By Nina Sudhakar
I tell them the horse bolted, though that’s not entirely true. The woman had been sitting on a squat boulder with her back to me, sucking mouthfuls of thin air, trying in vain to catch her breath. Up here, oxygen seemed to actively resist the lungs; most days my limbs felt so heavy that leading the horse felt like taking long strides across the bottom of a swimming pool.
I’d stroked the horse’s velvet nose, its elegant chestnut neck. Looked into its absurdly-lashed eyes for a heavy second and saw, there, the deep pocket of melancholy where it had been carrying all the weight. How removal of a burden doesn’t always relieve it; how your posture can stay stooped for years even with nothing but flesh on your shoulders. I’d stripped the leather saddle without thinking and slapped the horse hard on its muscular left flank. Whispered go as a command, no hint of a question.
The woman had spun around at the rhythmic sound of hooves, hands on hips, her eyes widening. Hey, she’d said, where’s it going? Aren’t you going to run after it? I’d ignored her, instead watching the horse’s progress, entranced by its reckless sprint. That breathless moment in its gait when all its limbs were suspended above the earth — I’d felt desperate to know whether that was an instant the horse craved or feared.
When the horse was just a brown speck approaching the horizon, the size of a distant shrub, I’d looked over at the woman. Sometimes they just get spooked, I’d said, and if they do, there’s no way we can catch them. She’d stuck her lower lip out in a way that made her look like an infant though she had to have been in her mid-thirties. I could see she was sweating beneath her expensive layers, an outfit that looked like it had been ordered straight from a catalog that had arrived to her house addressed “to current resident.”
Okay, well what are we supposed to do now? she’d said, still pouting. I can’t walk the rest of the way up here, obviously.
The sky that day had been the clearest cerulean, like water miraculously transposed to the heavens. Every snow-dusted peak visible, the red-pebbled path to them unmistakable. I’d sensed the mountain spirits asserting their benevolence, their desire to protect every being that belonged there. The landscape never puts food on a table or a roof over our heads, but still: it tries to sustain us.
I guess we just have to go back, then, I’d said, and started walking down the trail the way we’d come. I’d felt the woman’s eyes boring into the back of my neck, heat radiating from her anger or else my fresh patch of sunburn. After a few seconds she followed, panting heavily in between grumbling threats about refunds and angry phone calls to management. But by then I’d stopped listening, thinking only of remembering this particular bend in the shallow river. Later, I’d come back, and if the horse was standing there waiting, I’d get on and ride until neither of us had any further need for the ground.