Saturday, May 02, 2009

The Volunteer

A new short story from the aspiring writer in our little group.

The Volunteer

Within this picture, which stands framed in my memory as stark as a gallows, there were many moments that were photogenic, but pointing at them with a cold, blunt object - like an accusatory finger - felt an obscenity. I left the camera in the closet. I am tired of taking.

At the end of a two hour drive to come up to this distant mountain ranch, I am met by a barking dog and a barking mad old woman, who later will persist in calling me “Shelley,” though that is not my name. The other volunteers, trickling in one by one throughout the morning, do the same. Why correct them? On this her first day, “Shelley” would only be learning how to shovel shit and toss out hay. She also might not ever be coming back to this overrated, High Country dump again.

“What do you want?” yells the gray grandmother, twice as loud again in a pink and orange jogging suit, while I wait up the steep drive for someone to do something about the yapping dog.

“I’m the volunteer!” I holler back. “I emailed you last night that I would be coming.”

Damage control moves quickly into the open doorway in the form of a middle-aged woman in a bathrobe. She calls sternly to the dog, while track suit Lacey checks for approval, then waves me forward. The border collie falls silent, trotting back indifferently.

“I forgot you were coming,” the unkempt woman says with a defensive tone.

Tying her robe about her tightly, she retreats away from the open door as I step onto the porch.

“I’ve come down with a cold. Lacey will have to show you the place.”

She glances over her shoulder at her glowing computer as if for reassurance, then weakly waves me inside. Removing my boots before stepping over the threshold, I think - she’s small for a horse woman. I would not, of course, have thought this of a jockey. The wounded herd I spy beyond the house through a bay window waits with hanging heads inside too small and too sloping an enclosure. There is no grass, only mud and remnants of hay. I wince and try not to think - animal hoarder.

Winding up and up from the city through the mountains to get here, I had dreamed of wide open, alpine meadows for them. For me. I feel no real disappointment, though. Years of searching has left me with no illusions of rescue. It’s simply that I am afraid of horses, and I only want to learn not to be again. Powerful and explosive things have captivated me of late, only here on this small farm, hair-trigger decisiveness no longer belongs to me but to beings with far better instincts.

The owner edges closer to her computer. There does not appear to be a television.

“I haven’t styled my hair or put on any makeup this morning,” she says, as she produces a large rag from a robe pocket and blows her nose loudly.

“I wasn’t expecting a beauty queen,” I reply a little too bluntly, which seems to be happening more and more these days.

In the presence of a stranger, the owner does not appear to know what to do even in her own home. She offers me no introduction, no drink or food after such a long drive, nor does she show me where in her house I should stand or sit. My Southern family would be appalled. I hover near the doorway ready to bolt. No one moves.

Apologizing more forcefully than I need to, I take control and beg direction to her bathroom. Three arms come up to point at its location down the end of a long, wood-paneled hallway. Lacey’s two arms drop back to swing gaily by her side as I turn and almost stop dumbfounded beneath the paintings lining the walls. They are clearly the owner’s work. Who else but this closed-off white woman would paint herself over and over again, in garish oils, as a Native American princess surrounded by adoring horses? Buckskinned and bejeweled, her racist projection is the sole human in every one of her tribe-less scenes. The whip of a question sits ready on my tongue.

Why do you have to paint yourself as Native American in order to feel authentic?

I lock the bathroom door behind me and take a steadying breath. This house is suffocatingly warm, but I feel a deep chill down into my soul. The owner has made it painfully obvious that I am just one more in a long series of transient volunteers. Whether I stay for a few hours or for years, she will grow no warmer. Were I not on a mission, I’d confront the woman about her paintings this very instance. Such timing isn’t explosive, though. It has to build.

The two women are practically wringing their hands when I return from the bathroom.

One of them states worriedly “Most of our volunteers come in the summer.”

Her remark is a veiled suggestion.

From the cramped size of the place, it’s obvious they could give the promised tour in about five minutes before herding me back towards my hours-long drive to the city. I have no doubt they intend to do just that.

“I realize my timing is inconvenient, but I’d be happy to stay and help with whatever work needs to be done around here today.”

Crazy Lacey bursts out laughing at “Shelley.”

“So you want to shovel shit? Did you bring a pair of gloves?”

Yes. I am rarely unprepared. There is even a plastic flask of water in the pocket of my black down vest. I reach for it to make a point as both women exclaim surprise at my preparedness, and then delighted relief when a regular volunteer suddenly pulls into the drive.

“Oh, good! Ellen is here. Now she can show you around,” says the owner.

“I’ll introduce you,” chirps Lacey, as she leads me out the door - not towards the dumbfounded Ellen, who stops dead still by her car when she sees me - but towards the herd of horses.

So this is winter in the Colorado High Country. Not a lot of visitors up from the city, apparently. Like I said, my timing is awful. It’s why I passed on handmade bombs.

