by Anna St. Sylvan
My child is crazy about horses. She's more desperate than crazy, actually. I'm not sure where it came from. Maybe horses mean light, beaming through years of darkness.
She wants a horse. I want to erase the past, which is why my family is lurching through the red-rock desert of northern Arizona, south from the snows of Montana into spring, traveling the unforgiving country of arches, canyons and cliffs.
“Papa, stop! It says horse rides,” says my child. She called the other one Daddy, before us. She’s ten, with honey-blonde hair, dark green eyes and smooth rounded cheeks.
My instinct is to please my daughter. That usually fails. On the other hand, I keep thinking, the luckiest people find passions young and derive from them lifetimes of pleasure. “It won’t hurt to ask,” I say to my husband.
His name is Rivers. He turns, steering us toward a small camper with “Bed and Breakfast” painted on one side, a neat cactus rock garden. A thin Navajo man holding a small girl’s hand emerges. The child's face is placid, obedient. I feel my belly start to churn.
My daughter knows this image well, man with small child. And others. Turquoise dress, roll of duct tape, rope, gun. It's her cross to bear. My guess is that for all the years to come simple and iconic images will emerge unexpectedly, in the most unlikely of places, brutally, toxic thunderstorms, to send her flying. Falling. Flailing and fighting. For two years this has been my hourly existence. To catch her.
I hear her growl in the back seat.
She had gone to sleep the night before growling. “I hate this place,” she said.
“Why?” I asked. The hotel room seemed perfectly fine. It had a television and a refrigerator, the basics.
“You know why,” she ground out, fire growing in her dark eyes, heart-shaped face contorted.
Once her anger’s big enough, it’s incredibly difficult to control. I’m always trying to throw cold water on it. “Actually, I don’t,” I said, calmly, lightly. “But that’s okay.”
“I feel like I’m in prison,” she said.
"Let's watch some television."
In our house my child launched jars and glasses, bit my arms, stabbed my thigh, swiftly kicked dogs. Sometimes things got so bad we had to physically restrain her. For example, if she started beating her head against the glass of the door.
“Let me go, you dirty dog,” she’d yell. With a free hand would try to hit me in the face.
“When you’re calm I’ll let you go. I’m not going to let you hurt yourself or anyone else.”
“I hate you.”
“I’m not the one you’re angry at.” When she entered a rage, her face changed. The blood drained away, leaving her pale and glassy-eyed and hard.
“Yes, you are."
“I didn’t do the bad things. Sweetheart, if I’d have known, I’d have protected you.”
“No, you wouldn’t.”
“Oh, yes, I would. I notice you’re trying to hit me in the face a lot. Did you get hit in the face?”
She would wail then, covering her ears with her hands in such a way that her arms shielded her face. Then she'd growl like a vicious dog. She'd get both hands around my neck and choke the hell out of me, really hard for a little kid.
Part of my journey is the attempt to drown some of the triggering images in a sea of wild joy. Which is why we are traveling the red-rock country of Arizona. Looking at the wild and wonderful world. Looking for good memories. Looking for salvation.
My husband motions toward the sign. The man is wearing glasses with silver frames. The child has dark bangs. “Horse rides?” Rivers says.
“The horses are not here,” the man says. “They are at the park.” The man turns his bronze face toward the east and nods across the flat red landscape of Monument Valley.
“Navajo National Park?”
“Yes, a few miles on.”
“We’re putting up a tipi today,” the man says. “Her birthday is tomorrow.” He nods toward the girl. “She will be five." He says they're having a traditional peyote ceremony and invites us to come back if we like.
That seems strange to me. Right now, everything is suspect. I do see a stack of lodgepoles in the yard. But I’m remembering a photo, my child’s sixth birthday celebrated by four adult men who have set two store-bought sheet cakes in front of her. My heart is a cave being hollowed out.
