It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.
– Wendell Berry
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and rightdoing there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass
the world is too full to talk about.
But then, aren’t all rich lonely neighbours about to do something horrible?
Until today, my view of the pasture was unspoiled. Hot teas and knit blankets to watch the morning sun clip the tops of the cottonwood trees, to smell the Russian olive when the first big heat comes. When the children walk with bags of carrots, it makes me happy to see their tired parents smile, relieved to know their all-day absences don’t dim a child’s love of the soft and curious nibbles from a horse’s big lips. The tiny screech owl comes at twilight and sits in the dead honey locust. In winter, the fox digs in the new snow to pull mice families from their homes nestled in the roots. In hot summers, the horses grazing the property nap under the dead limbs once their morning feeding is done. The pasture has always been an aesthetic balm to all my unplanned convalescence.
I need not describe this neighbour in too much detail. You already know the kind of men who cause the most trouble. His car is what you think it is. His pressed shirts are the colour you think they are. He wears fancy bathrobes in the middle of the day. His haircut, how he smells, the comfort of his shoes – you know instinctively who he is, over there, in the patch of wild asparagus, removing his shirt.
For two weeks this has been coming. One incident after another, what feels like the early stages of some great removal. And I’m only too happy to document it.
Incident 1: Kevin
One of the owners of the horses that graze the pasture comes early to mix food for a skinny thoroughbred. She is of a vigorous disposition. Her strides are long and stretched. Built low to the ground and wide with a head half-shaved, half dyed bright pink. Her voice carries like wildfire.
At the back of the pasture, a young woman kneels in pools of water in hand-sewn clothes. She calls to Kevin, a crocodile. Under the curls of her auburn hair, she is red-faced and confused. Behind the swamp grass, the fox peers out from the dark hole of her den.
The girl with pink hair hears the girl first, calling out through the morning mists – the sweats of a spring thaw rising from the flooded back third. She knows voices like that. The sounds of young women who are not content with the small spaces made for them, but not yet ready to build houses on their own. She pulls a clean horse blanket from the shed and wades into the swampy water and tells the red-faced girl that she has found Kevin and he is safe. The sirens come and the girl with pink hair makes a phone call to a friend who finds the girl a bed where the red curls of her hair will be safe from the men who introduced her to Kevin.
The neighbour emerges from his fake Italian villa built on a knoll to the north and begins his interference by vigorously shaking the hands of the medics and police. He looks at his watch and points in several directions. He pulls a small notepad from his robe pocket and clicks a pencil. He tells the officers of the plague of human homeless that these wild city spaces attract. He too seems red-faced and confused.
You see, this is the problem. They spend the night in the park, smoke some new drug, then wander over here to find places to hide and act crazy.
This is what he says to the medics. I read his lips through my field glasses.
Thank you sir, for your input. We have your number, if anything further comes of this we’ll let you know.
This I surmise from the open-palmed gestures and the officer’s exasperated expression. Everyone leaves, and my neighbour in a robe is left scratching a summary of the events along with his complaints in his crumpled notepad. Dumb bastard.
Incident 2: The professor and the neighbour in a robe fight over sex
Three years ago, a black quarter horse arrived from Elko, Nevada and was released into the front corral. A middle-aged college professor with a red beard like a Norse earl climbed the gate wearing his grandpa’s cowboy boots. His Mexican-Polish husband, a skinny man with knocked knees and long hair followed, with his feet flattened from working a decade on concrete floors selling cheap clothes to young rich mothers. The horse wanted nothing to do with them. Their argument over how to introduce themselves to the mare drew out the neighbour in a robe to introduce himself.
The black mare ran the perimeter of the front corral to get as far away from the professor as she could. His boots were three sizes too big and he dripped sweat like a cartoon turkey on a campfire spit. Passers-by gathered. The girl with pink hair laughed and yelled instructions to a grown man she had yet to officially meet. You’re doing this wrong!
