's hair, how it billowed and snapped at his shirtsleeves. We could see him smile at Holly as he flew low over the pasture toward the sunroom, pulling into a steep climb just before killing himself and us, too_=_or so it seemed.
Who could have imagined such a thing? It was strange and thrilling. For a few minutes I forgot that I drank too much, that I hated the man who lay upstairs recovering from a heart attack at the age of thirty-six. I forgot about the nights I slept in the barn to avoid being hit. I forgot about the shame I felt at having chosen such a partner, at the enormity of my mistake; the job, the friends, the home I had left in Boston only the year before, the money I had spent to buy this farm and then to renovate it, all the while knowing I would have to leave, waiting for the courage to figure out where to go, what to do, how to live.
I had a horse now, an equine child to consider with her equine stepsiblings. In less than a week, Georgia had changed everything. It had taken almost a year to find her, but the connection to her felt old, as old as I was. She had awakened something inside me so intense, so profound, I wanted to do for her what I could not do for myself: I wanted to keep her safe. I wanted to change. It had already begun. Alcoholic. I had written it down, given it a dimension, an authority, something honest enough to terrify me.
But for a moment, watching the yellow airplane, I had forgotten about all of that. I had forgotten I wanted to die and was glad when the little plane didn't crash into the sunroom but, at the last minute, aimed its nose into the air and headed straight into what surely looked like oblivion.
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