“Thank you,” Rivers says. “We won’t be able to stay.” Why we can’t stay has something to do with our little child and her storehouse of sadness, which darkens in certain situations. It also has something to do with a man inviting strangers to his little girl’s public birthday. Does he think we’ll pay for the experience? Will we give the child a hefty birthday gift? What’s the difference between that and how my little girl was sold?
At Navajo Park we pay five dollars and find a wooden hut with HORSE RIDES stamped in the gables. A man outside it stands looking fierce and powerful. His skin is brown and he wears a blue bandanna around his head and dark sunglasses that he does not remove. I sit with our little girl in the car, seeing the world through her eyes.
Rivers returns and says the price is seventy-five each for an hour on the back of a horse. “As I was walking away he offered to knock twenty bucks off each ticket,” he says.
“What did you tell him?” I ask. Fifty-five times three is a lot of money.
“That we’d think about it.”
A meltdown is building in the back seat. She wants to ride a horse. We promised. She remembers us promising.
“Let’s go see the visitor’s center,” I say, too brightly and too loudly.
In the Navajo Museum there's an old saddle made of gray wood. In the gift shop silver and turquoise jewelry hangs with price tags. Navajo blankets and halters are for sale.
“We should offer the horse man fifty bucks each,” I say quietly to Rivers. That’s one-third of a mortgage payment. It’s five riding lessons. It’s three Navajo bridles. But a ride through Monument Valley might be worth far more to us in the long run. It might be an investment in the future. “We have more to lose not riding than riding.”
The horseman agrees. “You need to come with me to the corral, where the trail starts,” he says. “You’ll be riding on my land, where I live with my family, riding my horses. Another couple is coming along and they’re paying full rate, so be quiet about the money. Just so you know, the road is unpaved and rough. You may want to leave your car and climb in my truck, all three of you.”
Any other time, this would be adventure. But m radar is on. We will be riding in his truck? To his place? I’m not leaving my girl’s side, her hand in mine. I’m holding it a little more firmly than most parents would. My hold is almost a grip.
I look at Rivers. He thinks it will be okay.
That quick we leave our lives behind. We plunge into the blood-orange Navajo landscape, mesas and monuments rising in the dry desert around us, blundering through the molten heat of that country, bumping across gulches, the delineations of prehistory. The rock is shale, siltstone and sandstone reddened with iron oxide, eroding into buttes and pinnacles, land of the purple sage.
I’m riding beside the horseman in the truck, my body a barrier between my little girl and a stranger. His name is Joe.
“That’s easy to remember." I’m chatty, disarming. Maybe that's how I get when I'm nervous. How long have you guided? How many horses? How far away?
Joe answers every question in a searing Navajo accent, short, terse replies. If there is no question to answer, he does not talk. He lives near the park. His job is guiding tourists on horseback. Winter is slow but the season is just starting this year. In fact, he reopened last weekend. He does a good business spring and fall. He’s always been around horses. A couple of his horses are mustangs he caught and started.
Soon we arrive at two round corrals constructed of rusty sectional fencing, six horses in one and five in another. One is tied by his halter. Another is a colt. Joe chooses six horses and leads them from the enclosures, fastening them one by one by lead ropes to the corral fence. He unlocks an aluminum tack shed, hands us forms to sign, and fetches our girl a helmet. We pay cash.
“Can we help brush?” I ask. I don’t know anything about brushing horses. He hands me a brush, another for my little girl. We move to the side of a chestnut.
“Lightly,” I say to her.
Joe is outfitting the animal when another man arrives and falls to helping. At first the two men converse quietly in Navajo then they drift to silence. Their faces are almost as red-brown as the buttes strewn across the landscape, matching the sienna of the hills that rise behind the two rusty metal corrals.
When all the horses are saddled and tethered by reins to the corral fences, Joe gives a short safety speech in English: Who has ridden? How much? Okay, beginners. Front of foot only in the stirrup, heel down. Pull right rein to go right, left to go left. Circle horse if necessary. Don’t allow him to trot or run.
