The good-looking one, the one in need, the one that almost was
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The night is dark and moonless, and the bright light of the battery-powered lantern hurts my eyes, so I look down at my feet on the path. Pale sand and sandstone, it winds through prickly pears, splintered mesquite trunks, and yuccas. So much of what grows here could make holes in someone, draw blood. I see the outline of my husband in front of me, silhouetted by the light. He’s wearing cowboy boots, a T-shirt, and shorts — clothes he put on in a hurry. He is the one holding the lantern because I am unsteady enough to drop it. The land around me is a black mystery of wind and rock. Night has taken away any boundaries. The oil-field-pipe fence and the neighbors’ parked trucks aren’t visible, as if they never even existed. The slope of the trail changes, first down, then steeply up again, and I stumble.
When we get to the training pen, we stop, and my husband clicks the lantern off; we do not want to frighten the horse any more than she already is. We can only hear the mare, not see her. She is the quick, sharp sound of hooves beating the dry ground, the rush of a large body passing in the dark. She is the swift, double-footed kick into the air, so quick and powerful it makes a sound like ripping paper. We hear her staccato steps approach where we stand. When she turns toward us, her eyes glint silver as they reflect the neighbor’s porch light.
It has been five minutes since the boom and crackle of the last firework, and around seven minutes since the mare became convinced that the world was ending. She has never seen or heard a storm like this one: banshee shrieks; multicolored stars exploding overhead; detonations that cracked the calm, as sharp and sudden as a rock through a windshield. There will be more explosions soon. We can hear voices along the road, laughter from the house where the fireworks were released.
I have a handful of treats in my pocket — carrot-anise flavored, the mare’s favorite — but she is too frightened to take any. Frightened animals do not risk eating and making their stomachs heavy. I feel her hot breath on my palm, a brush of rough hairs, and then she is gone again. She leaves as empty as she came to me. The smell of her sweat is salt and iron in the air. I say her name softly: “Selkie, Selkie.” She is named for a mythical creature that is a seal in water but sheds its coat to become a woman on land. The selkie will be trapped on land forever if someone hides her sleek animal skin so that she can’t find it. It’s an appropriate name for this mare, who looks like a wet seal sometimes, her coat so dark and glossy it glints like a mirror in the sun, edged with brown at the flanks and nose. A fitting name, too, for a horse who was born free on the western range, in the wilderness, and then brought here.
When Selkie was two years old, the Bureau of Land Management eliminated her herd. The horses were emptied from the range to make more room for cattle-grazing or fracking, or maybe both. The future is barren of wild mustangs like her. They have been scattered for good. Her herd — descendants of ponies the Utes acquired from Spanish explorers — was first documented in the late 1700s by Franciscan monks. Now it is gone forever. They were run over miles of rough terrain by helicopters, funneled into chutes lined with burlap, then trapped in fences too high for them to jump. The mare saw two of her herdmates die when she was captured. One, an exhausted gray stallion, fell and broke his neck in the trailer; the other, a chestnut foal, only weeks old, was chased until its leg fractured, and it had to be euthanized. That was the first this mare knew of our kind. Of our kindness.
I have looked up the landscape on which this wild horse was born. It’s sparse. White rock. Scrub. Stony hollows. Petroglyphs of horses on boulders. Not much different from here, really. But she was herself there; she belonged to no one. Her frontier was like the ocean, and this is the land, where she must shed her wild skin, become one of us to survive. I am taking her wildness from her because she is precious to me, worth far more than the twenty-five dollars I paid to adopt her. The truth is, she had already lost her freedom by the time I found her. She had two failed adoptions before ours. A horse like her is at risk of going to long-term holding or even, if it loses its federally protected status, to slaughter. I can’t give her back the life that was taken from her, but I can give her these seven acres I call my own. I can teach her how to cope with this life, maybe even be content with it.
The sound of her hooves continues. We sit on the concrete bench my husband carried out here in a wheelbarrow one hot spring day to place beside her pen. Though the sun set hours ago, the bench is still warm. He sets the dark lantern at our feet. Between the deafening blasts and the acrid odor of burning gunpowder, the night swells with singing toads and crickets. Rabbits forage in the brush at our backs. Coyotes hunt the rabbits farther out. We dimly see the dark mare illuminated in bursts of green and red. And, after the fireworks have stopped, we know when she leaps because the stars, for a split second, vanish in the shape of a horse. She does not know me well enough yet to believe me when I tell her she will live.
My husband and I sit with the mare for an hour after the final volley of fireworks, until she stops cantering and merely paces relentlessly. We sit with her another hour, until she comes to the fence and stands beside us, breathing hard. Now she will take the treat from my hand, and as I speak gently to her and stroke the white government brand on her neck, she lowers her head and sighs.
We leave her. Holding hands in the darkness, we walk toward the house. When we have gone about thirty feet, the mare realizes our absence, and we hear her hooves crescendo again. We stop to look back, straining to see her through the night’s blackness, reluctant to return to her because we are so tired. I try to feel her presence and tell her it’s OK. She bucks once into the air, a leaping animal briefly visible in the neighbor’s porch light. Then everything is quiet and still, and we hear the mare eating hay, and we know her fear is gone.