BY PAIGE CERULLI
Winner of the Constance Wickes Prize in Creative Nonfiction
The instructor leads me to a brown and white pinto pony – he’s the size of a horse, but on pony legs – and shows me how to hold the stirrup, angle my body into that of a gymnast, and swing aboard. I’m instantly aware of how high off of the ground my 10-year-old self suddenly is, and of the breathing, constantly moving animal beneath me.
I am also in love.
Buttons, the pony that I will come to adore for the next seven years, walks quietly around the ring with the other three lesson horses, and somehow obeys when I ask him to turn, to stop. My hands are awkward on the rainbow-colored rubber reins; I can’t remember where my pinkies should go. I bury my hands deep into Buttons’ mane, which is so thick it lies on both sides of his neck. My whole body, which I’d been so sure of just moments before on firm ground, now seems determined to disobey me. Heels down? Legs quiet? Shoulders back? Nothing seems to work.
Yet, at the same time, I’ve never felt more at home.
It’s just a few months later that I begin flute lessons through my school. The instructor is a clarinetist who apparently doesn’t actually want to teach fourth-grade girls the flute. He drop-kicks a carnival-sized stuffed animal across the stage when we can’t make a sound, tells us the sounds that we do make are so bad they’re sure to make the kids in the special ed class next door cry.
The flute is large, heavy, awkward, and cold. My fingers can’t quite reach the centers of the keys, and my wrists start to ache after a few minutes of trying for proper posture. Again I am told to sit up straight, bring my shoulders back, lift my chin up so I’m not staring at the ground.
It takes a few months before I’m able to contort my mouth enough to make a sound, but when I do, the cold hollow tube of the flute springs to life.
It’s a surge of energy I’d never known I possessed within me. And it’s beautiful.
I can’t afford many riding lessons, so I learn to muck stalls, groom, feed – whatever will earn me more time with Buttons. When the barn floods on a December Saturday morning, I rush down to help muck out stalls, drain away water, and dry horses’ legs. I learn how to empty out the candy apple red four-horse trailer after shows on summer Sundays. While I can barely lift water buckets and hay bales with my scrawny arms, I soon grow strong, able to wrestle full wheelbarrows up the ramp to the manure pile, learning how to balance a full water bucket in each hand as I shuffle down the aisle.
The barn owner allows me to ride Buttons in exchange for the help, and my best friend, Amy, and I take Buttons and her horse, Lolli, on countless Sunday trail rides. We sing, we let the horses canter on the stretches of good footing, and we do our best to get lost in the conservation land that borders the farm. We talk about dreams, about college, and about who we’d want to be the ones to tell us if or when our horses passed away. We both agree that we’d want to hear the news from each other.
I find I largely hate high school, but band gives me a place where I belong. I practice my flute every day at home and borrow books of piano sheet music from the library (they don’t have any flute music) so that I have some new material to work on. I know that I want to pursue music professionally, but can’t afford music lessons, so I decide that determination and practice will have to suffice.
I audition for the regional band and get in. I’m given solos in my school concerts, and join a local jazz group. Even though the flute in jazz is a bit of an anomaly, I play in every song, learn to solo, learn to improvise and find a bit of a thrill in making it all up as I go along.
When I am 17, Buttons contracts EPM, and Amy shows up at my house at 8:00 the next morning after arriving at the barn and discovering the news. She doesn’t even have to tell me – just looks at me – and I fall apart. I didn’t even say goodbye to him the night before, underestimating the severity of his illness. Instead, I rushed out of the barn to go to my driver’s ed class, never imagining it would be the last time I saw the pinto pony I so adored.
A week later, the horse I’ve been leasing – a giant 17-hand Quarter Horse – moves to another barn. I start to ride an ex-racehorse that’s owned by the farm, working to match my balance with her yawning stride, and achieve it – but she’s sold a month later.
So, I pack up my saddle and the rest of my belongings and go home. I don’t ride for a year.
I audition and get into college for music performance and English. The school has run out of housing, so I share a room with two other girls in an Econo Lodge about 20 minutes from campus. The room was previously a smoking room, and I suffer from migraines and unbearable homesickness. I am miserable, look into transferring, and see a therapist in an effort to get my debilitating depression under control.
