Shadows

Legend tells of a supernaturally talented horse named Bucephalus who faithfully and fearlessly carried Alexander the Great across the Middle East in his conquest of the known world. It is said that in 344 B.C. a trader came to King Philip II and offered the horse for a price of 13 talents. The king, seeing the massive beast, and after being informed he was untamable, scoffed and declined. Alexander, the 13 year-old prince, gazed upon the massive-headed ebony stallion in awe. Eagerly, Alexander asserted he could tame the beast, even claiming he would pay the price himself if he failed. Philip agreed to the boy’s wager.

Alexander approached the stud calmly and affectionately, speaking in soothing tones as he stepped. Bucephalus softened to Alexander’s touch as he slowly turned the horse to face the sun. In doing so, Bucephalus could no longer see his own shadow, which had been the source of all the untamable steed’s fears. To prove the horse tame, Alexander tore the cloak from his own back and waved it in front of Bucephalus with no reaction. Stunned, the king granted Alexander ownership of the horse.

Legend paints a pretty picture, but history affirms – Bucephalus was real.

* * *

“Babe? BABE?” My voice tightened with nervousness.

“What?” Missi continued to scrub out the water trough without looking up.

“What do I do?” She glanced up only as long as necessary to assess the situation and went right back to scrubbing.

“Love on him.”

I was seated atop the fence in the same paddock corner Honor had frozen me in disbelief just a week prior. The oaf-ish equine had sauntered over to share in my Saturday afternoon cigarette. My legs dangled over the paddock side of the fence as this thousand pound behemoth climbed into my lap. Honor’s recent switch to gushing affection, albeit endearing, was taking some getting used to.

“Ow! Damn it! Cut it out!” Having pinned my legs against the fence with his shoulder, Honor was now craning his neck down attempting to chew on my shoes. “He’s biting my feet. I don’t want to smack hi… OW! Crap! Stop… BABE! What do I do? Is this bad? GAH! AHH! Would you knock it o… BABE! Get him to qui… Damn it Honor!” I was dashing my feet around while Honor snapped at them like a dog catching flies, his lips popping and squirming.

She was half smiling, half giggling. “He’s grooming you.”

“Grooming me? Grooming me for what? How do I get him to stoOW! I mean, I don’t want to discourage something er... to uh… or a behavior that’s… or whatever, just AH!” I was exposing my ignorance in this newfound school of horsemanship – and clearly failing the pop quiz. My dangling legs were tap dancing in air, evading Honor’s relentless pursuit. “Why is he so damn mouthy?”

“Why are you? Relax, it’s how horses show affection. It’s a good thing.”

“Good? What if this was how I showed affection? Would you still…” I trailed off as Missi’s left eyebrow raised in wicked sexual subtlety. She derailed my thought-train. “Never mind.” I darted my eyes away and went back to my dancing game with Honor, all the while trying not to burn me or him with my cigarette.

Missi stood up and walked over to the fence just to my left. She climbed up and began pinching his withers. I could say that with confidence; I knew what withers were – as well as hocks, coffin bones, fetlocks, stifles, and a growing list of other equine translations of human body parts.

“Pinch him, like this. It’s what he expects.” She demonstrated as Honor didn’t seem to make much note of it. “See, horses do this neck-hug thing where they put their head over the other’s shoulder and just kind of nibble on their withers. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours sort of thing, kind of sweet really.” She was soothingly adorable when teaching me about horses. She radiated a feminine beauty in such a sweet flavor when she was happy. It was the kind of beauty that makes a man – makes me – stare and hang on every syllable.

“I’ve lost feeling in three of my toes and I can’t be sure if one is actually still attached.” I feigned dire sincerity.

She giggled. “He likes you.”

“He’s crippling me. You’re going to come home one day and you’ll find me bleeding out on the back porch after I drag my legless torso just close enough to the door to realize I can’t reach the handle. Which makes me wonder, would life insurance cover being eaten by a horse?”

Missi and Willoway
    Missi and Willoway

“Try it. You know, you ought to make this a habit.”

“What a habit, being affectionately chewed to death?”

“No. This.” She nodded toward her hand as it pinched and scratched on Honor’s back. “Coming out here and doing this. It’ll make him easier to train.”

I hadn’t even stopped to consider it. Hell, I didn’t even know when a horse should start training. I knew that Thoroughbreds started racing at age two, so there obviously had to be training prior, but that logical two-second calculation was all I could muster. I suppose I assumed foals went to horsey summer camp somewhere and someone just sprinkled racehorse dust on them.

