writer. lover. climber.
About three years ago I was thrown from a horse for the first time.
I rolled onto my back in the soft dirt of the practice arena, crossing my gloved hands over my chest. The rafters of the roof were dusty and covered with white bird droppings. I couldn't catch my breath. The arena lights were on a timer, and as autumn descended into winter and night began sneaking up sooner and sooner, they had only just flickered on a few minutes before; they were still warming, tinting everything a faded yellow-orange.
I could hear Hollywood's hoof beats drumming away from me and slowing down. I knew I needed to stand up in case he came barreling back my way. I got up slowly, pushing down on my own knees to straighten myself. Sharp pains shot up through my wrists and into my elbows.
My instructor Melody, a girl three years younger than I, had Hollywood by the lead and was walking him toward me. Melody’s lips moved, but I could barely hear her voice. I shook my head, still buzzing. The fall had sent me forward and sideways; thankfully, I'd remembered to roll as I struck the ground so that I avoided catching my full weight with my hands and arms, but as I rolled, my head had slammed hard against the ground. I reached up and unbuckled my helmet, pulling it off, and gave my head another short shake.
"Put it back on," she said.
"I'm sorry?" I wasn't sure I'd heard her correctly.
"You're standing. Your wrists are okay. You can hear me. You need to put your helmet back on."
I tried to take a deep breath but couldn't. Leaning forward to ease the pressure in my chest I said, "Just a minute, okay?"
Melody was a beautiful, soft-spoken girl, and she'd been teaching me for several weeks. Her thick blond hair was usually tied back in a ponytail, but the breezes that kicked up around my evening lessons often whipped a few strands loose. When she sat on the fence with her back to the barn, the flood lights silhouetted her narrow shoulders and her long legs in their banged up, black riding boots. She'd watch and talk as I took Hollywood around and around the enclosure, walking to trotting to a kind of rear-heavy, half-canter. This last was never acceptable to her, but Hollywood was ornery and old, and I was a beginner.
"Use your heels," Melody would call as I took a corner and slowed unnecessarily. Hollywood's round, bulging chest and the cavern of his body under the slick, brown English saddle would swell and surge with breath and his massive heartbeat. When I kicked, he'd start, take a couple of good strides and relax. Always. Because he'd hauled many a newbie around that ring, most of them much younger, yet much more willing to take command than me, Hollywood had sized me up and determined he was in charge.
On that particular evening three years ago, as night purpled the foothills of Dublin, California, Hollywood felt my attempt at an authoritative kick at the back corner of the ring, then skittered and hopped around a scary lump of sawdust and left me to crash to the floor.
Melody stood before me with her hand tight around the lead at Hollywood's chin.
"Get back on."
I wanted to raise an eyebrow and scoff. After all, there were only fifteen minutes left in the lesson. Why on earth couldn't I call it a day? I was an adult, after all, and she was still a child by comparison. Indignation warmed in my bloodstream and pushed me to draw myself up to my full height, ignoring the sharp shallowness of my breathing. This little girl didn't get to make the call for me. Unlike her, I had a college degree and worked full-time in an office; I made ten thousand decisions a day. I was married, ran a household. I was taking riding lessons by choice, because I had the time, the desire to be around horses, and I earned the money to pay for them on my own. I was paying her, for crying out loud. And my head hurt.
I looked down an inch or two into the opalescent curves of her face and said, "No. That's it for today."
I turned, realizing my legs were almost too shaky to stand, and took a few halting steps toward the gate.
"If you don't get back on right now, you won't ever do it," Melody said in a gentled tone from behind me.
I looked at her again. Standing beside Hollywood, sixteen hands of sweaty bay horse, Melody appeared slight. A wisp of gold arena sawdust suspended in a beam of light. Most of her weight was on her left leg, and her left arm was cocked at the elbow and pulled in protectively to her body.
Only two years before, she'd been in an accident, riding her horse fast across a field at dusk, the tall green and gray grasses wet and whipping at her ankles. A lone metal fencepost appeared out of nowhere. Her horse dodged it at the last second, rearing away, and Melody catapulted from the saddle and struck the post. Bones shattered, flesh split. The horse ran home. It took ages for those searching to find her, lying with her limbs splayed deep in the tall grass, unconscious from the pain. They saved her, but the bones fused in a way that left her leaning a bit, limping between the stalls of the barn, opening and closing the heavy, swinging gate to the practice arena with only one hand. She moved so quickly and with such grace that I sometimes forgot.
"Trust me," she said.
That night, I arrived home feeling dazed. The garage door opened and closed around my car, but I didn't hear it. I dumped my things on the kitchen counter and walked up the stairs, rigid and a little sore. When I saw Jonathan sitting on our long, black couch, I hurried to him, knelt on the floor and dropped my head into his lap to cry. It took me a while to tell him what had happened. I'd never expected to weep. The fall hadn't seemed scary at the time, and even when I looked back on the sequence of events they seemed slow, methodical, nothing to dread. The corner... two strong kicks... Hollywood jolting sideways... falling and almost catching and rolling...
Jonathan stroked my hair and then asked, "Did you get back on?"
I had walked back to where Melody stood, suddenly aware of my long, straight strides. I took the reins from her hand and turned to stare into Hollwood's long, flummoxed face. I reached up to scratch the vague white star in the middle of his flat forehead, put my foot in the stirrup, and hopped back into the saddle.
Melody had walked away, back to her place at the fence, her left elbow tucked in and her right leg propelling her forward.
"Get him trotting. Right now," she said. Her voice was strong from the other end of the arena. The ceiling lights had come up all the way and everything looked false, yellow, quivering with the buzz of the generator. "Don't think about the fall. Learn from it. You're in charge."
I passed her down the long stretch again and again during the last minutes of my lesson. She was back to smiling and chatting and calling out orders. When I went through the turn without losing speed, she let out a small shout of victory that rang high in the night air.
"And you'll go to your lesson on Tuesday?" Jonathan asked.
"Wouldn't miss it," I said.
Audrey Camp -- November 2011
Audrey Camp is a freelance writer and American expat living in Oslo, Norway. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University in June 2012. Audrey's essay, "Orientation", was published by Holland House as part of North of the Sun, South of the Moon: New Voices from Norway, a multi-genre anthology from the Oslo International Writers' Group. Her essays have also appeared in a variety of literary journals, and her popular blog, The Girl Behind the Red Door, has been running for more than eight years. Recently, Audrey worked as the Editorial Assistant for Adventum; she also spent ten months as a blogger for Sweet Lemon Magazine's blog, The Zesty Digest.