The Mucking Out of Grief
One of Dad’s many griefs was the chore of driving me to Hardscrabble Farm now and then, instead of having his own fun Saturday. Hardscrabble was a horse farm in Williston, VT, maybe thirty minutes from our home. I haunted the place between the ages of nine and twelve. Dad’s annoyance with this chore struck me as ironic, both because Mom was almost always the one to haul me to the stable, and because the horse farm was my fun day away from him. I didn’t want Dad sulking around the barn anymore than he did. I much preferred Dad in his native habitat: in front of the TV, watching mental health specials about healing his inner child.
The summer after I turned eleven, I spent every weekday at Hardscrabble. The owner of the stable, Madeleine, kept her straw-blond hair tied roughly with a rubber band, wore all black, left her boots caked in mud and horseshit. She was fine with kids kicking around that summer as long as we helped out with the chores. Mom gave me a tetanus shot and sent me off into the world, free.
There were four of us girls that summer using horses as a refuge from whatever homes we’d fled. Elisabeth was Madeleine’s six-year-old daughter. Though her dirty-blond hair was tangled and her clothes torn, she was the envy of our group because she owned a horse: a dark bay pony named Warlock. Rumor was her dad, like mine, had almost no interest in horses. I occasionally saw him walking from the farmhouse to his car, then speeding away.
Danielle was closest in age to Elizabeth. She was eight, with light brown hair and spindly arms. I found her kind, but lazy: whenever stalls needed mucking out, Danielle could reliably be found hiding behind the sawdust pile with Elisabeth, playing horse figurines. She rode a light bay school horse named Hansel—nice enough pony, though dull.
Erica was the eldest, at maybe twelve or thirteen. She had nut brown hair and rode a black school horse named Mouse. Erica was the only one who worked off everything she got from that farm, including her full lease on Mouse and her once-a-week private lessons with Madeleine. Sometimes we sat together in the shadowy tack room, air smelling of Murphy’s Oil Soap, and whispered about Danielle’s truancy or Madeleine’s snappishness. I admired Erica, was determined to endear myself to her through a vigorous work ethic.
I was skinny. Dark brown hair and eyes. Rode a gray Arabian named Peanut. Peanut wasn’t a school horse: a woman at the stable outgrew her and didn’t have the heart to sell, so my parents paid the woman a little money, something like a quarter lease. Peanut was punky, flattening her ears if horses got too close, refusing to come in from the fields when called. I felt an instant connection. Love at first, No. What I wished I could say to Dad.
At home, Dad was the divvy-er of chores, which conveniently meant he didn’t have any. Once, when Mom was away for the weekend, he asked me how to turn the washing machine on. The question was odd, especially since, when he’d grown tired of delivering mail, he’d switched to a maintenance job at the Post Office. Dad completed specialized training in HVAC and electrical, but supposedly couldn’t turn a knob on the washing machine. I bit my lip, knowing he just wanted me to do his laundry while Mom was away.
Dad typed Margaret’s and my chores into a spreadsheet with dates that stretched to the following calendar year. As far as I could tell, that was Dad’s solo contribution to housework: data entry and hitting print. The chores made sense at first. Margaret and I dusted, vacuumed, and swept so Mom could spend more time floating in the bathtub and less time floating in a fog of Lemon Pledge. But Dad grew wise to the possibilities of spreadsheets, began adding chores that served his idiosyncrasies. At one point, he insisted I gracefully transfer his Thousand Island salad dressing from the gallon tub he liked to buy, into a pint jar for easier slopping onto greens. Whenever the pint jar got low, I refilled, creating a magical, bottomless pint. For whatever reason, this ongoing process did not involve a funnel, but a large metal spoon I had to dip in the gallon tub.
One night, I accidentally let the dressing in the jar nearly run dry. Dad was in an overgrown mood, and yelled so loud it felt like the house shriveled. I scrambled to get the metal spoon, then sank my arm into the tub, gross mayonnaise slicking my arm. Dad seemed triumphant, too triumphant. What did he ever do around this place? He didn’t even change the oil in the cars.
I snapped, the way I imagined Madeleine might snap: she was covered in horseshit but took no human shit. I said the chores were for the family, not just him. Margaret froze at the dinner table. Mom narrowed her eyes at Dad until he sat down too, glowering. I brought him what was already in the jar, washed my arm, sniffled through dinner. Later I told the whole, teary story to the horse posters on my wall. But I didn’t have to manage his dressing anymore.