I saw frustration in his middle-age frame. Not sadness exactly, but the beginnings of a falling apart – in his thick waist, maybe, or his heavy breathing. His heartbeat was meant for admiring great works of art and tending vegetable gardens, not trying to befriend a scared animal to fix a troubled relationship.
The horse kicked and reared up and threw her head. He rushed the horse, arms extended holding a new halter. His boot heels stuck in the soft ground. After 10 minutes a very real exhaustion set in. He stopped to catch his breath.
‘You can’t stop. If she wins right now, you’ll never have a relationship with that horse.’
‘What was your name again?’
He picked up his pace with a near angry determination. The mare matched his intensity, nearly leaping the wire fence. Another five minutes and the girl, in her striped tank top and pink hair, got between him and the horse. He bent down and put his hands on his knees and wiped the sweat from his forehead with the backs of his new leather gloves. The girl gently took the halter and leaned into his ear. She whispered instructions. He slowly nodded his head. The change in tactic worked. Sustained, focussed pursuit, but with no anxious agenda. Another ten minutes and the mare finally turned in annoyance to face what frightened her.
‘Turn around. Turn around!’
‘What? Why do I…’
‘Shut up! Turn around!’
Staring at the back of her pursuer, what the horse’s instincts had told her was a threat, now said, that is you. Three quiet moments passed.
‘What do I…’
‘Just be quiet.’
The agenda lingered in him.
‘Now, slowly reach your hand back and wait.’
He let go a laboured breath and slowly lifted his arm behind him. A still and sibylline air settled between a human mid-life crisis and an ancient animal’s will to safety, in what surely must be the world’s most mysterious and troubled space. The horse slowly approached. Four of the onlookers gasped with delight.
A still and sibylline air settled between a human mid-life crisis and an ancient animal’s will to safety, in what surely must be the world’s most mysterious and troubled space
The horse took twenty calm, four-legged steps. Each uneven, each paused and cautious. He rubbed the knuckle of his left thumb over the pain above each eye. Twelve steps closer and the professor’s husband stood from his camp chair, lifted by his attraction to the softness and vulnerability in strong-willed men. Then, overcoming the prickly imbalance between fight and flight, the mare softly pressed her nose into the back of his hand. The girl with pink hair collapsed to the ground and sobbed.
‘I love it when this happens!’
The small crowd cheered. I shuffled back to my porch. Flickers flew between the cottonwoods. The magpies finished the ceilings in their stick apartments, and the black mare, not two days earlier grazing the sparse winter range of black sage and rabbit brush, settled in to graze on the fresh shoots of Kentucky bluegrass.
And there they’ve been, four years now. Bringing to that island property horses that people are finished with. Feeding them, touching them, being with them when they die. The pack horses that carried cold drinks and comfortable camping gear for city tourists. The racing thoroughbreds stalled in confined spaces their whole lives but for the infrequent and frantic expectations of their wealthy owners. A hospice made to absorb the vexing residue from thousands of years of one animal bearing the manic amblings of creatures misunderstanding what it means to walk on two legs.
This morning, my neighbour pushes through the gate to the front corral where the horses’ hooves are being trimmed and warns the married couple and a wide-eyed Mormon farrier about the bum boys that spill into the pasture from the park to fornicate. The Norse Earl informs him of their membership in that group. The neighbour loudly announces that they, then, are the problem and they’ll be closely monitored.
There is yelling and pointing. Arms are grabbed. Arms are raised. Arms are slapped away. As he walks back to his empty house, and after he makes an obscene gesture, the neighbour pulls a black tube blinking a blue light from his pocket and vapes a sweet cherry-bubblegum smoke.
Below the bay window of his villa, the fox runs into her den with two newborn baby rats in her mouth. She steps over a plastic yoghurt cup and one child’s pink winter boot. Later that night a raccoon fights off the fox for the dumps of fast food thrown from the windows of cars driven by people who are drunk and high.
Incident 3: The rat and the sparrow
He must have given the rodent to his young kids as a forgotten birthday present, telling them that white rats are magic. I always see them leaving his place with balloons and designer shopping bags. But now, the animals are being returned. This plastic jug is the second one in three weeks, thrown onto his lawn from the window of his ex-wife’s SUV. I didn’t see if the kids were with her or not.
