BY CAROLINE FLEISCHAUER
The second time I tried to kill myself I felt it coming. As I sat in my office, attempting to read papers, the words swam before me. I felt my heart build into a crescendo that muffled everything else, pounding in my hears and behind my eyes, suffocating me. I ran out of the building hacking, trying to push it down, to breathe.
I made it home in time to throw myself into the driver’s seat of my car, locking the doors and tossing the keys into the back. Here, I couldn’t hurt myself. I wasn’t alone in my house full of usually benign objects that now seemed deadly. With the keys lost in the clutter, I couldn’t get on the road and hurt others. All I could do was shake as I tried to push down the one voice in my head slicing through the noise. A deep bass echoing in my skull.
You don’t want to be here anymore.
But I did. I do. I stayed.
I sat there for hours, fighting a battle I couldn’t afford to lose. The temperature plummeted as I rocked back and forth in the driver’s seat, the arrhythmic beating of my heart almost convincing me that it was over before another wave of panic would send me back into a ball, squeezing my head with my knees, trying to make it stop.
You don’t want to be here anymore.
I wanted it to be over.
Sweat soaked through the back of my shirt. Tears, the front. Vomit covered the floor. But I stayed in that ball until it felt that everything that made me a human being had been squeezed out.
You don’t want to be here anymore.
The sky was black when my feverish shaking ceased and my vision cleared. I dug through the piles of clothes in the back for the keys and stuck them into the ignition. My breath caught as the engine came to life, deafening after hours of attempting to block out all sound, and I cringed. I didn’t trust my shaking hands, and so gripped the steering wheel until my knuckles were white as I backed out of the driveway.
My therapist would later tell me that my next decision was a bad one. That I should’ve gotten help, driven to the hospital, called someone. I don’t remember getting there, but when my mare nickered as I got out of the car, the fall chill ripping through my soaked t-shirt—I knew where I was.
My four-year old Thoroughbred, usually pacing in her run-in shed, was completely still as I opened the gate and collapsed against her, too weak to hold myself up. We stood there until the stars outnumbered the headlights on the nearby highway, just two bodies touching, melding. I closed my eyes and let her breath warm my face, reminding me that, at least in that moment, there was one other being on the face of the earth that needed me there.
On the way home from the barn, my mother used to tell me stories. The twenty minutes between the city and the country, the two places where my life both began and ended, seemed interminable as a seven-year-old. I would sit in the back, enraptured, hanging onto her every word.
My favorite was about my pony, a butterscotch-colored thing with two different colored eyes. We were jumping in an arena full of people and colorful jumps that towered over our heads. As his little legs carried us to each obstacle, he launched himself into the air, and from his withers sprung a pair of golden wings. Invisible to all but me, my little golden pony with his golden wings completed the course, and we were winners together, soaking in the cheers of the crowd.
On the day that pony left for his new home, I dismounted my new, larger, mount and put my arms around his neck. As I said goodbye, it wasn’t the golden wings that I remembered but the days of landing in the dirt, the pom poms we put in his ears at shows to drown out the cheers, the time he spooked and dragged me over a mile at the nearby showgrounds because I refused to let go of the lead rope. It was how he was the first horse I had ever seen rear, something I found both terrifying and magnificent.
When I hugged that pony and said goodbye, I didn’t cry. But sixteen years later there is still a photo of him on my mantel place.
We knew at the same moment that we were going over. She had tossed her head in a burst of defiant energy, catching her hooves mere feet from the solid wooden slats encircling the arena. To keep us from crashing through the boards, she threw herself to the side. We went down as one, my hands still twisted in her mane when we hit the ground.
She rolled over, scrambling to her feet before taking off towards the ingate. I wasn’t as fortunate. Her head hung in the dirt, unmoving, waiting for a sign. I just lay there, staring at the sky, fire ripping through my legs. I couldn’t look, didn’t want to look, at the damage I knew was inevitable. It was a perfect day, blue skies and sunny.
I reached a hand down. No blood – as far as my knee, at least. I gingerly touched my head, praying that I hadn’t caused further damage to my battered brain, still mending from a collision a few months back. The brim of my helmet had flipped up, but, somehow, it had taken most of the shock. I sent up a delirious thank you to Charles Owen.
As I pushed myself off the ground, an unconscious scream ripped from my lungs. I couldn’t bend my knees. I couldn’t stand. I already knew that Catch was alright, as least as far as I could tell from across the arena. But I needed to check her legs, her ribs, her head. I was riding her for a friend at the barn. She didn’t have time for her, she was too much horse, she was difficult. But that mare didn’t move a muscle, just stared at me as I used a fence post, my arms, and sheer will to pull myself off the ground.
