I love driving the bypass on summer afternoons. No traffic, no radio, just August rushing in, and the windshield becomes a horizon of pavement and wild grass made watery by the heat. In the driver’s seat I am my best self, and every goal I’ve ever had seems attainable — even with my two daughters squawking in the backseat.
At least, that’s how it was six years ago when the ochre smudge interrupted the green stretch of median. I vaguely registered deer and kept driving. Then the hue brightened — yellow lab, maybe golden retriever. But the size was wrong. Too large. Way too large. I eased off the gas and squinted. The air rushed in, the revolution of the wheels in my ears, and the lump became a hillock, and —
An enormous backside, the musculature taut beneath an absurdly gold coat, lay baking in the August haze. A tail, short and wavy and white, drooped to the side, revealing a half-dilated anus bulging with feces.
My three-year-old asked, Mommy, what’s that?
I broke out in a cold sweat.
I’m not usually sensitive about dead creatures. The death of my cat when I was seven taught me that the suffering beforehand is the real menace. And I’ve always viewed roadkill as an unfortunate but otherwise helpful occurrence; it keeps down the wildlife population in the absence of predators, and it offers an overview of a locality’s fauna, maybe a brief conversation piece to an otherwise uneventful journey. When my husband bicycled across the US, the ride was arduous, he said, and the asphalt endless. The only thing that broke up his days in Texas, which took three weeks to cross, was the roadkill. Dead armadillos littered the highways like smashed beer cans. Jackrabbits were less frequent. Louisiana yielded a small alligator.
Where we live, along the southernmost stretch of Route One in Chester County, Pennsylvania, red-tailed hawk, fox, and ring-necked pheasant complement the usual mangled deer, opossum, raccoon, cat, and squirrel. Sometimes a box turtle or an unlucky Labrador retriever sprawls across the white line separating the gravel shoulder from the road. But then the body is gone as suddenly as it appeared, and I am far away, speeding down the bypass at 65 miles an hour toward the rest of my day.
Before I unbuckled my daughters from their car seats, I ran into the house and dialed 911. I had called for help only once before, years ago. I was living alone in Pittsburgh and at 2am woke to heavy footsteps on the fire escape outside my bedroom window. The police arrived quickly, but the prowler was gone and never returned.
911. What’s your emergency?
It’s not really an emergency, but I didn’t know who to call. There’s a dead horse on Route One south, and —
Yes ma’am, we’ve been notified of that. The horse will be removed.
Well. Then —
Is there anything else we can help you with Ma’am?
Oh, no. No thank you.
I hung up, and irrational rage crept through my feet, up my legs, into my lungs. I wanted to redial the dispatcher and scream: How the hell do you remove a dead horse? What do you do with it? How long have you known that it’s out there, baking in the sun, swelling up, and in plain sight? Why is no one there now? Why wasn’t it already taken care of?
Instead, I stood in the living room while my daughters called for me from the car.
How many clichés do girls and horses fall into? And how many stories about horses have already been told (think of the ancients — Poseidon and the waves, the city of Troy, even the book of Revelation). Think of historical horses: Seabiscuit. Secretariat. Robert E. Lee’s steady, white Traveler. And the loyal horses of twentieth century literature and film (black stallions and National Velvet. Beauty, Merrylegs, and Ginger. Artax who carried Atreyu on his quest. Flicka. And Shadowfax, Gandalf’s steed).
Reader, I have loved them all. And you might be thinking Oh dear, another blurry eyed child. But what if this telling (if not the story) is different? What if I’m not irrational or hysterical or deluded or clinging to youthful delusions (as so many women are accused of when they write about something important)? What if there is a grown and thoughtful person who cannot, despite her better judgment and a decade-long battle against nostalgia, stop herself from entering a strange ether of fulfillment and longing each time she sees or smells or touches a horse.
If I’m going to write about horses, I might as well fully embrace trouble and include Freud, who once said an adult’s greatest happiness is a childhood dream fulfilled. Until recently, if you had asked me my childhood dream, I would have said, and you would have guessed, “My own horse.”