Hardscrabble’s main buildings were the front barn, back barn, and farmhouse. Madeleine lived in the farmhouse with her husband and their daughter. All three buildings were in varying stages of decay. Madeleine had a lot of work, and generally went about her business, except once a week when she rounded Elisabeth, Danielle, and me up for our group riding lesson. No one supervised me or my friends as we pressed our fingers to rusty nails, peed in the horse stalls, or chased each other over the rotting floors of the hayloft. The stable was beautifully fatherless.
Our chores at the farm included any of the following: mucking stalls; feeding and watering the horses; turning horses out into the fields; bring horses back inside at night or in bad weather; sweeping the tack room and hall; and raking and watering the indoor riding arena. Unlike at home, I loved these chores. I was learning how a stable was run, the messier parts that weren’t explained in horse books like the Linda Craig Mysteries. More than that: I worshipped horses so much, their strength and beauty, that I truly loved pitchforking their shit. My goal was to go home at least as caked in muck as Erica or Madeleine. I thought, when I grew up, I might just become a horse.
One horse I especially I adored was Montana: a white Appaloosa with a splash of gray freckles across his rump. His owner was a woman named Jean whose family owned a number of local businesses. Jean called ahead when she would be stopping by so somebody, often Erica, could get Montana brushed and saddled. Montana had a number of fancy leg wraps that struck me as decorative and frou-frou. He had a complicated show name in addition to his stable name, but out of loyalty to the horse, I didn’t commit his show name to memory. Jean never had a speck of dirt on her person, and she and Madeleine often bickered through her lessons. They seemed to need each other, though. Money and know-how. So the drama continued. Like a family.
Montana lived in the front barn near Alex, the stallion, which was the bougier address, with larger stalls and heating. Sometimes I’d stand outside his stall and contemplate whether Jean knew he shat. “Poor guy,” I said. “Your mom thinks you’re Horse Barbie.”
I felt pretty confident with Montana until a summer storm blew through and I had to help get the horses in. The fields had electrified fencing. We’d all zapped ourselves a few times before and found the experience unpleasant. No one wanted to mess with the fence during the storm, so we left the gate open. I yelled to the others that I’d take Montana.
The sky was sheeting rain, the ground slick with mud. I had never been quite so close to Montana, but he was massive compared to Peanut. Bulky and muscular. Lightning struck nearby, and he stomped all over my feet, yanked the lead line. I was afraid if I let go he’d bolt out the gate and onto a busy road nearby. We made it into the barn, but I stood outside his stall shivering for a while, watching him pace. When the storm passed, he was calm again, nuzzling my palm.
Montana was far larger than any human, but had eyes on the sides of his head, rectangular pupils. Like goats. Like prey. I realized I would never understand what lightning meant to horses. Or what struck any other being as the apocalypse.
When I was eight, Dad brought home the most perfect stuffed animal: a two-foot horse with a removable saddle and bridle. I know people’s eyes are too frequently described as glittering, but that’s exactly what his eyes did when he presented me with this gift. He was truly delighted to make me happy. He could also be counted on to go on the scary, tumbly rides at a theme park, if I felt so inclined. This was a plus. But at some point, he seemed to grow so obsessed with an impending mental health doom, that he became unrecognizable. Time spent with him felt like a chore, a dangerous one.
As a family, we spent a good deal of time watching those mental health specials Dad enjoyed. At eleven years old, I felt odd, addressing my inner child, offering her comfort for how her parents mistreated her. I played along, imagining my chest filled with sunlight or moonbeams or whatever the idea was that day. Those shows were all right. But soon Dad’s taste in TV specials shifted to material that, for a child given no context, was truly frightening: schizophrenia, manic depression, bipolar disorder. Dad was intrigued by any mental health story that ended in sudden, violent death. Nobody in these shows was finding the right cocktail of prescription medications and therapy and self-care to make life worth living. Instead, mental illness and death were described as inescapable. Clouds rolling across the hay fields.
“Look where you’re going and you’ll go where you’re looking.” This was Madeleine’s urge to ride up into the corners of the arena. Often shortened to “Look where you’re going and go where you’re looking,” and repeated like a prayer.
The indoor arena was a rectangle of soft dirt. Every few days, the horses’ hooves wore an oval rut near the perimeter. Madeleine’s instruction was to expand the space: ride outside the oval, into the corners of the arena. I kept my eyes dead ahead until the last moment, even with the wall closing in. “The horse isn’t going to crash,” Madeleine said from her lawn chair in the corner, a cigarette in hand, several corgis curled at her feet. “The horse has a brain. The horse will turn.”
When my chore was to grab a rake and fill the rut, I was dizzied by the scale of horseland. But Madeleine said the arena was 20 x 60 meters. And Elisabeth, Danielle, and I, as we cantered a three-beat rhythm through our weekly group lesson, were not to cede any territory to whatever ghosts we imagined owned the corners. “Fix your eyes exactly where you want to go. Trust that your body has a brain, too.”
