Fundamental Laws of Nature
Ellen is convinced her daughter’s lesson horse is the reincarnation of her mother. The horse’s eyes give her away. And her mother always loved anything equine. Fitting that she’s now a black Thoroughbred mare.
Ellen watches Abby, her daughter, prepare the horse to be ridden. Abby has already brushed the barn dust from the mare’s sleek body, which the mare — her grandmother — seemed to enjoy. Ellen thinks the brushing must feel like a nice massage. The aisle, flanked by stalls, smells of alfalfa hay and manure and oiled leather. A brown tabby weaves between the mare’s legs. The horse stomps at the cat, which Ellen takes as further evidence because her mother didn’t care for cats.
“Piss,” Abby says. “Somebody took my hoof pick.”
Ellen has never heard her twelve-year-old daughter swear (is “piss” a curse word?) and resolves to stop swearing herself. When Abby goes to the tack room to retrieve a hoof pick, Ellen pats the horse’s soft nose.
“I know who you are,” Ellen whispers. “I’m onto you.”
The mare blinks.
“Hey,” Abby says from across the aisle. “Are you giving her pointers for my lesson?”
“I told her not to be scared of the brick wall,” Ellen says, referring to one of the jumps.
“You can tell her all you want, but we’ll see if she responds to the stick,” Abby says, tucking her crop into her tall riding boot. She runs her hand down the horse’s pastern to get the animal to lift her hoof. “Hup.”
The hoof remains firmly on the ground. Ellen took lessons as a girl and knows she could twist the chestnut, the small scaly part on the inner side of the horse’s leg, to inflict pain. But it seems a cruel gesture toward her own mother. She’s not thinking straight these days.
Ellen rode for a couple of years, and her mother was always more enthused than she was. Ellen didn’t have the same unconditional love for horses. She had conditions: after her first bad fall, the affair was over. Finito. Done. The horse clearly didn’t have the same feelings for her. So why bother?
“Don’t be stubborn,” Ellen says. She sees a glint of recognition in the horse’s dark liquid eye. The mare complies, lifting her hoof so Abby can scrape the debris from the bottom. The silver horseshoe shines in the dim light of the barn. Soon, they’re ready for the practice arena.
The March day is sunny but cool, water dripping from icicles along the overhang. Ellen is grateful for the private lesson — no small talk with the other barn moms. The conversation inevitably touches upon occupation, and Ellen is reluctant to tell people she’s a gynecologist. Sometimes she just says obstetrician. Everyone likes the baby doctors.
In the arena, Abby and the mare move at a brisk trot. Her trainer, Bridget, stands in the center, barking orders to go over the ground poles.
“Tie up your reins,” she says, “arms out, more leg! Keep her straight! Good. Next time, hands behind your back.”
Bridget is a small woman with pale green eyes and a feline grace. Once, Ellen caught her smoking by the infirmary stall. Although it wasn’t exactly model behavior for her daughter, Ellen was more concerned about the hay catching fire. Bridget threw the cigarette to the ground and snuffed it out with her boot. Then she picked a fleck of tobacco from her tongue. Both women acted as though they hadn’t seen the other, because that was easier than confrontation.
Abby obeys the trainer’s commands. Although the cavalletti poles are just a few inches high, they’re enough to interrupt the horse’s normal stride, like a series of tiny jumps that could dislodge a rider. The mare deftly trots over the poles while Abby makes the ride look effortless. Bridget challenges them further by asking Abby to drop her stirrups. Ellen can tell this is more difficult for her daughter because her shoulders hunch forward, but Abby keeps her balance.
“Okay,” Bridget says, “this is the last aid I’ll take away. Eyes closed.”
Ellen holds her breath. Her daughter has to trust this animal, have faith they will keep moving forward. In her head, Ellen says a prayer: please don’t hurt my baby. And if you do, I’ll cause you bodily harm, and as a doctor, I have an intimate understanding of anatomy.
They make it through the obstacle with ease. Ellen exhales. Abby grins and pats the mare on the neck.
“Easier than you thought, wasn’t it?” Bridget says.
“Yeah,” Abby admits.
“Your eyes affect the position of your head, which affects your whole balance. When you look down at the poles or the jump, she knows,” Bridget says. “So eyes up, always looking ahead.”
Next, horse and rider dance figure eights, starting with large, sweeping circles and making each progressively smaller. It’s a lovely choreography. Abby holds the mare back with just a snaffle bit, two thin pieces of metal that join in the middle, over the horse’s tongue. With the bit and her body weight, Abby has full control over the animal’s movements.
While Bridget sets up the jumps, Abby rides along the
perimeter at a posting trot. The leather squeaks at rhythmic intervals.
“She’s good today, isn’t she?” Abby says as they approach Ellen.
“You’re right,” Ellen says. “She seems more responsive.”
In life, Ellen’s mother was beautiful and athletic, a synchronized swimmer when she was young. Ellen had seen the black-and-white photos, the girls’ heads covered in slick rubber caps, all bobbing in unison. Ellen’s mother had always wanted to ride, she said, but her parents considered it too dangerous. So she collected figurines, spotted ceramic ponies and glass carousel horses and pewter mustangs.
Ellen is not a superstitious person, nor is she religious. But as she gets older, she’s realizing that science doesn’t explain everything. It’s unreasonable and illogical to believe her own mother is now a horse. But where did her spirit go? Nothing is ever created or destroyed — it just takes a different form, according to a fundamental law of nature. Ever since Ellen found a mass in her breast, just a few days ago, she doesn’t know what to believe.
She doesn’t have time for further meditation because Abby is soaring through the air, falling, twisting, bracing, landing on her back in the cold arena dirt.
When they get into the car, Ellen says, “You didn’t have to get back on, you know. You might’ve hurt your spine.”
“No,” Abby says. “I had to.”
“That trainer,” Ellen hisses, “does not know everything. I’m paying for her to scream at you. Remember that.” Ellen is on the verge of tears. She knows her horse-mother was trying to teach Abby a lesson, but it’s not her lesson to teach, that horrible animal. Her mother would say what ...