I ride my horse nearly every morning, alone, regardless of the weather. It empties my head, fuzzy yet clear, like that time between waking and sleep when thoughts slip unbidden through the ether into consciousness. Riding in the morning keeps me in this happy purgatory, lets me dream while awake. The rhythm is hypnotic. Even. These rides for me are like those times in a movie when someone is running through the forest and the camera shows a snippet or a piece of them, but mostly we see the blur of the trees, the movement of running feet, possibly what they are running toward. Or from.
I ride even in the rain, covering myself with plastic, the studs in my horse’s shoes keeping us from slipping. In my yellow rain slicker I appear as a golden alien, the crackling of the plastic keeping me from hearing anything beyond the rhythm of the hoofbeats under my body.
My favorite mornings are in early fall, when the possibility of cold and ice tickles, but the day will still be warm. The air simultaneously lingers and moves. Later in the day it will hover, but on an early fall morning, the air allows passage.
There is a private road along which I like to ride. To the west lies a hayfield surrounded by a wooden fence. To the east immediately next to the road is a forest. Between the road in the forest there is a strip of ground about fifteen feet wide. The owners of the road keep the grass here mowed. It is perfect for riding, wide enough to keep the ground from turning to muck, close enough to the tree wall to feel encased, protected. In summer the trees keep the sun off our backs. When it rains, they are umbrellas against the full force of the water spilling onto our bodies. Some days I venture into the forest; others I stick to the road.
One of my favorite parts of these rides is the smells that fill my nostrils, my head, my body. There is the deep, pungent warmth of the loamy soil from the forest that even in the height of the summer seems always damp. On the mornings when the owners of the road along which I ride cut the grass, I bask in its sweet, genuine odor. I ride in the morning and breathe in the smells. The rides are bliss.
I named my horse Pluto. Like a mythical beast taken from the novel of a school girl, his legs are long and graceful, his coat the color of ebony, his tail full and wavy. My riding friends envy Pluto’s tail. Many horses have thin and wispy tails. Their owners cover them in tail bags and pick out tangles with their fingers in an effort to ensure every hair is protected. Pluto’s tail requires no such coddling; it is coarse and unruly.
On this fall morning, I ride out early, close to dawn. Through the clouds, the moon still hovers near the edge of the horizon. The air is chilly, promising it will soon overtake any hints of summer warmth. I start slowly, warming Pluto’s muscles and my own. I am not wearing a heavy jacket, my rain slicker tied at my waist. Although the wind is cold enough I can see my breath and the grey sky is low enough that rain seems imminent, I know the ride will heat both of us soon enough.
As I turn down the lane next to the hayfield, I nudge Pluto into a canter. He kicks a bit in anticipation. Cold air makes him fresh and excitable. As we settle into a rhythm, the smell of grass and falling leaves fills my nostrils, the air numbs my cheeks. I reach up and press my helmet more firmly onto my forehead, a feeble attempt to keep the cold at bay.
I want to know the future, I think as I squeeze Pluto into a canter. He responds with a kick to the side, pulling down before settling into an easy rhythm. Or maybe not. Do I really want to know what is going to happen? Do I really want to know anything beyond the sound of Pluto’s breathing, his hoofbeats in the grass, the trees flying by? What would I do if I knew that at the end of the road I would fall, hit my head, and die? Would I divert my path? Would I want to know the specifics of every day until the end of my life? Wouldn’t that be boring? Where would come the joy in discovering something new if I knew everything in advance?
I don’t think I want to know the future, just that my life will turn out okay. I think that is generally what people are after when they think they want to know what is going to happen. Only life doesn’t always give us what we want or we don’t take the steps to get there. If we knew the future and it was not good, could we change it? I suppose part of what we would do depends on how we discovered what the future would be. A crystal ball? A dream?
Pluto snorts and pulls on the reins. I shake my head to dispel these thoughts. Too serious. I gather my reins and ask Pluto to slow to a trot, then a walk. Breathing heavily, he tosses his head, then turns and rubs his foamy muzzle on his shoulder leaving a gauzy strip of green goo along his wet skin. We are both warm now, although it has begun to drizzle.
I turn from the grass to ride into the forest. The leaves are starting to turn and the underbrush is dry, allowing us access into places that only a few weeks ago were covered in vegetation. Pluto picks his way over the brush and through the trees. Every so often he stops, letting me know that the way is not clear. I allow him to guide us along altering and designing our trail as we go, only keeping a slight feel in the reins.
The rain is increasing, but the leaves overhead block most of the moisture. I untie the yellow raincoat from my waist and cover myself against the wetness, pulling the hood over my helmet. It muffles the sound of the rain dripping in the forest. Pluto’s footfalls reverberate within the plastic coating, mixing with its crinkling.
I check my watch, surprised to learn that I have been riding for over an hour. I should probably head back, but I don’t have anything to do this morning and I’m enjoying the solitude. We are deep enough into the forest I know I am going to have to rely on Pluto to ensure our return. I have done this before, this delving into the forest, buried deep within its underbelly.
I hear birds chirping above me. It strikes me as odd that birds would hang out and sing in the rain, but that is exactly what they are doing. Don’t they get wet? Do wet feathers work? It seems to me that wet feathers would not fly very well, although I suppose the birds do not need to fly to sit on the branches and sing.
