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Essays/Nonfiction

“Walking in Zigzags”

The horse struggled to its feet behind a blood-red pickup truck. We had just descended a wooded slope and emerged onto the transverse, which cuts the park in half, when we saw three rangers and one concerned couple gathered around the truck. It was twilight in December, still warm from a peak daylight temperature of 60 degrees. 

We stopped and waited, because when you are in a city, it feels unusual to see something go wrong with a horse. The seconds ran on as the outcome was determined. A red sports car sped up and braked to a halt. A woman in riding boots jumped out, in that way that people racing to the site of an accident move because they do not know what to expect, so every second seems to count more. She moved with emergency energy, but within a few meters of the horse, she slowed her approach. The expert, the friend, the trainer. She stroked the horse’s head and the space between its eyes. It nuzzled her and licked her thighs. Her jeans were the color of cornflowers. 

The horse dropped its head down in a way that reminded me of the immortal horses mourning for Achilles’ great love Patroclus after he died on the battlefield in Homer’s Iliad. A man named Walker was running around the horse as if he had lost something or was checking all the angles to find some proof of violence: a smear of blood, swelling, a shard of concrete in the soil, a knife. He was looking for something material to explain this suffering, which was a mystery. The worst violence is often where you see it least. 

Walker had a grizzled brown Victorian beard that thinned at the ends, like a waterfall. I found out later that he was not a veterinarian, as I’d thought, but the owner of Kensington Stables, located several blocks south of Prospect Park. The stable provides lessons and pony and trail rides. It is the last horse stable operating in Brooklyn, a working artifact of the nineteenth century, reminiscent of a small town with its carriage houses and cobblestone streets. An urban stable is a little like a circus that has stayed too long, but the kids love it and the horses don’t know anything different. 

Walker told my partner and me, the three park rangers, and the other concerned couple at the scene that it’s not unusual for a horse to fall. It is very unusual for a horse to have trouble getting up. He gave her medication to help her to her feet, and that was the end of the information. She stood rigid beside the truck, looking as dazed as we felt. 

It was an ordinary Saturday in December. People were returning home from walks and the sun was setting as usual between heaven and earth. There was no emotion that could not be mollified or tamped down. Branches scribbled their winter names into gray skies. Confused blooms sought to rouse themselves. It was a corrective and a prophecy. The natural world is a living ecosystem that cycles through varieties of life and death, and as long as we allow this ecosystem to survive, we sustain our own breath. Out of our commitment to the collective emerges the recognition, as Wallace Stevens said, that divinity must live within herself. 

I expect more bad news in the world, but I did not expect to amble down a hill, in woods that were a safe haven from the dread that had infected everything, and witness a horse in duress. The horse embodied our relentless suffering, which promised to continue without any purpose or outcome. The tragedy was that, even in a state of suffering, the horse had to walk on trembling legs back to the stable, burdened with carrying others around the bridle path without any expectation for a nobler life. 

I was so used to being on alert that the horse’s condition immediately deepened the caved-in feeling that had refused to lift all year. Hours-long exploratory walks in the park were a salve. The park was reliably pastoral and often unrefined: woods crossing muddy trails, hillsides strewn with rotting tree trunks full of bugs, and bullfrogs or snapping turtles splashing in the lake. Prospect Park has roughly thirty thousand trees. In winter, naked branches strike a chorus line pose, arms up as if asking us to clap. They show off their bodies. They throw chameleon shadows, morphing their long, dendritic arms in the morning into hieroglyphs at noon. My favorite branch, by a pond, twists down and up again into a loop that makes no sense. Light floods down like an annunciation. 

Everyone who came to the park walked in zigzags. You could almost fast walk all the hauntings out of your system. You came for the scenery and proof of other people with whom you had nothing in common besides sunlight, moonshine, and weather, and then avoided those people and stole the mood of quiet rapture from the half-pruned, lightning-struck, ax-felled trees in the miniature forests between the paths. Rain dampened your heart in a way that made the day unbearably interior, but you took your umbrella and got in a salvation walk anyway.

