The Two-Hour-Old Horsel Who Stared Death in the Eye

In order to appear not to be countermanding long-standing orders specifically prohibiting the excavation of the few grey Oklahoma rats who might have escaped her previous cleansing operations, Roo K. Beker was today pretending not to be inspecting a stretch of fencing along a pasture where four miniature horses live.

Operating under the general principles of canine stealth—pretending to be interested in nothing more than a purely academic identification of grasses and meadow blossoms—R.K. was attempting to simulate disinterest in a distant target that it was obvious she had already acquired. When her commanding officer, who happens also to be her footman, noticed the ruse and instructed her to stand down, Roo K. Beker, decided that the insertion of a letter of reprimand in her permanent record, no matter how strongly worded or how many promotions it might cause her to be looked over for, was worth the capture and killing of this target. She looked back at me to make sure I wasn’t close enough to catch her and abandoned all pretense and took off after her quarry. Her commanding officer had to admit that she looks very cute when runs like that. Some dogs just wear defiance well.

In a maneuver that was a first for her, she was observed from behind stopping abruptly 100 feet shy of the line of skirmish. She transitioned to an upright stance and with her ears at full attention, tilted her head approximately 60 degrees to her right and then 40 degrees to her left. Shifting the internal spirit bubble failed to resolve her confusion, and she kept tilting.

It was then that her pursuing commander first sighted the animal on Private R.K. had been focused. Grey, check. White highlights, check. Cute and fuzzy, check: all features comported with the known insignia of the battalions of local rat species thought now to have been consigned to future natural museum panoramas of a bygone time—a couple of weeks ago—when they scurried as abundantly on the Oklahoma prairie as the bison used to scurry 150 years ago. Was it a deserter? Or a stunned straggler whose luck had finally run out? Roo was confused. This animal was approximately 20 times the size of any known rabbit and 60 times the size of any previously recorded rat. 

Acts of extraordinary gentleness have been recorded throughout the history of warfare. After all, some dim remnant of emotion might be triggered by the smallest thing in the heart of even the most battle-hardened fighter. It was in this way that R.K.’s demeanor changed. Instead of lowering her rifle, Roo signaled the all clear to the little beast with a soft wag of her tail and approached it softly.

The first tragedy was averted. It would have been anyway, because the target was located in a small penned area with chicken wire on one side and heavy steel portable fence on the other three. But tragedy was certainly averted as far as R.K., who believes that she is the omnipotent final arbiter of questions concerning the lives and deaths of rats, was concerned.

That target was a freshly born miniature horse foal. Its (I only use “it” in this case because gender was indeterminate) mother was on the other side of a heavy steel fence, troubled by her separation from her newborn. The foal, still reeling from the ordeal of birth, had not yet formed the neural networks necessary to walking, and was staggering on its spindly little legs, poking its little snout at the gaps in the fence and trying to gum the steel with its soft little lips. Its mother, meanwhile, was stupefied by whatever bizarre turn of events had separated her from her baby.

You could see the flashbacks begin to hit Roo. Her own desperate puppyhood, when she, too, had been cruelly sequestered, came crashing back down on her. All the emotions she had also experienced as a little horse  in dark times raced back to her. She was instantly reduced from an icy Maxim gun operator flinging her camouflage aside to turn an ambushed platoon to sausage stuffing, to something more along the traditional lines of a Golden retriever. 

The little horse, whose transition from amniotic somnolence had been cushioned by its arrival in a sunny pasture on a windless 84-degree day, knew nothing of the dangers of a world. As far as the morsel-sized horse—which is why they are called horsels—was concerned, Planet Earth was a the wonderful place in the baby horse books her mother would soon be reading to her where the second thing you ever saw after your pint-sized mother were fluffy blonde quadrupeds who could stick their tongue out and smile and magically wave their tails at you.

Roo’s enchantment did not last long, however. The horsel’s grey and white fur had whetted her appetite for a rabbit hunt, and having seen an animal this size, she was sure there would be another one of the same size close by.