In the distance I see something white bobbing on the edge of the creek. In the grey light, but against the reeds and grasses at the edge of the water nearly in the mud, the white glows. It is drizzling harder now and the edge of my hood makes seeing difficult. The folds and creases in the plastic on the raincoat cause the water to dribble off the front rim at odd angles. With my hood up, I am enclosed in a water tunnel. It is like seeing through a waterfall.
What is that?
I ride closer. Whatever is lying there is lumpish and round. Pluto is not impressed. He keeps snorting and trying to back away. I can see the sclera of his eye. He doesn’t know what this thing is but he wants nothing to do with it. Yet I am curious. I squeeze him forward and he obeys. I want to see.
I dismount and stare, pulling Pluto along behind me. My hood falls back. I feel the water begin to take over, but I ignore it and proceed.
Before me, tucked among the reeds, muddy water swirling around his ankles, is a dead man. A pale, trapped, and hideously distended dead man. Face up, his eyes are like squinty raisins in the bloated flesh of his face, arms swelling out the ends of the short sleeves of his shirt with its lower buttons popped, his bulging belly protruding above his belt. He is grotesque.
Pluto snorts and paws, pulling back on the reins, yanking me off balance in the slippery mud along the bank. I turn and pat him, cooing softly, telling him he is okay. It is starting to rain harder. The water sluices down the back of my neck, its rivulets curving between my shoulder blades. My saddle is saturated, yet I want Pluto to mellow so I can go back to look at the man.
I have a friend who drowned in the Thailand tsunami, pulled into the sea by a vicious undertow during her Christmas vacation. Is this how she looked after she died? Like this doughy sausage person, a human loaf too big for its pan, her swimsuit cutting into her flesh, folds of it oozing around the seams? Were her fingers so swollen they no longer really fit her hands?
It is then that I notice movement beneath the pale whiteness of the man’s thin shirt and see a slithery black thing scuttle across his belly. Some creatures have already discovered the corpulent smorgasbord. He is quite a feast, in spite of the water and damp.
Revulsed, I turn away. Thoughts of salt water bring me hope that dear Angie was not eaten by water bugs, but I am deluding myself. Sharks and fishes do not notice the salinity. Her bones might have survived, floating to the ocean floor after the seizure of her flesh, but even these were probably dissolved in something’s stomach acid. If she drifted ashore in aftermath of the tsunami, in the dense and humid heat of the jungle, more animals than these enjoyed a putrefying meal.
I turn away. The water moving down my back has reached the top of my pants where my shirt is tucked in. I can feel it creeping slowly through the fabric. It is winning. As I step closer, my foot sinks into the mud. The edge of the creek is unclear, water and soil combining to create the illusion of solidity.
The stream eddies and swirls around his shoulders, bits of sticks and leaves collected along his edges. On his neck I see a slug or a leech, but leeches need something living, don’t they? It is firmly attached, slimy and full, whatever it is.
What to do about this horrendous thing, I do not know. I would not be able to move him even if I could let Pluto go, which isn’t an option because he’ll leave me stranded here in these woods in favor of the warm and dry barn. I can hardly blame him. He can probably smell things I am not capable of. In this I am glad for the rain; any smells of putrefaction have been rinsed away.
Once I leave, things will be different. I will ride back to the barn and find the barn manager and tell her what I discovered out in the woods. She will stare at me in disbelief and ask questions, but not many because she is quiet that way. We will go to the office and phone the authorities together. They will arrive and want me to try and retrace my steps here. I may or may not go with them, but if I do, I will be kept at a distance as they mill about him, circling like vultures. Many people will ask me the same questions over and over, police in uniforms, detectives in regular clothes, everyone in raincoats and slickers. I will be treated like the victim for having seen him even though I am not the one who has been harmed, the one who is dead.
It will continue to rain in pieces. I will have to call my office and my husband. Someone will offer me their mobile phone to make the calls because I have not yet replaced the one I lost riding out here in the woods. My husband will tut and ask me if I’m okay, but he knows me and knows this would not bother me as much as it would others. He will not treat me like a victim.
Throughout the day people will hear what I found on my ride in the woods. First other boarders at the barn, then friends will hear from others, and coworkers will hear at the office. Everyone will talk about this, everyone will ask, and in the answering I will lose this moment. The repetition will grind it from my brain.
When the story comes out in the paper, as it most certainly will in this rather small place with nothing much going on, I will be for a moment a local celebrity. People will talk about it and ooh and ah and wrinkle their noses in disgust, grateful they were not the ones who found a dead man.
Yet I do not want to be celebrated. I did nothing. I am not the one who is dead. My life is not the one that is over. My life wasn’t stolen by a wave as I lay on a beach at Christmas. I am not the one lying swollen, being eaten by leeches, dead and unknown in muddy creek waters.
I stand there on the water’s edge and consider briefly telling no one, leaving this man to decompose in the water, his bones left for discovery by another at some point in the spring, the body no longer distended, the creatures no longer slithering under his shirt. But I know this is not what I will do.
Pluto pulls at the reins, trying to nibble at the growing things near our feet. I tug him closer and pat his wet neck. He rubs his head on my arm, knocking me off balance. I step towards the man to right myself. His face continues to stare, the swollen, raisin eyes meaningless without life behind them.
I reach down and run my finger along his arm. I feel nothing. He is not there, only this wretched ending of him. I turn and gather my reins, place my foot in the wet stirrup, struggling not to slip as I clamber up on Pluto’s back. He takes a step to the side. I hold him steady, pause, look down once more at the man who is not there, then turn and ride home.