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Somewhere Without Fences

Poetry & Prose | April 13, 2010

Sage covered the rolling hills in a frosted green hue. The sun beat down on the earth and hardened it, cracking the soil and slowly burning the sage into a lifeless beige color. A brown mare slowly reached the top of a hill, laboring with each clop of her hooves against the scorched earth. There she stood, her neck bent down, her lips frothy white from dehydration. Her hooves were cracked and bleeding. Her shoes, if she had had any, had long since broken off, and she tenderly shifted from side to side in an effort to alleviate the pain. Bending her neck further, she slowly reached her tongue out to the sage below her. She nibbled sparingly at the plant, but found the texture to be brittle, it yielded few nutrients. Slowly, she cobbled down the small incline, the sun beating down on her chocolate neck and hindquarters. A weathered saddle lay strapped onto her back, and on each side of her flank hung canvas saddlebags, emptied of their contents. She walked on, limping slightly as the split in her hooves gaped open and let small droplets of congealed blood seep out. She was not long for this world. Trembling now with the intensity of the heat and the painful thirst that afflicted her, she whinnied softly, almost inaudibly, kneeling her hind legs down on the earth. The end was imminent, but it would not be over quickly. Heat and dehydration would take her, until her lean and muscled frame would lay lifeless amongst the slowly dying plants.

***

He was sick of the fences. The houses, too,  and the asphalt that seemed to flow like a black and sinister river across the once pristine land. But mostly it was the fences, the barbs that lashed out and cut the land into neat little boxes, dividing the once vast valley into small single-servings. “One of these days, Marie,” he warned. “I’m tellin’ you: one of these days.” Marie, tanned and weathered with straw-colored hair floating in wisps across her face, glanced quickly at him, blew the hair out of her eyes and used a dirt-encrusted hand to tuck it behind her ears. “I’m sure you will,” Marie answered, turning away once again to face the window over the kitchen’s rusted sink. “Just be sure to take that damn horse of yours with you, cus’ if you think I’ll be paying to feed that creature, you’ve gone crazier than I thought.” He turned to leave; she had reminded him that the horse needed to be fed. As he exited the small kitchen, she called after him, “Don’t be long, supper’ll be ready soon.”

He had meant for it to be a short trip. To see the wild expanse, to see the land as God had envisioned it, and then to return to the house with the tin roof that he hated so much and the woman he had married hastily as a young and inexperienced man. As they put more distance between themselves and anything that could get in their way, namely the barbed-wire fences that he despised, he had been filled with increasing amounts of hope. He had read McCarthy. He could make a clean break, leave the tin roof and the loveless marriage behind, and live off the land. The green hills in front of him could be no more than a few days ride away. There he ould find some ranch to stay the night and to water and feed the mare. He would live nomadically, taking what kindness strangers offered, staying mostly to himself, maintaining anonymity. Marie would be fine, he thought, she would sell what little land they had, the chickens and the old, dried-up cow, and move on. She would move to the city to be near her father, a man who had never liked him, who had seen his simple lifestyle as a sign of laziness and contempt for the modern world. Yes, it was settled. He would continue on, to wherever the brown mare took him.

Their journey continued, fueled by hope and a desire to distance themselves from a forgettable past. They quickly forgot about the tin roof. They slept under the stars—the nights were cool and mild. During the days, the sun beat down on them, tested their commitment. The man and the horse became accustomed to gazing lustily ahead at distant greenery. It quickly became apparent that he had misjudged the distance to the land he sought so fiercely. They were running low on supplies, and the mare’s patience ebbed. Each morning she sighed and looked west, seeing what little progress they had made the day before. He had gone through a full saddlebag of food and was working his way through the second one. The mare devoured any greenery she could find, but as they continued, sustenance became increasingly harder to find. He noticed her suffering. She had lost weight in the short time they had been traveling. She was not drinking much, only out of dirty puddles they came upon a few times, and to make matters worse, her shoes were falling apart. The hard soil and the many rocks had dislodged the nails that held her shoes on. “They’ll hold until we get there,” he thought. “They will.”

By the second week, he had begun walking next to the mare. She had grown weak, and could barely hold his weight. He was tempted to whisper, “we’re almost there” into the mare’s brown ear, but he thought better of it and the pair kept walking in silence. The second saddlebag was now empty, and he had begun scavenging anything he found on the hard ground. He never found much.

One morning he awoke to find he hadn’t the strength to stand. He leaned on the mare as they walked a few paces, but the sun had already risen considerably in the early morning, and his legs buckled underneath him. Here they were, he lying in her shade, she standing next to him, both gazing westward. Here they were, far from the house with the tin roof and the fences and the rusted sink and the water and the supper that Marie would make of chicken and potatoes and fresh carrots and cool, sweet tea. Here they were, far from the still-distant green, the promise of a better life. And here he would stay.

As he lay on the unforgiving earth, he gazed at the distant greenery and the rolling hills and thought about the mare upon whose back he had rested all of his hopes. With much coaxing he had been able to convince the mare to leave him where he lay. The brown animal, an animal with more human emotions than Marie would ever believe, slowly marched towards the expanse of distant green. He watched for a while until her outline slowly faded into the brown earth and she was gone. “Maybe she will make it,” he mused. But he knew, perhaps he had always suspected, that the sun and the earth would go on forever, and that she too would succumb to the elements. “At least,” he thought with some solace, as he gazed into the clear, unobstructed horizon, “there are no more fences.”