The Sureness of Horses, Chapters 10, 11, and 12

Link to a Summary of the First Nine Chapters

10

The Wednesday before Thanksgiving, in the middle of the morning, Jorge showed up in my office. “I thought you were working from home today,” he said.

“I wanted to,” I said. “Ray’s up in San Francisco with bankers. But I have this report due Monday. You look sick or something. What’s up, buddy?”

“When I tried to sign on to the computer, I got an ‘unauthorized user’ message.”

It could be an error, but I doubted it. “That could be anything,” I said, trying to cheer him up. I put my work away in a drawer.

Jorge seemed nervous. “That’s not all. There was a post-it note from Lydia on my computer screen when I came in. She wants me to see her in her office at ten.”

I looked at my watch. Lydia would see him in twenty-five minutes. “The computer could be a glitch,” I told him. “Why don’t I call down there for you?”

“Thanks, Wade.” He sat down.

I tried to sound easy-breezy with the help desk. “Jorge Calderon is working with one of my customers and there seems to be a problem. He can’t log on.”

“Sure, Mr. Middleton, I’ll check and call you back.”

When the phone rang, it wasn’t the help desk. It was Günter, the personnel chief. Not a good sign at all. I spun my chair around, turning my back on Jorge.

“Wade, my good man,” Günter said, “I understand Jorge Calderon is working with one of your customers. You might want to get on top of that. I’ll come by your office this afternoon, okay? I can take you through all this.”

I agreed, hung up, and turned to Jorge. “It’s fifteen minutes before you go in to see Lydia, right? Maybe it’d be good to take a walk around the parking lot, settle your thoughts.”

“What did the help desk say?”

I had to face it head on. “It was Günter. You may be right—they might be preparing to walk you out the door. If they do, leave with your self-respect. Silicon Valley is booming; you’ll get another job.”

“You knew this was coming, didn’t you?”

“I feared it,” I said, hearing the defensiveness in my voice.

“I thought you had pull.”

“I tried to help, I did, Jorge. What did you do out in Las Vegas? And why didn’t you even hint to me what had happened? That Anderson guy might have called Ray.”

“I started to tell you what happened, but I didn’t understand it, and I was embarrassed. Anderson is weird, a right-wing nutcase with the greasiest smile. I said some things I shouldn’t have. I’d take them back if I could, but it shouldn’t cost me my job.”

“Those are the types you have to be careful around.”

“What can I do?” Jorge sounded desperate. “I need this job.”

“It might be too late. Might have been too late for a long time.”

After a long silence, Jorge said, “Tell me how to get through this meeting with Lydia.”

“If you can stand a little humor, I’ll tell you what my crazy uncle said. ‘If you’re going to get fired, sew some mistletoe to the back flap of your sport coat, hold your head high, and walk proudly out the door.’”

“You’re not helping, Wade.”

“Sorry. I understand. Be civil. Remember, no matter what their opinion is, you’re a valuable person. You know that and I do too. Sorry for all the clichés, but keep your cool. Don’t burn your bridges—you may need a recommendation. Call me when you get out of the meeting.”

I had just hung up with a customer in Santa Barbara when Jorge called. “Yeah, they canned me. Günter sat in the office across from Lydia’s as she fired me. I figured he was there to protect her if I threatened her or something. Can you imagine?”

“It’s probably standard procedure these days. Where are you now?”

“At my goddamned desk. Günter says he’ll be back in ten minutes to escort me out. I’ve put Marita’s picture into this fucking cardboard box, and I guess I’ll take a few papers. They can keep their damned service award.”

“Make sure you take your contact list—you never know. What went down in Lydia’s office?”

“Her desktop didn’t have a paper on it—completely bare, no calendar, no nothing. She motioned for me to sit in a small chair, centered in front of her desk. The blinds were open behind her, so I couldn’t see her face, just the outline. She started right in—I remember her words exactly. ‘I’m sorry we have to let you go. We’re giving you two weeks’ severance, plus I see you have six vacation days coming. We’ll pay you for those.’ When I asked about the probation period, she said I’d improved, but ‘not enough to keep me on.’”

