She did not want to go home. She was living in a tent beside corrals, where wild mustangs were kept.
Don’t leave her out too long in the sun, her parents said, to the government people.
But they left her out in the sun. There’s nothing here but sun, we have to leave her out in the sun, they said to her parents.
She was 12 years old, and she came home the color of a dark rock, her hair to such blondeness—it was like a fast-flurry flame.
She refuses, they told other parents, to let us trim her hair. She won’t go to a—they almost said barber, because the hair she had was now masculine, careless. And she was careless—about her clothing, about her hair, about many things.
But what troubled them most of all was her eyes.
Her eyes had gone shadowed and dark, like a prisoner’s looking for a way out. Yet she did not want to go home. She was living in a tent beside corrals, where wild mustangs were kept.
Her mother sat at the Noble Barn bookstore and coffee shop. Beside her, on racks, boxes of stationery for sale, for your salutary correspondence. There was the Eiffel Tower. There was the Eiffel Tower with glitter and butterflies. Another Eiffel Tower with antique postage stamps all around it. Another in sepia. To the left, a boxful of cards with two giant morning glories. So blue and angry and O’Keeffe! Others, painted owls you couldn’t believe actually had predator secrets, or wispy butterflies who couldn’t defend themselves. Ships in harbors, empty-looking ships, no one ever on them, sailing like delusions to stationery recipients’ unknown tomorrows.
Where was the one of her daughter sitting in the sand looking at the mustangs? The mustangs, trapped together, kept, because the land and its forage and its water were for beef cattle, not for horses?
That was where Ellonia was. Camping out by the trapped horses.
In America, a horse could not be sold for slaughter to become food. It all happened because a famous racehorse—nobility beyond barnian description—had been discovered to have been sold for slaughter. Outcry all around. Such a death. Then it became law: a horse may not be sold for slaughter. Here. In America.
But in Canada or Mexico they may be. Horses sold at auction could be taken there to die.
Thou shalt not murder horses.But, like Indians, they shall be put on reservations. They may be corralled, this our gift to the jolly ranchers who bring us beef. Mustangs like Indians might each be this way all their life. They, the horses, may be corralled, fed, castrated, birth-controlled. Kept where there is no shade; they are in prison. The mother knew all this and knew her daughter, who had never even owned a horse herself, was concerned and angry about all of this. The government of America was also concerned, but could not decide what to do. So they authorized studies. Studies which went on and on. An unobserved gallop, mostly. Few read the studies.
In the sun in which they may be constrained and have no way away, they may have water and feed. They may be fed and fed and fed. They may not run to a creek or a mountain pass of their choosing. They may not choose their path. There may not be a male leader. They may not reign and neigh and reign. They may not interfere with beef. And they may not be eaten. They may only eat.
Their daughter wanted to save them. In short, free them. But the government was around them, the horses, like a ring of fire.
Ellonia was as dark now as clay dirt, except for the hair bright like a yellow flame. Of course she could not free them: the horses.
Consider the palomino, the horse which startles you with its gold beauty: how can a horse become so taffy-colored, so golden? The only horse that spurred more awe was a horse of legend: the one gigantic white stallion who many claimed, but could not prove, roamed plains and mountain passes with wild mustangs, the white horse greater in size and beauty and speed than all others, hundreds of years ago. This legend of the mythic white horse persisted for decades, even longer than the possible life of a horse. Never a capture, a photograph, never trapped or found, by rope or camera. He was, some Indians said, their horse, their Ghost Dancer, the persisting pure magnificence of their days once wild and tame and true and powerful on the land.
Where is Ellonia? Ellonia, where is she? (People asked this. Their friends.) (Her friends, it was fair to say, had probably all forgotten her. Washington is a busy place, and people were always moving in, and moving away.)
Oh, she’s off with the wild horses, they said. We cannot be with her. We have to trust the people who are with her. They have doctorates. We say ridiculous things like: will you try to keep her out of the sun. They will save the wild horses.
(The sun did not care about the horses. Or Ellonia.)
Ellonia was their only daughter, only child, unless you counted their oldest son, who’d disappeared days before he was born.
The mother stared at the stationery in Noble Barn. The wild horses were stationary in pens, boxed into pens; here they could be, too, printed as pen-and-ink-and-watercolor drawings on boxed stationery. But the stationery had the promise of mobility, distance, delivered by vehicles for the post office, along distant routes once covered once by the Pony Express.
