ANGEL: an essay in two distinct parts, written five years apart
In the summer of 2002, I saw what I believed to be my first angel. I was fifteen, and everything was starting to feel split in two. Figuratively, of course—except for my hip bones, which seemed to be sprinting farther away from each other on a daily basis. I attempted to mask my embarrassment over this by wearing too-big pants and tying jackets around my waist. Other girls cared what I wore more than I knew how to, and let me know with their judgmental looks and comments. School, which once brought the joy of learning, was now the place I had to go before I could go to the barn. When I was with the animals, I knew how to be. It was the most welcome reprieve for someone who wanted to please everyone.
The week before, when I rode Jack bareback and barefooted, the grass had been so tall that the tops of the stalks tickled my feet as we bounded through the field. We moved forward so fast that the colors and shapes of the terrain blended together in a mesmerizing, dangerous tangle. I never hated my hips when I was riding. In fact, I was convinced that they grew that way for riding. This week, the field had been cut, the drying hay pushed aside for baling.
Katy was eleven, the age I had been when I first met Jack, the age when I fell in love with horses. I wanted eleven back, when everything was simple, before I had any idea what my body was supposed to look like, before things got split in two.
Everything I navigated was unfamiliar except Jack. His body language was as natural to me as reading text. I could notice an inconsistency of gait, a mood, or a minute discomfort in a glance. It seemed as though we often shared one mind. It was a sweet secret I’d learned to keep tight, as ruthless as my peers had proven themselves to be with the Other Kids. If I told anyone that I had a telepathic connection with my horse, they would take it away from me in their way, make it bad.
Once, when I was Katy’s age, I had been teased by more popular girls for something-or-other, something I’d worn or said. After school, I found Jack in the pasture and hopped on, riding with only a halter and rope. I leaned forward and rested my face in his mane, breathing in the comforting aroma of dusty animal. Let’s play warriors, I thought. I crouched low over his withers, gazing between his ears. I imagined a line of enemies forming on the horizon, shields lifted, swords drawn. Jack pricked his ears forward as he saw the image I conjured. His skin quivered in anticipation as the tension grew. He stomped the ground and whinnied into the empty field. With my mind, I told him GO, and we flew.
His hooves clap a thunderous applause, I wrote in a poem for school.
“Why do you only write about horses?” read an exasperated peer-review comment.
It was easy for me to forget, as I did on occasion, that Jack was not perfect. Other girls often fell in love with Jack for his beauty and ethereal indifference towards them, but they would just as often fall off of him as well. He did not share his telepathic connection with anyone else.
That morning, Katy wanted to ride Jack. I rode Tucker. The four of us went out to a neighbor’s field. We urged them into a canter, and then into a gallop. Looking over, I noticed Jack’s ears were piercing forward, just slightly too close together, and I knew that he was communicating that he would buck.
“He’s going to buck!” I called to Katy, but it was too late. After a few playful crow-hops, Jack threw his hindquarters into the air with a powerful kick. Katy was uprooted. By the time I had slowed Tucker and circled back around, she was standing up, clutching her wrist, teetering.
I hopped off Tucker. “Let me see.” She opened her hand. We could both see that her wrist was broken. Her knees buckled as she collapsed back to the ground, screaming. Jack returned with nostrils flared and tail high.
“My arm! My arm is broken! It’s broken! Go get help!” she screamed through the sobs.
“No, I’m not leaving you here. You have to come with me,” I said, rubbing her back. “Can you get up?”
She continued to wail.
I sat down on the grass next to her, trying to think of a solution. We were a twenty minute walk through fields from the barn. Tucker lowered his peaceful head and sniffed her. “Will you try to sit on Tucker?” I asked.
She continued to sob.
The four of us were still, surrounded by open land like islands surrounded by ocean. It was a beautiful summer morning that I had yet to appreciate. From there, far away from traffic or electronics, there was nothing but birds and wind and June bugs buzzing, the horses breathing, and Katy’s whimpering.
What is that feeling you get when you see a picture of something unfamiliar and somehow feel nostalgic about it? Seeing an image of lovers lying together in front of a Parisian window could make me ache for the past, although I had never been to Paris nor even kissed anyone. The longing seemed otherworldly; it bounded back in time to something that this arrangement of body couldn’t remember. But the longing was as tangible as the one it inspired: a longing for a sinewy little girl digging up rocks from hard mud, concentrating so wholly on freeing an earthworm trapped under a root that her side-vision went dark and the red earth around the worm was dotted by drops of sunscreen-scented sweat that dripped from her nose and brow. I longed for this entity that didn’t question her instinct to surround herself with many more animals than people.
Though the warmth that radiated into my palm from Katy’s back may have been the first human touch I had experienced in months perhaps, it still seemed familiar.
We’d been sitting for a minute or two when a splash of white pierced my periphery, which didn’t come as a surprise. Magic always happens there, in the periphery. A man ran towards us through the center of the field. I didn’t even think to feel afraid or really wonder where he came from. I stood to meet him. “She fell…” I told him.
He knelt down beside her. She began to cry again.
“How did you see us?” I asked. He made some ambiguous gestures, opening and closing his mouth a few times, making soft noises. He looked like everyone I’d ever met, except that he couldn’t talk. Unlike the strange, lone men that we young girls were taught to mistrust and avoid, his presence was so peaceful that I got the sense that if I had rejected his help, he would’ve evaporated back to ether.
He scooped Katy up in his arms and nodded to me to lead the way. Katy squeezed her eyes shut and held her wrist to her chest. The horses followed a pace behind.
The five of us walked the twenty minutes back to the barn. Wanting to displace the unusual silence, I recited something I’d learned in Biology class: how a bone heals itself, osteoblasts and all.