I wasn't ready to go, though. For one thing, I knew that the horsel’s mother was pregnant, but I was shocked to see the actual product, and as I understood the scene, I realized that the foal must have just arrived. I’ve never seen a newborn foal. I’ve seen them after they were already wizened by three or four hours of life, but not as new as this. This little one had dried, but was still without the first particle of prairie dust on her. 

But—why was this newborn separated from its mother? There wasn’t enough room at the bottom of the fence for a horse even of its size to get through. There was enough space for, say, a dog to scoot under, but the geometry of its limbs prevented it. So, how had it gotten on that side of the pen? Was there a veterinary reason of some kind?Maybe the horsel needed protection in it’s first hours of life. But, on the other hand, didn’t a newborn need to feed? It seemed more likely that Roo and I were the first to note its presence, let alone to have come around and sent her to the Gulag.

I called the ranch office. It was Sunday, so no one was there, but there was an emergency number on the message. I called that and interrupted the Sunday morning of Mary, one of the employees, and explained the situation to her. She said she would call John, the owner. We hung up, but I called back to ask if she had gotten through and to suggest that I just go in and liberate the horsel myself.

Now, there are two ways of differentiating true cowboys from someone like myself, who never saw a horse that didn’t have a policeman with a nightstick in a scabbard on it or wasn’t in a movie until I was fairly well on in years. The first is that no self-respecting cowboy would be caught dead carrying an umbrella on a sunny day. Which I was. Spring is not bothering to creep up on this region this year. Full-on summer has arrived, and, instead of being broiled to death as I was in this heat the day before, I took my umbrella. I hung it on the fence. The second way to tell that I am not a cowboy was by my decision to go to the other end of the pasture to enter through a gate rather than climb the fence. My reasoning was that the narcotic effect of the apples I had fed these little horses over time might have worn off by now. Maybe they were more like chained Rottweilers and wouldn't take too kindly to my entering their turf with a newborn around. For all I knew, they might have been waiting their whole lives for an excuse to justify a homicide. Better to go to the other side. Roo wanted to come in with me, but this time she understood that this was one order she had better not try to push her luck with.

Another one of the little horses greeted me. She also appears to be pregnant. She wanted to know where her apple was. When she saw I was headed towards the foal and her mother, she trotted ahead of me and got there first. All the little horses were quite pleasant. They live on a friendly ranch where they are loved and taken care of and they harbor none of the suspicions most horses know humans deserve.

A few weeks ago, when some cows wandered into the camp, the same kind of portable steel fencing that was penning the foal in was placed in the way of our walk, and when I tried to move it, it fell. Take it from me: them dang things? They’s heavy. And this one seemed to be precariously placed, leaning against another one. If it fell on the horsel it would have flattened her like a hamburger sizzling under a spatula. While I was trying to figure out how to position the fence safely, a red jeep approached on the road a few hundred feet away. It was John, the owner. One thing you have to say for John is that he is not suspicious of strangers. He didn’t seem to think anything of the fact that I was in his pasture with the miniature horses. I whistled to get his attention and waved and motioned to the morselhorse. He stopped and turned back. When he shut the engine off up at the corner of the field, I hollered, “You got a new one.”

He was passing by coincidence, and had he not heard my whistle, he would have continued on his way.

John had evidently forgotten his umbrella and had no compunction about scaling the fence. He was there in a flash. Now, while I would of course have liked to have had the honor of freeing the aspirin-sized horsel, I was glad he was there. For one thing, moving the fence would have meant leaning it against the chicken wire, and it didn’t seem adequate to the weight. For another thing, these were his horses, and he loves his animals, and he was more deserving of the joy of freeing this littlun than I was.

The mystery was how the horsel had wound up in the pen. We discussed it while I held the fence and he moved it. In his opinion the horsel must have fallen beside it and somehow managed to get on the other side of it when she tried to get up. It was a freak accident that she was stuck in there. And, it being Sunday, the ranch hands had the day off. Had R.K. Beker simply been complying with standing orders instead of mutinying, I might not have seen the horsel and who knows how long she might have been separated from the mother whose milk she was in especial need of in her first few hours of life. Tragedy averted? Perhaps that’s too generous a view to take of it, but if I pin a medal on Roo's chest for this one no one might.