Before sunrise, I see him squeeze through the pasture fence holding the jug. He snags his robe on the bottom layer of barbed wire as he hurries through the patch of wild asparagus. He turns the jug upside down. The occupant stays wedged inside. He holds it up and reaches through the hole cut in the bottom. The rat bites his finger. In anger, he bangs the sides of the jug, shakes it again, then kicks the jug into the field.
Once the neighbour retreats into his house to change robes and think of a pet no adult would dare return, I wade through the wet switch grass and find the plastic container. It’s a white Clorox bottle. Inside, I see white whiskers hide behind a dirty dish towel peppered with food pellets, and a small plush toy – a sparrow. The rat is half black and trembling. I turn my left palm up and reach inside. It sniffs the tips of my fingers then backs up into the neck of the jug. The jagged edges of the opening are covered with black electrical tape. Judging from the makeshift construction of its home, the children were left to care for the animal. Kept in a closet or under the bathroom sink.
The girl with pink hair arrives and takes the rat to a rescue. But then, from the back of her truck, she removes two large metal cages, both carrying what she calls feral cats, to hunt the wild muskrats that live along the creek who find buffets in her horse feed. The cats do nothing but sleep in the cages during the hot days and hunt backyard birds at night. One runs away, the other dies from a grisly fox attack.
Two days later, near the asparagus, a hamster in a Manolo Blahnik shoebox.
Incident 4: The easel, the sidewalk and the idle
The neighbour-in-a-robe’s art supplies had to cost more than a thousand dollars. The best tubes of paint. The portable wooden easel. Last week, he set up on the sidewalk to catch the warm sunrise on the silky, muscled rump of the black mare. Like the horse in David’s painting of Napoleon Crossing the Alps that hangs above the white couch in his living room, the horse reminds him of the trip to Paris with his high-collared wife. That twenty seconds in front of the Mona Lisa with a smartphone camera. The crush of people in the gift shop.
‘Goddamn, aren’t you a beautiful creature?’ He’s painted her reared up, the tense strips of muscle in her back legs are spring-loaded. Her front legs thrash the air. He adds a fiery sunset and a tri-coloured flag unfurling in the background. A young girl comes to feed her father’s lawn clippings to the horses. He offers her hard candy from his hot pocket. She compliments his work, though his horse looks more like Albrecht Durer’s rhinoceros than Napoleon’s Arabian stallion.
On this sad opaque morning, the same frantic woman stops her car at the curb outside my window. She runs across the road convinced, once again, that a sleeping horse is dead. She takes pictures and sends them to her animal watch group, who sends them to animal control, who sends an officer out for the third time this month. She remembers from somewhere in her dusty education that horses only sleep standing up.
She waits in pressed slacks and leather loafers. Her hair extensions cover the new wrinkles in her neck and lay like curls of caramel taffy across her smart cashmere sweater. She lets her German car idle while she waits for the officer to show up. The officer asks the same few questions that will garner the same satisfying answers from the horse owners, but the woman’s concern grows nonetheless and inflates into a precarious and sustained suspicion of abuse because, to her, it’s all death. It’s all death!
‘That horse hasn’t moved for almost 20 minutes.’
‘I think she’s still napping.’
‘I don’t know.’
The woman must have the same empty house. Her only child off to an expensive college. Her husband, always away, feeding algorithms into hot circuits to make young men feel more important than they are, while she wanders the streets looking for ways to be helpful.
‘You’re a painter?’ she asks my neighbour.
‘I work in watercolour.’
‘Yeah? You should come set up shop.’
‘I’m sure I’m not as good as you.’
‘Oh, I don’t know about that.’