“Give me a break,” I said.

Jorge continued, “I think I clenched my hands then, because she softened a bit. She said how much the company appreciated how hard I’d tried. Then she shrugged and said, ‘There’s some paperwork I’ll need. And your badge.’” Jorge spoke in a monotone, almost as if this had happened to someone else.

“I pulled the lariat with my badge from around my neck,” he said with a little laugh, “and handed it to her ceremoniously, like a gold crown.”

I sighed, overcome.

“Gotta go, here’s Günter.”

“Call me from your car.”

I dashed to a window where I could see the lobby door. Jorge came out, walking ahead of Günter, carrying his box with the picture of Marita and little else. It reminded me of a scene in Dead Man Walking.

I hoped this was the end of a sad story but had to admit it was just as likely the beginning of an even sadder one.

It was two hours before Jorge called. “I couldn’t go home. How could I tell Marita?” He was rambling, maybe a little drunk. “I’ve been driving around Old Palo Alto. I can’t find Steve Jobs’ house. It helps to think of him today; he got fired from the company he founded. Bosses can be idiots. Steve Jobs—hard to believe he’s passed away. Which street is it on again?”

“Have you been drinking?”

“I stopped for a beer. Jobs wasn’t fired?”

“Not actually fired, but close to it,” I said. “Banished to another building, forced out. His house is at the corner of Waverley and Santa Rita. It’s charming, with one of those roofs that wrap around into the eaves, like in Carmel.”

“I’ve driven up one side street and down another. These homes aren’t very big, but you can tell they’re expensive,” Jorge said. “Teslas are like Chevrolets here. There’s a Maserati. Wait. Yep. There’s where he lived. I’ll park in front of it, underneath this big oak. Some gardeners are tossing a lawnmower and a backpack blower into the bed of their truck. Until now, I’d felt way ahead of guys who come across the border to do any job at all. Hey, I have a job like a gringo, I’d think. Stock options and all. Now I’m jealous of their outdoor lives. So carefree! My job paid more in a week than they make in a month. But today I envy them.”

11

Christmas, a Saturday that year, was upon me before I knew it. I’d reconciled myself with Diana’s Dallas trip, but that was before Amelia called and canceled her trip, a visit we’d planned for months. She’d fallen behind in her homework and needed to stay at Bard through Friday night to make up an exam, which didn’t leave time for her to come to California. Since I remembered falling behind in college myself, I couldn’t get too mad at her, although our deadlines seemed harsher; I didn’t remember anyone being able to make up an exam. At any rate, there was nothing I could do. I bundled up the presents I had purchased for her and air-expressed them to her at that farm in Massachusetts and tried to move on to other things.

After I got over the shock of not getting to see Amelia and having to spend the holiday alone, I decided to take a page out of Diana’s book and do things to get through holiday week. I recalled her voice the day she had apologized: “I like positive people who get out and do things.”

I started my weekend at my old church on Friday night. I hadn’t been there in three years and it felt good to be back for Christmas Eve.

The next morning I headed up to San Francisco for breakfast off of Union Square, bringing my computer. I’d started a poem in my head in bed that morning and hoped that, sometime on my trip, I could get it down and start work on it.

An ocean fog bank enveloped San Francisco on Christmas morning, so the city streets were cloud-like and almost empty. Union Square without people felt strangely freeing. After a walk around the square, I followed the trolley tracks up to Sears Fine Foods, so popular with tourists that a line often formed out the door. Not today. The few patrons seemed to be families from out of town. A waiter—judging by his accent, Russian—invited me to sit at a table for two in the front window. Their signature silver-dollar pancakes were worth the trip. A young woman in a Harvard sweatshirt with the family at the next table reminded me of Amelia, so I turned away from her toward the deserted, overcast street.

After the waiter cleared my plate, I entered my morning thoughts into the computer:

Fragment, Christmas Morning

On the Peninsula, in the fuzzy clarity of first light
I vow to be easier on myself yet
work harder for the things I care about.
Life seemed so simple before I left home!