I cantered Peanut into Madeleine’s corner, a soft spray of dirt flying in her corgis’ snoots as I turned. Elisabeth and Danielle giggled. Madeleine waved her cigarette. “Continue.”
I knew Dad was depressed, that he saw a psychiatrist named Jim every week, carried an evolving med list in his pocket. But I didn’t know his actual diagnoses, or how things were likely to play out. I wondered if he was going to become like one of those men I saw on TV, who stepped in front of a train and vanished.
One day, Dad asked if I would go see Jim alone, just for one visit, so Jim could get a sense of the larger family—everyone as individuals. I went because this too felt like a chore, something I had to do for Dad. What I remember most is being at home before the visit, trying on a flurry of jeans and tops, putting my hair up and down, practicing big and little smiles. I wanted to look sane, normal, but wasn’t sure how to create that illusion.
The car ride to Jim’s office, just me and Dad, was uncomfortable small talk followed by aching silences. I was so nervous that, when I finally sat down with Jim, all I could say was positives. I suppose I’d been rehearsing some little speech in my head ever since I knew I had to complete this task. I told Jim I was well adjusted, nice to my friends, and helpful around the house: qualities I hoped would check me off Jim’s list of reasons Dad was sick.
After my session, we drove back home in the same silence. I never saw Jim again. I wasn’t sure if I’d made Dad better or worse, and I didn’t know where our family was going, where to look. I just knew we needed to turn before we hit the wall. And I wasn’t sure if Dad had a brain.
By the end of the summer, I felt physically stronger than ever before. I mucked out, lugged haybales, raked and watered the enormous indoor arena. I loved these chores: they were so clear, every problem fixable.
In the fall, when school started, I missed the muck, the freedom of whole days spent outside, smelling of hay and sawdust and Murphey’s Oil Soap. Madeleine convinced Mom to let me ditch school one Monday to watch a riding event, and I was thrilled to escape.
The Sunday evening before the event, I stood in the aisle of the back barn picking clods out of Peanut’s hooves and eavesdropping on some trouble happening with Montana in the arena. This must’ve been late October or early November, because my fingers and toes were popsicles as I peered into the space. Madeleine, Jean, and a veterinarian were walking Montana round and round the perimeter. He didn’t want to walk, though. He kept lying down, rolling, kicking his stomach, and then furiously standing.
Montana’s roll, kick, stand was a spooky rhythm I convinced myself not to fear. The word “colic” floated around the barn. But babies had colic, and horses were stronger than children. I snapped a carrot for Peanut, walked her to her stall, closed the door.
The next morning, the barn was oddly quiet. No signs of an event. Mom and Madeleine must’ve mixed up the dates—a this week/next week confusion—because there wasn’t anyone in the front or back barns, not even Elisabeth.
I turned over a watering bucket and hopped up so I could look into the arena. The sliding door was wide open—strange for an icy morning, the wind making the barn colder still. Then I saw Montana lying in the dirt by the door.
There was no doubt he was dead. His body had a heaviness I hadn’t seen or felt before, even when he was stomping on my feet.
The only person I’d ever seen tending the dead was my maternal grandmother, whose parents are buried in Hope Cemetery, in Barre, VT. Sundays, if Mom decided to drive up to see her folks, Margaret and I would play among the fancy gravestones of that granite town—here an enormous soccer ball, there an airplane—while Grandma cleared the leaves and dead flowers from her parents’ grave, placed red tulips at the base. This ritual was meaningful but ordinary, the way grief is ordinary. A chore that needs to be completed again and again.
I didn’t go into the arena, but sat down on the bucket and waited, for what I wasn’t sure. I heard a tractor pull up outside the sliding door, then idle. There was a jangle of metal. I half-watched through a crack in the boards as a man wrapped chains around Montana and dragged his body out beyond the fields.
When I was sure the two were gone, I unlatched the door to the arena, walked to the smooth dish where Montana had lain, and sank my hand into the dirt. I expected to feel some fleeting warmth, but the dirt was cold. There was beauty, though, in that coldness, in feeling what Montana might’ve felt on his skin as the vet’s chemicals washed over.
And there was something sacred in his body’s claim on space. I didn’t want to lose the shape he’d left in the dirt. But if I didn’t rake the arena, another horse and rider would canter over his shape. So I grabbed a rake and filled the oval, burying the body.
At home, I slinked past my dad, his growing sickness. Warm in bed, I imagined Montana’s freckles slowly expanding into the Earth.