The mother and the other mother-to-be, the one who had trotted ahead of me, went into where the foal was. It was a good moment. You could see the mother’s relief. The other one’s, too. John got the second one out of there and moved the fence back so that the two were penned together. Later, he would put fencing around an open shed for the two of them so that the newborn would be protected from getting jostled and accidentally injured by the other miniature horses until it was limber enough to get out of the way.

As they say around here, tell you what—mornings like that have got to be one of the better upsides to ranching. The mother was completely comfortable with John (she had been with me, too, when I petted the little one) handling her baby. While he held her he explained to me the benefit of helping them imprint on their humans. He rubbed her and gently lay her on her side to look her over. On first glance, the horsel appeared to be a girl, though that diagnosis would change later in the day. He rolled him over onto his other side, checked his limbs, removed a little bit of afterbirth that was stuck to his lip. After a minute of that, even though he didn't have any real plans, he wanted to get up, and john let him.

We hung around and watched them and smiled a lot and talked about it all under that beautiful blue Oklahoma sky. A few fair weather cumulus rolled over while Roo raced me to the other side of the pasture, to which I returned instead of making my cowboy bones by climbing the fence because in my determination to get in I latched the gate but didn’t double loop the chain around and wanted to restore it to the way I found it. Which is probably a better way to tell a real cowboy than all the others combined, though, as a military man, I wouldn't really know.

Roo considered that the arrival of the horsel augured well for rabbits. It put her in a great mood. I forgot the umbrella and had to come back for it. When the morning developed without bloodshed she still wasn’t disappointed.

If there was a third tragedy, it might be playing out in Roo’s mind right now: a world where the biggest, baddest rats turn out to be fuzzy little grey horses just disguised like them to make a mockery out of existence. She’s been having particularly animated dreams tonight. Because I have the special gift of being able to read a dog’s dreams, I know what they are. She is running, like the mad dog she loves being, hellbent on catching the biggest rabbit who ever hopped, or the king of all the ranch rats, the one who has made it to the end of the world, to a place she knows that if any dog is liable ever to get a chance to see, she's bound to be that dog. 

Not much of a tragedy in any of it, I guess. 

UPDATE: Today the little horse PRANCED. I saw him through binoculars.

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Welcome to The Handbasket. Personal essays. Fair warning, in order to post this material and still try to keep working on the other work, I will frequently be guilty of committing the penalty-deserving foul of excessive roughness. It's either that or nothing gets posted. So everything will be a bit on the rough side. These aren't presented as completely finished pieces. They're aimed at becoming part of a greater whole, which means they'll digress too much or touch on stuff that would have to appear elsewhere. 

The first piece is an attempt to make up for some embarrassing sleep-blogging I did over the night of January 8-9. 

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Notes from a Handbasket #01

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I never wake up fewer than half a dozen times each night. Perhaps it is more correct to say I never really sleep. Either some form of injury wakes me up or a shot of adrenaline does, caused by the background processing of thoughts. Adrenaline will wake you up from sleep as effectively as a prison guard turning on the overhead lights in your SuperMax cell just to fuck with you. It works every time. In the aggregate, never sleeping is a little like breathing hydrochloric acid fumes, which eat you from the inside out.

That’s why I like that picture of Frankenstein's monster (for economy’s sake, I’ll just bow to convention and wrongly call the monster, which he wasn’t, Frankenstein, who he wasn’t). The two best Frankensteins of them all were Mary Shelley’s original, and Boris Karloff’s in the 1931 masterpiece. The stories weren’t the same at all. Shelley’s monster was endowed with superior brainpower and not just superhuman will, but strength. His creator, Herr Doktor Frankenstein, left out of his intricate calculations the possibility that such a creation might think for himself. So he did, and the result was the monster’s relentless pursuit of the hapless Doktor to punish him for having placed his human lust for God-like power above any ethical concerns for his creation’s well-being. We last see the Monster from a distance as he chases the Doktor across the frozen tundra and into the world beyond. You could say that the monster was the more powerful individual. A body handcrafted for strength and agility. The mind of a genius. A capable enough thinking man to realize that the Doktor had to go before he got the chance to screw the entire world up as much as he had the Monster.

