Under the Sign of the Red Horse
By Sandy Brown Jensen
I was brought up under the protection of the Sign of the Red Horse, but this is the Wild West and accidents happen. On my fourth birthday, May 23, 1954, I wandered away from the Western Washington farmhouse, across the shining field toward the looming dark of the cedar forest.
My grandfather’s two-man logging rig squatted in a clearing between pasture and trees, raising up a saw blade twice my size, like a dangerous head. I managed to tumble off the back of the seat onto the blade.
The blow stopped my face from growing. I had the chin, jaws and cheekbones of a four-year-old all those crucial, growing-up years. My coordination was poor as a result, too, “a quarter bubble off plumb,” my dad said.
The real damage was done in school. We had moved east of the Washington Cascades to a home by the Wenatchee River, between the apple orchards and the sage steppes. Bus #15 came down the long hill of Horse Lake Road to pick us Brown kids up first at the most distant stop. Perry Hobson got on a couple miles later at Western Avenue.
Perry Hobson started in on me in third grade and didn’t let up until we both graduated from high school. “Hey, No Chin. Who hit you with the ugly stick? What happened to your face? Looks like you fell on a buzz saw.”
Perry was a mindless bully, the first to claw open that suppurating lesion of the heart that few girls grow up without—the oozing pus that is fear of men, the raw flesh that is being told you’re ugly, the inflamed edges that are always trying to pull together and heal yet are lashed open fresh and bleeding in the schoolyard.
Mrs. Blumhagen gave me a gentle push. “Go outside, Sandy. Play tetherball.”
I had been hiding in the classroom from boys like Perry. I hated the bloodied knees, the dirt on my pretty dresses, the feel of filthy hands on my bare arms as the boy shoved. He always shouted, “Go home, Butt Ugly!”
I stood in line, dreading the moment I would have to step up in front of the other kids. Finally, I tossed the tetherball in the air, brought my fist around to slam it, and wrapped the chain four times around my wrist. In the sour rain of laughter, I clawed frantically at the chain. I ran to the bathroom and hid in a stall with my face in my hands.
One day I got the idea I could get off Bus #15 before Perry’s stop. He liked to stand up just as the bus was jerking to a halt, pretending the movement of the bus made him fall on me while a swipe of his arm made sure I had to scramble under the seats to collect my books. This time I got off before that could happen.
I had a mile of walking through orchards. I took off my school shoes, tied them together, and slung them over my shoulder. Soft, dry clay puffed up between my toes.
“What’re you doing out here by yourself, Bucktooth?” The Childress Boy was seven years older than me, a misshapen lump of teenager my father pegged as “two bricks shy of a load.” He had a jack knife, and now he tossed it swiftly at my bare foot. The blade flipped in the air, brushing between my toes into the clay.
“Come on, Bucktooth. I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.” One hand fondled his zipper. I took off running for home. He stumbled after me. The jack knife made the softest hiss as it passed through the hair by my ear. I ran for my life.
And forever the schoolyard boys yelling, “No Chin!” and “Butt Ugly!” after me. I was always afraid, always bleeding from that heart wound I had no words to say.
When Lance came to live with us, life changed for my siblings and me. It was as if some new constellation had appeared in the sky over our river house. We called our imaginary pattern of stars The Sign of the Red Horse. Lance’s first order of business as resident horse was to get my sister Cheryl, four years older than me, through high school. She graduated just as I tangled with eighth grade. Lance and I now became constant, after-school companions.
Lance was a handsome bay, 17 hands high, half-thoroughbred, half -quarter horse, burnished red with a roached black mane and flowing tail. Each of his front hooves had white to mid-cannon. A white stripe and soft, black muzzle set off those red-brown eyes that spoke a full emotional vocabulary to me. Humor and adventure were Lance’s two favorite moods.
At fourteen, I was a large, big-breasted girl who hid behind my locker door in gym class. The other girls stared at my outsized chest and made rude remarks. I was always last to be chosen for teams and would stand with my head down in the over-revealing gym clothes. The situation in Bus #15 never changed. If it wasn’t one Perry Hobson bully, it was another, shouting, “Fatty, Fatty, two-by four, couldn’t get through the bathroom door!”
By the time I got home every day for my after-school ride, I was churning with despair. Lance spent his mornings grazing, but when Bus #15 came down the hill, he began prancing in anticipation. He met me at the gate, tossing his head up and down, barely holding still long enough for me to get the bridle buckled behind his ears. I rode bareback with a light Western curb bit and a pair of old, soft leather reins. My riding felt like floating on the surging swell of muscle and tide that was Lance.
