29 Palms By Maureen Gilmer
08/01/2012 03:59PM ● Published by Denise Brown
He wanted a beer but it was too early in the morning. He always craved it after a night lying awake, the silence like that of Iraq just before the shit storm of body parts and blood mist. He looked down at the black bands tattooed onto his arm to remember the ones he’d lost. The Goddamned IED threw him off the top of the Hummer to land flat on his back in a dune. The rest of his unit died inside the vehicle.
Winds blew in the desert around the Marine base bringing voices that whispered in the dark. They whimpered in pain and shock, then louder cries and explosions wove in and out of the dry gusts as sand spattered the walls like buckshot.
The shrink had sent him out to a remote desert horse rescue for PTSD therapy before she’d clear him to re-up. A middle aged woman greeted Warren at the front gate as three ranch dogs raised the usual ruckus. “I’m Casandra” she said, holding out a hand. He shook it, surprised at the rough texture and calluses. Her eyes pinned him from under graying hair with the intensity of insurgents. She opened the gate. “We are so glad you’re willing to help.”
He didn’t see it as helping. It was just another mission, this one to convince Doctor Adduci that the silence didn’t put him on edge and that the winds never spoke to him in the voices of the dead. No, he was just going through the motions to get back to where he belonged, in the field of battle where the tension was familiar and each day had one simple goal: to stay alive.
“We take horses nobody wants,” Cassie began as they walked toward the large pasture. “That’s Lucky over there under that gelding. He does all our shoeing and trimming and generally takes care of everything I don’t have time for.”
Cassie picked up a box of brushes and led Warren into the big pasture where a massive dark mare stood taller than he was. After Cassie wandered off, Warren let his hand wander through the mare’s thick winter coat to check for spines. The herd milled around close by where Warren noticed a few skeletal horses that seemed hardly alive. Ghost horses he thought.
“We brought them in from an SPCA call.” Cassie said, startling Warren out of his gaze. “Their owners went back to Mexico and left them to starve.” Warren felt his chest tighten because the eyes of the ghost horses shared the same sense of surrender he saw in those of so many Iraqi children. “Horses are very subtle creatures, you know,” Cassie went on in her rambling way. “They speak with body language.” That’s how we were on patrol, Warren thought, slow and deliberate with every move.
“Take that little appaloosa over there,” she said, pointing to one oddly speckled horse. It stood between a mound of hay and three other horses, his ears laid flat back, the eyes slits and teeth bared. “You don’t need a book to know what’s going on.” Just then he lunged toward the others, forcing them to scatter, snorting loudly in frustration.
A week later Warren returned to find Cassie had gone north to pick up more horses. Warren went out to the mares where the same spotted horse now stood be- side one of the starved abandoned horses sleeping in the warm morning sun. The appaloosa’s head was low to the ground, hovering close to the sleeping horse’s ears. Warren could recognize a familiar vigilance, almost as though it was standing guard. Gently the spotted horse nudged the sleeping one. There was no response. He did it again and still nothing. Warren focused closely on its ribs and realized they were not rising and falling as they should. The downed horse was dead.
“We’re waiting for the truck,” Lucky said as he approached Warren in the pasture. “Isn’t it odd that the appy is protecting him.”
“How do you know that?”
“You just get a sense about it. They told us that appy came to us from Border Patrol. He belonged to an agent ambushed by drug smugglers alone in the desert. They shot him right off that horse’s back. The smugglers left him there to die, and it took awhile according to the report. That horse stayed right there for days, fighting off the carrion eaters. Poor thing nearly died of dehydration. Any other breed of horse would have, but he’s an appaloosa and they’re mighty tough. By the time they found the agent’s body that horse was plum loco and they had to blindfold it to get it away from the remains. That’s why he ended up with us. Nobody could manage him. See, he’s confused and now he’s repeating it all over again hoping for a different outcome. But that’s how appy’s are.”
“Well, appaloosas are more than just spotted coloring. They were Nez Perce Indian war ponies. The Indians rode them into battle without a bridle or saddle. Appaloosas were good ranch horses too because they walk out fast with a special gait they call the Indian shuffle. Only the pure bloods do it though - that’s how you know an authentic appaloosa.”
“But why does he keep doing that guarding thing?”
“My grandmother married into a Nez Perce family. She told me that appaloosas descended from a Wind Horse, which is supposed to be able to share the feelings of people - some kind of special sixth sense. It made them really sensitive to their rider’s emotions and they would bond with them completely. It’s why they were so successful in battle. That appy there, he’d bonded with the border agent and the man guarded our boundaries, it felt that and can’t detach from the incident.”
Lucky wandered off to call for a truck to haul away the carcass. Warren never thought of horses so bonded with people that they’d protect a fallen rider like that. But he’d done it too after they hit the IED, after he’d found the men. Their faces were bloody, eyes empty in death, but he remained with them fading in and out of consciousness from a head injury. Semper Fi. Never leave your men behind.
Iraq had taught Warren how to be silent, to sit or stand for hours on end waiting for the first sign of insurgents. When he was sure the appy saw him he devised an experiment to find out if this was indeed a Wind Horse.
Warren visualized himself wiping the blood off the driver’s ruined face as the breeze brought their voices crying in pain. He recognized the black kid from New Orleans with the wicked sense of humor. There was his sergeant’s New Jersey accent too. The one he missed the most was his best buddy, the stocky California surfer who joined up rather than do time. He let their voices enter his head, the ache in his chest made it hard to breathe.
Then he felt the presence behind him, a pressure on his back so light he spun around, vigilance kicking into high gear. There stood the appy, its peculiar human eyes peering directly into his own. Warren stepped back and the appy stepped forward to remain close. Its pinkish mottled nostrils gently sniffed the black tattooed bands, then nuzzled him there.
Warren didn’t dare believe that the horse could read his thoughts, but his experiment had certainly lured the appy to him. As Warren gathered his brushes he was amazed to find the appy following every step through the sand with its own footfalls matching his. Testing, Warren walked this way and that, the appy reflecting every move.
When the truck came to take away the dead horse Warren stood next to Lucky watching the grim scene, and behind them the appy stood watching too. “That’s a curious thing you know, that horse. I do believe he’s feeling you.”
Warren understood. He realized that day that every time he heard voices in the wind, the appy would perk up as though he heard them too. In between gusts when it was dead calm that crazy horse would walk around him in a circle as though it wanted all his attention.
“What should I do about him feeling me?” Warren asked.
“When a horse like that comes to you it means he’s hard wired into your brain, my friend. Perhaps you should ride him. My grandmother told me that riding a Wind Horse can draw darkness out of your soul. It’s like all of the ugliness, sadness and hurt travels from you, through that horse and down into the Earth.”
After the truck left, Lucky showed Warren how to tack up the appaloosa and Warren climbed aboard. After they’d circled a half dozen times the appy suddenly sped up into the Indian shuffle, his head bobbing with each step as the ground moved along beneath them. With each foot fall Warren felt the grief drain away, his mind clearing, his body relaxing to move with the horse as if they were one being. Even though Warren had never ridden before he felt as though his body understood what it was all about, perhaps it was muscle memory from a former life. In an odd way it was almost like a man and woman making love.
Cassandra returned a week later, her trailer full of new horses. After she watched them process into existing herd she stopped short and turned to Lucky. “Where’s the appy?”
Lucky pointed out into the open desert. “That one is a Wind Horse. He could feel the soldier.”