I recently enrolled in Ken Roger’s online writing course, The Lyric Essay. I thought it might help me add a bit more creativity and punch to my posts. Plus, I’m all about critical feedback and writing to an assignment. Imagine my surprise when the following piece emerged in an answer to writing a “Realistic Lyric Essay.” I can describe “cold” realistically, I thought. But after that thought, the essay went its own way and became a piece of fiction. What…me? Fiction? Naw….but it happened. It was one of those rare times when my mind was open, my fingers were willing, and the letters crawled magically across the screen. I hope it will bring you pleasure.
A droplet of thin mucous hovers at the tip my nose. I swab it with the cuff of my sleeve—thirty seconds of respite from annoying dampness. Another droplet forms. I flex stiff fingers inside bulky leather gloves, willing the blood to circulate. Flexing does little to waken sluggish veins. I bang my free hand against my thigh till a small tingle teases the knuckles. I move the reins over to that hand and repeat the process with the newly freed hand. It’s hopeless. I jam the free hand under my opposite armpit and clamp my wings shut to stymie the wind.
The horse plods, his feet dragging, providing a measure of support to offset the high-heeled teeter of snow-packed hooves. Our pace is slow, unusual for this fireball of horsehair and arrogance. Looking over his shaggy shoulder, I see frosted whiskers and eyelids. With an occasional horse sneeze, he clears the sticky hairs inside his nostrils.
I wonder what passes through his horse mind as he trudges. They say animals don’t think. But I know better. I have the advantage of knowing why we are out in this ocean of frozen tundra. But the horse is at my mercy. There is no opportunity for noble notions of rescue to spur him on. He puts one foot in front of the other only because I have asked him to. His nobility lies in his willingness to trust at all costs. Is that nobility or is that frailty? What if I have miscalculated? What if our trip is for naught?
I trade rein hands again and shove the free hand between the saddle and my thigh. It’s warmer there than in my armpit. Is this journey worth it? What will I find when I get there? Will I even know I’m there when I get there? I have a mission. Tucked into the saddle bag behind me is medicine for our neighbor. He is an old, thin man, as substantial as last summer’s dried aspen leaves. His mailbox and our mailbox share a post on the county road. It has been days since he retrieved his mail. Along with the mail is his package of medicine from the VA. And now it is up to the horse and me to deliver the mail, the medicine, and a Thermos of home made beef stew. But I worry. He hasn’t answered the phone. What will I find?
The horse plods. I worry. My nose drips. Again I trade hands, this time trying to wedge the free hand between the saddle blanket and the horse’s warm withers. Leather creaks rhythmically. Snow under the horse’s hooves squeaks to a four-point beat. I’ve lost track of time. It is too cold to risk exposing my wrist for a peek at my watch. I’ve lost touch with my feet. They could have disappeared but for the toes of my boots poking through the stirrups at the end of my legs.
People die in weather like this. I am a fool. But the horse knows the way home. We might circle, but we won’t circle in vain if it is up to the horse. But wait, now I see a dark shape in front of me. Is it my imagination? The squeaking snow and creaking leather offer no answer. The horse plods. I worry. There is a definite darkness on my horizon. It is growing larger and taking the shape of the neighbor’s barn. The house is just behind that barn. We are almost there. I see no lights. A dog barks; a welcome sound. Stopping in front of the barn, the horse drops his head—exhausted. I muster my strength and test weight in the block that is my left foot. With effort I swing my stiff right leg over the horse’s rump and feel for the ground below. I know I’ve found it when needles explode through the bottoms of my feet and race toward my ankles. But for the saddle strings gripped awkwardly in my unwilling fists, I would fall in a heap. Finding my balance, I heave the heavy barn door open and fumble for the light switch. Without argument, the horse staggers in behind me. I fill a pail full of the neighbor’s oats and hang the pail on a nail in front of the horse. I have to slide my hands under the saddle to thaw my fingers enough to open the saddle bag and retrieve the items for the neighbor.
Out in the fog of snow again, I shuffle toward the barking dog—the dark house. My offerings are clutched under my arm. I worry. What will I find?