They become attracted to each other through their love of art. They’ll collaborate on paintings of native women making baskets and weaving wool rugs on giant looms. She’ll buy a matching easel and paint children eating ice cream in public parks and pigeons pecking bits of dried bread left by picnics. They’ll sketch kids flying kites and sketch other painters sketching cathedrals. They’ll laugh at the irony. She’ll invite him to her house and they’ll drink chilled wine and talk about moving to Spain. They’ll kiss in the back seat of his new Japanese car and lose track of time and be late for the opening act of Les Misérables. They’ll make love in her English garden, hiding from the brown-skinned gardeners. They’ll sell everything they have and retire to their two favourite climates. One hot. One cold. They’ll pass away on the same day. Her in the morning. Him later that evening.
This is how everyone thinks it goes for people like them. I know better. I’ve been keeping track. For his last sex act, he’ll masturbate into a cup and force a prostitute to drink it mixed with milk and honey.
The horse finally gets up and moves to the back of the pasture. The lady and her smart sweater ignore his painting and quickly cross the street. She gases her idling vehicle and speeds away to meet with a client about keeping her personal Instagram account on brand.
A strong breeze knocks his easel to the ground. He steps on tubes of paint and smears the colours into the sidewalk with the soles of his leather boots. Instead of turning into the wind to cool the sweat on his shiny forehead, he curses and frantically swipes the Siberian elm seeds from his oiled hair.
While he gathers the pieces of his broken easel, in the front corral, through the stand of cottonwoods, two crows land near the piles of white winter horsehair combed from the thick-faced fox-trotter mare. They nose through the biggest clumps. Squawk. He pinches a mouthful, she hops over to inspect. Squawks. She rejects his clump. He spits it out. They beak other piles, collect the higher-quality hair and dance toward each other. The birds know that horse people use certain tools at certain times of year to scrape off the horse’s winter coats. They know they’ll leave the hair behind. They know that winter horsehair is durable. They know that it insulates, resists mildew, cushions and is comfortable. The crows toast each other, beaks full of ancient interior design and fly off.
He began digging the hole last night at sunset on a midsummer evening. Not unlike the ancient holes dug to trap mammoth and woolly bison. Like trenches dug to skewer invading armies, that drained swamps to cultivate lands that would help consummate forced marriages. Trenches that carry plastic tubes full of electric pulses of light, transmitting voices and secret codes.
It’s morning. The fox is done stalking muskrat. The crows copulate in their finished nest. The horses chew at the new starts of red clover. The cottonwoods leaf out, the swarms of painted lady butterflies flicker over the stands of milkweed. The mallards attack both their mates and their rivals. Next to his hole the neighbour takes his pants off. I smile at him from across the street behind my binoculars. He’s stopped caring who watches. He either thinks he’s invisible or is still convinced he’s the centre of attention. The recalcitrant Man. The Man of devils.
The professor and his spindly husband will come to groom their beautiful black mare. They’ll see my neighbour standing naked next to his hole. Neither partner will be surprised. Sirens will blare and yet another pale-skinned and plain-minded person will be taken away and given pills to treat their neuroses of wealth. What becomes of the hole is hard to say.
No-one in particular
The big question here, though, is who am I? You’ll be wondering why I want to keep that from you? It’s for your own good. If I’m a person of god, you’ll want to send money and leave your family. If I’m an elected official, you’ll run into the street and scream obscenities. If I’m a mother, you’ll pity me. If I’m working class, you’ll ridicule me. If I’m young you’ll lecture me. If I’m educated, you’ll call me a faggot. If I say I’m the beaten horse that drove Friedrich Nietzsche mad you’ll say I’m a useless metaphor and laugh.
If I’m young you’ll lecture me. If I’m educated, you’ll call me a faggot. If I say I’m the beaten horse that drove Friedrich Nietzsche mad you’ll say I’m a useless metaphor and laugh.
Nevertheless, I’ve watched this pasture for many years, low-sunk into a soggy, 100-year flood plain, surrounded by a growing city. I’ve seen others like him in the pasture, some naked, some not. Some engaged in sex, others out of their minds. Teens spray-painting black Xs on the buckskin mustang. Others rolling in the dirt and barking sonnets. One would think they’re all mad. But they’re not. They’re bewildered. Moved by the strangeness of acting wild.