At the barn, he gently sat Katy down on a hay bale. I found my cell phone that was plugged into the wall and called home. When I turned to thank the man, he was jogging away. The two of us watched his white T-shirt bouncing down the driveway until he disappeared.
Katy looked tiny curled up on the bale.
“Do you think he was an angel?” I asked.
“I guess,” she said. “What was wrong with him?”
“He was mute.”
She began to cry again. “I hate Jack.”
“You wanted to ride him.”
I untacked the horses and let them out into the pasture. Jack trotted away with his tail held high, like he was proud of the chaos he had caused. Or perhaps he was happy that he could conjure an angel. Katy was outfitted with a very blue cast that we all signed. This would not be Katy’s first or last broken bone.
Jack turned out to be an angel in his own right. The night my grandfather died in his house, Jack squeezed himself through the slats in the vinyl fence and stood on Papa’s back porch, outside the window of the room he died in. We know this because the fence was damaged, and while he was on the porch, Jack left a pile of poop. I believe that Jack was there to mediate the change of realms for Papa, “so he wouldn't be alone when he found himself dead,” I wrote in my journal. As much as I grieved Papa’s death, it was soothing for me to imagine his spirit standing up from the kitchen floor and seeing Jack looking in through the window.
Jack didn’t escape again until the day of his own death, four years later. Jack’s death was mystical, though that word choice diminishes the earth-shattering pain of it all. In the morning, Jack was missing from the paddock. Tucker, freed into the pasture, led my uncle to Jack, thrashing about in the stream at the back of the property. All of the hair was missing from the top of his head. His ears, too, were bald. My uncle thought he’d been doused with acid, except there were no burns. Two hours away, I missed a call from my mom. It was my boyfriend’s birthday, and I was making homemade Nutella. The vet didn’t know what was wrong with Jack. I began making frantic attempts to get my 6 AM barista shift at Sky Blue Café covered for the next day so that I could go to Alabama.
I did get the shift covered, but before I got the go-ahead, Jack died. Mysteriously, just like his unknown origins. We found him as a classified ad in a rural Alabama newspaper when I was eleven. He’d been found knee-deep in mud in a field overrun with automobile parts, and even the vet was unsure of his age. We were together for thirteen extremely formative years. Jack was a piece of my soul, and though he was not alone when he died, I was not with him. I couldn’t help but think of his loyalty as he squeezed himself through a fence to usher my grandfather into the next life. I should’ve said “fuck it” to my new job and been there with him. I was sure that Jack had experienced something otherworldly, such as walking with God, although I didn’t believe in God in that way. I broke up with my boyfriend. I truly believed that Jack wouldn’t have made such a dramatic exit on his birthday if this man were my life partner. I was lost. I was searching. I wrote a song about it. I called it, “I Thought I Had Forever.”
Some weeks or months later, I received a call from an eccentric friend, a beekeeper in her 70s who lived hundreds of miles away in Oregon. She said, “Leslie, I dreamed about your horse. I dreamed you were walking next to a fence, and he was on the other side, doing all sorts of tricks to try to get your attention, but you didn’t see him. He wanted me to tell you he’s walking beside you.” I sobbed into the phone. Honestly, I’d been doing everything I could to numb out and not think about Jack, and he could tell. He had been a part of me for so long that I didn’t know how to be without him. I was utterly severed from my past self. I stopped riding horses.
It’s been nine years since Jack left. I pieced my identity back together, at first in fragments, and then more cohesively as time has worn on. For the first four years, I’d have one absolute meltdown a year. In 2015, I cried in front of a boyfriend who had experienced the loss of a parent, and was shamed for it. He told me that if I was so wrecked over a horse, he’d hate to know me when something truly awful happened to me. I shut up. I don’t even think I told my next boyfriend about Jack at all, maybe except to tell him the name of the horse in the watercolor portrait hanging in my living room. Now, I sometimes wake up in the night with a jolt and I wonder if the day passed by without my thinking of Jack even once. How could that be? Even paintings can blend into the woodwork if you become too accustomed to them. Now, instead of only writing about horses, I write about everything else.
Five years ago, after I made myself stop talking about Jack, I wrote the story of the angel. I wrote it for a purpose, to dabble in some magic realism, which I don’t think I achieved. Today, in 2020, I walked around my neighborhood in East Nashville, which was destroyed by a tornado two and a half weeks ago. My block was spared, and I’m still unsure how. We, meaning many people across the world, are quarantined because of the COVID-19 pandemic. I walked through the rubble and debris on my way towards the park, and I thought about how our lives can be so uprooted in a matter of moments. Then I thought about Jack and the angel, and about the story on my Google Drive. I wondered if I should write an addendum. I wondered how many angels Jack has sent me that I’ve failed to notice, and if that thought was frivolous. Could he have saved me from the tornado, or was it sacrilege to think that I had some special equine guardian while I stood on fragments of what used to be my neighbor’s roof? Over the past five years, I’ve lost my sense of wonder. The person who tried to write magical realism is so far gone, maybe even more so than the sinewy little girl she wrote about missing. If someone called me now, standing alone in the middle of a street filled with shingles and branches and cables, and told me that Jack was with me, would I be able to believe them?
Would anyone believe me that the greatest and purest love I’ve known was with a horse? And that, after its loss, I am skeptical of my ability to love in that way again? It must’ve been the perfect combination, unable to occur twice in the same lifetime: a young girl whose imagination was unstoppable, and a horse who was also an angel.
Leslie Hinson is an editor and writer living in Nashville, TN. When she isn't writing she is thinking about writing, or maybe even trying to write songs. She has taken a very hands-on approach to a feral cat colony near her house as a quarantine project. She is an MFA student at Sewanee.