“When do race horses start training?”

“Well if he were a race horse, he’d already be done with a lot of the basics. If he were at the track, he’d be way behind the curve. I mean those horses get trained to the nines from day one: imprinting, tack, stalls, handling, socialization, trailers – and Honor is just now discovering people don’t actually want to eat him. So yeah.”

I measured my next question in brief silence because I didn’t want to sound quite so foolish or blunt with ignorance. “So,” I paused, “when are you thinking?” For the very first time, I had a fanciful vision of Honor maturing into a prodigious athletic specimen and taking the Derby by storm. It was my first ever “what if.” It wouldn’t be the last.

“Babe, he needs a lot of work. A lot. Plus, they push those horses too soon anyway. Most warmbloods don’t even come in from the pasture until three or more.” I knew what a warmblood was. Apparently Germans build better cars and better horses – or at least that’s what I had been indoctrinated with in recent weeks. My patriotism still denied it and Warmbloods were Missi’s yardstick for other horses.

“I mean isn’t there anything we can do?”

“Well, you’re doing it. Just rub on him all the time. Bring him treats. Climb up on the fence like you are, and push on his back; let him feel and get comfortable with weight. Be patient with him. He’s been through a lot of psychological trauma for a colt and that’s not something quickly erased. More than anything, you just have to give him time to adjust.  You don’t really train a horse. You don’t ‘train’ a thousand-pound flight animal, you convince him.” Her lesson awkwardly stuttered to a halt.

petting post
    Petting Post Spring 2012 (Honor center)

Clouds rolled quietly overhead, dulling the sharpness of the setting sun. The calm buzzing of cicadas cast a white noise backdrop over an otherwise still summer twilight.

“But. There is – definitely something…” I had taken her suggestion and was now scratching and massaging Honor’s back in fearless naivety. As I understood her, I assumed this was what I was supposed to be doing. She had changed the tone in her voice and abruptly began analyzing his behavior mid-sentence. She was in full-on horse mode, watching him meticulously while I began to stretch out across Honor’s back.

“What? What is it?”

Her eyes widened. “I – I’ve seen lots of babies, lots of colts, all sorts of breeds of foals. I can’t count how many horses I’ve started. I… I don’t know. Just his mannerisms and how... if I weren’t actually seeing it, I wouldn’t believe it.” She was more thinking out loud now, than talking to me, like she was recounting her résumé justifying something in her own mind. Her arms were folded across her filthy grey t-shirt and her blonde, disheveled up-do frayed out into the breeze. Missi grimaced in focused concentration then eased into gaping amazement. Her ocean-blue eyes ogled enormous through her narrow-framed glasses as I moved from just scratching to now literally hanging my whole torso over Honor’s back. Her jaw unconsciously gave way and hung loosely on her face. Honor’s neck stiffened with his nose lofted in delight. He leaned into me the more weight I put on him and the more aggressively I scratched him. Dust rose from his back in a growing cloud with every stroke. He was obliviously enthralled. So was Professor Missi.

Without measured concern, I shifted the majority of my weight forward off the fence and onto Honor. Missi’s entire skeleton snapped to panicked attention. She shot out a frantic hand. “Tim! Wait! Don’t, you shouldn’t…” Her shocked alert petered to an embarrassed mumble.

“Like this?” I strained to speak from lying against my stomach. I arched back just enough to peer over the crest of Honor’s spine at Missi as I continued to scratch all over Honor’s body. Her face contorted into a quirky, puzzled look that pulled me back upright, much to Honor’s dismay. Immediately frustrated, he resumed snatching at my feet. “What? What did I do? Why are you looking at me like that?”

Honor / Hottie
    Honor and Hottie Summer 2011

“Nothing.” I could see the gears spinning as she rifled through the confused labyrinth of her mind, struggling to find the right words. “You’re just going to think I’m another crazy horse lady.” Sheepish now, she metered her words.

“Babe, I already do. But you’re a hot one, so I break even. What is it?”

“Nothing. Just… don’t go thinking all horses are like this.” She was clearly avoiding something. “Because they aren’t.”

“How do you mean?” I was genuinely intrigued.

