And Now the Wind Blows
It was my first day as an exercise rider at the Golden Gate Racetrack in San Francisco and I was brimming with the fire of anticipation tinged with a fear of the unknown. The lessons at the training farm were long and difficult, but Jimmy, my very capable teacher, told me I was ready to begin, though reticence showed on my face like a flashing light. Jansey, the trainer I was to work for, was a friend of Jimmy's. She was a well seasoned woman of Cherokee descent who had a sharp intuitive sense when it came to people and horses. She had hired me after meeting with her only once, knowing that any fears I had would fade when I began, and trusted that my instincts would guide me in any situation.
Silent Spring, the first horse I was to ride, was scheduled to race the next day. I was immediately overwhelmed by the sight of this great light bay. His shining black mane blew in the warm March wind as free as his ancestors' must have in the wild and his chiseled muscles glimmered in the sunlight. The potential power he held within intimidated me. Any novice knows that fear is the worst thing to feel while riding, but fear, nonetheless, was what I felt that morning, and I began a very rough ride as he jumped and bucked. Spurred on by the confidence Jimmy and Jansey had in me, I convinced myself that I could handle this horse. Sitting up tall and straight, I tightened my legs around his body and took control. After a few minutes, he must have felt me take charge, as he began to gallop with the most amazing grace. When his exercise period was over, we had a relaxed walk to the barn where he allowed me to dismount with ease. With the lead shank in hand, I walked him to the water bucket for a few sips and then gave him a few more turns around the barn. This was the hot-walker's job, but I wanted to be with him a little longer before my next mount, since I knew that the next day my schedule called for me to ride other horses.
After my work was over, I stayed watching some other horses gallop, yet my thoughts were on Silent Spring. Wanting to shake this melancholy, I decided to go home. Restlessness disrupted my attempts to sleep, so I decided to go back to the track to check on Silent Spring. Whether I was projecting my own anxieties on him I could not say, but the feeling that he might also be a bit anxious was hard to shake. When I walked to his stall he was, as I suspected, a bit agitated. He turned his head to look at me with his intense brown eyes and bobbing his head up and down, seemed to welcome my return. After he calmed down, I stayed no longer than a few more minutes, then left to go home again.
As I reached my car, a young man stopped me who introduced himself as Stephen, an assistant to the trainer of Silent Spring. Surprised at the sudden intrusion, I jumped back from the car and dropped my keys. As he bent to pick them up, he apologized for startling me. He seemed sincere and I had no reason to suspect that he meant any harm. He said that he had arrived late to the track, but wanted to ask me a few questions about my ride this afternoon. I gave him the details of my shaky start and glorious finish, and noticed that he blushed as I continued to tell him how fond I was of the stallion. I was about to ask him how he knew who I was, but became speechless as he moved into the moonlight and I got a better look at him. His bronze skin, high cheekbones and long black hair gave him the appearance of an Indian warrior. Hanging from a silver chain around his neck was a pendant shaped like a horseshoe that shimmered in the light. His eyes were large and dark, the same color as Silent Spring's and it was like looking into the eyes of the horse. Goose bumps ran across my body and as I tried to nonchalantly shake them off, I dropped my keys again. While picking them up for the second time, he held them out in front of me and said, "I want to be with you tonight," not as a plea or a demand, but as a simple statement. If any other stranger had said that to me, my hand would have been slamming into his face, but this did not happen. There was a familiar knowing about him that made me want to be with him, so instead, I brushed his face with the side of my hand.
We drove to my condo on the beach saying nothing to each other, never feeling uncomfortable in our silence. There was a sense of delight in me as we journeyed into an adventure which we chose very openly and very clearly.
When we arrived at the condo, I put my purse on the table and deliberately dropped my keys into it for him to see. He smiled as he walked closer to me and lightly kissed my lips. I took his hand and we walked outside onto the beach as a delicate breeze enveloped us in its warmth. Without hesitation, we knelt under the starlit sky and shared the trinity of our selves, merging body, mind and spirit. As we nuzzled close to each other watching the waves roll in and out, I felt a sense of completeness with him. Kissing his raven hair with my grateful tears, I fell into a deep sleep.
