Two horses, a rundown house and a dwindling remnant of land are the last things that remain in the possession of my old friend and neighbor, Russell Croft, once the biggest rancher in Big South County. Their condition, which he has struggled for years to maintain, gradually declines, along with his own. Most of what he once had has been sold to maintain his drug habit.
He keeps the horses, the last of many that once ran his pastures, on a high plateau above the sea, curtailed on the land side by a fence and on the sea by steep cliffs. It's as if they symbolize a last stand. But the real story is not so poetic. This site, the last piece of pasture he owns is simply remote and fragmented, so as to be of little value to anyone. There, bathed in certain seasons by continual mists, and warmed in others by the sun, with nothing but a lean-to shed to protect them, wander year in and year out two thin, grey appaloosas. They have a drinking trough filled by a pump and windmill drawing them fresh well water when the sea breeze blows, as it regularly does on these headlands in Big South. He keeps the horses, I think, as a reminder of his past and possibly as a link to a better future, and usually gets up to care for them when he should. However, for me they are just innocent animals that because of their owner's habits are occasionally in need of my care and concern.
Back from a month's absence, I drive up to check on them, and find them as usual standing together near the fence, curious to see who might be coming down their lonely road. I'm concerned because the summer was hot, with neither enough rain to refresh the grass nor enough sustained wind to keep their trough full. But things are worse than I feared. With the pasture dried up, no feed laid on, and the windmill broken, the horses are starving.
At the gas station, Tim volunteers that Russ hasn't been around for awhile. "He's probably back on the drugs, and you know what that's like." Yeah, I know what that's like. I've had him in my cells overnight enough times, when he needed a taste of reality.
Back at the office, I hitch up the horse trailer first, and then drive to Russ's house. He meets me at the door, looking gaunt and wild-eyed, and smelling bad. With his hand raised against the doorjamb in a slightly defensive pose, he's holding a cigarette, and his fingers quiver. "Hey, Kemo Sabi!" he jokes. But he looks abject, beaten, miserable. Noticing the horse trailer, he knits his brow, and then something clicks behind his eyes. Remembering, he moans inwardly, swaying in the doorway. As gently and evenly as I can, I say, "I've seen the horses, Russ. They're really bad off. How long since you been up there?" He's silent. "I don't want to charge you this time, but maybe we better keep them for you for awhile. I'm gonna' leave 'em with Charlie for now, and then we'll see. Anyway, you'd better clean this place up. I'm gonna' be back in an hour to search the house."
When I get back with the horses, he meets me in the yard. He's washed up and has changed his clothes, and says he wants a lift into town. He's going to check in again at detox. As I'd hoped, I've jolted him back into some semblance of sobriety, and he's ready to try again. He says he needs to get straight to save the horses! Well, any motivation is better than none, I'm thinking. "No need to search the house, I guess?" "No, no," he says, "no need." Good. Whatever drugs he had there are now gone, flushed, whatever, and the place is such a goddamned mess I'd hate to have to go in anyway. Besides, I remember too well the great times we used to have there, before he made that u-turn in the road…
As we ride in silence down from the cliff house and along the coast, I wonder if he thinks of the old times too. Can it ever be the same? It's now past noon, and he's tense. Maybe he hasn't used today. Avoiding my eyes, he's staring moodily out the window at the ocean. The sea breeze has picked up smartly.
white horses plunge and rear
(First published by Simply Haiku, Winter 2006, v 4 no. 4)