The affair started when I was two, with a pony ride at an uncle’s farm. After that, while in the car, I looked out at every pasture and searched for horses on hills, horses amongst the dairy cows.
In elementary and through middle school, I begged for a horse, and when my parents refused, I said I’d settle for riding lessons. Instead, I played piano and flute. My parents believed in the goodness and value of music, but horses were doubly inauspicious. At once a throwback to my grandmother’s grinding girlhood as a Polish peasant and a marker of the moneyed upper class to which my parents decidedly did not belong, riding horses was not something to which I was supposed to aspire.
Instead, there were the requisite books (Billy and Blaze, Big Red and Little Black, Summer Pony and Winter Pony, Black Beauty, Misty of Chincoteague) and a magazine subscription (Horse Illustrated) that each month came with a glossy, equine centerfold. For Christmas or a birthday, my parents bought me model horses.
My best friend, Carrie, on the other hand, moved in sixth grade to a house with ten acres. Her parents build a four-stall barn and a riding arena. They took pity on my horselessness and taught me to ride well enough that I wouldn’t fall off. At least, not often.
Though we usually took her steady quarter horses for trail rides, by high school, Carrie and I sometimes rode double on Casey, a steady Belgian. It was best in the western New York snow: drifts up to his knees, hooves kicking snow spray into our faces while furry warmth seeped through our layers of Carhartts, jeans, and thermal underwear. Come spring, we hitched Casey to a racing cart and jounced through the access roads to the vineyards.
When Carrie got married at age twenty-three, Casey pulled the red surry that drove her and her husband away from the ceremony.
When I published my first poem at the end of college, the credit read, “Cate Hodorowicz lives in Pittsburgh. Next year she will pursue an MFA in Creative Writing or go to New Mexico where she will work as a cowgirl.”
After spending so many years studying in a city with blaring horns and airless buses, I longed for silence, for my own schedule and solitude. The best way to get that, I thought, would be to ride a horse along a mountain range and participate in difficult physical labor. I’d spent the last two years of my undergraduate education in more horse barns than classrooms, working for a trainer who let me have two free lessons a week in exchange for grueling weekend stints as a groom at her clients’ fancy hunter shows.
But my family’s values won out. I went for the master’s degree, which even though in poetry, a field in which I’d never make money, was at least still education. Not agriculture or hard labor, not something that would move me backward or so far into the stratosphere as to be unrecognizable.
In late January, my last semester of graduate school, I glanced at my abdomen as I walked through the Pittsburgh slush to my part-time job. At twenty-four, I couldn’t be pregnant. My boyfriend, Dave, and I were (mostly) responsible about birth control, but even more than that, I had plans to teach overseas after graduation. My plan was to live frugally, write poems, earn as much money as possible in a few years’ time, and when I got back stateside, I’d have enough money to pay for the serious riding lessons I wanted. Maybe I’d have enough for my own horse.
I bought a pregnancy test at the Rite-Aid when I got off the bus that afternoon.
At home, the apartment thermostat read 59 degrees. I cursed the landlord, who controlled the heat, as I ripped open the package, sat down on the toilet, placed the white plastic test between my legs. Jiggled my feet on the floor. Gooseflesh on my thighs. Two minutes, two minutes. Where are you, solitary pink line, o messenger of sanity?
I put the test on the sink, washed my hands, fed the cat, cleaned his litterbox, washed my hands again, and picked up the test. Started to toss it into the garbage can. Then I looked. The test had two lines. Not one.
Outside the branches were black against an ashen sky; the snow old and pockmarked with footprints. My arms hung at my sides, fingers open, like I had dropped something. I wanted to vomit, but never had I felt so empty. I gagged on the irony.
Do we ever really abandon our dreams? Is it even possible? And if not, do we survive by burying the dreams so deep as to be unrecognizable, just so we can get through the years without choking on the bitterness of our choices? Those choices that we would still make, again and again, but that have also meant we’ve had to give up one of the first and important pieces of who we were and what we believed.
