My memoir, Come to the X, is a book of days at a large horse farm where days don’t seem to end. I wrote it not knowing what would happen until it happened, a writing process that freed me of my controlling impulse to always know the plot. What happened to me, my horse, my daughter, my husband, none of it was planned out so that even the smallest occurrence felt dusted with magic.
Look in His Mouth
Last summer, there was an earthquake in Guilford Siding, Pennsylvania, that measured 2.1 on the Richter scale. All the buzzing world went silent in the moments after the tremors and before the aftershock, except for the chinking of the shimmering metal on Calvin’s bit rack.
As a tall, slender woman, I could only manage a horse like Calvin with the right bit. I have an entire wall shellacked with his dried spit: loose rings and D rings; eggbutts and elevators; pelhams, gags, and kimberwickes of every kind; slow twists and corkscrews; two, three, and four rings; plus long-shanked and filigreed western bits used for team penning, roping, barrel racing, turning on a dime—or stopping Calvin. He has run off with me in every context, blown through every bit I’ve tried. The only rig that can hold him is a three-ring Waterford with a chain tightened to the last hole around his chin. It digs into his velvety lips like a surgical curette, and he comes off a cross-country gallop with red foam at the corners of his mouth.
My father’s horse seemed like the biggest on earth. In reality, he was about a hand smaller than Calvin. Big Horse had a penchant for running away from my father’s noisy hands and badly balanced riding, and would often deposit him in the woodpile upon galloping out of control back to the barn, all lathered up, sides heaving.
“There goes Jack, showing off again,” my grandmother would scoff, as my father and Big Horse careened by.
Only now do I empathize with my father’s plight. He was too busy holding on for dear life and too proud to contradict my grandmother’s judgment.
A friend comes out to the farm to help me find another bit for Calvin. Hope has the slowly disappearing visage of an aging blond, countered by an ebullient personality, especially concerning Myler bits. The moment Calvin feels the soft mouth of the Myler and realizes it isn’t going to bite him back, he puts his head down and goes to work. For the first time in almost a decade, my horse is going right.
But I’m still thinking of my father. And Big Horse running off with him. The horse, always running off with him.
“I’ll try Calvin,” the dirt guy says. He has asked to borrow one of my horses for a family hack. I’m reluctant, but at the same time I can’t say no. Maybe he’ll take Calvin off my hands for good.
Tall and goofy-lanky, with a Walrus moustache, Edwin Forrest has pushed all the dirt there is to push at An Otherwise Perfect Farm over the last twenty years—leveling ground, installing our riding arenas, building the water jump, and burying our horses. He rents an old barracks barn we rebuilt as a party space for our kids, John and Chance, when they were growing up, that morphed into a tenant house once they had moved away.
I find Ed hand-grazing Calvin by the round pen next to the mare barn.
“Actually, would you mind riding Patrick instead?” I ask, having already changed my mind about Goliath. My young horse Patrick, whose show name is Planet of Joy, is another nightmare ride. Should have named him Planet of Pain instead.
“I’m sorry, Julia, I hate to bother you.”
Hate? Apology? In twenty years, I haven’t had a single conversation with Edwin in which he didn’t unnecessarily apologize for something. I always wonder what he’s hiding, his apologies cousins to something darker.
“No worries,” I say, grabbing the rope before my Four-Star horse can teach him to gallop out of control. “I love being bothered.”
I hurry him back to the barn, grab his tack, and get going. Calvin seems relieved that I’ve rescued him from the hole digger. He rests his chin on my shoulder for a moment in his stall before I saddle him.
It is a brilliant fall day in Maryland. I can’t help myself. I work on Calvin’s flying changes on the trail. I jump a log or two on my way from Point A to Nowhere. My lips part and I’m smiling. Calvin’s retirement has lasted exactly twenty-four hours.
“I’m so glad you’re not going to compete Calvin again,” my husband, Barrett, says. We are on our way to a poetry reading.
I grunt vaguely into my lap. Yellow leaves pell-mell our windshield, furious and ghostly, as we pull up to the Ivy Bookshop.
Calvin came into my life a few months after my father died. As his health care agent, I made the decision to end life support. I thought if I just kept going, I wouldn’t feel so bad. Old wounds and new ones— perpetual motion, my answer to grief. I competed two weeks after my father’s funeral, determined to soldier through.
Calvin was 17 hands tall when I bought him at age four and grew another two inches in the first year of our partnership. I stopped sticking him at 17.3; I didn’t want to know. Kind of like not getting on scales. Calvin is as sensitive and fragile minded as he is huge, doubtfully strong enough mentally to handle the upper level pressures of my sport. We’d bought a second horse, a gray thoroughbred—Houston Galaxy—at the same time as Calvin, who spiral-fractured his ankle three months later and had to be put down.