The park became Edenic, a return to innocence—before history started churning, before “that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste / Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,” as prophesied by Milton in Paradise Lost. We took pictures of oak and maple, ducked into woodlands to explore the intricacies. An infrastructure of leisure was under way in every direction. Lean-tos and teepees constructed from felled branches appeared at an ever-quickening pace. Some shelters were a little ramshackle and others so well-designed, with branches trimmed to roughly the same mass and length, that they seemed to have been built by an architect. I thought of these structures as giant armadillos, with sheltering armor to protect bodies against the elements that no longer feel safe. People exercised outside anyway. Teenagers made bike ramps from packed mud and sawed-off tree branches in the woods by a chain-link fence. When a fence gets placed around your world, it is up to you to create a world inside that is larger than the fence and larger than you. The fence itself was never really true. 

Wind during this time felt different. It was something to run from or flutter into. If you put your arms out, it would lift you above the trees and whip you across the field in old-fashioned terror. You arrived in the realm of the supernatural, which was better than here. 

One day, when I was walking with a friend, a storm churned up, with high wind. We were ambling across the nethermead on the north end of the park, and he started running. He yelled back that he was afraid of wind. I ran after him, in this time when we were all afraid of everything. We parted ways and ran home in the rain. During a second walk, also in high wind but without the promise of a storm, we paused on a ridge. I wondered if he would bolt. This time, he smiled at me and put his arms out like a hang glider lifting off into the same pale-green nethermead. I put my arms out, too. The wind would lift us. We were facing east. A man walking north in the nethermead, fifty meters away, stopped and turned to watch. Suddenly he threw his arms out. The three of us stood there like crosses for a while. We glided in place. These were not our tombstones. We laughed with heightened ebullience, then we put our arms down. He waved goodbye and continued across the field. Being in the park reminds you that you are always half wild and not nearly as wild as the world would allow you to be. 

 

*

 

On December 18, I emailed Walker to ask about the horse, identifying myself as a passerby who had arrived just after the horse fell. I checked my email obsessively for a reply but none arrived for three days. During that time, I searched the Internet for the history of the stables and information about the horses that live there. I found a few videos of the bridle path that winds 3.5 miles through the park. It looked unfamiliar, like tallgrass prairie where bison graze, or far-flung wetlands in Staten Island. I wanted to believe that this magic frontier existed, unseen. But suspicion and irritation kicked in. 

What struck me were videos and photographs of people riding on a street nearby. I wondered if the person who had posted the photos thought it was cute to show horses at a busy intersection in a city full of cars. There is nothing normal about a horse clomping down a city street that hasn’t had horses for a century, and there is nothing right about putting blinders on a horse to shutter from its peripheral view the surrounding world. It seems like another way of telling a horse to suffer. Blinders are a way of making the horse human.

Over the next few days, I thought about going to the stable. I could just show up and inquire about riding lessons. This approach seemed sneaky, but I couldn’t understand why it was taking Walker so long. There are times when you walk a line between your business and another person’s life and you wonder if you have made a mistake and pushed too far, if you offered too much help or if you wanted so much to be charitable because you in fact were the one who needed the charitable feelings most. It is just people being indifferent in the world, either to you or to your tacitly enraged demand to be kind. 

I continued my walks, like everyone else. December 20 was the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. A waxing crescent moon appeared that night. I was beginning to look up with habit, on my daily walks, to track the moon’s varying degrees of illumination in daylight. You think the moon is right there within sight all the time, without thinking about the adjustments you are making in its presence, and then you’re surprised when it seems to walk off and do its own thing. It’s as if it has deserted you for a while—but it was you, locked in your thoughts, who deserted the moon. 

That night, it was 38 percent illuminated and 397,041.163 kilometers away from everyone who died on Earth. The newspapers did not record the number of dead that day, instead covering the solstice as if the moon was gone, the night itself was gone, and the moon would come back tomorrow after this shortest and darkest day of the darkest year of the century.

The solstice is a mythological turning point. It measures the shadows of the trees and our axis of rotation, which is tilted 23.4 degrees relative to our orbit around the sun. Sunrise, sunset. Life is short, but days are long if you find in the abbreviated hours some common project that is bigger than you, even as minor as sourdough bread. For me, as for many, meandering through the park was the common project—and a baptism daily by dew, rain, sunshine, wind, any of it enough to sustain hope for another day or less. 

