The horse’s name was Kansas, one milky eye,
thickened winter coat…
It was February and I was headed east after the MFA rez in Pt Townsend, and tired does not begin to describe my state. At the airport came the news: East Coast socked in with a blizzard, airports shut down, all flights cancelled. Contact the airlines to re-book. It was midday. I didn’t know anyone in Seattle. Or did I? My student Penny who graduated a few years before still worked in Seattle part-time, her nursing night shifts providing tough hours and pretty good pay, as she and her fella Tony saved for building the cabin and ranch out in the high desert hills. They had a plan, a dream really, and I knew she was still working for it. Maybe she was in town. I took a chance, called information and got a number. Penny answered, said she was off and would come get me. I was welcome to stay at her house as long as I wanted, but had to come with her out to the ranch to meet and feed her horse, Kansas. The dogs came too–I remember a black and white border collie with one blue eye and a smart, reddish, blunt-nosed mutt who knew her way around the barn and surrounding paddocks. I was extremely grateful to be riding into the country with no purpose of my own, and as we bounced along in what might have been a Toyota, maybe mustard colored or bleached-out tan, kind of springy with blankets and barn stuff heaved in the back, I relaxed into my exhaustion. I was happy to go be with horses, creatures being especially comforting after 10 days of talk. I told Penny one thing: Do not talk to me about writing, books or publishing. She laughed and agreed, and had no idea how serious I was. We drove out to the ranch where she was boarding Kansas and I got to hear the story of the horse changing Penny’s life. It’s a good story, and lived. That night, I slept for 14 hours, and woke ready for more sleep and less conversation. Penny was going to work and I had another day before I could fly home, but mostly, I was thinking about the horse, Kansas, and how the news for change could come from any source, and the less verbal, the stronger the message. This poem came from that long sweet afternoon, when I met Kansas and began to re-learn the need for making changes.
The horse’s name was Kansas, one milky eye,
thickened winter coat. No halter, we stood
together in the open ring,
not an arm’s length apart.
She stood, I stood.
I let myself be a person
in my bones, two-legged, thickened flesh at my hips–
feet, still agile, hands ready.
I did not move.
So you just want to be here, I said aloud,
I let her enter my body by standing next to her
and she grazed along my tiredness, my small fear,
and I let them spool into the ankle-high brown dirt.
Penny had gone to get hay
out of the car and check on the dogs,
roaming the muddy paddocks, suspiciously
quiet. I stood with Kansas.
She lowers her head and brushes me, knee to navel
with her long nose, twice, gently.
I reach for her powder gray neck,
open my hand–stunning softness and thick
bow muscle underneath her coat.
So strong. So soft, I say to her.
She reaches her head to nudge my hips.
You want me to get on–ride again?
I can’t. It’s been too long. And I hear the strangeness
of a disappearing path. Is it really too late–
for how many things?
I turn to her–OK. You want to walk, let’s walk.
I start, the way Penny did,
Kansas on my right, walking in front of her left shoulder.
She follows. We do some loopy diagonals
and wobbly figure eight’s.
I walk, she follows
but she knows she is leading the way, satisfied.
Ring time evaporates into the night air.
We walk together. All is right.
How long has it been?
Time wobbles in the figure eight
altering the circle.
We’re cutting corners
Why was I afraid,
and how has this become the shape of things?
I could walk a long time,
keep walking with this horse,
without ever getting on her back.
I could remember strong bones
in a ring deep in brown dust.
We walk to the half-gate.
I call out to Penny. No answer.
The purple webbed halter hangs above
on a nail. Kansas waits for it.
She nods her head.
I take it down, study the shape,
think I can remember.
I turn the straps top,
the open bottom, hold it to her
and she slips her head in.
I call to Penny
then she comes in with a sack,
a collie at her heels.
Bring her over.
We walk by the other horses, some lit by a bulb,
many dark in their stalls, and I wonder
if they feel secure, safe in their stalls,
and how they hear distance, closeness, the dark.
Penny snaps a lead to Kansas’ halter
and she pushes Penny with her broad skull
directing the next brush stroke.
Penny’s hair falls in her face–
All right, all right, we’re just slow.
She wags her gray head at Kansas,
and I lift mine higher to see the swirls
of sweat caked on the mare’s back.
A little afraid, I go against the grain
to curry loose the dirt.
Seattle Layover was published in Cultural Weekly.