When I woke up the next morning, I found myself in my bed -- alone. The thought that last night's episode was a dream passed through my mind, until I felt Stephen's pendant hanging from my neck. I called out to him half heartedly, but knew he was gone. Lying on the pillows clustered around me, I drank in the memories of the evening, grateful for the night bliss yet sad that it was over.
At work later that morning, before setting out my tack for the horses I was scheduled to gallop, I went to see Silent Spring hoping Stephen would be there. Disappointed to see Jansey there alone with him, I asked how my favorite horse was doing. She told me that he looked like he had spent a peaceful night. I was tempted to tell her everything, but held back until we had a better time to talk. Turning to Silent Spring I said, "Good luck, big guy," as I brushed his face with the side of my hand while he bobbed his head with delight.
Taking a break from my work later in the day, I watched Silent Spring win his race. How proud I was of my stallion as he trotted toward the winner's circle. I planned to see him as soon as my work was over.
At the receiving barn hoping that this time Stephen would be there with Silent Spring, I found no one at all. I raced to find Jansey, who informed me that Silent Spring and his crew had shipped out as soon as he had finished cooling down.
"Damn," I said as I hit my hand hard against the wall. Jansey looked at me with a questioning stare, but said nothing, perhaps waiting for me elaborate. Not feeling it was the time to go into details, I said nothing more and walked out.
The following week was business as usual, until the day Jansey called me into her office. She seemed distressed as she lit a cigarette while motioning for me to sit. After taking a slow deep drag, she told me that Silent Spring had been put down after a race in Santa Anita when he completely shattered his ankle. His injuries were so severe that the vet had to euthanize him right there on the track. The wind picked up as I stood unable to move and the weight of the moment laid heavy on my body. The only comfort came from knowing that my beautiful Stallion did not suffer long. That's when I decided to tell Jansey everything. After listening to my story with great compassion, she called his trainer to ask about Stephen. He told her that no one by that name had ever worked for him. In fact, no one fitting his description worked for him. Totally confused, there was nothing left to do but wait for him to come to me.
Weeks went by but Stephen never returned. Work was becoming monotonous for me, so I decided to leave the track to take a position as a riding instructor for Jimmy on the farm. Though she was sorry to see me go, Jansey knew she would be unable to persuade me to stay.
We stayed in touch after I left and often would have long chats over coffee at my place. We never spoke about Silent Spring until one day when I wanted to relive my experiences through conversation.
"Today is exactly one year that Silent Spring won the race at Golden Gate," I began, "and you know, I still don't understand what happened to Stephen."
She looked at me with a shrewd smile and said, "You know, there's something that I haven't told you. It's going to sound strange to you, but honey, I've seen lots of strange things in my days and I've learned to take them on faith." She took one long sip of coffee and continued.
"Remember the night before the race when you and Stephen were . . . together? Well, the next morning, one of the grooms said that someone had broken into his locker and stole some of his cloths. Later when I went into the barn, I saw a pile of cloths neatly folded outside of Silent Spring's stall. I thought that the groom had probably mislaid them and left it at that, until you told me your story."
She lit a cigarette and went on.
"I remembered something an old Cherokee sage once told me. There is a belief among many Native American tribes that once a year, on the day of the Vernal Equinox in mid March, animals have the opportunity to walk the earth as humans for that one day. Most prefer not to change, but sometimes one desires to experience a part of life that they can't as an animal." She paused to take another sip of coffee and as she looked at my skeptical eyes which had widened considerably, she said, "Honey, did you ever see Silent Spring and Stephen together?"
The question almost knocked me over. I didn't know what to say.
"I'll give you some time alone to sort things out. I'm sorry I didn't tell you this sooner, but I didn't think you were ready for it until now. I hope it helps." After extinguishing her cigarette, she gave me a tight hug and walked out. When the initial shock wore off, my hand automatically reached for the pendant around my neck, which I had never taken off. I walked outside to the beach and stayed there watching the waves roll in and out until the sun set.
And now, the wind blows cold when I stand on the beach, yet my memories warm me. In all the years that passed, I too have seen many things that can't be explained, but none so profound as the incident with Silent Spring and Stephen. The only truth I have hangs around my neck and I clutch it tightly as I gaze across the ocean. I envision my immortal beast riding across the waves and remember the man who will not return.