I had falsely assumed, and even now I continue to falsely assume, that suffering is temporary. I want to believe that suffering is an inflamed point of reference on a timeline around which all other time moves. The threat of illness is in the air, like a post-apocalyptic horror movie. The world is burning, flooding, inhaling itself alive. 

 

*

 

On December 21, three days after my email, Walker finally responded: Tinkerbell was fine, and they didn’t know why she had so much trouble getting up, but he and the veterinarian were keeping an eye on her. 

I’d have replied differently. I’d have given the stranger, who took the time to write, a list of details about the horse’s condition. I’d have assured her that the horse was being observed and recorded. It is a mark of respect to keep track of the numbers that define, in blood tests and scans, health. I keep track of the endocrine gland and the calcium in my bones so I do not one day collapse. Research institutions collect data by county, country, and the world. If I were Walker, I’d probably do some Google searches, see what I looked like, type in my name along with “horse.” I’d be relieved to discover I was just a concerned citizen. I’d tell me everything was going to be all right and supply the proof from the veterinarian that Tinkerbell was thriving. Or I’d say without delay that she was not okay and admit that getting older was taking a toll, and horses get ill and ramshackle and eventually retire from the parties and bridle paths where she might fall again and next time, they would have mercy and shoot her in the head to end her suffering. 

The brief note unsettled me. Over the ensuing days, I grew angrier. Why hadn’t he given me more information? The world is full of information, so I expected the abysmal and terrifying details. America’s catastrophe year kept getting compounded: 52,000 wildfires that burned nearly nine million acres, a hurricane season so busy forecasters used up the alphabet and moved onto Greek letter names. Mass protests against racial injustice and police brutality. We survived by walking around the park, avoiding and searching for the company of people with whom we share this ongoing trauma. 

 

*

 

It is January 12, and I’m again at work on this essay, thinking about Walker’s email. Approximately 4,400 people died last night, an ordinary midwinter Tuesday in America. My oldest friend told me she was dying of pancreatic and liver cancer. Wilhelm Kempf is playing the second movement of Beethoven’s Sonata 3 in C Major, with that appoggiatura uplifting on the beat as if gently reminding me that my 88-year-old friend’s life is ending with beautiful clarity, for she is in love with her good luck to have had three sons and a boyfriend and his family who loved her and me. 

I rummage through old photographs looking for her. I find one she gave me long ago. She is standing with wild horses in a field, under azure skies. A low mountain slopes up in varieties of green behind her. She is wearing a pink tank top tucked into a white flared cotton skirt with a pink braided leather belt snaking through the belt loops. Her smile looks youthful and intoxicated. Her hair is pencil-straight brown. She is young and firm-shouldered. The horses’ manes are long and their sandy coats look like velour. I take a picture of this picture and send it to her.

Today I went for a walk in the park again. I haven’t seen any of the horses from the stable since the incident. I convince myself not to email Walker a second time, because that is the point at which he will become suspicious. But I want to ask him a million questions. I want to ask my friend a million questions, too. I am trying to find some answers to keep me on my feet. I know this is an attempt to regulate my world, as Nietzsche said of the way philosophers build ideas. Of truth, Nietzsche said: “It is a rendezvous, it seems, of questions and question marks.” 

The truth is that America is a peculiar kind of rendezvous. The close-up images of our reality are full of buckshot. We are re-examining the ways in which our condition, our conditions, can be watered, re-envisioned, tolerated, or fed. Yet we are not so simple that we cannot complicate our carnage. It is similar to watching a child learn to walk: They learn that to fall is human, and that you must get up relentlessly, readjusting your weight to a world misleadingly out of balance.

“Comforter, where, where is your comforting?” asked Gerard Manley Hopkins, at one of the lowest points in his broadly unhappy life. Like the horse—and like Hopkins—weak in the legs is often how I feel. What we all want is to be cared for, to live in a society in which your social contract is my social contract, which demands some measure of decency. You bear witness to the pain of others and try not to be complicit. Yet how many of us truly care about the pain of others? Society is livable even under the worst circumstances. We can’t fix much, but we can close our eyes and make a space for the facts inside us. 