We raced up the canyon past the bus stop, veering off to lunge up 45-degree slopes between sagebrush and balsamroot sunflower. High up in the hills, I’d slip off Lance’s sweaty body and lean against his big chest while he cropped at the dry cheat grass. Slowly, his heartbeat slowed, and my breathing steadied. I’d put my arms around his neck, and place my bare feet on top of his two front hooves. When he lifted a hoof and took a step forward, I’d move with him. My heart beat with his great heart, and the startled bird of my mind found a quiet roost.
When Lance had me settled down, he’d pull his head up, look at me, and that look meant, “Let’s go.” Sometimes he decided where we would go, and sometimes it seemed like I did. In some way, we had become one mind and ranged over the steppes and buttes of our personal West until the sun went down like a red carnelian behind those mountains called the Enchantments. Lance and I returned home in time to see the first stars come out in constellation. “Those stars are The Sign of the Red Horse, “ I explained to Lance as I brushed him down, “named especially for you.” He tossed his head with a slab of hay in his teeth, spraying alfalfa in a half circle around us
One day the PE teachers decided boys and girls should play a game called sockem together. I arrived red-faced. I couldn’t focus with the boys staring at my breasts. I panicked like a mustang filly at a roundup. Kids were running and screaming. More than one ball was in play. I heard someone yell my name. I turned and a high-speed ball made a direct hit to my right eye.
I was in the hospital for ten days, eyes bandaged. During that week I spiraled down into a black depression.
When I got home from the hospital, I retreated to the back of the pasture. I burrowed into the grass and clay like an injured dog. Lance grazed nearby, rolling an occasional eye my direction.
On the third day, he came over and nibbled my neck with his rubbery lips. His long tongue licked all around the bandage on my eye. He blew on my unkempt hair, then shoved my arm with the side of his head. “Let’s go!” that meant.
Listless, I mounted from the fence rail. We splashed across the river at Sunnyslope, and an hour later, we were at the confluence of the Wenatchee and mighty mother Columbia River. As I stared, the slow, dark animal movement of the river mesmerized me. I got it in my head that we could swim the half a mile to the other side and keep riding forever.
It was, in fact, a dangerous fantasy. Here, the Columbia was forty-five feet deep. Its powerful current flowed by at five miles an hour into Rock Island Dam, downstream around the bend. I felt I wanted to be in that deep water, to be pulled far away from the turbine of my own heart,
Lance went into the water willingly. We were both hot, and the cool water was delicious. I urged him out deeper until the sand bar dropped away. I hung onto the wet reins and floated above him. In fact, I floated above both of us. I was out of my body, finally almost completely disassociated. I saw us swimming; I saw the distance behind and the distance before us. Then we passed the protective curve of slack water and entered the straight line of the current. It felt like a giant eel wrapped its writhing power around our legs and started dragging us downstream. I didn’t understand what was happening, but Lance got it immediately—big water, big current, big danger. He flattened his expressive ears, turned around, and hit the gas, cycling his big hooves against the wrestling tentacles trying to pull him down. I was still confused, not anchored in the reality of our danger.
Lance reached the sand bar and splashed fast back to shore. I slid off while he shook himself vigorously, stinging me with hard pellets of water. Then he turned and looked me directly in the eye. With a snap, I was back in my body, focused, and brought to account. He stared straight at me, and I got the message by direct soul infusion. “No!” that meant. “Don’t ever do that again. Look at yourself. What’s the matter with you?”
No one has ever spoken to me so clearly and directly again in my life, but no one has ever had to. That dangerous depression had to be addressed. Lance looked me in the eye and I saw into the calm, dark lake of his pupils. My face reflected back our deep communication: It’s not okay. You must be a horse now, Sandy, and rise above the darkness. Your heart must now beat slow and steady and true. You are half human, half horse, and it’s time for the horse to balance the human. You can rise above the mindless nips and bites of the unruly colts in your herd. Find a way, but let’s not again try anything this foolhardy and purely dangerous.
Then as so many other times I cried, my head against Lance’s red chest, arms around his neck. He tolerated this, munching grass for a while, but then he gave me a shove. “Knock it off now. Let’s go,” is what that meant. I got on, and we ran until the thundering drum of hooves brought us home.
Lance kept me from choosing a dark fate that day. High in the air on his back, I was closer to the stars and further away from cruelty. Lance watched over me and sent me off to college before turning his attention to my sister, Toren. When I look back, I can still see him whickering at the gate every day after school, ready for my real schooling to begin. I believe the Sign of the Red Horse still watches over me to this day.
NOTE: This story originally appeared in Horse Healers: True Stories of Courage, Hope, and the Transformative Power of the Human/Equine Bond. ed. A. Bronwyn Llewellyn. Avon, MA: Adams, 2007.
It has just been re-published at “Under the Sign of the Red Horse.” Nov. 18, 2015. Setting Forth Literary Journal. http://settingforth.org/?p=5402