In the city, the only other soul in Union Square
avoids my eye. He is blanket-wrapped.
Pushing a shopping cart. When he looks up
we regard each other as in a holy place.

I put my laptop away and lingered over coffee. The hotel across the street was known for its medieval-costumed doorman. They celebrated Christmas by topping off the man’s outfit—shiny boots, tights, knickers, and a long black jacket—with a Santa Claus hat. No wonder visitors think of San Francisco as a wild and wacky place.

Fifteen years out of the Midwest, I was starting to see the underside of this city as well. I’d heard several resident fatalists refer to the ever-present possibility of suicide on the Golden Gate with the refrain, “There’s always the bridge.”

I couldn’t let myself get down like this. Perhaps a drive would cheer me up, a different way home. In the car I headed toward the ocean, passing scores of homeless people in Golden Gate Park. I am so lucky, I thought passing them. The city ended at Cliff House, a three-story tourist mecca overlooking the Pacific. I parked and poked my head into a coffee shop. Should I have a latte? Most of the customers, here, too, were grouped in families. I turned around and walked along a path overlooking the beach. Couples huddled under blankets. Instead of taking the freeway home I decided to follow Highway One, along the Pacific. Yes, that would be good.

Heading south, I passed the Devil’s Slide area, with its new tunnel, and drove on to the windy beach town of Pacifica. How quickly the landscape became rural—horses grazing, fifteen minutes from the city. Farther south, Highway One once again ran close alongside the shoreline. At Half Moon Bay I passed a wooden sign on a run-down horse stable that advertised OCEAN HORSEBACK RIDES. I vaguely remembered taking Amelia here years earlier. I pulled a U-turn and parked in front of their makeshift office. A small man in a large-brimmed white cowboy hat greeted me. I asked him if I could ride in tennis shoes.

“Sure,” he said, “Our stirrups have a toe in ’em, not like them fancy English things. You’ll be fine, sonny. Hop on that paint, we’re about to head out.”

The poorly groomed nags made me aware of the quality of the horses I was now used to with Diana. I sank into my Western saddle—it did feel like an easy chair, comparatively—and joined a chain of somnambulant horses walking down to the beach. There was no detouring from the path—nose to tail all the way.

God I missed Diana and our rides.

Still, riding alongside the ocean was as wonderful as anyone could hope, with the gray-blue clouds fading into the ocean, whose color was similar. The leader even got his horse to step into the surf, and most of the other horses, including mine, followed suit. That moment made me regard my horse—a dappled Appaloosa gelding—with new tenderness. What a difficult life he must lead! He was a good boy. When the ride ended, I asked if there were any treats I could give him. When the owner apologized, I found a feed store in Half Moon Bay, but it was closed. At the Safeway I bought carrots and drove back and gave one to each of the horses I’d ridden with. The Appaloosa got three. I saved the rest for Gray Cloud and Artemis.

Back in Palo Alto, I listened to an excited phone message from Amelia, asking me to call back. Maybe my gifts had brightened her day! When I called her, she did indeed begin by ticking off the presents I’d sent her. “The sweater was beautiful, I love having cashmere next to my skin and brown is the new black, and I can’t wait to use the gift cards.” I loved hearing this, the gushy daughter she could sometimes be, not unlike her mother.

But then she revealed the real reason for her high spirits. “You won’t believe what Tom and Mom bought me,” she said, barely able to get it out: “a horse!”

First she didn’t come for Christmas, and now this. After a brief silence I managed to say, “Amelia . . . how wonderful.” I worked to remain holiday-cheery and get off the phone as quickly as possible.

That afternoon I went to the ranch. I parked outside the barn and looked down the wide aisle between the rows of stalls. Artemis stuck her big cinnamon-colored head out of the dutch door and, as I called her name, whinnied to me.

The tack room outside the barn was ajar. Nicole, a thin high-school girl who worked at the ranch and had given me a lesson one day, was bent over in the back of the tack room. “Hi, new guy Wade,” she said with a smile, then straightened up. She was wearing a Christmas-tree pin on her shirt and ball-ornament earrings.

“Nicole, hi. You’re right in the holiday spirit, huh?”