I’m so homesick that I have to resist the urge to simply drive the four hours home each weeknight, missing my classes the next day. The evenings are the worst, with the dim light of the Econo Lodge room framing life in a darkness that makes me miss my friends, my family, and my childhood.
The practice rooms offer some reassurance during the darkest nights. They’re molded by uneven plaster walls in desperate need of paint, and the windows don’t close all the way so there’s a constant draft in November and December. The fluorescent lighting makes the black music notes feel as if they’re searing into the back of my eyes, and the flute echoes dramatically off of the beige tile floor.
But I play scales and arpeggios and etudes and, eventually, the pieces I’m studying. The melodies give me something to fall into, a way to lose myself. I start to love the way I can craft art out of nothing, how I can surround myself with sound and make the notes spin through the room until I’m surrounded by the results of my discipline, my rigorous posture, my breath.
The ache of not riding starts to outweigh the ache of mourning for Buttons, and I post on Craigslist, looking for a barn willing to let me work off riding near college. A woman responds, and I meet her and her herd of seven horses at her backyard barn. I clean tack, clean the barn, clean anything I can find in an effort to be helpful, and groom countless horses.
The smell of the barn reassures me – it’s not the same smell that the barn back home had, but it’s a different rich smell of earth and fields and pine trees and horse. I ride a chestnut Quarter Horse named Aragorn, and a bay Morgan named Heir. They are both well-mannered and quiet, and I spend my time riding through the pastures, trying to find a place where the ache inside me is quieted, if just for a minute.
During my first solo performance of college, stage fright leaves my hands trembling and my breath short. My tone, which is normally rich and full, is hesitant, airy. The feeling is foreign – usually I am at home when I’m performing – but I push through.
About halfway through the piece I start to feel as if I’ve returned to my body, and instead of the piece commanding me, I take control of it. I lean into my phrasing, bite into my tone to add character, and delight in the stage lights that blind me to the audience before the stage.
Over a decade of practicing and working with a metronome and playing the same note again and again to get to its core. It’s amounted to this, and it is one of the most powerful feelings I’ve ever experienced.
When I return to college for my sophomore year, I find that the barn owner has purchased a grey Thoroughbred mare at auction. Her registered name is Summon Mi Cielo – Whisper for short – and she is all nervous energy. She struggles to stand on the crossties, spooks at my gloves, spooks when I sneeze, spooks at everything.
She has the same build as the Thoroughbred I’d been riding that was sold, and I tell myself I’ll just groom her and won’t ride her. I don’t want to get attached.
I know I’m lying.
I make it a week before mounting up, and Whisper takes off at a fast trot before I’m even in the saddle. It takes four rounds of the ring before I can convince her to slow down, before I can breathe, before I feel her agree and remember to breathe beneath me.
And so, I’ve found my project. I throw myself into riding this brilliant grey mare four times a week, and I focus on steering, slowing, stopping her with my seat. She softens in the bridle, agrees not to bolt while I’m mounting, continues to spook at anything she can find. But she also gives me moments of patience, and somewhere I sense just the slightest bit of trust.
In her, I’ve found something that I can hold onto.
That summer, as I’m driving from home to the college to play my flute in the commencement orchestra, a car hydroplanes, crosses four lanes of traffic, and hits my truck head-on. The car is moving somewhere between 80 and 90 miles per hour at the time, and when it hits the front of my truck I’m convinced something has exploded. I see white – the airbag, I later learn – and the force is so strong that I’m convinced my truck is rolling.
When the tires stop screaming and the truck comes to a stop – blessedly upright – I realize it’s filled with smoke and decide I need to get out right away. My cell phone has slid through the two-by-two-foot hole that the force has torn into the truck’s floor, and I find it in pieces in the motor oil and rainwater blanketing the road. I put the phone back together, call 911.
It isn’t until two weeks later that I learn I sustained a traumatic brain injury. I have short-term memory loss, can’t recognize faces, suffer from migraines and sound and light sensitivity, and my balance is nearly gone. I also have an injured hip where the seat belt grabbed me, leaving my right leg and inch shorter than my left and requiring extensive chiropractic work.
