A prairie of grief

My hips shift back and forth to the cadence of my horse’s walk. Sheaths of alfalfa scrap against his belly as he plows through the sweet grass, beating down a new path with his legs and chest. His head bobs just above the prairie’s surface, and his body moves as if he swims across a creek, swollen after days of rain. Gathering burrs and dandelion seeds without intention, his mane knots up like a bird’s nest. I loosen the reins. I trust this horse enough to close my eyes, sure that he will not run, and lean back in the saddle, my boots drifting in and out of the stirrups. The animal tolerates my listlessness.

When the trill of a red-winged blackbird takes him by surprise, he stands stock still with pricked ears. Waiting. I push my fingers underneath his mane to feel the heat rising from his body and reach down between his front legs to touch his heartbeat, gripping his physique tightly when my tears begin.

Long minutes pass before I realize my horse and I are no longer moving and that I am sitting on an island of pulsing muscle and blood in the middle of a prairie sea. For a time, Dino stands quietly, chewing on a blade of wheatgrass, stomping absently at the biting flies. I lie slumped forward over his neck like a wounded cowboy refusing to abandon her mount. His mane smells of dust and sage after a gentle rain. The sweet fragrance makes me cry harder, and the moistness soaks into the coarse strands of his mane I wind around my fingers. Growing impatient, Dino cranes his neck around and nudges my boot with his muzzle licking the leather, hoping to find the taste of salt on my hands; I offer my hand to satisfy his craving and rub my fingers against his lips.

In the stolid morning heat, I dismount in one motion and lay my forehead against my horse’s face, listening to his gentle exhales. I draw his breath into mine, inhaling the sweet taste of dry hay into my lungs. When I take my hard hat off, Dino plays with my hair, nibbling at the wet, matted strands until he grows bored with this little game. Snorting and lowering his head, he pushes me in the chest. Slowly, I move to his side, gather the reins, and hoist myself onto his back once more. So many mornings have passed like this between us since my father’s death. I ride for hours, galloping at dangerous speeds, jumping over fences, and dodging trees, tempting Fate.

Sweat pours out of my horse’s skin when I cue him into a trot, then a canter, and finally, a gallop. We cannot run for long in this heat, but I need to feel this horse open up beneath my body. I feed rein to his mouth until the muscles in his neck strain far ahead of his thundering legs. I push up on the balls of my feet, balancing in the stirrup irons. The ground below me sweeps by like the countryside from a train window. A blur of sienna on either side narrows and comes together to meet the turquoise skyline. I focus my eyes between my horse’s ears pushed flat against his head. I cannot turn away from this sightline, not because I fear losing my balance, but because this narrow path is all I can manage this morning. If I can find the edge of my grief, mark it, know it, and then quietly turn away from it, maybe one day I will get through. The prairie heat melts the perimeters of the earth’s horizon, thawing the precision of its borders. Heat and wind push hard against my face until my eyes burn from dust and sunlight. I cannot keep my eyes open any longer. For a few wild moments, there is only hot wind and the brilliance of flight.

I came by this love of wind, honestly holding onto a vague memory of sitting in my stroller underneath a huge maple tree, listening to the leaves deep in conversation. I do not remember my mother watching me from the kitchen window while she cooked dinner. I do remember sunlight falling through branches, my hair crossing over my eyes, birds leaning into a sudden breeze. Now I am learning that wind can drown out a thought as well as a sentence, leaving behind a certain kind of silence in mind, one I am willing to bear.

When I finally open my eyes again, I feel my horse slow his pace. He blows hard and loudly through his damp nostrils. Steam rises from his body like a car overheating. He has led us to water. The creek has slowed to almost a trickle, its banks shriveling under long days of sun without rain. He tugs at the reins to lower his head, splashing water over his tired legs and simmering lips. After a while, I squeeze his sides, coaxing him to walk. If he drinks without caution, he could get colic.

I pivot out of the saddle in one movement and lean down to rinse my sweaty palms in fresh water. Though the air hangs with an uncompromising humidity, the sun is only just high enough to heat the water’s surface. I tease Dino with my fingers, splashing his eager nose with water until he snorts, showering my chest with his own rebuttal. Hands cupped, I drink water from my dirty hands and drench my face with the only summer coolness I know. This horse has led us to water, but he has also led me through the prairie of my grief for a few minutes.