“Here on Christmas day? You’re getting into this horse world, aren’t you? Not many men do.” She took a bridle off a hook and handed it to me. “Here, I cleaned Artemis’s tack.”

“Thanks.”

“Thank Jolene. She pays me.”

I grabbed the bridle and a saddle and ambled down the barn to Artemis. The vision of Nicole’s jack-knifed jodhpurs remained.

I broke a carrot off in Artie’s mouth and stroked her long sleek muzzle. With my hand on her neck, I opened the door, walked into the stable, and fed her a carrot. Three months ago I’d never have let myself get penned up with a horse in such a small space. Still, I was careful where I put my feet. Was the sheer size and power part of their allure? I unlocked the combination padlock to her feed room. When I opened the door, Artemis nuzzled her big head into the tiny room, but I pushed her away. “Okay, okay. I’ve got a treat for you right here.” The feed had a slight smell of molasses as I mixed it in with the remaining carrots and put it into her feed tray. Using a heavy brush that felt good in my hand, I groomed her as she ate. “Good girl, Artie,” I said. “You’re the best.”

I saddled her up and rode to Gray Cloud’s barn. I buckled his halter over his head and led him out of the paddock. Holding the rope, I re-mounted Artemis and took the horses into a meadow. Gray Cloud followed alongside Artie, a few steps behind. I took them to a field where they could graze. Two riders in Santa outfits rode by, Santa and Mrs. Claus.

It was almost dark when I got home. It was one of the shortest days of the year but still longer than the day before. Lengthening days brought the far-off promise of spring. I roughhoused with Keats—he needed exercise—until he calmed down. I took my cellphone to the sofa and called Dallas.

Diana’s mother’s tone was controlled. “Diana’s told me about you,” she said coolly. “I’ll get her.”

Diana picked up the phone. “Wade, just a second. Let me duck into the study.”

“What’s with your mom? She seemed almost hostile.”

“Don’t mind her. She’s never understood why I left Rob.”

I hesitated a second. “How was Christmas in Texas? Lots of great presents, I’m sure.”

“The kids like being here, and, yes, we smothered ’em in gifts. I collapsed after a dumb dinner party last week, but today was a pleasure.”

“A dinner party? I couldn’t help wondering if Rob was there.

“I never mentioned the firm’s dinner party to you? The law firm took over a country club. They flew in partners and their wives from all over the world. There’s been a lot of growth, especially in the Enersystems account. The firm has opened two new offices in Europe, bringing the total there to six, and one in Tokyo, too.”

“Sounds like a lot of Shylocks in one place.”

“When we separated, I agreed to play hostess at one of the company parties. It seemed like such a small thing until I realized Rob expected me to be with him like nothing’s happened. My friend Jolene Tyler—Artie’s owner, you know—hung in with me like a trouper while I stood by Rob like a . . . well, I don’t know what I was supposed to be like, but I felt like a concubine.”

“You mean everybody thinks you two are still together?” What bullshit.

“They pretend, at least.”

“There are parts of your life I’ll never understand.” My words came out a little angry.

“Nothing’s the slightest bit mysterious,” she responded. “Black tie dinners are like theater. Rob’s a bit of an actor. I had to duck behind the potted plants to whisper to Jolene about how much I missed you.”

“That sounds a little better.”

She paused. “Thinking of you got me through that awful party. I pretended Rob was you a couple of times. You two don’t look all that different from the back.”

“Now, that’s a little weird.” Keats came in and lay down on the rug.

“Have you been riding?” she asked.

I took a minute. Settle down, I told myself. “Yes I rode Artemis and ponied Gray Cloud. That’s what you call it when I he walks next to us, right?

“Yep. Your horsemanship’s improving. Did you go off on your own with Artie?”

When I told her no, I felt obligated to tell her about riding that rent-a-plow-horse in Half Moon Bay.

“You rode on the beach on Christmas? What am I doing in Texas?”

“Don’t get me started. I’m a little jealous of you having a home to return to. I haven’t been back to Barrington in years.”