There was a box full of van Gogh prints. The clouds were blue and green and white, mixed. Cypress trees. Full of, she’d always thought, sighs. There were medieval manuscript pretend-gold-embellished designs. Another Eiffel Tower, surrounded by apartments with overflowing flower boxes. A box of cards with paintings of heavy wooden lawn chairs facing the ocean.
There were no people on any of these cards, the mother noticed. There was a lot of goldish ink and an occasional pewtery-silver one.
The empty poignant lawn chairs were each a different popsicle color. Where you could sit in the sun. But in them you faced the ocean, not horses.
Ellonia was their only daughter, only child, unless you counted their oldest son, who’d disappeared days before he was born. He’d emerged dead and pale, pale as an elephant carved from ivory. When she, his mother, met people with sons, she asked too many questions about how their sons were, how they were doing, pretending their sons, in spirit, could be partly hers.
There is a magazine next to her. Archaeology magazine. On the cover, a Mexican pyramid in a jungle, a photograph, you could tell, taken very long ago. Long-gone Lindy Lindbergh had flown over Mexican temples, the ones with high steep sides that would have taken a long escalator to climb: the temples sending a double message, that you could enter, but you could not. No. You could not. They were tall, tall. They were, the pictures, black and white, actually black and gray pictures. One showed Lindy’s two-seater plane: winsome pale Anne Morrow L. had apparently sat in back snapping (as they said then) photos while Lindy flew. Just think, thought the mother, when you die you become one with Archaeology and History, after these photos are published. Lucky you, Lindy and Anne Morrow L.
My daughter, she thought, with the horses, my daughter is herself my trailing, capable, noble living artifact.Is anyone taking her picture?
Ellonia might someday be on the cover of a magazine. They would only mention her parents by their job descriptions: her father professional baker, Washington, D.C., her mother, whimsical sometimes-employed landscape architect. How appropriate, people would think: her father fed the well-fed, her mother arranged glorious non-food-producing well-watered gardens for the rich. Of course this girl went to an American desert place where there was no landscaping and there were no cakes. There were only trapped once-wild horses in the hot sun. To become a girl who journaled in a tent, the only cool place there was, after the sun began to go down. In the desert. And ate what they gave her, as the horses ate what they were given, and like them, was grateful.
During the days she journals and she draws, the mother said to the people. It’s part of a record about The West and the Mustangs.
The mother looks again at the archaeology magazine’s cover, the Anne Morrow Lindbergh photograph so long ago of the Mexican pyramids in the jungle. She wonders what the wild mustangs look like from above, when they run; they must look like a river.
Somehow, don’t know why, that is what the horses need, thinks the mother of absent teen-aged Ellonia. A temple. Like the temple pyramids in Mexican overgrowth and jungle. In honor. Of horses. The sacred untouchable horses. In the temple there would be high, built overlooks to watch the horses approaching and returning. Salt stores. Ponds. Horses would come for the salt and the water. A temple of moving, free, wild horses.
She writes to Ellonia always as if she is in great danger, somewhere at war. But the desert is at war with life, she, the mother, thinks.
To Ellonia she sends a quick message on her tiny plastic abacus of calculation and derivation and give-me-attention called a phone. Have just been looking at old old Lindbergh Mexican temple photographs. Look them up. Lindbergh’s.No, here, here’s a picture. She took it. Anne Morrow. Not he. It’s the cover of Archaeology Yesterday and Tomorrow.
To her husband she should send it too. Her husband, Ellonia’s father, the chef, the baker, would see the temples Lindbergh had seen from above in the jungle as a grand cake that could be made and served to a historical society, a museum. All purely square pans, each two inches larger, or smaller, than the other. Easy to create a pyramid cascade of them. Bake them. Stack them. You would be able to see it in his eyes, looking at this photograph, the imagining of making a cake like that, for a museum’s party, in D.C. All of D.C. was a grand mausoleum of temple.
Your father could make this as a cake, she added to the message to her daughter. I can see the gardens it needs. Though of course the desert is very attractive.