Doctors tell me not to go back to school in the fall, to take more time and heal. I’m forbidden to ride, warned that if and when I do mount up, I need a calm, quiet old horse. Another brain injury would be “devastating,” and doctors warn me of how much worse off I could be.
I return to college that fall, deciding that I am strong enough and determined enough to succeed. My first time on stage since my head injury, I discover that the stage lights are too bright, that the sound of the orchestra behind me is too loud. I am dizzy and unsteady and no longer the confident soloist that I had been becoming.
During the first round of my class tests, I discover that my memory is suddenly missing. Having previously been a straight-A student, I now can’t remember the simplest details and am receiving B’s and C’s. I am perpetually exhausted, feel weak, and can’t seem to control my body with the same finesse that I had once mastered.
During my first trip out to the barn post-accident I don’t pack my helmet so I won’t be tempted to mount up. I am in the saddle again (with my helmet) by my second visit. I tell Whisper I need her to be calm and careful, and wonder about my sanity in this stupidly risky move. I also know how much I need this.
Whisper walks calmly and quietly during those first rides. I use the brim of the helmet to shield the sun from my eyes, bury both hands into her mane for added stability, and focus on balancing and moving with the swing of her hips. I don’t ask her to trot for almost a month, and slowly my body starts to feel like my own again.
We ride like this for months, me gradually asking for a little more and a little more, gradually growing stronger and regaining control of my own movements. I eventually let Whisper canter, discover my eyes can’t process the movement in time with my body, leaving me feeling disjunct and unsettled. We return to the trot for another month, then try again. This time I feel more like myself, more in balance.
When Whisper’s owner tells me she’s putting her up for sale, I check my bank account. I have her exact asking price left in my bank account from the accident settlement I received. A year to the day of the accident I buy Whisper, and she becomes my first horse.
By the time my senior recital arrives, I have overcome my dizziness, the sound and light sensitivity, the migraines, the uncertainty. But I am still plagued by never-ending fatigue, and both of my hands and wrists are swollen and unbearably painful. I’ve seen a half dozen doctors, none of which have been able to pinpoint just what has gone wrong with my body.
The final piece of my recital is the Undine Sonata by Carl Reinecke. It tells the story of Undine, a water spirit who falls in love with a mortal. After marrying him, he falls in love with another woman, and Undine kills him with a cursed kiss before dying, herself.
The piece is dramatic, full of emotion and contrast, and features sections where the flute, giving voice to Undine, is screaming in anguish. It proves to be a powerful channel for my own angst – having survived a music performance major, my body is now betraying me and threatening my future.
Even then, I have a sense that all is not right with my body, that doctors’ suggestions of surgery will not resolve the pain, that something far more significant is occurring. I throw myself into that final piece during my recital. Perhaps, even then, I know that it is a goodbye.
A year after graduating college, I am diagnosed with fibromyalgia. The word is foreign in my mouth at first, but after I stop at a McDonald’s on the way home to Google the condition, it becomes too real and too fast. Suddenly, all of my symptoms make sense, framed with the grave fact that the condition is uncurable. It was likely prompted by the traumatic nature of the car accident years before.
My doctor explains that my body will not hold up to the demands of the music performance career that I had been working toward. All of the sacrifices I had made for music – my social life, my free time, a bit of my sanity – are suddenly worthless. All of my work, all of the hours spent teaching my body how to do the seemingly impossible, are washed away. My very identity – a musician – has vanished.
I have rehearsal that night, and drive there in a stunned sense of disbelief. I play the notes but don’t feel them, am incapable of putting any emotion into the pieces.
That night, when I arrive home I quickly change into my sneakers and walk down the long dirt driveway that borders the pasture. It is nearing midnight, and it’s cold, and I don’t think to bring a flashlight, but the moon offers enough light so that I can see that Whisper has followed me down to the road and is waiting for me on the other side of the fence.
She stands at the corner, watching me as I duck between the boards. The rest of the herd is up by the barn, but she stays with me. I play with her mane, stare blankly into the darkness as I try to understand the implications this condition will have on my life. My music career is over, and I wonder how I’ll reshape myself, rebuild an identity.