“Your Christmas sounds a lot more exciting than mine. The only outing I had was to church yesterday.”

“I went to church, too. Last night. I should go more often; the woman preaching there now is fun. She said Christmas was probably based on some pagan holiday, because Jesus was born in the spring . . . but she also said that shouldn’t matter. This is our culture, and it’s our biggest holiday. At the end she had us all shout ‘Merry Christmas.’”

“Nothing like that here! Here in Texas today is Jesus’s birthday, you-betcha, no-doubt-about-it, as they say.”

Boy, I hit a nerve with that one. “Let’s find something else to talk about.”

Diana took a deep breath. “You talked to Amelia? Did the sweater get there on time?”

“Yes, and she liked it. But . . . her mother and stepfather gave her . . . an Arabian horse!”

“I hope you don’t feel in competition with your ex’s new husband. That wouldn’t be good.”

“I didn’t think of it that way. That would be stupid. He seems to be pretty flush since his mother died. I have a hard enough time paying tuition.”

“I miss you,” she said out of nowhere, which made me miss her, too.

“I have a surprise for you,” I said. “We’re set for New Year’s Eve dinner at the Village Pub in Woodside. I had to call twice and beg to get reservations for ten thirty, the time everyone wants.” In a restaurant I could ill afford.

“Honey, I’m sorry, I thought you knew my flight is on New Year’s Day. I wish I could leave and be with you, I do, but it just wouldn’t work this year.”

“That’s disappointing. You said a week—Friday to Friday, right? It would have been so special for us.”

“The club’s having a party for the teenagers, and Mom bought Beth a new dress for it. But I’ll picture you riding on the beach or on Artemis. Maybe Gray Cloud, too. I hope you can get them out every day, and give them cookies and pats for me, okay?”

“Wait a second. Are you and Rob going to this club party?”

“Rob’s chaperoning. Mom and Dad and I are planning a quiet New Year’s right here.”

“It’s New Year’s Eve.” I lowered my voice. “I’ll miss you.”

“Well, I won’t be with Rob. I’ve lost all interest in him except as the kids’ father. And I’ll make it up to you, I promise.” She gave a suggestive laugh. I thought about all that lingerie she’d bought—perhaps I’d see that. Her laugh lingered in my mind well past the phone call.

Part II

Solitude

Solitude

Laugh, and the world laughs with you;
Weep, and you weep alone;
For the sad old earth must borrow its mirth,
But has trouble enough of its own.
Sing, and the hills will answer;
Sigh, it is lost on the air;
The echoes bound to a joyful sound,
But shrink from voicing care.

Rejoice, and men will seek you;
Grieve, and they turn and go;
They want full measure of all your pleasure,
But they do not need your woe.
Be glad, and your friends are many;
Be sad, and you lose them all;
There are none to decline your nectar’d wine,
But alone you must drink life’s gall.

Feast, and your halls are crowded;
Fast, and the world goes by.
Succeed and give, and it helps you live,
But no man can help you die.
There is room in the halls of pleasure
For a large and lordly train,
But one by one we must all file on
Through the narrow aisles of pain.

—Ella Wheeler Wilcox

12

Diana flew in early New Year’s Day and called to ask me to meet her at the ranch. I got to Jasper Ridge a little early and drove to Gray Cloud’s barn. After giving him a couple of carrots, I drove to Artemis’s barn, where she nickered at the sight of my car, a first.

I fed Artie a carrot and removed the blanket that stable hands had put on her the night before. Artemis’s head didn’t move a whit when I snapped a carrot in her clenched teeth; she seemed so massive. Her lips were soft, dry, and surprisingly coordinated; gentleness itself. I checked her hooves and groomed her, spending time on her mane and tail before I brushed the “must do” part, her broad back with its dark dorsal stripe and her golden-reddish sides. Diana had taught me that anywhere the saddle would touch had to be spotless. I threw the blanket and saddle across her back and cinched up the girth.

Once I exchanged her halter for a bridle, I knew Artemis would carry me wherever I wanted to go. She, who could overpower me in a second! Do they really like us? I wondered. If not, why had she nickered? Was that the lot of domesticated horses, to watch for the right car to come by? Why do they do our will?