“No. You’re just going to poke fun at me and say it’s dumb horse-feely crap. I hate it when you do that.” With a smile and a diplomatic nod, I promised I wouldn’t. She sighed as she relaxed her shoulders. She looked away toward the ground, arms defensively crossed. She became beautifully huggable. “I don’t know how to say it.” She blushed. Urgently she spouted, “I swear to God he knows. Like he gets it, and he’s thankful. I don’t know. It’s stupid. I’m a crazy horse lady.” Her voice nervously quickened at the end, apparently candy coating what she must have felt was girly gibberish.

“Miss, he’s a horse. I wouldn’t know any better anyway. You could tell me he’s the first one you’ve seen without wings and a horn. I’d ask what happened to his.” I shrugged with a crooked smirk and resumed hanging all over Honor, who also reestablished a visible state of ecstasy. “But… I do agree he’s thankful for this.” I chuckled.

Missi was clearly offended; I could hear it in her reinvigorated sternness. “You really are oblivious. I guess that’s part of your charm.” Missi’s knack for sharp, assertive humor always came off sexy. She snapped into her coarse, condescending expert tone. “Allow me to simplify: I have no rational explanation why he doesn’t rear back, throw you against the fence in panic, and trample you, leaving a bloody heap of flesh for me to mop up. Because that is what green horses do.”

“Because he’d rather devour me one toe at a time?” I sat up and flicked my cigarette butt.

“Joke all you want. Either you’re just lucky… or…”

I leaped down off the fence, inches from her face, interrupting her. A coy, devilish smile stretched across my face as I kissed her on her forehead. She glared up at me. “Of course I’m lucky babe! No ‘or’ about it!” I pulled away, offered another bright-eyed smile to my sullen fiancé, winked, and gingerly walked back inside on tender toes. Missi remained rooted in her folded-arm stance, still evaluating, still curious.

Honor boyishly leaned against the fence, ambiguously reaching his neck in earnest toward either one of us. Missi heard the back door latch shut in the distance behind her. She stood alone with Honor in momentary silence. Both curiously examined the other.

Hottie Missi honor
    Hottie, Missi, Honor Summer 2011

“You convince him.” Missi muttered to herself. She continued to stare analytically at the colt, still lost in reserved bewilderment. “Odd. Both of you.”

* * *

The comedy that transpired over the following weeks could fill an encyclopedia with horse humor. The comedy alone would be an entertaining study, but the astonishing shift in personality and uncanny nature of our clearance-sale colt inspired more than laughs. It inspired a narrative – a purpose. All matters involving Honor evolved ever-so-subtly to take on a living, breathing notion, a scripted ambiance, or some pre-edited screenplay where the characters therein somehow knew all the lines, but never the next scene. It was an eerie creaking machine of invisible rusty cogs that had sprung to life after years of dormant neglect, creeping forward one purposeful scene at a time, ratcheting tension against itself. Everyone loves a good comedy.

    In the shade Summer 2011

Honor liked to sleep – a lot. Honor scored gold at the 2011 Olympic games in sleeping, setting records for total hours, hours in one sitting (or laying, or planking, or contortioning), volume of snore, bed selection, and depth of sleep.

It started when I came home from work one day. I had been issued my feeding orders by the lady of the house: a strictly measured, oft-changing regimen involving this grain, that grain, hay, powder stuff, and smelly oils all requiring a small laboratory of beakers and Bunsen burners to concoct. Feedings must adhere to precise time scheduling, plus or minus fifteen minutes, with allowable deviations in feed mixture ratios by no greater than three ounces. If the balance is shifted imperfectly off its fulcrum, space and time collapse in on themselves and horses spontaneously combust – instantly. I believed her. These are clearly dire matters negating any negotiable risk.

I climbed out of my car and proceeded to the Meth lab (the left side of the garage). Carefully straining each measurement of grain granules into large green scoops, I filled three buckets for our three equine family members. By filled, of course I mean 7/16th of a bucket for Maverick, 9/32nd of a bucket for Hottie, and 1/8th of an inch overflow of a bucket for Honor. The painstaking process required more than fifteen minutes of scientific scrutiny. I snatched the two lighter buckets in my right hand, Honor’s in my left, and lumbered out of the garage towards the front paddock.

I froze in shock as my adrenals surged a wave of gooseflesh from my back to my brow.

“HONOR!” I yelled in anxious horror.