The other couple murmur to each other in French. They take a long time to answer Joe’s questions and when they do answer, it is in the most simple sentences.
“You’re on the paint,” he says to my girl. She smiles broadly. I get a stallion named Spirit who, for the time I am mounted on him, doesn't live up to his name. Rivers is assigned a very spirited gelding named Ralph that has his hackamore tied to his chest to keep him from rearing.
Joe has resorted to sign language with the French couple. The woman gets a large white horse named Eagle and the man a half-mustang, half-Persian named Oso. My stallion will fight Rivers’s gelding so he has to stay separated by my girl’s paint and the French woman’s white mustang. The half-Persian will kick other horses so he has to bring up the rear. That puts me separated from my girl, riding between the Frenchman and the Frenchwoman who are trying to reassure each other across the back of my horse that all is well and that this is not an elaborate heist and that they will live to return to their two children in France.
We mount, now with trepidation and ill at ease. On horseback we are high, looking out on a landscape endlessly dry and barren, rocky, geologic in all aspects – worn stories lodged under rocks, between the shifting grains of red sand, in the red dust covering everything, the same dust that has shaken from the horses’ backs with the quick currying. Stories can be rattlesnakes and scorpions hiding under ledges, and I have learned not to reach any place I can’t see. Stories, sometimes with fangs and stingers, can lodge in the organs and in the bones.
“It’s the end of winter,” Joe says. “The horses been cooped up. They want to go. Don’t let them. They might run away.” He notices Spirit dipping his long neck toward a bush. “Don’t let them eat. Jerk their heads up. They won’t be on their best behavior. Nathan will lead you. I’ll catch up if I can get free.” This was the most he’d said so far.
One by one, loosening the reins, heeling the horses’ sides and clucking loudly, we move our horses into line. Now I am in a queue of horses. We snake along a path I can barely see through a desert, all cliffrose and brittlebush, juniper and snakewood. The horses’ ankles and hooves seem tiny and fragile as they step gingerly between red-brown rocks littering the ground and between clumps of twiggy, bristly rabbitbrush, whose narrow leaves and tiny hairs guard precious droplets of moisture. The horses pitch forward to descend into washes, always picking their way, and climb laboriously up the packed red clay of dry ravines. I watch for rattlesnakes, wanting to spot one before Spirit does.
We set out toward a far horizon. Above, the sky is a blue flower.
Since I first heard the skeleton of my daughter’s story, I have trusted nothing and no one. Now I am forced to trust a horse named Spirit I’ve never seen before. I trust him to know this dry and barren and scorched country, to know the edges of rocks and the spines of cacti, to know the dashing hare and the taloned hawk. He senses, of course, that I do not really trust him, he knows I am watching the path ahead.
I want to pretend that I am a horsewoman, that I am a horse whisperer even, that I can ride hellbent for leather across the barren wastes. I want to have a history deep as Navajo in a place with horses, I want all the stories in the rocks, I want the faces and hands and teeth. I want to trust.
But I don't.
I am a white tourist hauling around the burden of a badly wounded girl, a child rage-bomb, a zigzag line, fingernails and fists and feet. I am a white tourist caught in the trap of a child’s trauma. Traveling with my own rattlesnake, studying how to teach a child the relaxed joy of the lap, of bedtime, of songs, of cookies. How to open her heart. How to speak about the unspeakable.
I can not see my girl’s face but I watch her now moving her horse ahead of me in the line, even now over-controlling the horse, I can see that, digging her heels too hard into its flanks, speaking too sharply and jerking the reins. Her pelvis is tilted an inch too far forward. I speak to her and she knows I’m watching, always watching, the good kind of watching and the watchful kind of watching. Because the trauma that got laid in is going to come out in rage, if we can’t get it transformed. Sand to glass, rock to gem, wildling to trustee. She feels safer when she knows I’m watching.
“Ease up, sweetheart,” I say. “Pay attention. Follow Papa.” Let’s make a diamond out of this, I’m thinking.