As I climbed the mounting platform and threw my leg over Artemis, I heard Diana’s voice behind me. “Howdy, stranger.” She smiled broadly at me, looking relaxed up on Gray Cloud.

“I’ve missed you,” I said.

“Same here. It’s good to see you.”

“What’s in the saddle roll?” I asked.

She smiled again. “Just some stuff. You’ll see.”

As we rode to the polo field, Diana held Gray Cloud to a walk. He was more skittish than Artemis, but when Gray Cloud rode too close, Artemis kicked out at him. Diana laughed. “Mares don’t like other horses getting close. She’ll settle down.” Sure enough, not thirty steps later, Artemis gave Gray Cloud a little love bite behind his saddle. Friends again.

I’d kept up with my lessons and wanted to show Diana what I’d been learning. “Let’s trot.”

Diana pointed to Gray Cloud’s ears, pinned almost straight back, and shook her head.

“He’s nervous?” I asked. The horse’s ears perked up, and then went back again.

Diana nodded. “Remember, horses aren’t predators, they’re prey. They’re cautious. Thoroughbreds can be spooky. But Gray Cloud’s even more of a nutcase today than usual. I wonder why.”

When his ears came up again, she said, “I’ll just walk him until he settles down. Once he focuses on what he’s supposed to be doing, we’ll be okay.” She scanned the field until her eyes stopped on a movement in the distance. She pointed to something fluttering in the wind on the far side of the field. “That’s what it is, a plastic bag. Gray Cloud knows it wasn’t there yesterday. Let’s cut across the field and ride up to it.”

“How can you tell that’s what bothering him?”

“It’s what’s changed. I could take him to a trail we rode last week and he’d shy at a replaced fence rail. Horses notice changes. They can only act surely when they know their environment.”

Gray Cloud didn’t want to walk anywhere near the plastic bag but Diana took a short rein and forced him close so he could see it was nothing to be afraid of. Sure enough, he settled down. We continued on, with Artemis lagging behind.

“C’mon, catch up!” Diana called.

“This is as fast as Artemis seems to want to go.”

“Show her you mean business. Squeeze one leg at a time, left right, left right, move her along. Remind her that she’s under tack. Let her feel you a little in the mouth, it’s okay.”

I nudged her with my heels, but it didn’t have any effect. I’d been schooled on this, but Artemis plodded on at her own rate. I didn’t consider it sporting to pull too hard on the reins—they were, after all, connected to the inside of her mouth. Besides, wouldn’t that stop her?

Diana said, “Use your stick.”

Reluctantly, I raised my crop and gave Artemis a light smack on her shoulder. She quickly caught up. “I barely touched her,” I said, pleased and relieved, but curious too.

“Sometimes they just need a reminder. She can feel a fly anywhere on her body, you know, so even a little tap can do the trick. When Gray Cloud and I jump in shows, he knows me so well, I can merely turn my head to look at a new jump and he’ll change leads.”

“Incredible.”

“Let’s stay at a walk until they’re settled down. We don’t want a spill.” With the horses stepping out, Diana seemed happy. “My favorite trainer used to talk about the best place from which to view the world. Where do you think that would be?”

“Maybe Mount Tam, up in Marin, looking back at San Francisco Bay?”

“No, the trainer would ask us where was best, and we’d pretend not to know, but we all smiled when he’d repeat the old adage ‘through the ears of a horse.’ I miss that guy. He used a bitless bridle, no hardware in the mouth, yet he could get a horse to do anything.”

“No bit at all? How does that work?”

“For top riders it’s all in the seat.”

Obviously, my seat wasn’t yet trained.

When we got past the main road, we came to a trestle bridge made from a railroad flatbed car. Gray Cloud didn’t want to go over it. This had happened once before.

“Let me lead him over,” I said.

“No—I can’t put up with this. Stay back.”