He was splayed flat on his side, unmoving. I yelled again, louder, quivering. “GET UP!” Nothing. I instantly hated myself for being helpless. Honor had already proven to be a magnet for cuts, bruises, abrasions, and any manner of incidental injury, constantly colliding with the fence and his own clumsy self almost daily. I dropped the buckets. Sprinting to the fence, I locked my breath. The hair on my head bristled in nightmarish fear. Billions of horrific thoughts thundered through my brain with every footfall through the yard. I raced closer. I scanned for blood as I dashed. His mouth lay agape against the ground, teeth gleaming white in the sun – his eyes sewn shut in dark slits. He’s not breathing! Oh God he’s not breathing! NO NO NO! He’s not…

Snoring.

“YOU SON OF A BITCH!” I kicked the fence with loud violence.

Honor twisted his head off the ground indifferently as a cat sunning himself on a window sill. In casual acknowledgement of the obnoxious disturbance, Honor blinked, and clumsily returned his head to the ground.

Snoring Fall 2011
    Snoring Fall 2011

“Ooooh no. You get your ass up! You… you… Oh my God!” My fear had flipped to laughable anger. I had been pranked, in spades. I sulked in defeat back to the buckets of grain near the driveway as Honor lazily groaned to his feet, completing the cat act with a gratuitously drawn-out stretching and a refreshing shiver. “Sorry to wake you, Your Majesty, but dinner is served. The chef has prepared a delectable entrée of…” My sopping sarcasm came to a screeching halt.

“Shit.”

All three buckets and their scientifically portioned contents lay strewn haphazardly about the ground, co-mingled in a mass of unmeasured grain-blob. I turned back to Honor who was now alert, eager, and expectant of his perfectly timed meal. He nickered as if half-laughing, half-“hurry up.” I said nothing. I just leered with resentment. I grumbled under my breath. “Looks like dinner… Sir… is going to be a few minutes late.”

As it turns out, space and time continued their cosmic advance, and our horses didn’t burst into flames. They all got fed – Honor got fed – and in the process, we learned his first talent: sleeping.

Alfalfa bed
    Alfalfa bed

After the initial shock of witnessing a flight animal carved by millions of years of evolution sleep like a gluttonous apex predator, Missi and I began to enjoy the perpetually snoozing bastard. He’d build a bed in the alfalfa pile – we’d bury him in it. He’d snore like an asthmatic elephant – we’d record it on video, snickering quietly like mischievous teenagers. He’d doze off in the shade next to the water trough, and we’d sit on him and take pictures. The real humor of it was he would almost always awaken momentarily, and without hesitation, go right back to dreamland, indifferent of the goings on around him.

Front-row seating
    Front-row seating

Wake-up call
    Wake-up call

Almost daily, if Honor wasn’t preoccupied with screaming around the paddock, sprinting and bucking in racehorse frenzy, he was in something just shy of a medically induced coma. Mind you, this wasn’t run-of-the-mill afternoon siesta amateur-hour crap, either. Honor was a sleeping prodigy, slumbering the way Michelangelo painted, with all the ground his Sistine Chapel. This sloth-loving colt bore no resemblance whatsoever to the angry beast who once lurked ominously at a distance. It seemed unfathomable, then, to think the two the same creature, like we were watching Old Yeller in reverse.

“What the hell is this, and what have you done with our horse?” Missi had asked once, pointing at a bay colt laying uncomfortably twisted on his stomach, legs tucked cozily against his body, muzzle planted firmly in the dirt, nostrils buzzing the grass. She had called him “our” horse.

“I convinced him!” I proudly proclaimed with a car-salesman smile.

She was suspicious. “Of what?” She understood the reference but questioned the punchline.

“That we don’t want to eat him!” I was overacting my excitement to share.

Missi dropped her head in unimpressed fashion… and reluctantly gave way to an involuntary smile. She postured flirty.

“Got a bridge I can buy, Mr. Finley?”

Honor snored happily. Missi and I were laughing.

* * *

Legend tends to mystify with exaggeration and embellishment. Perhaps the backstory of Bucephalus falls in line with the rest of antiquity’s half-myth, half-histories, springing from the campfire banter of the admiring grunts in Alexander’s army. But what if we, for a moment, entertain the possibility of its literal truth – is it so far-fetched? Is it so hard to believe that by simply changing a perspective – by shifting shadows, our own shadows, to where they no longer pose a threat, no matter how hollow or baseless – that we may discover the trivial nature of that fear and tame the untamable? I won’t say the legend is absolutely provable… but I will say…

I’m convinced.