I had a dead horse and the wrong horse. And no father.
Blasting rain for the first time in a month. Diehards, Calvin and I hack across Mt. Zion Road to the Menzies’ secret field.
When I was growing up in the Allegheny Forest, there was a field, enclosed on all sides by woods, with a narrow trail leading to it. The Secret Field—my favorite haunt to hack to with my pony, Tommy. I’d pack a peanut butter sandwich and thermos of milk in my saddlebags—one for me and one for Tommy, and later for Billy and the quarter horses Maggie and Jim—and spend my days there, fantasizing that I was in charge of a herd of hundreds, on a cattle drive from central Texas to the railyards in Kansas.
My cattle drive today bypasses the Menzies’. Recently felled trees and brush surround the field and conceal the space from view. “A forest is a garden, you have to prune it,” my father once said. I pick up a quick canter, swap a couple of leads, and call it a day for my flatwork, which I might otherwise have spent a half hour practicing without censorious eyes to judge me. Calvin is relaxed and happy not to have to work too hard. My gray Lab, Georgia, waits by the side of the field. She picks up a trot. As we get closer to home, she disappears, her usual trick, when her pal Simon was alive. I call and call, but without her Virgil, she is deaf to my pleas. She’s headed off into the dark harbor, where she’ll exhaust herself darting between rows of high corn to find a stray bone.
I catch myself looking back over my shoulder, thinking I hear the distinctive rattle of Simon’s collar. What can Georgia comprehend about death? She gets a little needier, a little more confused—not heeding my calls, wandering around the house, whining with her night toy, a noodle-legged giraffe, in her mouth, searching in all the nooks where Simon would likely be hiding—on the couch, under my desk. Time doesn’t seem to be doing a thing for her yet. What is grief like for a dog? I wonder. Barrett takes her to the Gunpowder River for walks and swims; I get her out on hacks with the horses. We try to make her sadness smaller by making her world larger.
But she keeps searching for Simon under the bed.
A screech of tires on Blackrock. The Teapot and I run toward the road. It’s clear neither of us does much sprinting. My joints explode. At 4’10”, the Teapot’s legs are the length of baseball bats.
“There’s Georgia,” she says.
“What do you mean?” I panic.
“No, no, coming out the door,” she explains.
As I get closer, I see the white belly of a deer, flopping its head and neck, trying to hoist itself up with its broken body. But it will never do that.
I run to the house to fetch Barrett’s shotgun. “How do you use this thing?” I ask helplessly.
“I’ll do it,” the Teapot offers. The Teapot is a woman who loves to take control. And she craves to help in a crisis. Since we have so many of them at the farm, we see a lot of each other and have become quite close.
I hand her the gun, and we head back to the road. The deer has gone still in the westbound lane. I cross the road to check for life, then pull myself back, as a dark SUV barrels around the corner and smacks the carcass head on. “You motherfucking idiot,” I scream, shaking my fist at the driver, who careens into an anonymous future. The Teapot is in the middle of the road, slowing traffic with the shotgun. Barrett pulls up in the tin can and drags the deer into the ditch by the side of the road. I know how much this must hurt his bad hand.
“We’ll get it tomorrow,” he reassures.
The Teapot waves the stopped cars onward with the barrel of the gun. To one woman who leans out her passenger-side window the Teapot hisses, “Slow the fuck down.”
Barrett and I walk back to the house. “Please tell me it was quicker than that for Simon,” I say. “Did you see the agony in the doe’s face? Brown Dog’s expression didn’t look like that.”
“It was quicker,” he reassures. “You could see it in his eyes. Instantaneous.”
As I pulled down the tarp over Simon, the velvety eyelids were closed. I put my palm there, hoping to feel twitching underneath—but they had a clammy stillness about them.
Julia Wendell’s sixth poetry collection, The Art of Falling, will be published by FutureCycle Press in 2022. Her poems have appeared widely in magazines such as American Poetry Review, Missouri Review, Prairie Schooner, and Nimrod; and most recently upcoming in Storied, Writing in a Woman’s Voice, Cimarron Review, The American Journal of Poetry, and Matter Monthly. She is Founding Editor of Galileo Press. She lives in Aiken, South Carolina, where she rides horses when she isn’t writing poems, and is a three-day event rider. She has been saving all the horses and dogs and cats she has outlived to be cremated with them after her final crash.