Hope you are using the sunblock I sent you, she adds, to her message for Ellonia. I want to recognize you when I see you again. Make sure you eat a lot and carry water with you at alltimes. Have you thought of having the mustangs photographed from above? Like the temples? And sending them to a magazine?
She writes to Ellonia always as if she is in great danger, somewhere at war. But the desert is at war with life, she, the mother, thinks.
And then the message back: If I was a horse I would not need sunblock.
No, her mother answered, you would not.
Was it Joan of Arc who rode a white horse or was it her Prince who rode a white horse? wrote the mother. She knew Joan of Arc knew the prince when he dressed in peasant’s clothes: the trick the prince played to find out whether she was magic truly. You are the Prince, Joan of Arc had said. Revealed him—despite the trick. But Joan’s real prince was her horse. Her horse never betrayed her. The prince did.
The mother put her handbag over her shoulder, pebbly leather that was cattle’s sacrifice. Top-grain split cowhide in tiny gilt capitals inside the bag, a small also-gilt-gold printed crown next to the words. Near a bright brass-golden zipper pull.
She blinked at the boxes of pretty, orderly, perfect-to-send stationery as she passed them. She should buy some, send some letters on paper to Ellonia. To brighten up the tent in the desert. Cheer, like new crisp clothes, laundry. Images to distract Ellonia. But it would be hard to choose one box; and there were none here—with horses. Have a good day, the clerk said in a fading goodbye-way as she headed to the double Noble Barn bookstore doors.
You,too, mother of Ellonia answered back.
Thinking: to you who did not fly above jungles and do not know of the temples Mrs. Lindy photographed. Poor Lindy and Anne not knowing yet of their kidnapped child who would be gone and form their hour of lead, hour of glass (Hour of Lead, Hour of Glass had been one of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s poetry book titles). They had looked so happy in the open plane, the mother thought, Lindy piloting in front, Anne at the back, as if balancing a canoe.
Then, now, at the street, came the car like a moment of metal and glass. A car of horsepowers turned her over like an animal who had strayed wrongly to the road. She could feel her heart saying don’t, you’re very rude, to the car, and the car continued its rudeness, crushing her. A car had too many, too many horsepowers, she kept thinking, over and over.
Horsepowers, Ellonia, she thought. Horsepowers, she wanted to tell Ellonia, but Ellonia was not there. Ellonia was in the desert in a tent being minded by Ph.D.s. They would all think it proof, she was thinking, that false horsepowers—are bad. Though a horse could kill you, too. (Her almost-last thought: robot horsepowers have killed me.)
She had not done what any mother would tell any child over and over. Look before you cross the street. She had not looked before she crossed the street. She was thinking about Ellonia. She was thinking about Lindbergh. She was wondering about horses. She had been thinking too intensely in Noble Barn. It was as if she planned to be a sacrifice, really. Accidentally. On purpose.
Well before the ambulance came with its horsepowers, she’d died, but, of course, was still headed to hospital, because a hospital was their official modern temple of death, and disappearances. She who’d not been noticing the car coming, who’d been thinking of Ellonia’s sketches of horses becoming fine notecards. A sacrifice she’d become, too? Every death by car a sacrifice: to the Indians, to the horses, she would have thought, after the accident, if she’d had time to think it: but she was dead.
Ellonia, nut-brown at the funeral, with the shock of palest yellow hair, was unrecognizable to most. It was, of course, unsaid, but widely felt among those at the funeral, that Ellonia’s being gone, worry about her being gone, had led to her mother’s death. Not said, but felt.
Every death by car a sacrifice: to the Indians, to the horses, she would have thought, after the accident, if she’d had time to think it.
Soon, very soon, Ellonia was gone again, her father gone into the deepest and steepest of his baking frenzies, which would lead to awards, bakers’ magazines’ photographs, newspaper articles. None mentioned his wife’s recent death, or his daughter’s foray into the desert. Those were shocking, and a baker’s job was to please, not to shock. Ellonia, a teenager, not even graduated from high school, had now been there almost a full year; and his wife was fairly freshly dead, and he was a cake-maker for ceremonial events in D.C. always much more important than his own self.
When a vacation-time came her father, now widower, went for the first time to see Ellonia among horses in the desert. Even her own father had a little trouble recognizing her, her skin was so dark, her young hair which should have been so silk-soft and young now so straw-blonde, dry and almost hollow-looking, from the sun. He kept turning to look at the mustangs. Don’t look, his daughter finally said. It’s bad luck even to see them, and do nothing. Bad luck for them, not for you.