When I wake up, the first thing I do is look down to see how Roo’s doing. She has a specially built space for her bed on the floor next to me. Unless something is scaring her, she’s always fast asleep. She prefers not to be disturbed overnight, and I never do. To access the fragments of sleeping pills I keep beside me, I have to twist around in the corner where the head of the bed is instead of just reaching up because my damaged shoulders can't hack it. Every movement in this tiny camper necessitates careful maneuvering at all times. For example, switching on a lamp requires a carefully choreographed, angular foot placement past jutting corners and finally a handhold on a wall to lean in to where the switch is. Getting something out of a cabinet often requires getting on one’s knees and then placing one’s head on the floor in order to achieve the leverage and balance necessary to reach inside.

When I’m turned in that direction, I see what is in the accompanying photograph. In the foreground is a little statue and in back is a production still from the 1931 movie, Frankenstein. That’s Karloff in his iconic performance. I never tire of that picture or that photo. 

Now, Frankenstein (the so-called monster) was actually a good guy. He was just misunderstood. He didn’t mean to throw the little blind girl in the pond. He loved her. Because she couldn’t see him, she wasn't terrified of him. His inability to speak was to her just a handicap like her own. She befriended him and included him in her pastime of casting flower petals in the water. Frankenstein had been taught nothing. He was just a big lug in platform boots, and it was only because his first taste of human kindness made him exuberant. He mistook the little girl for a flower petal. He didn’t know anything about drowning. If it takes intent to commit a crime, he was as innocent as any little blind girl. Next thing he knew, the whole village was out carrying flaming torches and pitchforks and scythes and coming after him. He was going to have to pay, even if he was only there in the first place because Colin Clive decided to play God and stitch him together from a pile of black market corpses and then run 10,000,000 volts of lightning through him to wake him up. Something was bound to go wrong. In the picture beside my bed, he has been crushed by beams of timber when the inevitable destruction occurs. I don’t like that picture because I take any pleasure out of seeing him crushed. It’s because I know how he feels.

When I found that picture in a Hollywood junk shop or used book shop or something like that a long time ago, I identified with it not just because I always liked him to begin with, but because I had being crushed in common with him. And, being crushed was how the whole not sleeping thing began. 

It's not like I have never gotten a good night’s sleep in the past 30 years. Of course I have. I remember the exact date: December 16th, 2007. On that occasion, for reasons that when in future I share them with you you will find hard to believe (but I will and you should because they will be true), I slept for an uninterrupted 15 hours. But other than that, never. Well, come to think of it, that’s not true either, because I was under anesthesia once for eight hours for something else, if that counts.

I don't know if not being able to sleep any more started with having had my head bounced fore and aft on the steel of a jeep and the Himalayan rocks where this happened, or whether it was from breaking both legs and an arm.

That night, a repetitive nightmare set in. It began in the hospital, after I was hefted eight feet up to the driver's compartment of an orange bus covered with handpainted Hindi movie stars and Hindu gods on a sleeping bag for a stretcher, and brought to a hospital in Kathmandu where I was deposited on the floor several hours later. Eventually they moved me to a bed. Any of you who have been banged up know that in those circumstances your body demands sleep. There are things it can only do when you’re not looking. 

The trouble was that the second I closed my eyes I instantaneously entered a REM state. None of the usual sleep cycling. Just eyes closed and BANG the dream launched. It would be the same every one of the hundreds of times I closed my eyes, repeating itself ceaselessly for several days.

In the dream, I was surrounded by nothing but deep, black, velvety, infinitely textured space. I was coming to the top landing of a staircase, standing on a floor of lustrous black marble with white green and white veins in it. It was polished to the smoothness of a cut diamond. I was going to have to go down that staircase. I had no more choice about it than any of us do about eternity. The stairs seemed only to descend into more space. I never saw where they led.