The day Dave and I married in western New York, I was four months pregnant. It was mid-April, which under normal circumstances might have seen a small white chapel flanked by burgeoning magnolias and tulips. But four days before the ceremony, my mother called to say eight inches of snow had just fallen in Buffalo; Lake Erie was still half frozen, and by the way, did my dress still fit? I couldn’t bear to tell her no.
Carrie was my matron of honor. She and her husband had just purchased a house on thirty acres and were building a ten-stall horse barn.
I rode from the icy church parking lot to the reception in my father’s Chevy Caprice station wagon.
It is perhaps the great irony of my life that, for all of my marriage, I have lived in prime eastern Pennsylvania horse country. My husband got his first pony when he was eight. My in-laws, who live nearby, still have a few geriatric geldings that they trail ride in good weather. A few times a year, I take one of them out through the woods and floodplains. And several Olympic riders live and train a few miles from my house.
In this land of horses, my greatest wishes for happiness have become practical: good health insurance for my family and enough money to put my daughters through college. The healthcare I’ve achieved with my community college teaching job. But the salary doesn’t pay enough to cover more than the basics along the I-95 corridor. Simple economics tells me that I will never afford the acreage for keeping a horse. And then there are the dizzying expenses of feed, hoof trimming and shoeing, and veterinary care. Not to mention saddles, bridles, halters, lead ropes, grooming supplies, fly-spray, worming paste, heavy winter turnout blankets, and light summer flysheets. And then there is the matter of time. A horse takes incredible amounts of time. Even just riding lessons mean my husband and children have to compete more for my attention, which is already in short supply.
I’m starting to think it’s not true that you can’t go home again. When it comes to horses, I am stuck at home, bound by the ethics and priorities of my lower-middle-class roots. And no matter how I try to claw out of that place, the more I find myself there.
The Amish use our road as an avenue to avoid a dangerous intersection, and daily, several buggies or wagons clatter through the hamlet. We’ve lived here seven years now, and the sound of the hooves on pavement never fails to bring me to the window. Most of the horses are tall chestnut Standardbreds whose knees work like pistons. But sometimes, small black Morgans come by. Occasionally, a golden Haflinger pony ferries women and children in a light cart. One summer, a teenage boy drove past a few times a week with his sleek bay mare, the silver on her harness gleaming in the sun, and the leather trimmed with sheepskin. He was proud of his horse, and her ears flicked back and forth, listening for commands.
During plowing and harvest, teams of four, six, or sometimes eight enormous Belgians haul farm equipment or a load of hay past the house. These are my favorite, these steady, strong beasts whose hooves plant down on the pavement with certainty and stability. These horses don’t seem to know hesitation or nervousness; I am in awe of their size, strength, gentleness, patience. Would that I could exist with such a sense of purpose and grace. But the purpose and grace come with a price. On Sundays, I walk through the neighboring farmer’s cornfields to a pasture where eight Belgians graze, all mammoth shoulders and dried sweat. Up close, the horses shudder and stamp; red sores ring their necks where the heavy leather collars have chafed and burned their skin. Flies swarm and try to land on the wounds glistening with salve.
The mutual sacrifice and dependence between people and horses is what I’ve loved about horses all along. I admire the horse, larger and stronger, for the way it carries the greatest burden of the relationship. But there is no horse strong enough to shoulder the weight of the things I’m carrying now, much less carry me away from the responsibilities like my imagined New Mexico cowpony.
When I drive now, I keep a lookout for golden bodies in the grass. I try to tell myself the first one was not a symbol of the death of my dream, but a warning that I have drifted so far from the idealism of my childhood that I’ve forgotten the importance of impractical wishes. After all, I have two daughters who see the world as possibility and excitement, who squeal from the backseat, “Mommy, look at the horses!”
I’m trying to take that advice. Now, when I pass the place where the Belgian fell, I let my heart go. I know the childhood dream, I know its impossibility. And yet, I give myself for a moment to its luxury, the full impossibility that I’ll be greeted at home by galloping hooves and a nicker, sounds that say, Hi there, you’re home, you’ve arrived.
Cate Hennessey’s work has appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Chester County Dwell, and Polish American Journal. Noted in Best American Essays, she has also been a finalist for the Annie Dillard Award in Creative Nonfiction.