But you look at them all day, he said.
I do, but I’m hoping to do something for them. I also don’t, she said. When I look at them now I’m seeing something else.
What, he said.
It’s hard to say, she said. Something mom said. Did she tell you also? That they should have a temple. I see the temple.
A temple, he said. A horse temple?
Maybe, Ellonia said, her eyes almost painfully blue, as if the desert was seeking the blue of water in them. Though how would a horse believe it was for them? A temple? It was Mom’s last message. Temple for horses.
I do see, said her father.
He went back to Washington. And wrote to the Smithsonian, ten miles from his townhouse. He told them, though he knew he was not the first, the plight of the mustang. They knew. If there was a god in America, he wrote, these horses should have without the benefit of legislation have a mighty place for their survival. A temple place, where they are free. It is my daughter’s and my wife’s dream.
These letters went unanswered for a very long time. At last he gave up. The letter had been too esoteric. They thought he was mad. He sent a copy to the government man in the desert with the horses, who had met Ellonia at the lecture about the mustangs.
The government man wrote him back as if anything he wrote could be part of documents in a lawsuit. He nicely expressed sorrow again about his wife’s death, told the father the daughter was doing very well. Because of her youth, the government man said, she saw the plight of the horses much more clearly. Her journals were very important.
The father had met him, over a year ago. The government man’s eyes were two different eyes. One was as kind and blank as water and the other was like oligarchy, monarchy. There were kings in that eye, unrulable rulers, mad at the Spanish or the Turks or the English. Or the Romans. In this kings’ eye the horses were still being punished to continue punishing the Spanish who had wanted to span the distance between the old world and the new world. Make it theirs. Who had brought the horses. This eye, the kings’ and rulers’ eye, never would listen. Vengeance was his game.
Kings, thought the father, were weary of reasons, as he the baker was tired of pans, recipes, messes, happy stomachs, even. Reasons were the start, the mixing bowl, for problems.
That was one side of the government man at the mustang pens. He had kingly contract. Order, and to please the king’s men, the cattle ranchers. Banish the hungry horses in corrals and keep them fed and make sure none escaped. Jail. To make sure the dinner table were glistening with rich beef. Glistening, earthy, beef. Cooked till all its traces of red were gone.
That was one eye.
The other side, American-boy rebellion. Huck and Jim. Jim and Tom. Blue denim boy-eye wanted to save the horses, the horses that the government wanted to keep from breeding and flourishing. Wanted to let them flourish and breed. Be wild and beautiful. Manes rippling in wind. And he wanted people to stop eating beef. (Though he loved it dearly himself. Just as James Beard once confessed—after all the food he had ever eaten the food he truly loved most was a simple piece of beef, boiled.) Sustenance food. The animal which only suffered at the end. Yet his boy-eye wanted cattle to become rare and strange and forgotten and the horses to have the land back. But unless cattle and the love of beef dwindled that was doomed. Land, a gold more and more valuable. Water rights more and more sought: they said water was the next gold.
That was the crown, he thought. Water and land. Lear had predicted. Out on the moors, he, Lear, had been alternately beef cattle, or the wild horse. To his daughters Lear was beef cattle, the big dinner and the tall metal mug of ale, the long king’s table and a party. To the rest of the world, he, Lear, was the famous gloating madman, unloved, like the daughter strung up with a noose her own sisters rigged with cord: unwanted gone-wild exile on the moor.
God-damned Lear’s the mustang, he sometimes thought. And Ellonia, the baker’s daughter, too.
The Indians who had been king: multiplicitous, ceremonious. Rich in costume and variation as Audubon’s birds. And had been demoted and moved like animals.
The horse had been the king’s prince.
So. Reservations for Indians.
So. Reservations for mustangs.
Blue denim boy-eye wanted to save the horses, the horses that the government wanted to keep from breeding and flourishing.
He—the government man of two very different eyes—had found Ellonia at a public event. He’d seen the crown on her head though there was only that tenderness of the top of her head, the hurting part, the part that suffered the pain when the sharp upended end of the comb drove through it to make the sharp straight line like a railroad line, a line of track, or a fence that parted two fields: found pale place sun had not touched, pale as the inside of a potato.