Anyone looking on would think that we are two white tourists making a little girl’s horse-dreams come true; maybe we’ll get her a white pony one day. It will have a purple silken mane. I can’t tell you how I wish it were so, not the heavy burden of our ride through a child’s war, a mesmerizing landscape checkered with a past we hate.
The past must be reconciled. The Navajo lost what they had and got rounded up into this desolation, surviving but at a huge cost. The costs are all around us. Tension and sparseness and dark glasses. All the benevolent betrayal. Horses were part of their salvation too, the way they rode their horses into battle, hanging to one side, galloping across the hot, red desert, then returning to the river valleys and the vast grasslands where they did not have to depend on others for food.
I guess what I am trying to say is that life is full of forces that collide, which create tensions that seek to be understood, as water seeks the level. The nobility of the Navajo penned up. The innocence of a child exploited. The wildness of an animal made obedient.
Horses help us reconcile.
Our little girl keeps wanting to gallop. She lets her paint trot out past Nathan, then someone, usually Rivers, speaks to her and orders her to bring him back into line. Other times our string of riders falls quiet, the only sounds the creak of leather and the hiss of horse hooves on sand. Around us that beautiful country stretches far in every direction, dry and demanding, punctured by the waxy needles of Mojave yucca.
Now Joe catches up. He stops us so we can pass cameras to Nathan, who snaps pictures while we try to keep our horses still. The trail is long and as we ride I ask Joe questions and somehow, miraculously, he begins to tell the stories of the place. I want to remember them. They flow from his mouth, through his white teeth, and they stream past my ears and over my head and they do not land on me. They keep going. I remember Joe pointing out a butte where a certain movie was filmed, how a helicopter landed on top. I remember him nodding to a far distant line of mountains and telling of a trail-ride there, a kind of reenactment of some event in history, how it took three days. He faces the river, toward the place he caught the mustang I now ride.
His is not my story. My own soul is more botanic than geologic, loving green pastures, flowers, the juice of fruit, berries, black soil. I am here to experience erosion, the process of weathering away old buttes, turning them into mots. I am here for wind and water and for a far patch of green grass, dream of oasis.
We ride for two hours, enscribing a large circle with our queue, snaking through swales and dunes, rocks and searing sand, following Nathan on his mount, keeping our heels down, keeping our horses’s heads up, keeping an eye on the little girl. The red rock country is not my story but for a moment I pass through it on horseback, listening to a Navajo man tell stories, watching my daughter ride with her face forward, fierce and determined against the bluest sky.
Spirit’s body is warm beneath me. His coat is thick and soft from winter. He never shows an ounce of guile. He goes where I ask him to go. He seems to like me.
Later I will stand in awe that a world closed to me for so long could have opened so easily. Not my child’s healing. That would lurch along, creeping toward redemption.
What I love now, back home, is to stand next to one of our horses and lean into her body, feeling her huge warmth and her heartbreak, her hope and her fears. I like to feel her leaning back into me. She does not need me and I do not need her. But I want her. I want her smell and her whinny; and I wish that she could talk and that I could hear what she is saying.
“Ease up, sweetheart,” I say to my little girl, who is brushing the mare.
Sometimes when I am standing in the corral, dreaming, I pretend that my daughter and I are riding horseback through a red desert, leaned together in one saddle. She is talking to me as we gallop and I am listening to what she is saying but not remembering any of it, because as soon as the words spill from her mouth the wind grabs them and rushes away with them, turning them into blood-colored dust the ground gobbles up behind us. For a long time we have been leaving the angry past, racing across a fraught borderland.
Like the Navajo, we are not yet in the new world but we can see it far ahead.
Anna St. Sylvan lives on an organic farm with a herd of cows, a flock of sheep, four horses, and one red mule. She holds an MFA in writing from the University of Montana. When weeding, she thinks about courage, power, the effects of trauma, and ending oppression. When not weeding, she is at work on a book-length memoir.