I stand there for an hour, maybe longer, until it’s after midnight. Whisper, probably not understanding what’s prompted this unusual nighttime visit, but somehow knowing that I desperately need her, never moves. I don’t cry – I’m more numb and reeling with disbelief – but occasionally lean into Whisper’s shoulder, allowing her strength to help hold me up.
I continue to play as an alumni member in my college wind symphony, and we have a concert just three weeks after my diagnosis. Normally, concert nights are accompanied by a nervous fluttering in my stomach, and the whole day I’m powered by an excited energy. But this concert is different. The feeling within me is darker, something of a mixture of disappointment and defeat.
I still throw myself into the music, letting the crescendos sweep me along, leaning into the chords, carefully adjusting the phrasing of the melody. And the body that I have trained so carefully obeys me, for a while. After intermission the pain sets in, and my hands swell, and the carefully rehearsed passages of rapid-fire sixteenth notes come out flawed, whereas once I could have played them perfectly. This stage, which was home to so much hope and so many of my dreams, is now the setting of the end of those plans.
Many of my college professors attend, and when I see them in the lobby after the concert, I choke on my words when they ask me how things are going. I feel like a failure, but say that things are going well.
It’s my last concert. I take three years off from playing, and when I do attend concerts as an audience member, I’m filled with bitterness, watching musicians do so easily what my body won’t allow me to do.
For a while, Whisper carries me through this grief. I ride her on late summer afternoons, grateful for the fact that she’s never been heavy in the bridle, knowing my hands couldn’t possibly grip the reins if she were. I throw myself into riding, perfecting my equitation, trying to retrain my body just as I did for my music. On my rough days, I struggle to get my hands to wrap around the girth enough to tighten it. Cleaning stalls, which was once a refuge, becomes painful, and my body is filled with fatigue no matter how much I sleep the night before.
The fatigue doesn’t get better, and starts to creep into other areas of my life. Even though I’m lucky enough to live above the barn where I board Whisper, I have to force myself to go out to visit her, and whether or not I can summon the energy to tack up and mount up on any given day is a game of luck.
After moving barns, Whisper starts to fade. Her energy seems low some days, though her ability to spook at seemingly nothing never wanes. I start to jump her over small verticals, but her driving enthusiasm for jumping has disappeared. Then one day, she goes lame.
I work with my vets, take her to a clinic by one of the top farriers in the country, and struggle to put weight back on her after she drops about 200 pounds seemingly overnight. She’s diagnosed with Cushings, then the lameness gets worse. I rehab her for three months, and when she’s almost ready to return to riding, she steps on herself, cutting her leg open. We start over.
Another month or two of rehab and walking under tack yields no improvement. Whisper is still lame, and another vet exam reveals that she has DSLD, a horrid acronym I’ll come to recognize as Degenerative Suspensory Ligament Desmitis. Whisper has to be retired.
All I can think is that she deserves more than what she gets. She is just 16 and there is no last ride, no retirement ceremony. I feel that we should somehow celebrate what we’ve been through together – the time we discovered a fire less than a mile from the barn during a trail ride, our nearly perfect score during our first versatility clinic, the fact that this flighty mare survived an entire show season with me, winning all of our trail classes and coming in year-end division champion.
There should be more to this, but all of the dreams and plans I had for Whisper suddenly come to an end.
I no longer perform, but spend some time volunteering for the local elementary school bands and put on a masterclass for the flute students. I take on a student of my own, a girl heading into her freshman year of high school who wants to audition for the local district band.
During her first lesson, she flexes her wrist, mentioning that it hurts. We talk about posture, how playing through pain is asking for trouble, and how to prevent injury as a musician, all lessons that I am too familiar with.
She studies with me for four years, auditioning into that band multiple times. She becomes a fine musician, works hard, dedicates herself to improving, and receives a recommendation for the state audition-only band in her senior year. Though she doesn’t major in music, she still plays in college.
In teaching her, I catch glimpses of the musician I used to be. She is bright and full of promise, and is not afraid to sacrifice or to fail. Seeing her evolve reminds me of how amazing it is that, through sheer determination, we can teach our bodies to do these incredible things, to make music out of nothing, to overcome the immense challenges we place before ourselves.