In the crowded performance hall she became his future Joan of Arc. At the showing of the Texas cowboy filmmaker’s film. He and his Texas riding buddies had adopted six mustangs, made them submissive and rideable, proved they were goodness itself, as horses. Princes and kings of the West. Of America.
Rode them from Texas to Canada. To prove the horse’s boldness and mettle. To show all their beautiful toughness and their value. High proof was they’d ridden the rim of the Grand Canyon and also had ridden down into the deep of the Grand Canyon. On mustangs who never failed them.
All knew a horse was a poor idea for the Grand Canyon. Burros, mules, better guard themselves, and you, and almost without effort. Burros, mules, are deft and instinctive, at height, on slopes, on narrow paths. Their hooves rarely misjudge the earth-edge. They understand height. Most horses do not completely understand such height, such danger. Texan cowboy filmmaker could have simply tried to ride the ridge around the canyon, on the mustangs. But their horses, the wild mustangs they had tamed for riding, took them down, and then brought them back up, without error.
The film had released itself with its stored light onto large screen, showed the trip from Texas to the canyon, and down into the canyon. And up again. A young man with a big Adam’s apple stood up afterward and said What if we began to slaughter horses again and then these horses had value? They could be sold for food and then the numbers would be down and they would have economic value almost like cattle. In other countries they slaughter them; why don’t we consider that, is my question. Wouldn’t that be a solution?
Ellonia stood up next and said: I’ve read War and Peace. Would you like to read a book called Horse and Meals? Some of the audience laughed, after a few seconds. The girl all golden and tiny and young sat back down. (She who had been so pale, then.)
He of the government was there and almost saw her invisible fearless crown. Saw she would somehow counter, argue with, all the government was asking him to do, to manage the unblessed and the blessed, the once-wild horses.
The government man was a Ph.D., and Ph.D.s are famous for linking their tails together the way performing elephants do, to line up after each other, side with each other. In a court of law you will rarely find them disagreeing with each other; after the first testifies, they all usually follow the first. The dignity of Ph.D.s was more important than the dignity of truth or verdict. Yet there was another side of him. A heart has many chambers, and you never know which one will fail. First.
He had had an extra tent at the government research compound, and he put the girl, Ellonia, in it. Parents see a Ph.D. after a name and trusted.
Yes, he would always make sure she was all right. But no one knew if all her time in the desert was wasted, if it would lead nowhere, if she had wasted much of her youth and her time, if she was being used as a poster-child, if he had simply found extra government money which needed to be spent.
Now the girl’s mother was dead, and the girl, sun-dazed as she was, still absolutely had no interest in returning to where she was from, where her mother was dead, where her father baked for people who were so bored in the metropolis of national management—their only hope of joy or enticement was new baked goods.
I can’t really change anything, she said to the old government man.
That’s true, he said. Sometimes.
She was there and now had filled 15 journals.
You never escape your thoughts: journals are a symbol of that, and, if only full of writing, are always a chore. You can become accustomed to the chore, he told her. Journals.
Tell me what to do, she said. She understood, even as a 16-year-old, she was under a sort of contract. As Joan had known. But even after death parted someone, Ellonia’s mother’s death had come, Ellonia stayed.
Keep journals, he said. There’s your work. He went to town, bought her journals, lined and unlined. Pens with neat ink and pens with messy ink. She must always keep them capped in the desert or they would dry out, he said. It would take her a long time to fill the journals. Even if they were rained on they would have dignity and unremovable value. They were good quality. The paper was thick with a small design on its edge like a confused square that kept turning corners and losing itself. A way to remind the writer that all journals, really, fail. You never escape your thoughts: journals are a symbol of that, and, if only full of writing, are always a chore. You can become accustomed to the chore, he told her. Journals.
Ellonia of the Horses, he could have written in them, the journals, at the front. But didn’t.
Draw, he said. He had seen her with her fingertips drawing horses in the sand. He had bought her also a small box of cards, creamy as milk, and blank. Somehow the mother’s dreams had traveled through air, to the desert. Ellonia began drawing horses on them, not horses she was looking at, but horses she was remembering in her head. Strange beautiful buildings were appearing, very faintly, behind the horses. Pyramidal and columnar. Vast. With high, unreachable windows at their tops. There were long beautiful troughs and fountains. Giant blocks of salt stacked and lit by desert sunlight and moonlight. When rain came the hard edges of the salt blocks rounded and became almost shouldered human busts, forms.