I’ll always be here, across a busy city road from a pasture where there are still muddy pools with fever-dream crocodiles consuming all mad ideas. I am the withdrawn. I am the laughter at the wake. So now, I’ll just point out that in the pocket of his Italian jeans laying in the dirt, is the tool he’ll use. I can see the hard outline. What he’ll use to perform his final act. He’ll look skyward the whole time, never see the universes crawling in the mud by his mouldy toenails. Never taste for salt or mineral in clotted dirt. Never whisper admiration for the monarchs sucking milkweed. He’ll always look for the rarest colours and ignore the pedestrian blacks and whites on the Canadian geese, or the magpies. I don’t know where to send my thoughts on what I’ve seen. I don’t know who will care, but here’s my advice.
Lonely neighbour, level your gaze and find the horizon. Flatten your feet. Look down.
Stop reading that dark sky, those lights are long dead. Stop naming stars, they flashed out years ago. Never mind the nebulae or streaking comets. Stop stitching together constellations. Let them alone, all spirals and infinites. Look down.
Read your feet, your bare toes on red mud. That toad there. A cricket. Read the brilliant green lichen on grey granite slabs. The swan’s-neck moss on cedar bark. The forested floor of fern. Count feathers and footprints. Listen for water underground. Turn your palms down and read the backs of your hands.
You see? Sounds silly and naïve. That’s why I mostly keep my mouth shut. I’ve stopped trying to talk to you. I just want you gone. Quick and easy. Without all this useless drama.
But you must hear something that I don’t, neighbour, coming up out of your hole. Is it the voice of some mother of all nations calling back her children from your fields of forced labour? Is that what you think you hear? Does she call back the men and women knee-deep in foreign mud, bent at the waist, huffing coal dust or dragging bags of cotton? Does she call out to raise the bones up out of the soils of the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, from every acre of North and South America?
Your story is ending. Is that what you hear, what vibrates the walls of your meagre dig? It is, isn’t it? And you believe she is calling to you, that she cares enough about you to ask for your repentance. Your hole is your grand, arrogant apology. You think you can crawl back into your origins and that somehow her forgiveness will bring you a better death. If she is making such calls for redemption, they are most certainly not meant for you. You only ever listen to your own voice.
You aren’t tuned to the frequency that hums when a Jack Russell Terrier knows that a young child is about to have a seizure. When the brain of an Arctic tern images magnetic fields. You are deaf as fire ants farm and harvest fungus and milk aphids and bury their dead, when the North American wood frog freezes solid every winter, goes months without a heartbeat, then thaws in the spring and is called back alive, from some dark, unfathomable dream. The steady ping of these beautiful and baffling transmissions is what you will not hear, you red-faced, absurd, tiny prick of life. You poor dumb bastard, get ready.
Whatever you do, it’s gonna hurt like hell.
IMAGE Man Down, Provincetown, Massuchusetts, USA by Robert Leaver (photo: Teddy Jefferson)
‘In most of the shots it looks like this man is down, and he’s been down for a while and it is not clear if he is going to get up again any time soon. Over four seasons I did Man Down in the woods, in the dunes, on country roads, in meadows, in streams, barber shops, supermarkets, public toilets, abandoned houses, playgrounds, on highways, and in a stone quarry at the foot of a massive earth-shredding machine. In a way I suppose these are pictures of defeat and surrender. Collapse forms a question mark. It is human nature to search for clues. What happened here?’
Robert O. Leaver is a musician, writer and performance artist. His base of operations can be found on a dead-end road in the Catskill Mountains. Man Down is the third series of his photographic work to be published in Dark Mountain, following Hole Earth in Issue 9 and Crawling Home in Issue 6. robertoleaver.com
If you take out an annual subscription to Dark Mountain you can buy this issue for a reduced price.
Now booking for our book launch at the Poetry in Aldeburgh Festival on 9th November, 7-8pm. Hope to see you there!