Whisper becomes a teacher, too. I buy a house and a small barn, and discover that my neighbor’s nine-year-old daughter, Gwen, is horse-crazy. She comes over for grooming and horse care lessons, and Whisper stands patiently and sleepily on the crossties as Gwen grooms her, learns how to pick her hooves, wrestles with the curry comb that is oversized for nine-year-old hands.
Whisper, who is so often full of excited energy, proves to be the exemplary kid’s horse. She carefully watches Gwen, quietly walks behind her, lowers her head so Gwen can attach the crossties.
Gwen, who is afraid of Whisper’s 16.1 hands at first, gains confidence and skill with every session. Soon she is leading Whisper all on her own, eagerly gathering up the right grooming tools, painting Whisper’s hooves with hoof conditioner with the skill of an artist. She learns to clean tack, how to measure out feed, how to observe horses in herd settings.
She’s full of enthusiasm, full of that magic of childhood. She always has a different horse shirt on, shows off her light-up boots, gives me a ceramic horse sculpture that she’s painted into an Appaloosa.
She reminds me of me.
After three years without playing, I pick up my flute again, rejoin my college’s wind symphony. I keep my practice sessions short; the time off has helped to reduce the pain in my hands and wrists, and I am fearful of prompting that to return.
Nothing sounds or feels as good as it did in college. My tone, while still uniquely mine, isn’t as full as it once was. The drive I had to make every phrase, every note perfect doesn’t reemerge. Instead, I settle for decent, whereas once I would accept nothing less than perfection.
But I also find that decent, or even good, suffices. With less pain, I enjoy playing more, and start to look forward to concert nights again. There’s a little stir of excitement throughout the day, and I play a few solos with the confidence that I wasn’t sure would ever return.
I am a musician, though not in the capacity I’d once hoped. No, I will never be a soloist with an orchestra, never release an album, never make it to Carnegie Hall. But I am talented, and though I’ll likely never play at the level I did while in college, I know that, at least at one time, I was a great musician.
When I spot a bay Thoroughbred mare for adoption through Rerun, I somehow know that she has to come home. Petite Warrior sustained a condylar fracture at the track, and after spending about a year at the rescue, she’s offered up for adoption. I apply for her, talk with the director, learn that she’s just the horse I’ve been looking for, and she comes home a few days later.
I name her Lyric.
Whisper and Lyric hit it off from the beginning, becoming best friends, grazing buddies, and, in short, inseparable. Whisper watches anxiously when I ride Lyric next to the pasture, working to get my legs and body to cooperate after not having ridden in three years. I repeat to myself, fingers closed, eyes up, shoulders back. I struggle with fear, wondering if Lyric’s laid-back happy-go-lucky attitude will suddenly disappear, but it doesn’t, and her patience with me continues as I reorient myself to the challenges of riding.
I discover Lyric has a long-undiagnosed injury, and focus on rehabbing her. She remains calm and a pleasure to ride despite the fact that she is seven, green, and I’m walking her on horrendously windy days. My equitation gradually starts to reappear. I start to see myself as a rider again, rather than just a horse lover, and find myself emboldened, taking Lyric for solo trail rides to explore the acreage behind my house.
My hands grow stronger on the reins – Lyric takes up a heavier contact than Whisper ever did, and I focus on encouraging her to drive forward from her hind end, lightening up the contact. Even when she’s heavy or pulls, though, I find I’m better able to counterbalance her without the sharp pain ricocheting through my wrists that was once so familiar.
There are moments while riding when I feel almost elegant. Like I belong. I have to check my posture every few seconds or so, but there are brief flashes where I can see a bit of potential. Lyric rounds up underneath me, strides beneath herself, and every once in a while in the fall shadows, I see the goal of an in-sync horse and rider that I have always worked toward.
We encounter goats, a crow that launches an attack at us from a nearby pine tree, and motorcycles seemingly lacking mufflers, but Lyric trusts me and I am learning to trust her. I start to wonder how she would cope with a few local horse shows next year. Maybe an agility clinic. Or possibly a beach trail ride.
And so, little by little, I start to dream.
The inaugural $2500 Equestrian Voices Creative Writing Contest celebrated stories written by and for horse lovers from all over the world. We were inundated with amazing narratives about triumph, loss and the deep emotional experience that is being with an amazing horse. To learn more about the 2019 contest, visit theplaidhorse.com/write.