She gave all the paper back to him, covered with drawings, some simple as cave drawings, some ornate as decorated cake. Horse temples, she told him.
He’d driven to one of the big cities far away, asked a print shop to print the images in a faint wispy shade of blue on small folded rectangles of paper.
Sure, they’d said at the print shop. Sure. Who drew these?
A girl, he said. A baker’s daughter. She loves horses.
But sometimes at night he closed his eyes, in fact, every night, and pretended he was where it was cool at night, and morning was misty and dewy, and all his family he’d left behind long ago after a divorce were there to sit with him and laugh about things, get ready for him to come home. Every time they were with him, while he cooked his terrible food for the seven people, including Ellonia, who worked with him in the desert, by, for, the fretting, unhappy horses. Or were they in a vigil formation, his family of old, waiting for him to die?
Am I about to die, he asked one of them, in a dream.
The horses die first, they said in his dream, smiling. You’re not due for your refund yet.
Oh, was all he could think of to say.
But didn’t the government want a refund? They wanted to start over, but they also did not want to lose their Indians, their glory about leading them off, away, out of their way. They wanted reparations but they wanted to save money. The government, like him, was two-eyed.
They wanted the West all cars and cattle but they wanted the horses too, marked as theirs. A symbol of beauty and devilry: branded, like a Cain marked and sent into the wilderness.
They wanted glory somehow. Glory somehow in a country where there were no kings or royals. The cattle ranchers were still a Hollywood sort of royalty, as royal as government railroads. They were kings of fence, of land. They must let cattle ranchers remain king. The horses were like a bad gypsy who wanted to steal a crown.
She’d gone on to another rider, and he stayed, as he always would, on the ground.
Ellonia had refused, when she came to the desert, to use a camera. That would get in my way, she said. Would be a barrier. The drawings took the place of the camera she had wisely refused. The drawings had the eye-drawing power—of car crashes. There was pain in them, and the wait for an ambulance, and the scarlet glory of the ambulance red lights. And the insult of the time that passed—while all protocol was observed for tending for the accident-fallen. The patient dying, but traffic not yet cleared. Metaphor for unroyal America. The water was high in the gorge. The hospital was the false temple, and the false king, as was the beef dinner. Her mother was dead. The horses were in anguish.
An ambulance is like a baby’s bassinet, you can barely fit, only you and the nurse, the government man thought to himself. You think too much in the desert, or you don’t think at all. You at all points do one or the other.
Princess Diana’s rings had flown off her hands and were flung to the corners of the dark car, in her accident. Diana was the huntress and the horses and the Indians in America were the hunted. Died trapped in a car. He could not figure out the math in that, only that she had been beautiful occasionally on Christmas cards in stylish riding breeches, and her children continued like downy happy foxes, hunters themselves.
He the government man had been in love once, himself, with a rider. On top of a horse she over and over settled it all, how superior she was, and how inferior all non-riders were. She’d gone on to another rider, and he stayed, as he always would, on the ground.
So here he was, with horses, the enemy. Working that out. Now old, he would never have a woman again, and he knew it, anyone whose family respected, at least, the tedium of his doctorate which had failed most of all to impress him. The mystery of how he had wasted all those years: all his studiousness, attention to studies had not won for him and then kept for him a woman. Which was fine with him. To him, life was too long. Endless, like government; doomed, like poor Jim.
He brought Ellonia paper, notebooks, the material for documents, pleas, wastes of time, temple achievements. Wastes of time. Freedom. Dreams. Inventions.
Rebecca Pyle is in art/lit journals as a Pushcart Prize-nominated fiction writer (Wisconsin Review, Gargoyle Magazine, Guesthouse), a poet (The Honest Ulsterman, Die Leere Mitte, The Penn Review), essay writer (HitchLit Review, Muse/A), and artist (Cream City Review, New England Review, Gulf Stream, Gris-Gris). She has a small website: rebeccapyleartist.com. She lives in Utah.
Header photo by Akif Oztoprak, courtesy Shutterstock.