I was wearing slippers with sheepskin soles. It was worse than ice, because at least on ice there's always some crunchy inconsistency. Not on this. Nothing could be more slippery. It was only a couple of steps to the stairs, but I had to approach as gingerly as a cat. There were bannisters on both sides and if I could only inch up to them and get my hands on them, I could steady myself. I did, and it was a huge relief. Now I could concentrate on establishing perfect balance so that I could take the first step down the marble staircase. It was going to have to be perfect not to slip. I lowered my right foot with the focus of an astronaut who had to chance his one remaining gram of fuel to correct his trajectory to a distant star—or else drift for rest of eternity.

Every muscle in my body was taut and I winced with the precision I was trying to bring to lowering my foot. On that slippery marble, any sideways motion at all and I knew I would slip. The instant the sheepskin contacted the marble, though, my foot shot out from under me. I tried to regain my footing, but that only made the other foot slip, too. 

Out of the dream, on the bed in the dingy grey cinderblock room of the Kathmandu hospital, when I slipped in the dream I would start flailing my real-life broken legs. Both of them had been crushed to powder and needed to be kept still, but the more I tried to regain my footing on the black marble, the more I flailed. I kicked my broken legs so hard that they came off the bed and thrashed in the air, flopping around where both shinbones were pulverized.

Another patient was lying in the bed next to mine. He was an impoverished man who had reached his life expectancy of 35 or 40 and whose grim illness made his family spend their life savings on having him wheeled to the city on a wooden-wheeled cart pulled by its barefoot proprietor. It was too late. He had tuberculosis of the peritoneum and it had gotten out of hand. Somehow a gash had opened up on him, from his crotch to his throat, and his swollen guts were bulging up through it. An effluvia dripping from him puddled onto his mattress and from there onto the floor. He was having to endure the stench of his own death. It was the custom in Nepali hospitals then, possibly a matter of caste, for his family to clean it up. The nurses gave them a stringy old mop and a plastic bucket. It was too much to ask. Buckets they had been carrying their family's water up the hills where they lived forever. But experience with a mop or a floor made of anything but pale khaki dirt? No. His wife and daughter tried, but mopping it up was as alien an idea to them as not standing barefoot in the blood and shreds of cut fur of the hundreds of goats and chickens sacrificed on holy days in the white marble blood basins of the temple. They just swished it around while my roommate was dying as hellish a death as anyone ever had. I don't remember how long it took him to die. I only remember the way his family looked when he did.

My girlfriend Mana, uninjured in the wreck, stayed awake by my bedside for all those days, trying to catch me nodding off in time to drape herself over my legs and hold them down. The constant need to sleep was the goddamndest devil of the thing. No matter how scared I was of going to sleep and finding myself back at the top of that staircase where I would end up trying to tear my own legs off with that stumble into space, there was nothing I could do.

At some point, the nightmare stopped, and my legs and arm went on to heal. My short-term memory, which I unsurprisingly wasn’t at first aware of having lost, took a few weeks, during which every question I asked I asked over and over again twenty times, to return. But I stopped dreaming for a long time, and then, I only dreamed about being chased through the air over rooftops and trees before suddenly losing the ability to maintain flight and falling. Everyone knows the feeling of falling in a dream. What better way could there be to teach one not to risk it in real life. But these were only terrifying until I learned that in them I could remind myself that I was not really going to hit anything and so why not enjoy the thrill. I began to look forward to them. It must have rubbed whatever made them happen the wrong way, because after ten years or so, they stopped, too. In the 20 years since then, I doubt I've had a dozen dreams, all told. The only one I remember was on the night my dog Orville died and later I saw him in a dream. He was a white Labrador and he looked young again, smiling in a gold picture frame. Smiling.

If you look at that picture I took last night of my nightstand, you also see a small statuette that my friend Diane Pernet brought back for me from the Himalaya not too long after I cracked up there. Look at the statuette's hand and Frankenstein’s. Funny the way little things line up. The statue means a lot to me, and so I brought it along with Roo and me on our travels in the camper. It's good to be reminded of Diane all the time, because she is an actual angel. 

And in his way, to some of us, anyway—maybe more so to the kinds of kids who would end up going on long, desperate trips by themselves—so was Frankenstein. As a kid I would stay up to any hour of the night to watch that movie. 

They stopped showing it a long time ago.