Charlie Reese flicks his ears and starts walking backwards. Trace talks me out of the mistake.
“Put your hands lower on the reins. Pull once to your belly. Don’t forget toes up, heels down. Reins in between your belly button and your pelvis.”
Charlie Reese stops with a stomp, lets out a lippy snort. I am stiff, not blinking, clenching my jaw. My friend Danielle is behind me, saying how beautiful I look on a black stallion. I don’t dare turn around to talk to her and I leave the hair that’s stuck to my lip in place.
Trace leads Danielle up to a plow horse named Molly. She must be 10 feet tall. Charlie Reese is petite, standing a head above me. He has a white stripe down his muzzle. I want to scratch him behind the ears like I do with my dogs, but I am marble.
Trace puts a step up to Molly, asks Danielle if she needs a push. “I think I got it,” she says. She has trouble getting her leg over; the pain from her fibromyalgia is always a problem.
“She doesn’t seem too happy with me on her back,” Danielle says. She worries about her size but she looks small on Molly, her legs short and kicked out sideways. Her wavy hair gathers at her shoulders, redder in the sunlight than I remember. “I’m bigger than she expected.”
“I’m sure she’s fine,” I say. Danielle has gone pale, but she reaches up to Molly’s neck to pet her. It is a silent conversation.
“Yeah, Molly hauls carriages at Christmas,” Trace says. “Now, y’all set still and I’ll get on my horse and lead us down the trails in a minute.” A cigarette hangs from Trace’s lips; he never touches it with his hands, just sucks in and eventually spits it out. His Wrangler’s are dirty and his beard’s filling in. He’s skinnier than me and his skin has taken on the patina of a man who’s worked outside his whole life. He saddles his horse and hops on him in a quick, fluid motion. I wish I could absorb his knowledge through proximity.
Danielle had been pushing me to stop working so much, to get outdoors and get on some horses. She had said it might help my writing, my melancholia. We used to have lunch once a week but since I’d been writing this book and going through my second round of graduate school, I’d found a lot of reasons to blow her off. She knew I was spending too much time in my muddled head. Writing wasn’t fun anymore. I needed to surrender, to grab at some kind of faith.
Charlie Reese is skeptical of me. He digs at the dirt, pulls his head down.
“You got to let him know you know what you’re doing,” Trace says.
“But I don’t,” I say, trying to find a comfortable spot in the saddle.
“Sit up straight,” Trace says. “Toes up, heels down, and don’t let him eat nothin’ on the trail. God knows he’s gonna try.” He loops his reins around one hand. I wonder why he has us using both hands. “And you,” he says to Danielle, “Molly’s a strong girl, gonna jerk them reins, best hold on.” He smiles over his shoulder, adjusts his ball cap so we can see his eyes. “You ladies ready?”
“Kiss at ‘em and give ‘em a bit of heel. Let’s go.”
I almost cancelled this morning. I’d done it once before when it looked like rain. There is something out here in the wilderness I can’t face. I’m fighting for some string of self-confidence to keep going with my writing, to keep from losing the last ties to a higher power that flicker through me. I’ve stopped praying but being on Charlie’s back makes me want to.
I put my tongue to the roof of my mouth, making a clicking sound. I press my heels into Charlie Reese’s sides. I try to relax. Bobbing up and down and side to side in the saddle, I feel pressure on my tailbone already and we are just walking. The trail is rocky. Charlie’s hooves slip occasionally. We fall behind Trace.
He yells, “Give ‘em some heel. Kiss at ‘em.”
I do and Charlie moves into a trot. I bang up and down on the saddle.
Trace laughs when I pull the reins for Charlie to stop. “If you press into the stirrups you won’t be smacking your behind so much.”
“I’ll try to remember that,” I say, embarrassed.
We move on, keep walking through the forest. It smells of pine. The leaves are just starting to get orange and red; the tips look as if they have been dipped in color.
“It’s beautiful out here,” I say as we move into a clearing with tall grass.
“You ought to see it at Christmas time,” Trace says. “You celebrate Christmas?”
“Yeah,” I say because that’s the easiest answer to a complicated question. I go through the traditions of Christmas. Trees, presents, baking and family. I don’t share the fact that I’m agnostic with just anyone. Not even Danielle knows. She’s always talking about Jesus and praying for me. It would break her heart. Today, I look for peace in the simple connection of human and horse.
“Come Thanksgiving, we sell trees, do carriage rides, do an old country Christmas thing. Last year we even got a little snow for it. You oughta come out.”
Danielle says, “We should do that, Beth.”
I’m too busy trying to get Charlie Reese out of the weeds he’s started chewing. A big purple-coned flower and something white, like baby’s breath hang from the sides of his mouth.
“That’s two points for Charlie,” Trace says. “Get him outta there.”
I pull the left rein down to my knee; bring my right hand up over the horn. He comes out of it and into a circle.
“Bring him back around and pull the reins to your belly,” Trace says.
I pull the reins. Charlie finishes chewing. I hear the plants crunching between his teeth. He flicks me with his tail.
I’m proud for getting control of him. I let go of the internal chatter and focus on the trees, the wind, and the wiry texture of Charlie’s mane. I feel him starting to trust me but he’s not finished testing me. I pat his side, whisper, “good boy.”
“Molly has gas,” Danielle says. “And she keeps pulling at her reins.”
“Y’all are gonna wanna lean forward and give ‘em heel to get up the ridge over there. Then, when you come back down, lean back and pull up on the reins some.”
We lumber forth over the ridge and back into an overgrown section of trail where brush hits my boots.
“You sure you’ve never ridden before?” Trace asks.
“Not since I was seven,” I say.
My mother had taken me riding at a friend’s house. The horse was white and speckled brown. My mom, her friend, my brother, and I rode together through her property –a wide expanse of field. I rode ahead, alone. It was the first time I can remember being free from the weight of my parents’ divorce.
I was so small then.
“What do you do?” he asks, leading us around a sharp curve. I click for Charlie, pull to the right. He’s listening to me for the first time.
With a mess of a book under way and no real contribution to my household, sometimes I wonder if I’m just a dreamer. But not today. Not with my thighs aching and my head clearing. Not with Charlie. In this moment, I believe.
“I’m a writer,” I say with my thumbs poking up, wrapped in reins.