In Relation to the Ground

I lean my whole weight into the barn door, and out of the darkness two horses mutter at me. Two barn cats perch delicately in the gloom to my left. Two gleeful dogs boil noisily about my ankles and slip into the cool shaded dark. I walk down the aisle, surrounded, and speak to all of them, and we listen for each other, many ears and eyes. I run with the mutts out into the pasture beyond, and I yell and skip and dance for them, and they do the same on four stick-legs, tongues lolling and eyes rolling. They scramble in the dust.

After carrying a few sticky flakes of hay into the pasture, I return to the barn and slide open one stall door. The horse moves in a way that to me seems regal and calculated. She is immense and finely muscled, brown-furred and sleek, her head towering over me on her articulate neck, and she proceeds past me towards the pasture; when I go to hold the gate open for her, she responds the way fresh horses do to new movement, ricocheting away from me. She is like the dogs and like me—leaping, snorting, a joyous shout for the first movement of morning—but to me in my tiny body I regard her as an avalanche, an earthquake or a mountain moving. I feel her massive legs piston the earth as a quaking through my boot-soles. As she billows by me, through the gate I hold open for her, I am laughing, but I also shake like a leaf in the wind that pours off her shoulders. In my life, I have worked more closely with this horse than almost any living thing, and I am reminded that every moment of that work was acquiescence. She could kill me quick as a falling mountain. Instead, she lets me rest my weight on her spine.

I escort the small white pony out to the pasture. The larger dog, a bearish wolfish girl with golden eyes, dives into their fray. The horses mill about the pasture. The dog, knowing deep in herself that excited horses ought to be chased and coerced by good dogs, barks and swerves and bullies them. The brown horse lays back her ears, coils her neck grandly, and launches into the air. I yell the dog’s name in my deepest most masterful voice. We are all showing off to each other in phylogenetically appropriate ways, the playing predator, the playing prey, and me, whatever I am. The dog disengages and comes to my side, and the horse bucks a bit more, snorts, and lips her hay.

The dogs are in the mood for adventure, and they lead me into the woods, the bearish brown girl and the small yellow male. They never stray far from each other. I follow them up into the shaded tawny woods of early springtime, up and up hills and down again into stream beds, through holes in property fences that they tumble through with the ease of long repetition. I feel that they own this land. They stride forwards swiftly on their four courser legs, always ahead of me, far faster than a biped can do, but I am reminded that this is the old partnership of dogs and men: long-winded endurants. They are built for long journeys, and we are built for longer ones, and we scour the earth together. I do so with my eyes, absorbing new colors and shapes, and with my hands, tugging at branches and wondering about new tools. They do so with their noses glued to the ground, both dogs winding along paths of scent that are imperceptible to me. I wish I could smell what they smell. They follow a busy map of living things that have passed by. If I could smell all that, I would spend my life with my face to the earth like the dogs do.

The brown dog leads far ahead of me, but every few strides cocks her head back to check on my progress. When I have tired, we exchange leadership. I call them, and they stop and turn back towards me, consider for a moment, and then gallop back to my waiting hands. To reward them for minding my requests, I take off sprinting towards home, calling them to run with me, which I know they love as much as I do. Our many feet beat the leaves and dirt, ungraceful bodies barreling through the trees, fur ruffled by the good wind all the way home.

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