Saturday, April 7, 2012

Horse Goddesses

 At the red barn down the road from the house where I grew up in the 1970’s, the teenage girls were fearless. In my eyes, those girls lived on another plane. They rode bareheaded with their hair blowing. They rode barefoot, smoking cigarettes and listening to transistor radios in shirt pockets. They always knew what to do. They were free. They were goddesses. I worshipped them when I was at the barn, out of the sight and hearing of my family and church.

A horse goddess relied on instinct and experience. Her techniques might be ignorant or rough but her balance and skill were genuine; it’s impossible to gallop bareback badly. A goddess reined her horse off the mini-bike trails to sail over the endless New England stonewalls that rambled through the woods and hemmed the roads. She might let her boyfriend climb up double, but he was an accessory as changeable as bellbottom jeans. After a fight with her parents she'd hitchhike to the barn and climb to the loft under the peak of the roof, armed with a sleeping bag and a six-pack. She was amoral more than immoral, decisive and profane, as unapologetic as her horse. She was as confident as I was anxious; she was a law unto herself.

The barn on the corner was all that was left of an eighteenth century farm losing the battle with an upper middle-class suburb. Planes screamed into the sky beyond the entrance to the air force base only a few hundred yards away: Hanscom Field and M.I.T. Lincoln Laboratory. But goddesses only viewed their surroundings for the opportunities offered. They bought cigarettes from the buildings’ vending machine for fifty cents a pack. They stole traffic cones for their mounted obstacle courses. They climbed the chain-link fence at the back of the barn to free dogs from the pen that served as Lexington’s pound. The rangers at Fiske Hill National Park were powerless to stop the girls from using the historic rock foundation as a practice jump.

I first met the goddesses in the 1960’s when I was six years old. I was desperate to visit the horses. I followed a friend and we biked the half-mile down Wood Street. We straddled our bikes at the edge of the road and gazed at the red castle, the white shingled roof and tall green sliding door. Above the door was a row of small transom windows, New England-style. A jungle of sumac hid small outbuildings; the scattered boulders of stone walls between them dated back to the Revolution.

A self-possessed girl with long hair led a rawboned horse out of the barn.

“Can we have a ride?” my friend asked.

“No. Get out of the way. My horse kicks.” She lit a cigarette, vaulted onto a back higher than our heads and wheeled her steed down a rocky lane that led to the woods as we stared. Goddesses had no time for mortals.

When I was ten, my mother let me buy a pony from a family we knew at church. He was small and spoiled; later the girl said he bit her so she christened him after one of Mary Baker Eddy’s Glossary entries in Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures: RED DRAGON. Error; fear; inflammation. My pony was named after evil.

Dragon bared his teeth and charged at me in the pasture when I came to catch him. He nipped when I scrambled on, bucked when I wanted to go faster, and scraped me off in the bushes. In Sunday school I'd read, All of God’s creatures, moving in the harmony of Science, are harmless, useful, indestructible. Dragon threw his head and smashed me in the face as I bridled him. I didn’t have a saddle the first year so I rode bareback with one hand anchored in thick mane. When I fell, Dragon flattened his ears and snapped at me.

After a few months of glorified pony rides, I coaxed Dragon behind the tails of the older girls’ horses. The goddesses led and I followed. Three- and four-hour rides improved Dragon’s behavior but when he was tired he’d lie down right on the trail.

“Break a stick off a bush and smack him,” a goddess commanded from her tall gelding. She took a drag on her cigarette. “Make him get up. Show him who’s boss.”

Dragon’s sweat soaked through my pants and made my seat and legs sticky. Deerflies droned in the woods. Under the power lines near the highway the air smelled like sweet fern and wild blueberries. Dragon’s little red ears flicked back and forth, or pointed straight forward in alarm or curiosity. When a goddess splashed into a local reservoir to swim her horse illegally, I tamped down my guilt and kicked my pony forward, then laughed and clung as he bounded like a dolphin.

Cars streamed from the base and Lincoln Lab on summer evenings. The Star Spangled Banner echoed over loudspeakers in the distance. Outside the barn, one of the horse goddesses lit an extra cigarette and passed it to me. She sighed and shook her head when all I could do was cough and choke on my guilt.

At home, I draped my pants on the radiator to dry so I could wear them again. The seat and inside of the legs were crusted brown with dirt, a bareback rider’s badge of pride.

My mother always snatched them away to the washing machine. Sometimes she said, “I know that you know who you are.

A spiritual idea above the influence of mortal illusion, according to our church.

I squirmed. Once, I’d seen a huge portrait of Mary Baker Eddy on a Sunday school field trip; her painted eyes fastened on you and followed you around the room. It was exactly how I lived.

Sometimes I felt myself whimper, my front paws up on a religious chain link fence, like one of the strays the town held at our barn. The pound was a little concrete room tacked onto the barn’s far end. When the barn was quiet, a horse goddess would climb to the weak spot on one corner and slither inside. She’d boost a dog up to another girl who hoisted it over the fence to freedom. Like the dogs, I couldn’t ask outright. But I wished the goddesses could scoop me up and liberate me too. I wanted them to save me.

The goddesses are still out there. They still roam. You’ll spot them from time to time, wild girls bareback on rawboned horses. They rein their mounts through the centers of small towns on their mission to somewhere. Watch for them now that it's spring. They're careless in traffic. They know mortals have to yield the right-of-way.


  1. great images. great stories... keep them coming!

    1. Thanks, Sue. (No pasture-cam, though. Alas!)

  2. I can picture the Lexington stonewalls you mentioned since I live right on the Waltham/Lexington border. I love the imagery--it reminds me of Ray Bradbury's descriptions of Greentown in Dandelion Wine. I also really like 'he was an accessory as changeable as bellbottom jeans." You are talented at painting a modern fantasy-like world, a little like Charles de Lint, but yours is infused with passion. This is a writing style that you do very well!

    If only we could all be goddesses and not mere mortals... :-)

    1. Cindy! Dandelion Wine is one of my all-time favorites, especially when I discovered it in high school. Thanks so much.

      The horse goddesses have fought their way to the front as I've worked on the memoir. (I've reconnected with a few of them on fb recently but I'm not sure they've recognized themselves.) I had my own, too-brief reign as one...I think one of the requirements is that you be aware of it while you live it. Alas.