So I have decided that it’s part of my social contract to preserve things, even when they do not belong to me. For the record: Tinkerbell is a sturdy-looking, chestnut-copper older horse with a white face and underbelly, and what appear to be white-haired fluffs of meringue on her ankles. Tinkerbell has frayed, leathery hair on her feet, as if she belonged in Iceland on green volcanic prairies between glaciers arrested now and then by thermal vents. 

I wonder how old Tinkerbell is, and whether she was exhausted the day she fell. Or maybe, like my friend, she had cancer and only weeks to live. I know my friend is too tired to hold her phone now, and that her sons hold it up for her in the rare moments she has energy to talk. They share the many notes and photographs she receives from friends and family. One friend, said one of her sons, sends a picture of a flower every day. Today I sent two pictures from my daily walk. In one, an antique-style gas lamp brightens a pebbled path to the nethermead at twilight. The other portrays a small, spooky pond in which a craggy, dead tree trunk is dramatically reflected, as if tricking us to jump in. Even in an abyss, a reflection is a memory. I went to a stained glass store and took a picture of two flowers blooming on a sheet of glass and sent her that, too.

I wonder about the photograph of my friend with the horses. I have always imagined that it was taken in her native Edinburgh, where horses still roam the countryside between castles and ruins. I emailed this question to her middle son. He wrote back to say the photo was taken in Princetown, New York, near the home his mother lived in when I met her. Until that day, she had been afraid of horses, but this changed after she hugged one. She and her then-boyfriend slept in the field with the horses that night. I also slept in a field, with her youngest son, when I was nineteen. We were on a hill in the Upper Hudson in sleeping bags. It was midwinter and we had no tent. It snowed on my eyelids. I asked him then if we would freeze, but he said the sleeping bag would protect me.

 

*

 

In the white space of the email between Walker and me—all that empty space between his response and my concern—was all the absence I felt during this hemorrhaging year. 

My friend will be ashes by the time I finish this essay. She told me that after she accepted the cancer, she felt an incredible flood of happiness at how lucky she was, for her life had been full of love. 

That evening, after we saw the horse fall on the road, we continued east into the park, the way Adam and Eve entered the mortal world from Eden. We had been banished into the wilderness. My weeping seemed rounded and cared for by trees looming over us like nurses in the dark. It is part of the design that we enter and exit in darkness, between sparks of civilization—soft lights around the fields that beckon us to follow a path to the interior, trails trampled underfoot by wayfinders through steep cliffs slippery enough to tumble down with scrapes and bruises and the humiliation we all seek to avoid in the places we have not controlled enough. The sky bloomed, as if for me only, with gray light and tree-fronds. A handful of trees still had leaves that seemed to be out of sync. They were shaking their fists: Damn you for allowing millions of leaves to die while we have tried to hang onto our beautiful colors, damn you for making us clutch these thin branches for what’s left of our crumpled lives. 

The path ahead of us was pitch black. I could barely see where my feet were going, but I believe in questions and question marks, and I believe that what I don’t see will help me discover what by accident I stumble across. I heard the rustle of dead leaves that smelled like jaggery and felt the ground soften under my feet. 

The horse was making its way back to Kensington Stables. She suffered, drugged up, as she limped. I hoped she would rest there and that Walker would take pains to figure out whether she was exhausted or sick or cancerous or old—and then do something about it. There would be resolution of the kind we seek for ourselves, and life would be made whole again for this creature, who seemed to be on her last legs, and who didn’t deserve to be maimed by any more of our suffering. Or, if she turned out to be ill, and if the world were just, Walker would ship her upstate to live out her days on a country farm that closely resembled the one where my friend fell in love with the velour horses. My friend died peacefully at 4:00 pm Colorado time and reentered the freeze-frame moment caught in that photograph I hold so dear—soft brown hair caught in a breeze, arms around the horses eager for her company.

Diane Mehta is the author of the poetry collection "Forest with Castanets" (Four Way Books). She received a 2020 Spring Literature Grant from the Café Royal Cultural Foundation for her nonfiction writing.

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