Gripping the boards to keep myself from falling, we met by the ingate. I pulled the reins from over her head and shifted my grip to her mane one hand at a time. Together, we made our way back to the barn. Her usually frantic steps were slow, measured. Using her to support my weight, I took off her saddle and ran my hands down every inch of her body, somehow unscathed from our ordeal. I couldn’t bear to do the same to my own.
When I finally made it to the hospital, covered in dirt, wearing movie star sunglasses that blocked out the light and holding my leg at an awkward angle, I growled at a bewildered nurse that no matter how bad it was they couldn’t cut my boot off. I proceeded to take it off myself, dumping dirt all over the examination room. Before they stuck me in a wheelchair, I insisted on calling the barn, checking on Catch one last time before I let them take all their pictures of the inside of my body. She was fine, quietly chewing high in the back corner of her stall. I smiled as they wheeled me up to the MRI machine.
Catch went up for sale the following summer, almost as soon as I moved out west. The day she was listed, my trainer and her owner both contacted me. Two thousand dollars. They wanted me to have her. It broke my heart to admit I couldn’t afford the mare I would carry with me forever, whom I trusted to sail over four foot fences in spite of the slightly raised lump on my right leg that itched in warm weather and turned a vibrant purple in the cold – the remnants of the quadricep hematoma that had turned my entire thigh black for over a month. She was sold to someone in New Jersey. It was nearly a year before I found another mare with the same fire in her eyes.
My father was allergic to horses. When we got home from the barn, my sister and I would take our boots and jackets down to the basement, but they would still make him sneeze. He complained, but it didn’t stop him from picking us up from the barn when we needed a ride or allowing us to “stink up his car” once I got my license.
He didn’t understand our passion, but he supported it, often from afar. He would gripe about expenses but still pay our show bills. Once in a while he would even make an appearance, staying until his allergies nearly closed his throat despite the shots he got every week to dull his overactive immune system. One year for Christmas, he got us a dressage saddle. He made sure it was the last gift we opened. My sister and I both compete hunters. We smiled and thanked him, and the saddle proceeded to sit in the tack room and collect dust.
On a trip to Ireland, he surprised us with a riding day. Guided by a girl not much older than ourselves, the three of us spent the day exploring the green hills, mist clinging to our windbreakers. When we got to the beach, we urged the horses into a canter, and then a gallop. The salty water of the Atlantic splashed into our boots and mingled with the rain. When we returned, drenched and still laughing, he nearly doubled the tip he gave to our guide, who was headed to the continent for university in the fall. We later discovered a picture of the three of us, dancing through the shallows, taken from the top of a hill where my father had sat for hours, watching and waiting, to witness his daughters’ joy.
When I got my driver’s license, I stopped going to church on Sundays and went to the barn instead. My Irish Catholic mother raged at first, but eventually she stopped going, too. I think that, in her heart of hearts, she was as glad as we were not to have to pack us into the car every Sunday at 8:30, our family squabbles hanging heavy in the morning air. Instead, my sister and I put ourselves into the family Subaru, bleary-eyed and silent.
Quiet, but not still. Dark shapes move in the shadows, snuffling as they nudge their way through their piles of hay to the dirt beneath. The rustling of hooves on shavings. The muted munching signaling contentment and peace.
I still prayed every Sunday morning. I prayed that my mounts would be in an acquiescing mood. I prayed that my trainer had had enough of her morning coffee to be agreeable. I prayed for my heels to stretch longer and that my legs would grow another few inches. Sometimes I would speak to God over a bad jump and thank him profusely when we somehow landed on the other side. And when my Thoroughbred colicked, on a cold Sunday in late December as snow piled around the arena door, I prayed with every step I took, around and around the small ring, that he would live. I promised God that, if he did, I would be a better person, a better Catholic. My horse pulled through, and I went to church on Christmas Eve.
Some people feel God in a sparse stone building with walls of wooden pews. I feel a higher power elsewhere. Watching the sun set behind the rolling green hills of the Finger Lakes, splashing the sky with color. While helping to bring a foal into the world in -20 degree weather and not realizing you have been holding your breath until you see it take its very first. In the quiet of the barn, late at night, after feeding, when all the world is still save for the sounds of breathing and chewing, a symphony in the silence.
Caroline Fleischauer is a writer in the MFA program at the University of Wyoming. Originally from Ithaca, NY, she has lived in Wyoming for the past three years. In addition to writing, she works as a trainer with the Center for Racehorse Retraining helping to rehome retired Thoroughbreds.