Lacey moves incredibly quick for a woman her age. “Spry” is generally the word used to describe such elder-motion. It’s the kinder of the descriptors I’m thinking. She’s already under the fence, over to the herd with bags of oats for the older ones, and calling for “Shelley” to come on before I can even work up the nerve to enter the enclosure. This horse rescue operation is renowned for its ability to gentle damaged horses and the humans who own them, but I’ve been given no etiquette or protocol lessons in how to be around the animals safely. I hurry over to stand close behind Lacey. Everybody wants to speed me on my way out of their space. Why should the horses be any different?

Lacey babbles in a stream of consciousness as she weaves through two dozen horses, calling each one by name, and telling me their type and story. Her memory is phenomenal. I only manage to recall that one is not supposed to walk directly behind a horse. The Appaloosas in my father’s field ran my brother and I out of their wide pastures enough times for me to remember to give them plenty of space, and ourselves a good head start. Those horses were sold, along with the land, to pay the debts on my father’s bankrupt smelting plant. I am no longer squeamish about horse manure now the way I was then. The fecund stuff of miraculous growth, it made my mother’s roses soar seven feet tall. She used to wave a shovel high in the bright, Spring air at me when I pulled into the drive after a day at high school. Pretending not to see her, I would bound up the porch stairs headed straight for my attic sanctuary that was plastered with pictures of famous people. Sorry Mother, gotta study for college. Got places to go.

Lacey points to a grey-haired, black-maned mustang that is watching us intently.

“That one’s still wild. A volunteer last summer almost got her gentled, but she’s forgotten it all by now.”

I nod and turn my back on the feral beast to pet a tame Palomino. The wind has come up, and it eerily shishes and creaks the towering conifers overhead. Several of the horses stamp and nicker, then move away from us. I struggle to keep the wind from whipping me blind with my own hair. As I turn to see where the retreating horses are heading, I’m surprised to find the wild mustang standing barely an arm’s length behind me. She has followed us, but Lacey does not notice. She’s cooing to a tall Arabian, covering his nozzle with wet, slurpy kisses. She has forgotten about me for the moment.

Very slowly, I reach out to touch the tender nose of the wild, grey mustang. She retreats just a fraction, and my outstretched fingers are left dangling in the air. She stares at me intensely. I turn to find Lacey; the wild mustang again follows.

Approaching the fence, Ellen - the regular volunteer - says “ I don’t know what’s got ‘em so spooked. Normally they would be all over you, following you around and being very social.”

“Must be the wind,” I offer. “Maybe they know a storm’s coming.”

Ellen does not extend a hand as I come up to the fence. She just eyes me. The wild mustang has moved off now.

“I saw your Native American license plates.”

She lets the statement hang in the air without further comment. She expects me to explain myself.

“Mmmm, yeah. That’s the Native Scholars plate. The fees from that plate go towards scholarships for Native kids.”

Ellen swings a shovel to me over the fence, then squeezes through the boards into the hilly enclosure. That license plate, and why I have it, deserves a lot more explanation, but Ellen clearly is not interested. We work our way around the enclosure, shoveling shit for over an hour, then laying out hay for the horses. The conversation goes fluidly somehow, but no comment I make, no matter how personal, engenders a follow-up question. I’m beginning to suspect many big city volunteers only come for the one visit. Trying to prove something, I shovel shit like a seasoned farm hand, but it does no good. I’ve come too early. I’ve interrupted the way of things.

On the drive back down the mountain to the metropolis sprawled across the winter-brown plains, I determine that I’ve only been tested, that the horse sanctuary will seem less desolate next time. The owner did finally offer me a glass of water and a slice of cheese. One of the women even volunteered to make sandwiches. I took the cheese and declined the sandwich as Lacey drank from both her glass of water and mine, then washed them out and put them away expertly in a kitchen not her own. I drank what little was left in my plastic flask after shoveling all that manure. My skin itched with impossibly lodged shards of hay.

“Bye Shelley” waved Lacey cheerfully from the porch as she brushed sandwich crumbs from her greasy, fleece jacket.

Once more, my battered chariot of a vehicle reliably returns me to my cramped, high-rise lair. Looking out over the wide plains back to the mountains, I watch a brooding storm slowly envelop the peaks and then the city. It has followed me like the black and grey mustang. I nod at the watchful face in the memory. Riveted, receptive, and deathly still, she saw what I am about to do. A warhorse’s knowing.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a magnificent story posted here on the blog! I Was transported and amazed! Thank you.YR

5/06/2009 10:47 AM  
Blogger Nemeses said...

Cheers, Anon.

We will pass on your kind remarks to our aspiring writer.

5/10/2009 4:38 PM  
Blogger Astrophel said...

Please tell the aspiring writer she/he has fantastic talent--please more of his/her work--this was wonderful.

Great voice, fantastic use of metaphor, dialogue--I wanted more of the mustang, though. I sensed a kindred soul between the mustang and Shelley.

Also thought the reader could perhaps benefit from learning more about the Native American tags eventhough Ellen wasn't interested. And the personal stuff didn't follow up on...wanted more of that too.

But a lovely, lovely story. Thank you!

6/06/2009 6:40 PM  

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