Diana led Gray Cloud back to the bridge a second time, smacking his front shoulder with her crop a lot harder than I would ever imagine hitting Artemis. Gray Cloud’s legs locked just before the bridge and he turned away. After the third time, he emptied his bowels. The fourth time, Diana got a look in her eye, tightened even further up on the reins with her left hand and whacked his shank, hard. Gray Cloud walked across without hesitation, completely confident.

I fell in behind Gray Cloud, wondering how well I understood Diana. “I’m not used to seeing you so tough.”

“You sometimes have to have it out with them. He’ll be fine the rest of the day, but I won’t see how I’ve done until we go to the bridge next time. If he walks straight across, I’ve done my job.”

The cloudless, crisp day made me feel lucky to live in California. TV news that morning had shown fierce snowstorms pelting the Midwest. Diana pulled off a few overhanging leaves and gave me some to sniff. Inhaling pungent bay leaf that sparkling winter day was one of those moments I was learning to remember even as they happened.

As we rode through brush, hundreds of birds rose and scattered, flapping around us, but the horses didn’t spook, which surprised me.

“They’re used to birds,” she said. “They live with them in the barns. Okay, we’re ready, let’s trot.”

I tightened up on the reins, kicked both feet, and Artemis trotted alongside Gray Cloud. I posted as I’d been trained, rising and falling with each step.

“Good. You’re getting the rhythm. Squeeze a little at the bottom of the step, let her know you’re liking what she’s doing.”

Awkwardly, I tried to squeeze harder. “Like this?”

“Yes,” she said, “but relax your heel, stay lower down, massage her belly with your calves.”

“How’s this?”

“Better, but . . . pretend you’re . . .” she hesitated. “Imagine Artemis is a woman. Pretend you’re making love.”

We laughed like kids.

Then Diana got quiet. Wordlessly, she led me to the trail by the creek.

After a while she turned off the trail, bringing the horses up through dense brush into a secluded meadow. “Here, let’s dismount.”

She pulled two halters, a ground cover and a blanket out of her saddle roll. She wove the reins up in the bridles and put the halters on over them, so she could tie the horses to a tree branch. “Not many people know about this little meadow,” she said, opening the ground cover. “It’s my secret hideaway.”

“Is it only three months since you first put me up on a horse?” I asked as I helped her with the blanket. “I wondered where the safety-belt was.”

Diana laughed. “I’d forgotten.”

Once we were on the blanket, Diana pulled out a bottle of wine and poured for us. I took a piece of paper and pen from my pocket and started writing.

“What in the world are you scribbling?”

“I want to write down what you just said.”

Diana pulled some crackers and cheese from the saddle roll. She spread a cracker for me and fed me while I wrote. After the cracker, I lay on my stomach to finish. Finally, I read to her:

Riding Lessons

She’s teaching me about horses,
how riders hang halters next to
their stalls in case of fire, and that
those small English saddles leave
a horse free to jump, halfway
to riding bareback.

I sat up and took a drink of wine before reading the second, last, stanza.

She tells me to think of moving
up and down on a horse like
making love to a woman.
Perhaps, I think, a woman
you’re not in love with,
but I am not yet a horseman.

“That’s fun,” she said, lying down next to me. “Taking you to my secret place is even better than I’d imagined.” She kissed me, a long lingering kiss. “And believe me, I’ve been imagining.”

My face was inches from hers. With her hand on my back, I asked, “Do I finally get to seduce you?”

She said nothing but returned my kisses with passion. When I began to unbutton her blouse, she watched my fumbling hands with a knowing smile and eventually helped with the last few buttons as she melted to me. It was wonderful to feel our bodies respond to each other, touching and being touched. We were teenagers again, without the fear before, the awkwardness during, and the guilt after.

It was like that moment on the trail with the bay leaves, only stronger, a moment I would never forget. Perhaps horses and poetry could come together after all. Afterward I remember looking up at puffy grayish clouds moving against a blue sky as I held Diana, who was watching the same fast-changing cloud formations, her head resting on my arm.

Chapters 1 and 2
Chapters 3, 4, and 5

Chapters 6, 7, 8, and 9

Look for Chapter 13 on Monday, April 4th

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© Kevin Arnold November, 2015

Photo By: YouTube.com